A history of the Rio Cinema

Rio Cinema in the 1980s. Rio Cinema archive.

The Rio Cinema began operations in 1909, when an enterprising local businesswoman Clara Ludski converted an auctioneer’s shop into one of London’s very first cinemas naming it the Kingsland Palace of Animated Pictures. Following a complete art deco remodelling of the building, carried out by the architect F.E. Bromige that created a smaller auditorium inside the shell of the old cinema, the seating was reduced to 561 and it become part of Classic chain from 1937 onwards. In 1959 it converged to the Classic Cartoon Cinema and in 1960 operated as one of London’s first arthouse cinemas, re-named as the Classic Continental. Then in 1971 it took yet another guise as a Tatler Cinema Club showing ‘adult’ films with live striptease burlesque. This lasted until 1975 when it became  a Kung Fu, Bollywood and Elvis revival cinema that almost led to its closure. The Classic Continental returned to showing regular films in 1976, when the then owner Paul Theodorou decided to sell the sub-lease of the cinema in order to fund his peanut factory venture. He decided to sell it to a group of local people who wanted to open the cinema as a community resource. Theodorou re-named the cinema The Rio because it was a short name and this subsequently reduced the cost of the new neon lights.

In 1976, an independent cooperative took over and in 1977, the Rio Cinema Working Party, a group of individuals associated with Dalston’s radical bookshop and community centre Centerprise called a meeting with representatives from The Arts Council of Great Britain, the Greater London Arts Association, the British Film Institute and Hackney Borough Council at the Rio to explore the possibility of converting the venue into an arts centre. Having secured funding from Hackney Borough Council and the Greater London Arts Association, 1979 saw a major turning point in the cinema’s history as it began operating as a community resource and registered as a non-for-profit registered charity with an elected board of local people who acted as volunteer trustees. In April 1979 the Hackney People’s Press newspaper broke the news about the cinema now belonging to the community. “Rio opens! At last the Rio is ours!”, the headline read.

In the early 1980s, new ideas were emerging about how cinema could be used as a community resource and the Rio Cinema and the Ritzy in Brixton were recognised pioneers in this respect. The Rio management comprised of a local committee with a make up of film workers, community activists and engaged individuals. The film programme adhered to socialist principles whilst at the same time committed to show commercial cinema (to subsidise loss-making projects), operating ‘within non-sexist and non-racist guidelines’. Within this context it was just a matter of time and political commitment before the management decided to develop a women’s film programme. This inquiry focuses on two feminist film collectives/groups who were active at the Rio during the 1980s and early 1990s. The Rio Women’s Cinema, established 1983 and the Women’s Media Resource Project who began working with the Rio in the 1983/4.

In 2017 the Rio launched its ‘RioGeneration’ campaign to build a second screen in the building’s basement and restore the exterior and nighttime lighting. The fundraising target of £150,000 was reached with support from the Mayor of London, local residents, Rio members and customers. The cinema opened Screen 2 in December 2017.  In 2019 the Rio marked its 40th anniversary that will include a two-year public events programme exploring the cinema’s film and photographic archive. My doctoral research will be included in the Rio’s public events series, with plans to include a programme of film screenings and events inviting some of the key women involved feminist film and video programming activities at the Rio during the 1980s back to the Rio, as well conducting a mini-oral history and community archiving project and an exhibition of the archive’s women’s media ephemera.

Do you have memories of coming to watch women’s, feminist and queer films at the Rio in the 1980s and early 1990s? Were you involved with Rio Women’s Cinema or the Women’s Media Resource Project? Do you have memories or archive material you’d like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you: hello@clubdesfemmes.com