In the summer of 2017, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, Scotland, where my grandfather Hugh Simmers worked as a projectionist from 1916 to 1917, before he emigrated to the United States. Originally called the King Cinema, it’s the oldest continuously operated movie theater in Scotland, dating back to 1914. It specializes in art films.
Hugh was a projectionist there in 1916 and 1917, before he left to fight in WWI, serving in the Royal Horse Artillery. Management of the cinema was nice enough to allow me to go into the projection room and talk with the current projectionist. He informed me that in the old days, when my grandfather worked there, they had two projectors. A second window, for the second projector, has been closed in with ductwork.
The inside of the theater is still pretty much the same as in the old days. A terrazzo floor greets visitors and one of the original pair of ticket kiosks remains. An inner foyer leads to the main cinema. Seating was rearranged through the years to improve sight lines and comfort. A drapers shop that formerly stood on this site was converted to create the entry. The auditorium was built on ground out back that had been used by a riding school.
When my grandfather worked there, the theater only played silent films, with orchestral accompaniment. An all-female orchestra accompanied films the first week. The cinema was fitted for sound in 1930. Local entrepreneur Jim Poole bought the cinema in 1949 and refurbished it, displacing rats that reportedly lived there. He turned the establishment into an art house cinema and forged a relationship with the nascent Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Poole made more history when he took over an adjacent shop in 1963 and turned it into a bar, which is open to this day. It was the first licensed cinema bar in the city. Appropriately, Sean Connery, who was born nearby, was on hand to open the bar. Neighboring shops were acquired in 1986 to create second and third screens with limited seating capacity. They opened in the early 1990s.
The plaster work within the theater and foyer — columns, cornices, and decorative molding — has been lovingly restored and protected from future alterations. Historic Scotland upgraded the conservation status of the cinema in 2006, after new owners proposed a major renovation.
For kicks, I sat agonizingly through a showing of The Beguiled, a sappy Civil War saga starring Nicole Kidman. It was all I could do to remain in my seat. I spent most of the time gazing at the molding in the ceiling.