Art & Culture

Dalston Rio Cinema

Originally published in SIX magazine issue 4 – SPRUNG!

Dalston Rio Cinema

Written by M. Wray

Art Deco landmark lends its historical elegance to London’s trendy neighbourhood.

The East London neighbourhood of Dalston’s surge in popularity could easily be mistaken for a trendy hipster takeover in the same vein as Williamsburg in New York. Organic cafes? Check. An abundance of converted loft spaces? Check. A healthy population of fashion designers and other creative types? A wealth of hip young designers such as Christopher Kane and Gareth Pugh have at one time or another chosen to hang their hats here, cementing Dalston’s reputation as a hub of creativity. While its cool factor may be well established, Dalston’s importance within the foundations of cinema history and as the home of the Rio Cinema is less known.

In 1909, local shop owner Clara Ludski had the bold insight to acknowledge the power of the growing moving pictures industry. Transforming her humble auctioneer’s shop into an electric picture house, the buzz surrounding the conversion proved so successful that the neighbouring buildings were acquired in order to transform the property into the architecturally decadent Kingsland Empire in 1915. Renovated in 1937 and renamed The Classic, the cinema house epitomised the evocative employment of art deco style by cinema architects during the period. However striking its décor, the cinema’s greatest success over the decades has been the relationship it has cultivated and maintained with the surrounding neighbourhood. Whether it was showing cartoons, horror films, strip shows or martial arts movies, the cinema was able to weather the birth of television by remaining flexible and by collaborating with its patrons to accommodate their changing tastes.

It was with this ethos in 1977 that the Rio Cinema Working Party planned to develop the Rio, as it had finally come to be called, into a fully-fledged community arts centre, expanding its cinematic endeavours to include video art and photography. The Rio’s location some four miles east of London’s centre proved beneficial for the expansion of those artistic scenes that were under-represented or ignored at that time by the more established creative community found in Soho. Awarded an English Heritage Grade II listing after a major refurbishment in 1999, the Rio’s present day incarnation has the added advantage of a redesigned café, stocking a wide assortment of food and beverages, and heightened acoustics compliments of Dolby Digital surround sound.

While most of Dalston’s twentieth-century art houses have now shuttered, the Rio continues to flex its muscles under the loving care of a board comprised of elected locals. The cinema focuses its program on one main film a week, ranging from artsy indies to blockbusters with a conscience. It seems that the original owners had it right all along, and the Rio is still as classic as classics come.

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