Inside The Troxy - The East End's Art Deco Palace

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 23 months ago
Inside The Troxy - The East End's Art Deco Palace
The Troxy is currently being restored to its gleaming deco finest

Two-and-a-half million bricks. 10,000 tons of sand. 1,000 tons of steelwork. 10,000 light bulbs. 90,000 yards of wiring. All this went into making the Troxy on the East End's Commercial Road — a gleaming art deco confection, which is now undergoing a series of renovations that will return it to its glory days.

The lavish 3,500-seat Troxy opened in 1933 — the same year crowds were screaming at a stop-motion King Kong to put Faye Wray the heck down. In fact, King Kong was the first feature film screened at the Troxy, and was shown here 80 years later, as a testament to the building's staying power.

Black and white picture of the troxy with king kong posters
The Troxy opened in 1933 - the same year the original King Kong movie was released

Though the chunky, geometric hunk of art deco grandeur was the work of cinema legend George Coles, as a palace of entertainment, the Troxy was the chef-d'oeuvre of Maurice Cheepen, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi Germany.

maurice cheepen poses at his desk with two phones, show off
Maurice Cheepen, the man behind 'Stepney's Luxurious Troxy'.

This was the biggest cinema in the country, and by all accounts, Cheepen knew how to draw in the crowds; sourcing a horse-drawn pumpkin coach to advertise Cinderella, and getting a 'vampire' to stalk the East End handing out leaflets promoting Dracula.

Cheepen also once advertised the screening of Where No Vultures Fly, by — you guessed it — ordering a load of vultures to the cinema. One escaped.

All these kitchy colours and shapes are making us light headed... in a good way

For all the stars that appeared up on the silver screen in those early days, the real star of the Troxy was its flamboyant Wurlitzer organ, which shot up out of the ground to serenade the crowd in between films. Not everyone loved it though; the East London Observer recounted in 1937, that one 'bright young thing' had said: "My dear! The most astonishing thing happened. After the film was over, up from the bowels of the Earth came a man seated at an organ; only it wasn't an organ, it was a Wurlitzer. It made such a row I couldn't hear myself speak!'

a Wurlitzer organ being admired by the troxy crowd
The Troxy's Wurlitzer organ today

Denis Norden of It'll be Alright on the Night fame also revealed that once, when he was working at the Troxy, the organ's lift mechanism failed, leaving the organist up in the air for the duration of the film.

Alas, the original Wurlitzer didn't survive, but in 2009 was replaced by a 1,777-pipe beast that used to be in Elephant and Castle's Trocadero Cinema.

The Troxy's lobby, photographed back in the 1930s
The travertine lobby of the troxy undergoing renovations
The Troxy's lobby undergoing conservation recently

Like many of London's grand movie palaces (think the Astoria in Brixton or Tooting Granada) the Troxy had to adapt to changing times. It screened its last film (for a while, anyway) in 1960, then in 1963 underwent an unlikely transformation into the London Opera Centre — where singers like Ava June, Marie Collier and Kiri Te Kanawa honed their trilling before taking to the stage at the Royal Opera House.

The Troxy in the 1960s, when it was the London Opera Centre
The Troxy in the 1960s, when it was the London Opera Centre
The Troxy with colourful Mecca Bingo signage
The Troxy had a long stint as a bingo hall

By the early 1990s, the Troxy had succumbed to the UK's bingo mania — its grand hall now echoing with the excited shrieks of winners, right through to 2005.

a drag queen in shimmering gold on the troxy stage
Ru Paul's UK Drag Race came to the Troxy in 2019

'Two Fat Ladies' had barely been called for the final time, when the Troxy hosted its first gig; a sold-out Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show. The likes of the Pixies, Patti Smith and New Order have since played the Troxy — as it branched out to also host boxing matches, burlesque, costumed balls and a slew of other shows which we reckon Maurice Cheepen would have been proud to have put on himself.

Perhaps most fittingly of all, the Troxy now regularly hosts cinema screenings, giving today's Londoners a taste of how it would have been almost 90 years ago. (The Wurlitzer often gets an airing too.)

Beams of light illuminate the troxy crowd as new order play on stage
New Order played the Troxy in 2011

In 2021, the Troxy unveiled the first stage of renovations, in a project led by Ian Chalk Architects. The foyer's 1990s box office has been ripped out, bringing the the glimmering travertine floor back to its former dazzling beauty, and the stage has been reset to where it was in the 1930s, re-exposing the original proscenium arch, not seen since the 1970s.

Hidden 1930s grandeur and original features have been revealed during the Troxy's latest renovations
George Coles' bold art deco building has done more than survive - it's thrived

Says Tom Sutton-Roberts, General Manager at Troxy: "These renovations have given us an insight into some of the hidden 1930s grandeur and original features, which have been covered up by previous generations. As much as possible we are returning them to their original design and intention of the building, while improving accessibility and audience experience."

Hopefully by 2023, it'll be ship-shape for a 90th anniversary screening of King Kong.

Read more about the history of the Troxy — and book a show there — on the Troxy website.

Last Updated 18 May 2022