Interview with Tyrone Walker-Hebborn, owner of Genesis cinema, about the fascinating history of the building and the East End of London.
by Zarina Rimbaud-Kadirbaks
I’ve been living in London for over two years now and one of my favourite pastimes is going to the cinema. Not to any other cinema, but to my local independent cinema, Genesis Cinema in East London. When we were planning our wedding last year, it was evident for us to spend part of the day at ‘our second home’, as we call the cinema. I don’t want to turn this article into one big marketing piece, but I just want to illustrate how special this place is to me.
Over the last years I’ve seen it transform from a nice looking cinema into a glamorous space where you can come in to watch a film in one of the five screens, but also to have a cup of coffee in the downstairs cafe or have one of their signature cocktails in the upstairs bar. They also showcase local artists in their gallery space for which I have actually co-curated the next exhibition featuring fantastic mixed media works by an awesome street artist.
Offering entertainment in the East End since 1848
When you google the history of the cinema, you will find out that the site has been used for entertainment purposes since the mid-19th century. The first building on the site opened in 1848 and was a pub that turned into a music hall. After that building was destroyed by fire in 1884 the owners at the time hired the architect Frank Matcham to design a replacement theatre that opened in 1885 under the name Paragon Theatre of Varieties.
Matcham’s revolutionary design made him the most popular architect of the time and he was commissioned to build many more London theatres. Why? Because he had made the Paragon into the best ventilated theatre in London! The air quality in theatres used to be very poor at the time due to overcrowding, poor ventilation and gas-lamp fumes. The theatre welcomed many stars on its stage including Charlie Chaplin just before he left for Hollywood and received worldwide fame. The building has been used as a cinema from 1912. The cinema changed hands and names many times till it eventually closed down in 1989. After having been derelict for a decade, current owner Tyrone revived the cinema and gave it its fitting name: Genesis.
I read about the long and fascinating history of the building and won’t ask you too much about this, but can you tell me some inside stories?
We recently found out that when this place was the Paragon Theatre of Varieties, not only Charlie Chaplin performed here, but also Laurel & Hardy.
In 1963 there was the royal premiere of the film Sparrows Can’t Sing here, starring Barbara Windsor. She also attended the Genesis opening in 1999 and told the backstory to that premiere.
Princess Margaret was supposed to be at that premiere, but because she knew the Kray twins were going to be there, she wasn’t coming as she couldn’t officially be seen at a party where the Kray brothers were. [The Kray twins were notorious East End gangsters. Tom Hardy will be playing them both in the new feature film about them.] Instead of princess Margaret, her husband Lord Snowdon came as the official royal representative. But the Kray twins had a pub across the street called the Kit Kat Club and after the premiere everybody went there. Princess Margaret had been there all the time having a good time with the Kray twins, getting drunk. This is a story that was never ever publicly known.
Were there still other cinemas in the area when you bought this one?
At a certain point there were 33 cinemas in Tower Hamlets. Gradually they got turned into bingo halls or knocked down to make place for residential buildings. In 1989 this was the last cinema to close down. It was known as a bit of a fleapit. At that time the industry was really on its bottom. VHS came along and killed it all off which is surprising because now there are more competitive mediums than in the 80s or 90s, but cinemas are having a renaissance. Probably because they had to re-invent what they can offer to their customers.
What made you decide to buy a cinema?
My rooting in cinema has been really strange. After I left school, I went into electronic engineering and did an apprenticeship. I had it absolutely to here with electronics and decided to do something completely different.
I went out and bought a transit van and fitted it out so it became a mobile video library. People could come walk in and hire videos. That must’ve been around 1988/1989. I was earning reasonable money with it and really enjoyed the interaction with the customers. I especially liked recommending films to customers that they wouldn’t ordinarily chose, and to hear from them they really liked it when they came back to return the film.
One time I went to the States and saw Batman there in the cinema, the one with Michael Keaton. It was in a multiplex cinema in a mall and I said: ‘Wow, this is fantastic! You can actually see more than one film in a cinema!’ There were lots of different snacks and drinks, the seats were really big and the sound and projections were amazing. I thought that this was what should be happening in the UK. That kind of sparked the interest initially, but I was in the family business at the time.
My dad had a roofing business and one day he took my mum away on a trip for two weeks. This was before I joined the family business. He asked me to hold the fort while he was gone. I wasn’t sure about it, but my dad persuaded me. I really enjoyed it and especially liked the comradeship with the guys. In those two weeks we had a meeting for a big contract with Tower Hamlets and we won it.
When my dad returned he asked me to run that project. Two weeks in the business eventually became almost 10 years. I never intended to go into the family business, but I really enjoyed it. Then we found ourselves in the penultimate recession, in the 90s. We got through it, but it became a difficult and unpleasant business. All the people we liked to work with had gone bust. We also realised we had all our eggs in one basket, so we started to look into other investment possibilities.
We had our minds set on a property in Bow. One night I went to see a film at the Odeon with my girlfriend at the time. Looking at the building, I thought it didn’t look that big and that it would probably fit in that property in Bow. So I goose stepped the building, as a good roofer does. When my girlfriend asked me what I was doing, she said: ‘Don’t be stupid, you own a cinema?’ That was like a red rag in front a bull so the next day I phoned up 20th Century Fox and asked: ‘If I build a cinema, how does it work?’ I didn’t know the guy, but we both had the same East End accent. Within 20 minutes he had pretty much explained the cinema business to me. He said that the criterion at that time was to have at least 5 screens in London to get first-run products.
So we made plans for a 6-screen cinema in Bow. We applied for building permissions with Tower Hamlets. They said there hadn’t been a cinema in the area for 10 years and that if a cinema would’ve worked in Tower Hamlets, someone would’ve done it already. So they didn’t give the permission. They also said: ‘You’re a roofer, what do you know about cinema anyway?’ After the meeting a planner came up to me and said: ‘Look, I’m really embarrassed about what happened in there. There’s another building nearby, an old cinema that has been derelict for 10 years. Why won’t you have a look there?’
I got the keys for this site. It was all boarded up and there was a tramp by the door. You literally had to move him out of the way. He didn’t smell too friendly, but he was a very friendly guy. The padlock opened up and there was this amazing building that had been locked up for 10 years. It hadn’t been looked after at all, which was a shame, but it still looked beautiful. There had been rave parties in there and fires. There was a big sprayed sign on the wall with an arrow to the toilets saying: ‘Drugs this way’.
There was this massive hole in the roof of Screen 1 [the largest screen in the cinema], but as a roofer that didn’t scare me of course. Screen 1 just inspired me for opening up the cinema.
After some negotiating I managed to buy the building. I took my dad over to show him the building and the hole in the roof. He then pointed to a couple of seats and said: ‘That’s where me and your mum used to sit.’ It appeared that they had done all their courting at the cinema in the 60s. Because of their love for the cinema they had named me and my brother after two 1930s films stars, Tyrone Power and Spencer Tracy.
So here we were, back at the place where my parents did all their dating in the 60s. It’s kismet really. Looking back it’s quite a linear path, but when I was trying to move forward at the time I seemed to be going all over the place.
Do your parents still come to the cinema to see films?
My dad is deaf and wears a cochlear hearing piece. When we opened up the luxurious Studio 5 [this screen has sofas instead of regular seats], I told them to come and see it. My dad said: ‘But I’m deaf, I can’t go to the cinema.’ But I assured him it was a silent film, it was The Artist.
Afterwards my dad came up to me and said: ‘Son that was amazing. One of the best nights I’ve ever had. We had a bottle of wine, nice sofas and we loved the film.’ They still come here, go to Studio 5 and get a bottle of wine.
Where does the name Genesis come from?
People think it’s religious or that I named the cinema after the band. Truth is that I wanted a one-word name for the business. In the roofing or building game every firm has a very long name. Our company name was RJ Hebborn Walker and Sons Ltd. I looked at successful businesses and noticed their names were all one word: Virgin, Nike, Adidas.
I went through the letters of the alphabet and thought Genesis could be nice. It would be a new beginning for us and a new start for cinema in the East End of London. So Genesis would be quite a fitting name. But what really tipped it off for me is that I am a giant Trekkie and in The Wrath of Khan they use the evil device named Genesis.
You must have seen this area change so much in the last 15 years?
I thought that the influence of the City and trendy stuff that were taking place would be coming here within the first 5 years, but it actually took 15 years. The opening of a vintage clothing shop across the road 3 years ago and the Olympics were a big catalyst for this area. It’s finally starting to get where I hoped it would’ve been.
For me the East End has always been an area of cultural change. It all originated from the docks and in the past there were the Irish, the Huguenots and the Jews coming in, also the Chinese and the Bangladeshi community. Now you have the Eastern European community. It’s always been a place where different cultures have landed. I think that is what makes this such a special place in London. It’s proper London.
There are also much more City boys here now and then also all the hipsters, mockneys and bohemians. The artistic community has always been around and I think they are getting more recognised in a wider scope now.
Before you had the new young British artists as Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers, all artists from this area. I’ve seen the architecture change quite a lot, but not enough yet. I think there’s the right mix here now with enough money coming in, enough artistic integrity still here and enough different cultural communities. I fear it will change into, for the lack of a better or worse description, white middle-class ‘cool’ people. I think it’s great at the moment. I just hope it won’t get too expensive, too cool and too trendy. But I think that if any part of London is able to remain its character, the East can do it. I think we can resist that onslaught, I really do. I think we like heritage. We’ve always been overlooked and the East End has always been the naughty cousin of London.