Kenya was a lonely place to live in during the early 1900s for some. Many settlers and administrators had arrived without their families to explore this new-found land.
Indeed there were some administrative locations which were deemed too remote and dangerous for officers to take their wives and children. Some of the more creative officers made suitable comfort arrangements with local parties.
Nairobi was no exception. Whereas a few social clubs had been established by 1913, they were the preserve of aristocrat settlers, senior civil servants and railway employees. Although there was no shortage of bars and other less honourable dens of pleasure, places for artistic expression were definitely in short supply.
Simon Medicks, a Jewish immigrant from Poland came to Kenya in 1903 and established the Machine Metal Works, Nairobi’s first tinsmiths.
Tin was a popular building material around this period and Medicks made a not inconsiderable fortune in a short time. In 1913, he built Kenya’s first permanent theatre, the Theatre Royal on Sixth Avenue (current Kenyatta Avenue).
Designed to an Edwardian architectural style, the Theatre Royal comprises a ground and an upper floor originally built in chisel dressed stone walls with recessed mortar joints and a pedimented façade.
The roof is covered in corrugated iron sheets supported by timber trusses and is concealed from view by a parapet wall all round. The building has a rear elevation to Banda Street with a similar façade. Doors are made of timber panels while windows are glazed in steel casements held in arched stone openings.
The Theatre Royal offered vocal and conjuring, and bioscopic pictures to an enthusiastic audience. A “select cinematograph entertainment” was shown every evening at 9pm with a matinee on Wednesday for children.
The show was changed twice a week and the price of a seat (on wooden benches) was Sh 3. The theatre showed predominantly American movies.
In 1916, the Theatre Royal staged D.W. Griffith’s immensely popular, full length film, Intolerance.
On September 7, 1915 Colonel Ewart Grogan delivered an hour-long pep talk to 1,500 people from the stage of the Theatre Royal in support of the East African Campaign against the Germans. He began by praising the “magnificent work” of other British Colonies and the bravery of the askaris of the King’s African Rifles.
However, he severely criticised many in Kenya, speaking of “men chaffering in the market, dodging about tending to twopenny-ha’penny bits worth of business thinking of their fields”, or of walking “into any club and seeing half a dozen men between twenty and twenty-five passively reclining in chairs with illustrated papers on their knees”.
“It was shameful that Kenya had been the only one of Britain’s colonies to call on outside aid to fight the Germans”, he continued. He ended in a particularly overdone manner:
When the history of the war comes to be written and your children ask, “What did your daddy do in the war?” let no man shrink from the question being asked. When we pass on our account of what we have done, let us be sure that the answer from home will be, “Well done, thou babe of Empire”.
Grogan was a very charismatic man and despite his berating, the crowd loved his speech which was met with “clapping, hollering and stamping of feet”.
The Theatre Royal also served as a seat of the High Court with the Chief Justice and witnesses being accommodated on the stage.
As late as 1927, the management of other theatres refused admission to Africans over concerns that films might have an undesirable influence over them, but Theatre Royal had an open policy.
In an interview with the East African Standard that year, the manager Alec Davis (father of Eddie Davis, Davis & Shirtliff) complained that “the average attendance of natives is practically nothing”.
However, he attributed this not to economic factors or segregation but to the fact that he could not get a movie which interested them. Nevertheless, he confidently asserted that the movies have come to stay in Kenya.
In the same year a visitor to Kenya remarked that “there is a big market for the pictures amongst the native audiences”, and that “the authorities should welcome and encourage a steady supply of appropriate films”.
During World War 11 the theatre was handed over to the authorities as the Garrison Theatre for the benefit of the troops.
In 1961, the Medick family sold the business to local investors who remodelled the building into a modern cinema theatre renamed Cameo. The local investors included Noah Kamau who had previously operated cinema halls for Africans in Eastlands and Ruaraka.
Cameo introduced a new concept of continuous shows running daily from 12 noon to midnight in order to compete with the more sophisticated theatres like Twentieth Century, Kenya Cinema, Odeon, Liberty and Shan Cinemas.
There was also a large smoke-filled bar on the first floor with the first compliment of pinball machines in Kenya; admittedly not the kind of place you would take your mother-in-law out for a drink.
This combination proved to be very popular with young people and I can remember students from some Nairobi secondary schools sneaking from school during weekdays to watch movies or play the very addictive pinball machines at Cameo in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Unfortunately, Cameo cinema was never in the same league as the other more up market theatres, with its “spaghetti western” type movies.
I think the business model also made it difficult for the premises to be kept clean and at one time it was famously referred to as the “Royal Pit of Fleas”. As the situation deteriorated rats (certainly not of the “Pedigree Siberian Hamster” variety!) also became a common feature in the cinema hall.
With the advent of video cassettes and DVDs in the marketplace in the 1980s and 90s, the death knell rang on the cinema theatre industry.
Today, the building houses a casino and offices of the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company on the upper floor, and a series of fast food restaurants and shops on the ground floor.
It was gazetted as a national monument in 2012.
The writer is a retired banker and a motorcycle enthusiast.