In the golden age of film-going during the inter-war years, the high streets of East London were home to many magnificent cinema buildings like the Rivoli, the Palaseum, the Odeon Mile End, the Mayfair, and the Troxy (whose motto was ‘Where East is Best’). These were the thousand-plus seaters, beautifully designed and complete with lavishly decorated interiors. But the local landscape was also peppered with smaller family-owned picture houses, many of which had sprouted during the moving picture boom around the 1910s…
My maternal great grandparents, Samuel and Yetta Wassersug, had arrived in East London from Russia in the late nineteenth century. Samuel worked as a tailor, living in Princes Square, just south of Cable Street. In 1912, he and his pal Joe Ducker transformed a former Lithuanian Catholic Church at 101 Cable Street into a one-storey high cinema that could squeeze just over 300 people onto long wooden benches. They proudly called it ‘The Cable Picture Palace’ – but the regulars always dubbed it simply as ‘The Cable’.
When Samuel died suddenly in 1923, his wife Yetta kept the cinema going with the help of their five children. She’d already become the official proprietor eight years earlier after Samuel had lost his license having been prosecuted for receiving stolen projector lamps.
My grandfather Phil was the oldest of the five Wassersug children. His brother Joe was the front man. A redhead and an extrovert, Joe was known to everyone – family and locals alike – as ‘Ginger’. He’d dress up as a cowboy or a sheik or a Bengal Lancer to fit the theme of the films, gratuitously spray disinfectant over the audience during the screenings, and sell blocks of ice doused with fruit syrup along the aisles from a leaky metal box lid. My cousin Lola, who sat on the knee of her mother Marie whilst she piled up the threepenny bits at the counter of the box office, is convinced that the ‘Cable’ is a dead ringer for the ‘Bijou Kinema’ by the railway bridge as depicted in ‘The Smallest Show on Earth’, the British 1957 comedy starring Peter Sellers.
After the arrival of the talkies, the Cable was probably the final cinema in the area to be wired for sound – which at least gave the regular pianist several more years worth of work. The Cable did, in fact, have a sister cinema for a short while during the mid 1920s. Yetta and Joe Ducker were also running the ‘Standard’ on Goldsmiths Row E2, just north of the Hackney Road. With almost 900 seats, it was a much larger space than the Cable, but they moved on after it was modernised into the ‘Super Standard’ to the designs of the noted cinema architect George Coles, complete with a streamline art deco facade.
In 1932 Philip married my grandmother Anne. By then he was working in the handbag trade based in Hackney, while Anne helped out her mother and sister-in-laws at the box office of the Cable. Despite intense cinematic competition in E1 throughout the 1930s, the Cable kept up a loyal following from its community of dockers, tailors, bakers, chandlers, costermongers and factory workers.
One of those locals was writer Jim Wolveridge, who I remember from his days selling second hand books at his stall in Whitechapel market. Jim loved to reminisce about the Cable in his books and newspaper articles about his East End past:
“The Cable was badly ventilated, suffocatingly hot in the Summer and draughtily cold in the Winter. But it was the most loved in spite of the fact it was the worst fleapit of all. In those hard-up days of the 30s, the Cable was always the cheapest. We felt the place was ours, and we wouldn’t go anywhere else…”
The Cable didn’t survive the 1941 Blitz, and neither did any mementoes or photographs of the family cinema. Since its demolition, the site has never been built on.
But I’ve never given up hope of finding a photo of the Cable. Only recently, a series of aerial photographs of East London taken in 1937 have been discovered in the English Heritage archives. In one section, there’s a blurred image of a church-like building with a cupola and spire, situated by a railway bridge on the junction of Christian Street and Cable Street. It’s the Cable Picture Palace, and open for business…