The Primatarium in Kings Cross

Posted on August 15, 2011

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Primatarium in Kings Cross

Earlier this month I was intrigued to learn there was a Primatarium in Kings Cross during the end of the 1970s. It took over the site of where Scala nightclub in Kings Cross currently stands, but there’s very little information about what it offered the public.

I imagined it was place where people would pay to see a variety of live performing primates – monkeys dressed in waistcoats playing mini accordions and fully clothed chimps staggering around bipedally handing out programmes. But I couldn’t have been more wrong – thankfully!

monkey playing an accordion

After a tip-off from a dear contact and Primatologist, I was told it was the brainchild of a man named Cyril Rosen the founder of the International Primate Protection League (IPPL-UK) who financed the project himself in order to raise awareness about primates.

My contact told me: “He’s a philanthropist with a particular interest in primates and he wanted to bring the plight of wild primates to the notice of the public, hence his idea of setting up the Primatarium. I went there for the opening show, so did invited members of IPPL-UK. Cyril tried valiantly to keep the shows afloat but the public didn’t bite the bait and eventually he had to close it. A noble venture.”

I tracked down Mr Rosen to get the full story and he told me: “Forty years ago it was very difficult to convince people to help protect species they’d never seen. I felt if we (in his role as founder of the IPPL-UK) could reproduce an original forest environment and people could experience being in a forest, this would make it easier.”

The difficulty of course of wanting to create this type of experience is that you have to adhere to strict safety laws. Mr Rosen told me that the Greater London Council at the time insisted that metal labels should cover the auditorium sign posting various fire exits and other mandatory requirements that would have detracted from the forest experience. So in the end another idea was looked at. It was decided to create a seated-experience where people could watch films about primates in an unusual surroundings.

The stalls were turned into a hillside and the front rail was cloaked in aluminium leaves so that when you looked through the leaves you would see a valley. On one side there was a waterfall which was run using two pumps.

Mr Rosen said: “The ceiling was so high that it was necessary to use two pumps to push the water all the way up. We also had speakers in the ceiling that re-created the sound of a tropical storm. I remember seeing people pulling up their coat collars expecting a downpour.”

The idea was loosely based on the London Experience in Piccadilly.

Mr Rosen said: “We could transport people back 60-millions years to how our ancestors evolved, bring them into the present day as well as take them forward and show them what would happen if deforestation continued at its current rate and we no longer had forests only plantations.”

The biggest problem that the project faced was getting enough people interested in paying for a seated experience. Mr Rosen told me he believed that a walk-in forest experience would have been more successful and that the seated show was trickier.

More time had to be allocated to get people in and out of the auditorium which meant the experience ended up being 45-mins instead of a full hour. Mr Rosen told me there was great interest from schools, especially after pamphlets were distributed for free by the council, it was also good way to educate the young.

Former leadership contender Lord Heseltine

On the opening night there was an appearance from Tarzan – sadly not the tree swing Homo sapiens – but the politician, Michael Heseltine. Mr Rosen also played a front-of-house role giving an introduction to audiences before the start of the programme. Here he would explain how we are the closest kin of primates, after all, they have been around longer than us, and spoke about the affinity of monkeys apes and man.

Unfortunately the Primaratium was not a profitable venture and after 18-months it folded. Scala went on to become a cinema where the first film screened was King Kong.

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