Monday, August 24, 2015

The Burapha Theater - Ban Chang District, Rayong Province, Thailand

Picture, if you will, Thailand in the mid-1970's. In fact, lets make it an even 1974, for relevance sake. The country is firmly on the path to industrialization, particularly in the realm of industrial agriculture. Think canned fruits and fish and massive amounts of rice to be exported across the globe.

1974 also marks the second to last year that the United States waged wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. For the duration of the war, the US and Thailand had entered into a "strategic partnership" characterized by large transfers of military assistance and development dollars from the US in exchange for the use of Thai military facilities. This was the quintessential case of the Arsenal of Democracy arming a right wing regime on the front lines of Communist  

Six Thai Air Force bases served as staging grounds for American planes to fly aerial assaults over Indochina. One of those bases, U-Tapao Air base, was located on the western edge of Rayong Province, along Thailand's then rapidly industrializing eastern seaboard (it is now fully industrialized).

With soldiers and technicians and all the accompanying service jobs that sprang up alongside the air base, the climate was ripe for a state-of-the-art movie theater to serve this military ecosystem. And so, in the nearby town of Bang Chang, the Burapha Theater was born.

The Burapha Theater - a stand-out among Thai stand-alones.

Side view of the Burapha Theater's sizable headhouse, which includes ticket booths, concession stands within multi leveled lobby.

Support columns in the lobby of the Burapha Theater are made of concrete, but sculpted to resemble trees.

The Burapha Theater was brought into existence by Mr. Somphong Chotiwan, who, by 1974, was already a well established figure in the movie exhibition industry of Bangkok and Eastern Thailand. Being based out of the much older Nang Loeng Theater in Bangkok, his birth place, and nerve center of Thailand's film industry, also made him well situated to be a movie distributor. His company, Meung Chol Films, had grown into the biggest distributor of films in eastern Thailand.

Then as today, movie distributors divided Thailand up into regional zones in which only select companies could operate. Each distribution company would purchase the rights to a film from the various production houses, usually headquartered in Bangkok, and then circulate it to theaters within their respective networks.

Some distributors built their own theaters, or purchased preexisting theaters within their network, thus eliminating the need to share profits with independent theater owners. This practice was fairly common, and for successful film exhibitors, it became a fast track to empire. 

Three levels of lobby at the Burapha Theater

Old poster display on the third level of the theater

View of the "Soundtrack Room" where American Air Force pilots once comprised the chief clientele. A glass wall separated this room from the rest of the auditorium.

By the early 1970's, the town of Ban Chang had been feeling the economic benefits of its proximity to the U-Tapao Air Base for years. Awash in money thanks to a base full of foreign soldiers, cutting-edge leisure facilities were a necessity. The town already boasted of two active theaters, one of which - The Ban Chang Rama - was owned and operated by Sompong Chotiwan. But the resident English speaking population over at the air base were at a linguistic deficit when it came to watching movies, even when the movies themselves were American made. 

Until the mid-1980's, most Thai theaters employed live voice actors to give foreign movies a Thai voicetrack. To do this, original in-film soundtracks were muted while dubbers read from a Thai script that was written to fit the plot. Often times story lines were modified to suit Thai tastes, or the dialogue improvised on the spot. For the Thai movie going public, a good dubber was an essential part for the movie going experience. For non-Thai speakers, however, it made the films inaccessible.

Necessity being what it is to invention, Thai theater entrepreneurs accommodated their English-speaking clientele by building "soundtrack rooms." Such rooms were small, air-conditioned seating sections behind a large glass windows, into which a speaker system separate from the main auditorium brought the original language soundtrack. Spectators therein could watch the film along with the rest of the audience while enjoying the original soundtrack. Down below, the Thai dubbers were working their magic. Everybody, as a result, was happy

Looking towards the screen from the Soundtrack Room

With the Burapha Theater, Sompong Chotiwan had not only built the largest, most luxurious movie house Ban Chang had ever known, he also ensured that the American soldiers stationed at U-Tapao Air Base were able to partake in the cinema experience without losing the plot.  

One of the theater's former employees recalled American airmen renting little bungalows that were then in the vicinity of the theater when on leave. "They'd stay in those bungalows for a few days at a time," he explained, "usually with their 'lady friends.' At night they'd come watch movies at the theater before going out on the town."

Auditorium in full view.

The soundtrack room can be seen at the top rear of the Burapha's auditorium.

Like phantoms of movie-going passed, seats still remain in the Burapha Theater

Burapha Theater dimensional signage

By the middle of 1975, the US had officially ended its wars in Southeast Asia. Soldiers, technicians and all other military personnel stationed at Thai bases were shipped back to the States, along with all their cohorts in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Just like that, the soundtrack room of the Burapha Theater lost its biggest client base.

But despite the loss of Americans, the Burapha Theater continued to do brisk business throughout the 1970's, 80's and into the early 90's. By that time, broader changes in Thai society were starting to make stand-alone movie theaters like the Burapha unprofitable. 

One by one, these graceful giants of modern architecture went out of business, as the movie-going masses in Thailand capitulated to the convenient, but spiritually barren multiplex theaters located in the new shopping malls. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Burapha Theater screened its final film in 1995.

If you want to see the Burapha Theater for yourself, it can be found within the central market area in the heart of Ban Chang City, Rayong Province, Thailand.


Want to own a unique keepsake from Thai movie theater history AND support the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project at the same time? For a very small donation of $6 you'll be mailed an authentic movie theater ticket from the Scala Theater in Surathani, Thailand. These tickets were hand stamped from 1988 and feature the theater's classic retro logo. Had I not salvaged them, they would have eventually been destroyed

Proceeds from each ticket will go directly to continued movie theater documentation in Southeast Asia, ensuring that a record of this unique cultural history will survive in the public domain for all to enjoy.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Own an authentic piece of Thai movie theater history

Ladies and gentleman, last month I salvaged several books worth of original movie tickets from the Scala Theater in the town of Punpin, Surathani Province, in southern Thailand.

The tickets, which are all hand-stamp dated January 14th, 1988, were discovered in a dust covered cardboard box in what was once the projection booth of the now abandoned movie theater. Miraculously, they are in mint condition, as if they had been carefully stored in a climate controlled vault for the past 27 years. Had I not grabbed them, they would almost certainly have been thrown in the garbage at some point down the line.

For a small donation of $6 dollars, you can have one of these great little keepsakes mailed directly to your home. Each ticket will be mailed in a durable plastic slip, which will also allow you to display the ticket handsomely should you choose to do so.

Thai movie theaters do not print tickets like this anymore. Nowadays, all movie tickets in Thailand have a generic, computer generated look. The tickets being offered here, however, feature the beautiful logo of the Scala Theater, along with the 10 baht ticket price, address of the theater, serial number and - as mentioned above - the hand-stamped date of January 14th, 1988

Your $6 dollar donation will not only buy you a great memento, it will directly support the continued documentation of stand-alone movie theaters in Southeast Asia. In fact, $6 dollars can very easily afford a bus ticket to a town where there may be a forgotten stand-alone movie theater that has never been properly documented.

To make the purchase, just click the "Pay Now" button below.

ATTENTION:  These are not active tickets. They will not get you into see a movie. The theater that they are from is abandoned. They are authentic tickets from the 1980's

Also, this is not the same Scala Theater in Bangkok. There is no affiliation beyond the name. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Dara Theater - Trad, Thailand

There's something about the Dara Theater. It's hard to say exactly what it is, but something about it, as it stands today - all weathered and soot stained and forgotten - that places it not only from another time period, but from another world altogether. The Thailand of today, so absorbed in consumerism, distracted by smart phones and gadgetry and completely beholden to the car or motorbike for movement, seems as if it would have never had time to waste on such a building.

Street view of the Dara Theater

Tropical mid-century modernism at its finest. The Dara Theater hovers delicately beside the road. Its mounted marquee, appearing perky and weightless, sits atop an equally weightless looking portico. 

The Dara as viewed from an adjacent roof top.

Even in a relatively small town like Trad, the Dara Theater seems like a structure that only an alien race would have erected. A temple to the gods of cinema, perhaps. Genuflections before the alter of the silver screen. 

And that hypothetical extra terrestrial race whom brought it forth  was led by the same man who brought forth a number of other theaters in Bangkok and Eastern Thailand. Mr. Somphong Chotiwan; who, it should be noted, will be playing a role in the resurrection of Thailand's oldest existing movie theater - The Nang Loeng, in Bangkok.

The front staircase fans out and down; a welcoming entrance to a world of cinema no-more.

A bit of bowed pizzazz in the form of  concrete visor above the ticket window.

Funky ticket window.

The funny thing about the the Dara is that it isn't more than 40 years old. And it only closed about 16 years ago, to boot. 

Oh how quickly things in Thailand have changed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reviving old movie theaters (in Thailand): A panel discussion

This coming Saturday, July 18th, at 3:00PM the Thai Film Archive will be hosting a panel discussion on the revival of stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand. The discussants, myself and architectural preservationist Rungsima Kullapat, will be talking about the on-going renovations to Bangkok's historic Nang Loeng Cinema, and the prospects for further stand-alone movie theater revivals in Thailand.

The talk will be held at the Sri Salaya Theater of the Thai Film Archive, in Salaya town, Nakorn Pathom Province, Thailand (of course).

It is open to the public. The invitation card below, however, is only in Thai.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Pliw Rama - Pliw, Lam Sing District, Chanthaburi Province, Thailand

Some locals in Chanthaburi City, all of them over the half century mark in age, made mention that in adjacent Lam Sing District an old wood framed movie theater could be found along the main street in the tiny suburb of Pliw. Following their leads, I hired a driver and took off in that direction. 

Unlike movie theaters in more dynamic settings, the Pliw Rama was not designed to dazzle. In tiny Pliw, there was no need to do so. The town's relatively remote rural setting didn't warrant a building that set the streetscape ablaze in architectural splendor. Especially not when endowed with the historic status as "first theater in town," as the Pliw Rama was. In its heyday, hand painted movie hoardings strapped to the front of the theater would have satisfied the aesthetic requirement, while also attracting inquisitive onlookers eager to learn of the latest celluloid treat. 

The Pliw Rama's lack of ornamentation from its beginnings was ever more compounded in its post-cinematic present. Minus its original sign and marquee, and long devoid of its hand-painted advertisements, the Pliw Rama in its current condition does almost nothing to spark the imagination. But this anecdote is a mark of historical import in its own right. 

Movie theaters like the Pliw Rama, although soundly constructed, are testament to the ad hoc nature of the movie theater business in small town Thailand years ago. Its corrugated tin and gypsum walls, neither of which are particularly attractive building materials in and of themselves, tell a story of a quick and cheap build to supply an in-demand service. While Thailand's post-World War Two agricultural economy was indeed expanding at the time, in rural areas like Pliw the wealth and technical know-how to build luxury cinema halls was still not yet there. The Pliw Rama was the physical outcome of that state of affairs. 

When first built in 1956, the Pliw Rama's portico extended across the entire facade of the building, giving it a complete symmetry that has since been undone to make way for a small retail store on the front left of the theater. Ironically, the store houses a DVD rental shop.

Auditorium shots. Wooden trusses supported the gently pitched roof.

View through projection window.

Even the interior architecture was strictly functional. At the rear of the auditorium, a steep wooden staircase cuts a diagonal stripe across the room. Its destination: a wooden tinder box of a room cantilevered out from the wall, home to all the theater's projection and sound equipment. 

The founder and owner of the Pliw Rama, Mr. Wisit Wongsuwan

As is often the case with the old style of family operated cinema halls, the owner of the Pliw Rama lived just next door. That's where I found Mr. Wisit Wongsuwan, the 80-plus year old founder of the Pliw Rama. After a bit of pleading for access, the spry octogenarian finally conceded, granting access not just to the building, but to that ephemeral record of a time and place passed hidden away in the gauntlet of his memories. From it, Wisit revisited a time when the Pliw Rama was the first place around for villagers to view a motion picture. "I had the first movie theater in the entire district," he boasted. "Because I was so successful, other people in the district began to build their own theaters. By the end there was six of them in total."

Facade at an angle. The exterior wall is all corrugated tin.

While saying our goodbyes, Wisit nonchalantly mentioned a grim bit of news."It's a good thing you came when you did," he said. "We're going to tear [the theater] down in the very near future. It serves no purpose anymore."

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Yangon, Bangkok get it right with use of historic cinema halls

Slowly but surely the idea of using some of the regions classic stand-alone cinema halls to hold film festivals is taking root. This June, two different festivals in two Southeast Asian metropolises will be making use of their own historic movie theaters to do just that.

Beginning yesterday, May 29th, the 3rd annual Memory! International Film Heritage Festival got underway in Yangon. As the name suggests, viewing fair features a series of films from a wide array of countries from various time periods. The highlight of the 9 day long festival, however, is that these free screenings are being held exclusively at the classic, mid-century Burmese Polychrome Nay Pyi Daw Cinema on Sule Pagoda Road, one of the country's most elegant movie theaters.

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon

Later in June, from the 10th to the 17th, the 2nd Silent Film Festival in Thailand, put on by our dear friends over at the Film Archive, will be screening a tantalizing selection of films from the silent era at the legendary Lido Theater in Siam Square, Bangkok. The grand finale screening of The Epic of Everest, a 1924 travelogue-style documentary about an ill-fated attempt to reach the peak of Mount Everest, will take place at Thailand's grandest remaining stand-alone movie theater, the Scala.

The Scala Theater, Siam Square, Bangkok. 

The Lido Theater, Siam Square, Bangkok

Use of these storied but undervalued theaters as primary venues for film festivals and other cultural events is relatively new to Southeast Asia. Region-wide, the civic value inherent in old movie theaters has been little considered in the eyes of developers and city planning agencies. "Out of date" has been the sentiment most often attached to them. As a result, many of these increasingly rare buildings have been lost to redevelopment, with little serious consideration given to their rebirth. But with film festivals like these two in Yangon and Bangkok, that trend could start to reverse.

When crowd-drawing cultural events are held in such theaters, their definition transforms from urban blight to urban asset. Such is the logical outcome of bringing a flurry of foot traffic and its accompanying economic stimuli to any one destination. Instead of being in the way of new development projects, shopping malls or condo towers, say, they can, in theory, become the focal point of renewal efforts, creating a domino effect of investment. It's like having ones cake and eating it, too.

This kind of urban development - the integration of historic structures with new buildings tailored to contemporary tastes - is a hallmark of healthy and sustainable urban growth. Such concepts have already found regional precedent thanks to the recent reopening of Singapore's Capitol Theatre complex, a mixed-use retail/residential/entertainment development that spawned a restored Capitol Theatre as an anchor and show-piece of the project.

As the film festivals in Yangon and Bangkok are about to emphasize, there can indeed be great value, both cultural and economic, to preserving stand-alone movie theaters. 

Singapore home to SE Asia's latest movie theater revival

About a year ago, news reached the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project about the pending renovations occurring at the long-dormant Capitol Cinema down in Singapore. One year later and those plans have indeed come to fruition. The Capitol now serves as the anchor of a major residential/retail development in the heart of one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant cities.

Hopefully municipalities and developers in neighboring countries are taking note of this tactful  (tasteful) case of cinema hall revitalization.  

Here's a little article highlighting some facts and figures about the newly restored picture palace.