Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Saengcharoen Theater (A.K.A. 4711 Theater) - Mahasarakham, Thailand

Sanctity, for some, is best found in the confines of the cinema. For movie-goers of piety: priests, monks and other holy mouthpieces speak hollow babble compared to the 35 millimeter gospel of the projector. Sermons are conducted regularly throughout the day, 7 days a week, in the temples of film - with mid-night specials for night owls at times, too. Naturally, then, for the more cinematically devout among us, losing a movie theater is like losing a house of worship. And losing a movie theater to a house of worship is no less blasphemous. On this particular occasion, though, gripes will be tame, because the Hope of Mahasarkham Church staff were very decent about letting me document their abode - the former Saengcharoen/4711 Theater.

The Saengcharoen/4711 Theater in downtown Mahasarakham, now a church.

Locals dated the Saengcharoen Theater to the late 1960's, though specifics beyond that were vague. Everybody in town likewise referred to it as the 4711 Theater, without explanation as to why that was. Possibly a lucky number of some kind? An auspicious digit chosen to help increase ticket sales? Nobody seemed to know, least of all the church staff, who referred to it only as the Saengcharoen.

Crucifix fixed to the roof

Symbols embedded in the floor

Sure enough, in the floor of the lower atrium, "4711" was embedded in the concrete, along with a strange design loosely resembling a face. My immediate thought upon seeing this insignia was that it had something to do with the occult. Maybe the builder, the now-deceased Mr. Saengcharoen, had dealings with some underground religious order, and movie revenue was its source of funding. In all likelihood the symbol and number have far less sinister origins, but it's fun to fantasize, either way.

จัตุรัสบันเทิง embedded in the concrete floor.

Also embedded in the floor throughout the theater were the words Jaturat Banterng (จัตุรัสบันเทิง), or Square Entertainment. Again, nobody on the premises could offer a solid answer as to its background, so I took it upon myself to concoct a story: Jaturat Banterng is the code name for a cult, don't you know? Right, and they would hypnotize movie-goers with subliminal messages inserted in the reels of film. When exiting the theater, those who had been entranced were snatched up and whisked away in a van, driven to a remote cave outside the city. There they'd be fed to an enormous lizard called Zcang, while the cultists engaged in orgies of blood. Since Mr. Saengcharoen died and the theater closed, the cult has lost it main source of sacrificials. But in the hills surrounding Mahasarakham, lizard-skinned men are said to hunt the inebriated by the light of the moon.

Cryptic numerology and symbols aside, the Saengcharoen/4711 was an architectural masterpiece of a theater. In the upper-level atrium, floor-to-ceiling windows allowed for natural illumination, as erstwhile theater patrons awaited the movie's start. With all its glowing whiteness, the Saengcharoen/4711 naturally lends itself to church use, though I wouldn't have wished it such a fate.

Naturally lit atrium

Built-in benches curve sleekly around the atrium balcony

From a movie-watching perspective, the theater must have been in an elite class. Acoustics inside the auditorium were the best I've ever heard in a movie theater. Sound was confined and smooth, without the slightest echo or reverberation. It was more akin to a music recording studio than a movie theater. Crisp and clear under pin-point engineering.

When will we learn?

Seating was arranged stadium style, descending from back to front, with perfect sight-lines throughout. The seats themselves were like butter: deep pocketed, with plenty of leg room and reclinability. Sitting perfection.

Church band drum kit, in front of the screen.

The Church of Hope is apparently the fastest growing religious order in Thailand, with their missions recruiting largely from the young and impressionable. Mahasarakham is a fairly large college town, so it makes sense that they would a open a church there. The Hope of Mahasarakham Church has been renting the Saengcharoen/4711 Theater for the past few years, but word has it that they're putting up ten-million baht for its purchase - testament to the profitability of the almighty.

If I had that kind of money to spare I'd buy the Saengcharoen/4711 Theater myself, set up a trust for it and have it screen movies til kingdom come.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vestiges of the Coliseum Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

About a year ago, I took my first trip to Bangkok with the sole intent of seeking out old theaters. A few days prior to that, I corralled myself in the library, flipping through the foxing pages of old Thai business directories to make a list of as many pre-multiplex theaters as I could find reference to. For the most part, little more than theater names and phone numbers were listed. No addresses. Nevertheless, I set out with hopes as high as the sky that between the later addition sky-scrapers and megamalls a vestigial temple of film might have been spared. No such luck. Every one of the 25 or so listed theaters belonged to the elite first-run theater circuits, occupying prime real-estate in central Bangkok's commercial and financial districts. All but the Apex 3, Bangkok's last first-run stand-alones, are gone.

While on the streets around Phayatai and Ratchathewi I spoke with dozens of shop-keepers, vendors and other ground-floor merchants hoping to get a theater lead. All they could do was point to high-rises, or vacant lots where there once stood what I sought. Names like Hollywood, MacKenna, Athens and Coliseum were mentioned frequently, accompanied often by nostalgic smiles, or reminiscent moments of silence. Once even a burst of outrage, just for show, I think.

The Coliseum Theater, featured today, was built by Mr. Maitree Kitiparaporn, one of Bangkok's more prolific theater builders of the 1960's and 70's. By the 1980's, Kitiparaporn's theater company, known as the Hollywood circuit, was being run by his daughter Pannin. She merged the Hollywood circuit with Apex, creating the Pyramid Circuit from the two. Later Pannin left the theater business and went on open Dream World, Bangkok's first and only full-sized amusement park. The Apex Three at Siam Square - Lido, Scala and Siam - are all that's left of a once-vast movie theater empire.

The above photo depicts the entrance arch and marquee to the now-demolished Coliseum Theater. It was taken by an American veteran stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam/American War, Robert Jazdzewski. A hand painted billboard above the marquee shows Aurthur Penn's 1967 romp "Bonnie and Clyde."

Though we can't see the Colisuem Theater itself, it's still a nice little capture of a time and a place.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Sothon Rama - Yasothon, Thailand

The legend of the Sothon Rama holds that it was Northeast Thailand's largest theater of all time. A plausible legend, given the former theater's three-story verticality and ability, in the wake of film, to house a full-on department store. But short of a nod from the movie theater authorities, we'll keep it at that - an unconfirmed rumor to report on a blog.

Hot pink paint on the former Sothon Rama. Coloring reminiscent of the Yaem Yasothon films. Go figure!

Colors, I'm told, are mood makers. Orange is supposed induce hunger and red inspires awe of some sort. Pink makes me sick, especially when it's slapped across the facade of my favorite kind of place. But this is Isan, where neon hues reign supreme. For all I know, pink triggers a shopping mechanism in peoples' brains.

Big pink

Overlooking the former lower lobby, now a women's apparel department.

Sales woman in the shoe department, once the 2nd level lobby.

"Can I help you with something, sir?"

Photos of the Nanaphan Plaza interior are strictly prohibited. Management fears that spies working for rival department stores might use the photos to discern pricing schemes and undercut them. I had to show evidence to the extent that I'm no more than a movie theater enthusiast, traveling far and wide in search of lifeless gems. The interrogation was rigorous. I was asked repeatedly if I was single and which of the employees I found most attractive. Inwardly flustered, I kept my cool, said I dug them all, and finally got the green light.

Auditorium-turned-storage room

My theater escort guides the way up to the 3rd level lobby, where projection booth and soundtrack rooms are located.

A store security guard escorted me through the lesser used regions of the old theater. It was in these parts that the legend of largest seemed to ring true. The lobby was three levels high and equipped with a soundtrack room on the third floor. Before being gutted, the auditorium contained in excess of one thousand seats and the missing screen was purportedly immense. Being a late model stand-alone, dating back only 30 years or so, the builder would have had the benefit of hindsight to know how big he had to build to be number one. Sadly, his aspirations didn't last very long. Only into the mid-1990's, when the theater shut down.

Into the projection room

Empty boxes replace projectors.

Roof-top perspective

Up on the roof, beside the free-stand letters, a clear view of the little Isan city and its low-rise skyline. The Sothon Rama must have been the most popular place in town for a while, if not the biggest. The prime destination for family outings and checkers out. Now the sign letters say Nanaphan Plaza, where โสธรรามา once stood. Yet another indication that, far from improving, the world of mankind is steadily getting worse.

Security's last detail

Monday, April 19, 2010

A retrospective of the Chalerm Sin - Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Over the past few weeks I've had the good fortune of corresponding with two American veterans, Gene Ponce and Randy Roberts, who where stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam/American War. Gene Ponce was an Engines and Propeller Systems technician, working on EC 121R Constellation Recon aircraft at the Korat air-base from 1970-71. From 1971-72 he was stationed at Ubon, where he worked on AC 130/E Spectre Gunships.

Randy Roberts was stationed at Ubon from 1969-1970, serving as an F4 Radar technician and Airman 1st Class.

Gene and Randy have each amassed collections of photos taken in Thailand by American soldiers based here during the war years. Among the images are a hand full of old theater depictions. The two veterans have very kindly given me permission to use them on the SEA Theater Project, where I'll be posting them over the course of the next few weeks.

The most well-documented of the theaters is the Chalerm Sin in downtown Ubon. Below are a series of shots depicting the old classic in it's various appearances though the years.

I have no date for when the Chalerm Sin was built, but I'm guessing it was no later than the 1950's. Noting location at the first major intersection into the city, with a public works fountain forming a traffic circle in front of it, there's a chance that it's from the era of Phibun Songkram, Thailand's fascist-leaning military dictator from 1938-1944 and again from 1948-1957. Prime Minister Phibun was a fan of public works projects and a few of the theaters I've come across during this research were commissioned by his government. Phibul project or not, the Chalerm Sin in it's original guise was a nice looking theater, with an angular, concave facade looking out from its street corner domain.

The above photo was taken by Warren Lieberman, a US Army engineer based in Warin Chamrap from 1965-66 (photo courtesy of Gene Ponce)

Color invigorates the above photo, as security policeman Edward F. Roberts poses in front of the Chalerm Sin Theater sometime in 1965-66. This and the photo above are the only two I've seen depicting the theater's original facade. Notice the free-standing sign letters were of a smaller make than they were later on. (Photo courtesy of Edward F. Roberts).

By the time the above photo was taken, some architectural adjustments had been made to the theater’s façade. Most strikingly, a beige and white, metal paneled exterior wall was added to shield the building from direct sun-light – a heat-reducing feature common on Thai buildings constructed in the 1960’s and 70’s. In some cases these fixtures visually enhance the structures they adorn, with horizontal and vertical lines criss-crossing in various patterns. In other instances they ruin a good looking building. As for the Chalerm Sin, I think it was a downgrade from the original look, but not too shabby, either. This photo was probably taken around 1967-68 judging by the movie playing – “The Way West” starring Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum. Though foreign made movies in Thailand didn't necessarily screen the same year they were made, so it could have been later. (Photo courtesy of Gene Ponce).

Here’s the Chalerm Sin in its next new look, in a photo taken by Jim Foanio, circa 1971. A new set of bigger, bolder free-standing letters have replaced the smaller ones. “70 mm Projection System,” is announced in the sign below the name. Since the advent of multiplex theaters in the 1980’s, 70mm movie projection has largely become a thing of the past, much like the larger stand-alone theaters that screened them. (Photo courtesy of Gene Ponce).

The following three photos were taken by Gene Ponce himself circa 1971-72.

I love this picture!

Happy New Year 1972

Randy remembers the Chalerm Sin Theater as follows:

"General seating was on the main floor. The balcony was a little pricier and mostly used by GIs, as I recall, with female companions. But the premier seating was in the enclosed air-conditioned room on the balcony. This had the original sound and dialogue. It may have had ear phones for the GIs and Thai piped in [over speakers], I can't recall. Regardless, this was the only place to hear the original English sound track. Otherwise, the mostly-Chinese films shown were subbed and dubbed. English language films were dubbed for the rest of the theater. Two voices, one male and one female, did it all. You appreciate what a terse language English is when the dialogue continues as John Wayne rides off on his horse, or the horse is pictured as one voice or another continues, or the faraway hills echo with several lines of dialogue between scenes. Not to mention the timing between two or more characters. That could be a blast in itself. Especially if you'd already seen the flick. Anyway, it was an interesting time. Always fun at the movies! Lots of Chinese/Oriental swash- buckling stuff. Dialogue was unnecessary for those movies. Thai subtitles, Chinese dialogue, or Thai dubbing. It was crazy for us GIs used to MGM!!!
Here's the Chalerm Sin Theater as it looks now. The building is home to a Bata shoe store and features none of its former architectural pomp. What a dull way to go out! (Both photos courtesy of Gene Ponce).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Yasothon Pappayon - Yasothon, Thailand

Wise are the old when they're not senile. Without them we'd have to depend solely on the young, who don't care much for things that are old. Finding this little theater was made possible by an older gentleman with his faculties as full as the young are full of shite. Prior to him, a dozen questioned people still in the prime of life could offer no clues, only misinformation about a cinema scene that's slipped through the cracks of memory. Drenched behind the ears, those young 'uns are. And let me tell ya, it takes one to know one. Low and behold, on the dingier side of town, stands about the most unassuming theater that I've come across to date - the Yasothon Pappayon.

The Yasothon Pappayon - an old neighborhood theater

My keen minded friend dated the old theater to the early 1960's, when as a strapping lad he himself would cram in with hundreds of his Yasothonian kin to catch the latest moving picture. 16 mm with live dubbing, in those days. These days it's a private residence, and a fading memory in the town it's named for.

Fading name

Adding to the Yasothon Pappayon's worn mystique is the neighborhood it's in. This is the older part of town, two-thirds wooden shack, looking on the verge of collapse, to one-third sino-colonial shop house. It's the section of the city that was born from riparian trade, a near extinct means of commerce which, in Isan, was once oriented to the east, towards the Mekong and the domain of the Lao. Before roads and trains redirected Isan's economy towards Bangkok, river trade along the west-to-east-flowing Chi and Mun rivers meant that the region's cultural affinity was stronger with the Lao principalities than with the Thai capitol. In more recent times, Bangkok has devoured the resources of Isan without giving much in return besides some nationalist rhetoric.

And that, in a nutshell, is my own abridged take on the origins of the Bangkok bloodshed this past weekend; grievances which go back much farther than the overthrow of Thaksin and his cronies. Take it or leave it.

Streetscape perspective

Peddicab driver stopped for a moment in front of the old Yasothon Pappayon to pick some herbs from a nearby potted plant.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Peep Presentation of The Chalermphan (AKA Chicago) Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Thanks to the foresight and due diligence of Mr. Peep, we are once again privy to a piece of Bangkok movie theater history which is no more. Today's feature stood on Pracharat Road Soi 2, in Bangkok's Bang Sue neighborhood. The Chalermphan Theater opened in 1968, at the height of Thailand's movie theater construction boom. From the start it was a second-run theater, showing movies which had already come and gone through the downtown cinema palaces, though with a seating capacity of 1,032, the Chalermphan must have been fairly palatial, itself. Huge, if nothing else.

Photo of the Chalermphan/Chicago Theater while still in operation

A rendezvous with the wrecking crew

At some point the Chalermphan was purchased by the Pyramid (Apex) Theater Company and had its name Anglicized (or Americanized) to "Chicago," a naming practice the theater magnate was apparently quite fond of. Besides movie exhibition, you see, Apex also used to be one of Bangkok's largest movie distributors. By buying up many of the second-run theaters around the city, Apex could then circulate its film stock without having to divide the profits with independent owners.

The Chalermphan/Chicago Theater operated until 2000. It crossed the River Styx in 2005.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Charoen Nakorn Theater - Korat, Thailand

I blame it on the street beasts, those alley-dwelling howlers with their mange and their bilious notions of territory. The mongrels! Without them I'd have spent much more time exploring the dilapidated depths of the Charoen Nakorn Theater and its environs. Dispensing with angry street dogs is not my forte, however. Flight over fight is my favored option, though a pocket full of stones can come in handy at times. too. Ah, street dogs! It's a shame that I wasn't welcomed, because the Charoen Nakorn had some big-80's appeal worthy of closer inspection.

A banner covers the entrance sign to the Charoen Nakorn Theater. It's now a multi-use entertainment center featuring karaoke, snooker, Muay Thai and a restaurant, but no movie theater.

Like many of the more ambitious movie theater designs of the 1970's and 80's, the Charoen Nakorn Theater was devised as the anchor business to a fairly extensive commercial/residential plaza. Ambitious it was! The surrounding plaza contains several different thoroughfares, each one densely packed with rows of commercial-front row houses, three stories tall. Most of them are vacant today, giving it a dead zone feel even during day-light hours.

Architecturally, the entire complex looks like a 1980's vision of the future. The surrounding row houses typify the times by loosely resembling giant arcade game consoles - Pac-Man for Paul Bunyan and Tron for the 40 Foot Woman. But this future was a failed one, as are similar models throughout the country. Who would have thought that the 1980's would have been so prosperous for Thailand, and that relaxed policy on auto imports would drive private car sales through the roof? Sure, the Charoen Nakorn is just off the Mittraphap Highway, but a lack of secure parking made it lose favor to the car-friendly shopping malls that opened later. After succumbing to the profits of pornography for a few years, it finally shut down in the the early 2000's.

In the foreground, Five-Star Network's traveling cinema truck is parked down the alley, with the Charoen Nakorn Theater at the far end. The local movie distribution company keeps its offices in Charoen Nakorn plaza.

Theater at the end of a dog-infested alley

Snarling dogs kept me from getting much closer to the Charoen Nakorn than depicted above, but as luck would have it, Five-Star Network has their offices in the exact same plaza, providing me the opportunity to meet to their Assistant Director. Five-Star Network is Isan's biggest movie distributor, but not the only one - a fact which differs from the other regions of the country, each of which is presided over by a single distributor (the others in Isan are Nevada and Mongkol Major). Besides listing all of Isan's operating stand-alone theaters for me, Five-Star's Assistant Director helped clarify a few things about the distribution system in Thailand.

The three Isan distributors seem to practice a pretty fair revenue-sharing policy with the theaters they supply. They do not charge a fixed rate for the films they rent out to theaters, but rather split the revenue down the middle with the theater owners. In some cases, that probably hurts the distributors. For instance, if a small-market theater in a far-out district only has 20 customers for a two day film allotment, it's probable that the transportation costs of getting the reels to and from the theater out-weigh the revenue. Distributors take a loss, but they allow the little guys to stay in business by continuing their services. How do they make a profit then? Two ways! First, their bread and butter comes from running their own movie theaters. All the profits they collect from their own venues are theirs to keep. No need to share it with anybody except their employees. Five-Star Network makes the most of that by running a three-screen multiplex in Nong Khai and a six-screener in Korat.

Second, there are a few big shopping mall-based chains in Isan, like Major, EGV and SF, which have control over the larger movie-going markets. They provide the distributors with a steady stream of revenue. Five-Star has worked out partnerships with EGV in Korat and Major in Udon to ensure their exclusive distribution rights to those heavyweights, both of which are under the same corporate ownership. In addition, Five-Star Network has an open-air movie division which contributes yet another revenue stream.

From what I've been able to gather, distributors in other regions of the country are much tougher towards the little guys than in Isan. Northern Thailand's distributor, for example - Thana - charges a flat fee of 1000 baht every time they rent a film to a theater. So if the theater only makes 500 baht in revenue, they have to give that plus an additional 500 hundred baht from their own pocket to the distributor. In the North, there's not a single stand-alone theater that's not owned by Thana left in operation because of this nickle and dime policy. In the words of one Isan theater owner, "that's just bad business, all around."

For those remaining independent theater owners in Isan, local distributors genuinely seem to have their interests' in mind. Maybe not as much as the big money multiplexes, but more so than anywhere else in the country. That's one reason why in smaller towns like Pak Chong and Det Udom you can still see a movie on the silver screen.