Digging up the history of old movie theaters in Thailand can lead to some very high places. Movie theaters, after all, are prestige structures, which require deep pockets to construct. Accordingly, it's not uncommon for even the most neglected old theater to have regal origins. Local nobility or their direct descendants (as in the case of Chiang Mai's Suriwong, Suriyong, Suriya and Sang Tawan Theaters, built by a member of the House of Chiang Mai; or the well known Sala Chalerm Krung Theater in Bangkok, built by King Rama VII) have been often active in the realm of cinema entertainment.
Aside from nobility in the formal sense, heavy hitters from the fields of industry, business and the professions were also known to expand their portfolios into entertainment through the addition of a movie theater. Examples of this can found throughout the country. Usually, however, time tends to render these connections moot, as the former theater owners search for new sources of income. But some things don't change that much at all. Especially in the case of smaller towns.
The Chalerm Thong Kham Theater, in Ban Pong, Ratchauri, is testament to that old linkage between the movie theater and power in Thailand.
The Chalerm Thong Kham Theater, nestled behind some older shop houses.
Ban Pong is a junction town. Both the railroad and highway fork at Ban Pong, connecting the south with Bangkok to the east and Kanchanaburi to the west. Yet another rail spur heads north towards Suphanburi.
Towards the end of World War II, Ban Pong was slated for an aerial bombardment by the Allies as a means of destroying the westbound rail link going towards the Burmese border. That link, which inspired the movie Bridge On the River Kwai, would have enabled the Japanese in Burma to have a supply route from the east. Overcast skies on the bombing day, however, shielded the Ban Pong from the bomber's view. The town, with its bustling market area flanking the Mae Klong River and the railroad tracks, was spared.
But what war could not do away with, fire did. In 1955, the market area went up in flames, wiping out the densest part of town.
A few years after the fire much of Ban Pong's market area had been rebuilt, construction being led by a number of wealthy merchants with vested interest in the area. One of the those merchants was Prayun Khotsapongsa, a second generation Chinese settler whose family owned much of the market. Included in Prayun's redevelopment plan was an enormous, state-of-the-art movie theater to anchor the surrounding business community. He named the theater after his mother, Grandma Thongkham Wongsarot. In 1958 the Chalerm Thongkham Theater opened for business.
The growth of film in Thailand in the post-war years led to healthy competition between theater operators. Prayun Khotsapongsa and his family rode the wave of movie industry growth by expanding into film distribution. Chalerm Thongkham Films, as it was called, distributed films to theaters in 8 nearby provinces, including Kanchanaburi, Petchaburi, Suphanburi, Prajuab Khirikan, Samut Sakhol, Samut Songkram and Ratchaburi. Ban Pong's position as a junction town helped make this possible.
The unique facade of the Chalerm Thongkham Theater
When the Chalerm Thongkham first opened in 1958, movie theater technology in Thailand was still fairly rudimentary. Ceiling fans were used to cool the theater, and patrons sat on wooden bench seats, not the detached bucket seats common in movie theaters today. But by 1967 air-conditioning and bucket seats were installed; 800 hundred of them on the lower level, plus another 300 on the balcony.
Competition stiffened further when a new theater, the Ban Pong Rama, opened on the opposite side of town. To stay competitive, the Khotsapongsa family enlarged the screen to accommodate 70mm projection capabilities. The large format film allowed for a bigger, crisper picture, equivalent to the Imax theaters of today.
Once an theater, now a motorcycle dealership.
But by the close of the 20th century, the Chalerm Thongkham was suffering the typical syndromes afflicting independent movie theaters in Thailand. Following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the theater and distribution company went out of business.
Gracefully curving staircase leading to balcony seating.
Seats remain in place on the balcony.
Today, the Chalerm Thongkham Theater houses a motorcycle dealership, a far cry from its glory days as the heart of entertainment in Ban Pong. The building, however, is still a source of pride for the Khotsapongsa family, who take pains to ensure that it looks sharp from the exterior.
As for the the Khotsapongsa family, they continue to wield influence in Ban Pong. The current mayor, in fact, is a Khotsapongsa.
Mr. Suthin Khotsapongsa is serving his second term as the Mayor of Ban Pong. Although not a Khotsapongsa by blood, Mr. Suthin married the daughter of Prayun Khotsapongsa, who he met when he worked at the Chalerm Thongkham Theater as a poster painter as a teenager. In reversal of custom, Mr. Suthin took on his bride's family name.
Suthin claims to be "the only mayor of a Thai city that started out as a poster painter at a movie theater."
Poster painter-turned-mayor, Nai Suthin Khotsapongsa.
1950's era signage.
The above video was shot for Thai PBS in November of last year. It features interviews with a former employee of the Chalerm Thongkham Theater (as well as the author of this blog).