Five years ago, a trip to Mae Sariang and the former Wiang Mai Theater proved only partially fruitful. Long devoid of film, the Wiang Mai had been serving as a propane gas retail center for more than a decade.
Five years ago, a sales woman tending to the business denied access to the sealed theater beyond the lobby. Locked up tight was the order of the day. The big boss, she explained, off in some other part of town tending to his gold mine of a gas station, had no time for riff-raff. She would not ask permission on my behalf.
The Wiang Mai Theater in streetscape context
Black and white by night
A return trip to Mae Sariang this past week was no different. Free reign to photograph the gas tank-filled lobby was welcomed, but yonder auditorium remained off limits.
"The boss man, he's mean," said the sales woman matter-of-factly.
5 years ago, not bold enough to seek a higher authority, I was resigned to my meager allowance of access to the theater's lobby. Not much of a concession considering the lobby is a retail business, hence open to the public.
But now, emboldened by the sweet smell of success, having meticulously transformed myself into Thailand's movie theater mouthpiece, troubadour of forgotten places, I sought out the gas station Godfather at his headquarters.
Upon first impression, I almost wished I hadn't.
Owner of the Wiang Mai Theater Mr. Khamron Aomaree
Enthroned behind a cheap folding table in the store house of his gas station, the boss man lorded over an army of minions, circling about doing this, that and the other. Heavy set and physically imposing - like any good boss man should be - he acknowledged my presence with nothing more than the stone cold stare of a wild west gunslinger. By way of communication, boss man said nothing. But his wide eyed, slightly askance gaze ordered me to state my business or get out.
With his movie theater the stated agenda, boss man gestured for me to sit down. I asked his name, to which he responded by handing me an official document with his name penned in at the bottom. Thai chicken scratch. I couldn't read it.
"Khamron Aomaree" he said at last, finally breaking from his gangster gaze.
Free of the poker face, the mood lightened and Mr. Aomaree told the saga of his forlorn picture house, before ordering one of his employees to unlock the auditorium for me.
Leftovers from more jovial times.
Gas canisters queued up in front of the ticket windows
Many old theaters contained sound rooms for customers who preferred to watch foreign films in their original language. Tickets for sound rooms were priced slightly higher. Pictured above is the ticket window for the sound room at the Wiang Mai Theater.
Gas tanks in the lobby of the Wiang Mai.
Auditorium, long sealed shut.
The theater business was a legacy of Khamrom Aomaree's father, who built Mae Sariang's first ever movie theater decades before. As was common for movie theaters in remote areas of Thailand even as late as the 1960's, that original theater was built of wood. Today, wooden movie theaters are an extreme rarity in Thailand. The majority of them were either replaced with concrete theaters by the 1970's, or they were simply demolished and not replaced at all.
The iteration of the Wiang Mai Theater that's standing now was built as an upgrade from the Aomaree's original wooden theater in 1971. About that time, a law was passed in Thailand banning movie theaters built out of wood as potential fire hazards.
The sound room at the Wiang Mai was a later addition. The room simply enclosed a section of seating on the balcony. The sign on the door advertises it as "air-conditioned room."
Inside the sound room/air-con room.
Carbon arc projectors in the projection room.
Ornamental iron grating on the projection window.
Khamron held little esteem for the theater business.
"It was a dishonest business in the old days," he admitted, referring to the unequal business terms dictated by the movie distribution companies. "I'm glad to be out of it,"
Fortunately, Khamron Aomaree did not get rid of his old white elephant altogether. Today, the Aomaree family legacy stands as reminder to the people of Mae Sariang that, once upon a time, a culture of public entertainment and shared pleasures existed outside of karaoke bars and beer halls.