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.