Sunday, March 29, 2009

"The Jewel of Siam" -- Sakon Nakon, Thailand

If you were to visit Philadelphia in the 1960's you might have taken in a movie at the Goldman Theater at 15th and Chestnut. Or maybe not. Either way, if you were not familiar with the etymology of the name, you might think that it was chosen to conjure an association with a man of gold. The truth is it was just the surname of the proprietor. I'm guilty of a similar line of thought here in Thailand. Many of these theaters' names, when translated into English, have an elegant ring to them. But it's actually not the elegance of the meaning that is meant to be captured in the name, but the surname of the owner. This has a bearing, however petty, on the translations which I find myself making at times. In this case, however, I'm reasonably sure that the Siam Rath Theater is only the Jewel of Siam Theater and not the family name of the former owner.

This is the lone remaining, albeit non-functioning, single screen theater in town. There were once another two but they've since been leveled.

Sakon Nakon city has a fairly large Vietnamese community, which gives it a different feel than the other Isan cities I visited on this trip. One elderly woman whom I questioned about old theaters in town recommended that I go to Saigon, where the theaters are apparently much nicer. Some day I will.

Front entrance. Movie posters from films that premiered just a few years back adorn the walls. Older portraits of the King and Queen above the door.

The Siam Rath and the little restaurant next door.

Poster case with Som Tam menu in it

"S" for Siam, in a diamond shape, "Rath"

I didn't get any background details about this theater, but based on its architecture and the materials used, I'm reasonably sure that it dates to the mid-1960's at the earliest.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thepnakon Rama Theater -- Nakon Phanom, Thailand

Like many stand-alone theaters in Thailand, the Thepnakon Rama is situated in a commercial plaza.

The street-side marquee, now a mere vestige, still beckons weary beings to escape the scorching Isan sun and doldrums of daily life.

View from the side

Three years too late, and the Thepnakon Rama is a parking lot. An unfortunate fate for such an imposing building, but better than a date with the demolition man. I was lucky to meet Mr. Chayan, a lifelong resident of Nakon Phanom, standing in front of the dormant theater as I perused the grounds in search of a nice angle. Mr. Chayan, owner of a small jewelry shop on the opposite side of the plaza, recalled that the theater was built in the early 1970's and that it screened films until only a few years ago. When I told him that I was taking photos of old theaters for archival purposes, he volunteered to drive me around town in search of the other old cinemas he remembered. Sadly, the others had long ago met their demise.I am nonetheless grateful to Mr. Chayan for his hospitality and the sympathy he showed towards this odd project.

There used to be a total of four theaters in the city, including the Thepnakon Rama and the Sri Thep Cineplex, which is still operating.

Frontal frame


Side paneling

Gutted and turned into a parking lot.

The balcony

Poster for the eternal classic "Batman and Robin" lingers on.

The Thepnakon Rama closed down 3 years ago.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Peth Rama -- Thakaek, Khammuane province, Laos

The Peth Rama was not the most interesting old theater to photograph, as signs of its erstwhile career are gone, save for the massive auditorium and ticket window. Nonetheless, it still stands. As you can see it was undergoing renovations at the time of my visit, though what it will be was vague. Everybody I asked said that it had been torn down and houses were being built in its place. One sam lor driver, however, knew that wasn't so.

I asked the sam lor driver with the good memory if he had ever seen a film there. "Sure," he said proudly, knowing that he was in some way part of the Peth Rama's history. "I used to watch Indian movies here."

"And Thai?" I asked.

"No, never Thai movies. You know, in the past Thailand and Laos didn't get along. Communists vs. capitalists."

The ticket window endures

The Peth Rama closed in the late 1980's. Its name translates to "Diamond Rama," but this gem is long gone.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Van Dara Theater - Thakaek, Khammuane province, Laos

Thakaek is a rusty old city on the Mekong in south central Laos. It was memorable for its waterfront nightlife which mainly consisted of packs of teenagers flying around on motorbikes, while everybody else drank beer and ate. I liked it there.

Most of the people I spoke to in Thakaek were convinced that all the theaters had been destroyed. Fortunately they were wrong, as the Van Dara Theater lives on, if only as a shell.

Wasn't able to glean much info about this place, only that the owner one day just picked up and left. It's been dormant since, apparently. The only person I found who remembered watching movies there said that it - like all the Lao theaters that survived past 75' - showed Vietnamese, Indian and Soviet movies.

Close-up of facade

They used to park their bikes under here.

Maybe the old ticket window?

If you're in Thakaek and want see the Van Dara Theater for yourself, it's right behind the Mekong Hotel, one street back from the river. It's an attractive, yet unimposing building.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"It's alive!!!" - Sri Thep Cineplex - Nakon Phanom, Thailand

Life has not been stamped out of all the old single-screen/stand-alone theaters in this corner of the world. Here's one from the Isan region of Thailand -- Nakon Phanom -- that is still operating, albeit gasping for breath.

Screening twice daily at 12:30 and 8:00

The Sri Thep Cineplex on Sri Thep Road, has been operating since the early 70's, though I couldn't get an exact DOB. It has three screens. In the 70's and 80's, however, it had only one screen. The area that has been turned into the two smaller theaters was a nightclub.

Lounging in the lobby.

The time I spend in the Sri Thep Cineplex reminded me a lot of the old theaters in Philly, my hometown, before they closed down. Lots of unusual characters loafed around, a few of whom bought tickets.

Ticket takers

They had three different movies showing, but if less than 5 tickets are sold for any one movie they don't screen it. "It's just not worth the cost of keeping the A/C on and projector running," said one of the staff.

I was the lone ticket buyer for "20th Century Boys," a Japanese sci-fi flick that was released last year. They didn't screen it and I was forced to settle for the Thai ghost-comedy Luang Pi Gap Pi Kanun - slow torture with a few mildly amusing fart gags.

Mrs. Bambua, the ticket taker, poses for a photo

Hand painted signs.

Mobile advertisements for today's features.

If you should happen to come across a funky old theater like this, doesn't matter what's showing, buy a ticket, support a life.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Another one yet from Savannaket -- The Nang Lit Theaeter -- Savannaket, Laos

A half a block from the Lao Chaleun Cinema and on the opposite side of the street stands the Nang Lit Theater. Just off Savannaket's town square, the Nang Lit still occasionally screens movies, as it did for the recently released and ever rare Laotian film, Sabaidee Luang Phrabang.

A middle aged woman running a small minimart across the street gave me the general stats on the old theater: the original owner, in an act of paternal adoration, named the theater after his daughter, Lit. He was of Lao-Chinese descent and left the country for gay Paris after the defeat of the royalist regime. He, as well as his daughter Lit, have since passed away.

Apparently the place operated normally until 1991. Since then it's been turned into a cultural center, occasionally opening its doors for a movie screening.

I wasn't able to find out when it was built, but the minimart owner says it's been there as long as she's been on the planet. I'm guessing it was built in the 1950's or early 60's. It's definitely architecturally out of character for most of Savannaket, which is more French colonial.

Among the things listed on the poster paper in the lobby: no weapons, sharp item or things that can make people sick are permitted in the theater.

Ticket prices are 3,000 Kip for Lao and 10,000 for foreigners

(On a side note, Savannaket used to have another 2 theaters, The Savan Rama and one which nobody could recall the name of).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lao Chaleun Cinema - Savannaket, Laos

Lao Chaleun translates to Prospering Laos

A tourist brochure for Savannaket city dated the Lao Chaleun Cinema to the 1930's. Since most of it is concrete, I find that hard to believe, but I know very little about architecture or what building materials were used when. Nonetheless, this was was the most edifying abandoned theater I've found to date.

I was told that it was built with the intention of being the anchor for the entire two rows of commercial and residential buildings that it's attached to, an interesting concept in itself. An entire neighborhood built around a cinema!

It is divided into two separate sections. The facade and facilities attached to it face onto Kaisone Phomivan Road, while the main auditorium is in another building in a back alley. A long corridor leads from the front entrance to the auditorium in the rear, while the two sections are connected by a patio bridge. I wish I knew more about that front section. What was it used for? It looks like there was commercial space there. Maybe the theater's offices, or concessions?

Entrance to the auditorium.

Patio bridge straddles an alley, connecting the facade section and auditorium.

Second floor looking across the patio bridge towards the front building.

Presumably the ticket window

View from the balcony

View of balcony, projector's window on the back wall.

Projectionist's room

That's right, despite the fact the Lao Chaleun has been closed for over 30 years there are still old reels of film lying around.

The temptation to take one of these old reels was there, but just as I was about to do it I recalled the curse of King Tut's tomb.

I've been told this might be the Thai actor of yesteryear Sombat Chareun in the frame. Hard to tell.

Does anybody know what this says?

Hammer and Sickle stencil on wall of the projectionist's room.

This really is a classic structure. Unfortunately, a restoration job seems unlikely anytime in the near future, and in it's present condition I can't see it holding up too much longer. The least we can hope for is that somebody or some entity has the foresight to preserve the facade. After all, it is advertised on the Savannaket guide brochure as a site of historic significance in the city. You'd think somebody would step up and save the Lao Chaleun.