Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Thai Rama - Bangkok, Thailand

The marquee for the Thai Rama Theater stands jumbled among the mayhem of Somdet Prajao Thaksin Road in the Wong Wian Yai neighborhood of Bangkok.

The day that I found the Thai Rama Theater was a productive day in the life of this movie theater geek. Just off the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle there are four old movie theaters, the Thai Rama among them. Within an hour or so I'd had the distinguished honor of seeing these four theaters in person with my own two eyes - an intoxicating experience which I'll never forget.

There's a soi named after the Thai Rama Theater, as testified to on this street sign.

Severe narrowness: entrance to the Thai Rama on the right, the Sesawetch Market on the left.

What I really want to point out about this theater is that it's right next to an open-air fresh market. This was a common trait among the Thai stand-alone theaters of the past. They were genuinely intertwined with the fabric of the neighborhoods they were in. Unlike the shopping mall multiplexes, these neighborhood theaters were easily accessible to everybody in the immediate vicinity. In many ways, the old neighborhood stand-alones were an extension of public space, even if it did cost money to get in. They were part and parcel of a public culture that the multiplexes can never replicate and which are quickly disappearing in many of the world's cities.

Two desolate poster cases adorn the corner walls of the Thai Rama.

Ticket window. The sign above reads: New Shows! International Variety! Brand New Program!


The vital details of the Thai Rama Theater eluded me. Exhaustion had set in by the time I reached it and I didn't have the strength to do much fact finding. I did find out it was built sometime in the 1960's and that it made the switch to pornography prior to its closing down, one month before I arrived.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ratchatewi Rama - Bangkok, Thailand

The Ratchatewi Rama was a second-run movie theater in an area of Bangkok with same name. It was the last surviving stand-alone theater in a neighborhood where there were once many, including some of Bangkok's most opulent movie palaces. They've all been torn down to make way for condominium towers.

Street scape perspective of Petchburi Road soi 12/8, where the marquee for the Ratchatewi Rama Theater has served as a gateway to solace for this densely populated, central Bangkok neighborhood since the early 1970's.

Street side sign

Had I come here just three months earlier I would have had the most gratifying experience of watching a movie in this quintessential Bangkok neighborhood theater. Regretfully, my timing was bad. Economic realities care little for nostalgia. By the time I encountered the Ratchatewi Rama it was in the process of being gutted and turned into a parking garage - an unfortunate form of cultural execution.

This woman has been selling Bar-B-Q pork skewers in front of the Ratchatewi Rama Theater for the past 5 years. Suffice to say her business is going to take a loss now that the theater is closed.

The recently stripped-down auditorium, looking towards where the screen once was.

The auditorium, looking towards the balcony, where a worker had set up a tent to live in during the conversion process.

The Ratchatewi Rama Theater had over 700 seats waiting to transport spectators into another world. It was never a glamorous theater, by any means, but it served as a fine space of leisure and entertainment for the residents and workers of the Ratchatewi neighborhood. In its newest incarnation it will house cars. What a poor exchange of function!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Capital Cinema Hall - Bangkok, Thailand

Here's one more from Bangkok's Chinatown - the Capital Cinema Hall, on Charoen Krung Road.

The Capital is one of Bangkok's oldest non-wooden theaters and was a Chinatown staple for generations. Its art-deco features belie a history dating back to the 1930's, though beyond that I know very little.

Staircase leading to what was once the auditorium

The Capital Cinema Hall switched to showing skin flicks prior to shutting down about 10 years ago. Apparently, though, in its heyday, it was a beloved cinema among Chinatown residents.

View from second level looking towards where the screen used to be.

The block glass column used to frame the screen.

What used to be the Capital is now home to the Klongthom Market, a retail center notorious for carrying bootlegged electronic goods.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Tolaphap Theater - Phonsavan, Xieng Khuang, Laos

Phonsavan is the tiny capital city of Xieng Khuong province, a place best known for it's prehistoric stone jars and for being the most heavily bombed region during the Vietnam (American) War. 40 years ago, what is now Phonsavan was little more than a few villages nestled atop a plateau known as the Plain of Jars. The American military fought the communist Pathet Lao over the Plain of Jars because it was viewed as a perfect base for launching bombing missions over North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US was eventually pushed back, but not before obliterating the province.

Two unexploded American bomb casings stand as decorative sentinels in front of the Tolaphap Theater. Throughout the city and province, bomb casings like this have been put to use in one way or another by the people of Xieng Khuong.

Front entrances to the Tolaphap

Originally, the capital of Xieng Khoung province was a town called Muong Khoum, which was completely leveled by the US. There may or may not have been a movie theater in Muong Khoum, but nobody I spoke to could remember. When Phonsavan was dedicated as the new capital in the late 1970's, it was soon thereafter given a gift of the Tolaphap Theater by the Lao Ministry of Culture.

The Tolaphap was this remote mountain region's lone theater from 1983 until it closed down in the early 1990's. It's now a banquet hall.

Many thanks to Dornkaew, my wonderful girlfriend and a native of Phonsavan, whose invaluable help and patience made my research in Laos possible.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vintage photos of the Amporn and Chao Phraya theaters - Udonthani, Thailand

Ladies and gentlemen, the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project proudly presents a new batch of dazzling vintage movie theater photos. These images come courtesy of Mr. Atitep Kayoum, an Udonthani native and movie enthusiast who upon seeing Craig Campen's photo submissions (see two posts prior), dug deep into his own collection to bring us these snapshops from his childhood. Behold Atitep Kayoum's vintage photos of the Amporn and Chao Phraya theaters,

The Amporn then (circa 1990/91)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade playing at the Amporn Theater.

Jackie Chan and Andy Lau starring in Island on Fire, the Thai name of which is Big Vs. Big, at the Amporn Theater.

Gotta love those hand-painted advertisements

The Amporn now circa 2009

(Above photo courtesy of the Projectionist)


The Chao Phraya Theater (RIP 2009)

The Chao Phraya Theater showing Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

Jackie Chan in what I believe is Fearless Hyeana 2, playing at the Chao Phraya Theater

Posters for War Hero (Wiraburut Songkram) and First Time (Krang Raek)

Interior of the Chao Phraya


A very nice collection of photos from Khun Atitep Kayoum, of Udonthani, Thailand. Thanks very much for these photos. They're of great historical value! Again, I encourage others out there to send along their old movie theater photos from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma or elsewhere in this corner of the world. You will be helping to preserve a legacy which is quickly being forgotten.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Rachinee (AKA New Queen) Theater - Luang Prabang, Laos

Smack in the middle of Luang Prabang's most densely packed tourist area, silently masquerading as a boutique hotel, stands the Rachinee Theater. Innumerable travelers have strolled past this building clueless to the fact that before Luang Prabang was fancified by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) there was a real movie theater in town, two even.

Behind the facade of a guesthouse lies an old movie theater, unbeknownst to the throngs of tourists who visit Luang Prabang every day.

It was back in 1966 that the Rachinee Theater (also known as the New Queen) first opened to the public, under the stewardship of the Sisalermsak family. When they built the Rachinee it was the second brick and concrete theater in town, and an instant competitor of the Siang Savan Theater (see two posts prior for more details). The Sisalermsaks owned two wooden theaters in town prior to the Rachinee, but they are both long gone.

On my last day in Luang Prabang I met Mr. Nophavong Sisalermsak, the son of the original owners. He helped his parents run the Rachinee for years and had a wealth of knowledge about the Laotian movie theater industry. He explained how prior to 1975 the different theaters throughout the country formed film distribution partnerships, sharing film reels within their own group. The Rachinee, for instance, had a partnership with the Vieng Samay and Odeon theaters in Vientiane, while the Siang Savan was allied with the Bua Savan and Seng Lao theaters, also in the capital.

Superior quality American-made projectors, rusting away in a storage shed behind Nophavong's house.

Nophavong Sisalermsak praised the quality and reliability of the American-made Century Projectors (two above photos) that he used before the communist takeover in 1975. When diplomatic relations between Laos and America were severed, the only available projectors were USSR-made models. Nophavong lambasted these inferior machines, claiming that "they consistently burned through film and couldn't play older movies."

Inferior quality Soviet-made projectors, rusting away in a storage shed behind Nophavong's house.

Behind a stack of bricks, the old crown in the sign leans against the Sisalermsak house. The crown stood between the words "New" and "Queen" on the top of the theater. Nophavong Sisalermsak wants to restore the old crown and return it to its original place. It would add a nice touch to the building and alert tourists to its erstwhile function.

Nophavong Sisalermsak

The Rachinee stopped showing films back in 1993, after which it was transformed into a karaoke bar for a period. After UNESCO proclaimed Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, however, the karaoke bar was deemed out of character with the French colonial/montaine Southeast Asian kingdom themes. It was ordered to shut down. The old Rachinee Theater's most recent incarnation is as the Le Tam Tam Garden Guesthouse and Restaurant.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Classic photos of classic Isan theaters

A few weeks ago a good friend sent me a link to Craig Campen's Udorn & NKP Pix - Circa 1973 - 1974. Among Craig's photos were some old movie theater shots from Udonthani and Nakon Phanom, depicting the theaters while they were at their height of popularity. This was quite a treat for me. Several of the theaters he photographed while stationed at the US Air Force base at Udonthani in the early 1970's were ones I've visited since they've been decommissioned - like the Thep Nakon Rama in Nakon Phanom. So I contacted Craig and asked if he'd allow me to post his old theater photos. He very graciously obliged, sending along a nice portfolio of theater photos, supplemented by some of his memories of the old theaters. Have a look below.

My wife and I routinely went to about three different movie theaters during my year in Udon Thani while stationed at the air base during the Vietnam War era. Chinese movies (the Japanese were always the bad guys), Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns and other cowboy movies, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies, and lots of action and martial arts movies were popular then. Tickets cost around 5 to 10 baht depending on where you sat. The exchange rate then was pretty much 20 TB = $1. Some theaters had a separate viewing room on an upper level with either headsets to rent or speakers playing the English soundtrack. We usually sat in the regular balcony seats since most movies had English subtitles on screen with a Thai dubbed audio track. I remember that sometimes the Thai audience would laugh at certain lines spoken in Thai, while the English subtitles weren’t really that funny. I guess they took liberties with the translations to make it more entertaining for the Thai audiences. We usually bought freshly made drinks (ice coffee or fruit juices) in plastic bags and maybe some dried squid or pork balls on a stick (often referred to as “monkey balls). There was lots of activity around the entrance to any movie theater.

The Sri Udon Theater - Udonthani, Thailand

We knew this theater as the “Sri Udon”. It was located near the first traffic circle from the Air base (Udorn R.T.A.F.B.) After walking under the movie sign, the theater was just beyond the buildings where the samlars are lined up.We saw a lot of movies there and as we recall, it and other movie theaters in Udon Thani were air conditioned in the 1973-1974 time frame.I was fascinated by the work that went into street level advertising. Some of the skeletons in this Jason and the Argonauts 3-D display were animated. The two boys in this photo stood and watched the display for a long time. I hoped they would get to see the movie.

The Thep Nakorn Rama Theater - Nakon Phanom, Thailand

View of the Thep Nakorn Rama movie theater from the air conditioned NKP hotel.
In NKP, the Thep Nakorn Rama. Now playing: The Doberman Gang!

Photo adjusted so you can make out the three Doberman larger-than-life models looking out at passersby.

The Thep Nakon Rama, 2009. Photos by the Projectionist.
______________________________________________________________Large and colorful movie billboards In Udon Thani were hand-painted by locals. (“SB” – the Shaw Brothers movies were very popular.)

Using low tech but effective methods, the artists would sometimes use a picture from a magazine or small poster, draw a pattern of small squares over it, and then reproduce those images on a large canvass overlaid with a pattern of bigger squares.

Just for fun, I actually paid one of these artists a few baht to paint an image of me from a photo. The final product was about a 3 foot head-to-foot likeness that I mounted on fiber board and cut it out so it would stand up. I would have to dig around a bit to find a photo of it. I don’t believe it made the trip back to the States.

More large advertising: The picture on the right is advertising a movie called Even Angels Eat Beans, directed by Enzo Barboni (E.B. Clucher). His other better known movies at the time were semi-comedic cowboy movies called, Trinity Is My Name, and the sequel, Trinity Is Still My Name.

I don’t remember the name of this movie theater, but it looks similar to the Amporn from the photos you took.Can’t remember where I took this picture, the Chalern (…?... something) movie theater possibly in NKP. Udon Thani streets were paved and more congested.
Many thanks to you Craig for sharing your photos. Great stuff!

If there's any SEAMTP viewers who have some vintage movie theater photos from this part of the world and would like to show them off, please contact me at sea.theater@hotmail.com
and they'll be posted for the world to see.