Monday, August 31, 2009

The Lido Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The elevated Sky Train tracks pass in front of the Lido Theater on Rama I Road.

Just a hop, skip and jump away from the Siam Theater stands its slightly younger sister, the Lido Theater. This was Apex's second Siam Square operation.

For a little historical perspective, when the Lido opened on June 27th, 1968, Thailand was well into its transformation from a primarily agriculture-based economy to an industrial one. This transformation was spearheaded largely by American economic patronage in a Cold War setting. In Bangkok, sections of the city were being reequipped to handle a car-oriented infrastructure, as factories began springing up on the urban fringe.

Under the overhang

The 1950's, 60's and 70's were the years of the movie palaces in Thailand. And like the palaces of the nobility, these luxurious theaters represented much more than the neighborhoods they stood in. They represented Bangkok, the industrial city, center of commerce in a modernizing country. They were adored and utilized by millions of Bangkokians, not to mention the many international visitors the city hosted. Sadly, however, for the most part, their time in the sun was short lived. The same forces that brought them into existence ultimately made them obsolete, as Bangkok and the other Thai cities home to stand-alone movie palaces developed in ways that were incompatible with maintaining them.

Ask anybody over age 40 in Bangkok about the old palatial stand-alones like the Paramount, the Grand, the Coliseum, or the Chalerm Thai and you're bound to get a story, if not an all-out tangent. One time I was buying a bunch of bananas from a street vendor across from the MBK shopping mall. Just out of curiosity, I asked the vendor if he knew anything about the old stand-alones that used to be in the neighborhood. The guy literally started to jump around, ecstatically recounting the names of his favorite, now-destroyed theaters from the past. Then, before his outburst was through, he pointed a long, bony finger in the direction of the massive MBK shopping mall, with its SF Cinema City multiplex occupying the top floor. "I don't like those," he lamented. "They're expensive and I just don't like them."

Climb the stairs to the ticket window and three auditoriums.

As for the Lido, although it's now a three-screen cineplex, when it opened it boasted of a single screen complete with Cinerama projection and nearly one thousand seats. Some 20 years ago, however, it was severely damaged by fire. When it was rebuilt they chopped the auditorium up into three, bringing it to its current state.

Concession stand in the distance.

Theater 2

The good people over at Apex ensure that the Lido, as well as its two single-screen brothers in the area, screen a much wider array of films than is typically shown in the shopping malls. My last time there I watched The Great Buck Howard, directed by Tom Hanks and starring John Malkovich, which I'm reasonable sure was the only screen that played it in the entire country.

Anyway folks, the Lido Theater: since 1968 providing first-class entertainment for all.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Siam Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The following three posts are dedicated to the remaining movie theaters of the Apex theater chain. Despite having drastically downsized its once vast, Bangkok-based movie theater holdings, Apex continues to operate what are quite likely the regions three most elegant movie theaters.

A welcoming marquee

One of the last first-class stand-alones in Thailand, the Siam Theater is a bulwark of cinematic stability in an area of Bangkok that has seen almost as many physical changes as Thailand has had political coups over the years.

Although the elevated tracks of Bangkok's beloved Sky Train - now a 10 year-old addition to the city - have blocked a full view of Siam's facade, its sign and marquee still stand dignified over the stairs leading to the train platform. For passengers getting off at Siam Station, the orange and white sign of the Siam Theater is a beacon of welcome to the commercial center of the city, and a reminder that you are about to enter the most densely crowded area of town.

Stainless steel poster cases stand in the lower lobby, advertising films playing down the street at the Lido Theater, another Apex operation.

The lower level of the Siam Theater is filled with small retail shops, mostly catering to teenagers.

View of the lower lobby from the upper.

The Siam was the original flagship theater of the Pyramid Company, predecessor to Apex, which at the time was directed by Phisit Thansacha. It opened on December 15th, 1966, with the Thai premiere of Battle of the Bulge, starring Henry Fonda. Originally, the theater was slated to be named the Chula Theater, after the 5th king of the reigning Chakri Drynasty. But on the advice of Kukrit Pramoj, one of Thailand's leading statesmen of the time, the royal-evoking name was canned. "Siam" it was dubbed.

Among the Siam's sleek, modern amenities is an escalator; the first in Thailand to be installed in a movie theater.

En route to the 800 seat auditorium with its massive screen. The Siam is a treat to watch movies in.

Ticket booth

As for the Pyramid Company, aside from owning the vast majority of Bangkok's first-class movie theaters, it was also a film production and distribution company - its numerous and architecturally unique theaters serving as outlets for its films. From what I can gather, Pyramid tried to carve out a niche for itself in the Thai film industry of the 1960's and 70's by producing story-driven films, heavy on moral messages. But I'll leave Thai film history to the Thai film specialists.

The Siam Theater is the oldest of Apex's remaining theaters, all of which are in the Siam Square neighborhood of Bangkok. This low-rise pocket of downtown is boxed in by a number of huge shopping malls and hotels. The surrounding malls, like Siam Paragon, MBK and Siam Discovery all contain multiplex theaters in their upper levels. But if you're in the area and in the market for a movie, choose the Siam or either of the other two Apex theaters over those in the malls. Not only will you be doing yourself a favor, but you'll be supporting a company that takes true pride in its venues, in the quality of its services and which is conscious of the fact that it's the keeper of an important slice of Bangkok history.

Before I sign off for today, I should mention that almost all the above background information on the Siam Theater came courtesy of Phuangthong Siriwan (pictured above), the managing director of the Apex company. She was kind enough to spare me an hour of her time for a face to face interview back in May. She's been with Apex for many years and is extremely knowledgeable about the company. Many thanks for that.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Pata Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Marquee for the Pata Theater, now devoid of lettering, hangs above the parking lot entrance beside the Pata Department Store. The theater was on the other side of the parking lot.

The Pata Theater has the distinction of being the prototype for the shopping mall multiplex in Thailand. Sadly, I have no evidence to support this statement other than my own conjecture. Given that it is part of the Pata Department Store in the Pin Klao neighborhood of Bangkok, a relatively older shopping complex of this sort in the city, it stands to reason that this was one of the earlier amalgamations between mall and movie theater in the country.

As Thailand sought to enrich itself by selling off its natural resources, developing light and heavy industries and opening itself to tourism, many older working and living arrangements began to change. In the modern society that proceeded, time became of the essence for many. By the 1980's, the time-saving combination of shopping and movie-going had proved successful. It marked the beginning of the end for the stand-alone theaters across the country and the rise of the multiplex conglomerates, which have dominated the movie theater industry in Thailand ever since.

The Pata Theater is located behind the Pata Department Store. It stands separate from the department store, which technically makes it a stand-alone.

As you may have guessed from the photo, the theater is closed and it's in the process of being converted into a badminton hall.

50 baht per ticket for a double feature. Cheap!

According to the editor of Bioscope magazine, the first actual multiple screen theater in Thailand was built in Ubol Rachathani and called the Nevada Cineplex. Moreover, the now defunct New World Department Store at the intersection of Prasumeru and Sam Sen Roads in the Banglamphu section of Bangkok apparently had a movie theater in it. So although the Pata Theater might not have been a first of any kind, it still represents an early form of what would later come to comprise the vast majority of movie theater forms in Thailand -- the characterless, yet convenient shopping mall multiplex.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Hong Rama Theater - Sukhothai, Thailand

Not a lot of information on the Hong Rama, here. It closed down in 2008 and was Sukhothai city's largest ever movie theater, I know that. Visually, it was quite a dramatic structure standing at this intersection in the center of town. Beyond that, I wasn't able to get much data.


Vendor stalls in front of the old theater

The old ticket booth, where tickets cost an affordable 30 baht. The Hong Rama is now used to store products for a wedding planning company.

Lobby, with stairs leading to the balcony

I didn't spend too much time in Sukhothai, but just enough to get the feeling that this city has seen better days. A hint of slow decay was in the air, and not just because the city's last movie theater has gone derelict. The locals were marked by a sort of collective torpor, the kind that begins to set in when things take a turn for the worse. Imagine being surrounded by zombies, only instead of trying to eat your brains, they want send you to the historic ruins of ancient Sukhothai, the former Siamese capital. That what Sukhothai was like. It was really annoying. I had no patience to try to dig up some history on the Hong Rama that day. But to be sure, it was once a nice, big movie theater.

Street scape context

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Hawaii Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The Hawaii Theater stands amid the constant bustle of Charoen Rat Road, in the Wong Wian Yai section of Bangkok.

Showing today: Chinese, Japanese and Western Films

It might not look like much today, but the Hawaii Theater was once a state-of-the-art cinema, one of the few in Thailand to feature an escalator in the lobby. Time and a lack of tender loving care, however, have taken their toll. Most of the neighborhood residents I spoke to didn't even realize that the Hawaii is still open, stealthily showing pornography to cover its costs. In fact, when I visited the Hawaii at 9:00 o'clock on a Saturday morning, there was already a group of customers lounging around in the lobby awaiting their fix of smut. An off-duty cab driver, sipping from a bottle of white whiskey while sitting on a milk crate in the lobby, explained that "society thinks of us as criminals. It's against the law to do what we do. But you know what, buddy? We come here, we do what we do, and when it's all done, everything is better."

A bit of insight into the mind of the sexually deviant.

A noodle vendor along with some other businesses have set up shop in the lower lobby. The open space in the middle of the photo used to contain an escalator, leading to the upper lobby and entrance to the auditorium.

Behind the Hawaii Theater's raunchy present their is a rich history. Mr. Noppadol Rattanaboonsin (above), the current manager of the Hawaii and employee since it opened in 1973, claims that at 1,860, the Hawaii has the largest seating capacity of any theater in Thailand ever. Throughout the 1970's and most of the 80's, he said, the Hawaii employed up to 40 full-time staff.

The original owner/operator of the Hawaii Theater also owned the New York Theater in Saphan Kwai and the Asia Rama Theater in Pra Kanong. Whether or not he still owns them is unclear.

The ticket window, where it costs 50 baht for a ticket to watch pornography. All the facilities of the Hawaii Theater are on the 2nd floor

Looking down over noodle eaters, from the second level.

Second level, front. An escalator used to ascend between the white signs. The Hawaii was once quite nice.

This staircase is accessible from the rear of the lower level. Since the escalator was removed, this is the only way to get to the second level.

Mr. Rattaboonsin was kind enough to give a little background as to the Hawaii's current state of being. Showing pornography, he feels, is the only way to keep the place alive. It grosses approximately 1000 baht per day with its current x-rated line-up. The costs of rehabbing it are extremely high and there's not much else to do with it. So it's either XXX or abandonment, the latter of which still runs you the cost of paying property tax.

Personally, I think with a little marketing effort, some film distribution networking and a nice cleaningjob it would be a perfectly acceptable second-run theater, which would probably make even more money than it does selling porn. But I'm a bit of an idealist. The reality is that with the recent opening of the Skytrain extension to Wong Wian Yai, the property owner is probably just sitting on it until he gets a good price for the land. Next comes the wrecking crew and a condominium rises from the ruble. What a backwards world we live in!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Prince Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The mouth of the narrow lane, or trok, that shields the Prince Theater from busy Charoen Krung Road, in the shadow of the Taksin Bridge.

Finding the Prince Theater was like finding buried treasure at the beach. Sure, every old timer within a two kilometer radius of the Taksin Bridge knows about the place. But for myself, the Prince Theater represented nothing less than a gold mine of history - still alive, at that!

An unassuming sign hangs above an old shop-house.

The sign above the entrance to the trok reads: showing two movies in a row. Notice the Chinese writing beside the Thai. Ethnic-Chinese have long comprised a major portion of this neighborhood's population.

The sign above the ticket window advertises both Chinese and Western movies

The Prince Theater dates back to the days when rivers and canals were how most people moved around in Bangkok, and when trok neighborhoods were where most people lived. There are still a number of old trok neighborhoods like this one in the city, especially in the central river wards around Rattanakosin, where a decent amount of historic preservation has been enacted over the past 30 years. This is exactly where you'll find the Prince Theater: one street over from the Chaophraya River on Charoen Krung Road, about 15 meters inside a little trok, in the Bang Rak area of town. (I've written about trok neighborhoods before, so I'll refrain from repetition. If you want to know more about them, check out the post about the Sala Chalerm Thani Theater).

Some neighbors congregate in the narrow space in front of the Prince Theater

This man has lived in the Prince Theater trok his entire life.

Unseen Bangkok

Cooking in a narrow lane between the Prince Theater and a row of one-story wooden houses.

Believe it or not, but after all these years the Prince still functions. It was originally known as the Ban Rak Cinema, a name many locals prefer calling it. Short of a confirmation, this very well may be the original Ban Rak Cinema that was built in 1908 on the grounds of royal family member's estate. A prince! If this is so, it would make it one of the oldest operating movie theaters in Asia, if not anywhere in the world.

However, before you get your hopes up, be forewarned that in its present state the showing of films is only done to provide a faint light source for the men enjoying themselves on the inside.