Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Pratai Theater - Pratai, Korat, Thailand

Driving towards Pratai, the northeast corner of Korat province, brown fields of fallow paddy seem to stretch endlessly. In Isan's rural heartland, the horizon is breached only by the occasional herd of cattle and a solitary tree every few dozen meters. Some farmers have piled giant hay stacks upon their parched fields, almost as tall as the trees themselves, sparse though they be. This is a typical sight from any secondary road in Isan this time of year. Bone dry. It calls to mind the Kalahari desert more than tropical latitudes and you think to yourself that the gods really must be off their rockers.

It's not even eleven in the morning but the sun has already baked everything to a sizzle. In an instant a town appears along the road. As you roll down the concrete channel of "Main Street," the heat intensifies. It's like an oven. In spite of the heat, the townsfolk are busy tending to their various businesses - mostly goods and services related to agriculture. Pratai is a small town, but bustling all the same. When the work is done, though, what do the people here do, I comtemplate? How does one beat the heat in the town of Pratai? It would be nice to duck into a movie theater for a few hours, no doubt. Cool down under the flicker of film. Wouldn't that be a treat? But it's no longer an option. Not since the Pratai Theater shut its doors one year ago.

Plain to look at, but once a joy to be in.

Pratai Theater

Monday-Friday showing at 1:00PM and 8:00PM
Saturday and Sunday, an extra showing at 10:30 AM

Once was welcoming

Peeratach Kanarat tells his theater's story from inside the old projection room.

As a recent casualty among the stand-alone circuit, the Pratai Theater still has an aura of life when viewed from the exterior. Regrettably, that's only aesthetic. It's quite dead, cinematically. While I was milling around the theater grounds, Mr. Peeratach Kanarat came down from his office in what I would soon learn was once the theater's soundtrack room. After a brief exchange he offered a guided tour of the building, which has since been gutted of all its movie-watching accouterments.

Staying in the media entertainment industry, Peeratach now operates a local radio station from the Pratai Theater, though if he had his way he'd still be running the family gem in its original form.

"My uncle built this theater in 1982 when I was a just little kid," said the Pratai's former manager. "I practically grew up in here, working all the jobs that I possibly could until I learned the trade inside and out. When I became old enough, my uncle handed the day-to-day operations over to me."

He went on to explain that 'business was still going strong until DVD's starting growing in popularity. Then, by the time a new movie made it to Pratai, bootleggers in Taiwan and Hong Kong had already flooded the market with cheap DVD copies that my customer base could pick up on trips to the local market. We struggled on through dismal times til we just couldn't make it any more."

But the final blow to business came after new legislation regarding entertainment venue safety standards was enacted. On new years eve 2008, a fire broke out in a Bangkok night-club killing dozens of patrons. Soon after, explained Peeratach, the government passed laws requiring all entertainment venues to install state of the art sprinkler and alarm systems - a welcome addition for customer safety but also a huge expenditure for venue operators. "There was no way we could afford to make that kind of investment," he said. "It was no problem for the big guys like Major or SF, but it really hurt the little guys like us. When we heard about it, we decided to call it quits. It wasn't a business we could survive in any longer."

In its post-movie days, aside from hosting a radio station, the Pratai Theater now also hosts this man, who appeared to be living in the former ticket booth. It wasn't clear whether he has a connection to Peeratach or if he's taken up residence on his own. I didn't ask. It's likely that he has been abandoned by a local family and that Peeratach allowed him to take shelter under the theater's veranda.

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