Monday, April 19, 2010

A retrospective of the Chalerm Sin - Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Over the past few weeks I've had the good fortune of corresponding with two American veterans, Gene Ponce and Randy Roberts, who where stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam/American War. Gene Ponce was an Engines and Propeller Systems technician, working on EC 121R Constellation Recon aircraft at the Korat air-base from 1970-71. From 1971-72 he was stationed at Ubon, where he worked on AC 130/E Spectre Gunships.

Randy Roberts was stationed at Ubon from 1969-1970, serving as an F4 Radar technician and Airman 1st Class.

Gene and Randy have each amassed collections of photos taken in Thailand by American soldiers based here during the war years. Among the images are a hand full of old theater depictions. The two veterans have very kindly given me permission to use them on the SEA Theater Project, where I'll be posting them over the course of the next few weeks.

The most well-documented of the theaters is the Chalerm Sin in downtown Ubon. Below are a series of shots depicting the old classic in it's various appearances though the years.

I have no date for when the Chalerm Sin was built, but I'm guessing it was no later than the 1950's. Noting location at the first major intersection into the city, with a public works fountain forming a traffic circle in front of it, there's a chance that it's from the era of Phibun Songkram, Thailand's fascist-leaning military dictator from 1938-1944 and again from 1948-1957. Prime Minister Phibun was a fan of public works projects and a few of the theaters I've come across during this research were commissioned by his government. Phibul project or not, the Chalerm Sin in it's original guise was a nice looking theater, with an angular, concave facade looking out from its street corner domain.

The above photo was taken by Warren Lieberman, a US Army engineer based in Warin Chamrap from 1965-66 (photo courtesy of Gene Ponce)

Color invigorates the above photo, as security policeman Edward F. Roberts poses in front of the Chalerm Sin Theater sometime in 1965-66. This and the photo above are the only two I've seen depicting the theater's original facade. Notice the free-standing sign letters were of a smaller make than they were later on. (Photo courtesy of Edward F. Roberts).

By the time the above photo was taken, some architectural adjustments had been made to the theater’s fa├žade. Most strikingly, a beige and white, metal paneled exterior wall was added to shield the building from direct sun-light – a heat-reducing feature common on Thai buildings constructed in the 1960’s and 70’s. In some cases these fixtures visually enhance the structures they adorn, with horizontal and vertical lines criss-crossing in various patterns. In other instances they ruin a good looking building. As for the Chalerm Sin, I think it was a downgrade from the original look, but not too shabby, either. This photo was probably taken around 1967-68 judging by the movie playing – “The Way West” starring Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum. Though foreign made movies in Thailand didn't necessarily screen the same year they were made, so it could have been later. (Photo courtesy of Gene Ponce).

Here’s the Chalerm Sin in its next new look, in a photo taken by Jim Foanio, circa 1971. A new set of bigger, bolder free-standing letters have replaced the smaller ones. “70 mm Projection System,” is announced in the sign below the name. Since the advent of multiplex theaters in the 1980’s, 70mm movie projection has largely become a thing of the past, much like the larger stand-alone theaters that screened them. (Photo courtesy of Gene Ponce).

The following three photos were taken by Gene Ponce himself circa 1971-72.

I love this picture!

Happy New Year 1972

Randy remembers the Chalerm Sin Theater as follows:

"General seating was on the main floor. The balcony was a little pricier and mostly used by GIs, as I recall, with female companions. But the premier seating was in the enclosed air-conditioned room on the balcony. This had the original sound and dialogue. It may have had ear phones for the GIs and Thai piped in [over speakers], I can't recall. Regardless, this was the only place to hear the original English sound track. Otherwise, the mostly-Chinese films shown were subbed and dubbed. English language films were dubbed for the rest of the theater. Two voices, one male and one female, did it all. You appreciate what a terse language English is when the dialogue continues as John Wayne rides off on his horse, or the horse is pictured as one voice or another continues, or the faraway hills echo with several lines of dialogue between scenes. Not to mention the timing between two or more characters. That could be a blast in itself. Especially if you'd already seen the flick. Anyway, it was an interesting time. Always fun at the movies! Lots of Chinese/Oriental swash- buckling stuff. Dialogue was unnecessary for those movies. Thai subtitles, Chinese dialogue, or Thai dubbing. It was crazy for us GIs used to MGM!!!
Here's the Chalerm Sin Theater as it looks now. The building is home to a Bata shoe store and features none of its former architectural pomp. What a dull way to go out! (Both photos courtesy of Gene Ponce).


  1. thanks for sharing these photos! Enjoyed reading about the theater and the movie-going experience. Thanks again!.

  2. Wow, these are great—thanks for posting them!

  3. At least, the Bata business is still alive. :D