Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Nonthaburi Rama - Nonthaburi, Thailand

For the past 6 months, the cinema halls of Myanmar have hogged the spotlight here on the SEA Movie Theater Project. Rightfully so, considering just how great they are! But Thai movie theaters - lest we forget - are also great, even if most of the stand-alone beauties have been consigned to history. This past weekend I rekindled my love for this work in Thailand, venturing out into the field for the first time in nearly a year.

This latest expedition took me from the heart of Bangkok, up the Chao Phraya River, to the express boat's northern terminus at the Nonthaburi port. Although Nonthaburi, for all practical purposes, has been completely absorbed by greater Bangkok, it still maintains a few cultural distinctions of its own. Chief among them is a centuries old Mon community of whom many members continue to speak the mother tongue. Seeing this ethno-linguistic tradition surviving through the generations, against all odds and the pressures of assimilation was a pleasant surprise, indeed. Survival, regrettably, was not in the cards for Nonthaburi's original high-standard movie theater - the Nonthaburi Rama.

The Nonthaburi Rama: Nonthaburi's cinematic relic.

No exact year of construction can be pinned to this one, but it roughly dates from the early to mid 1970's. This design was not unique to the Nonthaburi Rama, however. Check a few of these older posts to see similar designs, possibly erected by the same builder and/or architect. Otherwise perhaps it was just the trend of the day among theater builders.

In its current condition, the Nonthaburi Rama may look a bit uninviting, but there are good reasons for that. First and foremost, nobody wants to make cosmetic investments to a parking lot - the building's current function. But more to the point, a few key architectural details are missing. For instance, the free-standing letters once mounted above the facade, prominently displaying the theater's good name across the neighborhood, have been removed. As has other lettering which appears to have been bolted to the cornice. Most importantly, back in the theater's heyday, the massive metal grill comprising the bulk of the facade would have displayed enormous hand painted movie hoardings, adding an explosion of color to this busy streetscape. But left unadorned, the place takes on the appearance of a hulking ruin.

Ruins, however, are important, too.

A few local merchants gave me the low down on ye old departed. All seemed to agree that it was the first theater in the area equipped with the modern technologies of surround sound, climate control and reclining seats. Capacity crowds would drift in from the streets all day and night, they recalled. Some came to be air-conditioned, others to be entertained, or simply rest under the glow of the screen. A place for one and all.

By the end of it's days, it had developed into a "cruising theater;" that is, an all male hook-up spot.

A more in-depth history of the theater was hard to get. None of yesteryear's big-three movie theater circuits (Co Brothers, Apex or Hollywood) seem to have owned it, though it could have belonged to one of Bangkok's smaller movie theater magnates.

If you look closely in the above photo you will see a bit of River Plaza Center along the right edge of the photo. That's where Major Cineplex, Thailand's leader in overpriced film exhibition, has its Nonthaburi branch.

Drive-in movie theater, of sorts.

The remains of the Nonthaburi Rama can be found on Phibulsongram Road in the heart of the town its named after.

(Many thanks to DJP for an extra dose of photographic inspiration among other critical bits)

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