Monday, August 24, 2015

The Burapha Theater - Ban Chang District, Rayong Province, Thailand

Picture, if you will, Thailand in the mid-1970's. In fact, lets make it an even 1974, for relevance sake. The country is firmly on the path to industrialization, particularly in the realm of industrial agriculture. Think canned fruits and fish and massive amounts of rice to be exported across the globe.

1974 also marks the second to last year that the United States waged wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. For the duration of the war, the US and Thailand had entered into a "strategic partnership" characterized by large transfers of military assistance and development dollars from the US in exchange for the use of Thai military facilities. This was the quintessential case of the Arsenal of Democracy arming a right wing regime on the front lines of Communist  

Six Thai Air Force bases served as staging grounds for American planes to fly aerial assaults over Indochina. One of those bases, U-Tapao Air base, was located on the western edge of Rayong Province, along Thailand's then rapidly industrializing eastern seaboard (it is now fully industrialized).

With soldiers and technicians and all the accompanying service jobs that sprang up alongside the air base, the climate was ripe for a state-of-the-art movie theater to serve this military ecosystem. And so, in the nearby town of Bang Chang, the Burapha Theater was born.

The Burapha Theater - a stand-out among Thai stand-alones.

Side view of the Burapha Theater's sizable headhouse, which includes ticket booths, concession stands within multi leveled lobby.

Support columns in the lobby of the Burapha Theater are made of concrete, but sculpted to resemble trees.

The Burapha Theater was brought into existence by Mr. Somphong Chotiwan, who, by 1974, was already a well established figure in the movie exhibition industry of Bangkok and Eastern Thailand. Being based out of the much older Nang Loeng Theater in Bangkok, his birth place, and nerve center of Thailand's film industry, also made him well situated to be a movie distributor. His company, Meung Chol Films, had grown into the biggest distributor of films in eastern Thailand.

Then as today, movie distributors divided Thailand up into regional zones in which only select companies could operate. Each distribution company would purchase the rights to a film from the various production houses, usually headquartered in Bangkok, and then circulate it to theaters within their respective networks.

Some distributors built their own theaters, or purchased preexisting theaters within their network, thus eliminating the need to share profits with independent theater owners. This practice was fairly common, and for successful film exhibitors, it became a fast track to empire. 

Three levels of lobby at the Burapha Theater

Old poster display on the third level of the theater

View of the "Soundtrack Room" where American Air Force pilots once comprised the chief clientele. A glass wall separated this room from the rest of the auditorium.

By the early 1970's, the town of Ban Chang had been feeling the economic benefits of its proximity to the U-Tapao Air Base for years. Awash in money thanks to a base full of foreign soldiers, cutting-edge leisure facilities were a necessity. The town already boasted of two active theaters, one of which - The Ban Chang Rama - was owned and operated by Sompong Chotiwan. But the resident English speaking population over at the air base were at a linguistic deficit when it came to watching movies, even when the movies themselves were American made. 

Until the mid-1980's, most Thai theaters employed live voice actors to give foreign movies a Thai voicetrack. To do this, original in-film soundtracks were muted while dubbers read from a Thai script that was written to fit the plot. Often times story lines were modified to suit Thai tastes, or the dialogue improvised on the spot. For the Thai movie going public, a good dubber was an essential part for the movie going experience. For non-Thai speakers, however, it made the films inaccessible.

Necessity being what it is to invention, Thai theater entrepreneurs accommodated their English-speaking clientele by building "soundtrack rooms." Such rooms were small, air-conditioned seating sections behind a large glass windows, into which a speaker system separate from the main auditorium brought the original language soundtrack. Spectators therein could watch the film along with the rest of the audience while enjoying the original soundtrack. Down below, the Thai dubbers were working their magic. Everybody, as a result, was happy

Looking towards the screen from the Soundtrack Room

With the Burapha Theater, Sompong Chotiwan had not only built the largest, most luxurious movie house Ban Chang had ever known, he also ensured that the American soldiers stationed at U-Tapao Air Base were able to partake in the cinema experience without losing the plot.  

One of the theater's former employees recalled American airmen renting little bungalows that were then in the vicinity of the theater when on leave. "They'd stay in those bungalows for a few days at a time," he explained, "usually with their 'lady friends.' At night they'd come watch movies at the theater before going out on the town."

Auditorium in full view.

The soundtrack room can be seen at the top rear of the Burapha's auditorium.

Like phantoms of movie-going passed, seats still remain in the Burapha Theater

Burapha Theater dimensional signage

By the middle of 1975, the US had officially ended its wars in Southeast Asia. Soldiers, technicians and all other military personnel stationed at Thai bases were shipped back to the States, along with all their cohorts in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Just like that, the soundtrack room of the Burapha Theater lost its biggest client base.

But despite the loss of Americans, the Burapha Theater continued to do brisk business throughout the 1970's, 80's and into the early 90's. By that time, broader changes in Thai society were starting to make stand-alone movie theaters like the Burapha unprofitable. 

One by one, these graceful giants of modern architecture went out of business, as the movie-going masses in Thailand capitulated to the convenient, but spiritually barren multiplex theaters located in the new shopping malls. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Burapha Theater screened its final film in 1995.

If you want to see the Burapha Theater for yourself, it can be found within the central market area in the heart of Ban Chang City, Rayong Province, Thailand.


Want to own a unique keepsake from Thai movie theater history AND support the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project at the same time? For a very small donation of $6 you'll be mailed an authentic movie theater ticket from the Scala Theater in Surathani, Thailand. These tickets were hand stamped from 1988 and feature the theater's classic retro logo. Had I not salvaged them, they would have eventually been destroyed

Proceeds from each ticket will go directly to continued movie theater documentation in Southeast Asia, ensuring that a record of this unique cultural history will survive in the public domain for all to enjoy.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Own an authentic piece of Thai movie theater history

Ladies and gentleman, last month I salvaged several books worth of original movie tickets from the Scala Theater in the town of Punpin, Surathani Province, in southern Thailand.

The tickets, which are all hand-stamp dated January 14th, 1988, were discovered in a dust covered cardboard box in what was once the projection booth of the now abandoned movie theater. Miraculously, they are in mint condition, as if they had been carefully stored in a climate controlled vault for the past 27 years. Had I not grabbed them, they would almost certainly have been thrown in the garbage at some point down the line.

For a small donation of $6 dollars, you can have one of these great little keepsakes mailed directly to your home. Each ticket will be mailed in a durable plastic slip, which will also allow you to display the ticket handsomely should you choose to do so.

Thai movie theaters do not print tickets like this anymore. Nowadays, all movie tickets in Thailand have a generic, computer generated look. The tickets being offered here, however, feature the beautiful logo of the Scala Theater, along with the 10 baht ticket price, address of the theater, serial number and - as mentioned above - the hand-stamped date of January 14th, 1988

Your $6 dollar donation will not only buy you a great memento, it will directly support the continued documentation of stand-alone movie theaters in Southeast Asia. In fact, $6 dollars can very easily afford a bus ticket to a town where there may be a forgotten stand-alone movie theater that has never been properly documented.

To make the purchase, just click the "Pay Now" button below.

ATTENTION:  These are not active tickets. They will not get you into see a movie. The theater that they are from is abandoned. They are authentic tickets from the 1980's

Also, this is not the same Scala Theater in Bangkok. There is no affiliation beyond the name. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Dara Theater - Trad, Thailand

There's something about the Dara Theater. It's hard to say exactly what it is, but something about it, as it stands today - all weathered and soot stained and forgotten - that places it not only from another time period, but from another world altogether. The Thailand of today, so absorbed in consumerism, distracted by smart phones and gadgetry and completely beholden to the car or motorbike for movement, seems as if it would have never had time to waste on such a building.

Street view of the Dara Theater

Tropical mid-century modernism at its finest. The Dara Theater hovers delicately beside the road. Its mounted marquee, appearing perky and weightless, sits atop an equally weightless looking portico. 

The Dara as viewed from an adjacent roof top.

Even in a relatively small town like Trad, the Dara Theater seems like a structure that only an alien race would have erected. A temple to the gods of cinema, perhaps. Genuflections before the alter of the silver screen. 

And that hypothetical extra terrestrial race whom brought it forth  was led by the same man who brought forth a number of other theaters in Bangkok and Eastern Thailand. Mr. Somphong Chotiwan; who, it should be noted, will be playing a role in the resurrection of Thailand's oldest existing movie theater - The Nang Loeng, in Bangkok.

The front staircase fans out and down; a welcoming entrance to a world of cinema no-more.

A bit of bowed pizzazz in the form of  concrete visor above the ticket window.

Funky ticket window.

The funny thing about the the Dara is that it isn't more than 40 years old. And it only closed about 16 years ago, to boot. 

Oh how quickly things in Thailand have changed.