Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Charoenpon Rama - Pathumthani, Thailand

Timing is everything. In the context of architectural photography it can mean the difference between a functional structure flush with activity and the lifeless grubwork behind ruins porn. Don't get me wrong, whether its called "ruins porn" or abandoned photography, in this post-industrial/post-modern era the detailed documentation of abandoned structures has become an accepted genre and, more critically, an effective tool for preservation.

But that's not the point. The point is that timing is everything. When presented with knowledge of an active stand-alone movie theater in the twilight of its existence one should not procrastinate. Chances are that that golden opportunity will slip away. It certainly did in this case.

Word of the Charoenpon Rama first reached me about 6 years ago. Back then it was an active double feature theater in the workaday Bangkok suburb of Pathumthani. There were roughly 10 such theaters in and around Bangkok when this project commenced. A fact which I suppose I took for granted. By the end of 2013 none of them were left, including the Charoenpon Rama, which, although on my radar since 2009, I had neglected to document while operational. The multi-legged bus journey necessary to reach it from central Bangkok always put me off.

In mid-2012 I was informed the theater had closed.  

The Charoenpon Rama - the last operating stand-alone on Pathumthani Province, now closed.

So, in October 2015, with prior knowledge of its defunct state of existence, I braved the confounding bus routes to see what there was to see. 

The Charoenpon Rama is, or was, the anchor business of Pathumthani's main wet market and bus depot. A soot stained, grime coated kind of place rife with mangy strays and foul smells. At least half of the market stalls were unused, an occupancy rate about on par with the shop-houses encircling the market. Might the theater's closing have had a ripple effect of the overall economy of the quarter?

Inquiries among vendors as to the owner of the theater led me to a nearby internet cafe. I opened the door and was greeted with the co-mingled aroma of BO and flat soda. The shop's young proprietor - owner of the BO - was kind enough to peel himself off his ragged pleather recliner and his on-line strategy game to call his landlord on my behalf. Same owner as the Charoenpon Rama, the landlord. The theater owner picked up, but the conversation went nowhere. He was perfectly disinclined to leave the comforts of his home - apparently just around the corner - so that some sweaty photographer could take pictures inside his forlorn family business. 

"Just shoot it from the outside," he advised smugly over the phone. 

That is unfortunately all that I was able to accomplish on that hot and sticky day. A few half-decent exterior shots of the Charoenpon Rama. While the structure itself is rather standard for a 1970's Thai stand-alone, the dimensional rooftop signage is extraordinary. That font maybe the most dynamic I've ever seen anywhere. It's almost cartoonish in its overwrought extremism. Whoever designed it had a vivid imagination. 

Exquisite signage on the Charoenpon Rama. The light sconces at the top of the International Style pilasters are also a nice touch.  

Amazing signage aside, the highlight of this entire failed excursion was, of all things, the bus ride up and back. That same bus ride that had turned me off to the trip in the first place. On the bus to Pathumthani, the fare collector struck up a conversation as to the freakishly non-touristic route that this Thai speaking foreigner had embarked upon. When he learned that my journey was in the name of movie theater documentation he scratched his head, but then became quite enthusiastic. As it turned out, he had grown up in the Nang Loeng quarter of Bangkok where he regularly attended films at the neighborhood's eponymous theater. Stricken with nostalgia, the overjoyed fare collector ranted on and on about the Nang Loeng Theater, recounting stories of his teenage years, sneaking in, smoking cigs, hanging with his homies in the ancient wooden movie hall.

When the bus reached the last stop, he bade me farewell before pointing me in the direction of the Charoenpon Rama, where the above anti-story unfolded.

Timing being what it is, however, on the return trip, about two hours later, I boarded the same bus with the same fare collector. This time excited by the idea that I had fulfilled my documentary duty, he refused to charge me for the ride. "No, no, no," he insisted. "I like what you're doing. This ride is on me."

Ten minutes into the return journey, bantering  back and forth with the jovial fare collector as he collected fares, the bus company supervisor boarded to inspect tickets. I shot my fare collector friend a nervous glance, worried that my lack of a ticket would get him in trouble. He winked, indicating not to fret. Keep cool, my man! Stay calm! 

The supervisor made his way from passenger to passenger inspecting their tickets, getting closer with each step. When he was just one passenger away from reaching free-ride me, the nostalgic and ever-so-sly fare collector slid between us, stealthily placing a fresh ticket in the palm of my hand. 

Funny how chance and timing work.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Vintage Thai movie theater tickets up for grabs

I'm selling off a big pile of my treasured vintage movie tickets to raise funds for a Burma theater survey. This special sale consists of a set of six original theater tickets that I've salvaged from abandoned Thai movie theaters over the past several years. 

Each set is $20, every cent of which - minus the shipping costs of the tickets - will go towards a research and photography trip across Burma next month. While I am without institutional sponsorship, sales like these are the only practical way to finance such an expedition. Sorry that I'm spending more time fund raising than actually creating content, but that will all change soon. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

PSA for the Scala Theater

The director of  The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project visits the ruins of The Boyd Theater - downtown Philadelphia's last movie palace, which was recently demolished following a contentious battle between preservationists and property developers.

Against this moribund backdrop, the director cautions against a similar fate befalling Thailand's last remaining movie palace - the elegant Scala Theater in Bangkok - which has been slated for demolition for the past several years. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Coming soon: Burma Theater Survey - Phase III

I hate to sound alarmist, but the truth is that those darling stand-alone movie theaters over in Burma are being wiped out fast! Just a few years ago, during my first two surveys of the then "hermit nation," there were well over 100 still in operation nationwide. Since then many dozens have closed and still more torn down. As the former hermit nation comes out of its shell to the call of free market capitalism, those once-iconic theaters will fall faster than a house of cards in a hurricane. Unfortunate as that is, it's simply the way things work.

Yesterday I put in an order for the publication of my final 15 photo portfolios of stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand. Two are already reserved, leaving 13 to put on the market. At $300 dollars a piece, these are not cheap items. Believe me I know. I earn the majority of my income from moving furniture and $300 is a good bit more than I generally earn in a day.

That said, all the proceeds from portfolio sales will be invested in a final research trip to Burma to make a one-of-a-kind photographic record of a threatened architectural type in their final days. This research trip, moreover, will help ensure that at least a few are given a fighting chance at being preserved. Regrettably, sales of this portfolio will not be going to directly fund the purchase or renovation of any of those old Burmese theaters. Nor will I be doing any hands on renovations myself. But make no mistake, each and every time that a photo of these buildings is publicized, every set of eyes that gets a look them and is made aware of their quiet existence, builds value in them and makes preservation all the more feasible. That's what I aim to do.

So much of Burma's ageing architecture is in need of protection. Stand-alone movie theaters all the more so, as they tend to be the most at-risk structures once sweeping redevelopment plans and capital inflow descend upon a country. This project is dedicated to helping ensure the survival of at least one stand-alone theater in every major metropolitan area of Southeast Asia. The ones in Burma are in dire need.

So get yourself a great piece of art in the form of an extremely limited edition "The Movie Theaters of Thailand" photo portfolio, and contribute to the preservation of Burma's historic stand-alones at the same time. It's a win-win for all.

See further details and payment options below.

"The Movie Theaters of Thailand"  photo portfolio is limited to 35 handcrafted sets which are available for $300US each (shipping and handling included). Every set comes in a handmade box with a hinged flip top. The front cover features gold leaf inlaid text, along with the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project banner photo. Inside are 20 images (that works out to less than $15 dollars per image) printed on A4 size handmade Mulberry paper, and produced right here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Each set is signed and numbered to ensure authenticity.

To speak of mass entertainment during the 20th century is to speak of film, and the place to see films was in stand-alone movie theaters. This fact was no different in Thailand, Burma or any place on Earth that embraced cinema. Throughout the 20th century, Thai entrepreneurs constructed over 700 of these leisure palaces nationwide. Today there are less than 10 still in operation.

All 20 images laid out on a table

This sleek portfolio set can be neatly inserted among over-sized books on a shelf, or laid flat on a coffee table. Otherwise, decorate a room by individually framing your favorite theater images.


Some of these photos have been featured in exhibitions across Asia. Others have never before been seen.

Keep in mind that only 35 of these portfolios will ever be printed, making them extremely collectible. As of January 1st, 2016, only 13 copies remain. If you purchase one of these final sets you will also be reserving yourself a pre-paid for copy of the forth coming "Movie Theaters of Thailand" coffee table book, to be published by River Books at the end of this year. But most significantly,  your purchase will go directly to support further documentation of the stand-alone movie theaters in Burma, where these important buildings are desperately in need of some exposure.

Many thanks for your support,

Phil Jablon

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Painters

One of the more lamentable casualties of Thailand's movie theater industry is the movie billboard painter. At one time indispensable to the marketing of films, over the years this craft has been whittled down to a skeleton crew of active artists. 

But in the good old days of grand movie palaces, before the rise of the antiseptic theater chains, some of the nation's most talented painters made a living by creating cinematic visions to entice the crowds. Theater facades, commercial streets and prominent intersections in any sizable town were once decked out in original works of king-sized art that rotated on weekly basis.  

Billboard painter works on an ad for the Terrence Hill-Bud Spencer spaghetti western "Even Angels Eat Beans" in Khorat c. 1973 (photo credit to Craig Campen) 

Ads for Thai romantic comedy starring Sombat Methani and "Even Angels Eat Beans" 

The Chalerm Sin Theater, Ubon Ratchathani, advertising some Terrence Hill-Bud Spencer spaghetti western c. 1971 (photo credit to Jim Faiano)  

The Chalerm Thai Theater, Khorat branch. The billboard and cutout is of an unknown film, while the marquee advertises 1969's "Sabata."

The Pattani Rama with hand painted ad for Congo. c. 1996 (photo credit Wantaofek Baka)

This trade flourished until the mid-1990's, when the introduction of large format printers to Thailand caused an unfortunate and quite sudden shift. Theaters owners, already feeling the squeeze of declining ticket sales, were no longer reliant on the painters to create advertisements for their film fair. One by one theaters made the switch, laying waste to an entire guild once held in high regard. A classic case of machine making obsolescence of man.  

Today in the larger Thai cities, LED screens have become the new norm for roadside movie ads, bar-none the most effective way of drawing the eye of the passerby. But as luck would have it, there is one theater chain in southern Thailand that eschews the blinding commercialism of LED in favor of the soft stroke of the billboard painter. Colosseum Cineplex keeps at least two studios in southern Thailand in business. One in Phuket and the another in Yala.

Another theater in Sisaket - MVP Cineplex - apparently also employs a painter to do its movie ads.

Hand painted ads for "Terminator Genesis" (left) and Jurassic World (right) cloak the front of an abandoned building in Yala. 

The video below is a quick glimpse into the working life of Yala's movie billboard painters. Enjoy.