Friday, May 25, 2018

Goodbye, Lido

This movie is a real tear-jerker sans the Hollywood ending. For those that take pleasure - if not refuge - in vintage movie theaters, it's essentially a tragedy.

The story comes to a tragic finale with The Lido Theatre, one of Bangkok's foremost cinema institutions of the past 50 years, closing down at the end of May. All indicators point to a complete overhaul of the vintage movie theater. If it's not torn down altogether, it will be remodeled into yet another shopping center.

The way I see it, the loss of The Lido Theater is akin to performing a minor lobotomy on Bangkok. With so few places left to watch a movie on the big screen that doesn't involve a trip to a shopping mall, the Lido's demise will cut particularly deep. True, there are a handful of newer theaters  (House RCA, The Friese-Green ClubBangkok Screening Room and Cinema Oasis) that do a stand-up job of bringing unique programming to the city, but none of them are housed in a purpose-built, mid-century movie theater. There is something to be said for that.

When The Lido Theatre first opened its doors on June 27th, 1968, the Siam Square neighborhood it stands in saw its inventory of sleek, modern movie palaces double over night. The two-year older Siam Theatre, which stood about 100 meters away, had initiated the neighborhood's transformation from a peri-urban slum into Bangkok's main commercial hub. With The Lido, the area was further solidified into one of Bangkok's most vital shopping zones.

For a bit of historical context, Bangkok of 1968 was a city in the midst of a development frenzy brought on, in large part, by Thailand's Cold War partnership with The United States, which targeted the country as mainland Southeast Asia's bulwark against the spread of communism. As a result, Thailand and its succession of military governments were showered with economic development assistance, supercharging the market economy in the process.

Suffice to say movies and movie theaters played a critical public relations role in making Thailand one with free-market capitalist values. For a time, the Thailand rep for the Motion Picture Association of America was an active CIA agent, helping to ensure that the Hollywood movies screened in Thai theaters had a definitively pro-capitalist, pro-Western bias.

Lido Theatre on its opening day, screening The Guns of San Sebastian

The Lido chugged along through the 1970's and 80's, steadily providing a first-class cinema experience for Bangkok's cinephiles.

In 1992 The Lido was damaged by a fire, but instead of using that as a pretext to divest itself of the aging theater, Apex, the parent company of the Lido, Siam and Scala, reopened it a year or so later as a three-screen multiplex. For many Lido faithful of today, that's the only form in which it's ever been known.

The Lido, with elevated Sky Train tracks in the foreground

By the dawn of the new century, Bangkok was fast becoming a crowded movie theater market. While most of the city's stock of ageing stand-alone theaters was on the wane, a new generation of multiplex theaters were cropping up in shopping malls across the city. With them came the all-in-one convenience of shopping, eating, free parking and multiple films to choose from all under one high-tech, low-brow, climate controlled roof. Malls caught on like wild fire among Bangkokians. For some, they became the new symbolic standard for middle-class consumerism. Meanwhile, The Lido and its Siam Square siblings held tight, ramping up their specialized viewing fare as means of staying relevant.

Checking out the viewing fare in front of The Lido.

To say anything of The Lido without giving credit to Apex Theaters and the company's steadfast if taciturn owner, Nanta Tansacha, wouldn't be fair. Ms. Tansacha and her siblings inherited the cinema business from their late father, Pisit Tansacha, who despite his untimely death nearly fifty years prior, built the Apex brand into the largest theater chain in the country. He also became one of the wealthiest men in town in the process.

The Lido

The Lido was never an architectural masterpiece. But that's part of its charm. Simple, down home, no frills cinema experience. 

Indeed, when Nanta and her brothers took over, the Apex theater empire was in full swing. But the mushrooming of mall-bound multiplexes across Bangkok in the 1990's and 2000's would soon cut deeply into Apex's market share. Slowly but surely, the company divested itself of some of it's most beloved theaters until their chain was whittled down to the aforementioned Siam Square Three (two, after The Siam was destroyed in a 2010 fire). Beginning in the aughts, movie screenings with a single patron became commonplace at the Apex theaters. Yet Nanta and her loyal Apex staff persevered.

At the end of last December, that reliable perseverance ran out. Chulalongkorn University, landlord of Scala, Lido and the rest of Siam Square, announced that Apex would not be renewing their leases.

The outcry that followed was intense. An ad hoc "save the Scala" campaign erupted across social and mainstream media, highlighted by a #savescala hashtag. So fevered became the pitch that the Office of Property Management at Chulalongkorn University made it clear that Scala would not be harmed in any way.

While The Scala was being fussed over, plans to close and The Lido were being finalized. And so it is, in just a week's time old faithful Lido will be no more.

I once ran into Ms. Tansacha in the lobby of The Scala. Cornered her, really, just as she was about to leave. She's a tall, elegant woman; clearly a beauty in her younger years. I introduced myself as the schmo who had written the article for The Bangkok Post, "The Case for Preserving Scala and Lido." She knew the article, and much to my surprise stood there talking with me for nearly an hour. I missed the movie I was going to see on account of it.

Among the numerous anecdotes she left me with on that humid afternoon was one that stands out above all the rest. It's simple, really. Some might even consider it a bit trite:

The main reason that she kept The Lido and Scala up and running all these years, despite the diminishing returns, costly upkeep and general burden of it all is because it's family. The employees, the regulars, they're like family. You can't turn your back on your family.

At the end of this month, Bangkok will lose a treasured cultural institution, beloved cinema hall and one of the last great family enterprises left in Thailand when The Lido Theater closes its doors.