Trinidad’s Cinemas of old – Gone but not forgotten

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The local cinema industry has been going through some changes recently with the closure of the Palladium cinema in Tunapuna, the opening of a new Caribbean Cinemas 8 multiplex in San Fernando and news of the impending revitalisation of Globe Cinema. Trinidad and Tobago’s Arts and Entertainment editor Peter Ray Blood has taken a trip down memory lane to recount some of his adventures at the movies. 

I was very much saddened when I heard the news that Palladium Cinema in Tunapuna was closing its doors. The news sent me back many years, to my days of youth, even before there was television, video, DVD or any of today’s social network paraphernalia. How many of you can recall the cinemas of yesteryear? Or, even trickier, how many can remember which movies they saw in which cinema?

As a child, going to the cinema was a family moment as parents would venture to movie houses with their children in tow. As we grew older, we would go to the cinema with friends. Having resided in several locations in and around Port-of-Spain, I was fortunate to attend an assortment of cinemas—back then the main source of entertainment in a community.

Some of the cinemas I remember attending as a youth and their locations were: Ritz (Eastern Main Road, San Juan); Globe (San Juan); Globe (Green Corner, Port-of-Spain); De Luxe (Keate Street, Port-of-Spain); Astor (Baden-Powell Street, Woodbrook); Empire (Frederick Street); Strand (Park Street); Superstar, Vistarama, Altamira, National and National II (Port-of-Spain); Rio (Old St Joseph Road, Laventille); Pyramid (Charlotte Street); Royal (Observatory Street); Odeon (East Dry River); Olympic (Earthig Road, Belmont); and Rex, Diego Martin Main Road.

I can still recall which cinema I saw certain movies at. For instance, my favourite westerns (Shane, Rio Bravo, Warlock) were seen at Rio. I loved Tarzan movies and saw almost all of them at Ritz. I remember also being a war movie buff and Strand was my favourite cinema for most of these, including To Hell and Back, Guadalcanal Diary and Battle of Midway Island. I remember that for the latter movie the cinema introduced a new and revolutionary sound system which was quite effective. I remember when the first bomb was dropped by the Americans on the Japanese in the movie I swear it felt as though my seat had exploded beneath me, as the entire cinema shook.

Strand was also my favourite haunt for horror movies and I recall names like Brides of Dracula and Tales from the Crypt. There were also the classic, movies like The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty, all seen at De Luxe.

Unlike today, when silence is a common rule in the movie house, with cell phones silenced, and “secret police” waiting to evict anyone identified disturbing patrons, long ago cinemas were an assembly point for social interaction. Patrons loudly voiced their opinions as movies progressed, some even cautioning the starboy when danger was imminent.

“Look out! He hiding behind de door!” could be heard in cinemas like Globe, Pyramid, Royal and Rio as movie buffs warned the actors on the silver screen about villain in a hiding place. If a movie didn’t meet with the collective approval of the audience in some of the old cinemas patrons would let their displeasure to be vociferously heard.

Cinemas were divided into three sections—pit, house, balcony—and one could discern the social standing of most patrons depending on which section they purchased a ticket for. Pit was the noisiest section with the most outspoken patrons; but, it was all done in good fun, most times. In one cinema, a delinquent patron released a macajuel snake in the pit area and, at the top of his voice shouted, “Snake!” I needn’t mention the reactions of other patrons thereafter, most of them making a scrambled and frenzied exit from the cinema.

A popular feature in cinema years ago was the “late night movie.” Usually scheduled to begin at 11 pm, mostly “spaghetti Westerns” and martial arts (“kick up”) movies were screened, with De Luxe being the main cinema for these shows. Stars and villains like Django, Fernando Sancho, Wang Yu and Silver Fox were among the more popular characters. When the kick up movies ended at around 3 am, garbage bins became endangered items as patrons walking down Frederick Street would be seen trying out the favourite kicks seen in the movie on imaginary foes.

Popcorn and soft drink were the standard snack staples in the cinema, nothing elaborate like the menus offered today by the likes of MovieTowne and Caribbean Cinemas in Trincity. Decades ago young people didn’t go to clubs, as most clubs back then were seedy establishments offering activities normally frowned upon by “decent” folk. Clubs and nightspots like Zen, 51, Prive, Space la Nouba, Shakers and Stumblin’ had their genesis in this decade. The cinema was the meeting place for social interaction between young men and young women. To go on a cinema date was a big deal, and many a relationship had its earliest roots in the cinema.

The drive-in cinema experience was also a memorable one; a trend which had a positive social effect, bonding families. I remember my father taking the entire family to these open-air cinemas, the most popular one in the north being Starlite, with Kay Donna the preferred choice in the east. Families would pile into vehicles and cars would be parked in rows facing a massive screen, with speakers attached to the car doors. For the true outdoor experience some patrons would walk with mats and sit outside to view the movie. Today’s generation doesn’t have a clue about drive-in cinemas, as their demise came over a decade ago.

Home video’s advent in the 80s hastened the demise of cinemas. Rather than visit the cinema people rented videos and viewed them in the comfort of their homes.

Today, many cinemas, like The Astor, Vistarama and Superstar have been converted into places of worship and even one club, Zen, originally De Luxe.

Globe Cinema, escaping this conversion, has had a change in ownership and is going through a resurgence so much so the opening night gala of the 2014 T&T Film Festival is scheduled there, on September 16. The premiere of Pan! Our Music Odyssey will be screened from 6.30 pm. The venue also plays nicely with the theme of the opening night film, which is an exploration of the birth and power of the steel pan.

Although I attend today’s ultra-modern cinemas, with their inflated price of admission, the one cinema in the nation’s capital which still affords me some modicum of deja vu and enjoyment is Globe, as it has maintained most of the vintage ambiance I once enjoyed as a young man at the movies.

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