This nostalgic article appeared in the New Paper on 29 June 2008. It was written by Elysa Chen (firstname.lastname@example.org). I am posting it here as it has very good nostalgic, entertainment and information values. There are many details related by the 3 senior gentlemen which I didn't even know. But then again, what do you expect - I am decades younger than any one of them.
Memory lane: Mr Lee Kip Lee, Mr Narayanan Narayanan and
Mr William Gwee, looking at a folder of cinema programmes
that Mr Gwee had collected over the years.
Three movie fans recall when cinemas didn't even have air-con
The seats were bug-ridden, there was no aircon, no system for seating, and you had to sing the national anthem at the end of it.
Yet retiree William Gwee would give anything to watch a movie in the cinema of yore.
The man was so in love with movies that he even jotted down notes on the shows he had watched in a notebook.
The 74-year-old former senior pharmacist recalled: "The cinemas last time were dirty. There was litter everywhere and the screens are much smaller than what we have now.
"But I still prefer going to the cinemas in the past. We were young, and so noisy, we knew the life stories of the actors and actresses. They would appear in almost every other movie. Stars today do not appear in as many movies as before."
Mr Gwee's sudden rush of nostalgia did not come out of nowhere.
Last week, it was reported that Capitol Theatre, one of Singapore's earliest cinemas, was earmarked for development.
The report drew a response from fellow movie buff Lee Kip Lee, 86, who wrote to the Straits Times Forum page pointing out that there were other cinemas that came before Capitol.
He also wrote about what it was like to catch a movie during Singapore's pre-war years.
To get a better picture of the cinema-going experience before Internet booking, fresh popcorn and air-conditioning came along, The New Paper on Sunday invited Mr Lee, Mr Gwee, and their friend Mr Narayanan Narayanan, to reminisce about their days as students catching an afternoon matinee.
Mr Lee, a former businessman, said that there were three earlier cinemas: the Pavilion on Orchard Road, the Alhambra and the adjoining Marlborough Theatre on Beach Road.
The Earliest Cinema
Mr Lee said: "The earliest cinema I can remember is the Paladium. It was renamed the Pavilion. I lived on Emerald Hill, so it was quite near my home.
"The Alhambra and the theatre next to it, the Marlborough, were on Beach Road. At the back was the sea."
According to the Book of Singapore's Firsts, by Kay Gillis and Kevin Tan, the first cinema was the Paris Cinema built in 1903 by an Indian jewellery company at Victoria Street.
Mr Narayanan, 80, a former share broker, said: "There were two main cinema groups pre-war: Cathay and Shaw. When Shaw. When Shaw first started out, the brothers Runme and Run Run Shaw came with just a projector from Shanghai. They operated a travelling cinema, and went around the estates, where they would draw crowds of 100 to 200 people."
After that, came the Roxy at East Coast Road, Mr Gwee said, where it cost 40 cents for a seat in the first few rows, and 80 cents for the middle rows.
There would be a "mad rush for tickets" the moment the box office opened, he said, but he had a way of securing his tickets for a movie, decades before there was Internet booking.
He said: "My friends and I knew the ticket seller at Roxy. So half of the tickets would be in our possession even before the box office opened! We would then sell the tickets on the black market for 60 cents each, instead of 40 cents."
Mr Gwee also had tricks up his sleeve to make sure they got the best seats in the house.
He said with a mischievous smile: "They didn't have numbers for the seats then, so we would reserve seats for our friends using our handkerchiefs."
"Once we saw a pretty girl coming along, we would untie the handkerchief and ask her to join us."
In the 1950s, Mr Gwee recalled, there were a few "sex movies" that were screened. One of them, he said, was titled Sins Of Our Fathers.
There was an uproar, Mr Gwee said, and the prefects of catholic schools such as St Joseph's Institution, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the then St Anthony's Boys' School were even stationed at the cinemas to catch students who wanted to watch the films.
He added: "A group of us went to Capitol to watch the film, but despite its mystifying title, it turned out to be nothing. It was actually more educational than pornographic."
The censors would also include a notice at the beginning of each film, telling moviegoers how long a movie would last. A two-hour movie would usually have around 10,000 feet (about 3km) of film.
But it has been "a long time" since the three of them have seen a movie because they can now watch television shows.
Mr Narayana explained: "Previously, we had to go to the cinema halls for our entertainment. Today, our living rooms have become our cinema theatre, especially with all those huge screens now available.
"Going out just does not appeal to me as much as it did during my younger days."
Bug bites and Mickey Mouse Club
If you thought finding leftover popcorn scattered on your cinema seat was bad, think again.
Mr Narayanan Narayanan said: "When you went to the movies those times, you would have to get ready to come back with bug bites, because the seats were wooden."
An animated Mr William Gwee added that before sitting down, if you "ketok" the chair (and here, he makes a motion of raising a chair and knocking its legs), bugs would fall out.
Mr Lee Kip Lee said: "They would also show news clips before the movie, and at the end of the show, everyone had to stand to attention as the national anthem, God Save the King - because it was still the King then - was played."
Mr Gwee said he went to watch Tamil movies because Western movies were not screened during the Japanese Occupation: "I liked watching the Indian movies because you could see the hero fighting 20 villains at the same time, while talking to the girl he was saving."
These movies were so popular, Mr Gwee said, that children would imitate the Tamil stars.
Going to the movies was also a good way for boys to meet girls, Mr Gwee said.
The cinemas started a "Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1930s to attract students. The club would not only offer tickets at special prices to its members, it would also organise picnics and outings, and screen free cartoon shows once a month.
"Times have changed, but it was not easy for boys to meet girls then. So, we would go to these activities to meet girls," Mr Gwee said with a chuckle.
Mr Gwee said: "There would be intervals during the movie, because the film would 'burst' (stop), and they would have to put in the next reel of film.
"When this happened, everybody would whistle and go 'Boooo'."