30 June 2008

Before The Multiplex

The New Paper on Sunday 29 June 2008

This nostalgic article appeared in the New Paper on 29 June 2008. It was written by Elysa Chen (elysac@sph.com.sg). 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.

Picture courtesy of NAS - Alhambra Theatre on Beach Road circa 1950

ST file picture - Marlborough Theatre: On Beach Road

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.

ST file picture - Black tie: A charity event at Pavilion Cinema

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."

Sex Movies

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."

Tamil Stars

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'."


Anonymous said...

Looking at the picture of the Alhambra Theatre reminds me of the movie titled "Jailhouse Rock" starring the one and only Elvis Presley. "Jailhouse Rock" was shown at Alhambra theatre,if I remember correctly, in 1958. I and few of my friends watched not once but few times as the film was a great movie.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Victor.

Victor said...

Stanley, you must be around the same age group as the 3 gentlemen in the story. I was only 2-year-old in 1958. Haha.

Nevertheless, I remember my mum bringing me to Marlborough Theatre once to watch a movie when I was about 5-year-old then. It must have been in the early 60s. Can't recall much about the theatre or the area though except it was near the sea and there were roadside satay sellers near that area.

Anonymous said...

In those years many of us felt a sense of joy and anticipation going to the cinema. Remember how happy I was when Father said said he would be taking us to the movies.

Cinemas I went to were usually those at the then Happy World and New World and Chinatown.

Anonymous said...

You were 2 years old in 1958. As of now you must be 52 still very young as compared to my age. As for me I consider myself too old to do anything useful as age is catching on me. You see, I am nearing 3 score and ten years now.

Victor said...

Fr - Our feeling of ecstasy when told we were going to the movies is understandable. There weren't many types of entertainment available in those days. Besides, most families were poor and large. Going to the movies for the whole family was a real treat as it involved spending quite a lot money, considering how little our parents earned in those days.

Victor said...

Stanley - You are only as old as you think. :p I will reach that stage of life one day, hopefully.

Lam Chun See said...

When we were kids, movies were a big part of our entertainment, compared to kids these days who have many other choices.

I was just telling my kids the other day as we were watching Narnia on TV. If we saw such special effects when we were young, we would probably go wild. I remember being so thrilled to see the 'special effects' from the black and white days in a movie about Monkey God.

yg said...

in the 60s, i remember seeing the two cinemas - alhambra & marlborough - whenever i walked to beach road to catch the bus home. never stepped into them though. there were two or three other cinemas which i would walk past along north bridge road. one was odeon and the other s small cinema called jubilee. cannot remember the name of the third one.

Victor said...

Chun See - Yes, I was equally enthralled by the special effects of "The Ten Brothers" (十兄弟), a black-and-white movie shown on TV in the 60s. Each of the 10 brothers had a special magical ability. Do you remember that movie?

Victor said...

Yg - Ah... Jubilee Theatre! I remember seeing a few Chinese shows there up to the early 80s.

"Jubilee Theatre was one of ten cinemas opened in the 1930s. The others were Capitol, Alhambra, Marborough, Pavilion, Roxy, Wembly, Tivoli, Empire, and Gaiety.

It was demolished to make way for an annex to the Raffles Hotel. The annex now houses shops, restaurants and the Jubilee Hall.

Sathiya said...

Nice historical information. Very interesting to know!

Victor said...

Hi Sathiya, thanks for your comment and for adding me to your favourite blog. I have added you too.

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Victor said...

Andy, thank you for the compliment. I browsed through your blog and find your articles very interesting too. Wow, a former band member of the Silver Strings.