When the New Year's Day 9.00 am serial was a bound to see
Godfrey Chin looks back at some old films and the cinemas they were shown in
Godfrey Chin left Guyana l8 years ago and lives in the USA.
January 1, 2001
In a country without national television, movies were the mecca for Guyanese, young and old. My parents were avid movie fans, and during WWII my father would ignite my curiosity with tales about the fire at the Gaiety, next to Brickdam Cathedral, Olympic - the theatre that had no roof, and where a rose or egg was matinee admission on some occasions.
My movie experience then was limited to magic-lantern shows at St. George's, and penny-film shows every Wednesday at CYO on Robb Street. I even recall, vividly, viewing John Wayne's Flying Tigers (16MM) upstairs at Bookers Drug Store, Main Street, next to the Chronicle. This had to be before that fateful Black Friday, February 23, 1945 when at seven years of age, I stood on the steps of St George's Cathedral from 4 to 9 pm, viewing my first major conflagration. Guyanese never missed any opportunity to watch the city burn. It was a spectacle, seeing the natives on bicycle and foot, racing behind the local fire brigade at every fire call response, in spite of repeated pleadings by Fire Chief Atkinson. Only Rohan Kanhai's batting or the aborted attempt to make Lamaha and other streets One-Way attracted more of the city's attention.
For young Guyanese, the first major movie cinema experience was Passion Play - a black and white version of the life of Christ with narration and sub-titles. I swear this movie was made before talkies came in 1927. The grainey film was stored at the vaults in Lodge, brought out, dusted for one day, Holy Thursday, and doubled with either a Tom Keene or a Johnny Mack Brown 'B' western. This annual ritual I likened to the US Groundhog Day, but more memorable, because the next day was Good Friday, when we dared not leave the house, except to go to church. All businesses were shut tight, probably based on the old folks continuous reminders of the four brothers who went fishing on that day and never returned. Eating meat was a sacrilege (fishermen bought new nets after Good Friday). Bakers cleaned up with cross buns, and the Clergy got worthwhile collections on crucifixion day. Tired workers enjoyed four days of holiday to Tuesday. I will never forget the first year Phagwah became a national holiday-it fell near to Easter. and we didn't work for one week. Guyanese epicurean delights have always been holidays, fete, booze and more fete.
Astor, which opened in 1940 with William Holden's Golden Boy, was my favorite cinema. The `house' section, extending over the pit- stalls, obviated the need to wait until the theatre lights went out, to enter the pit, shamefully, like the legendary Tom Dooley. This was a time when social consciousness and bigotry pervaded our society. Ten years later, 1955, in my first civil service job at the Chief Secretary's Office, Public Buildings, I was censured for drinking coconut water publicly outside Bourda Market. Twenty years later, 1975, at that very spot, Hammie G., Cabinet Minister relishing his after-drink jelly, remarked to me that 'Coconut water did not bring back the dead.' We male Guyanese always believed this nut bestowed invaluable aphrosadiac powers on us. Harry Belafonte even boasted it was good for your daughter. This was long before GPC touted Capadulla and Viagra gave the American male hope.
In those days, new film releases usually started on Thursday and later on Fridays. Additional features to single releases included a cartoon, a two week old Pathe world newsreel, a sing-along with a ball bouncing on the words, or a two-reeler big band musical concert. World Championship fights, featured on screen one week later, included slow motion highlights, and were doubled with a Tarzan feature plus a Leon Errol two reel comedy. Before live simulcasts, the timeliness of such events was diminished as we already knew from the local radio station ZFY, at North and New Garden St next to Bourda, that the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis had kayoed Billy Conn in the 13th round. Upcoming movies were heralded by pamphlets, given out at the box office at the previous show or shared to the public passing by. My personal collection of the original pamphlets of Rudolph Valentino's Son of the Sheik and other classics- Ben Hur with Ramon Navarro, the first Tarzan film starring Elmo Lincoln, King Kong and Spoilers, Gary Cooper vs William Boyd, would now be worth a fortune as collectors items. My 44lb limit and the 1980's airport hassles necessitated all my precious 78s, 45s and LPs plus pamphlets being left behind. Unlike Gen Doug McArthur I did not return. Finders-keepers.
Mid-week features were B film doubles, detective Boston Blackie plus a Charles Starrett western . Our movie bonanzas were of course the action serials which were more eagerly anticipated than the upcoming Boxhand at the workplace. Five chapters each day with a different bonus film each part ensured near box office riots to see the Masked Marvel/Spy Smasher/Desert Agents foil the fascist spy rings and later Space Monsters. Escaping or truancy (called skulting) three days in a row, unknown to parents, taxed my ingenuity. Three days compulsory scout practice whenever a serial was showing must have been noticed by parents who never missed a trick. I always wondered, but now know, why they often called me Pinochio. With a nose like Bob Hope, I hated being second hand, and already a victim of too much hand- me downs, in our poor circumstances, it would be losing face not to be the first to relate the exciting chapters to my less privileged friends. It was paramount that I retained my Don Corleone position in my gang. Waiting until the next public holiday 9 am showing of the entire 15 chapter play was infra dig.
Serials were the action counterparts to the ladies soap operas as Portia faced life on the airwaves and never found true love again. I implore that all families reading this explain to the kids that serials did not come in boxes for breakfast with milk. This kind of misinterpretation by the youth struck home when I requested a budding DJ to play a waltz at a dance. He looked perplexed, saying that waltz was a wrapped ice cream bar. Emceeing a Guyanese wedding, I was disappointed that no one at the bridal head table knew what Nara was. Gaff (also known as ole talk) on rating the best serials surpassed interest in Robert Christiani's cricket prowess , Cliff Anderson's English boxing title, or Hector Alvaro and Ramirez from Venezuela lapping the entire field at Cycle Sports. This has been one of the foremost shames in Guyana's International Sports Foray.
Around 1952 tho old London was replaced by the Plaza with the eagerly awaited Dennis Morgan musical, Painting the clouds with Sunshine followed by Errol Flynn's Adventures of Don Juan. Plaza was the first cinema that built the pit on the sama tier as the higher priced house, separating the pit-stalls by a low wall but providing the ungrateful, usually boisterous rowdies with individual chairs. In less than a year, pit chairs would have no seats- benches were substituted. This cinema gave us the first segregated film, Mom and Dad, an expose on social diseases, and later the Marriage Manual, ladies shows in the afternoon, gents at night. Other big hits, included Disney's Cinderella, Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah and the world's intro to rock and roll Blackboard Jungle and later Rock around the Clock. We emulated our counterparts at Carnegie Hall and danced in the aisles to the Bill Haley hit.
When the movie industry abroad met the challenge of the small, increasingly popular television tube, there was no such threat in the cloistered sanctity of Guyana's entertainment realm. The first TV in Guyana was probably smuggled thru' Customs in the Seventies - wrongly declared as a lighted mirror, not working. We mudlanders benefited from the new wide screen extravaganzas. Plaza was the first to introduce 3-D with George Momtgomery's Fort Ti and Charge at Feather River with Guy Madison. They also gave us the first local wide screen version of a movie, a re-issue of Spellbound with Peck and Bergman Astor gave us Vista Vision in Irving Berlin's White Xmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye for Xmas 1954, while the refurbished Metropole re-opened with the Benny Goodman Story with Steve Allen in cinemascope.
A few years earlier, the new kid on the block, Globe, opened with the biblical epic David and Bathsheba Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward on a magnificent floating screen with a surround sound. THX Dolby came in the nineties and probably hasn't reached Guyana yet. Globe introduced the first Cinemascope epic, The Robe, with Richard Burton together with a demo two-reeler of an exhilarating coney island roller coaster ride to the tune of Tchaikwosky's Waltz of the Flowers.
Strand was the first fully air-conditioned cinema. Their starry lighted roof matched Radio City Music Hall (excuse the hyperbole) and opening night with Marlon Brando's Sayonara received rave reviews, even though we froze our butts. The night Guyana changed the clock, their release was Towering Inferno with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
Even earlier Hollywood in Kitty opened with Christmas Carol and the Doren replaced the Rialto on Vlissengen Road. The Capitol cinema, Punt Trench, Albouystown together with the Olympic were closed. While I was in high school, the Grove Cinema opened with the Three Musketeers doubled with Fred Astaire's Barkleys of Broadway.
Starlite Drive-In on the east coast opened around Easter 1964. Our first and only Passion Pit, but yet a family picnic style outing every Sunday at dusk. Pyjamas were allowed so the kids could be put straight to bed later. Imagine my disappointment to hear of Starlite's temporary demise when patrons deliberately drove off with the speakers. We Guyanese would take anything that isn't nailed down, a kleptomania that arose in our once honest society on Feb 16, 1963.
In addition to being our entertainment mecca, the Guyanese cinemas were the venue of live shows for the masses, our own Coliseum. From the earliest vaudeville shows of Madame O'Lindy, Sam Chase and Jack Mello comedies, Len Houston and Young Joe Louis purse fights, to Vivian Lee's talent shows, the movie houses ' accommodation allowed us, the wretched poor, the opportunity to enjoy and support our local talent. International artistes later included the Illusionist Cleopatra, Johnny Matthis, Byron Lee and his Dragonnaires and the Mighty Sparrow plus Fashion and Miss Guyana contests.
Doubles have always been the mainstay of the Guyanese box office. A good cinema manager was judged by the excellent double programs he presented. Peter Ramsammy, Desmond Woon, the Cheongs, Roodal and Teelucksinghs were all equivalent to Louis M. Mayer for movie enterprise and each would qualify for any exhibitor's Hall of Fame. But the Grumman Rumman of them all was Robert Sookrajh, Guyana's Barnum and Bailey combined.
Robert hailed from West Coast Demerara where he owned a small cinema. He came to Georgetown, bought the Metropole, his Zanadu, and the movie business was never the same again locally. Like a Rockefeller he soon owned sixteen cinemas including Hollywood, Doren /Avon and achieved monopoly clout with the local distributors. That's a conjecture, but my only explanation how first run major productions could be doubled two months later at the Metropole after a limited release at his competitors. In February 1960, he featured for a month daily double features that even offered Season Tickets, much to the chagrin of the daily revenue checkers.
In the fifties, Empire was the doubles stronghold offering contrasting programmes eg a musical plus action. Johnny Weismuller's debut as Tarzan the Apeman and Howard Keel/Kathryn Grayson in Showboat. Classic pairings to match Gable and Leigh, were Count of Monte Cristo and Corsican Brothers, and for adventure King Solomon's Mines plus Scaramouche. Sookrajh in the sixties dared to theme his programs. Who would miss Longest Day paired with Guadacanal Diary or Gary Cooper's Royal Canadian Mounted Police with Story of Dr Wassell. If you liked tear jerkers you took a towel or two boxes of Kleenex to see Lana Turner's unforgettable Madame X plus Imitation of Life. When he paired Lawrence of Arabia and Lion of the Desert, I left the cinema drenched from desert-heat exhaustion and drank water like a camel for a week This was the nadir of my movie experience. I had helped Sookraj put the program together with daily advertising and deserved at least the usual 15 per cent commission advertising fee. My reward was a stingy free daily admittance to the Metropole for 29 days but the experience - an El Dorado for years to come.
Adding to the spectacle, was the length of the programs with three shows daily, starting at noon. The Nun's Story, 151 mins long, paired with Young Philadelphians 136 mins meant that the first show ended at 5:15 PM , as Sookrajh insisted on showing trailers of coming attractions, and the projectionists dared not 'drop' a reel. Never found out whether this poor guy was paid by the hour but knowing Robert he would be inveigled to work for pay per double program. Matinee patrons, waiting in the jam packed lobby from 4:15 pm, came directly from work and entered from the front, while the cinema disgorged from the side. Opening titles were on the screen while you navigated to find a seat in the dark, and everyone cursed or swore with bated breath -but loved the experience. Of course, the night show would end at 3:15 am- you purchased a Graphic newspaper leaving the cinema and went home, tired but happy. If Sookraj was still around he might have tried pairing Gone with the Wind and Titanic. Ranking with Guyana's entrepreunarial giants such as Peter d'Aguiar, Toolsie Persaud and Kayman Sankar, he extended his movie empire to Trinidad and later to the United States.
His final tally of cinemas owned included 16 in Guyana, 9 in Trinidad and 11 in California. A shining example of street smarts as Sookrajh only reached third standard at school. His life's achievement would make a crowning story for a movie script-which I will write, and send to Speilberg or Cameron. Would have preferred Orson Welles who is my favorite Director with Citizen Kane.
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