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Saturday Night at the Picture Palace

A Brief Gallery of Natal Queen Screens

By Cameron Luke Peters

Why do we accept the death of movie-going? I suppose cinema will be with us for as long as our lounges have surround-sound speakers, but most of us seem to assume that Ster-Kinekor’s belle époque is long past, especially after Covid. But I refuse to believe it. As a dyed-in-the-wool film scholar at UCT, I blame Hollywood for more recently inundating us with films they can’t pay us to watch. If it’s worth seeing, we’ll move heaven and earth (and pay the petrol price) to go. Whenever I ramble down to the Labia Theatre on Orange Street in Gardens, I allow myself to dream that movies will eventually start to sell themselves like vinyl records - as renascent boutique experiences, a tangible tonic to the streamlined airlessness of streaming. We’ll rediscover society, and rediscover our youth, by gathering in new palaces for new classics. 

Nostalgia, however, is meaningless without verification. I have my childhood memories, but could KZN ever boast venues to rival the Everyman or Grauman’s Egyptian? No and yes, it turns out. In authenticity and venerability, Durban can claim the first permanent cinema in the proto-Union of South Africa: the ‘Natal Electric Company’, opened just opposite the City Hall on West Street in May, 1909. It was, of course, a whites-only institution from the very start. This was just 14 years after Edison-style ‘Kinetoscopes’ were rolled out to miners’ camps on the Witwatersrand (and those just a few months before the Lumieres had their first private screenings in Paris). Already by 1913, however, every film in the country was shown at the behest of one man: the American oligarch Isodore W. Schlesinger. Like a cross between Cecil J. Rhodes and Louis B. Mayer, he ‘fixed’ the industry by bringing every film retailer under his ‘African Films’ label, producing hundreds of newsreels and dozens of colonial epics. Until 1956, writes Martin Botha, “Schlesinger had the monopoly on film distribution from the Cape to the Zambezi.”  

If you happened to live in Pietermaritzburg around this time, your theatrical options were equally confined: “there were two picture houses in Maritzburg through the silent era,” writes William Bizley, the Rinko (so called because it was converted from a Victorian roller-skating rink) and the Excelsior. The latter, the ‘bughouse’, was built, it was said, out of wattle and daub” while the former boasted its own resident orchestra (with prominent local performers) who half-improvised scores whilst watching each movie along with the audience. The Rinko was also a slightly more sophisticated institution thanks to its iron roof, although this proved a liability when sound films came along and the plunking of raindrops drowned out all recorded dialogue. Its loss was no disaster, though. The Pride of PMB, the Grand, soon superseded it and was, by all accounts, “the most opulent building that Maritzburg had seen, with plush seating, ornate panels and even twin projectors - now you could show a film without stopping to change reels.” In typical imperial style it hosted music-hall singers and military bands through the Thirties and Forties before crumbling in every sense of the word in the Seventies.  

In Durbs, on the other hand, every cinema was a bughouse (as well as a ‘bioscope’). By mid-century, the Victorian logic of segregation mandated two entirely separate movie districts for Whites and Indians (it would take decades more for permanent screens to reach the Black townships). These were, respectively, the ‘Cinemaland’ strip on Smith and Aliwal Streets and the ten picture houses that star-studded ‘the Casbah’ in and around Grey Street.  Both areas, however, spun off daily contrasts of glamour and baseness that remain hard to fathom. The Scala Cinema on Warwick Avenue, for instance, transitioned from being a genteel sanctuary in the early Sixties to how Phyllis Naidoo describes it:

“Don’t be fooled by its high-class name - it was a bug house. All the vermin in town - human and otherwise - took shelter in that cinema. You bought a drink (cool), and you could sit there till midnight. All the night criminals slept here during the day. Periodically when the police searched they rolled out several wheelbarrow loads of knives, bush knives and other deadly weapons (no guns). Naturally the language picked up here was not kosher.”

Today, the building that once was the Scala forms part of the Steve Biko Campus for DUT.  

More surprising to me is that what we call the Playhouse Company today on Anton Lembede Street is partly the ghost of two classic cinemas. The entrance was built in 1928 as the facade of the Princes (later renamed the Colosseum) and the body was built as the Playhouse Cinema in 1935, boasting “a very ornate interior which transported the audience from the mundane world outside to the wonderland of the interior. It was the largest cinema in Durban with seating for 1900 people. During the 1970’s the bar lounge became a very rough and bawdy drinking den popular with visiting seamen and the police succeeded in having the liquor license withdrawn” thus signalling the grand dame’s death-knell. 

Within skipping distance, of course, were the Embassy, the Metro, the 20th Century (with its large ‘20th’ sign in buzzing neon lights), the Roxy, the Capri and the Piccadilly Cinema next to Kempster Sedgwick Motors, which Gerald Buttigieg remembers thusly: “on each side of the big screen, there were two large paintings - one of Piccadilly Circus and the other of shipping tied up in the Thames. These pictures would glow in the semi dark light. I have clear memories of seeing the Tommy Steele Story there as well as Cliff Richard in the movie Summer Holiday in the late 50s and early 60s. Going to the movies was a very swish affair on Saturday nights. Every one dressed up for the occasion and when the 007 movies first came out, the crowds were enormous. When the Beatles movie Hard Day's Night played at the Playhouse it was booked out weekend after weekend. The noise in the cinema as The Beatles played their famous hits was ear shattering. Great days to remember!”

And just a few blocks away, around today’s Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Victoria, were the Naaz, the Topaz, the Liberty, the Isfahan, the Shiraz, the Albert, the Avalon (later renamed the Dreamland after the famous seaside cinema in Margate) and - the one I dream of visiting - the magisterial Shah Jehan. Indian cinemas had started from small beginnings, from which far better fortunes followed. The first Indian-owned bioscope, opened in the Twenties, was Rawat’s Bio at 71 Victoria Street, which later became Schlesinger’s Royal Picture Palace. This was a misnomer of note: “Seating was on ‘hard wooden benches, “Globe” kitchen chairs and basket chairs were for the more discerning patrons who were prepared to pay a little more’. It was, indeed, a bug-infested, murky hall with uncomfortable ragged seats’”. 

Thankfully, two major dynasties of picture-house moguls, the Moosas and the Rajabs, would arrive to raise the game through friendly competition. At one time, patriarch AB Moosa owned 14 cinemas around the country and held the edge through “the super, super deluxe” fittings of the Avalon, which even hosted weddings and political summits. (The Moosas are actually still in the industry today as owners of the screens at Suncoast). But I’d say the Rajabs edged them out through sheer grandstanding luxury. As Mamoo Rajab recalled: “Cinemas were popular but Indians were given a rough deal regarding the cinema experience. There was a gap in the market for upper-end cinemas for the Indian public.” The Shah Jehan, opened in 1956 at 275 Grey Street, filled it and then some. As Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed lovingly describe, the cinema “boasted exquisite decor, air conditioning, an upper gallery, box seats, lush ruched velvet screen curtains and uniformed ushers equipped with torches who guided patrons to their seats, which had built-in ashtrays”.

Each and every ballie today seems to use their own superlatives. As Damon Heatlie summises, “these places, with their exotic Persian-inspired names, [were] described as ‘palaces of excess and enjoyment” and became semi-sacred sites where Indian-South Africans were “able to marvel at what they held to be their glorious heritage and affirm their “Indianness.”” Echoing Buttigieg, Baboo Jawat remembers: “Every Saturday, can you imagine how we used to be? I will use the word “stupid” because we dressed to kill to go and sit in the dark. Who is going to see you dressed to kill in the dark? But we would park there and then go home laughs.” The crucial difference, of course, was that, according to the law, whites always got to see every premiere first. This could lead to particularly absurd moments. Farouk Moosa remembers how, “the Embassy would begin showing a film like From Russia with Love at midnight and the Avalon would begin screening it from 12.45 am. Each reel ran for about twenty minutes, and they allowed some lag time for the taxi to take each reel from Smith Street to Victoria Street. It was stressful to co-ordinate.”

The last whiffs of this world were still around when I used to catch Dreamworks films with my Nana at the Aztec-style three-screen Berea Centre in the mid-2000’s. I don’t remember ever going to the Wheel or the Workshop but my Mum assures me we dropped in in their heyday. I admired the low-key papier-mâché Egyptian tomb fittings of the old Pavillion Nu-Metro. But naturally, the cinema that changed my life was the nearest one to my childhood home, the Ster-Kinekor at Musgrave Centre - a glorified bughouse in its own right, though like so many others I shed a tear when it closed a year or two ago. It’s not at all surprising that I’ve been describing a lost world. If we were teleported back to the Sixties, the lack of a home-screen culture would probably rankle our sensibilities nearly as much as the ’Slegs Blankes’ signs. But it’s clear that, besides being havens of aspirational luxury and cheap escapism, the Durban cinemas often served too to ennoble their patrons and connect them to their particular heritage. What can we make to replace them? 

P.S. If you want to shout at me for not including or misreporting your favourite KZN cinema, I’d love to hear it (and use it for a follow-up article).

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