Havana cinemas: ghosts of the 20th century

Por: José Antonio Michelena

Imagine that you were born in the middle of the last century; imagine, therefore, that it is marked by the seventh art; imagine that Payret, America, Radiocine-Jigue, Radiocentro-Yara, Atlantic-Chaplin, Duplex, Rex Cinema, La Rampa, Rialto, were sacred sites for you; Imagine, moreover, that Reina, Capitol, Faust, City Hall, Edison, Colossus, Mexico, Wonders, Principal, Arenal, Lido, Metropolitan, Modern, Los Angeles, Florida, Monaco, Marta-Joy, Apollo, San Francisco, Gran Cinema, were also endearing; imagine that little by little, first, and abruptly, then almost all of them become ghosts.

Movie memoirs

Cine Payret
Cine Payret

In 1959 Havana had a hundred and thirty cinemas and three drive-ins. This figure does not include those of the populations of the periphery: Guanabacoa, Regla, El Cotorro, Boyeros, Santiago de las Vegas, Cojímar, Jaimanitas… Hardly other cities in America, except New York, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, could be compared to the Cuban city in that section.
Throughout the 1960s most of these cinemas existed, as did those that belonged to the peoples that made up the old province of Havana.
There’s nothing more like a neighborhood movie theater than a village movie theater. Although perhaps village cinema had greater prominence in the social life of the inhabitants. From my childhood, I saw and felt cinema as the center of the universe, as the world of possible dreams, but also as a space for socialization and cultural learning.
A film role in the early 1960s still included two films, one newscast and several short films. At the time I went to the cinema of my people almost every day, I remember a program formed, fundamentally, by Mexican, American, English, French and Italian films.
They made known to us Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, María Félix, Cantinflas, Tin Tan, Pedro Armen-dáriz, Jorge Mistral, Ana Luisa Pelufo, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrígida, Sofia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Hayward, Anna Magnani, Doris Day, Debora Kerr, Kim Novak, Kirk Douglas, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Dick Bogarde, Albert Finney, Jean Marais, Brigitte Bardot, Marcello Mastro , Anita Ekberg, Claudia Cardinale…
But all of a sudden, the flow of these films was interrupted and we had to learn to appreciate the cinematography of the socialist countryside. Battles came and went through the screen; hard, black bread; the epic of the Great Patriotic War… infinite yawning. However, we were able to meet Polanski, Wajda, Tarkovski, Jancsó, Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska… And every now and then came Alain Delon, Jean Paul Belmondo, or the trumpeter of a Czech film that saw whole Havana, Vals for a million. Later, Julio Iglesias with Life still the same collapsed the lockers because people wanted entertainment.
When Cujo, the killer dog, in the 1980s, also sweeps into ticket sales, we’re already in another era. Video players started taking the movies home. Technology revolutionized film production as well as film circulation. In the following decades I would take giant steps and the cinemas would have to reinvent themselves.
The new form of reproduction was socialized in Cuba and video rooms were born. Many settled in the cinemas themselves that thus began to lose space. The video rooms began to die a few years later.
In the before-1980s the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema was born, a luminous project to open doors to the cinema-tography of the region that also allowed access to the knowledge and revaluation of that cinema by viewers.
At its best, in previous decades, the festival mobilized a huge mass of audiences towards the multiple halls of the capital involved in the varied programming that reached all municipalities. It’s not like that anymore. The current reality is very different because there are hardly any cinemas beyond Vedado.

Cine Reina
Cine Reina

Decay and fall of cinemas

The habaneros cinemas that had managed to withstand the passage of time, although they were no longer the figure referred to at the beginning, at least a good number of them were preserved in the 1980s. By contrast, the decline that would lead to its near extinction in the 21st century deepened in the 1990s.
The lack of maintenance, technological backwardness, lack of resources, dissatisia, ended Havana’s extensive network of cinemas. The process has been slow and crushing. Many of the cinemas that stood passed to other destinations: they were occupied by dance, theatre, circus companies, warehouses… Now they’re soulless bodies scattered around the city. Seeing them shrinks the heart.

I’m not one to go to Radiocentro in 1958 during screenings at Cinerama. I also didn’t go to the 3D rooms of the accountors, that project aborted a few years ago. But in 2015 I attended a multi-cinema room in New York. They projected The Hunger Games. Technology and space itself were supposed to impact. It wasn’t like that. I still think that there is nothing like having seen Spartacus, Trapezus, Casablanca, The Sweet Life, in the cinema of my people (another ghost). Unforgettable was also to see The round the world in eighty days, in El Jigue, formerly Radiocine, the room with the largest number of seats in Havana (2 600). Does anyone remember?
I hardly go to the movies anymore. (I live distant from Vedado). Now I watch the movies at home. But the magic of the dark room is still alive in my memory. Ω

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