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Cinemas of T&T

The end of an era — part I
Published: 
Sunday, August 10, 2014
Back in times
No popcorn until later years, but there was a peanut vendor outside most Trinidad cinemas before showtime (1934 photo).

Recently I read a deeply saddening post on my Facebook blog, Virtual Museum of T&T: the longstanding Palladium Cinema, which since 1918 (the year World War I ended) has provided endless motion picture entertainment to the people of Tunapuna, would be closing its doors at the end of July and in a last grand gesture to its thousands of patrons, would be offering free admission until the lights were dimmed for the final time. 

The closure of Palladium is the penultimate demise of yet another iconic chapter in the history of cinema in T&T. There will soon be no survivors of the cadre of old-school cinemas which once stretched from Cedros to Scarborough. 

Southerners yelped in glee when in the past couple years, two old legends, National and Empire, reopened their doors with a fresh new face. Now, their futures seem bleak as two new multiplexes are set to be completed in 2015, right on the outskirts of San Fernando. 

The advent of the cineplex with its multiple theatres and massive spin-off entertainment is but a single reason behind the demise of old cinemas, which began in the 1970s and 80s with the introduction of the home video. The first cinema in the island, as recounted in an earlier article, was the London Electric Theatre, which opened in Woodbrook, on February 2, 1911. Known to later generations as the Astor cinema, it provided the first newsreels seen in Trinidad, showing the battles of World War I. The London Electric was immortalised in Sir VS Naipaul’s seminal novel A House for Mr Biswas:

“The evening show began at half past eight. Mr Biswas and Anand left the house at about eight. Not far from the cinema there was a Chinese cafe. Something had to be bought there; it was part of the cinema ritual. They had eighteen cents to spend. They bought peanuts, channa, and some mint sweets, six cents in all. The entrance to the London pit was through a narrow tunnel, as to a dungeon of romance. It allowed not more than one person to advance at a time and enabled the ticket-collector, who sat at the end with a stout stick laid across the arms of his chair, to repel gate-crashers. Mr Biswas and Anand arrived to find the mouth of the tunnel blocked by a turbulent, unaccommodating mob. They stood hesitantly at the edge of the mob, and in an instant, driven from behind, found themselves part of it.”

At the London Electric and at its immediate counterpart, the Olympic in Belmont, there appeared an odd social division in the audience, according to who sat in the balcony, house or pit. The determining factor was price, with balcony costing more than three times the ticket for the pit. 

There were cinemas outside of Port-of Spain as early as 1914 and 1915 with the opening of the Flavian at La Brea and the Palace in San Fernando. By the 1930s, largest settlements had at least one movie house. The Flavian was constructed in a time when La Brea was a far cry from the decayed landscape it now is. Money flowed freely from the work provided at nearby Lake Asphalt and in a few years, there would be oil wages to add to the pot when prospectors began opening up the hinterlands in the hunt for black gold. 

There was no nationwide electricity grid until 1955 so cinemas outside of Port-of-Spain and San Fernando relied on generators known as Delco plants to power the projectors and lights. In order to prevent the interior of the vast, closed buildings from becoming entirely suffocating, large rotating wind-catchers were installed, many of which can still be seen today. Projector operators were skilled in the minute techniques of mounting the massive celluloid reels that had to be carefully monitored. Sometimes, after many screenings, the reels would burst suddenly and then the hapless projectionist would have to barricade himself from a baying crowd or else beat a hasty retreat. 

The outlying country districts were served by a tent outfit known as Teelucksingh’s Travelling Cinema, which was owned by politician Sarran Teelucksingh. He brought the magic of the silver screen into the dark rural nights. For a couple weeks in advance of the tent cinema’s arrival, handbills would be distributed in the community and colourful posters bearing the names of the stars and starlets of Hollywood’s golden era would be pasted in all the shops where they could not escape notice. This facet of old Trinidad found recognition in the short story A Day in the Country by Ismith Khan and Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando.