Thais bid addio to theater where they fell in love with film

Full Screen
1 / 6

A crowd gathers to take photos of the cinema marquee of the Scala theater during its final movie screening Sunday, July 5, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. The Scala theater has shut its doors after 51 years as a shrine for Thai movie-goers. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

BANGKOK – If Hollywood is where dreams are made, Bangkok’s Scala theater for the past 51 years was where Thais immersed themselves in the old-fashioned blockbusters of war, the heart-felt romances and quirky comedies.

Now only the memories will remain. The picture palace in the center of Thailand’s capital, the city’s last standalone big-screen cinema, on Sunday screened its final offering.

It was a piquant choice, 1988′s “Cinema Paradiso,” a nostalgic Oscar-winning Italian film about a bygone movie house in a Sicilian village. The Scala’s marquee on opening day in 1969 boasted John Wayne in “The Undefeated.”

Scala owner Nanta Tansacha wistfully recalled being enthralled even when the venue was still just a set of blueprints her father showed her.

“I do think it’s a beautiful place, the most beautiful one I ever think that we can ever build. And I think no one will build cinemas like this in the future,” she told The Associated Press in an interview.

Two other theaters once stood nearby, but one burned down during political turmoil in 2010, and the other shut its doors two years ago after being remodeled as a multiplex in its sunset years.

Nanta said the coronavirus was the tipping point for the Scala, whose lease was up at the end of the year anyway. More than two months of a government-ordered shutdown of entertainment places choked off its already modest cash flow.

The economics of the 900-seat, single-screen cinema limited to five or six showings a day were virtually unsustainable when malls just across the road had smaller theaters, multiple screens and dozens of showings daily.

However, to its fans, the Scala experience was not only about what was projected on the screen.

“I’ve never seen another movie theater like it anywhere in the world,” said Philip Jablon, a U.S. researcher who has documented Southeast Asia’s stand-alone cinemas in a blog and a book. “Some people call it art deco. I’ve heard it referred to as overwrought rococo. It’s a very unique mix of modernism, modern architecture, combined with very flashy, glitzy, almost vintage style of architecture.”

And the theater's huge, curved screen made it a great place to watch a movie, Jablon told AP in an online interview. “It’s got perfect sight lines almost anywhere you sit. It’s just a very unique building, well-designed.”

Movie-goers could meet their friends inside the open-air ground floor, sweep up the curved staircases, and hand over their tickets to neatly uniformed ushers before settling into their seats.

Pattarapon Jitbanchong keeps a collection of old Scala tickets framed on her wall at home, and proudly displayed some of them Sunday.

“Each ticket has a story of its own,” said the 42-year-old former makeup artist turned fortuneteller. “What I was doing on the day, who I went with, what I was wearing, who was my boyfriend and who were my friends. When I look at the tickets, the memories flood back.”

Kong Rithdee, deputy director of the Thai Film Archive, described the Scala as both an emotional and a historical landmark.

“A lot of people who grew up in Bangkok came to see movies here, so this is a place where there is a lot of collective memory of the people who grew up in Bangkok," Kong said. "And as a symbol, it’s a place of elegance, it’s a place where cinema is celebrated, whereas in the modern era of multiplexes, cinemas are utilitarian.”

For Scala owner Nanta, the closing is very personal.

“I feel very sad, this is my life. This is my home. This is my house. And this is all my people,” she said, surveying a crowd of movie fans who came to a sort of open house she arranged last Friday.

When they opened the theater, they threw on the lights, and proudly showed it off, she said.

“And when it’s time to close the curtain, I want to close it in style. So that’s why I turn on all the lights. I ask people to come and take photos to get good memories,” said Nanta. A message wall carried Post-it notes with recollections and good wishes.

To a piped soundtrack of sentimental music, the crowd of movie fans snapped souvenir photos of its extravagant interior and remembered when its heyday, and theirs, intertwined.

Posing in the empty box office, and clutching a ticket she had purchased for the last show, 56-year-old Wanpen Lerdrungroj recalled the key role the Scala played in her youth.

“When I was a teenager, I came to see movies here and I had a date with my boyfriend, who is now the father of my children,” she said. She traveled from Thonburi, on the other side of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. He had a slightly shorter journey, from the city’s Din Daeng neighborhood.

“We would meet here to see a movie,” she said.

The Scala’s landlord, neighboring Chulalongkorn University, has not yet declared whether it will tear down this movie-goers’ shrine.

”The idea that that this would be slated for demolition is kind of mind-boggling,” said theater researcher Jablon.

“You know, this type of building just doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “So it’s important to hang on to at least one example.”