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The Last Picture Show

By September 22, 20082 Comments
[singlepic=20,320,240,,left]Mr Armit Ooka (70) owner of the Shiraz cinema stares out solemnly from his box- office booth onto a bustling Victoria Street in Durban’s rundown CBD. A glass widow, with hole cut in the centre is the only thing that separates him from the adjoining pavement– a pavement once cluttered with gorgeous old cinemas now teems with tikka cafes, Chinese factory shops ,informal trading outlets and pirate DVD stores (most of whom are likely to be selling films months before Ooka has had the opportunity to screen them in his venue). Occasionally harried pedestrians stop to peruse film posters on display, but seldom long enough to ever purchase the fifteen rand entrance ticket.
The Shiraz is the last of the many independent movie houses to have once operated from Victoria street (part of Durban’s historic Grey street complex) from the 1940’s through to the early eighties. Mr Ooka has worked in show business in this region for the last forty -years and knows it’s a notoriously fickle industry, still attendance, he claims, has never been quite as dismal as it has over these past few years.
‘Look at this’ he says paging despondently through his attendance records for the last month, “fifteen people yesterday, twenty the day before, ten before that. So it goes on and on. There was a time when you had to que for miles to come into this building but those days, it seems, are long gone now.’
The ailing Shiraz (named after a city in Persia) stands as a gloomy monument to the long forgotten and much loved Bioscopes that once populated down town Durb’s. Established in 1968 by the Rajab brothers, Mr Ooka and his brother took ownership of the cinema in the early eighties.
[singlepic=22,320,240,,right]Climbing the marbled stair that ascends into Ooka’s once prosperous picture palace, I pass grubby carpeted walls, an antique non -smoking board requesting that patrons refrain from smoking in the auditorium. At the refreshment desk, peering through a mound of stale popcorn– sits an elderly Indian gentleman ,his weary eyes amplified by oversized spectacles.
The atmosphere is funereal, permeated with the type of yearning that painter Edward Hooper captures so perfectly in his portraits: men lost in memory, numb with nostalgia, waiting in vain for the crowds that have long since abandoned them.
Out of the three cinemas in the building, only one remains in operation — if there are patrons inside, they are likely to be night-shift workers snoozing in the back row before clocking in for their next shift. Across the screen flickers a skop,skiet and donner fliek (B- grade action and kung fu movies are the only genre that seem to hold any sway over current audiences) while the cloud of incense creeping into the cavernous hall does little to disguise the damp ,dark decay of a building whose soul architectural function over the decades has been to fend off all forms of natural light. In a nearby restroom, I stumble upon vestiges of the bioscopes better days: piles of rusted film cans, art- deco light fittings and heaps of lobby placards.
[singlepic=19,320,240,,left]At work, three stories up, in the Shiraz’s projections booth is 64 year old Shan Pillay. Pillay is one of the many faceless movie-engineers, who over the past half a century has hovered patiently in the gods of the Victoria Street cinemas to ensure that each screening runs without a glitch or interruption. While most projectionists these days work with technologically advanced equipment that renders their job’s relatively simple, Pillay has been mastering the Shiraz’s antique and temperamental movie- machines (imported from Italy in the fifties) for the past forty -years. I watch for some time, as he meticulously splices, connects and winds the film onto a reel before loading it onto one of the projectors. Through the flick of a switch, the clunking beast spins and splutters to life, rapaciously gobbling celluloid before spewing out dancing imagery onto the screen below.
Pillay tells me he has practically grown up in the Victoria Street’s Bioscopes, having begun his career as an uneducated thirteen- year old working as as a cleaner before graduating to the position of resident projectionist.
“The projectionist” he says, “is like the captain on a ship. This means he is last person allowed to ever leave the ship when it is sinking or if it happens to catch on fire.”
Of course, the probability of the projection booth catching on fire back in the day was a lot more likely then it is today. This was due to the magnesium sticks that the projectionist would have to ignite in order to acquire the necessary light source. As was often the case, a flammable nitrate film reel (these days a safety reel has been developed) would snap and catch on fire on the open flame, leaving men like Pillay to quell the rising flames.
So when exactly did the Bio ”“Scope arrive in Durban? Historians claim that it wasn’t long after Hollywood and Bombay began producing silent-movies in the early part of twentieth century that they began to make their first appearances on the east ”“coast of South Africa. By the 1930’s the white-owned African Consolidated Theatre Group (ACT), were one of the first to cash in on the local Indian populations fixation with the silver screen, erecting the regions first two cinemas titled The Royal Picture Palace and the Victoria Picture Palace’ –whose moniker was the bug- house owing to the monstrous flea bites patrons used to leave covered with.
The more salubrious Royal was the first to screen Hindi movies (or Bollywood as they have more recently become known as) and understandably the curious Indian population residing in the Grey Street Casbah flocked to experience these dazzling histrionic spectacles. Such an over night sensation prompted a range of opportunists and entrepreneurs to set up shop along the street: from the clothing stores who dressed mannequins in saris resembling those last seen draped on the cavorting curves of ones favorite Hindi screen goddess– to the record shops who tempted patrons post-screening by blaring the latest hit- film LP. Furthermore, an assortment of local wheelers and dealers pocketed handsomely off a lucrative BMT (black market ticket) racket which they conducted outside each of the venues.
[singlepic=21,320,240,,right]In the forties, the enterprising Kajee and Moosa families had arrived on Victoria Street erecting the legendary Avalon and Albert cinemas. These cinemas put their comparatively grotty predecessors to shame by boasting air-conditioning, box and gallery seats. By the fifties and sixties the picture- show phenomenon was in full swing, with the Naaz, Raj, Shah Jehan (seating over 2000 people ) and Shiraz all vying to entice the interminable droves through their venue doors. Each of these ostentatious new venues, attempted to out do one another by decking out their interiors to resemble those of decadent Mughal palaces.
Over the years, the silent movie accompanied by a decrepit organist was replaced by startling new innovations like the talkie, Technicolor, improved sound and Panavision– with Indian families descending weekly on the lively street to take in the latest Charlton Heston epic, Spaghetti Western, MGM musical or Hindi saga. Needless to say tickets sold-out weeks in advance and box office cues frequently caused traffic jams when they spilled out across the road.
“Ohhh Victoria Street.” recalls Pillay bristling at the memory, “It was a festival back then. It was choko-block! When you looked down from the top of a building onto the box office, it was like a swarm of locusts from the Egyptian plague. Men in punjabis, suits and ties, colourful ladies in their saris with gold jewelries dripping off their ears and necks and so on. But now days it’s gotten so bad” he laments, “you can’t even walk around this area with a single chain hanging off your hand or neck.”
So what was it that finally felled the seemingly indomitable Bioscope in Durban’s inner-city? The locals all offer conflicting views, with most citing the apathy induced by the advent of television and addictive weekly soapies like Dallas, while Mr Ooka blames the ubiquitous pirated DVD for the decline in his venues attendance.
[singlepic=17,320,240,,left]One thing however that remains certain, is that by the 60’s and 70’s, the ugly face of apartheid served as a definitive catalyst, with Grey Street locals being forced to relocate to far- flung settlements such as Phoenix, Wentworth and Chatsworth. With this exodus went the benign bands of thugs and street gangs who had previously provided the tight- knit community with a complimentary neighborhood watch. Shortly after, Victoria Street became far too treacherous to visit at night and as a result, a range of insipid suburban mall cinema-chains were established to meet the new demand.
One by one, the grand old picture palaces of Victoria Street, were forced to replace their ‘Sold Out’ signs with ‘For Sale’ ones instead. A defeat it seems, to which Mr Ooka must finally succumb.
“Look we’ve had a good run,” he says gazing out onto the street, “but now it’s time for us to bow out gracefully and say– end of story. I must say I’m very sad, this is the end of an era” he sighs– as if as for a minute glimpsing the throngs of people that used stampede his ticket office, ” and what a very glorious era it has been.”

2 Comments

  • marc maurel says:

    i loved this article. it has made me want to see its exact location.

  • Darryl says:

    Excellent article
    I can still rememeber going to shiraz with my mum back in the day – 1990’s.
    I think it used be one ticket for three movies in the day
    It really was alot safer then.
    Really sad to hear how a good place has come to it’s end
    But I will always rememeber it!!!

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