Monday, March 06, 2017

Down Memory Lane: Georgetown Cinemas of Yesteryear

So, the Astor Cinema is up for sale*. It’s now a derelict hulk, just one more eyesore in a city that was once deemed the most beautiful in the Caribbean. The tiny For Sale sign hangs on its façade like a timid afterthought, a hopeless plea to some rich saviour to swoop in and rescue this one-time Castle of Dreams; save it from crumbling to the ground. 
The Astor -- Palace of Dreams?

 With a pang, I stopped to take a snap. And I made a wish. Someone, please, do it! Someone save this monument to Georgetown’s Golden Age! Such wonderful stories have played out here; so many people escaped their humdrum lives within these crumbling walls. This was once the home of romance and glamour and joy. Bring it back! Cinemas took us Georgetowners to far-off lands and transported us into the exotic lives of others; they showed us the world beyond our shores, and took us on adventures and exploits beyond our wildest dreams; they sowed the seeds of  ambition within our souls and lit the fuse of our most daring aspirations. They did it in a way the now ubiquitous DVD—sold now in pirated copies at every street corner—cannot; and that Multiplex Cinema I heard is planned for Georgetown? Phooey! It can’t compare. 

Going to the cinema was a big event. You dressed up, and you were on your best manners. It was always a double-feature, back then, and in the pause between films you could buy soft-drinks and popcorn. Before the film started they would play God Save the Queen and show a short film with the Queen on horseback, and everyone would stand up in respect. Remember this? Though it may have been in black-and-white.

I remember well the owner and manager of the Astor. He was a young man named Gregory G., and he liked to hang around outside the cinema with other young men of his ilk, ogling us teenage girls in ways that, in retrospect, were decidedly creepy.
In this article another writer, Godfrey Chin is nostalgic for the good old cinema days:

In 1940 the Correia family built the magnificent Astor on Waterloo Street, and in spite of WWII the film fare of Hollywood’s best, delighted the locals. The classic Gone with the Wind which opened in Atlanta, in December 1939, debuted at the Metropole in March 1941, and all the great classic movies such as Gunga Din, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Robin Hood and Singing in the Rain, kept the locals up to date with the fashions, styles, norms, etc, of the outside world. Cinemas were our windows to the outer world. Even the British Council utilised 16mm shows to educate us about our then British ‘overlords.’

The Astor was the scene of an embarrassing éclat between my aunts and my Uncle Dennis. Everyone in Georgetown knew or knew of Uncle Dennis, an eccentric bachelor. The eldest of eight brothers, who rode around town on a rusty old bicycle wearing khaki short pants, long socks, and a hat. If he saw one of his many nieces and nephews he would immediately jump off his bike and call us to him, whereupon he’d tell us a joke and ride off again. Uncle Dennis was quite brilliant, though his formal education was limited. He had taught himself German and was well known for tutoring pupils who weren’t doing well at school, especially in mathematics; and never taking any money for his efforts. Uncle Dennis was a Christian and believed in Christian charity. Which also meant he had not a selfish or mean or snobbish bone in his body. And also that he was quite poor all his life.

Which was why, when he went to the cinema, he would always sit in Pit. In the classist, racist Georgetown of those days, the cinema was the one place that told you where you stood in the hierarchy. If you were black and poor, you paid a pittance and sat in the Pit, at the front of the cinema. Here there were only wooden benches; it was a noisy, raucous place and those who considered themselves better off would never set foot down there. Behind the Pit was the House, where the general populace sat. Above the House ranged the quiet comfort of Balcony, floating above House in velvet exclusivity. And at the front of the Balcony, if you could afford it, was the quiet luxury of the Box.

Uncle Dennis was fair-skinned, but he always sat in Pit. And there he was spotted by my aunts one day at a cinema outing. “Look; there’s Dennis down there in the Pit!” said Aunt Edith* with a shudder, pointing down. “I hope he doesn’t see us!” said Aunt Doreen* as they all moved along to take their seats. And just at that moment, Uncle Dennis looked up and spotted them in the Box.
Uncle Dennis immediately rose to his feet; he turned around and waved, his face a big joyful grin. “Doreen, Edith, Marjorie*! Hold on, I’m coming!” he yelled for all the world to hear, and proceeded to step over all the benches in Pit, climb over the barrier to House, and up the staircase to Balcony and Box. I don’t know if my aunts were required to pay extra for Uncle Dennis; but he certainly watched that film in comfort that day.

Opposite the Astor on Waterloo St was the Globe. Today, where the Globe used to stand is just an empty lot gathering the usual Georgetown garbage. But the Globe too has memories for me, and evokes for me one particular event.

Where the Globe once stood

 I was a junior journalist at the time, working for the Chronicle. Apart from the obvious perk of laying the foundation of my life as a writer, the job came with certain perks, the chief one being getting to meet interesting people—especially foreigners to our shores—and attend interesting events. One of the latter was a concert by Mahalia Jackson in the Globe Cinema; it must have been around 1969, a few years before her death in 1971. We of the Press got to sit in a Box, along with all the other invitees—for the most part, members of Society who sat in Balcony and Box rustling their programmes and clapping staidly at the end of each of Mahalia’s songs. The Pit, of course, was closed. This was a celebrity concert—they couldn’t have the hoi-polloi lowering the tone.  

Mahalia Jackson
However, one door, right next to the stage, stood open—only a chain closed it off from the street, and that’s where the hoi-polloi gathered, pushing and jostling to get the chance to see their idol. A guard stood there with a baton, pushing them back and trying to keep them from getting too rowdy.
Mahalia Jackson noticed the little rumpus down there in the corner, and assessed the situation in a moment. “Remove that chain!” she called. Next thing the chain was down and the city’s poor black population was pouring into the Pit. They filled the benches; they sat on the floor and stood on the sides and simply crammed themselves into every last inch of space.

Mahalia began to sing again, and this time, what a difference! The crowd in the Pit went wild. They clapped along, they sang along, they cheered, they rejoiced. Whether it was a slow and intimate Take my Hand, Precious Lord or a jubilant He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands—the Pit crowd was with her, heart and soul. Life came into that staid cinema hall, and joy and celebration. It was magnificent! Up in the Balcony and Boxes the Upper Echelons of Society sat stiff and silent, clearly out-privileged. And I would have loved of make the reverse journey to Uncle Dennis: down from the Box and into the Pit, into the midst of the rejoicing. For most of those people down there it would have been an evening they would never forget—just as I have never forgotten it.
The Strand de Luxe -- Now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God

Other cinemas in Georgetown were the Metropole, the Plaza, the Empire, the Hollywood and the Strand de Luxe. The Strand was called de Luxe as it was a new build, the first air-conditioned cinema in town and quite special. Now it is another derelict hull; perhaps a church hall of some kind, judging by the sign across the building.

The Strand -- back in the day.

The Plaza was in Camp Street, just around the corner from my home in Lamaha Street. The Plaza showed all those Beach Party movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. I saw them all in great delight; I was in my early teens, and American teenagerdom seemed to me the height of all that was good and worth striving for in the world. I watched every one of them.
The Hollywood in Alexander Road showed only Hindi movies, so I never went there. And I have no memories whatsoever of the Empire. There remains the Metropole, and with it a memory of little Charlie. 
Jerry Lewis

When I was ten years old I broke a bone in my hand and was in the Georgetown Hospital for a few days. I remember a huge ward full of screaming children; I hated it, but luckily my Dad came to visit regularly. In the bed next to mine lay a little Amerindian boy. Possibly, he had polio; I remember both his legs were in metal braces. My dad made some enquiries and discovered he was an orphan, and in and out of hospital. Charlie must have tugged at Dad’s heart-strings, because after I was released from hospital Dad took me to the cinema at the Metropole to see a Jerry Lewis film, and he stopped at the hospital to pick up Charlie. It was a Jerry Lewis film, and it was the first time Charlie had ever been to the cinema. So it’s thanks to little  Charlie that the Metropole gets a place in my Memory Gallery of Georgetown cinemas.
But there’s one more.
Which teenager of the 60’s and 70’s can forget the Starlite Drive in? Of course, for most of those years, my generation was too young to own a car or even have a driving licence, but if we were lucky we knew someone who knew someone and could wangle an invite. The big deal was Tuesday night: Carload Night! We’d load up the car with as many teenagers as possible and drive up the East Coast Demerara towards Ogle—that’s where the big screen of the glorious Starlite was to be found. We never went for the film. It was for the event, the experience, the company that we went. It was a party, and we were young; those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.
I'll end this eulogy with another quote from Godfrey Chin:
Christmas 2008 the Astor, the last cinema standing, was showing a powerful action double, Casino Royale and Quantum Leap. As I sat in their balcony reminiscing, there were about 12 patrons in the entire cinema. I was impressed that the upkeep and maintenance in the balcony and house area was pretty good. The leather upholstered box seats are still there.

As I thanked Desmond Woon, the Manager, for his cinema tour, I quipped that his last stand reminded me of Errol Flynn in They Died with their Boots On, which opened at the Metropole around 1943. I should really name this Nostalgia, ‘The Astor’s Last Stand.’
So, any offers for the Astor? Or if not, why not post your own memories of Georgetown Cinemas in the comments?

* The For Sale sign is gone; but I don't think it was sold. Will find out.


HughAllan said...

I tremendously enjoyed reading this story about the cinemas in Guyana. Brought back great memories! Especially being in the Pit of the Astor on Waterloo Street watching Karate films instead of attending the afternoon session of school at Saints'.
And the cuff by cuff commentary from the Pit during cowboy and karate films! We used to spend afternoon school sessions in the Pit smoking a forbidden cigarette that was usually ‘bummed’ (Guyanese vernacular for’ begged’) or bought ‘loose’ off someone outside the cinema.
Mine was a white face glowing in the darkness of the pit and I was unafraid, safe. Nothing ever threatening happened to me down there. Those were the days, eh?

Sharon Maas said...

The Pit was a quintessentially male place; a lot of very raucous energy down there!

Deen said...

Sharon, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article, which was very informative and entertaining. Thanks for sharing your personal and interesting experiences. I myself, being of the underprivileged class, was a regular "Pit" boy, but I always enjoyed being in "Pit" because it appears that was the most fun place in the cinema....unless, you have a date in the "Box." During, my whole movie-going life in "Pit," I never recalled seeing a female there. Apart from the movies, another fond entertainment experience I recalled was the many vaudeville shows including calypsonians, comedians, acrobats and dancers. Some of the famous entertainers were Sparrow, Sam Dopey, Madame O'Lindy, etc. Thanks again for the trip down memory lane.I hope your appeal will help save the Astor Cinema. Deen Ameerullah

Sharon Maas said...

Thanks for commenting, Deen, and sorry I took so long to reply. I haven't been taking very good care of this blog!