Cairo’s cinemas were once art deco masterpieces of architecture. Today, these same cinemas are mostly crumbling or already long demolished, but a few can still be enjoyed by those in search of a lost golden age.
Egyptians love movies. Even before the advent of television, videos and DVDs, going to ‘the cinema’ was, nationwide, the favourite form of entertainment. Egyptians’ infatuation with movies dates back to the late nineteenth century, with the first screening of a motion picture in Egypt taking place in Alexandria in November 1896. The projection of the short film by the Lumière Brothers in one of the halls of the Toussoun Pasha palace, came less than a year after it was first shown to the world in Le Grand Café in Paris. Commenting on the event, an anonymous writer noted in al-Mou’ayed (12 November 1896) that ‘an incredible number of people gathered round to watch it and I among them. I left intoxicated by the wonders I had seen’. Like the anonymous writer of al-Mou’ayed, Egyptians were soon to become ‘intoxicated’ by the marvellous invention that was cinematography and cinema. Theatres started burgeoning in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia and Port Said.
Although the first cinemas, films, studios, production companies, specialized magazines, and critics were born in Alexandria, the cinema business soon moved to Cairo. The capital had a much larger population, hence it was commercially more attractive to set up business there. In 1935, Talaat Harb, who engineered the renaissance of the Egyptian economy, created Studio Misr in Giza, providing another good reason to move. Located at the foot of the Pyramids, far from the madding crowd, Studio Misr stimulated ‘the development of a national cinema, rapidly considered as an epitome’. Attracted to Cairo, Egyptian and non-Egyptian cinematographers, producers, actors, cameramen and sound engineers would all contribute to transforming Cairo into a ‘Hollywood on the Nile’, and to making the Egyptian film industry the preeminent film industry in the entire Middle East.
The die was cast and soon movie theatres mushroomed all over Cairo. This was a time when European design was dominated by the new art deco style, a term coined during the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs held in Paris in 1925. Art deco architecture found an advocate in the person of Robert Mallet-Stevens, the French architect and designer who with Le Corbusier is widely regarded as one of the two most influential figures in French architecture in the period between the two World Wars. The new style was soon to be adopted in Egypt by a new generation of young and enterprising architects.
Strange as it may sound, Robert Mallet-Stevens was one of the first architects to show an interest in cinema; he designed film sets, so it is no surprise at all to find that most cinema theatres in Cairo were built in the art deco architectural style. From residential buildings to movie theatres, and from private villas to gas stations, sleek art deco architecture, with its geometric forms, strong lines, zigzag motifs and ornamental patterns, was to be seen all around Downtown Cairo. Built between 1935 and 1945, Cairo’s cinemas were a fine example of the new design movement.
With its sleek forms and zigzag designs, the art deco architectural style conquered the imagination of many architects in Egypt. Embracing the style as reminiscent of ancient Egypt, architects excelled in creating the most luxurious movie theatres in Cairo. A stroll through downtown Cairo, and a quick glance at the surrounding architecture, easily shows that most of the cinemas, the likes of the Rivoli, the Odeon and the Miami, were built during the glorious era of art deco (1935 – 1945).
Hidden in al-Alfi Street, off 26th of July Street, Diana Palace, now renamed Diana Cinema, remains the most stylish cinema theatre in Downtown Cairo. Combining an art deco style from the outside with an even more magnificent interior, it is an institution in itself. Designed by Gaston Rossi, a partner in the local firm of architects Dominioni, Rossi & Salama, Diana Palace is one of the rare movie theatres not disfigured by modernization. It has kept all its interior fixtures intact, as well as the art deco lines of its outside walls and façade.
Decorated with traditional geometric art deco designs incorporating glass and chrome, Diana Palace’s foyer is typical of the movie theatres of the 1930s. Complex groupings of rectangle and trapezoid shapes festoon the majestic wrought iron double staircase which leads to the landing. There, a magnificently carved mirror reflects the thousand sparkling lights of a huge crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. In complete contrast to the lavishly decorated foyer, the auditorium with its seating capacity of 1,500, has sober light fixtures set on the typically austere Art Deco lines of its walls.
In its heyday, Diana Palace was a prestigious first-run movie theatre, with a mixture of elegance and artistry, where smoking jackets and long flowing gowns were de rigueur and where during the entr’acte – the interval – the beau monde went out in the foyer to sip Martinis and smoke Havanas. Produced by the owners of Nahas Films, Edmund and Gabriel, the first Arabic musical film, George Abyad’s ‘Song of the Heart’ (Onshoudat al-Fouad) was released on 4 April 1932 at Cinema Diana Palace.
Today, Cinema Diana is relegated to the category of ‘second-class’ cinema, playing mainly Egyptian films and often double-features, to mostly empty houses. Nevertheless, this magnificent example of a stylish art deco movie theatre should be considered lucky because it has escaped the fate of many of its contemporaries.
Many old cinema buildings have been destroyed in the name of development and replaced by ugly office blocks. Others, crying out for something to be done with them, continue to slip further into disrepair. Although still displaying the magnificent art deco architecture of their past glory, the Kursal and the Lido stand derelict and abandoned along Emad Eddin Street, once the hub of Cairo’s entertainment business. Other cinemas still operate on Emad Eddin Street, but their faҫades and interiors have been converted, such as the Cosmos and the nearby Le Pigale. Stuck between the Kursaal and the Lido, and listed as a ‘third-class’ cinema, Le Pigale, actually misspelled Pigeal, lost all its former art deco architecture during its rehabilitation. The former art deco façade is now plastered with giant black and white photos of actors and hand-painted film posters. If Le Pigeal and the Cosmos have been refurbished and are still operating, the Kursal and the Lido are not even earmarked for redevelopment and no one on the street remembers them as movie theatres, or even notices them. Their fate remains unknown, but most probably they will be pulled down and replaced by another mammoth mall or an office building, erasing forever an era of artistic elegance.
There is another movie house with a great past still standing in Cairo. This classic downtown Art Deco movie theatre is the Metro Cinema on Soliman Pasha Street, renamed Talaat Harb Street. It opened in early 1940 with Gone with the Wind, and continued to be a showcase for Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) movies in Cairo, with the traditional MGM lion roaring in its logo until nationalization in the mid-1960s. Its stunning art deco style was designed by the New York architect Thomas Lamb, while the architects Dominioni, Rossi & Salama, from the same local firm that built the Diana Palace, worked from Thomas Lamb’s plans and blueprints after receiving them from Hollywood. The Metro Cinema was the first Egyptian cinema to have air conditioning, and a restaurant attached to it.
The fortunes – good and bad – of the Metro Cinema are very much connected to the politically turbulent 1940s; during this time it was closed twice for repairs, each time for several months. The first incident took place in 1947, when a bomb allegedly placed by the Muslim Brotherhood, exploded killing and injuring several people. A few years later, on 26 January 1952, during a time of yet more political unrest and turbulence, the Metro was totally destroyed by fire. It is believed that the Metro was not directly targeted and that the real target of the people’s ire was the British-run Turf Club, which was located on the adjacent Adly Street. Yet, the cinema was completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt.
The new Metro Cinema received a completely different interior, with its foyer resembling ‘an African Savannah with samples of African masks and shields, with some wild animals in the background’. With great nostalgia, Ibrahim al-Batout, the Egyptian award-winning documentary and film director still remembers ‘the magnificent marble staircase with its red carpet, that led to the upper floor, the balcony, as it was called in those days’. Continuing to reminisce on the past glory of the cinema hall, al-Batout remembers the weekly Tom and Jerry cartoon screening that he regularly attended as a child. ‘It was a combination of magic and splendour’, says al-Batout, adding that standing by the decorated glass doors, an usher in a long red coat and a black cap offered every child a free ice cream or a free bottle of Coca Cola.
After changing hands on a number of occasions, the Metro was meant to receive a total refurbishment in 1997, with the main auditorium designed by Thomas Lamb for 1,530 seats to be pulled down to make way for a number of smaller halls. Still, this has not yet happened, and the current owners, al-Arabeya, have kept the large auditorium almost intact with its wood panelled corridors. In a way, apart from replacing light fixtures and the velvety red curtains, there has been no major change to the main auditorium. However, the balcony area with its red velvet ‘box seats’ has disappeared entirely, making way for four smaller screens.
Cinema Miami on Talaat Harb Street (formerly Soliman Pasha Street), which still exists today, had an art deco façade and tower. In its very early days, Miami was an open air theatre, called plein aire cinema, with no roof. It operated during the summer months from May to September. Although the art deco tower disappeared when a roof was built, remnants of the stylish façade can still be seen. As at the Metro, a bomb exploded in the Miami’s auditorium in November 1947, killing a woman and injuring thirty patrons. According to survivors, the bomb exploded just when the Egyptian national anthem was being played. Playing the national anthem before any film projection was a tradition that lasted until the mid-1950s, when the royal anthem was replaced by the national anthem of the republic. Legend says that King Farouk, a keen movie lover, even had the royal armchair brought to the cinema.
If the Metro Cinema was the exclusive home of the roaring lion of MGM, Cairo Palace, another art deco cinema, was for many years the exclusive home to first-run Twentieth Century Fox films in Cairo. In 1953, the American biblical epic The Robe – the first film released in widescreen Cinemascope – was played at Cairo Palace.
Today, as it stands, still in the same location off 26th of July Street, Cairo Palace is a far cry from what it once was. The art deco façade has gone, as has the lavishly decorated foyer. Gone also are the luxurious auditorium, the light fixtures, the grand marble stairway, the crystal chandelier of the red carpeted foyer…
Downtown Cairo was not the only home for lavishly decorated art deco cinemas; the red carpeted stairway and the chandelier in the foyer was not only for Cairo’s elite. With the cinema business becoming increasingly lucrative, a number of cinemas expanded to suburbs like Heliopolis, Zeitoun, and Matareya, and even into less privileged districts, such as Sayeda Zeinab and al-Khalifa.
In al-Siyoufeya Street, a stone’s throw from Amir Taz Palace and the Tekkeya, stands the abandoned and half demolished Cinema Wahba. With its slick whitewashed walls, its austere façade and its semi-circular entrance enhanced by two columns, Cinema Wahba is a real gem of art deco architecture. It was ‘the pulse of the street’, laments Hajj Mohamed Hassan, owner of a local coffee shop and considered to be the oldest resident on the street. Before it closed shop, some twenty years ago, ‘the street was alive and thriving, and people used to come from all over al-Khalifa to watch foreign and Egyptian movies’, he adds.
Like Cinema Wahba, the Rio Cinema in Bab al-Luq is also crying out for help. For more than a quarter of a century, its owner has left it to be invaded by rats, spiders and street urchins. Its crumbling art deco tower and the broken tiles of its entrance are a sad reminder of its past appearance.
Having retained their art deco features, Wahba and Rio might one day return as living movie theatres, but who will bring back the elegant, sober and splendid lines of the art deco architecture of the Cairo Palace, the Miami or the Rivoli cinemas? At one time these cinemas where the very best places to enjoy art house films and first-runs in Cairo, all within an elegant atmosphere. And if we agree that the 1940s and 1950s are generally considered the ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptian cinema, we should then agree that the same era was also the ‘Golden Age’ of art deco movie theatres in Egypt.
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Eva Dadrian is an Emmy Award-winning British-Egyptian independent broadcaster and writer with extensive experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. She works as a political risk analyst for Arab Africa Affairs (London/ Cape Town). She also writes in al-Ahram Weekly and al-Ahram Hebdo (Cairo) and covers issues ranging from art and science to environment and religion for the BBC World Service.