A nostalgic look at Guyana’s cinemas
- By Bernard Heydorn (2004)
I must confess that my first love affair was with the cinema, when I was growing up in Guyana, after World War II. The silent movies of 1920s had given way to the talkie movies of the 1930s. My parents spoke fondly of seeing Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald star in classic movies of that era, like Rose Marie and Sweethearts. This was reinforced, no doubt, by the fact that my parents were recently married and were themselves sweethearts.
But the story of the cinema in Guyana goes back to the 1920s when the Gaiety, which was probably Guyana’s first cinema, stood by the Brickdam Roman Catholic Presbytery in Georgetown, and showed Charlie-Chaplin-type, silent movies.
The Gaiety burnt down around 1926, but was followed by other cinemas such as the Metro on Middle Street, in Georgetown, which became the Empire; the London on Camp Street, which became the Plaza; and the Astor on Church and Waterloo Streets, which opened around 1940.
There was the Metropole on Robb and Wellington Streets; the Rialto, which became the Rio, on Vlissengen Road; the Hollywood, one of my favourites in Kitty; and the Strand de Luxe on Wellington Street, which was considered the luxury show place.
But in fact, each of the cinemas had their heyday and special clientele, and some like the Astor, Plaza, Metropole, and the Strand de Luxe still stand today.
Take for example, the Olympic on Lombard Street in Georgetown. During the 1940s, one could buy a little cheaper ticket there, but had to be contented with just four walls and benches!
The luxury of a roof was not there, and so this cinema was considered the first “fowl house.”
Then there was the Capitol on La Penitence Street in Albouystown, which had a rough reputation. A friend of mine once saw a movie there called Death Takes A Holiday, but did not take a holiday when a bomb was thrown into the Pit thee during the civil disturbances in Guyana in the 1960s, killing two women inside.
The first movie I saw was Tarzan: The Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller, at the Globe cinema in New Amsterdam, around 1952. I was dazzled and transported to a never-never-land of larger than life gods, goddesses and villains.
On the screen, I escaped to exotic places where people lived in splendour and performed feats I had never dreamt possible, take for example, King Kong!
Heroes and heroines sang and danced, lived, loved and died, and spoke immortal words that were burned forever in my memory. The movie shows provided a release from the drudgery and struggle of everyday life, even if it was for just a few hours, and cinema proprietors, like Ho A Yun of the Globe in New Amsterdam, were household names and stand-outs in the community.
Each show was given advanced billing through posters, flyers, and billboards stuck everywhere around town and country, on fences, lamp posts, walls, shops, outside the cinema and inside the lobby. Pamphlets depicting upcoming shows were also thrown from passing cars that advertised the events from loudspeakers strapped to the roofs of the cars. These pamphlets which often had a purple or reddish tinge, became treasured items for school children who would risk life and limb by rushing to the advertising cars or trucks to grab them. Pamphlets were often traded to enhance one’s collection or win favours.
The seating section of the cinema were distinctly divided. Closest to the screen with rows of hard wooden benches was the lowly Pit, where the effort of looking upwards at the screen for several hours gave one a permanent stiff neck!
There was a gentle slope of the Pit toward the next section, House, which was separated from the Pit by a low partition wall, a barrier that came in handy on many an occasion when the Pit was disturbed like a nest of ants.
The back of Pit, which sometimes ran under the overhang of House, was a favourite section for those patrons who had more than movies on their minds. House usually had individual but connected wooden seats in rows, seats that flipped up or down.
Right above House were the elitist sections of Box, with soft, private seats and behind Box, Balcony, a favourite place for couples dating who wanted to smooch a bit at the back.
These divisions in the cinema roughly represented the different strata existing in a colonial society at that time.
Behind Balcony was the closed projection room, where temperatures would be rising in every sense of the word. The projectionist was surrounded by the bright lights and big, hot tubes of the projector, which kept the confined place hot like a furnace, so much so that the projectionist would strip down to his “buckta” brief to do his job! Too often a bulb or tube of his projector would blow, or the power supply fail, not an uncommon experience in Guyana, and this made him sweat more, as patrons, especially those in Pit, threatened a mini-riot, calling every insult down on the house.
To rub salt in the wounds, an irate manager may storm in and blame him for the breakdown in the show!
For House one bought one’s ticket for six pence from a cage in the lower foyer, and for Pit, one paid three pence, usually to a very small slit in a solid concrete wall of the cinema.
For Pit, you fed your money into the slot, where two nimble, extra-long fingers would dart out like a snake’s tongue and grasp your cash, and in turn passed out your ticket and change, if there was any change. If you were short-changed your luck was out for you had nobody to argue with — the ticket vendor at the Pit was as faceless as the hangman at the Georgetown jail on Camp Street!
The line outside the Pit was usually long, noisy and boisterous, winding around the outside of the cinema, with lots of jostling and pushing to get in.
At the Empire Cinema on Middle Street, the entrance to the ticket vending section of the Pit was a dimly lit tunnel, which narrowed so much that a patron, heavy around the girth, could only pass in sideways! This was for crowd control, but as happened on one occasion when I was there, a fat man got wedged tight just as he was trying to collect his ticket from his navel level, at the vending slit!
The show had just started and the Pit patrons waiting in the line outside, knew it. They started to push, for the line was stationary, and they didn’t want to miss anything. Before the man could get a proper hold on his ticket, he was promptly pushed around to the Pit ticket collector, who quickly showed him the exit.
For that unfortunate man there was no light at the end of the tunnel, as he had to return to the back of the line, wait, and then carefully pay for another ticket!
Before a show, bicycles would be parked, one of top of the other, up to ten or 15 deep, along the walls of the cinema. How anyone could find their bicycle after a show has always been a mystery to me.
One thing for sure, you had to padlock your cycle or you kissed it goodbye! Specialist cycle thieves hung out at cinemas, and some of them were so good, they could ‘pick’ telephone locks in the dark with their eyes closed!
If you had some extra money, you could buy a variety of treats from vendors with trays or glass cases, or a shave-ice cart outside the cinema, usually under a street light. Some cinemas had a shop in the foyer.
Readily available as vendors plied their trade, barking their specialties, were: toffees, peanuts, parched nuts, hot channa, sugar cake, Matai, Jub-jub, fudge, Tanko, tamarind balls, potato balls, Hassa back, Conkee, Cookerite, Awara, Jamoon, and Stinkin’ Toe.
Also a shout away were: Sidium, Souree, Simitoo, popsicle, fudgicle, frutti, ice blocks, Brown Betty ice cream in little cardboard containers, black pudding and souse, chewing gum, and mints, which came in handy if you wanted to steal a kiss or a smoke.
A few vendors were allowed inside the cinema such as the ‘Block Man,’ who sold ice blocks made from sweetened condensed milk. He would put the blocks on the inside cover of his Thermos flask to pass down the benches of the Pit to his sweating customers to cool them off. They in turn put their money, dirty jills, and copper cents, in the same flask cover, and passed it back: not a very sanitary arrangement, but one that worked.
Showtimes at the cinema were daily at 1 p.m. (especially catering for those employed at Walkers and Riders — the unemployed, and school children skulking from school). Then there was the 5 p.m. show for the family, and another at 9 p.m. for the night owls and dating couples.
On Saturdays, there were early 9 a.m. shows (matinees) with lots of cartoons for the kiddies. Afternoon shows at 1 p.m. were also called ‘matinees.’
During the day shows, the windows were shut tightly, making the cinema as hot as a furnace. Around 6 p.m., the windows were opened up with long sticks, to bring in a breath of fresh air, which was a relief in a frowzy cinema.
When the show was ready to start, the lights would be turned off, with only the red Exit signs glowing seductively in the dark, at the four corners. The screen curtains would be opened and a hushed silence fell on the cinema.
In the early days there was small screen, and later (1952) Cinemascope was introduced, which was wide screen, sometimes covering the entire width of the cinema.
The show started with a viewing of a young Queen Elizabeth II in Royal military scarlet uniform, sitting side-saddle on a horse, at the trooping of the colours, with the British national anthem God Save The Queen playing and the Union Jack unfurled in the background.
Most patrons stood loyally to attention except for many in the Pit, who sat and continued to talk, laugh, and shout at each other, showing scant respect for the Crown.
The Queen was often followed by British New Reel and British Council films, which showed developments in the Empire. Such as Edmund Hillary climbing Mount Everest; the hunt for Mau Mau in Kenya; the Coronation of the Queen, or the birth of her latest child; Stirling Moss and car racing; and Royalty on tour visiting their loyal subjects in every part of the Empire where Britain ruled and the sun never set.
Sometimes, trailers, shorts on upcoming attractions would be shown, or a cartoon like Donald Duck.
If it was a 3-D film, special red and green 3-D cardboard and cellophane glasses were handed out for viewing. This 3-D never seemed to work for me, giving me only a headache and dizziness.
Then came the first film of a double bill. Most of the early movies were black and white, some with greenish, reddish or pinkish tinge. Later there was Technicolor and Vista Vision.
During the intermission or a program disruption, which was quite frequent, patrons went to relieve themselves on the floor, sitting on their benches and warning others nearby by shouting, “Raise yuh foot!”
To venture into the Pit toilet (urinal), which was usually at the end of a long, dark tunnel, was to enter a stinking, crowded, noisy hell hole that only the brave, reckless and desperate could deal with! I usually held my waste in, almost giving me “nara” pains by the time I got out of the Pit.
During a show, a Pit patron may let off a stink bomb, or a firecracker squib, which would create a stir, or an argument and a fist-fight may break out among the brethren. I say brethren because few women, with the exception of ladies of the evening, would venture into the Pit.
These ladies were often welcomed with open arms and pants, sometimes going to the back of Pit, where House overhung Pit, and setting up business there. In the middle of the show, it was not unusual to hear groaning and rustling from that section, providing a distraction from the main event on the screen, and causing some patrons to complain loudly. I wonder if this perhaps gave rise to the term “Passion Pit”?
On one occasion when I was at a show, a tender love scene was disturbed by the sudden, sharp cry of a baby in the cinema. This was followed by an angry man’s voice from the Pit, shouting, “Put duh bubby in ‘is mout’!”
Other distractions and interruptions came from power outages, equipment breakdowns, or an adventurous rat stepping on a woman’s toes in its quest for fallen nuts.
My father forbade me from going into the Pit, saying, “Ah don’t want any B-flat bugs here at home!” I went, nevertheless, but was careful not to wear a white shirt, which would come out black, with tell-tale red spots, where I had shortened a bug’s lifespan!
It was much safer to wear a plaid shirt that would camouflage everything. During a show, a Pit patron may strike a match, or flick a lighter in the dark to check out the whereabouts of a persistent bug and burn it.
Some cinemas gained the reputation of being bug houses. Sometimes, it was embarrassing to be seen in the Pit when they put on the lights, so at such times, I usually sat low in my seat with a long hat pulled over my head, which I carried for just such a purpose.
At Easter, during the showing of a Passion Play depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, the mob in the Pit seemed to be the only group who openly showed their anger and displeasure as Jesus was being whipped. They were often disturbed at this unfairness, shouting at His tormentors to stop, perhaps reflecting on the “whippings” they received in their daily lives.
The closest that we came to a “pornographic” film in Guyana was a movie called Mom And Dad, a story of “the birds and the bees.” This show was immediately banned and the Churches came down on it like a ton of bricks, preaching fire and damnation from the pulpits.
Only adults over 21 could see it, and men and women were segregated, being allowed into the cinema on separate days! Some young adults who went without their parents’ knowledge or permission came home to a “cut ass” from angry parents when they found out, all because of a simple sex education film.
I never did get to see that film, but it was not for lack of trying, being turned away at the ticket booth for being too young, even though I tried to grow a beard. As a result, I had to learn in other ways.
During a show, a checker may show up and move up and down the aisles, tick, ticking with a counter. This was to make sure that his figures matched the number of tickets sold. Two films were usually shown, with an intermission in the middle, and a showing of trailers or shorts of upcoming films.
It was on the screen I saw and felt the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the likes of Bill Haley and his Comets, Elvis Presley, the Platters, and the classic movies, White Christmas with Bing Crosby at Christmas, and the Robe at Easter.
The circuit of cinemas was also the watering hole for limers, a constituency of beggars, the blind, the dispossessed, the town or village idiot, the drunkard, the pickpocket, the prostitutes like Mary Bruck Iron of Albouystown, the self-appointed car guard, characters who hung-out outside the cinema, hoping for a handout, waiting for somebody to drop something, looking for some action and when none was forthcoming, prone to initiate something themselves.
Some cinemas broadcast their movies through a loudspeaker outside, which in itself would attract an audience. Interestingly enough, in all this buzz of activity, a policeman was a rare sight, unless he was disguised in plainclothes.
Some cinemas like the Rialto on Vlissengen Road and the Hollywood in Kitty, showed Indian movies with sub-titles, which were very popular with the East Indian population. There were no West Indian movies, although a few movies such as Island In The Sun (Barbados) were filmed in the West Indies. To actually meet a movie star was something unheard of.
The cinema was also a venue for other activities. On Empire Day, May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday, it was not unusual to herd school children together and march them down to the cinema where we sang patriotic songs such as Born In The Land Of The Mighty Roraima. Afterwards we trooped back to school where the authorities satiated our appetites with hard rock buns, softened and washed down with sugar water, which we quickly devoured.
Sometimes school children were compelled to attend special shows at the cinema, for which they had to pay. On one occasion, another pupil and I could not raise the six pence required, and we stood there embarrassed, as the rest of the pupils were preparing to go to the cinema. The headmaster took one look at us, shook his head, and to our surprise, dug into his pocket to fork out a shilling, which he gave to us.
In this manner he showed a kinder side to his personality, for he had a well-earned reputation for “cutting ass” with the wild cane.
My father maintained that “money was fuh food for our craws, not fuh goin’ tuh movie.”
I loved the cinema so much that I sometimes saved my daily bread ration money and went without bread, in order that I might take in a weekend show, following the dictum that man does not live by bread alone, for the cinema was my god.
The cinema was also a venue for local talent shows: comedians Sam Chase and Jack Melo, Nesbit Chaangur — Guyana’s first singing cowboy from the Corentyne, Andy Nicholls — Guyana’s answer to Elvis Presley, a midget called Sam Dopie, magicians, politicians, Bible thumping revivalists, and hypnotists like Professor Fassman, who could even put the Pit patrons into a trance, keeping them quiet or making them move in unison!
Over the years, the Drive-In cinema also gained a reputation. For example, the story is told that the projectionist at the Starlight drive-in once flashed on the screen a notice to the effect that an irate caller had just telephoned the cinema saying he was coming to get the man who had gone there with the caller’s wife. Apparently, half the cars immediately started up and drove away!
Movie madness did not end with the cinema; it spread to the home. Enterprising youngsters developed homemade movie businesses, rivalling MGM in Hollywood! Colourful slides were drawn in sequence onto celluloid and grease-proof paper, and magnified through a magnifying glass. A bright 150-watt bulb sitting in a shoebox provided the means of projection of the celluloid onto the screen, which was usually a stolen, dingy white bedsheet from their parents’ bed.
The venue for all this activity would be a room in a bottom house, with newspaper put over the windows to keep out the light and prying eyes that wanted to view for free. A jill usually provided entrance to such a show and Saturday afternoon was a good time to catch the action.
Let me conclude by saying that the cinema was probably one of the most important vehicles for the importation of American and British language and culture into a colonial West Indies. It also provided a respite from the trials and tribulations of life for the struggling masses that had little opportunity for entertainment.
At the end of a double billing, as you re-entered the real world, blinking in the bright light outside the cinema, you felt that you had received your money’s worth, every red copper cent of it, from all the action on and off the screen!
Those were the glory days, for today the cinema in many places is a dying institution, being superceded by home videos and the like.