Last Picture Showby Don Pinnock / 05.12.2012
There were once bioscopes that had Saturday matinees where, for a few shillings, you could sit in the dark and inch your hand northwards from your girlfriend’s knee and hope to smear her lipstick by the Pathe Newsreel. An unwritten rule reserved the front rows for wide-eyed kids spilling popcorn and Coke and back rows for overheated teenagers. Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Rock Hudson taught boys to be men and girls learned how to attract them from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn.
These days, in place of bioscopes, are shoebox cinemas in malls lined up like railway platforms and the kids make out in their cars. The playhouse atmosphere with wood panelling, scuffed red carpets and clippies with dented torches has gone – well, almost. In the whole of South Africa there’s really only one old-fashioned bioscope left, on Orange Street in Cape Town named, suggestively, The Labia. In it are people who’ve worked there so long they’re monuments to the film industry and should be declared National Treasures.
‘When I saw Cinema Paradiso I thought: “Hey, that’s me!” said Redwaan Fridie, staring out the time-stained windows of the Labia, remembering his District 6 childhood. ‘I hung around in the projection box at the Avalon Bioscope and collected bits of cut film, just like that kid Toto did. I loved those big projectors and the huge reels of celluloid. Still do.’
Redwaan’s been the projectionist at the Labia for 24 years. During that time he lost his home in District 6. ‘Group Areas you know. They said I must live in Bonteheuwel but I wouldn’t live there, I boarded in Woodstock with Christine (the cinema’s clippie).’ Then, because of the unsociable hours and endless weekend work, his wife left him.
‘I should go,’ he said while manhandling a huge reel onto the projector. ‘Now there’s just one reel and no carbon arc light to look after. You just sit. But the world out there’s scary. I’ve seen guys leave here then they want to come back. Forty six years old and this is all I know. I’ve got celluloid in my blood.’
The building is a monument to an age when plaster curves were fashionable, scooped porticos housed elegant marble statues, dark woodwork was hand carved and heavy, red-velvet curtains de rigueur. It was opened by Princess Labia on Monday, 16 May, 1949 as a ballroom and performing arts centre for the Italian Embassy. Without anyone noticing, someone moulded Mussolini’s coat of arms onto the wall.
Each day of the week you can buy a glass of palatable red or white wine from Harold Dirmeik, some popcorn from Clare Idesis and take your pick of four cinemas showing everything from arthouse to Avatar and, if your timing’s right, catch a film festival. Harold has the elegant air of a Parisian maître de and Clair flashes the dark eyes of her Russian father as she scoops kernels into brown paper packets with 19 years of practice, spilling nothing.
Any Capetonian who’s been to a film in the last two decades that enthralled, shocked or gave rise to debates long afterwards probably saw it at the Labia. At the venue’s many festivals, queues snake out the building and down the pavement.
The man behind it all – who had to learn to exchange a lawyer’s suit and tie for T-shirt and jeans – is Ludi Kraus. He’s also got celluloidal blood. By the age of 16 he was managing his father’s cinema, The Alhambra in Windhoek, during school holidays.
‘It was all commercial stuff like Jaws and karate, popcorn and romcoms,’ he remembers. ‘There were three cinemas in town and the one with the best poster drew the crowds. I used to say to my father: “You have to educate people.” But, you know, it was Windhoek in the 1960s.’
Ludi studied law at the University of Cape Town. For the next 14 years he followed his profession, putting on art films at local theatres as a hobby. But there was just something about the Labia Theatre. It called him. It took him two years to persuade the owners to sell it to him, and in 1989 he succeeded.
‘I started here after one night’s break between jobs, he said, ‘and I don’t think I’ve had a break ever since. The reels have to keep turning.’ His first challenge was to not wear a suit and tie, a lawyer’s uniform. ‘My predecessor said for goodness sake get rid of the suit or you’ll chase people away. Now I work eight days a week – in jeans.’ The Labia’s future? ‘I don’t know. There are high overheads, the industry’s controlled by big majors, we don’t have the money to upgrade. We’re an island. Nobody other than me would be crazy enough to keep it up. After me…’
Christine Andrews can’t begin to guess how many tickets she’s torn in half. ‘Millions,’ she says, ‘I’ve been here since 1978. The Labia’s her night job. By day she chars and looks after her grandchildren. She used to have a torch and show patrons to their seats, but now ‘everyone sits where they like.’ And she’s seen a lot of movies. ‘I love cinema,’ she says. ‘I’d watch all the films. Friday was horror night and there were wonderful festivals. But I’m very picky these days.’
What’s it like being an usher for 38 years? ‘I meet a lot of people, she says, ripping tickets as we speak. ‘But if the Labia was a person I’d divorce them. It’s getting too much. I’m getting married, so maybe my husband will support me so I can leave.’
Harold ran a restaurant in Sea Point and Ludi was his customer. ‘He used to come in with his sexy girlfriend and I got to know them,’ says Harold. ‘He said he needed a food and drink counter at the Labia and was I interested? There was nothing here when I came, just a dirty couch and this big picture of Venice. I put in a counter, fridges, chairs, everything. And it was a good move. The city centre’s growing up. There are more young people and they like the style of the Labia. It’s got heart.’
There’s trouble on the horizon, however. Ludi doesn’t own the building, which belongs to the local government and is attached to the Western Cape Racing and Gambling Board. It’s a valuable inner-city property that could probably earn more for its owner if it was demolished and developed as a block of flats. The huge costs Ludi has incurred turning it into four theatres could go up in a puff of dust. ‘There was a time when this worried me,’ he said, ‘but things are looking up now. I’m sure I’ll get another lease.’
An almost bigger problem is the changing nature of cinema. ‘The industry in South Africa is controlled by only two companies, NuMetro and Ster Kinekor,’ says Ludi. ‘We’re like a pilchard in a shark’s pond. They’re the importers of film and they go for commercial stuff. If we import art movies we can only show them here and not sell them on. That makes it expensive.
‘And the format’s changing. We need a new projector. Also movies are big budget so fewer art movies are being made – or they’re made but sidelined by the big commercial outfits. We rely on nothing but box office and digital stuff is expensive.’
I sat at Harold’s bar and asked what he thought about the future of the Labia. He poured a glass of red wine for me and stared out the door at the evening traffic rushing past. ‘First it was celluloid, then plastic film. Then it was DVDs and Blue-Ray and now 3D. It’s expensive to move film around. And messy. So the obvious future of cinema is to have a central office somewhere in the world from where films can be downloaded via satellite or cable right into the projector at the press of a button. Distributers will save millions. It’s coming. Then bye bye film and bye bye Labia. It’s only a matter of time. You can’t tool up a little arthouse cinema to handle that sort of thing.’
Cinemagoers were queuing up at the ticket kiosk where Rose Nhlapo was doing a brisk trade. She’s been there for 15 years and sells more single than double tickets because, she says, ‘people are comfortable to come here.’ There was a cluster round the chocolate bar waiting for popcorn and Harold got busy doing coffees, warming pies and pouring wine.
I went up the steep stairs to see what Redwaan was up to in the projection box. He peered round a projector higher than his head and grinned. ‘You know, when I was younger I couldn’t fathom how little pictures on a piece of plastic could make things happen out there on a big white screen,’ he said over the clatter of a spinning reel. ‘I still think it’s a kind of magic.’
Over the next few days, everyone working at the Labia told me it was a precarious job, arthouse was dying, technology was changing, movies were going to be beamed down from the sky, they’d been there too long, it was time for a change. But as I watched them spinning reels, chatting with moviegoers, selling philosophy together with popcorn and smiles with tickets, I didn’t believe a word of it.