Nairobi now a cemetery of cinema halls
In Nairobi, you can get a movie that is only a few weeks old on a counterfeit DVD — and nobody will take you for a thief!
Online pirates are continuing to make a kill — and it appears that nobody regards this illicit trade as such.
The movie libraries proliferate on stolen goods, copyright is infringed and our efforts to make sense out of the creative industry have withered with time.
Nobody feels any sense of guilt buying counterfeit movies — perhaps because it is seen as a ‘victimless crime.’
But is it?
Nairobi is now a cemetery of cinema halls — and those who walked this city from the ’60s to ’90s have nostalgic memories of Odeon Cinema, Globe Cinema, Shan Cinema, Embassy, Cameo Cinema, ABC, Kenya Cinema, Fox Drive-In, Bellevue, and 20th Century.
Apart from 20th Century which still has some presence in Nairobi, the rest are dead business — and all we have about them are memories.
Before it closed down, Globe Cinema was a known base for Indian and Hollywood movies as well as philanthropic activities. It is here that the likes of Daniel arap Moi would hold fundraisers for various national projects including the building of the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital.
The downfall started when Globe Cinema’s parent company, Grand Theatre Ltd, was permanently restrained from further infringement of a distributor’s copyrights. After it was blacklisted its last activities were limited to the running of the Castilo Bar and Restaurant in the 1970s — which was not its core business.
Today, the name Globe Cinema is only associated with the Thika Superhighway-Kirinyaga and Kijabe Street roundabout. The Cinema Hall is today a church.
And that is one of the indicators of how copyright was taken seriously in yesteryears — it could essentially, and for good, bring down an established cinema hall.
ADVENT OF TECHNOLOGY
It is the advent of technology that seems to have given the movie — and music industry — the biggest test and today we only have living memory on the damage done to some iconic cinema theatres.
When the story of cinema theatres in this country is finally written both Cameo and Odeon Cinema should be given some space and that is why I would like to celebrate their place in Kenya.
This year, Cameo Cinema building will celebrate 103 years since it was built and Nairobi owes it to the memory of Simon “Teddy” Medicks, the Jewish businessman who put up what was known as Theatre Royal on then Sixth Avenue — as Kenyatta Avenue was first known.
But Medicks, who was a member of the tiny but wealthy Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, had little luck. His little theatre was rubbished by critics as a “pit of fleas” perhaps because it was one of the first entertainment spots to compete with a dance club that had been opened in Parklands.
“Through his enterprise,” one pioneer wrote, “the Theatre Royal in Nairobi arose in solitary splendour amid the surrounding wasteland of those early days.”
Again, we know from records that after the outbreak of World War I, Medicks handed over the building to the military and it became the recruiting hall for volunteers. It was also the garrison theatre where plays were also staged — before the (Kenya) National Theatre was built.
Anyone looking at Cameo Cinema today would hardly imagine that age-old description but what we know from records is that this Jewish immigrant from Poland had also tried to build another cinema hall known as The Empire and which he later sold to some South Africans under the aegis of New Theatres Limited.
One more thing about the Cameo building was that it was the place where the colonial Nairobi elite could hold meetings to welcome new arrivals.
It was here that Governor Edward Northey faced the wrath of European settlers in February 1919 when they picked a Nairobi maverick named Col Ewart Grogan (the man who built the Getrude Children’s Hospital) to deliver a classic welcoming speech.
Grogan, a master of sarcasm said: “Before we sit down to business with you sir, before we tabulate to you all our innumerable woes of the last 14 years, we are entitled to know whether you have been sent here as another telephone exchange girl …”
“This country is not willing to be governed by secretariat officers, men of little more brains than the creatures that crawl around at the bottom of the sea … we want people with vision that extends beyond the end of the noses …”
People were used to such skits at the Theatre Royal, but on several occasions, it could also hold serious political business.
During the First and Second World War, this became the hall for raising funds and that is why two monuments were erected outside the Cinema hall to commemorate the heroic deeds of the soldiers.
This cinema business was later bought by Edgar Clifton who had worked at the Thika Road Theatre (later Fox Drive-In). He was a mischievous character. Once, after he had been arrested by police he noticed that rather than write Edgar on the charge sheet, the officer had written Edward. He waited until the case started when he refused to answer to the charge.
Clifton is credited for redesigning the Cameo building after spending many weeks in western capitals to see what they had. In total he visited 35 cinemas in Spain, Germany and Austria.
Actually, the building we see today is not the 1912 structure per se. Clifton had stripped Theatre Royal of the walls and sunk £30,000 pounds to build a cinema that was by then a state-of-the art structure.
He not only knocked part of the Edwardian-style Royal Theatre structure, but also fixed two massive pillars to the sides which are still available today.
Cameo, when it opened afresh, was the only cinema hall in east Africa with the Twin Zeiss Ikon projectors. The first post-independence directors were R.P Shah and his nephew C.G. Shah. Another was the first African to enter motion picture business, Noah Kamau, whose family had for years run the business together with other smaller cinema halls in Eastlands, especially Bahati, Makadara and Ruaraka.
The demise of Cameo was a direct result of competition and emergence of pirated movies. It could also not cope with the entry of big theatres which worked in collaboration with bid distribution firms.
The story of Odeon is almost similar. Although many young Nairobians know Odeon as a Matatu stage rather than a cinema hall, this was a place where the founder of Odeon Cinema Oscar Deutsch had envisioned a community theatre for the city. The word is an adaptation of Greek word odeion which denotes a building for musical performance.
Deutsch had sold the Nairobi franchise to a Mr Dahyabhal K. Patel and soon it became one of the most popular cinema halls in east Africa.
MAU MAU WAR
Odeon Cinemas were a large chain and its entry into Nairobi was an indicator that there was faith in the colony then. But before Odeon picked up as a business, Oscar Deutsch died of Cancer aged 48 and the Mau Mau war broke out. To make matters worse, the colonial elite who had been targeted started having doubts about their stay in Kenya.
Although the global business was purchased by a Yorkshire miller and cinema enthusiast, Joseph Arthur Rank, it started suffering after Rank made bad investment decisions. After 1950s he started investing in photocopy papers and entered into a joint venture with America’s Xerox company to form what became known as Rank Xerox.
Although Odeon had managed to open a cinema hall in Nakuru town, the bastion of settlers, there were few clients and Mr Patel, the franchise holder, suffered economic havoc. In 1959, as the political tide turned towards an African-led government, Mr Patel managed to sell his franchise to Indian Film Combine Ltd — only that he did not disclose some of the liabilities he had at Odeon, Nairobi. He, however, retained the Nakuru business which was ran under a new company, Odeon Theatres Ltd.
If you check the Kenya Gazette notice number 384 of 1959, you will see a notice under Fraudulent Transfer of Business Ordinance in which Indian Film Combine declared that it was not taking over liabilities incurred previously by Mr Patel.
Indian Film had a good run and it is its branding of Odeon Cinema that gave the stage that name. They managed to run the cinema until March 1, 1969 when their lease of the building came to an end and the franchise was taken over by Kenya Exhibitors Ltd, a company that had indigenous Kenyans as directors.
After the exit of Mr Rank from the film business, Odeon could not cope as a franchise. It was a citadel of old movies until it closed down for lack of customers.
It looks like all the cinema halls of yesteryears in Nairobi are following a similar path: They first turn into religious enterprises before they turn into shops or offices.
Cameo, Shan Cinema (Ngara), and Embassy (next to Odeon) became churches before they were taken over by other businesses. There was ABC cinema near Kamukunji Police Station — where I watched Rise and Fall of Idi Amin many years ago.
Shan Cinema, once a bastion of Indian movies, is today known as the Dome and is home to Sarakasi Trust, an arts and culture enterprise.
And finally, Odeon Cinema has been transformed into an education hub with the Kenya Aviation College opening its Nairobi campus there.
Many in Generation Y did not find Odeon screening any movies — and with neon sign of Odeon long gone, many would actually wonder why that place is known by that name.
But those in my generation will remember that we watched Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies there in the dying days of Odeon before Pastor Pius Muiru moved in and replaced us.
But it is not evangelism that has eaten our movie theatres; rather it is the rise of counterfeits and our failure to invest in the industry.
Simply put, we have ignored the sector and all we have are these historical relics — which should be preserved as monuments.