The curtains fall

Last Tuesday SN reported that demolition had begun on Astor Cinema at 189 Waterloo Street, South Cummingsburg, Georgetown.  As of yesterday, dismantling of the famous building continued unabated.

A visit to the site on Thursday found a crew of men, none of whom were wearing any form of safety gear – no helmets, no safety boots or even gloves – pulling the edifice apart. There was no apparent supervision of any kind, and one got the impression that a free-for-all grab was in progress. A truck parked on Waterloo Street was stacked full of lumber removed from the building, a horse-drawn cart stood nearby at ready to receive a load, and there was a small pile of wood, enough to fill one cart, laying on the parapet opposite the former cinema’s front doors.

A glance inside of the lobby from the westernmost entrance off Church Street revealed a floor strewn with all manner of debris – paper, wood, metal, reels of film, etc. The western wall of what used to be the manager’s office was no longer there, providing a clear view of the previously private enclave, now covered with all kinds of trash. Men’s voices could be heard coming from the first floor, yelling at each other as to what they had procured, or were laying claim to. The intricate grooves on the bannisters on the staircase, worn smooth over the years by the patrons’ hands, were still in place, as was the staircase.

An extremely cautious initial peek from the next door east, the double doors that had served as exits from the Pit section, presented a better image of the tear down. The Pit section was devoid of the hard benches, save the back of one over in the far corner. The seats from the House, Box and Balcony areas were also missing. The hollowness of the cavernous building was accentuated by the sunlight beaming in from where the roof once was. The roofing sheets had been removed, leaving a wooden framework of rafters with a few tentest tiles still attached.

The secret of the construction of the Balcony/ Box sections was now exposed, as the wooden front wall of the Box area had been pried off to reveal a heavy-duty steel girder that extended from the southern to the northern wall, thus explaining the absence of any posts in the House section. The gradient of the empty Pit section as it rose sharply to the stage could easily be discerned in the bright light. The huge screen was still in place, bookended by a pair of strewn curtains. A man without a safety harness was shouting from the roof to someone meandering on the ground. Withdrawing to the safety of the outside, one glanced along the outer southern wall along which once hung decades ago, a huge billboard displaying current and upcoming movies, hoping to see the coming attraction.

Astor Cinema opened in the 1940s with the screening of Golden Boy with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles, and drew the curtains on June 30, 2013, with the showing of a double, Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds and Sparkle. It was the last of the city cinemas to survive the passage of time, battling through the tough decades of the 70s’ and 80s’ shortage of foreign exchange required to pay distributors for movie rights, unreliable electricity supply, declining audiences, mainly due to migration and the competition of technology in the form of Betamax and VHS recorders and television.

One by one, the other city cinemas closed their doors. The roofs of the Globe and Plaza cinemas literally fell in, Metropole perished in a fire, and Liberty and Empire were pulled down. The concrete structures which housed the Strand and Hollywood cinemas are now utilized for worship.

It was Astor Cinema that hosted the famous blockbuster films of the ‘70s, The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Airport with Charlton Heston, and Saturday Night Fever with a young John Travolta, which screened for over two months. Its stage was graced with the presence of such luminaries, as the first Broadway star to visit British Guiana, Lawrence Winters in the 1950s, the Mighty Sparrow and also served as the location for the first appearance of Dave Martins and his Tradewinds band in 1968.

One takes the shortest street in Georgetown, Piccadilly Street, about 20 paces, from Astor, to get to the site where the Globe Cinema once stood, on the opposite side of the avenue of Waterloo Street. Standing on the circular concrete floor of the former Globe cinema lobby, it’s the only remnant on the now desolate ruins, its shiny red floor long displaced by the elements, provides an excellent vantage point for a final appraisal of the façade of the Astor.

The two parallel panels of the fading bold capital red letters spelling out A S T O R running down the front of the white façade clearly demarcated the famous landmark. One half-expected to see anxious patrons at halftime sticking their heads out of the Balcony and House lobbies in the fading light to take note of their surroundings. The elaborate wooden building on which many woodwork artisans had carved fretwork, built glass and jalousie windows is at the end of its lifespan.

During the sixties, as many as 50 odd cinemas were scattered across the landscape…Globe, Gaiety, Strand in New Amsterdam, Monarch in Anna Catherina, Raj Mahal in Canje, Metropolitan in Bartica, Crescent in Mackenzie, Deluxe in Diamond, Kay Donna in Triumph/Beterverwagting, Prince of Wales at Wales Estate, Gem in Enmore… the list continues.

It’s the end of an era, the stand alone cinema, so much part and parcel of the social fabric of Guyanese society is now a thing of the past. These cinemas provided thousands of hours of entertainment, relaxation, socializing, and intermingling for all levels of society. In addition, the films provided knowledge and exposure to the outer world, perhaps even subconsciously sowing the seeds of the migration wave.

As the older folks reflect on the memories of the long line-ups to see the latest movie, the popular music played before the start of the show, the “shorts” (trailers) of upcoming  films and commercials, the lady selling snacks during the films, her familiar cry of “drinks, any drinks, chips” coming at crucial moments, the annoying “click, click, click” emanating from the government cinema inspector’s tally counter, the latter two often disturbing weekend teenage courtship rituals,  and leaving a “one o’clock double” and coming out  into the glaring sunshine, only to instinctively shield one’s eyes from the sudden sharp light, we acknowledge  the entrepreneurs who provided this escape from our daily routine.

The curtains have fallen on Astor Cinema which now joins the list of celebrated landmarks of the City of Georgetown that are no longer with us.

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