An Israeli desert town remembers its own 'Cinema Paradiso'
Desert town pays tribute to defunct movie theater, forty-seven years after it screened its first blockbuster.
"Don't smoke and don't crack sunflower seeds," 83-year-old Aubrey (Avraham) Hoffman admonished his fellow Arad residents during Sunday's screening of the classic "Gone with the Wind."
Forty-seven years have passed since the blockbuster was first shown at "Hoffman's Theater," as it was known, and at Sunday's screening, Hoffman gave out copies of the original invitations for the film's opening night in 1965.
The special screening was arranged by the Arad municipality to mark the 50th anniversary of the theater's opening in the dining room of a local hotel in 1962. Three years later, Hoffman's Theater moved into its own building, where it operated for 15 years.
"The theater had 199 seats, most of them ordinary chairs," recalled Hoffman's ex-wife, Mary. "If it was an especially good film, more people wanted to see it, so they'd bring in extra chairs that they brought from home. We began with once a week, then twice a week, and moved on to every night - a daily film and a second showing."
The Hoffmans met more than 60 years ago, when both were active in a Zionist youth movement in South Africa, and moved to Israel together in 1956. Mary says they always wanted to live in Arad, but there were no jobs, so they started out in Netanya. They moved to Arad in 1962, after receiving word that the town needed an electrician.
"We moved there and brought the whole family with us," she said. "But then there was too little work for too many people. So Aubrey" - who now lives in a retirement home in Petah Tikva - "proposed taking on the job of screening movies." He got some 8-millimeter films and began showing them.
"At first we only had ordinary chairs and people complained that others were blocking their view," Mary said. "So we asked the tall ones to sit in back and the short ones to sit in front. In the freezing winters, we would wear pajamas and a coat, with a blanket over that, to see the films."
In 1975, the Arad municipality finally agreed to finance construction of a tiered floor. The family then bought better chairs, along with a 35-millimeter film projector.
When old-timers in Arad are asked about Hoffman's Theater, big smiles spread across their faces. "We had nowhere to go," recalled Ruhama Nahmani, 71, who was 21 when the theater opened. "It was the only cultural center. This was before we even had a local council. The theater was different - it wasn't a theater, but a family. You didn't have to primp and dress up. We came in slippers."
"The only culture in town was those films - and Aubrey's jokes," agreed Mary.
The special anniversary screening began with Hoffman reciting all his familiar lines: "Don't smoke and don't crack sunflower seeds!" "Cohen family, your son is crying, quiet him down!" And the audience responded with their own familiar lines: "The reel broke; give us our money back!" But as Hoffman began a brief speech, many in the crowd had trouble holding back tears.
Hoffman, too, was clearly moved. "I didn't expect to see so many of the people who came to the theater in the past," he said. "We began screening films decades ago, when Arad was not yet a city. We would bring the movies from Tel Aviv and return them to the company after showing them. They built me a magnificent theater; it even had a window where people could buy tickets."
During the theater's glory days, Hoffman's daughter, Shony, was the ticket checker, and she let all her classmates in for free. Her father, she recalled, would look at the long line and say, "I don't remember selling that many tickets." But the theater finally closed in 1980, due to competition from television. With few people going out to see films, it racked up heavy losses. Hoffman then opened an electronics store, which he ran until he left the city.