Eden Now

"We are pleased to announce that we have opened a new cinema called Eden," festive posters on the streets of Tel Aviv in 1914 announced, in the ornate Hebrew of the day.

"In order to allow the audience to experience true esthetic enjoyment, we have spared no effort or means, and set up our Eden Cinema following the latest plan of a European theater, and we also contacted the best and richest firms to obtain films, historical films, and film depictions of biblical tales, natural wonders and everyday scenes," the notice promised the young city, which then had fewer than 4,000 residents. "We hope the distinguished audience will be pleased with our wonderful and very interesting screenings."

Surprisingly, the people who lived next to door to the grand and elegant building built by entrepreneurs Moshe Abarbanel and Mordechai Weiser at the corner of Lilienblum and Pines streets were not excited by the creation of the new cultural institution.

Instead of celebrating the news of the creation of the first Hebrew cinema in the land of Israel, the residents of the young neighborhood reacted angrily: they complained to Tel Aviv's leaders about the noise the place would generate, and the gasoline fumes emitted by the generators placed there, and they warned especially of the immorality that would be spread among visitors to the cinema by the films to be screened there.

"Using the cinematograph as a pretext, bad, foreign people and perhaps unrestrained sorts will come and this will lead to fights, thefts and so on, and the name of Israel will be desecrated among the nations," wrote one resident in a letter he sent to the chairman of the General Assembly, Meir Dizengoff.

But despite these protests, Tel Aviv culture researcher Shula Vidriech points out, the cinema was built as planned by German architect Richard Michael, opened to the public with a screening of the Italian film "The Last Days of Pompeii" in August 1914, and in its early years, was almost always filled to capacity.

Perhaps it was the residents' early protest that prompted the Tel Aviv council to lay the ground for movie censorship, when it obligated the owners of the cinematograph to bring every film for the approval of a review committee that could "disqualify a film if it found it inappropriate for reasons of modesty, politeness, etc."

And perhaps it was an early indicator of government corruption when the committee granted Abarbanel and Weiser exclusivity rights to operate a cinema in the young city for a period of 13 years. One way or another, the local residents did not need a long time to fall in love with the cinema, and to discover that it contains within it a lot more than just pure moral degradation.

Throughout its 60 years of existence, the Eden hosted the golden age of cinema within its walls, but also some of its lows. It presented diverse films (Russian, German, American, Indian, Arabic and others) to the local audience. Starting in the summer of 1927 it also offered a "summer cinematograph" in an open, roofless structure, and three years later celebrated the release of the first talking film - its notices about the opening of the talking films announced the screening of "The Crazy Singer" featuring Al Jelson, which was actually "The Jazz Singer," starring Al Jolson.

As part of the 120th anniversary celebrations of the Neve Tzedek quarter and 100 years since the establishment of Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque will host a tribute next Thursday, July 31, to the Eden Cinema. The event will feature various artists, a screening of the film "Pleasure Tax," by Edya Filo and Honi Hamaagel about the first Tel Aviv cinematograph, as well as a selection of clips from notable films screened at the cinema during its 60 years of existence: "Tarzan King of the Monkeys," "Bock Jones," "The Jazz Singer," "Shazzam" "Potemkin," "The Great Dictator" and films starring Raj Kapoor, Rudolph Valentino, Farid al-Atrash, Marlene Dietrich and many others.

The Turks confiscated the projector

During World War I, Tel Aviv residents were expelled from the city, notes Vidriech; the Turks confiscated the projector (some say they suspected it was nothing but a front for a wireless device used to transmit messages to British ships) and the Turkish ruler, Hassan Bek, would come there once a month and take the money accumulated at the box office from various screenings.

The hall returned to its glory days after the British liberated Tel Aviv, and in 1927 Weiser and Abarbanel put up new notices: "To ease things for the audience and grant them the opportunity to enjoy the summer enjoying the pictures and the music outdoors in the cool clean air, we are going to set up a summer theater."

"The summer Eden," the open-air, roofless auditorium, was built adjacent to its older, winter sibling, and enabled viewers to enjoy the silent films starring Chaplin, Valentino and Greta Garbo, and the live music that accompanied them even on humid Tel Aviv nights. Parades along Tel Aviv's streets informed residents of the new films showing at the movie theater on Eden Street.

"Of course I went to the Eden - which kid didn't go to the Eden Cinema?" the writer and poet Haim Gouri recalled this week. "We would go there to see films, mostly in the afternoons, and we'd watch silent films, films that had come from Soviet Russia, the Tarzan films and other heroes such as Bock Jones, who to this day I still write about in my poems. I remember some punks who tried to sneak in and the ushers would beat them up soundly, and also the intermissions when someone would roam around the auditorium and call out 'chocolate, mints, gum!'"

One of those candy sellers who moved around the auditorium during the intermissions was Yosef Gabai, who was born in 1925 and whose parents lived on nearby Rokeach Street. "From the time I was six, I would sneak into the cinema with my friends. Next to the box office there was half a roof, and we would climb on it and get in through the windows. Our curiosity to see films then was great, and there wasn't a film I didn't sneak in to see," he recalls, "but sometimes they caught us and then we got a beating."

Gabai obtained permission to enter the cinema legally as a young man, after he befriended the concessionaire and started selling chocolates, gum and mints during the intermissions ("it cost between half a grush and a grush"). His fate was permanently linked to the movie house after he befriended the projectionist, who lived in a rented room in his parents' home. The young Gabai got friendly with him, often visited him in the projection room, displayed highly developed technical skills and quickly learned the secrets of the profession from him. Gabai began working at the Eden Cinema and became the mechanic, projectionist and electrician and eventually the manager of the place starting in 1949.

Through a smokescreen

"The Eden and Gan Rina were the biggest cinemas in Tel Aviv," recalls the writer Aharon Shabtai. "As a boy, I saw Russian films there with my parents. There was at the time a film industry around the heroism of the Russian army, with a regular actor who would always play Stalin, and here they had a huge audience.

"By the time I was 13 I was going there alone to see Westerns, because tickets to those films were cheaper: 10 liras instead of 18-20 liras for other movies. It was a popular theater, and the audience would crack open sunflower seeds. I remember piles of shells there and they would whistle and smoke, so I would watch films through a cigarette smokescreen. It was fun."

By the early 1940s the crowds coming to the Eden were thinning out, and it was encountering financial difficulties. The Abarbanel and Weiser families, which still managed the place, had a hard time paying employees' salaries, and were forced to close the movie house until a compromise was reached: from then on the cinema's profits would be split, with 60 percent going to the employees and the other 40 percent going to the management.

Vidriech notes that the cinema started losing some of its glamour especially after World War II.

"At that time, new and more modern cinemas opened in Tel Aviv, and Eden became a cinema for poor neighborhoods, for marginal populations," she says.

The reemergence the cinema enjoyed after the establishment of the state was owed to the revolution in the films being screened there: Indian, Egyptian and Turkish films replaced the American, German and Russian films being shown.

Artist Honi Hamaagel, who grew up in the Shabazi neighborhood and often went to the Eden Cinema, recalls that it was a neighborhood cinema that was operating in an impoverished area.

"The Eden Cinema was a source of pride, there all the Mizrahim could hold their heads high," he says. "The Ashkenazi elite didn't play the hit songs from the Indian films, like 'Ichak Dana' on the radio, but among us, everyone knew them."

"There was also chaos with the Indian films," says Gabai. "We would get calls from Be'er Sheva, Kiryat Shmona and all kinds of places, and groups of 100-200 people would order tickets for a premiere and arrive on buses and trucks. People loved those films."

Raj Kapoor cancelled

The year the cinema celebrated its 50th anniversary, the big star of Indian cinema, Raj Kapoor, agreed to come to the gala event and his film, "Sangam" was to premier that night.

"I did a big job on 'Sangam,'" says Gabai. "It came to us as a three-hour long film, but with all kinds of songs and nonsense unconnected to the film. So I sat and cut all that out, and turned it into a two-and-a-half hour film.

"Raj Kapoor decided right around then to cancel his visit here because the Arab countries threatened to boycott him if he came here, but after he saw the film I had edited, he sent me an airplane ticket and invited me to visit him there."

The Eden Cinema started waning again in the early 1970s. Gabai, whose son, Arnon, also worked as a projectionist, relates that Bank Leumi representatives repeatedly offered to buy the building from the employees and the management, but they were firm in rejecting the offers.

"I told them, 'it's a pity for you to exhaust yourselves, we aren't selling,' but they continued to come. After the Yom Kippur War, they caught us in a particularly bad mood, because no one was coming and we had a lot of expenses, and then we made a big mistake and sold."

Bank Leumi housed its computer division in the building, which is a designated landmark, and about a year ago sold it through an Internet tender for $7.7 million. The people who work today near the impressive building on Lilienblum Street can still see the ornate letters of the word "Eden" on the facade. But the Garden of Eden that inspired the writer Simcha Ben Zion - who named this grand institution - now looks particularly worn and miserable: On the wall of the building that housed the first Hebrew cinematograph, there is now an ATM, and instead of seeing films and attending cultural events, passersby are invited to withdraw cash.