Uri Klein Esther movie house Yuval Tebol
Uri Klein in a hotel that used to be the Esther movie house. Photo by Yuval Tebol
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When I was 5 or 6 years old, I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up: the person who puts up the billboards at the movies. These were big hand-painted signs with huge letters, usually in a curly style, announcing the film's title and the stars' names. Local artists drew them, and to tell the truth, they were not executed with a great deal of talent. As a rule, if the man had a beard it was Clark Gable and if the woman wore a bathing suit then it must have been Esther Williams. Nevertheless, these huge posters had lots of charm, and the way they presented the characters, usually in a hot, romantic situation, relayed something of the movie's spell.

In those days, my parents would take me to a matinee about once a week. My mother, who was the real movie-lover, used to tell me about films she had seen in Germany before they came to Israel, or saw in Israel before I was born. She was, for example, a big fan of "Casablanca," and after she told me about it, I felt as though I had seen it long before I really saw it for the first time.

We left the Ophir cinema, on Gruzenberg Street in Tel Aviv. We had just seen "The Great Caruso," a biography of the singer, with Mario Lanza, himself then considered to be the new Caruso, in the title role. Heading home, we crossed Allenby Street to Mazeh Street, Gruzenberg's continuation. At the time, we lived at the end of Mazeh. I looked back to get one last glimpse of the movie billboard on the side of the building. Just as I was turning, I saw the poster being removed by workers. It was the picture's last day in Tel Aviv (which means it was probably a Thursday ), and the ad was being replaced by one for the coming attraction, which would be opening on Saturday night. It was a melodrama called "Teresa," and I had seen a trailer for it before "The Great Caruso."

I was hypnotized by the process by which one giant poster, which displayed Mario Lanza's face (or, rather, the face of someone who looked like Mario Lanza ) singing one of the arias featured in the movie I had just seen, was replaced with an ad for the next film.

I felt that those workers were deeply involved in the very core of the film experience. I wanted to stand with them, on the ladder.

The Ophir cinema no longer exists. It was replaced by a parking lot. Almost none of the other cinemas I used to visit in Tel Aviv exist these days. Some of them are just carcasses, some were replaced by apartment houses, institutions or supermarkets, and others are gaping holes inside a city that was once full of movie houses. You used to be able to go from one cinema in Tel Aviv to another, all the way from the southern part of the city to the north.

Chewing gum mosaic

There were several theaters I really liked. The Ophir, for example, mainly showed MGM films and had both an orchestra pit and a balcony. Who even remembers that there was a time when most of the city's movie theaters had balconies? People used to stick their gum on the ceiling of the staircase leading down to the exit, and it seemed as if the entire ceiling was covered with a mosaic of colorful pebbles.

I loved the Orion, too, which was long and narrow and was near a sports field on Hamaccabi Street off King George. I also loved the Migdalor, at whose location today is an office tower with the same name. Another favorite was the Yaron, near the city's beachfront promenade: When you emerged from it, especially after a matinee, you saw the sea in front of you. The Allenby, on the other hand, which was near the Carmel Market, did not appeal to me. To me, there was something a bit sinister and threatening about it. Nor did the Mugrabi, which was immortalized in Ephraim Kishon's 1969 film "Ta'alat Blaumilch" (known in English as "The Big Dig" ), appeal to me. There was something anonymous about it; also, I knew that in the balcony, you should not sit on the sides, as your view of the screen would be blocked by columns.

What beautiful Hebrew names Tel Aviv's cinemas had back then: Tzafon (north ) and Pe'er (splendor ), Armon David (David's Palace ) and Hod (splendor ), Maxim (charming ), and a girl's name, Tamar. There was Tchelet (pale blue ), which for many years showed only German movies, for the city's German immigrants, and Shahaf (seagull ) at Atarim Square. There was even a movie house in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard, not far from Sheinkin, called the Sderot (boulevard ). Today a bank stands there.

Next to the old central bus station was a movie house called the Merkaz (center ), which showed, among others, all of Elvis Presley's films, before it began to screen blue movies. Even the pornographic cinemas had nice names: The Zamir (nightingale ) was opposite the Mugrabi, and there was the Matmid (continuous ), midway along Allenby Street. Its name was not a reference to Bialik's poem about a yeshiva student who never ceased studying, but rather to the fact that it ran films continuously, all day.

But most of all I liked the two cinemas that were on opposite sides of Dizengoff Square, when it was still a circle: the Chen (one of the few that still functions as a movie house, the Rav Chen, though it is divided into several halls ), and opposite it the Esther, which today is a hotel, in which are displayed posters and other memorabilia from the beautiful cinema that once existed there.

'Imitation of Life'

Until the 1970s or so, every film I saw was identified with the cinema where it ran. "Roman Holiday" and "Jules and Jim" I saw at the Chen, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" at the Ophir, "Giant" at the Orion, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Bonnie and Clyde" at the Mugrabi, "North by Northwest" at the Esther, "Imitation of Life" at the Yaron, "The Magnificent Seven" at the Allenby, "Exodus" at the Tzafon, "West Side Story" at the Pe'er, "Splendor in the Grass" at the Migdalor, "Sallah Shabati" at the Hod (where the Beit Lessin theater is ), "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" at the Maxim, and "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces" and "Last Tango in Paris" at the Studio cinema, which was situated in the basement of the Mugrabi - and burned down together with it in 1986.

I remember also where the films ran that I could not see, because they were limited to "adults only," meaning for viewers who were at least 16 years old. "Rebel Without a Cause" screened at the Orion, "Breathless" at the Maxim, and "La Dolce Vita" at the Ben Yehuda. Of the latter cinema not even a reminder of its existence remains today, unlike Tel Aviv's first supermarket, which, unlike its forgotten neighbor, is still vibrant.

It was almost by chance, and with a lot of fear, that I came to understand the power of the experience of watching a movie in a cinema. That was shortly after I decided my calling would be to put up signs. We decided to attend a matinee of "Singin' in the Rain," at the Esther. My mother and I came from home, and my father, who was coming from work, was supposed to meet us near the box office. My father was late. The clock's hands were approaching four o'clock, the hour when matinees began and I remember the fear that gripped me. I had never entered a movie after the show began. It seemed like something that should just not be done.

My father arrived a few minutes past four, and we entered the hall after the lights were turned off and the trailer was running: a preview of "Queen Christina," starring Greta Garbo, which was about to begin a reprise showing at the theater.

The entrance to the hall was from the back. As we entered in the dark, I saw the silhouettes of people sitting with their backs to me, their heads pointed upward, looking at the screen, on which was displayed at that moment the famous close-up of Garbo's profile, as she ate a cluster of grapes. This image of row upon row of "little" people looking together at the "huge face" of a beautiful woman remains etched in my memory.

The moment we entered the hall I noticed, perhaps for the first time, the glittery light of the spotlight that emerged from the projectionist's booth. It sailed over the spectators' heads to create the picture on the screen. Sometimes, during screenings, I enjoyed turning back to look at it, and see the tiny particles of dust that were dancing in it.

I remember, also, that after "Singin' in the Rain" ended, and the lights came back up, my mother said she did not remember when she had laughed so much. That was a statement that made a great impression on me, as my mother did not lead an easy life.

Broadway on Pinsker

In 1958, Israel's largest and most gorgeous movie theater opened, on Pinsker Street. It was called, simply, the Tel Aviv. It only showed films released by Twentieth Century Fox, and its first feature was "Hu Ve'hi" ("Him and Her" ), the Hebrew title given at that time to "An Affair to Remember" (today called, more accurately, "Roman Bilti Nishkakh."

People flocked to the Tel Aviv cinema just to see the movie house. They wanted to feel the carpet beneath their feet and especially to see the pleated curtain, which as it rose to expose the large screen, changed colors, thanks to what at the time were sophisticated lighting effects. The cinema's exterior was also impressive, decorated as it was with colorful mosaics, with the title of the current movie encased in a frame of shining bulbs. We felt as though Pinsker was indeed Broadway.

There was something a bit paradoxical about opening such a big and fancy movie theater in Tel Aviv just as the American film industry was in a deep crisis, and many of the big and gorgeous movie palaces, as they were known, in the United States were being shut down.

Indeed the local palace, too, did not last long. Its first years were splendid but it gradually fell into decay, until it was closed for good. The building still stands there today, big as ever, but shuttered, dilapidated and filthy. One can still see the mosaic that decorated it, and the spot from which its name could be seen from afar, in big lights. But more than any other cinema that no longer exists in town, or that is closed, the structure is a reminder of the fact that today Tel Aviv is a city with very few active movie houses.

Because what is left? The Gat is the only one that is similar to movie houses of yore. There is the Rav Chen, with its six halls; the Lev cinemas in the Dizengoff Center, and also the Dizengoff theaters there, which are about to shut down; the hall in the Tel Aviv Museum; the one in the Opera building on the promenade; and of course the Cinematheque which at some time in the foreseeable future is set to add more screening halls.

A special place in the history of Israeli movie theaters belongs to the Paris cinema, which operated opposite the Dan Hotel, on Hayarkon Street. It was the first movie house devoted to what was called at that time "quality films." When it opened, sometime back in the '60s, I believe, I was already too old to escape there from school (it used to have shows in the mornings, too ), though many of my younger friends did so, and the Paris was a seminal element in their biographies. It was there that I first saw Alain Resnais' "Muriel, or The Time of Return," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" (which so shook me up the first time I saw it, that when I emerged from the theater that evening, I began walking in the opposite direction of where I was then living ). The Paris was not a particularly comfortable or pleasant cinema, but whoever lived in Tel Aviv at that time has a warm feeling for it and its disappearance is perhaps the saddest of all.

Out of focus

I have many memories of Tel Aviv's cinemas. I remember, for example, how I went to see "Last Year at Marienbad," Alain Resnais' second full-length feature, on its last day at the Armon David. (Resnais' first film movie, "Hiroshima Mon Amour," was a hit when it screened at the Pe'er, but his second movie was too difficult for Tel Aviv audiences, and ran for only a week or two. ) I sat in the balcony, where the only other viewers were actors from Habima. I remember seeing Hanna Rovina, Rafael Klachkin and Shmulik Segal, among others. There was something heartwarming about the fact that these veteran stage actors had gone to see one of the major works of contemporary cinema.

And another recollection: In its final years, the Ben Yehuda mainly screened films with erotic elements. These included, among others, Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Teorema," and the ads that were posted on kiosks around the city billed it as a sex film. I went to the movie's premiere, on a Saturday night. Some 15 minutes after it began, an audience member stood. So confused and agitated was he by what he was seeing that he climbed to the small proscenium in front of the screen and started beating it, though he didn't say a word. Finally, one of the ushers removed him from the hall. I think the scene would have elated Pasolini.

Ben Yehuda was also the cinema where I once climbed the winding steps to the projectionist's booth. He had an eternal bandage over one of his eyes, and altogether was heavyset and had a frightening face. I had come to tell him the picture was out of focus, and he responded that that was the way it came - out of focus. What could I do except return quietly to my seat, while the movie continued to run as it had arrived from overseas, out of focus?

When did I stop associating a film with the cinema in which I saw it? The moment I began writing about movies, I began seeing them at advance screenings, which are often held in smaller screening rooms devoted to that purpose. But the more significant reason is that the experience of seeing a film in a big hall, full of people, hardly exists any more in Tel Aviv. Only "Avatar," recently, brought this cinematic experience back to the city, but that was only for a limited time.

Now, when I do go the movies, I generally attend morning or afternoon screenings, where you can count on the fingers of both hands the number of people sitting in the hall. The most noticeable light visible in these shows is not the one coming from the projectionist's booth, but the one that shines from the cell phones that each of those few viewers opens every few minutes to see whether an important message has come in. Consequently the dark and almost totally empty hall sometimes seems like a field of fireflies.

I know it is wrong of me to say so, but today I prefer, most of all, to watch movies at home, on DVD. Yes, I know it is not the same as seeing "Rio Bravo" (which I originally saw at the Armon David ) in its first run, and on a huge screen: Nothing compares to that. But I love the intimacy of watching a film at home and I consider watching it on DVD akin to leafing through a book of reproductions, if you cannot stand before an original by Cezanne or Van Gogh.

And yes, it is possible to leave Tel Aviv and go to one of the "cineplexes" that contain several dozen halls. Some of the latter are actually large, and the quality of the image they screen is undoubtedly far superior to those of theaters of the past; I go there, occasionally, when there is no alternative. But this is a totally different story, one that has nothing to do with the city in which I was born, in which I live, which I love and where I want to see films.

Architectural milestones

The history of Tel Aviv's movie theaters can also be understood as a chain of milestones in the development of Israeli architecture. The city's first cinema, for example, the Eden, on Lilienblum Street, opened in 1914, ran silent movies and was an outstanding example of the eclectic style that was then in vogue - a combination of European and Arab building traditions. That is why its facade was characterized by decorated windows, while the font chosen for its logo was reminiscent of Arabic script.

The Eden had two halls: an open-air one for the summer, and another, covered hall for wintertime, which was also used for shows and performances. Each space held 800 seats. In the 1920s silent Hollywood films were screened, to the accompaniment of a live orchestra. After Independence, the Eden specialized in Indian, Egyptian and Turkish films. It ceased operations in 1974, though it still stands today, abandoned, despite its central location on one of the city's main touristic axes, and despite its architectural qualities.

Along with the development of an eclectic style in Tel Aviv, several European-born architects turned to the art-deco style, with its roots in Belgium and France. The outstanding example of this was, of course, the Mugrabi cinema, which became a municipal icon of the first order. Architect Joseph Berlin planned in 1930 a monumental oblong structure from red silicate stones, with an open-air movie theater and a closed theater and opera hall. Its front comprised narrow, horizontal windows - more of a decoration than real architecture. The Mugrabi was badly damaged in a fire in the mid-1980s, and was demolished in 1989. Today, it's the location of a parking lot. Two other cinemas that had their places taken by parking lots were the Ophir, on Gruzenberg Street, and Orion (also called the Orli ), on Hamaccabi Street.

Several years later, around the late 1930s, the Bauhaus and the International Style began to dominate the city's architecture, thanks to the arrival of a large group of European-trained architects. In terms of cinemas, the best examples of their work were built around Dizengoff Square. One was the Esther (today the Cinema Hotel ), and another was the Chen cinema, planned by Arieh Sharon, and which recently underwent extensive renovation. Both theaters are characterized by round fronts with "apron" porches.

Another outstanding example of an International-Style cinema is the Allenby (originally the Rimon ). It is an impressive building near the corner of Allenby and King George, which in time became a fortress of nightlife in the form of the Allenby 58 nightclub.

In the 1950s and '60s the International Style of white abstractness was replaced by the brutalist and sensual modernism. The Tamar cinema, for example, was built inside the historic Solel Boneh building on Allenby Street. It was a joint masterpiece by architects Dov Karmi and Arieh Sharon. The building, which was constructed in the early 1950s, had some 20 businesses on its ground floor, the most prominent of which was the Tamar. The entire building was destroyed about a year ago in order to make room for an exclusive residential tower planned by the American architect Richard Meier.

The mythological Tel Aviv cinema, on Pinsker Street, is also about to be demolished, in favor of another luxury apartment building. Built in the late 1950s, it was the city's largest movie theater. In this case, the architecture was less impressive than the building's impact on the public space. Its establishment created a large public plaza that contained a tiny kiosk that looked like a toy. Like most of the rest of the city's movie houses, it failed to survive the shopping-mall era: It was finally shut down in 2000.

There is a reason that Tel Aviv's movie houses, and those around the country as well, are being destroyed. Their unique structure - a huge windowless box - makes it difficult to retool them for new uses. At the same time, their central locations, usually along main thoroughfares, makes them susceptible to real-estate demands. Additionally, most were privately owned. Municipalities do not generally rush to grant landmark status to buildings that are privately owned, especially if they have been abandoned or have ceased to fulfill their original purpose.

The public does not have a soft spot for the old cinemas, perhaps because people understand that they have finished fulfilling their function. Except for one successful battle over the Smadar cinema in the German Colony in Jerusalem, it seems as though most of the past viewers prefer to sit in front of their TV sets rather than go out and demonstrate about the future of this or that movie house. (Noam Dvir )