80-year-old Smadar Cinema Projects Special Image of Jerusalem

80-year-old Smadar Cinema projects special image of Jerusalem

This is the stuff nostalgia is made of: tattered bits of celluloid, faded memories of a John Wayne western, and the bitter taste of that first cigarette smoked in movie theater darkness. The story of Jerusalem's Smadar Cinema, now celebrating its 80th anniversary, has these elements in spades.

But this legendary movie theater in the German Colony neighborhood is more than filmlovers' memories. Long a cultural institution in the lives of Jerusalemites, Smadar is a phenomenon primarily thanks to its being the remnant of an era. Its incarnations correspond to the history of that elusive "Jerusalemness" that is secular and free of splendor and sanctity, expressions of which are fast disappearing. As such, it is hard to explain its remaining in place, when small movie theaters everywhere are all long gone.

"I'd like to think of Smadar as a miracle," says media personality Emmanuel Halperin, who hosted an event on Tuesday in honor of the cinema's 80th anniversary.

The two-day festivities were the brainchild of the architect and historian David Kroyanker, whose recently published book, "The German Colony and Emek Refaim Street" devotes a chapter to the history of the Smadar Cinema.

"Smadar is one of the touchstones of childhood for people in their 60s and 70s," Kroyanker says, speaking also of himself. It was always considered the bastion of the educated Ashkenazi bourgeoisie, but during its heyday, in the 1950s and '60s, Smadar was not at all elitist, but rather "a children's movie house," he adds.

"It was a truly primitive theater. Conditions were rough. The wood seats dated from the days of the British Mandate, the film prints were of really poor quality. Arye Chechik, the owner, would get them only after they'd passed through every movie theater in the country. To draw audiences, they would sell a double feature at the price of a single. Who would come? Only children."

Smadar showed mostly westerns, and also Arthurian swashbucklers and epic films. "Violence, wars, lots of blood - that's what was popular. Not sex," Kroyanker says. "At a certain point Chechik replaced the seats, and they began screening French films as well."

Emmanuel Halperin, who came to Israel for the first time on a visit from Paris in 1957, also remembers Indian films. "I didn't know a word of Hebrew and was staying with my cousin, who didn't know a word of French," he recalls. "He took me to see a movie at the Smadar. That was the first time I saw an Indian film. Watching somebody rolling the text of the handwritten translation alongside the screen is an unforgettable experience. As were the wood seats for someone coming from Paris."

Since its renovation in 1993, when the theater was salvaged by Nurit Shani of the Lev Cinema chain, it has operated as a regular movie theater.

Slice of history Although founded in 1928 by a German architect, the theater mainly served the British Army until 1935, when it opened for commercial screenings as Orient Cinema. Several months later a boycott was declared against German-owned businesses, in response to the Nazi ban on Jewish businesses in Germany. To prevent its closure, the Orient's German owner turned it over to Jewish management, a stunt frowned on by the head of the Nazi Party branch in Jerusalem.

After 1948, the theater came into the hands of four demobilized soldiers, including Arye Chechik. In 1950, Chechik bought out his partners and managed the place alone.

"It was a one-man show," said journalist Michael Dak, who lived next door to the theater in the 1950s. "He would sell tickets, then run to the entrance to serve as ticket collector, then climb the ladder to the projectionist's room." His wife ran the concession stand during the intermission.

"Nostalgia turns everything into 'the best,' but really it's the modesty of the place and its simplicity that make it unique," Dak says about the theater. According to Dak, its survival, amid repeated threats of closure over the years, must be seen in the context of a TV-less time with scant entertainment opportunities.

"You could either cruise the town or go to the movie theater. It functioned kind of like a youth club. Geekyness at its best. And the [teenage] rowdiness was also light. There is something very intimate to this day about the neighborhood quality of this movie theater, which does not exist elsewhere. Intimacy of the sort that can be found only in Jerusalem."