Remembering the White City’s First Silver Screen

Tel Aviv’s first cinema, the Eden Theater, opened 100 years ago this summer. The films were brought over from Egypt, the seats from Greece and the projector from France, but the experience was uniquely Jewish.

David Bachar

A police officer was sitting in the audience at one of the first screenings at the Eden Theater. When he saw a train being robbed, he felt compelled to help, so he pulled out his pistol and shot the screen. This story, which might be only urban legend, appears on the website for the Tel Aviv municipality’s archive. Even if it is only myth, it’s still a good addition to the tales and stories linked to Tel Aviv’s first cinema, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer.

The building in which the theater operated, on Lilienblum Street, Neveh Tzedek, still stands, though it’s abandoned. It hasn’t screened a film in 40 years. All that’s left of the Eden are memories and stories, including those about the colorful personality of Moshe Abarbanel, a Jewish businessman from a family that settled in Ukraine after being expelled from Spain. Abarbanel opened the theater in 1914, shortly after moving to Israel, along with his partner Mordechai Weiser, one of the founders of Tel Aviv.

In order to ensure that the people of Tel Aviv could go to the cinema, Abarbanel signed a deal in Alexandria to regularly screen movies, and purchased a French film projector and german generator. The seats – 600 folding stall seats, with another 200 in the balcony – were imported from Greece. Aryeh Weis, the contractor, described it in his memoirs as “a building that’s never been seen in Israel, either construction-wise or financially.”

An advertisement in the Haherut newspaper promised moviegoers a “new program every three days.” Tickets could be purchased for first or second class, the “amphitheater” and even “special booths.” Children and students paid half price, and “a fair discount” was promised for schools.

Starlets and song

“Abarbanel was in love with musicals, beautiful starlets and Russian song,” wrote journalist Uri Keisari. From the day it opened, and for 13 subsequent years, Abarbanel enjoyed a monopoly on cinema in Tel Aviv, as per his contract with Tel Aviv’s council, and he used his position to set conditions for film companies. According to a report by Keisari, when he wanted to screen a film featuring the famous Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, Abarbanel said, “I don’t buy cats in a bag. Bring the film here and we’ll have a test screening.” After the screening, he called the film “a rag” but continued to screen it anyway, under his terms.

Eden Theater, Tel Aviv, in the 1970s. Photo by ourtesy of Tel Aviv Municipality

On principle, Abarbanel was opposed to accurate translations of film titles. Keisari said he would frequently demand that a Russian element be introduced when advertising films, even if it was baseless. For example, he called an English film “The Red Dancer from Moscow.” The audience didn’t seem to mind that only five minutes of the film were shot at the famous Russian ballet.

Eden began, of course, by screening silent movies. “The Last Days of Pompeii” was screened less than a month after World War I broke out, on August 22, 1914. The silent films were accompanied by an orchestra. Russian films also featured a live opera performance.

In 1930, “talkies” began screening at the Eden, which created a labor dispute. The musicians, whose services were now no longer required, refused to quit so an agreement was reached by which they would continue to receive salaries for a while. “The Eden in Tel Aviv has announced a revolution that will soon hit Israel,” wrote Haaretz at the time. “The new projection machine at the Eden will be state of the art.”

The Eden’s owners were busy with more than just pretty dancers and Russian films during the theater’s early years. Being a film buff, Jaffa Governor Hassan Bek used to frequent the theater. He would come to many premieres with his entourage, sit in the best seats in the house for free, and take the box office takings after the screening. Bek’s people would pester the theater, interrupt its business and, from time to time, take equipment.

Eden Theater, Tel Aviv, in 2010. Photo by Eyal Toueg

In the 1920s, the theater featured yet another innovation: Hebrew translations. The man responsible for the translations was Yerushalayim Segal, a jack-of-all-trades who was also a pioneer and farmer in the Galilee. During World War I he enlisted in the Jewish Legion to aid the British army, and later fought with the Haganah during the Tel Aviv riots of 1920.

Segal was a regular at the Eden, and according to legend would verbally translate the subtitles for his wife, primarily from French. The other moviegoers didn’t try to shush him – on the contrary, they wanted him to translate out-loud for all to hear. In the end, he turned this hobby into a profession and began to project his translations, written by hand, next to the film, using an old machine similar to a slide projector.

The Eden faced many troubles throughout its life, from its opening until its closure 60 years later. At first, it dealt with unruly neighbors who considered its presence a disturbance to the area, and complained to the municipality that it was illegal. Others felt threatened by the theater, both “materially and morally” according to newspaper reports.

In order to put an end to the conflict, Mayor Meir Dizengoff himself traveled to Alexandria in Egypt to investigate the influence the local theater there had had on the population. When he came back, he calmed things down and cleared the way for the Eden to open its doors. Mostly, the Eden screened films that came from Egypt.

During World War I, when relations between Egypt and prestate Israel turned sour, the Eden’s owners had trouble finding new films. As a result, the public was forced to watch the same offerings again and again. “Sometimes, when no new films came from Alexandria, they would change the name of the current film, and Tel Aviv residents would fill the theater again,” reads the Tel Aviv municipality website.

Another crisis befell the Eden in 1917, when the Turks expelled the Jews from Jaffa and Tel Aviv. One of them was Weiser, Abarbanel’s partner, who died of disease at age 41, far away from his theater.

In late 1917, Tel Aviv was conquered by the British. British army commanders took over the theater and screened films there to entertain the troops. They watched films from Britain and the United States, including silent comedies from Charlie Chaplin. In 1919, the theater was returned to its owners and resumed regular screenings. A few years later another problem arose, and the theater was forced to regulate film content after receiving threatening letters from the Tel Aviv authorities. Tel Aviv even created a public film committee, meant to regulate the theater, forbidding films from being seen by children under a certain age.

The theater operated for many years. During the hot summers, Abarbanel would spray the crowd with rosewater to cover up any nasty smells. And a notice published in Haaretz during the interwar period heralded an improvement: “Attention! The theater has been fitted with fans that make the air cold and refreshing!”

The Eden remained in operation until 1974. It featured not only films, but opera, plays, concerts, dances, balls, lectures, ceremonies and prayer services on its stage. In 2007, the building was purchased by Bank Leumi. It was later sold to a private investor, who planned to turn it into apartments, but the plan never materialized. With its future unknown, this could be the last opportunity to gaze upon Tel Aviv’s first-ever movie theater.