The end of an era

The Scala, Thailand's last remaining stand-alone movie theatre, closes its doors with special screenings, including Cinema Paradiso and Blow-Up

The Scala, a documentary. (Photo: Aditya Assarat/Salaya Int Documentary Film Festival)

Last Saturday saw many fans and film lovers from everywhere gather from morning to evening in front of Scala Theatre, Bangkok's last stand-alone cinema and the magnificent architectural icon of the Siam Square area. People stood in line for hours to buy advance tickets for the farewell programmes in the "La Scala" event organised in conjunction with the Thai Film Archive, which will take place on Saturday and Sunday before the movie theatre closes its doors for good after serving Thai cinemagoers for more than half-a-century.

From Friday to Sunday, the cinema is set to turn on all its lights in the evening. Photographers and art lovers have one last chance to capture and appreciate the legendary venue's beautiful architectural details.

"It would have been so nice if there were this many people coming here in the last few years," said Apinya Munkongsiri, a college student and one of the patrons, of the people queuing up until the long line overflowed into the stairs and outside of the cinema.

"The tickets are nearly sold out and are limited to buy at two for each person only. Too bad I couldn't buy a few more for my friends, but I wouldn't miss the chance to say goodbye to this theatre," said Rungsimun Suwiruttanapast, a musician and movie fan who bought tickets to see Blow-Up, the 1966 cult classic mystery film by Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the two main films along with two documentaries that are part of the "La Scala" event this weekend.

The other main feature, Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 film Cinema Paradiso, is quite a thoughtful and appropriate choice for Scala's farewell as it's a heartwarming coming of age drama about the love of cinema, and also about change. The film examines the sad truth about time, that we can never go back to what we once knew.

La Scala limits the number of ticket sales to two per person to offer "opportunity to as many people as possible to join the farewell screenings", according to the Thai Film Archive Facebook page. Yet tickets are sold out.

The Scala is one of the "three musketeer" theatres along with Siam and Lido, and part of the Apex chain, which leases the land it occupies from Chulalongkorn University. Apex Group is a private company that at the time was operated by Pisit Tansacha, a prominent person in Thai business who succeeded in managing the legendary Chalermthai Theatre until being persuaded to help develop the land at the Pathumwan intersection of Chulalongkorn University. Here, Pisit invested in a modern movie theatre, starting with Siam in 1966 and Lido in 1968 and then the Scala, which opened its doors for the first time on Dec 31, 1969, with the Thai premiere of The Undefeated, US Civil War-era Western starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson.

The Scala marquee in September 1977 featuring the American film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. (Photo © BANGKOK POST ARCHIVE)

While Scala was the last in the Apex theatre chain, it was the one Pisit intended to transform as beautifully as possible. The cinema's Art Deco, late modernism architecture has always been a distinctive feature. Upon entering, theatre patrons will notice the grand staircase, which stands elegantly, leading to a giant dewdrop chandelier. The theatre's name, Scala, is the Italian word for stairs.

The cinema's hall combines the arts of the East and West. The golden ceiling is harmonious with curved concrete columns. Stucco works on the wall are inspired by various Asian cultures from Japan and China to Bali, India and Thailand. The single-screen cinema is located on the top floor of the building while the space of the ground floor is used for shops and restaurants.

The three cinemas gradually brought bustle to an area that had previously been quite lonely, but then grew into one of the most prosperous business locations in Thailand. Siam Square is very popular, especially among university students and teenagers. Although many modern theatres have since been built, the Scala still maintained its audience.

Through the years, Apex Group cinemas have gone through many changes. In 2010, the Siam burned down during the political crisis. The Lido was adapted into a multiplex cinema in 1994, and closed for renovations in May 2018, leaving the Scala standing alone.

The Scala's hallmark as a stand-alone movie palace inevitably led to its closing as today's movie market no longer supports such a business model. The more than 900-seat cinema could offer only five to six screenings a day, unlike multiplex theatres that can have many screenings at the same time. The Covid-19 crisis likely provided the final nail in the coffin for the grand house. The three-month closure was too much of an economic hit for its owners to absorb, forcing the Scala to close permanently.

Next week, the familiar yellow suits of the staff, the old-fashioned paper tickets, the low-tech ticket sales

The last remnant of the old era, Scala features architectural gems situated in the heart of Siam Square. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

system and the giant marquee announcing current screenings will be gone.

The melancholy looks on the faces of those lined up for the final screenings show the theatre will be missed by many. But just as the characters in Cinema Paradiso learn, time marches on.

The Thai Film Archive hosts "La Scala", the final screening programme at Scala Theatre. The programme is the same on Saturday and Sunday. All films have Thai and English subtitles.

Blow-Up (1966)Screening time: 12pm

A countercultural masterpiece by the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni. The film tells the story of a London photographer who believes he has inadvertently photographed a murder, only for the evidence to mysteriously disappear. Antonioni's first English-language film is a stylish study of paranoid intrigue and disorientation, set in the heady colour and psychological seduction of the 1960s.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)Screening time: 6pm

A heartwarming story that captures the enchantment of movie theatres, the film tells the story of Toto (Salvatore Cascio), a young boy who cultivates a friendship with Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist working in a movie theatre in his small Italian town. Toto grows up, leaves town, falls in love and one day returns to his village as a successful film producer to join the funeral of Alfredo, the friend and mentor who taught him about the beauty of life.

A programme of two Thai documentaries on stand-alone cinemas.Screening time: 3pm

The Scala (2015)

The film is a record of the lives of many people who work behind the screen at Scala theatre. Directed by Aditya Assarat.

Phantom Of lllumination (2017)

An experimental documentary about a film projectionist who finds himself redundant after digital projection replaces his old machine. Directed by Wattanapume Laisuwanchai.

Scala Theatre advertisement when it first raised its curtain in 1969 featuring the US Civil War-era Western The Undefeated. (Photo © BANGKOK POST ARCHIVE)