Bygone downtown

The destruction of the Edison Theater marks the end of an era.

edison theater 298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
edison theater 298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Imagine you come across the backstreet entrance of a popular theater, just before the performance is about to begin. You bump into the star of the evening, dressed in a chic French basic black chemise and you try to understand why, in this exotic country, winter evenings feel almost as cold as they do in Paris. You would certainly feel you're living in one of the "hottest" places in the world, going for another eve of culture and fun of the highest level in a very "in" place. The star in question would have been - s'il-vous-plait - the famous singer Juliette Greco, on a short visit in the Holy Land, 30-something years ago. And the popular theater, believe it or not, would have been the Edison, standing proudly on Yeshayahu Street in town-down Jerusalem. Yes, the same Edison Theater that is being demolished this week, to make way for a new neighborhood, a residential center for the virulently anti-Zionist Satmer hassidim. As they say, sic transit gloria mundi. The Edison Hall, according to noted Jerusalem architect and urban planner, David Kroyanker, was built in 1932 and served as a central culture hall in Jerusalem until the 1950s, together with the Zion Cinema (in Zion Square) and the Rex Hall, not far away. But the Edison reigned supreme. The most important performances in town were held there, and the wide range of artists over the years included, to name just a few, Oum Koulthoum, Otto Klemperer, Toscanini and, of course, Juliette Greco. Klemperer, the great German-Jewish conductor, orchestrated in the Edison in a wheelchair, after he had made his way back to Judaism and decided to hold a concert in Jerusalem. The birth of the Edison, together with the other cinema halls and theaters in Jerusalem, was connected to "a certain prosperity in the city, that began around the the '30s," Kroyanker writes, adding that the last cinema hall built in those days is actually the only one that has survived until the present - the Smadar Cinema in the German Colony, then known as the Regent Cinema, "the place" for the soldiers of the British mandate. The Edison was planned by architect Ritten, while the foyer and the inner hall were designed by the most famous architects in the region at that time - Dan and Raphael Ben-Dor. It was considered one of the most elegant buildings in the city, a place of culture with more than a hint of Europe. For Moshe Dadash, the legendary owner for almost 20 years, the Edison was first and foremost a piece of Jerusalem's modern history. "It was everything for us, the people of Jerusalem: theater, cinema, opera - a must in our cultural life here. Whatever important happened in the life of this city - it was happening there, at the Edison," he recalls. Dadash admits that while he has heard that Oum Koulthoum performed at the Edison, he has no personal recollection of the concert. "I'm not sure if it's real or just another legend connected to the Edison, but I know for sure about the other "big names" who performed there in those years, during the British mandate and after the creation of the State. He remembers Maestro Arturo Toscanini: "Everybody who was somebody came to the concert. And he recalls the great operas of the time. "Everything you could see or hear in the big cities in the region or even in Europe - we had it here, at the Edison. I'm telling you - everyone came to the Edison," Growing up in Jerusalem, Rachel Dorot, now 83, remembers the best days of the Edison. "All of the 'hevreh' would meet there. We went to movies and concerts. None of us had much money, and we lived simply, but we could afford to go to a concert at the Edison. During the mandate, Jerusalem was a city of culture, with the Edison at its center." But with the end of the mandate, Jerusalem became, until the Six Day War, a relatively tiny and remote place, while Tel Aviv began to emerge as a cultural center. From the '70s, even those events that did come to Jerusalem stopped coming to the Edison - there were other places, more modern. So the Edison became a movie theater. "We had all the westerns and all the best movies," continues Dadash. "Then came the big trend of Turkish and Indian movies. They were a huge hit, and the Edison was the place to go if you wanted to watch one of those movies". But the area of the Edison, contiguous to Mea Shearim and Geula, became increasing ultra-Orthodox. Dadash says that although he is very sad to hear about the end of the Edison, he admits that it was inevitable. "It became a foreign object in the neighborhood," he observes. "It was a matter of time - there was no chance the Edison could continue in an ultra-Orthodox vicinity, there's nothing you can do about that." Actually, Dadash and the Edison suffered from their neighbors for decades. Demonstrations, police, even threats against his life - Dadash has seen them all, including orders not to sell tickets before the end of Shabbat. "We finally decided to give up the first screening on Saturdays, and in those days, we didn't even dream of opening up on Friday nights. So we only had a late show, but we still had problems - the stills outside advertising the movie, the posters. A cinema is not the usual thing that our ultra-Orthodox neighbors wanted to have around." Dadash added that anyway, since the small movie halls in the malls were opened, the era of places like the Edison had come to an end. I personally bid adieu to the Edison while watching Steven Spielberg's' "E.T." I didn't phone home, and the place wasn't at its best anymore, but its past splendor and glamor were still there. The Edison has been closed for years now and the beautiful building has become nothing more than a ruin, serving as a "zula" for homeless young people, most of them known by the welfare department of the municipality, many of them addicted to drugs or alcohol. No one was really surprised to discover that a group of constructors and real estate developers had decided to buy the building in order to build apartments for ultra-Orthodox families. And perhaps the fact that the group is connected to the Satmer hassidim, who still strongly oppose the mere existence of the State of Israel, is also just another aspect of an on-going struggles in Jerusalem. Back in the 1970s, members of the "Eidah Haredit" and the Satmer organized demonstrations against the Edison, helping to promote its decline. Now, 30 years later, they buy up the ruin, in order to demolish it and take over its space.