Cinema Paradiso lost?

Residents of Jerusalem’s German Colony, and far beyond, are trying to prevent the final curtain coming down on Smadar cinema.

Jerusalem's Lev Smadar 521 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Jerusalem's Lev Smadar 521
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
Ioften cry at movies, but last week was the first time I was clutching tissues because of the possible fate of the cinema, rather than the film.
I saw the (deservedly acclaimed) The King’s Speech at Jerusalem’s Lev Smadar. It was the perfect venue. Lev Smadar is the oldest – and classiest – cinema in the city, with a history that could itself grace the silver screen.
It was founded in April 1928 as a cinema and club of the German Templer community.
Under the Mandate, while “Bertie” was struggling to conquer his stutter, British officers were marching to the stone building on Lloyd George Street for some rest and recreation. In 1935, it commenced commercial screenings as the Orient Cinema. Later, in response to the Nazi ban on Jewish businesses in Germany, a boycott was declared against German- owned businesses and the cinema’s German owner was forced to turn it over to Jewish management, much to the disgust of the local Nazi sympathizers, who still literally flew the flag in the German Colony.
Fast forward to 1948: Following the War of Independence, four demobilized IDF soldiers took over its operation. Two years later, Aryeh Chechik bought out his partners and started to manage it as a oneman show. Well, not quite: His wife could often be found in the box office while his daughters swept the floor.
Incidentally, Smadar (the flower of the vine) was the winning entry in a competition to choose a suitable Hebrew name for the cinema. The lucky 14-year-old contestant received a year’s free entry.
In the late 1970s, after a makeover, it became a club for cinema lovers and it’s no surprise that a Save the Smadar event last month included a free screening of Cinema Paradiso. The fear of a Paradiso lost is very “reel.”
Since 1993, Smadar has been part of the Lev Cinema chain, although it is the dispute between Chechik’s two daughters over the inheritance that has triggered off the latest threat to sell the property for real-estate development. The plot thickened when one of the two died before the case had been resolved in court.
The lights could go out, forever, at Lev Smadar in May – unless local residents, film fans and the nearby Ginot Ha’ir community center succeed in their struggle.
“SMADAR WAS always more than a cinema theater. From the very first day,” says Jerusalem writer, translator and culture maven Michael Dak. “It has always been a neighborhood cinema.”
Indeed, when I lived close by in the 1990s, I often went to the late-night movie wearing slippers. Last week, Lev Smadar still offered a warm refuge on a wintry Jerusalem evening. The bar and café – an essential part of its old worldly, Art Deco charm – were crowded with patrons ranging in age from students to senior citizens, slowly making their way to the theater's plush purple seats with the help of walkers. The smell of popcorn combined with a whiff of coffee and a dash of indescribable ambience.
Unlike the multiple theaters situated in shopping malls, this is definitely more about culture than consumerism, although in the early days of the state, recalls Dak, the cinematic content was usually negligible. Chechik’s first claim to fame was offering a double feature and attracting mainly children.
“As a kid I used to live on the corner, and having been abroad several years I was presumed multilingual and allowed to roll the translation, which was a separate reel of transparent celluloid with the subtitles written on by hand,” he recollects. “Moreover, I could collect the frames that had to be cut when the overheated projector would first stop and then show a terrible blister swelling on the screen and the unavoidable break would ensue.
“Chechik, called Churchill by public demand, sent his wife to the kiosk to make a couple of extra grushim [small change] while he was doing the old fashioned cut-and-paste (including editorial cuts). The leftovers were mine, rendering me all the riches of the cinematic world of the ’50s, such as frames of Marlon Brando and Victor Mature.”
Not surprisingly, Dak condemns the possible closure. “The building itself is not the issue,” he says. “The issue is the eradication of communal values and symbols, such as kibbutzim, for the rampage of privatization and maximization of profit...”
He protests “the increasing alienation and giving the word community a virtual meaning and no longer a social connotation.
If you want to belong to a community, you go to Facebook.”
Dak decries the changing face of the neighborhood – which is also fighting property sharks eying the Olympic-size Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refaim, the picturesque main street.
“The German Colony is being strangled by the riches of real estate,” he says. “It’s lucky that real estate tycoons and their collaborators have not yet claimed the two cemeteries as prospective sheltered housing for the prosperous aged – ‘just a few steps from [café] Kaffit and your favorite pharmacy.’” Smadar’s many fans are still hoping for a happy ending. Even the stridently secular are praying for a miracle – that the cinema will be granted a statutory status ensuring its continued operation as a movie house. “Coming soon to a theater near you – a luxury apartment block,” sounds like the promo for a horror movie.
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