Film fans bid farewell to Thailand’s temple of cinema, Scala

Bangkok’s last surviving standalone cinema – the iconic Scala at Siam Square – is bidding farewell to movie fans this weekend after half a century of ups and downs.

With COVID-19 safety measures in place, Scala is hosting an exclusive screening event in collaboration with the Thai Film Archive on Saturday and Sunday (July 4-5). All tickets were sold out soon after going on sale.

The very last film to be screened at the cinema, on Sunday evening, will be the award-winning 1988 Italian drama “Cinema Paradiso” – which celebrates the magic of movies.

The farewell comes just over a month after cinemas were allowed to reopen on June 1, following more than two months of closure due to the virus outbreak.

Yet many fans are still opting to shun cinemas over fear of contracting COVID-19.

 

Saturday saw a large crowd gather at Scala, some waiting for a screening while others dropping by simply to take photos with the iconic cinema hall in the background or to pose with its famous middle-aged ushers in bright yellow jackets.

The colourful lighting and marquee have been left on for the last three nights, providing final photo opportunities for fans of cinema and architecture.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook are being flooded with posts by Scala fans. Some express sorrow over the cinema’s shutdown and the possibility that the magnificent art deco building could be torn down.

Some recounted precious memories of the cinema. “During my years working in Bangkok, Scala was always one of my comfort zones. Now it’s time to say goodbye. That’s life,” wrote Twitter user “Richmond”.

Others showed off selfies taken at the cinema – some of them proudly clutching tickets. More than a few Twitter users offered to buy tickets “at any price” for the last screening.

 

Treasured memories

At the cinema, fans pinned farewell messages on a notice board. “Despite the closedown, I will still remember the good memories,” said one on blue notepaper.

“Miss you, Scala”, “Can’t forget”, “With sorrow, [heart] Scala”, “Thank you, Scala”, read other notes.

Long-time foreign residents of Bangkok, recalling fond memories during its heyday, were saddened by the shutdown of Scala.

“I am absolutely heartbroken. It’s sad that Bangkok is losing this iconic cinema,” said expat Ramona Varma, 53.

“The first film I saw was the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ when I was 14 during my first trip to Thailand. Since moving here in the ’80s, I have watched films at Scala frequently. I just love the art deco architecture, the sweeping staircase, the chandeliers,” she lamented.

“Another part of Thai history bites the dust. What a shame!” said Luci, another expat who has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years.

“It is sad to see such an icon of downtown Bangkok shut down,” said Tamara Wyachai, an educator and long-term Bangkok resident.

“The retro interior really takes one back. I wish it could be maintained and used for some other purposes, or even an indie film/music venue for local talents. It seems a waste to lose another one of Bangkok’s iconic locales,” she added.

Scala holds a special place in Tamara’s heart as the place she and her future husband chose for their first date. “Just last year, the kids and I went for a ‘Stranger Things’ event,” she said.

Scala is the last of three legendary standalone single-screen cinemas that once graced Bangkok’s Siam Square. Run by the Apex group, the trio also included the Lido and Siam cinema.

In the 1970s, the three theatres were the main attractions at Siam Square, which eventually turned into a massive shopping destination for increasingly affluent urbanites.

 

March of the multiplexes

The early ’90s brought stiff competition as modern, high-tech multiplexes sprang up inside shopping malls, luring customers away from the three standalones.

Scala, along with other cinemas, suffered again with the advent of movie streaming services in mid-2000s. The digital era has left cinemas all over the world struggling against a seismic shift in consumer habits, as online subscription streaming services rise in popularity. Young people, in particular, have moved towards online media platforms such as Netflix, while streaming piracy is rife.

More pressure arrived when COVID-19 struck early this year and a state of emergency declared in March shut down cinemas. It signalled the final nail in the coffin for 50-year-old Scala.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the film industry across the world. Cinemas have been closed, festivals cancelled or postponed, and film releases delayed – sometimes indefinitely.

 

The 1,000-seat Scala – named after Milan’s famous opera house La Scala, which means ladder – was opened in December 1969, three years after the Siam cinema and a year after Lido.

The Siam was burnt down during the 2010 political mayhem while Lido closed its doors after the lease expired in May 2018. Lido’s three screens reopened a year later as Lido Connect, which also features multifunctional spaces and boutiques. The cinemas now screen documentaries and art house flicks.

Scala is internationally renowned for its glittering art deco decor, curved wide staircase, stunning modernist ceiling design, and palatial chandeliers imported from Italy.

The building was designed by Jira Silkanok, a former president of the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) who was also behind the iconic Indra Regent Hotel. In 2012, the cinema won the Architectural Conservation Award from the association.

Apex, the company which runs Scala, has rented the land that houses the cinema from Chulalongkorn University since the 1960s. The lease, managed by the university’s Property Management Office, is due to expire in December.

After Scala’s last screening on Sunday, the building remains available for rent, until the end of the year, by anyone interested in using the venue for events or movie screenings.

Its long-term fate remains unknown, but many hope that this unique cinematic and architectural treasure can be saved from the wrecking ball.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

 

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