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Watching lilas during the silent era (1)

/ 06:59 AM June 02, 2013

How did Cebuanos watch lilas or cinema during its earliest years?

In  1897 when motion pictures were introduced  in a shop in Escolta, Manila, by the Spaniard Francisco Pertierra, a certain Mr. Charochi sailed to Iloilo and Cebu on board the ship called “Sunkiang”, bringing with him a “Cinematografo”. He was said to have planned to use the contraption to screen films during the few weeks of his stay before returning to Manila.

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There has been no confirmation so far of this report from El Comercio in November of that year, it is hard to imagine Mr. Charochi spending a few days here without actually using the bulky machine he had been lugging around.

What’s more certain was the exhibition in Cebu in 1902 of “Cinematografo-Electro-Optico Luminoso Walgrah” in a warehouse in Magallanes street by Pedro Alario, who worked for an Englishman known only as Walgrah (or Walgraph), owner of a salon in Manila that regularly screened films.

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According to Resil Mojares, this Cinematografo Walgraph was set up in Cebu in a cockpit in San Nicolas owned by Pedro Royo who later turned it into Cine Royo. The silent “flicks” were also shown in “ad-hoc venues” such as the home of Agapito-Garces in Mabini-Colon, and the camarin of Florentino Rallos in Infanta street.

Signifying the slow takeover of the stage by the “photo-play” (as cinema was called in those years), Teatro Junquera, Cebu’s oldest theater founded in 1895, became Cine Oriente as it began screening films after 1910. The theater was first owned by Pedro Royo y Rincon, passed on to Leopoldo Falek, then to Pedro Rivera-Mir, and finally to Jose Avila, whose heirs continue to operate it today as Oriente Theater.

Shortly before it became a sinehan, Teatro Junquera earlier housed the American-owned It Cinema and F. C. Arey’s Cinema Empire. When it had already moved out of Teatro Junquera, the latter advertised itself in the local Spanish newspaper Nueva Fuerza in 1915 as “El Coliseo mas fresco, comodo y elegante de Cebu”.

Film rapidly became a favorite local pastime and during First World War when the jitters following the torpedo attacks on American merchant ships in the Atlantic reached our shores (we were then an American colony in this side of the Pacific). Aside from the earlier mentioned Cine Royo, Cine Oriente, and Cine Empire (which later was bought by the Avilas), another moviehouse more devoted to film was Cine Ideal.

Pronounced by Cebuanos as “ee-dee-yal” or “ee-jal”, the theater could have been a branch of the Ideal, the flagship theater in Manila of Ideal Moving Picture Company, a film exchange business owned by Rafael Roces. The local Cine Ideal’s ownership, however, passed from the hands of Ora Snyder to a certain Mr. Mabromatis and, again finally, to Don Jose Avila.

In 1922, the Avilas also built the Cine Auditorium located in Sancianco street. It was said to have seating capacity of 10,000. In the United States, the 20s was the age of the movie palace, when theaters were grand, lavishly decorated, air-conditioned places with elegantly-dressed ushers to help lead customers (mostly ordinary workers) to their cushioned seats. The huge Cine Auditorioum proved that we were not totally behind in this global trend.

The years before the First World War saw the leadership of France in the global film market. Pathe, the largest French producer and distributor of movies, established a branch in Manila in 1909. It supplied Ideal and most other theaters in Manila with its films.

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The “marca Pathe” appears in the anunzios or newspaper advertisements of screenings sponsored by Cine Ideal and the other theaters. Most of these films were Pathe serials like The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (1915). These films, billed in their Spanish titles, were screened in Cebu a year or so after they were produced. Other long-running European silent serials during these war years include El Bandido de Port Aven (The Bandit of Port Aven), and Vampiros (Vampires).

Before the War, America was producing mostly low-quality or “junk” movies that were aimed at the domestic market. And since, we were still an American colony, some of these films reached our theaters. But, according to film scholar Nick Deocampo, Filipino preference during this early years of American occupation remained Eurocentric, a kind of Hispanismo that was reflected in the use of Spanish titles for movies and other texts in the anunzios.

But the closure of borders and hostilities between warring countries in Europe took its toll on its national cinemas. After the war, Pathe would focus more on film distribution as it could no longer compete with imported American cinema, which had dramatically improved while the Europeans were busy killing each other at the trenches.

Cebuano theaters reflected this slow domination of the screen by Hollywood. (To be continued.)

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