The golden age of cinema in Jamaica - Movie theatres doubled as stageshow venues
There was a time when cinemas dotted the Jamaican landscape islandwide. In the ’60 and ’70s, Kingston was overflowing with cinemas of various shapes and sizes. The rural parishes were well supplied, too, with at least one or two in each parish capital and smaller ones in faraway towns. After independence, few Jamaican homes had television sets and even fewer had telephones. Transistor radios were the popular hand-held device of choice for keeping in touch with the outside world, and when families wished to be visually entertained, they went to the cinema to see a movie.
Cinemas across the island were more popularly called theatres, and for a good reason, as nearly all of them had performance stages that were in active use. Many were operated by Palace Amusement Company, a decades-old firm that still does business in Jamaica, running Carib 5 in Cross Roads, Palace Cineplex in Liguanea, and Palace Multiplex in Montego Bay. Years ago, movies were packaged as single features, double bill and even triple bill. In Kingston, the cinemas had names like Regal, Odeon, State, Premier, Tropical, Majestic, Queens, DeLuxe, Ambassador, Gaiety, and Palace. And the rural ones included Capri, Palladium, Doric, Imperial, Royal, Astor, Roxy, Strand, Coral, Royal, Arcadian, Delmar, Tudor, and many more.
In their heyday, the theatres titillated Jamaicans from all walks of life with the glitz of Hollywood. Some of the movie houses were open air, perfect for enjoying a gentle trade wind after dark. Others had a partial roof. Most were fully enclosed, and there were a few drive-ins too – at Harbour View, Washington Boulevard and New Kingston. Older Jamaicans will reel off with nostalgia the movies they saw in a theatre: Sound of Music, To Sir, With Love, The Harder They Come, Chariots of the Gods, Jesus Christ Superstar, Car Wash, Five on The Black Hand Side, Gone With The Wind, Funny Girl, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft, and Saturday Night Fever.
Beyond the adventure, the drama, and the excitement of a movie, there are other parts of the trip to the cinema that bring back happy memories for Jamaicans - like the cotton candy or frozen Coke at Premier; the mouthwatering beef sandwich at the old Carib; the Lannaman’s candy at Imperial in Savanna-la-Mar, and the vendors outside every cinema, selling oranges, peanuts, corn soup, sugar cane, and coconut jelly. Kisko pop, Fanta, Wink, and Nutty Buddy were at times a part of the journey, too.
“As youngsters, going to see a movie before independence, we would have to stand at attention and respectfully sing God Save The Queen, “Trevor Lewis, a film aficionado told The Sunday Gleaner. “And before the movie started, a news reel was played from Pathé News from England, much of it propaganda, extolling the grandeur of Britain and her Empire. Looking back, it was an effective promotion to get people to migrate to England in the early years.”
BOB MARLEY AT THE CAPRI IN MAY PEN
While moviegoers were being riveted by the titles of their choice, there was another important function that the theatre played back then, and it was to unearth new talent and provide a performance platform for those who were making waves in ska, reggae, and rock steady. Children had their time to shine, too, and in the late ’60s, Judy Willoughby, a former Miss Jamaica and a high school teacher, hosted a Saturday morning talent show for kids at the Regal Theatre in Cross Roads. And for older teenagers and young adults, participating in the Vere Johns Talent Show at the legendary Ambassador Theatre, in Trench Town, was a fast track to showbiz dreams. Nearly all cinemas doubled as venues for stage shows and many of Jamaica’s most outstanding talent from that era graced the stages with performances, much to the gleeful delight of music fans.
“I played Bob Marley at the Capri Theatre in May Pen in the late ’60s, when Bob was still singing solo for Beverley’s Records,” Tony Cobb, a Jamaican impresario now residing in New York, and the first Jamaican to take reggae music to New York radio, told The Sunday Gleaner. “Bob was still very young then, and when he saw the huge size of the audience, he was frightened and backed away, so I had to coax him and bring him back on stage,” Cobb added. “It turned out to be an excellent show, and Raymond Sharpe, a reporter at The STAR back then, ran a front-page photo of Bob and me on stage at the Capri,” he reminisced.
During the ’60s and ’70s, Tony Cobb, who was born in Allman Town and who later became known in Jamaican entertainment circles as “Cat Behind The Glasses,” played many artistes at cinemas across the island. His first show was at the Rialto on Winward Road with Byron Lee, Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Hortense Ellis, and Toots & The Maytals. He regularly promoted reggae shows at cinemas. Some of the popular venues were the Palace on South Camp Road, Gaiety on East Queen Street, Kings on Winward Road, Majestic on Spanish Town Road and Maxfield Avenue, and the Palladium in Montego Bay.
Cobb’s music entrepreneurship was not limited to local acts. In the ’70s, he brought the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites to Carib, the Manhattans to Regal, and Otis Redding to the Ritz at Maxfield and Chisholm avenues. In 1974, Cobb invited the Jackson Five to Jamaica to perform, too, but that production generated so much demand that is was staged at the larger National Arena in Kingston and not at one of the cinemas.
DOUBLE BILL AT THE WARD
“I saw Dionne Warwick and Nina Simone at Carib,” Pauline Stone-Myrie, Jamaican actress and cultural specialist, told The Sunday Gleaner. “Many of the cinemas were multipurpose, and theatrical productions happened not only at the Ward, but Bim and Bam did shows regularly at a theatre on Maxfield Avenue when Governor Sir John Huggins was in residence at King’s House. The governor and his wife attended the shows from time to time and people told stories in the early days of Lady Molly Huggins blushing in the audience at some of the salacious jokes,” Stone-Myrie recalled.
The Ward Theatre in downtown Kingston, the home of the LTM pantomime, showed movies too, and Stone-Myrie, who later played the lead in several national pantomimes at the Ward, remembers seeing a double bill there with Student Prince and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Sadly, many of the cinemas where Jamaican teenagers of the ’60s and ’70s fell in love, are now gone with the wind. Some have now been converted to churches, shopping arcades, and even factories. New entertainment technologies have rendered many of the old cinemas redundant as movies can now be enjoyed in the comfort of one’s home. Stage shows no longer have the intimacy of several dozen people, as it did in the past. Venues today can accommodate many thousands. And still, a new generation of smart phone youngsters will never know that ominous sound of expletives firing off in a dark cinema when, in the middle of a spell-binding, heart-stopping thriller, the projector suddenly breaks down!