The Labia Theatre, the
oldest cinema in South Africa, celebrated its 70 birthday in style with a red carpet event on Sunday May 19, which also marked International Museum Day.
And the Labia Theatre can pass as a museum itself, as the artsy cinema house, which dates back to 1949, still has the old school film feel to it that it prides itself with, despite the long-awaited shift to digital cinema recently.
Some of the original features which are still in use today, include the ticket booth and the sweet counter, and even the seats, but the owners have has since added three more screens and a bar and terrace to the original Labia.
“From a ballroom in the late 30s, to the opening of shows in the cinema, the grand old lady has lived through many years but has always been dedicated to the arts,” said owner, Ludi Kraus.
The Labia was opened by Princess Labia in May 1949 as a theatre for the staging of live performances. Originally used purely for performing arts – and possibly as the ballroom for the Italian Embassy next door before that – films were screened there from around the mid-1970s.
When Mr Kraus took over in September 1989, the Labia began its incarnation as the home of cult, classic and art movies, as well as box office hits. He said he thought the space didn’t work well as a space for theatre and films. “My knowledge was in film and not theatre, so I decided to concentrate on that.”
Mr Kraus, from Milnerton, has broad experience in cinema, having grown up in his father’s self-built cinema in Windhoek. He left his 13-year law career to work in cinema full time. The Labia is still run by Mr Kraus, with a number of staff members who have worked there for decades.
Mr Kraus said what sets the Labia apart from other cinemas, is that they have a niche market in a “great” venue, and they are “picky” with the movies they show.
The Labia focuses on a selection of art movies, foreign language films and sometimes commercial blockbusters. They also host a number of festivals, live music bands, and a coffee shop.
“We also keep the old way of cinema alive, and we hope that by coming to the Labia, people still have an experience rather than just coming to see a movie.”
Mr Kraus added that to the best of his knowledge, the Labia remained open to everyone under apartheid rule.
He remembers a time when he was selling tickets for films during apartheid – a commercial film and a french art film. “A man came in with a petrol attendant uniform, and I immediately took out a ticket for the commercial film, assuming he wanted to watch that, when, in fact, he was there for the French art film. That really hit me deep. I had tears in my eyes because it just showed me how brainwashed we were.”
Head usher Christine Chitter, from Brooklyn has worked there for 40 years having started as a counter hand. When the usher died, she started working at the door, and has been there ever since.
She said the Labia had always been a space for all but she is happy to see that it has become a place of interest for everyone, and is now drawing a younger crowd.
“I love movies, and I love having the elderly at the cinema. I allow them to sit in the cinema while the younger people stand in line to get the tickets.”
She said she also watched some regulars grow up in the cinema, and people always return for years to come. “The tourists are always happy to see a friendly face when they come to the Labia. When they touch ground in South Africa, the Labia is on their list of places to visit. “She said she was overwhelmed that the Labia had reached 70, and that she was still working there. “I have two homes now,” said Ms Chitter.
Riedwaan Fridie, from the city centre, has worked at the Labia for 33 years. When he first started as a young projectionist, he said, he felt a bit out of place as a person of colour. “In those years, as people of colour, we were taught to make way for ‘white’ people and we couldn’t walk on the same pavement as them.”
He said one day, a European patron came to him and asked him why he walked with his head down.
“The patron said to me: ‘there’s no difference between us – we bleed the same and we are all people’.
“I started walking with my head high and looking people in the face. I got to know a lot of them too.”
Mr Fridie started his career at the then Athlone cinema as an assistant to the projectionist, but quickly learnt how to do all the work, he didn’t have a licence. It was at the Labia that he got his licence, and he ran the projectors in the cinemas up until four years ago when they switched to digital movies.
“The transition was sad and it wasn’t easy for me. I thought that Mr Kraus wasn’t going to need me anymore, but we learnt as we went along. I even recorded the last piece of film that I did through the projector. Now, it’s a pleasure, and we successfully made the move.”
Speaking at the event on Sunday, Roberta Fox, an actress from Gardens, said the Labia Theatre had been part of her life for as long as she could remember. As a student of the then drama school across the road, she said the building was always familiar to her, but it wasn’t until she moved from Vredehoek to Gardens after travelling that it became a permanent fixture in her social life.
“The movies can sometimes lift your spirits, make you laugh and even make you cry.”
She said she has always loved movies and grew up to be a performer.
“I married a filmmaker and our movies have been screened at the Labia. Most staff have been here forever, and we welcome the new staff like family. The Labia is more than a cinema. It hosts markets and festivals, and most media students from the community will have their first work shown here.”
Mr Kraus also introduced the Labia’s new popcorn cup, which will replace the brown paper bags it had been served in for so long. The evening ended with a screening of Rocketman, just three days after the film on the life and times of Elton John, was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in France.