Escape to the movies!

It may be hard to imagine now but there was a time when the only affordable public entertainment in Johor Baru was going to the movies because only the affluent could afford to own a television. 

The former Capitol theatre at Jalan Station
Movies are a popular entertainment choice because it’s an avenue to unwind and escape into another realm, to get involved with the plot and lives of screen characters, even for a while.  Enveloped in dim darkness, it’s perfectly all right to cheer for the underdogs, scream aloud at shocking scenes or shed tears at tender moments. 

But there’s simply something magical about watching movies on the big screen.  Many will fondly remember their first date of going to a movie after a meal because couples, getting to know each other, could enjoy being with their date for several hours without trying to impress or make intelligent conversation! 

The movie halls of today are small compared to former movie theatres that were stand-alone landmarks built with adjacent parking lots.  

Theatre locations were within convenient walking distances and as few people owned cars then, there was sufficient parking space. 

JB’s first cinema was the Sino-English theatre at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby, opposite Hua Mui Restaurant.  A few concrete steps is the only evidence left of this theatre today. 

The former Cathay theatre on Jalan Bukit Meldrum
The Capitol at Jalan Station was a premier theatre popular for screening Chinese movies.  During an era when operas were made into movies, this attracted hordes of fans who enjoyed watching their favourite stars perform opera on the big screen. 

Besides Chinese movies, Capitol used to screen coloured, talking movies, mostly American Western or cowboy movies and blockbusters like The Greatest Show on Earth. The Capitol boasted of a stage which often hosted live shows by visiting opera stars from Hong Kong to promote opera movies by performing an excerpt of the film in a live show.  

In addition to large billboards displayed outside the theatre, publicity for coming movies and stage shows were also done by distributing printed flyers.  Publicity flyers, commonly cut in landscape format with one-colour printing, were distributed by a vendor who walked around to shops, businesses and homes in town. 

My siblings, cousins and I, who stayed with our grandparents at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng during our school-going years, used to be fascinated by these flyers received in the letterbox.  They were printed mainly in Chinese with brief English or Malay translations but we understood enough from the interesting pictures.  

Our grandparents, who were opera fans, made it a point to attend the live shows whenever Hong Kong stars came to perform.  These thung thoi shows were very popular and the theatre offered free-seating on a first-come-first-served basis. 

But if our grandparents were to walk from Jalan Ngee Heng to Jalan Station, their favourite seats might have already been taken.  So grandfather or Ah Kong, used to have an arrangement with his friend, the theatre manager, James Ho, to reserve their seats by tying a handkerchief to indicate that two seats were booked! 

At that time, tickets cost RM2 for upstairs seats while the best seats downstairs were only RM1.25 and prices ranged between RM 1 and 65 sen for seats closest to the screen. Even though Capitol did not have air-conditioning, it was popular until it was demolished in 1972.  

The former Lido theatre on Jalan Wong Ah Fook
Later, a cinema hall by the same name was reopened within the Merlin Tower building. At the same time, two of the most important landmarks along Jalan Wong Ah Fook were the Rex and Lido theatres.  

Rex, the older of the two, was ventilated only by ceiling fans. Audiences flocked to the adjacent Lido when it opened as a modern air-conditioned theatre and this probably forced the owners of Rex to upgrade and install air-conditioning! 

On Saturday morning, if we finished our chores early, Ah Kong would take his grand-children for a morning show at Rex or Lido.  The cheap seats for matinee and morning shows was just 80 sen and if the show was popular, we would end up with tickets for the dreaded first row seats! 

These were the most uncomfortable seats in the house because we had to sink deep into the seats to angle our heads almost horizontal to watch the screen.  Thankfully, this did not happen often because we always tried to walk to the theatre on time to get good seats! 

A collection of theatre tickets and movie promotion flyers
at the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery
Perched on a hillock on Jalan Bukit Meldrum was the Cathay and we were sorry to see it demolished to make way for the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex.  A nearby row of shops that served food conveniently provided meals before or after shows.  

Here, a popular laksa noodle adopted its name from the theatre and is known as Cathay laksa to this day! While all the other theatres were demolished in the 1990s, Broadway at Jalan Segget, popular for screening Tamil movies, is still in business. 

In those days, tickets were bound in booklets and various priced tickets were usually identified by different colours.  The lady at the ticket counter was a familiar neighbour and she would mark our tickets with a thick red pencil before tearing it off from the counterfoil. 

In the lobby was a snack stall and Ah Kong would let us choose our favourite treats and we would select Mentos mints or Roundtree fruit gums while he picked Hacks cough-drops.  It also sold a range of soft drinks, crisps, chewing gum and cut fruits on sticks but we were not to choose these. 

A kacang puteh man and his parked bicycle would offer a choice of toasted nuts and sometimes we bought our pick of nuts wrapped in paper cones made from paper recycled from old telephone directories! 

If popcorn is the staple snack for modern movie-goers then it must have replaced kuaci or melon seeds.  Our movie watching experience was always punctuated by click-clicking sounds and at the end of the show, we would walk gingerly out of the theatre, crunching piles of kuaci shells underfoot!

Old photos are courtesy of Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association

A version of this was published in the November 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

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