Additional reporting and photos by Tappanai Boonbandit
BANGKOK — For 51 years, Scala Theatre was a temple to film in the heart of downtown Bangkok. With its closure Sunday, Scala’s death spells the end of the last remaining stand-alone theater in the capital.
As many of the Scala fans came to say goodbye just before its last screening Sunday evening, the theater was packed with memories of first dates and watching indie flicks and classics screenings. The cinema’s landlord, Chulalongkorn University, has yet to announce what it will do with the building once the business moves out.
Phiboon Phorchaiyarach, one of the theatre’s iconic yellow-jacketed ushers, described the theater as his “second home.”
“I feel sad. I’ve worked here since I was 21. I’m impressed everyday I come to work, it’s like my second home for me,” Phiboon, who has worked there since 1981, when “the theater was always packed. People lined up all the way to the downstairs to get their tickets punched.”
Perhaps in the age of on-demand streaming and a cinema duopoly of Major Cineplex and SF Cinema, the end for stand-alone theaters was inevitable.
“Nowadays there are CDs and mobile phones where everyone can readily enjoy what they want to watch. Coming to theater is not a special moment anymore,” Phiboon said.
After repeated close shaves with closure, Scala Theatre’s lease with Chulalongkorn University finally ran out at the end of June. The theater held farewell screenings Saturday through Sunday of “Blow-Up” (1966) at noon, “The Scala” and “Phantom of Illumination” at 3pm, and “Cinema Paradiso” at 6pm.
Scala was part of the Apex theater chain and was one of three grand theaters that once graced the Siam area. Lido Theater has been turned into a mini-mall/theater and the Siam Theater was torched in 2010 during Redshirt street protests.
Concession stand worker Nuphu Chayalat, 63, worked at Lido for 18 years, before moving to Scala and working there for another two years. After theater staff move out from Scala – which may take until the end of 2020 – many have plans to go work at Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, which is operated by the same owner as Scala.
“I love Scala. I’ll miss it,” she said. As a concession stand worker, she remembers her favorite films that screened here were “Plae Kao” (2014) as well as James Cameron epic “Titanic” (1997), which drew insanely long queues.
Scala Theater, named after the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, opened on December 31, 1969 with a screening of The Undefeated (1969).
Gary de Jean still carries in his wallet a Scala ticket for “Black Panther” (2018), the film he and Suwimon Sae-tiew, 37, watched on their first movie date.
“We came here because that’s where she grew to love cinema,” Gary said. “It’s beautiful, very sad to see it close.”
In matching Scala commemorative tees, Ekkarat Monwat 32, puts his arm around his partner of nine years, Manisa Kawonkanok, 32. On their first-ever date together in 2011, Ekkarat took Manisa to see “Source Code” (“starring Jake Gyllenhall,” Ekkarat adds) at Scala Theater.
“Since then, we’ve always watched films weekly at Lido or Scala,” he said. “This was a space, and area I was familiar with. So when I was flirting with her, I took her into my world to watch films here.”
Jutha Sorapa, 29, had waited in line for two hours to buy tickets to the last screening of “Cinema Paradiso” to pay tribute to the theater he had frequented for two-thirds of his life.
“This isn’t only the place you come to watch movies. Every movie that I watch here has particular moments I remember,” he said. His most memorable screening? Casablanca.
Scala: The Sequel?
It’s unclear what will happen to Scala. Many netizens fear the Art Deco style theater will be demolished and replaced with a mall, but the university said there is no such plan at the time being.
A Chulalongkorn representative said the university estate office is currently looking for a new renter.
Vajwimol Dechget, a film studies professor from Rangsit University, said the building and its reputation should be preserved.
“If I had a lot of money, I would buy Scala and keep it as a theater,” she said. “I hope the new tenant at Scala does similar things, or turns it into a museum.”
Jutha, who loved watching oldies at Scala, said that he hopes that the theater will be used as a cultural space, not as a mall.
“I would be very disappointed [if this becomes a mall] because we have so many malls in Bangkok,” Jutha said. “I don’t think we need more malls. We need more cultural spaces, more museums, more knowledge centers.”