Where the LION roared
The searchlights, the rotating globe, the mountain peak encircled by stars, the lady with the radiating torch flame and the lion came alive on screen here. Several decades before the advent of cable television, this prestigious hall brought to the Madurai youth the events enacted around the globe in all their colour and glory. The entertainment in the form of an English movie was the added attraction. In this nostalgic piece, J. VASANTHAN jogs down memory lane. Let's go along with him to look at the English ladies and gentlemen have tea outside this regal hall with "dazzlingly white tablecloth, colourful crockery and shining cutlery".
I CAME to Madurai from a small town in 1951 to study at the American College. I joined the Intermediate course, and moved into a hostel.
After a week, I happened to go with some friends to the Regal Talkies, and I promptly fell in love with that theatre and the Hollywood films it screened. It was an unusual and unique theatre, and we loved every aspect of it. Of course, this was long before the theatre took on a golden prefix and changed its complexion altogether.
A library and reading room were housed there. At around 6 pm, the bookshelves would be locked, the tables and chairs removed, and benches put for the two lowest classes of the theatre. At 6.45, the film started.
The front benches without back rests were priced at four and a half annas (28 piase). The rear benches with backrests were seven and a half annas (47 Paise). In the balcony, the wooden seats were twelve and a half annas (78 paise) and the basket chairs went for two and a half rupees. There was one row of armchairs in the rear, which sold for Rs.1.25.
We invariably occupied the front benches in the ground floor, considering the meagerness of our pocket money. And for this paltry sum we could see one Indian newsreel, one MGM news bulletin, a cartoon, three trailers and a good quality Hollywood film. It was God' plenty. On the days we were flush with money, we made it a point to occupy balcony seats and brush shoulders with the bigwigs of the city.
We got used to the logos of various studios that flashed on the screen - the searchlights of 20th Century Fox, the rotating globe of Universal Pictures, the mountain peak encircled by stars (Paramount), the lady with the radiating torch flame (Columbia), and, of course, our favourite, the MGM lion. We even made up jokes about this. Two chaps go to the zoo. The lion roars in its cage. "Let's go" says one chap. "You go ahead," says the other. "I think I'll stay and see the film".
The theatre used to distribute programme sheets listing the film for the fortnight. These were printed tastefully and gave the names of the stars and one-line description of each film. Collecting these programme sheets became a hobby for some of us.
The basket chairs in the balcony were usually occupied by some English people who worked for a couple of big firms. During the intermission a table was laid at the open balcony facing the Town Hall Road, with dazzlingly white tablecloth, colourful crockery and shining cutlery, and two white-clad butlers in caps served tea to the English ladies and gentlemen. Some glasses contained liquid that certainly was not tea. We sometimes stood and gazed in wonder at the spectacle of the Englishman at his tea, and then went on to the little shop in the corner for our tea (9 paise), and perhaps some peanuts (6 paise).
The films we saw included epics like Samson & Delilah and Quo Vadis, westerns like The Gunfighter and Dallas, gangster films featuring Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, Erroll Flynn's Swashbucklers, the Road series with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, blockbusters like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, the musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Hitchcock's suspense thrillers like Rope and Spellbound and many more. Some of us started imitating the heroes of our choice. The dashing Clark Gable, the debonair Cary Grant, the taciturn Gary Cooper and the handsome Robert Taylor - we played them all. And the gorgeous Greta Garbo, the leggy Betty Grable, the `water nymph' Esther Williams and the exotic Rita Hayworth gave us many a sleepless night.
When the film Rock Around the Clock was shown, the music of Bill Haley and his Comets set many a foot tapping. And a group of young Anglo-Indians couldn't resist getting up and dancing. The management put on the auditorium lights and kept flashing a `Silence' sign. But no one bothered. They danced and we clapped, and the film turned out to be an unforgettable live performance.
At that time there was a legendary professor in American College, James M. Hess, who brought Shakespeare alive in the classroom. Most of the traders on the Masi Streets would have studied Intermediate in the college and they made a beeline to Regal Talkies whenever a Shakespearean film was shown. Shakespeare brought out the `House Full' board almost every day. Julius Caesar was shown so often that the print got worn out and Antony's oration disappeared.
We walked from the college across the Albert Victor Bridge, past Chokkanathar Koil, and through the Meenakshi Temple where we paused to admire the sculpture and then along Town Hall Road to the theatre. There was very little traffic those days, and walking through the town was a pleasure. After the show we took a bus to Goripalayam (9 paise) where we went to a restaurant for idlis, dosais and coffee (36 paise) and then to the hostel to face the music.
9 pm was the deadline for returning to the hostel, but it was invariably over 9.30 when we came back after a film show. We had to sign a late book, which had a column that asked for the reason for being late. We filled this column with highly imaginative fiction. Our warden, Prof. Frederick Jacob, checked only the English and we could always get off with bloody murder if our grammar was right.
Many of us still fondly remember the great times we had at the Regal Talkies. The bell that was run before the start of the show was long and shrill. That was the sound that transported us into a world of romance and thrills.
Even today I remember it with warm gratitude.
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