Havana's Old Movie Houses Offer Escape

When Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba 50 years ago, time stopped for Havana's movie theaters. Castro nationalized all 130 and today only about 40 cinemas remain open. They are the classic big-screen movie theaters of a bygone era.

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And the classic big screen movie theaters of the 1940s and �50s have mostly disappeared from American cities, doomed by the multiplex and the home entertainment system.

But in Cuba the old theaters remain. Most of them are in Havana, and it's there were movie fans flocked to a huge month long film festival every December. Nick Miroff reports on the city's aging cinemas and the curious movie culture they've helped create.

NICK MIROFF: High up in the projection room of Havana's Acapulco movie theater, the big projectors are still running, even thought they were built in a country that no longer exists. Their tags say made in Czechoslovakia.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Alejandro Brito uses old movies to calibrate the machines. He's been running them for the past decade. Each film is divided into several reels and he's learned to listen for certain lines of dialogue to know when it's time to switch them.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Even if the sound quality here isn't the best, Brito says this is the way movies were meant to be seen.

Mr. ALEJANDRO BRITO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Thirty-five millimeter is true cinema, Brito said. DVDs and all those modern things they've made are easier to use, but the level of detail is much better in 35 millimeter.

Like nearly all the city's other cinemas, the Acapulco was built before the Cuban revolution. Its seats are now creaky and the air conditioning doesn't always work, but the theater still draws movie goers every night. Architect and city historian, Miguel Coyula(ph) said Havana had more than 130 cinemas in the late 1950s.

Mr. MIGUEL COYULA (Architect; City Historian): Practically, everywhere in the city there were movie houses, something very interesting, big movie houses with - sometimes with more than 1,000 seats.

MIROFF: In those days, the latest films from Europe and Hollywood screened in premier theaters with grand lobbies and elegant interiors, and there were smaller neighborhood cinemas, some right in the middle of residential streets. Spanish language films from Mexico and Argentina were especially popular. The theaters offered cartoons for the kids; and for teenagers, a dark place with no parents.

Mr. COYULA: The first kiss, the first flirt always occurred in the darkness of the movie house.

MIROFF: After the Cuban revolution, Havana's movie theaters were all nationalized. Some were made into youth centers or housing, others became parking garages. Today, only about 50 cinemas remain open. Admission is still less than 10 cents, so they are accessible to everyone, but most are now run down and musty. Coyula hopes they'll survive long enough to eventually be restored.

Mr. COUIA: Basically, the city is the same city we had 50 years ago. That's a magic and that - I would preserve that magic. I will like to - I would say, okay, let's preserve the movie houses where they are because it's a kind of movie that - movie house that doesn't exist anymore.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MIROFF: The Cuban government has maintained some of the city's biggest theaters and they've helped create one of the largest film festivals in the world, at least in terms of attendance. Each December, Havana is seized with kind of movie fever when hundreds of films arrive from all over the globe. Cuban director Kike Alvarez(ph) said it's not like any other international film festival he's been to.

Mr. KIKE ALVAREZ (Film Director): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: His favorite things is that in these huge theaters, there might be 20 intellectuals, 30 truck drivers and 10 prostitutes and they are all interacting with the movie at the same time and relating to it in their own way. On an island, where people need permission from the government to travel abroad and many can't afford to anyway, the festival is also a way to see the world. The movies are a thrilling departure from daily hardship for some Cubans, but can also make them more aware of how others are living in more prosperous places.

Mr. ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: It's a really great opportunity, Alvarez said, because it takes people beyond the close circle of Cuba's geographic, ideological and political circumstances.

(Soundbite of crowd)

MIROFF: Outside the Yara Theater at one of Havana's busiest intersections, a huge crowd is lined up to see Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's latest hit, �Broken Embraces.� More than a dozen police officers stand guard to keep the crowd from surging through the doors. English teacher, Gretel Rojas(ph), said a lot of her friends take their vacations from work during the festival, spending all day at the movies.

Mr. GRETHEL ROJAS: Yes, it is a (unintelligible) and it is a party, it is a party for us. There are people that see six movies in a day.

MIROFF: Of course, those who like quiet movie theaters should be warned that the party often continues after the film started. Cuban moviegoers don't just sit there in silence. They like to talk, shout at the characters on the screen and make loud whooping noises during the love scenes.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

(Soundbite of music)

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