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Restoring Rex: Cyprus’ historic cinema reopens

feature3 main larnaca cinema society screening on the beach
Larnaca cinema society screening on the beach

‘Reports from the time suggest that audiences participated vociferously in the plots, cheering their heroes and booing the villains!’ ALIX NORMAN discovers an iconic 1950s cinema is set to reopen

 In 1907, 1,000 students gathered in Nicosia. They sat in utter silence. You could have heard a pin drop, said reports. It was only when the Greek flag appeared that the hush broke: according to the Eleftheria newspaper, every single student broke into spontaneous, thunderous applause!

No, this wasn’t a demonstration. Nor was it a student protest. But it was history in the making: the silver screen had arrived in Cyprus!

The film itself was an educational effort, in black and white, and depicting images and excerpts from the Olympic Games (the ovation was for the arrival of the Greek flag in the stadium!). Nevertheless, it heralded an exciting new era for the island. And, within the decade, Cyprus was hooked on film….

Courtesy of local sculptor Nikos Kyprianou (the first man to bring this new-fangled projection equipment to the island), cinema quickly became The Next Big Thing. So great was locals’ fascination that monthly tickets had to be issued. And, despite the cost (5 shillings for 30 films), the crowds continued to flock to this new form of entertainment.

But, other than the initial Olympic excerpt, it wasn’t Nicosia that first saw film. The first screenings in Cyprus took place in Larnaca. And now, it’s Larnaca that will once more break cinematic ground…

feature3 the rex“For the last 10 years the Larnaca Cinema Society has been investing a lot in the development of an audience for independent cinema,” reveals award-winning film-maker and president of the Society Michalis Kalopaidis.

“A decade ago, just five to 10 people attended each screening; screenings of films that were often from smaller European production houses or directors, but were nevertheless immensely valuable in what they offered. But now, interest has grown so significantly that we’re sometimes forced to turn people away for lack of seats!”

It’s a trend that echoes the good old days of Cyprus cinema…

In the 1920s and 1930s, film-going was so popular that the island saw the launch of the Paradisos, Magic Garden, Magic Palace, To Giordamli, and Rialto cinemas. The 1940s brought the Istanbul, the Crystal and the Zappion. And by the end of the decade, Cypriots were thrilling to colour films, such as Sevach the Seaman and Red Rock.

In Larnaca, there was a stiff rivalry between the Salon Rose and the Makridis. Ultimately, the latter won out when the former burned to a cinder. But then, in 1950, a new cinema sprang from the Rose’s ashes…

The newly-built Rex quickly became a huge favourite with locals.

Its central location (just off Finikoudes, behind Sun Hall) was ideal. And its screenings were immensely popular: plenty of action and a spot of romance. Reports from the time suggest that audiences participated vociferously in the plots, cheering their heroes and booing the villains!

In fact, by 1960, the Rex was so popular that morning screenings had become a regular feature of Larnaca life. And the cinema itself was an icon – one of the best-known buildings on the island!

And then, within a few decades, it was all over: the excitement gone, audiences dispersed.

With television more widespread, cinema became less of a draw. The Rex had to host the odd theatre performance or stage show to supplement its film screenings. Then, more modern cinema chains arrived on the island. It was the final nail in the coffin…

feature3 michalis at cinema talks 1
Michalis at Cinema Talks

Competition was too fierce; the once-thriving cinema, which had stood as a cultural landmark for decades, had had its heyday. In the early 90s, a casualty of progress, the Rex closed its doors for the last time.

It marked the end of an era, leaving behind memories of countless film screenings, premieres and shared community experiences. The building itself, echoing with the ghosts of cinematic history, stood as a silent witness to the dynamic shifts in the entertainment landscape.

Over the years, various proposals and plans have been considered for the empty Rex. Some advocated for its restoration as a historical site, while others saw potential in transforming it into a different kind of entertainment venue. But no proposal was deemed viable. Until now…

In late 2023, the Larnaca Municipal Council received several suggestions, among them, one that at last seemed ideal.

This time, it was a local who put in a suggestion: Michalis himself. His solution was simple and elegant, a tribute to the past, present and future of the venerable Rex. It would bring the community together, create new opportunities, and honour Cyprus’ cinematic legacy

“In an era dominated by streaming services and blockbuster franchises,” says Michalis, “the revitalised Rex will become a haven for film enthusiasts seeking a cinematic experience that transcends the ordinary.”

But it will, he adds, also become the island’s much-needed hub of all things film: an institution that will be self-sustaining and support the local economy.

“This will be not just a venue, but a film centre,” says Michalis. “Its aim to strengthen the entire ecosystem of cinema in Cyprus.”

The revitalised Rex will host the Larnaca Film Centre, an organisation designed to promote Cyprus as a filming destination. A specialised department called the Film Office will support foreign productions shooting on the island. And the hope is that it will also become a home for the valuable National Film Archives, which will be made publicly available on the premises.

Backed by an NGO with its own advisory board and budget, and working in collaboration with Larnaca Municipality, the plan is that the Rex will, in the near future, be welcoming audiences from far and wide.

“70 years on, we hope to light up the Rex’s silver screen again,” Michalis concludes. “As one of Cyprus’ most iconic cinemas, it deserves a second chance.

“Larnaca was where cinema really began on this island. And with the restoration of the Rex, we’re coming full circle.”

 

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