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Shanghai's golden age of theater

Published by  coconut at 2008/6/11;

Movies, music, dance, circuses, magicians, fireworks ... there has always been a host of entertainment options in Shanghai, especially in the old days, writes Nie Xin.

Shanghai is a paradise when it comes to entertainment. There is never a shortage - and so was it even 80 years ago.

In the days of the former French Concession there were 33 theaters, making Shanghai one of the leading cities in the country in terms of art and culture.

Many of these historic old theaters have managed to survive, as well as the legends along with them.

Cathay Theater


"My mum told me that when she was young the Cathay Theater was one of her must-go places for a date or in her leisure time," recalls Jiang Renci, a local woman whose mother was born in the 1920s and passed away a few years ago at the age of 85. "She was born into a rich family and studied abroad in her 20s."

A favorite within the local foreign community and high-educated Chinese at that time, the Cathay Theater screened only American films in English with Chinese subtitles.

There were screenings of the new Errol Flynn film "The Perfect Specimen" on December 31, 1937; "It's Love I'm After" starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis on January 28, 1938; "Second Honeymoon" with Tyrone Power and Loretta Young on February 27, 1938; and "Love Under Fire" with Loretta Young and Don Ameche on March 18, 1938.

Designed by Hungarian architect C.H. Gonda, the theater first opened to the public in 1932. "It had the largest capacity in Shanghai of 1,000 seats with a balcony," says Jiang.

Today it is still located at the junction of Maoming Road and Huaihai Road. The theater has been renovated and upgraded many times and is still regarded as one of the best cinemas in the city.

Lyceum Theater


Just one block away from the Cathay Theater is the first European-style theater at 57 Maoming Road.

The Lyceum Theater was originally founded in 1866 in a large wooden building that housed the Amateur Drama Club. "Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1871 and a new building was constructed three years later," says Claire Le Chatelier, organizer of the book "Walks in the Heart of the Former French Concession."

The new European-style building was designed by Davies and Brook. Opera companies, ballet troupes, orchestras and circuses from Europe and the United States performed here, but as trends changed plays and films alternated.

One of the annual shows in the 1930s was "The Follies," a dance review show produced by Ann Sommers. "The Follies" lasted until the Japanese forces arrived in Shanghai in 1937.

One of the most talented artists performing there was Margaret Hookham, daughter of a British tobacco company owner. Years later as Margot Fonteyn, she went on to become one of the world's greatest ballerinas.

Today the Lyceum Theater is still one of the best in Shanghai, mainly devoted to high-class shows.

Shanghai Concert Hall (formerly Nanking Theater)

"In my childhood, if you asked people where to go for entertainment, they would always jokingly sing the song in Shanghai dialect, 'Shanghai yingyue ting ... da guang ming' (Shanghai Concert Hall ... Grand Theater)," smiles Liu Bing, 75.

The Shanghai Concert Hall, located on Yan'an Road (formerly Avenue Edouard VII) and Ninghai Road (formerly Rue Wagner), is the most famous of the surviving old theaters.

Originally called Nanking Theater, it was founded in 1930 boasting the first European-style design by local Chinese architects Fan Wenzhao (Robert Fan) and Zhao Shen.

Both the magnificent exterior and interior outlasted the ravages of time, even after the building was moved 65 meters south to make room for the Yan'an Elevated Road and Yanzhong Greenbelt in 2002.

"During the time when American films were all the rage in Shanghai, the theater was the first place to show foreign films in town," says Le Chatelier.

For its premiere, the theater screened "Tarzan of the Apes" and the poster advertising the movie that hung in front of the building was 3 meters high showing Tarzan with Jane slung over his shoulder.

Great World

Besides theaters, the other entertainment option in old days was the Great World.

"If an out-of-towner hasn't been to Great World, that means he has not yet been to Shanghai," says Liu.

At the corner of Xizang Road (formerly Boulevard de Montigny) and Yan'an Road, Great World is a six-story building shaped like a tiered cake. Opened in 1917, it used to be the biggest amusement center in Asia.

Covering an area of 6,000 square meters, it offered various entertainment options, including gaming tables, gambling machines, lottery, magicians, fireworks, birdcages, etc.

What made it so popular were the 12 distorting mirrors, called haha jing, as people could not help laughing when they saw their funny reflection in the mirrors.

The owner of Great World was Huang Chujiu, a Chinese apothecary who became rich thanks to his invention of "Yellow Powder," which allegedly toned up the brain.

The "wonder potion" was known everywhere because of a photo of one of Huang's Jewish friends on the packet which served as proof of the powder's authenticity.

The building was renovated on numerous occasions, the last time in 1924, but closed in 1966 during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). It reopened in 1979 featuring distorting mirrors, acrobats, magic tricks and electronic games but closed yet again in 2003.

It is now being renovated and may possibly become a Chinese traditional culture center.

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