[imagesource: Ihsaan Haffejee]
Little known fact – South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to see and hear sound motion pictures.
Lingard’s Waxworks in Durban exhibited a number of mechanical novelties of the penny-in-the-slot variety in August 1895. One of these was a Kinetophone – a device that could play moving pictures with sound.
This is just one of the interesting elements of South Africa’s (at times problematic) history with film and film screenings.
In 1950, a major piece of legislation called the ‘Group Areas Act’ was enacted in an effort to create a racially segregated society – Apartheid. This meant, amongst other things, separate cinemas for separate races.
On 11 March, 1978, the Apartheid government agreed to eliminate racial segregation in theatres, but not in cinemas.
It was during this period of segregation that the Kings Cinema in Alexandra, Gauteng, was born.
When South Africa achieved democracy, many township cinemas closed their doors, and Kings was one of them.
Now it’s up and running again thanks to William Volmink.
Here’s Dennis Webster for New Frame:
Standing in the iconic cinema’s dusty atrium before a Tuesday matinee screening of Hell Boy, the waggish 61-year-old hesitates when telling the story of the Kings. “Where does one start?” he asks, almost to himself.
One place he might start are the cinema’s 450 metal chairs and worn cushions.
When the Anchors, a legendary Alex soul group, performed at the Kings in the early 1960s, there was still no electricity in the township and the cinema ran on a generator. One of the candles lighting the stage was left unattended. Soon after the show ended, the stage curtains caught alight. The cinema’s seating was destroyed in the ensuing blaze.
Volmink’s father and the other cinema directors dashed between Durban and Joburg in an effort to replace the lost seats. Each seat in the Kings today is a prize of that frantic treasure hunt.
At the start of the 20th century, the site of the cinema was a taxi rank. It was then converted by John Brown into a movie house.
Brown was one among a wave of entrepreneurs applying for licences to establish movie houses for black audiences at the time. It wasn’t long before The Kings – the only space of its kind in Alex – turned into a lively venue. A pole erected in the middle of the stage showed that the entertainment on offer at the cinema went beyond movies.
Volmink was a child when his father took over management of the Kings in the 1950s.
Then films were projected using a small black projector. In the 1970s, the cinema started using a brand new Cinemeccanica Victoria projector.
The gleaming Cinemeccanica – which Volmink calls “our baby that brought us here” – is also still kept at the Kings, along with mountains of film in an old projection room. Volmink’s eyes light up when he looks up at the proud, intricate machine.
“When this projector beams out of here, you become part of it, you know? You hear that rolling sound of the reels, you could still hear that silent ‘hzzz’ of the reels.”
It was the arrival of television in 1976 that killed Kings.
Today, Volmink has come full circle. After leaving Alex towards the end of the 1970s, he has moved back and is now living in the Kings’ original projection room behind the Cinemeccanica projector. He has spent four financially strained years getting the cinema going again.
Kings Cinema provides a new social venue for township residents who would otherwise have to travel long distances just to catch a movie.
You can read Volmink’s full story here.
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