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Cinemas are scattered throughout Seville, each one with its own style and history. Many have closed or been converted into contemporary businesses, but through a conversation with a former film distributor—turned into an imaginary trip to the past—their lost stories can be heard again.
Inside Librería Beta on calle Sierpes hides a treasure. Between the shelves of picture books and travel guides, dark red carpet runs the length of the aisles, cutting the room into neat sections. A look up reveals the arched ceiling, acoustically reverberating pop music playing from speakers. As I walk deeper into the store, I discover something peculiar in the film and entertainment section: a velvet maroon curtain framing an alcove. This curtain is the proscenium; the polished wood I’m standing on is a stage. librería Beta is a theater.
I learn the cinema, Teatro Imperial, operated out of the back corner of the bookstore until 2005. Looking toward the refurbished auditorium, I see reference, and nonfiction books lining what were once rows of seats. A balcony above overlooks the old theater space, and is filled with fiction books from around the world. I lean over the edge thinking about what other worldly films may have premiered here.
An older man approaches me and flashes a crooked smile. I remain silent, as both of us look down at the rows of books in the yellow spotlighting.
“I don ’t like new cinema”, the man says dejectedly. I’m taken aback at first, but intrigued, I entertain him.
“Why is that ?” I reply.
“I think we lack good storytellers, good screenwriters. A good story brings people to the theater,” he says. His comment triggers images from classic films, and he smiles knowingly.
“I’m Pepe, by the way. I’ve been a film distributor for 17 years,” he tells me. Pepe, born José Luis Martínez, walks towards the stairs, gesturing me to follow.
“You have to reali ze that back then this is all we had. We didn’t have television, computers, or cell phones,” he says.
When we reach the bottom of the stairs, I notice the bookstore has changed. People are hustling about the lobby, and I shoot a look back at Pepe, who returns a satisfied grin. Movie posters of upcoming attractions replace advertisements for new autobiographies. Where travel pamphlets and maps stood, a door attendant now observes the sea of people moving in and out of the auditorium.
I see a young boy walking into the theater and grab him by the arm. Startled, he looks frantically around for an escape route. I realize he has a moustache painted on his upper lip, and his hat is pulled down to obscure his face.
“Kid, how old are you ?” I chuckle.
“Fourteen. I’m trying to get in,” he replies, realizing I’m not a theater employee. Pepe tells me at the time, children were prohibited from viewing the more risqué films. The boy nods, and I notice he is clutching a bag in his hand.
“Popcorn?” I inquire.
“Popcorn? No, they’re seeds,” he explains, showing me the contents. “My friends and I go on the balcony and like to toss the empty shells at people.”
I turn toward Pepe, who shakes his head and continues down the corridor. He opens the door, and as daylight spills into the lobby, the illusion dissolves. The golden glow of the old cinema lights fades, and I see the boy as he is now: Fernando Saez, a local musician. As I revel in my trip back in time, I realize the richness of the history of cinema in Seville. I look to Pepe who ushers me onto calle Sierpes, which is filled with clothing stores and hole-in-thewall bakeries. Plodding forward, I afford one last glance inside the bookstore. I see the red carpet, the polished stage, and the hanging curtain, transformed back to their present state.
Pepe and I walk down the street amidst crowds of people in designer clothes who chat away on their phones, and I’m reminded of the entertainment monopoly cinema once held.
“How many theaters were here back then?” I ask.
He explains the “cines de verano ” – which were set up during the summer months all over Spain and showed both foreign and domestic films. He reminisces about traveling through Andalusia, Extremadura, and Madrid, searching for movies to screen at the more than 80 temporary theaters.
“Back then, it wasn’t strange to have movies play for over a month,” Pepe says. Feature films were transported in large reels before everything was digital, he explains, so theaters had to purchase with longevity in mind.
We stop in front of Llorens Gaming Lounge. This too was once a theater, opened in 1915 by Vicente Llorens. Pepe leads me inside to a dark gambling hall filled with the blinking lights of slot machines and the ringing of jackpot bells. He gestures towards the columns around the perimeter, which are decorated intricately with floral and geometric shapes. They call it “neo-mudéjar”—a type of Spanish architecture with the Arab influence.
The present begins to melt away once more, and the room slowly fills with an almost tangible nostalgia. I see rows of people fixated on the screen in front of them where Groucho and his company are crammed into a stateroom, commenting how crowded it is. Fitting, I think, considering the existence of crowds both in the screen and in the movie theater.
Pepe urges me once more toward the door, as there are other sites we must visit. I comply and leave the transfixed audience of the past for the media-swarmed populace of the present. We amble forward, leaving behind calle Sierpes.
Pepe leads me to Cine Cervantes, one of the few antique theaters that remain unconverted, on calle Amor de Dios. The shutters are closed today and painted with famous iconography from film history: Chaplin’s silhouette, Audrey Hepburn smoking a cigarette in black gloves, and the helmet of a faceless Stormtrooper. An old projector adorns the lavish entrance hall. Pepe remarks that those ones were much harder to operate than the newer digital projectors, requiring teams of operators in some cases.
“What ’s your favorite film nowadays?” I ask as we walk through the Alameda de Hercules.
“On the Paramount Channel, I saw The Bridges of Madison County. I liked it.”
“You don’t go to the theater anymore?”
“No, everything is on television. They play movies all day,” Pepe replies, looking down. We approach the supermarket El Jamón and look at the tall edifice.
“This was Cine Regina,” Pepe remarks. I imagine lights shining on the long flat surfaces, where the marquee must have been. I see a young girl running towards the lobby and stop her.
“Do you like this theater?”
“Yes, sometimes I go here and watch movies until one in the morning,” she says smiling. She continues into the theater. I recognize her: Lola Suarez, a city secretary. Pepe joins me in basking in our sneak peek into the past.
“It was a fun job, you know ,” he says wistfully. Seeing the theater with its former splendor, I can only imagine. The young and old alike were captivated by the great chariot races of Ben-Hur, the unmatched beauty of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and the numerous Spanish productions.
“This doesn ’t exist anymore, you know” I say. “These people are completely enamored by the theaters.” Hearing no response, I look to my side and find myself alone. I almost call out, but instead I hesitate, and look towards the doors of the theater. “Let ’s see what’s playing tonight.”