The Merchant of Stories

Pepe Martínez, the merchant of stories / BRYCE FERENDO

A testament to the distributing and exhibiting cinema industry of Seville through the eyes of Pepe Mar­tínez, who helped keep it alive at a time when what happened behind the scenes was organic and lively; when much more had to be done to bring the stories to the audiences.

“ONE NIGHT THE PROJECTIONIST SUDDENLY GOT SICK and they asked who would put on the movie, so I said, “I’ll put it on!” remembers Pepe, speaking of his days as a young ticket booth operator in Seville, at the outdoor summer movie theater Real Cinema, in the neighborhood of Nervión.

Gesturing a circle with his arms, he continues to explain how in those days, the movies came in numerous reels of film and it was the duty of the projectionist to be vigilant and know when to switch them out during the movie. But that night, Pepe failed at just that.

“I skipped a whole reel of 20 minutes!” he says as a smile begins to form and a story is clearly beginning.

That night, some 50 years ago, it was an ordeal that resorted in panic and could have cost him, but today Pepe fights the urge to interrupt his story with laughter. He eagerly leans forward and finishes. “So the next time, I just didn’t use the reel again,” proceeding to shrug it off as if it was the obvious choice. An action that would be impossible today as the world of cinema in which Pepe once lived no longer exists.

Sitting at a café in the Alameda de Hércules, a plaza that was once home to one of 86 outdoor summer cinemas, Pepe reflects on the time he 

spent working in the movie industry, that he left in 1985. His simple blue sweater and relaxed posture reflect the modest life he has lived in retirement as a loving grandfather, but the way his hands move and flicker through the shadows of the leaves exemplify his passion for the animated and adventurous times he had working in film.

His face lights up and his eyes widen, contrasting his usual squinted glance to avoid the sun, every time he remembers an old experience. He shares his story happily, the same way he has done for 28 years.

Around 1957, Pepe joined the booming business by starting work at the distribution company, Anta Films, that sought to provide Andalucía with all the cinema it needed. At the time, Seville was home to 55 other distribution companies all trying to fulfil the demand that came from the hundreds of theatres throughout southern Spain.

“Working there definitely had its advantages. For example I was able to go into all the showings I wanted because they gave me a pass for the trips to Madrid,” he says, referring to the annual screening conventions that were held for the companies, allowing them to pick the films they saw most promising for distribution. Pepe was a part of this, assisting in choosing a list that would be issued to theater owners who would then be allowed to request films for rent. But in that era, reflective of how stories were passed on before the time of written word, the films were delivered by hand and Pepe was one of these story deliverymen.

Each of the 56 distribution companies had one traveler and they all would typically set out on route in September, at times, for 15 to 20 day circuits. Armed with the film reels and contracts, Pepe’s routes usually consisted of trips to Cádiz, Málaga, Jaén, Córdoba, Granada and Almería. While this afforded him the ability to travel and see the beautiful southern Spain, it also meant a lot of time away from his family.

Pepe Old Pic
1970, Pepe poses in front of the filming set of a “Spaghetti Western” in the Tabernas desert, Almeria, together with the Seat 600 in which he travelled distributing movies / BRYCE FERENDO

“I had my wife, Juana, and little kid, José Luis, in Seville, but obviously I had to go,” he says reluctantly, outlining the obvious reality of needing to make a living. However, not all of his circuits were long and he was often given the opportunity to see his family on the weekends. His eyes widen once again as he remembers Sundays: “I would go down to the center of Seville in the morning, to plaza de la Encarnación, where there was a theatre named Rialto. In the morning, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get tickets. That’s all we had on Sunday… go for a walk, go to the movies and then go home to sleep. Nothing else.”

Pepe is not exaggerating at all. Cinema was at the heart of recreation in Seville then and theatres were everywhere you turned; so much so that the reliance on people like Pepe was very intense.

He continued his work throughout the years, watching the progression of the industry firsthand. He watched films wear down from countless plays and edits just like spoken stories that lost their way through the grapevine. He watched movies loose their artistic value due to the censorship imposed by the Franco dictatorship. He even watched as the once bustling outdoor summer theatres slowly disappeared because the price of land outweighed the public’s interest in film. All the while he was there, steadily upholding the supply wherever the demand existed.

“The last few years were bad for everyone,” he continues in a somber tone as he explains that they were assigned trips to cities much farther away as more and more theatres were closing.

The distribution company, for which he was working in 1985, Sánchez Ramade, was one of the last ones to close down in Seville. He had already seen his colleagues loose their jobs and seen movie houses turned into short-lived nightclubs before he knew it was his time to hang it up.

“It was a little sad, because it was a beautiful gig. I had a good relationship with a lot of people. Luckly I still see some of them,” he says as he looks away in thought.

Now there remain less than 7 movie theatres in Seville and only one that preserves the graceful outdoor summer cinema vibe by using actual 35mm film and serving food to costumers enjoying entertainment outdoors, Tomares Cinema.

Pepe blames most of it on the rise of Television. While that can be disputed, even he hasn’t set foot in a movie theatre since the day he left the industry in 1985. Shaking his head, insinuating that its no big deal he hasn’t been in a movie theatre in 20 years, he remembers watching an old flick on the television recently.

“Well, I put on the old movies because I don’t like the modern ones that much. But yesterday I was watching a really old one about a guy who gets to a town with sheep but what are really there is cows! So they have a war and I realized that I remembered the movie from before,” he says with an animated reenactment of his reaction. It’s clearly evidence of his preference and passion to classic film and rightfully so, being that he was just as big a part of it as Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. •

In 1957, when Pepe started distributing movies for Anta Films, the most popular movie realeses included The Bridge on the River Kway (David Lean), The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman), 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet), Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick), The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier), NIghts of Cabiria (Federico Fellini), Funny Girl (Stanley Donen)or An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey). Gilda (Charles Vidor)—movie still on the right—was a huge success in Spain ten years earlier, in 1947, starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Cansino and whose father, Eduardo Cansino, came from Castilleja de la Cuesta, just outside of Seville / COLUMBIA PICTURES