Small-screen theater ends long legacy

  • 2006-01-25
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - Hidden away on Jauniela, one of Old Riga's most quaint cobblestone streets, Kinogalerija was easy to pass unnoticed. Its aged wooden doors were usually closed. There were no neon lights, no gigantic movie billboards, just two dusty windows with film posters and show times. But if you knocked, somebody would answer.

Today, there is no answer. The single-screen theater has closed its doors for good. But owner Juris Zviedris maintains that Kinoga-lerija's spirit will live on in K.Suns, the theater's partner cinema.

K.Suns, located on Elizabete Street, is one of Riga's last small-house theaters. The seats are still squeaky. Speakers crackle every now and then, and the screen's no bigger than it was in 1950. But this is the beauty of it all.

When Coca-cola Plaza first opened its goliath doors in October 2003, it gave Rigans something they had never seen before. Within its towering glass walls, moviegoers could enter a maze of escalators, concession stands, showing times and the biggest screen in Northern Europe 's 300-square-meters. The word kino took on a whole new meaning.

As for Riga's smaller theaters, Oskars, Daile, and Kolizejs, one by one they either shut down or crawled under Forum's commercial wings. The arrival of Coca-Cola plaza was a huge blow.

"Business seriously fell after Forum opened up," says Zviedris' wife, Aida Zviedre, who ran Kinogalerija with her husband for more than 10 years. "Of course, everyone wanted to go there because the screens are giant, they sell popcorn and candy… things are so glossy."

Baltic Cinema, one of Latvia's two film distributors, could no longer afford to work with Riga's smaller theaters. The business was in Forum Cinema. As a result, besides the rare occasion when embassies offer films, Zviedre had no choice but to wait until movies drop off Forum's showing list. Only then could Kinogalerija pick them up.

"In one way this is a good thing," the theater manager notes, "Forum takes care of all advertising for the films 's something that we can't afford. So by the time the films come to us, people already know about them."

Zviedre adds, however, that K.Suns will be just as fastidious with film as they've always been.

"We're not a Hollywood cinema," she says. "Since we began, we only show quality films; award-winning films, some of the best in Europe. This hasn't changed."

Although some might say K.Suns has been bumped down to a "second-showing house," Zviedre doesn't see it that way. Granted, the tickets are nearly half the price of Forum and the films are months old, but the cinema has its own repertoire, she asserts.

The small movie house will continue to feature special film programs. It also participates in bigger festivals such as Baltic Pearl (international film festival), Lielais Kristaps (national film festival), Bimini (international animation film festival) and others.

"Some of our past projects have been an Ingrid Bergman retrospective, a Nordic film festival, and many more," says Zviedris.

Since Forum Cinema gobbled up Riga's single-screen theater industry, Kinogalerija struggled to stay afloat. Most people visited K.Suns "because there are 180 seats as apposed to our 110 - not to mention they sell treats and popcorn," Zviedris explains.

But as long as they keep good film 's not Hollywood - alive, Zviedris is convinced they will make it. Besides, they have a legend to live up to.

"Before it was converted into a cinema, Kinogalerija was the home of Latvia's Picture House Society in the Soviet era," Zviedris explains. "Under the organization of kino historian and lecturer Valentine Freimane, Latvia's most distinguished film-makers and critics would gather here to watch classic films - such as Chaplin or Fellini - sent from Moscow."

Even until the late 1980s, the Soviet government had a tight grip on censorship. Films were distributed entirely from Moscow. With its elite reputation, Riga's theater society had the luxury of watching films that weren't shown in public cinema.

"It was quite a wonderful thing," Zviedris says, with a tone of nostalgia. "The society would gather here, watch films that couldn't be seen anywhere else in the Soviet Union, and then discuss them on end."

But when the Iron Curtain fell, the screen curtain fell with it. By 1991, the theater society ceased to exist.

"We knew that we wanted to keep this tradition going - to continue to show quality films, so we opened Kinogalerija up in 1992," Zviedre explains.

"Latvians really do want something other than Stalone or Schwarzenegger," her husband pipes in. "We've even brought old movies back, like 'Black Cat, White Cat,' because people want to see these films again and again. And these films will continue in Riga, people will just have to visit another theater to see them."