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January 27, 2024

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Grand Theater: An artifact from the golden age of cinema

NESTLED in the gentle arms of the Huangpu River sits a relic of cinematic history — the Grand Theater.

More than just a cinema, the theater on Nanjing Road W. serves as a gateway to bygone eras, symbolizing Shanghai’s evolution from a thriving port to a cultural and film center.

The Grand Theater was more than a movie theater; it was also an icon of opulence, a representation of the influx of Western culture, and a favorite gathering place for the city’s elite, thanks to the foresight of Lu Gen (1888-1963), China’s first cinema tycoon who saw beyond the flickering lights of early films.

Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, Shanghai’s film industry grew significantly, capitalizing on Hollywood’s global appeal. Within four or five years, the city boasted 28 new cinemas, marking its significant status in the international film market.

In 1932, Lu secured the property lease and raised 1.1 million taels of silver, demolishing the existing structure to rebuild the cinema.

After one year and eight months of construction, the Grand Theater opened to the public.

During its heyday, the lavish Art Deco facade gleamed under the Shanghai sky, the interior was a labyrinth of luxury with golden ash walls and plush velvet seats, and there was a soft murmur of anticipation from an elegantly dressed crowd.

In the 1930s, the pulse of Shanghai’s high society beat the strongest. It was a time when cinema was more than entertainment; it was a cultural revolution, a mirror reflecting the rapidly changing face of a nation on the brink of modernity.

The 4,016-square-meter reinforced concrete building, which had a 7,902-square-meter total floor area, was the work of renowned architect Laszlo Hudec.

Its facade included black marble, rectangular glass lamp columns, sail-shaped glass panels and a giant rectangular translucent white glass box with the cinema’s name illuminated at night, which was visible from miles away.

The entrance boasted 12 chrome-alloy glass doors, framed in black marble.

The spacious lobby was adorned with light gold ash on walls and ceilings, polished steel bars and colored grindstones, housing a ticket hall, lounge, retail area, bar and restrooms. Three fountains added a splash of color and vibrancy.

Escalators on either side led to the upper floor, where the hall, with its cream-yellow flat top and golden wave-shaped slot-dark lights, could seat 2,016 audiences in a scientifically arranged two-tier layout, offering optimal viewing and sound distribution.

Lu imported an advanced air-conditioning system, ensuring comfortable sitting inside the theater. The cinema also featured RCA’s latest sound projection equipment, providing pure, undistorted audio.

The ticket prices were quite high relative to the cost of living in Shanghai at the time.

Still, as night fell, the prices rose, making the cinema an exclusive destination for Shanghai’s social elite and government officials.

The cinema’s environment, replete with door attendants and Russian ushers, catered to the wealthy while reflecting Western modernity and fashion.

Grand Theater’s film selection was impeccable, primarily featuring top-tier European and American productions.

It meticulously translated Hollywood movie titles to resonate with Chinese culture, bridging the gap between East and West.

The cinema was known to host Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, promoting Western pop culture in Shanghai and, by extension, across China.

The Shanghai Cultural Bureau took over the Grand Theater after 1949. It transitioned to showcasing Soviet and Eastern European revolutionary films in the 1950s.

In 1958, it became China’s first widescreen cinema, and in 1992, it became the country’s first stereo cinema. The premiere of the 1993 Cannes-winning film “Farewell My Concubine” took place here.

In 2008, embracing the retro and nostalgic trend, Grand Theater underwent a significant renovation, restoring its 1930s charm and adding modern facilities, including a historical gallery on the ground floor to showcase its storied past.


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