It was a dark and stormy night.
Dusky because a blackout had been announced to deceive the Japanese bombers. And squally because a cyclone had been predicted the next day.
But with an inaugural show of George Formby starring in a laugh riot titled ‘It’s turned out nice again’ on the 14th of December, Casino the 20th running theatre of Madras was inaugurated.
Indeed it was a big wartime confidence boost for the city to have a new theatre with the enemy at the doorsteps.
But the story of Casino started with ice.
In 1833, for the first time, Fredric Tudor, of Boston, shipped Artic ice to Madras. And even after the invention of mechanical ice makers (which drove Tudor to bankruptcy) the city of Madras continued to have an insatiable demand for frozen water
In the early 1930s Poona’s JH Irani family (Iranis were not Parsis per se having migrated from Iran much later) identified this shortfall and stuck on a business idea- to start an ice factory off Mount road.
The trade prospered but competition disembarked too. When a theatre owner of Madras set up another ice factory, the Iranis looked very closely at their rival. And either recognizing a business opportunity or to show their annoyance instantly leased Star Talkies in Triplicane for themselves
A few years down the line, the Iranis decided to build their own theatre. They had an in- house civil engineer, Phiroze who set out to draft the building plan though he had no prior experience designing anything, let alone theatres.
The Iranis leased the land and put a theatre on it. Land was cheap to buy but the lease must have been spurred on because the site they liked was located in typical cinema district. The earliest theatres in Madras would have been neighbours if they had survived. The first Indian-owned theatre in the city Gaiety was a neighbour. In fact both the theatres were on the same parcel of leasehold land adjacent to the ‘English warehouse’ belonging to the late Hajee Sir Ismail Sait, one of the richest merchants in all of south India.
The land available on the Cooum river banks was slightly smaller than an acre and was leased in 1940 for 21 years at the rate of 450 per month. Ever since then there has been constant litigation between the trust that controls the land and the Iranis who claimed that they could not be evicted as they enjoyed squatter’s rights. The case was still pending till the next century.
Phiroze conceived a boat-like auditorium and concentrated on elevation and finishes rather than on the logistics inside. Though the cinema goers were impressed with the stimulating foyer, the twin staircase and the impressively designed interior it was widely felt that Phiroze had botched up the interior plan.
The theatre was built in the art deco style which was the vogue in the early 40’s when the empire state, the Chrysler and Time square were the talk of the world.
Advertising itself as Theatre Magnificent, Casino opened to public surprisingly with a night show (at 9.30 pm). As an additional attraction latest British Movietone news and Walt Disney cartoons were screened alongside. The first floor dress circle tickets costed a hefty four Rupees while the ground floor tickets a down to earth 4/12 annas.
But there were grumbles. While the theatre seemed up to the latest fashion, unlucky cinema-goers complained that some rear seats had pillars that came in the way of the screen! One had to twist this way and that to look around.
Casino announced that from the January first of 1943 they would be screening MGM films exclusively.
Except for an intermittent period, Casino screened only English films. With many of these films being certified ‘adults only’ Casino became known for its tough ticket inspectors (who the affected parties would say would put the US Immigration of today to shame).
With a whole lot of adolescent Madras boys trying to con their way in, standing on their toes (to increase their height) it actually became a Madrasi ‘coming of age’ ritual to be admitted and not kicked out of Casino.
Credit: I first read about the theatre’s origins in Mohan Raman’s articles.