Movie, coffee and dance were most popular leisure-time entertainment of Shanghai’s middle class during the “golden era” of 1920s and 30s. So the completion of the Capitol Theatre covered nearly half a page in North-China Daily News on February 8, 1928.
The Capitol Theatre was undoubtedly one of the grand dames of Shanghai’s “golden era” cinemas. This modern, comfortable North Bund theater was located at the ground floor of the eight-story Capitol Building, financed by Messrs SE Shamoon & Co. Perched on the central corner of Museum and Soochow roads (today’s Huqiu Road and Suzhou Road S.), the building’s edifice also housed offices and apartments on the floors above.
The 1,000-seat Capitol Theatre had a look “expressive of all modern tendencies,” according to an article of nearly a half page in the North China Daily News on February 8, 1928, several weeks before the cinema opened.
The building was characterized by the typical vertical elements of Art Deco and an Expressionist corner tower, which Hungarian architect CH Gonda used in his later masterpiece, the Cathay Theatre, on Huaihai Road.
The Capitol Theatre joined the later Cathay Theatre, Grand Theatre and Nanking Theatre as the city’s new-generation modern cinemas, according to Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences historian Jiang Wenjun.
They followed by just a few decades the start of the city’s cinematic history, when Shanghai first saw a short, silent documentary screened on June 30, 1896, at a local tea house, an event marked with fireworks and acrobatic performances.
That was only seven months after the film industry was born when Louis Lumiere invented the first motion picture camera.
Following that, movies were shown in Shanghai’s gardens, restaurants, drama theaters, skating grounds and finally some small, cheap cinemas established by a Spanish entrepreneur. The city also became the cradle of Chinese movie making.
The new pastime was driven by Shanghai’s middle class, mostly white-collar workers, professors and journalists, which emerged in the 1920s, Jiang says. They differed from older generations in lifestyle and in having a modern education,
“They favored Western ‘light, heat and power’ inventions, from movies, radios, bikes, buses to cars. So they were the biggest moviegoers,” says Jiang, who defines Shanghai as “a genuine capital of cinemas in the Far East.”
“A 1934 survey listed the top 10 global cities with the most cinemas. Ranking No. 8 with 53 cinemas, Shanghai was the only Asian city on the list. Shanghai also was a window for Hollywood movies to enter Asia by then, so the four leading Hollywood blockbuster companies all opened a Shanghai branch,” he adds.
The Capitol Theatre was a first-run cinema for screening movies produced by Paramount Pictures. With better screens and advanced equipment, these modern cinemas charged a pricey admission but offered a luxurious experience.
Inside, an unobstructed view of the stage could be had from every seat. There were no columns to block the view, despite the auditorium’s large size.
“This was only possible by the use of large reinforced concrete beams spanning the entire auditorium, carried by huge reinforced concrete columns in the side walls, resting on a reinforced concrete foundation beam raft, so as to prevent an unequal settlement of the building,” the newspaper report explained.
The Capitol Theatre’s amber-hued ceiling was decorated in a restrained modern way, featuring a dome and ornamented copper grilles. The walls were once adorned by 20 figures, sculpted to symbolize different expressions of harmony, beauty and grace.
The lighting was indirect: Tube lamps were concealed in cornices of the ceiling and the proscenium arch. The dimmed lights of the wall-urns on pilasters not only gave a highly decorative effect, but also enabled latecomers to find their seats.
In the 1920s, it was a luxury to enjoy filtered, temperature-regulated air while watching a movie.
The North China Daily News described the advanced ventilation system of the Capitol Theatre in the great detail. Air would pass through a tempering coil charged with steam, a water curtain and finally eliminator plates to remove impurities like dust, dirt and odors. A fan forced the air through specially designed ducts down into the theater.
“In winter, the air forced through the ducts is first passed through a heating battery, so that the air can be regulated to any desired temperature. During the warm season, the system is so designed as to give cooled and direct air through the same openings as are used in the winter to supply warm air,” the report said.
The stage also was well equipped, with an elaborate gridiron for the screen supported by steel girders and up-to-date stage lighting. It was equipped for theatrical performances, too. Platforms beside the stage made it easy for stage hands to work ropes and change the scenery.
Witness to history
The Capitol Theatre witnessed starker parts of the city’s history.
In January 1929, a large group of armed Italian marines stormed the theater and forcibly removed the first reel of the film “The Street Angel,” setting fire to the celluloid outside the theater’s entrance, Peter Hibbard noted in his book, “The Bund Shanghai — China Faces West.”
Since 1949, the structure has been used as state-owned theater, a disco bar named New York, New York and a disorderly mixture of offices and residences. A few locals still live in the structure, though many have left.
Today the building is undergoing a renovation by the developers of RockBund Project, which is a mixed-use redevelopment of the North Bund area.
The developers plan to revive its function as a theater, a space that currently is empty and dusty, but still retains the original grand dome, pilasters and some decorations.
To create the theater’s modern look, architect Gonda had abandoned the classical architectural style borrowed from a bygone period without hesitation.
“It seemed that Gonda had never belonged to the classic school,” says Professor Wu Jiang from Tongji University. “His earlier work Sun Sun Co Ltd (1926) on Nanjing Road shows a classic silhouette but lacks classic details. Everything is simple-cut with little decoration. His later works, both the East Asian Bank Building and the Capitol Building, followed the style.”
Italian architectural historian Luca Poncellini called Gonda one of “the protagonists that contributed to building modern Shanghai,” along with his compatriot, Park Hotel designer Laszlo Hudec.
In his book “Laszlo Hudec,” Poncellini published an interesting article that Gonda expounded modern architectural manifesto under the pen name “ADNOG” on Shanghai Sunday Times in 1929.
“No one ever asked his motor car dealer for a motor car in Italian Renaissance style, the request for residences in that style are frequent …And people of our modern age do not think how utterly ridiculous it is to see the lady of the house in her drawing room Louis XIV, with shingled hair, boyish figure and short skirt, shaking a cocktail for a sun-burned, athletic gentleman in plus-fours and a tweed jacket over a chequered pullover.”
Gonda’s advocacy of modern architectural styles have prompted comparisons with French architect Le Corbsier, who has been called arguably the greatest modern architect of all time.
Yesterday: The Capitol Building
Today: The Capitol Building (with offices and residents inside)
Address: 146 Huqiu Rd
Built: In 1928
Architectural style: Art Deco
Architect: C.H. Gonda
Tips: The theater is not open to the public. Part of the building is still inhabited by residents. Zhapu Road Bridge provides the best view of the Art Deco theater.