Published in Domus, No. 1027, September 2018.
Nasr Theatre, located in the back garden of Grand Hotel Lalehzar, was definitely the place to go for a hip night out in downtown Tehran in the 1940s. By the end of that decade, it had already changed name and appearance to Tehran Theatre when, on 5 June 1950, its then manager and Member of Parliament Ahmad Dehghan was assassinated in the Theatre offices. Hasan Jafari, an employee of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, was convicted and sentenced to death during a controversial trial, where the big elephant in the room, a plotted murder or an attempted coup, was deliberately overlooked.
This story serves as the main backdrop to the 1998 memoir An Innocent to the Gallows, a work of personal investigation as well as an archeology of legal reports by Abolghasem Tafazoli, the lawyer who defended Jafari’s case in court. But there are many more unrecorded stories buried behind the sealed doors of old and often dilapidated theatres and cinemas around Tehran. Such an architectural body, one must remember, contains the double spirit of two lines of past events –– that which happens on as well as off the stage or the screen.
Metropole Cinema, for one, was inaugurated in 1946. One of those better-known cinemas on Lalehzar, it was renamed Roodaki after the revolution, and was eventually shut down in 2008. The design of a modest but strictly modern symmetrical grid, with a tall, projecting sign extending vertically across the facade, is only a minor legacy of Vartan Hovanessian. An Iranian-Armenian designer, architect, and civil engineer, his name is now synonymous with cement and Streamline Moderne, distinctive of a golden era in the history of urban development in Tehran.
The building once again met with the cinematic apparatus during the filming of Masoud Kimiai’s 2013 thriller Metropole. A vulnerable widow, escaping a group of hired goons, takes refuge at an old cinema, owned by two chivalrous young men. The space of the cinema is kept barely operating as a billiard club and storage for motorbikes. But Metropole is cast as both the location and a character, incarnated in the others whose stories unfold all over its ruins.
The film was an attempt to release the spirit of drama from within a forsaken sanctuary, to let the cinema live a second life, to animate its corpse, and exert the force of passion and ecstasy on those who are lured into it. Despite checkmarking some Iranian New Wave essentials, including heavy-handed dialogues, as well as crisscrossing good old Noir with oriental machismo, the film was mainly received with jeering reactions during its premiere.
Another landmark of this sort would be Radio City Cinema, which is located on Valiasr (Pahlavi) Street and was opened in 1958. Designed by Heydar Ghiai, whose other works include the former Senate of Iran (now the Secretariat Assembly of Experts for Leadership), this Googie edifice used to be embellished with populuxe neon works on the face of its giant and gentle curve. It was famous for regular screenings of fresh arrivals from Hollywood, also for the red velvet cover of its cozy chairs.
Hosted by Radio City, The Bubble, a 1966 science-fiction by Arch Oboler, was the first 3D feature ever shown in Iran, right after the international popularization of Space-Vision technology. But the transparent shield and entrapping force field that characterize the film seem to still hold the cinema captive, isolated inside a bubble, right where it is and has always been. It survived a fire in 1974, but was terribly damaged during the Revolution and, of course, shut down right after. Before being left totally abandoned, it was briefly reopened as a pharmacy in the war-torn 1980s. Currently, above its entirely glass storefront, a Bowl of Hygieia and another sign that reads “Peace be upon you, Imam Khomeini” are still hanging on the scaly facade.
Almost all of these buildings are technically confiscated properties, occasionally caught up in legal arguments between different (para-)governmental organizations, including the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation or the Foundation for Preserving and Propagating the Values of Holy Defense, on the one hand, and the Bureau of Beautification within the Municipality of Tehran, the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, or even some burgeoning private art institutions, on the other.
In late 2017, another campaign was successfully wielded by a large group of the culturati for the preservation of Nasr Theatre. The proposal is to turn it into the Theatre Museum, which will also come with a cafe and all the fuss. However, the spectral and the corporeal, as well as the dramatic and the mundane, had, from the beginning, populated these places together. Now the only way out from destruction, or a rusty storage, is to accept museumification. But what would be left of a cinema if the spirit of drama is exorcised? What would raise and fulfill curiosity for a night at the museum? It is the pull of imagination that seems to have vanished, and no museum can simply bring it back.