Little America
In Beirut and New York, Radio City and Roxy Cinema enshrined the silver screen in times of depression and despair.
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Ten years ago, when I was teaching at the Institute for Theatre, Audio-Visual, and Cinema Studies at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, I realized I had to show feature films to introduce my students to the reality-rich genre of documentary cinema. 

Movies, since their very inception, have never just told stories in isolation. Most plots are embedded in the depiction of realities, and characters are delineated through facts. Even the musical, a form which is both fictional and imaginary, cannot succeed and reach its full choreographic power without locating its dancers’ steps in moments of a recognizable reality linked to history, place, and event.  For example, Singing in the Rain, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, is not just a story but a testimony to the transitional phase between cinema’s silent and sound periods, a transition which marked the eclipse of a generation of cinema stars whose shortcomings and weaknesses were exposed by the microphone. In An American in Paris, directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1951 and again starring Kelly, the film takes as its enchanting backdrop the French capital, with its tourist attractions and its busy, popular quarters. It becomes impossible to separate the deliberate fantasy of what has been conjured on the screen from the real Paris. These landmarks and vistas, lovingly created to the last detail on a Hollywood sound set, tell the story of an American expatriate, who, earning a living through painting, expresses his successes and failures in music, dance, and song.


Those Who Dwell in the Air 

Building on the examples of the two films mentioned above, I decided to show to my students Saturday Night Fever. In this early role, John Travolta became famous as a star who also dances after the age of the musical had passed. I chose not to show the sequences of the film where Travolta struts to disco or the Bee Gees. I selected the scene with the main protagonist and his family sitting around the dinner table. Their meal comprises a sort of document on the interactions of an immigrant American family. The components of the décor, the type of characters with their particular accents and habits, and the family rituals surrounding religion – all are signs, part fictional and part documentary, of the multi-ethnic city that is New York. Yet it also goes beyond this reality to illustrate an expression of the greater American Dream as lived by the film’s hero, who rebels against the narrow confines of a conservative Italian American family.

New York City still shows traces of geographic divisions based on the immigrant minority communities. The Italian immigrants gather in Little Italy, in lower Manhattan, while the Syrians reside in Little Syria on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. This mosaic of cultural influences is reflected in art, literature, and cinema through sets, characters, and dialogue. It appears in the resemblance of film scenes to actual places, as the true architecture of reality with all of its human and material textures is recreated through light, interior decoration, clothes, bodies, and language. Actors in a film do not just take on roles on the surface of the screen. They truly inhabit the screen. They dwell in the light and belong to an image, whether real or hypothetical, created with or without the cognizance of the director. It is an imaginary space – harsh and gentle at the same time – whether it be a house, a city, a street, an assembled image, or, in absolute abstraction, a fleeting world on a film poster.

Radio Cities 

The world created by cinema also includes the world that spills out beyond the grandest of places, the movie theatre, into the surrounding streets of that very small city, Beirut, in particular old central Beirut. Before television and now text messages, Beirut was known to, and communicated with, its inhabitants through announcements and posters distributed on the city’s walls, the buzz of information spread by word of mouth and by means of written journalism. Yet above all, radio served as the city’s audio memory. It transformed news about the city and the world into a vital social activity for all who gathered around its voice, sharing the latest reports and disputing them. We grew up to the harsh voice of the BBC’s Arabic newscaster. Through that voice we came to know of events, wars, and political revolutions. Our families would hold the needle steady at the sound of “This is the BBC in London,” preferring the credibility of BBC coverage of events in Lebanon and the region over the lies of the official Arab spokesmen, with all their broadcaster’s trickery.

“Our families would hold the needle steady at the sound of 'This is the BBC in London,' preferring the credibility of BBC coverage of events in Lebanon and the region over the lies of the official Arab spokesmen, with all their broadcaster's trickery”

Beirut was a radio city. And Radio City was the first cinema and performance house etched into my childhood memories of the late sixties and of Sahat Al Bourj (better known as Martyrs’ Square) and the streets branching off from it. At first, I did not know that Radio City was named after a counterpart in another city of the world. Only later did I learn that its name was taken from Radio City Music Hall in New York, a performance hall and castle of sublime beauty and splendor, created to astonish its audience. At a time when the US was suffering during the Great Depression in the late 1920s and 1930s, Radio City presented the finest musical, theatrical, and cinematic programs at affordable prices for ordinary people. Credit for the creation of this pleasure palace goes to John D. Rockefeller. When the financial markets fell on Wall Street in 1929, he had a rental contract worth $91 million, for twenty-four years, over a piece of land in the middle of Manhattan that had been classified as “unlicensed real estate.” Before him were plans to build an opera house. Instead, Rockefeller chose to change the architectural and cultural scenes of the city by erecting a performance hall in the heart of a business district filled with vacant office buildings. Determined to promote high architecture and a sense of much needed optimism, Rockefeller joined forces with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a young company that with time became a magnet for some of the great pioneers of cinema.

“Beirut was a radio city. And Radio City was the first cinema and performance house etched into my childhood memories of the late sixties, though I did not know it was named after a counterpart in another city of the world.”

The name Radio City came from RCA’s chairman of the board, David Sarnoff. Associated with Rockefeller and Sarnoff was the impresario S. L. Rothafel, better known by his nickname Roxy, who had started a string of his own halls for theatrical performance. The vision of Roxy and his partners in the building of Radio City would have never been realized without the modernist architect Edward Durell Stone and designer Donald Deskey, who created an Art Deco masterpiece. Deskey, in particular, was responsible for the stage decor and the theatre’s interior, ranging from the wall embellishments to the curtains, from the backdrops, performance platform, boxes, and balconies to the couches and carpets. Helping him were artists using marble, ceramic, fabric, metals, wood, and relief, all of which gave to the theatre a sense of permanence in the face of life’s trying vicissitudes. It was a supreme human achievement on artistic, scientific, and industrial levels. One New York critic wrote that the theatre itself was so magnificent that it needed no artist to perform there! 

Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy Theatre, a cinema house named after Rothafel, represented a flowering of American cinema halls during a stifling economic period that threatened the entertainment business. These two projects took root after other cinema houses had been transformed from cheap entertainment places into great halls. Their owners no longer wanted to simply awe the working class public with the novelty of moving images. They aspired to attract all echelons of society and to raise the status of cinema to the level of art, literature, and theatre, drawing linkages between the new medium and other cultural forms. Like Radio City, the Roxy was a name that also migrated across borders and overseas to other halls, such as the Roxy in Sahat Al Bourj in Beirut. 


An Island in the Middle of Beirut 

New York’s Radio City Music Hall featured all varieties of performance. Beginning with the screening in 1933 of Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, the theatre hosted the premieres of more than seven hundred films, many of which have since joined the ranks of film classics. In the dark theatre, the young Gregory Peck worked as an usher guiding audience members – some of them would go on to make successful careers in the movies – to their seats with a small flashlight. Later on, Peck was welcomed back to Radio City Music Hall as an honored guest for the opening night of a film he starred in: To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Nevertheless, despite its splendor and magnificent and magical interior, Radio City was never wholly separate from the exterior world, dominated by the fall of the financial markets and the incessant decline in the standard of living. Yet to its owners, Rockefeller, Sarnoff, and Roxy; its creators, Stone and Deskey; and the public who filled the spacious music hall for performance after performance, Radio City must have fired up their imaginations. On its stage, radiant, all encompassing dreams took shape. Meanwhile, outside, on the thoroughfares of New York, another reality became pressing. And far from the place and time of that stage, in the middle of Sahat Al Bourj, stood the Radio City cinema. Its two entrances were connected to two main streets, overlooking the Roxy Cinema to the west and Cinema Empire to the east. Radio City was also part of a larger structure that included the Metropole and Hollywood cinema houses. 

The point of telling the story of these halls is not to search for similarities between the New York Radio City and its counterpart in Beirut, nor is it to establish a patrilineal connection between the American Roxy and the hall in the middle of Beirut that took its name. The cinemas and stages of Beirut, and those who endowed them, never quite succeeded in allowing their viewers to pass away time in the company of the screen and its shadows alone; they were unable to provide a complete transfer into an imaginary world. It was a supplementary part of their reality – not a paradise for dreamers. The collapse of these theatres was closely accompanied by the disintegration of the country into civil strife that began with the Two-Year War on April 13, 1975. The cinemas were an uprooted island from some place else – not Manhattan, but another island drowning in hopelessness, destitution, and terror. 

With the decline of their audiences, the cracking of their infrastructures, and their inability to screen films, all the cinema houses I knew in Beirut – Radio City, Roxy, Empire, and Hollywood – lost their connection to my imaginary Manhattan. I left their island like the immigrant minorities who spread and settle on a small piece of New York, adopting it as a second homeland and carrying the remnants of where they came from, like in Little Italy or Little Syria. The corner of Radio City and its sisters in Sahat Al Bourj appeared to me, with their black and white posters of B-movie stars, as Little America. 

Translated by Sam Wilder

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Cinema D'Orient - 24e annee, N 34 - Samedi 22 Aout, 1959. From the Private Collection of Abboudy Abou Jaoude.
Cinema D'Orient - 24e annee, N 34 - Samedi 22 Aout, 1959. From the Private Collection of Abboudy Abou Jaoude.
Cinema D'Orient - 24e annee, N 17 - Samedi 25 Avril, 1959. From the Private Collection of Abboudy Abou Jaoude.
Cinema D'Orient - 23e annee, N 1 - Samedi 26 Octobre, 1957. From the Private Collection of Abboudy Abou Jaoude.
Cinema D'Orient - 30e annee, N 3 - Samedi 16 Janvier, 1965. From the Private Collection of Abboudy Abou Jaoude.
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