Where simple thoughts and wonderful memories are conjoined, to create a sparkle of luminous joy to all those who want to remember, reminisce, care, and share about the times that we used to know and cherish before
Regal cinema which marks its 80th ‘birthday’ since it was opened is one of the country’s foremost theatres. The cinema opened its doors on July 26, 1930. Two students from Jaffna - Chittampalam Gardiner and A L Thambiah signed an agreement in December 1924 to build a metal shed, and having named it Olympia, proceeded to screen silent films. They then leased the land where the Regal cinema is situated today, and established Ceylon Theatres in December 1928.
During the time of the depression (in the world), these entrepreneurs who were unperturbed by the situation opened the Regal cinema on July 26, 1930.
The growth of Ceylon Theatres has been interwoven into the development of this country’s cinema industry since then. The first film with dialogue - His Captive Woman - was screened at the Regal cinema. It starred Milton Sills and Dorathy Mackail.
An advertisement in the Dinamina newspaper publicised the film thus: “The Regal cinema will be inaugurated today at 9.00 pm, the doors will be opened at 8.00 pm. His Captive Woman starring Milton Sills and Dorathy Mackail is a talking film. The tickets will be priced at Rs4, Rs3, Rs2, Rs1 and 50 cents.”
The first ever film with dialogue
The day before the cinema was inaugurated another advertisement had appeared in The Times of Ceylon newspaper and ran as follows: “The largest in Ceylon - the finest in the East of Suez, most luxurious in every detail, comfort - the keynote, a cinema hall as good as the best, the theatre that will fit the largest touring companies - The Regal open tomorrow (Saturday) July 26 at 9 pm, Milton Sills and Dorothy Mackail, 100% talking.”
The advertisement was also accompanied by a photo of the facade of the Regal cinema and another photo displaying the seating arrangements inside the theatre. The inauguration had been attended by then Governor of Ceylon, Sir Herbert J Stanley as the Chief Guest.
Among the films screened at the cinema during the year 1930 had been Madam X, Broadway Melody, Hollywood Revue, The Grand Parade, Spite Marriage and Divine Lady, to name a few. In addition to these, several other productions based on world reputed literary classics had also been screened at the Regal cinema from 1947 to 1968. Among them were Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Gone With the Wind, David Copperfield, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Brothers Karamazov, A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Zhivago and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While browsing through the archives, it could be safely summarised that holding special screeings for the press bean at the Regal cinema in this country.
Two days before the cinema was to be inaugurated, that is on July 24, 1930 a special screening had been held at the theatre. A news report carried out by the Dinamina newspaper had even remarked about a knife attack as well.
A reporter attached to the Observer (English) newspaper by the name of Calvert had been watching the film at around 7 pm while his driver had been outside the theatre. After Calvert had come out of the cinema he had been knifed by his driver who had been unhappy with his boss from morning that day.
A report carried out in the Dinamina newspaper related this story thus “A case was taken for hearing yesterday at the Colombo Police Court against a driver named Justin, who on July 24 night, is alleged to have knifed a person employed at the Daily News newspaper. The judge had put the case off, to be heard at a later date after having ordered bail for Rs50 from the accused.”
Regal cinema has been mentioned prominently in an old novel as well. The main character of W A Silva’s 1939 novel Radala Piliruwa, Gilbert Jayaweera, was travelling in a bus after a failed affair, and had seen the Regal cinema in the Fort. That incident had been described in the novel as follows.
When the bus was about to pass the Regal theatre, Gilbert spotted a advertisement which displayed a youth attempting to gun down a lass. The lass in the advertisement reminded him of Nandawathee. He was taken aback by this photo, as it portrayed that the youth was about to fire a shot at the young woman. (Page 158, Third Edition) There was a filmgoer, a resident of Edward Lane, Kollupitiya, who had witnessed almost all films shown at the Regal at that time. This person had also been doing crossword puzzles that appear in the papers in addition to having contributed articles to the ‘Blue Page’ of the Daily News. Two of his contemporaries - Dr Lester James Peiris and Tarzi Vittachchi had also done likewise.
Having compiled a valuable puzzle on Hollywood actors and actresses he had sent it by post to the owner of the Regal cinema - Chittampalam Gardiner. Having been impressed with the puzzle, Gardiner had requested this filmgoer to meet him as soon as possible.
Gardiner had been so taken up by the moviegoer that he had granted him a pass to watch any film at his theatre free of charge. This person then continued to supply articles to two English newspapers on Hollywood films and stars, and subsequently he became the Publicity Manager of Ceylon Theatres. He was Harison Peiris (1917-1987).
He was the late father of veteran songstresses Malkanthi Nandasiri (nee Peiris), Nirmala Ranatunga (nee Peiris), Niranjala Sarojini and well-known tabla player Manoj Peiris. These details were gleaned from an article headlined ‘Some memories of yesteryears’ and written by Harison Peiris to a magazine published in 1978 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Regal cinema.
The maiden screening
The first Sinhala film screened at the Regal cinema had been a Ceylon Theatres production - Asokamala. This was also the second film with dialogue released in the country and the Chief Guests at its screening had been the Senate Council’s then Minister of Agriculture and Lands - D S Senanayake and his spouse. The maiden screening had been held on April 9, 1947 and the revenue accrued had been donated for religious activities. The queue to obtain tickets for the film is said to have been from the Regal cinema to the Lake House. Publicity for the film had been provided by a magazine called Herald Asokamala special number. This magazine is believed to be the first English magazine issued in this connection in the country. The editor of it was Harison Peiris. The magazine which had been printed in colour had been priced at 75 cents.
The first time the front of the Regal cinema had been included in a Sinhala film was in February 28, 1948 when Kapati Arakshakaya was screened.
This film which was produced by Ceylon Theatres had also carried visuals of the island for the very first time. Those scenes had been shot at Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. The Regal cinema also had been subjected to a sudden fire way back in May 1951. Well-known personality Dr R L Spittel had gone to the theatre to see a film on May 23, 1951 at its 6.30 screening. He had been watching the film Perfect Strangers starring Dennis Morgan and Ginger Rogers and the fire is said to have occurred in the balcony while the film was being screened.
The Lankadeepa newspaper had carried an article pertaining to Dr. Spittel demanding a sum of Rs 25,000 after the incident.
Dr. R L Spittel who was watching a film at the Regal theatre on May 23, 1951 has demanded a sum of Rs25,000 from the owners of Ceylon Theatres after a fire had erupted in the balcony section. He had demanded it following injuries sustained by filmgoers who had panicked in their efforts to escape the fire from the cinema. It is said that Attorney S Nadesan had appeared on behalf of Ceylon Theatres while State Attorney E G Wickremanayaka had done likewise on behalf of Dr. Spittel.
Hollywood icon visits the Regal
Hollywood icon Gregory Peck had visited the Regal cinema to see the film The Million Pound Note on February 18, 1954. Peck had already starred in the film ‘The Purple Plain which was shot on location in Ceylon and Burma in 1954. The handsome and legendary American actor had arrived at the theatre following an invitation extended by its owner Sir Chittampalam Gardiner, and after he had entered the stage amidst deafening cheers from fans, Peck had been garlanded by Sujatha Jayawardena - a local actress, who was noted to have starred only in international productions then.
When Queen Elizabeth 11 and the Duke of Edinburgh had visited Ceylon in 1954 they had been entertained at the Regal cinema as well.
When the film Rekawa - a watershed in the annals of the Sinhala cinema had been stalled, having seen its first copy, Sir Gardiner had promptly agreed to finance the production. This grateful gesture on the part of the owners of Ceylon Theatres is to this day recalled fondly and humbly by its legendary director Dr. Lester James Peiris. Rekawa’s premier show had been staged at the Regal theatre on December 28, 1956. The Chief Guest on that day had been the then Mayor of Colombo - V A Sugathadasa. Another coincidence was that on the day that Rekawa had marked its 50th anniversary, a special screening had been held on December 28, 2006. All artistes connected with it had been felicitated by Ceylon Theatres while two books were launched as well.
These two books are Half a Century of Rekawa written by yours truly, and Lester Lekana Sangeetha written by Nuwan Nayanajith Kumara. The Regal cinema is interwoven with the history of the Sinhala cinema. This history dates back to the maiden film awards ceremony held in the country under the title “Deepashika’ and which had been organised by the Lankadeepa newspaper. This ceremony had been held at the Regal theatre under the patronage of the new premier S W R D Bandaranaika and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaika. Those who had won the maiden awards on that day had been Rukmani Devi as the best actress for (Umathu Vishwasaya), B A W Jayamanna as best actor for (Kela Handa) and Sirisena Wimalaweera for the best picture (Podi Putha).
The Regal theatre also has been the pioneer cinema hall for the staging of most of the Sarasaviya awards. The first ever Sarasaviya Film Festival was held on July 5, 1967 under the patronage of the then Minister of State, J R Jayewardene. This theatre is also known for having staged the biggest number of premiers in the country and several international film festivals have also been held there.
Subsequently it was set apart for screening only CEL productions.
Regal cinema which provided entertainment for filmgoers for over eight decades in this country is still continuing to go from strength to strength, and is one of the country’s foremost cineplexes. To date, it has remained in the Fort area of the city of Colombo. Today, the Regal cinema is owned by the Chairman of Ceylon Theatres, Ranjith Page. We also gratefully acknowledge the effort of businessman Gamini Neththikumara who furnished us with a photograph of the theatre of some 70-years ago which appears with this article.