The Splendid Palace

This post was first published on this site on October 9, 2008. It has been updated  and it is being republished today. 

RIGA – A location of the cinema Riga on Elizabetes iela has long offered city dwellers bread and circuses.

From the end of the 19th century to the present day, visitors and locals alike have stormed to watch films, variety shows, even fighting championships. The first theater, “Olympia”, was located near present-day cinema Riga. It started showing moving pictures in the summer of 1905 in the nearby park located in the place of today’s Riga cinema. In 1918, a famous Latvian architect Eižens Laube rebuilt the wooden theater building.
In the fall of 1919, the new cinema called “Maska” (Mask, pictured) opened its doors to the public, offering a variety of moving pictures, including “Latvija Top,” whose ad is shown on the right. Certainly it wasn’t the first cinema in the city, but it grew popular with the public.

Two days before the New Year in 1923, a new cinema opens near “Maska.” Russian businessman Vasily Emelyanov opened the cinema “Splendid Palace,” which will much later become Cinema Riga. Born in St. Petersburg, Emelyanov decided not to return to Russia after the Bolshevik coup in 1917. He remained in the Baltics and opened a chain of movie theaters in four Baltic capitals, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, and Kaunas. In Latvia, he formed a company named “Ars” which owned also other movie theaters in the city. The theater showed European and American films as the company signed agreements with American movie studios. The first film shown at the Splendid Palace was a drama adventure Under Two Flags about a love triangle in the French Algeria.

On the run from punishment for a crime committed by his brother, Bertie Cecil (alias Lewis Victor) joins the French Foreign Legion. In Algeria, he becomes the hated rival of his commander, Chateauroy, who despises Victor’s breeding and also competes for the same woman. Victor is beloved of Cigarette, an Algerian camp follower, who saves his life, though he love another.

The theater also showed Coney Island, a film with comedy geniuses, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. The Splendid Cinema became the first theater to show films with sound. It became the motion picture called the Singing Fool, shown here in 1929. Ten years later, the Great Leader Kārlis Ulmanis attended the showing of the Latvian sound film, “A Fisherman’s Son.”

However, the Splendid Palace cinema was so much more than its repertoire. Today, the building is a national monument of architecture, originally designed by the architect Fridrihs Skujiņš, who also designed the present-day Cabinet of Ministers on the opposite side of the street. To this day, the Splendid Cinema remains tucked it behind an architectural eyesore, a casino (pictured on the right).

“Maska” remained under construction until 1947 when it was opened under a new name “Spartak” (Spartacus), a specialized movie theater that showed non-stop documentaries. In the 1980s, it became the first stereo theater in Riga. And now its screen is used as the second screen of the movie theater Riga.

When the Soviets arrived in Riga in 1940, both theaters transformed into the mouthpiece of the Soviet propaganda, showing Soviet epics like “Lenin in October.” In spite of attempts to appease new authorities, Emelyanov was arrested by the Soviets and on June 14, 1941, deported to Siberia, where he died 8 years later. Under the German occupation, “Maska” became a closed theater for the German military.

After the war, “Maska” remained closed down, while “Splendid Palace” opened with a war epic on November 6, 1945. Interestingly enough, its Western bourgeoisie-like name “Splendid Palace” had remained the theater’s name until the early 1950s when it was renamed into a politically correct “Riga.” When Latvia regained its independence back in 1991, the sweeping wave of returning historical names to streets and parks avoided the movie theater.

It was not until 2010 when the original name Splendid Palace was returned to the oldest existing cinema in Riga.


Categories: History

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