Sneaking into the “Grand Theatre”

Sneaking into the “Grand Theatre”

19
(photo credit: nareg)

I recently got a peak inside the Grand Theatre, one of the last remaining relics of pre-war Beirut.

Today the theater is surrounded by the refurbished structures of the BCD (Beirut Central District): a multi-billion dollar private construction project that has turned the oldest part of the Lebanese capital into a posh shopping and restaurant district.

But 15 years after reconstruction began, the Grand Theatre remains gutted and abandoned.

Although it’s exterior has been restored to resemble the sandblasted look of the new neighborhood, the theater’s interior tells the story of Lebanon’s painful civil war as well as its fabled pre-war glory. The building is said to date back to the 1930s.

(photo credit: Beiruti)

The company at helm of the BCD project (known as Solidere) has fenced off the theater building for years, with forever delayed plans, according to some, to turn it into a boutique hotel. But on a sunny afternoon, I managed to sneak across the barricades in the hope of documenting this gem of the old city before it meets the unknown fate of ‘rebuilding’ crews and their hotel-obsessed investment firms.

My excursion began at the outer construction wall–errected by Solidere years ago to promote the BCD project by evoking the rebirth of downtown’s landmarks.


Once inside, all was eerily quiet. I had the strange feeling of entering forbidden territory, frozen in the past and deliberately hidden from public view.


I came around the side to the front gate:


Upon entering, I looked up to discover the remains of a colored glass ceiling:


Then I came upon what appeared to be a central chamber:


Suddenly the stage stood before me:


I was amazed to find the old curtains largely in tact. Below the stage, it seemed Solidere crews had reinforced the foundation:


The central pillars had also been reinforced, although these renovation works did not look fresh; they may have occurred years ago at the outset of the BCD project in the mid 1990s or thereabouts:


It’s interesting to note the vintage blue paint–I’ve seen this before in many of Beirut’s old buildings. Perhaps the color was in vogue prior to the start of the war in 1975.

It’s also interesting to note the old murals and graffiti, left by militias and perhaps even invading armies who laid claim to the theater space at one time or another:

Most intriguing though, was a large image painted on the wall facing the main stage:


It looked like a disappointed angel of sorts.


Here’s an unobstructed, albeit blurrier view, showing both wings:


What’s also fascinating about old Beirut buildings is the surviving signage. Here are a few shots from the shops that occupied the theater’s ground level facing the street (now the construction wall).




This seemed to be some sort of restaurant or bar:


Notice the funky vintage roof:


Then I found all the old theater chairs stacked up in one of the ground floor shops:


The last thing I’ll point out is the sidewalk.


Upon closer view, it’s actually made up of fitted glass pieces that were once transparent.


I’m not sure what this style is called but I’ve seen it in Manhattan as well, along some of the sidewalks of older buildings.


Before leaving the Grand Theatre, I took one last look at the new city beyond its fabricated walls:


I wonder how long it will be before the Grand Theater is also ‘cleansed’ of its troubled past.

At least some of those memories seem to be captured by the Lebanese director Omar Naim, in the 1999 film “Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut”, which I’ve just discovered online.

(poster credit: LCM)

I’m eager to see a copy if anyone knows how to obtain one.

19 COMMENTS

  1. In the 1990’s I remember going to a rave party there. They had a special sound and lights setup and artwork in the hallway leading to the theater. The angel painting might be a relic from that time.

  2. Thanks Bash, Sasa, qifanabki and tammyq!

    Phil, how interesting. I knew about raves and parties held in the dome/eggshell theater on Martyrs Square but not at the Grand Theatre. At least both structures are still standing…for now.

  3. Indeed. And I wonder why no parties or art shows have been held at these two intriguing “venues” for a long time. Recently (currently?) there was a video installation under the dome which I read about randomly but haven’t seen, as it seems the publicity is almost null. Anyway, thanks for bringing back memories. They are so easily lost!

  4. Thanks so much for the pictures. I HOPE the building does not get demolished. I am sad that Café de Paris in Hamra is gone (among so many others). My 79-year old aunt spent years during the war taking pictures and hunting down old buildings and houses and got a huge coffee table book published as a result.

  5. Yes it is too bad. There was a documentary film about the closing of Modca a few years back, featuring the protests at the time…How cool about your aunt! What is the name of the book?

  6. Tiatro al Kabir in Arabic ,or Grand Theatre ,as better known by the others, once long ago was a great hub for all kinds of Art /culture vultures from East and Western audiences, back in the 1950 s, as i was about 4 or 5 years old boy, My late mum and female neighbours or friends used to take me to see black and white Egyptian movies,also my childhood sweetheart then,Samira kaakati .. too, in this cine-theatre i watched best of such movies such as INNI RAHELA( Iam leaving)from Madam MADIHA YOUSSRI & IMAD HAMDI, Lahn el Wafa (so ond of loyalty) from 2 great Arab world crooners Madam SHADIA &Mr. ABDEL HALIM HAFEZ ,Then also ANTAR WA 3ABLA from great actor Mr.SIRAG EL MOUNIR & KOKA ,All circa 1955/56/57..and many more earlier on es, but i …can t recall.. most of them passed my memory as i, as a kid used to sit and sleep on my mums ,,lap. The funny bit was that i persuaded mum to attend this or that film,only to be in the company of my dear Samira,and if the movie was musical or belly dancers in it me and Samira used to dance in the narrow space between the ques of sets of uncomfortable theatre s chairs , i assume they had much better chairs in its Theatrical era ?? for Aristocrat French audiences then. We used to live too close to the cinema,,as neighbours,, we lived on Ma3rad Street nearby,between it and The LEBAN ESE Parliament as it still is, my school days my mum used to check the right time by looking from our balcony at SA3AT AL 3ABED, next to the Parliament Bldg. as nowdays is! so that i won t miss my school Bus to collect me,i was next to her was more interested to see what movie poster and what film playing that week in that theatre?? sometimes she told me off..bless her soul! …..One other thing i do remember about GRAND Theatre was , when thirsty and want to drink water there were few taps and a TASSEH or an engraved metalic bowl attached by a chain to the stone carved sink,so that it does not go missing for others to drink,.. using it too like some school type system,,,, But some attendants brought their own mugs or plastic cups/ i still remember, as it was today, the giant cardboard poster of 2 great film stars Madam TAHIYYA KARIOKA & Mr, SHUKRI SARHAN for the big movie SHABAB IMRAA ( YOUTH OF A WOMAN), 1957or as i regard it The GRADUATE of Dustin HOFFMAN , same plot, also the huge cloth banner stretched from one end to the other, declaring >>>>>> COME INSIDE AND WATCH THE hilf BAGHDAD TRAITORS <<<<<,(in other words, Baghdad Pact plotters) as IRAQ was still a kingdom then 1956[57 and early 58s ? a pact against Nationalist
    Arabs lead by the great Egyptian hero President GAMAL ABDEL NASSER,as LEBANESE were divided over it ,and followed by 1958… / 7months …conflict, even then the theatre was busy showing movies but no SOIREES,as there was curfew order after 6 P.M due to the street fights and snipers..so this HISTORICAL MONUMENT witnessed ,and i assume still witnessing such events since it s been constructed……if only its walls can speak,they ll tell history of BEIRUT from 1900 s and on….its a real heritage symbol and NATIONAL TREASURE,,GOD BLESS all those who planned and built it many many decades ago… Cherish it!! from IS-AHAK BARSOUM-IAN/ in London G.Britain since 1979.

    • What wonderful memories Ishak, feel like I am there! It’s hard to imagine today though that people once lived on Maraad street. Today it is all offices–maybe this is part of the reason why its cafes and shops are so empty–no one lives there! Do you remember which building exactly? Was it in between the clock and the theatre? I used to work at Hibat el Maraad building, close to the theatre. Today it houses Blom Bank. But Maraad is like a ghost street today, almost all the shops have been closed only a few empty cafes are left. Everything is new and shiny but there are no people.

  7. Hi there dear SIR, i mean most dedicated Lebanese individual..who cares and works for better future for downtown BEIRUT?? I mean specifically your good self Mr.H.Battah,and for LEBANON in general, I am most pleased and delighted that you showed interest in my humble lines concerning GRAND Theatre? Yes i grew up in Ma3rad street ,this was my cildhood prime playground 2nd was my Armenian EVANGE.SCHOOL s/Rue Mexique/Clemenceau or better known Jibran Khalil street?surely you ve been there and had some problem with the law ,you mentioned in one of your reports. Anyway about our flat ,the building was then owned by late Mr. Sheikh HAMAD, a Durzi Lebanese from FALOUGHA village?it was the building back of Al ASSAYLI /or better was known as Cinema(s )Capitole/Al Emir, we overlooked the narrow passage to then SOUK EL KHODRA ,OR Vegetable/green grocers Market , and one can view Mr Harriry s Mosque dome ..clearly..i assume? It had 3 storeys & , each had 3 flats + the shops beneath+ and the roof had 2 flats too, we lived on the 2nd floor…yes it was funny combination as there were offices too ..then.next to us was Armenian GUILOYAN HAGOP and his widowed mother ..very very overweighted lady,MAYRIG,or MA MA as we kids called her,bless her memory,MrHagop was a goldsmith and a high voice operatic singer and Theatre actor in his spare time,both were from Bolis or Istanbul/Turkey.. opposite our flat there were Moslem , sweet little family or Tant Zarifeh,as i called her and few others with her,but in 1958 before the civil war then a new tenant arrived there called Mr. SETRAK DOERDILIAN ,he was a Zincograph,so he made it his workplace , making Clichees ready to print French Weekly>> LA REVUE DU LIBAN/ DUNIA AL AHDASS kids magazine,and others too! his balcony overlooked Ma3rad main street4 small balconies on that side. top of his place was Mr. MOBAYYED, used to produce cosmetics and also bottled cucumber/olive pickles for local shops around, even blue writing INKS etc..etc Very busy person with his sons ABDALLAH…, &then Abdelrahman & Abdelrazzak ,from his 2nd wife..Also when climbing the long entrance staircases, Mr. DA3BOUL had his little Toffee making semi-ifactory? and on floor 1 there were 2 Armenian Men s wear tailor brothers barons; ARSLAN & YEPREM…as you see dear Habib,this was like Beehive accommodating venue,not just ours ,but all around was even worst… too…..But we survived,and in 1959 moved to Khandaq al Ghamiq ALBERT BALADI building ,as i told you once before?? opposite ASSYRIAN Church there. I can go on & on if you would like,but not to bore you Sir.. ONE ADDITION ,If you had the time to watch a Lebanese movie made in 1956 called AL LAHEN AL AWAL ,(1 st Melody) by late and great film director Mr. MOHAMED SALMAN, you will see the building opposite of ours in AL Ma3rad street ,as he shot most of it on its roofs,, as people whom got no money to pay the Hotel ,sneaking in secret waysto sleep in an open air Hotel?? also SALMAN s ex wife Mrs NAGAH SALAM singing her famous song YA ALBI ALLAH YI JAZEEK, in a steam boat all around St GEORGES hotel…very intriguing movie on old Beirut..if you were interested?/ Regards ,yours truly IS-HAK Barsoum-ian/London/Britain…i don t mind if this stays in Beirut Report s Blog??

    7

  8. Hi there dear SIR, i mean most dedicated Lebanese individual..who cares and works for better future for downtown BEIRUT?? I mean specifically your good self Mr.H.Battah,and for LEBANON in general, I am most pleased and delighted that you showed interest in my humble lines concerning GRAND Theatre? Yes i grew up in Ma3rad street ,this was my childhood prime playground 2nd was my Armenian EVANGE.SCHOOL s/Rue Mexique/Clemenceau or better known Jibran Khalil street?surely you ve been there and had some problem with the law ,you mentioned in one of your reports. Anyway about our flat ,the building was then owned by late Mr. Sheikh HAMAD, a Durzi Lebanese from FALOUGHA village?it was the building back of Al ASSAYLI /or better was known as Cinema(s )Capitole/Al Emir, we overlooked the narrow passage to then SOUK EL KHODRA ,OR Vegetable/green grocers Market , and one can view Mr Harriry s Mosque dome ..clearly..i assume? It had 3 storeys & , each had 3 flats + the shops beneath+ and the roof had 2 flats too, we lived on the 2nd floor…yes it was funny combination as there were offices too ..then.next to us was Armenian GUILOYAN HAGOP and his widowed mother ..very very overweighted lady,MAYRIG,or MA MA as we kids called her,bless her memory,MrHagop was a goldsmith and a high voice operatic singer and Theatre actor in his spare time,both were from Bolis or Istanbul/Turkey.. opposite our flat there were Moslem , sweet little family or Tant Zarifeh,as i called her and few others with her,but in 1958 before the civil war then a new tenant arrived there called Mr. SETRAK DOERDILIAN ,he was a Zincograph,so he made it his workplace , making Clichees ready to print French Weekly>> LA REVUE DU LIBAN/ DUNIA AL AHDASS kids magazine,and others too! his balcony overlooked Ma3rad main street4 small balconies on that side. top of his place was Mr. MOBAYYED, used to produce cosmetics and also bottled cucumber/olive pickles for local shops around, even blue writing INKS etc..etc Very busy person with his sons ABDALLAH…, &then Abdelrahman & Abdelrazzak ,from his 2nd wife..Also when climbing the long entrance staircases, Mr. DA3BOUL had his little Toffee making semi-ifactory? and on floor 1 there were 2 Armenian Men s wear tailor brothers barons; ARSLAN & YEPREM…as you see dear Habib,this was like Beehive accommodating venue,not just ours ,but all around was even worst… too…..But we survived,and in 1959 moved to Khandaq al Ghamiq ALBERT BALADI building ,as i told you once before?? opposite ASSYRIAN Church there. I can go on & on if you would like,but not to bore you Sir.. ONE ADDITION ,If you had the time to watch a Lebanese movie made in 1956 called AL LAHEN AL AWAL ,(1 st Melody) by late and great film director Mr. MOHAMED SALMAN, you will see the building opposite of ours in AL Ma3rad street ,as he shot most of it on its roofs,, as people whom got no money to pay the Hotel ,sneaking in secret waysto sleep in an open air Hotel?? also SALMAN s ex wife Mrs NAGAH SALAM singing her famous song YA ALBI ALLAH YI JAZEEK, in a steam boat all around St GEORGES hotel…very intriguing movie on old Beirut..if you were interested?/ Regards ,yours truly IS-HAK Barsoum-ian/London/Britain…i don t mind if this stays in Beirut Report s Blog??

    7

Leave a Reply