The Majestic Theatre under renovation

Robert Fan Majestic Theatre 01

Hands cupped on both sides, I peered inside the dusty and vacant lobby of the Majestic Theatre (美琪大戏院), searching for a way in to no avail. I tested one entrance after another, stymied by the chain locks. At one point, I caught a strong whiff of urine and noted stained splatters against the side of the walls.

The Majestic Theatre has been closed for renovations, from what I gather to be since December of last year. Nestled behind the busy shopping street of Nanjing West Lu (南京西路), along Jiangning Lu (江宁路), the theatre is an iconic landmark for its historical Art Deco design, known to be one of the oldest and most ornate theatres¹ with a well-built sound system. From the outside, nothing much has changed from its original structure.

IMG_2101aRobert Fan Majestic Theatre 02

Majestic Theatre Virtual Shanghai

Source: Virtual Shanghai, est. date 1941-49.

The Majestic has also had many defining screenings and performances in its time, from the theatre’s inaugural screening of the muscial movie by 20th Cenutry-Fox Film “Kentucky Moonshine“² in 1941 to defining performances including the famous Peiking opera singer Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) who played the dan (旦角)(leading female) role in Chinese opera before 1949 and Soviet-era actress Galina Sergeyeva during Communist times.

The theatre was designed and completed in 1941 by one of the leading Chinese architects Robert Fan (Fan Wenzhao) (1893-1979), who had also designed the Nanking Theater, now the Shanghai Concert Hall amongst other numerous government buildings, universities and private residences in and and out of Shanghai. He was part of the first generation of Chinese architects who were educated overseas, in Fan’s case at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1920s. His peers include Dong Dayou, Zhao Shen, Tong Jun and Yang Tingbao (the latter three were also UPenn alums), many of whom introduced a unique blend of Western and Eastern architectural design. Fan’s achievements, along with his peers, were made more remarkable in a time dominated by foreign influence and presence in Shanghai.

Placed under heritage protection, the Majestic Theatre is likely to remain for a long time and perhaps all renovations will be inside rather than out. The entrance has since turned into a mini parking lot for scooters and sales points for fruit hawkers angling for more business, you know, business as usual.

Robert Fan Majestic Theatre 03

IMG_2111b

¹For a look at Shanghai’s old cinemas, check this out.

² Baidu’s Chinese description mentioned 美国福克斯公司的五彩歌舞片《美月琪花》which is “American Fox Company’s colorful musical …” and what I pieced together to be “Kentucky Moonshine” produced in 1938. If I am mistaken, kindly let me know.

August 2011

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7 Comments

  • Reply August 16, 2011

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    This reminds me so much of another refurbished Bauhaus-era cinema which was converted into a hotel in Tel Aviv, called http://www.atlas.co.il/cinema-hotel-tel-aviv which that lobby looks strangely reminiscent of…

    Have you seen a film at The Majestic before?

    This might seem like a naive question from the likes of moi, but has anyone ever before shot a documentary, not in Mandarin, but for an international audience, on Shanghai’s old cinemas? With full interviews of people who are the descendants of the original architects, and the like?

    Curious…

    And how pungent was that lobby? Like, really ripe, or mildly ripe? And how do homeless people get in there if there’s a night watchman, or that’s the part about Shanghai which I don’t yet properly understand?

    Thanks again for doing there, SAT. Thanks. Again.

    • Reply August 17, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Actually now that you mention it, the Majestic architect Fan studied in UPenn which at that time placed great emphasis on Bauhaus, such that Fan also built a Bauhaus-era building which held a lot of meaning for him. You can read more about it here. This was written by Fan’s granddaughter who is now a Washington Post reporter.

      I’ve never seen a movie there, nor a play or opera. Shame, but perhaps when they reopen again.

      I’m unsure if a movie has been done on something as specific as descendants of Shanghai’s old cinemas. What would be interesting is to interview the first generation of overseas educated Chinese architect who had strong Western influences, and who may not have had a good life once the Communists took over. There have been books written about their work per se.

      I didn’t get to go into the lobby, these photos were shot from outside, hence this filmy texture over them. But yes, it does smell on the outside. I gather people were just using the entrances as a toilet, I doubt they would be able to get inside the building.

  • Reply August 17, 2011

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Your amendment to my suggestion is definitely an interesting wrinkle that takes a turn for the better…part of that might be to sprinkle in still images/cutaways to their projects, before and after shots, what these edifices look like today along with perhaps several of their descendants and what it’s like being a relative of someone so obscurely famous…I can’t help but think of the WWI-era Wellington Koo, and how he was one of the SOLE representatives of then-Republican China at the Versailles negotiating table/chopping back, back in 1919! Astonishing! Representative of over 400M diverse people!

    By the way, I wrote this about you today:
    http://www.adamdanielmezei.com/2011/08/16/people-in-my-social-graph-sue-anne-tays-shanghai-street-stories

    And I’m taking you up on that movie at the Majestic. ;-)

    • Reply August 18, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Seems you know more about this stuff than I do, that’s for sure! But keep that idea bubbling along, it may come to fruition if you return to Shanghai for a more permanent project! And thanks for the overly generous write up!

  • Reply August 19, 2011

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    I’m planning on an October/Nov. couple of weeks. It’s been two years — too long!!! As for the writeup, you so deserved that, SAT. Look at this work! It was just my paltry attempt to try and acknowledge it somehow…hope I did it justice.

  • Reply September 16, 2013

    Maureen Fan

    Sorry I’m coming to this so late! My grandfather studied (1919-1921) under the the UPenn dean Paul Cret, known for his promotion of the Beaux Arts. My Dad says his father followed the Bauhaus / International movement from Shanghai, as a practicing architect, but was not studying it while in the US. Wondering who or what agency might have a record of his drawings: the Majestic, Nanking & I think Astoria theaters, the YMCA, the Georgia apartments & Yafa Court in Wuyuan / Yongfu Roads.

    • Reply September 17, 2013

      Sue Anne

      Hi Maureen! That’s a good question, I suspect Shanghai Municipal Government planning office would have them. So good to hear from you after so long! I told you I went to your grandfather’s residence? The front has been converted into shops (one selling kid’s clothes) and I chatted with a few residents, one of them remembers you very clearly.

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