World’s oldest cinema to reopen on Wednesday

FRANCE - The world's oldest movie theatre, where the first films of the pioneering Lumiere brothers were screened in 1899, reopens in a sleepy southern French town Wednesday after an extensive facelift.

Gleaming, velvet seats replace dusty chairs, fresh yellow paint and mosaic tiles adorn the facade while oak floors take the place of old carpets. The Eden Theatre, which closed in 1995, is all set for an inauguratory gala event in La Ciotat, a town near the sprawling port city of Marseille.

It was at the seafront theatre that the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, screened their first moving pictures to 250 dazzled spectators on March 21, 1899.

The brothers had previously showcased their work in other places, first at their rich, industrialist father's home and then at other cinemas, but these have since disappeared.

Over the decades, the Eden became both a cinema and theatre, and several French film stars such as Yves Montand and Fernandel performed there in the early days of their careers.

But it hit hard times in the 1980s when the then owner was killed by crooks trying to steal his money, and movie buffs just stopped going.

After that, the building opened only for one week every year to host a festival showcasing the first ever French-language movies, until its closure in 1995.

Supporters of the old, historic monument never gave up their fight to get it reopened, but it was not until Marseille was named European Capital of Culture for 2013 that local authorities finally agreed to renovations that cost six million euros (S$10.1 million).

The Eden will operate as a normal cinema run by a private operator, and visitors will also be able to wander through a permanent exhibition outlining the origins of animated pictures.

Outside, the facade will be adorned with a laser installation at night depicting a train, to mark the 50-second-long film "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat" filmed by the Lumiere brothers in 1895.

The black and white, silent movie shows a steam train pulling into a station, and passengers getting in and out.

The story goes that when it was first screened, spectators were so terrified at the image of a train moving towards them that they leapt out of their chairs and ran out in panic, though many people have suggested this is an urban legend.

French media reports had said actresses Juliette Binoche and Nathalie Baye and film director Roman Polanski were among the stars expected to attend Wednesday's inaugural ceremony.

But organisers said Binoche would not be present.

The challenge for the Eden will be to make the 166-seat theatre economically viable, and fans of the building say it should be a larger cultural project that offers educational tours for school children, screens restored films and hosts film festivals.