Image: Horst Eisfelder.
Majestic Theatre, built in 1941 on the corner of Gordon Road and McBain Road, became one of the last cinemas of old Shanghai. (The last one appears to have been the Queen's Theatre on Tibet Road, which opened in 1942.) The Majestic belonged to the Asia Theatres Inc., the company started by the entrepreneur A. T. Holt (He Tingran 何挺然). Having hired Robert Fan once to build the Nanking Theatre in the French Concession, the company reengaged him ten years later to build a new cinema in the International Settlement. By that time the architect had already moved on from the neo-classical and hybrid aesthetic to austere modernism. The Majestic amply reflects his new stylistic conviction: lots of parallel lines and sweeping curves, outside and inside.
The name for the new theatre – the Majestic – was fairly easy to assign. The lot where it was built had been associated with the Majestic Hotel, which stood there since 1924. The street to the east of the lot was even called Majestic Road. The Majestic Hotel was the largest event venue in 1920s Shanghai, the site of the yearly Russian Balls where ballet numbers and fashion shows ensured the stream of donations for the benefit of stateless Russian refugees. The stage of the Majestic Hotel became the launchpad for a number of Russian artists, including the jazz band leader Serge Ermoll, ballerina Nina Antares, dancer Lucy Cherikova, and others. In 1925 the ballroom was rebuilt, and this joint project, executed in partnership with the Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente, launched the successful career of the Russian architect Alexander Yaron. The ballroom operated for a only few years: in 1927 the hotel was damaged in a fire, and by the end of 1931 all of the lot was partitioned and sold to developers.
In the summer of 1941, there appeared to be no room in Shanghai for yet another cinema palace. Public was anxious about the tightening Japanese control of the city. Worried about inflation, customers were emptying the shelves of stores selling woolens, preparing for hard winter. Abductions, extortion and murder were on the rise. In July, a gang went on trial for attempted blackmail of Shanghai movie theatre owners. Local press was debating whether movie theatres would start closing after the Republican government put a cap on foreign transfers to purchase Hollywood films. In early October, cinema employees went on strike, demanding a pay rise.
And yet, on 15 October, 1941, the new Majestic Theatre opened with a pomp. On the opening night, the cinema with over 1,500 seats played the frivolous comedy about small-town goddiggers, called Moon Over Miami (1941). Responding to the general sense of crisis, the management publicized the donation of box office proceeds to the Chinese Society for the Blind.
To bypass the purchasing quota, the manager of the Asia Theatres Inc. A. R. Hager traveled to Hong Kong, where he parlayed about the purchasing quotas with members of the Kuomintang government from Chungking. The company's honor was at stake, for it controlled the "big four" theatres of Shanghai – Nanking, Grand, Cathay and Majestic. After Hollywood films arrived in Shanghai, they had to confront the formidable Shanghai Censorship Board, led by corrupt Kuomintang officials who turned issuing of the screening permits into a game of squeeze. Yet all the troubles paid off amply: like always in times of economic insecurity, Shanghai movie theatres were full, and cinema remained the preferred popular escape from real world troubles.
After the war, the Majestic was used more often as a theatre venue, and less as a cinema. In autumn 1945, Mei Lanfang played leading roles in a series of Peking opera plays. In 1952, the Russian ballet star Galina Ulanova danced in the Majestic for the Chinese public as part of her Chinese tour. The overall reception in China was lacklustre, according to Russian sources, and it hurt her prospects back in the USSR.
A recent restoration of the building was, reportedly, very thorough and it returned the theatre to its intended shape and look, including the stained glass and the hanging chandelier in the foyer. The terrazo flooring, which had been gradually replaced with marble, was also put back. The theatre employees who worked here in the 1950s reported that the Majestic looks just like it did in the old days.
The lot with warehouses in 1939, where the Majestic Hotel once stood, and where the Majestic Theatre was built later. Image: Virtual Shanghai.
Russian Ball in the Majestic Hotel, c. 1929. Image: V. D. Zhiganov Russians in Shanghai (1936).
Poster for the Moon Over Miami (1941). Image: Medium.
Drawing of the Majestic, by Robert Fan, in 1941. Image: Historic Shanghai.
Corner entrance to the Majestic Theatre. Image: Virtual Shanghai.
Former Majestic in 1973, when it was called 北京影剧院. Image: sina.com.