The Romance Of The Regal

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020

By Ameer Janmohamed

1931 was an eventful year in the history of the Janmohamed Hasham family with my birth in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, on 6 June, and the death of my grandfather, Janmohamed Hasham, in Mombasat twelve days later, on 18 June. The other important event of 1931 was the completion of the Regal Cinema building, which was the creation of the two brothers Janmohamed Hasham and Valli Hasham.

The two brothers had been together in business since their early days in Kenya and traded under the name of Valli  Hasham & Company. In those days entrepreneurs like Janmohamed and Valli Hasham would usually acquire plots of land and then build houses and shops. To this day I cannot figure out what prompted these two brothers to build a Theatre/Cinema, the very first one in Mombasa back in 1930/1931. Did they think that Mombasa was ready for a nine hundred seat state of the art theatre? To this day, this has remained an enduring mystery. I will never cease to be astonished at the entrepreneurship and imagination - even the romance - of building a theatre in Mombasa,

We know that the building was designed by a pioneer British architect, William Miller Robertson, who also designed the New Stanley Hotel and the Synagogue in Nairobi. The Regal Theatre building was situated on what was then Salim Road, [now Digo Road], very near the intersection with Kilindini Road [Moi Avenue].

The ground floor foot-print of the building consisted of six shops, two with wide frontages onto Salim Road, with a wide foyer entrance with large metal gate, which led into the cinema part of the building. The two front shops were tenanted by Husseini Stationery Mart and Edward St Rose, the chemists. Round the corner from Edward St Rose on the East Street frontage, facing Pandya Building, were the other four shops, two of which were tenanted by Messrs PD Brothers and Messrs DJ Brothers, both of whom were leading makers of bespoke shoes in Mombasa. Another shop was tenanted by Jaffer Pan Walla. On this frontage there were also two wide entrances, one leading to the front stalls seats in the cinema and the other leading up to the Regal Restaurant, which was a spacious restaurant above Husseini Stationery Mart and Edward St Rose, on the Salim Road frontage.

The cinema hall itself was a very high ceilinged and elegant auditorium, with about five hundred seats on the ground level, and four hundred seats on the upper balcony. The number was reduced later when two separate internal staircases serving the balcony had to be built to comply with new and more stringent fire regulations, following the collapse of the roof of the Naaz Cinema, which was built in 1951, twenty years after the Regal.

Because the Regal was built as a theatre rather than a cinema, it had a stage which was both wide and deep behind the cinema screen, with a large orchestra pit at the front, and a number of dressing rooms for actors and spaces in the wings. The stage was housed in a tall structure to enable scenery and backdrops to be raised and lowered when plays were performed. The stage also had a number of trap doors in the floor, for quick exits and entrances, and in the centre, near the foot-lights was a little cubby-hole, invisible from the audience, from where a ‘prompt’ could help actors who had forgotten their lines!

As a child, my favourite spot in the cinema was easily the projection booth right at the top of the steep balcony, where one could look down at the audience through a number of little square widows which were set at different heights into the wall. We had two enormous 35mm Kelly projectors and a slide projector. The music played before the start of films and during intervals was controlled from there. The records were supplied by Assanand & Sons and Shanker Dass & Sons, who were Mornbasa's leading music stores. The arrangement was that they supplied records without charge, and we gave them free publicity and popularised
their music by continuous playing in the Theatre. Our three projectionists Tulsi Vithlani, Kurban and Otieno, also controlled the lights, the five minute bell before the film was to start, or to signal the end of the Interval, and of course the opening and closing of the magnificent velvet curtains in front of the movie screen. The projection booth was the nerve centre of the cinema. To me it resembled the bridge of a great ship, with the Captain and his officers controlling what was going to happen next.

One other thing the projectionists were in charge of was the playing of the recorded British National Anthem. Initially the anthem was played at the end of the main feature, when lights would come on, and the audience would stand to attention whilst the anthem was played. The Europeans, mainly British would stand tall and erect. The Indians stood somewhat self-consciously, even sheepishly, because they knew that they were not accepted as real British Subjects, but only, as their Passports stated, as ‘British Protected Persons’. (For the
benefit of the uninitiated, persons born in the United Kingdom were ‘Citizens of United Kingdom’ whereas persons born in British Colonies were designated as ‘British Protected Persons'. Inevitably the divide was racial, because the child of a white Citizen of UK, even though having been born in a colony would still be designated as a Citizen of the UK).

There was also an ambivalence in the indigenous population in those days. There was a large body of opinion which felt that Mombasa and the Coastal strip of Kenya were really part of the domain of the Sultan of Zanzibar, and not part of the British Kenya Colony at all. There were elements in the audiences, particularly in the cheaper front stalls, who would not stand for the anthem but would insultingly walk out, looking with defiance at those who stood to attention. I believe this insulting behaviour was an expression of class envy as much as the then incipient discontent with the colonial masters. This problem was circumvented quite simply by playing the National Anthem before the programme started
instead of at the end.

According to Edward Rodwell, ‘The Regal began receiving a regular supply of excellent shows in 1938 when shows making their way to India would try to meet running expenses at the ports through which they passed’. During the second World War, the Regal reached its peak in performances when catering for the many naval and military personnel passing through Mombasa. This also included the provision of an open air cinema for the armed forces. The authorities made available to us a large plot of vacant land exactly behind where
the Arch of the Elephant Tusks stands on Kilindini Road today. The Regal used to operate this open air cinema for soldiers and sailors, who, on their way into town from the port, could take in movies if they were so inclined. Any person in uniform could walk in. There were no tickets. All we had to do was to provide the films and the projection facilities.

I especially remember the incredible time in 1955 when La Scala De Milano performed Puccini's Madame Butterfly on the Regal stage. The cast of La Scala De Milano were on board the Lloyd Triestino liner MV Europa, en route from Genoa to South Africa, Aficionados like Commander Gibbs, who was the Resident Naval Officer, Ted Stairs who was the Editor of the Mombasa Times, and the Provincial Commissioner, Mr Desmond O'Hagan, had made overtures to them to give a performance in Mombasa during their four day stopover in Mombasa harbour.

The company's first question was, ‘Is there a theatre in Mombasa which can handle one of our lavish productions?’ The answer was a resounding yes. There was the Regal, which had been built twenty-four years previously by two Indian brothers, Janmohamed and Valli Hasham, which had all the facilities a modern Opera company could desire! The following headline in the Daily Nation gives a flavour of the famous occasion. OPERA TOOK KENYA BY STORM
by Monte Viana. After the opera, the artists agreed that the acoustics of the theatre were magnifico.

The very first show ever at the Regal was a stage production called ‘King of ]azz’, In between the regular screening of movies, there were a large number of stage shows which included the nightingale of India, Juthika Ray; Madame Butterfly; the Coon Carnival from South Africa and Wilbur de Paris, an American band leader described as the King of Slip Horn. [There was ballet and dancers from England and India; as well as famous singers from India such as Hemant Kumar, Yusuf Azad, Shakila Banu Bhopali, and Asha Parekh.]

The Regal auditorium was also used to hold political meetings, most famously when three candidates, A B Patel, Dr Mohamedali Rana, and Kassarnali Paroo were contesting the two seats allocated to Coast Asians in Kenya's Legislative Council. Each eligible Asian had two votes to cast. Kassamali Paroo and A B Patel were elected on this occasion, the former with a thumping majority. 

The Regal Theatre Building went up in flames one night in September 1985. The fire started after mid-night, well after the last performance had finished; there was no loss of life or injuries. The Fire Department was of the opinion that somebody had left a lighted cigarette on an upholstered seat! [Eventually bought over by a businessman, the building was demolished and rebuilt, now housing some offices and a supermarket.]

But nonetheless, the Regal will live on in the minds of people as a memory, especially in the minds of those who loved it, or had a sense of identification with it. Many others will have fond memories of shows they have seen there. 

Extract from The Regal Romance and Other Memories by Ameer Janmohamed.

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