Malta was a film buff’s haven back in the day, but what happened to the splendour of the island’s old movie theatres?
It’s difficult to believe today, but there was a time when Malta was chock-full of those dark-lit havens of storytelling – cinemas. Nearly every town had one and, in some cases, two, but they slowly fell into disuse as more people turned to the small screens inside their homes. And, while many have disappeared, their stories ending abruptly, some survive – barely – trying to fight the odds to live another day. Though their reels have stopped turning, we can still hear the sounds of dreams being played out on these cinema screens. Here is a taster of the gems of Malta’s cinematic past.
1. Rialto, Cospicua
Opening in 1956 with a screening of The Student Prince directed by Richard Thorpe, the Rialto was housed in the town’s largest building at the time, and seated a staggering 1,000 people. Crowds of cinema-goers would queue to get in to watch the latest Bogart, Ford or Hitchcock in this classic art deco cinema, whose first floor today houses HSBC Bank. It closed its doors as a cinema in 1982, but in 2010, was listed as a Grade 2 heritage building, opening the doors to future refurbishment.
2. Roxy, Birkirkara
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This former 800-seat cinema theatre, built in 1931, experienced much in its 86 year history: originally serving as one of the main cinemas in the area, the space became a dance hall in which many a courtship began. Situated on Fleur-de-Lys Road in Birkirkara, the place has been derelict for years and has been in a very bad state. Unfortunately, though it’s about to be given some attention, its days as a dream-machine are well and truly over. Despite hundreds of objections, it has been decided to go ahead with plans to gut it and transform it into a new commercial complex, a community centre, apartments and garages.
3. Citylights, Valletta
This notorious cinema situated in the heart of Valletta has seen many come… and go. Quite literally. The former cinema theatre, otherwise known as ‘tal-blue films’ due to its penchant for showing porn films, may no longer be screening the kinky stuff, but it is still in operation as an exhibition space. Downstairs though – at the new-vintage-look Cinema Bar by Citylights – is where the magic happens. Vintage movie posters line the walls of an intimate screening space dedicated to showcasing classic films, where you can settle into one of the reused theatre seats-come bar chairs, grab a drink and dive into standout cinema.
4. Carlton Cinema & The Alhambra in Sliema
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The buildings are still there – though they are now totally unrecognisable, except for the shape of their facades - but these two cinemas were the mainstays of entertainment in this seaside town. The Carlton Cinema, today better known as Marks and Spencer’s, dated from the 1920s and, though it was not a large venue, it attracted its fair share of punters. It was, and still is, just a stone’s throw away from the Alhambra Theatre, today’s Zara, on the corner of Manuel Dimech street in Sliema, which was in operation up until the 1980s. Towards the end of its career, it had fallen into disrepair, with rumours of cockroach infestations, but it had still retained some of its popularity. Unfortunately, dwindling cinema numbers meant it had to make way for Malta’s new cultural obsession: shopping.
5. Lido Cinema, Birzebbuga
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Built in 1946, the Lido Cinema in Birzebbuga was extremely popular, with hundreds of people sharing the powerful emotions of film within its walls every weekend. The art-deco styling of the exterior atchitecture, popular during the pre- and post-war period, is still on display, but its days are numbered since a report, published in February of this year, recommended the approval of an apartment block in its stead. The property itself has deteriorated substantially since it stopped screening films around 40 years ago, but the vestiges of its glorious past can still be seen on its limestone walls.
6. Embassy Cinemas, Valletta
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The old Embassy Cinemas in Valletta were in operation up until the mid-90s, but, today, cinema goers in the capital can still watch films on site. The old theatre is gone, and there may be a host of shops in its stead, but it has also made way for a newer version, equipped with the latest in digital projection. This is due to be redeveloped, however, once again into a boutique hotel, though objectors have been promised a cinema screen downstairs.
7. Orpheum Theatre, Gzira
This stunner must have been a star in its own right. The Orpheum Theatre in Gzira may look a bit rough round the edges today, but it has survived the gutting and commercialisation of its brothers and sisters (let’s hope it long stays that way!). An example of the large single screen cinemas in Malta, the floor is flat, and the venue had a single balcony, a panelled ceiling and Spanish décor on the walls. It’s more recently being used for rock concerts and parties (Black Sabbath even filmed a video here!).