Most modern movie cinema experiences are tailored to blow you away with their deafening surround sound, base levels that vibrate your bone marrow, and visuals that sear both your retina and the thrill centres of your brain. This is washed down with copious amounts of overpriced soda and popcorn in a chrome and fake velvet environment managed by nameless staff. It’s impressive and it’s impersonal, and, most of the time, it takes walking out of the cinema (or at best a night’s sleep) for the experience’s to fade from your memory.
The Labia Cinema is the antithesis of this.
This independent film theatre salutes and pays homage to a bygone era when going to the movies was a thing of beauty, grandeur, and culture. The movies screened here are carefully selected to permeate one’s skin, moving one to tears, to smile, to think, and certainly to want to come back for more. After 70 years of delighting audiences with quality alternative cinema, the city’s original and last surviving independent movie theatre is throwing on its glad rags to celebrate a very happy birthday anniversary.
From Italian ballroom to independent film theatre
Tucked into its corner on Orange Street, the Labia has long been the venue to which movie buffs and lovers of cinema have come to satiate their hunger for art house movies, documentaries, foreign films, historical cinema, and even big-ticket blockbusters. But the Labia didn’t start out life as a movie theatre. In 1949, Princess Ida Labia (nee Robinson), officially opened the doors of what was then the ballroom venue of the Italian Embassy, located right next door.
In 1989, soon-to-be owner and manager Ludi Krause took a leap of faith by giving up a career in law, purchasing the Labia, and transforming it into an independent film cinema.
“It was an inspired move and one that has brought much joy to Capetonians and visitors alike,” said actress Roberta Fox during her emotive welcome speech at the 70th anniversary celebrations.
Guests to the exuberant 70th anniversary celebrations were welcomed with the kind of red-carpet entrance one would expect from a movie premiere, which it really was, but we didn’t know that at the time – more on that later. The entrance led up to a covered terrace crammed wall-to-wall and elbow-to-elbow with guests. Drowning in the crowd was a table groaning with canapés and another with wine, and not just any wine but a true stalwart of the South African wine industry: the KWV Roodeberg, which also turns 70 this year (no coincidence).
KWV Roodeberg: An ageless recipe that has stood the test of time; inspired by the undeniable pairing between the master’s original blend and modern evolution; serving only the fullest flavour for today’s ever-evolved taste palates; time after time.
Making our way to the KWV table required snorkelling through a soupy bend of perfume, body heat, and gay laughter but we eventually got our hands on a delicious glass of Roodeberg and even managed to scoff a few pastries before seeking refuge from the crowds in the cinema’s lobby, where eTV was filming an interview with Ludi Krause and the beloved, characterful staff of the Labia.
At 19:30, we were ushered into the cinema for a surprise screening of “Rocketman”, an intoxicatingly fun yet confronting film about Elton John’s rise to fame, fall from grace, and returning triumph. This, just three days after it was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in France! It took us by complete surprise and felt even more like a treat knowing that we were watching the film several days before it was scheduled to open in the UK and USA.
A little about the Labia Cinema
The Labia has four screens, the largest accommodating 176 people and the smallest and most intimate, only 51. Accompanying the cinema experience is a snack stand for popcorn, slush puppies, and sodas, a cosy coffee bar selling home-made sweets and treats, and an outside terrace serviced by a fully licensed bar. Wonderful: good wine and good movies were made for each other (and you can take your wine into the cinema with you!)
“The Labia is an oasis of culture. Its movies lift your spirits and make you think that much harder about who you are; they can make you profoundly sad or deliriously happy but mostly, the Labia is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Inside, the décor and interior design have remained pretty much untouched and its art deco, wood-panelled lobby and ticket booth give it a tangible feel of history, nostalgia, and charm. Of course, the projection technology has had to keep up with the times and it was with the fundraising and networking support of its patrons that all four screens at the Labia were able to go digital.
The Labia family and future
Over the years, many performers and directors have experienced career milestone “firsts” at the Labia. And while this independent film cinema has served as a launch pad for many an artist, it also functions like a home. And like any home, it has a family, at the heart of which is the staff, most of who have worked here for decades. It was lovely to see them as honoured and celebrated by the festivities as the Grand Dame of Cinema herself.
The Labia’s art deco charm, sense of nostalgia, and intelligent, compelling films comprise the formula that has kept loyal patrons coming back year-after-year. But what of its future?
“Our audience is becoming younger as millennials are looking for more ‘cool’ retro places to hang out than the glitzy spaces of the mainstream cinemas,” explains Ludi Krause. Excellent to hear.
To conclude, I couldn’t think of a better, more beautifully phrased ode to the Labia than Roberta Fox’s words: “The Labia is an oasis of culture. Its movies lift your spirits and make you think that much harder about who you are; they can make you profoundly sad or deliriously happy but mostly, the Labia is the gift that keeps on giving.”
The Labia Movie Theatre is situated at 68 Orange Street. Online bookings can be made through Webtickets. For more information visit www.thelabia.co.za or call +27 (0) 21 424 5927 for more information.