L’Empire cinema, in Fez, Morocco. The name of the exhibition site itself as well as the location invoke the vast range of French colonial authority. In Morocco, Algiers, and elsewhere in North Africa, the cinemas tended to have the same names as those in Paris: Rex, Majestic, Regent. As far as I can tell, there was no Empire cinema in Paris in the 1930s and ‘40s, but there was a music hall with that name, on the avenue Wagram in the seventeenth arrondissement (and which finally did become a cinema). Their names might indicate a dependence on French film culture, and L’Empire was even located on the avenue de France in Fez, something of an overdetermined reference to the actual center of the empire. Nevertheless, the cinemas in North Africa were often extraordinary, equal to or superior to any in Paris, and this was especially true of those sites that were built as picture palaces early in the sound era.
There was the opulent Rialto in Oran, and there were at least three new Empire cinemas, the one in Fez and then two in Algeria, in Algiers and Blida. All of them were owned by a Monsieur Seiberras, who operated forty cinemas and theatres in Algeria and Morocco, and whom the North African press referred to as the region’s “king of cinema,” le roi du cinéma.
L’Empire in Fez really was something special. It did double duty as a cinema and casino, and its grand opening in October 1931 was a major cultural and architectural event in Morocco. Seiberras had hired one of the most important young architects in the country, François Robert from Rabat, to design the building; Robert had already overseen the immense Esplanade de la Société immobilère, an office building in Rabat, and about the same time as his work on L’Empire he would also design the Hotel Balima in Rabat as well as that city’s Russian Orthodox church. His work typically combined European and North African modernist aesthetics. So while Paris might have the enormous faux-Egyptian Louxor cinema in the tenth arrondissement, L’Empire in Fez would be the real thing, a thoughtful, functional hybrid of Western and Arab forms.
We can know something about L’Empire because of an extraordinary architectural journal from the 1930s that I’ve mentioned before, Les Chantiers nord-africains (North African Sites), which covered the region’s new commercial spaces, gardens, churches, government offices, and much more. Les Chantiers particularly celebrated a kind of streamlined Arab modernism, and it was precisely the new cinemas, built for sophisticated, usually European audiences and that included all of the new amenities, that typified the journal’s preferred aesthetic.
Entering L’Empire, moviegoers walked by a series of arcades with a shop in each one; a brasserie, a tobacconist, and a patisserie, among others. The large lobby space, decorated with Moroccan terra cotta tiles, allowed those in attendance to walk easily without disturbing the people in line at the ticket booths, which were also inside, with the magnitude of the interior and the ease of movement in marked contrast to the more typical and cramped “provincial cinemas.” A “monumental staircase” made of Moroccan marble fanned out in the center of the lobby and provided access to the balcony, with the entire interior space colored in shades of what Les Chantiers called “Berber yellow and black.”
This seems, then, like the perfect 1930s version of modern space, a kind of flâneur’s dream with the possibility of walking idly from shop to shop, going into the orchestra section, strolling up the staircase to the balcony, or wandering into the casino, which seems to have been adjacent to the cinema. But just as significantly for Les Chantiers, this modernism extended not just to the overall aesthetic experience of L’Empire, but to its technological achievement as well. L’Empire was wired with the most up-to-date sound system from Western Electric. The cinema seated 2,000 in an orchestra, loges, and balcony, making it one of the largest such sites in North Africa (as far as I can tell, at the time only two cinemas in Algiers, the Majestic and the other Empire, were larger). Everyone in those seats had a perfect view because of the way François Robert had built the place. L’Empire rested on pylons dug deep into the ground, and reinforced concrete in the cinema’s iron frame meant that the balcony had no supporting pillars, which in other large cinemas had obstructed sightlines. The ceiling was covered with Celotex, a new British insulation material that provided for perfect acoustics.
The architect of L’Empire, François Robert, and the entrepreneur who owned it, Monsieur Seibarras, have mostly disappeared from the available historical record. I haven’t been able track down any other references to L’Empire, and so I have no sense of the movies that were shown there. Of course, for the researcher in the United States, movie information from Morocco—and from the 1930s—is very hard to come by. According to the invaluable website, Cinema Treasures, L’Empire still exists, although the street name has been changed from avenue de France to avenue Hassan II, named for the King of Morocco from the 1960s to the 1990s, and exchanging a colonial history for a monarchical one (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/21556). In the 1930s, though, cinemas in North Africa might stand as significant monuments celebrating allegiance to France but also at least some degree of aesthetic independence.
Les Chantiers, in fact, ended its discussion of the new cinema with just such an assertion. L’Empire, according to the journal, was “one of the most beautiful jewels in Fez,” and moreover the new building perfectly captured Morocco’s tradition as a “pioneer,” a pays d’avant-garde, “in progress, comfort, and good taste.”