The Paris Cinema Project

At around three in the morning on October 8th, 1935, on the rue Mogador in Algiers, Monsieur and Madame Robert were awakened by the smell of smoke. An alarmed Madame Robert threw open a window, looked out towards the commercial district on the rue d’Isly, and saw the Alhambra theatre burning down. A concession salesman at the Alhambra who lived nearby also saw the fire, and rushed to the apartment of his neighbor, who happened to be the city’s fire chief. The chief, in turn, called his station, but it took twenty minutes to get anyone to answer, and by then the Alhambra was gone.

The Alhambra had been one of the city’s important cultural centers. Part of the theatrical empire of Joseph Seibarras, the leading film entrepreneur in all of North Africa (see my posts from March 26th and August 24th, 2018), the Alhambra, which was built originally for live performances, had been a cinema as recently as March, 1935, when the Frank Capra film La Ruée (American Madness [1932]) played there. For the Fall season, however, Seibarras had converted the Alhambra back into a legitimate theatre, to bring the best in opera, music, and stage to audiences in Algiers, and also, importantly in the events leading up to the fire, to bring them gambling as well.

In addition to casino rights, the Alhambra fire also highlighted the potential for conflicts between theatre owners, arguments over the city’s responsibility to provide cultural uplift, an inadequate urban infrastructure for dealing with catastrophic events like fires, the prevailing French anti-Semitism, and the often-vexed relationships between Algiers’ newspapers. The incident was so significant that it even attracted the attention of the Parisian papers, a rarity at the time for anything that took place in Algiers. And then the story about—and investigation into—the fire seemed to disappear, possibly through the efforts of Seibarras himself.

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The Alhambra theatre, on a postcard from the 1920s

Just after the fire, a man was arrested as he tried to leave Algiers for Marseille, picked up by the notoriously tenacious port police who kept a very close eye on everyone who left North Africa for France, or tried to come back. Moïse Lebrati was about 25 years old, and he worked at the Alhambra, selling candy there. He had apparently attracted police attention the night before the fire, when he was seen around the city flashing 3000 francs. When the police finally caught up to him, he had only about 160 left.

During his interrogation, Lebrati told contradictory stories. He insisted that his parents had given him the money, and that he had merely opened the theatre doors for the arsonists. Then he admitted—and there is no report of the police tactics that may have convinced him to confess—that he set the fire himself. He also named an accomplice, whom the police soon arrested: Georges Hanoune, the owner of the Splendid cinema in Algiers. Hanoune wasn’t in Seibarras’ league as a film entrepreneur but he was important nevertheless, as the Splendid was one of the leading cinémas d’exclusivité in the city.

Hanoune denied any involvement, but there was at least a strong circumstantial case against him. He had reportedly been upset that Seibarras had been given a casino license by the city for the Alhambra, an approval that had been granted precisely because of the conversion of the cinema to a theatre for live shows, a requirement for any gambling activity. Quite possibly, Hanoune had hoped to shift the Splendid from a cinema to a theatre, so he, too, could apply to the city for a casino permit.  Hanoune would be imprisoned, and during his detention authorities also discovered that he had issued 30,000 francs worth of bad checks to a film distribution company.

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The headline about the fire in L’Echo d’Alger, October 10th, 1935

The newspapers in Algiers put the story of the Alhambra fire on the front page for weeks, and combined news and opinion in their coverage. They griped, with good reason, that the phone service in Algiers was so bad, and especially at night, that the fire chief was unable to get word of the disaster to the station for so long. The weekly Les Spectacles d’Alger complained in practically every issue that Algiers officials had bailed Seibarras out, and had allowed him to move his theatre season from the burned-out Alhambra to the city-owned Théâtre Municipale, all at taxpayers’ expense, with the Municipale requiring extensive renovations for the move to succeed. Les Spectacles claimed that, for some reason, the local government felt Seibarras merited this largesse, while other cultural entrepreneurs were ignored by the city. Then, in a series of articles, Les Spectacles accused the city’s major daily newspaper, L’Echo d’Alger, of accepting as the absolute truth everything that city officials said about the Municipale deal.

All of the available newspapers questioned Lebrati’s guilt, or, at least, his capacity for standing trial. Ten days after the incident, on October 18th, L’Echo d’Alger headlined, “Is Moïse Lebrati Really the Alhambra Arsonist?” (Moïse Lebrati est-il vraiment l’incendiaire du théâtre de l’Alhambra?). By the same day the story had reached Paris, and Le Populaire reported that the judge in the case had ruled that Lebrati had to be considered minus habens, an imbecile, “not responsible for his actions.”

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L’Echo d’Alger runs a story and a photograph on the arrest of Georges Hanoune, the owner of the Splendid cinema, October 26th, 1935

Nevertheless, Lebrati remained in jail. Hanoune did, too, but for just eight days, and then he was released, but only provisionally. Seibarras seems to have moved the Alhambra schedule to the Théâtre Municipale without a hitch. And the case against Lebrati and Hanoune went on for weeks, and remained a prominent story. L’Echo d’Alger finally lost interest in November 1935, when there seemed nothing new to report. Well after that, Les Spectacles d’Alger lamented that there was no progress being made in the case, and suggested that Seibarras himself, for reasons that the newspaper never made clear, was behind efforts to make the investigation disappear. In February, 1936, the paper declared that Seibarras had seen to it that there would be a “first-class burial” of the case (un enterrement de prèmiere classe).

Then in April, 1936, L’Echo d’Alger picked up the story once again. Three medical experts assigned to the case concluded that Lebrati alone was responsible for the fire, and ruled that he was mentally competent to stand trial. There is no further available word about the fire until early-September, when L’Echo d’Alger reported that Lebrati had been provisionally released from prison. Just a few days later, the French fascist newspaper L’Action Française huffed and puffed about the release of Lebrati. That the story was being reported at all in France was remarkable, especially almost a year after the fire. Very little news from Algeria ever made its way into the French press, but L’Action Française seemed to regard this as an opportunity to go after the usual suspects. The newspaper called Lebrati “a degenerate Jew who confessed to having set fire to the Alhambra,” having done so on the orders of Georges Hanoune, himself “a Jew burdened with debt” and guilty of passing bad checks.

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On the left, the Splendid cinema as it looked around 1920

Seibarras rebuilt the Alhambra quickly. By early-1936, the theatre was fully back up and running, with various live presentations. In February of that year, and this may well have drawn the attention of the far rightwing L’Action Française to the Alhambra in the first place, the theatre gave itself over to a large group of Algerian fascists for an evening of speeches (a not uncommon occurrence at the time for cinemas and theatres in France and North Africa). So far as I can tell, Moïse Lebrati is not mentioned again in any of the available French sources, and neither is Georges Hanoune. The commentary in L’Action Française about arsonist and debt-ridden Jews seems to have been the last gasp of the story of the fire at the Alhambra, a story that, for a few months at least, had been of daily interest throughout Algiers.

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