On August 19th, 1939, around 5:00 pm during an evening screening, there was a short circuit in the projection booth at the Palermo cinema at 101 boulevard de Charonne in the eleventh arrondissement. The site was evacuated quickly, but the projectionist was burned quite severely and needed to be taken to the hospital. Firemen arrived within a few minutes and they were able to put the flames out in about an hour, but the cinema had been significantly damaged. That was the story of the fire as it appeared in at least two of the many daily newspapers in Paris, L’Humanité and Le Petit Parisien, as well as L’Ouest Éclair, a regional journal that covered Rennes and other parts of northwestern France.
Other papers, though, like Le Matin and Paris-soir, didn’t carry the story, possibly because there were so many fires in and around Paris at the time that newspapers had to choose which of them seemed important enough to report. Just next to the story about the Palermo in L’Humanité, for instance, there’s a brief piece about a fire in Bezons, a Parisian suburb, that destroyed a residence and probably had been set by arsonists.
Still, a cinema fire was no small thing. In 1939 there were plenty of Parisians who remembered the tragedy of the 1897 Bazar de la Charité in the eighth arrondissement, when the projection equipment in a makeshift cinema caught fire, with the blaze and the panic that followed killing 126 people, most of them women from Parisian high society. In the years between the Bazar and the Palermo, there had been any number of cinema fires, usually starting in projection booths, typically caused by the highly flammable nitrate film used at the time, or, as in this 1939 case, by an accident on Paris’ always overburdened electricity grid.
The Palermo was a neighborhood cinema, one of those cinémas des quartiers that usually showed films that had already had their first, exclusive runs in the city. That might be another reason why only a few newspapers covered the fire; indeed, neither L’Humanité nor Le Petit Parisien ever included the Palermo in their film listings, which were reserved for only the best cinemas, on the avenue des Champs-Élysées in the eighth arrondissement, for instance, or the boulevard des Italiens in the second and ninth. It took a fire for the Palermo to get its name in the papers.
Although evidence is scant, we can start to put together something about the Palermo. It seems to have opened in 1933 or ’34. At the time there were eleven cinemas in the eleventh arrondissement, an area on the right bank bordered by the Place de la Bastille on the west and Pére Lachaise cemetery on the east. All of those exhibition sites—the Artistic-Cinéma, the Ba-Ta-Clan, the Excelsior, the Cyrano-Palace, and others—were, like the Palermo, locations for second- and third-run films, and often showed double-bills.
A few examples give a sense of the films shown in the area. During the week of March 9th, 1934, the Palermo played Croisière de Plaisir (Pleasure Cruise; 1933), a film from Hollywood starring Genevieve Tobin and Roland Young that had opened in Paris in December, 1933. On the second half of the double bill, the Palermo showed Aprés nous le deluge (Today We Live; 1933), with Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper, which had also opened well before in Paris, and that week was playing at two other cinemas with similar names, the Splendide in the fourteenth arrondissement and the Splendid in the fifteenth. As was the case with most films making their subsequent appearances in Paris, these were shown in dubbed versions. In their opening, exclusive appearances at more important cinemas they would have been shown in English, with French subtitles.
A couple of years later, at the end of January, 1937, another Hollywood movie played at the Palermo, La Fille du Bois Maudit (Trail of the Lonesome Pine; 1936). That Paramount film had opened at the studio’s luxe namesake cinema, the Paramount in the ninth arrondissement, in September 1936. An even older Hollywood film, from 1934, Le Retour de Sophie Lang (The Notorious Sophie Lang) rounded out the double-bill that week. But the Palermo may have been one notch above most other cinémas des quartiers. Along with those two films, there was also a live act scheduled, perhaps during the intermission between the movies or possibly before the first one began, a group called “Les Athéna.” That act, apparently, has been lost to history, but it was unusual at the time for a subsequent-run, neighborhood cinema to feature performers on stage along with movies.
Nevertheless, the traces of the Palermo, after the fire, are difficult to find. As far as I can tell, in the available sources there are no stories about repairing the damage at the cinema. Nor was there anything about the reopening. But the Palermo did show films again. I have found one listing from January 1947, in the film magazine L’Écran, when the Palermo screened Charlie Chaplin’s classic from 1925, La Ruée vers l’or (The Gold Rush), with one matinee and one evening performance six days a week. Without any other listings, it’s hard to determine if the Palermo had become an exhibition site for much older films, or whether this was just a convenient booking between showings of contemporary movies; Chaplin’s films, of course, were always popular in Paris. By this time there were sixteen cinemas in the eleventh arrondissement, and most of them were showing subsequent-run, fairly recent foreign films in dubbed versions: René Clair’s C’est arrivé demain (It Happened Tomorrow; 1944), Rome, ville ouverte (Rome Open City; 1945), L’Ésprit s’amuse (Blythe Spirit; 1945), L’Étrangere (All This, and Heaven Too; 1940), and La Mort n’étais pas au rendez-vous (Conflict; 1945), among others. There were also French films in the eleventh: On demande un ménage, a comedy from 1946, for instance, or the mystery L’Assassin n’est pas coupable, also from 1946. There were, however, three cinemas in the eleventh that had programs similar to the Palermo’s that week
At the Cithéa cinema, on the rue Oberkampf, audiences could see Harey Carey in a 1932 version of Le Dernier des Mohicans (The Last of the Mohicans), while at the Saint-Sabin they might watch a film unknown to us now, Je ne suis pas un lâche (The Pride of the Legion), a poverty row crime drama also from 1932. But the program closest to the Chaplin film at the Palermo would be the one at the Artistic-Voltaire, on the rue Lenoir, which showed Les Carottiers from 1932, with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy speaking phonetic French, a feature film that combined two of the comic team’s shorts, Laughing Gravy (1930) and Be Big (1931). Laurel and Hardy were always very popular in Paris (see my post from September 1st, 2017), and while never on a par with Chaplin, they were certainly considered important performers from the early sound period.
But that’s most of what we can know about the cinemas of the eleventh arrondissement in general, and the Palermo in particular, from the late-1940s. As for anything else, the invaluable website Cinema Treasures (http://cinematreasures.org/) tells us that the Palermo had closed by 1975. We can’t even get a sense of what the Palermo may have looked like, to know if the 1939 fire may have been self-contained, or, given the densely packed urban architecture of Paris, threatened other business establishments as well as some residences. The space of the Palermo, in an increasingly young and upscale part of the city, seems now to be an alleyway in a building very much in the institutional style of the seventies and eighties, with grocery stores on either side. There are currently only three multi-screen cinemas in the eleventh, and no sign of the cinema that almost burned down in 1939.