The Labia Theatre is the oldest independent cinema in South Africa. It was opened in 1949 by Italian aristocracy and was originally used purely for the performing arts.
Local legend purports that the theatre bears the sign of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. This is also Benito Mussolini’s hallmark because the establishment began as a ballroom for the Italian Embassy that used to be next door.
Of this tale, Ludi Kraus, the current proprietor, told Rebecca Davies, “It’s quite a sketchy history. I’m not quite sure whether everything is factual.”
In the lobby of the theatre is a plaque that reads: “This theatre was opened by H.H. Princess Labia on Monday 16th May 1949.”
Despite the murky origins of the building, the plaque commemorates the exact day that the building was converted into a home for the performing arts by the theatre’s namesake, Princess Labia.
The Labia family came to South Africa in 1917 when Count Natale Labia, who was later bestowed with the title of prince, was dispatched here by the Mussolini regime, according to the Daily Maverick.
Natale married Ida Robinson, the daughter of Randlord Sir JB Robinson, and the home that the couple built for themselves is the 20-room Casa Labia, which has since become a national monument, located on Muizenberg Main Road.
The Mail and Guardian reports that Princess Labia made generous contributions to Cape Town and built theatre as a way of thanking the South African government for not detaining her family during World War II.
Bruno Morphet, an arts journalist, wrote that the owners of the Labia were ‘an odd consortium of the SABC and the Department of Sea Fisheries’ and it served as a theatre that put on the shows of respected South African playwrights until 1974, when its fortunes and audience began to dwindle.
“Around the same time, a film distributor named Tony Velks hired the premises for a week and staged a one-off film festival to capitalise on a large collection of avant-garde European and American prints he had obtained and was unable to find a market for anywhere else,” said Morphet.
The festival was curated by film critic Trevor Steele Taylor and was a resounding success. So, much so that this foray into cinema kicked off the Labia’s transformation into a full-time movie house.
Steele Taylor and a team of associates continued to programme weekly film schedules in the wake of the festival. They were hand-printed and remained a closely guarded secret until the day of print, according to Morphet.
“We were pretty opinionated young punks, the children of Jean-Luc Godard and Herman Hesse, so predictably the programming was idiosyncratic,” said Steele Taylor of his time at the Labia in the 70s.
“Since then [The Labia] has stood its ground against developers, suburban emigration, mall culture and the curse of home video, scourges that sent most, if not all, of its contemporaries to an early grave,” said Morphet.
After a negotiation that took two years, Ludi Kraus took ownership of the Labia in 1989. He told Davies that by then the cinema had already seen better days. “It was still quite popular, which was amazing because it was dark, it was dingy, it was dirty.”
He told Morphet: “Rats lived behind the screen and dust coated everything. The sound system was hanging by a thread, but I think, ultimately, I fell in love with the neon sign.”
Kraus hails from Namibia where he used to manage his father’s cinema — The Alhambra in Windhoek — during school holidays, according to Don Pinnock. He eventually gave up his law career to manage the Labia on a full-time basis.
Over the years, Kraus has added three more screens – it now boasts a 176 seater, a 100 seater, a 65 seater and an intimate 50 seater.
In 2014, the cinema was forced to make the switch to digital technology because film distributors stopped providing movies on celluloid.
The Labia turned towards the audience that holds it so dear and managed to raise the funds for a digital refit through the local crowdfunding startup Thundafund.
“New digital projectors and sound systems, refurbished seats, an outdoor tent and seating, even an entrance arch covered in roses followed,” says Don Pinnock.
The Labia was back in a big way until the COVID-19 pandemic happened and the cinema was forced to close its doors and many feared it would remain that way for good.
A few weeks later the Labia announced that it had no intention of shutting down and would be offering an online movie service as a way to make money during the lockdown.
For the price of a single ticket — R60 —cinephiles could watch their favourite arthouse films from the safety and comfort of their homes.
The famous theatre had managed to reinvent itself once again to the delight of its patrons and when lockdown restrictions eased, it reopened its doors on Friday, August 21.
Pictures: Facebook/The Labia Theatre