THE 1938 picture, probably taken from the City Hall, shows the construction of Hollywood Court before the building of the Embassy and 20th Century Cinemas on the corner of Smith and Aliwal streets.
THE 1938 picture, probably taken from the City Hall, shows the construction of Hollywood Court before the building of the Embassy and 20th Century Cinemas on the corner of Smith and Aliwal streets.

Screen of dreams... and young love

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Nov 20, 2021

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POSTED by local historian Gerald Buttigieg, the 1938 picture this week shows the construction of Hollywood Court in Smith Street, today Anton Lembede Street.

Regarded as a skyscraper when completed in 1939, the 44.21m Hollywood Court ‒ one of Durban’s iconic art deco buildings ‒ stole the title of Durban’s highest building from the Colonial Mutual Building. Designed by architects Hobbs and Bonieux, it stands 12 storeys high (although some sources say 13 floors). Today Pearl Dawn in uMhlanga at 152m is the city’s tallest and the fifth tallest in South Africa. It has 31 floors.

To the left of Hollywood Court is Mona Mansions. “You may remember it as the Roma Restaurant upstairs in the 60s and 70s,” Buttigieg writes. On the right was Frank’s Garage which would later become the Embassy Cinema. The building on the corner was the Cameo Cinema. In the 1940s it became the 20th Century Cinema with a new façade. “The side wall of the new cinema had an enormous red ‘20th Century’ neon sign on the wall facing Aliwal St,” he says.

Both these were later demolished to build the Embassy Building with its glass domed roof to mirror the City Hall. The 28-storey office block designed by Artek 4 Architects was completed in 1992.

THE 1938 picture, probably taken from the City Hall, shows the construction of Hollywood Court before the building of the Embassy and 20th Century Cinemas on the corner of Smith and Aliwal streets.
THE same scene shot in 1940 showing the completed Hollywood Court and the new 20th Century Cinema on the corner of Smith and Aliwal streets.

The tiered balconied building on the left on the corner of Smith and Aliwal was the Larders Hotel. This was demolished and replaced with the Broadway Hotel which also had an open verandah and was a popular spot for pre-movie drinks. The Broadway was eventually sold and demolished to make way for the new Central Methodist Church which stands there today.

Buttigieg speculates that the picture was taken from the back of the City Hall. The part of the building on the left is the Old Court House built in 1866. It could also have been taken from a building, since demolished, called Milton House which stood between the City Hall and the Court House.

The second picture taken in 1940 shows the completed Hollywood Court and the 20th Century Cinema on the corner.

The Embassy was the last cinema to be added to Durban’s cinema strip and opened its doors in 1955. Inside was modern decor with a seating capacity of 1974 contained in both stalls and circle sections. After 34 years, the cinema closed on April 15, 1989.

In a post on Durban Down Memory Lane, actor Peter Cartwright has fond memories of the Embassy.

“My favourite cinema was the Embassy. It was more stately; all burgundy furnishings and low lighting. There was a wonderful popcorn and nicotine fragrance in the welcoming chill of its air-conditioning.

The scene at the intersection of Anton Lembede and Samora Machel streets today showing Hollywood Court and the new Embassy Building. The Central Methodist Church is on the left. Photographer Shelley Kjonstad shot the picture from the Durban Art Gallery in the City Hall. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/ANA

“It was the first cinema I visited when we were taken to see North West Frontier, an adventure film starring Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall.

“The next revelatory experience at the Embassy was Pollyanna starring Hayley Mills. We were taken to a matinee and I fell instantly in love with her and dreams of stardom which galvanised me for years to come. I saw all her films, collected all her pictures, corresponded with her, adored her to the point of proposing marriage though I was only 11 at the time. She actually wrote back and told me we were too young to make such decisions but she was glad I enjoyed her films. I bumped into her from time to time in my acting career and then met her properly at a charity event at the Regent’s Park Theatre in London.

“So, the Embassy had a lot to do with my youthful delusions!”

The Independent on Saturday

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