When the Lumiere brothers screened one of their first moving pictures — The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station — at the Eden Theatre at the close of the 19th century, it was said that some of those present were so shocked by the lifelike images that they leapt from their seats in terror to flee the oncoming steam locomotive.
On Wednesday, more than a century on, these early black-and-white silent films lasting less than a minute were given top billing in the newly renovated Eden, which claims to be the world’s first and oldest surviving public cinema.
The historic theater at La Ciotat, 32km east of Marseille, which later played host to Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, has undergone a 6.5 million euros (US$8.77 million) refurbishment that has more than restored its former glory.
Before Hollywood became the worldwide symbol of the movie industry, there was La Ciotat — a small, picturesque town on the Mediterranean that lays claim to being the birthplace of modern cinema.
There were already machines to record moving images when Auguste and Louis Lumiere, the sons of a photographer-turned-photographic manufacturer, based in Lyon, came up with their Cinematographe Lumiere, a wooden box that could not only take images, but also develop and project them on to a screen.
After patenting their invention, the brothers showed their short films first to an audience of 33 people at the Grand Cafe in Paris in 1895, then at the Lumiere family summer home, a magnificent chateau in La Ciotat, and finally at the Eden Theatre.
The brothers made more than a dozen films around La Ciotat, but also recruited two-man film crews to travel the world making short films with their camera box.
The Eden opened in June 1889 as a theater and music hall, but also played host to boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling, opera performances and concerts.
It closed in 1982 after its owner was killed by robbers intent on stealing the takings and because of dwindling ticket sales. It continued to open for one week, once a year, to host small film festivals, but closed in 1995 and was left to decay.
Local supporters of the theater continued to fight for it to be given a facelift and reopened, but it was only when Marseille was named European capital of culture for this year, that the money was found.
Today, the dusty chairs have been replaced by velvet seats, and the grubby carpets by polished oak and black marble floors. The impressive facade, painted yellow ochre and with mosaics, had to be rebuilt over the former listed frontage, which the restorers were not allowed to touch.
“We have captured the former glory of the place with the renovation and have tried to be faithful to the era in which it was built,” said Guy Guistini, president of L’Eden des Lumieres, which oversaw the renovation.
“This is an important building, not just in terms of the history of cinema, but for local people. We like to say half the people in La Ciotat met the other half of people here in the Eden, and when local people came to see what we had done, many of them were so happy to have their cinema back they cried,” he said.
“For the people of La Ciotat, the Eden theater reflects the history of the town and the generations who discovered the world and adventures in its chairs,” he said.
The new building will house a permanent exhibition of the origins of moving pictures and the Lumiere brothers’ role in their development. The outside walls will feature a laser installation showing a train, a nod to their early film.
“This region has long been a cradle for cinema, painters and producers because of its incredible light,” Guistini added.
“Why did people like the Lumiere brothers come here? Because of the sun and the quality of the Provencal light. They didn’t need a studio to film here, they could shoot outside,” he said.