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Reeling under 75 years

By D.C. Ranatunga - Sunday Times Nov 30 2003

"It was a dreary dismal morning. A thin drizzle of rain was falling outside the Regal Theatre. There we were, three young men, Willie Blake, Titus Totawatte and I sitting downstairs in the darkened theatre wondering what our fate was going to be. We were running six reels of the rough cutting copy of our first film 'Rekava' for Sir Chittampalam Gardiner,” recalls Lester James Peries in an article he wrote to the Golden Jubilee souvenir of Ceylon Theatres in 1978. Lester, who directs Rekava, says:

"He was up in the Box, his charming wife beside him, as the scenes began to unfold before the critical scrutiny of one of the shrewdest impressarios in our movie world. We had broken every canon of commercial film-making. There were no stars, only amateur actors. There were no star-struck lovers pursuing each other through herbaceous borders. It was a simple story of two children.

"The sound track crackled with the sounds of authentic village life, rough, earthy without the studio slickness the commercial movies could boast of; and we had only half the film ready for screening. Naturally we were apprehensive. But we needed the money - desperately - to complete the film.

"The six reels over, we were summoned upstairs. With a little prodding I am sure from Lady Gardiner, there he was, the movie-mogul, beaming not unreservedly but with a kind of sympathetic approval. ‘Come over to the office,’ he said; and in a matter of minutes we had a cheque drawn in favour of Chitralanka Ltd. for Rs. 125,000."

The incident took place 21 years earlier in 1957. The cheque helped Lester and his team finish the film. He recalled that Sir Chittampalam also made what was almost a papal announcement: "I have just seen the finest Sinhalese film ever made." Lester adds that though 'Rekava' was a financial disaster, they were able to pay their debt to Ceylon Theatres.

To commemorate its 75th anniversary this year, Ceylon Theatres invited Sumitra Peries to make a film. The film 'Sakman Maluwa' is ready and will be screened soon.
For a young man who passed his Cambridge Senior in Kuala Lumpur, returned to Jaffna where he matriculated and later passed the Inter Arts at St. Joseph's College and served there as a teacher, embarking on a business career was a new experience.

Yet he did and made a success of it. Abraham Gardiner, as he was then known (after he was knighted he became Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner), chose entertainment as his field of business and founded Ceylon Theatres on September 29, 1928. The other founding members were Dr. C.V.S. Corea, E.V.R. Samarawickrema and A.L. Thambiayah. The inaugural meeting was held at the premises where the present New Olympia Theatre stands. Mr. Gardiner was elected Managing Director. Among those who invested money were brothers Sir John and Justin Kotelawala and their sister Freda Corea.

Reminiscing on the early days, Dr. C.V.S. Corea wrote that entertainment was confined to the Tower Hall dramas and some 'magic lantern' shows that developed into the 'bioscope' of latter days. 'Bioscope' was shown in temporary buildings. There was a galvanised structure at the present Regal premises, known as the Empire Theatre. The new investors borrowed Rs. 200,000 from Walkers Ltd. and built the Regal Theatre which was opened in 1930 with the film 'The Captive Woman'.

Sir Chittampalam remained Chairman of Ceylon Theatres until his death in 1960 after which N.E. Weerasuriya took over. Tribute was paid to him and his service in the field of entertainment was recognized when Parson's Road was named Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner Mawatha during the time another big name in the film industry, Jabir A. Cader was City Mayor.

While screening English films, Ceylon Theatres began producing Sinhala films beginning with 'Asokamala' (1947), the second to be produced after 'Kadawunu Poronduwa'. This was followed by 'Kapati Arakshakaya' (1948). To date, the company has produced 26 Sinhala films in association with Ceylon Studios set up in 1955 to produce films locally. Among these productions was Lester James Peries' 'Nidhanaya'.

In later years, Ceylon Theatres diversified into other fields. In 1980, Ceylon Theatres established equity control over Millers Ltd. where it had a controlling interest since 1945. Since 1981 control of Cargills (Ceylon) Limited passed on to Ceylon Theatres Group headed by the late Albert A. Page in 1981. Anthony A. Page heads the group today