Adham Farah
Last updated: 7 April, 2014

A story of Beirut’s golden days. And a story of Beirut when they were gone.

Memories fade away like a mist disappearing when the spring approaches, but, no spring exists in the story that is about to be told.

1960, Beirut was dazzling the world with its sparkling life. People with their blithe smiles and fashionable clothes trotting in its streets, entering and exiting cinemas, shops, restaurants, and theaters, with their sounds mixed with the voices of the street sellers, that loudly shout to market their products, and luxurious cars travelling in all directions – in short, it was the most vivacious place in the Middle East. One of the symbols for this spirit was the Grand Theater located in the center of this exuberant scene.

Every artist aims at finding his own place to commence his atheistic creativity, but this theater was not a suitable place for that. The Grand Theater was not a mass or public theater, nor an experimental one; it was for the wealthy and bourgeois classes.

No one can provide an exact history of the Grand Theater.No one can provide an exact history of this building. Some claim that it was established in 1905, but more likely appears it was built in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and it was considered the second theater to be erected after the Ottomans left Lebanon in 1918. Elderly people who lived during that period reveal that the area previously consisted of shops and cafes, where Lebanese enjoyed their smoking and talking habits. However, the T. family, which owned the area decided to remove all this, and construct the Grand Theater.

Even the name of the architect who designed this sumptuous place remains a controversy just like all the unknown history of Lebanon. To many, the theater was an imitation or copy of the Paris Opera with several floors that facilitated the vision of the audience, and it also contained various boxes or “ balconies” that were reserved for special guests.

Most Lebanese citizens during the 1950s and 1960s didn’t have a chance to enter and examine the content inside the theater, but many confirm that various European stars and groups conducted concerts here. Some recall performances of Egyptian stars, like Abdel Wahab, Um Koulthoum, and Farid el Atrach. One Lebanese remembers a very personal moment with the Grand Theater in which he claimed that he risked his own life, by climbing to the top open ceiling of the theater, just to get a glimpse of a concert; but for a teenager like him at that period, it was the ultimate happiness.

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The Grand Theater also presented a continuous play of movies; an Arabic one, followed by a French movie – yes, people could spend the whole day there.

1975, the secluded danger was finally revealed, and its perilous paws desired to destroy all that confronted it. Was it a curse that the Grand Theater stood on the Green line, which separated Beirut between East and West, as if it represented the destruction and shift from one era to the other?

The theater was occupied by militiamen, and the melodious sounds of concerts were replaced by the fierce sounds of war – the area became a wasteland. The belly dancer with her seducing hips that made the audience clap, suddenly disappeared, and now the fighter dominated the place with his killing skills. What an insane substitution! The owners tried to revive the place, and gain some money for living, so they brought pornographic movies, but it all ended as a place for the entertainment of the fighters.

Most Lebanese citizens during the 1950s and 1960s didn’t have a chance to enter Grand Theater became worthless with the worst kind of people, and with the worst movies playing. Nevertheless, during the war period a lot of Lebanese citizens finally got the chance to acquaint themselves with the interior of the theater. One Lebanese recalls his first entry to the theater through the many flashes and signs that were inserted in Beirut to lead innocent people to their destinations. When he first entered he saw the broken chairs, perforated walls, destroyed steps, animal carrions, emptiness in the ticketing box, and what shocked him the most was the scene, which will never leave his mind, of maimed people.

2014, the war has ended, but what can revive a city with a destroyed culture. After the war, it was decided to reconstruct the city as a whole entity, all at once. One of the projects was to reestablish the Grand Theater, as it was considered part of the Lebanese heritage and culture. Nevertheless, the engineers who examined the premise claimed it was very difficult to restore its interior; thus, they began fixing its exterior, which currently resembles the neighboring buildings.

But it all stopped with the exterior, and nothing went further – a futile and derelict building. Few individuals secretly passed the security and fences around the theater to enter it, and they tell of broken glasses and ceilings, old curtains still intact, graffiti of militia, and finally a drawing of a weird disappointed angel!