Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Theaters of the Bygone Era

Do you know the old movie houses and theaters of Cebu?


The Lost Landmarks of Cebu is an article series that features prominent buildings and monuments in Cebu that no longer exist. If you have suggestions or want to contribute, please feel free to message us on our Facebook page.

We are fortunate to live in a time where the entertainment that we all enjoy are just on-demand whenever we want, wherever we are. There is no need to go somewhere, all we have to do is sit back and relax in the comforts of home. We can always go to Netflix to watch our favorite movies or enjoy the hottest and greatest hit music on Spotify. Sure, we still go to IMAX cinemas to enjoy the newest Marvel Comics superhero movies and if lucky, maybe watch a play or any type of performing arts, but most people are not keen on doing that anymore.

Just imagine what life was a century earlier. How do people entertain themselves then?

Life was so simple way back when and the people of Cebu have their own way of entertaining themselves. There were traveling troupes that accompany the itinerant "feria" during their visits to different towns. They entertain people with variety shows that included short sketches (operatic-style musicals), circus-style tricks and stunts (think about someone swallowing a flaming sword), and even brass bands! Traditional Cebuano performance called "dulaang Binisaya" was popular then.

Zarzuela is widely performed in theaters back in the day

By the late 1880s, Cebu City has grown as it open to world trade. As a result, more people from outside the city and neighboring provinces have come in search of better opportunities. Many expatriates have also set up shops in the city including the Chinese. With so much money to be made from these new commercial activities, there is surely a need for more entertainment as a new middle class has emerged.

In 1897, motion pictures were introduced in the fashionable Escolta in Manila by a Spaniard named Francisco Pertierra. It is said that a certain Mr. Charochi sailed to Iloilo and Cebu on the ship Sinkiang where he brought the first "cinematografo" in the Visayas. He planned on using it to screen films during the first week of his stay before returning to manila. However, there is confirmation of this report from the newspaper El Comercio about his purported visit. Besides, it would be quite impractical to bring a bulky machine just for a short visit.

Colon Street is where most of the theaters are located

As years go by, many of these beautiful buildings that were constructed with great attention to detail have become shells of their former glory. Some have fallen into a state of disrepair and soon, many of these structures will give way to "modern" developments. Nowadays, people would flock to ultra-modern shopping malls like SM Seaside City or Robinson's Galleria because they simply have a better cinema experience than the old ones in downtown Cebu. Besides, many of these old theaters, which used to show the best films in those times, are showing more adult films and B-movies.

Teatro Junquera

In 1894, a Spanish play "El Alcalde Interino" was performed at the convent of the old Parian church that was destroyed in 1878. One of the important audiences in that play was the Spanish governor of Cebu Inocencio Junquera (1831-1911), who was interested in building his own theater as the convent was simply too small to hold such an event. He tried to convince prominent Cebuanos Florentino Rallos and Francisco Sales to open up a proper theater with its own acting school.

Within a few months, he called for a meeting to discuss his plans where he intends to build it in the same place as the old church was. However, Junquera is unpopular with the friars because of his ardent support for the separation of church and state. In fact, Cebu bishop Martin Garcia Alcocer blocked his initiatives by ordering the construction of a religious monument in the place where the theater was supposed to be built. Anyone who would try to remove it would be excommunicated. Moreover, the friars have spread rumors that Junquera will tax the residents heavily to fund his project. As a result, the plan to build a theater in Parian was scrapped.

Undeterred, Junquera found a piece of land owned by Rafael Veloso in barangay Kanipaan (now the city's commercial center) and used his own money with the help of other prominent individuals to build the theater. His partners Marcelo Regner and Rafael de Ocampo designed it with an arabesque-style architecture while Sales recruited skilled carpenters and painters to help in the project.

The theater has a distinctive facade that reminds you of a classic Texas mission (resembling the Alamo). It has three big windows with trap-door-style windows that can be half- or fully-opened to let natural light in and ensure proper ventilation when the theater is full. Advertisements are lined up outside to let everyone know what's being performed inside.

By 1895, the theater was finally completed and a year later, Junquera left Cebu. It was named Teatro Junquera after the tireless benefactor who led its construction. Although the first play was performed to honor him on December 16, 1895, the theater was only formally inaugurated on April 19, 1896.

Apart from its vaudeville shows, it is one of the first to show motion pictures

In 1901, American Governor-General William Howard Taft and the newly-constituted members of the Philippine Commission has made the theater its preferred venue to speak before the Cebuanos.

Vicente Sotto, the grandfather of Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto III, has established his reputation as a playwright when his three-act play "Elena" was performed at the theater on May 18, 1902. His other much-acclaimed masterpiece "Ang Gugma sa Yutang Natawhan" was also performed there. The success of his plays propped up his future political and journalistic career.

It also became the home of the works of the greatest Cebuano playwrights like Piux Kabahar and Buenaventura Rodriguez.

The theater was renamed Teatro Oriente when Jose Avila acquired it 

Soon the theater was sold to Spanish businessman-filmmaker Pedro Royo and later bought by Jewish printer Leopold Falek (owner of Falek's Printing House) and Pedro Rivera-Mir. It was later transferred to Jose Avila, whose family still owns the lot where the original theater was located. The theater eventually changed its name to Teatro Oriente.

When the movie era has entered the scene, operas, dramas, plays, and other performing arts fell out of favor for cheap movies from the U.S. In 1920, it was converted into a movie theater under the name Cine Oriente. As it transitioned from silent films to talkies, it premiered Warner Bros' "The Singing Fool" as it introduced the first sound movies to Cebuanos in March 1930.


It underwent renovation and it's totally different from what it was then. You can recognize the building by its distinctive rows of ornate rosettes on its facade. The colors of the paint may have been changed but it's definitely a prominent landmark in downtown Cebu. Despite its metamorphosis, Teatro Junquera, or Cine Oriente as it's known now, remains the mother of all Cebu theaters.

Cinema Royo

Located close to the corner of Colon Street and Osmeña Boulevard, the Royo-owned theater was built on a former cockpit so it was obvious that the establishment was catered to the general population as it was the cheapest theater of its time with the ticket price of 5 centavos as compared to 20 centavos from the others. However, there is a price to be paid for that cheap entertainment. The seats were uncomfortable as they lacked back support. It became a favorite venue for much-awaited boxing matches.


Sadly, it no longer exists as new buildings were built over its location.

Teatro Empira

By the turn of the century, many of the theaters are facing the winds of change. Soon, the entry of motion pictures would change the entertainment scene in Cebu. Introduced in 1902, a warehouse, along Calle de la Infanta (now Magallanes Street), showcased the so-called "Cinematografo electro-optico luminoso Walgraph." The owner Pedro Alario has worked for a certain English salon operator named Mr. Walgraph, who regularly screened films with it.

Teatro Empira, or Empire Theater, was previously owned by American businessman F.C. Arey but later sold to Avila, who soon renamed it Cine Ideal and soon incorporated the Walgraph cinematograph thereby giving Cebuanos the first taste of what the movie houses feel like.

This historical marker points to where the theater was

It is said that Avila bought by bribing Arey with a Mercedes-Benz caruaje. However, there was a long and dragging series of court cases that disputed the ownership of the land and building. Avila eventually became the lawful owner of the land and building and was then known as the 'Theater King of Cebu' and 'Cebu's Father of Show Business.'

Jose Nepomuceno (1893-1959), the first Filipino to own a movie company Malayan Movies, became an accredited correspondent for Pathe and Paramount News. He shot his first Filipino subject for a newsreel that showed the funeral of Sergio Osmeña's first wife. It was shown in Cebu in January 1918.

Vision Theatre

It is perhaps one of the most beautiful and magnificent buildings ever built in Cebu. Vision Theatre has its classical bas relief that adorned its facade. The grandiose classical design and Greek nymphs were the signatures of Italian sculptor Dante Guidetti. It was inaugurated by Agustin and Beatriz Duterte, the benefactors of the University of Southern Philippines, in 1930.

The theater was left standing even though much of its neighboring structures were flattened

In 1938, the first Cebuano talking motion picture "Bertoldo Balodoy" made its premiere in this theater. It boasts as the only public establishment at that time that was fully-airconditioned as advertisements would proclaim. The area was so bustling then that a designated traffic enforcer takes care of the traffic.


As Avila's theater empire grew, the war came to Cebu and many buildings in the area were destroyed during the liberation. By 1945, Vision managed to survive as many of its neighboring structures were razed to the ground. The strength of its foundation managed to survive even though some people were said to try chipping off the concrete walls in order to get the steel rods.

During its heyday, it hailed its status as "reyna sa mga sinihan sa Kabisayaan ug Mindanaw"

In 1953, a Cebuano film "Kapintas sa kinabuhi" that was written and directed by scriptwriter Eugenio Labella was shown there. Also starring in the film were his wife Esterlina Colina as the leading lady and paired with Bert Nombrado as the leading actor.


What was considered a beauty, owing to its Beaux-Arts heritage, now hosts ukay-ukay stalls, mobile phone shops, and bootleg DVDs. The neo-classical building is giving way to urban decay with this once temple of the arts falling to the grime of the inner city.

Cinema Theater

Across Cine Oriente is the Cinema Theater with its 50s style vibe that incorporated international-style motifs taken from the tropical experience of Modernism. It also featured curved stainless steel brise soleil, sweeping horizontal lines of its concave verandas, and scallop-shaped shelled roof. It later became a cinema that exclusively showed adult films later on in its lifetime.


Nowadays, it called the "Pedro O. Go Bldg." that houses the Metro Wholesale Mart. It's better maintained than its more illustrious neighbor across the street - Vision Theatre.

Ultra Vistarama

Its catchy name won't escape every true-blue Cebuano's memories. It has a somewhat similar style to the Cinema Theater thanks to its more metropolitan approach to the International Style, which incorporates its distinctive glass-and-steel facade.


Just like many theaters in the area, it's now in a state of disrepair as much of the glass panes have been lost and it no longer shows films that everyone would be watching. In any rundown cinemas, they end up showing more titillating films than what the general population wants.

Seven Arts

Just right beside the Ultra Vistarama is the Seven Arts Theater that once thrive along Legaspi Street. However, it also fell into a steep decline along with others in that area. Now, it looks like an incomplete structure with construction temporary on hold or more like a condemned structure waiting to be demolished.

Eden Theater

Eden Theater fared better than the rest, especially if you compare it with the sad state of Vision Theatre in mind. Built in the 50s with a similar International Style of Cinema Theater and Ultra Vistarama. It has a two-story, heavily screened plain-boxed facade that offers great views of the auditorium structure on its rear. It used to run second-run Hollywood and Filipino films but was later converted into a shopping mall.


We can't help but feel sad if these old, classic structures will soon be replaced by new and modern buildings or simply let these crumble and get demolished. Part of the heritage of Cebu lies in these structures. These may not look good, clean, and sophisticated as compared to the spanking new cinemas in mega malls but they have the character and historical value that made them one of a kind. It's up to our generation to find ways to preserve these structures and perhaps reinvent and reinvigorate them without destroying the hard work and artistry that the original builders have left behind for us.

References:
"Introduksiyon sa Modernong Teatrong Cebuano," by Resil Mojares
"Downtown gems," by Marymil Cabrera

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Theaters of the Bygone Era
Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Theaters of the Bygone Era
Do you know the old movie houses and theaters of Cebu?
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