The First Cinema Theater in Arzis

Kälberer, Inge. "The First Cinema Theater in Arzis." Mitteilungsblatt, September 2017, 6.
This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado, with editorial assistance from Dr. Nancy Herzog.

(From stories of the author’s grandmother Mathilde Klett and her mother Else Bantel nee Klett, as well as Siegmund Ziebart’s stories of his father Alfred Ziebart.)

Following the 1918 “Anschluß [annexation]” of Bessarabia by Romania, things were different in our villages. Before that, the Tsar meant the fatherland, and our homeland was the steppes (period!!). But then the Russian Empire had broken down, the symbol of order and justice was gone, and nothing new was in sight. One had to get used to a totally different mentality, a different language, and different concepts of justice. Many rigid rules, some stemming from early settlement times, lost their significance under the new, liberal form of state that was oriented more closely to France than to any other state.

After a few years, having become used to the new rulers, “one” learned of some more positive aspects and would come to appreciate them. Now many of our compatriots would visit other villages more frequently and some, for business reasons, even the county seat Cetatea-Alba (Akkerman). Via new arrivals from other parts of Romania, a lively business atmosphere had developed there, existing previously primarily only in Odessa.

In this environment, many Arzis residents were able to get to know the rather different life in the city. Among the strongest attractions was what some called “people walking on the wall.” Apparently they had come to a “cinematograph theater.” But anyone telling of this at home was cause to doubt the person’s intelligence or to call him a braggart or a “Faxenmacher [clown, or buffoon].”

Grandpa Klett (Jakob Klett, Inge Kälberer’s grandfather) was always interested in anything new. He got together with some other interested people to examine whether this “innovation” might be used to make money even in Arzis. The brothers Lumière, who had invented the so-called cinematograph [projector], were granting licenses for the installation of “cinematograph theaters,” which had been operating rather successfully in many cities.

Opa Klett owned a fairly large hall, in which the “Strongest man in the world” – Ivan Saykin – occasionally appeared. He bent iron rails, lifted four men on a pole, had two men beat on an anvil he had put on his chest, and let an automobile be driven on planks across his chest. The hall was also used for productions by theater clubs and even circus performances.

The Lumière Brothers and one of their cinematographs.

Jakob Klett decided to install a “cinematograph” in the hall and to furnish it with wooden benches. But at that time, operating the apparatus was not as easy as nowadays. First of all, it had to be cranked by hand, and secondly a strong light was needed. At the time, electric light was produced by arc light, which was bright and unfortunately emitted great heat. The operator therefore had to get familiar with the apparatus, crank it up with the right speed, and watch carefully that the arc light were operating properly. For that reason, a film projectionist from Akkerman was hired. He traveled to Arzis on the appropriate days and brought along the films.

The projectionist was well aware of his significance and allowed himself be treated accordingly each time.

Power was produced by stationary batteries consisting of glass containers (ca. 40x25 centimeters and 20 cm high [about 16x6 inches and 8 inches in height]) holding the requisite acid and lead plates.

On the way to one of the showings in a fully occupied hall, the projectionist had tried to drown his separation anxiety, and good wine during supper had done the rest. When the hall was darkened, sleep overtook him. He began to crank at varying speeds, and accordingly, the figures on the wall would move sometimes more quickly and sometimes more slowly. It must have been a very amusing time (I.K.). And then the projectionist fell into a sleep lasting some seconds, so that for a moment he was not cranking at all. This might have been not so bad for a little while, and the people might have stayed around, had it not been for the powerful arc lamp. Films were made of celluloid in those days, and they were quite vulnerable to heat. The arc light began to act like a focused burning lens, directly onto the film material. At first it became brown, then it ignited, and a few meters of film burned up from a very bright, lightning-like fire. The lamp went out, and the room light was gone. Panic broke out in the darkness. Everyone wanted to get outside, people screamed, stumbling over the benches and over each other. All wanted to reach the door and to get outside. It took a very long time before someone was able to open he door and everyone had reached the outside. Afterward, the hall looked like a disaster had hit it. Shoes and hats were strewn allover the place, most of the benches had fallen over and lay there all jumbled up.

After the situation was somewhat cleared up, the show continued. However, nobody wanted to see moving pictures anymore. Only Else (Mrs. Kälberer’s mother), who had not been present earlier, watched the show to the end. Most had “fled” to their homes, anyway. News of the “terrible accident” must have spread through the village like wildfire, because Pastor Rudolf Meyer appeared breathless and very worried when he came to pick up his son, who was long gone.

This was the end of the first cinematograph theater in Arzis. The glass containers were distributed among the “shareholders,” for whom they would serve for years to come as ideal jars for goat cheese in brine. The site of the cinematograph theater would later house the “Deutsche Haus” of the German Club for Culture and Sports.

A year later a cinema with its own appropriate electric equipment was opened in a market area hall. People could then watch the first weekly newsreels and even American films. This cinema remained in operation until the resettlement.

Appreciation is extended to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editing and to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller