Illustration by Ming Hu

Change and Loss: Remembering El Dorado Cinema

The story of the loss of a beloved cinema.

Mar 24, 2018

Electra Street, often dubbed as the heart of downtown Abu Dhabi is the go-to stop for any service you need, be it getting a cheap haircut at a salon, making key duplicates or getting a classic Abu Dhabi cocktail juice. But one of its most prized treasures, El Dorado Cinema, no longer remains. According to multiple The National articles, the cinema was well known for its aesthetics, in particular the neon bright lights that shined bright in the dark and reflected a mix of pink, purple and turquoise color on the busy Sheikh Zayed the Second street, known to most as Electra Street.
When it first opened in late 1970, El Dorado Cinema mainly screened English films catered to a diverse Western and Arab expat community, but recently also began screening Indian films from Malayalam cinema — Mollywood — and Tamil cinema — Tollywood — to suit its customer base, which was composed mainly of expats from South India.
Santosh Menoth, who used to work at El Dorado Cinema in the 90s, but now works at the National Cinema, noted that the fans of El Dorado came from a different generation — one without multiplexes and shopping malls.
“During my time, we didn’t have online bookings or computers in the ticket booth station. We used traditional seating charts printed on paper to sell tickets. El Dorado was special because it continued its old ways until it shut down,” he said.
Menoth worked there during a period when worldwide releases were rare and he remembers Hollywood films that would be screened in the UAE six months or even a year after their initial release in the United States.
El Dorado Cinema could only maintain so much of its antiquity and recently underwent a renovation to improve air conditioning systems, so locals were quite shocked when the cinema decided to shut down all of sudden.
Menoth described the week that he learned the news: He was really surprised by the outpouring of messages on social media for El Dorado Cinema. But, it once again reminded him of the significance the cinema had on the lives of many people who grew up in a rapidly changing Abu Dhabi.
The cinema has left a legacy behind, not just among its loyal customers but also physically in the neighbourhood.
Just opposite the El Dorado Cinema building, one can find El Dorado Restaurant serving North Indian cuisine and at the corner El Dorado Gents Salon run by some Malayali hairdressers.
Vipin KS, one of the hairdressers from El Dorado Gents Salon, used to visit the cinema next door regularly.
“I used to like going there because they would show Malayalam films or the big Tamil films. After work, some of my colleagues and I would go to watch the films together,” he said. “After the shutdown of El Dorado Cinema, I have lost the motivation to go watch films in other cinemas because they don’t screen many Malayalam films,” KS also added.
When asked why the cinema had shut down, KS wasn’t too sure himself but speculated that dwindling ticket sales and difficulty in finding parking might have had something to do with it.
Most movie theatres in Abu Dhabi are now run by large chains like Vox Cinemas and Novo Cinemas, located in the confines of mega malls. These theatres are more often than not multiplexes with around five theatre halls in one location, with some even going up to 17. These theatres screen mainstream cinema from Hollywood, Bollywood and sometimes films from the Philippines. Ticket prices range from 55 AED and above with varying levels of luxury service, such as cinema fine dining.
El Dorado in comparison only had two modest halls, which in total fit 450 people and charged 30 AED per ticket. It provided a different kind of comfort to its customers, one that hinged on nostalgia and connections.
Menoth noted how he would sometimes get phone calls from fan clubs asking to reserve around 20 seats and sometimes the whole theatre when films with famous stars like Mammootty would be screened. Fan clubs like the Mammootty fan club have now shifted their base to the National Cinema, only a few blocks away from El Dorado cinema. Although similar in age, the National Cinema lacks the vintage look and feel that El Dorado so very well exuded in Electra Street.
Five months since its closing date, the bright neon sign boards have now been removed and what remains is a concrete beige wall with a light trace of where the “El Dorado Cinema” sign board was once placed. Both entrances have been boarded off with construction materials. The shopkeepers nearby speculate that a mini mall is underway.
Karma Gurung is Editor-at-Large. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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