Heads And Tales Of The Ambassador - Part 1
by Orville Green
In the 1940s, Kingston’s moviegoers already had their pick of covered and open-air cinemas. In the first category were the prestigious Carib and Movies cinemas in the Cross Roads area, and Ward Theatre downtown, each noteworthy in its own right. Carib was the star-ship of the Palace Amusement group; Movies, located on Halfway Tree Road, near the Cross Roads market, went up in flames under suspicious conditions; and Ward was the original 'grande dame' of the island’s ‘legitimate’ theatres.
The open-air venues included Gaiety, Palace, Rialto and Kings, all located on the strip of roadway that began at East Parade then changed name -- like a green lizard changes colour -- as it continued eastward: East Queen Street (to South Camp Road); Victoria Avenue (to Elletson Road); Windward Road (to Mountain View Avenue); Rockfort Road (to Harbour View); and St. Thomas Road thereafter. On Spanish Town Road -- going west from Downtown -- there were Tivoli (near the community that is now Tivoli Gardens), and Majestic, at the foot of Maxfield Avenue.
I was introduced to the habit of “going to show” quite early in life, as my parents allowed our ‘helper’ – Ruby -- to take me with her to Tivoli, where she had an admirer in the person of a Mr. Garcia (commonly mis-pronounced as “Missa Gyaasha”), the ticket-taker. I have no recollection of the movies I saw at that tender age, but Mr. Garcia’s image is etched in my memory.
From my adult perspective, I deduce that he was of Spanish extract, as his name and appearance suggested: a relatively short man of ‘creamy’ complexion and wavy black hair. There were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes when he smiled. His uniform was tuxedo-style: black pants, white shirt, black bowtie and white jacket.
Ruby did not have to pay to enter the theatre, as Mr. Garcia simply motioned us inside, his wrinkled eyes almost closed from smiling with her. Even to my child's eyes, he evidently liked her. It was a challenging walk for me from Jones Town to Tivoli, but it was probably more challenging for Ruby on one occasion, when she had to carry me back home (worn out and asleep) in her arms to Jones Town.
Then the 1950s rolled in, and with them a spate of new theatres: Tropical (Slipe Road), State (Halfway Tree Road), Regal (Old Hope Road), Ritz (Spanish Town Road), Queens (Maxfield Avenue), Odeon (Halfway Tree), Premier (Constant Spring Road) and Globe (Deanery Avenue).
The most important for me, however, was the Ambassador Theatre in Trench Town, at its juncture with Jones Town. Not only did Ambassador’s opening add to the city’s theatre scene, it significantly expanded the social life of the two communities which embraced it as theirs and affectionately dubbed it “Bas”.
The site on which Bas was erected had an unusual configuration for a city lot, being in a sort of valley at the point where Thompson Street -- the western boundary of Jones Town -- met Trench Town’s Seventh Street. In effect, from Thompson Street a person looked down onto the theatre. From outside, its white walls emitted an eerie glow at night as they reflected external lights aimed at them. There was no other edifice in this small part of the city that was as imposing and it was a source of great pride for its local patrons.
At that time, the section of Trench Town immediately south of the Ambassador was a well-established community of middle-class houses, a ‘scheme’ of single-family residences that pre-dated the Mona Heights development constructed by the Matalon corporation. As in Jones Town, many of the residents were civil servants, business operators, employees of downtown establishments, and members of various professions. Some of the well-kept yards sported flower gardens and even small lawns.
With the advent of the theatre came another phenomenon, as ‘up-towners’ began to patronize Ambassador in addition to the other cinemas. Soon it became usual to see in the parking lot the higher-priced cars such as Ford Zephyrs/Zodiacs, Vauxhall Veloxes/Crestas, even Jaguars and Opel Kapitans in addition to the more common makes like Austin, Morris and Hillman.
“Bas” became the hub of social life for many Jones Town residents, especially the youngsters who now had easy access to movies and at reasonably affordable prices. It was no longer necessary to go out of the area to enjoy a Friday night ‘show’ with friends . . . but the ‘culture’ of movie-going remained similar to that of other tertiary-venue cinemas. Before the presentation of the Gaumont British News and the Fab laundry soap commercials, one had to endure the reaction of certain folks to the playing of "God Save the Queen." When some of the Queen’s loyal subjects would rise, we would be greeted by, "Siddung! Yuh a soja or police?"
One recalls serials and those annoying people who had seen the ‘show’ before and couldn't keep their mouths shut. It was amusing to hear a chorus of "Cuz!" when a Negro face appeared on the screen. Then there were annoying breaks and slips in the film, as well as the late arrival of the first or second reel that was shown (or to be shown) elsewhere and had to be rushed to or from this venue in time. And the unforgettable audience’s warnings to the on-screen characters, shouted by patrons in the front section (“Nuh guh deh!” or “Look out!”); as well as the self-appointed therapists who attempted to reduce the audience's stress during a particularly tense scene ("Star bwoy cyaan dead!”).