The Grand Rex … and its Etoiles
It shines out like a little piece of Times Square on Paris’s Grands Boulevards - the heart of Paris’s cinema industry back in the 1930s and 40s. The Grand Rex is the last remaining movie palace in Paris, but despite the advent of multiplexes with their fidelity cards, it's stood the test of time.
It remains a family business, offering a bit of Hollywood-style movie magic to ordinary French people, and increasingly, tourists.
Built in 1932, the Grand Rex is the largest of all the great movie theatres built around the world between the 1920s and 1940s. Its founder, Jacques Haïk wanted it to be the most extravagant and beautiful movie theatre in Europe.
He succeeded. Its main theatre seats some 2,700 people and boasts a 26m wide 16m high screen.
Haïk came from the south of France and wanted his movie theatre to have a Mediterranean feel. Hence the stunning art deco architecture and a midnight blue vaulted ceiling with twinkling stars. Each one is said to represent a star from the world of cinema.
The architecture hasn’t budged an inch since them, and it won’t. The Grand Rex was designated a historical monument in 1981, ensuring its place in France’s cultural and historical landscape.
It’s had its ups and downs. Requisitioned by the Nazis during World War II it became Soldatenkino, and was then used as a shelter for repatriated prisoners of war.
It continues to pride itself on premiering all the big movie blockbusters: This is it on the legend of Michael Jackson, the latest Harry Potter and James Cameron’s Avatar among them. And all shown via its huge 3D digital projector.
But in the age of home cinema and computers, director Alex Hellmann admits it’s not easy filling those seats.
“With a movie theatre of this size, it’s difficult. We have to do a lot of shows. About 100 a year.”
Shows like the Disney Christmas bonanza for kids and regular concerts with stars of the French music scene.
In 1998, the owner Philippe Hellmann extended the range of non-cinema activities and opened Les Etoiles du Rex, a kind of cinema museum based on reconstructions of the cinema’s projection booth, recording studio and so on.
It’s just welcomed its one millionth visitor.
The visit backstage kicks off in the elevator as you’re transported up the Rex tower, giving you a panoramic view of the spectacular movie theatre from behind its huge screen. Archive film footage relates key moments in the history of the Grand Rex.
But the idea is also to bring cinema alive.
“It’s not only for fun, but also to educate,” says Philippe Hellmann. And since learning becomes easier when you’re actively involved, “interactivity is always the key,” he adds.
Visitors take part in a film set, dub over the voice of stars like Cary Grant or Shirley Maclaine, and join in a special effects session where you’re required to look a bit scared as King Kong pounds on the glass divide separating you from the beast himself.
You end up being the star of your own little film. And needless to say you can buy it on DVD at the end of the visit as a souvenir.
It’s an amusing and informative 50-minute tour and, unlike many visits which require you to wear headphones for foreign languages, Les Etoiles du Rex allows you to share the fun with your neighbour.
All the information and instructions are delivered by a suave, if cheesy, Hollywood-style male voice through overhead speakers. Good, clean fun for all the family!
Les Etoiles du Rex, 1, boulevard Poissonnière, 75002 Paris. Admission 9.80 euros. Visits are currently available in French, English, Italian and German. Russian is in the pipeline. More information on www.legrandrex.com