The only way to describe how I felt as I scrolled through the digital encyclopedia compiled by Dimitris Fyssas on “The Movie Theaters of Athens 1896-2013: Stories of the Urban Landscape,” which went online last month, is that it blew my mind.
I was astonished by the scale, the depth, the size, the extent and intensity of the passion that led the writer, teacher, journalist and, more importantly, Athenian history buff, to complete such a monumental project.
I don’t know how many cities in the world are fortunate enough to have a person like Fyssas in their midst, a person who would dedicate 10 years of his or her life to the study of the city, to write a massive body of work with 3,500 footnotes and a 600-word index on the 550 movie theaters that opened in the municipality of Athens from 1896, when the first public film screening took place, to the present day, including the latest developments.
Fyssas has chosen not to make an academic presentation of his extensive material. It simply wouldn’t have been him. What he has done instead is to write a lexicon of the city’s movie theaters based on the love that he and others like him have for Athens. The fact that the project is based on passion rather than scientific inquiry means that perhaps he does not always tell the complete truth, but he also avoids reaching conclusions, redundant analysis and platitudes.
What he has compiled is a plethora of unpublished material that provides an incredible amount of known and unknown information about the film theaters catalogued, a feast of miscellany. Where to begin? With the stories of ushers finding customers fast asleep in their seats the following morning? The intermissions at the Gloria Cinema, during which local bands would put on concerts? A crate of fruit thrown off a balcony onto the heads of the unsuspecting audience below? Composer Yiannis Spartakos taking his first tentative steps in the musical limelight playing piano in a cinema’s orchestra? The inventive schemes that Athenian youngsters would come up with in the late 1940s and 50s so they could sneak into X-rated screenings?
The research method applied by Fyssas was admittedly old-fashioned. Before starting each entry, Fyssas would go to the site or former site of the movie theater in question, before visiting nearby beauty salons, open-air markets and cafes to gather information from the locals. The information would then be checked against newspapers and magazines from the period in question, often with the help of collectors of film memorabilia such as ticket stubs, programs, posters and so on.
“In 2012, after having completed most of the research and knowing how expensive publishing this book would be, I approached a publisher with an interest in cinema, several relevant public companies and certain private foundations, asking them to publish the book without calculating any profits for myself. Only two private foundations responded, saying that they either back only legal entities or that the project was outside their area of interest. I never got an answer from public bodies and the publisher,” said Fyssas.
However, the writer was determined to get his project out there.
“Out of sheer stubbornness, I looked to places where being crazy about the city went hand in hand with being crazy about cinema,” Fyssas explained.
The Internet became his only option and now the “book” is available to everyone who is interested in reading it, though the project by no means ended with its publication on October 7.
“I expect messages from readers on my e-mail for contributions and, especially, for corrections – I’m sure there will be plenty of those, especially in the footnotes and the bibliography,” Fyssas said.
Incorrect or not, the fact is that fans of Athens and film buffs owe Fyssas a huge debt of gratitude.
Dimitris Fyssas’s book is available online at www.athina984.gr, www.booksreview.gr, www.athensvoice.gr, www.hestia.gr, www.staxtes.com and periodikotrypa.wordpress.com.