Dressed in red trousers and a pale-blue sweater, 77-year-old Artur Martins is holding forth outside Lisbon’s former Odeon Cinema. “We hosted all the premieres here and of course the stars came. All the big Spanish names; movie stars from Argentina and England; studio heads from Fox, Universal and Paramount. We even had presidents.” Portugal’s last dictator was a frequent guest, he says. “Salazar came a lot. We had to close the cinema for him. He and his wife and grandchildren always had their private viewing at 11.00.”
The Odeon was designed by João Antunes in 1923 and completed by architect José Alexandre Soares. It opened in 1927 and was Lisbon’s premier cinema for nearly 60 years until audiences declined during the 1980s. In 1997 it closed.
Martins started at the cinema in 1952 when he was 12 years old and worked his way up to the position of projectionist, a role he held until the place shut. As if scripted for the movies he loves so much, he met his actress wife in the projection room when she came to watch a screening of a film in which she starred. For the past two decades, when the venue stood abandoned, he kept an unofficial eye on the building, repairing as much damage as he could and keeping out intruders.
Various plans for the cinema were mooted over the years – a church, a shopping centre, a hotel – but all were discarded. The wrangling and neglect dragged on until Odeon Properties was founded in 2013 and acquired the building two years later. In late 2017 work began on its reconstruction into apartments, and a restaurant and bar.
Martins and Odeon Properties’ co-founder Julien Dufour (pictured) are walking across rubble-covered floorboards into the heart of the old cinema. The stalls have been removed but everything else remains – dusty and derelict yet surprisingly intact. Rising high on three sides are triple tiers of maroon balconies with dress-circle seating and vertiginous cheap seats at the rear. At the front, where the screen once sat, is a deep stage that was home to a 15-piece orchestra during the era of silent movies. “It’s more like a theatre because it was one of the very early cinemas and they didn’t really know what a cinema should look like,” says Dufour.
The renovation will see the heart of the cinema retained and restored, complete with the balconies and the ornate stage, as part of the new restaurant space. The company is working with Portuguese architect Samuel Torres de Carvalho, who has also prioritised retention of the original features in the design of the apartments – in particular the building’s belle époque-style balconies. “We want to keep true to the soul of the building,” says Dufour. “I’d love to see the apartments bought by actors, directors and other people who are involved in showbusiness.”
Martins is happy to see the Odeon being restored after sitting empty and unappreciated for so long. “It has been my whole life,” he says, as he pulls the old wooden doors closed behind him.