I’ve never been a design nut, architecture addict or buildingophile, but when I first saw Le Grand Rex in Paris I was reduced to the state of a lovesick puppy.
It was years’ ago (don’t ask how many), during my first trip to Paris. I was staying at a far-from-swanky hotel just a few far-from-swanky streets from Gare du Nord station and, on the first day, went for a reasonably long walk. As someone who only started travelling abroad when I was all grown-up and could afford to pay for it myself, I was doing then what I still do now: getting intentionally lost as whilst immersing myself in the alien ambiance of it all.
I can’t remember the specifics of the route, possibly because the route was far from specific. I headed in a vaguely southerly direction on the basis that I was pretty certain that the ‘Nord‘ in Gare du Nord meant ‘north’. By my standards, that’s about as sophisticated as it’s ever likely to get. Anyway, at some point I must have ended up wandering down the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière because, when I reached the point where it intersects with Boulevard Poissonnière, I saw it:
It stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t need to be a design nut, an architecture addict or a buildingophile to know that I was looking at one Goddamned sexy building. For one thing, it couldn’t have looked more outrageously French if it tried. It was so quintessentially cool, so effortlessly elegant and so proudly Parisian that I half expected it to light up a Citannes, raise a pair of eyebrows and shrug. I was captivated. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I might even have fallen in love.
The fact it was very obviously a cinema probably had a lot to do with it. I’ve been embroiled in a long-term and occasionally tempestuous love affair with the cinema for most of my life. ever since I first saw Star Wars at the Birmingham Gaumont at the tender age of seven. The Gaumont – in case you don’t already know – was a grand, two-tiered, Art Deco picture palace that once boasted the largest screen in Europe. I spent many a Saturday afternoon there, feeding my growing celluloid addiction by greedily devouring movies, often indiscriminately. I can still remember the walnut panelled foyer, the huge velvet curtains and the ladies selling ice cream in the aisle. There was something almost sacred and ritualistic about it all. It will always be one of my favourite places in the world.
The Gaumont, like so many of its kith and kin, was closed in 1983 and bulldozed out of existence in 1986. Others didn’t even last that long. Located a mere ten minutes’ walk from my family home, the magnificent Kingstanding Odeon might have been a serious rival for my affections if it wasn’t for the inconvenient fact that it was turned into a bingo hall eight years before I was born. As you drive through the suburbs you’ll often catch a glimpse of other, long-abandoned cinemas, now nothing more than fossilized remains of splendour. In Birmingham, they are a thing of the past. In this part of the world ornate picture palaces and movie temples are about as rare as rocking horse shit.
But not in Paris, it seems. As I looked at Le Grand Rex I was reminded of those Saturday afternoons at the Gaumont. The buildings, after all, were of similar age: the Parisian cinema first opened its doors in December 1932, some 18 months after its Brummie counterpart. Like the Gaumont, the facade of Le Grand Rex was bold and classically Art Deco, while the Haussmann-endorsed pan coupe corners gave it a distinctly Parisian flavour. And while the Gaumont once had the largest screen in Europe, Le Grande Rex was (and still is) the current holder of that title.
Inside, the scale of the main auditorium – 2,800 seats with two balcony levels – left me in the same state of awe I felt as a child. The baroque decor, the otherworldly elegance and the vaulted ceiling festooned with stars transported me to another place and another state of mind, somewhere that I thought no longer existed. This was somewhere special, somewhere sacred, somewhere timeless. This was something else.
I can’t think of a better place in the world to see a Tom Waits concert.