VIKTOR PONREPO - founder of the first permanent cinema in Prague

Viktor Ponrepo

Last month a new multiplex cinema opened its doors to the people of Prague. With 12 screens and 2,702 seats - and as many parking spaces - it is the largest cinema complex in the Czech capital. So what? you may think. Indeed, there is nothing too special about it; only it opened almost 75 years to the day after the death of the founder of the very first cinema in Prague - Mr. Viktor Ponrepo. By Pavla Horakova.

Viktor Ponrepo
If you ask the citizens of Prague what "Ponrepo" is, many will say: A cinema, of course. Not everybody knows, however, what the name means and why the cinema is called Ponrepo.

"The name Viktor Ponrepo may not mean much to the younger generation, but what many people certainly will know is that Ponrepo is a well-known Prague cinema which has been around for decades. It was reopened in the early 1960's as a branch of the National Film Archives. It is a unique cinema, because it doesn't show films from normal film distributors, but mainly from the archives' own rich collections. It tries, on a regular basis, to update the public on the development of Czech and world cinema, and since the 1990's it has been showing premieres of films that the National Film Archive buys for club and art cinemas. Today the Ponrepo cinema is located in a former baroque monastery in Bartolomejska Street, not very far from Ponrepo's original cinema in Karlova Street."

As Milos Fikejz, a historian from the National Film Archives says, today's Ponrepo cinema - located in the same building as the archives - is not the first movie theatre of this name in Prague. The first one opened in 1907 and since then the cinema has changed owners and moved many times. For more than a decade it was closed altogether. But let's start from the beginning.

Viktor Ponrepo was born Dismas Slambor in 1858 in the Old Town of Prague. His father was a gilder and wanted young Dismas to take over his business one day. Dismas obeyed his father and trained to be a gilder but his talents and dreams lay elsewhere. He was passionate about magic and conjuring tricks and devoted every spare minute to practicing. Eventually he refused to follow in his father's footsteps, dedicated himself thoroughly to his hobby and chose the insecure life of a travelling performer. Dismas Slambor didn't think his name was mysterious enough for a magician, so he looked for a suitable pseudonym. One day he was passing a small chateau with the French name "Bon Repos", or "Good Rest" and the name intrigued him so that he chose it for his stage name. He altered it slightly and added Viktor as a first name and so gilder Dismas Slambor became magician Viktor Ponrepo. His travelling theatre was so successful that Ponrepo was soon able to afford a coach with a coachman and an assistant. However, at the turn of the 19th century, the art of magic began to lose popularity. People became rather bored with old conjuring tricks, and old-fashioned magic had to compete with the new wonders of technology. More and more people preferred to watch various breathtaking inventions presented to the public at fairs and exhibitions. Viktor Ponrepo knew he had to go with the flow and come up with something new in his show. He bought a phonograph and soon after that a cinematograph. He passed exams to prove he could operate the device - a machine for "living photographs" as he called it - and in 1899 he added the attraction to the repertoire of his travelling theatre.

Ponrepo travelled round the country, but what he really wanted was to get to Prague. However, to perform there, he needed a special licence, which was difficult to obtain. But Ponrepo didn't give up. He got together all the necessary documents and kept applying. His dream came true in September 1907. Not far from the house where he was born in Prague's Old Town, Viktor Ponrepo opened his new cinema - the very first permanent cinema in Prague. Ivan Klimes is a film historian based at the National Film Archives and also at the Department of Cinema Studies of Charles University in Prague.

"Because he was the first in Prague, he is still a symbolic character, made hugely popular by Czech film critics and historians. He became a legend, even though some of his contemporaries may have played a more important role in the development of cinema in the Czech lands. Ponrepo's social background was also typical of the owners of the early travelling cinemas and later permanent cinemas."

Viktor Ponrepo's first cinema in Karlova Street replaced an old cabaret theatre. It was a simple room with 56 tip-up seats and a piano in the corner. There was a cloakroom and a refreshment counter in the lobby, too. Films were shown every day except Friday. Viktor Ponrepo was very particular about the reputation of his theatre. He wanted to create a real family atmosphere; he greeted every visitor personally and showed them to their seats. Just in case he couldn't manage to say goodbye to everybody individually, he had a short film recorded of himself standing and bowing to his audience. The 93-frame celluloid film has been preserved until today. Film historian Ivan Klimes again.

"Look at the development of the musical accompaniment in Ponrepo's cinema: he started with a simple phonograph and went on to very basic live piano and violin music. All the big cinemas later had 18-member orchestras in the 1910s. So even the intimate, homey atmosphere was one of the things that made Ponrepo's cinema unique. Viktor Ponrepo's brother also contributed greatly to the fame of Ponrepo's establishment. His job was to present and narrate the films - live - and the audience loved him for what were almost cabaret shows."

In September 1911, the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison visited Ponrepo's cinema during a visit to Prague with his family. Edison is the father of the phonograph, an essential part of Ponrepo's travelling cinema, and he was one of several people who contributed to the development of the cinematograph.

The end of the First World War brought about a real boom in cinematography and the film industry blossomed. Cinemas started sprouting up in Prague and soon the city had more than 50 movie theatres. Viktor Ponrepo was not a man interested in profits; what he wanted was to please his audience. No wonder he soon found himself in dire financial straits. He could not afford to pay a projectionist and had to do everything himself: turn the handle of the cinematograph with one hand and insert glass panes with Czech subtitles with the other every 30 seconds and on top of that operate the arc lamp. It was quite testing for a man now well over fifty.

During the depression in the 1920s, Ponrepo applied for the renewal of his conjurer's licence, as the cinema alone could not support him anymore. He was explaining his predicament to some friends in a café when he suddenly a stroke. Viktor Ponrepo died hours later. It was the 4th of December 1926.

Viktor Ponrepo was not an inventor or a cinema pioneer on an international scale, but he certainly was a bright and perceptive observer of his times. He was an enterprising man with brilliant ideas and we can see how during his life film slowly but surely evolved from a conjurers' contraption and a variety show attraction to an everyday phenomenon. What happened to Ponrepo's cinema after the death of its founder? Film historian Ivan Klimes:

"The original cinema existed until 1950. There is another nice symbolic touch; it was the last cinema in Prague to be equipped with a sound system; that was in 1936. So until 1936 the cinema showed only silent movies and this fact reinforced the reputation of the cinema as a pioneering cinema that belongs to the past."

As Milos Fikejz from the National Film Archives told us earlier, the tradition of the Ponrepo cinema was renewed in the early 1960's and today it shows mainly independent art films.

Viktor Ponrepo does not only have a cinema named after him. Somewhere out there in the outer space there is a tiny planet, which was discovered by a Czech astronomer on the 4th of December 1986, the 60th anniversary of Viktor Ponrepo's death. It was named Ponrepo to forever commemorate the man who opened the first permanent cinema in Prague in 1907.