I recently found myself on a tour of Alexandra Township, or Alex, with an innovative new tourism company called Tour2.0. I like Tour2.0’s online description so much that I’m just going to quote it directly:

Tour2.0 is a platform that takes you through a journey of discovery through authentic community tours and tour packages that are based on real African stories told by community members within the context of their community.

I’ve spent lots of time exploring Alex and written about it in my blog (see posts here and here), in the soon-to-be-released SandtonPlaces book, and in an upcoming issue of the Johannesburg in Your Pocket Guide. But there is much more that I’ve yet to discover there. Alex, notwithstanding the fact that 95% of South Africans are afraid to set foot there, is one of Joburg’s most historic districts. I think it’s also one of the most interesting.

On this recent tour I was introduced to a few places in Alex that I hadn’t been to before. Kings Cinema was the most spectacular.

Kings theatre outside

 Kings Cinema: 48 2nd Avenue, Alexandra.

Kings Cinema was built in the 1940s or 1950s (depending on who you ask). Other than natural ageing it’s hardly changed over the last 65 years. Kings Cinema is the oldest movie theatre in Alex and has 500 seats.

Theatre from back

The inside of the cinema.

Louise in theatre

Louise pretends to watch a movie.

Kings Cinema has been owned by the same family since it opened. The current owner, Abraham Nkomo, inherited the business from his uncle.

Abraham in control room_edited-1“I was born in the yard next door,” Abraham says. “I think I will die there too.”

I met Abraham and immediately adored him. He screened mainstream films at Kings Cinema up until three years ago. Then he had to stop because he couldn’t afford it anymore.

Film reelspsd

Old film reels in the Kings Cinema store room.

Abraham keeps the cash-flow going by renting out the theatre to churches — smart move, as there are lots of congregations in Alex and not enough space for churches. He hosts three congregations a week. A doctor also rents out part of the building as his office.

Theatre from below

View from in front of the screen.

I, along with everyone else in the tour group, wandered around with our mouths open and exclaimed that this is pretty much the coolest place ever and there must be some way to start showing movies here again. Abraham flashed his beatific smile and inclined his head. I’m not sure he cares too much. The cinema isn’t going anywhere and neither is he.

Abraham outside

Abraham at the entrance to the cinema, next to the building’s historic marker. The price of admission (R10.55, or about $1) is still on the door. Peeling movie posters plaster the walls outside.

I stood across the street, waiting for the tour van to move so I could get a clear shot of the building. Men gambled on the corner, playing a game with a large checkered board and some plastic bottle caps. Taxis screeched past. Kids waited in line to buy candy from the spaza shop. (Every building in Alex has a spaza shop — a small informal stand selling snacks and sweets.) Abraham stood calmly in the middle of it all.

Kings Cinema is dead, yet alive. This is Alex.

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