Veecumsee’s developed the first multi-theatre cinema complex in the country — the Sapphire — and it was opened to public in 1964. The complex housed three screens — Sapphire, and two smaller theatres; Emerald and Blue Diamond and there was also a small preview theatre. All of this at a fabulous location on Anna Salai (then Mount Road) near the Gemini Flyover (those days a major intersection with signals).
What made the Sapphire Theatre complex unique was the way it was run. Sapphire was for the mainline English films, Blue Diamond was for off beat films, or re-runs of films that had already been screened in Chennai. Blue Diamond would start screening films in the morning at 9 AM and run back to back shows up to midnight. Emerald was for Hindi films.
The first movie to be screened in Sapphire was Cleopatra and it was perhaps the first 70mm theatre in the country.
On top of this well ordered show plan, Sapphire marketed well and used ideas to capture people’s imagination. For example, when they screened ‘Those magnificent men and their flying machines’ they actually parked an old bi-plane in front of the theatre. Even before that, the first film I remember seeing was ‘The Sound of Music’ after Sapphire ensured that many schools sent their kids to see it along with their teachers!
Sapphire screened an eclectic mix to enthrall Chennai audiences. From Western classics like “For a few dollars more’ and ‘The Pitiless Three’ to ’2001, a Space Odyssey’, ‘Patton’, ‘Round the world in eighty days’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘The dirty dozen’, ‘Dirty Harry’, ‘Mackenna’s Gold’ to name a few. They had wooden displays in the entrance foyer where the names of the films shown at the theatre were faithfully painted under the respective years in which they were screened.
Many are the days whiled away at Blue Diamond as teenagers who simply wanted to spend the holidays doing something pleasurable watching movies like ‘Blow hot, blow cold’, ‘The moon’s a balloon’, ‘The Mackenzie Break’, ‘If its Tuesday this must be Belgium’ and other off beat and mainstream films. It used to be such an experience to walk in in the middle of a film, find a seat, watch till the end, sit through the short break and then watch the first half (and maybe see the full film again!)!
All the other large theatre complexes came up many years later – Devi theatre complex followed by the Sathyam Cinema complex. Casino used to screen many good English films as well, including some powerful films like ‘Highway Queen’ and ‘Mad Max’. And I remember seeing ‘Rollerball’ and ‘Enter the Dragon’ at Anand! But Sapphire was always special because it was the first theatre complex here, and the way it was managed and marketed.
Sadly it is no more, brought down by greedy, manipulative and political muscle. But it will always live on in my memory for the many magical moments I spent there as a boy, and later as a teenager.
Sapphire theatre was purchased by the AIADMK in 1994 from the Veecumsee family. It had planned to construct a party office at the site and even demolished the theatre for the purpose. But the plan has since been dropped.
In an earlier interview, AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa said, “We had acquired a place on Anna Salai, the old Sapphire theatre premises. But there was a lot of resistance from partymen. They are sentimentally attached to this building (the current party headquarters on Avvai Shanmugam Salai) because it used to be MGR’s residence earlier. The partymen don’t want to shift the headquarters to another place.”
And today The ruling AIADMK has put its Sapphire theatre property on Anna Salai for sale. The party kick started the sale process by appointing a consultant, who will handhold the party through the transaction.