THE MOORE THINGS CHANGE: The yo-yo Empire
THE PROMISED RESTORATION of that Bridgetown embarrassment known as the Empire Theatre has much in common with a yo-yo – at times it’s up, other times it’s down. The matter is back on the agenda now that UNESCO is paying some attention to our capital city and its Garrison.
“We must restore that historic site; our heritage is important!” And all that lip service . . . until the matter returns to the back burner.
It reminds me of an expected visit from an important person: we rush to paint up the house, put down new congoleum, and install new curtains, while making sure that the old mahogany Morris chair is smartly polished.
Suddenly, in unique Bajan style, there’s great urgency to “restore the Empire”. Of course, Government is out front leading the charge, with the usual platitudes. But we’ve been hearing that song for several years since the place closed over 30 years ago.
Whatever Government or the private sector plan to do, they’d better hurry up and get cracking as soon as possible.
According to an excellent picture book published by the Government Information Service nearly ten years ago, there’s a 99-year lease on that property going back to 1917. My shaky maths tells me that that legal arrangement will come to an end in 2016 – just five years away.
According to Old Barbados 1900-1970s: “In 1917 the Barbados Government leased a plot of land in Probyn Street, Bridgetown, to a body called the National Theatre Company for the erection of a theatre for stage productions.”
That lease, at an annual rental of five pounds sterling, was granted on condition that it would become null and void if, in the event of the building being destroyed, it were not rebuilt “within a reasonable time” – whatever that vague legal terminology meant.
Many people have made impassioned pleas for the restoration of that ugly carbuncle in the heart of Bridgetown. The list of callers is long: historians Professors Henry Fraser and Pedro Welch,
Dr Karl Watson, Warren Alleyne and Trevor Marshall; concerned citizens Rudolph Hinds, Ulric Rice, the late Alfred Pragnell, among others, including this Barbadian.
During my short-lived two-year tenure on the board of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), I presented a short paper suggesting that Government allow the CBC to acquire the Empire building and develop it as a sound stage for the television and radio production of local material.
Those were the days when the CBC was mandated to produce 80 per cent local material and there was even some wishful thinking about “24-hour television”. I suggested that those goals could only be achieved if the CBC set up its own production centre to produce what it presents and distribute programmes around the world.
I called for a separate entity from within the corporation to work on scripts, novels, short stories, even books, to be adapted for radio and television dramatization. I even identified the staff: Rosemary Alleyne, Olutoye Walrond, Cicely Clarke-Richmond, Betty Holford, Junior Evanson, Cherie Jones and Tony Thompson – all able researchers and an actor in Mr Thompson. Sherwood McCaskie has since joined.
I was politely told that the Empire was being considered for other development: the Cubans, then the Chinese would be involved. I said: “All right, what about that empty, unfinished hole in the middle of Sherbourne [now the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Conference Centre]?”
The matter fell away and, frustrated, I begged to withdraw.
I hope the most recent stirrings, including a Facebook click-a-crowd campaign, will bear fruit. Amazing how anything that appears on a computer screen can excite.
But there are some physical issues that must be taken into consideration.
The Probyn/Bay Streets district is a lot busier in 2011 than it was 40 years ago. I’m not sure how a mass entertainment facility would fare in the congested space that Bridgetown has become.
And please, don’t tire my ears with that clumsy solution known as “park and ride”.
Carl Moore was the first Editor of THE NATION and is a social commentator. Email [email protected]