Abraham Tuschinski, an enterprising Polish immigrant in Rotterdam who worked as a tailor and owned a very successful company, was smitten with film. In 1911 he opened his first cinema theatre, called Thalia, which was very luxurious in those days. In roughly ten years’ time, he built up a veritable cinema empire in Rotterdam. Meanwhile, he hired his brothers-in-law Hermann Ehrlich and Hermann Gerschtanowitz. As his representative and acting manager, respectively, they helped enable the company’s success. Tuschinski decided next that owning a cinema theatre in Amsterdam would be the crowning glory of his work.
In 1917, he found a suitable location in the Reguliersbreestraat in Amsterdam, which happened to be directly next to Nöggerath’s cinema. It wasn’t just one single building, it was the infamous ‘Duvelshoek’, an old and slummy part of town that ran on to the Reguliersdwarsstraat. It took two years to evict all the residents.
Building a film palace
The first foundation stone was laid on 18 June 1919. Tuschinski was a demanding client who insisted on always having his say. The architect of the theatre, Herman Louis de Jong, quit after one too many discussions about the building’s façade, and his work was taken over by Willem Kromhout.
The style of the building was a combination of Jugendstil, Art Deco and the Amsterdam School. Purists thought it was in bad taste, and the rather garish green cupolas on the roof were cause for much vexation, but after the opening in October 1921, the public changed its mind: Tuschinski had built a film palace.
Ahead of its time
Dutch newspapers such as ‘Het Vaderland’ and the ‘NRC’ wrote about the cinema theatre’s opening, praising many aspects and criticising others. The newspapers discussed matters of style and taste, as well as the impressive American Wurlitzer film organ. The technology used in the building is innovative for its time: Tuschinski had installed a temperature-regulating ventilation system. And every detail, from the lamps in the lavatories to the upholstery in the remotest corners of the building, was designed to be seen. Tuschinski wanted everything to be oriented towards the visitor having a glamorous and comfortable experience – the idea was to provide the working man with as much luxury as possible for working-class prices.
More than just a cinema
That Tuschinski’s cinema theatre had a stage and an orchestra pit wasn’t exceptional; during the silent film era, every large cinema had a film orchestra and variety acts were performed between the films. Tuschinski tried to beat the competition through the quality of his orchestra and the performers. His theatre also featured a cabaret, La Gaîté, with a varying programme of revues, plays, music and dance. The Tuschinski Theatre was thus more than just a cinema.
From the moment the visitor entered the glazed tile-covered façade of the building and ascended the staircase it was clear that every detail had been thought through. In the lobby there was a specially designed deep-pile multicoloured carpet on the floor, and the lighting was spectacular there due to a skylight that changed colour. There were lamps with silk shades everywhere, and every available corner was decorated.
A small army of personnel – each one in crisp uniforms – stood ready to attend to visitors: doormen, cashiers, bellboys to show the way through the building, usherettes to guide visitors to their seats, salesgirls offering lemonade, beer, cigarettes and ice cream. The cloakroom was in the Japanese Room which was totally done up in style, complete with a Buddha statue. There was even a crèche by the ladies’ toilet, so that there really wasn’t any reason for young mothers to deny themselves an outing.
Not everyone was enthusiastic. The Filmliga – the self-declared guardians of good taste with the hot-tempered writer and critic Menno ter Braak at their helm – saw Tuschinski as the origin of a vulgar and commercial film climate. The Filmliga’s stance made little sense, as the quality films they so wanted bring to the public’s attention were often also shown at Tuschinski.
Setbacks and strategy
In 1936, the Tuschinski group ran into serious financial setbacks: Tuschinski’s son Will spent an astronomical amount of money on the production of Komedie om geld, but the film was a flop. Additionally, Tuschinski had bought an expensive piece of property in the centre of The Hague. He intended to use it for a new cinema, but it remained undeveloped because the building plans kept being postponed. To avert bankruptcy, Tuschinski’s management agreed to a series of measures allowing N.V. Tubem (a company specially founded for this reason) to run the group, and in turn, this company employed Tuschinski and his brothers-in-law.
Tuschinski during and after WWII
During the occupation of the Netherlands in WWII, the Jewish members of Tubem’s board of directors were fired. The Germans used an incident involving the flying of the Dutch flag – which was outlawed at the time – as a reason to seize the theatre. They renamed it ‘Tivoli’. Tuschinski and Gerschtanowitz were killed in Auschwitz, Ehrlich in Sobibor. Nearly all of their immediate family members died in the war, with the exception of Gerschtanowitz’s son Max and Ehrlich’s son and daughter, Nathan and Fifi. After the war, it was Max Gerschtanowitz who ended up becoming the director of the Tuschinski Theatre.