A Return to Glory
Jennifer Choo 
The beautifully refurbished Majestic Theatre is all set for its new life

In pre-television days, going to the cinema was an event, not to mention a portal to worlds beyond. In Penang, the most glorious of them all was the Majestic Theatre, a popular spot that still lives fondly in the memory of generations of Penangites.

Originally built to be a live theatre, the colonial building was named in honour of the then British sovereign, King George V. Majestic Theatre was the first cinema to show sound films.

For 50 years, it was a popular venue for dating couples and kung-fu fans as Chinese movies by Shaw Brothers was the main draw. The area where Majestic is located was known then as the West End of George Town, thanks to the lively venues lining the street. By the time 1980s rolled around, many of the buildings were either torn down or converted into furniture stores and smoky pool halls.

When Jonathan Foo, CEO of 1919 Global, first laid eyes on the building, it was in a deplorable state. But Foo, who has successfully restored and now operates the nostalgic-laden Loke Thye Kee restaurant and the more contemporary Loke Thye Kee Residences boutique hotel, was not deterred.

He acquired Majestic Theatre and 12 adjoining shophouses on Jalan Phee Choon. This happened before George Town was admitted into the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing because Foo had an ambitious vision of building an eco-system within the block of properties where people would live, work and play again.

“With Majestic itself, many ideas were floated in the planning stage, but eventually it was the Grand Old Dame that told us what to do. She was originally built to offer an escape through entertainment so we decided to restore it into George Town’s first real heritage event venue for entertainment, banquets and seminars.”

After working with a Singapore-based design agency, Ministry of Design (MOD) on the Loke Thye Kee Residences, Foo chose to continue this relationship because he knew that MOD would be sensitive to the building’s history but savvy enough to not let this limit ideas and concepts. He also believed that the team’s willingness to push design boundaries would give Majestic Theatre a distinct design befitting it.

Guided by only a few rare old photographs, the crumbling and missing plaster mouldings on the front façade and side balconies were recreated. The original façade crown which had been bricked up at the end of colonial rule was also reinstated. As for the interior, this was where MOD truly transformed the Majestic from an old dame to a modern-day lady.

“Searching for a common thread that transcended genres and decades of movie making, we came across the clapboard, something common on all movie sets whatever the genre,” explains Colin Seah, founder of MOD. “I was very attracted to the graphical quality of the stripes and extrapolated it to the spatial dimension, making something 2D into 3D. This gesture allowed us to pay homage to the heritage of the cinema while also contemporising the space. The result is hypnotic, literally.”

The upstairs Circle seating is now a black-stained wooden deck

Beginning from the reception area, the dynamic clapboard pattern flows through the hall with its black-and-white tiled floor and rises up the 30-foot grand proscenium to Majestic Theatre’s logo above it. The original Circle seating now features a black-stained wooden deck and the imposing 40-foot high vaulted ceiling has been restored, complete with its exposed original English-made iron trusses that still bear the mark of the iron mill where they were forged.

Wooden acoustic strips and lime plaster on the walls were removed to expose the original brickwork beneath, suffusing the theatre with a warm wash and simultaneously creating a natural non-reflective surface that gives the space its quality live acoustics.

Since its official launch in April, Majestic Theater has been bustling with activity. “For our launch, we had a Penang hawker-themed event with a selection of Penang hawker food, together with cultural performances. The guest list included an old couple who met and got married while they were both working at the former cinema,” reveals Foo. “To date, we’ve had a community film screening, emulating the traditional ticketing system with ticket prices at RM1 each, as well as free entry for students and retirees. This was also a part of a CSR programme to open Majestic Theatre in its renovated form to the local community.”

He added: “We have also organised a Wedding Atelier and hosted several weddings, festival openings, and gala dinners. At present, we have the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra on board as our in-house band and we’re in discussion with them to hold regular concerts.”

Befitting such a luminary, Majestic Theatre played a prominent part in Saw Teong Hin’s acclaimed movie, You Mean The World To Me; Foo was delighted that the fates conspired to make it happen.

“The experience was amazing,” he enthuses. “Being Malaysia’s first movie where the dialogue is entirely in Hokkien, it was indeed an honour (for Majestic Theatre) to be chosen as the main set and possibly the one and only movie to be shot at this venue itself.”

The movie was shot before Majestic’s renovation was completed. “Timing was everything. If the interior of Majestic was completed before the shoot, it would not have been possible for them to use it.”

The Grand Old Dame is certainly ready for her close-up.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.