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How Betanzos became a pioneer of cinema in Spain


Jaime Pita, grandson of the founder of the Alfonsetti Theatre, recounts the beginnings of this cinema, which has been active since 1897. Even before the arrival of cinematography in Galicia, moving image shows were held here. This is a story of passion, tenacity, and a dash of chance.

I remember all the movies and where I was sitting when I watched them."

Jaime Pita walks among the seats in the cinema today with the same naturalness with which he did in the fifties, when the Alfonsetti was his home.

He sometimes enjoyed the films with his friends, sitting in the front row;

at other times, he accessed certain privileges.

He liked to go up to the projection booth, where they had a stool ready for him to watch "the movies that no other kid could see."

He has a vivid memory of a black-and-white scene on the beach in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr spin around in the sand.

From here to eternity

, one of my favorites.

I also remember Rita Hayworth's dance in


, the one that was censored”.

He touches the walls: "I grew up here."

Jaime Pita is 78 years old;

the Alfonsetti cinema, 140. He has been a politician with a long career in the Popular Party of Galicia —advisor and friend of Manuel Fraga, as well as deputy and spokesman for the formation— and a now retired history teacher.

The cinema he talks about with such enthusiasm is possibly the oldest theater still active in Spain —located in Betanzos, where Jaime is from— and one of the oldest in Europe, which his family ran for three years. generations and which functioned as a cultural and social center from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

A look at the Alfonsetti façade reveals its uniqueness.

It was built in the refectory of the old convent of Santo Domingo.

The entrances to the church and the Alfonsetti are one step away from each other, and the building they share stands in the center of Betanzos, in the Plaza de Hermanos García Naveira.

Not far away is the Claudino Pita canton, named after Jaime's grandfather.

His figure is remembered for having designed the Betanzos Balloon, which the locals fly as a tradition every August 16 in honor of San Roque, his patron saint.

To this day, the Pita family is still in charge of making the balloon by hand every year, as it was done in the 19th century.

Jaime Pita, administrator of the Alfonsetti cinema for more than 40 years and politician of the PP in Galicia, photographed this winter in Betanzos.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza

The figure of Claudino Pita, however, is not limited to the design of the globe.

According to Alfredo Erias, co-author of the book

O cinematógrafo en Betanzos

(Provincial Council of A Coruña, 1997), the newspapers of the time mention Pita as the manager of a shop that ran "balloons and lanterns", whose fame began to grow who even took them to Madrid to illuminate the Retiro Park in 1901. But among all his companies there is one that acquires a particular significance 100 years later: the pre-cinematographic events that he carried out in the then Alfonsetti theater, before the invention arrived in Galicia which the Lumière brothers patented in 1895.

"The Alfonsetti became a true temple of pre-cinema shows," says José María Paz, director of the Betanzos Film Week and author of

La máquina de eternidad

(Hércules de Ediciones, 2022), a book that addresses the beginnings of cinema in Galicia.

According to Paz, in those years prior to the first cinematograph, Claudino Pita specialized in the "immediate antecedents" of the seventh art, such as the magic lamp, Chinese shadows and the zoetrope.

During the time of those shows, Claudino Pita was not yet in charge of the then Alfonsetti theater.

That would be years later, when it would also have become a cinema, in 1902. In

O cinematógrafo en Betanzos

, the authors Alfredo Erias and Rosario Sarmiento point out that the Alfonsetti was born two decades earlier, on November 12, 1882, when a military Mariano Alfonsetti, from Alicante of Italian origin, asked the Council to lease him the abandoned hall of the Santo Domingo Monastery to set up a theater.

A portrait of Claudino Pita, precursor of cinematography in Betanzos with his light shows and manager of the establishment for many years.

Alfredo Erias Archive

But the legacy of Mariano Alfonsetti does not go much further than the name of this venue.

Jaime Pita is very clear that his grandfather was the "creator" of the space, first with his light and shadow shows and later with the movies.

And it is that the history of cinema in Betanzos goes back to the first days of cinema in Galicia.

Just behind the Alfonsetti, in the Museo das Mariñas, is the testimony of this, the first cinematographic projector that was used in this region on an itinerant basis.

The early arrival of cinema in Betanzos is due to a coincidence.

According to the documentation carried out by José María Paz —based on research from the Lumière-Lyon 2 University and the University of Santiago de Compostela, as well as the press records of that time—, the cinematographer arrived in this municipality at the beginning of June 1897 by two projectionists named Acevedo and Márquez, who came from Portugal and had permission from the Lumière brothers' concessionaire to use their machine in Spain.

These Portuguese first arrive in A Coruña to show films, but they found a surprise.

There a Franco-Spanish photographer, José Sellier, already had one of those innovative machines to show moving images.

In May 1897, according to Paz's book, both Sellier and the Portuguese were showing films in A Coruña.

However, the people of A Coruña showed a great preference for Sellier, since he projected views of the city streets, and the locals wanted to see themselves in the cinema.

As they could not attract the public to the competition, Acevedo and Márquez decided to leave A Coruña and ended up in a municipality located about 25 kilometers away: Betanzos.

There, the Alfonsetti appeared as the perfect place to place his cinematograph.

As can be seen in press advertisements of that year, by June 10, 1897, projections were already being made at the Alfonsetti theater, and thus it was baptized as a movie theater.

“Indeed, it continued to be used as a theater,

View from the upper seats of the Alfonsetti cinema.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza

Alfredo Erias agrees with Paz that there is enough documentation to support that in 1897 movies were already being shown there.

This historian emphasizes that, after the arrival of the movies, the Alfonsetti continued to be used for other events such as dances or theater, but that "the cinematograph was covering more and more."

This is how the Alfonsetti became a movie theater in the 19th century.

But another question remains, that of how it has survived until today.

Paz and Erias agree again on the answer: the role played by the Pita.

“This family had the genes of the show.

It was the personal initiative of the Pitas that has kept this alive for more than 125 years,” says Paz.

The bells of the Santo Domingo chapel announce twelve o'clock in the morning.

Jaime Pita sits in a heavy iron chair at the entrance to the cinema.

At 78 years old, he remembers his experiences lucidly: "More than a cinema or a theater, the Alfonsetti was a house of culture," he says.

"And my grandfather was a special character and a pioneer of culture."

Although he did not know him—Claudino Pita died in 1933 and Jaime was born in 1944—they are both connected by having given their lives to this cinema.

An announcement of the inauguration of the then Alfonsetti theater, which opened its doors on November 12, 1882. Archive of Alfredo Erias

Jaime's father, who had the same name, fell ill at the age of 49 with sclerosis that made him unable to continue running the premises.

At the age of 17, Jaime had to take a step forward.

That frustrated his desire to go to study in Madrid, but he does not regret it: “I did not work at Alfonsetti, I enjoyed it.

This, despite the sacrifice of not having Saturdays and Sundays.

I was always here from 1961″.

Jaime Pita studied and later made his career in teaching and politics, all while continuing with the cinema.

“I lived it all.

I was born in that fantasy that was the cinema.

I learned the technical sheets of the films, where the plot came from, and I learned to read in them ”.

He spent hours sitting in his grandfather's office, learning how film distribution worked.

Claudino Pita's grandson, however, did not see the golden times of Alfonsetti.

At the beginning of the 20th century, this was already a cultural, social and also political center —local parties still hold rallies and events there—, but the arrival of the Capitol cinema, founded in 1943, took away its prominence in Betanzos.

“As it was bigger, the theater companies no longer came here and that is why the Alfonsetti became almost exclusively cinema”, Jaime explains.

Even so, the Alfonsetti never closed its doors.

Together with Emilio, his younger brother, he managed it for decades.

Even when his life turned to politics, Jaime managed to divide his time between it, teaching and film.

“From a very young age I studied and worked, that is why I resisted the rhythm of Don Manuel [Fraga]”.

Jaime Pita, administrator of the Alfonsetti cinema for more than 40 years and politician of the PP in Galicia.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza (Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Jaime was in charge of Alfonsetti for 45 years, until one day in 2006 when the family decided to return the room to the City Council.

“The Alfonsetti goes to the Council due to a decision made by my brother and me.

We took steps and what I asked the mayoress was to take care of him”.

The Alfonsetti seats have been recently restored and their aseptic current appearance hides their exciting history.

Now it does not open every day, but every year the Betanzos Film Week is celebrated, which is dedicated to figures of Spanish cinema (in 2022 María Pujalte was honored and in 2023 it will be dedicated to Luis Tosar), and beyond that it is used only occasionally for special functions.

Although it is no longer a commercial cinema, Jaime feels calm because he knows that in the hands of the City Council, the Alfonsetti will be preserved as a treasure of history in Betanzos.

“I am the protagonist of

Cinema Paradiso

”, says Jaime.

During the interview he mentions that Italian film at least 10 times.

He also tells that he met Jacques Perrin decades ago, the actor who plays Totò as an adult.

“I met him when he came to shoot the film

Sangre en Indochina

in Madrid .

His name is like me: Jacques ”.

He is fascinated by the parallel between the character and his life, although there is an important difference: “In the film, the cinema disappears.

And the Alfonsetti will never disappear.

This is a historical ensemble and it is untouchable”.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2023-03-20

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