Johannesburg — VICTORIA West in the Karoo bears testimony to the way sponsorship of the arts can stimulate economic development, says Gail Robbins, volunteer project manager of the Apollo Development Association.
A project started five years ago to reconstruct and revamp a long-forgotten movie theatre has had a ripple effect on the lives of an entire community.
Built in the early 1920s by Andrew Aristides Bassil, a Greek immigrant, the Apollo Talkies Theatre is believed to be the first cinema built in the platteland region and was considered an institution by the local inhabitants.
At the time it was described as the most beautiful and efficient bioscope in the Great Karoo. It was renowned for its "wide screen and handsome electrified curtains".
Funded initially by De Beers, the theatre was refurbished, reequipped and reopened in November 1999.
"We haven't changed the look of the place. The auditorium is vintage; it was built in the late 1920s and revamped in 1957. It has a post-art deco 1950s feel," says Robbins. "We had to rewire it and put new projectors in place.
"The original projectors are housed in the theatre's museum."
The upgrading of the Apollo Theatre gave rise to the establishment of the Apollo Development Association, now a Section 21 company registered as a not-forprofit organisation. Funding has come from various state departments, as well as from the Standard Bank and Basa.
Robbins says the theatre has become an important part of the local economy through tourism.
"As a cinema with a box office there is some scope for selfsufficiency," she says. "It has the best-equipped projection room in the country, is fully equipped electronically for conferencing and has breakaway rooms.
"It is used by the local farmers' association and has hosted an international conference."
Robbins says their association realised early on that the project had to be community-based and had to offer more than film.
"It was no good talking to a fundamentally intellectually, spiritually, culturally and economically impoverished community about watching movies when they were hungry," she says.
"Economic development entered early in the form of tourism and youth training. For instance, the theatre is manned completely by formerly unemployed people."
When it was found that few people in the area could operate a computer, the association established a learning centre.
"It is a registered training institution and we teach computing to 60 young people doing their N3 equivalent to a matric. Other courses are in the pipeline."
The association has developed a cluster model for economic development.
"The association is at the core of the cluster and is strong on finance, financial management, general management and marketing. Into that we plug small businesses, such as a crafts shop, a construction company, a restaurant, an internet cafe, a video production company and a stationery shop.
"The association does their books and provides managerial and marketing expertise and they pay a percentage of their turnover back to us."
The idea, says Robbins, is to allow these small operations to get on with their businesses and respond to their clients' needs, rather than spend time on managing their money.
Robbins says with the development of the cluster concept the association's training function has becomes very relevant.
"We teach basic life skills, management, whatever is needed to grow this cluster of small businesses," she says.