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​​Italo Bernicchi : a life in film
​​Italo Bernicchi outside his Preview TheatreItalo Bernicchi is mad about movies. After the Victory Theatre closed in the 1980s, he set up a cinema in his home. The Preview Theatre is still going strong today.


IT IS a sign of his passion for the movies that Italo Bernicchi managed to persuade Nelson Mandela to come to his home cinema and watch a snippet of the 1956 children's movie The Red Balloon.

"It was just after he became president in 1994. I got through to his office and they said I should drop off an invitation, so I left a letter in his letterbox inviting him to my home to see the movie. He came with his bodyguard."

Bernicchi, long-time cameraman and passionate movie buff, ran the Victory Theatre in Orange Grove for 35 years, providing Joburgers with a rich selection of movies, before distribution giants Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro were on the scene.

He imported those movies from France, Germany and Italy. "I was the first person to hold film festivals in the city," he says.

He also proudly boasts having a selection of autographed photographs of movie stars, the most famous of whom is Marilyn Monroe, wishing him a happy birthday. "I did a Marilyn Monroe festival at the time."

Other autographed photographs he owns are of Goldie Hawn, Canada Lee (Cry The Beloved Country), Tyrone Power (Blood and Sand), Christopher Lee, Howard Keel (Showboat, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Joan Brickhill, Eve Boswell and The Platters.

I meet Bernicchi at his double-storey home in Bagleston, also the site of his 42-seat home cinema, the Preview Theatre. His 81 years belie his bubbling enthusiasm and energy.

He shows me in, indicating where he welcomes his home movie enthusiasts. "They come in here - I move this table - and I offer them tea and coffee here. They pay for their tickets and go through into the cinema."

I also get to see his cinema. It's a small room, about the size of a medium-sized lounge, filled with red cinema chairs and scarlet screen curtains. Movie photographs and posters hang on the walls.

The carpet is a rich scarlet, with gold swirls running through it, taken from the Victory Theatre when he left there in the early 1980s.

Bernicchi leads me into the projector room, where several shelves are filled with film reels and videos. There are reels stacked on the floor, some hang on the wall.

A flick of a switch opens the curtains. Another switch sets the projector going. He pulls back a curtain hanging in front of a cupboard to reveal a video projector, surrounded by yet more videos.

"I have electric curtains, a projector and play movies from my own collection. I get DVDs and videos from the US," he says.

Movie collection

Asked how big his movie collection is, Bernicchi says he doesn't know exactly but it must run into the hundreds. A storage room is filled with several upright steel cabinets, their shelves stuffed with videos and movie reels, with more stacked on top of the cabinets.

There are three reels marked Oom Paul, a feature documentary made on the Boer War and the concentration camps, shown in the mid-1970s. Film journalists Barry Ronge and the late Percy Baneshik spoke at the showing of the film at the Victory Theatre, Bernicchi says.

There are the old classics - Singing in the Rain, The Sound of Music, To Catch a Thief, The Bells of St Mary's, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Miracle at Midnight, Going my Way. Bernicchi is obviously very proud of his collection.

African Mirror and Grove Kinema

Bernicchi points to an old African drum under the stairway. "This drum was used in the introduction to African Mirror," he explains. It was played by a young man at the start of every African Mirror feature.

As a cameraman Bernicchi filmed many African Mirror episodes. It was a news series for the South African market, shown from the 1930s through to the 1980s.

Bernicchi's film-showing days date back to the Moncine Cinema in Bree Street, which he ran in the early 1940s. Here he screened European films, including Greek, Italian, German and Portuguese movies.

In the late 1940s he was approached by African Consolidated Theatres, theatre and film entrepreneur Isadore William Schlesinger's company, with an offer to show his films at the Grove Kinema in Orange Grove, the name of the Victory Theatre at the time.

He selected and screened movies at this venue for the next 35 years. "We were proud of what we used to show," Bernicchi reminisces.

In those days many of the northern suburbs - Parkview, Greenside, Rosebank, Killarney, and slightly west in Mayfair - had their own cinemas. Some of these buildings still exist: the cinema in Greenside has been converted into a hairdressing training centre, and the one in Parkview into a market.

After WW2, the theatre was renamed the Victory Theatre, to honour the Allied victory. It was probably built before WW1.

Cameraman

Bernicchi was a cameraman at Killarney Film Studios, which situated where the Killarney Mall is now, for 45 years. He filmed a range of subjects for African Mirror: rugby, yachting, soccer, passing-out parades, the Kruger National Park, art and industry, and the show grounds.

He recalls filming an interview with Chris Barnard, shortly after the famous surgeon performed the first heart transplant in Cape Town in 1967.

In the 1950s Bernicchi was stationed in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) for some time, where he filmed a series of Swahili features and a documentary on Tanganyika.

He also did travel films for South African Airways, travelling to Greece, Portugal, Italy, Germany and France.

Among his collection Bernicchi keeps some of these early movies. "When there was an extra copy I would keep it. Over the years people have given me films too."

His love of cinema goes back to his childhood. He had a projector in his room at home and, turning his bedroom into a cinema, he charged his sisters a tickey (roughly two-and-a-half cents) to watch a movie.

"I used to bring the chairs up from downstairs, and hang movie posters on my walls. My mom used to get mad with me."

Italy

Born in Italy, Bernicchi came to South Africa as a one-year-old. His parents settled in Fordsburg, where his father had a bakery. In Italy his father lived in a villa and showed movies in his converted cowshed.

Bernicchi senior would go into town and hire a movie, and have about 60 people in the shed on Friday and Saturday nights.

His parents moved to Orange Grove and started the Italian Club in neighbouring Orchards. Until recently there was a lively Little Italy community in Orange Grove.

Bernicchi ran a film group from the Italian Club and remembers neighbours complaining about the noise after each screening, with the audience loudly talking about the movie.

But with the advent of videos in the 1980s, and the arrival of Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro, the little guys were squeezed out of the industry.

"The four Indian cinemas in Mayfair closed," Bernicchi says, followed by the Victory Theatre.

He remembers the Victory's final closing, in the late 1980s. "It was a sad moment. It was closed by Percy Baneshik, who cut a piece of the carpet and framed it, and had it hanging in his lounge."

Bernicchi took the rest of the carpet and laid it in one of the rooms in his house, where he created the Preview Theatre. That theatre is still going strong today.

From cinema to theatre

The Victory Theatre switched from screening movies to putting on live productions, with Ipi Thombi its first show.

But when that production went on tour overseas, the theatre fell into disuse, and in 1991 was about to be converted into a motorboat showroom, according to The Star.

It was saved by promoter Colin Law, with his production of Elton John - The Musical. Law leased the theatre for two years, intending to turn it into a venue for musical theatre.

Then, at the end of 2004 music producer and magazine publisher Joe Theron bought the theatre, and is renovating it with a view to making it the home of African song and dance troupe Umoja.

It seems that the Victory Theatre, like its long-time former manager, is a stayer. So too are the Gem Theatre in Troyeville and the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein, which are also being revitalised.

Preview Theatre

Italo Bernicchi shows monthly movies and charity screenings at his theatre. For the title of the next movie, contact him on 011 640 1061.
​​Italo Bernicchi : a life in film