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"The stalls or the balcony?"

Lausanne filmstar and owner of the Capitole cinema, Lucienne Schnegg


Lucienne Schnegg, the 83-year-old owner, cashier, accountant, barmaid, usher and cleaner of the Capitole cinema, is a Lausanne institution.

swissinfo paid a visit to "the little old lady of the Capitole", who has spent nearly 60 years at the helm of Lausanne's last privately owned cinema. The love of her life, the Capitole, this weekend celebrates its 80th birthday.

To mark the anniversary, the city of Lausanne has commissioned a documentary on the Capitole, its unique owner and staff. "Parterre ou balcon?" (The stalls or the balcony?) will be premiered on Saturday.

The gold-framed glass door of Lausanne's oldest and Switzerland's largest cinema slowly opens and I am ushered in to the lobby by a tiny, smiling grey-haired old lady.

"Welcome to the Capitole," she says. "Come inside, it's freezing out there."

Lucienne Schnegg has been welcoming people into her second home for the past 60 years.

"It's a real Hollywood-style cinema," she says proudly, as we sink into the deep velvet armchairs of the art-deco-style theatre, built in 1928.

"I was 24 when I started on August 1, 1949. The boss needed a secretary. He made me do a little translation and take a typing test."

In those days, the cinema, like the theatre, was extremely popular in Lausanne. Some 25 people worked at the 1,500-seater Capitole, including six uniformed ushers who showed cinemagoers to their seats. The main film used to be preceded by Swiss news and cartoons – all for SFr1.20.

"In 1949 there was television in England but it hadn't started yet in Switzerland. People had been deprived of all kinds of things during the war so they went out a lot," she explains with a nostalgic glint in her eye.

The cinema was a major event and people used to come with their family, especially at weekends, but most days were busy.

"Not like some screenings nowadays when there is no one. It's dramatic but it happens. But if there is no one we save on the electricity bill," she laughs. "We sometimes get just ten people, but we'd like a lot more."

Multiplex onslaught

For the moment, the Capitole is managing to hold out against the marauding multiplex onslaught. But over the past ten years numerous small cinemas in Lausanne have either been gobbled up by multiplex behemoths or transformed into bars or supermarkets.

In the 1950s and 60s there used to be 18 cinemas in Lausanne, showing 18 different films, but today she couldn't really choose the films that she wanted to show, Schnegg explained.

"We are outsiders – we are on our own. We can't fight against the multiplexes. They have too much money and too many possibilities, and they take everything," she said.

Whereas there used to be a regular turnover of films, each running for two to three weeks, cinemas like the Capitole now have to show films for much longer and share them with others.

"That's the drama nowadays," says Schnegg.

"Fortunately, the US distributers Fox Warner and UPI, which have worked with us for years, haven't forgotten me. They are obliged to give us something," she adds.

But she says an economic war is raging.

"The multiplexes make less money than before, so anything goes."

Film buff

Despite the tough competition, the Capitole, which she inherited in 1996, and her magical celluloid world keep her going.

"It's still a pleasure," she explains. "I'm a bit more worried when we haven't got a film or it's not going so well. But as long as we can pay what we owe and hold our head high, that's ok."

She admits to being bored with the American re-runs and space films she has to show, preferring a "good story and script".

"I love musicals," she says. "West Side Story is one of my favourites and Mamma Mia was just my cup of tea."

Photos of Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner and other old Hollywood stars line the walls off her office and the cinema staircases. And Schnegg goes glossy-eyed at the mention of her heroine, Audrey Hepburn, who visited the Capitole in 1967 for a special screening of the film "Wait until dark" for Lausanne's Asylum for the Blind.

"She was dressed in black velour, sublime, and she signed her autograph for me in her car while her chauffeur was waiting. I was happy," she recalls.

At the grand old age of 83, it's now Schnegg's turn to enjoy the limelight. The new documentary on the life-and-soul of the Capitole follows close on the heels of a short film by Jacqueline Veuve entitled "La petite dame du Capitole", released in 2006.

"I've had to start getting used to the fame. I've even been asked to sign photos – that was new," she laughs.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Lausanne

Key facts

The Capitole cinema, built in 1928, is the biggest cinema in Switzerland and the oldest one in Lausanne.
Originally designed for 1,500 cinemagoers, the cinema now has a capacity of 867 seats, as well as several boxes and a balcony for wheelchair access.
The city of Lausanne is celebrating the cinema's 80th birthday on November 29 with a special film evening at the Capitole, including a special showing of the documentary "Parterre ou balcon?".

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