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Ivo Jarosy: Obituary

For more than 50 years, the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street was London's pre-eminent art house. It was here in the Thirties that British audiences first saw major films of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne, and where, in later years, the reputations of Ingmar Berg-man, Andzej Wadja, Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard, Miklos Jancs and many others were largely established in this country. The Academy's fastidious standards were maintained by a succession of just three people. The last of these was Ivo Jarosy, who reluctantly closed the cinema in 1986.

Jarosy arrived in England in 1938 and became a publicist at the Academy, working for the formidable Elsie Cohen who had inaugurated its art-house policy. His stepfather, George Hoellering, was a director of the cinema and ran it after the war with Jarosy as his right-hand man. Jarosy's meticulously compiled press releases helped many a reviewer unravel the complexities of the often difficult and challenging films that the Academy liked to show. He also worked closely with Peter Strausfield who created linocut images for the Academy's distinctive posters (the cinema refused any existing artwork), and commissioned the silk-screen designs that appeared after Strausfield's death.

Hoellering and Jarosy would visit the major festivals and for many years bought films for their own releasing subsidiary; but their offer of an Academy run would be enough for other British distributors to acquire a picture. Many films that are now regarded as classics, such as Ray's Pather Panchali and Jansc's The Round Up were daring choices that opened British eyes to the work of new directors. In fact, Pather Panchali was owned by a rival specialised cinema which was reluctant to show it.

The Academy demanded an exclusive run for every film it booked, and even rescued British and Hollywood films that were on the shelf, most notably Ken Loach's Kes in 1970. As Jarosy recalled in an interview he gave for the Winter 1994/5 issue of the magazine Picture House, "Kes was probably the biggest financial success we ever had. We said to the distributors, 'Look, we think it's a wonderful film. Why don't you put it on at the biggest cinema you can find?' They said it wouldn't work. 'Why not?' 'You need subtitles, you can't understand what the people are saying!' And they said, 'We don't think so.' The press, of course, went crazy over it."

Inevitably, the Academy relied heavily on the support of the critics, who did not always encourage audiences to see its choices. If a film was doing badly, there were old classics to be brought back in sparkling new prints (it was always reviving Les Enfants du Paradis as if to make up for the fact that this was one of the films it did not premiere in London). And many will gratefully recall the regular summer seasons of silent Buster Keaton comedies and Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean adaptations.

In order to show more films, especially those of very limited appeal, the Academy added a small cinema, initially run as a club, in place of adjacent offices in 1964, then the following year created a third, mid- size auditorium in the basement. It never became the most comfortable of venues, but the striking red mock- curtain decorative scheme of the main auditorium walls, created by Angus McBean in 1954, set the tone for serious deliberation of the film on screen. McBean also designed the Pavilion Restaurant, the best attached to a West End cinema. If the Academy had a curable fault, it lay perhaps in the supporting shorts which were, of course, carefully chosen but seemed too often on the ponderous side.

After Hoellering's death in 1980, Jarosy kept the Academy going through what had become, after so many years of success, difficult times. Jarosy recalled: "In the last ten years of its existence, we subsidised the running of the Academy by about pounds 1.5 million, from the money from the letting of offices in the building. It was getting worse all the time. Our faithful audience was getting old and didn't like going out any more at night. And any film shown in a specialised cinema was going to show up on television after a shorter and shorter interval. And, of course, as far as our situation went, it was never very good for a cinema. Leicester Square and its approaches are the place for West End cinemas." But Jarosy's tastes had perhaps aged with him and newcomers like the Lumiere had seized the initiative.

Jarosy enjoyed his retirement, reading poetry and watching old film favourites on television but never succumbing to video. I last saw him on the Monday before his death when he attended the National Film Theatre's tribute to his old friend on the festival circuit, the late programmer and critic John Gillett.

Jarosy always seemed the most courteous, patient and considerate of men in his business dealings. During my interview he remembered his delight in 1956 when the Academy was offered Elia Kazan's film of Baby Doll by puzzled Wardour Street executives who shamefacedly withdrew it after being apprised of its sizzling box-office potential. I reluctantly excised the anecdote and amended several other comments because he feared they made him seem "smug and arrogant" at other people's expense.

Ivo Rudolph Jarosy, film exhibitor: born Berlin 9 November 1921; married 1952 Joan Grant (two sons); died London 1 May 1996.