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Friday, 15 July 2016

Grand Openings, Sad Closings and a Survivor

Our Sepia Saturday prompt photograph for this week shows the facade of an old picture palace in Dudley Hill, between Bradford and Leeds, according to our leader Alan Burnett, whose photograph it is.

Before the advent of television, going to the pictures was much more of an occasion than it is now. People dressed up smartly for their afternoon or evening out, as quite apart from your theatre-going companions, you never knew who you might run into at the cafe during the interval between the screening of two full length movies, or perhaps movie-tone news and a short film, followed by the main feature. Back in Australia the National Anthem of God Save the Queen was played at the beginning of each session, with the audience expected to stand up and show their loyalty. 

There were lots of picture theatres to choose from, many of which have since closed down completely, with the buildings that housed them either demolished or converted to some other use. A much smaller number remain in operation, competing valiantly against the multiplex cinemas that have sprung up in recent decades in major shopping centres. The web site purports to be a comprehensive catalogue of cinemas world-wide, past and present.

I've been looking into a few examples of old picture theatres from the areas I'm familiar with in both Melbourne and Sydney.

One old theatre that does not appear in, but about which I've been able to find out quite a lot via the invaluable Trove web site was The New Malvern Theatre, located on the corner of Glenferrie and Dandenong Rds, Malvern. It opened with much pomp and ceremony, as can be seen from these extracts from publications of the day. The first article describes a walkabout given to a reporter shortly before the opening night.

Table Talk 9 June 1921, snipped from the Trove web site

The second and third articles report extensively on the grand opening, with emphasis on different aspects.

Table Talk 9 June 1921, snipped from Trove

Prahran Telegraph, 4 June 1921, snipped from Trove
The fourth item is a feature article on the New Malvern, accompanied by a  sketch of the exterior and photographs of the interior.

Table Talk 9 June 1921, snipped from Trove

In later years the New Malvern  became a Hoyts establishment, and the last movie to be shown there was apparently Crocodile Dundee. The theatre was permanently closed in 1987, and the building was demolished soon afterwards.

Another picture theatre that operated in my local area, just around the corner in fact, was the art deco designed Waverley Theatre. Opened in 1936. It operated as a theatre until 1962, after which it was used as a recording studio. Despite heritage trust recommendations that the interior be preserved, the building was converted to flats in 2006.  I took a photograph of the facade this morning, and when I noticed that a unit inside was for sale I took the opportunity of going in to inspect, just out of interest. En route I was able to view what remained of the interior, which Ihas been tastefully done and on the walls are a number of framed photographs of the original interior plasterwork, two examples I was able to photograph and include below.

Argus, 12 August 1936, snipped from Trove

Waverley Theatre art deco facade, July 2016

I think some of these railings are still used on the stair wells.

The Wintergarden at Rose Bay in Sydney was yet another of the many impressive old picture theatres of the past. We lived nearby for a couple of years from 1980-1982 and may have even seen a movie there, but I can't be sure. We had our first baby at the time so didn't get out much!  The Wintergarden closed in 1987, the same year as the New Malvern, and was similarly demolished. I certainly remember walking around the building, if not attending a show inside. 

Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1928, snipped from Trove

The Wintergarden Picture Theatre, as pictured on Photograph uploaded by John Gleeson.

Finally, on a positive note, here's one more theatre I'm personally familiar with, and this one is still defiantly surviving, and with just one screen. The Hornsby Odeon as it is now known is located in Hornsby NSW and our son and daughter-in-law who live within close walking distance are regular patrons. We've been to the movies there ourselves over the years when we lived in Sydney. I remember for example taking a party of children to a noisy screening of Men In Black in the early 1990s. 

Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 23 January 1923, snipped from Trove 
Unfortunately I don't have my own photograph of the Odeon, but you can see some here in this Daily Telegraph article about its history and longevity. The sound system has been modernized but I don't believe the seating has been. On the plus side you are less likely to fall asleep during a movie if you are not relaxing in padded comfort.  Long live the Hornsby Odeon!  I much prefer smaller independent theatres and their choice of movies to those of the large cinema complexes. None survive in my immediate area, but we do patronise a couple of semi-original older picture theatres located not far away in Brighton.

For more reminiscences on how things used to be when we went to the pictures and no doubt many other ideas as well, just click and go  have a look at Sepia Saturday #339


  1. I love old picture theatres especially the art deco ones

  2. A great idea for a lcoal history project to research cinemas. I was particularly struck by the Waverley cinema - there must have been Scottish Borders connections for that name. There are numerous Waverley Roads, Streets, Houses, Hotels etc. plus Waverley Railway Station in Edinburgh - named after the series of novels written by Borders writer Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century.

    1. Thanks Sue, you are quite right, The Melbourne Waverley Theatre was on Waverley Rd, which leads to the areas of Glen Waverley and Mt Waverley, which were named after the Waverley of Sir Walter's novels, although it's not clear whether the landowner of the original property in the district was from the Borders or was just an admirer of Scott's work. There's also a suburb of Waverley in Sydney, named originally after Waverley House, which was a property owned by an early settler called Barnett Levey, a Londoner who was also a fan of Sir Walter. Coincidentally Levey is credited with establishing the first independent theatre in Australia at the rear of Waverley House, but I don't believe that last fact has any connection to the naming of the Waverley Theatre here in Melbourne.

  3. Bravo! Looks like we both got lost in the world of forgotten cinemas this weekend! The opening of the Malvern Theatre was an amazingly colorful public event (trumpet fanfares?! electric baton?!). And I'm very impressed that you bravely went inside the Waverley. With over 2,000 seats, the Wintergarden was a huge hall. Today many communities that are building new concert halls consider 1500 to 1800 seats to be the new modern standard. What I like best about your history are the descriptions of theater orchestras providing live musical accompaniment. It was a time when entertainment was more than just a commodity to be consumed. These theaters represented the community on stage as well as in the audience.

    1. Jo Featherston16 July 2016 at 23:43
      Thanks Mike. Speaking of entertainment, you might also be interested in this link to an article on another old Sydney movie theatre that we used to go to when we lived there, the Roseville Cinema, and which like Hornsby is still going strong. although unlike Hornsby the Roseville has expanded to have two screens. An organist would appear on the side of the stage and entertain the audience before and after the films, and at interval in the days when when they still had one. As the article also indicates, they had special nights, and one I remember going to was a screening of the movie Gandhi at which the price included a beautiful spread of Indian food served at interval.

  4. Dear Jo - great post. So much to think about here. Thanks for the wonderful tip about the cinema treasures website - off I go! Will I ever get to work today ???

  5. It was fun to go to the movies when it was an event. I can remember getting dressed up to go to San Francisco to go to the big movie palaces. The movies had opening scores and intermissions. I'll still remember seeing West Side Story on the big screen and wishing I could experience one more time. Your post brought back a lot of good memories from this side of the Pacific pond.

  6. Jo, I have sent this on to my husband, who is a movie fanatic and worked in the industry for very many years. He will love it, thank you.

  7. Some of the old art deco are magnificant. Not far where I live is a small country town and it still has many art deco features, I would like that some of the lottery money could be used to restore all these wonderful, old country towns. At the moment it looks like they are going down the drain, sadly.

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    Thank you, Chris