There have been four different
Palais cinemas in St Kilda, most confusingly, three
of them on the Esplanade. The open-air Pictureland
opened in 1909 in
The Palais Picture Theatre and Palais de Danse, c.1920-1926
After war was declared, in 1915 the Palais
de Danse site became Palais
Pictures. This was the third Palais cinema in St Kilda.
After the war, in 1919, a steel-framed, arched truss structure was built
over the old dance-hall. The hall was
then dismantled and re-erected next door, to the north. This ran for a couple of years, and then its
interior was entirely redesigned by the important
After winning an international competition for the design of the
proposed new national capital city,
The Griffins’ short-lived interior for the relocated old timber Palais de Danse was an interesting Modernist design of purely geometrical elements, in a sequence of ascending vertical chevron panels, like vertebrae. The gently arched ceiling was supported on organic trunks, with umbrella branches in folded, prismatic forms. It seated as many as 2,870 patrons. Its triangular entrance awning was supported on staggered columns. Some of Griffins’ drawings for this survive.
It is remembered for its magical atmosphere. Although supported by abstracted Doric columns, the frieze above was entirely Modernist, with complex, prismatic panels up lit. On hot nights, the louvred wall panels hinged up, to capture sea breezes wafting off the bay. It was the first of several commissions for the Griffins from the Phillips Brothers. None of Griffins’ drawings for this remarkable interior survive.
Griffin, with Eric M. Nichols, also prepared designs in 1925-26 (no drawings survive) for landscaping the entire Lower Esplanade, from the Sea Baths to Luna Park, including prismatic leadlight lighting standards, some of which survived in situ until relatively recently. One concrete standard remains, now at Brooks Jetty, opposite Shakespeare Grove, and two pylons, relocated.
‘Some scraps’ of the Griffins’ interior remained until 1969, when it
too was burnt to the ground. There is a photograph and brief description by
Robin Boyd in his Victorian Modern
written in 1947, although Boyd confuses the photographs of
In 1922, just as the Capitol was being constructed, the Griffins
prepared a design for a complete new facade, entrance loggia and awning in
reinforced concrete for Palais Pictures. The only drawings known are details and a
view of the front elevation at night. Construction
of these works began in 1925, but was destroyed by a fire
which ignited the stage-set in February 1926, just before completion. There is a painting of a fire at the building
by Sidney Nolan in 1945. Presumably this
depicts the fire nineteen years earlier. The fire convinced the Phillips brothers to erect a much grander and
splendid theatre on the site. For this ambitious enterprise they commissioned
the extremely experienced theatre architect Henry E. White. By this time, the Griffins had moved on to
Interior of Burley Griffin's Palais Pictures, c.1926
Interior of Burley Griffin's Palais Pictures, c.1926
So the present, fourth Palais Pictures was
designed in 1926 by Henry E. White (c1888-1952) of
Palais Pictures, 1929
The new Palais, ‘
‘No particular period or style has been adopted’, Mr White
explained. He had frequently adopted Adam neo-Classical and Louis XVI, which he
considered would present ‘a light and airy daintiness, in curve and
outline’. Here, Spanish, Moorish, Venetian
and Indian influences have been identified, overlaying the neo-Classical
manner. Its ventilation system changed 1200 cubic metres of air per
minute. Like the Astor Cinema (1935, 29) the Palais
has two open wells in the upper foyer, a spatial effect first used at
As if to anticipate later wide-screen motion pictures, the Palais has a particularly wide proscenium stage (31 metres). Although not as deep (15.5 metres), it had been designed as a live theatre, the stage has been sufficient for its impressive sequence of tenants. Every seat had a clear view. An additional projection room was constructed within the rim of the ceiling dome and suspended from the roof trusses. The impressive chandelier weighs over a tonne.
It was (with the Regent,
In his memoir, A Fine and Private Place, Brian Matthews evokes the atmosphere of Friday night pictures at the Palais, (the Victory was closer, but scorned by the family for its ‘inferior films’):
But the night the Palais
went non-smoking was an even more resounding event. Going to the Palais
Pictures on a Friday night was a matter of stately and unswerving ritual. To
begin with; we had to be striding along
Once ensconced, the old man would light up the first of his six going-to-the-pictures cigarettes. The next would be during the newsreel and ‘shorts’; then one at interval, two during the main feature and one walking home. On this fatal night he had to forgo the first because there were notices everywhere forbidding it and, when the lights dimmed in preparation for the Val Morgan advertisements, a notice on the screen spelt out the ban. When he saw this, my old man hissed booed and stamped his feet, to the exquisite embarrassment of my mother and me. We then settled down for the next three hours or so in the close presence of people who had identified us beyond dispute as a family of loonies. Not that the old man cared what they thought.
But by 1960, television had reduced audiences to only a
hundred. So that year the Australian
Elizabethan Theatre Trust produced its first opera at the Palais. Yet despite these changes, in
The Hoyts Victory, corner of Barkly and Carlisle Streets was second only to the Palais in size when it was built in 1921 for the Francis W. Thring consortium. After alteration in 1928, it still seated 2,550. The purchase in 1971 by the National Theatre, managed by the remarkable John Cargher, saved it from the fate of death by television. In 1974, alterations for conversion to theatre use by the National were completed to the design of Raymond Milton Johnson (43).
Fifties international stars to appear on the Palais stage included Eartha Kitt, Frankie Lane, Bob Hope, Johnnie Ray, Louis Armstrong, Nelson Eddy (twice) and Abbott and Costello (the comedians). Also in the fifties, there were Michael Edgley’s first Russian spectaculars, including the Bolshoi Ballet, and every year the Boy Scouts’ Gang Show.
Into the sixties came Harry Belafonte, more Eartha Kitt, Artur Rubenstein (pianist); Shelley Berman (comedian); Tom Jones and Yehudi Menuhin (violinist). In 1960 the new backstage facilities enabled the Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s first opera season, with Joan Hammond, soprano in Salome and Madam Butterfly, and another season of opera in 1962. That year, there were the first musicals at the Palais, revivals from the 1920s: the Desert Song, New Moon and the Student Prince. The Royal Ballet appeared with Margot Fonteyn. In this decade, the Palais was seldom dark.
In the seventies, Edgely spectaculars became more so: the Bolshoi again, the Kirov, ‘Stars of World Ballet’ and the Australian Ballet, regularly. There were more musicals, with two long seasons of Jesus Christ Superstar. At last in 1978, the Australian Opera appeared there, with a lavish Nabucco with Joan Sutherland. It was only at the Palais that audiences could be large enough to pay for such productions, and stars such as the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed. It was frequently the venue of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
In 1982, the Victorian Arts Centre theatres, supplanted the Palais for opera and ballet. Then in 1985 the Palais theatre hosted a memorable production of La Cage aux Foilles. However, once the Princess Theatre (another Henry White interior, 1922) was restored, with a new fly tower in 1990, and later the Regent also (1994), most of the big musicals were attracted to the newer venues. The theatre is now used as a venue for international performers and rock groups.
Current proposals for the Palais under the St Kilda Foreshore Design Framework include improvement of the Palais stage, extensions of dressing rooms with additional facilities at the rear.
Palais Theatre, 2002
Charles. Self Portrait with
Charles. The Burley
Robin. Victorian Modern. Architectural Students’
Society of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects.
Catrice, Daniel. Cinemas in Melbourne.1896-1942.
John Butler. The History of St Kilda from its First
Settlement to a City and After. 1840-1930. St Kilda City Council.
Donald Leslie. The
Architecture of Walter Burley
Lyric Theatre, Esplanade, StKilda. Brouchure. c1920.
Matthews, Brian. A Fine And Private Place. Picador. Sydney 2000. pp 10, 11, 42, 43, 98, 99, 104 & 105.
Robert Sands Pty. Ltd. Palais Theatre Conservation Analysis.
Rose Picture Postcards.
Rose Picture Postcards.
Pamela. ‘The Palais and the Glory’. The Age.
Sidney Nolan. Fire, Palais de Danse. 1945. Private Collection.
St Kilda Foreshore Draft
The Theatre. Vol. 12, No. 8. August 1914. pp 20-23. Article on the future of theatre design by Henry White.
Turnbull, Jeff & Navaretti, Peter. The