A History of St Kilda’s Cinemas


Peter A.D Fogarty




ISBN: ISBN 0-9751060-1-5

Author: Peter Fogarty

Copyright: Peter Fogarty

Layout and Website: Diane Boyle

Technical Assistance: John Hulskamp

Publisher: The St Kilda Historical Society, P.O Box 177 Balaclava, 3183

Publishing Coordinator: Meyer Eidelson

The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication

Fogarty, Peter A. D., 1947 -.

The Screening of St Kilda: a History of St Kilda's Cinemas.


1. Motion picture theaters - Victoria - St. Kilda - History.

I. St. Kilda Historical Society. II. Title.





The St Kilda Historical Series is an ongoing project, which is published in hard copy and/or on and will eventually include:







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The St Kilda Historical Society acts to promote, protect and improve the unique heritage of St Kilda.

To join the St Kilda Historical Society, please access the membership form via . Alternatively forward $18.00 to the Secretary, P.O Box 177 Balaclava, 3183 enclosing name, address, and contact detail and a receipt will be provided by return mail.





Dedicated to the memory of


February 17, 1950 to May 23, 1992







Introduction: Something In The Wind.

Chapter One: On The Beach.

Chapter Two: Young And Willing.

Chapter Three: Higher And Higher.

Chapter Four: A Room With A View.

Chapter Five: I Am A Camera.

Chapter Six: To Be or Not To Be.

Chapter Seven: Another Dawn.

Chapter Eight: The Challenge.

Conclusion: The Verdict.

Bibliography: Network.

APPENDIX: Map and Chronology of Cinema Locations


Astor Theatre, 1 Chapel Street (Cnr Dandenong Road), St. Kilda, by Richard Peterson.

The George, formerly The Terminus and Seaview, 125-129 Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda, by Becky Aizen.




I would like firstly to thank the late Nancy Newell of the St. Kilda Historical Society for encouraging me to write this book on St. Kilda cinemas and Meyer Eidelson for finally enabling its publication after all these years.

Without the Appendix to Carol Matthews' book on the Palais which detailed most of the earlier theatres in the area, my task in tracking down these venues would have been much more difficult. Thank you, Carol, for all your work.

Peter O'Reilly of the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society (Victoria) undertook the laborious task of transferring my typescript to computer, which has facilitated the installation of this book on the Internet.

To my teachers and supervisors at Monash University and my fellow students in the Public History course between 1989 and 1994, I wish to give thanks. These include Chris McConville, Tom Griffiths, Mimi Colligan, Graeme Davidson and Daniel Catrice - the author of "Cinemas in Melbourne 1896-1942". Sincere apologies to any whose names I may have, through lapse of memory, not included here.

John Adey of the Australian Cinema and Theatre Society Inc. was most helpful in suggesting that I submit my material on "The Astor" for publication in the Autumn 2000 edition of "Kino".

The management and staff of the Palais, Astor and National Theatres were most generous in their time and information on the history of these theatres.

The staff at the Performing Arts Museum, La Trobe Library, St. Kilda Historical Society (and Library) and the Geelong Historical Records Centre went out of their way to help me in my search for the histories of long-gone venues in St. Kilda and nearby areas.

Finally, I would like to thank those of my friends and acquaintances who not only kept a lookout for relevant material, but also endured my temporary monomania on St. Kilda and its theatres during the writing of this book!


Peter A.D. Fogarty

Geelong, Victoria

May 15, 2003.


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As a teenager in St Kilda, I always missed having a local cinema. The Memorial in Acland Street, also known as the fleapit, was long since closed. There was a Greek cinema at the Astor but I never braved the entrance past the posters of swarthy men with moustaches clutching swooning women wearing bright red lipstick. Today, of course, we take for granted our easy access to two marvellous general cinemas, the George and the Astor.

So, it was with great surprise that I read the detailed manuscript, sent to us by our member Peter Fogarty, which revealed the amazing role that St Kilda had played in the formation of Australia's early cinema. It is an admirable work done by a writer with enormous knowledge and passion for his subject and we decided that it was essential that the book be made accessible to the public. Appropriately each chapter is named after a classic film.

Peter O'Reilly of the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society (Victoria) generously provided us with an early layout by that Society. Writers Becky Aizen and Richard Peterson contributed additional material on the George and the Astor. However the book would never have achieved publication without the skill and devotion of Diane Boyle who voluntarily took on the job of skilfully completing the editing and laying out of the book for publication both on the web and in hard copy. St Kilda owes her an enormous favour.

The book is the second publication of a St Kilda Historical Series intended to reveal the richness of one of Australia's best loved and most visited places. Enjoy!


Meyer Eidelson


St Kilda Historical Society

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Introduction: Something In The Wind.



"Being equally sensitive to the spells of time and of space, to a tract of years

and a tract of landscape, I tried to discover the historical moment which best

interpreted the ethos of a particular countryside" ... J. Buchan. 1


The present work has been written at the suggestion of the St. Kilda Historical Society, and the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Victoria, in an endeavour to both add to and preserve as much information as possible about the history of cinema in St. Kilda. As there have been quite comprehensive conservation studies published on many buildings in St. Kilda, including the cinemas still remaining, 2 the information gathered does not have conservation or planning as its primary purpose.

The information is firstly for the records of both historical societies, and secondly for the use of anyone, especially residents of the suburb or anyone else interested in this area, who may wish to learn more about the history of cinema in St. Kilda. A lot of the fine detail may be of interest only to St. Kilda residents or film-buffs, but these and other interested groups are the ones to whom the work is particularly aimed. This has influenced the writing to the extent that, after giving a general overview of some aspects of cinema, the focus has then gone to its manifestation in St. Kilda.

One must consider however, the wider background of other relevant writing. In "Hollywood Down Under" Diane Collins has given an account of film culture generally in Australia. 3 Ross Thorne, in "Cinemas Of Australia Via U.S.A." 4 and "Picture Palace Architecture In Australia", 5 highlights the influence of the United States on cinema design in this country. Daniel Catrice’s "Cinemas In Melbourne 1896-1942" 6 describes the growth of the cinema industry in Melbourne and its suburbs during that period. Carol Matthews has written a superlative study of the Palais Theatre and its effect on the cultural life of Melbourne which also includes invaluable work on the early theatres in St. Kilda. 7 In the history of Australian film and filmmakers there has been the work of Graham Shirley and Brian Adams 8, with additional information from David Stratton. 9 In looking at Australian popular culture generally there is the early work of Hal Porter 10 and the more recent work of Richard White. 11 For the historical background of St. Kilda there are the two volumes of J.B. Cooper for the period to 1931 12 and the more recent volume of Anne Longmire. 13

The perspective of the author has also been influenced and informed by a long association with cinema-going from the early 1950's, frequent visitations to St. Kilda cinemas from the early 1960's, working in the suburb in 1965, living in the municipality from 1971 to 1992, and being fortunate during these periods to have sometimes been witness to many of the events described herein.


In David Bick’s "Discover St. Kilda’s Heritage", published in 1985, the author in describing the suburb in the period after the Second World War writes that "...with the other inner suburbs, St. Kilda went into a decline." 14 In this he is referring to locations regarded as undesirable for residential purposes by the newly-affluent, who wanted to escape the older run-down inner-city areas, with all their memories and connotations of the Great Depression of the 1930's, for the more spacious and modern outer suburbs. 15 However, if one applies the concept of "desirability" to a place that people want to go to for reasons other than residential, it can be said that St. Kilda has never ceased to be desirable to visitors from Melbourne, its suburbs, and elsewhere. This has been so from its earliest days as a seaside resort up until the present time. St. Kilda has always been a place for those seeking sport, recreation, leisure, the arts, and other - sometimes more dubious - pleasures. At no time could St. Kilda have been said to be dull.

Through all of this period, there has been a greater or lesser focus on the entertainment available, be it amateur dramatics, vaudeville, concerts, music and films. The forms of these entertainments have either changed or died out over the years in either style or presentation, not the least motion-pictures and their places of exhibition, as from the early days of the twentieth century cinema has played a part in both satisfying the entertainment requirements of local residents (being often a source of employment for them) and of attracting people from elsewhere to St. Kilda. From almost the time of its introduction to Australia, the cinema has remained a constant thread in the history of the area.

St. Kilda, therefore, being an entertainment centre as well as a residential area, can be regarded as one of Melbourne’s unique suburbs in its connection with cinema. Over the last ninety-odd years it can be said to have experienced in microcosm all of the changes and developments pertaining to cinema, particularly that of exhibition.

In the following chapters there will be an attempt to examine these changes within the general context of describing the history of the various buildings used for the exhibition of motion pictures. This will include such factors as improvements in film technology, demographics, modes of transport, social changes, education and the changing patterns of leisure. Reference will also be made, where relevant, to picture-theatres in adjacent areas, as well as overseas influences and events both effecting and being reflected in cinema in St. Kilda, not to mention the often ambivalent relationship that cinema, in common with other forms of entertainment and leisure in the area, has had with the local council, churches, businesses and residents.

Finally, in examining the history of cinema in St. Kilda, I hope to show that Buchan’s "Historical Moment" does not apply merely to one period in the area, but rather that a succession of "Historical Moments" with distinctive characteristics can be seen to occur in St. Kilda in various periods. Some suburbs may settle down to one style of life, but St. Kilda has always been in ferment, with the leaven of cinema playing an often substantial part.

footnotes for Introduction      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter One: On The Beach.

The first sales of Crown land in the new village of St. Kilda were held in December 1842. 1 From the very beginning, the area was looked upon as a place for recreation and leisure as well as residence, with the government auctioneer at this first land sale describing St. Kilda as "... a panoramic El Dorado that will replace the bloom on the pallid cheek and restore vigour to the weak." 2 Its favourable location soon attracted people from other parts of Melbourne to either take up residence, as did the original merchants and professional classes, 3 or else later, as methods of transport improved, to holiday there for a time or make day trips to its beaches.

The first swimming baths were established in 1853 4 and getting to them was facilitated by the opening of the railway from Melbourne in 1857. This latter event prompted the Melbourne Morning Herald to write: "Melbourne transports a very large portion of itself to that locality by means of a three-mile railway and a ten-minute ride." 5

In addition to swimming there was yacht racing on the bay and the Albert Park lake in the 1870's 6 as well as hunting and horse and greyhound racing. 7

Cultural activities were also popular in this new village, with the presentation of dramatic, musical and other entertainment taking place in various locations and at different times. A room adjoining the Junction Hotel was often hired by both professional and amateur entertainers in the 1860's, 8 and in the following decade the St. Kilda Dramatic Club performed "grand amateur entertainments" in the Grey Street Assembly Hall, a venue often used by other actors and actresses who were local residents. 9 This period also saw the frequent giving of lectures in the old Town Hall on the corner of Grey and Barkly Streets.

Away from the St. Kilda hill and on the northeast corner of the Upper Esplanade and Robe Street stood Mooney’s Hotel, known also as the Royal. It had a large room attached commonly known as "the theatre at Mooney’s Hotel". 10 This room was hired out for meetings, dancing and other entertainments from the 1850's onwards.

Both cultural and popular entertainments grew and flourished as the population expanded in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The roads improved, tramways were added to the existing rail access in 1888 and the number of visitors correspondingly increased. More sea-baths, hotels and boarding houses were constructed to cater for this increased trade. The resulting concentration of both people and facilities soon established St. Kilda as the playground of Melbourne and its suburbs.

Like sea-resorts everywhere, the sea-based attractions were seasonable by their very nature. A great many of the indoor theatrical entertainments however, could function independently of climatic conditions. This was a situation which continued, and even improved, when picture-theatres were first built in St. Kilda in the early years of the twentieth century, not long after the invention of moving pictures.

The first commercial exhibition of a motion picture anywhere in the world was presented by the Lumiere Brothers on December 28 1895 in Paris. 11 Less than twelve months after this, the first exhibition of a projected (as opposed to an Edison Kinetoscope) film in Australia was presented at Harry Rickard’s variety theatre, the Melbourne Opera House, on Saturday, August 22 1896 by the American magician Carl Hertz. 12 Soon after this an agent of the Lumiere Brothers, Marius Sestier, arrived in Australia. In partnership with Walter Barnett he began making short films in Sydney and also opened the first purely cinematic venue in Australia, the "Salon Lumiere", on September 28 1896. 13 That November in Melbourne, Sestier made the first newsreel in Australia when he filmed the finish of the Melbourne Cup, the arrival of the race train and sections of the crowd which included the then Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey. 14

The initial enthusiasm for moving pictures subsided for a time and the general public still continued to seek its popular entertainment in the live vaudeville theatres, with the occasional film being interspersed merely as a novelty. The reasons for this decline of interest in films were the shortage of equipment, filmed material and the fact that at this time films mainly showed scenes of everyday life. The cinema had to wait until the coming of the narrative film and the subsequent growth of a film-producing industry before audiences could be attracted to venues that specialised in exhibiting films alone.

This began happening shortly after the turn of the century, resulting in films gaining an ever-increasing share of the theatre-going public. Films began to tell stories, a film-making industry began which ensured a constant and regular supply of films, and as the demand for films increased due to the exposure of more and more people to this new product, more capital investment was attracted, resulting in a continuous expansion of film-making.

In the introduction to Garth S. Jowett’s article "Movies And Their Audiences", the observation is made that "Movies were not really born until they recognised their audiences". 15 These early audiences were predominantly drawn from the urban lower-middle and working classes who were attracted to the cinema by its cheapness and easily understood storylines. The increasing leisure of the working class in this period also enabled them to devote more time to recreation in general. Women were also now having smaller families and, once married, only constituted ten per cent of the workforce, a fact not overlooked when picture-theatres began operating in the cities during the daytime. 16

The special effects possible in films as compared to the scenic limitations of the stage were also a factor in attracting audiences. In addition, in a country such as Australia, isolated as it then was from the main centres of British, European and American culture, films could promise and deliver a view of this wider and remote world.

While the first films were shown in existing "live" theatres, makeshift halls, improvised outdoor venues and even tents, there soon arose the construction of buildings specifically for the exhibition of motion pictures. The first of these were built in the cities, with those in Melbourne being West’s Olympia, Snowden’s Pictures and Spencer’s Pictures in St. Kilda Road. They were in close proximity to Princes Bridge and to each other. 17 These theatres were huge, seating between 2,000 and 4,000 people, with West’s New Olympia being at that time the largest picture-theatre in the world. 18 In contrast to "live" theatres that were limited in size by both the dimensions of the human figure on stage and the limitations of the projection of the unaided human voice, picture-theatres were not subject to these restraints due to figures on the cinema screen being larger than life and, in this first stage of film-making, silent. Because "live" theatres were shallow and relied on height (and often extreme steepness) to fit in the maximum number of seats, many of the cheaper seats were quite uncomfortable. With a building specifically constructed for films, more comfort could be obtained because of the possibility of fitting more people into a larger space.

Out in the suburbs though, people had to put up with the old makeshift and often uncomfortable conditions of seeing films for a little longer. Many entrepreneurs still thought that motion pictures were a passing phase and this attitude, while it lasted, tended to inhibit capital expenditure. As a large amount of capital was needed to build picture-theatres in a number of suburbs, and as the first movie-exhibitors were mostly independent operators, it was not until certain groups, individuals and existing "live" companies amalgamated - spurred on by the success and organising ability of the American J.D. Williams - that this capital became available. 19

The first permanent picture-theatre in the Melbourne Metropolitan area was the Lyric Theatre on the corner of Chapel and Victoria Streets Prahran. Seating 2,500 it was opened on Christmas Eve 1910. 20 Soon after this, the Royal was also built in Chapel Street in October 1911 opposite the Windsor railway station. 21

It was not long before picture-theatres were built in other suburbs, especially in the City of St. Kilda where, because of the area’s long association with entertainment and holidaymaking, they multiplied rapidly. Some of these early St. Kilda picture-theatres only lasted for a season or two, but others were more substantial. Apart from the St. Kilda Theatre in Fitzroy Street, the Barkly on the corner of Barkly and Acland Streets and the Diamond Theatre at 1-3 Chapel Street, most of them clustered around the Upper and Lower Esplanade.

Apart from the Palais and Astor Theatres, nothing remains on the other early sites to give indication of their use as places of entertainment, with blocks of flats in 1996 occupying most of these locations. To avoid confusion in describing the cinematic venues of this early period - as often the name "Palais" was used for different locations at different times and also because of the practice of giving different names to the same structures over different seasons - the method in the following chapter will be to look at each site in turn and try to cover all of the theatres erected on them, with descriptions of the buildings and their dates of opening, closing and demolition, and the relevant details of their ownership and links with other nearby theatres.

footnotes for Chapter One      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Two: Young And Willing.

In the season of 1905-6 the building of entertainment venues in St. Kilda began to accelerate. Although the area had long been popular with Melburnians, and although access was facilitated by the construction of the cable-tram service in 1888, it was the sea and sporting activities that continued to be the main attractions. The end of the 1880’s land boom and the subsequent depression of the 1890’s also meant that there was little money to be spent on improving the seaside. Commenting on this period, The Star in 1921 wrote: "St. Kilda beaches had remained practically unexploited, not so much for want of foresight as for lack of population which could return a profit on any amusement venture." 1

Then a number of things began to occur. On October 25 1895 the new Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey, landed at St. Kilda pier on his way to Melbourne. This established a precedent of vice-regal and other notable arrivals at St. Kilda. The Duke of York (later George V) arrived there in May 1901 to open Australia’s first Federal Parliament, and Sir George Clarke, the first State Governor of Victoria, landed on December 10 1901. This continued over the next two decades with the result that St. Kilda achieved great publicity. 2 In 1905 a Vaudeville troupe called the "English Pierrots" began performing on the beach at the end of Fitzroy Street. 3 They leased their space from the Lands Department for the almost token rent of two pounds a month. 4 This proved so popular that other companies began leasing space on the beach wasteland. In that season of l905-6 the council income from "The Poster King" and "Biograph Advertising" was thirty shillings in addition to the annual rent of eighty pounds paid by Baxter’s Merry-Go-Round. As The Star later jokingly commented: "... this stimulated thoughts of colossal enterprise". 5 The result was the establishment of the St. Kilda Foreshore Committee on June 22 1906. The area under their control was the beach between Fraser and Dickens Streets, with their main function being the reclamation of land and the beautification of the shoreline. The designs for the landscaping were by Carlo Catani and revenue was to be raised by the rental of reclaimed foreshore land and funds from the St. Kilda Council, the State Government and private donations, with the overall concept being the creation of a Mediterranean-style resort along the lines of Cannes and the National Park of Naples. 6 With the erection of a pavilion by the English Pierrots and the attraction of the foreshore for other entertainers, the rent obtained by the Foreshore Committee in its first year was 456 Pounds. 7 As Cooper commented in 1931: " ... the English Pierrots ... unknown to themselves ... proved that the shorelands were a potential source of revenue, if sites were rented to showmen". 8

Methods of transport to St. Kilda had also improved prior to and during this period. St. Kilda Road had been improved at the turn of the century, partly owing to "princely visitations and the growing needs of residents in other suburbs for more facilities." 9 There was also the growth of the number of tram-routes leading to St. Kilda. The "Electric Street Railway" from St. Kilda Railway Station to Brighton was opened on May 5 1906 l0 and by 1913 St. Kilda By The Sea could justly say "Luna Park is the objective point of the electric tramway system" - from Kew, Hawthorn, Malvern and Caulfield - and the cable system from Melbourne 11 and adding the following year, when considering the further extension of the tramway system and the growth of the motor buses, "The whole of the eastern suburbs (is) brought into direct communication with St Kilda Esplanade." 12 As well as bringing people from other areas to St. Kilda, the tramway systems also led to an increase in the population of the city itself. The line from St. Kilda to Brighton encouraged subdivision along its route and brought about an increase of residents in the Elwood area. 13

From these disparate events - Vice-Regal arrivals, more money available to both the St. Kilda Council and the general public after the end of the 1890’s depression, the great success of the English Pierrots, the recognition of the financial benefits of promoting entertainment, the formation of the Foreshore Committee and the improvement of transport facilities - a climate of optimism was created in St. Kilda which led to a burgeoning of entertainment venues as various large and small entrepreneurs sought to prosper there, in large part responding to the business phenomenon known as "Clustering" in which "firms selling similar products attract each other in primary locations." 14 There were successes, failures and eventually many amalgamations - especially in the area of cinema - in the period now under examination.

St. Kilda Theatre Opening Night Program

The St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre was opened at what is now 145 Fitzroy Street on April 11 1911. 15 At the rear was a studio for both making and processing films. This was the first, substantial, purpose-built picture-theatre in St. Kilda. The builders were Millard Johnson and William Gibson, film-makers who, before the building had been completed, had joined with J. & N. Tait to form Amalgamated Pictures, a company described in the Encyclopaedia Of Australian Film as "Australia’s first major film monopoly fully owned and controlled by Australians." 16

It was this company that owned and operated the theatre and made films in the studio until it was absorbed by Australasian Films in 1913. As Australasian Films was the production arm of Union Theatres, which later became the Greater Union Organisation in 1931, this made the St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre the first in the Greater Union chain. 17

"The St. Kilda Picture Theatre, then the finest place of the kind in the state" was its later description in The Star of 1921. 18 The width of the theatre was 52 feet and the total length was 130 feet; the hall itself being 90 feet from the dress circle to the stage, with the remainder allotted to the backstage and studio areas. 19 In 1915 the theatre was redecorated and renovated by its then lessee Cedric Johnson, the son of Millard Johnson. As he also managed "The Broadway" open-air theatre on the Upper Esplanade, an arrangement was made by which on hot nights the patrons of the Fitzroy Street theatre could transfer to the Broadway, with the reverse applying on cold nights. 20

St Kilda Theatre 1912 Advertisements

By 1920 the lessees of the St. Kilda Theatre were Griffith and West, and in March 1922 they came to the aid of the Sacred Heart Parish when the Grey Street church was damaged by fire. David Moloney wrote of this: "Messrs. Griffith and West... responded generously to the plight of the West St. Kilda Catholics. They placed their building at the disposal of Fr. Byrne, the only charge being for lighting and cleaning. Every Sunday for the next eight months, the altar boys rearranged the theatre and set up the altar for Sunday Mass. There are memories of the spring seats rattling like machine-guns when the congregation knelt or stood up. Parishioner Mrs Leila Hassett was caught out one evening when she went to see a film at the theatre and genuflected as she entered the row of seats." 21

Films continued to be exhibited at the theatre until 1933, when the whole structure then became "Studio Number Three" of Cinesound, which had taken over Australasian Films. 22

There appears to be some confusion as to the actual location of the St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre. In the December 1985 edition of Kino, Les Todd has written that the building survives, with shops at the front making it unrecognisable. 23 However, if one compares the rare photograph reproduced in that issue with the photograph of Fitzroy Street taken in 1930 in Cooper’s history, the theatre - with its almost obscured name - is just discernible between what is in 1996 the "Regal" boarding-house and "Rivoli Buildings", now called "Danish Blue". 24

Fitzroy Street circa 1930

In May 1939 Theatre News reported that Bert Matthews had "converted the Cinesound Studios... into a unique rendezvous... named ‘The Barn’." 25 This new coffee-lounge did not continue for long, as the building was demolished soon after and the block of flats on the site in 1996, "The Banff", was erected in about 1940. 26

Fitzroy Street - Same View 1996


In 1909 an open-air theatre known as "Pictureland", under the direction of Johnson & Gibson, was operating on the northwest corner of Alfred Square and the Upper Esplanade, 27 a position later described as being "... the site of the oldest picture-theatre in St. Kilda." 28 This became one of the assets of Amalgamated Pictures when Johnson & Gibson formed that company in 1911 with the Tait Brothers. It thus became linked to the "Paradise" on the other side of Alfred Square as well as to the St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre in Fitzroy Street.

Pictureland 1913

On October 7 1914, it was opened as the "Palais Cinema" by J. Steventon, becoming the second theatre to use the name "Palais" in St. Kilda. An illustration in St. Kilda By The Sea in 1914 describes it as "The Summer Location Of The Palais Cinema (Late In Luna Park)." 29 J. Steventon had operated a picture-theatre in the Palais de Folies at Luna Park in the winter of 1914 and he transferred his trading name of "Palais" to the Upper Esplanade site until March 1915 and his occupation of the former "Elite" skating-rink in Barkly Street.

Summer Location of the Palais Cinema

The theatre was then remodelled for the summer season of 1915-16 and the name changed to the "Broadway Theatre". The new operator was Cedric Johnson, and the reciprocal arrangement with the St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre, as described previously, was applied. For this 1915-1916 season the capacity of the Broadway Theatre had been increased to accommodate 1,800 - 2,000 customers. 30 That summer, unfortunately, was a particularly cold and wet one, and not even the option of the alternative Fitzroy Street venue could make the continuation of the Broadway Theatre an attractive proposition. It was closed at the end of the season, 31 and the site reverted to being the "Symposium Tea-Rooms". 32 A block of own-your-own flats is in 1996 located there.


In October 1991 the Hotel St. Moritz (in 1996 "Novotel Bayside Melbourne") was opened on the northeast corner of the Upper Esplanade and Alfred Square. A large hotel, it covers an area once occupied by a block of flats and two theatres. Right on the corner was the "Paradise Of Living Pictures" and at the rear of this was a live open-air theatre, the "Follies". This corner site had a long association with cinema (in both exhibition and production) in St Kilda from l908 until early 1938.

The Upper Esplanade frontage was 157 feet and that facing Alfred Square was 51 feet. It was leased to J. & N. Tait in l908. After the gardens were laid out, W.J. Lincoln became the manager and later the sub-lessee. The theatre was opened by Johnson & Gibson for the 1908-09 season, and each year additions were made, leading to it being described in a retrospective in The Star of 1921 as "one of the prettiest picture-resorts possible". 33


At the time of its opening it was one of the first purpose-built picture theatres in the Melbourne area. It could accommodate 2,000, of whom 600 could sit in a brick pavilion at the rear, while the remainder sat under the stars on ground that sloped to the screen. Tables and chairs were set up on lawns at either side of the pavilion where patrons could obtain refreshments during the film, with this area being illuminated by coloured lights. 34

Paradise Of Living Pictures

Patrons at the Paradise

When Amalgamated Films was formed in 1911 by Johnson and Gibson and the Tait Brothers, the "Paradise" became part of a company that had as venues the new St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre in Fitzroy Street, the Follies at the rear, and Pictureland on the opposite side of Alfred Square. When Amalgamated Films was absorbed by Australasian Films, the ownership of the Paradise was transferred to its former manager, W.J. Lincoln. In partnership with G. Cass, films were made by the new Lincoln-Cass Film Company which were shown at the Paradise, as well as the films made by Amalgamated Pictures in their Fitzroy Street studios. 35

Paradise 1914 Program

In 1913, after five years of continuous operation, W.J. Lincoln - in protest at St Kilda Council’s banning of Sunday picture-shows - claimed that of the 190,000 patrons of the Paradise in the preceding twelve months, 70 per cent had been local residents. 36 During the winter of 1914, the Paradise merged with the adjacent Lyric, the latter now possessing a floor after having been roofed over the previous year. 37 In the summer season of 1914-15, with a new entrance near the Alfred Square corner, it was operated by R.D. Houldin under the name of "The People’s Paradise". 38

At the end of the First War the Phillips Brothers leased the venue and, under the management of Palais de Danse, advertised it as "The Rivoli". 39 In the January - February 1921 edition of The Star it was announced that "Paradise Gardens have re-opened with pictures. Some years since they were not only popular but payable." 40 In 1922 the site was purchased by the "Wattle Path Palais de Danse & Cafe Ltd." and the former Paradise was dismantled. The building then constructed was the one that remained there until its destruction by fire in 1982.

Same Site 1996 (Novotel)


The site next to the Paradise was advertised as the "Lyric Summer Picture Gardens" for the season of 1912-1913. This new open-air picture theatre exhibited first release pictures and featured live performers, as well as the Lyric orchestra. 41 The open-air theatre was not as successful as was anticipated, so the lease was taken up by Callen and Stuart and the theatre converted for winter use. 42 It then seated 1,400 in the ground area and 300 in the dress circle. 43

For the season of 1913-14 the emphasis was on live shows, with pictures providing a half-hour "overture" before the main live show "Butterflies". 44 In the winter of 1914 it merged with the adjacent Paradise. 45 For the 1915-16 season the advertisements stressed that in inclement weather - a most important point in that cold and wet summer - the theatre could be completely covered. 46 For that season also a floor was laid, heating installed, and tip-seats provided, making it in effect now an indoor theatre, with only the ability of the sliding sides to be opened in appropriate weather as a remnant of its earlier outdoor status. 47 It continued as a theatre, with either films, live shows, or a mixture of the two - in association with Cremorne Gardens - until the early 1920s. 48

In 1924 "Esplanade Theatres Ltd" was formed with the intention of building a picture theatre on the site with a cafe in front. Although Bert Howell from the Victory and Australasian Films took an interest in this proposal, it did not eventuate due to lack of finance, with the company being wound up in 1929.49

The Lyric

In 1928 a dancing saloon replaced the Lyric. The front was later reconstructed in mock-medieval style by the Eureka Trust Company and the venue operated as the "Mayfair Theatre". In 1932 the name was changed to "Earl’s Court" and it re-opened as a dance hall. 50 It intermittently showed films but its main use was as a dance hall and nightclub, using the names "Palm Grove", "Sergios", "The Taxi Club" and "The Venue" until its demolition in the late 1980’s. The new building on the site (which is also called "Earl's Court") provides public housing accommodation for elderly people and its design complements the adjacent Novotel Bayside Hotel.

Lyric Program 1915


"The Belvedere", a striking Spanish Mission style block of flats, stands at number 22, Upper Esplanade on the northeast corner of Robe Street. It was built in 1929 and beside it, further along Upper Esplanade, are blocks of flats built at about the same period. The Belvedere occupies the former site of Mooney’s Royal Hotel. The land adjoining the Royal Hotel was used mainly for live shows, but for short periods films were shown there. In 1913, St. Kilda By The Sea wrote that prior to 1909 the site was "Then used as an open-air picture show", 51 and the Sands & McDougall Directory of 1909 describes it as "Living Picture Gardens". 52 The Star of March - April 1921 however, writes of the opening of "Arcadia" there on October 29, l909 by Edward Branscombe’s "The Jesters". 53 It would seem that the venue was officially called Arcadia, but because of its identification with the Jesters vaudeville troupe it became informally known to its many patrons as "The Jester’s Theatre" and was even listed as such in the Sands & McDougall Directory of 1911. 54

In 1915 the site was named the "Corso Picture Theatre" by its new owners J. Dixon and F. Malvin. Their company, "The Corso P/L", was later absorbed by Palais Cinema Ltd. when Dixon and Malvin became co-directors of this new company, which also included J. Steventon and W. H. Tierny. 55

Le Cinema Boulevarde

It was "Palais Cinema Ltd." that constructed the new open-air "Le Cinema Boulevarde" for the summer season of 1915-16. With seating for five thousand it claimed to be the largest open-air picture-theatre in Australia. 56 The illustration in the Prahran Telegraph of October 16 1915 gives some indication of its size and layout. 57 Because of the continuation of the war and also the bad weather of that season, Le Cinema Boulevarde ran for one summer only and was subsequently dismantled. The site was then used for the "St. Kilda Fair" under the control of Palais Cinema Ltd. That company was wound up in 1919 and the blocks of flats in 1996 on the site were erected about ten years later.


Wickliffe House was located on the corner of Pollington Street and the Upper Esplanade, and in 1912 it was converted into a cafe with a theatre, the Arcadia - the second theatre of that name - constructed at the rear. 58 Although this venue did not exhibit films, its connection with Pat Hanna’s "Diggers" relates it to early cinema in St. Kilda. Although an al fresco theatre, it could be protected from inclement weather and therefore advertised "Every night, wet or dry". 59


Wickliffe House and Arcadia

In November l918 Pat Hanna (l888-1973) had been made "O.C. Entertainment and Recreation New Zealand Division on the Rhine" 60 and his "Diggers" company had evolved from the necessity of entertaining the troops occupying Cologne after the Armistice. The "Famous Diggers", after a successful tour of Tasmania, opened at the Arcadia Theatre about the middle of October 1920. 61 The live performances throughout the 1920’s of the "Famous Diggers" are outside the scope of the present work, but in the early 1930’s Pat Hanna made three films at Efftee Studios using material from the live shows. The first of these "Diggers" (Premiered November 6 1931) was directed by Frank Thring Snr., but because of disagreements between Thring and Hanna on the order of the three stories within this film, the remaining two were directed by Pat Hanna himself, using the facilities of Efftee Studios. 62 Despite their success with the public, the financial returns were low, so Pat Hanna returned to live performances and some recorded work. 63

In the meantime, the Arcadia Theatre where Pat Hanna had introduced the "Diggers" to St. Kilda had closed around 1927. 64 After being the location of a service station for many years, the site is in 1996 occupied by a high-rise block of luxury flats called "Arrandale" which were built in the 1970’s.


The third picture-theatre bearing the name "Palais" was situated on the corner of Acland and Barkly Streets where the St. Kilda Market stands at the time of writing this book. In the 1860’s a large house had been built there with gardens laid out by the designer of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, Baron von Mueller. The house "Oakrood" was later purchased by F.P.C. Beyer. 65 In the gardens of that house he built the "Elite Roller-Skating Rink" which opened on April 15 1911. 66 According to Beyer’s grandson, Dan Clifton, when the skating craze faded "grandfather became interested in pictures". 67

Cinema 1916 Advertisement

The result was that the venue became known as the "Elite Skating Rink And Biograph" from 1912. 68 The premises were later leased to J. Steventon and W.H. Tierney in early 1915. They had formed the company "Palais Cinema P/L" on February 19 of that year and began operating their new Palais Cinema (which seated 2,000) as from March 27. 69 According to Dan Clifton, his grandfather was a victim of anti-German feeling at the beginning of the First World War, so this may have prompted his leasing of the building to others. 70

"Palais Cinema P/L" was absorbed by "Palais Cinema Ltd." in September 1915, the new company adding J. Dixon and F.M. Quinn to the directors of the previous company. The purpose of this new company appeared to be the buying of the Palais Cinema and the Corso Pictures. It was wound up in 1919 due to its liabilities, but prior to that it had sold the Palais Cinema to V C. Marshall in 1917. 71 In association with his musical director Bert Howell, the programming was improved and attendances doubled, with the venue being renamed "The Barkly" in January 1918 and having the exclusive rights in St. Kilda to films from the top American studios. 72

The success of this venture led to V.C. Marshall, in partnership with F. L. Nelson, opening the "Victory" as part of a proposed chain of theatres in the southern suburbs, during the construction of which they operated the Lyric on the Upper Esplanade.73 The Barkly operated as a Hoyts theatre after this, 74 but by 1924 the theatre had closed and the site was used as a motor garage until its transformation to the St. Kilda Market. 75

Rear of St. Kilda Market 1996


On a roughly triangular piece of land bounded by Shakespeare Grove, Cavell Street and the O’Donnell Gardens - and just touching the Lower Esplanade - stands Luna Park, whose entrance is one of St. Kilda’s best known landmarks. In 1906 St. Kilda’s first amusement park, "Dreamland" was opened there, built by a travelling entertainer, E.S. Salambo. 76 The venture ran for one season only, however. 77 Six years later, on December 13 1912, the present structure, Luna Park, was opened, having been built for the J.D. Williams Amusement Company. 78 In July 1913 Luna Park was incorporated, its directors being J.D. Williams, H.F. Phillips, G.H. Robinson and John (later Sir John) Monash. 79 There appears to have been some strife between the directors in the first few months. According to G. Searle "...within a few weeks Monash was threatening resignation unless business was conducted on proper lines". 80 Soon afterwards J. D. Williams returned to the United States and John Monash controlled the company as chairman of directors.

In the "Palais de Folies" building within Luna Park, the "Lounge Theatre" was opened by J. Steventon in 1914. This picture theatre operated during the winter of that year when the rest of Luna Park was closed. It soon became known as the "Palais Cinema", 81 being the first of that name in St. Kilda, the name being later transferred to the former Pictureland site when Steventon moved his operations there for the summer months, (the name of this second Palais being "Palais Cinema - Late Of Luna Park - Summer Location"), 82 before this in turn was transferred to the former Elite site on the corner of Barkly and Acland Streets. Because of the war, Luna Park was closed after its limited operation in the 1915-16 season 83 and did not re-open fully until October 1923. 84 By this time the Phillips Brothers had established a new picture theatre across the road, the "Palais de Danse Pictures".

Palais de Danse


The site on the corner of the Lower Esplanade and Cavell Street, in 1996 occupied by the Palais Theatre, was first built upon in the season of 1906-07. A "Figure 8" scenic railway was opened on January 26 l907 by a Mr. Robson. 85 This proved to be an extremely popular attraction, only closing when Luna Park opened with its much larger scenic railway in 1912. 86 The managing director of Luna Park, Herman F. Phillips, then began building a hall on this site in 1912. He applied to licence this as a dance hall in November 1913 and, in spite of the opposition of local people, obtained the licence and opened the Palais de Danse soon after on December 20. 87

It functioned as a dance hall for less than two years, for on September 20 1915, Herman Phillips re-opened it as a picture-theatre. There would appear to be at least two reasons for this. There was his belief "...that moving-pictures were the way of the future and that films could be a positive educational force" 88 and there was also the growing effect of the First World War on people’s attitudes to entertainment.

The projectionist Albert Wright has said that "...after a while complaints were voiced about dancing while our men were overseas fighting for us. Phillips was conscious of this...". 89

Palais de Danse Pictures

For the rest of the war and for a short time after therefore, what was now the "Palais de Danse Pictures" presented shows six days a week from Monday to Saturday. The auditorium seated 4,000 and there was a pit for a twelve-piece orchestra, the projector being housed in a bio-box built to resemble a Swiss Chalet. 90

In 1920 The Star wrote: "Luna Park gave birth to the Palais de Danse, converted by the Phillips Brothers during the war into a picture-theatre, and now entirely rebuilt, whilst alongside they have erected a new Palais de Danse which from a structural point of view, is the finest of any show building in St. Kilda." 91

From contemporaneous photographs, a certain sequence of events can be observed. The new Palais Pictures was actually built around the old, which was then dismantled and re-erected next door as the Palais de Danse and a new facade constructed. 92 The facade of the original was left in front of the new theatre. The photograph reproduced in S. Brand’s book shows the result, as well as giving a useful comparison of the height and width of the old and new theatres. 93 The difference in length can be gauged by another photograph (courtesy S. Marshall) which shows the framework of the new Palais Pictures around the old. 94

This second Palais Pictures did not survive for long though, for while work was in progress on its renovation and restoration in 1926, a fire broke out on February l0, resulting in its total destruction. 95

It was replaced in 1927 by the present Palais Theatre.


For a few years, until the construction of the Palais de Danse in 1920, the site next to the Palais Theatre, 10 Lower Esplanade, was occasionally used for film exhibition. In December 1913 "The Casino" theatre opened there. It could accommodate 3,000, with 1,000 under cover and the remainder in the open air. 96 It was noteworthy though for its experiment with two new ideas: showing films in daylight and in the night using a technical novelty called "The Optical Stage".

Daylight pictures used the technique known as "back projection", the projector being behind the screen and the space between masked by a black cloth. Because of this there was no need to darken the rest of the theatre, so it was possible to screen films in the open during the day - as well as eliminating the "improper" conduct that a darkened auditorium was thought to encourage. 97 The "Optical Stage" was an attempt to combine back projected film and live actors. The Prahran Telegraph commented: "There is nothing ghostly about the figures; they have precisely the same solid appearance as any ordinary group of actors ... it makes the incredible possible." 98

The Casino circa 1913

In addition to this, a "first class" orchestra was provided as well as tea and refreshment rooms. The venture proved to be unsuccessful however. St. Kilda By The Sea wrote in 1914 of the reluctance of people to attend films in daylight on days that weren’t holidays, and the all-too-frequent breakdowns of the Optical Stage apparatus. 99 (Whether the lack of opportunity to indulge in "improper" conduct because of the then inhibiting effects of daylight contributed to the theatre’s lack of success can only be a matter of speculation).

In October 1914, J.A. Lipman changed the name of the venue to the Comedy Theatre and opened with a live show. In January 1915, with John Garvin now in charge, more live shows were staged, but films were eventually restored to the theatre to end the season. 100 In December 1915 the St. Kilda Patriotic Committee and the Y.M.C.A. opened the Wounded Soldiers Lounge in the old refreshment room at the rear of the theatre, and in 1916 this was extended. 101

When the Palais de Danse Pictures building was dismantled and re-erected on this site as described previously, it became the "Palais de Danse". In 1962 the Melbourne Film Festival was transferred to the Palais Pictures and the Palais de Danse was also utilised, with extra screenings being held there in a small temporary theatre constructed within the dance hall. 102 On December 27 1968, the Palais de Danse was burned down, 103 being replaced by "The New Palais" which opened in October 1972, the name of which was later changed to its present one of "The Palace". 104

Palais de Danse circa 1930


Away from the seafront - but close to the Prahran shopping centre with its cluster of picture theatres - where the Astor in 1996 stands, "The Diamond", later known as "The Rex" operated for a few years. Its first listing was in 1913 at 1-3 Chapel Street as the Diamond Theatre, and it shared the premises with Fowler & Co. (Confectioner) and S.T. Alford (Livery Stable). 105 In its last listing of 1918, it was called the Rex Picture-Theatre, with Messrs J. Puller (Confectioner) and S.T. Alford (Livery Stable) as the co-occupiers. 106

Following 1918, Pullar and Alford continued to occupy the site, but all references to a theatre there cease, and by 1924 the site was occupied by Alford’s Motor Garage and Taxis. 107 It would appear that the Diamond was predominantly an open-air theatre utilising existing structures 115, and it is of interest that it provided a "bridge" between the site’s use as a livery-stable and a motor-garage - a link between the old and the new.


In considering the theatrical and cinematic activity between l905 and the 1920’s in St. Kilda, certain patterns can be seen to emerge. The first is the transition from makeshift and temporary structures to the construction of more substantial, permanent and purpose-built venues. As The Star wrote in 1920: "Although the al fresco theatres in St. Kilda have suffered a close-up, four houses are showing pictures nightly with one large theatre building." 108 Also apparent is the way that cinema grew from being almost the poor relation of vaudeville and live theatre interests (e.g. J. & N. Tait, J.C. Williamson’s, the Fullers and the Carrolls) to a position of greater dominance.

As this was occurring, the independent operators and filmmakers, by a process of amalgamation and absorption, were replaced by larger combines. This happened in tandem with live theatre amalgamations involving J.C. Williamson and J. & N. Tait. 109 All of this mirrored trends in the United States where, as in Australia, greater amounts of capital were needed in order to both build the better picture theatres that the public now demanded and also to make films of greater technical and logistic complexity that the public also now expected. 110

What is most striking in St. Kilda though, is the combining and re-combining during this period of these people: Johnson, Gibson, Griffith, West, Lincoln, Cass, J. & N. Tait, Houldin, Stuart, B. & J. Fuller, F. P.C. Beyer, J. Steventon, V.C. Marshall, F. Thring Snr., J.D. Williams and the Phillips Brothers. As The Star commented in 1921: "In a business sense there is much moving in movieland. Amalgamations and re-arrangements being many, while a number of our prominent picture-men have gone to America and elsewhere on business visits." 111 This comment would have had equal validity throughout the preceding sixteen years.

By 1920 The Star could say: "We are a much more sedate people in St. Kilda nowadays. It is becoming a city of flats. The accommodation both for residents and visitors has become too limited." 112 It went on to say though that "How important St. Kilda has become as a showplace may be inferred from the balance sheet of the shore committee which deals only with the foreshore for the past twelve months just issued. From the rent of site for entertainment was derived 1,444 Pounds." 113

Two months later the following was written: "St. Kilda Council has set its face against the erection of advertising screens for moving-pictures on sites on the Upper Esplanade. In point of fact, the available sites on that Esplanade are really too valuable for such purposes ... Questions of leasehold hinder improvements in some instances, but there are openings for the erection of theatres and other structures more in consonance with this popular locality." 114

As it turned out, the Upper Esplanade eventually became the place for dancing and ice-skating rather than for film-exhibition, with the remaining sites - even that of the old Royal Hotel - being used for the new flat dwellings. The new, large and substantial picture theatres were built elsewhere as will be seen in the chapter following.

footnotes for Chapter Two      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Three: Higher And Higher.

The period between the early 1920's and the late 1950's was the heyday of cinema in Australia as in most of the rest of the world. During this period attendances remained consistently high - except for a comparative fall-off during the years of the great depression - and picture theatres continued to be either built, modernised, enlarged or otherwise improved. These national and overseas trends all affected cinema in St. Kilda, and what happened there can be considered as a reflection in miniature of worldwide events.

During this period all the picture-theatres (apart from the 1994 George Cinemas) that remain in St. Kilda of the 1990's were built. In contrast to the earlier structures - which were often quite Spartan in their design and amenities, - there was no expense spared in attempting to make the "Palais", "Astor" and "Victory" as decorative and as comfortable as possible. The "Broadway" in Elwood was remodelled in the 1930's and nearby picture-theatres such as the "New Windsor" were constructed. The "Memorial" in Acland Street was not quite up to these standards of luxury, but that did not keep the patrons away. It was also in this period that the custom of "going to the pictures" became a virtual ritual, with many seats being permanently reserved by individuals, couples and families.

The distribution of films to these theatres was further rationalised by the formation or extension of chains such as Hoyts, and this was financed by overseas interests which invested in Australian picture-theatres as a means of providing a suitable showcase and outlet for their films. Although these patterns affected (and reflected) cinema in Australia generally, there were still certain aspects which were peculiar to St. Kilda. As well as being a major centre for exhibition, films were made locally at the studios of Efftee and Cinesound. Just as in the nineteenth century when the area had been compared to Brighton England, 1 St. Kilda in this period could be said to have had cinematic aspects of Hollywood and New York in that there existed facilities for production as well as distribution. This period will now be explored, beginning with the building of the structures that still stand in St. Kilda at the time of writing this book.

Under the heading of "New Theatre In St. Kilda", the following article appeared in the July - August issue of The Footlight Star in 1920:

"Positions at St. Kilda for new amusements are difficult to obtain, but Messrs. F.L. Nelson and V.C. Marshall have secured an extensive and valuable site at the intersection of Carlisle and Barkly Streets, where the Balaclava Road and the Brighton electric tramways cross, and just a short distance from the cable system along the Esplanade. The building of the imposing Victory Theatre, designed by Mr. Cecil F. Keeley is well forward. There will be seating accommodation for 3,000 persons, and features of the building will be its spacious roof-garden and buffets. While the new theatre is being constructed, Messrs. Nelson and Marshall are occupying the Lyric Theatre on the Esplanade." 2

At this period in St. Kilda, most of the entertainment facilities (with the exception of "The Barkly" on the corner of Acland and Barkly Streets) were located on or around the area of the Upper and Lower Esplanades. Because of this concentration of theatrical facilities, the difficulty of obtaining a block large enough for the building of a theatre the size of the proposed "Victory" can be appreciated. Although it could have been considered a slight risk to establish a new theatre in an area away from the by now traditional entertainment precincts, perhaps the new location was also an attempt to distance it from what some now considered the "en deshabille environs of the Upper Esplanade". 3 It could be misleading to over-emphasise this point however, as the same source also described the adjacent Lower Esplanade as now having "an appearance of smartness formerly missing". 4

At the time that the Victory was being built, other picture-theatres were either under construction or else being planned in what was to be the second stage of their expansion into Melbourne’s suburbs, when the earlier existing makeshift venues were giving way to more substantial purpose-built structures. Other picture theatres being planned or built at this time were in Bay Street North Brighton, Church Street Middle Brighton, Hampton, Sandringham and Carnegie. 5 Also, before the opening of the St. Kilda Victory in April 1921, the other link in the proposed chain of Victory theatres (in Wattletree Road Malvern) began operating on October 20 1920. This Malvern Victory was about half the cost and capacity of its St. Kilda counterpart, being built at a cost of 20,000 Pounds and seating 1,800. 6 It is also worth while to consider that all of these picture theatres were located in what were then - and often still are in 1996 - regarded as highly respectable suburbs.

When the Victory was opened by the Mayor of St. Kilda, Councillor S.T. Alford, on Monday April 18 1921, the Argus reported it as being the second largest picture-house in Melbourne and its suburbs and praised both the excellence of its sight-lines and the acoustics of the building. 7 The Age wrote that "Mr. V.C. Marshall, director, in outlining the policies of the theatre, said the best films obtainable would be produced, and a special feature would be made of the music." 8 The director of the orchestra was Bert Howell, who had earlier been associated with V.C. Marshall in the operation of the nearby Barkly. The Victory also had a motor-park with room for eighty cars and provided free lockers for the motorists’ rugs and overcoats. 9 These facilities, apart from being quite an innovation in those early days of motoring, indicate that the theatre was not only hoping to attract patrons from outside the locality, but also assumed that these would have been patrons of some means.

Contemporary descriptions of the theatre make much of both the lighting effects - "... as the stage curtain is drawn back the lights automatically dim, until they eventually go out" 10 - and the ventilation system which was able to pump 59,000 cubic feet of fresh air into the auditorium per minute. 11 The Argus described it as being designed on modern principles 12 and the Age wrote of the good taste of the interior decorations in the handsomely appointed theatre. 13 An examination of an aerial photograph of the area taken about 1922 shows a building that dominated the locality by its sheer size and also gives some clues to the extent of the exterior changes resulting from the reconstruction of the theatre in 1928. 14

The program for the opening night consisted of both live entertainment and film. The main feature was "Conrad In Quest of His Youth" and there was a Christie Comedy "Two A.M." and a "Gazette". The orchestra played Friedmann's "Slavonic Rhapsody" and a Miss Pauline Bindley sang "Down In The Forest" and Verdi’s "Caro Nome". 15

By the later 1920's V. C. Marshall had sold his interest in the Victory to finance his 1927 film "Environment". 16 The film was unsuccessful, but his second film "Caught In The Act" of 1928 starred Zillah Bateman 17 who was to appear live at the re-opening of the reconstructed Victory that year. By that time the directors of Victory Theatres P/L were F. L. Nelson (Chairman), F.W. Thring, T. Cope and G.F. Griffith. 18 It was they who opened the reconstructed Victory on Monday March 19 1928. Ross Thorne has said, "The question of how much of the Victory is of the original design built in 1921 is still to be answered".19 The point is valid, but an examination of the building itself as well as other written sources can provide some clues.

Under the heading "Achievement", the souvenir program for the re-opening of the theatre began thus: "The Victory Theatre was opened almost seven years ago and was then generally acclaimed as being the most modern picture theatre in Australia. During recent years, however, theatre construction has been revolutionised both in comfort for the patrons and the artistic surroundings." 20 While making allowance for the usual language of self-advertisement, one can agree with the general tone of this.

The 1920's saw the construction of the Capitol (1924), State (1929) and Regent (1929) in Melbourne alone - not to mention the more pressing competition of the nearby Palais Pictures of 1927. Picture Palaces were also constructed in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth at this time. With Frank Thring Snr. as one of the Victory directors there is also a further connection between the Victory and the chain of Hoyts "Regent" theatres. In 1928 Hoyts Pictures and Electric Theatres merged to form Hoyts Theatres, 21 a merger that included F.T. Thring and G. Griffith. 22 A further connection linking the luxury of the city theatres with the new luxury of the Victory was the architectural firm of Cedric H. Ballantyne and Associates. It was this firm that was responsible for the reconstruction of the Victory in 1928, just as it had designed the Melbourne Regent which was then under construction. 23

The cost of the reconstruction - 40,000 Pounds - was larger than the original cost of the building. 24 Most of the work appears to have been done on the interior, apart from the stepped roof replacing the single-level one. 25 The program also mentions the new proscenium and the larger orchestra well. 26 As the theatre continued to operate during the building works (except for three weeks prior to the re-opening and the cancellation of Wednesday matinees) 27 and upon observation of differences in the brickwork around the stage area, it may be that the new proscenium and stage area had been constructed behind the old one. Inside the entrance the foyer had been enlarged to replace the old narrow crush hall, and it was now forty-eight feet wide. 28 Much attention had been given to carpeting and furnishings, with the seating within the auditorium being provided by the local firm of W.E. Ham P/L. of 76 High Street. 29 Photographs reproduced in the program show that the entrance foyer with its marble stairway and the upstairs barrel-vaulted promenade and lounge foyer looked much as they do in the 1990's, although it would appear that the chandeliers have been replaced at a later period. Also interesting is the cover drawing on the program. The classic elements of the facade have been drawn in such a way as to make them look more like part of an Art Deco design. 30 The decorative treatment was described as being "Rich and palatial, yet unobtrusive and dignified." 31 Three new Simplex projectors were installed as well as "an efficient and entirely new system of lighting throughout...(using) more than 27,000 feet of steel conduit...55 miles of cable, together with 4,000 lamps...(1,000 of which were) concealed in the coves and cornices surrounding the stage...(with) dissolving and dimming apparatus (with which) the proscenium may be illuminated to a blazing mass of blending colours or within a second may fade to the softest and most pleasant of tones." 32

The Victory circa 1930

The publicity manager, W.H. McKechnie, ensured that "The Victory had always had the distinction of being the only theatre in the Metropolis to issue a 14 page house organ gratis." 33 This was intended to continue on a weekly basis, as the new Victory had now dispensed with its former bi-weekly program changes. 34 A.W. Ross, who had been manager there since 1926, continued in that capacity and the twenty-piece orchestra was under the baton of M. Barille. Due to works on the St. Kilda main drain at the rear of the theatre, the motor-park was temporarily closed at this period, but the program promised that "arrangements have been made to have a number of attendants for cars left in Barkly Street." 35 The Age commented that, although the auditorium had been enlarged, the seating capacity had now decreased from about 2,600 to 2,500. 36 It had earlier written about the new heating system at the theatre. As well as providing ventilation, the air could now be warmed during the winter months. 37

As a finishing touch, the program advised: "All employees of the Victory are paid servants - patrons are asked not to offer gratuities". 38

The program for the re-opening contained, in addition to the main film "The Magic Flame" (with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky) and the supporting feature "Ladies Must Dress", a live "Grand Prologue" entitled "The Spirit Of The Movies" which starred Zillah Bateman. There were also two performances by the orchestra ("Semiramide" overture and "Fifty Million Frenchmen’’) and a newsreel of the arrival of the airman Bert Hinkler at Flemington. 39

Within a short time the Victory became a part of the Hoyts chain of suburban picture-theatres. A visit to the theatre on June 2 1993 elicited the following information from the current management - who had obtained this from the Public Records Office in Laverton - with regard to further alterations to the Victory. On June 8 1929 the Health Department had been notified in regard to the installation of a Western Electric system for talking pictures. When approved, the system was duly installed on June 26 of that year. On October 6 1937, 21-inch chairs replaced 22-inch chairs, resulting in an increase of sixteen chairs. The theatre now had 2,551 seats with 1,650 in the stalls, 364 in the lounge and 537 in the dress circle. A new storeroom was built on the southwest corner on February 29 1944 and on March 29 of the same year a new balustrade for the orchestra was constructed in front of the stage apron. A new men's toilet on the left-hand side inside the front door was opened on December 31 1946. 40

Throughout all of this period and up until 1971 the Victory continued as a Hoyts Suburban picture theatre. In that year it was acquired by the National Theatre Company, and its subsequent transformation and operation as the National Theatre will be described in a later chapter.


The Memorial picture-theatre was located on the southeast corner of Acland and Albert Streets St. Kilda. It was housed within the St. Kilda Soldiers Memorial Hall which still remains there under its 1996 name of "The St. Kilda Army & Navy Club". The construction of the hall was first proposed in 1920, soon after the end of the First World War. The first meeting to implement this proposal was organised by Councillor Unworth in the by now deserted St. Kilda Soldiers Lounge. Although only about six or seven people were present at this first meeting, it was decided early on that "the hall’s incorporation should carry with it the power to secure revenues, and that these revenues, profits, should be devoted each year to the relief of distressed soldiers and their dependants." 41 It was also proposed that the "memorial hall and club rooms ...would have a guaranteed source of revenue from the day of its completion." 42

After a competition among architects who were returned servicemen, the firm of Messrs. Hudson & Wardrop - who later designed the Shrine of Remembrance - was chosen, and this firm’s tradition of academic classicism can be seen in the exterior of the hall, albeit in what has been described in a recent citation as a "relatively superficial" form. 43 The builder was R.L. Phillips and the total cost, including land, was 39,492 Pounds. This sum was mostly raised by beach carnivals at Luna Park and special appeals and other entertainments, with the St. Kilda Council in addition making a special grant from municipal funds of 3,000 Pounds. 44 The foundation stone of the Memorial Hall was laid by the Governor-General, Lord Forster and that of the clubrooms by the Hon. W.A. Watt, Speaker of the House of Representatives, on Armistice Day, November 11 1923. Exactly one year later the Memorial Hall was opened by the Governor of Victoria, the Earl of Stradbroke, with the first event held there being a ball in the evening. 45 The completed structure was four stories high with twelve flats and four shops, and the hall itself could accommodate 500 for dancing and could seat 1,000. 46

As one of the ways of earning the revenue that had been deemed necessary since that first meeting to plan the hall, it was decided to lease part of it as a picture-theatre. Because of this the structure was therefore known for many years to the cinema-going public of St. Kilda and other places as "The Memorial", or else the more familiarly-shortened "The Memo".

The Memorial Hall circa 1930

The theatre began operating three years after the hall’s construction. On November 5 1927 a programme which included the film "Sweethearts" and a live show of "Exciting corroboree turns with eight full-blooded aboriginals" was advertised as showing at the Cairo Theatre on the Upper Esplanade. 47 Two days later the same programme of "Films and Aboriginal Turns" was advertised as being also at the Memorial Hall, 48 which is the first listing of the new theatre. The advertisement, consisting of a small rectangle about 45 by 25 mm. which contained the name of the theatre, its address and the program, was in marked contrast to the very large advertisements proclaiming - with illustrations - the opening of the Palais in four days. 49 The following year the Memorial Theatre was listed in the Sands & McDougall Directory under picture theatres, 50 and by 1939 it had joined the Hoyts chain with which it remained until its closure.

Although from the beginning, both in size and advertising, it can be seen as the poor relation of the Victory and Palais theatres, this did not mean that the theatre was not popular. John-Michael Howson spent the greater part of his childhood in St. Kilda and was at an early age a patron of its picture-theatres, all of which he describes in various anecdotes about his formative years in his 1985 book "I Found It At The Flickers". In this he contrasts what he describes as the "baroque and Byzantine" of the Palais, the "marble and mahogany" of the Victory, the "cozy kitsch" of the Astor and the "distinctive deco" of the New Windsor, with the Memorial. He recollects it as "a much-loved flea-pit (with) uncomfortable seats, a tatty curtain, a couple of radiators on the walls, and peculiar decorative lights that turned the puce curtains shades guaranteed to make even the colour-blind bilious". 51

However, with all of these apparent shortcomings and lacking the glamour of the other St. Kilda picture theatres, it was still a well-patronised venue. It catered for those audiences who loved the detective, horror and mystery films from what were then considered the lesser Hollywood studios such as Monogram and Republic. Also, there was not the need to dress as formally as one would have had to when going to the other picture-theatres nearby. The ushers were not as strict as elsewhere and this, combined with a laissez-faire attitude to eating in the auditorium, often meant that food scraps thrown at the screen when the "villains" appeared (particularly the real-life ones in the war-time newsreels) often stayed there for some considerable time, 52 something that would not have been tolerated, for instance, at the Palais.

In addition to the usual cinema fare (which also included the British Gaumont News), items of local sporting interest were featured. Film of the St. Kilda football team was shown there (with the team itself also being in attendance) on June 29 1931, and from July of that year the St. Kilda Captain, Harold Matthews, gave a weekly broadcast of news of the team which included a message for the patrons of the Memorial. 53

With this informality, the participation of local sporting heroes, and the physical siting of the theatre within the Returned Servicemen's Club, it could be said that the Memorial was perhaps more of a "community" (in the words true sense, and not in its current debased usage as a justification for an art’s grant for something from which the community actually stays away in droves) picture-theatre than its more ornate peers which catered as much (if not more) for "outsiders" as well as those resident in St. Kilda.

The theatre continued to function as part of the Hoyts chain, showing films on their second or third run, until its closure in late 1958. With as little publicity as for its opening, it showed its last films "House Of Strangers" and "Women Of Pitcairn Island" on Wednesday, December 10 1958. 54 It was a time of the coming of new things to Melbourne. On the following day the record of the hit musical "My Fair Lady" was officially released and "The Ten Commandments" opened at the newly-refurbished Barclay Theatre in Russell Street 55 and the day after that the first of the modern city buildings - the I.C.I. - had an open day for public visitation. 56

Although no longer a theatre, the hall continued an association with cinema, however. Until quite recently - February 1992 - 57 it housed the company of Pan Pacific Films, being used at times as a rehearsal area. This company also operated a Sunday Market which ran for two years until its closure on Sunday, March 1 1992. 58 In 1996 there are two double shops on the Acland Street frontage: one of which is a further extension of the new gaming rooms, and the other "La Petite Bourgogne" French restaurant. Although the section which housed the picture-theatre is currently empty, there are proposals for the possible re-opening of it as a cinema in about 1996. This is in line with the current refurbishment of the hall, which at the time of writing this book has a new gaming-room with poker-machines and a new restaurant - the "Albert Jacka Bar" - in what was once the downstairs foyer.


The Memorial Hall 1996


With the exception of Luna Park, perhaps the best-known building in St. Kilda would be the Palais Theatre. The present structure replaced the earlier Palais Pictures which had been destroyed by fire on February 10 1926, while under reconstruction.

Its location on the corner of the Lower Esplanade and Cavell Street - across the road from Luna Park - puts it in close proximity to Acland, Fitzroy and Carlisle Streets. Its size and situation gives it a landmark quality, especially when approached from the northwest by car or tram, or when observed from the sea.

It was opened as "The New Palais Pictures" on Friday, November 11 1927 59 and, apart from a few minor alterations, remains substantially unchanged. The theatre is rectangular with a stepped arched roof. The front is dominated by twin towers topped by domes with "an almost Islamic flavour... which reflects those of Luna Park". 60 The interior, which is in the eclectic style of theatre design typical of that period, has been described as "French and oriental" by contemporary newspapers, 61 "Spanish" in a recent conservation study 62 and "no particular period or style" by the theatre's architect, H.W. White. 63 At the time of construction, "modern" meant the combining of many traditional styles as distinct from the later use of the word to describe stylistic modes that were new. Perhaps the closest to a precise definition of its style today would be "revivalist" or "retro". The seating capacity, although later reduced, was originally 2968. 64 The stage area, small when compared to some "live" theatres, was unusually large for a picture-theatre.

Its opening in November 1927 was one month after the release of the part-talkie "The Jazz Singer" and eight months before the first all-talking picture "The Lights Of New York" was released by Warners on July 15 1928. 65

In common with the other picture palaces of the 1920's, the Palais was designed as a venue for silent films. What must be kept in mind however, is the assertion of Diane Collins that "there never was a silent film". 66 By this she means that not only were the larger picture-theatres equipped with orchestras which followed either a score written for a particular film or else arrangements of suitable mood music when required (in addition to appropriate sound effects) but also that films were exhibited along with live entertainment. In the smaller picture theatres this might only consist of a vocalist with piano accompaniment, but in a venue such as the Palais a lot more was expected by the audiences and therefore given by the management.

In contrast to later picture-theatres built after the coming of sound film, the Palais was equipped with all of the necessary paraphernalia for producing quite elaborate live shows. This included a "fly tower" - a high area above the stage where scenery can be "flown" or raised when not needed - as well as a unique apparatus for painting scenery which was sometimes lent out to other live theatres. 67 There was also a large orchestra pit, together with an off-stage area for the musicians. Dressing rooms, although inadequate by later standards, 68 were included for the performers.

The Palace

The Palais was built during a time which could be termed the "first golden age of cinema attendance". During this time great emphasis was placed on the size of the auditorium. Most of the giant picture-palaces were built in the city (The State, Capitol and Regent) but the Palais was, and still is, the only suburban picture palace. Its location in St. Kilda helped it weather the slump in theatre-going during the depression of the 1930's, and its size was again an advantage when attendances rose during the Second World War and in the period immediately after. By being equipped for live shows it has been able to continue functioning, albeit on a reduced scale, even after the coming of television and the much later emergence of the multiplex cinemas, both of which affected the very large, single auditorium, style of venue.


The Astor picture-theatre is located on the southwest corner of Chapel and Wellington Streets. It was opened on Friday, April 3 1936. 69 Although there had been some opposition to the construction of this theatre by "two hundred and fifty ratepayers (who) complained that the theatre was too close to churches" 70 and by Cr. Moroney who was quoted in the Age of September 17 1935 as saying: "a noisy, showy place of entertainment would detract from the dignity and charm of one of the loveliest localities in St. Kilda", 71 this did not stop the St. Kilda City Council from finally granting a building approval (No.9090) on October 31 1935 after some initial deferment. 72 This opposition seems rather curious in view of the street layout in 1935, and the number of hotels in the area. Dandenong Road then crossed Chapel Street and flowed directly into Wellington Street, and at this intersection were hotels on every corner except the southeast. Hotel revellers - especially from Prahran - would have been far noisier than sober patrons arriving and departing from the Astor. On the other hand, with the early closing laws (6 p.m.) of the period, cinemagoers would have been in the area at a much later time.

Perhaps it was this lateness that occasioned the opposition to the Astor’s construction, with the potentially exuberant crowds waiting around for the trams that ran along both streets of the intersection posing more of a threat to the sleep of the residents than to worshippers at the nearby churches. (It is of interest here that when "The Diamond" picture-theatre on the same site was operating in 1913, similar complaints were made, with its Sunday shows being described as "a disgrace to the community" and the local churches leading the opposition to that theatre). 73 In spite of this opposition however, the Astor was duly opened by Archie Michaelis and has been in almost continual operation since. 74


The Astor

The architect was R. Morton Taylor and the builder Clements Langford. The seating capacity was 1692, the sound system was by Western Electric and for those hard of hearing there were seats provided with hearing-aid sockets. 75 In contrast to the earlier built Palais and Victory, the Astor was constructed with sound facilities as part of the design rather than being a later addition. Although most of the newer picture-theatres of the 1930's utilised the "art moderne" features of roundness and a general streamlined effect, 76 the Astor is rectangular in its general design and most of the exterior use of decorative brickwork uses straight lines both vertically and horizontally. In plan it is rather like two boxes joined together. The larger box contains the auditorium and, at ground level, a row of shops. Above the shops and under the rear of the dress circle is the dress circle foyer. The smaller box, to the side of the shops and the auditorium, is the main entrance.

Upon entering, the box-office is to the right and the doorway to the rear of the stalls at the left. Part of the foyer continues down the side of the auditorium with doorways to the front stalls. The greater part of the foyer ends at the stairway to the lounge and dress circle. This stairwell is axially arranged for access to the upper foyer. An open well in the form of an elongated ellipse connects the upper and lower foyer. The lower is quite sparse with regard to decoration in comparison to the carpeted and furnished foyer above. At right angles to this upper foyer is the dress-circle foyer. The theatre is clad with brick, with decorative elements on the Chapel Street frontage only, the sides remaining plain. As none of this has been painted, the exposed brickwork still retains - apart from the accumulation of grime - its original 1935-36 appearance.

The Astor is a rare survivor of a type of suburban picture-theatre that appeared in the 1930's. In this period the emphasis had shifted from the construction of mammoth picture-palaces in the city to either the building of new theatres in the suburbs or else the modernising of those already there. 77 The onset of the great depression made it harder to fill the giant city picture-theatres as people were unable to afford, or unwilling to pay, the cost of transport to them. When individuals, couples, and families went out on a regular basis, it was usually to their local theatres, with those in the city reserved for special occasions. 78 A contributing factor to this reluctance to travel too far from home at this time was the ready availability of cheap domestic entertainment by means of the now widespread ownership of radios. 79 Although having the edge over city theatres, suburban ones still had this competition from "the wireless". Possibly in response to this, suburban picture-theatres tended to become more domestic - albeit on a grander scale - in their appointments at this time. What D. Collins calls the "leitmotif of the 1930's cinema - the large, living room style foyer" 80 could be an apt description of the circle foyer of the Astor - a characteristic shared with the Brunswick Padua and the Park Theatre in Albert Park. 81 The lighting of the Astor is also subdued and indirect, giving it a feeling of tranquillity and homeliness. After the extravagances of the 1920's with their Moorish, Gothic and deliberately overwhelming decor, the 1930's picture-theatres were places of cosiness, designed to make people of the bleak depression years feel at home.

It is fortunate that the Astor has "seen few alterations since its completion in 1936 ... (and) has survived untouched by time". 82 Considering the fact that if a cinema was not demolished as a result of the onset of television, or the interior often changed in a most unsympathetic way during the modernising mania of the early 1960's - as in the case of the Lyceum in Bourke Street which ultimately experienced both events, 83 the Astor can be seen as a rare survivor. Although not the last of its type, the fact that the building has retained its integrity, remained functional and still continues to operate on a profitable basis makes it somewhat unusual. Its cultural symbolism is multi-layered. In its capacity as a "local" theatre it has served both past and present. During its days as a Greek-language theatre (as described in Chapter 6) it symbolised the multi-culturalism ideals developing in 1960's Australia. These ideals were then in opposition to the dominant "melting-pot" concept in which migrants were supposed somehow to lose their former identity and culture and assimilate into Anglo-Celtic society in a somehow existential denial of their past. By showing Greek-language films the Astor stood as a sign of a people not only maintaining their culture but also making it available to others interested in broadening their cultural perspective. At the time of writing this book, apart from its regained "local cinema" function, its periodic hosting of film festivals is also culturally significant of the way in which Australian film awareness has grown from its former "U.S.A. and Britain" insularity, an awareness the Astor can be said to have played some part in helping to bring about.

The 1996 operators of the Astor "have sought to reinstate and restore long ignored internal features, such as the original strong colour scheme, the indirect lighting and much of the internal fittings and furniture, which appears to be original". 84 Also noteworthy is the restoration to full working order of the illuminated strip "Astor" external sign. Since the changing of the road layout and the demolition of adjoining structures in the 1960's, the Astor is in 1996 a dominant landmark for those approaching St. Kilda along Dandenong Road, providing almost a counterpoise to the Palais Theatre on the seaward side of the city.

The Astor - From Dandenong Road

footnotes for Chapter Three      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Four: A Room With A View.

In cities built prior to the twentieth century - as shown by contemporaneous drawings, paintings and photographs - the buildings dominating the skyline were the various churches. The only things competing with their spires in what had previously been fortified cities in Europe - for example, Nuremberg - were the turrets of the castles built on hilltops. In Melbourne the church spires rose well above the surrounding structures in the nineteenth century and even well into the twentieth until the building of the first multistorey office blocks in the late 1950's. 1 St. Kilda was no exception in this period, having the spire of the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Alma Road and Barkly Street and the campanile of the Sacred Heart in Grey Street. Both were on the crests of hills and even in 1996 are still outstanding landmarks.

By the 1920's however, the churches in St. Kilda - in common with those elsewhere - were faced with secular competition from the large new picture-theatres being constructed. The competition was more than visual though. Just as the various religions had had their effects on people's morals, manners and ways of thought and behaviour, so the cinema in its heyday similarly influenced to a greater or lesser degree the actions and thoughts of its devotees. As well as the contents of the films themselves, the architecture of their places of exhibition and other associated "viewing rituals" were also powerful behaviour-modifying influences. Such behaviour can be difficult to quantify, but an examination of audience attendance and behaviour can perhaps give an indication of the effects of the cinema on people in this period.

In going to a picture theatre at this time, one was engaging in a very "social" activity. The entertainment was provided outside the home and, because of the vast number of American and British films shown, it had a touch of the otherwise inaccessibly exotic. As entertainment it was essentially passive (for even at a football match one was expected to barrack) and can be seen as a forerunner of the even more passive "cool" medium of television. What cannot be over-emphasised however, is the concept of "mass entertainment" inherent in cinema. What people saw in picture theatres - and were subject to the influence of - occurred all over Australia and most of the world. Some of these images still have great resonance today. The images of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart (to name just a few) are part of the collective consciousness of most of the world, having achieved virtual iconographic status.

Allied to this concept of "mass entertainment", one must look at the "masses" who came to the picture theatres and consider the type of home in which the average cinemagoer lived. For the price of a ticket a person living in the meanest slum could enter a world of carpets, chandeliers and palatial surroundings without feeling ill at ease. Think, for example, of the same type of person entering a similarly decorated restaurant and being overwhelmed by the decor and extremely consciousness of such things as their table manners, complex menus and the large bill at the end of the evening. In contrast - apart from the distinctions of front and back stalls, lounge and dress circle - the picture theatre was a relatively democratic place. It could be contended that the "picture-palaces" of the twentieth century were for the masses what the great cathedrals had been in earlier times. Religion too, in its rituals, can be regarded as a cathartic, quasi-theatrical experience carried on by diverse groups of people in elaborate - though accessible - surroundings. Cathedrals as well were also landmarks and sources of civic pride. However, just as Australian cathedral design predominantly followed European models, the Australian picture-theatre and most of its films followed the lead of the dominant country in cinema at this time: the United States.

By the 1920's the United States had taken the lead in film production and cinema design due to a number of factors. Film production in France had reached a peak in 1910, but because production techniques and film formulae there lagged behind the United States, it soon fell behind. 2 As filmmaking in Britain did not become as highly organised as in the United States it "never really succeeded in progressing from the artisan to the industrial stage of development". 3 The outbreak of the war in Europe in 1914 not only slowed film production in Britain, but also reduced the potential for the export of completed films and the import of other films from which film-makers could keep abreast of new ideas in this developing field. Because the United States did not enter the war until 1917, the film industry there had had more time to organise and consolidate. Also, when the United States did enter the war, the authorities realised the propaganda value of films and encouraged their production. 4 The film "Birth of A Nation" (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith, cost $100,000 to make and brought in $15,000,000 within a few months, with tickets selling for the (at that time) great price of $2.00. 5 With that kind of money available for investment in American films - and the potential profitability of such investments being so great - it was inevitable that motion-pictures would attract more and more capital investment. With the United States in the war, plus the commercial viability - with Government cooperation - of propaganda films of the order of "The Kaiser’s Finish", "To Hell With The Kaiser" and "The Woman The Germans Shot" 6 (based on the execution of Edith Cavell who has a memorial in the Blessington Street Gardens), its film industry acquired a lead that it has maintained to the present day.

Because of this linking of films with the United States, the place name of "Hollywood" has since assumed an almost generic function. The United States also perfected what became known as the "Star System". Before this, in the early Nickelodeon films, the actors had remained anonymous for two reasons. Firstly, most actors of repute shunned this new medium because of its perceived lack of artistic credentials. To be in early films meant that you were either unknown or else willing to work at any old thing because of a decline of work opportunities. 7 The other reason was that the early film producers rightly thought that once the actors realised that they were recognised and wanted by audiences, they would then demand higher wages. 8 (Although some famous actors, Sarah Bernhardt for example, were filmed, it was more in the nature of a novelty experiment than a necessity for payment or publicity.) However, as a natural consequence of the same actors being seen in many films, some began to be recognised by their audiences. Such a one was Florence Turner who became known as "The Vitagraph Girl" in 1906. 9 Favourite actors soon began attracting "fan letters", but the studios still persisted in withholding their names from the public until 1910. In that year, realising the profits to be made by actually promoting stars (profits far greater than the increased costs of paying them more), Carl Laemmle staged a stunt to promote his "capture of 'The Biograph Girl', Florence Lawrence". 10 It ended with fans turning out to mob the new star and in the process attempting to tear off parts of her clothes as souvenirs, beginning a great Hollywood tradition which, in both the level of hysteria and the behaviour of the crowds, was to be later repeated world-wide.

From looking at the methods of film production and the concept of the star system, it can be seen that it was the United States that both set the pace and style of the new medium and was also the country to be imitated by others seeking to attract to themselves some of the perceived and actual glamour of the film world. Not least among this was the influence of the United States on cinema design worldwide.

In "American Theatres Of Today" published in 1927, Samuel L. Rotapfel wrote the following: "Even in a theatre of over six thousand seats, there must be a feeling of intimacy, a clear view of the stage must be afforded from every seat in the house and decorations must be in good taste. I am of the opinion...(that) there has been the sincere desire of the theatre owner and operator to do a better and finer thing by giving to his public and the community an example of beauty and comfort. Without question, this spirit has led these owners far beyond the requirements of commercial necessity. Such support has given architects much latitude and enabled them to apply their designs and skill with greater freedom". 11 The writer of this was responsible in part or whole for the designs of the Rialto, Roxy and Rivoli in New York. More importantly, his writings were a great influence on other designers, in particular with regard to the presentation of motion pictures. As Ross Thorne has written: "It appears that he saw everything almost as the presentation from the moment the patron walked off the street until he returned to the pavement. His greatness perhaps lay in his ability to visualise the atmosphere as an ever changing sequence of experiences: from being greeted by a saluting, well uniformed doorman, feeling like a million dollars walking up the grand lobby staircase, to being lulled into the mood of the forthcoming movie by music accompanied by the changing colours of the auditorium lights. Certainly he was able to provide the dimensions of the stage or orchestra pit he needed, but more important to his success he was able to impart his atmospheric vision, not only to the designers of the building but to his co-workers, so the reality for the patron was equal to the vision at every performance." 12

This "vision" of Samuel L. Rotapfel could be regarded as a continuation of Richard Wagner's nineteenth century concept of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" or total work of art combining speech, painting, dance, stage design and music - all occurring within an especially designed theatre. Wagner's "Festspielhaus" in Bayreuth - constructed in 1876 - is comparatively austere, however. 13 It is more like the modern picture-theatre in which minimal decor is subordinated to the events on the screen, rather than complementing them as part of an overall environment. Perhaps a better way of considering this would be to regard Wagner's "Gesamtkunstwerk" ideal as being realised - especially after the coming of sound - in the motion picture which combined speech, scenic design, drama and music to tell a story. The American cinemas, on the other hand, could be said to descend from buildings such as the Paris Opera House of 1874, described as "heavenly splendour brought to earth. ... it is more frivolous, ornate and vulgar than anything built by the mad Ludwig of Bavaria". 14 With this in mind it could be said that Rotapfel’s "vision" combined Wagner's dramatic ideas (in the film being shown) with the excesses of theatrical design (as embodied in Garnier’s Paris Opera House) all within a self-contained world.

Unlike other self-contained worlds - such as those built for the aforesaid Ludwig of Bavaria - these cinematic worlds were accessible to any who could purchase the low-cost tickets, irrespective of rank or class. As an ironic twist one can also reflect on the fact that the very structures that resulted in Ludwig of Bavaria being labelled "mad" are now the chief tourist attractions of that state, with "Neuschwannstein" appearing on most of their revenue attracting travel posters. Similarly, picture-palaces once considered the height of vulgarity which "serious historians of art and architecture did not worthy of comment" 15 are also now looked at aesthetically by those who regard them as both architecturally interesting and as structures representative of a particular era.

In both the picture-theatres of St. Kilda’s past, and those remaining (or newly constructed) in the present, can be seen a reflection of trends either originating in the United States or else common to theatre usage and design everywhere. The "commonality" of trends in the early days gave way to United States dominance as, after film production and exhibition was rationalised there on an industrial basis, the modes of production, exhibition and marketing spread worldwide.

In St. Kilda during this early period there was the utilisation of existing structures, as in the case of the former "Elite" skating rink, or else - in the case of "purpose-built" picture theatres - the structure was minimal, as was the "Palais Cinema" on the Upper Esplanade which was one of the long, narrow type known in America as the "shooting gallery" style of theatre. As films were not subject to the same constraints as "live theatre" visually or, in the silent days, acoustically, this "shooting gallery" style was a classic case of form following function. As Ben Schlanger has written: "A motion-picture screen presented much less of a problem even at thirty-five rows away because of the magnified image on the screen. Long, narrow buildings, moreover, were easier to obtain and adapt, as well as the most economical to build". 16 This last sentence applies particularly to the picture theatres on the Upper Esplanade, as one of the most striking things about them was the speed with which they were built, rebuilt, or demolished - always keeping in mind the seasonal nature of St. Kilda’s attractions. None of these structures were what could be called "substantial". As in the United States, it did not seem very wise in these early days to spend too much on the construction of a picture-theatre; "thus the theatres built (in the U.S.) exclusively for motion-pictures before 1930 were those that required little investment; their seating capacity was comparatively small and their appointments were held to a minimum". 17 The key word in the foregoing is "exclusively". Before it was realised that films represented an on-going investment opportunity, the builders of any structures requiring great capital outlay protected themselves by making sure that these new buildings also had the facilities for putting on "live" shows. By this means, if films suddenly became unprofitable, the former picture-theatre could continue operating as a "legitimate" theatre. An example of this is the Palais Pictures on the Lower Esplanade which, in its long career, has followed that path, as has the former Victory - a situation which has undoubtedly contributed to their survival as entertainment venues to this day.

This ability to stage "live" shows meant that, as in the United States, a night out in one of these new cinemas entailed more than just the watching of a film. Soon after the Palais Pictures opened in 1927, an early program noted: "Every week an original spectacular musical presentation is staged. Patrons are advised to take their seats early, as the stage presentation will commence at 8 pm sharp". 18 The content of one night's program was as follows:


Entr'acte: Harry Jacobs And His Music.


English Gazette - News from every part of the world.


The first film, (in this case) "Adam And Evil" (an M.G.M. Production).




Entr'acte: Harry Jacobs And His Music.


Australian Gazette - News From All Over The Commonwealth.


On the stage: Exclusive engagement of Miss Le Vina Lien, America's foremost lady violinist playing "Tambourin Chinois", "To A Wild Rose" and "Mazurka", with Raymond Lambert at the piano.


The main feature film (on this particular night) "Underworld" (A Paramount Picture).


"God Save The King."


(A note at the bottom of the program stated "Program subject to alteration".) 19

The cost of the night’s entertainment is not noted on this particular program, but the usual cost of a night at the Palais Pictures was either ninepence, one shilling and sixpence or, for those who could afford it, two shillings and sixpence. 20 To give an idea of the relationship of these amounts to what the performers were paid, Harry Jacobs the orchestra leader was originally paid twenty pounds per week, later reduced to fifteen with the onset of the Depression. 21

In addition to the performers, the Palais employed (in the words of Wendy Selover, daughter of Harry Jacobs) "ushers, who were dressed very smartly in burgundy and grey, with a silk ribbon stripe down the outside legs of their trousers, and in jackets similar to those worn in an army mess, (who) would show patrons to their seats". 22 As the programs said, "Our staff are especially trained in every department of service - Civility, Attention and Courtesy. Let its members demonstrate how they can be of use to you; they are anxious to assure your comfort ... Please do not offer a ‘tip’ to a Palais Servant; you will only meet with a polite refusal." 23

This standard of service to the public can be seen as the continuation of a tradition already established in the United States as early as 1908. In that year it was noted in the Motion Picture Herald that "the small cinema for 300 patrons at Trenton, New Jersey, had uniformed attendants". 24 In 1911 another journal "approved of the attendants in their white duck uniforms and matching peaked caps at Cincinnati's Royal". 25 At the Monticello Theatre, Jersey City, every employee wore "a fine and expensive uniform of navy blue, trimmed with gold". 26 This use of "attendants" was not overlooked by J.D. Williams - himself an American - when he began to establish his cinemas in Australia. "The excellence of the attendance" was commented on by The Lone Hand in July l911, 27 and although his early theatres were relatively small and in the nickelodeon or "shooting gallery" style they were thought of then as "nickelodeon(s) with a difference: there were ornate vestibules with marble steps, marble ticket offices, marble staircases, soft seats, smartly dressed attendants, a gay exterior and an orgy of electric light." 28

Such a description, although on a much larger scale, would not be amiss describing the Palais, Victory or any of the city picture-palaces of the next decade. It must also be noted that the architect of the Palais Pictures, H.E. White, was associated with John Eberson, himself an architect of cinemas in the United States. Eberson was the architect responsible for the "Atmospheric" style of cinema design, a style described by D. Collins as the first "original architecture for the cinema". 29 Some examples of "Atmospheric" picture-theatres in Australia were the Capitol in Sydney, the Ambassadors in Perth, and the State in Melbourne. 30

In the 1920s, the future architect of the Palais had travelled to the United States with the chief executive of Union Theatres, Stuart Doyle, 31 in order to study cinema design at a period when "vast palaces of entertainment were constructed all over the United States, each desperately attempting to outdo the others". 32

Advertisement for "Caramints"

It was against this background of size, luxury, ornateness and sheer extravagance of cinema design, in a time of prosperity and a spirit of modernity that "Australia's Wonder Theatre", the Palais Pictures, was constructed. Even the advertisements for sweets matched the mood of the period, with such phrases as "lulling and alluring luxury - some gripping story unfolding itself on the screen - and Caramints - that's happiness sublime!" 33 Next to this somewhat modest text were juxtaposed illustrations of the "Caramints" box and the Palais under the heading "Two Treasure Caves". The very existence of well-printed weekly programs of the sort formerly associated with opera, ballet, and legitimate plays not only added to the sense of occasion, but also indicated that the cinema had attained a respectability far removed from its nickelodeon days. As Simon Brand has written "in the 1920's a visit to the pictures became an event - a night out, on a par with a night at the theatre or opera". 34

Winston Churchill once said "We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us" when referring to the "confrontationist" design of the House Of Commons. A similar observation could apply to the influence of cinema design on the behaviour of its patrons. There is no way of scientifically measuring this, but certain definite trends can be indicated.

Before the construction of purpose-built picture-theatres, the pattern of audiences dressing formally had not generally emerged. 35 With films being shown in either the open-air or else in tents it is understandable that people did not wish to expose their good clothes to the rigours of climate, mud and the jostling crowds in an environment far removed from what was then considered a formal occasion. What must also be taken into account was that many members of the audience - especially children - had either climbed in over a fence or else slipped under the sides of a tent in order to avoid payment. 36 This situation did not last long though and as early as 1909 the practice of formal dressing increased with the construction of West's "New Olympia Theatre" in St. Kilda Road. With shows beginning there at 8 p.m., this meant that one had time to go home and change rather than just drop in after work or shopping, 37 a policy deliberately designed for the purpose of making this picture-theatre "as like the ordinary theatres as possible, a place where a man could take his family on State occasions". 38 Also, although J.D. Williams in Sydney began in 1909 to operate picture-theatres that ran continuously from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (at a less expensive entrance price), his smaller theatres were still decorated in a style far more lavish than contemporary nickelodeons in the United States. 39 It was this development of "lavishness" that not only tended to encourage people to dress for the occasion, but was also part of the emerging consciousness of it being a special occasion to attend the cinema, particularly in the evenings.

Today, when going to the cinema is just one of the many things available to those seeking recreation, it can be easy to forget just how much of an event it was before television became the preferred form of family entertainment. Perhaps the only thing comparable to this "sense of occasion" to be seen today is in the dress and behaviour of Opera and Ballet audiences, although even these audiences have a far more relaxed dress code than formerly. What must also be considered is that until quite recently people usually had three sets of clothes: for work, home and "going out". These "going out" clothes were worn at church on Sunday, formal visiting and even for just going into the city of Melbourne - then regarded as an event in itself. An examination of any photographs taken of Melbourne street scenes prior to the mid-l960's will confirm this. Although certain clothes might have been regarded as "lairy", they still had such essentials as collar and tie, jacket and - until about the 1940's - a hat.

With the new art-form of cinema aspiring to "respectability" by emulating the style and presentation of the "legitimate" theatre, 40 and the growth of lavish, purpose-built picture theatres, the result was that attending the cinema came to be regarded as a very formal event, particularly in the evenings.

As John-Michael Howson has written concerning the Palais Pictures: "The Palais offered a blend of Baroque and Byzantine. The Palais was big deal. It had class! It had style! You 'dressed up' when you went to the Palais. A mammoth place with Luna Park on one side and the Palais de Danse on the other, it was the heart of St. Kilda's Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. A vast mix of Versailles, St. Peters and the Reich Chancellory, it not only showed pictures, as its name implied, but featured live musical extravaganzas". 41 The same author also comments on the strictness of the ushers there, even during the Saturday matinees, a situation in marked contrast to the relaxed Victory and the even more lenient Memorial. 42 This "sense of occasion" with regard to cinema attendance could be said to have continued up to and even beyond - for a short time - the coming of television to Australia. Perhaps the first sign of its decline can be seen in the behaviour of the "bodgies" in theatres in the mid-1950's. Diane Collins has written about the phenomenon of "bodgie laughter" which was used by gangs of youths to deliberately disrupt films at dramatic moments. 43 With older people increasingly staying at home to watch television and, with the fragmentation of audiences associated with the growing youth culture, the age of either courting couples or entire families making an event of "going to the pictures" had passed. This period of change and its effects on cinemas in St. Kilda will be examined in a later chapter.

footnotes for Chapter Four      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Five: I Am A Camera.

From the earliest days of cinema in Australia, St. Kilda has also been prominent in filmmaking as well as exhibition. In addition to this, the varied architecture of the suburb, as well as its seaside location and cosmopolitan ambience, have attracted filmmakers in search of exotic locations and people. This has sometimes led - in a circular fashion - to the picture-theatres themselves becoming incorporated in films using them for location shots, a practice that persists to this day.

In the early years of this century Millard Johnson (? - ?) and his brother-in-law W.A. Gibson (1870 - 1929) were two chemists on the northeast corner of Nelson Street and Punt Road, (on land which has since been removed to make way for the Queens Road underpass) hard by the St. Kilda Junction. Having purchased a projector for forty pounds from a travelling vaudevillian down on his luck, they began showing films on the roof of their premises for their own and their friends amusement, in the process attracting a crowd of onlookers and also the attention of the police - who objected to the crowds blocking traffic in the Junction. 1

Site of Johnson & Gibson's Location

After this almost accidental beginning, and realising the business opportunity that films presented, the partners began showing films on St. Kilda beach. They rapidly expanded into film exchange at the Russell Street Temperance Hall and later began making films themselves in partnership with J. & N. Tait. In 1906 they made "The Story Of The Kelly Gang". This is regarded as the first feature-film in Australia, if not in the world. Its running time was an hour and a quarter at a time when the average running time for an American or European film was fifteen minutes. 2 (C. Long gives the running time as forty minutes, 3 but even that reduced time was still far in excess of contemporaneous films.) Billed as "the longest film ever made", it was shown in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, complete with - in the absence of intertitles - lecturer and special effects personnel "Mr. Barker" and F.E. Russell. 4 This 6,000-foot film was followed in 1909 by the 5,000-foot "The Squatter’s Daughter" (Land of The Wattle). This was produced by W. Anderson and was written by Bert Bailey (who later played "Dad" in "On Our Selection" and its sequels) and Edmund Duggan, 5 and based on the successful play of the same name written by them in l905.

In 1908, Johnson & Gibson opened the "Paradise Of Living Pictures" on the Upper Esplanade. In 1911 they joined with the Tait Brothers to form Amalgamated Pictures. This was just before the opening of the St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre in Fitzroy Street on April 11 of the same year. 6 Amalgamated Pictures therefore controlled both picture-theatres in that year. Prior to this, Johnson & Gibson had shot their interiors and processed their films at their Punt Road location, 7 but when the St. Kilda Bioscope was constructed, a studio with full facilities was built at the rear of the premises. St. Kilda now possessed a permanent production facility, as well as both indoor and outdoor venues for the films produced.

Amalgamated Pictures has been described as "Australia’s first major film monopoly fully owned and controlled by Australians." 8 Their major output consisted of filmed versions of successful Australian plays. In 1911 the company made "Called Back", "Luck Of Roaring Camp", "It’s Never Too Late To Mend", "The Lost Chord", "The Bells" and "The Mystery of A Hansom Cab". The first of these films was shot within the Fitzroy Street studio. "The Bells" used Mount Donna Buang for location shots and "The Mystery Of A Hansom Cab" - in accordance with the story which was partly set in St. Kilda - locations such as Acland Street and the Upper Esplanade. 9 In 1912 the studio made "Breaking The News" and "Rip Van Winkle". 10 After making these eight feature films and a newsreel the company was absorbed by Australasian Films in 1913. Shirley and Adams have commented on Amalgamated Films that "judging by the subjects shown, the average length (4,000 feet) and the scale of Amalgamated’s production, the company was second only to Spencer’s Pictures in its resolve to build a quality reputation for Australian features." 11 This was a sentiment shared by contemporary observers, one of whom commented "back of the handsome St. Kilda Theatre there is a studio where picture plays are built up for reproduction throughout Australia and parts beyond the seas..." in an article in the Prahran Telegraph about the production of the (lost) film "After Sundown", directed by W.J. Lincoln. 12 Although shown at the St. Kilda Theatre and the nearby Paradise, the products of the studio were premiered at city theatres, usually the Glaciarium.

With the closure of the studio, the St. Kilda Theatre functioned until 1933 as an exhibition venue only. In that year, over twenty years since the dissolution of Amalgamated Pictures, the Argus wrote of the conversion of the theatre itself into a "modern soundproof studio with an area of over nine thousand square feet capable of housing the large sets necessary for production." 13

This was done to accommodate the studios of "Cinesound Number Three". From its creation in 1932, Cinesound - previously Australasian Films, part of "The Combine" that had absorbed Amalgamated Pictures - with Studios number 1 and 2 in Bondi and Rushcutters Bay, made feature films until 1940 and "Cinesound Review" newsreels until 1975. 14 The new studio at St. Kilda was equipped for both the production of feature films and newsreels and, because Cinesound was a subsidiary of Greater Union, (with Stuart Doyle as managing director of both) there was now the distribution and exhibition facilities available for its productions. One of the reasons that Cinesound (and Efftee) productions were expanding in this way was because of an anticipated protection of Australian films by means of a government quota system. 15 In the event, however, this did not materialise, so that by 1938 "Melbourne had closed down its film industry completely". 16 To return to film production close to and in St. Kilda, it is therefore necessary to go back to 1913 and examine the career of one of Amalgamated Pictures directors, W.J. Lincoln, and his associates.

Front of "Banff", the site of "St. Kilda Theatre" and "Cinesound No. 3" Studios

The production company of Lincoln-Cass Films was formed in 1913 and their studio was located in Cole Street (on the north side, between Drake and St. Kilda Streets) in the nearby suburb of Elsternwick. 17 In that year Lincoln-Cass made eight films: "The Sick Stockrider", "Moondyne", "The Remittance Man", "Transported", "The Road To Ruin", "The Reprieve", "The Crisis" and "The Wreck’’. The first two had their premieres on August 13, and September 1, 1913 jointly at the Hoyts St. George's Hall in Melbourne and the Royal Pictures in Windsor. The next three were premiered on September 15 and 29 and October 13 at Hoyts St. George's Hall and the Lyric Theatre in Prahran. "The Reprieve" and "The Crisis" premiered on November 3 and December 7 in St. George's Hall only, and "The Wreck" 18 has no premiere date or location details available. 19

Although the company was effective for only one year, it was described in St. Kilda By The Sea in 1913 as having been "established for the production of Australian photo-plays for the Australian and European markets". 20 Shirley and Adams rank this company fourth in terms of output (with Amalgamated Pictures fifth) in a period described by them as unequalled in terms of Australian film output until 1975, the peak year of the Australian film revival. 21

Lincoln-Cass Studio Site 1996 (Right Side Of Street)

A contributory factor of this boom (perhaps the most important when one considers the results of its later disappearance) was the access of filmmakers to exhibition venues. As mentioned earlier, Johnson & Gibson had constructed the "Paradise of Living Pictures" in 1908. As manager of this outdoor picture-theatre they had appointed W.J. Lincoln. In 1913, Lincoln became the sole proprietor of the venue and it became an outlet for the films he produced with G. Cass in the company they had formed in that same year. 22 An arrangement had also been made to screen the products of Amalgamated Pictures, but as has been seen, that company had now been absorbed by Australasian Films.

It was Australasian Films that also led to the demise of Lincoln-Cass Productions, the company being sold to J.C. Williamson’s in 1915. 23 The reason for Australasian Films success in either absorbing or forcing the closure of independent studios was given in 1914: "The company’s managing director, H. Dean Stewart, claimed that the Lincoln-Cass closure in late 1913 was caused by ‘the pernicious system of Australasian Films Ltd., in binding the showmen to take their full programme from them, and not allowing a picture to be hired from an outside source if over 1,000 feet in length’." 24 With the closure of Lincoln-Cass Films (who had employed actors such as Roy Redgrave - the father of Sir Michael Redgrave - and the then child actor Kathleen Lindgren - who later became "Nancy" of "Nicky and Nancy" fame), feature-film production in St. Kilda had come to a halt.

W.J. Lincoln

Millard Johnson later became Union Theatre’s representative in the United States; W.A. Gibson became a director of Union Theatres and received an O.B.E. in 1919; W.J. Lincoln later formed Lincoln-Barnes Productions and Godfrey Cass continued as an actor, often in the role of Ned Kelly. (Ironically, his father had been the Governor of Melbourne Gaol when Ned Kelly was hanged there in 1880.) They all continued working in the movie business, but the days of the small independent film-maker had given way to a more rationalised industry which imported, distributed and exhibited most of its films from the United States. As Hal Porter has said: "the merry-go-round of film production before the Great War was lively. The mainspring ran down when the American industry grew mammoth overnight". 25 It was another twenty years before feature films were to be made again in St. Kilda.

It was in 1933 that "Efftee Film Productions" began operating in St. Kilda, in a studio located on the corner of the Upper Esplanade and the eastern corner of Alfred Square, where the "Paradise Of Living Pictures" and the "Follies" had formerly stood. The site of the former open-air picture-theatres had been purchased by the Wattle Path Palais de Danse & Cafe Ltd. in 1922 and the structures existing there dismantled. 26 The building then erected on the site in 1923, and which remained there until its destruction by fire in 1982, was designed by the architects Beaver & Purnell. 27 It functioned as a dance hall under the name "Wattle Path" and "Streets Of Paris" until it was bought by Francis William Thring (1883 - 1936) for 20,000 Pounds in late 1933 for use as a film studio. 28 He had founded "Efftee Film Productions" - the name deriving from his initials "F.T." - in 1931, and had been operating from His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. Although this theatre had been damaged by fire in October 1929, the stage area could still be used for filming and, considering that "most of his filming (was) filmed theatre" 29 this limiting of the work area to the stage would not have been much of a handicap. The move to St. Kilda however, gave him possession of a film studio which was regarded as the largest in Australia at that time. 30 There, with his art director W.R. Coleman, soundman Alan Mill and the ubiquitous Arthur Higgins as his principal photographer, 31 F. Thring finished "A Ticket In Tatts" and then made "Clara Gibbings", "Streets of London", "Heritage", the "Tatler Newsreel" series and the last of Noel Monkman’s (1896-1969) "Australian Marvelogues". 32 In the film "Heritage" the musical arrangements were by Harry Jacobs, the musical director of the Palais Pictures. 33 Among the crew for this picture was Damien Parer (1912-1944) who later in 1942 made Australia’s first Oscar-winning film "Kokoda Front Line". 34 Also, during the course of the transfer from His Majesty’s to the new St. Kilda studio, location shooting was done in the outback for the ultimately unfinished film "Sheepmates". According to the press of the day, it was further parts of this film which were the first to be shot at Wattle Path even before it was finally completed as a studio. 35

Despite all of this activity however, the Efftee studios at St. Kilda only functioned for four months. The anticipated government protection by means of a quota system did not occur and, because of the merger of Hoyts and Greater Union, access to venues appeared threatened. Stuart Doyle, who had just refurbished the studios at the old St. Kilda (Biograph) Theatre was also publicly announcing his intentions of making rival films there, 36 and, because of his connection with Greater Union, this would have effectively kept Efftee Productions out of the running. Perhaps the closure of the Efftee Studios during the Victorian Government inquiry into establishing a quota was a way of putting pressure on the authorities. 37 In the event, it did not work. F.W. Thring announced that he would resume production in Sydney only, but this did not eventuate owing to his death in 1936. The studio closed and later in the 1930's became the St. Moritz ice-rink. Frank Thring Jnr., however, retained the freehold of the structure until 1955. 38

"St. Moritz" Ice Rink

In its short time in St. Kilda, Efftee Studios became part of the life of the area. Harry Jacobs from the Palais worked on the music, Frank Thring himself had earlier been associated with the nearby Victory, and when Charles Chauvel used the studios for his film "Heritage", the streets of St. Kilda had to be searched for a baby required for a scene. 39 On a more tragic note, an electrician was killed during the making of the same film. 40 Damien Parer was also a local resident, and in addition spent a short period of his education at the Christian Brothers College in East St. Kilda. 41

Although feature films had ceased production in St. Kilda, this did not mean that cameras were not at work there. In 1901, Joseph Perry - who the previous year had made "Soldiers Of The Cross" - made a newsreel covering the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of York (later George V and Queen Mary) to open the first Federal Parliament of the newly-formed Commonwealth of Australia in May 1901. His camera recorded the arrival of the Duke and Duchess at the St. Kilda Pier on May 6 1901, where they were met by the Governor General and the Prime Minister. There was a red carpet the length of the St. Kilda Pier when they disembarked from the "Hygeia", and their progress to the waiting carriages at the Lower Esplanade is to be seen in this early newsreel. (For many years it was the custom for Royal Visitors to arrive at St. Kilda and proceed up Fitzroy Street and St. Kilda Road to Government House and Melbourne City, a custom that for various reasons has fallen into desuetude). Point Ormond can also be seen and part of the Upper Esplanade. 42 This is the first surviving film of St. Kilda, but the beginning of something which has now become a tradition.

From the earliest days of cinema St. Kilda has been used for location shooting, and has also been included in newsreels and documentaries. In "Marvellous Melbourne - Queen City Of The South" (1910) St. Kilda was featured under the description of "The Coney Island Of Australia". 43 When Amalgamated Pictures made their first film "The Mystery Of A Hansom Cab" in 1911, a house in Acland Street was used in one location, 44 a not inappropriate choice as Fergus Hume’s novel of the 1880's was set to a large extent in St. Kilda, especially Grey Street and the Upper Esplanade. 45 1912 saw the St. Kilda Regatta in "Normal Melbourne", the first colour film in the southern hemisphere 46 using a process called "Kinemacolour". When Lincoln-Cass made "The Road To Ruin" (1913) the Prince of Wales hotel in Fitzroy Street was one of the appropriate locations. 47 The arrival of the real Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) in May 1920 - coming ashore at St. Kilda Pier from the "Hygeia" - was celebrated in a documentary "The Prince In Melbourne". 48

This use of St. Kilda’s streets and buildings has continued to this day, especially since the coming of television series such as "Homicide" (1964-1977) and the dramatisation of the late Frank Hardy’s "Power Without Glory" (1976), the latter using Number 79 Park Street for both night and day exterior scenes. Tim Burstall’s "Stork" (1971) used shots of Dandenong Road. In Paul Cox’s "Man of Flowers" (1983) the Catani Gardens were used and the final shot of figures in a landscape looking out to sea made use of Point Ormond. In the 1987 "A Matter of Convenience", extensive use was made of Acland Street at the Village Belle area. Using the premises of what is in 1996 "Discurio" (and what was then "La Loon"), a shop "Frivolities" was mocked up, which became one of the central locations of the action. Use was also made of the "Camberley" block of flats in Milton Street Elwood for nighttime exterior shots.

Beach scenes were filmed opposite "Edgewater Towers" and some night footage was shot in Fitzroy Street. One of St. Kilda’s most historic and well-loved hotels - the Esplanade - was used for both interiors and exteriors. Some of the most visually striking shots made use of the Upper and Lower Esplanade, with the blue bay, green trams and palm trees being much in evidence.

The Upper Esplanade was also used in the 1980's mini-series "Darlings of The Gods" - about the Olivier's’ tour of Australia in 1948 - in conjunction with a vintage tram and cars of the period. Just as Luna Park starred in the early newsreels, it was later used in the 1960's for an imaginative television commercial for the soft-drink "Fanta".

The picture-theatres also have been used for feature films. In Chris Lofven’s 1976 Australian version of "The Wizard of Oz" - "Oz" - the "Wizard" has been updated to a rock star, his venue being the Palais Theatre. The exterior (with appropriate lettering on the marquee), the foyer and the interior are extensively used when the "Dorothy" character finally sees the "Wizard" perform. Shooting was also done in the foyer of the Astor in 1990-91 for the film "Spotswood". 49

These are only a few of the many films, television series and advertisements that have been shot in St. Kilda. The reason for the past, present and continuing cinematic interest in the area is quite understandable. St. Kilda has houses and other structures which reflect the styles of many architectural periods. Anything from Gothic Revival, Victorian, Edwardian, the 1920's, 30's, 40's and right up to the latest styles of today can be made use of to give a "Period" look to any film.

The fact that St. Kilda still possesses picture-theatres which have retained their architectural integrity is also useful for filmmakers who wish to incorporate a "Picture Palace" such as the Palais or "Cinemas of the golden age" into their screenplays. Other suburbs - especially post-war - usually have a uniformity of architectural style, limiting the film-maker who may want to shoot in that suburb to one period only, not to mention the dearth of older cinemas in such areas due to their demolition after the coming of television. In St. Kilda the range is endless and the existence of a picture-palace unique. The bustling streets both day and night also make for instant crowd scenes (with a lot in those crowds probably being actors who are currently "resting"), something impossible in the outer "dormitory" and dormant suburbs.

As proof of this manifold film activity one has only to consider that in the streets and parks of St. Kilda it is a common sight both day and night to come across cameras in action. This can range from the home-movie, through students doing film and television courses (usually from Swinburne and always dressed in black - possibly as a way of leaving theatres unobserved during some of the more boring and pointless "avant garde" concoctions) to full scale productions by major studios. Not unusually, many of these productions are often shown in St. Kilda picture-theatres, either as standard feature-films or else during the area’s many film festivals, thus continuing the tradition of film-making and exhibition established in St. Kilda in the early years of the twentieth century.


footnotes for Chapter Five      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Six: To Be or Not To Be.

The greatest changes to film exhibition occurred in the period following the Second World War. Although before the war the effect of the 1930's depression initially caused a substantial decline in theatre attendance 1 and even the temporary closure of many suburban picture-theatres, 2 this reversal proved to be short-lived and by 1935-36 theatres were not only re-opening, but new ones were also being constructed. 3 The advent of the war also served to increase attendances, due to the large number of American servicemen with money to spend being stationed in Australia. 4 As Simon Brand has said, "The salvation of both Hoyts and Greater Union was almost directly attributable to the Japanese Emperor and Adolf Hitler, but primarily the former". 5 With the end of the war, and - unlike the U.S.A. - with television nine years in the future, the cinema industry in Australia enjoyed a veritable Indian summer. Although attendances had dropped in 1951 to twenty per cent below their wartime peak, new theatres were still being constructed 6 and Australia was getting the benefit of the new technologies of improved sound systems and widescreen techniques developed in the United States. 7

The effects of the coming of television in 1956 were somewhat offset by the influx of migrants into Australia who, unable to participate initially in local entertainment facilities, set about establishing their own cinemas. This in turn led to an interest by many native Australians in "Foreign" films which further affected film exhibition and led in great part to the establishing of the film festivals in this country.

Along with all of this was an increase in the variety of leisure activities, changes to the liquor licensing laws, and also a greater interest in "The Arts" of Opera, Ballet, Drama, and - as cinema became more "respectable" - film appreciation, all of which provided an alternative to the "Saturday night at the movies" cinema habit.

Although all of these post-war occurrences affected the whole of urban Australia, their progress and effects can be seen in a concentrated form in the suburb of St. Kilda - as a later examination of the transformations of the Victory/National, Palais and Astor Theatres will show. Before homing in on these particular venues however, it is perhaps best to look at migration and television, their effects on the cinema industry, and the changing expectations and composition of audiences since the war.

On August 1 1950, the "in house" magazine of Hoyts - "Action The Backbone Of Attraction" - featured on its front page an article entitled "Hoyts Welcomes New Australians". The opening paragraph stated: "Since shortly after the end of hostilities in World War Two there has been flowing to Australia a steady stream of potential film patrons, thousands of migrants for audiences of the future - the New Australians". 8 It went on to describe the actions of the manager of the Mayfield Theatre, Harry Armstrong, who had printed leaflets for the occupants of the local migrant hostel.

These leaflets, in English and German, were meant to encourage the "Hoyts Habit" 9 in these and other migrants. They were to be distributed on a three-month basis so as to give migrants notice of the various programs offered, as well as basic English courses in such matters as knowing the correct words for "Aisle", "Seats" and "Usherette". The article, which quotes the leaflet extensively and approvingly as a "blueprint for similar migrant patronage" 10, also promotes the cinema habit as being beneficial for integration, learning English, and keeping abreast of the news by way of the Australian newsreels. It sees in the expected influx of 200,000 in the coming year (1951) even more customers "to who Hoyts (will) extend the open hand of welcome". 11 In conclusion, it hopes that "these are the people who are going to continue to keep Hoyts the greatest theatre circuit in the southern hemisphere". 12

Three assumptions are implicit in this article. Firstly, the cinema-going habit is a fact of life for most Australians. Secondly, immigration is seen as providing even more audience members to fill the theatres in this boom period. Thirdly - and that which is of most concern here - is that it is tacitly expected that these potential audiences will adapt to the then status-quo of cinema-going, that is, that they will patronise the films coming from the already existing sources (this mainly being the United States and Great Britain) and that they will learn the language (English) of these films.

In many cases this is just what happened, but in some other cases it was the cinemas that adapted rather than the migrants. Over a period of time a number of picture-theatres began to specialise in what today would be called "ethnic" films. Although there had been earlier attempts in the 1930's to show foreign language films in both Sydney and Melbourne at the "Savoy" picture theatres of Dawson and Selleck, 13 these establishments tended to cater for either the minority of serious film-goers who wanted more than the usual Hollywood offerings, or else those who went to "continental" films on account of their then-considered "frankness" in matters of sex. The later ethnic picture-theatres of the 1950's were "usually old Hoyts or Odeon-Kings houses which had been forced to close by the popularity of television, (and) they were located in areas of high migrant population". 14 Today, with S.B.S. Television, it is possible for migrants from many countries (as well as interested Australians) to have entertainment and information without leaving their houses, but in those days of either limited or English-only television, it was the ethnic picture-theatres which provided this.

In parallel with this there was also the growing interest shown by native Anglo-Saxon-Celtic Australians in overseas films. This was fairly limited prior to the 1960's, and its growth during and since that decade can perhaps be attributed to increasing levels of education and film-awareness. This shall be examined in more detail when looking at film-festivals, but firstly one has to consider the impact of migrant-created ethnic cinema on St. Kilda and its picture-theatres.

In early 1967 the Astor began showing Greek films. 15 As these were without subtitles it was obvious that the cinema was catering for the - by now quite large - Greek community in Melbourne and not for "old" Australians who were interested in foreign films. As forty per cent of the 250,000 Greeks who immigrated to Australia between 1945 and 1981 had settled in Victoria, 16 and as 37.25 per cent of these lived in the nearby suburbs of St. Kilda, Prahran, Caulfield, Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond in 1966, 17 the potential audience was in place. Also - and as no statistics exist regarding the socio-economic makeup of the audiences this can only be a speculation - it is interesting to note that as thirty-three per cent of Greeks in 1966 lived in "homes or poor or very poor condition ... compared with only thirteen per cent of the Australian homes sampled" 18 perhaps the very factors that encouraged "old" Australians of the 1930's to attend the cinema were at work here: a desire to leave one’s own poor home for a time and to be entertained in surroundings of luxury - with the added incentive of being able to meet people from the "old" country in this strange new land.

By 1982 the Astor’s days as a Greek-language picture-theatre were over and it closed in February of that year. 19 Perhaps this closure was due to the movement of Greeks away from the inner suburbs due to their rising standard of living 20 coupled with the opening of ethnic television which began on a trial basis in 1979 followed by regular multicultural broadcasts in 1980 on Channel 0-28 (later S.B.S.), 21 both of which could be said to have taken away a lot of the Astor’s former audiences.

In an ironic twist though, the very houses which the Greeks (and others) moved from in order to go to the outer suburbs soon became the desired places to dwell for the growing socio-economic class of rising young professionals. When these "Young Urban Professionals" (earlier known as "Trendies") moved into the houses deserted by the now upwardly-mobile migrants, there was not only a rise in property values, but a new potential audience was also in place, an audience that had grown up in the era of Australian television.


The introduction of television to Melbourne in 1956 had the same effect on the cinema industry here as it had had in the United States earlier, where it had begun broadcasting on a regular basis shortly after the end of the second war. David Robinson has written that in the United States the cinema audiences had dropped from "90 million in 1948 to 70 million in 1949 and 60 million in 1950. Between 1946 and 1956 the figures halved". 22 Hollywood’s response to this competition from the small screen was the introduction of the large-screen formats such as "Vista-Vision", "Cinerama", "Todd AO" and "Cinemascope" as well as the making of "Blockbuster" films like "The Robe", "The Ten Commandments" and similar Biblical and Roman epics which exploited to maximum advantage the sheer size of the screen, aided also by the power of the new sound systems available. 23 Some of these new systems and films were in place in Melbourne before television came but, just as in the United States, large screens, "Epics" and stereophonic sound were not able to halt the decline in audience numbers.

The inevitable result was the closure of many picture-theatres. Diane Collins has recorded that by 1959, thirty-three per cent of Melbourne cinemas had closed 24 and that fifty per cent of the population had television sets. 25 The closure of cinemas took place over an extended period, though. Most of the picture-palaces in the centre of Melbourne managed to keep operating all through the 1960's in spite of drastically reduced audiences, with many of the Melbourne cinemas in general operating until they had lost seventy per cent of their patrons. 26 Australia-wide, the pre-television number of 1,700 picture-theatres was reduced to 1,000 by 1968. 27

The 1970's saw many of the city theatres close, with city exhibition given over to the "Cinema Complexes" which also contained "shops, offices, restaurants and car-parking stations as well as a cluster of film theatres". 28 With the closure of the smaller city venues, such as the Century, Odeon, Roma, Bercy, Embassy, and Palladium (the last four of which opened, interestingly enough, in the 1960's as part of the general trend to smaller theatres) one is left with a choice in Melbourne in 1995 of either cinema complexes or else the very small venues, of which many combine X-rated movies with live erotic entertainment. The old picture-palaces are either empty or else used for live shows or other purposes, the exception being the Capitol which in 1996 shows only Asian films, as does one of the first cinema complexes - the Hoyts Midcity - which is in 1996 the "Chinatown Complex".

It was in the suburbs though, that the effect of television was most keenly felt. Picture-theatres were either closed down, used for other purposes or just simply demolished. A few of the Hoyts chain managed to keep operating right up to the demolition of the last of the old-style "Hoyts Suburban Theatres" - the New Malvern - in 1987, but, apart from the occasional popular film (the James Bond or Beatles films, for example) they often played to near-empty houses. The result in 1996 is that many suburbs which once had a choice of three theatres or more are left with no cinemas at all. Malvern is a good example of this, having had at one period the "Victory", "New Malvern" and "Metro Malvern" quite close to each other (and also quite close to the cinemas in the adjacent suburbs of Caulfield and Armadale). In 1993 the suburb of Malvern had no cinemas at all - although with the recent upsurge of cinema complex construction this situation will most surely change.

The suburban picture-theatres that survived - and in many cases even thrived - tended to be the independent houses which catered to select audiences. "The Dendy" in Middle Brighton was a good example of this. In the 1950's and up until its demolition in 1984, it showed many subtitled foreign films for the "art cinema" set, the subtitles making many films accessible to native Australian audiences. Other theatres catered to a specific ethnic group, such as the St. Kilda "Astor", the Elwood "La Scala" and the "Loco", "Vesuvio", "Metropolitan" and "Cinema Italia". In the 1970's the Richmond "Valhalla" catered to an audience seeking either revivals, "Hollywood Classics", subtitled foreign films, self-styled "Cult" movies and other films of either general or "nostalgic" interest. In the 1980's the Valhalla went further over the river to Northcote and the Astor in 1982 reverted to an English-language theatre showing revivals and Hollywood and foreign "Classics", thereby combining some of the esoteric element of the now defunct Richmond Valhalla with films of more general appeal.

Apart from the ethnic factor, perhaps the chief reason accounting for the survival of these and similar venues was their comparative smallness. Five hundred people could make the St. Kilda Astor (seating capacity 1692) look reasonably well-patronised, but would make the Palais Pictures appear almost empty. The sheer size of many suburban picture-theatres - their great strength in the days before television - became their greatest weakness. The former symbol of ultra-modernity was now regarded both in size and status as a virtual dinosaur. This question of size is not lost on the designers of theatres today.

Another factor in the demise and later restructuring of suburban theatres was the influence of the automobile. The demolition of the "New Malvern" can serve to illustrate this. According to a Hoyts representative 29 it had been planned to change this building into a theatre complex, but council by-laws regarding provision of adequate parking for such a venue made it both impractical and impossible, a situation that did not exist when large theatres were first constructed in the suburbs.

When considering the location of suburban theatres in 1996 (Northland Shopping Centre, Chadstone Shopping Centre and Southland Shopping Centre for example) two things are apparent. Firstly they are built around existing car-parks unused by shoppers at night and secondly, being built in groups of 8, 2 or 4, each theatre within the complex is small and the complex concept allows a number of programs to be shown in the same area simultaneously, thereby catering to the varied tastes within that particular area, for films as diverse (for example) as "Rocky V", "Henry V" or "Malcolm X".

This is in marked contrast to the older method of one large picture-theatre showing a main and a supporting film being located close to public transport. Even those theatres with only one auditorium, (such as the Elsternwick Classic) tend to alternate main films at different times and on different days, in their need to cater to the new diverse audiences.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for the diversity of the modern audiences could be the effect on them (paradoxically) of their television viewing. It could be said that, in a roundabout way, television laid the groundwork for the present-day demands of these new audiences.

As has been mentioned earlier, cinema going from approximately the 1920's to around the late 1950's tended to be a ritualistic affair. Women shoppers went to the cinema in the weekdays, families went on Saturday nights and couples would attend on weeknights or weekends. As many of these patrons had regular booked seats, the actual act of going appeared to take precedence over what was actually shown. This is not to say that audiences lacked discrimination, but rather that unless a film had acquired a really bad reputation by way of either the critics or else by word-of-mouth, that they would come as a matter of course. It did not need a "Blockbuster" or really heavy promotion to get them out of their houses, as picture going had become a pleasant habit. Because of this, from the point of view of the filmmaker, "a few films did spectacularly well, a few did extremely badly, and most paid their way". 30

With television, the age of instant entertainment at the push of a button had arrived. There was no need to leave one’s house and, apart from the initial cost of the set - usually on a hire-purchase basis - the entertainment was free. Of significance here is what people actually watched on television. The national top ten ratings reveal the following:


"Sunday Night Movies": 2nd. place.


"Thursday Night Theatre": 7th.



"Sunday Night Movies": 2nd.


"Celebrity Playhouse": 10th.



"Sunday Night Movies": 10th.



"Sunday Night Movies": 9th.



"Sunday Night Movies": 1st.


"Friday Night Movies": 8th.



"Sunday Night Movies": 3rd.



"Sunday Night Movies": 1st.


"Wednesday Night Movies": 8th.


"Monday Night Movies": 10th.



"Sunday Night Movies": 1st.


"Tuesday Night Movies": 2nd.



"Sunday Night Movies": 1st.



"Sunday Night Movies": 2nd.




No movie shows rate.



No movie shows rate.



No movie shows rate.



No movie shows rate.



No movie shows rate.


"Sunday Night Movies": 3rd.



"Sunday Night Movies": 8th.




No movie shows rate.


"Sunday Night Movies": 3rd.




No movie shows rate.



No movie shows rate.



No movie shows rate as a series but "The Godfather


Parts 1 and 2" rate 4th. as a one-off.



No movie shows rate.


"Sunday Night Movies": 5th.


(No figures to hand beyond this date). 31


The above figures show that up until 1967, the movies shown on television rated consistently high. After that date their popularity fluctuates and their place in the ratings is taken by Australian series such as "Homicide", "Division 4", "The Box", "Number 96", "The Sullivans" and "Prisoner". 32 At the time that they began to fluctuate the generation born immediately after the war fell within the age group which was now the cinema’s main audience, the "77 per cent of 16 to 34 year olds (that) regularly went to films". 33

While the over-thirty people, the former patrons of the pre-television cinemas, were now staying at home watching locally produced television series, their affluent "baby-boom" children were now the target audience for the filmmakers and the picture-theatre operators. Most important though is that this generation, because of the popularity of films on television, had not only seen more films-per-person than had previous generations, but had also seen many older films.

The older generation, with their dislike of old-fashioned "re-runs" at the cinemas, had been exposed mainly to new movies as they were released. Although not all of the films shown on television in the 1950's and 1960's were of a uniformly high quality, they were incredibly varied in age and style. The only films not shown to any large extent were silent films, apart from the 1927 version of "King of Kings" (which became a regular feature on Good Fridays) and compilations such as "Comedy Capers".

All of this meant that young people from the 1950's on were being exposed to a wider range of films and cinematic styles than their parents had ever been at a similar period of their lives.

During the early 1960's two trends can be observed. Firstly the youth of the audiences ensured a continuation of the "Teenage" films of the 1950's, of which the films of Elvis Presley are the best example. This genre combined music, violence, mild sex and a simple story line. The other trend was the rise of the "Art" or "Foreign" film, often with a story appealing to youth. Examples of this genre were such films as "David And Lisa", "The 400 Blows" and the "Love At Twenty" compilation. The films of the Beatles, directed in the idiosyncratic style of Richard Lester, could appeal to both these audiences. The heroes of such films as "Saturday Night And Sunday Morning" were also young - as well as angry men. Even a large budget "Blockbuster" such as David Lean’s "Dr. Zhivago" contained a cast of whom most (in the words of one of the stars, Rita Tushingham) "were so young". 34

This first "raised on televised movies" generation thus fell into two broad - and sometimes overlapping - categories: the "Drive-In Movie Set" and the "Film Festival Set". With the later nostalgia boom of the 1970's, a market was also created for the old films that many had originally seen on television in their youth. However, the borders between "Art", "Nostalgia" and "Classic" films are often never quite distinct, as witness the broad-based popularity of the 1942 film "Casablanca".

In conclusion, it could be said that televised films have helped to create the large audiences for film festivals in Victoria and the constant audiences for classic, foreign, art, nostalgia and other old and new films that has been responsible for the changes and continuation of the Astor, Palais and National theatres in St. Kilda.


footnotes for Chapter Six      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Seven: Another Dawn.

Of the four structures from the heyday of cinema - the early 1920's to the late 1950's - only the Astor shows films on a regular basis. The Palais Theatre and the National are used mainly for live performances, although films are still shown there occasionally - most notably during film festivals. The other remaining structure - the Memorial - has not operated as a picture-theatre since 1958, and although there is some talk of restoring this as a cinema, there are no concrete plans for this occurring in the immediate future. Although outside the scope of the present work, it is of interest that nearby, the former New Windsor at Peel Street in 1996 functions as a "Homeshow" video rental outlet after being used as office space for many years and that the Classic (formerly the Esquire) at 9 Gordon Street, Elsternwick not only still operates as a picture-theatre, but also claims to be "the oldest cinema still operating in the State of Victoria". 1 These nearby venues can serve to illustrate two aspects of the cinema industry today: the persistence of the "picture-theatre" and also the often more lucrative home video market which in this case - as in many others - operates in a converted cinema because of the large floor area available. However, it is the survival of the Palais, Astor and National that is of concern here, and the manner in which their survival resulted from their ability (often literally "inbuilt") to transform and adapt to changing circumstances in an industry that is noted for its inherent instability.

Palais Theatre 1996

The Palais Pictures, unlike other picture-palaces, has managed to survive virtually unchanged until the time of writing this book. In a March 1992 conservation analysis it was described as being "in a remarkably intact state reflecting the design intent current at the time of building along with the public taste of the time at the height of popularity of large cinema construction". 2 Three things have aided this survival: its proximity to Melbourne, its location in the traditional recreation and entertainment suburb of Victoria and its ability - because of the large stage and backstage facilities - to be able to mount non-cinematic productions. For these reasons (although there have been long periods when the Palais has been "dark") it has never closed permanently and, because of the occasional presentations of films there, it can still be said to function as a part-time picture-theatre today. As it has never been radically altered like the Victory/National or been the exclusive venue for one ethnic group for a time as was the Astor, any changes can be seen as part of an ongoing evolutionary process that began with film presentations with accompanying vaudeville shows in 1927, which later expanded to include full live shows, film festivals, political occasions, opera and ballet, as well as being a splendid venue for the many distinguished local and overseas artists who have performed there. Although not exhaustive, what follows will be an account of many of the events held there since the end of the war until the time of writing this book, as well as a brief description of the minor structural changes in that period.

In 1951 Harry Jacobs retired as musical director of the Palais, a position he had held since 1929. 3 The Phillips Brothers now began a policy of either full live shows or films only, as the earlier mixture of films and live entertainment was no longer economically viable in the post-war period. 4 Although there would be exceptions to this new rule, this has continued to be the policy of the theatre since then. This change in programming can also be seen as part of other changes in the Phillips Brothers ventures, with Luna Park being refurbished also in 1951, 5 and the Palais de Danse (after its use by the Army during the war) being re-opened in 1953. 6

Since then, the artists who have appeared at the Palais have been many and varied. In 1952 Johnny Ray (the "Nabob of Sob") was imported by the promoter Lee Gordon. 7 In November 1961 a concert was given under the baton of Igor Stravinsky 8 and in 1965 and 1966 the Rolling Stones gave performances there, 9 with the Age commenting: "Whatever the Stones have, and it’s an indefinable quality, the audience loved it. The sheer animal throb of the group was sufficient to spark off a torrent of streamers, screams, gasps, sighs, tears and handclaps..." 10 Other artists who have performed there include Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Mathis, The Osmonds, Anne Murray 11 and Chick Corea. 12

The Melbourne Film Festival - an annual event which had begun in 1953 13 - moved to the Palais in 1962. Its director, Erwin Rado, a Hungarian who had come to Australia in 1939, encouraged the exhibition of overseas films at the Festival. 14 A measure of the Festival’s success can be seen in the fact that the Palais de Danse, in a part of it set up to screen films, was used in addition to the Palais Theatre for extra viewings until the former building was destroyed by fire in 1968. 15 Some of the famed overseas film directors brought to the Palais for the festivals were Joseph von Sternberg, Rouben Mamoulian, Satyajit Ray, Jerzy Skolimowski and Michelangelo Antonioni. 16

Because of the more relaxed censorship laws overseas, films from some countries often became the focus of the many battles to liberalise the Australian laws. When Don Chipp (then a Liberal Senator) was appointed Minister for Customs, the "R" certificate was introduced by him in 1971 in response to both the film festival organisers and to a perceived greater demand by Australian audiences generally for more "Adult" films. 17 (Although when John Lamond imported the film "Dynamite Chicken" - which included a segment "Philomena The Stripping Nun" - and hired the Palais for its exhibition in August of the following year, Don Chipp referred to Lamond as "A blot on the good name of distribution and exhibition in Australia".) 18 Apart from the films themselves and the issue of censorship, Erwin Rado also, through the success of the festivals, promoted the necessity for the creation of film schools in Australia, the idea of the founding of the Australian Film Institute and also encouraged the efforts of local filmmakers. 19

When Australians did begin making films again in the late 1960's and 1970's, in what David Stratton has termed "The Last New Wave", 20 many of these films got their first showings at the Palais Festivals, for example: "The Devil’s Playground" in June 1976 21 and "Kostas" in June 1979. 22 Although not part of the festivals, the film "Stork" was premiered at the Palais on December 27, 1971, 23 using the 16mm Bauer projector owned by the Festival. 24 After the successful six-week run at the Palais, which had been hired by the film’s director (Tim Burstall) and Bilcock and Copping to promote the film, the 16mm print was copied and blown up to 35mm by Roadshow Distributors and subsequently shown in over three hundred theatres around Australia with great success. 25 It was the success of this film which, according to Shirley and Adams, "considerably boosted the morale of other producers and film-makers" and was also "the first notable success of government funded features". 26

From all of this it can be seen just how much the Palais has been involved with Australian film culture by way of festivals which broaden the cinematic knowledge of film-goers and film-makers, censorship controversies which ultimately led to greater freedom in what could be shown on film, and, by providing a venue for Australian films and proving their profitability, thereby playing no small part in the rebirth of the Australian film industry.

The Palais has also had a long association with the performance of opera in Australia. In 1960 the Elizabethan Trust presented "Salome" there with Dame Joan Hammond in the title role. 27 In 1965 the Elizabethan Trust "discreetly went into retirement" 28 during the Sutherland-Williamson tour at Her Majesty’s, but re-emerged the following year in what John Cargher has described as "the turning-point for opera in Australia" 29 with three operas at the Palais: "The Barber of Seville", "Boris Godounov" and "Ill Trovatore". This last opera was sung in Italian, the beginning of a policy of "playing operas in the original language whenever possible...(thereby) making the engagement of guest artists in future years easier, and generally lending a sense of international quality to the works thus produced". 30

"The Barber of Seville" also had the film and television actor Norman Yemm singing the role of Dr. Bartolo, and in "Boris Godounov" Neil Warren-Smith sang "cutting with ease...through the cavernous Palais..." 31 These "cavernous spaces" are mentioned often by John Cargher, 32 who has no praise for the acoustics of the Palais, preferring instead the smaller Princess Theatre. 33 It must be kept in mind though that theatres such as the Princess and Her Majesty’s were designed originally for live performances only, whereas the Palais was designed primarily as a purpose-built picture-theatre. 34

Before the opening of the State Theatre in 1984 however, the Palais had the advantage of size. In 1983 - just prior to the company moving into the new State Theatre - the Victorian State Opera staged "Rigoletto" and "Eugene Onegin" at the Palais. 35 Since 1984 the State Theatre has been the regular venue for the Victorian State Opera, the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera when touring in Victoria, 36 a situation which has affected not only the Palais but also the Princess and Her Majesty’s. Both of these theatres have managed to thrive because of the success of such musicals as "Cats", "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom Of The Opera". 37

In the absence of a similar long-running Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical for the Palais, the effect of the opening of the State Theatre has been more marked, with the result that it has had many periods of "darkness" since the loss of the opera companies and other groups to the new Arts Centre venue. The proposed re-opening of the Melbourne Regent could also further reduce the use of the Palais for live shows. With this in mind, one can only speculate on future uses of the theatre, and this will be explored in the final chapter.

The Palais Theatre remains unique however, in that it has preserved its structural integrity since the time of its opening in 1927. Melbourne’s other picture-palaces have been either twinned (The State - Forum/Rapallo), substantially modified, (The Capitol), or else, as in the case of the Regent, rebuilt after the fire of 1945 and then denuded of its furniture and fittings and left to decay after its closure in 1970. 38 As well as structural integrity, the Palais retains virtually all of its interior fittings and furnishings. 39 The few changes that have occurred have been listed in the conservation study of March 1992 as follows:


Construction of S.E.C. substation, dressing rooms and boiler house to rear, 1962.


Construction of offices over the first floor mezzanine exterior balcony, circa 1970.


Minor alterations to kiosks in foyer. Various dates, most recent 1987.


Orchestra pit enlarged, since reduced to near original size, 1962.


Temporary enclosure of the oval shaped opening from the dress circle mezzanine foyer over the rear stalls.


Provision of extra escapes to the upper rear dress circle along with fire rated passage and external escape stair to the west side facade, 1981.


Installation of sprinkler fire protection system, 1981.


Stage organ removed. Thought to be sometime after the installation of sound in 1929.


Addition of fly tower over stage, circa 1950. 40

It also went on to say "Where finishes have been changed, evidence is clearly visible of the original finish for example large areas of the original carpet remain in place." 41 Of the changes listed in the study, the only one recommended for reversal externally is the restoration and reconstruction of the "original exterior balcony to the first floor foyer over the front entrance, including removal of the offices." 42 Internally it is mainly a matter of preservation, with some reconstruction to the original state where possible. 43


"The Astor" 1996

The Astor, like the Palais, is another example of a St. Kilda theatre that has retained its architectural integrity. As described previously, it functioned until 1967 as a typical suburban independent picture-theatre mainly showing films on their second run, and in 1967 making a radical change by becoming a Greek-language theatre after having been acquired by Tanda Investments. 44 It was also used for concerts, which necessitated the extension of the stage forward in April 1976. 45 This modification resulted in a greater screen width. (An examination of the theatre on September 20 1992 by the Australian Theatre Historical Society, and the Cinema And Theatre Historical Society of Victoria - at which the author was present - revealed the original screen within the old proscenium, ((the last of a series of six narrowing vertical recesses)) the old stage curtains and the original side exit doors behind the current screen.) 46

The Astor continued to function as a Greek-language theatre for almost the next fifteen years until its closure in February 1982. 47 On Friday, September 17 of that year, when it re-opened under the management of George Florence - who remains the manager at time of writing - , it began a style of exhibition that has continued until the present, 48 a style that caters to a combination of the "art cinema" audience and the "film buff" fans. Diane Collins has described such venues as "usually distinguished by nightly program changes, lower prices than regular picture shows and adherence to the old Australian tradition of the double feature." 49 To inform patrons of what is showing, calendars are available, either at the theatre or via a mailing list for interested patrons, which lists films and other events approximately two months ahead. As well as the usual nightly program changes, there are some films that run for a weekly or fortnightly season. These are usually older "classic" films (when new prints are available) 50 or else "reconstructions" of films such as "Lawrence Of Arabia" or "Spartacus". (It is a strange twist of fate that "Blockbuster" or other "Pop" films of the 1950's and 1960's - spurned by the "art cinema" coteries of that era - are now shown as "Classics", a term that has become very elastic. Examples of this were the 1992 showing of "Ben Hur" ((which included the late Frank Thring Jnr.)) 5l and in 1994 "Breakfast At Tiffany’s" and "Barefoot In The Park". 52 The word "Cult" - as applied to films - is another elastic term). In addition to the films themselves, the management also tries whenever possible to get original "trailers" which they consider "in themselves interesting works of art". 53 The original trailers for "Psycho" and "The Birds" have been examples of such film rarities exhibited there.

To show films to their best advantage, the projection room equipment had to be updated in 1985. 54 The original Cummings and Wilson (C&W) "G" model projectors were replaced by new "Cinemeccania" equipment which incorporated 70mm projection and Dolby stereophonic sound. 55 One of the original "C&W" projectors has been restored and remains on permanent display in the upstairs foyer. 56

It is fortunate that, in the period up to 1982, there were never any ill-considered attempts to "modernise" the Astor. Not only has it retained most of its original features, but also it is a deliberate policy of the management to restore as much of the original decor as possible, as well as to reproduce the original colour schemes. 57 The only significant additions have been a digital advertising sign over the entrance to the theatre and two air-conditioning systems externally, inside a sweets-counter has been added to the vestibule, spotlights and ceiling fans to the upper level foyers, whilst in the auditorium the opalene ceiling lights have been removed, electric fans installed and the stage and proscenium altered as previously described. 58

To reproduce the traditional "sense of occasion", period furniture has been added to that remaining from the pre-1982 period. This includes club lounges, a 1930's console radio and a grand piano. 59 At times there is live foyer entertainment before the films and during the intervals, using the piano to accompany a singer (e.g. Tim McKew) in clothing appropriate to the film shown. 60 In an attempt to make people feel "at home" in the theatre, a regular newsletter is published (and also sent out to those on mailing lists) which gives accounts not only of coming events but also of people associated with the running of the theatre (even vignettes about Magenta, the theatre’s cat) and anecdotes about the caged birds in the upstairs foyer. 6l With articles also about various film stocks and the ongoing attempts to preserve films in the United States, it seeks to include the audience in all aspects of film and the exhibition process. 62 Because of all this added information given in their newsletters, the management assumes a certain level of "film literacy" in their audiences - a situation perhaps not unconnected with the Astor’s association with the Melbourne Film Festival which will be described in a later chapter.

In conclusion, the Astor has managed the almost unique feat of surviving virtually intact and has also succeeded in recreating the ambience of a traditional suburban picture-theatre - including a large audience and long queues to the box-office 63 - from the era of pre-television cinema.


"The National" 1996

The Victory continued to function until 1971 as one of the Hoyts chain of suburban picture-theatres. In that year it was purchased by the National Theatre Movement. 64 This organisation had been founded in 1935 by Gertrude Johnson, with the aim of providing work opportunities for Australian performers at home. For financial and artistic reasons, Australian artists had been driven by necessity to the more lucrative European and American theatres. It was hoped that, by both putting on productions and also by organising schools of ballet, drama and opera, that Australian talent could be developed, presented and renumerated enough to remain in the country. 65

Although starting with only eight pounds as capital, 66 the organisation prospered, particularly in the war years when access to the German and Italian theatres was by necessity limited. The first National Theatre school was located in an old church hall at St. Peter’s at Eastern Hill. 67 During the years prior to 1971 there were many attempts to establish both a permanent National Theatre location and also a place for the associated schools of ballet, opera and drama. John Cargher, the first general manager of the St. Kilda venue, has detailed the vicissitudes of the National Theatre Movement in his book "Bravo! - Two Hundred Years of Opera in Australia". 68 Reference is made to a building appeal in 1956 which, although bringing in $119,000, 69 was not sufficient, due to the rising costs of land and buildings. Some unfortunate fires, one of which destroyed the Toorak Village Cinema while under conversion by the National Theatre in 1961, 70 also delayed the acquisition of a permanent venue. It was not until 1974 that the National Theatre opened at its present location, one year after the death of Gertrude Johnson. 71

The initial cost of the former Victory, plus alterations, was $600,000, with another $250,000 being later spent to rebuild and re-equip the stage. 72 Externally, the old "Victory" sign on the ridge of the roof was removed, a large flytower was raised above the stage area and what used to be the shops facing Barkly and Carlisle Streets were converted to office and rehearsal usage. 73 Within, the seating was reduced to 800 by the elimination of the stalls area. The stage was enlarged and the dress circle and lounge, by the addition of the flooring over the former stalls area, was extended towards it, thus transforming the former upstairs area into the new auditorium. What used to be the front and back stalls in 1996 house the drama and ballet schools only, as the former opera school there was transferred to the later built Victorian College Of The Arts in 1985. 74

The official opening of the National Theatre was on September 7 1974 by the Premier of Victoria, R.J. Hamer. The Governor, Sir Henry Winneke, was also in attendance. The overture was entitled "Waltzing St. Kilda", composed by John Lanchberry and presented by the Elizabethan Trust. "Raymonda" was performed by Ballet Victoria and Mozart’s "The Impressario" was sung by the Victoria Opera Company. 75

John Cargher has said that "Only the schools, which occupy the ground floor of the huge building remain as a lasting memorial to Gertrude was the teaching of the arts which is her final monument". 76 He makes reference to the fact that the official opening performances were not by students of the National Theatre’s schools, but by the outside institutions of Ballet Victoria, the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra and the Victoria Opera Company. 77

On closer inspection however, perhaps Gertrude Johnson was posthumously honoured, for before the official opening there was a short season of "The Marriage of Figaro". This was on Friday and Saturday of August 30 and 31, and Monday and Tuesday of September 2 and 3 of 1974. This was presented by the National Theatre Opera School, with the National Theatre Ballet School providing the choreography for the dancing in the third act. 78 Of the three original pianists of the Ballet School, one was Harry Jacobs - the former orchestra leader of the Palais Theatre - and his wife, Madam Saranova, assisted in the teaching of dance. 79 Since that opening in 1974 the National Theatre has presented many productions of incredible variety in all media, some of which will be later described.

The foregoing has been an attempt to show how by various changes and adaptations the three extant old theatres of St. Kilda have continued to function in a period of rapid change in the entertainment industry. The current state of affairs and possible future directions will be considered in the concluding chapter.


footnotes for Chapter Seven      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Chapter Eight: The Challenge.

Before examining current and possible future directions for cinema in St. Kilda, it is perhaps best to see what is happening nationwide. In 1993 the number of cinema screens in Australia was 924, an increase of fifty per cent since 1987. 1 In 1991 admissions had risen by 4.3 million and in 1992 the total number of admissions was 45.49 million, bringing in a revenue of $A322.6 million. 2

In spite of the recession of the 1990's, it can be seen that the "cinema habit" has risen strongly over the past few years, with the result that investment in cinema complex construction is expanding. Multiplexes have been built or proposed for the Como Project in South Yarra and the suburbs of Ringwood, Lilydale and Werribee. 3 An eightplex is scheduled for opening at Doncaster Shoppingtown in 1994, 4 a seven-cinema complex is proposed for High Street Malvern, an eightplex at the Jam Factory in South Yarra and there are plans for a six-hundred seater at the Richmond National as well as the construction of other multiplexes in the South Yarra area. 5

Even drive-in cinemas have started re-opening, although this is mainly in the country areas. The Coburg drive-in continues, in 1996, to operate and is promoted by Village as "The Last Drive-In Picture Show", 6 a turnaround from a few years previously when a spokesperson for Village, Ms. Nettur, expressed doubts about a resurgence of the popularity of the drive-in and said that the closure of the Coburg venue was imminent. 7

Other developments include the use of video in smaller theatres, such as the new (but short-lived) Fitzroy Twin "Panorama" (each seating 100), 8 and a new venture "Satellite Cinema" in which a franchised network of small picture-theatres, predominantly in country areas, would receive the latest movies via satellite. 9 In addition to this there has been the growth of Chinese cinemas in the Melbourne area, with the former Hoyts Midcity in Bourke Street becoming the "Chinatown Complex" as well as the use of the Capitol in Swanston Street for Chinese films. 10

The above can serve to illustrate that in spite of the recession and the growth of the home-video market, cinema construction is expanding at a quite rapid rate and that the trend in each complex is for more individual cinemas with less seating in each in order to cater to the various types and tastes of today’s fragmented "demassified" audiences. With the current growth of cinema attendance and the newer types of theatre in mind, one must now look at how this can be seen to affect current and proposed picture-theatres in St. Kilda as at the time of writing this book.

The National Theatre, as Ross Thorne has written, is unusual in the fact that "it had been converted from a cinema to a live theatre, the reverse of the traditional situation". 11 However, in addition to its live shows, the National still continues to show films intermittently. These films often complement the cultural and educational use of the building, as a consideration of some of the first ones shown in the renovated theatre illustrate. They included "The Mastersingers Of Nuremburg" 12, Polanski's "Macbeth" 13, "Dance Poem" and "A Walk In The Spring Rain" 14, "Beethoven" 15, "Hamlet" 16, "King Lear" 17, "Pride And Prejudice" and "The Big Store" 18. Both these early films and current live productions are often of texts on the V.C.E. lists for a particular year, and students are often brought in by bus for these productions, making the National Theatre a valuable educational resource.

Some of the live productions since 1974 have included the Australian premier of Donizetti’s "Maria Stuarda" by the Victorian State Opera in 1975, 19 Robyn Archer in the one-woman show "Lola Blau" in 1979, 20 the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s centenary production of "Ruddigore" in 1987, 21 "Living In The 70’s" in 1989 22 and "Judith Durham In Concert" in 1990. 23 In 1993 it was announced that the Savoy Opera was to become resident in the theatre in 1994. 24

The St. Kilda Film Festival, at the time of writing in its 11th year, also makes use of the theatre. By 1992 this had become so well-known that the organisers had to choose from a "short list" of 240 films, described in the then local newspaper as consisting of "Video, 16mm, Polaroid animation (Zeldafilm), conventional animation, colour, black and white film, $800 films and $200,000 films". 25 In addition to those subsequently chosen, there were cameos from the National Film and Sound Archive, starting with 1912 footage of Luna Park. 26

A recent festival was between March 24 and 29, 1993, which included a retrospective collection of some of the films shown there over the previous ten years, featuring early works of Paul Cox and Jane Campion. 27 There were exhibitions of films made by the "St. Kilda Film and Video Makers Association"; and the "Modern Image Makers Association" - based in St. Kilda also - had its "Experimental Showcase" opened by Kenneth Anger (author of "Hollywood Babylon I and II") as part of his Australian tour. 28 Of the prizes awarded at the 1993 festival, three went to local residents: Liz Hughes, Andrew Goodone and Emma-Kate Crogan. 29

The National is also one of the venues for the Melbourne International Film Festival which, as its name suggests, offers films from around the world in addition to local films and entries in the international short film competition.

As well as its use for performances, the education facilities located in the former stalls area continue to function for the training of drama and ballet, and there is a small theatre in this section for the use of students. The director of the National Theatre Drama School, Joan Harris, was awarded the Order of Australia in 1991 for services to the performing arts, and has said, "it is every child’s birthright to be part of the creative arts". 30

In conclusion, the metamorphosis of the former Victory into the National Theatre has resulted in a diversification of the uses of a structure which began as a picture-theatre accompanied by live entertainment and which at the time of writing this book encompasses such things as film, drama, opera, ballet, various festivals, public information meetings (such as the September l4 1993 AIDS and Hepatitis information night held by the St. Kilda Council), 31 as well as being a school for the performing arts. It not only attracts artists and audiences from elsewhere, but also provides a venue for the talents of local performers, organisations and filmmakers, and continues the tradition - since 1921 - of being a vibrant focus of entertainment in the St. Kilda area.


The ongoing question with regard to the Palais seems to be that of the best way of making optimum use of the building while still retaining its external and internal structural integrity. The St. Kilda Council’s policy of "community consultation" resulted in a meeting on October 29 1990 with respect to the "Foreshore and Environs Land Use Study" which included on its agenda the under-utilisation of the Palais Theatre. Although only thirty people attended this meeting - the poor showing being remarked upon by the local newspaper 32- it at least brought to public notice the problem of the Palais not being used to its fullest potential.

On June 13 the following year it was reported that Luna Park, the Palace, the Seabaths, the Palais and land behind the Palace had been exempted in 1990 from the State government’s proposed assets sell-off, but it was said that the Palais was in need of restoration, with the possible use of the interior as either a full-scale theatre, or for theatrettes, restaurants and bars. 33 One week later came the report of the proposed protection of Luna Park and the Palais Theatre by the Historic Buildings Council - with the coming tenders for the development of these and other sites imminent - and the promise by the Department of Conservation and Environment of both funding and the use of its internal resources for the completion of a conservation analysis to identify the value and importance of both venues. 34

By July 25 1991 it was announced that the current operators of Luna Park, the Palace and the Palais would be allowed to make exclusive tenders for their sites, one of the reasons being that each lessee at that time still had fourteen years to go on their lease which had led to threats of legal action. 35 Although Julia Murray, a local conservation activist and candidate in council elections, had reservations about this move with regard to Luna Park, she spoke highly of the commitment of the operators of the Palais to its preservation. 36 By March 1992 the Conservation Analysis of the Palais by Robert Sands P/L had been drawn up, and the acceptance of its conservation guidelines by the St. Kilda Council was reported in the local newspaper. 37

Among other things, the conservation policy recommended "preservation intact of the theatre with proper on-going maintenance and repair", "the restoration and reconstruction of the original balcony and associated windows to the first floor foyer", "the use should remain as a single theatre able to be used for live shows" and that "the Palais Theatre should be transferred from the Government Building Register to the Historic Building Register" for better protection. 38 Although the owner at the time, Carolyn Harper, would not comment on the report, she was quoted as saying "subdivision had never been an option for her as the owner of the building and lessee of the site" and that her company was "pressing ahead with a bid to stage the super musical ‘Miss Saigon’ at the Palais". 39 She added that she was committed to the Palais and that "although it’s tough going in a theatre this size...we’re here and I think that speaks for itself". 40 By March 31 the following year it was reported that the Palais had been given a place on the Historic Building Council’s register and that the H.B.C. had said that the theatre shows what "the heyday of large cinemas in Victoria was all about". 41 Just prior to this report the owner, Ms. Harper, had permitted an inspection of the whole of the theatre by the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Victoria (with the author present) on Sunday, February 14 1993, the final day of the annual St. Kilda Festival. In the subsequent newsletter of the Society it was written, "although in some respects showing its age, it is still most impressive. The architectural style, especially in the proscenium area, is comparable to the Sydney State, both theatres having the same architect" (Henry E. White). 42

The significance to Victoria of the Palais was expressed in the conservation analysis in these words: "This particular theatre is also significant as it forms an integral part of the large entertainment complex on the St. Kilda foreshore, a development which is itself unique in Victoria. The idea and concept of this development stems directly from the early developers, the Phillips Brothers and J.D. Williams. Luna Park, the Palais Theatre and to some extent the Palace nightclub continue the tradition begun in 1912". 43 With these traditions in mind and with the theatre now on the H.B.C.’s register, the continued existence of the theatre in its present form seems assured, which can only be a bonus for St. Kilda in the future - for what is there now is something unique.

As a rare survivor of the age of "Picture-Palace Architecture", the Palais Theatre can lay claim to an almost worldwide significance. 44 The problem remains of how to best make use of the venue. With the trend to smaller multiplex cinemas, the theatre is far too large for new films on general release and because of the State Theatre taking over its operatic and balletic functions its use as a "Culture Centre" for Melbourne has gone. With the prospect of the restoration of the Regent Theatre and its planned hosting of the 1996 Melbourne Film Festival, 45 yet another function has been taken away. Some past and present events at the theatre however, could indicate possible future uses. In 1973 it was the Melbourne venue for the Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice rock-musical "Jesus Christ Superstar", directed by Jim Sharman. 46 In 1982 it presented the reconstructed and restored 1927 Abel Gance film "Napoleon" with a live 56-piece orchestra. 47 At the first St. Kilda Festival of 1980, the Palais presented films made by F.T. Thring, some of which had been either made or completed at his studio in the early 1930's at the former St. Moritz site almost immediately opposite. 48

Perhaps the future lies in an alternation of live musicals, visiting artists and the showing of period films in the type of setting in which they were first exhibited. As an example of this last use, such a role was played in the St. Kilda Centenary celebrations of 1990. With the assistance of the St. Kilda Historical Society a gala film night was held on December 6. 49 The main film was "For The Term Of His Natural Life" - made in the year (1927) that the theatre was built - with additional period shorts, some of which featured St. Kilda. A pianist accompanied the shorts and during the interval the audience was entertained in the upstairs foyer by an orchestra under the direction of long-time St. Kilda musical identity, Denis Farrington. It was a night combining interest for early Australian film, the experience of a picture-palace and, because of the many local people involved, the ongoing relationship between the theatre and the people and the area of which it still remains a living part.


From the time of its reversion to an English-language theatre in 1982, the Astor has continued the style of programming it then initiated: double features with nightly changes of program interspersed with films that run for seasons of a week or longer. The theatre has also taken an increasingly greater part in the Melbourne International Film Festivals. The festival has become so large and diversified since its early days at the Palais that one theatre alone can no longer do it justice. In 1991 the 40th. Melbourne International Film Festival used as venues the Astor, Melbourne Concert Hall, Village Cinema Centre, State Film Centre and The Valhalla. The printed program for this festival took up ninety pages. 50

By 1992 the venues were the Village Cinema Centre, Melbourne Town Hall (for the opening night and subsequent party), Glasshouse Cinema at R.M.I.T., the Valhalla and, in St. Kilda, the National and the Astor. All of the other venues though, apart from the Thursday opening night, were given over to festival uses only on the weekend, whereas the Astor hosted the festival for its full season from June 5 to June 20. This made the Astor, in effect, the focus for this festival of almost two hundred films. 51

Because of the film festivals and because of its continuing popularity as a venue for films in general, the Astor combines the function of a "local" St. Kilda and greater Melbourne venue with that of a place in the more rarefied world of international film festivals.


In December 1989 the St. Kilda Council carried out a study on possible uses of the Village Belle Market Site, with George Bennett as project manager for the working party, which looked at possible ways of developing the area bounded by Acland, Barkly and Belford Streets. 52 One of the proposals was for a new ground floor market, residential units above and a twin cinema on the site of a (now demolished) garage, with the "role of the centre" given as "Reinforces the centre as a community focus". 53 On a scale of 1 to 17 however, this proposal ranked last, possibly due to a lack of car-parking facilities as well as to a perceived need to retain the existing market building.

Although this proposal for a twin cinema was rejected, it is worthy of note for two reasons. Firstly, it would have been adjacent to the site of the old "Elite"/"Barkly" theatres and secondly it indicates that this area is now considered more of a shopping and restaurant centre for residents and tourists rather than an entertainment precinct. This is in marked contrast to that period in the 1940's and 1950's when coffee-lounges such as "The Galleon" broadcast their shows on 3DB, the "Plaza" (founded by Roy Cowan, a former Hoyts theatre manager and the husband of film actress Louise Lovely) featured many jazz and later "bop" musicians and the "Melba" (often including local musician, barber and later booking-agent, Denis Farrington) flourished in the same location. 54

It would appear that new entertainment facilities are going to appear (as some already have appeared) in a location that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago: the northeastern end of Fitzroy Street. That particular section, between Grey and Princes Streets opposite the railway station and the park, had been in a quite derelict state for a number of years. The George/Seaview Hotel had been closed since 1987, 55 the Majestic had been damaged by fire, the Waldorf was empty, the Uniting Church Hall and former Minister’s residence had been burnt and when the only flourishing office - the Department of Social Security - moved to Wellington Street, there remained a lot of unused, empty office space. To complete the scene of desolation the old St. Kilda Railway Station had also been burnt out soon after the "Light Rail" had replaced the former Melbourne to St. Kilda railway service. With the closure for many months of the "Hotel Ritz" on the northeastern corner of Fitzroy and Princes Streets, that area of Fitzroy Street had ceased to be an entertainment centre. As a local wit summed it up at the time:

"You couldn’t buy a drink,

Save your soul,

Catch a train

Or get the dole."

The only part of the street prospering was that section between Grey Street and the Upper Esplanade, with the Prince of Wales Hotel on the corner of Acland Street being the only hotel in Fitzroy Street consistently open and providing live entertainment.

Within the last two to three years however, there have been plans - many of which have already been realised - to redevelop and restore this area. These include the building of a new cinema complex (now opened, November 24 1994) on the vacant land between the Seaview Hotel and Rivoli Buildings. (Danish Blue). 56 The plans drawn up by architect Neil Radcliff provide for shops at street level, cinema access from the Seaview Foyer and a "low rise" car park at the rear. 57 By August of 1992, and with the downstairs bar of the George having been in operation for three months under the management of Donlevy Fitzpatrick, the area had begun to revive. The Majestic was being rebuilt behind the existing facade and converted into own-your-own apartments, the Waldorf was refurbished and there were more plans to turn part of the George and Seaview hotels into apartments, with this subdivision of the hotels being regarded by Donlevy Fitzpatrick as being essential to make the hotels and new works financially viable. 58

By December 1992 the architect had predicted that the proposed three-screen cinema - seating 200, 240 and 310 - would be open by mid-1994, with the Grand Foyer of the Seaview Hotel being a focal point for the complex, subject to the approval of the council. 59 The success of the refurbishment of the Majestic, with half of the apartments then already being sold off the plan, was given as one of the reasons for the encouragement of the cinema development, with the operation of the cinemas being then put out for tender. 60 By February of 1993 however, Donlevy Fitzpatrick had insisted that to raise the cash to realise all of these plans would necessitate the selling-off of parts of the George Hotel as residential apartments "really, really quickly", needing the approval of the St. Kilda City Council, who have so far supported the plans. 61

Since February 1993 things have moved rather quickly in this part of St. Kilda. The railway station has been rebuilt, with a Tait "Red Rattler" carriage (awaiting restoration) located on the old line by the platform, and a restaurant "Cafe Victory" included on the Canterbury Road corner. This means that the increase of residents brought about by the building of the many apartments is being complemented by the growing greater attractiveness of the transport facilities for those who come to St. Kilda from elsewhere. The apartments built between the Seaview Hotel and Rivoli Buildings are nearing completion, with the block being called "Cannes" as a possible reference to both seaside resorts and film culture. This is the block that contains the new, three-screen multiplex "The George Cinemas". The venue opened on November 24 1994 with the films "The Music Of Chance" and "Pulp Fiction". It is managed by James Hewison and is a part of Tony Zeccola’s "Palace Entertainment Group", of which Village Roadshow owns a fifty per cent partnership. 62 It is of historic interest that this new theatre complex is almost next door - with Rivoli Buildings between - to the site of the original St. Kilda (Bioscope) Theatre and film studio site which is in 1996 occupied by the "Banff" flats and restaurant.

"The George" Cinema From Station Point-Of-View

Such is the situation of cinema in St. Kilda towards the close of the twentieth century and the centenary of the first exhibition of films in Paris in 1895. Against a background of six video libraries (two in Carlisle Street Balaclava, two in Ormond Road Elwood, one in Brighton Road Elwood, and one in Barkly Street) 63 can be observed the following:  one cinema (The Astor) functioning as a full-time picture-theatre, another (The National Theatre) showing films to a moderate extent - in 1992 used for films for four weeks as opposed to thirty-four weeks for live shows 64 - the largest one of all (The Palais Theatre) showing films only rarely and an entirely new multiplex venue (The George) looking set to do very well in this rapidly-rebuilding part of the ever-changing suburb of St. Kilda.


footnotes for Chapter Eight      return to table of contents      return to start of book


Conclusion: The Verdict.

In conclusion, one is left with two impressions regarding the history of cinema in St. Kilda. The first is that of constant change. From its beginnings as a residential suburb, its later years as a seaside resort, a long period in which it was predominantly a place of rental and boarding-house accommodation, a concomitant period of being a place for migrants, artists, musicians and other transients, and its current period of rebuilding, redevelopment, strata-titling and the increase of the "young urban professional" residents, St. Kilda has had periods of relative calm, but has never ceased changing in many, varied and often overlapping ways.

The second impression is that of adaptability. The former residential housing of the wealthy could also be changed into boarding houses - and later changed back again. The entertainment provided could adapt to either style of resident. Very often the residents themselves provided the entertainment, either as amateurs or, as in the case of Harry Jacobs and others, as live-in professionals. As part of this adaptability, St. Kilda can be seen as a suburb which provided a more tolerant climate towards diversity in money, lifestyle, appearance, race and other factors than any other suburb. In Beaconsfield Parade one can still see the Rolls-Royce parked behind the old Holden, just as the ultra-modern apartment block can be seen alongside the 1920s "Spanish Mission" style flats.

These two characteristics of change and adaptability can be seen in the cinemas of the era over time. On one hand the open-air venue gave way to the picture-palace in the past, and the new multiplex cinema in Fitzroy Street takes their place in the present. On the other hand there is the way in which the picture-palace became the opera, ballet, live artists showcase and venue for rock concerts; the "flea pit" became a film studio for a long period - and may become a (hopefully flea-free) picture-theatre again; the large suburban theatre became the National Theatre and the smaller suburban theatre adapted first to the new migrants and then to the more film-literate audiences of today.

Finally, throughout all of these changes, St. Kilda still remains a place where people still come - as they have always done - to enjoy themselves. In 1964 Donald Horne wrote that "There is no Australian city that is yet really an urban city with a varied and lively centre in which many people live and to which others congregate." 1 Although he was writing of capital cities - and makes a certain exception for Kings Cross - and although people today are coming more and more to live in cities, such a statement could not apply - and never could have applied - to St. Kilda. With this in mind it can only be finally said that the cinema has played no small part - both in filmmaking and exhibition - in this "varied and lively centre" by the sea.

  1. Horne D. The Lucky Country (Adelaide 1965) p.21.

return to table of contents      return to start of book



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Thompson D.

Discrimination And Popular Culture Harmondsworth 1973.

Thorne R.

Picture Palace Architecture In Australia South Melbourne 1976.


Cinemas Of Australia Via U.S.A. Sydney 1981.

Todd L.

"Greater Union Special Edition" in Kino - The Australian Theatre Historical Society Dec. 1985.

Townshend H.

Baby Boomers - Growing Up In Australia In The 1940's, 50's and 60's Brookvale 1988.

Tulloch J.

Legends On The Screen - The Narrative Film In Australia 1919 - 1929 Woolahra 1981.


Australian Cinema - Industry, Narrative And Meaning North Sydney 1982.

Urban Spatial & Economic Consultants P/L.


Village Belle Shopping Centre Market Site Redevelopment Study - Summary Of Conclusions South Melbourne 1989.

Von Hartel Trethowan. Robert Peck


City Of St. Kilda Architectural Study - Buildings Post 1914 Melbourne 1982


City Of St. Kilda Twentieth Century Architectural Study - Volume 3 Final Draft Melbourne 1992.

Walker A.

Hollywood England London 1974.

West J.

Theatre In Australia North Melbourne 1978.

White R.

Inventing Australia: Image And Identity 1788-1980 Sydney 1981.

Williams M.

Australia On The Popular Stage Melbourne 1983.

Williams R.

Contact - Human Communication And Its History London 1981.

Wolf W. with Wolf L.K.


Landmark Films New York and London 1979.

Wright A.

Brilliant Careers - Women In Australian Cinema Woollahra 1986.

Oral Informants

Harvey T.

(Hoyts Employee) Information obtained from telephone conversation of May 25 1989.

McKew T.

(Singer) Information obtained from interview of August 6 1992.

Selover W.

(Daughter of Harry Jacobs and Madam Saranova) Address to the St. Kilda Hist. Soc. April 8 1990.


Long C.

Living Melbourne 1896 - 1910 Canberra 1988.

Theatre Programs

The Astor Theatre

Program Calendars St. Kilda 1988-1994.

Herrod R.

Program For "Ruddigore" Melbourne 1987.

McKechnie W.H.

The Victory Souvenir Program - Monday March 19 1928 Melbourne 1928.

The National Theatre

The National Theatre - First Productions In The New Theatre - August 1974 St. Kilda 1974.

Palais Pictures

Program For The Week Commencing Monday, February 27 1928 Melbourne 1928.

Purves T. & Associates


"Jesus Christ - Superstar" Program For Palais Theatre Production. Camberwell Vic. 1973.

Storey R.

Regent Theatre Open Day Souvenir Program Melbourne 1991.

Westpac (Sponsor)

Free Film Guide - The 40th. Melbourne International Film Festival Melbourne 1991.

Winter J.

Historic Images - St. Kilda 1861 - 1957 (Catalogue for exhibition of September 3 to Dec. 24 1992 at Linden Galleries, Acland Street St. Kilda) St. Kilda 1992.



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APPENDIX: Map and Chronology of Cinema Locations

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Author Richard Peterson has written about the Astor Theatre in his book "Classic Buildings of St. Kilda", St. Kilda Historical Society. This is an excerpt from his book.

Astor Theatre, 1 Chapel Street (Cnr Dandenong Road), St. Kilda, by Richard Peterson.

Horse stables, built by Thomas Alford in 1894 occupied this prominent site on the Dandenong Road until 1912 (or 1908), when Alford built the Diamond Picture Theatre. The outer wall of this theatre (and maybe even the earlier stables) still forms the rear shell of the Astor. In 1913-14 the Diamond became the Theatre Rex. It closed in 1917.

In 1935, Alford sold the property to Frank O’Collins, who had set up Astor Theatres Pty. Ltd. and demolition and rebuilding began in December 1935. It was a sign of confidence in post-Depression Melbourne, or of the profits to be made in desperate times from escapism, as there were seven other theatres in St. Kilda and Prahran. These included: the Broadway, 147 Ormond Road, Elwood (1919-60); the Empress, 217 Chapel Street, Prahran (1913-58, demolished); the Memorial (St. Kilda Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Memorial Hall, 1927-57); the Palais (1927); the Royal, 30 Chapel Street, Windsor (1911-41); the Victory, corner Carlisle & Barkly Streets (1921-74) and the Windsor, 174 Peel Street, Windsor (1936-62?).

Earlier cinemas in St. Kilda had been: Casino Daylight Pictures (Comedy Theatre), Lower Esplanade, (1913-15, demolished); the Elite Biograph (later the Palais and the Barkly), corner Barkly & Acland Streets (1912-1921, demolished); the Living Picture Gardens (Corso, Le Boulevard), Upper Esplanade (1909-1916, demolished); the Lyric, Alfred Square East, (1911-25, demolished); the Mayfair (Earls Court), Upper Esplanade (1928-33, demolished); the Palais, Lower Esplanade (1913-26, demolished); the Picture Garden, Upper Esplanade (1908-24, demolished); Pictureland (Palais, Broadway), Alfred Square West, (1909-16, demolished) and the St. Kilda, 125 Fitzroy Street, (1911-32, demolished).

The Astor was designed in 1935 by Ron Morton Taylor, in Jazz Moderne style. Earlier, Taylor had designed the Gardenvale Theatre in 1925, with Bohringer & Johnson, the Burnley in 1928, the Western (1928), and the State (now the Forum) with Bohringer & Johnson (but from sketches by the famous American designer, John Eberson) in 1929.

The Astor was opened on April 3, 1936 at a ceremony attended by the Mayor and Councillors of St. Kilda and a large number of invited guests, reported the Argus newspaper.

Despite its Moderne styling, the Astor is one of the last cinemas in Melbourne with traditional stalls and circle. After the economic depression of the 1930s, cheaper construction and maintenance were sought by owners. Cinemas were smaller, more intimate, but also with the stadium or ‘Continental’ system of floor construction and sectional profile: a single tier auditorium with new seats steeply banked off the stalls floor. This meant walls could be less structurally robust, not needing to support the cantilevered circle seating. Since seating was on the one level, cost of cleaning, heating and ventilation was less.

Otherwise the Jazz Moderne style’s clean relatively undecorated lines at the Astor (and the Windsor) are arguably the earliest in Melbourne. Later this was the style of other late 1930s cinemas: the Sun, Yarraville (1938); the Circle, Preston, (1938); the Planet, Preston (1939); the Rivoli, Camberwell (1940) and the Time, Balwyn (1941), for instance.

The Astor’s geometric cream and chocolate brick facade includes an eight pointed star in relief, partly obscured by its neon sign, (one of the oldest surviving in Melbourne), with its 12 illuminated stars. On the Astor’s interior, the cinema trade journal Everyone’s boasted: ‘good design, decoration and furnishings have been combined so that the theatre can truthfully be claimed to be the last word in theatre construction...’. The interior is remarkably intact. Off the foyer with its terrazzo floor and stair is a confectionary and supper room (now closed). From the Dress Circle foyer, an oval light-well overlooks the foyer.

The auditorium sat 1,673 patrons (now 1,200). It has a stepped ceiling and opaline light fittings, with a shallow dome, and fine wrought steel chevron-patterned friezes. It has unusually spacious lounges for a suburban cinema. Amazingly, the 1929 Western Electric sound amplifier survives. There were alterations in 1937, 1944 and 1961, including removal of the ticket box from the centre of the foyer.

The Astor showed prestigious programmes, mainly of Paramount, MGM, and United Artists’ pictures. This reputation enabled it to survive the arrival of television in 1956. Cinemascope, a new proscenium and technical improvements kept the cinema alive until 1967, when it was sold to Tanda Investments. In 1969 it became one of their chain of 12 Greek cinemas in Melbourne. The stage was enlarged for live performance (since the Astor was built for talkies, a live stage had not be considered necessary in 1935), reducing the stalls’ capacity. Multicultural television reduced demand from the Greek community and the Astor closed in February 1982. It was only dark for six months however and in September 17 the owner George Florence - who remains the owner at time of writing - secured the lease, opening with the screening of the 1933 ‘masterpiece’ King Kong.

After 1985, audience numbers increased and the Astor’s repertory posters graced many a Melbourne toilet door. Lighting, screen and sound equipment were modernised in 1985 and the sound system was completely redeveloped. It was the principal venue for the Melbourne International Film Festival until 1995. Two years later the theatre was fully airconditioned and Dolby Digital sound installed. Now there is a new (its third) screen in a replica proscenium at the Astor and new lenses for each of seven different types of screening ratio, suiting films from flickering silents to Cinemascope, and 70mm. It is the only repertory cinema surviving in Melbourne, one of the few independents, and remains enormously popular with the cinemagoer from St. Kilda and Melbourne at large.


The Argus. April 4, 1936,

Everyones. April 15, 1936.

Film Weekly Motion Picture Directories 1967-68.

A Brief History of the Astor. (Undated leaflet). The Astor Cinema.

Heritage Victoria. Victorian Heritage Register. File No. H1751.

Daniel Catrice. Cinemas in Melbourne, 1896-1942. Vol.II. Pp90-94 & passim.

National Trust of Australia (Victoria). File No. B5891.

Victorian Health Department. Public Building File No. 3252/1.

St. Kilda City Council Building Approval No9090, 31 October 1935.


Copyright St. Kilda Historical Society ©

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Author Becky Aizen has written about The George in her book "Hotels of St. Kilda", St. Kilda Historical Society. This is an excerpt from her book.

The George, formerly The Terminus and Seaview, 125-129 Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda, by Becky Aizen.

The trajectory of the history of the George Hotel, from grandeur to dilapidation and back again, is said to reflect the fortunes of St. Kilda itself. While the current building was constructed in stages between 1880 and 1930, the Terminus Hotel, as it was known until 1886, was built in 1857 to cater to the passengers travelling from Melbourne to the newly opened St. Kilda railway line terminus opposite.

In a business where the turnover of licensees is often rapid, the George appears as an anomaly as it remained within one family for much of its life. Frederick Wimpole was its proprietor and publican from 1874, while his son, also Frederick, took over from the 1900s to the 1960s. During this period the hotel underwent several physical renovations. The corner section was designed by Harry B. Gibbs and is a large and ornate example of Boom style Italianate architecture. By 1930 successive additions created a 169 room hotel which rendered it one of the largest and most well known hotels in Victoria, and certainly the largest in Melbourne outside the city. The rear wing was also constructed in 1886 and contains the large dining room, now known as the highly decorated and richly historical Ballroom. During the 1930s, it was a favoured wedding venue for fashionable brides. Even during the war years when other hotels were suffering from the after-effects of the Depression, the George's very proper reputation seemed untarnished. Yet like postwar St. Kilda itself, more a centre for cheap housing than a tourist resort, the George could not retain its classy image.

The George, renamed the Seaview in 1976, became the centre of Melbourne's alternative and punk music scenes. With the burgeoning popularity of punk and new wave, the venue, known varyingly as the Wintergarden, Crystal Ballroom, Seaview Ballroom or Ballroom, played host to up-and-coming local bands, most notably Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, but also INXS and Hunters and Collectors. By 1987, however, its associations with drug-dealing and other criminal behaviour led to a forced closure and delicensing. In 1991 the hotel was reopened by restaurant entrepreneur Donlevy Fitzpatrick, whose visionary redevelopment in 1996-1997 contained apartments, with bars, cafes and shops at ground level, and the ballroom becoming a function room. It was registered by the National Trust at State level in February 1998.

The new three-screen multiplex "The George Cinemas" was opened on November 24 1994, as part of Tony Zeccola's "Palace Entertainment Group", of which Village Roadshow owns a fifty per cent partnership.

Copyright St. Kilda Historical Society ©

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