CINEMAS 1896-1985

Jack Honniball

The Silent Era

Film shows were first presented in Western Australia just when the colony was riding the crest of the boom caused by the great gold discoveries of the 1890s. New places of entertainment quickly arose to cater for the fast-increasing population, and at these the wondrous motion pictures were initially shown as novelty items on vaudeville or variety programmes. Perth's kindly climate readily drew crowds to open-air entertainment's in summer time, and two such city venues which were the first to offer films at the end of 1896 were Ye Olde English Fayre at the corner of Hay and King Streets and the Cremorne Gardens at the other end of Murray Street.

The earliest 'hard-tops' pressed into occasional service were the Perth Town Hall, a valuable amenity since 1870, and the first conventional theatre, the Royal in central Hay Street, which opened early in 1897. The Royal was an enterprise of the prominent businessman, T.G.A. Molloy, as was also the even grander His Majesty's Theatre which replaced the Fayre in 1904. Another auditorium where films soon appeared was the Queen's Hall in William Street, which opened in 1899 under the aegis of the Wesley Church trustees.

Open-air resorts multiplied too. At the ideally- sloping Esplanade Gardens at the foot of William Street, films shared the arena with boxing exhibitions. Other enclosures which they shared with vaudeville early in the new century were the Melrose Gardens in Central Murray Street, the Shaftesbury Gardens in Stirling Street and the Olympia Theatre in Hay Street. In Hay Street east the Star Skating Rink became the Star Picture Pavilion in 1910. Roofing was later added to some of these venues in order to retain customers in the colder months, while Molloy had the good sense to equip his two sturdy theatres with sliding roofs which could open to the night sky in summer time.

At the turn of the century the sporadic film offerings were generally organised by or in conjunction with entrepreneurs based in Eastern Australia, such as J.C. Williamson and the Tait Brothers. In later Edwardian times the emerging major exhibitors came to obtain exclusive use of some of the existing venues from their local proprietors. Thus in 1908, the British exhibitor, T.J. West, added the Melrose and Queen's Hall to a chain he had quickly established throughout Australia; Fremantle, Midland and country towns soon followed suit in proclaiming West's Pictures. Similarly, C.C. Spencer came to dominate the screens at King's Esplanade Gardens and the Theatre Royal.

The chief personalities to come to the force on home ground were Victor Jubilee Newton and Thomas Melrose Coombe. Newton rose from a local apprenticeship to lead a syndicate which took on lengthy leases of the Fremantle Town Hall in 1910 and the Queen's Hall in 1912 under the name of Vic's Pictures. Like Molloy, Coombe had the money to invest in bricks and mortar and, after his Melrose in Perth, built the Princess in Fremantle in 1912.

The war years brought many new developments in film distribution and exhibition, some of them reflecting Hollywood's surge to pre-eminence as supplier of product. In Perth four unpretentious but purpose-built cinemas opened in the space of three years - the Pavilion in 1914, and then the Palladium, the Majestic and the Grand, all in 1916. Some of the early exhibitors merged forces under the name of Union Theatres to become the nation's leading chain, with their base in Sydney. Coombe tied his fortunes to this consortium and was verily the 'picture king of Perth' in the 1920s.

Meanwhile, the picture shows proliferated in the suburbs and country, operating chiefly in town halls; the venues offering open-air screenings in summer time included at least four of the League football ovals.

When Union Theatres took their cue from America and embarked on an ambitious building program, Coombe transformed his simple Melrose into the prestigious Prince of Wales Theatre, which opened in December 1922. Rival interests based in Melbourne followed suit and, with the co- operation of the Methodist trustees in Perth, in 1927 replaced the Queen's 's Hall with Hoyts Regent Theatre, a rather pale precursor of the sumptuous namesakes that were rising in the four larger capital cities.

Two even grander picture palaces arose in 1928 and 1929 and enabled Perth audiences to share the high standards of entertainment and comfort enjoyed in major cities the world over. The Ambassadors, in central Hay Street, was another venture of the Union-Coombe partnership and embraced the 'atmospheric' style of internal decor lately pioneered by the chain's Capitol Theatre in Sydney. Its 2,000 seats purportedly rested in a Florentine garden, above which stars twinkled and clouds wafted under an azure dome. Perth's Capitol, the bold investment of a local syndicate, replaced the Esplanade Gardens at the foot of William Street; it followed the other dominant style for prestigious cinemas, the splendorous neo- Gothic that was exemplified by Hoyts leading theatres in the east. In recognition of the State's centenary year, the Capitol's ornamentation in the mezzanine lounge included two curved leadlight panels depicting the city in 1870 and 1928 respectively (which are now displayed in the foyer of the F.T.I. Cinema at Fremant]e).

The status of the individual cinemas was largely determined by the size of the permanent orchestras they maintained to accompany their film offerings, and, in the best traditions of the legitimate theatre, the musicians rendered an overture, an entr'acte, and concluded with 'God save the king'. Successful managers were measured by their proficiency in showmanship, and advertising played an important role. The 'ballyhoo' extended from lavish front-of-house displays to publicity stunts in the streets. placards on the city tramcars, and 24-sheeter posters at strategic points on the arterial roads.

The leading establishments continued to supplement the films with vaudeville acts, and in the forefront the Ambassadors toasted a chubby corps-de-ballet and a Wurlitzer organist on a rising platform. The printed programs issued to patrons were another pleasing adjunct inherited from the stage theatres (but few of them survived).

For day sessions and in the humbler auditoria the music was provided by a watchful pianist or at least by an irreverent pianola. At the second-run houses, which offered continuous sessions from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., the price of admission was as low as sixpence upstairs and threepence for the stalls.

Over the period of thirty two years the silent pictures had steadily developed from an amusing novelty to a glamorous and even sophisticated form of entertainment patronised regularly and in great numbers by the majority of the population.

An Australian Classic on its Rounds

A good perspective of the metropolitan cinema scene towards the end of the silent era is obtained by following one particular film in its course of exhibition, namely 'For The Term Of His Natural Life'. The main source of information is newspaper advertisements.

This epic production opened on Saturday 19 August, 1927 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, which was then enjoying its fifth year as Perth's premier cinema. Having attracted some 30,000 patrons in its first week and broken all records, it was held over for a second, a very rare occurrence there. It played four sessions daily with the evening session supported by vaudeville acts, featuring a dancing duo the first week and a pair of comedians for the second. The main film was preceded by a very elaborate prologue, in which a participant was Miss Elsie Dunn of Leederville. a great-niece of the author Marcus Clarke.

Following their regular practice, Union Theatres then promptly transferred 'The Term' to their Princess Theatre in Fremantle, where it played a full week rather than the usual three days. Again there was an atmospheric prologue, and sessions were continuous from 11 a.m. Advertisements claim it was packed out all day Saturday and again on Monday night. 'Notice to mothers: Kindly send your children to matinees and avoid the crush at night sessions. Children are allowed to see this picture without their parents'.

Next, on Saturday 3 September, Union brought the film back to their second-run house in Perth, the Pavilion. 'by special request from thousands of city, suburban and country patrons, school teachers, university students and the picture- loving public'. The usual prices prevailed, of sixpence at day sessions and ninepence at night, the night sessions also offering community singing. The Pavilion billed itself as the people's theatre and the workers' paradise, and showed the film at continuous sessions from 10 a.m. for the usual three days' season. On the Saturday, with 3,719 admissions, all house records were 'entirely eclipsed, completely broken and annihilated'.

A newspaper strike decimated the cine advertisements for a few days, but evidently 'The Term' began its suburban rounds the follow week when it played at the Empire, West Leederville, on Monday 12 and Tuesday 13. Saturday 17 it was shown by Armadale Pictu] presumably in the Town Hall. The next wee~ played three nights (Monday, Tuesday c Wednesday) at both the Rosemount in North Perth and the Lyceum in Mount Lawley. 1 Rosemount bade patrons take tramcar 20 to theatre, and opened its sessions with gramophone recital ar 7.30 p.m. The Lyceum boasted an orchestra to accompany the picture, and prices were 'the same as any Saturday' (stalls 1/1, circle 2/-); there was no half-price on the Monday, but every child attending on the other two nights was to 'have a chance of winning 10/6 by drawing a map of Australia'. Next, on Friday 23 September, 'The Term' filled the screen of the Town Hall at Cottesloe Beach (i.e. Mosman Park) supported by a comedy and a serial.

It was one of the best nights of the year for the exhibitor, Palace Pictures (whose business records are now in the Battye Library). The takings represented 243 adults @ 1/1 and 246 children @ sixpence; the expenses consisted of rental of the hall ( 1.10.0), hire of the films ( 9.3.0), tax ( 1.0.3), wages ( 2.13.6), and advertising and lighting (10/- each); the modest profit was 3.19.9.

The following Monday 'The Term' went to the 'commodious and comfortable' Premier Theatre in East Perth, where dress-circle seats cost 1/6 and the stalls 1/- (including tax). The New Oxford in Leederville, where it was shown on the Tuesday and Wednesday, seems to have offered the strongest supporting programme, namely an animated newsreel, a Pathe song film accompanied by Roy Glenister, a comedy of 20 minutes, and a prologue, together with the theatre's augmented orchestra; prices were slightly dearer - dress circle ll7l/2 and stalls 1/1. The film then moved on to the Renown Theatre in Midland for the Thursday and Friday, 29 and 30 September.

In the first week of October, co-inciding with the Royal Show, 'The Term' played at Hatfield's western suburbs circuit - on the Monday and Tuesday at Claremont's Princess Theatre (supported by 'The Bachelor's Baby'), on the Tuesday at the Swanbourne Theatre, and on the Monday and Wednesday at Wells' Hall in Cottesloe; on Friday it screened at Nedlands in what later was known as the Broadway Theatre in the arterial street of the same name, where it was supported by an episode of the comedy serial 'Samson of the Circus'.

'The Term's' last suburban screenings as revealed by the newspapers were at Shenton Pictures in West Subiaco on Friday 10 October, and at the Regent in Guildford on Monday 24 and Tuesday 25 October. There were another dozen or so suburban theatres operating at this time, of which the most noteworthy were the Gaietyin South Perth, West's at Subiaco and the Broadway and Savoy in Victoria Park. It seems strange if the citizenry of these populous areas were given no opportunity to see such an important film on home ground. However, some of the exhibitors may have rejected the terms offered by Greater Australiasian films for hire of this feature, or they may only have had contracts with rival distributors. Some of them possibly did in fact screen 'The Term', but only advertised in the press irregularly if at all.

It was appropriate that when the National Film Archive's reconstructed version of 'The Term' was released in 1984, the venue for its Perth season was again The New Oxford, the only survivor of all the cinemas that were operating when it first did the rounds.

The Heyday of the Talkies

Three and a half months after their Australian debut in Sydney, the talking pictures came to Perth on 6 April 1929, with 'The Jazz Singer' at the Prince of Wales and 'The Red Dance' at the Regent. Predictably, the new dimension won tremendous success with audiences, and one by one the leading cinemas had themselves wired for sound. Inevitably though, there were soon dozens of casualties in the ranks of the musicians whose talents were no longer needed in support. A fiercer blow to the whole industry quickly followed when the onslaught of the great Depression caused a drastic decline in audiences.

The Hoyts chain weathered the protracted storm better than the overcapitalised Union Theatres, and in Perth and Fremantle succeeded to the effective control of seven leading cinemas, including the Capitol, biggest of all but patently so ill-sited. However, a new rival emerged when James Coombe sold his Grand Theatre to a local syndicate which rapidly rose to great prosperity as the Grand Theatre Company (later City Theatres). The new group next acquired the Royal, which gave up its stage offerings altogether, and the Princessin Fremantle. In the suburbs many exhibitors owed their survival to the introduction of 'family nights' mid-week, for which the admission charge was just sixpence; admittedly, the fare they offered then was third- rate and the distributors were unenthusiastic. The hard times finally saw the demise of the once- proud Prince of Wales and its absorption by a department store in 1935. From 1932 to 1938 British films were shown at one cinema exclusively, thus ensuring its clientele of accents familiar to the Australian ear instead of the strange and unattractive American speech in the talkies.

In the mid 1930s the output of Hollywood went from strength to strength and led in due course to another burst of cinema construction in Perth and the suburbs. Two newcomers to the city scene straddled modern arcades which local investors erected in 1937-8, and the Plaza duly hoisted the banner of Hoyts Theatres while the Piccadilly ('Theatre of distinction') became the leading house of the Grand Theatre Company. l he Wesleyans co-operated once again and in 1938 transformed their Regent into the Metro ('Theatre of the stars'), a venture which reflected the acquisition of exclusive outlets in each capital city for the strong product of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Exponents of the art-deco style of architecture, the three new cinemas incorporated truly effective air- conditioning systems, had no more than a platform as last vestige of a stage and, with an average of 1,256 seats, were a good deal smaller than the picture palaces of a decade earlier. The most noteworthy embellishments to suburbia were the Regal in Subiaco, the Windsor in Nedlands,the Astor in Mount Lawley and the Como and Cottesloe Theatres. In the port city in 1938 the Majestic sank into the retail trade in favour of the new Hoyt's Fremantle Theatre, and in the country probably the only substantial acquisition was the Mayfair which superseded the Lyric in Bunbury in August 1939. With Hoyts having forsaken the Capital in 1938, there were only six cinemas operating in Perth when World War II broke out; they were under three management's and embraced a total of 8,295 seats. While the stage and other forms of entertainment soon fell victim to the exigencies of war, the cinemas experienced a remarkable boom that was to continue until 1947. Early in 1941 the nation-wide Fullers' chain turned His Majesty's over from stage to screen from the duration, and late in 1942 they re-opened the Capitol. This brought the city's total seating up to 12,124. Throughout the 1940s patrons were still admitted to the front stalls on weekdays for as little as l/3d (including an entertainment's tax); the price for lounge seats ranged around three shillings at night, with an increase on Saturdays.

In 1947 Perth rather tardily followed the example of the other capitals in acquiring a 'newreel theatrette', which was fashioned from a basement restaurant in central Hay Street; in this Mayfair, the new entrepreneur found he had a goldmine. A sixth exhibitor joined the ranks in 1954 when Independent Film Distributors opened the Liberty (now the Kimberley) in Barrack Street, with just 450 seats on a single upper level; initially specialising in Continental and other 'art' films, it soon turned to more conventional fare. The same proprietors extended their realm in 1956 by establishing another newsreel house, which was named the Savoy and located beneath the hotel of the same name in Hay Street. Meanwhile, as the metropolis steadily spread, a number of new cinemas arose in the suburbs. The Menora in farther Mount Lawley was probably the last in the conventional two-storey style, while the modest Forrest Theatre in South Bunbury was one of very few newcomers to the country scene. New open- air ventures, such as the Teneriffe Gardens in Applecross, were still good investments. Drive-in theatres first made their appearance in 1955 with the opening of the Highway in Bentley, which could accommodate 642 cars; a benevolent climate ensured that others soon followed both in sparser suburbia and in country towns.

Meanwhile, in the early post-war years, discriminating patrons were grateful for the Adult Education Board's occasional sponsorship of foreign-language and other 'worthy' productions. From this developed the regular film seasons presented each summer as part of the Festival of Perth in the Sommerville Auditorium within the grounds of the University of Western Australia. In the city the Grand attracted a substantial following when it adopted an all-British policy in 1949 that was to last for sixteen years. The looming spectre of television was confronted early by the introduction of the Cinemascope lens and- other wide-screen projections in the mid-1950s, but Perth was denied the Cinerama technique which Hoyts confined to Sydney and Melbourne.

The Age of Television

The advent of television late in 1959 quickly proved disastrous to the two newsreel theatrettes and to the majority of suburban and country situations. Just a handful of hard-tops managed to survive in inner suburbia by restricting their screenings to the weekends, while one or two in turn reached out for a new audience from the ethnic minorities by offering regular screenings of Italian and Greek films. In the city the Capitol finally gave up the struggle and confined itself to orchestral concerts and other stage shows until its demolition in 1967. Only the drive-ins appeared unruffled and continued to grow in number throughout the 1960s.

So long as television was restricted to transmission in black-and-white, the city cinemas managed satisfactorily and, in presenting their wares in colour, still had a decided advantage. However, performance at the box office showed a widening gap between the good and the mediocre films. Whereas in the war years the strongest fllms achieved seasons of five, six and even seven weeks, it became commonplace for their successors of the 1960s to run as many months and half a dozen ran well into their second year. With a season of 66 weeks in 1964-5, 'Lawrence of Arabia' added the Windsor to the ranks of first- run houses as another colleague for the Liberty and Savoy. At the other end of the scale, films of little worth often found themselves relegated to sole exhibition at the drive-ins. By now, patrons were generally expected to go by car in pursuit of the films of their choice, and the few surviving suburban hard-tops ceased to rely on a clientele mainly drawn from the neighbourhood.

In 1968, City Theatres extended their empire and placed first-run product in the Como Theatre, which they renamed the Cygnet, and in the Astor at Mount Lawley. However, the following year they closed one of their two cinemas at Fremantle. Ace Theatres, the pioneer of drive-ins, also began to diversify at this stage by acquiring control of the Dalkeith Theatre, thereafter known as the Village, and the tiny Mayfair in the city, which became the Capri. Next, in 1970, they opened the Town Cinema, a house of 636 seats on the one floor in Hay Street west of William Street. Eventually, in 1979, the Ace chain was to embrace eight covered screens in the city and suburbs as well as nine suburban drive-ins.

Well before the coming of colour television in 1975, the changes were many in the bricks and mortar of cinematic Perth. In 1973 the Ambassadors and the Metro followed the fate of the Capitol and made way for redevelopment of the valuable sites they could no longer occupy economically. Hoyts had prepared for the changed order of things in 1971 by obtaining another outlet which bestrode the City Council's new City Arcade and gloried in the name of Cinema One. Then, early in 1975, they also became tenant of the Cinema Two that had arisen in the midst of another arcade on the site of the Ambassadors. Each of their new houses held some 800 seats on one tiered floor, and they were the last of the single-screen ventures to make their appearance.

The Current Scene

The most significant development of the 1970s was the establishment of the cinema complexes which incorporate two or more screens under the one roof, with attendant advantages such as the most effective deployment of staff. Ace was first in the field with the opening in December 1974 of the Cinecentre, which embraces three screens, and City Theatres followed a month later with the Academy 'twins', which peep from under the wing of the vast Entertainment Centre. Then, in 1978, Hoyts converted their Cinema Two into diminutive identical twins. Meanwhile, soon after the purchase of the company by TVW Enterprises, City Theatres vacated the Royalearly in 1978, and next closed their original base, the Grand; in their stead, in November 1~80, they presented the public with four screens inside a spacious Cinema City opposite the Town Hall. Finally, in 1983, Hoyts produced a bigger sibling to snuggle beside their twins, having fashioned it from the upper level of the former Theatre Royal, and bestowed upon the augmented family the prosaic name of Hoyts Centre.

With the closure of the Paris (formerly the Plaza) and the reduction of the Piccadilly to a single floor in 1983, the city is now without any cinema in the once, conventional two-storey style. Dark since February last, Cinema One has apparently proved unviable too and the largest house is now Cinema City 4, with 790 seats; the smallest is Cinecentre 1, which holds 228. At 7,750, the city's total seating is now a fraction less than the figure in 1939, but instead of just six cinemas there are today seventeen screens, and the average of their seating has fallen from 1,382 to 456. Compared with the picture palaces of times long past, all the modern houses are rather plain and severely functional structures, and consequently, for architectural interest, the rejuvenated Piccadilly is still the theatre of distinction.

Where suburbia was served by over seventy cinemas when television began, today it has only nine screens in regular operation under seven hard-tops and the total seating capacity is 3,860. Perth's two largest chains bind two of them apiece; City Theatres are proprietors of the Port in Fremantle and the Cygnet in Como, while Ace Theatres operate the Metro in Innaloo and the Village in Dalkeith. The other three situations are virtually 'art' houses in respect of their bold programming policies. While the F.T.I. Cinema upholds a high standard of film culture in the port city, an independent management supplies inner western suburbia with a remarkable range of fare at the Windsor and the New Oxford; the F.T.I. and the Oxford each have two screens. For two months each summer, suburbia boasts an eighth well- patronised venue in the delightful Sommerville Auditorium, only survivor of the once-ubiquitous open-air cinemas.

The area hardest hit by the recent boom in home video has been the drive-in theatres. From a total of twenty-two suburban situations in the early 1970s, the number has declined to fifteen; however, there are now seventeen screens, as the two largest venues have recently been divided into two fields each. Six screens, including the twins at the Highway and the Metro, are the property of Ace Theatres, and the seven 'Line' drive-ins are conducted by City Theatres. The majority are in operation seven nights a week, but others as little as two.

Several of the country drive-ins have also closed in recent times, but, on a happier note, several of the larger country towns now have hard-top cinemas again. Whereas ten years ago only Busselton and a few northern mining centres could boast of a conventional cinema, to they function too at Kalgoorlie, Bunbury, Albany, and Geraldton.

Western Australians have patronised a great range of picture theatres and the exhibitors have clearly experienced many ups and downs since the moving pictures were first shown just eighty- nine years ago, but it seems likely that the moving image will continue to be projected to paying audies and that the ever-adapting cinemas will play a significant social role for many years to come.