Saturday, 07 December 2019 17:30

Minerva Theatre, Sydney (Part 3)

Written by John Stephen Clark

 Minerva TheatreMetro Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney, 2019. Photo by Mark O’Dwyer.

In the third and final instalment of the Minerva Theatre story John S. Clark looks at the period 1950 to the present, when under the direction of MGM, the theatre was a premier movie house, known as the Metro Kings Cross from 1952. The year 1969 saw a return to live theatre with the rock musical Hair which played for almost two years. During the 1970s the theatre hosted an eclectic range of shows, and from 1981 to 2019 it was home to the Kennedy-Miller production group.

Originally published in 1993 in booklet form by the Australian Theatre Historical Society, this article has been revised and brought up to date, and is re-published here by permission of the author.

The future of the theatre is currently in doubt, having been purchased in April 2019 by a development group. Thanks to the efforts of John S. Clark and the Metro Minerva Action Group, the building has been nominated for NSW state heritage protection, and is presently awaiting a ruling by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

For more information or to add your support to the Metro Minerva Theatre Action Group, please contact John S. Clark, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer opened the Minerva as a movie house in the evening of Saturday, April 29, 1950. They had been preparing and painting the theatre for the previous ten days, with the workmen toiling in three shifts, commencing as soon as the stage show was over. Dream Girl finished the previous night, April 28. “Kings Cross becomes a dazzling new show centre, as first release MGM films come to the Minerva”, the advertising stated. The House Full sign was up early for the Gala first evening. The Australasian Exhibitor commented: “The theatre looked brand spanking new, and the first night had all the atmosphere of a gala premiere. In declaring the theatre opened, Lord Mayor, Alderman O’Dea, said that MGM’s initiative in bringing first release films to Kings Cross would be greatly appreciated by the thousands living in the area. He then cut a gold ribbon, the curtains opened, and the show was on.” The film chosen to open the Minerva as a cinema was The Forsyte Saga, a Technicolor feature starring Errol Flynn, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, which was already screening at the Liberty in Sydney. It ran for one week at the Minerva on a three session a day policy. The Minerva’s second programme, The Red Danube, was shown simultaneous with the St James Theatre for one week. Four programmes followed after the conclusion of their seasons at either the St James or Liberty Theatres, including the Minerva’s first season of the classic, Gone With the Wind.

From June 1950, the Minerva screened simultaneously with the St James or Liberty, commencing with On the Town with the St James, and Adam’s Rib with the Liberty. Revival screenings filled in the gaps caused by the Minerva’s shorter seasons than the MGM city houses. In late 1950, Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer, was revived simultaneously with the Liberty.

The Minerva was always impeccably run by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, even down to the beautiful bouquets of flowers in the foyer, and of course, the well-groomed usherettes. There were always eye-catching displays in the lobby for current and future attractions, for films such as Words and Music where a twenty-two times twenty-eight inch display card would be surrounded by a set of eight smaller lobby cards.

In early 1951 the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly film If You Feel Like Singing commenced a season, simultaneously with the prestigious St James in the city, followed soon after by King Solomon’s Mines.

The 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, was revived in early 1951 at the Minerva, following a revival season at the St James. Over the years there were many such revivals exclusive to the Minerva, including The Emperor’s Candlesticks, Reunion in Vienna, The Women, and The Guardsman, the latter being the only film ever made by the celebrated American stage stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 West 46th Street on Broadway was, and still is, named after them.

In 1951, the Minerva, along with the other Metros, was equipped with two Century model CC projectors, which had counter-rotating shutter blades, leaving one Simplex machine in situ. The customary newsreel would be shown on the Simplex, as a general rule, and the rest of the programme would be presented using the Century machines. The Century projectors had the stronger light output. It was MGM’s policy to have three 35mm projectors in each projection room.

MGM’s plan was to own a number of suburban theatres and have two major outlets in the city proper. To this end, following the acquisition of the Minerva at King’s Cross, MGM bought the Century Theatre at Manly, renaming it the Metro. It reopened Friday, December 22, 1950, with Annie Get Your Gun. The next theatre was not acquired until 1952 when MGM bought the Regal at Bondi Junction. This was also renamed the Metro, but it only screened second run MGM films until June 27, 1952, when it, too went onto first release with Singin’ in the Rain.

  • Theatre lobby, 1950.

    Photos from The Film Weekly, 27 July 1950, p. 24

  • Philadelphia Story   Thelma Afford 1

    Auditorium, 1950.

It wasn’t until early August 1952, that the name Minerva was finally dropped from all advertising, and the theatre became known as the Metro. October 1952 saw Lovely to Look At, with Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton and Howard Keel, released at the Metro, and late 1953 saw a revival of Lili, with Leslie Caron, as a popular double bill with the musical Two Weeks with Love, which starred Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds.

On Wednesday, December 16, 1953, MGM reopened the Crows Nest Sesqui Theatre as the latest Metro, with Clark Gable in Mogambo, thereby completing its Sydney circuit. Mid 1953 saw MGM beat all opposition, including Hoyts and Greater Union, in going wide screen. MGM installed the ‘NEW PANORAMIC FULL STAGE SCREEN’ in all its theatres. The first presentation was simultaneously at the St James, Metro Kings Cross (Minerva), Metro Bondi Junction and Metro Manly, commencing June 2, 1953. The film, Young Bess, with Jean Simmons, was rushed into release to coincide with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

(Greater Union’s first wide screen presentation was Salome at the State Theatre on August 6, 1953. Hoyt’s first wide screen show was the documentary Elizabeth is Queen at the Esquire Theatre on June 10, 1953.)

Hoyt’s was the first to introduce CinemaScope to Australia, with The Robe on December 9, 1953, at Sydney’s Regent Theatre. MGM’s first CinemaScope production was Knights of the Round Table, which commenced at the St James on Wednesday, April 14, 1954. Later, on July 22, 1954, the film received a second city run at the Liberty.

Thursday, July 22, 1954, was the date that MGM introduced CinemaScope, “on the High Fidelity screen with the added enchantment of Persepcta Stereophonic Sound”, to the Metro, Kings Cross, as well as the Liberty, Sydney, and the Manly and Crows Nest Metros. The opening CinemaScope feature was Knights of the Round Table, with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner, supported by a CinemaScope short subject entitled The Merry Wives of Windsor. MGM had beaten Greater Union, the other major circuit, in introducing ’Scope to their theatres.

Although Bondi Junction Metro had been equipped for widescreen, CinemaScope needed further alterations; it opened with ’Scope on Friday, 1 October, 1954, with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The year 1954 also saw the revival of the classic Gone with the Wind at Kings Cross, with the added bonus of Perspecta Stereo Sound. The film was screened simultaneously with the Liberty. The other suburban Metros did not receive the revival until 1955.

A friend of the writer’s, who attended a trade screening at the Metro at which CinemaScope and Perspeca Stereo Sound, and other screen processes were demonstrated, claimed that it was the best projection work and presentation that he had seen in a Sydney theatre. But having said that, very often when standard ratio features were shown at the Minerva and other Metros during the period when wide screen ‘madness’ was the order of the day, the film’s opening titles would be cut out and screened on a separate projector in the standard ratio in order to accommodate the lettering, and so that the audience could read the titles properly. Then the projectionist would do a change-over to another projector, using the wide screen aperture plate, and the rest of the film would be shown I wide screen, even though it had been made for standard screen presentation. This meant loss of image at the top and bottom of the film frame, often partially cutting off the actors’ heads and feet. This was rather out of character for MGM, which had always been so fastidious about perfect presentation.

  • The World of Suzie Wong, 18 May 1961, starring Jacqui Chan and Kevin Miles.

    John S. Clark Collection.

  • Selection of advertisements from the early 1950s.

    John S. Clark Collection.

In 1954, years before the theatre was renamed the Metro Continental, it hired a group of continental films that had been screened previously over a number of years at either the specialist Savoy or Variety Theatres. These included Bicycle Thieves, Monsieur Vincent, Pastoral Symphony, Marius, Beauty and the Beast and Miss Julie.

January 1955 saw the Metro Kings Cross used as the venue for the first Sydney release of the United Artists film Of Mice and Men. This was originally banned in 1940 by the Australian Film Censor due to its theme of sex and mercy killing. It was resubmitted to the Censor by independent distributor, Ray Films, late in 1954, and passed for showing.

During 1954 and 1955, some programmes were first released at the suburban Metros, but did not receive a city release at with the St James or Liberty. Some of there were Tennessee Champ plus Arena; Gypsy Colt supported by The Great Diamond Robbery; Athena; Her Twelve Men; and Jupiter’s Darling, in CinemaScope, with Esther Williams and Howard Keel. The films were unable to be shown at either the Liberty or St James as both these theatres were tied to extended runs.

In 1957 the Metro Kings Cross screened a revival of Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, three weeks ahead of the other Metros.

During 1961, live theatre returned to the theatre, when on May 18, 1961 James T. Laurie of London Pty Ltd (exactly 22 years after the Minerva first opened ) leased the Metro for his play The World of Suzie Wong starring Jacqui Chan and Kevin Miles, renaming the theatre the Metro-Minerva Theatre. The play was staged and directed by David Turnbull. Suzie Wong ran for eleven weeks and on August 10, Laurie produced Oo-La-La French Music Hall with Barry Linehan and Gerry Hyman. The show was a ‘flop’ and by August 21 the theatre was showing films again.

With MGM at that time also releasing Walt Disney films, these also played Kings Cross. In July 1962, Disney’s The Parent Trap was shown, but from late July until the end of October, the theatre screened French, German and Italian films, and was temporarily advertised as the Metro Continental. A highlight of 1964 was the Greta Garbo Festival, screened first at the Liberty and then transferred to the Metro Kings Cross. The titles shown were Anna Karenina; Camille; Marie Walewska (US title Conquest); Ninotchka; Queen Christina; and Grand Hotel.

  • Flyer for the Disney hit film Mary Poppins which opened at the Metro on 13 May 1965.

    John S. Clark Collection.

May 13, 1965, saw the Metro again in the headlines, with the Gala Australasian Premiere and exclusive extended run of the popular Disney hit, Mary Poppins, which starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It was billed as Sydney’s most spectacular Gala Premiere ever, with marching girls, a parade of penguins, actor look-alikes, and London bobbies. As a result of the foresight of Mr Bob Lucas at MGM, the Kings Cross Metro was apparently the first theatre in Australia to have Xenon lamphouses installed in the projectors (Zeiss brand). This was around the time that Mary Poppins was shown at the theatre. On August 17, 1966, another Australasian Premiere was held at the Metro. This time the Oscar-winning Warner Bros. film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was the attraction. The Film Weekly reported that the “glittering social audience which filled the theatre was greeted by a flood of lights, a full representation of television and press cameras, and an honour guard of Red Cross nurses.”

In August, 1967, the film Doctor Zhivago was released at the Kings Cross Metro after a lengthy city run, and it had another long season at this theatre. Anthony Newley’s Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, a London stage music success (“actually filmed on stage for the Metro, Kings Cross”), got an exclusive release in 1968 through Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. In May 1969, MGM presented its last movie at the Metro: Warner Bros.’ The Sergeant, with Rod Steiger.

  • Cover of theatre programme for Harry M. Miller’s production of Hair which opened on 5 June 1969.

    Elisabeth Kumm Collection.

  • Michael Pertwee’s comedy Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something!, starring Terry-Thomas, opened on 7 September 1973.

    Elisabeth Kumm Collection.

On June 5, 1969, the Metro reverted to live theatre with Harry M. Miller’s production of the American tribal love-rock musical, Hair, with Reg Livermore and John Waters heading a large cast. The show ran for two years to capacity audiences, clearly the longest and most successful of any Minerva/Metro show. It closed on May 8, 1971.

On October 22, 1971, the revue Behind the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, played at the Metro for a strictly limited four week season. Between live shows, the theatre reverted to cinema, screening first-run features including The Devils, Klute and The Adventures of Barrie Mckenzie.

On September 9, 1972, the Neil Simon play Last of the Red Hot Lovers commenced at the Metro, with British actor Harry H. Corbett, supported by Leila Blake and Betty Lucas.

In November 1972, the play Move Over Mrs Markham starring Moira Lister and Roy Kinnear, along with John Bonney and Colleen Clifford, commenced at the Metro, for Williamson-Edgley Theatres Ltd. This play was making a return season, having enjoyed a five month season at the Theatre Royal during 1971/1972 with Honor Blackman and Michael Craig.

March 1973 saw the world premiere of Nuclear with Michael Furber and Shirley-Anne Kear heading the cast. This musical play was so successful that another show was produced, Nuclear II with Shirley-Anne Kear and Jonne Sands in the principal roles. Other plays at the Metro during this period included Terry-Thomas, in person, in Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something, in September 1973, and No Sex Please, We're British (for Harry M. Miller), with On the Buses star Bob Grant for a month from 22 November 1973.

In late 1974 the theatre was leased for movies again, showing revivals such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Around this time in 1974, the lessees at the Metro installed 16mm projectors and screened heavily cut television prints of films such as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Passage to Marseilles, To Have and Have Not and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. These screening were, however, short-lived.

In December 1975, Eve Arden starred in the live production of Applause, but it collapsed shortly after opening, allegedly because the backers absconded with the advance funds. Miss Arden, in a real show of professionalism, paid the salaries of her fellow performers out of her own funds.

  • Ginger Rogers brought her Waldorf-Astoria nightclub show to the Minerva in May 1976.

    John S. Clark Collection.

  • In 1977, Keenan Wynn and Jane Kean appeared in Jules Tasca's comedy The Mind With the Dirty Man.

    John S. Clark Collection.

Legendary screen actress Ginger Rogers arrived in Australia in 1976 to perform on the Metro stage. When her show opened, on May 29, 1976, the theatre reverted back to its original name, the Minerva. She did seventeen performances of her imported Waldorf-Astoria nightclub show, appearing with her troupe of four male dancers and comedian Johnny Dark. “She was the darling of the fans at her opening night show and they gave her a standing ovation”, reported the Sunday Telegraph.

On October 7, 1976, a musical revue Saturday Night at the Tiv opened, a tribute to David N. Martin who went on to run Sydney's Tivoli Theatre and the Melbourne Tivoli from 1941 until his untimely death in 1958, produced by CKC Theatres, with the announcement “Opening Sydney's New Live Theatre: The Minerva” and the programme introduction states “Many famous Australians were associated with the theatre; John Meillon made his professional debut here in The Winslow Boy. Hal Lashwood played his first straight role in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Ron Randell, Rod Taylor, Peter Finch, and the late Grant Taylor are just a few of the many names who trod the boards of the Minerva.” The cast was headed by international star Chelsea Brown, and included comedian America's Chad Chase, British ventriloquist Jack Beckett, our very own Bartholomew John, and the Minerva Theatre Ballet.

Then CKC Theatres and Denis Wong produced commencing January 27, 1977, the very last show at The Minerva Theatre, Jules Tasca's The Mind With the Dirty Man starring American movie star Keenan Wynn. It also starred Australians actors Jane Kean, Dolore Whiteman, David Williams, Sean Scully, Lynette Curran and Kay Taylor.

  • Metro, February 2008.

    Photo by Frank Van Straten.

  • Metro, February 2008.

    Photo by Frank Van Straten.

In August 1979, it was announced that the theatre was to become a speciality food market, designed as an open planned market environment, and to be rejuvenated under National Trust conditions. The plans took until mid-March 1981 to come to fruition, with its canopied food outlets and eateries. It proved a total disaster, and soon closed.

The 1,006 seats which David N. Martin had specially designed to ensure the Minerva was the ‘most comfortable theatre in the Southern Hemisphere’ were removed. So David's great vision for the Minerva was, in part, destroyed. In a letter to the manufacturer Dunlopillo he said, “When we requested you to manufacture a chair for the Minerva Theatre, we advised you that it was our desire to install ones  better, from the standpoint of design, comfort and utility than have been previously installed anywhere.”

And he went on to say, “In the chair you have submitted to us, and which we finally decided upon, and which is in future to be known as the ‘Minerva Chair’, all our high expectations have been more than adequately realised.”

David also ensured that the Minerva had the best air conditioning installed. According to the manufacturer York, “No one will ever shiver in the new Minerva Theatre, King's Cross ... no one will ever perspire when summer comes. Springtime weather all-the-year-round will be assured by the installation of York Air Conditioning Equipment ... a perfect inside climate.”

Not long after the food market closed, Kennedy-Miller acquired the theatre, and for the next forty years, the auditorium was used as a studio for the production of television mini-series and other programmes. So, in effect, actresses and actors continued, until quite recently, to utilise the former theatre. The exterior is intact, the original entrance doors are still there—and peering through the doors, one can observe that the foyer is still pretty much intact, although the stalls entrance doors have been removed. In 1993, the two large chrome and glass display cases (with a ‘Now Showing’ sign in each of them) on the exterior were still in place.

In March 2019, George Miller sold the Minerva to the Abacus Group. It was purchased by them as a result of the Abacus owner loving theatres, but as he is now deceased, they may be willing to sell the theatre, as it doesn't meet their needs as a self-storage company.

In the coming months we will find out if the Metro-Minerva Theatre is to be placed on the NSW Heritage Register. If so, the building that was once host to gala premieres, plays, films and musicals, will be able to live on.

Acknowledgements

John Love; Lyle Leeds; Leonard Teale; Kevin Cork; Les Tod; Lloyd Martin; Ian Hanson; Ernie Schumann; Gary Zantos; Elisabeth Kumm, Frank Van Straten; Building Magazine; Decoration and Glass Magazine; Sydney Morning Herald (various issues); Sunday Telegraph; Minerva Theatre programmes; The Film Weekly; Australasian Cinema; Australian Theatre Historical Society Archives; State Library of New South Wales; Theatre in Australia by John West; with special thanks to Malcolm Smith, for many corrections and much additional information. Also thanks for Peter Sheridan, whose 2019 book Sydney Art Deco features the Metro Theatre on the cover.

Gallery

Minerva 013

Metro, October 2019.

Photo by John S. Clark.

Metro, September 2019.

Photo by Mark O’Dwyer.

Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire opened on 27 October 1967.

John S. Clark Collection.

On October 22, 1971, the revue Behind the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, played at the Metro for a strictly limited four week season.

John S. Clark Collection.

Neil Simon’s play Last of the Red Hot Lovers opened on 9 September 1972, with British actor Harry H. Corbett.

Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

November 1972 saw the play Move Over Mrs Markham starring Moira Lister and Roy Kinnear, having already played a successful season at the Theatre Royal.

Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

March 1973 saw the world premiere of Nuclear with Michael Furber and Shirley-Anne Kear heading the cast.

Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

Ladies’ powder room, 1950.

Photo from The Film Weekly, 26 October 1950, p. 22.

No Sex Please, We're British with On the Buses star Bob Grant played or a month from 22 November 1973.

Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

On October 7, 1976, a musical revue Saturday Night at the Tiv opened, a tribute to David N. Martin

Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

In December 1975, Eve Arden starred in Applause, a musical based on the 1950 film All About Eve.

Courtesy of SBW Foundation.

 

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