Saturday, 21 June 2014

Kings Theatre conclusion

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The policy of showing films continued up to late 1944 when the King's became a first release house for Warner Brothers - First National Pictures. After some much-needed reseating and redecoration the King's reopened with Casablanca on 8 December 1944. This unreeled for an impressive 29 weeks and was followed by other Warner pictures up to mid May 1947. In this year Norman Rydge, chairman of Greater Union Theatres, who was then engaged on an Australia-wide theatre acquisition plan, personally bought the freehold title to the King's and thus ensured its continuing use as an entertainment site.


A mixed bag of mainly first release features from such studios as Paramount, Universal and Columbia continued until mid-April 1949 when the theatre was reclaimed for live entertainment. Aztec Services and Garnet H. Carroll sponsored Sydney's Independent Theatre production of Sumner Locke Elliott's comedy of Australian army life, Rusty Bugles.


Controversy over 'bad' language only increased its popularity and the play ran for 23 successful weeks from 16 April 1949. Following attractions included Olsen and Johnson's zany burlesque revue, Hellzapoppin, which did ten weeks from 4 October, and the return on Christmas Eve of Roy Rene in McCackie Mo'Ments, a revue he could only appear in for four nights a week due to radio commitments in Sydney.


Bob and Dolly Dyer joined Jim Gerald in another revue for a fortnight from 16 January 1950, after which Mo returned for twelve more nights up to 18 February. A brief revival of Rusty Bugles was followed by two more revues. Then came One Wild Oat, a West End farce with its original star, Arthur Rigby, for three weeks from 10 May.


More farces starring British comic actor Clifford Mollison filled a further three months from 11 August. Then came a rarity: the world premiere of an all Australian musical: The Highwayman, with book, music and lyrics by Edmond Samuels. This ran eleven weeks from 17 November and achieved considerable critical success.


From the early 1940s on, at a time when Sunday film screenings were forbidden by law, the King's was utilised for Sunday afternoon charity concerts and evening community singing, which was also broadcast on radio. These Sunday 'live' shows continued into the early 1950s, despite some conflict when they were endorsed by Actors Equity but banned by the Theatrical Employees' Union.

British actress, Sonia Dresdel, was the star of a drama, Message for Margaret, which was the following attraction. Then came the durable Philip King farce, See How They Run, which lasted just over a month from 20 April and was the final Carroll - Aztec show at the King's.


Paramount Pictures leased the property and reopened it as 'The Paramount King's' on 23 May 1951 with Cecil B. DeMille's Technicolor epic, Samson and Delilah, which ran until 4 July. Renovations, overseen by architects Cowper Murphy & Associates, were undertaken and completed without closure by October 1952. They included a new interior entrance to the gallery from the dress circle foyer, a new sweets bar and improvements to toilets. The interior was also redecorated in a green and white colour scheme with deep red stage curtains. The theatre was now advertised as 'The New King's'.


A 'Giant Wide Screen' was installed late in 1953 and White Christmas, Paramount's first production in its own widescreen process, VistaVision, was first shown here from Christmas Eve of that year. Other popular Paramount releases screened here in the mid-1950s included the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief), and the comedies of Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.


After a week-long 'Paramount Parade of Hits' (daily change double features) the King's closed for the last time on 13 February 1958. Extensive renovations were undertaken for Norman Rydge by Cowper Murphy & Associates at a cost of £200,000. The auditorium was gutted and converted into a modern two-level cinema of stalls and balcony to seat 1054. The 1908 facade was covered by a large, check-patterned glass wall set above a modern cantilever verandah.


On 11 December 1958 the theatre reopened as 'The Barclay' with a gala charity premiere attended by the Governor and the Premier of Victoria. The opening attraction was another DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, which was exhibited for 44 weeks up to mid October 1959.


Aside from the films of Paramount's then staple stars, such as Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley, other long-running attractions of the 1960s included The World of Suzie Wong (17 weeks from 9 June 1961), Breakfast at Tiffany's (31 weeks from 16 March 1962), Becket (21 weeks from 22 October 1964), The Carpetbaggers (18 weeks from 18 March 1965), Alfie (19 weeks from 15 July 1966),and Rosemary's Baby (17 weeks from 31 January I969).


The Barclay closed for more renovations from mid-March 1970, supervised by architects R G, Monsborough & Associates. These included regrading of the auditorium floor and installing a new wide screen and state-of-the-art 35/70mm projection equipment with six-track stereophonic sound. The walls were enveloped in gold velvet wrap-around curtains, while improved seating and sightlines reduced total capacity to 924. The foyers were also refurbished, with new glass entrance doors, ticket box, upholstered benches and carpets.


The Barclay reopened on 14 May 1970 with a gala charity premiere of Paramount's epic musical,. Paint Your Wagon, with Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg. This screened here for 84 weeks up to 23 December 1971, making it the longest running film in this site's history.


Over the next few years the Barclay continued to house top quality product from Paramount and other major American and British sources. Two especially strong attractions were The Godfather, which ran 66 weeks from 14 July 1972, and The Sting, which scored 67 weeks from 5 April 1974. The Barclay closed after final screenings of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest on 3 June 1976. It was then demolished to make way for the construction by Greater Union of a new six screen complex to be called 'Russell Cinemas'. Designed by R.G. Monsborough & Associates and built at a cost estimated at $7.5 million, this comprised two large foyers at ground and first floor level, with three cinemas laid out on each level. The color scheme of the foyers was basically maroon and cream with honey toned timber doors and balustrades.


According to a Herald advertising feature of 22 November 1978, Cinema One, sited below street level, seated 546 'in a classical theatre atmosphere under an elaborately coffered ceiling and six glittering chandeliers from Czechoslovakia'. Its walls were covered by burgundy drapes between white marble pillars and the seating was arranged in three blocks with two aisles.


Cinema Two, at ground floor level, seated 272, with walls and ceiling of black, except for one side which comprised a 'massive wall of white sculptured forms illuminated by multi-colored studio lights which dim to vary the shadow effects as the program is about to start'. Seating was arranged in a central block. It was the only one of the six cinemas with a 'floating' screen and no curtains or drapes.


Cinema Three, also on the ground floor, seated 418 'in a modern; auditorium distinguished by illuminated stone panel walls and the absence of the traditional stages'. Red drapes surrounded exits at either side of the screen.


Cinema Four, on the upper level, was the smallest of the auditoria with seating for 252. It was planned to screen mainly Walt Disney films here. 'The walls have been lined in angled and boldly patterned timber boarding of Victorian ash and floodlit from the timbered ceiling.'


Cinema Five, also on the upper level, seated 358 in two blocks, with walls enveloped in red drapes and the screen, again minus a stage, while Cinema Six, on the same level, was the biggest of all, seating 742. 'It features gently curved panels of richly textured brickwork and subdued lighting from a stepped ceiling.' It had red patterned carpet and orange drapes.


The Victorian manager for Greater Union opined: 'I believe it would be possible for someone to attend a film at each of the cinemas and later feel he had been to a different place each time.'


The Russell Cinemas were opened with a gala charity premiere held in Cinema Six on 23 November 1978. The opening attraction was Death on the Nile, an elaborately produced Agatha Christie murder mystery.


The other opening films, catering to a fairly wide range of tastes, were a British children's adventure, International Velvet, an Australian drama, The Irishman, Louis Malle's erotic melodrama Pretty Baby, another British children's film, Candleshoe, and the Beatles -inspired Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Death on the Nile proved the most popular of the opening films, transferring from Cinema One to Cinema Three and running for a total of 32 weeks to mid July 1979. Other hits of that year included The Deerhunter (28 weeks from 6 April), the Australian production My Brilliant Career (52 weeks-from 17 August) and Monty Python's Life of Brian, which ran 56 weeks to mid December 1980.


1981 brought an even bigger batch: The Elephant Man (28 weeks from 6 February), Ordinary People (24 weeks from 27 February), Flying High (a transfer from the Bercy which played for 51 weeks at the Russell before completing its 76-week Melbourne run at the Forum) and best of all, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which completed 73 weeks by 13 January I983.


The next year or so seemed flat by comparison, although a couple of Australian films, Far East (15 weeks from 30 July I982) and The Year of Living Dangerously (19 weeks from 17 December I982) did well at a time when audiences were especially welcoming towards local product.


An Officer and a Gentleman had the longest run in I983, completing 41 weeks to 14 December, but Sophie's Choice (28 weeks from 25 March) and Flashdance (28 weeks from 5 August) also scored well.


The popularity of home video, which had grown phenomenally since its introduction in the late 1970s, was now beginning to give cinemas their biggest competition since the introduction of television. There was then a significant time lag before the latest films were released on video, so that movies on the big screen, if they caught the public taste, still did exceptional business.


Three of the most notable box office titles of 1984 were Terms of Endearment (30 weeks from 23 February), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (33 weeks from 19 July, after which it transferred to the Forum) and Gremlins (23 weeks from 13 December).


The successes of 1985 included The Killing Fields (29 weeks from 14 February, after which it also transferred to the Forum), A Passage to India (26 weeks from 7 March), Beverly Hills Cop (37 weeks from 4 April) and Witness (33 weeks from 2 May).


By the mid I980s the long-standing tradition that any newly released film must first be shown at a central city cinema for weeks or months before being granted a wider release was gradually being abandoned. in its place came saturation releasing, where most films - particularly the latest high grossing American successes - were screened simultaneously all over the country, and even shared between the three major exhibition chains. 'Record-breaking' single runs thus became a thing of the past, with the catch-cry for most mainstream product being: 'Now in cinemas everywhere!'


There were several reasons for this change of policy, not least the fact that Melbourne's ever increasing suburban sprawl was making a visit to the pictures in the CBD an increasingly expensive and time consuming activity. People wanted entertainment within a reasonable distance of their homes - hence the proliferation of suburban cinema complexes from the mid 1980s onwards and the decline, closure and abandonment of many old CBD cinemas.


But in 1986 the crowds still came out to see Out of Africa, Top. Gun, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and A Room with a View - a surprise 'arthouse' success which - despite also screening elsewhere - managed a run of almost a year at the Russell. In late 1986 applications were made for a new walk-through candy bar in the ground floor foyer and a licensed bar in the upper foyer. The candy bar was later changed to an 'over the counter' amenity. The liquor bar was finally installed and opened late in March 1988.


Popular onscreen attractions of 1987 included Beverly Hills Cop II, Outrageous Fortune, The Untouchables, and Fatal Attraction. The 1988 crop comprised Three Men and a Baby, Moonstruck, A Fish Called Wanda and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while 1989 brought Twins, The Naked Gun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Beaches.


With the demand for home video now stabilising and its threat to cinemas somewhat abating, the resilience of big screen movie entertainment was again apparent. Despite the severe recession of the new decade, the public was still willing to pay to see films at the cinema first.


Crowd-pleasers in the 1990s at the Russell included Born on the Fourth of July, Shirley Valentine, The Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder and Ghost. 1991 seemed a comparatively lean year, with only a couple of outstanding successes amongst the 48 films on offer. The pickings were probably better for the average fan the following year, with Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast, Wayne's World, Patriot Games and Sister Act amongst the most profitable of 36 attractions.


The outstanding box office hit of 1993 was Jurassic Park, but there were also audiences for Lorenzo's Oil and The Firm. Some changes in seating capacities had taken place by this time: while those in Cinemas One, Two and Six remained the same, Cinema Three now held 369, Cinema Four 222 and Cinema Five 345 - a total reduction of 92 seats. There were also changes to signage brought about by a change of name. From 30 September 1993 the complex was advertised as 'Greater Union City Cinemas'.


In an effort to remain competitive, Greater Union was also advertising the attraction of 'Super Screens' around this time. But the installation of genuinely big screens (as well as later enticements such as 'Gold Class' cinemas) would always be precluded by lack of space, as well as a perceived managerial reluctance to spend on infrastructure.


Schindler's List, True Lies and Forrest Gump were three outstanding hits of 1994-95. There was another hit at the end of 1995 with the release of the Australian-made Babe. An Australian report of 7 September 1995 noted that Greater Union's parent company, Amalgamated Holdings Ltd now owned '33 per cent of Village Roadshow Corp, which owns 50.8 per cent of the listed Village Roadshow Ltd.'


The mid-1990s were proving one of the most profitable periods ever for local exhibitors, but for GU's City Cinemas the frenzied construction of new complexes in far flung 'burbs' began a decline that was never corrected. Many of the hit films that swelled Greater Union's bottom line were now shown elsewhere. In their place came a mixed bag of offerings averaging around forty or so features most years. These ran the gamut of good/interesting to strictly-teen-fodder/filler. Towards the end of the decade there seemed to be a general increase in the latter category, but there was still a place for the occasional quality film that could be enjoyed by both younger and older audiences.


As the new millennium approached so came new threats to cinemas: the internet the introduction of Pay TV then, rather more seriously, low cost, high quality Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs). Within a few years these would make the standard video tape cassette obsolete. High resolution DVDs could be projected with results closely comparable in picture and sound quality to 35mm film. The closure of a number of independently run cinemas in city, suburban and country areas was blamed on the fresh impetus that DVDs had given to home entertainment,.


Nevertheless, GU's City Cinemas still soldiered on, and if there wasn't excess of quality in the majority of releases on offer in 2000, above the pack were American Beauty, The Insider, Gladiator and Billy Elliot.


The 2001 crop yielded favorites such as Shrek, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Bridget Jones's Diary and The Fast and the Furious. A few very popular films would sometimes be run simultaneously at two cinemas in the complex - especially during school holiday seasons. The number of films screened annually had increased from an average of around 40 in the early 1990s to nearer 80 by the early 2000s.


Popular in 2002 were A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, About a Boy, The Bourne Identity and Bend It Like Beckham. This last film was an Anglo-Indian comedy which was run here for over four months and became a precursor for a trend that soon proved lucrative enough to become a semi-permanent fixture.


The complex was now approaching its quarter century and, with little or no refurbishment, was starting to look its age. The foyer was cluttered with gaming and popcorn vending machines, carpets and seating were often stained, sticky or torn ,and sound quality in some cinemas was decidedly inferior to other venues. City Cinemas had reached a difficult stage: no longer quite clean or modern enough for the discerning younger adults and not yet quite 'retro' enough to be appreciated by others. It seemed to be left to increasingly diminishing audiences of teenagers or elders who didn't particularly care much either way.


Not unaware of these failings, GU management had sought to be part of a joint venture with Hoyts to own and operate a new batch of cinemas at the Melbourne Central Shopping Complex. According to an Age report of 1 February 2003, the bid was rejected by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and Hoyts eventually undertook to run the complex by itself.


One initiative to halt audience decline in 2002 was the hiring out of some of the cinemas for the 51st Melbourne International Film Festival. Screenings took place between 23 July and August and became a regular event over the following years. At last there was a guarantee of at least some full houses for three weeks or so during the middle of winter!


Catch Me If You Can, Chicago, The Hours, The Pianist, Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl made an undeniably varied selection of highlights for 2003. The year 2004 seemed lean by comparison and 2005 brought no improvement. Nevertheless, that year a new niche market was exploited with the first screenings of Hindi language Indian films known as 'Bollywoods'. The name was a contraction of Bombay and Hollywood - the former being the centre of the Indian film industry. Here had been produced innumerable, highly coloured escapist movies which combined music, song, dance, melodramatic action, comedy and romance.
Initially, a single screen was devoted to Bollywood films, with a new film every few weeks and sometimes a break of a few weeks before another was shown, but as word of mouth spread, their popularity steadily grew.


A new batch of English language box office hits returned in 2006: a King Kong remake, The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Devil Wears Prada, Kenny and, most successfully of all, Casino Royale.


The successes continued into 2007: Night at the Museum, Happy Feet, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Ultimatum,  Ratatouille, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The Bollywood box office had also increased, with as many as three films screening simultaneously some weeks.


The eighty-odd English language releases screened in 2008 included The Bucket List, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, The Dark Knight, Quantum of Solace, Australia and Twilight. In addition, one, or sometimes two or three, Bollywood films were run virtually every week and the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) now utilised up to three screens in July-August.


In 2009 came another new Harry Potter (The Half-Blood Prince), Inglorious Basterds, Mao's Last Dancer and Avatar - which only managed a moderate eight weeks here, but elsewhere, in 3D and on giant IMAX/Vmax/xtremescreens, went on to become the highest grossing film ever made.


The year 2009 was also important for the local movie industry, as it introduced digital projection technology to Australia. Within three or four years this little publicized but revolutionary development virtually eliminated the use of film in cinemas, thus improving program presentation, sound and picture quality, and also cutting costs.


In the last few years of its existence City Cinemas' programs seemed to rely almost exclusively on its remaining, mostly juvenile, Anglo-Saxon audiences and its continually increasing Indian and Asian ones. Every other American release seemed to be a sequel, prequel or rehash of material that had had some freshness and (more importantly) success in previous years.. Films from India in Hindi, Punjab, Tamil, Tekugu and Nepalese, as well as Chinese and other Asian productions, sometimes accounted for well over half the patronage at the complex.


The MIFF was also a valued client and was granted four screens (Cinemas Three, Four, Five and Six) from 2010 onwards. Digital projection sometimes presented problems: there were a few protest letters in the daily Press alleging distortion and over cropping of images in 2011, and in 2012 an encrypted file was not properly checked before screening, so that the wrong film was shown.


Aside from these special events, however, declining overall attendances at the now outdated complex resulted in a 'business decision' by Greater Union's parent company, Amalgamated Holdings Ltd (AHL). An Age report of 15 August 2013 noted that AHL planned to replace the cinema building with a 12-storey hotel and apartment block, which would include a restaurant and rooftop bar - but no cinema,


A demolition permit had been granted on 19 April by the City of Melbourne and the owners had two years to begin work and four years to complete the development. The biggest losers seem to have been MIFF patrons, who had grown to appreciate the advantages of a large, centrally located multi-screen complex, with spacious foyers serving as a post screening festival hub.


Greater Union's City Cinemas closed after final screenings on 2 October 2013. The last films shown included two animated features, The Smurfs 2 and Turbo; a children's fantasy adventure, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters; a sci-fi action thriller, Riddick; an action drama, White House Down; a comedy, We're The Millers, a fantasy drama, R.I.P.D; another sci-fi thriller, Elysium; and a Hindi film, Phata Poster Nikla Hero.


Although AHL maintained its interest in the exhibition business via its 50% stake in Village Roadshow, the closure of City Cinemas also erased the Greater Union name from the motion picture industry in Victoria, after a history of just over 100 years.

Read 3358 times Last modified on Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Ralph Marsden

Ralph Marsden graduated with a Diploma of Art from Swinburne Technical College in 1965. A film and theatre buff from an early age, he first worked in the camera and editing departments of a company making television commercials and documentaries; later he worked in film editing for ABC TV. In more recent years he freelanced and became an independent film/video maker. 

Ralph has also appeared in a number of small roles in TVs shows starting with Bony (1992) and including Blue Heelers and Neighbours. The most recent is an appearance in MDA in 2003.

Melbourne Stage by Stage began in the mid 1980s as a sketchbook history of existing city theatres, many of which were threatened with demolition at the time. A small grant from the Victorian Ministry for the Arts encouraged further research and as this continued the scope of the project grew to include sites where the city’s earliest theatres had once stood.

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