Thursday 4 February 2010

Screen to Stage: A Cinema Odyssey

I've been working on a little undertaking lately that I'm referring to as Project X (more later!). Last week it required me to take photos of some of Melbourne's grandest old theatres.

As I looked up their history I discovered an interesting thing - nearly all of them used to be cinemas.

That's interesting because we think of popular entertainment as following a process of evolution, in which cinema supplanted theatre in popularity among the masses.

As a result of the new medium's mass following, the 1920s and 1930s saw vast new picture palaces being erected, with enormous screens, vast seating and elaborate architecture.

We had our share of these great movie houses in Australia as well, but it turns out that the survivors have become venues for live theatre, reverting to the previous form of mass culture as cinema moved on out to the suburban multiplexes (which now boast screens just larger than a big plasma TV!).

It's an interesting development to ponder; but in the meantime, here are some images of four of the city centre's great cinemas-become-theatres for you to enjoy...

1. Capitol Theatre. Designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin (who also designed Canberra), it started life in 1924 as a vast cinema but had the stalls pulled out from under it when they were transformed into a shopping arcade in the 1960s. The smaller remnant is now used for live shows during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, though it is still equipped as a cinema. I took these photos a few years ago when the Capitol's new owners, RMIT University, were renovating previously concealed areas.

2. Melbourne Athenaeum. The main auditorium of this 1839 Melbourne institution starting out as a live theatre venue. It hosted the screening of the first film shown in Australia in 1896, then the first feature length film in the world, The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906. Between the 1930s and 1970s it operated as a cinema showing mainly British films. Now its ornate theatre, which curiously resembles that of The Muppet Show, is home to live comedy and theatre once again. In the image on the left, you can just about make out the statue of Athena that sits high above the entrance...

3. The Regent Theatre. Across the road from the Athenaeum, this vast 1929 picture palace was threatened with demolition in the 1970s after it ceased operation as a cinema. It remained a derelict for over 20 years before being restored and reopened as a grand theatre, usually hosting large-scale musicals. Strangely, although I review theatre productions for local newspaper The Age, I've not yet been inside the Regent! In the pics below, check out the original box office at street level...

4. Finally, the Forum Theatre on Flinders Street, opposite Federation Square. Originally opened in 1929 as the State Theatre, it's packed with frankly strangely clashing features, including Roman statues, fake trees and Moorish design elements. The original 3000+ seating space was split in two some years ago; the upper bit is still used as a cinema by the Melbourne International Film Festival, while the larger lower section usually hosts live bands. How cool are the gargoyles on the right?

Ah Melbourne... cinema one day, theatre the next.

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