A night at the movies has been a treat for Sydneysiders for over 100 years. Even now with all our distractions there is something special about going to the cinema to see a good flick. The lights dim, the music swells up and the picture rolls, taking you away for a few hours.
Half the fun is the venue. Have you noticed how many modern cinemas have little architectural touches that look a bit retro or even art deco? My guess is they are trying to capture some of the romance of the picture palaces that once dominated Sydney’s entertainment scene.
The first cinema experience forSydney residents was in November 1894, when an enterprising entrepreneur set up 5 of Thomas Edison’s fabulous kinetoscopes in his shop onGeorge Street. The kinetoscope was basically a box with a viewer, that you could look into and see a 35mm film in continuous motion. A bit basic but it did the trick and projected the first moving images anyone had witnessed. 22,000 visitors over 5 weeks saw such classics as ‘The Boxing Cats’, the ‘Blacksmiths Forge’ the ‘Cock Fight’ and the ‘Shaving Match’.
In 1896 a new wonder arrived; Lumiere’s Cinematographe direct fromParis. A Monsieur Marius Sestier converted a shop front into a temporary cinema in September to show the first projected film in Sydney. Accompanied by the Lyceum theatre orchestra, crowds were delighted at scenes of London’s changing of the guard, workmen demolishing a wall and a train coming into a station.Sydney’s love affair with the movies was born.
As technology improved, more venues opened. The first permanent cinemas appeared in 1907 in converted theatres, with the first purpose built cinema opening in George Street in 1909. Throughout the 20th century, the cinemas were drawn to George or Pitt Street, taking advantage of the trains, trams and buses that converged there.
With one cinema, came two, then more and more. By 1916 there were 22 in the CBD (all in George and Pitt), 12 on the fringes around Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Paddington and another 97 in the suburbs. A few owners were also involved in movie production, such as the Pugliese family who ran the Alhambra in George Street. Most theatres had a capacity of over 1000 people, so that was a lot of bums on seats. Many of the earliest suburban cinemas were actually open air, with a screen and bench seats enclosed by a fence. These were later roofed over to make cinemas.
In the 1920s and 1930s as Hollywood began to grow and the glamour that went with it spread to Australia, new architecturally designed cinemas began to be built, reflecting the fantasy world of the movies. Huge picture palaces with the latest art deco design, the best sound, comfortable seats, candy bars and other modern features appeared.
The largest were being built by cinema companies such as Greater Union, a Sydney based cinema group formed in 1912 through the amalgamation of 4 smaller companies Greater JD Williams, Spencers Ltd, Wests Ltd & Amalgamated Pictures, their rivals Hoyts from Melbourne, or smaller operators like Kings who ran suburban cinemas. Greater Union built the ultimate survivor of this era, the State Theatre.
Going to the cinema was a regular event in a time when there were not as many entertainment options. All the cinemas had live music to accompany the action before the talkies or later to introduce the session and play between the shows. The ticket price included a newsreel (essential in the years before the TV news), a cartoon or short, often a weekly serial (mostly cowboys or gangsters) to keep the punters coming back and then the main feature. The last remnants of this style of experience remain at the Cremorne Orpheum with its fantastic Wurlitzer Organ.
Although the cinemas have struggled in recent years, with competition from TV, DVDs, games and downloads, as well as the homogenising effect of the big chains, there are still a few independent and small operators around that value the experience as much as the movie. And if you go to these on the right night, to see the right movie you can glimpse for a few moments the glory days of the picture palace.