04 – Northcote Theatre/Italia Hall (216 High St. Northcote)

The Northcote Theatre in its early days. Images courtesy of heritage.darebinlibraries.vic.gov.au

04 – Northcote Theatre/Italia Hall (216 High St. Northcote)

Next: 05 – Wesley Anne (250 High St. Northcote)

Featured track: Tony Pantano- Tonight  www.facebook.com/TonyPantanoOfficial


Narrator: You’ve now arrived at 216 High St, Northcote, originally known as the Northcote Theatre. The history of this venue very much echoes that of entertainment along High Street in general. Built in 1912 as a cinema it was the first building to be lit by electricity in the area. With a stage able to be used for vaudeville and burlesque comedy it also hosted the Mayoral ball in its inaugural year and was employed as a set for the film Night Club in 1952.

The Northcote Theatre stopped screening films in 1960 and 5 years later opened as a full time music venue known as Italia Hall, holding regular cabaret nights featuring Italian and Latin music as well as private functions and community events. From 1967 one of its rooms also served as what was billed as a “psychedelic disco dance” called Big Julies on Sundays featuring bands such as Somebody’s Image and The Groop as well as compere Ian Molly Meldrum. After the heights of the 1970s demand for cabaret and unlicensed dances dropped off and the venue morphed into the Regal Ballroom. It remains a reception centre today.  

One artist who has played just about every type of venue along High Street, including this one, is Tony Pantano. Over a 60 year career Tony has toured the world, released numerous albums and won the coveted Australian Entertainment ‘Mo’ Award 14 times. After emigrating with his family from Italy in 1956, he began performing with his father’s band from the age of 12. In his teenage years Tony played bass in bands such as Sammy and The Dolphins and Isy and the Dynamics. The latter played all over Melbourne, including venues such as the Preston Circle, which was then part a national circuit run by promoter Ivan Dayman.

At the end of the 1960s Tony began to perform as a solo vocalist. First appearing on the Graeme Kennedy TV program in 1969 he made the final round of the Showcase talent show the following year. Hits followed and in 1971 he won the Bandstand television award for “Best Male Singer” and the Italian Song Festival award for the “Most Popular Italian Singer in Australia”.  During these years Tony regularly played both the cabaret and pub circuit in Darebin.

Tony Pantano: While I was on the Hector Crawford Showcase show on Channel 0 a friend of mine by the name of Buddy England saw me and wrote a song called “Every Time You Touch Me”, which we recorded in English and on the flip side was in Italian. That became quite a big hit for me around Australia, Top 20, Number One in Tasmania and Perth. I did very well there.

The first show after Showcase, I was a best newcomer on Bandstand with Brian Henderson, the original Bandstand. I won the Italian Song Festival around the same time as Bandstand. I received the award from Johnny Farnham. My mum, the whole family were there, it was pretty special. Then there was Happening 70, which we did on Channel 0, that was Jeff Phillips who came from Perth. He compered the show for a few years after, it was a Saturday morning show. That went for about four hours, it was a long show. I was a guest on Young Talent Time in the early ‘70s. I did a few specials with Paul Hogan when he had his TV specials.

I left the band and started working the clubs. I’d be running around from hotel to hotel. We were doing sometimes three or four gigs in one night. High Street, of course, we did a lot of work there starting from the Council Club. The Catania Ballroom on a Sunday was a really big night for the Italian dances. There would be 800 people at that one. There I mixed it up plus some Italian music, that’s my background. There were two rooms working, upstairs and downstairs.

Some nights there were dinner dances. They’d pay so much per head. [The venue] did the catering themselves and it was all inclusive. We’d come out and do half and hour’s entertainment for the people and the second half we’d invite them all to dance. There were very big dancefloors in those ballrooms. The bands were very good guys. A lot of them didn’t read music but they knew the songs. I wouldn’t just do a show. I’d join the band and invite everyone to have a dance and I’d pick up a bass or a guitar. So we had more of a jam, people loved that. [At the Catania Ballroom] they had two bands. It was always rotating, never ending. 

The Croxton Park and the Council Club, places like that, were more rock n roll venues so I would do, I’ve always done Elvis’ music, but I’d do Tom Jones, Englebert and whatever the hits were at the time. All the songs were covers that everybody knew so they’d sing along with us. They were only 30 minute shows.

In between there were always a wedding near the place. In those days there were no reception centres, they were all Town Halls. We used to do really small weddings, like 500, 600 people (laughter). It was for everyone really. I was lucky I was talked into keeping the Italian songs going because my father was in a band before that and he used to do the MCing at Italian weddings. He’d push me out when I was 12 years old (laughter), singing three Elvis Presley songs with a guitar. I’ve never forgotten that. I’d jump on the bass. I had a slap bass, the acoustic one, and I’d play that in the band. I was glad he pushed me out because that gives you a bit of confidence, I was as shy as could be. We did a lot in that area, we did Preston Town Hall, every one of those, because those weddings were big. There was no room to do them anywhere else, there were no reception centres, it was all Town Halls.

Narrator: After decades of touring nationally and internationally Tony continues to perform at weddings and other engagements at reception centres such as the Regal Ballroom as well as at clubs and festas. Recent years have also included performing at Morning Melodies shows in shopping centres such as the Northcote Plaza. 

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