The Thornbury Theatre in 1944. Images courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
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Narrator: You’ve now arrived at 859 High St, Thornbury. Now known as the Thornbury Theatre, the building originally housed the Regent Thornbury Theatre. Due to its large stage it regularly hosted music from its inception. Cinema historian Ian Smith fills us in on its early history and architectural significance.
Ian Smith: If we consider High Street from Northcote to Bell Street, it’s a distance of about five km. And if we extend our reach further north into Preston, this area eventually was home to 10 picture theatres. This concentration of theatres wasn’t unique to Melbourne either, these theatres sprang up on main arteries. Ideally there’d be a tram past the door and it’d also be close to a train station.
“Build it and they will come”, that old axiom, it was true for picture theatres in the period 1905 to 1925. Sales of cinema tickets totalled almost 190 million. That translates into every man, woman and child going to the pictures 30 times a year. By 1940, when the World War stopped theatre construction, Melbourne suburbs had 140 picture theatres.
The Regent Thornbury was part of a visionary experiment, the brainchild of Francis W Thring, usually known as Frank Thring. By 1915 he was controlling a number of picture theatres in Bourke street, and by the 1920s, with his friend and partner George Tallis, they also controlled a string of suburban picture theatres.
Going to the pictures was an entertainment pretty much scorned by the upper reaches of society, but it had matured in terms of story technique, camera technique, art direction, technical presentation. Thring believed he could sell the pictures so that every level of society should now be able to enjoy them.
Now there’s one more obstacle to this and that obstacle was the poor state of the existing theatres. Most of those buildings were no more than a barn. They were cold in winter, hot in summer, had uncomfortable seats, primitive lavatories, and nothing about the decoration could be called a pleasing aesthetic.
It’s at this point that the Regent Thornbury comes into the story. Thring and Tallis planned to change this situation and place luxury theatres in the suburbs, to overcome the stigma. They chose the name “Regent” for these theatres and 1925 was their banner year when they opened three in succession. The name “Regent” has an obvious link to Empire and the Georgian period of 1770s England. It was also at this time that two Scots brothers came to prominence in England for their decorative skills. Robert Adam perfected a delicate style of plaster tracery. The Regent Thornbury is in what was called the Adams style.
Narrator: Unlike the others in the line, the Thornbury Regent was designed by The Millson family, who had been involved in the plastering business since the 19th century. Millson Brothers specialized in the Adams style of decoration, which was in vogue during the 1910s and ‘20s. Having worked on decorations for a number of theatres, Thornbury local Sam Sr decided to expand his own family’s involvement in the entertainment business. Unusually for the time, they directed the entire project, from its design through to construction and decoration. Reg Millson recalls what led up to the creation of the building’s ornate plasterwork and features.
Reg Millson: The Millsons were very inventive. They came to specialise in plaster ornamentation and they were engaged to do the plaster work in a number of the theatres in Melbourne, and the churches. Sam senior, after doing a number of these jobs for the Thring theatres, got the idea that he’d like to do his own. They already had a share in the Thornbury cinema so it was decided to build a new one in Thornbury. Sam Sr started to suffer some ill health from about 1915 and he gradually handed over to his two eldest sons. Sam Jr and Jim were sent to the National Gallery art school where they studied under Fred McCubbin, the well-known artist, who was the drawing master.
Some of the plaster work they did was in the Princess Theatre. That was a particular style because they would have been working under the direction of an architect. When it came to doing their own theatre they had free reign. They had spent a lot of time at the gallery doing life drawing and so forth, so that it would have been right up their alley to do all these prancing horses and dancing ladies.
Today the Regent is important for its magnificent plaster artistry on the walls and ceilings. Sadly Sam Sr died in 1923, just a couple of years before the Regent opened.
Narrator: Whether it was used to provide accompaniment to silent films, or was featured in itself, music was a central part of entertainment from the beginning of the cinema. This feature increased during the 1930s, as recalled by Ian Smith.
Ian Smith: Most of the suburban theatres built prior to 1925 didn’t have wide stages because they didn’t need them. The Regents were given wide stages and a reasonable depth because it was intended that they would feature a live prologue as part the show. Williamson’s, having experience in live theatre, provided many of these artists, as well as acts from the Tivoli circuit. For example, in the first year that the theatre opened, the Savoy Havana band. It’s a strange combination isn’t it? Cuban music and the name “Savoy”, suggesting the Savoy Hotel in England. That was a group of 20 musicians, said to be a very expensive act to bring to the stage of the Regent Theatres.
In 1925 the screen was silent. So each of the Regents had an orchestra pit of at least 12 musicians. The backdrop to this pit increased the possibilities for artful illumination, the curtains, the proscenium, the tracery, the beautiful plasterwork, coloured lights, the whole thing a very pleasant spectacle.
Now how do you entice an audience in grim times, when there is not much money out there for entertainment? Well, the theatres ran baby competitions, there would be special matinees, there would be singalongs with follow the bouncing ball, and there would be onstage celebrations for the local football clubs, cricket teams, Scouts and Guides.
Although the regular theatre musicians had lost their jobs with the coming of sound films, management continued did continue with live acts, including at Thornbury a new jazz orchestra and the Brunswick Harmonica band, 22 performers.
Narrator: With advent of television in the late 1950s theatres lost patronage and began closing across the country. Those on street corners were often torn down and turned into petrol stations whilst others were refitted as dance studios, music venues and bowling alleys. As a central hub of the community, the Thornbury Regent survived longer than most and continued to screen movies 3 nights a week until 1968. At that point it was transformed into the Catania Ballroom, later being renamed the Midas Ballroom before opening in its current incarnation as Thornbury Theatre in 2010.
14 – Thornbury Theatre (859 High St. Thornbury)