The Theatre

Words, probably millions, have been written about the Regent; its grand opening on March 15th. 1929, through the tragedy of the devastating 1945 fire and restored to its glory in 1946/47. With the launch of CinemaScope in 1963 and the Plaza home to the Cinerama process, these two theatres have played their part in the glamour of 'going to the pictures' in Melbourne!


But the story starts decades before that. Hoyts Pictures had already been formed circa 1915. They were operating St. George's Hall in Bourke St. (later the Deluxe/Esquire, now a Target store) when Francis William Thring came onto the scene and opened a theatre in the latter part of WW 1 opposite Hoyts and adjacent to Melbourne's home of vaudeville, the Tivoli. Thring named it the Paramount, due to the deal he signed with this major American studio to screen their product. .In 1925 Thring opened the first Regent at South Yarra, the year before the company that we knew then on as Hoyts Theatres Ltd was formed. Thring was then appointed joint managing director with Hoyts m.d. George Griffiths. The latter was more of an administrator, and Thring's involvement with his entrepenual flair led to the expansion of the circuit and building of the chain of Regents in all capital cities of Australia. Plans for the Melbourne Regent were to be the grandest of all, a theatre that was always Hoyts flagship house. By mid 1928, the construction was well advanced, including plans for a ballroom immediately under the theatre, but due to the six o'clock closing of hotels that came into force as a wartime measure in 1914, Hoyts were refused a liquor license and this Spanish styled auditorium became the Plaza Theatre of 1240 seats. On the Regent's opening night with the silent movie 'Two Lovers' starring Ronald Coleman and Wilma Banky, the Athenaeum Theatre opposite was screening the first recognized talkie 'The Jazz Singer' starring Al Jolson. It was announced on this night that the theatre would screen its first sound movie within months. The theatre then continued with its normal policy of first half vaudeville and the latest Hollywood movie after interval. The Plaza opened later that year, and was the first theatre in the country to open with sound, not a conversion from silent movies. This proved to be the 'Golden Age' of the Regent, but the concept of a stage show followed by the latest from Hollywood lasted little more than a decade.


Wartime measures reduced the lavishness of the stage presentations, but just before the end of the war, disaster struck when fire completely destroyed the magnificent auditorium and circle foyer. It was the Saturday evening of April 28th. 1945. The movie was UA's 'Since You Went Away' starring Jennifer Jones, and the Plaza was screening Warner Brother's Now Voyager with Bette Davis and Paul Henreid. With theatres closed on Sundays, single watchmen were rostered on in shifts from Saturday night closing till early Monday morning when the main team brought the theatre back to peak appearance for the week ahead. In those times there were no Sunday newspapers and certainly no television to bring pictures of the ruined auditorium, just old fashioned radio! Monday morning's Sun News Pictorial gave us our first glimpse of the devastating fire that had completely wrecked the magnificent auditorium. The Plaza suffered minor damage when a girder from the Regent's proscenium crashed through the weakest spot in the floor - the orchestra pit that went down into the Plaza stage. But a burst water main then flooded the Plaza and extinguished any possible blaze. Coming on the end of WW2, building materials, particularly timber, were strictly limited to housing needs, but it was a Labor Sate Government that issued permits to Hoyts to rebuild the theatre. I had heard that the only condition was to get the materials from 'outside Victoria'! Of course, when in late 1947, it was announced that the theatre was reopening that December, the (shellgrit?) hit the fan!


But from that re-opening on December 19th 1947, the theatre once again screened the best from Fox, Warners RKO and some British product from GBD (Gaumont British Dominion)' Indeed, its second attraction, David Lean's filmisation of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations is still regarded as one of the great achievements of British cinema. .Television came to Australia in November 1956 when Melbourne was holding the Olympic Games. It was only a matter of time before people were staying home to watch whatever was on this magic box and suburban theatres were the first to start closing. Hollywood had launched CinemaScope as an antidote to TV, but we experienced this wide screen wonder before the idiot box arrived to change our lives.


Whilst the launching of CinemaScope at the Regent and Cinerama at the Plaza were big events at the time, the writing was well and truly on the wall as to the profitability of these three thousand plus seat movie palaces. Even 20th Century Fox who controlled Hoyts for most of the Regent's time would not let blockbusters like South Pacific be screened there. With a seating capacity over three thousand and obviously much higher running costs, maybe a run of between six and twelve months? South Pacific was released at the Esquire Theatre in Bourke St - half the Regent's capacity for a run of almost three years!! Greater Union's State Theater (3375 seats) in Flinders St. was twinned in 1962; Hoyts relinquished their lease on the Capitol (2115 seats) in 1963. As Hoyts owned the freehold of the Regent, this probably helped it to linger on for a few more years till July 1st., 1970.


However, the Melbourne City Council had been planning a city square on Swanston St at the corner of Collins St. They bought the theatre from Hoyts to develop a 650' tower on the theatre's site facing the square. Whilst the council paid $2.25 million for the theatre in 1969, they then had to negotiate with the Theosophical Society and pay $1.9 million for their building adjoining the Regent as the council had already awarded the development rights to Star Holdings of Great Britain. Protests about a building of 650' between the vista of the Town Hall and St Pauls Cathedral led to a reduction in its height and subsequent threats of legal action from unsuccessful tenderers over these changes for the combined hotel/office block for which they had tendered. The controversy lingered on and eventually the original concept collapsed and the council were left with a derelict theatre and no idea as to what solution might be.


The unofficial start of the campaign to save the theatre came about from a meeting in a suburban home in mid 1973 with a handful of people including myself. Late November I was in the Herald Sun office and was just about to speak with 'A Place In The Sun' columnist Keith Dunstan when a reporter and photographer were about to go around to the theatre at the invitation of the council for a subsequent article in the Sun newspaper. Of course, I was not allowed to go into this 'crumbling ruin' and had to wait for the article to appear. This came about on December 7th and the centre page of photos was headed 'Ghost That Won't Lie Down'. After this date, ALL photos including those unpublished are available from the photo sales department. So, with enough money collected from the group, I ordered and picked up the twenty three 8" x 10" photos. Then, up Exhibition St and down Flinders Lane to the office of city councilor and chairman of the Moomba Festival, David Jones whom I knew from his previous time with Hoyts. On going into his office, I put the photos down on his desk and said (with due respect!) "Now tell me that the theatre is a wreck!". I had him on side from then on as council had kept the theatre locked up claiming that it was beyond saving.


At one stage, 'someone' either smashed the skylights on the outer roof - or left them open - so that the rain would cause the ceiling to collapse and the theatre be beyond saving. As a committee, we discovered this and demanded that the skylights be fixed so that the theatre would remain in its current good condition till the theatres future was finally decided. Whilst the skylights were fixed, the two large holes in the outer proscenium were to remain till restoration started in 1994. On one occasion, I came across the Collins St entrance to the offices slightly ajar. I ventured up to the first floor and through the theatre's offices and along the corridor leading to the cloak room and foyer. As all power had been cut off, it would have been dangerous to try and find my way through the pitch black auditorium. So I went home and came back with a torch to continue my 'inspection'. It would have been quite obvious to anyone that the theatre had not decayed, nor was 'crumbling' as we were led to believe. At one stage, if restoration had gone ahead, Moomba were anticipating taking out a lease for its operation and I could possibly be involved once again in front of house management! The council also commissioned a feasibility study from consultants, Clarke Gazzard and Company. This came out in favor of the economic viability of restoring the theatre. Whilst the council would not release this report, it somehow 'fell off the back of a truck' and through a sympathetic Victorian member of the House of Representatives was tabled in Federal Parliament. This meant that it was incorporated word for word in Hansard, (the word for word report of Parliamentary proceedings),and immune from any legal action. (see links page to read the entire report). In 1975, then Premier Mr. Dick Hamer instituted a State Government inquiry which also came out in favor of retaining the theatre. As the council maintained that it could not spend millions of ratepayers funds on restoration, it became a stalemate.


Quo Vadis? - or whither goest thou? Different proposals came and went. Maybe a gambling facility named a Tabaret? A small theatre for the Melbourne Theatre Company in part of the auditorium; maybe a rehearsal studio for the Melbourne Symphony - they even did a sound test with the full orchestra! The also derelict Theosophical Building next door had been part leased to a fringe religious organization which brought public protests. Eventually, this building also became an empty shell awaiting some solution.


Nothing much then happened till 1994 when Staged Developments reached agreement with the Council in a deal to refurbish the Regent as a live theatre and the Plaza beneath to its original concept as a ballroom. Basically, the original glory of the Regent's architecture was still there, with restoration costs going on complete rewiring, re seating and carpeting, light fittings and (thank heavens!) a new outer roof to replace the 1947 fibro cement one that had had no maintenance over the two and a half decades since the theatre closed. The Plaza was really the miracle of the refurbishment. The Council, in converting it to an arcade and variety of shops and bars, had ripped out all features of it Spanish styled foyer and auditorium, leaving only the 1929 hand painted ceiling. I was able to supply them with photos of the theatre as it was in 1929 with its lounge chairs, and wide promenades each side of the auditorium. Promenades which were originally meant for patrons of the once planned ballroom to relax at tables with appropriate alcoholic refreshments. (It has only taken about SEVENTY years for this ballroom concept to happen!!!)


Who owns the Regent now?


When the Liberal Government under new premier Jeff Kennett came into power in 1992,, we were told that we would all be subject to a tax of $100 a year for three years to get the State out of debts allegedly caused by the ousted Labor Government. Obviously, there would have been protests if the Premier had GIVEN the council a suggested $12,500,000 grant towards restoration. But publicly, Mr Kennett said that his government was only loaning the council this amount which seemed to placate any anger over this concept. But -- - - - - the loan has never been repaid. Instead, a holding company, Regent Management Pty. Ltd. was formed in April 1994 with 25,000,000 shares of $1 each, 50% held each by the Council and State Government. The Council's $12,500,000 was funded by proceeds from the sale of an area of the City Square to the developer. The Government's portion was funded by proceeds of the sale to the developer of the Queen Victoria Hospital site. Financial statements for the last few years can be found on the web under 'REGENT MANAGEMENT COMPANY PTY LTD. This also shows that there are two directors, one nsominee from the Government, and one from the Council. The current lease to Marriner Theatres is dated 13th September 1996, and runs for fifty years. As well, the union movement was also involved through their superannuation company, C-bus. Their considerable contribution was for a new flytower above the existing one, plus the latest state of the art technical equipment. This would put the theatre on an equal footing with the Princess, Her Majesty's and the Victorian Arts Centre's State Theatre in staging today's hi tech. productions from the West End, Broadway or the world's major opera houses.


The chandelier?? Now there's another point of 'ownership'. Mr.Gordon Frew bought it at the November 1970 auction for $5,000, with the intention, I believe, of hanging it in his then being developed Old Melbourne motel in North Melbourne. But it proved too big, and as the future of the Regent was till in limbo, Mr. Frew donated it, not back to the Council, but to the National Trust. Presumably, it now hangs back in its rightful place on permanent loan?


The Regent, built as large movie palace, now staging live theatre - success or failure? True, intimacy is not a word one would use to describe seeing a live show here. It is sixteen rows from the front row to the balcony overhang, quite far enough for seeing the actor's faces! This makes the former circle quite distant in comparison to existing legitimate theatres. However, the Regent has found its niche in staging the big Broadway style musicals. From the opening show, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, the theatre has staged hits like Singin' In The Rain; revivals like Man of La Mancha; Disney's spectacular The Lion King; a home grown musical spectacular Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and in 2008, the current long running Broadway musical, Wicked. In between have been many special events like John Farnham's farewell concert and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Opening Spectacular. Both were televised nationally showing off the theatre to the nation! The theatre has also been the venue for movie premieres, certainly befitting its original life as a great movie palace!


Also installed with the theatre's latest life is the largest Wurlitzer organ in the country. The first instrument installed in 1929 was lost in the 1945 fire. The second, a hybrid instrument of nineteen ranks from both the Ambassadors Theatre in Perth and Lyceum Theatre in Melbourne was sold by Hoyts in 1969, and finished up in storage in the buyer's parents home in Oakleigh, never played again. The current instrument came from a private owner in the United Sates, originally installed in the Paramount Theatre (nee Granada Theatre) on Market St., San Francisco. Unfortunately, access to the Wurlitzer for concerts when live shows occupy the theatre for runs of many months means this magnificent instrument remains silent far too long. But one day . . . . . . . . . . . .


Finally, I would mention just two brief conversations that summarize the whole story ......................


On the first day the council opened the theatre for public inspection, I asked one lady as she left what she thought about the theatre. She replied "Oh, it's so dirty!" I quickly replied "Madam, all it needs is a coat of paint!" Naturally, with the foyers open to the weather from Collins St., and the auditorium also gathering dust, hers was an expected reaction! Well, if refurbishment had started then instead of about two decades later, - - - - - - - - ?? Then, after the theatre had reopened, a friend commented to me "Aren't you glad you saved the theatre!" I could only reply "Where were you twenty years ago?"


Finally, it wasn't just one person who saved the Regent, but a TEAM of people. Indeed, it is gratification to those that formed the Save The Regent Theatre Committee that after all those years when people regarded the then derelict theatre as a blot on fashionable Collins St., it is now regarded as a jewel in Melbourne's entertainment life. Whether a big Broadway musical, a movie premiere or maybe a personal appearance of a show biz star of world stature, what more could we ask? Not forgetting of course, the brilliant restoration of what we always knew as the Plaza Theatre, now in its original ballroom concept in constant demand for a never ending variety of functions from weddings to fashion shows to - - - - - - ?


A theatre, a man, a dog ? That's the story of 'the theatre' from my angle, now for yours truly 'centre stage' and then 'woof' !


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