Melbourne’s Astor Theatre: where “film” and “cinema” still mean moving images

The Astor Theatre exterior

The Astor Theatre exterior

As Melbourne’s Astor Theatre celebrates its 75th birthday, recently screening the Park Circus-licensed Five Easy Pieces as part of its dedication to classic cinema, Tara Judah explains more about this important part of Australia’s cinemagoing history.

Whilst the meaning ascribed to any word is subject to change over time, it shouldn’t necessarily relegate the word’s original significance to the junk pile, like some greedy heir usurping its elder.

Two such words that are just about still hanging on, for those of us who like to sit in darkened rooms and enjoy watching moving images at least, are “film” and “cinema”. There are still some places where these words can breathe easy, bringing with them the lengthy, engaging and intricate history of so culturally significant an art form.

Here in Melbourne, at The Astor Theatre, one of the few surviving single screen repertory cinemas in what is becoming an increasingly multiplexed age, we believe that the words “film” and “cinema” mean so much more than just popcorn and ticket sales.

Our unique style of programming that brings early classics and cinema’s historical heroes, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, back to the big screen, along with plenty of sessions devoted to second run new releases, The Astor Theatre is proud to present to new and long-time audiences a disparate mix of film; most often presented in their original formats including 35mm and 70mm film prints.

Astor Theatre Five Easy Pieces flyer

Astor Theatre Five Easy Pieces flyer

Cult, modern and contemporary cinematic classics as well as a lively mix of local and foreign films regularly feature on the theatre’s iconic quarterly calendars.

Recently screening a brand new 35mm print of screen gem Five Easy Pieces (1970) and with an upcoming weeklong season of American Graffiti (1973) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Astor is one of only a few truly independent film houses still in operation today.

What’s more, this iconic film house, one of just two cinemas in Australia to still present 70mm film prints with six-track magnetic sound, has just celebrated its 75th Anniversary, marking a milestone in bringing fine film and atmosphere to its local community as well as interstate and international visitors alike.

Originally livery stables in 1894 until around 1908 or 1912, when the upper section was redeveloped into a cinema named the Diamond Theatre (later re-named The Rex, 1914), the site has always found itself at the centre of a lively arts precinct. After becoming a Motor Garage in the late teens, its owner, Mr S. T. Alford, suffered bankruptcy and the building was sold in around 1934 to Mr Frank O’Collins.

Following the demolition of the building, Mr O’Collins commissioned architect Ron Morton Taylor to design a new theatre and construction began in December 1935. Opening in 1936 The Astor was considered one of Melbourne’s finest suburban cinemas with its “stepped ceiling”, “opaline light fittings” and “fine wrought steel chevron-patterned friezes”.

The Astor interior in 1936

The Astor interior in 1936

When television arrived in the 1950s, coinciding in Melbourne with the 1956 Olympic Games, audiences began to wane and cinema owners struggled to keep up with the fast occurring changes including the necessity of installing Cinemascope lenses and screens as well as new sound systems. In the 1960s the cinema underwent a series of modifications and also changed hands, saving it from the near fate of becoming a very different venue indeed, namely, a public library or a petrol station.

Luckily, due to the burgeoning Greek community at the time, Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures/Cosmopolitan Theatres, headed by Stan Raft, were developing a chain of twelve Greek cinema/theatres in Melbourne and the Astor found its way back onto a new road for survival. But during the late 1970s cinemas were once again up against the problem of fast-moving times and with the introduction of the multicultural and multilingual television broadcast station SBS, as well as the advent of video rental, the iconic theatre’s cinema screen went dark.

The Astor interior today

The Astor interior today

It wasn’t long before the house lights were turned up once again as George Florence – Stan Raft’s nephew – took over the lease in 1981. Florence’s admirable objective, incredible determination and remarkable passion have since meant that this unique part of Australia’s cinema heritage can continue to be preserved for and presented to future generations. Florence has been the proprietor of The Astor Theatre since it re-opened in 1982 and it remains today one of Australia’s most iconic and beloved cinemas.

So, even though the words might have changed to include more than their original definitions allowed, it’s comforting to know that there are still some places you can go where “film” means physical reels of footage that will appear, as light passes through them at twenty-four frames a second. Where “cinema” means the unique opportunity to experience and bear witness to those images, quite literally imprinted on celluloid, making every single presentation you see its very own historical moment in the making.

Thanks to Tara Judah, PA to the Proprietor, Astor Theatre

Visit the Astor Theatre website to find out more about the cinema.


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