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1929 - End of the Golden Era: Into the Depression

From the opening programme, State Theatre, Sydney


Photos by John Thiele





By now, excitement was growing in Sydney, as there arose in Market Street, on a prime piece of central city real estate, the loveliest and most opulent theatre ever built in the Southern Hemisphere. While the State Theatre, Sydney, was not Australia's largest cinema (it seated 2775, as against 3371 at the State Theatre, Melbourne) [both these theatres were claimed at their respective openings to seat 4000!], it was certainly the most lavish.

The State Theatre, Sydney, was the epitome in Australia of the "hard top" school of cinema architecture, and was (and still is) sumptuous to a degree parallelled and exceeded only in America. When it was originally planned, in February, 1927, construction cost were budgeted at £400,000, [Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February, 1927] at a time when the basic wage was £4/10/0 a week, a peak it did not regain for another thirteen years [Alan Sharpe, Nostalgia Australia, Sydney, 1975, p.93]. However, it seems that the final cost of the whole building, far exceeded that amount:

Its (mostly) Louis XIV-style interior represents a quality and dignity far surpassing the "atmospheric" interiors of the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Ambassador's Theatre, Perth, and State Theatre, Melbourne. Its art-deco functional exterior contrasts not unfavourably with the State Theatre, Melbourne's ostentatious oriental fantasy.









Price Dunlavy at the console of the State, Sydney's Wurlitzer, 1929




The State Theatre, Sydney, was equipped with an equally luxurious Wurlitzer organ, a twin to those at the Regent and State Theatres in Melbourne. Like them, it had twenty-one ranks of pipes. It was shipped with a second console and a grand piano; however, there was no room to install the second console, and space was so restricted that the piano was soon removed. Its "French" style console, painted white and gold from opening day, reflects exquisitely the graceful curves of the gilded gateways recessed into the proscenium walls. In few theatres in the world was such a happy match achieved. Opening night, 7 June, 1929, found Price Dunlavy at the console as it spiralled gracefully out of its pit.

Organ, dance band and two pianos at the State


A short video clip of a stage and orchestra (with organ) production at the State, Sydney, with Hamilton Webber at the console can be downloaded by clicking here.  You will need Windows Media Player or some other suitable viewer to play it

Hoyt's completed their series of major "Regents" in the mainland State capitals on 8 November, 1929, when the Regent Theatre, Brisbane, opened.

In many ways, its architecture and colour scheme were the most attractive and elegant of all the Regents. It housed a three-manual, fifteen-rank Wurlitzer organ, which was opened by Stanley Wallace. The instrument was unusual in two respects. First, it had the only three-manual "French" style console on an Australian Wurlitzer. Second, it was the only organ console in Australia prior to the 1960s to be installed on an electric lift; all other lifts at that time were hydraulically operated. It was also the last new Wurlitzer pipe organ to be sent to Australia.

Regent, Brisbane

By now, the storm clouds were gathering for the cinema exhibition industry. Just over a week earlier, on 29 October, 1929, the New York stock market crashed, bringing instant ruin to millions, as stock values plummeted along with brokers who jumped from nearby buildings. Perhaps the worst catastrophe to strike the developed world had occurred. The Roaring twenties ended, and in came the Turbulent Thirties, and with then the Great Depression. Along with the rest of the Western World, Australia suffered as badly as, if not worse than, other countries.

Before all this broke, the cinema industry in Sydney noted a minor sensation in late September, 1929, when Hal Carleton (General Manager), Eddie Horton (Organist) and T W O'Shea (Projectionist), all employed at the Prince Edward Theatre, Sydney, resigned from that theatre on three months' notice to take control of a new theatre to be opened in Parramatta "early in December" [ Everyone's, 25 September, 1929, p.7].

The Roxy Theatre, Parramatta, was not to open until 6 February, 1930, part of the delay being caused by the late arrival of the Christie organ from England [Letter from John Hurst & Co., Chartered Accountants, Sydney, to Eustace Ingram, Hill Norman & Beard, Ltd., London, 11 December, 1929]. This was a three-manual, ten-rank, instrument, which many consider to have been Christie's best Australian installation. The excellent Spanish-style architectural treatment, complete with a pleasant courtyard forming the approach to the theatre (similar to that at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood), which is well set back from the road, caused it to be regarded as "probably one of the most, if not the most opulent or richly-designed suburban picture palace in Australia". [Ross Thorne, Cinemas of Australia via the USA, Sydney, 1981, p. 323]





Roxy, Parramatta, 2001



A couple of months later, another Spanish-style theatre opened in Sydney. This was the Plaza Theatre, Sydney. The Plaza opened on 11 April, 1930, and in it was installed a Christie organ, not a new one, but the organ from the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne, which it is believed was originally installed in the Regent Theatre, North Perth. Eddie Fitch was at the console. The theatre was perhaps the last (apart from the rebuild of the Regent Theatre, Melbourne) of the lavish 1920s-style picture palaces to be built in Australia, and its elaborate interior made a fitting end to an era we are unlikely to see repeated.

Plaza, Sydney (1999)

Why were such lavish and costly picture palaces built? Was it merely the result of the exhibitors' wish to please patrons, as the publicity material would have us believe?

Some revelation came in Stuart Doyle's evidence to the NSW Government film industry inquiry in 1934, that Union Theatres' construction programme was "created at the request and virtually under threats from certain American film distributors, for the purpose of finding an outlet for their pictures, which, in their opinion, would earn greater revenue ... in larger modern theatres." [Diane Collins, Hollywood Down Under, North Ryde, NSW, 1987 p. 116]

There were also other more political reasons:

When all was said and done:

Christie's advertisement on 7 May, 1930, included a partial list of their installations world-wide. This list included theatres in England, Scotland, Wales, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. They ranged from their magnum opus of 37 ranks at the Regal Theatre, Marble Arch, London, to the exotic Metropol Theatre, Bratislava, redolent of middle-European intrigue, and the more plebeian Lido Theatre, Islington (London). The Australian installations listed are:

Lyceum, Sydney

Victory, Kogarah

De Luxe, Melbourne

Plaza, Sydney

Ritz, West Concord (NSW)

[Everyone's, 7 May, 1930, p. 43]

An omission is the King's Theatre, Gordon, NSW, where an eight-rank Christie had been opened on 14 October, 1929. A further omission is the Roxy Theatre, Parramatta (NSW). Interestingly, both the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne, and the Plaza Theatre, Sydney, are listed, although the same instrument had been removed from the former and relocated in the latter.

The Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, organ had 9 ranks, and was unusual in including two Diapason ranks. The large Diapason and the Clarinet were unenclosed, the remaining seven ranks being housed in a single chamber. The theatre was (and still is) used by the Methodist Church for services on Sundays. During the week they lease it for use as a cinema. The instrument is still in situ and used for Sunday services. It miraculously survived a fire in the 1960s which destroyed most of the auditorium, after which it was completely rebuilt with a new ("straight") stop-key console and considerably reduced unification. It has been said that this organ has never been used for film shows, and has been played only for church purposes (and concerts), but the writer has been unable to confirm or deny this.

The Ritz Theatre, West Concord, housed a small 5-rank organ which was soon removed and installed in enlarged (8-rank) form in the Melba Theatre, Strathfield, NSW.

The economic impact of world events soon began to be felt in Australia, and for a time few new theatres appeared.

In 1931, a Christie organ of seven ranks was built and set up as a demonstration instrument in Hill, Norman & Beard's factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne. Most, if not all, of this instrument was constructed in Melbourne, and it differed in many ways from Christie's earlier Australian installations. The instrument was even broadcast from the factory, and in 1932 it was installed in the Duke of York's Theatre, Eastwood, NSW.

Despite Christie's 1928 statement that parts of their organs were then being constructed in Melbourne, very little, if anything, actually was at that time. This can be seen clearly from the shipping manifest for the King's Theatre, Gordon, organ, which even includes such trivial items as "6 balls twine, 3 pkts 3/8"x2" screws, 3 pkts washers, 6 pkts insulated staples, ground frames, passage boards..." [Hill, Norman & Beard Ltd., shipping manifest, Case No. 33, dated 29 July, 1929]

However, the announcement on 3 April, 1930, by the then Prime Minister, Jimmy Scullin, that a duty of 50%, in addition to duties already imposed, was to be levied on a range of imported goods, including musical instruments [Manning Clark, A History of Australia, Vol. VI, Melbourne, 1987, p. 340], meant that no more theatre pipe organs were imported, and all subsequent new instruments were constructed in Australia (apart from the Hammond electronic organs installed from the late 1930s in a few theatres). Christie (Hill, Norman & Beard) had a well-established organ factory in Melbourne. No other manufacturer of theatre organs had any construction facilities in Australia; thus Christie's already significant price differential against Wurlitzer was increased to the extent that it was the only economic source of new instruments for a market which had all but dried up.

The general effects of the Depression hit the Australian cinema circuits at the worst possible time, for they had only just completed the massive construction programmes described above, and what they needed above all was a few years of steady business, boosted by the arrival of talking films, to recoup their vast investments. It was the city theatres, with their high overheads, which were particularly hit, and in many cases orchestras were cut or dispensed with altogether, to reduce costs.


Organs, however, not only had popular appeal, but represented large capital investment, and thus could not be economically phased out at that stage. They also only required the employment of an organist and a deputy, so the wages saved would only represent a few pounds a week.

The arrival of sound films, boon as it was to the city cinemas, had the opposite effect on many smaller country theatres. These were in many cases unable to afford the installation of sound equipment at a time when audiences were decimated by unemployment of over 30 per cent, and they were unable to continue for long as silent houses, since the supply of new silent films soon dried up. The result was that they just closed, and between 1930 and 1935 the number of cinemas in operation throughout Australia fell from 1250 to 1090, despite the opening of several suburban "supers" during that time [Robertson, Patrick, The Guinness Book of Film Facts and Feats, Enfield, Middlesex, UK., 1980 p.205]. Even the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, went "dark" for several months in 1932-33; other cinemas, particularly in the cities, were converted to miniature golf courses, to cater for a new craze.



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