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Capitol Theatre, Melbourne

The Capitol Theatre was one of a trio of luxury theatres which opened in the latter part of 1924, marking a new era in cinema design in Australia (the others were the Prince Edward, Sydney and the Wintergarden, Brisbane). Walter Burley Griffin's spectacular and original decoration of the auditorium created an architectural masterpiece, which has continued to receive critical acclaim ever since its first opening:

[Boyd, Robin, The Australian, 24 December, 1965].

 

[Thorne, Ross, Cinemas of Australia via USA, p. 96]

[Thorne, Ross, Picture Palace Architecture in Australia,1976, p. 20]

 

The plans for the Capitol were submitted for approval on 21 November, 1921, being approved on 9 February, 1923.[Thorne, Ross, Cinemas of Australia via USA, p. 96] During that period, there had been announcements in the trade press:

[Hoggan, William, "The Coming of the Big Theatre", Everyone's, 7 June, 1922. (W. Hoggan was the General Manager of Paramount in Australia)]

The Capitol's name was frequently referred to prior to its opening as the Central Theatre, but it was as the Capitol that it opened and has been known throughout its existence. Opening night was 7 November, 1924. According to The Argus, the cost of the building, which included an office block as well as the theatre, was £580,000.

[The Argus, Melbourne, 8 November, 1924, p. 25]

This final claim is incorrect in respect of both America and England. There were by 1924 many Wurlitzer organs of similar and larger size in theatres in America, but only one Wurlitzer so far in England, and that was a small 2-manual, six-rank Style D instrument at the Picture House, Walsall.

The organ's main claims to historical fame are that it was the largest Wurlitzer by far in Australia at that time, and would remain so for some four years. It was the first Australian Wurlitzer to be fitted with 32ft Diaphones, and it had the first organ console lift in Australia, a feature not seen before outside USA and Canada (the first in England was not until 1926 - Plaza Theatre, London).

The organ was despatched from Wurlitzer's factory on 24 March, 1923, twenty months before the theatre opened. From this it can be surmised that the theatre's opening was considerably later than had been intended when the organ was ordered. It was Opus 637, a Style 260 instrument, with three manuals and fifteen ranks of pipes. It was erected under the direction of Wurlitzer's representative, Mr Keddie, over a period of five months. [Au Revoir to the Capitol Wurlitzer, TOSA (Vic), (Programme from closing concert at the Capitol), 17 November, 1963, p. 7]

The fifteen ranks of pipes were divided between two wooden chambers located over the proscenium, with sound ducts to covey the sound into the auditorium.[Au Revoir to the Capitol Wurlitzer, TOSA (Vic), (Programme from closing concert at the Capitol), 17 November, 1963, p. 7] Sound ducts were rarely successful in the various theatres around the world in which they were tried, and it comes as no surprise that the decision was taken in 1929 to build new pipe chambers on either side of the proscenium, from which the sound could find direct egress into the auditorium; the effect at the rear of the stalls would have been considerably enhanced. The 32ft Diaphones were left where they were, on top of the old chambers; their non-directional sound projection would not have been greatly affected by moving them. They continued to shake the building in a most satisfying way from on high. The former chambers were used as store rooms. [Au Revoir to the Capitol Wurlitzer, TOSA (Vic), (Programme from closing concert at the Capitol), 17 November, 1963, p. 7] The upright piano attachment was situated on the floor of the orchestra pit, just to the left of the console.

The organ's fifteen ranks were divided between the chambers as follows:

Main chamber (left): Tuba Horn, Diaphonic Diapason, Clarinet, String, Viol d'Orchestre, Viol Céleste, Flute, Vox Humana, (Chrysoglott).

Solo chamber (right): Trumpet (brass), Tibia Clausa, Orchestral Oboe, Kinura, Saxophone (brass), Oboe Horn, Quintadena, (Traps and percussions).

Organ specification

 

Photo: Julien Arnold

The console, which was originally finished in plain varnished dark wood, was painted and fitted with ormolu mouldings in around 1929. The original colour of the paint is not possible to distinguish from the monochrome photographs which survive. In its latter years, though, it was white and gold.

It was removed from its lift sometime after World War II, and was moved forward, again at the left-hand side of the auditorium, with a candelabrum behind it. Ross Thorne states that this was done "by 1950",[Thorne, Ross, Cinemas of Australia via USA, p. 100] and that the candelabrum, together with that on the other side of the auditorium, was removed in 1955 when the screen was moved forward and new curtains were installed in front of the original proscenium.

Horace Weber at the console - 1924

Note the upright piano in the lower left-hand corner

The organist at the opening was Horace Weber, who was previously organist at the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne. He was the successful candidate from twelve applicants. Weber was the only Australian theatre organist to be entrusted with opening new horseshoe-console Wurlitzers in Australia. The orchestra at the opening was directed by Sam White, the opening film being The Ten Commandments.

In 1926, Chaplin's film The Gold Rush was shown at the Capitol, when the première presentation at the theatre received special praise in the trade press:

Another testimony to Horace Weber's skills occurred when William McKie (later to become Sir William, and organist of Westminster Abbey) was Melbourne City Organist, playing at the Town Hall.

[Davies, Ian, "Points of Interest from the Past", TOSA News, TOSA (NSW), Sydney, April, 1984, p. 15]

Changes were announced in February, 1929:

[Everyone's, 27 February, 1929]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Everyone's" - 2 July, 1930 page 26
 

Horace Weber was resident at the Capitol for three periods. Initially, he was there from 1924 until 1929. He returned in 1933 for a year or so, and then again in 1938, when he remained for six years, until 1944. His final return to the Capitol was on 17 November, 1963, when he played at the final concert.

Other organists at the Capitol were: Newell Alton (1929-?), Hal Stead (1934-38), Stanfield Holliday (1944-53) and Ian Davies (1953-58). Regular use of the Capitol organ ceased in 1958. Assistant organists included Mervyn Welch, Arnold Coleman and Geoff Robertson.[Au Revoir to the Capitol Wurlitzer, TOSA (Vic), (Programme from closing concert at the Capitol), 17 November, 1963] Percy Burraston was organist at the Capitol prior to opening the Christie organ at the Palatial Theatre, Burwood, NSW, in 1932. [Rushworth, Graeme, Historic Organs of New South Wales, Sydney, 1988, p. 211] Organist Gordon Hamilton joined Horace Weber for the final concert in 1963.

 

 

 

 

Newell Alton shows off the newly-decorated console

He had been known as Newman Alton in the USA

The Capitol organ was broadcast frequently by Stanfield Holliday, and was recorded on six 78 r.p.m. sides by Newell Alton (1929). A recording of excerpts from the final concert was released by TOSA (Vic).

Final resident organist Ian Davies recalls a couple of occasions when things did not go entirely as planned...

[Davies, Ian, "The Cat and the Curtain", TOSA News, TOSA (NSW), Sydney, March, 1985, p. 4]

 

[Davies, Ian, "The Night the Wind Went Off", TOSA News, TOSA (NSW), Sydney, August, 1985, p. 18]

In 1963, the owners of the Capitol let it be known that they would be prepared to sell the organ, if they received a suitable offer. The fledgling Victorian Division of TOSA, which at that stage had some-thing over fifty members, decided to bid for the instrument, and raised loans and gifts to come up with the necessary funds. Their bid was accepted, and after a farewell concert, on 17 November, 1963, with organists Horace Weber and Gordon Hamilton, TOSA members removed the organ over the next three months or so, taking an estimated 400 man-hours to remove it. [The First Twelve Months, TOSA (Vic), Melbourne, 1968] The organ was then placed into storage, while it was restored. In the meantime, arrangements were finalised for it to be installed in the Dendy Theatre, Middle Brighton.

 

Four views of Horace Weber in 1963

Photos: Julien Arnold

As featured by Horace Weber

When the Capitol opened, the theatre seated 2137 (stalls 1306, balcony 633, loges and boxes 198). During the 1930s, the seating capacity was reduced to 2115. [Thorne, Ross, Cinemas of Australia via USA, p. 99]  When Paramount's lease on the theatre expired in 1940, Hoyt's took it over. As has already been mentioned, the screen was brought forward in 1955, and the theatre then remained unchanged until the mid-1960s.  It closed as a theatre in 1964, and for a while the disused lobby saw service as an electrical appliance shop.

Its size was then substantially reduced by constructing a shopping arcade in the lower part of the auditorium, of which the floor was raised, so that the dress circle now forms the stalls, with a slope to the foot of the screen. Although the auditorium is significantly smaller, seating 650, the irreplaceable ceiling and side walls remain undisturbed.

It reopened as a single-screen theatre in 1965 under independent management, but struggled to eke out a precarious existence showing double-feature revivals changing two or three times a week.  Even this could not keep it going, and it finally turned to Chinese films.

On 20 May 1999 RMIT University purchased the theatre as a lecture theatre and for conference use, but also to make it available for use as a cinema and a theatre.  RMIT has its own website for the Capitol Theatre, with over forty old and new photographs. The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society also has a  Capitol Theatre website. Both are well worth a visit.

From Capitol Theatre website

Continue the organ's story - The Dendy, Brighton

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