An Oral History of the Astor Theatre

Originally published through Esperanto Magazine

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The Astor Theatre is a Melbourne institution. Built in the 1930s in the glamorous Art Deco style of the time, the heritage-listed building has been used for the past thirty years to showcase the best of cinema. A masterful program of classic films, cult favourites, and a select few of the best new releases has been expertly created by operator George Florence and his team for Melbourne’s passionate film-lovers. As of next year, due to disagreements with the landlord, George will no longer be behind the helm of the Astor. The building’s future as an independent movie theatre is uncertain. To celebrate decades of lovingly presented cinema, we sat down with a few people in the know about what makes the Astor Theatre such a special place.

Paul Brennan, film historian and former independent cinema operator: In the pre 1920s it was originally called the Diamond Theatre. It was a stables – on the back wall behind the Astor you can still see the rings they used to tie the horses up to. Believe it or not the theatre was above it, which must have stunk! You can imagine what’s coming up through the floor.

Around 1935 a new plan was put forward to redevelop the whole site where the Diamond Theatre was, and build a beautiful new ocean liner style movie theatre, which was of course the Astor. That happened in 1936.

[At the time] ocean liners like the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were planned, and there was a whole snazzy deco Manhattan building combination of images and styles. So the whole point of going into the Astor was that you were leaving your – as they would say in Singing in the Rain – your humdrum life, and going on a journey to a wonderful place, the screen. You’re basically getting on an ocean liner; the oceanic, nautical style that the Astor has.

Tara Judah, Programming and Content Assistant at the Astor Theatre: [The first time I went to the Astor] the minute we walked into the foyer downstairs my jaw dropped. I was overwhelmed with how beautiful it was, as we sat down watching a magnificent film on this gigantic screen.

Richard Sowada, Head of Film Programs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and former Astor Theatre employee: Being a lover of cinema is not just about the celluloid, it’s about the environment. And a place like the Astor…you go inside those doors and my god! It’s something so completely unexpected. So completely authentic and untouched, in both design and programming.

Paul Brennan: There might be parts of it that may be a bit mangy or threadbare, but that’s all part of the charm of the theatre. Who hasn’t screamed their heads off when Marzipan [the theatre’s resident cat, who died last year] has leapt into their lap in the middle of a movie?

In 1964 the Astor was bought and operated as a Greek theatre, where it became part of a series of cinemas around the city catering to Melbourne’s thriving Greek community. The arrival of SBS in the early eighties, however, caused audience numbers to dwindle, and after a brief period as a bingo hall the theatre was again put up for sale. Enter George Florence.  

Paul Brennan: George would have been around 19 years old at the time. He came to the Astor and took what was known as a bingo hall faded Greek cinema, and reopened it with I think King Kong.

Richard Sowada: There’s such a precise marriage of ideas, of personality, of aesthetic…how loud to have the volume of the film, how loud to have the play-in music. This comes from the thirty years experience that [George Florence has] in dealing with the Astor audience. You can’t just impose it, and you can’t take the sensibility and hope it’s going to work with a different person.

Tara Judah: It’s the culmination of the programming and the atmosphere. That includes the projectionists constantly being in the booth to shift focus, to manually do the lighting, to open and close the curtains, to present a show. Everything we do is handcrafted with love. That goes for everything from cleaning the rubbish bins to selecting the music that matches each film every evening that plays in the foyer before and after the show.

Michelle Marshall, who had her wedding at the Astor: Even the choc tops, and the fact that you can sit there and have a beer or a wine. It’s just fantastic!

Richard Sowada: I remember we had a Chinese film there at one point, there were not many Chinese films being shown in Melbourne at the time, and the audience was very heavily Chinese. And my god! They had to call the cops to break up the crowd. There were just so many people. People were trying to bribe the ushers to get in!

Paul Brennan: [George and I] were brought up – I ran cinemas in Sydney and all over NSW – and you really were proud of having a venue, you wanted to make sure it was worth people leaving their homes and waving their dollar bills to be let in. You wanted it to be everything that was beautiful and wonderful about the film industry – that made it great.

Tara Judah: It’s a really small team of people who just really care about showing films and making it so that people can come and have a nice time. You’re surrounded by really lovely people and a really great atmosphere, because you’re working towards something that is creating joy.

Paul Brennan: The history of George’s dedication to running that magnificent cinema and seeing it survive through colour television, then video, then DVD, and now the rise of the Internet and digital technology, it’s a testament to George’s hard work. I don’t think George has had a life, apart from living and breathing every single square inch of the Astor. I would say he spent all his money, all his income, on keeping the Astor going.

The Astor is one of only a few places still left in the country with the features of a theatre in the cinema-going golden age; when going to the movies was a social event, and the experience provided to the audience matched the quality of the films.    

Tara Judah: We’re the only place still doing regular 70mm screenings in the whole of Australia. We’re the only place doing double features regularly. We’re the only single-screen cinema on the scale that we’re on in the whole of the country.

Richard Sowada: 35mm film is virtually disappearing. The Astor was one of the few places that could do that.

Tara Judah: Seeing anything in technicolour on the big screen is a real must because those are the sorts of opportunities that are incredibly rare now. It’s rare that you’re even able to see film prints so especially things like technicolour…those processes can’t be replicated by digital technology. 

Richard Sowada: In the current formats of digital files – which look fantastic on the screen, I have to say, the sound and the picture quality is just brilliant – but there’s not the backstage work that goes into presenting those films. For a projectionist, each film – you have to work with it. You have to look at it. You have to understand it. You have to understand your projectors, and you have to know what to do if something happens. So, the audience is getting a different experience without knowing that they’re getting a different experience. Also the quality – the actual texture of the film that hits the screen – is different to a digital copy, there’s no denying it.

Let’s say you have Apocalypse Now, you have five film prints of Apocalypse Now – they’re all different. They all age in a different way. They all fade in a different way. They all smell different over time. They all feel different over time. They run differently through the projector.

Deane Williams, Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University: If you want to see one of your favourite films that’s being replayed in a great setting, with really great sound, on a really huge screen, it’s the best place to go. Students like it because they can go and see a double – two films for a cheap price.

Richard Sowada: The notion of a double feature, as a foundation, is fantastic. Where do you get that now? Where is that now? For my son, who is eighteen now, who has just started going to the Astor, for him it’s just an unbelievable treasure trove. He doesn’t go every night; he doesn’t go every week. But he goes to the things that he really connects with.

One of the other things about the Astor for film lovers is the screen! That fucking thing is huge, if I was to quote Alien. It’s the true way to see cinema.

Tara Judah: It’s gigantic! It’s 19 metres wide by nine metres high. This huge screen, this enveloping experience, this 70mm print with six track magnetic sound which is the closest you can get to a sound recording. It sparked my love of cinema!

Richard Sowada: A single screen cinema, oh my god. That’s just history.

What differentiates the Astor Theatre from cinema chains – along with its remarkable technology – is that seeing a film within its walls is memorable. You’ll find yourself in conversation with complete strangers, exploring the striking décor, and becoming utterly engrossed in the film you’re there to see.

Tara Judah: You can literally feel all of your experiences in that building. Every time I go there I can think back to when I was a teenager and I first saw a 70mm film print, or the first time I went along with my mum and discovered Audrey Hepburn movies. Every date that I’ve had at the Astor…a lot of people have really personal memories that are entwined with the experience of going to see films in that place, and I think that’s really special. I think that all of the love that has been experienced in that building over the years is still pulsating throughout its walls. You still feel that every time you sit in the auditorium and the lights go down.

Michelle Marshall: I’m glad we had our wedding there. I had heard it [closing] was always on the cards but I guess that made us want to have our wedding there even more – we would have some really fantastic photos as memories. We can say that we’re really proud to be a part of its history.

[Astor employee] Steve actually ran a screening of the Goonies at the wedding! Obviously I didn’t go in there and watch but all the kids who came to the wedding could run in and out and watch the show.

Tara Judah: There is absolutely nothing more electric than, for example, walking into the stalls and seeing more than 250 people doing the time warp in unison for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s outrageous!

Deane Williams: I remember going to see the Searchers, the John Ford film, a long time ago – a longtime ago, maybe twenty years ago. It was a fantastic event, a new print of an old film, showing at the Astor in those great surroundings. It was a great social experience.

Tara Judah: The idea is kind of that it’s your lounge room. Or it’s our lounge room that we’re extending to you, however you want to see it.

Paul Brennan: It’s a magnificent, thankless task, running a cinema. While there’s a bit of money in it, believe you me, you have no social, emotional life whatsoever. I ran cinemas from when I was 19 til when I was 41, and I was completely and utterly burned out. It’s like inviting a thousand people to dinner every night.                 

In May 2015, for the first time in over thirty years, George Florence, his team, and his equipment will no longer be residing in the Astor Theatre. It is unknown at this stage what the owner of the lease, Ralph Taranto, plans to do with the building. Either way, it’s hard to imagine the Astor Theatre without the cult and classic programming, quarterly calendar, and attention to detail put together by George and his team.

Deane Williams: There’s a long history of great things going on [with film] in Melbourne. To some extent that still exists, but more diversity is what’s needed, always, and losing the Astor would diminish that diversity. 

Richard Sowada: It’s a real shame to see independent cinemas close their doors. That’s not to say that it won’t open its doors again as an independent cinema but it won’t be in this incarnation. You’ll never get that back.

Tara Judah: Regardless of whether or not it stays a single screen cinema or becomes some other sort of business or closes and doesn’t reopen, whatever the case may be, it won’t be the Astor as people know it.

 

 

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