The Capitol and ‘The World's Mightiest Spectacle.’

First published

Vale Osiris and the Mighty Wurlitzer

For seven years now we have watched our movie houses being turned into offices, storage sheds, bowling alleys, even into artificial ski runs and, frankly, nobody has cared very much. But now we have bitter news. On February 5 the Capitol in Swanston Street, right opposite the Town Hall, will be shooting its last reel.

To be honest, I hadn't thought much about the Capitol for years. All I remembered was that it had marvellous, deep, leather chairs in the lounge, better than the chairs in the Melbourne Club, and it had this superb ceiling, which delicately and beautifully kept changing color. The ceiling was always better than the movie.

Well, right after the announcement a ‘Save the Capitol’ campaign went into action. There was a letter of protest from this distinguished architectural team: Professor Brian Lewis, Robert Eggleston and Geoffrey Woodward, They pointed out that the Capitol had been designed by Walter Burley Griffin. It was a world famous building; indeed, one of the most important theatres ever built . . .

Eric Westbrook, director of the National Gallery, came in, too. Apparentlv the gorgeous ceiling, with its fantastic pattern of prisms and cubes lit by 4500 colored lights, was designed by Marion Mahony (Mrs Walter Burley Griffin). Mr Westbrook would like to see the ceiling placed in one of the theatres of his new Cultural Centre.

But let's go back. The Capitol opened on November 8, 1924, and it cost more than ₤5OO,OOO. Until then picture theatres were little more than halls, but here was the start of a new era. The Capitol was the first dinkum de-luxe movie palace in the Southern Hemisphere.

It opened with Cecil B. de Mille's ‘The Ten Commandments,’ which was advertised as ‘The World's Mightiest Spectacle – As Powerful in Appeal as the League of Nations.’ . . . ‘SEE – the Belching Forth from the Heavens of One Commandment After Another – SEE the Bacchanalian Orgy in Adoration of the Golden Calf – SEE the Strong Power of Mother Love.’

Before the start of the film there was a stage performance known as an ‘atmospheric prelude,’ which included not only the biggest sphinx ever built in Australia, but the Egyptian God Osiris, the throne room of the Pharaohs and the death of Rameses.

For the world's mightiest spectacle the ‘Herald’ brought out a mighty 12-page broadsheet Supplement. The ‘Herald’ pointed out that the magnificent Wurlitzer organ cost ₤15,000 and that there were only four of its kind in the world. There was no musical instrument in existence whose sound could not be reproduced on this organ.

The lifts in the ‘towering building’ were the most up-to-date yet seen in Melbourne. They were capable of the high speed of 300 feet a minute, and among the first passengers was Dame Nellie Melba. ‘The lift was delayed on its return journey to the upper floors while the diva shook hands with the liftman, and thanked him for his regrets at her recent retirement from opera.’

The dress circle foyer was ‘the most richly furnished, the most dignified, and the most costly room outside of Paris, London or New York . . . a magnificent grouping of old Italian Renaissance furniture carved in dull walnut and covered with a French damask of copper tones. The ladies' Louis XVI French boudoir was ‘perhaps the gem of the whole theatre. The furniture was entrancing, being entirely laid with 22-carat leaf, and most richly carved as the period denotes.’

As for the men's smoke rooms: ‘They are almost sombre, with that quiet dignity which the modern man so much appreciates for the use of his more intimate friends. The chairs are in a specially tanned hide of a color something between a brown and a verdigris green, finished and studded with antique steel nails . . . the difference between the ladies' boudoir and the smoke rooms is most marked.’

One could go on. There were 'scenes of bewildering beauty . . .'

One Hoyts man, Colin Mirams, still remembers it all. The original idea of the ‘atmospheric prelude’ continued right through the 'twenties. For example, for the silent film ‘Beau Geste’ they built a superb desert fort on the stage. They staged, too, the 1812 Overture with the fall of Moscow, puffs of smoke, the lot.

The noise of the firing of the cannon was done off-stage in good style. They used blank cartridges in a double-barrelled shotgun fired against a suspended sheet of galvanized iron. Jan Rubini, the conductor, composer, violinist, was imported from Los Angeles at vast expense to conduct the 20-piece orchestra and the Postal Institute choir.

And so the Capitol was a big success. In the first days the crowds were so big they pushed in the ticketsellers' office. Mr Mirams arrived as accountant after the first fortnight. In that time nobody had been to the bank. They showed him a rolled-top desk that was brimming with cash and bank notes-between ₤7000 and ₤8000. The money had been pouring in. Outside there was a regular staff of police to control the crowds.

And that's the trouble, you see; with 2100 seats, the old Capitol is too vast. People don't fight to get to the movies any more, to relish their ‘Ten Commandments.’ The suggestion is that the Capitol will be converted into a large, modern, shopping arcade.

The problem is general. The State Theatre, that noble eastern palace in Flinders Street, has now spawned and multiplied like a centipede. No longer can the State operate profitably as one vast entity. It has split into two – the Forum and the Rapallo.

But you will be pleased to hear that the Rapallo has retained some of the atmosphere of the old State. The figures of Atlas, Discobolus and Augustus Caesar are still there for all to see, resplendent in their fig leaves.