When Hoyts was Hoyts
Clara Bow, Ronald Colman and all That
THIS week we are in the midst of merry-making and melancholy. We're merry-making because, in the year of Cleopatra, Hoyts is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We have just been told that this is the golden jubilee of the greatest theatre chain in the Southern Hemisphere and girls dressed in gold lame are distributing Todd-AO size birthday cakes.
Then we're melancholy because the wreckers are pulling down the dear old Savoy Theatre in Russell Street. Traditionally it has been the home of vaudeville, strong theatre and clean living in our town. Its history goes back 91 years and until 1934 it was known as the Temperance Hall, owned by the Order of the Sons of Temperance.
It was built, you see, because so much wicked drinking went on at the open bars of Melbourne's music halls. A place of entertainment was needed, which would be completely free of this influence. There were some wonderful shows, particularly on Saturday nights. Most moving indeed were 'The Drunkard's Death' and 'Ten Nights In A Barroom.'
There were some sterling performers. Dame Nellie Melba made one of her first public appearances at the Temperance Hall, and there were others like John McCormack and Lola Montez.
In 1934 they put in motion picture machinery. The name changed from the Temperance Hall to the Imperial, from the Imperial to the Savoy. Up the back there were all sorts of meeting rooms for such guests as the Persian Cat Society, the Racing Pigeon Club, the Football Umpires' Association and it is said, even, that there were meetings of spiritualists where they used to hold hands and burn incense.
Now the WHELAN THE WRECKER IS HERE sign is on the front wall. Honest John Gilbert walked past last week and made the comment: 'This is the best show ever put on at the Savoy – Whelan the Wrecker bringing down the house.'
As for Hoyts it is the story of a glorious advance from Pathe Films to talkies, to 3-D, to Wide Screen, to Cinemascope, to Todd-AO, Stereophonic sound and Cinerama. It all started with Arthur Russell, a Bourke Street dentist. He used to practise illusions as a hobby and he bought into a small circus called Hoyts. He put himself on the programme and toured the Western District. In 1913 he hired St George's Hall in Bourke Street and established Hoyts pictures. In those days pictures ran from three to ten minutes.
And so the Empire grew. St George's Hall was reconstructed as the De Luxe. George Griffith became the secretary. New theatres were built in the city and they acquired the Empire in Brunswick and the Northcote in Northcote. Glory of glories, these suburban theatres had their own electric generating plants before electric power was available in the suburbs.
However, the great climax to the motion picture industry in Melbourne came in 1929 with the opening of the two finest picture palaces we had ever seen, the Hoyts Regent and its rival, The State.
The State was, and still is, something to see. It looked like a cross between Genghis Khan’s palace and an oil sheik’s harem. There was a superb artificial sky with stars that twinkled on and off, a cloud machine that could pump across every cloud from cirrus to cumulo nimbus – enough to make you reach for your umbrella. Rudolf Valentino’s very own sword hung on the wall until somebody pinched it back in the 'thirties, and statues – everybody from Diana of Versailles to Discobolus and Venus de Capua.
Well, The Regent had some mighty arty stuff, too, including some enormous urns specially made in Italy. Anyway there was a neck and neck struggle between the two theatres as to who would open first. The Regent foreman would walk down Russell Street at 4 p.m. to see how The State was progressing. The State foreman would walk up Russell Street at 4 p.m. to see how The Regent was progressing. Then both would put on an extra shift.
The State won the battle and opened on February 23, 1929, with Clara Bow and Buster Keaton in ‘The Fleet's In.’ The souvenir programme said modestly: ‘As you gaze in wonderment at the spectacle of The State you are transported into another world – a world that will stagger you by its supreme beauty. Never was a theatre so beautiful, or its glory so dearly bought, but that it fades into insignificance beside this Florentine garden of music, of picture and of song.’
The Regent opened on March 15 with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky in ‘Two Loves’, a pretty deadly reply to ‘The Fleet's In.’ However, their prose didn't have quite the same lyric quality: ‘You'll be thrilled, you'll be delighted. When you have seen The Regent, when you have sat spellbound by the pageant of stars, you will truly know the entertainment that delights London and New York.’
The mighty empire spread all around Australia and it is still by far the largest chain, but depression, war and TV came. Things were never quite the same again. Yet everybody suffered the same way and the new gimmick was to think of a splendid new name for the theatre. Everybody was in it. The Liberty became the Odeon, the De Luxe became the Esquire, the St James the Metro, the Majestic the Chelsea and the enormous old State, the Forum. It wasn't easy to see the point in these name changes. Except that Forum did smack splendidly of chariot races, togas, the slaughtering of Christians and all that sort of thing.
As for Hoyts it had to tighten its defences. The count after 50 years is this: in Victoria six city theatres and six drive-ins, all intact. In the suburbs the count has dropped from 38 theatres to 15.
However, the future is rosy. ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ is expected to open in a city Hoyts theatre some time around Christmas. It will be a black tie affair and just as good as the opening in New York. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton didn't attend that one either.