Monthly Archives: September, 2014

Mecca Cinema/Residential – Kogarah, NSW

For those who’ve just joined us…

In 1920, the Victory Theatre was built to entertain the rapidly growing population of Kogarah. Just eight years later, however, the victory party was over:

SMH, Mar 7 1928

SMH, Mar 7 1928

The Victory was purchased by entrepreneur John Wayland, who in 1936 reopened the theatre as…the NEW Victory:

Image courtesy Bernie Sharah/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Image courtesy Bernie Sharah/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

When television entered the picture (so to speak) in the late 1950s, suburban cinemas began to fall off the map rapidly. The fortunes of the Victory (named the Avon by the mid 1960s) were drying up in the face of an uncertain future, and in 1969 Wayland was forced to sell to the Mecca cinema chain, which also owned theatres in Oatley and Hurstville.

Kogarah Mecca, 1974. Image courtesy Ian Hanson/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Kogarah Mecca, 1974. Image courtesy Ian Hanson/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

In 1971, owner Philip Doyle rebranded the theatre as the Kogarah Mecca, a name change that tied it to the Hurstville Mecca. The theatre showed a mix of cinematic releases and stage productions, the last of which was a production of Cinderella. Doyle, a would-be impresario, staged and managed the productions himself. Cinderella’s season appears to have begun in 1986:

SMH, Jan 21 1986

SMH, Jan 21 1986

…and ended in 1989, when Doyle elected to abandon the one-screen format and turn the Mecca into a multiplex. In a futile attempt to compete with the newly opened Greater Union at Hurstville Westfield, which boasted eight screens, Doyle split the Mecca into four new, much smaller screens.

Kogarah Mecca, 1990. Image courtesy Guy Warren/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Kogarah Mecca, 1990. Image courtesy Guy Warren/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

The success of Hurstville Greater Union had also forced Doyle to close the Hurstville Mecca, which was demolished in 1995, leaving Kogarah as Doyle’s focus. Throughout the 1990s, the Kogarah Mecca became known as the cheapest cinema in Sydney, with tickets for at a flat rate of $5.

Kogarah Mecca through the ages. Image courtesy Ken Taylor/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Kogarah Mecca through the ages. Image courtesy Ken Taylor/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

So there you have it: a cheap cinema running cheap Hollywood entertainment owned by a cheap scumbag in the cheap part of a cheap town. What a legacy.

In 2003, the cinema abruptly and mysteriously closed…which is exactly how Andre and I found it about ten years later.

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We’d been intrigued by the taste afforded us during our last visit, and we’d gone back to test the flimsiness of that wooden door on the side. After all, they were only going to demolish the place anyway. What harm could it do to-

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Well, whadda ya know? Now there’s no excuse.

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We were initially greeted by a storage area. The door had been banging softly in the breeze, and continued to do so after we entered, providing a rough heartbeat for the clutter within. The place was a mess…but what a mess! Relics of the cinema’s history were strewn about the room:

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The room itself went right back to the rear of the building. The ducting and pylons built as part of the multiplexing stood out like the proverbial, providing an eerie atmosphere of incongruity. We both agreed there was something not quite right about the place, and it slowly dawned on us we might not be alone.

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Surprisingly, the place still had power. Near to where we’d entered, another door yawned open, and the yellow light beyond seemed very inviting. We couldn’t come this far and not continue…

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The doorway led to a creepy stairwell, at the top of which was the projection room, and another, more sinister room bathed in a red glow.

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The door to this room appeared to have been literally ripped from the wall, and the place was trashed. What had happened here?

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The evidence suggested a beer-fuelled rampage by local graffiti artists led by David Brown’s greatest enemy.

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The room was full of cinema seats, and by the look of it had perhaps once been some kind of private screening room, or a meeting room. In either case, the interest it provided was limited, and we moved on to the projection room.

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Nota bene: this guy isn’t Philip Doyle.

The projection room was somehow in worse shape than the screening room.

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What was left of the projectors had been stripped, and equipment lay everywhere. Immediately arresting was a shelf containing scores of film cans filled with cinema advertising…

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…and some cryptic words:

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It really did look as though the staff just downed tools one day and walked out. If it weren’t for the trashing, it seemed like they could have just walked back in at any minute and started rolling.

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The holes in the wall where the projectors had once shone through now provided a view down to the cinemas below…

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…at least, enough to know that was our next stop. A stairwell at the rear of the projection room provided the access.

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More violence: the door to the foyer appeared to have been forcefully kicked down. Who broke in here? King Leonidas?

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The foyer too was the scene of some pretty heavy action. Pepsi cups and popcorn littered the floor, and the door to each cinema hung wide open. In addition to the gaudy pastel art design, Doyle had named each new theatre. We started with the rearmost one, ‘The Ritz’…

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And someone had definitely put upon the Ritz. With the seats gone, the room looked a lot larger than it ever had. Enterprising graffiti artists had used a ladder to tag the screen, but apart from that this cinema was probably the least abused of the four.

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Not so the ‘Manhattan’, in which our violent predecessors had set up a kind of roundtable. A base of operations? A drinking spot?

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It certainly wasn’t to get a better view of the screen, which was no longer in existence.

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The chintzy Manhattan skyline which adorned the walls provided a sad framework for the carnage and failure we were witnessing, although the damage was very King Kong-esque.

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The ‘Palace’ was palatial as ever with the chairs and screen removed. What’s fascinating is that with the screen removed, it’s easy to see the outline of where the Victory’s grand staircase would have been.

Imagine how many films those faces must have witnessed...

Imagine how many films those faces must have witnessed…

The first cinema, ‘Encore’, was so small that it was hard to imagine it as being adequate for screening anything. I’ve seen bigger home cinema setups than this.

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Carpeting the tiny room was a thick pile of movie books, videos, photos and script pages. Some empty removal boxes nearby suggested that the cinema had been used as temporary storage during its last few years.

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Back out in the foyer, we were faced with a problem. We had to check out the ticket counter, but the door provided a clear view out to the street. We had to be careful, lest one of the civic-minded locals drop dime on us and end our tour of the Mecca.

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No, really?

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Hiding out of sight, we crept through the staff office. It was perhaps in the best condition of all of the rooms, with only one major flaw:

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The candy bar/ticket counter, when we finally reached it, was just what you’d expect. Condescending signs…

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Overpriced refreshments…

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And stacks of empty cups, silently waiting to serve their purpose. Bad luck, guys.

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I couldn’t help but notice this sign, which I found anomalous. Does Greater Union reserve this right? Does any other cinema? If I’m going to be kicked out of a place, I at the very least expect a reason.

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Our earlier fears were unfounded: no one was around. I think we’d been so caught up in the Meccapocalypse that we’d forgotten where we were – the wrong side of Kogarah’s tracks.

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Having covered everything, we made our way back to the underground storeroom via the foyer. I was struck by this feature wall. It looks as though the posters are crying, and I don’t blame them after all the hell Doyle had put the place through. If ‘faded glory’ has a visual definition, this is my submission.

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As we descended the stairwell to the storeroom, we suddenly became aware just how ornate it was.

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The stairs themselves were starting to peel, the cheap paint no longer able to disguise a more regal past.

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The stairwell, just like the space upstairs, had been carved up by Doyle in his quest to beat Greater Union at its own game. What had once been a lavish entrance was now just dank storage space for all the grime behind the glitz.

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The Celebrity Room snuck up on us. We’d breezed right past it originally, but with a name like that, how had that been possible? Had it even been there the first time?

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With hubris set to maximum, Doyle had made the Celebrity Room into his office.

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The grimy office was revolting, unkempt, and radiated an enormous sense of unease. It also hid one of the more interesting finds of the entire trip:

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If you can ignore the filth for a moment, you can see that the stairs that carried down through the above cinemas would have ended here, and then continued on to the theatre…

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But that meant that the original screen was somewhere behind us, in the storeroom. Would anything remain?

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On our way back out, we noticed the walls were speckled with (among other things) vintage movie posters. Torture Garden seems particularly appropriate.

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If only. Moving on…

At this point, we knew the cinema was deserted. Feeling more comfortable, we resolved to explore the rear of the storeroom, the area which would have sat above the toilet we’d visited last time. It didn’t take long to find the entrance to what had once been the Victory’s stage.

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Patient Kogarah audiences had had to put up with no less than four pantomimes during the Mecca years, and there was plenty of evidence of this backstage.

The show's over now, Philly boy.

The show’s over now, Philly-boy.

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The stage had been bricked over during the multiplexing, but it was all still there.

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The pulley system was still in place, though we dared not touch it.

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Dated January 1989, this sign advertises the last panto to be staged at the Mecca, and what would have been the last performance ever at the Victory. What a way to go.

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Also backstage was the Mecca’s collection of toilets. Who would need this many toilets? And in case you’re sitting there smugly thinking ‘A cinema would need this many toilets, you idiot’, just know that the room they were in wasn’t a bathroom. The room did however feature a variety of pornography featuring plus-sized models affixed to the walls, so maybe the toilets were necessary after all.

Most of the Cinderella props were still backstage, including the carriage…

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…and some very bizarre costumes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember a giant chicken or Mickey Mouse being in Cinderella.

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I wondered if this was the same stage we were standing on at that moment.

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The Disneyfied font Doyle had used for his own name, never mind the fact that he was so insistent on ‘family entertainment’, was a sickening touch. There was something not quite right about this whole place, and as we made our way back through the storeroom to leave, we passed plenty more evidence in support of that feeling:

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As I mentioned earlier, it seemed like the staff just walked out one day in the middle of work. There had been no effort to clean up the place or to scale it back, like if they’d closed for financial reasons and were preparing to sell. So what had actually happened? The truth is horrific.

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Not long after our visit, the scaffolding went up. Despite a few half-hearted protests and calls for the cinema to be revived, it was time for the final curtain.

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Flash forward to today.

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A gleaming new block of units has replaced the Victory, and all its associated stigma. As I said, there were a few last-minute calls for clemency, and yes, it’s now as bland and faceless as you’d expect, but could you honestly say you’d want to see a movie there again knowing what went on? For the sake of the victims, especially those very brave ones who spoke out, it’s better that no trace has been left behind.

That aside, I think it’s interesting that what was once the suburb’s entertainment hub has been turned into a living space. In a way, it’s a perfect microcosm for how these things work all over the western world.

Picture this: you’re the mayor of a small town or village. You need to attract more people in order to be important, as part of some desperate search for identity, so you permit an attractor: a cinema, a shopping centre, a stadium. But now you’ve built it, and they have come, so where are they going to live? You, in your stately mansion, let the problem build and build, throwing bones where you can. Let’s raze this library, let’s destroy this public pool, but hey, keep the cinema. The locals love that.

More and more people come. They start families. They open businesses. Soon, your town is a municipality, a suburb, a community. And as the towns around it grow at the same rate, your whole area is becoming something much larger than you ever imagined. Suddenly, it’s beyond your control. You were so sure you could keep it under your thumb, get it to your ideal size and then replace the cork. But what happened? Weren’t you the boss?

But the genie is out of the bottle, and he can’t go back in. It’s more than you can handle, and before long, you find yourself replaced by a team, a committee who group-think to make decisions better than you ever could have on your own. Their first decision? “Let’s demolish some of those old businesses and put in a supermarket or two. Ditch that stately manor, the land would be perfect for a car park for the train station. Oh, and knock down that crusty old cinema. We need more living space for our community.”

You really should be thankful. After all, you need a place to live now, right?

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