He came to this country from Europe, in an era that was – in many ways – of greater acceptance than the age we live in today. Barely able to speak the “native” tongue, and still scarred by the horrors of war, he attempted, to the best of his ability, to integrate into the society he found here.
Seriously, imagine the effort: the journey to get to this faraway place is in itself a hellish struggle. And then to arrive, to have to gather your bearings, to learn the language, to assess the social order where almost nobody is like you, and to gauge your place in it.
You don’t know anyone. You have nothing. Nobody is like you, and nobody cares about you.
And after all that, to actually make the effort to insert yourself into that world. To provide for it! With today’s luxuries and privileges, and the world having become a global village, it’s almost impossible to understand that experience.
But he knows.
We’re not talking about an intolerant culture, as we have today. Australia in the post-war era was arrogant, dominant. White Australia, victors of the war in the Pacific, liberator of ‘subordinate’ races found in the occupied island nations.
Today, racial and religious intolerance comes from a place of fear, fear for “our way of life”, fear of the unknown, and a deep-seated, shameful understanding that these ideals are too flimsy to be defended.
But back then, it was an arrogant patronising of these European cultures who had already been brutalised by intolerance beyond understanding. We’ll tolerate your spaghetti and fried rice, fellas.
A people person, he started his career as a hairdresser in the city. Armed with youth, energy, passion, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, he began to network as he plied his trade. The ageing, well-to-do doyennes of Sydney’s east, left alone by their business-minded husbands all day, longed for an outlet for their thoughts, their stories, their plans and their dreams. They found it in him.
And who could blame them? A good-looking, upwardly mobile young man eager to listen while he cuts your hair (all the while learning the intricacies of his new language) would be the perfect ear.
“They were my ladies,” he’d tell me decades later. When I pressed for more, his brow darkened like storm clouds and he shook his head. “Sorry mate, they’re still mine.”
As now, networking paid off. Trust leads to loyalty, and when the young man was ready to move beyond the confines of the department store salon and get his own place, his ladies came with him.
Even though it was out in the wasteland of the south-west, in a tiny suburb few had heard of.
In the mid 1960s, Belfield was still relatively young. We’ve been there before, so there’s no need to go too deeply into the backstory. Catch up first, and then cast our man into the backdrop.
Although it’s the inner-west now, it was truly the outskirts of civilisation for many at the time. Many poor European migrants found themselves in the middle of growing suburbs like Belfield, and often during the worst growing pains. But land was cheap, space was plentiful, and tolerance could be found if you looked past the stares.
He told me the shop had been a deli before he bought it. He’d saved all his income from the city salon, lived hard for years but never let go of the dream to own his own business. The master of his own destiny. We’re content these days to end up wherever life tosses us. Control is too much effort, and believing in fate and destiny means it’s easier to explain away fortune both good and bad. His was a fighter’s generation, and he fought for everything he had. He’d been fighting from the day the Nazis shot his father dead.
His salon fit right into a suburb that had multiculturalised right under the white noses of the residents. An Italian laundry here, a Chinese restaurant (that serves Australian cuisine as well, natch) there, and a Greek hair salon right in the middle.
A friendly, ebullient character, everybody came to know him. The women loved him, the young men respected him, and the old ones still gave him sideways glances. He didn’t care – he’d outlive them.
“I still had my ladies,” he’d recall fifty years later. Some of his city customers had crossed the ditch, but he’d found an all-new community waiting to unload on him. He’d become family as he’d get to know the women, their children, and their children.
I came to this little shop for 25 years to get my hair cut. Always the same style: the Jon Arbuckle. In that time, I went from sitting in the baby chair and chucking a tantrum whenever it was time for a trim, to coming on my own, mainly for the conversation. As the years went on, he revealed more about himself and his life. It fascinated me.
“The hardest part,” he told me the last time I saw him “was that as the years passed, my ladies would…”
He paused. It was difficult.
“They’d stop coming in.”
Very true. Belfield is a very different suburb to what it was even ten years ago, let alone 30. Let alone 50. My grandmother was one of his women, so familiar that it seemed like they’d always be around.
But now she’s gone, and so is he.
“This is it,” he’d said. What? How? Why would you sell?
“I sold years ago,” he confessed. He’d been renting ever since.
I was stunned. Was I destined to never get a haircut again? “You can come to my house if you still want me to cut your hair,” he’d offered, but the look in his eyes suggested we both knew it would never happen. It was a kind gesture, but not the kind you actually take up. No need to be a servant in your own house.
What would he do now? He’d been scaling back the business for a long time. Once, the workload had been heavy enough that he’d hired an assistant, but Toni had long since gone. He’d said he didn’t take new customers anymore, either. It was too hard, pointless to get attached. It was his great strength and his ultimate weakness, that attachment.
So many Saturday mornings I’d spent in that chair, hair down to my shoulders, waiting for my turn. While I waited, he’d chat to me, or Mrs. Braithwaite, or Brett (who’d done time once and it had broken his heart). In all my years of going there I never saw the same “regular” in there twice, such was the expanse of his network.
On that final Saturday, we chatted out the back while he had a smoke. As a kid I’d always wondered about that back area. Turns out it was plastered with pictures of his own kids and grandkids, old salon paraphernalia, photos from his many overseas trips, and a radio constantly blasting ABC 702.
I’d thanked him for the last haircut he’d ever give me, and told him to keep the change. We shook hands, then embraced.
In my youth, I shed many tears in this place in vain attempts to avoid haircuts. As an adult, I shed one more.
The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.
Cast your mind back to a time when you’d get the bus down to the beach, when the air was scented with coconut oil, Alpines, Chiko Rolls and the exhaust from the Monaro idling in the car park there while the driver chats up those bikini babes.
Back when the skies were blue, phones were hardwired to the wall, and petrol was leaded. Sound familiar? These are Brighton beach memoirs of a different kind, an experience shared by an entire generation, and one that’s just about relegated to the history blogs.
It sure doesn’t look familiar. While the bus stop seat is unmistakably 70s beach culture, the view from the Grand Parade down to Ramsgate Beach ain’t what it used to be. Sure, I’ve picked a particularly overcast day to exaggerate the point, but I wasn’t the one responsible for this:
Where once you would have run up the beach Baywatch-style, hotfooted across the scorching road, and basked in the relief of the shade before heading in for a Cornetto or a Bubble O’ Bill on a hot summer’s afternoon, today’s terrible world provides you with only painful memories.
A world so terrible that selling ice creams, icy cold cans of drink and burgers across from a beach is no longer viable. What happened?
Even if you were running up the beach with your filthy-ass dog, hotfooting between hostile traffic and basking in the relief of knowing you won’t have to vacuum sand and dog hair out of the car later, you’re outta luck.
I don’t actually know why you’d start up a business like this in a location like that. This kind of shop should be zoned strictly as milk bar. It should be official. You should be hauled off to prison for even attempting a farce like this.
Then again, since it’s for lease, we don’t know that isn’t how it went…
Haunting reminders of the good times remain. The Streets sign here proves that only the most desirable ice creams would have been on offer (face facts: nobody wanted Pauls).
Luckily, we can take small comfort in the fact that that uniquely Australian Streets logo is still smiling down on the beach.
Elsewhere, we can (barely) see that the Pet Salon’s bolt-on sign is covering the familiar Coca-Cola bookend ads commonly found on milk bar awnings. Imagine the disappointment the day the local beach crew showed up here for their hot chips and Cokes, only to find lice cream and fine-tooth combs up for grabs? No wonder they hung up the Billabong shorts and Piping Hot rash shirts (ha ha, just kidding. Nobody wore Piping Hot).
I’ve made the call before, but once again it’s relevant: if we, as a nation, were to tear down these signs and expose the past we crave so often, we could transform this country overnight. We’ve buried the time machine, and all we need to do is dig it up.
It’s thirsty work, I grant you. I’ll bring the icy cold Cokes, cuz we sure ain’t getting them here.
BACKWARDS UPDATE: Straight from the formidable Google Street View, it’s a shot of this milk bar from 2007! Strangely, the Streets sign was covered by a Cornetto ad. Big thanks to reader Billy Bob for the heads-up on this one.
It’s an Australian tradition – a summer holiday where you all pile into the family car and tolerate each others’ company in close proximity for several hours before stopping at a beachside town for a week or so of fun, laughter, awkward silence, teen angst, Bubble O’ Bills, arguments, bitterness, shifting allegiances, charcoal chicken, backstabbing, fishing, violence and ultimately, relief at returning to the social fold.
Or was it just me?
Forster Tuncurry is one of those towns, like Ulladulla or the Entrance, usually associated with that summer pilgrimage, and fortunately, it’s well equipped to handle any needs you may have during your trip. Forget one of those creature comforts? Head over to Tuncurry Plaza, they’ve got you covered!
Or do they?
Gee, it’s looking a little…sparsely populated right now, but it does tick all the boxes. Hair salon?
Uh…is it Sunday?
You’re making me look bad, Tuncurry Plaza! You gotta at least have some thoughtful things…
Aw, come on!
Tuncurry Plaza’s plaque claims the centre opened in 1996, but the architecture suggests a time decades earlier. Maybe they renovated and extended it in ’96 to handle all the *snort* extra customers…
As it stands, the place is a tomb. The women in the pharmacy asked me what the hell I was doing taking photos, but when I explained what I do, they were much more forthcoming. A familiar soap opera of local egos, greed and apathy explained why things are the way they are here, but that’s not the interesting part, is it?
No, it’s that sense of total abandonment, like they could have just walked out yesterday. In a world becoming more and more populated by the day, to find a place that’s completely empty and silent is a rare treat. Behold:
No more picking up a Dan Brown or Kaz Cooke to half-read on the beach while you tan, only to spill sand all over your bed when you try to finish it back home…
No more watery coffee and stale scones while you wait for him to buy a replacement for that torch he swore he packed but is sitting on the kitchen table at home…
While we’re at it, no replacement torch.
Definitely NO toilet breaks.
Some of the tenants had moved out to the street where, y’know, people are.
…while some had vanished without a trace.
There’s plenty of parking, natch.
Though this bastard stole my spot.
Although we can’t take the failure of Tuncurry Plaza as a standard for such places across the country, it’s certainly something you’re seeing more and more. Just look at Newcastle – a city-sized Tuncurry Plaza, which has required government intervention in order to live again. Look at Holbrook, where not even a submarine could save it from going under. Port Macquarie, which is dangerously close to being renamed Port Macarthur.
The need for expedient travel is killing places like this. As we live longer, as work demands more of us, and as the internet is making it easier to plan trips for ourselves, we’re trying to cram more into our leisure time. Once upon a time, you’d brag about your summer trip to Tuncurry. Now, unless you’ve been to St. Barts or Mauritius, you keep it to yourself.
Ain’t nobody wanna see this on their feed:
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:
The Victory was purchased by entrepreneur John Wayland, who in 1936 reopened the theatre as…the NEW Victory:
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.
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:
…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.
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.
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.
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-
Well, whadda ya know? Now there’s no excuse.
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:
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.
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…
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.
The door to this room appeared to have been literally ripped from the wall, and the place was trashed. What had happened here?
The evidence suggested a beer-fuelled rampage by local graffiti artists led by David Brown’s greatest enemy.
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.
The projection room was somehow in worse shape than the screening room.
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…
…and some cryptic words:
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.
The holes in the wall where the projectors had once shone through now provided a view down to the cinemas below…
…at least, enough to know that was our next stop. A stairwell at the rear of the projection room provided the access.
More violence: the door to the foyer appeared to have been forcefully kicked down. Who broke in here? King Leonidas?
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’…
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.
Not so the ‘Manhattan’, in which our violent predecessors had set up a kind of roundtable. A base of operations? A drinking spot?
It certainly wasn’t to get a better view of the screen, which was no longer in existence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The candy bar/ticket counter, when we finally reached it, was just what you’d expect. Condescending signs…
And stacks of empty cups, silently waiting to serve their purpose. Bad luck, guys.
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.
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.
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.
As we descended the stairwell to the storeroom, we suddenly became aware just how ornate it was.
The stairs themselves were starting to peel, the cheap paint no longer able to disguise a more regal past.
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.
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?
With hubris set to maximum, Doyle had made the Celebrity Room into his office.
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:
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…
But that meant that the original screen was somewhere behind us, in the storeroom. Would anything remain?
On our way back out, we noticed the walls were speckled with (among other things) vintage movie posters. Torture Garden seems particularly appropriate.
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.
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 stage had been bricked over during the multiplexing, but it was all still there.
The pulley system was still in place, though we dared not touch it.
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.
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…
…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.
I wondered if this was the same stage we were standing on at that moment.
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:
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.
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.
Flash forward to today.
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?