First off, let’s get the past out of the way. Or one of them, anyway.
Believe it or not, people used to visit the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield by choice, mainly because there were things to do there. In 1908, Fairfield consisted of a train station, a sawmill and, of course, a pub – the Railway Hotel.
As has happened so often throughout Australian history, those milkshakes brought all the boys to the yard…but those in charge knew that if there wasn’t any entertainment for them when they got there, Fairfield would fall prey to anarchy, social upheaval, communism and all those other agents of chaos that happen when we’re not given the option to spend money.
The Carter family of Smithfield identified that risk, and in 1910 did the community a solid: they built a timber and corrugated iron hall.
Do you know how much fun a timber and corrugated iron hall can provide?
…it was a different time. Moving on…
After the hall caught fire (see? fun!) it was rebuilt as the Fairfield Picture Palace in 1914, wherein each Saturday up to 2000 punters could pay their bits and turn their brains off for an hour or so.
Not to be outdone, local transport and carrying baron John James Woods decided he could screen dodgy 16fps slapstick comedies for drunks better than the FPP, and in 1916, on Fairfield’s own Crescent, the imaginatively named Crescent Cinema was born. Or built. Or…you know what I’m talking about.
But Woods’ heart just wasn’t in it, and it changed hands a bunch of times before it was condemned as unsafe. Usually that’s where I’d come in, but this occurred in 1928. Maybe Fairfield just wasn’t meant to have fun?
The Crescent (the cinema, not the crescent) was rebuilt, renamed (as the Plaza), and opened to huge success. The new owners, a flamboyant (is there any other kind in olde-time theatre ownership?) couple called the Christensens, used some unorthodox promotional techniques to advertise their theatre. Beside the usual train station and back of the bus adverts, Eric and Cecilia Christensen would dress up as movie characters and swan about Fairfield handing out flyers. C’mon Event Cinemas, bring that back! I want to see Captain America and the Ghostbusters staggering around Cabramatta trying to convince people they’re not insane and that they should spend time in a dark room with them. In this social media age, it feels like a lost opportunity.
By 1934, the Depression had taken its toll on the Christensens, so in came visionary A. J. Beszant. Just look at that article. Fairfield was crying out for a modern theatre, one that wasn’t promoted by dodgy Laurel and Hardy impersonators, and Beszant replied “I’ll give them one”. “Criptic” indeed.
Beszant’s mad plan for world domination seemed to involve building a theatre in each of Sydney’s western suburbs, a plan that almost worked. It was just a bit beyond Beszant’s scope, and by 1944 he’d merged his company with our old friend Hoyts. With that in mind, you can guess what happened next.
Today, the Crescent (the crescent, not the cinema) isn’t a very pleasant place to be. Fairfield’s population has boomed since Hoyts, the KAOS to Beszant’s CONTROL, closed the cinema in 1967, and the focus of the suburb is no longer the train station. The theatre itself now sits in that lonely part of town, decaying and defiled.
I wonder if any amount of cosplay could get people to come by here these days.
Why do I get the feeling this is probably the part least used as a toilet?
Regents Park, Bankstown…Shanghai?
Although it existed as a split amusement parlour/roller rink in the 1970s, the Crescent Cinema has gone the route of all buildings this size – discount furniture warehouse. The glory days are long behind it, and it’s only a matter of time before the developers show up with a bulldozer. In this case, however, nature might beat them to it.
Perversely, the underground billiards club was named Savoy, a name traditionally associated with cinema and entertainment. Do you really think any entertainment went on here?
Especially when the door leads to nowhere?
Inside, it’s a far cry from the 2000 seat era. Dare to compare?
Remember, you’re looking at the exact same space.
Around the back, the stormfront of progress encroaches upon a wasteland. Marvel’s comic book characters are on-hand as ever to witness the death of cinema.
Beszant died in 1950 (and buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery, of all places!), the Christensens and Woods long before that, and with them died the dream of entertaining the west. All we seem to want to do these days is house people, but there’s no thought about what they’ll want to do once they’re settled. With pubs closing earlier than ever and options like this no longer viable, perhaps now is the time to start thinking of alternatives? Not everyone’s a gambling fan, Mike.
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?
It’s 1920, and in the blossoming suburbs of Sydney, people are still on a high of post-war jubilance. We won! Business is booming! The fighting spirit imbued by victory in Europe had led to a bolstering of ‘suburban pride’, as you can see in this very boastful article from the Evening News:
The suburbs were taking shape at an ever-increasing rate, giving folks more and more reasons to move away from the bustle of the city. One such reason was the rise of suburban picture theatres. No longer did you have to get on a train (if your suburb was lucky enough to have a station) and head all the way into the city just to see the latest Hollywood bioscopy – now, you could just stroll around the corner to your local fleapit.
And so it was for the people of Kogarah, in Sydney’s south, when Mr. F. Moore and Mrs. J. M. Rainbow opened the Victory theatre in November of 1920. Not only were we victorious over the vile Hun, it was a victory for the suburbs over the cave-of-wonders-worth of amusements promised by the big city.
For those who enjoyed music, but had no way to enjoy that music at home aside from reading the sheet music, the Victory had you covered.
Don’t just read about it, get down to one of your nearest nickelodeon and get wired for sound!
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and by 1936 the victorious buzz was starting to wear off. New owner John Wayland knew it was time for a name change.
Coupled with an extensive remodelling in the then-chic art deco style and equipped with a boss-ass organ sound system for the phattest of phonograph-style beats, the imaginatively renamed NEW VICTORY opened to much acclaim in October of that year.
Wayland and his New Victory entertained Kogarahns (?) for the next thirty years, pumping out bangin’ organ-based choons and screening blockbuster flicks into the late 1960s, when it was renamed the Avon (a sign of the times). It managed to resist the lure of the cannibalistic Hoyts and Greater Union groups, which were buying and closing as many suburban theatres as they could at the time. With the advent of television (turns out you can show organ playing on TV), picture theatres were in decline all over the city, and even Wayland’s fortunes had begun to decline. The writing was projected onto the wall for Wayland, and it was time to sell up…
We’ll continue the saga of the Mecca next time, but for now, come with me to a time not so long ago, a time far removed from the glory days of John Wayland’s Victory. Let’s revisit 2012.
The Mecca, as it was now known, had seen better days. It closed suddenly in 2003, and had been left to rot ever since. Despite the neglect, its colourful yet tacky exterior was still a familiar sight to not only the locals, but travellers on the Hurstville to Bondi train line across the road. When something so prominent sits unused for so long, suspicions begin to arise, and curiosity gets the better of some people, just as it did for my friend Andre.
Andre had grown up around the area, and had many fond memories of seeing movies at the Mecca in the early 1990s, when it boasted of being the cheapest in Sydney.
“Let’s go and check it out,” Andre said. “It’s just sitting there.” Why not? I thought. At the very least, it’d make a hell of a blog entry. (Don’t know about that one… -Ed)
As a suburb, Kogarah is sharply divided by the train line. On one side, which we’ll call the good side, there are plenty of shops, houses, people, and the St George Hospital. It feels alive.
On the other side, which we’ll call entirely terrible, it’s…entirely terrible. The Nemesis of Neglect has the place entirely in its clutches. Derelict unit blocks, useless, mouldy shops, people who seem to always be on their way to somewhere nicer…and the Mecca. One wonders how it was allowed to stay so awful for so long. It was as if the Kogarah Council had completely forgotten about that part of town, and as it turns out, that’s not too far from the truth. It turns out that this part of Kogarah falls within the jurisdiction of Rockdale Council, which may be news to Rockdale Council.
With its hot-potato status between two neighbouring councils and its no-mans-land appearance, I started to wonder why Wayland had chosen this site for his pet project. After all, placement on the other side of the tracks would have put it in company with the Carlton Odeon…but maybe that was the point? Maybe he couldn’t stand the competition? Never mind that Kogarah had another theatre in Wayland’s day, the Subway. Maybe we’ll never know.
When Andre and I got to the Mecca, it was exactly as advertised. It was just as it had been in 2003 when its staff downed tools and walked out, and it looked like they hadn’t bothered to clean up. We peered through the front window…
“Wouldn’t it be mad to get in there?” Andre suggested. I agreed that it would, and thought of all the cool, movie-related stuff that would surely be waiting: film prints, posters, memorabilia. You know, the kind of stuff no right-minded management would leave behind. But hell, we’d never know. Southern Security Alarms had the place wired, and-
“Hey, the side gate’s unlocked!” Andre shouted.
He pushed the gate and it swung open, revealing steps down to a path. The steps were covered in wet clumps of fur…or hair. We stepped across the threshold and immediately looked around. Had we been seen? Was someone running to a payphone right now to call the cops?
The street was deserted. The neighbouring unit blocks were derelict, awaiting demolition. And there was no payphone. I breathed out, reminding myself it was no longer 1995, but Andre was already making his way down the path.
The path ended in a metal staircase that led up to a side door to the theatre itself. It was easy to see where the theatre’s original side windows had been bricked up, and the flimsy wooden door seemed like a late addition.
We tried to open it, but it was firmly locked.
Underneath the stairs, the side path continued down to the back of the theatre. Having been thwarted by the door, we manoeuvred ourselves under the steps and continued down to the rear. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the same rear that had in 1930 been the scene of some commotion:
The place had changed since those carefree days, but it seemed as if no one had been down there in ages.
Strange pieces of stonework lay at the base of the building’s rear, and a sheet of corrugated iron covered what had once been a door about 15 feet above the ground. A garage had been hastily tacked onto the rear wall. Again, the door was locked.
Around the other side, we could see the shopping complex that sat astride the train station across the road, and…that door. A small doorway covered in a tangled mess of vines.
The gate yawned open, the space beyond too dark to see. What was this place?
We had to go in.
The room was ancient, even by Mecca standards, and was peppered with a dissonant assortment of objects. How long had it been since someone had last entered? What had the room originally been? We looked around, confronted from every angle by a new and disturbing sight.
Sitting beside this smashed TV was a receipt for the very same television, dated 1999. Perhaps the most disturbing find of all was this:
Bless this house
Oh Lord we pray
Make it safe
By night and day
It was like something out of Seven.
As we explored, it became clear what the room was.
True to its smell, it was a toilet. While we weren’t sure if it had served the patrons of the original Victory, or had been tacked on later as a kind of custodian bathroom, it was still a fascinating discovery, and one that could very easily have gone unnoticed had the theatre itself been accessible. Still…
A hole in the roof provided a tantalising glimpse of the theatre above, and I knew that neither of us would be satisfied until we could get into the place. The creepy serial killer toilet had been a great find, but it was hardly the main attraction.
Before we left, I noticed something interesting affixed to the front window. I must have missed it in all the initial excitement of being able to spy on old popcorn containers.
The plot thickens…
In preparation for a pretty major article on the Kogarah Mecca cinema, much of the research conjured up stories of Hurstville’s own Mecca. In their later years, both theatres shared an owner who named them both Mecca for the sake of uniformity, and that’s all I’d care to say about that particular topic. For decades, the Savoy was the jewel of Ormonde Parade, even after they built the Supa Centre in front of it. Nice going, fellas.
In the beginning, however, the Hurstville Savoy was a triumph of Art Deco design, a massive artistic improvement over the rather pedestrian theatres that had entertained the suburb in years prior. The more I learned, the more shocked I was that such a structure ever existed in Hurstville as I know it today. Everything about the place seemed to radiate a sense of silver-screen Hollywood elegance, and nowhere was this more evident than the evening’s handsomely designed souvenir booklet.
Demolished in 1994, nothing remains of the theatre today, so this brochure is as close as we can get to the Savoy experience short of generating 1.21 gigawatts. Be amazed, and just keep telling yourself: it came from that Hurstville.