This building features an interesting double-shot of 19th century enterprise.
First we have the Bank of New South Wales, established in 1817, making it Australia’s oldest operating company. “But wait,” I hear you saying. “It’s not around today. How could it possibly be Australia’s oldest company?” I’m glad you asked. Between 1850 and 1910, the bank established branches around the country, and also in Fiji and Papua New Guinea (despite Bank of NSW meaning jack to people over there). From 1927 the bank went on a mad spree of acquisitions, buying out the Western Australian Bank and the Australian Bank of Commerce and culminating in a merger with the Commercial Bank of Australia in 1982 giving rise to Westpac. And thus…evil is born.
On the other side, we have Allans Music, which I was surprised to learn was established in Melbourne in 1850. Allans by the turn of the 20th century was the biggest music retailer in the southern hemisphere (but where was the competition?). In the 70s, Brashs decided it wanted a piece of the Allans action and acquired the company. When Brashs went under in the late 90s, Allans emerged unscathed and under new ownership. It merged with Billy Hyde Music in 2010 to become a kind of super music conglomerate, the sort that’ll be feeding us through tubes and stealing our vitality 200 years from now. Incidentally, the building to the right of Allans was the Greater Union Pitt Centre, and beside that lived a Brashs for many years. Even the Greater Union became a cut-price CD shop for a time after its closure, and the Galeries Victoria’s JB Hifi sits across the street. This section of Pitt Street has never managed to shake its musical heritage.
By the mid-1930s, the suburb of Campsie already had a cinema. The open-air Campsie Palace was opened in 1910, and over the next 25 years had become the Excelsis, and finally the Odeon. When the Orion (“Theatre of the Stars!”) opened in 1936 it was seen by some as overkill, but today it’s the last man standing, albeit in a different form.
Opening in March 1936, the Orion had close ties to the RMS Orion, an Orient Company ocean liner launched from Brisbane in 1934. A mural depicting the liner sat in the cinema’s lobby for the first phase of its life. The first films screened were Love Me Forever starring Grace Moore, and Lady Tubbs starring Alice Brady. The theatre received extensive renovations in 1949, by which time both actresses had died. Our old friends Greater Union got involved in 1953 and, typically, ran the Orion into the ground by operating on a restricted policy. Movies were only shown on Fridays and Saturdays, and the reduction in profits saw the building close as a cinema in 1959. I’m beginning to think that GU intentionally ruined these suburban cinemas just to ensure that moviegoers would flock to their multiplexes, but surely I’m just being cynical…right?
In 1964, a year after the RMS Orion was destroyed for scrap, the Canterbury Town Hall was demolished, and the Canterbury Council eyed the Orion as a possible replacement. Since the cinema closed, it was being used as a public meeting place and neighbourhood centre, so it made sense, but for one reason or another it never happened. The Council didn’t forget the ‘Theatre of the Stars’ though (oh, unless you count the years of neglect between 1959 and 1984), and in the 80s began restoring the building for use as a function centre. Renamed the Orion Centre, it can be found in pretty good nick today.
Extensive though the renovations may have been, it’s easy to see the building’s cinematic origins.
The art deco style is unavoidable inside.
This mural offers another hint of the Orion’s former life:
There may not be any stars on Orion’s belt these days, but the centre’s sense of style certainly evokes a time when a whole galaxy was constantly viewable from Beamish Street with a projector as a telescope.
Over the years, the New Kings Theatre at Mosman went by a variety of names – the Kings, the Classic – until it was finally caught in the current of progress in 1976. The Village cinema chain took over the art deco theatre that year, and it ran in friendly competition with its nearby contemporary, the Cremorne Orpheum.
But in a story that’s all too familiar in the world of old theatres, suits suddenly appeared on the scene and started making decisions on behalf of business. Greater Union demolished the New Classic Kings Village in 1986, a move which shocked the community. The twin cinema that replaced it opened in 1988 to much fanfare; so cheesy and contrived was the whole venture that even the cinema’s phone number was 9969 1988. Sheesh.
On paper, you’d think replacing an old 30s single screen picture theatre with a modern twin would be like printing money, but 23 years after its grand opening, the Greater Union Mosman was printing termination notices for its staff.
The GU’s profits didn’t come anywhere close to those at the still-vintage Cremorne Orpheum, and in 2011 the twin closed its doors for the final time. It’s currently waiting, like much of Mosman’s shopping district, to be demolished and redeveloped into residential/commercial towers, but until that happens it stands as a testament to the Orpheum’s appeal and triumph over progress.
George Street’s cinema strip has undergone many drastic facelifts and overhauls, particularly since 1971, when the Trocadero dance hall was demolished to make room for the Hoyts cinemaplex. In 1983, two more cinemas, the Rapallo and the Paramount, were razed by their owner Greater Union to make way for a more modern moviegoing experience: the Greater Union cineplex above.
By the early 1990s that west side of George Street contained only the big three cinemas: Village, Greater Union and Hoyts. Around 1999, the Village was demolished and all three joined forces in the greatest union of all to form one giant megaplex. The Greater Union above was absorbed by the Hoyts complex and until 2005 operated as a joint venture. Now, Event Cinemas (formerly Greater Union) runs the entire cinema.
When the Greater Union building became a part of the Hoyts complex, the facade was brought into line with the Hoyts look. Today, almost nothing remains of the Greater Union building…
…but if we look in the alley around the back of the buildings, not only is the dated triangular awning still present on the Greater Union building, but even the Hoyts building retains its older style. When the complex became Event Cinemas, an expensive overhaul for the entire George Street face of the building was undertaken. I guess they decided the back alley wasn’t enough of an event.
How does the front of the Greater Union look today?
Big, faceless and grey: just like the rest of George Street.
In 1999, I ventured into town to see Star Wars Episode I. My elaborate plan was to see it at the Pitt Centre cinema, which I’d always noticed tucked away behind the flashier George Street cinema strip. However, when I got into the city I found the cinema complex had been recently closed. My plan, my day had been ruined. Thanks, Greater Union Pitt Centre.
Opened in 1976, the cinema stood nearly derelict from 1999 to 2011, when construction work began on some sort of ANZ-themed skyscraper. It was in this condition that I found the site today:
From street level, there’s now nothing to suggest that the Pitt Centre or the neighbouring Chinese restaurant and courtyard were ever there. However, the view from above betrays an odd and long-forgotten secret:
You can’t buy that kind of advertising space.
SHEEPISH UPDATE: it seems as though the above image is actually the rear of the Greater Union-owned State Theatre (see below). This revelation marks the second time the Pitt Centre has ruined my schemes. Thanks, Ellena!