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…
Let’s cut to the chase: the Beverly Hills Cinemas are looking a little…porky these days. It’s hard not to notice the expanding waistline anymore, even for the sake of politeness. What I’m saying is, if the Beverly Hills Cinemas were a person, they’d need to take the Michelle Bridges challenge a few times to squeeze back into those trackpants.
But it wasn’t always this way. Back before the cinema was built, the suburb was known as Dumbleton, after a nearby farm. The opening of the Dumbleton train station in 1931 had opened up the suburb to the rest of Sydney in a way the previous public transport option – a coach service from Hurstville station – had not. Dumbleton’s first shop had only opened in 1908 (on the site of the present day Beverly Hills Hotel), so there wasn’t exactly a major reason to go there. Dumbleton residents hoped to change this in 1910, when a post office was opened within the existing store. It was like the proto-Westfield.
The Second World War brought military personnel to Dumbleton, further increasing its population and forcing it to come up with more shops to keep people entertained, but it’s kinda hard to make anything entertaining when your suburb’s name is Dumbleton.
In late 1938, plans began for a picture theatre along King Georges Road with a projected completion date of 1940. I suppose the Dumbletonians were hoping to emulate the success of the Savoy theatre in nearby Hurstville, but they still had the nagging problem of that name. An American cultural influence had been building in the outskirts of Sydney with the advent of cinema, so with an impending theatre and the belief that the USA would soon be joining the war effort, a move was made in 1940 to change the suburb’s name to the much more glamourous sounding Beverly Hills – Hollywood on the East Hills line. The Californian equivalent was home to famous movie stars, and with the completion of the St. James Theatre later that year, so would Dumbleton. The strip of palm trees down the centre of King Georges Road was added to complement the Hollywood theme in a move no one in the 1940s could have predicted would become so tacky by the present day.
The St. James Theatre entertained the residents of the growing suburb (even those older residents who had loudly complained about the name change) for decades until the 1970s, when the voracious Hoyts incorporated it into its suburban chain. By 1978, it had fallen into disrepair like many of its suburban cousins that had survived the mass demolition of such cinemas during the progressive 60s, and was showing only adult films. St. James indeed. I wasn’t able to locate a picture of the St. James back in the day, so if you’re able to help, let me know.
It was that year when developer Jim Tsagias bought the St. James, with plans to transform it into a function centre. Something changed his mind (perhaps the palm trees) and he decided to restore it as a cinema. In 1982 it was reopened as the one-screen Beverly Hills Cinema, and in 1988 it was converted to a twin.
And couldn’t you tell. For years, the bigger Cinema No. 1 would play host to the big budget blockbusters, while smaller, more intimate pictures or films late in their run were relegated to the tiny Cinema No. 2, which had been shoehorned in above the first. It was an awkward setup, but one that built a reputation as the cheapest cinema in Sydney (based on ticket prices, of course), and became one of the most popular family venues in the south west, especially when coupled with the nearby Beverly Hills Pizza Hut. Movies then all-you-can-eat pizza: it doesn’t get much more 90s than that.
The cinema was looking a bit dated by the early 2000s, but not as bad as the bank next door (I believe it was a Westpac?). Sandwiched between the cinema and the Pizza Hut was one of so many suburban bank branches closed during that time, and it sat dormant for many years just like the Hut. Perhaps realising it wasn’t a good look, and that there was an opportunity to expand, the Tsagias family bought the bank in 2004 and moved in, creating a video arcade in the new space which greatly relieved pressure from the cramped waiting area. But this wasn’t enough. In 2008, a complete redevelopment saw the Beverly Hills upgraded to a six-screen cinema. The derelict Pizza Hut was cut in half to make room for more screens and a mini-power station, and the entire facade facing King Georges Road was given the facelift (in true Beverly Hills fashion) that it sports today.
Not quite the case around the back, though.
From the alley behind the cinema, it’s easy to see the layout of the original St James and the bank next door. The structure on the extreme left is new, and sits on the Pizza Hut’s territory. The Pizza Hut recently vanished from existence, perhaps to make way for more parking for the cinema, or a new restaurant (just what BH needs). Whenever you see extensive renovations going on, it’s usually a safe bet that it’s being done to prepare the property for sale. Sure enough, the Tsagias family placed the Beverly Hills Cinema on the market late last year. It seems as if Event Cinemas has taken control, at least of the screening coordination, but it remains to be seen if the Beverly Hills will remain a cinema under a new owner.
If it doesn’t, they may have to change the suburb’s name again.