Screen memories & changing cinema culture

photo-1It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but I loved the former Greater Union Cinema on Russell Street in Melbourne’s CBD.

The large screens and cavernous interior, the way the floor sloped so no one was directly in front of you, the seventies décor including the burnt orange colouring. Whenever possible, I’d avoid the other city multiplex cinemas and head to Greater Union where I could be assured of getting the place largely to myself.

Which is why its closure last year and looming demolition and replacement with a hotel and apartment complex, while incredibly sad, is no surprise.

Except for during the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Greater Union was nearly always empty. It lacked the passing traffic you got in a shopping complex and looked old and tired, retro but not quite retro enough. It was certainly no Emek, the historic Turkish cinema in Istanbul, which has been the subject of an ongoing local and international campaign ever since plans to demolish it were unveiled in 2012.

As friend and Melbourne film historian Dean Brandum puts it: “I’ll miss Greater Union but what’s amazing is that it held on so long. It used to be hugely popular. When I saw Can’t Stop the Music there in 1980 the queue stretched down Russell Street, into Bourke Street, all the way to Swanston. We had to stand in line for an hour to get in. ET played there for two years.”

The Greater Union’s demise was just one in a long line of cinema closures in Melbourne. Most recently, the owner of St Kilda’s George Revival Cinema announced it would close its doors.

In the late seventies, Melbourne’s CBD played host to 32 cinemas, not including a host of long forgotten smaller theatres showing porn and erotica, like the Albany and the Penthouse Cinema.

Now there are only five, including the Forum Theatre, which only operates as a cinema during MIFF. Six, if you count Crazy Horse on Elizabeth Street. Originally set up as the Star in 1951, it played mainstream films until 1970, when it switched to porn. It is now Melbourne’s oldest continuously running cinema.

The introduction of home entertainment in the eighties saw a wave of cinema closures. The gradual expansion of suburban multiplexes, cable TV, and the high cost of digital conversion have reduced the number further.

“Going to the cinema is still a popular pastime,” says Brandum. “But now people want to go somewhere new and with amenities like food and shopping. Most of these establishments are in the suburbs. The exception is to come into town for a specific event, like MIFF.”

I’m not sure what the closure of the Greater Union means for Melbourne’s remaining cinemas or the future of MIFF, which now faces a seating crisis with the demise of its largest venue.

But walking past the shell of the Greater Union a few days ago got me thinking about how much I love cinemas, what my best cinematic experiences have been, how they sometimes had as much to do with what happened before or after the movie as the viewing experience itself.

Here’s my list of my most memorable Melbourne cinema outings, in chronological order:

1. Ben Hur, St Kilda’s Palais Theatre. I went with my mother, I suspect because she wanted to see it and had to take me. With the exception of the chariot race at the end, I was bored senseless.

2.  Moonraker at the now defunct Hoyts Midcity. My parents and I drove in from the suburbs on a school night. It was my first James Bond film and the whole experience was awesome.

3. Mad Max 2 at the long gone East End Cinema 1 in the city. 1981, I wagged school with some mates and went into the city to see the film. It took days for my young male brain to get over the adrenaline-fuelled high of the tanker chase at the end.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Greater Union. The place was packed and the atmosphere was incredible.

5. The Big Sleep, The Astor Theatre. A friend’s parents took me on a Sunday night in the early nineties. It was my first experience of Bogart and kick started my love of film noir.

6. Anything at the now defunct Carton Movie House. I lived in a student house around the corner and would go to films there not knowing anything about them. It’s almost impossible to do that now. John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke was a highlight, as was Scorsese’s underrated comedy, After Hours.

7. Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend at the State Film Centre now ACMI. I hated the film, but ended up drinking with a bunch of film students until the wee hours, one of whom I went home with. Hey, I said it wasn’t always about the films.

8. The Princes and the Frog at the beautiful Sun Theatre in Yarraville. The first cinema movie my partner and I took our daughter to. She loved it. We loved her loving it.

What are your most memorable cinema experiences?

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13 Responses

  1. Saw the premiere of Thelma and Louise at Greater Union: full house from what I remember.

  2. Sticking with the nostalgia theme of your post Andrew, I think I have to name Koyaanisquatsi at the Valhalla back when it was in Richmond – over and over again. And then another clear favourite was the night in the early days of the Valhalla in Northcote, when Adrian and I had installed ourselves early on the saggy couch at the back waiting to see Clockwork Orange; the cookies were starting to kick in and I was getting more and more anxious about seeing something reportedly violent and full-on when my mental state was getting less and less likely to be able to deal with it. And then the credits rolled… Hang on, this is Easy Rider! Magic! In our addled state we’d read the program wrong. And then finally, it has to be seeing Jaws in the Apollo Bay Mechanics Hall with a packed house of teenagers circa 1979. Beach was empty the next day.

  3. In no particular order:
    -Star Wars, Hoyts Centre, George St, Sydney 1977. My step-dad took my younger brother and I, we sat down the front and I have loved that film ever since. It was the first time I’d been to a “big” cinema.
    -Convoy, Avalon Cinema 1978. My first “M” rated film and I held hands with my high school girlfriend the whole time
    -King Kong, Avalon Cinema 1976, the last time I saw a film with an “intermission.”
    -Various Disney Movies, Manly Odeon, each school holidays with my grandmother mid 1970s. The Odeon is the only cinema on this list which is sadly no longer in existence
    -Pulp Fiction, Randwick Ritz, 1994. Back when the Ritz was just one, crumbling art-deco cinema with two levels. But I could have seen that movie anywhere and remembered it
    -Back To The Future 2, Cremorne Orpheum 1989. Preceding the show, a guy played a baby grand piano which then sank into the floor via a lowering platform
    -The Wrestler, Chauvel, Paddington, 2008. How Mickey Rourke didn’t win Best Actor at the Oscars for this I’ll never know. But the film marked the re-opening of the art-deco Chauvel
    -Seven, Collaroy Cinema 1995. The air-con broke down, it was summer, and it was hot and sweaty in the movie house which seemed to add to the atmosphere of what I was watching.
    -Terminator 2, Bondi United Cimema, 1991. Last run for this cinema before it started morphing into a mega-plex. And the movie was mind-blowing.

  4. Great post. Thanks Andrew!
    In my teens I saw so many films at Greater Union Russel Street – back in the halcyon days when the auditorium was full of kids elbowing and pushing to get to the best seats (middle back, it seemed). Many of these memories have since blurred together, but being a B movie fan boy there are some weird and wonderful highlights that stand out apart from the usual blockbuster fare. Three that I remember seeing at Russel Street were:
    – Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn (1983 3D
    – The Ice Pirates (1984)
    – Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
    The last thing I saw at Russel Street was Kill Bill Vol. 1. I went gaga over the film which was just as well because there was the faint odor of urine in the auditorium: the reason I never went back.
    RIP to an icon.

  5. In about 1983 me and a group of boys went to see Octopussy at a cinema in Auckland’s CBD. We were so pumped after we raced through car parks, down lanes and along indoor malls re-enacting scenes from the film. This attracted the attention of shopkeepers who reported us to the police as public menaces. The cops drove us home to our parents.

    Chaplin’s Modern Times at the Astor is also a vivid memory, but nothing beats stumbling on a screening of Annie Hall at the Brooklyn Museum followed by a lecture/Q&A with a Woody Allen scholar.

  6. I remember when my sister took me to see my first M-rated film – Martin Short in Pure Luck – when I was nine, at Village in Knox before they renovated, when you would go afterwards to the Pink Cadillac downstairs for a milkshake and chips. I felt old; it was exhilarating. Most of my earliest cinematic experiences were there.

    I saw Life is Beautiful at the Rivoli with some high school friends when I was fifteen, maybe sixteen. I couldn’t believe cinema could be like that – the theatre, or the film. We all cried. At Croydon station I dropped the book I’d just bought for school on the train tracks and my friend jumped down to retrieve it for me. (Fourteen years later, we had a baby.)

    The only movie I skipped school for was Star Wars Episode I. It wasn’t worth it and I dropped maple syrup on my best jeans on the way to Crown in my friend’s boyfriend’s shitty old car.

    Now there are too many memories, and I’ll be thinking about them all day. (So, thanks!)

  7. The first film I ever remember seeing at the cinema was ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – probably at the Rivoli, as this was closest to where I grew up. I’ve never stopped loving that film!

    Two of my most memorable cinema moments took place at the Greater Union. I saw ‘Starstruck’ there in the early 1980s, the first film I saw with a boy, in this case, the gloriously named Carlo Tarquinio. I also saw ‘Thelma and Louise’ there with my friend Suzie. It was the first film I’d been to where the audience cheered at the end. Suz and I went out and drank Wild Turkey bourbon afterwards, and I don’t even like bourbon.

    I also remember seeing ‘Gone With The Wind’ at the Astor with my mother. An audible female sigh went through the house when Clarke Gable first appeared on the screen at the bottom of the staircase.

  8. I would have loved to see Terminator 2 at the cinemas. To see this film back in 1991 would have been a mesmerizing experience. It was a film made for the big screen but I was only 4 when this was released so I was too young, anyone got any T2 memories at the cinemas?

  9. Pingback: Micro & niche cinema and the future of movie going in Melbourne | Pulp Curry

  10. I have very fond memories of this cinema, but by the time I started going there regularly in the early 90’s it wasn’t as popular, although I attended many packed screenings until 94/95. That is when the big drop in attendance at the remaining old city multiplexes occured. I recall many cinemas beginning to really struggle at that time, especially Hoyts on Bourke, which closed in 2005 I believe. When Village at Crown opened in 1997, that was the final nail in the coffin. Most screenings I went to after that time at Greater Union, Hoyts on Bourke and Village on Bourke were sparsely attended at best unless they were for exclusive preview screenings.

    I wish Palace bought Greater Union and renovated it. That would have been nice.

    STEVEN: I saw T2 at Forest Hill cinemas for my 13th birthday. I have fond memories of that day/night because I went with many friends and was excited to finally be a teenager! 🙂

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