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The Westgarth

                                                           Picture Theatre

                                                                     By Cameron Hall

                                              An extraordinary 80th anniversary awaits Northcote’s historic Westgarth
                                               Picture Theatre in 2001. Classified as locally significant in 1994 by the
                                               National Trust of Australia (Victoria) it is the oldest purpose-built cinema
                                               still operating in Melbourne. Today Westgarth is the last living remnant
                                              of the long ago halcyon days of cinema along High Street. Its survival is
                                                 inexorably linked to the collective foresight of its past and present
                                              proprietors who have adapted the theatre to accommodate technological
                                               and social change. However, there is little room for complacency. Can
                                                this single-screen, independent cinema secure its future in an age of
                                                        megaplexes and sophisticated home entertainment?

               he Primitive Methodists introduced cinematographe to  Thornbury Picture Palace, in fact a small hall, was construct-
               the Northcote region in 1897. Not surprisingly, it was  ed in 1910. However, it did not replace the adjoining open air
         Tgreeted with acclaim. The Northcote Leader newspa-  theatre, until improvements were made to the  Thornbury
          per reported that a still portrait of Queen Victoria, during her  Picture Palace in 1911.
          jubilee year, prompted the audience to stand and sing the  On 27 June 1912, cinema in the Northcote/Thornbury
          National Anthem!                                    region attained its highest water thus far with the grand open-
            Yet prior to World War 1, it is probable that the first cine-  ing of the substantial Northcote Theatre on the corner of High
          matic experience of many Northcote residents was an alfresco  and Bastings Streets. Northcote could now boast a cinema
          one. On 8 March 1911, an open air theatre in High Street  with stalls, a balcony, its own generator and the adaptability to
          Thornbury was opened by Mr Nicol Miller. Another open air  accommodate live performances, including the much feted
          venue, the Lyric Theatre, was opened on 20 December 1911  Mayoral Ball!
          by Mr E Lees on the corner of High Street and Robbs Parade  The Northcote  Theatre was built by Mr  T G Farr and
          Northcote on the site of an old timber yard. The Lyric screened  designed by Mr Frank Richardson in association with the firm
          only during summer.                                 Twentyman and Askew. It is believed to have been the first
            Fortunately, early enthusiasts were not entirely at the  public building in Northcote to have been fitted with electric
          mercy of the weather. The Northcote Town Hall had screened  lights. The auditorium of the theatre was approximately five
          films from at least 1910. The somewhat ostentatiously named   times larger than that of the Northcote Town Hall. The vision
                                                                        of its founding directors: Mr A M Lonie, Mr B E
                                                                        Johnson and Mr R J Whalley, was augmented by
                                                                        a ten year agreement with Amalgamated Pictures
                                                                        Limited under which  Amalgamated agreed to
                                                                        supply pictures to the Northcote  Theatre. Mr
                                                                        Robert McLeish became the inaugural manager
                                                                        of the theatre. McLeish would later become asso-
                                                                        ciated with several other cinemas including the
                                                                        Rivoli Camberwell, Austral Collingwood and the
                                                                        Fairfield Theatre.
                                                                           The benchmark had been established. In
                                                                        January 1915, the  Thornbury Picture Palace
                                                                        underwent momentous change with the introduc-
                                                                        tion of a new facade, a dress circle balcony and a
                                                                        raised ceiling.
                                                                           Into this ebullient, though by no means yet
                                                                        mature market, the Westgarth Picture Theatre on
                                                                        the corner of High and Barry Streets would be

                                                                        The Westgarth’s distinctive entrance doors on
                                                                        High Street. Photo: Adrian Maiolla.

          10  Autumn  2001 CINEMARECORD
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