Thursday, December 15, 2005

the cinemas of summer hill

All over the inner city of Sydney, and especially in the inner west, you find derelict cinemas or ghosts of cinemas. In Petersham there's one that was a skating rink before it closed down; in Haberfield there's another that is a supermarket, at least on the ground floor; in Enmore they saved theirs and it's now a classy venue for music, drama, comedy. Both next door Ashfield and Summer Hill had several cinemas but these are all now ghosts.

The Victoria Theatre was built on Lackey Street, #16-20, around 1911; it was first known as the Rugby Theatre but this name only lasted a year. Before that, as early as 1905, films were shown in the Methodist Church. The Victoria was an odd though not untypical structure, its arched façade, in the only surviving photograph, looks more like a bridge than a theatre, and the screen was initially at the street end rather than the other. This changed just after the war, when it was extensively remodelled. Victoria Pictures, which was always connected with Marrickville to the south and east and was owned by the (probably Lebanese) La Hood family in the 1920s, did not survive the advent of the talkies.

In 1929 building began on a new Summer Hill Theatre at #1 Sloane Street, on the other side of the railway lines from here. The architect was Emil Sodersten and his folly has been described as Spanish baroque frivolity derived from Hollywood; in some views it looks as much arabesque as baroque but it was certainly Spanish in inspiration, with a kind of galleon's poop looming at the front, with the statue of a naked goddess in an arched alcove within.

The Summer Hill Theatre, aka the Grosvenor Theatre, opened in October, 1930. It was one of the largest, if not the largest, cinema in NSW at the time, with seating for 2043 people. Most of the plaster work had been done locally, in Newtown: … extravagantly ornate & eclectic … soaring façade with protruding upper section intricately carved in filigreed plasters … Gothic arches & embellished columns … proscenium and side walls with false boxes, large carved urns and columns ... gargoyles and imitation leafwork … from a dome in the ceiling hung an enormous chandelier, removed ‘for safety’ during WW2 & never put back …

In contemporary photos, looking eastward from Ashfield towards the city, you see this bizarrre, extraordinary palace floating on the skyline. None of the photos I have seen are in colour but I assume it was ochre-coloured, or perhaps, like Petra, rose-pink. The interior was remodelled in 1939 (Gunga Din played at the Gala Opening), and during the 1950s, Cinemascope was installed.

But, like so many other suburban theatres, it did not survive the coming of television. The Grosvenor closed in 1959 (last features: Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and The Heart Within) then lurched, re-opening and closing, through the 1960s. Late in that decade it was used spasmodically to show foreign language films (Bergman? Fellini?) before going dark forever in 1969. It was demolished the next year and the site remained vacant for 15 years. Now, there is a low, oblong, glass box on that corner with, I guess, offices within.

Both of these cinemas are commemorated, if that's the word, in a rather crass mural on a wall in Lackey Street opposite where the Victoria used to be. What's poignant to me about this mural is that it wouldn't be there at all if the 19th century Department Store owned by C. Hodgson & Co., General Importers, that used to stand in that section of the street hadn't been demolished for a carpark, also in the 1970s. There's now an attempt at a park where it used to be, used mostly by the local drunks and druggies and residents of the various halfway houses in Summer Hill.

It's curious to reflect that both the Grosvenor and Hodgsons missed their moment by just a few years. The sensibility that would have valued and preserved them hadn't quite developed by the time they were knocked down but, only a few years later, their loss was felt with intense regret. Me, I try to rebuild them in my mind every time I pass and other times as well; there are days when I come out of the tunnel under the railway line and truly am surprised the Grosvenor is not there where I imagine it to be, a dream palace in which palatial dreams are entertained.


The doorbell rang last night while I was watching Donnie Darko on dvd. Wasn't expecting anyone so answered it with some trepidation. My next door neigbour is hypersensitive and has sometimes knocked me up late to complain about my stereo, my TV, even my children ... no, it was Philip, an English guy, a song-writer, who lives in the next building. He was asking me to join him and his son for a Christmas barbecue, which was a kindly thought. We had a drink and the conversation turned to G, the hypersensitive. Philip told me she has complained to and about every other resident in this building and also some of those in the adjoining building. She writes letters to the Real Estate about our several sins. I was, how shall I say, relieved? Yeah, relieved. It's not just me. G is a classic grievance-monger, you can see by the way she walks that she holds a grudge against the whole world and is always seeking targets against which to discharge her spleen. Live and let live, I say. I've tried to accommodate her, moving the stereo into the study, sometimes not playing music when I want to, keeping it turned down low when I'd rather have it loud, missing dialogue on the TV because it's so muted ... but when she started screaming at me that it was my fault that I had children, something snapped. I'm not, simply not, going to shush my kids for her sake. They're country kids, they're exuberant, they laugh alot, they prefer to run rather than walk down and up the stairs - what's wrong with that? What kind of misery wants to suppress childrens' joie de vivre? Besides, they're only here every second weekend. Now, having heard what Philip had to say, I don't care any more ... today I moved my stereo back into the sitting room, where it belongs.

sign on the corner

For the last week there's been a sign propped up against a lamppost on the corner of this street, Morris, where it meets Smith Street, just opposite the main drag, Lackey Street. An old, frayed, oblong piece of plywood, it has painted on it For Sale, $200 and a mobile phone number. Several times it has fallen down into the gutter or flat onto the footpath, each time someone has picked and propped it up again. But what is for sale? The sign itself? The telephone pole? Or something else? Each time I pass it I'm tempted to ring the number, just to satisfy my curiosity. Until today ... when I saw that it has migrated up the street to where the rubbbish bins stand outside the wall of the medical centre that occupies that corner. Does this mean the sale is over? Is it too late to solve this particular mystery? I feel something has been lost, something perhaps that never was ...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Coledale & Beyond

A friend was over from Auckland for the weekend so on Sunday we decided to take a drive down south to see mutual friends living in Coledale. On the southern edge of Sydney is the Royal National Park, beyond which is a narrow coastal strip beneath a towering scarp. Along this strip is a line of small towns, some of them built where coal mines were, which have, over the years, joined up with each other to make a kind of extended semi-urban strip. Usually when I go down this way I like to cut through the National Park and drive down the strip from the north but Sunday, at the last minute, something made me veer away from the turn-off at Waterfall and continue on down the freeway. It wasn't until we'd gone over the Bulli Pass, down the scarp and driven up the strip from the south that we realised something was up. There was bunting and balloons outside many of the shops and businesses, lots of roadside stalls, brass bands playing, a generally festive atmos ... but not that many people. When we arrived at our friends' place they explained that today was the completion day for a two and a half year long project to replace a narrow stretch of cliff-haunted road with an elegant off shore raised highway structure called the Sea View Bridge. The old road was so vulnerable to rockfall it was closed every time the rainfall gauge went above 20mm and there was a local legend that surfies who wanted undisturbed possession of their beaches used to piss in said rain gauge to make the closures happen. Ten thousand people were alleged to be walking across the newly opened bridge, hence all the excitement further on down the line. But already, at about 1 pm, it was clear the promised bonanza was not going to occur. How could it? Anyone who walked the bridge from north to south wasn't going to keep on walking the extra ten ks or so to Coledale; they were either going to walk back to their cars or catch a return train back or further down the line. By late afternoon, as we returned from a stroll along the shore, the kids at the roadside stalls were looking disconsolate, while the locals gathered in the beer garden at the RSL looked increasingly, though not aggressively, pissed. They'd thrown a party and no-one had come. When my friend and I came to leave, we drove north in the hope that the bridge might still, or already, be open, but no, it was all heavy machinery and officiousness. Later we passed by the turn-off to Cronulla unaware of the race riots in full swing down there as Shire locals defended 'their' beach by insulting and beating innocent fellow Australians just because of they way they looked. And later still ate at a pub in Newtown then had a night cap in the Zanzibar round the corner, still unaware that not far to the south and west, armed gangs were roaming the streets randomly bashing both people and cars in retaliation for what had been done at Cronulla that afternoon. Just south of Coledale is Thirroul, where D H Lawrence lived for a while in the 1920s and wrote his novel Kangaroo, the title of which does not refer to the big marsupial but to a fascist leader of an organisation based upon the New Guard. It's possible, as I mentioned a few posts ago, that John Howard's father was a member of the New Guard. Whether that's so or not, Howard's instincts are fascist and his methods entirely unscrupulous. He attempted in the 1980s to gather electoral support by denigrating Asians in Australia and has spent much of the last five years shoring up his postion via a subtle and not so subtle series of measures designed to bring White Australia together behind him in opposition to Muslims, or People of Middle Eastern Appearance, or Arabs or ... well, anyone who's not us. His immediate response to the riots in Cronulla was to refuse to make a statement. When he did, the next day, the point he chose to emphasize is that Australians are not racist and that this is not a racist country. Why? To reassure those that perpetrated the outrages on Sunday, and those that support them, that he is still their man and that the things that were done there were done in his name too. Most people here think that what happened on the weekend is only the beginning and that the long hot summer that is beginning will be riotous and bloody. The wistful, decent, neighbourly folk of Coledale and beyond might be lucky to miss out on more than just a few sight-seers coming over the Sea View Bridge.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I went to the City of Shadows show on Sunday. It was a disappointment. Instead of what I expected, an exhibition of discreet photographs, most of the works on display had been themed and montaged and were presented in mural form. It was very distracting and also meant that individual images did not usually have individual captions. One whole room was given over to a cartoon strip version of a famous murder, drawn in sequence around the walls with various supporting documents, and some photographs, below. Again, not a clear presentation, or not to me. The only thing I liked was a series of audio-visual pieces running in a loop, with a generous selection of images and a good informative commentary by Peter Doyle, the guy who did a similar thing live at Gleebooks last week. Trouble was, I had my boys with me and they were never going to sit down and watch something like that. Instead, we rambled through the rest of the Justice & Police Museum, which has a number of permanent displays. The kids liked two of these: one, a small room in which are displayed a truly astonishing variety of weapons confiscated by police over the years, most, or all, of which were used in the commission of some gruesome crime or other. The other room they liked - although 'liked' might not be the right word, perhaps I should say were impressed by - was a cell restored to what it would have been in 1890 or so. Cold stone, wooden pallets on the floor, a grim bucket in the corner and nothing else except the heavy steel door with a massive iron bolt on it. This was a holding cell, up to twenty people might end up in there of a night. So, anyway ... I'm going to have to go back, maybe next weekend, and sit there and watch those a/v shows, listen to the commentaries, trying to imagine life in those decades, especially the 1920s and 1930s, for something I want to write ... next year ...