Archive | June 2012

Now showing at The Mecca – THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY

The Good

Mecca Movie City has been a name synonymous with the St George suburb of Kogarah for decades – many of us still hold memories from the 80’s and 90’s, “catching a flick” at Phil Doyle’s beloved institution on one of the special $5 movie nights. The tones of the Wurlitzer organ, the smell of popcorn wafting through the foyer, sticky carpets, choc tops and a film reel crackling flickering images onto a scarlet curtained screen, these are the images I can recall. I remember bugging my older brother many times over to take us kids down to the Mecca to catch the latest offering from Hollywood, walking up the garden path and grabbing a slice of pizza (there was a pizzeria next door if my memory serves correct), filing in and slumping down into a seat, and letting the fun begin.

But the history of the Mecca goes way back before this.

A brief timeline by movie historian Ken Roe. cinematreasures.org

Located in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah. The Victory De-Luxe Theatre was opened on 17th November 1920 with a seating capacity of 1,800. The opening film was “The Brass Bullet”. It was equipped with an American Seeburg Electrical Orchestra pipe organ, with 2Manuals on the console and 3Ranks of pipes in the organ chambers located on each side of the proscenium. In August 1928, a new Christie 2Manual/7Ranks theatre organ was installed and opened by organist Leslie V. Henry formerly organist at the Prince Edward Theatre, Sydney. Other organists to play this instrument were Horace Weber, Eddie Horton & Knight Barrett. From 9th November 1928, the theatre was re-named New Victory Theatre.

The Victory Theatre was re-modeled in 1936 in an Art Deco style to the plans of architectural firm Crick & Furse. The exterior was given a modern deco style. Inside, there were Chevron style decorations on the side-walls and similar decorative features on the ceiling. The seating capacity was reduced to 1,534. Organist Denise Palmistra reopened the organ on 10th October 1936.

Margaret Hall, organist in residence 4 years
image: Rod Blackmore’s Australasian Theatre Organs

The Christie organ was removed in the early-1950’s. It was briefly re-named Avon Theatre in the 1960’s. Taken over by Mecca Theatres on 9th December 1971, it was renamed Mecca International Theatre. A Conn electronic organ was installed at that time. It was remodeled again in 1975, giving the theatre a new ceiling and a false proscenium. A 3Manual/8Ranks Wurlitzer organ was installed, which had originally been installed in the ABC Ritz Cinema, Richmond upon Thames, England, UK. Pantomimes and live shows were introduced to supplement the film programming.

In 1990, the cinema was divided into four screens, and was closed in September 2003.

The famous Wurlitzer
image: Rod Blackmore’s Australasian Theatre Organs

The Bad

Since 2004 the Mecca cinema has remained dormant and unoccupied, a shadow of its former self. Passers by have long been wondering what will eventually become of the once mighty Mecca, when or if it would re-open, until now. A 21 million dollar Development Application has been lodged with Rockdale Council, and with 4 levels of basement parking and 10 stories of residential and shopfront above ground this is no short trailer, this is a feature length epic. A King Kong sized towering block perhaps more at home on the boulevards of Manhatten rather than the back streets of Kogarah. Remembering, there are numerous tall buildings around the main centre of Kogarah and up towards the hospital precinct, but nothing on this suburban side of the railway tracks, nothing of this magnitude.

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The Ugly…

So, we are losing another art deco theatre, one that had a proud history in the St George area. See the pictures of its sister cinema the stunning 1832 seat Hurstville Mecca (formerly Savoy Theatre), which eventually shared the same fate of demolition and redevelopment back in 1995. The National Trust’s president at the time, Barry O’Keefe, QC, said that the Hurstville Mecca was”the most significant surviving cinema after Sydney’s State and Capitol theatres”.

A Sydney Morning Herald report by Geraldine OBrien reported back in 1991: ‘In 1957, there were 660 cinemas and theatres in NSW. In 1983, a report commissioned by the NSW Heritage Council recommended retention and protection orders for 13 of these, all considered gems of the “picture palace” age. Today, seven of those 13 gems have been smashed under the wrecker’s hammer, two – the State and the Cremorne Orpheum – have been retained and restored, another – the Hurstville Mecca Savoy – is about to be demolished and the future of the last three is in grave doubt. One proposal put forward by the trust is the development of “provincial theatre”, a venue for the “out-of-town” try-outs which are standard practice in London and New York. Australia can ill-afford to lose its few surviving cinemas from the great era of “moving pictures”, the trust says.’

While the Kogarah Mecca interior has been altered to the point of having little heritage value, the outside facade with its frescoes still holds some period charm and could possibly be included in any future residential development as a nod to the site’s cultural beginnings as well as a locally unique addition to any future building, something like the Yellow House in Kings Cross. Inheritance recommends this option.
But realistically we will lose the whole lot.

Another option, given the changing demographic of the Rockdale-Kogarah area with large influx of Indian migrants, could be to turn the Mecca into a specialist cinema, running foreign films or art features. Imagine a Bollywood cinema here! That would be grand.

click on image to view the forlorn campaign to save the magnificent Glenelg Cinema

Back in 2011 a famous art deco theatre, the Glenelg (formerly the Ozone) with significant original heritage value inside and out, was demolished in Glenelg, Adelaide, despite a 1200 signature petition and a chorus line of vocal opposition. Fast forward one year and guess what, they want to build a new $20 million, seven-screen cinema above the council-owned Cowper St carpark right there in Glenelg. Click on this picture and try not to shed a tear.
With six submissions here we have no chance of saving the Mecca.

The question then becomes, when is ‘big’ too big?
Well, this is too big. There is nothing around it that is anywhere near that scale. If this was to pass then Rockdale Council is effectively creating a whole new high rise precinct within a suburban area. Tiny Station Street will struggle to cope with the excess traffic and parking issues. The garden rimmed path of Victoria Way will never look the same again. And what of the charming Federation shopfronts nearby, will they share the same fate as this ugly brute?

The St George Leader ran a brief article on the development, only a short grab which was far too insignificant for something of this nature and stature, and as a result only six submissions were received against the DA. I personally had to do a double-take on the story when I noticed, almost in the fine print, that 4 levels of basement carparking were proposed. 4 Levels!! We may not be able to save the famous Mecca, but lets not allow the spread of high rise into this part of the suburb so easily.
If you have any memories of the Mecca or ideas you may like to add, please leave a comment.
And remember Rockdale Council, we are watching your actions.

“…and one final note”   (please click)

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