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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35 responses to “Now showing at The Mecca – THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY”

  1. julie says :

    Leave the Mecca alone! High rise is most unsuitable for this street.

  2. jasmine says :

    Shame. I just came across this article. I have just written to the council to see if I can get in to the building to document it before it gets turned into an eyesore.

    • inheritanceorg says :

      And a BIG eyesore at that… Let me know how you go, I would love to get one last look inside too and take a few photos for posterity. These landmarks seem to be disappearing so quickly nowadays we need some sort of documentation to show the grand kiddies what Sydney was like before eratic zoning and overdevelopment crushed it all.

      • jasmine says :

        will let you know how I go, fingers crossed. If you know of any other places with planned development let me know as I am a photographer who has been documenting abandoned and empty spaces for a while now. I have grown up in St George and remember going to Mecca back when it was still running, they could do something so much better with that space. A community creative space or something.

  3. Romano says :

    I’m absolutely gutted that the Kogarah Mecca is to be demolished and made way for a massive eyesore. I have lived most of my life in Kogarah and my parents still do, I remember walking up the road to watch pantomimes as a child and movies as I grew older. Just wish we could of banded together as a community to save this landmark from destruction.

  4. Romano says :

    I am absolutely gutted to know that the Kogarah Mecca is to be demolished to make way for a residental eyesore, that has no place this side of the tracks. I have lived in the Kogarah area most of my life and my parents still live down the road. I remember been walked up the road to watch pantomimes as a small boy then many movies as I grew older. I just wish the community had banded together to save this beautiful landmark in our area , she will be sorely missed but never forgotten.

    • inheritanceorg says :

      Yes being a local boy too this one is close to my heart. The Mecca was a magical place from another simpler time. I spent countless nights there with my brothers and friends, it was THE place to see a movie back in the day. What should’ve been adaptively re-used as a public space, meeting hall, arts venue, Bollywood film theatre or any number of community beneficial uses will now be nothing more than another oversized soulless block of towering units like those popping up all over the city. Nothing will remain of the former glory that was the Mecca. Even the facade, which would not have interfered with the structure of the new building, could not be spared. In a progressive society it would have been at least been integrated. And as for community support, ‘apathy’ is unfortunately the word. I would advise your parents to move house before the traffic soon becomes unbearable under the weight of this new monstrosity.
      Thanks for the comments. Please check my other stories on Griffith House (we need to ramp up the campaign on this one), and the Garden Island Crane which many people would know. The Mecca was definately of local significance, but this crane is of national, if not international heritage significance.

      • Romano says :

        Yes you are so right it was a magical place which I will never forget. Unfourtunatley the inevitable has come and its only days now till she is gone forever. I am fortunate that I did get a look inside over the past couple of nights with my brother and took plenty of photos. We managed to explore every room which was truly amazing, from the entrance,each cinema,projection room with two vintage projectors still looking like they were in working order and then down stairs which we were taken aback by ; the old stage flooring still there under the cinemas with the curtain pulley system,pantomime posters and wardrobes with all the costumes,the old cinema is still there…. “You can’t buy history because once it’s gone it’s gone forever”

      • inheritanceorg says :

        Such a shame it wasn’t reincarnated into a live theatre once more. Especially with all that equipment still there… What a waste, a tragedy in this day and age… I walked by the other day to take a few external pics, how did you manage to get to go in there Romano if you don’t mind my asking?

  5. jasmine says :

    Hello, I was also wondering how you managed to get in there? I tried emailing both kogarah and rockdale council for information on obtaining access but hit a brick wall and have been too busy to follow it up. If it means doing a bit of sneaking then I am happy to do that.

    • Romano says :

      Jasmine there is a way threw the abandon units in Victoria way which brings you to the rear of the Mecca go up the other side of the Mecca where the fire exits are, cinema 4’s lock is broken otherwise the door underneath is unlocked this will take you to the old part and to the rest of the cinema good luck torch and disposable overalls are a must

    • inheritanceorg says :

      The scaffolding is up now and it won’t be long. Is anybody interested in holding a candlelight farewell outside the Mecca, opposite with a view of the theatre. It would have to be in the next week or so. Email inheritance@tpg.com.au

      • Romano says :

        We are keen it will have to be in the next few days it’s not long now till she is gone forever keep me posted on what night , I will bring photos of the inside on the night.

  6. jasmine says :

    Hello, sorry for the late reply. I ended up going in last night. The apartments next door have been demolished and the inside roofing of the cinema has been torn out so the previous entry is blocked but there are doors wide open to get in on the other side. I will most likely return tommorow night as a friend wants to go as well. There was so much memorabilia inside, signs, tickets etc. which I believe should be salvaged before it ends up in a pile of rubble. I want to at least save the old signs because I doubt the person building a carpark particularly cares about history or community and the previous owner is in jail so I don’t feel bad. But let me know when you think of having a get together.

    • bman says :

      I have been in the mecca twice and took some great photos, it is quiet easy to get in. So if anyone would like to go in and have a bit of a tour, let me know. It is an absolute shame such an amazing building is being torn down. Also out of interest who put the ‘for shame’ sign on the scaffolding. Whomever did that, good work!

    • James says :

      How can I get access to have one more look and get some great photos and possibly some old memorabilia? james.starr86@hotmail.com

    • Romano says :

      Glad you went in Jasmine, there is a ton of memorabilia there and it seems to be a waste of history to see it destroyed and thrown away, I must say that I have taken memorabilia the times I have been inside. Hope to meet everyone soon and share the last days of the once Grand Mecca..

    • James says :

      Hi jasmine, how can I get access to have one more look and get some great photos and possibly some old memorabilia? james.starr86@hotmail.com

  7. jasmine says :

    By the way someone has hung a big ‘shame council’ sign on the Mecca.

  8. James says :

    I remember going to the cinema as a young kid and then a teenager with my mates when I was at Marist College Kogarah, they were the days! I happened to visit The Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne over the weekend and it very much reminded me of the Mecca in Kogarah 🙂 It is such a shame to see that Mecca will be demolished, they should’ve reopened it, that would’ve been amazing!!! I would also love to revisit the Mecca some night this week and take some photos of the inside, how can we get entry into it?? If someone could please inform me or take me on a tour it would be much appreciated 🙂

  9. jasmine says :

    We should add more signage!! But I will be at work tommorow so probably won’t get a chance.

  10. James says :

    Hey guys,

    Thankyou again for the other night when there was all of us, my friend and i thought it is was absolutely amazing, got some good photos, I’m going to really miss the place 😦 I happened to drive past the mecca this evening and noticed they have already started removing the roof, it really is a shame! A candlelight gathering will need to be done soon as it wnt be long til she is completely torn down.

  11. Margaret says :

    Hi, so interested to read all your adventures about getting into the theatre. I also have many memories of the place. Was wondering if anyone is going to post photos that they took. I would love to see them. So sad to see such a beautiful old building go. The mighty dollar always wins! I cannot imagine what the traffic is going to be like once they have built this massive high rise block of units!

  12. Therese says :

    I’m only just starting to grasp the scale of the horror unfolding on the Mecca Kogarah site.
    The seemingly unending noise from the demolition of the apartment block behind it is also disturbing everyone, and can clearly be heard, streets away, as I type.
    The dear old Mecca.
    And also all our other precious heritage gems.
    What do we say to those, like ourselves, who treasure our heritage connections, who feel priveleged to walk the same floors, feel the lives of our ancestors’ homes, entertainment venues, business and public places?
    To the students, historians and generations to come?
    “Here stood one of the most historically significant houses in the St.George area. Right on the site of that high-rise. Yes, there were options, but the council of the time did not consider them.”
    “But we no longer have any examples of this style left in the area!”
    “That’s right. If something had been done way back in 2013, St.George may still retain a lot more of its heritage today.”

    I weep for the area, I really do.
    Greedand overdevelopment and soul-less ‘progress’ are robbing the citizens and futureinheritors of St.George andmany other areas of the beauty, character and history of their suburbs.
    Look at Arncliffe and Wolli Creek…
    Groaning under the weigh of ugly highrise that’s spreading like cancer and threatening to destroy this historically threaded area.

    • inheritanceorg says :

      Well said Therese…
      I know of at least two cinemas in Sydney that have been converted into apartments but retained their heritage features; The Metro on Orwell St. Kings Cross, and more recently, the Valhalla at Glebe, and just look how good that turned out.
      Surely Kogarah would have been all the richer for following these examples, and retaining what they could have of the Mecca, rather than turning it to rubble. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I have been advised that certain councilors pushed for high rise on this site. Well they got what they wanted.
      Without heritage we have no roots, and without roots we can be blown away in the next wind of change.

  13. Realist says :

    Out with the old and in with the new. There’s becoming less and less need for movie theaters nowadays. Many people have their own scaled down theaters in their homes. So, why is there a need to preserve some ancient crumbling movie theater? A new developmental phase of retail and residential units would greatly enhance the appeal of the lot where the old theater stood. Virtually nobody today cares or is interested in pipe organs unless you’re 90 years old, and virtually nobody today cares about some decaying old movie house fading into oblivion either. It’s just a nostalgic thing for people who want to hang onto memories of their long gone youth attending that theater. Well, we all get old and must let go of the past once and for all. You live for today and not for what once was. It’s time to move on…

    • inheritanceorg says :

      Yes, no need for nostalgia… What we really need is more units. There aren’t enough of them.

    • Jasmine says :

      Realist, you seem to have missed the entire point. I would also be curious to know on what facts you have based your remarks that “Virtually nobody today cares or is interested in pipe organs unless you’re 90 years old, and virtually nobody today cares about some decaying old movie house fading into oblivion either”. Unless you have proven studies they are simply your own generalisations. Last time I checked you did not speak for everyone on this planet.

      Also I am not someone that is trying to hang on to my long gone youth, I am in my twenties and without acknowledging the past we will make the same mistakes in the future. Personally I believe this is a case of profit over community. The argument here is not one of nostalgia, that is simply what brought a community of people together which I believe is intrinsically a wonderful thing. I know I would rather be meeting new people and hearing stories than sitting at home in front of my ‘scaled down theatre’ (which by choice I do not own).

      There was a great opportunity for many initiatives that serve to enrich, educate and inspire the surrounding community to take place in space of the theatre that once stood but instead it is going to be yet another god damn high rise. A quick google search will show you the impact of the increase of high rises on social isolation.

      I can also provide you with a mountain of case studies that demonstrate how the instigation of creative initiatives within suburbs, towns and cities can actually bring about significant positive change economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. Yes, there are many other options besides a high rise that could have benefited Kogarah. You only have to look at schemes such as ‘Renew Newcastle’ to see how they revitalised a city creatively.

      So in short, I am not going to “move on” but instead move forward whilst acknowledging and respecting the past.

      P.S. I work in the Arts Industry, Film and Photography Industry and am in training to be a Community Arts Community Development Worker as well, so I actually know what I am talking about in terms of culture and how to instigate positive change.

      • inheritanceorg says :

        Too true Jasmine. Realist obviously has no sense of ‘reality’.
        In a similar case study, today it was announced the Francis Drake Bowling Club est.1948 with over 100 active members will be closing its doors, after amalgamating with Ramsgate RSL several years ago. Ramsgate RSL is not honouring its 10 year survival deal with the club and in fact did certain things to actively diminish the standing of Francis Drake with lack of publicity, etc, so it is a case of the big fish killing off the little fish and carving up the spoils.
        The point here is that now the big fish will rezone and redevelop the land, make a squillion by selling out the community, and 100 bowls members who rely and depend on the club as well as the population in general will be all the poorer for losing a social/communal recreational outlet… but there will be more units…
        We as a community need bowling clubs, we need independent theatres, art outlets, social reference points, not more bloody units. What amazes me is how quick and easy people nowadays seem to find it to let it all slip away without a fight… I guess the only answer is that there are alot of so-called ‘realists’ out there, misguided and plainly ignorant individuals who just plainly feel ‘oh well, it’s time to move on’ as they put it… Move on to what exactly, Realist?

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