Golden age of Ipswich picture shows

PICTURE SHOW MAN: Chris Hampton enjoys old theatre and he has lots of memorabilia including this projector and reel.
PICTURE SHOW MAN: Chris Hampton enjoys old theatre and he has lots of memorabilia including this projector and reel. Rob Williams

 

WHAT’S ON: An old poster from Lowood’s Jubilee Theatre.
WHAT’S ON: An old poster from Lowood’s Jubilee Theatre.

A CENTURY ago Ipswich residents gathered by their thousands under the stars to watch silent movies at the Atheneum and Lyceum outdoor theatres.

Before the show vaudeville acts electrified the stage, orchestras played symphonies ... and then the movies played to an audience that marvelled at the relatively new medium of film.

That is the history that Ipswich member of the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society brings to life as he spends countless hours digging through old archives.

Chris Hampton says there is very little recorded history about early theatres such as the Lyceum and Atheneum, which opened in Brisbane St in 1910 and 1912 respectively.

But we do know they were a hub of entertainment.

"The Atheneum was next to the Ulster Hotel and had a capacity of several thousand people," Hampton says. "These two theatres were outdoor continental theatres. They had seating which you had to pay for, otherwise you had to bring a blanket.

"These were night time picture shows that started off with vaudeville acts and they would have had a robust orchestra at these venues with singalongs. The theatres were also used for other events such as woodchopping and boxing. One gentleman at the Lyceum even broke a juggling record.

"But the birth place for large scale open air picture shows was the Ipswich Cricket Reserve where the Moscow Circus recently set up."

Martoo's Olympia Theatre, another open air venue, was located on Limestone St from 1908. It was roofed in over time and had an interior and exterior theatre capable of seating 3000.

"Bossie Martoo was a local entrepreneur promoting events in Ipswich and Brisbane as well," he says.

"Martoo's was famous throughout south-east Queensland and hosted lots of events, including the Queensland Eisteddfod when it was in town.

"When Bossie died it was leased out and renamed the Tivoli Theatre. When that burned down the Martoo family turned their skating rink on Brisbane St into the New Olympia."

Wintergarden Theatre.
Wintergarden Theatre. Ipswich Historical Society

Hampton says that "when we talk about picture theatres in Ipswich - The Ritz, Wintergarden and Martoo's Olympia are the greatest in the city's history".

"The Ritz, Wintergarden and Martoo's Olympia are the greatest in the city's history."

Covered theatres and cinemas brought an end to outdoor theatres, which had to contend with inclement weather.

Hampton says the former town hall, where the Ipswich Art gallery is today, was the first enclosed indoor cinema where movies were screened from at least 1909.

The 1950s and 1960s were possibly the golden age of Ipswich theatres and cinemas.

"By the 1950s and 1960s the operating theatres were the Capitol Theatre at the Goodna Memorial School of Arts which opened in around 1928 and burned down in the 1960s. At Redbank in the School of Arts was Avalon Pictures," Hampton says.

Others included The Wintergarden in East St, The Vogue in Brisbane St, The Ritz in Bell St, The Rialto in North Ipswich and the Avon in One Mile. The National Hall and the Alpha were not far from each other in South Station Rd in Booval. The movies in the 1950s and 1960s were enjoyed in a different way to today.

"Back then they would have started with a few advertisements, a few cartoons, a newsreel and then the first feature followed by an interval of 10 or 15 minutes. Then there would have been a few more advertisements and the main feature," Hampton says.

Back then they would have started with a few advertisements, a few cartoons, a newsreel and then the first feature followed by an interval of 10 or 15 minutes.

"People now in cinemas go into a box with a small screen, but there is no bling. There is no looking up at the sparkling lights. In some atmospheric theatres, like The Plaza in Paddington, they had tin lights on the ceiling."

Ritz Theatre in Bell Street.
Ritz Theatre in Bell Street. John Oxley Library

Speaking of bling, a travesty of Ipswich's history was the loss of The Ritz Theatre in Bell St, which opened in 1940.

"The Ritz was Ipswich's first art deco cinema ... our only one really," Hampton says.

"On opening night they played Shipyard Sally starring Gracie Fields and Sydney Howard.

"It was Ipswich's first air-conditioned cinema and it was designed by a well known cinema designer of the period. It and had a crying room in the stalls at the back of theatre which was a soundproof room for mothers with babies. It was typical 1930s art deco inside and out with a dress circle. Bell St is much the less for the loss of The Ritz.

"The Ritz was very popular, but by the time television came in cinema attendance fell off rapidly. In the last few years of the Ritz's existence it only screened one day a week.

"Birch Carroll and Coyle were operating both the Ritz and Wintergarden, but they favoured the Wintergarden because it had a greater seating capacity.

"When The Ritz opened they had the same board of directors as Cribb and Foote. So in 1966 when the Ritz closed it was sort of a buddy deal between Birch, Carroll and Coyle and Cribb and Foote.

"Unfortunately the Ritz was right next door to Cribb and Foote and fell to their extensions and became a car park."

Unfortunately the Ritz was right next door to Cribb and Foote and fell to their extensions and became a car park.

The Wintergarden opened in 1925 and existed until 1979 when it was demolished and the City Cinema was built on the site.

Books and magazines on film and theatre from a bygone era line Hampton's bookshelves. Precious artefacts from Ipswich's rich cinema past are also in his possession.

While on the subject of film, we talk about Woody Allen's recent movie Midnight in Paris, where several of the central characters long for a better time in Paris' past. They both have golden age syndrome.

We can't help asking Hampton the question: "Do you have golden age syndrome too?"

"You wouldn't be wrong," he grins.

"We have lost so much from the silent era ... and the sound era too. When I do my research it touches on many things - architecture and even the cafes that were next door to the theatres.

"But most of all, it touches on people's lives. There are a lot of historical photos that we don't have and it is lost social history.

"It is always important to remember what we had, what we've lost ... and perhaps what we can have again in the future.

It is always important to remember what we had, what we've lost ... and perhaps what we can have again in the future.

"If anyone has got memories or would like to relate a story of their visits to picture shows or have photos, then I would like to hear from them."

Chris Hampton can be contacted on 0439 647 686.

Topics:  big read, chris hampton, cinema and theatre historical society, opinion, silent movies, vaudeville



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