If these walls could talk | Forum Theatre

The Forum Theatre in Melbourne, originally called the State Theatre, was designed by American architect John Eberson, along with a local architectural firm Bohringer, Taylor & Johnson, who had also designed the Ambassador’s Theatre, Perth for Union Theatres. Built on the site which once housed the Morning Post-Herald Building (on Flinders Street) and the State Migration Office (on Russell Street), the site was initially purchased by Rufe Naylor’s Empire Theatres Ltd of Sydney with the goal of building a ‘live’ theatre sister to his Empire in Quay Street, Sydney. Initially designed as an ‘Atmospheric theatre’ movie palace, the interior features reproductions of Greco-Roman statues and a sky-blue ceiling decorated with small stars, mimicking a twilight sky. The theatre was built as one of the series of ‘Million Dollar Theatres’ announced by Union Theatres in 1921.

Originally planned to open on January 1, 1929, the State Theatre didn’t have its grand opening until the 23 February, 1929. A preview of what was in store for potential audiences was given in The Argus on January 8, 1929:

On an elevator platform an orchestra of thirty performers will play under the baton of Mr L Rosebrook (from the Schubert Theatre, New York), and the same conductor will direct a band of twenty performers on the stage, who will form the background to the musical presentations which are to be a feature of the theatre programmes. All this instrumental music is incidental to the Wurlitzer organ, which will cost £25,000.

The arrival of the organ caused a stir throughout Melbourne, being transported from the wharf to the theatre in twenty-seven lorries in a procession that traveled up Flinders Street. Each lorry carried a large notice announcing that it contained the Wurlitzer organ for the State Theatre and caused major traffic congestion, with the City Council unimpressed and issuing fines. It was thought that the publicity gained from the spectacle far outweighed any fines incurred by the stunt.

A dual-console Wurlitzer organ of style 270, featuring 21 rows of pipes and a grand piano attachment and oboe horn, was the largest Wurlitzer to have been exported from America and at the time was the largest theatre organ in Australia. Only four Style 270 Wurlitzers were built, with three installed in Australia in 1929, at the State and Regent Theatres in Melbourne, and the State Theatre in Sydney. The fourth went to the Trocadero Theatre in London in the late 1930s. The organ was removed from the theatre in 1963, and subsequently installed in the Moorabbin Town Hall (now Kingston City Hall) by members of the Victorian Division of the Theatre Organ Society of Australia.

On February 20, the Sun News Pictorial carried a special supplement on the State Theatre, with photos, articles and a full-page advertisement (see below).

Sun News-Pictorial, State Theatre Supplement, 20 February, 1929, p. 1. Courtesy of http://www.theatreorgans.com/southerncross/Victoria/StateMelb.htm

Like in some fanciful story out of the past, we are transported on a magic carpet to a new world, where ‘neath magic, star-drenched skies, there unfolds before our eyes a lavish, jewel-studded palace.

This palace of dreams come true is Union Theatres’ great gift to the motion picture lovers of Australia. For within the walls of this dream palace, Australia’s greatest theatre, The State, is born an enterprise destined to fill that long-felt want, ready to give you the perfect entertainment that is yours by right.

The dream fugue of the State has culminated in a blaze of real beauty that will bring honour and glory to all connected with it.

The theme is one that contains endless variations, variations that will bring joy and happiness, variations that will find a solution for the sadness and sorrow that come to all without distinction. The populace will extol the Union Theatres Ltd. for this matchless building, the apotheosis of grace and as beautiful as the curtain of Solomon.

There is but one State. Never was a theatre so beautiful, or its glory so dearly bought but that it fades into insignificance beside this Florentine garden of music, of picture, of song, which you see on Saturday for the first time. To you we extend the welcome of one friend to another. The State is the Personal Theatre, where the Unit in the audience is as important as the Unit on the programme.

We give you our greeting – everyone of us, from the highest to the lowest, because you, as much as ourselves, will complete the great task we have begun, that of bringing to vivid life the Great State Theatre, the noblest palace of pleasure in Australia.

You will rest in the melodic softness of the theatre, and your mind refreshed will prepare to revel in the living dramas to be produced as you sink back in your seats, which are world famous.

An Acre of Seats in a Garden of Dreams.

The building features a Moorish Revival exterior, including minarets and a clock tower. When it opened in 1929 the cinema had the largest seating capacity in Australia, holding 3371 people. In 1963 cinema chain Greater Union converted the venue into two cinemas, the Forum and the Rapallo. A wall was constructed at the front of the dress circle, with the former circle transformed into the 627 seat Rapallo Theatre, and the former stalls becoming the 944 seat Forum Theatre. The proscenium and part of the old ceiling remained in the Forum, however the side walls were moved inwards several feet. The Rapallo opened in April, 1962 and the Forum in December, 1963. The former solo organ chamber became a milk bar, with an entrance from the street outside.

In 1978 the Forum was listed on the Historic Buildings Register and in 1981 renovations took place, dividing the complex into Forum I and Forum II. Forum I, being the larger of the two, able to accommodate 1500 people standing, 788 cabaret seating and 826 theatre seating, is located on the ground floor and is generally used for concerts and other large-scale performances, whereas the third-floor Forum II is a smaller venue with a total capacity of 543 for a concert and 594 for screenings.

However, in 1985 it was purchased and used by the Revival Centres International, a Christian organisation, and fell into disrepair. In 1995 it was purchased by Staged Developments Australia, who redeveloped it for use as a film and concert venue. It was later bought by David Marriner, as part of a project to establish Melbourne as a major centre for theatre in the Southern Hemisphere. The Forum Theatre is now one of Melbourne’s most popular contemporary music venues, having played host to such acts as Oasis, Ozzy Osbourne, Katy Perry and Cat Power, as well as the Melbourne International Film Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. 

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