The end of the Astor

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By Matt Barnett and Mary McConville

Photography by Hayden Charles and Charlie Kinross

UPDATE: Palace Cinemas have announced that they have reached an agreement securing the future operation of the Astor Theatre as Melburnians know and love it. The theatre will re-open to the public on June 7th 2015 with a gala event to follow on June 25th.  The famed Astor calendar will also return and is expected to be available to the public from late May.

The Astor Theatre has announced that, after successfully running for 32 years, it will be closing its doors, scheduling its final screening on April 5th.

Its website states that “we are very disappointed that there has been no support offered from any wealthy arts benefactor nor any attempt by a Government or Council agency to avert the inevitable demise of The Astor Theatre. Once The Astor closes it is gone forever and [it] will not be possible to resuscitate it as you know it. There may be a cinema operating in that space but it won’t be The Astor, as we will be gone”. The website also states that “the landlord, Mr Ralph Taranto, will not renew our lease, which expires in May this year”.

The Astor theatre is a classic, single-screen revival movie theatre, originally holding 1673 seats. It has a traditional two level auditorium layout, a style no longer used in modern-day cinemas. The building is in the popular Art Deco style and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Registrar. It is one of the few single screen large scale movie palaces left in the world that hasn’t been split up into multiple auditoriums. It is also rare for the fact that it shows double-

Photo by Lauren Dalton

Photo by Lauren Dalton

feature screenings for the price of a single film. Although screening the best in digital, the Astor theatre is, or was, a working film cinema museum, capable of presenting real film projection. It has a library of more than 600 film prints, the largest private film archive in Australia; 35mm, 16mm and 70mm; and is classified by the National Trust and Heritage Victoria.

The site, at 1-3 Chapel Street, was first developed in 1913 when Thomas Alford established the Diamond Theatre along with a confectioner and a livery stable. It was partly a vaudeville theatre and partly a cinema. It became ‘the Rex’ in 1914 before it closed in 1917. By 1924 the site had been occupied by a motor garage, and in 1935 Mr Frank O’Collins bought the property and developed it after receiving Council approval to demolish the original building. He then constructed the current building, commissioning the architect Ron Morton Taylor, whose earlier work included the State and Forum theatres.

Mr Frank O’Collins owned the building until 1962, during which time the building suffered some physical damage when th e neon sign was blown away during a violent storm in the 1950s. After he died the business was sold to a Greek family company, Tanda Investments, who from the mid-60’s showed Greek language films and ran Bingo sessions. They sold the business in March 1982 and six months later, in September, Mr Florence moved in and began to develop the current business. Mr Taranto bought the building in 2012 for an undisclosed sum thought to be less than what was paid in 2007; when it was sold at an auction for 3.8 million dollars. When asked at the time, Mr Taranto expressed his wish to leave the running of the business in Mr Florence’s hands.

Problems began to develop between the two parties resulting in official mediation. This included disputes on rent, repairs, responsibilities, maintenance, renovations, the condition of the lease and which party is responsible for the insurance. They attended a mediation session at the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal in July 2014, where there were 80 claims in dispute which were not resolved. The mediation was unsuccessful and the professional relationship between the two parties will end when the lease finishes in May, barring some absolute last minute development that will resolve all problems, we can only wish.

Mr Florence has a lot of support from members of the FOTA (Friends of the Astor) who organised a petition of support, but it would seem that the petition has failed.

Mr Ralph Taranto is an 82 year old theatre enthusiast and property investor. His plans for the building are to find a new lease holder who must themselves have extensive experience in managing a cinema. Mr Florence plans to return the building to the state it was in at the time he first took the lease in 1982 and he plans to remove the fittings that he personally owns – These may include the projector, screen and carpet. This will be complicated by the fact that part of the theatre is heritage listed, having graced that corner since 1936. At least Mr Florence won’t need to take the popular staff member, Marzipan the cat, which sadly died some time ago.

Much of the joy to do with the Astor was the sheer variety of films that were screened. The line-up was always engaging, paying respects to present directors and auteurs of the past. All of these were general favourites, from Hitchcock to Jacques Tati, and everyone in between. The final film to be screened will be Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’; a typical classic screened by the Astor, and in true form it will be a rare 70mm film print with six track magnetic sound, good enough to make Kubrick proud if he were alive today.

The Astor theatre was a class act, from the décor to the classic sign out the front. Its closing marks the end of an era. Nothing compares to the physicality of the big screen with its surround sound and ambience. Even the choc-tops will be missed, and Marzipan is also remembered. Loyal fans will have to find somewhere else to get their film fix, we believe that will be a difficult task indeed.



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