Before the Movies there were Pictures

When we thought we were too old for Market Day at the Dandenong Market our cousins Andrew, Peter and Bruce would each take the Blue Harris from Dandenong and stay for a few days of the school holidays with Nanna in Eliza Street. I don’t remember very much about Andrew, the oldest cousin, coming to Newport but Peter and Bruce’s stays in Newport combined a coming of age without a loss of innocence. Bruce and I would watch television all afternoon causing our young teenage minds to be shaped by the daytime schedules of channels nine, seven, and ten and the 1940’s American movies they broadcast.

Peter was the middle cousin and I think the couple of years difference in our ages and how old we were gave us school holidays without a loss of innocence; the days were filled with two major undertakings. One was designing and constructing complex Hornby O Gauge train layouts on one side of the Peel Street backyard, and the other was taking the train into Melbourne to go to the pictures.

We didn’t just go to the pictures we went to the one-hour newsreel shows. On the elected day of the newsreels, we would be anxious to catch the first off-peak train into the city: the first after 9:00am. And we knew we had to be on the return off-peak back to Newport before 4:00pm. We had about six hours to navigate the central business grid of Melbourne to choose the best two newsreel offerings and have sandwiches or a meat pie at Coles Cafeteria.

Coles Cafeteria
coles cafeteria

The newsreel theatres were small theatrettes in the basement of buildings housing retail shops or tucked below picture theatres. The concept of the newsreel was to screen back to back an eclectic blend of short featurettes. A one hour program was made up of one or two weekly newsreel, cartoons such as Tom and Jerry or Donald Duck, Popeye, a Pete Smith Specialty, the 3 Stooges, or a Scotland Yard mystery. The program would run continuously through the day with no intermissions and you could stay in the theatre as long as you wanted to: even all day. In the late fifties Melbourne had six newsreel theatres; Century, Albany, Star, Times, Savoy and Tatler.

Tatler albany theatre

We knew the location of each theatre and would walk the Robert Hoddle grid comparing the programs at all six theatres; a Pete Smith Specialty versus a 3 Stooges comedy, Bob Dyer’s record shark catch versus a Trade Fair opens in Melbourne, or a Casper versus Sylvester. The decisions while not causing grief or distress were agonizing. We would go to one newsreel in the morning and then head to Coles for lunch and to digest what we had just seen. In the afternoon we would sometimes sit through one and a half of the program just to see the Pete Smith Specialty a second time. And then back to Flinders Street for the off-peak return to Newport.

I only knew movies as pictures, and pictures were no longer than twenty minutes. The exception to the twenty minutes was the Saturday afternoon matinee feature after the intermission and the serials. The feature was usually a Tarzan, Lone Ranger, Robin Hood, or a Western and the serials or cliffhangers were Zorro, Roy Rogers, Rob Roy, a G-Men thriller, or some other thriller. We would go to the matinees at the Hoyts Regent in Ferguson Street; the theatre would inhale a collection of excited pre-teen boys on Saturday afternoons who quickly found their seats downstairs and waited in anticipation for the lights to dim and the curtains to open.

theatre inside

It was a regal picture theatre: reserved seats in the upstairs balcony with ushers with torches to take your ticket and escort you to your seat, a ticket box, and a concession stand to buy Jaffa’s, Minties, or a Peters ice cream. The ice cream could never be taken into the theatre and had to be purchased and eaten in the foyer or outside during intermission. There was a milk bar over the road from the Regent and sometimes we would go there because of the varied choices of ice creams and lollies.

A  Hoyts Regent

The matinees added to the fine print to my definition of pictures; you could never eat anything in the theatre when you are watching a picture.

Several years later as a teenager, I would go to the Friday evening pictures at the Regent with Andrew Lambrianew and we would meet up with a collection of other rebellious pubescent teenagers. We would start off sitting in a row of seats and the lights dimming was a signal for action to the ring leaders; their intent was to outsmart the torch-carrying ushers. They would provide enthusiastic loud comments to the images on the screen, roll Jaffas down the aisle, or throw Minties and Fruit Tingles at the projection screen. As soon as the rear door opened and the torch-wielding ushers appeared everyone in the row would crawl under the seats and rows to disperse. If you were caught you were escorted from the theatre.

Peer pressure caused me to sit with the daredevils and I suffered embarrassment and fear at this Friday night at the pictures rite of passage. If only I could have looked into the future: I was being initiated to what is now the tradition of audience participation and callbacks of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Sing-a-Long-Sound of Music.

The Regent was demolished to make way for the North Williamstown Library.

st george theatre

The St Georges in Yarraville became a picture theatre in 1910 and projected its last picture in 1958. In 1960 it became the Universal Dancing Classes Ballroom. I was a young teenager when I first caught the train to Yarraville and walked into the St George with Andrew Lambrianew. We were there to learn to dance. Under the guidance of Pat McGuire and his wife, Marjorie Andrew and I would no longer have two left feet but would glide across the floor showcasing the waltz, pride of Erin, foxtrot, progressive barn dance, and evening three-step. I think we also thought we would meet girls. So off we went: I think it was Thursday nights.

Mum made most of our clothes and she made a blazer and slacks for me to wear when I was dressing up to go out. I think that she had made them so I would grow into them or maybe the loose, baggy, fit was some cool late fifties early sixties look that I didn’t know about. But she was the seamstress. The boys lined up behind Pat and mimicked his footwork as he counted off the beat. The girls were lined up behind Marjorie. There was some magical communication between Pat and his wife because they both knew when we had conquered the dance step and it was time to practice: the boys were sent to one side of the hall and the girls the other. Most time it was boy’s choice and you had to go and ask a girl to dance. I was very shy and bookish and still in scholarly competition with John Colville and Robert Ballard when I was learning to dance, and my best going out clothes didn’t help my self-image. After refusals from various girls, I would be back sitting by and learning against the boy’s wall listening as the speakers introduced Max Bygraves crooning Any Dream will Do.

Everyone danced the progressive dancers. I spent my first progressive dances stepping on every girl’s feet, forgetting when to change partners, and not knowing if there was a difference between the beat of the barn dance or the three-step. I was never asked to dance when it was girl’s choice.

If only the St George’s lights would have dimmed and the curtain opened to show Tarzan travelling to India to save hundreds of wild elephants who were in danger. Andrew spent most of the time dancing and hitting on the girls. I soon didn’t like going to UDC and must have talked Andrew into also not wanting to go. My mother was disappointed when I told her I wasn’t going to dance classes at the old picture theatre anymore. I don’t think I wore my dressing up going out blazer and slacks ever again.

I still don’t dance. When I saw the movie Strictly Ballroom I wondered why Pat and Marjorie never taught us young boys, the paso doble.

Rocky Horror Picture Show

Strictly Ballroom


One thought on “Before the Movies there were Pictures

  1. Pingback: Riding A Tait Back To The Future | drinkingwithflies

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