“So fine a place of entertainment” – the lost theatres of Footscray

fiesta_bingo

On the face of it, the Fiesta Bingo Hall in Paisley Street, Footscray is a depressing, semi-derelict edifice, with various small businesses desperately trying to make a go of it at ground floor level. The upper part of the exterior is ruined – the Fiesta Bingo signage seems to get worse every time you look, with bits regularly falling off.

But walk around the back and you find something amazing. A huge paste up artwork by Baby Guerrilla covers almost the whole wall.

flying_lovers_in_footscray

“So fine a place of entertainment and instruction”

The story of the building’s decline is pretty tragic.

Originally the Grand Theatre, it opened in 1911 on the site of a former church, so it recently could have celebrated its centenary – if anyone noticed.  Footscray’s great historian John Lack* writes that the Grand was Footscray’s first purpose-built cinema. The opening attracted a lot of attention,  according to a report in The Argus of Thursday, 16 November 1911:

‘The erection of large and commodious picture theatres in all the suburbs is proceeding apace, and amongst the finest of these must be reckoned the Grand Theatre in Paisley Street Footscray … The building which is close to the railway station has seating accommodation for 2000 people and presents an imposing appearance. The architect was Mr R Stevenson and the contractor Councillor F Shillabeer. The electric installation was carried out by Messrs Siemens Brothers and the Australian Metal Company. Before the performance last night Mr J G Aikman formally declared the Grand Theatre open, and congratulated the people  of Footscray on possessing so fine a place of entertainment and instruction. The mayor of Footscray (Councillor  M’Donald) said that Footscray was proud of its new theatre. It showed the progressive nature of the people there. A very fine display of pictures delighted  the large audience that filled the theatre.  An interesting film showed the preparations for building the Grand Theatre at Footscray.’

Three cinemas: the Barkley, the Troc and the Grand

The Grand was followed by  two more “commodious picture theatres”: the Barkley and the Trocadero in 1914. With several theatres, dance halls and orchestras (the Grand had one of its own), Footscray was a bustling entertainment precinct. (Despite the fine words of Mr J G Aikman, I don’t know how many people went to the pictures for ‘instruction’.)

John Lack* writes: “On Saturdays the picture theatres inhaled thousands of kids at one o’clock and exhaled them again between three and four. By the early 1920s adults could go to the pictures or a dance any night of the week, excepting Sunday … Between 7 and 8 o’clock the verandah lights came on at the Barkley, the Troc and the Grand … orchestras were tuning up at the Victor and the Orama, and further afield at Green’s Palais, the Seddon Palais and at Trimbles. The O’Sheas opened their Dancing Academy at the former Victor Theatre in 1922 …at the Royal Hall, the Toronto Orchestra was all the rage”.

These days Footscray has no cinemas. Back then it had at least three. Footscray must have been a buzzing place with a vibrant sense of community and social life.

However, this came to an end in the Depression (early 1930s), and the Grand closed its doors for a few years – although it was still used for political meetings, at one of which the Prime Minister, Joe Lyons, was hooted and booed when he spoke on behalf of the United Australia Party.

‘Vermin resistant sponge rubber’

In 1936 the theatre was reborn as the ‘New Grand’, now splendidly fitted out, Lack says, with “Glass doors, a terrazzo foyer, a marble staircase, new seating encased in vermin-resistant Dunlopillo sponge rubber … acres of fancy plaster and a glorious golden stage curtain. The New Grand was the Cinderella of Footscray’s cinemas.” In its great days it had more than 1,000 seats and must have been a great place for a night out. How many young lovers got together in those romantic, vermin-resistant Dunlopillo seats, thrilling to the glamorous adventures of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and John Wayne?

The first of Footscray’s cinemas to open, The Grand was also the last to close. By the 1970s it was already regarded as “pretty archaic” by its patrons.  Its owner tried to keep it viable by getting rid of the foyer and the stalls.  But the Grand era came to an end on 8 April 1987, with the last showing of the last picture, ‘Heartburn’. Shortly after, the Fiesta Bingo Hall moved in to the upper space, run by local businessman and ‘larrikin of the dance floor’, Kevin Gibson. By 2004, this too had closed, bingo being well past its heyday.

Around the back of the cinema, in F.J. Maddern Square, there is a gallery of street art in a mixture of styles.

streetart_maddernsquare

Is it too much to hope that The Grand will ever rise again? Perhaps. It must have seemed unlikely that The Sun Theatre in Yarraville would ever reopen its doors when it fell into disuse, but today it is a popular venue. You have to suppose that renovating the Grand would take enormous reserves of determination and cash.

Walk around the back, though, and take a look at the artwork by Baby Guerrilla. Her work encourages you to imagine all kinds of possibilities, however grim the surroundings in which the artwork appears.

*John Lack, A History of Footscray

The walk from Yarraville to Footscray 

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6 comments

  1. You never know … with new money moving in there might be a market for a rejuvenated cinema in the not too distant future – but tough to support two cinemas in the inner west perhaps

  2. What a beautifully written piece – I remember my father telling me about how popular The Grand was and how my grandfather, a carpenter, would regularly do maintenance work there. It would be wonderful to bring the Square outside back to life again.

    1. Thank you! That’s quite a family history you have there with the Grand. It must have played a memorable part in the lives of thousands of people. Wish I had had the opportunity to see it in its heyday.

  3. What about The La Scala? Footscray had four theatres.
    The La Scala at 29 Leeds Street ran from 1957-1969, showing mainly Italian movies.

  4. The FJ Maddern Square used to be a row of small single fronted attached Victorians. I lived there for a number of years in the early 1970’s. We would play ball against the back brick wall of the Grand, and when occasionally management would forget to lock the exit of the cinema we could sneak up to catch a free show.

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