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Fought over for 55 years, one of Australia's great cinemas is about to be saved

David Tiley

The battle to save the extraordinary Capitol Theatre in Melbourne nears victory, as Lord David Puttnam joins the fight with more international muscle.
Fought over for 55 years, one of Australia's great cinemas is about to be saved

Image: The ceiling of the Capitol Theatre. There is no exterior to this - it is just a 1920's office block. From Jes on Flickr.

Robin Boyd, architect and Modernist crusader, described the Capitol Cinema in Melbourne's Swanston Street as 'the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built'. He was fighting to save it in the 1960's, in one of the first great conservation battles in Victoria.

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The building was designed by  Walter Burley Griffin and Marian Mahoney Griffin, American migrants and significant figures in 20th century architecture. Since then, it has been hammered so hard it is a symbol of the cultural vandalism which swept across the city in a tide of junk building. 

The wonder that was

It was opened in 1924 as a triumph of silent cinema with a ceiling which is still extraordinary today. Wikipedia describes it well:

The ceiling was indirectly lit and the lighting was used in conjunction with the original orchestral scores in the early silent film era to add drama for the spectator. Thousands of coloured lamps producing light that changed through all the various coloured hues in the spectral range were hidden amongst the plaster panels creating a crystalline cave effect.

We have a strong collective image for historic cinemas. They glitter with gold and chandeliers, with plaster balconies and sweeping stairs. They mash together memories of baroque opera houses with the American vision of fairytale romance, as gargoyles wait to play when the audience has caught the train back to the suburbs. 

But The Capitol Theatre is something very different.  The Griffins had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright to evolve the Prairie style of horizontal lines, honoured the geometry of Art Deco, and belonged to the Chicago School. They wanted reinforced concrete and steel beams rather than brick and moss, were inspired by the elevator, embraced the skyscraper and helped to develop Modernism. 

However the husband and wife partnership went far beyond this. They are known popularly in Australia for incinerators (which got them through hard economic times) and the design of Canberra. Glenda Korporaal has a lovely description of their original plans for the city, developed in Chicago for the competition. 

'What happened next was the result of a unique partnership between architect and architect, town planner and delineator, man and woman, husband and wife, two lovers, working side by side to achieve a life's vision, working together with all the instinctive movements of two highly trained dancers. The new bride and groom were coming together for the biggest challenge of their lives.'

The Capitol Theatre honoured the dreamscape of silent cinema by a play of light, by sheets of moving colour, by electricity and transducers and glowing wire. They celebrated the technology and the permanence of physics set against the transience of story contaminated by custom. [Image here]

The sensibility behind the Capitol ceiling is Arabic, abstract and futuristic. It is like floating across tomorrow's cityscape in a flying car, a meditation on visual rhythm, on edges and geometric shadows. It is not surprising that this is not a stand-alone picture palace, but the lower floors of a 1920's office block. [and here].

The fire next time

When the Capitol opened, the Griffins turned to another Melbourne Cinema, the Palais in St Kilda, which they remodelled with a conventional Art Deco design. A few days before it was due to open in 1925 the building caught fire.

'According to statements made by workmen, the electrician, Robert Creeland, was reglobing the lights on the stage and proscenium when a short circuit occurred and an electric-light wire fused. Instantly a portion of the scenery ignited. Along the ceiling was a system of decoration said to be composed of imitationleaves, made of wax and painted. Along this ideal combustible medium the flames shot with the rapidity of a burning fuse. In less than five minutes the roof was ablaze from end to end.'

The building burnt to the ground and the replacement picture palace designed by Sydney cinema specialist Henry White is now being restored to its original glory. 

The Capitol survived the rise of sound, the Great Depression and World War Two, but the advent of television ruined the cash flow, and the whole structure was ripped apart in 1963. Like so many other cinemas, the bottom was removed, the seating was reduced to 600, bits were closed off and the balcony became the whole cinema. From then on, it was impossible to view the light show and its Deco shadows from the best point of view. The ground floor became a grim little arcade which still remains. 

By the late 80's this too was unviable as single screens yielded to multiplexes. It was available for hire and used intermittently by the Melbourne Film Festival, as a sort of stained yellow shoe box  with lumpy seats and terrible sound, as the 4000 lights became harder and harder to maintain. 

Dreams of rebirth

Ten years later, RMIT bought it with fine plans for a rebuild, but ran into financial problems of its own, which have only gradually been resolved. 

Ever since The Capitol has been kept on life support as it gradually aged. Occasionally used as a venue, it was worked during the day as a lecture theatre, and spruced up by some paint. Even the public tours stopped so the lovely subsidiary spaces at the front fell further out of memory. Eventually it closed almost completely in 2014.

Slowly the economics have shifted back. As the culture of the city has become much more vibrant, the lack of a 650 seat venue for medium sized shows has become more acute. Philanthropists have become more adventurous and the post war generation of successful entrepreneurs is getting old, leading to a string of valuable bequests across the city.

There are surely several groups at RMIT with a vital interest in the cinema, including RMIT's management which is ultimately responsible for a large decaying cinema right in the middle of Melbourne. But the School of Media and Communication took the initiative to make a deal with the Vice Chancellor Martin Bean to back a refurbishment by Architecture company Six Degrees, which did the initial designs back in 1998. 

Bean agreed to match  funds raised dollar for dollar, for any amount higher than $250. The target is $20m. Late last year the university set up the RMIT Capitol Theatre Appeal. Money came in quickly, so the appeal has achieved $8m out of its $10m target. Included is $2.5m from the government. 

Enter the ambassadors, with a foreign lord. 

There is a flying squad of ambassadors to represent the campaign in public. Vice Chancellor Bean is wrangling animator Adam Elliott, producer Sue Maslin, Village Roadshow Deputy Chair John Kirby, and Clare Stewart, the London Film Festival Director. 

Now the group has been joined by Lord David Puttnam, who produced Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, The Killing Fields, Local Hero and The Mission, ran Columbia Film Studios, chaired the National Film School.. and the list goes on. A committed UK Labor Party member, he serves in the House of Lords and immerses himself in the arts, education, climate change and the digital future. And fights against media concentration. 

He has an affection for Australia, and has given keynote addresses at the Screen Producers Annual Conferences. Starting in 2015 he runs a set of ten intensive seminars by video link to students of the Griffith University Film School at the end of July on Producing for Screen and Society in the 21st Century.  

The RMIT School of Media and Communication are substantial users of the Adjunct Professor system, which enables the department to link itself with thinking practitioners in the sector. The role is theoretically honorary but it can amount to much more. Of the sixteen on the list, Robert Connolly, Fiona Eagger, Dr John Hughes, Sue Maslin and Jenni Tosi are part of the screen sector. 

David Puttnam has joined them as an Adjunct Professor. 'We are doing something different [to Griffith] said Dr Lisa French, Dean of the  RMIT School of Media and Communication, 'which is more about high level advice. He loves working with students. He was out here recently and worked with students and made a lot of space to draw them in and get feedback from them.' 

He really is a powerful addition to the Capitol campaign, with a name and reputation to compel interest and open doors. He is quoted on the website as saying

When I arrived in the 1980s I was lucky enough to witness an extraordinary flowering of brilliant Australian filmmakers. For those filmmakers to get a film to play at the Capitol Theatre was heaven on earth, and so the Capitol Theatre really has a strong connection to the birth of Australian cinema....

... The reactivation of the RMIT Capitol Theatre will be the recreation of something quite extraordinary, a magnificent building, which at the same time will become a wondering learning resource, for the students at RMIT, and for people who live and work in Melbourne.

This is a fantastic venture; it’s a very bold venture, a very brave venture, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.

RMIT photography student Anton Jadrijevic has a lovely collection of stills, while the campaign video is out and about. 

Away from the names and the reputations threaded through the layers of Melbourne society, one single donation is extraordinarily generous. 

A cultural inspiration

Ling Ang, a former student, encouraged by her family, has pledged $500,000. She was born on the Gold Coast 27 years ago, and studied the diploma course at RMIT in 2009, when she started an ongoing RMIT Cultural Visions Film Grant. She has worked in London and is a member of the MJR photo collective in New York. 

She is quoted as saying, 'I came back from overseas looking for infrastructure that could help harbour more creativity for myself and my peers, and the Capitol Theatre was the perfect platform to help harness that.'

Lisa French sees the space as much more than a cinema. During the day it will work for the University, used once again as a teaching space. At night it will be turned over to screen and performance activities, for the annual run of Melbourne festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival. That all makes sense, but there is an important further twist. In the forgotten extra rooms they will build The Salon. 

As French said, 'This is a fantastic project. We might be up there with 150 people. All the spaces can be opened up and we can get some really good partnerships going.'

The Capitol Theatre belongs to the history of architecture, but for the people of Melbourne, it is a loveable part of contemporary cultural life, a space where art and audience come together in myriad ways. 

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The story of the Palais fire was told with enormous gusto by the Age on 11 Feb 1926. It is well worth reading and plays out like a silent film. 

There is more detail on the building in the Heritage Impact Statement. The reinforced concrete was designed by John Monash.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.

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