Great Moments in Cinema History

 Of all the things that have been shut down during this pandemic, I think the one I miss the most is going to the local cinema to see a movie.  Netflix and the other thousand streaming services are handy and serve a purpose but sitting in a comfy seat, eyes fixed on a massive screen and surround sound so that your only focus is on what’s in front of you.  No other distractions, no phones, no interruptions or talking. (that is if the other patrons are functioning humans).

It’s no secret that all the blockbuster films have been delayed and there has even been talk of the death of cinema, which I highly doubt.  If it survived TV, video and YouTube, a pandemic caused  closure for six months isn’t going to even bruise it.  I look forward to cinemas opening again.  It figures that one of my favourite places in Boronia is the Metro Cinema.  We are lucky in Boronia to have our own picture theatre and did you know that it has been operating off and on in the same location for nearly 80 years?

So, if I couldn’t go there, I decided to delve into the fascinating history of our local picture show joint.  It all started with The Electra Theatre which was built on the site sometime in the late 1930s, it was a fibro and brick building constructed on land owned by Charles Spalding who had recently built the Loyalty theatre in Ferntree Gully next to his Bakery.  I can’t confirm if this is intentional as he is not listed as the owner or operator in any early documents.  The theatre stood out on the main drag that was Dorset road in a prime position opposite the railway station.

In the area, the same time as the Electra originally operated were the Glen Theatre in Sassafras, the Upwey Theatre, Belgrave’s Cameo Cinemas and the aforementioned Loyalty Theatre in Ferntree Gully.  Going to the flicks was popular in this part of town.  Did you know that in January 1952 Olinda had its own Film Festival that attracted 600 people?  Trying to pinpoint when the cinema first operated is a bit tricky.

According to the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Australia (CATHS), the Electra theatre was opened on 14th October 1939, then contradicts itself by saying it operated from 1943.  Whether the 1939 date was the commencement of construction as the Architect and Builder are listed with dates 1939+40 respectively, isn’t made clear.  While the Cinema and Audience Research Project (CAARP) lists its first opening as 1st January 1946.

In his history of the Boronia Church of Christ David S Allen wrote: “At the Board meeting in mid-August, Mr Graham reported the arrangements being made for a combined Churches Thanksgiving Service in the Electra Picture Theatre, Boronia, on “V. P. (Victory in the Pacific) Day.”  World War Two was over!” – VP day being held on the 15 August 1945.  LATE ADDITION: this of course was all shot down when a poster for a November 1942 Austerity Meeting was found after I wrote this. Refer picture.

The theatre was definitely up and running post-war as there are many adverts in the local newspaper the Mountain District Free Press also many stories of events held there, one notable one being the June 1952 public meetings over the outrage following the railway crossing accident where 9 people died earlier that month, demanding action on installing warning lights.  Something that after nearly four years of toing and froing between the council and the Victorian Railways over responsibility saw the installation of warning lights within months.  

The Electra being an auditorium was also the venue for plays and concerts as well as film.  Ken Barret, who grew up locally during the 1950-60s and now lives in Kilsyth recalls some of the physical and technological changes the theatre went through: “The original entrance had double doors with a large foyer.  There was display boards which featured coming attractions advertised on them, there was also a ticket box.  The theatre was open on Saturday mornings so you could book your seats for the evenings showing.  Whenever there was a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie on Saturday night the place was booked out.  The Saturday matinee was always full of kids.  Mum would give me one shilling each week, 9 pence to get in and 3 pence for an icy pole.  We got a newsreel, a cartoon a trailer and a main feature.  Great memories.

“The Farmers (owner-operators during the 1960s) introduced cinemascope movies when they managed the theatre.  I can remember when they had an entrance down the sideway.  When TV started the theatre closed for a period of time. The theatre opened up again and that was when the entrance was up the side alley, what is now the Chandler Arcade.”

With the success of the Boronia Mall when it opened three years earlier Village Cinemas demolished the Electra in 1976 and constructed a more modern brick building consisting of two cinemas.  This operated as the Village Twin from 1979.  It ran until 1989 when in closed, along with a similar sized Twin cinema in Knoxfield, due to the major redevelopment at Knox Shopping Centre.  It was then taken over by Century Cinemas and expanded into 4-screens in around 1990.  Then Village Cinemas took over again as the Knox cinemas were going through even larger expansions.  It closed for a while in 2002.  When the redevelopment was complete, it then re-opened in 2004 as the Regent Cinemas.  This was short-lived as it was closed by Knox council in October the same year, for breaching safety regulations. 

It was taken over almost immediately by current owner-operators the Schouten family in June 2005.  Tom Schouten has theatre in his blood and has been associated with it since he was seven years old.  His parents were also involved, working in some form or another either in administration or as musician in his hometown of Geelong.

Tom has long time links to Boronia, working as manager of the then Village Twin back in 1985, the same year he married his wife Cynthia, who also had a long working history in the cinema industry. Tom, Cynthia and daughter Ellie are passionate about the property bringing back up to code when previous owners had neglected it, immediately improving safety and comfort. This included new fire safety equipment, upgrades to exits and a new boiler for heating.

Tom has also overseen the replacement of the old film projectors to digital projectors, new air-conditioning and cut the carbon footprint of the premises with the installation of solar panels on the roof.  This last action you may think is not so impressive, but have a look on Google maps of the Boronia shops: Dorset Square, Junction and Village and see how many other buildings are fitted with solar panels and you see how innovative the Schouten’s have been.  The family’s dedication to the community has meant the ticket and candy bar prices are considerably cheaper in comparison to the large shopping centre multiplex, which always seems to be verging on the ridiculous when it comes to ticket pricing.  As well as these initiatives, there is free tea and coffee for Seniors as well as the best membership club anywhere. I know because I’ve been a member for the last five years.

I talked to Tom recently regarding the lockdown and he said it was a shame that they wouldn’t be able to celebrate their 15th year with the community but it is what it is.  Public safety is paramount and if the State government cancelled the football in Victoria it must be serious.  Due to the speed and unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the lockdown, the cinema was forced to close.  The business put out a social media call for anyone who wanted ice-cream’s since they would not keep over the duration of the closure. They were gone in hours.

When the lockdown continued other stock that would run out of its use by dates such as lollies and chips were donated to Police stations in the area.  When the lockdown ended and limited numbers were introduced, the family took the hard decision to wait.  This proved to be the right decision as to the limited seating due to social distancing only lasted twelve days before compulsory closedown was reintroduced.  Tom is optimistic that things will return to normal and with it some long-delayed blockbuster films.  I share Tom’s outlook and when things do return to normal, or what will be considered normal.  I look forward to sitting down with a Choc Top in one of the four Metro’s theatres because I’m going to be spending my money locally, just to help everyone get back on track.

As an end piece I cannot recommend the Metro Cinema membership club highly enough.  For value for money it is unbeatable. $20 a year for $8 adult entry (that’s TWO adults) for every session as well as two free passes.  If you love going to the flicks as much as I do, it pays for itself in a couple of months and nothing can beat $4 choc tops.

Danny Nolan