Magazine article Metro Magazine

Melbourne's Last Art House: A True Picture Palace

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Melbourne's Last Art House: A True Picture Palace

Article excerpt

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, independent cinemas across Melbourne were thriving. Little big screens--the Kino, the Lumiere, the Valhalla, Cinema Nova, Carlton Moviehouse, the Trak, the Como and the Longford--all showed edgy arthouse films. The Astor, despite its relatively plain exterior, offered something else entirely: with its seating capacity of 1110 (reduced over the years from its original capacity of 1673), it showed cult and classic repertory films on a big screen to a large audience.

In all aspects, the story of the Astor is grand. An iconic building, it has been a key part of Australia's cinematic heritage and always only just, by the skin of its teeth, manages to survive as a single-screen picture palace--long after when such places should have been economically viable. From its grand opening in April 1936 all the way to its (temporarily) closed curtains in April 2015, the Astor has survived economic fluctuations; waves of social migration, both to and from its local area in St Kilda; as well as a host of genuinely threatening changes to the traditional style of cinema-going that it offers--the rise of television and home entertainment, the demise of the art house, the dawn of pop-up cinema, the birth of digital formats, the age of the film festival and, most significant of all, the internet.

When cinema operator George Florence, aged nineteen at the time, took on the daunting task of running the Astor in 1982, he started almost entirely from scratch. The cinema was in a state of relative disrepair, and he needed to build relationships with distributors and suppliers. In the early days, many of the staff were family and friends; Florence's siblings helped in the candy bar and at the ticket box. Smaller distributors like Sharmill Films were keen to help him get started, but major studios' 'first-run' titles were off the table. Starting with repertory content because that was what was available to him, Florence eventually found a loyal following among Melbourne moviegoers and continued to screen repertory films and double bills successfully for many years.

In the 2000s, things became a little tougher. For one thing, a lot of the Astor's patrons were moving out of the inner city. Property prices and the regeneration of the city's north side also pushed a lot of people out of St Kilda, meaning once-frequent visitors became more sporadic. Added to this was a very public sale of the building to St Michael's Grammar School in 2007, which made some members of the public uncertain of Florence's actual managerial role.

Several years later, and with audience numbers dwindling to as low as thirty on its worst nights, the Astor looked like it might not recover. From 2011, an entirely new publicity campaign and a host of fresh ventures - including film event screenings and the expansion of the private-hire side of the business--drew a younger audience to the cinema. By late 2012, the Astor was entering into a new, commercially viable era.

The next threat lay in the landlord's uncertain plans for the building's future. Though minor building repairs were carried out (there was a building order that St Michael's Grammar School was legally beholden to), any major repairs were put off as part of an elusive 'big refurbishment' planned for the future. …

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