On Saturday April 3rd, 1936, the Astor Theatre, located on the corner of Chapel St and Dandenong Rd in St. Kilda, Melbourne, opened its doors and commenced its life as a much loved Melbourne icon.
The site was previously home to a silent theatre known as the Diamond, which is thought to of commenced operation in 1908, and was owned by Mr Thomas Alford. The site later became the Rex theatre in 1908
The site was previously home to Liverly Stables, constructed by Mr Thomas Alford in 1894, and remained this way until either 1908 or 1912 (historical reports are conflicting) when Mr Alford redeveloped the site, turning it into a silent theatre known as the Diamond. A few years later, the cinema was further developed, and became known as the ‘Rex Theatre’, operating from 1914-1924. The site then became ‘Alford’s Motor Garage’, before being sold to Mr Frank O’Collins in 1935, director of Astor Theatres Pty Ltd.
The old structure known as the ‘Rex Theatre’ was almost entirely demolished, leaving only the rear outer wall. Mr O’Collins commissioned architect Ron Morton Taylor to design a modern theatre, with construction on what we know today as the Astor Theatre beginning in December, 1935. This original structure could seat 1673 patrons, with a single screen and two levels of seating.
The Astor Theatre flourished, with the cinema filled many nights of the week. It remained a popular suburban cinema for 20 years, but began to flounder with the arrival of television in Australia, coinciding with the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Various changes were made to the cinema to make it more modern, but in 1964 the O’Collins family decided to sell the premises.
Tanda Investments purchased the cinema, and elongated the stage to provide potential for live stage performances, reducing the number of seats from 1673 to 1400. Tanda Investments, with the help of Mr. Stan Raft, began to operate the Astor as a Greek language cinema, one of 12 operating at that time in Melbourne to provide for the growing Greek immigrant population. They continued to run the Astor through the 1970’s, before the cinema began to flounder again and closed its doors for a second time in 1981. It is suggested that the Greek community had become “Australianised”, and had turned to SBS and VHS for Greek language entertainment.
Following a year of closure, the Astor was finally leased to Stan Rafts nephew, a then 19-year-old George Florence. Mr Florence had a passion for cinema, and saw the potential for a truly unique cinema experience in the Astor. He desired to “preserve this unique part of Australia’s cinema heritage for future generations”.
The Astor Theatre re-opened its doors on September 17th, 1982 with the showing of the classic 1933 film King Kong, and an African Drum performance provided by the students of La Trobe University, Bundoora. The new Astor shows all types of films spanning the last century, and prides itself on its collection of unique and restored prints, many presented in 70mm format. The cinemas in house company, Chapel Distribution, lends the prints out throughout Australia and the world. Upgrades to the cinemas equipment also allows for the presentation of 2K Digital Films.
2007 saw the purchase of the Astor building by neighbouring St. Michaels Grammar, using the theatre for their performing arts program by day, and allowing the cinema to operate on weeknights and weekends and remain open to the public, under the management of Mr Florence. However, 2012 brought the announcement of the schools intention to not renew the cinemas lease in 2015, and using the premises for a full time performing arts centre. This announcement has led to outrage from fans of the cinema and members of the local community, and a petition to save the Astor cinema has been launched.
The future of this iconic theatre is currently uncertain, but one can only hope that cinema goers may continue to enjoy this unique cinematic experience for many years to come.
The Astor Theatre: A History
The Astor: A Survivor (Cinema Record Issue 26, November 1999)