Paris Theatre

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Paris Theatre

On the corner of Wentworth Avenue and Liverpool Street, opposite Hyde Park, near what is now Whitlam Square, stood the Paris Theatre. It had a long and varied cultural history, being home to movies, vaudeville, cabaret, 'revues' and drama, and its chequered history gives an insight into the ups and downs of theatre and cinema life in Sydney over the twentieth century.

Australia Picture Palace

The Australia Picture Palace, as it was first known, was designed by Walter Burley Griffin for Hoyts Theatres Ltd, and completed in 1915. It was one of the many significant architectural projects that Griffin bequeathed to Sydney, contributing to the quality of the city's domestic and civic architecture, although it is possible that Griffin designed only the façade and the building was completed by others. The theatre was a very modest reinforced concrete building with a tall cylindrical corner element and heavy concrete balconies. The façade was articulated by the relief stucco panelling.

It was initially, as the name implied, a 'picture palace', and was one of the many cinemas that appeared in Sydney from the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1935, the theatre was renovated and renamed the Tatler, and began showing second- and third-run films. [1] Later, during World War II, it changed genres: it briefly became a vaudeville theatre, and then, after a company known as 'Austral American Productions' came to an exclusive arrangement with Warner Bros to release only their films, the Tatler was reopened as a first-run theatre on 5 August 1943. Its opening offering was They Died with their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn. Then just three years later, the theatre switched formats once again; this time to revival screenings. But with patronage still declining, in 1949 another change brought 'live' revue acts to its stage, with two shows daily. Still unable to find an audience, the Tatler finally closed a year later, in 1950.

The Hoyts Theatres circuit had the theatre refurbished in 1952, and renamed it the Park. Then, in 1954 it was renamed again, becoming the Paris, and continued under that name until the building was demolished.

With the advent of television from the late 1950s, the smaller cinemas that once dotted Sydney fell on hard times, and many gradually disappeared, although the Paris survived. In 1965, its great drawcard was Tom Jones, which won four Oscars, although there is still debate about whether this film was the worst movie ever to win an Oscar. In 1977, with the creation of its mega-cinema complex in George Street, Hoyts abandoned the Paris, a sign that the days of the small cinema in Sydney were almost over.

Radical theatre

But for the Paris Theatre, 1978 was to be, in many ways, its 'best of times' and its 'worst of times'. It saw many innovative developments – but also the end of the theatre company that utilised both the building and its name.

In that year, the building became the site for a short-lived experimental theatre company, the Paris Theatre Company, set up by Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn, with financial assistance from Patrick White. Founded in March 1978 in response to the cancellation of the Old Tote's season of contemporary plays at the Seymour Centre, it aimed to present new Australian work on a major scale,

to tell the story of our times, to give the tellers responsibility for the way it is told and to make the story worth the price of a ticket. [2]

The first production was Dorothy Hewett's Pandora's Cross, and the new company drew together some of the biggest names in Sydney theatre, including Robyn Nevin, Kate Fitzpatrick, Patrick White, Jim Sharman, Jennifer Claire, Julie McGregor, John Gaden, Arthur Dignam and Bryan Brown.

But the Paris Theatre was in the news again that same month, for quite another reason. The participation of women from the New South Wales government's Women's Unit in International Women's Day (8 March) activities angered some radical feminists, who demonstrated outside the Paris Theatre. They were concerned that discussions with the Women's Unit would lead to co-option and a watering down of radical politics, and felt that finishing a march at the Paris Theatre meant emphasising 'culture' rather than 'politics'. And so the women sat down and blocked the traffic.

The theatre continued to be the site for more 'radical' activities when, a few months later, in late May, 900 people attended a gay film festival at the Paris Theatre, a month before Sydney's first Gay Mardi Gras burst upon the city. Then, in August of 1978, the new Louis Nowra play, Visions, opened at the Paris.

The City of Sydney Archives holds programmes for several productions that took place at the theatre: the John Lennon Memorial Concert, with a little help from my friends, proceeds of which were to go to the International Cooperation and Disarmament Committee; and the cabaret-style Paris Revue, which was advertised as

one of the last shows to tread the boards of the old Paris, at present under threat of the wrecker's hammer… [3]

The Paris Theatre Company heralded a change of era in Sydney's theatre, and brought a new generation of theatre artists to the fore, paving the way for the creation of the Sydney Theatre Company. But it had a short life: the company lasted only one season, folding even before its final production – Patrick White's A Cheery Soul – opened. A Cheery Soul was transferred to the newly created Sydney Theatre Company.

The Paris Theatre also featured in the case of a missing person. As a coroner's court found in November 2007, 'on or about 2 December 1979', Jill Lesley Gamblin disappeared after leaving the Paris Theatre, 'possibly as a result of homicide by person or persons unknown'. Her boyfriend of the time was an artist engaged in theatre lighting for the comedy Boy's Own McBeth, which was playing at the Paris.

Demolition

The building was pulled down in 1981 to make way for an apartment block, and the theatrical hype continued. The advertisement for apartments in the new Connaught building positively gushed:

Built on the site of the Paris Theatre, this magnificent residential apartment building continues to reflect theatrical glam … as you walk on the plush carpet in the foyer with waterfalls and greenery. Into the wood panelled elevator with brass rails, you will delight in the charm of The Connaught [4].

References

'Paris Theatre' material, City of Sydney Archives

John Adey, 'Paris Theatre', Cinema Treasures website, http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1282/, accessed 5 March 2009

Notes

[1] John Adey, 'Paris Theatre', Cinema Treasures website, http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1282/, accessed 5 March 2009

[2] Theatre program, 'Visions' by Louis Nowra, Powerhouse Museum Collection website, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=163379, viewed 5 March 2009

[3] Paris Review Press Release, undated, City of Sydney Archives

[4] '187 Liverpool Street, The Connaught', Domain website, http://www.domain.com.au/Public/PropertyDetails.aspx?adid=2004266744 , viewed 5 March 2009

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