Newtown’s forgotten theatre-venues
By ALEC SMART
St George's Hall, 352 King St Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart
Most people are aware of Newtown’s popular theatre venues, from the small, independent New Theatre at the Erskineville end of King St, to the mighty Enmore Theatre on Enmore Rd. However, at least three venues from yesteryear are now repurposed and people pass them by without realising their past. Another three have been demolished and replaced.
The Trocadero at 69-75 King St began life in 1889 as a roller-skating rink, part of it replacing a row of terraces, much of which were incorporated into the new premises (evidenced by the elaborate Flemish-style gabled dormer windows of the roof bedrooms).
Roller-skating was a new and very popular trend – there were at least 25 rinks in Sydney during its 1885-90 peak – and The Trocadero was reputedly the biggest and best, mainly because it was purpose-built and not adapted from an old factory.
However, during the early 1890s, economic depression and unemployment hit Australia, and, typically, leisure activities ceased with the decline in people’s wages and spending. By 1891 The Trocadero was among the last two of the roller-rinks still in operation, but sadly, it too succumbed and closed in 1893.
Thereafter it remained empty for two years until a coach builder sub-divided the interior into offices. In 1903, with the economy back up and running, it was renovated and reopened as a roller-rink again, known as Williams Skating Rink and Music Hall. The second floor were kept as offices and residencies but the façade of number 73 downstairs was removed and converted into the main entry (where the roller door now exists).
In 1909 the Grace family, owners of the Grace Bros department stores, purchased the business, renaming it Elite Rink and Cafe Trocadero – repurposing the original name.
The Trocadero, 69-75 King St Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart
As roller-skating again declined in popularity, the premises were converted into a theatre for vaudeville and boxing matches, with a screen for showing films, known as Trocadero Picture Palace. From 1916-22 a first floor room was used as a meeting space for soldiers’ wives and mothers, run by Sydney University Women's Settlement.
In 1927, the Trocadero’s days as a performance space and cinema ended when Propert's Motor Body Company Limited moved in, adapting the open entrance of number 73 as a vehicle driveway. By 1922 they were a major motor mechanic business, employing 60 workers.
In 1945 Propert’s bought the building, remaining on site until 1979, although they sold the premises in 1976 to the Anglican Church of Australia for the Moore Theological College.
The Anglican Church leased the large downstairs workshop to another mechanical repairs until 1981, when a second-hand furniture business, Con Dellis, established themselves as the main tenants.
For several years a Lebanese restaurant named Maurice’s occupied the northern ground floor shop premises. This reporter remembers dining there frequently in the mid-1980s and was passing one night when the owner-chef tragically died on the premises and was collected by an ambulance.
Con Dellis eventually vacated in 1994, whereupon The Trocadero was completely vacant and fell into disrepair until owners Moore College oversaw a restoration of the premises in 2005-6. In Feb 2014, children's cancer charity CanTeen leased the offices, eventually buying the building in 2017.
Today the ground floor is divided into three shops, two to the north, one to the south, with a graffitied roller-door garage between them, and offices/residences occupy the two floors above.
The Hub, 7-13 Bedford St Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart
The Hub at 7-13 Bedford St, next to Newtown Town Hall, has seen glory days and a tawdry phase although it’s been seldom-used in the past two decades. Built in 1913 (replacing the 1908-built Newtown Hippodrome) and some claim designed by Walter Newman, the architect behind the landmark Grace Bros building on Broadway, it was among several ‘cruise ship’ themed theatres. Visitors entered the premises feeling like they were embarking on a luxury boat ride, and the premises typically featured round upper windows that resembled large portholes.
Initially known as the Clay’s Bridge Theatre, after founder Harry Clay, the 1500-seat venue opened on 19 July 1913 with vaudeville acts. Although vaudeville was adapted from the French comedic tradition popular in the late 19th century, the popular entertainment evolved into a series of separate, unrelated acts, typically comprising singers, dancers, trained animals, magicians, acrobats, clowns, jugglers, male and female impersonators, minstrels and burlesque.
The area around Newtown railway station became an entertainment hub in the 1910s, with multiple theatres and cinemas operating in close proximity (including arch-rivals Fullers' Majestic Theatre on the corner of Wilson St and Erskineville Rd; the original Hub Theatre at 218-222 King St; St George's Hall at 352 King St – next to Newtown High School - which Clay successfully managed prior to establishing Bridge Theatre; and the 1908-built Enmore Theatre at 118 Enmore Rd).
In July 1915, Clay began screening films on weeknights to make up for under-attended performances, realising his main audience tended to patronise his shows on weekends. Despite this, he employed over 100 artists, in addition to stagehands, costume makers, office staff, ushers, etc, and managed multiple theatre venues all over the city.
Bridge Theatre, 7-13 Bedford St Newtown, 1922. Photo: Silver Jubilee Newtown
In Nov 1934 the Bridge Theatre premises were taken over by Broadway Theatre Co Ltd (Clay himself died in Feb 1925 and the premises were leased out from 1929), which transferred their original Hub Theatre to the Bridge site from a converted department store at 218-222 King St (which was taken over by Hoyts, before it became Burland Community Centre).
The Bridge Theatre on Bedford St was then renamed Hub Theatre, although Clay’s company continued to own the premises until 28 Jan 1969.
Several serious fires damaged the premises under Broadway’s management. Two in 1938 - the latter in July led to its closure as a theatre and, after repairs, its reopening on 15 Dec 1939 as a picture house; and one in April 1945, the latter of which was recorded as ‘suspicious’ because the back door was found prized open.
Under their stewardship, Hub Theatre was used primarily as a cinema, seating 1100 people on two levels. In 1935, Broadway Theatre Co also took over the former Victoria Picture Palace on the corner of Angel St and Erskineville Rd, Erskineville (the original theatre, opened in Sept 1913 was demolished in the 1920s and replaced with an ugly concrete block), which they renamed Hub Theatre No.2. The Bridge venue was then known as Hub Theatre No.1.
Hub No.2 continued showing films until the late 1940s but in 1952 the freehold passed to the Federation of Police-Citizen’s Boys Club who converted it to a gymnasium (where acclaimed boxer Jeff Fenech trained) before its abandonment in the 1990s and eventual demolition in Oct 2013.
Site of the former Victoria Picture Palace, corner Angel St and Erskineville Rd, Erskineville, demolished and replaced by Hub Theatre No2, later a Police Citizen's Boys Club, before it too was demolished. Photo: Alec Smart
In Oct 1956, Greater Union took over management of The Hub, which they retained until Apr 1966. During that time the venue screened mainly foreign-language films catering to the large influx of migrant factory workers living around Newtown.
Sydney Film Festival also twice used the theatre for screenings, in 1965-66, paired with the former Majestic Theatre nearby (which in 1955 was renamed the Elizabethan Theatre. In 1980, the Elizabethan was closed, then soon afterwards destroyed by a suspicious fire. A three-storey white office block now occupies the site.)
The Hub Theatre, taken over by Louis Films in Apr 1966, was bought outright from Harry Clay’s company in Jan 1966, almost 41 years after Harry himself died.
The venue continued screening foreign language films, but ethnic clashes between then-Yugoslavian communities (in the wake of the Croatian Spring political conflicts) resulted in a near-catastrophic terrorist incident.
On 19 Dec 1971 a time-bomb placed in the back of the cinema detonated after a screening of 1969 Croatian war film When You Hear The Bells. However, because patrons had left, no one was injured and damage was minimal beyond five rows of seating destroyed and a few windows broken.
Marcus Clark & Co's original Newtown department store at 218-222 King St, circa 1906. Broadway Theatre Company established their original Hub Theatre here, circa 1913, taking their name from the sign above the entrance: “The Hub of Newtown”.
In 1977, after a succession of leaseholders and the interior becoming quite dilapidated, The Hub became an adults-only cinema under leaseholders Kenneth and Susan Wilcsek in partnership with cinema manager John Gould. Thereafter, until mid-1996, with several changes of leaseholders, The Hub screened pornographic movies and hosted live sex shows.
Dendy’s then tried to secure the venue for its second Sydney cinema in the mid 90s but were unsuccessful, and instead converted a former Coles New World supermarket at 261 King St to a multi-screen complex.
When the pornographic venture ended, The Hub was closed and boarded-up.
In 1999 a severe hailstorm damaged the Hub roof causing rainwater to enter and damage the original interior plasterwork and lighting (since replaced by LED) and flooded the carpeted floors. Building owners Chris Vlattas and the Louis family spent $700,000 on repairs.
Apart from occasional bric-a-brac markets and short tenures by the Shakespeare Players in 2002 and the Sydney Comedy Festival in 2006, it is effectively shuttered.
In 2008 the owners submitted a Development Application to Marrickville Council proposing to convert the theatre into retail space, but were rejected.
In 2021, the Hub was reportedly in transition to become a large craft beer bar and entertainment venue, steered by hospitality consultant Michael Vale and based on Bavarian taverns, expected to open in July 2022. According to Concrete Playground of 7 June 2021, The Hub is “set to be transformed into a multilevel craft brew bar and entertainment venue” with a “650-person capacity bar called the Urban House of Brews.”
However, according to The Hotel Conversation on 26 Oct 2021, it appeared the Bavarian idea was canned as realtors Ray & White were offering it “available to new investor interest.”
Burland Community Hall, 218-222 King St Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart
Burland Community Hall at 218-222 King St began life as a roller skating rink and swimming baths, known as Her Majesty's Skating Rink. However, around 1880, John Kingsbury converted it to a drapery store. In 1882 he employed English emigré Marcus Clarke, whom, rumour has it, initially slept under the sales counter in the shop.
Clarke and his new wife Pattie purchased Kingsbury’s business, then, through their combined business acumen, successfully extended the range of merchandise to include costumes, drapery and clothing.
Their entrepreneurial skills saw them open new stores across the city (although Clarke’s wife Pattie died in 1892), leading in 1906 to construction of the Flatiron Building at Railway Square. At nine stories, it was then Sydney’s tallest building.
The original Marcus Clark & Co Newtown department store was renamed Cash Stores Limited and the slogan above the entrance doorway declared “The Hub of Newtown”. Clarke’s eldest son, who eventually took over the business, trained here.
Clarke died in 1913, his small Newtown drapery business having expanded to 15 department stores. Around this time, Broadway Theatre Company established their original Hub Theatre operation here, borrowing their name from the doorway slogan.
They remained on the premises until Nov 1934, when they relocated to Bridge Theatre at 7-13 Bedford St, taking with them the ‘Hub’ name, which is still in currency.
Thereafter Hoyts took over the venue as a cinema, modernising the building with an Art-Deco styled façade. In 1963, after Hoyts vacated the premises, they were converted to a community resource by tireless welfare activist Henry Albert ‘Harry’ Burland (1901-1969), a City of Sydney Council Alderman.
On 19 May 1965 the premises were formally named after him - H A Burland Senior Citizens Centre - and the cinema converted into a large room with a stage – known thereafter as Burland Hall.
For decades the venue was utilised for community events, such as dances, meetings, parties, wedding receptions, film screenings, concerts and a night market.
This reporter performed on the stage singing in a punk band at a music festival in 1987. The last international act to perform on the Burland stage was British death-metal band Bolt Thrower on 10 Oct 1993.
From 1986 – 1995 Burland Hall’s upper floor housed the Newtown public library until budgetary restrictions at Marrickville Council forced their relocation to a former Salvation Army Citadel in Brown Street. After the library moved, the site was developed into retail stores on the street with offices upstairs.
St George's Hall, 352 King St Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart
St George's Hall at 352 King St, was built in the Victorian Italianate architectural style and opened on 12 June 1887. It was the largest hall in Sydney until the Town Hall was constructed in the city centre the following year.
St George's Hall was designed by David Ross (who designed Newtown Town Hall as well as Long Gully Suspension Bridge in Northbridge, which opened in 1892 and features magnificent crenelated sandstone towers resembling castle turrets).
From the late 1880s St George’s Hall hosted theatre, dancing and public meetings in its halls and meeting rooms. Entertainment entrepreneur Harry Clay occasionally managed productions there during the 1890s before he established his own venues around the city.
Before the end of the century, competition from several rivals in the vicinity of Newtown Station (renowned as a live theatre hub in the early 20th century) saw it downgraded for use as a furniture storage facility. However, in 1903 it was renovated and restored as a venue, with Clay incorporating it among his touring productions, before he took on the Bridge Theatre nearby.
As live stage shows diminished in popularity, like many old theatres it transitioned to a cinema, then a space for public meetings until the Dept Education purchased it in the 1970s and leased sections out to offices, retailers and a café.
It became part of the adjacent Newtown High School of Performing Arts in 1990, which utilise its old stage and halls for rehearsals and productions.
Oddfellows Hall, 12-14 Enmore Rd, Newtown, circa 1868. Photo: City of Sydney Archives
Manchester Unity Hall
Manchester Unity Hall, at 12-14 Enmore Rd, Newtown, was a three-storey entertainment venue built in 1904 on the site of the former single-storey Oddfellows Hall (1868-1903).
For the first four years the main hall featured vaudeville acts or picture shows (cinema), then from 1908 the premises were mainly utilised for community functions and social dances.
Manchester Unity Hall, at 12-14 Enmore Rd, Newtown, circa 1905
In the 1980s the premises were converted into residential units and the top storey removed, although the signature three arched windows at the front remain intact. A dentist now occupies the retail premises below.
Former Manchester Unity Hall, 12-14 Enmore Rd, Newtown. Most of the façade remains. Photo: Alec Smart
Majestic Theatre on the corner of Wilson St and Erskineville Rd, Newtown, was a large 2,000-seat theatre close to Newtown Station established by the Fuller family, a father and three sons business specialising in vaudeville acts.
The Majestic opened 2 June 1917 mid-way between Bridge Theatre (later Hub Theatre) and Victoria Picture Palace, both of which were built in 1913 to capitalise on the boom in vaudeville shows and live productions.
Although there was reportedly intense rivalry between the Fullers and Harry Clay to enlist and promote their performers, in fact Clay encouraged those among his troupe who outgrew his touring productions to sign with the Fullers. With them they stood a better chance of becoming successful.
In the 1930s, Majestic, like its rivals, transitioned to screening films as the public desire for vaudeville and live theatre waned, however, the venture was not financially successful.
In 1955 Majestic was renamed the Elizabethan Theatre after being leased by Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, which sold it in 1966 to the Louis family (owners of both Enmore Theatre and The Hub). The building was destroyed by an unfortunate and mysterious fire on 19 January 1980.
Site of the former Majestic Theatre (later Elizabethan Theatre), a 2,000-seat venue
on the corner of Wilson St and Erskineville Rd, Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart
St Peter’s Theatre at 672 King Street, diagonally opposite St Peters Station, was one of Sydney’s first cinemas, opening around 1913 when the Newtown district became an entertainment mecca with theatres and cinemas. It was originally named the Coronation Picture Palace.
In 1927, construction of a new three-storey building, St Peters Theatre, with 2 levels of seating – comprising 1707 seats - was completed on the site.
It was designed by Emile Sodersten, famous for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, St Andrew’s College in Sydney University and many other notable buildings, and the façade (all that remains) is now heritage-listed.
The theatre closed for the last time in 1960 and the building was subsequently used as a warehouse. In the 1990s there were unsuccessful efforts to reopen it as a performance venue.
St Peters Theatre, 672 King St, Erskineville, 1959
In 2002, Development Application U/02/1165 allowed the conversion of the theatre building to a residential complex of apartments with a basement and rear ground floor carpark, which involved demolishing the building, although, as stated, the original façade on King Street was retained.
Further modifications were made in Feb 2004, converting the ground and first floor levels to commercial zones – now a picture framer and a gymnasium, respectively - and the addition of two upper levels, including two apartments on the third floor a rooftop penthouse apartment.
In Aug 2019, permission was sought and granted to subdivide the upper apartments, from two to four on the third floor, whilst the penthouse was converted from one to two apartments.
The former St Peters Theatre, 672 King St, Erskineville. Photo: Alec Smart