Past performers at the Horsham Theatre include Nellie Melba and George Bernard Shaw. This 1926 cinema is now merged with the even older Mechanics Institute next door.
My experience at the cinema
The frontage of the Centre Cinema in Horsham, with its original name, the Horsham Theatre, still showing up high over Pynsent Street, is fairly simple. It’s attractive, but nothing special, as other vintage cinemas around Victoria have been.
But inside the main auditorium, there are countless beautiful original features, making this a rare review on this website, where the interior wows more than the façade.
I pitched up early on a Sunday, just as they opened the doors 20 minutes ahead of my film screening time. And I got lucky, with really helpful staff, happy to let me look around that main Cinema, since the kids’ film for that morning wouldn’t start until 10 minutes after my film, so nobody was yet inside in their seats.
So, you need to be seeing a film in Cinema 1 to get all these delights, and as usual the film I had chosen was more arthouse, so showing to a smaller audience in one of the refurbished rooms in the other half of this twin cinema complex.
There was so much to see in Cinema 1, and having done my history search for a change before the visit, I was able to imagine George Bernard Shaw up on the stage, under the (still existing) proscenium, even though it’s now largely covered by today’s big screen.
Upstairs, there is the old dress circle, and some of the seats looked as if they might even date from those earlier days of this cinema, when it also held live performances and the occasional lecture.
Even the colours in place today up there in the circle looked as if they might in some parts be close to the original scheme of old gold and brown.
The wall panels are still in place – are these wheat sheaves, though?
And the lights high up in the ceiling were also a beautiful vintage.
Perhaps my favourite vintage touch in the old Horsham Theatre is the pattern of red lamps, set on a decorative moulding half way up those stairs to the dress circle.
Back at the entrance where I came in in 2021 and bought my tickets, this sign told a different story from the one I had researched for the Horsham Theatre.
And I think the explanation is this: that the relatively recent renovations of the cinema merged two old buildings, the Mechanics Institute and the Theatre. It just so happens that the Institute also used to show silent movies in the early days.
In 1994, a ‘link’ was built between the two to make this a ‘Twin Cinema’, but I’m just really glad they preserved so much of the theatre interiors.
It was gratifying to see such a good crowd out at the movies on a Sunday afternoon. Even my rather obscure arty film had a decent turnout of about 20 (I think I was the youngest in the audience, but nothing wrong in that…). But out in the foyer was quite a buzz of families in to see Tom & Jerry or whatever other family option was on.
Horsham has done really well, not only to preserve its vintage cinema, but to create a whole cinema centre offering options to everyone, and keeping it as a hub of the community.
A really good addition to the Vintage Victoria site.
Back outside, I wondered where these doors used to lead to once upon a time?
These windows, I think, look out on the street below from the foyer to the Dress Circle.
And finally, I was intrigued by the ‘ghost signage’, tucked along the side wall of the cinema. Does this mean the Ladies Conveniences were around the back somewhere? Has this signage been there since those early days when lady visitors to Horsham on a Friday were allowed use of the Theatre facilities, since there were otherwise none in the town at the time?
Make sure you see a film in Cinema 1 to see more of the original features in this cinema.
History and stories about the Centre Cinema, Horsham
The theatre opened on 24 June 1926.
The Horsham Times declared that the new theatre gave the town something to be proud of.
It began with screening three nights a week – I’m not sure why Monday and Wednesday were chosen, in addition to the obvious Saturday evening. But it also had facilities for live stage performances, the focus being on musical comedies; it was planned that any touring theatre group travelling from Melbourne to Adelaide or vice-versa should get off the train at Horsham and perform for a night at the new theatre, before boarding the Express the next morning.
The opening night saw a silent western screened, called ‘A Son of his Father,’ with a supporting movie showing real road race drivers on a circuit – probably quite a spectacle in 1926.
Four specially-employed women ushers were on duty to ensure that older folk attending got to their seats safely, and could be escorted out at the end of the evening.
The Horsham Times reported on the success of the opening night, in spite of wet weather and muddy pavements! Long before curtain up, “motor cars and people had come early to view the beautiful building.”
On the inside, old gold and brown were the dominant colours, with four opal light globes over the foyer to give a ‘cosy’ feel. The seating laid out on a sloping floor was a noteworthy novelty for the journalist reviewing that opening night. And there were 21 loges, presumably like VIP boxes, which had all been fully booked for the whole ‘season’, so Horsham’s High Society clearly went to the theatre to be seen, as well as to see the films and plays. The theatre seated 1100 in 1926, and on the opening night it was estimated that 300-400 were turned away.
Another novelty noted by the Horsham Times was that the system of transferring film reels as the film screened meant there would be no interruption in the movies. That must have been quite common in the early cinemas (though I also remember experiencing that when backpacking in Honduras in 1986, so in some parts of the world it took some 60 years to reach Horsham’s technological advances…).
Wall panels depicted wheat sheaves and baskets of fruit – I think I saw the wheat sheaves but I didn’t spot the baskets of fruit. Are they still there, too?
Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” was screened two weeks after opening night. I couldn’t help wondering if any veteran gold-diggers from Victoria’s gold rush were in the audience to reminisce about the old days?
The Theatre also had a social function in its early days. Apparently, Fridays in Horsham used to be the big day for women to come to town from outlying districts, but there were no women’s toilets in town in those days, if I read the article in the Horsham Times correctly. So, the theatre management offered to open its doors to visiting ladies to use their facilities on a Friday only. I wonder what the ladies got up to on their weekly visits?
Not long after the cinema doors were opened for public conveniences, the management had the brainwave to start up Friday matinees, presumably so that the same ladies stayed on to catch a film before heading home. It all begins to smack of ‘Brief Encounter’…The trouble was, that only a few weeks into the initiative, the management had to end it because the wet weather had made the roads too muddy for visitors to get into town, so the seats just weren’t being taken up.
By August and September of the Theatre’s first year, a popular Vaudeville act from Adelaide stopped off in Horsham to perform on their way to Melbourne, and a comedy play was put on by a theatre group on their way from Sydney to Adelaide, so the idea of a brief stop-off for artists travelling inter-state seemed to pay off.
At Christmas of the Theatre’s first year, all the staff were invited to a celebratory supper after the screening. They all sat and ate in the foyer of the cinema, ending the evening with renditions of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
Dame Nellie Melba visited the Horsham Theatre in March 1927. She attended a screening of ‘Beau Geste’ first. The Horsham Times declared she was “much impressed with the fine building.” Every seat in the 1100-capacity theatre was taken for her concert, and as several newspapers reported, some of them ‘motored over 50 miles to attend.’
Just a few months after Nellie Melba’s visit to Horsham, the Theatre hosted another singer, Elsa Stralia. I had to look her up, but I discovered something I hadn’t realised before: Dame Nellie took her name because she came from Melbourne; Miss Stralia wanted to emphasise the country of her birth; but there were others in the same era: Madame Vera Tasma, from Tasmania; Madame Ballara, from…Ballarat; Dorothy Canberra etc etc.
In September 1927, the State Health Commission banned smoking in theatre foyers, much to the dismay of smokers in Horsham. Even the Chief Fire Officer at the time thought the new rules were ‘drastic and unnecessary.’..
1929 saw the start of nightly screenings for the first time, as movies became increasingly popular. A hot night in February, though, saw a newsworthy shift in clothing standards, as young men apparently turned up in open neck shirts and no jacket or waistcoat!
What the Horsham Times termed an ‘unseemly incident’ occurred in June 1929, when a fight broke out after the interval one night. The row happened over who was sitting in whose seats, but it led to the orchestra ceasing playing for a short time, the lights being flashed on, and cinema-goers in the balcony leaning over to see what was happening. The paper said it was the first such incident since the theatre had opened its doors.
By September 1929, the equipment was in place to show talkies, and the Theatre claimed it was only the second venue outside Melbourne to have talkies in Victoria. A musical called ‘Syncopation’ was the opening Talkie on September 25th
In April 1930 George Bernard Shaw took to the stage to speak for three nights, the local newspaper admiring his diction and clarity over the new-fangled ‘talkies’ usually on the screen at the theatre!
In December 1930, the theatre was broken into for the first time. Only a torch seemed to go missing, though reports suggested the sweet stall lost contents worth almost a pound…
In June 1934, cricket scores were posted on the screen during films so that the audience could stay up-to-date with the Aussie test team playing in England (and yes, by the way, the Aussies came home with the Ashes).
Tragedy struck the cinema at the end of January 1935, when the man who had managed the theatre since its opening night, a Mr Conabere, took his own life by poison in the space high up above the theatre stage. He left a note for his son, but there appeared to be no obvious reason for his despair. His poor widow had lost her father and brother in a lightning strike just a short time before.
Later that same year, there was a call-out into the audience for a doctor in the house, as a gent who had just finished performing a tap dance routine collapsed in the dressing rooms. Ray Buckley must have been a colourful character, as it appeared he had sustained a spinal injury some years earlier when wrestling at Horsham Regatta. Who even knew there was wrestling at a regatta…?
In the mid 1930s, there was a ladies’ hair salon inside the Horsham Theatre foyer.
“Gone with the Wind” screened in June 1941. To mark the occasion and tap into popular excitement about the film, a competition was held to find the local woman who most closely resembled Scarlett O’Hara. A young woman called Lola Cranage won, but sadly the local paper only showed a photo of Vivien Leigh herself.
During wartime and over the post-war years, the theatre played host to some societal and moral issues: 400 men apparently attended a presentation on venereal disease in 1949 (I also found a similar lecture targeted at women, given in 1944…, and the same lecturer for men in 1940). In 1950 there was big debate on how to get cinema-goers to stay behind for the National Anthem, with some arguing it should be played before the film to ensure a captive audience…
December 1954 sees the end of Trove’s coverage for the moment. That month, there was a Lassie film screened, and a local choir performed Handel’s Messiah, a concert the local paper hoped would kick-start a Horsham Choral Society. I wonder if it did?
Other links and writings on the Horsham cinema
The only link I found came from a local newspaper in 2009, when the cinema made it onto the Victorian Heritage Register.
If anyone has links to other blogs or articles writing about the cinema in Horsham, do get in touch…
What are your memories of the Centre Cinema, Horsham?
First up, does (or did?) anyone know Lola Cranage? I’d love to meet her and/or hear about her ‘Gone with the Wind’ moment…
Did anybody reading this have any memorable dates up in the dress circle in earlier times? Or was it the stall where you’d take your date to the flicks?
Are there any stories to take our ‘history’ further forward from the 1954 end-point in Trove towards the present-day?
Can anyone remember the hair salon in the foyer? Were there also other shops in those days?
Or just get in touch with your own favourite experience at the Centre Cinema, Horsham, from recent or older times.