The Plaza Theatre in Kyabram first opened its doors in 1929 at a time when the annual Bachelors’ Ball was as important to the cinema as the weekly movie on screen


My experience at the cinema

They only show films at the Plaza Theatre in Kyabram a few times a week, so it’s taken us a while to get to this vintage cinema in country Victoria, though we’ve driven past the building a few times over the years.

The cinema today is volunteer-run, so a big thanks goes out to the two ladies who were downstairs in the foyer selling tickets (and presumably someone less visible upstairs making sure the film projected onto the screen).

They may not have been able to serve up the tea or coffee we were craving for our matinee screening on this summer Sunday, but the cornettos were an adequate replacement (though I wish I’d done my historical research before getting to Kyabram, because I might have got into a lively discussion about the ‘Spiders’ they used to specialise in here in Kyabram back in the 1930s)…

According to the excellent History page on the cinema’s website, we have the Kyabram Youth Club to thank for the fact that the cinema is back up and running after it closed in the 1960s and became a restaurant for a few years. It’s nice that they recognised the Youth Club on a plaque out the front – just a shame they didn’t get the apostrophe right – ah, the Youth of today, huh?

The only youths we saw were the group of teenage lads who hurled abuse at us as we walked along the main street towards the theatre. Shame they don’t channel some of their bored energy into what is a fantastic resource in this quiet country town.

There’s a strange vibe on a Sunday in Kyabram’s main drag. Very little footfall, the very nice-looking coffee shop closed for the day (as were most other shops), and more angry abuse shouted at us from a guy who strode past without catching our eye and then took offence at me not responding to his muffled ‘G’Day’.

So it was a bit of a relief to enter the sanctuary of the cinema for a screening of a film from that excellent series Exhibition on Screen, where an artist (Van Gogh in this case) is profiled via their work and correspondence.

There were only 16 of us in this 400 seater auditorium, which was a bit of a shame, but on another level, it intrigued us to find out who were these Kyabram residents with an arty streak. I didn’t go round surveying them of course, but it was predominantly older folk, mostly women, but there was also a very well-dressed couple who looked as if they might have come in after church, or dressed up from the farm to come into town for the flicks.

The 20-odd rows of seats are banked up from screen level up to the height of the projection room, so this is a very different layout from the original Kyabram Theatre which opened in the late 1920s.

The history page on the cinema website has a nice photo of the original two-tier seating, with the downstairs chairs not fixed, so that the ground floor could be converted to a ballroom for other events held here.

There is still a downstairs section to the building, but access to the film screen is blocked off from that room so that ‘Exhibition Room’ now just has space for dancing (nice sprung floorboards) and other smaller events.

And you go upstairs to access the auditorium in today’s Plaza Theatre. I rather liked the old signage for seat numbers and screen timings – how useful is that to know when a film is scheduled to finish, and surely all the more needed in today’s busy world than it was when these clocks were first installed?

I’m not sure if the Kyabram Theatre was ever that decorative or glamorous, as many vintage cinemas of the period were, so the interior is fairly simple, with few stand-out features to remind us of any glorious past.

The foyer upstairs was fenced off so we couldn’t get a close enough look really, but it did look a nice space for occasional events, and the windows looking down over Kyabram’s main street were as attractive from the inside as they appear from the footpath below.

The façade of the Plaza Theatre Kyabram is probably the most attractive part of the cinema, with those long curving windows, the patterned awning and the decoration framing the cinema name.

The tiling out the front is also a nice feature.

The shopfronts within the cinema building don’t look as if they are used for much these days, which seems a real shame, but they are clearly where the Plaza Café used to be, and probably the management offices, where people would pick up their booked tickets or the freebies I found out about via my Trove search.

Back along the main street and off down a narrow walkway, there is a long information mural depicting the history of Kyabram, with two photos featuring the theatre in earlier days. One shows the petrol station right next door (now some sort of car repair workshop so not that different from its original purpose either).

And the other shows a packed dance floor on a night the cinema was converted into an event venue for the Kyabram social scene. Judging from my Trove research, those events were almost as popular as the films themselves, so it’s great that the community-run venue can still today be used for both films and events.

I’m just pleased to see such a facility still being used and maintained, so hats off to Kyabram on this one.

Practicalities

Films are usually shown two or three times a week, but the cinema is closed for renovations from mid-December 2019 to March 2020

I forgot to note the price of film tickets so if anyone can enlighten me when they reopen, please send me a message.

Toilets in the cinema.

Refreshments but no cafe these days so no hot drinks for sale.

History and stories about the Plaza Theatre

Kyabram Theatre, as it was then called, was built and opened in 1929. It was always a multi-purpose venue, billing itself as the “Show Palace of the Valley” (Goulburn Valley for those of you who don’t know the area). Its main role was to show movies, but it was also used for schools days, farmer meetings and the ballroom got regularly used for various dance events.

Some of the feature films shown tried to set the moral tone for the town. And I was struck by the billing of a 1935 movie called “Dangerous Lives”. The Wikipedia one-liner on this film says: “A man almost ruins his marriage after an extramarital affair leads him and his significant other to contract a sexually transmitted disease”. The Goulburn Valley Stock and Property Journal of 10 October 1935 called it “A movingly enacted drama, fearlessly yet delicately exposing certain sex dangers…”

A footnote in the same newspaper added that the film was to be presented by the head of the Racial Hygiene Association of NSW. You just wouldn’t get an organisation calling itself that and getting a platform in 2019, but Hitler had only just come to power really and his ideas around eugenics hadn’t really come to light yet. Moreover, the woman presenting the film, and presumably coming to the Kyabram Theatre to do so, had lost her husband to syphilis after he had an affair and then moved to Batavia (Jakarta) for ‘health reasons’. It sounds as if she had a personal interest here, but I can’t help wondering what the audience reaction would have been like in a town like Kyabram?

I was rather intrigued by the weekly classified ads in the Shepparton Advertiser, whereby tickets could be bought for a named individual, to be collected at the Plaza Café before the curtain rose. Was this an early form of blind dates? “Miss M Taylor is invited to the performance of ‘The Clairvoyant’ on June 10.” Did people always accept such invitations or were some of them wildly hopeful attempts at romance? Or were some of them simply a publicity campaign by the local paper or the cinema itself, choosing names at random to promote the cinema? I’d love to hear from anyone who knows the answer on that one.

“Call in after the talkies for our well known spiders,” said the advert for the Plaza Café which was next door to the theatre in 1936, probably through the set of windows and doors to the left of today’s entrance. My wife’s granddad was a big fan of spiders, which he’d discovered while living in America. Well, in 1930s Kyabram, this little bit of American food culture had already come to town. I wonder when they stopped serving ‘spiders’ at the Plaza Café?

So the regular balls and dances were an important annual event on the Kyabram calendar.

In August 1934 the ‘Kyabram Bachelors’ organised an ‘at home’ to which 400 people came for a dance on the sprung floorboards of the Kyabram Theatre. I wonder how many lost their bachelor status as a result?

A young lady visiting from Melbourne for the 1935 bachelor girls’ dance at the Kyabram Theatre, was hit on the head by a lamp shade which fell from the ceiling. She was taken to the local hospital needing stitches in her head; her partner got away with minor cuts to his face. I wonder if those two subsequently married?

Fascinatingly, the Shepparton Journal report on the dance that year made no mention of the lampshade incident, but spoke of the 300 dancers present, with music from the ‘Echuca Swastika Orchestra’… Again, in 2019 we might be taken aback by the name of the band, but even though the Nazis had begun to give the swastika a bad name by then, it is actually an ancient symbol with far more benevolent meanings pre-dating fascism in Germany. I do wonder, though, when the Swastika Orchestra decided to go for a name change?

As well as balls, the Kyabram theatre hosted the occasional beauty contest. In 1937, 1,000 people packed the cinema to watch the Miss Goulburn Valley competition. Miss Margaret Taylor won the sash, news of which made it down to the newspapers in Melbourne! The whole thing was a fundraiser for the new ambulance in Kyabram. How times have changed in so many ways.

There were no major incidents reported of the kind I had found around Melbourne’s big vintage cinemas. Less crime and unruliness in country Kyabram, I guess.

In fact so little seemed to happen in Kyabram in the cinema’s early years that the social gossip columns would include the most mundane mentions: Mrs Smith is recovering from a bout of influenza; Mr Garrett is returning from a holiday in Brisbane this week etc.

But I was struck by having read in August 1937 that Miss Alice Wherrett of Auburn would be spending a few days in Kyabram (it made me wonder if in 1937 our own visit to town just for the theatre might have made the newspaper social columns…). Then, like in a game of Happy Families, I remembered Alice Wherrett’s name when I read that in June1938, Miss Wherrett got engaged to Mr Taggart, the manager of the Kyabram Theatre…Aha! Did these two know each other before her visit in 1937? Did they meet on a night at the movies? It’s all idle gossip, really, but the story did intrigue me…

So big news stories linked to the Plaza or Kyabram Theatre, there are none that I could find. In 1934 a fire hydrant burst, flooding the whole theatre.

In 1936, unruly youths (maybe the great grandfathers of those we passed in the street in 2019) waved bamboo sticks and gave tethered horses a fright (also making the news pages of the local paper).

But I did rather like the image conjured up by a story from November 1937 when a local farmer was driving a bull down the main street in town when the bull became excited and broke free. This caused alarm among many shopkeepers out cleaning their windows on a quiet morning, but the bull didn’t charge any of these local folk and instead burst into the foyer of the Kyabram Theatre, where it knocked over several information boards. The article noted that it was lucky not to smash into the cinema’s glass doors.

Well, those glass doors are all still there, and the cinema is now open again, thanks to the local Youth Club, with its 1980s work to restore the building to its former use. As I said before, the cinema’s own website has an excellent history page, and if anyone has other stories (banal or not) I’d love to hear them, perhaps filling in the gaps between my 1930s tales and the present day?

Other links and writings on the Kyabram Theatre or Plaza

The Cinema Treasures entry on the Plaza Theatre Kyabram includes mention of the opening night films both in 1929 and when the cinema reopened in the 1980s.

I didn’t find any other writing on the Kyabram Theatre or its modern-day name of Plaza Theatre. If anybody knows of any online pieces, do get in touch and let me show the link here…

What are your memories of The Plaza Theatre?

I don’t suppose there’s anybody still around today who can remember going to the Bachelors’ Balls – or indeed the Bachelor Maids’ events at the Kyabram Theatre, but has anyone been to a dance event at this theatre in the past?

What’s the best film you’ve seen there or was it a musical or cultural event you attended that sticks with you as a great memory?

There’s more chance of someone from the 1980s Kyabram Youth Club still being around to tell us more about the work done to restore the cinema to its former glory…

Or from more recent experience, who has a story to tell about the Plaza Theatre that will help fill in my gaps after the 1930s?

Coffee or tea before the pic or after?

There is good coffee in Kyabram from the look of a lovely coffee shop across the road from the cinema and back a little bit into town. It is not open on Sundays so we couldn’t try it out, and we didn’t note its name since we assumed we’d find it on Google, but there is no mention of it when we search ‘coffee in Kyabram’. I know coffee shops like this will depend mainly on local word of mouth, but they really need to get their online presence improved if they are to catch the visiting passer-by who just wants a good coffee while on the road. Can anyone help me with a name here?

 

 


 

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