The Regent Theatre is the loveliest cinema in Ballarat, right in the city centre. The multiplex today has kept many features from the original 1920s movie theatre, with arthouse & mainstream programme
My experience at the cinema
If you’re going to convert a 1000+ seater cinema into a modern multi-screen, this is surely the way to do it. The Regent Theatre in Ballarat kept lots of the original fittings so the façade for a start is just magnificent, the chandelier above the entrance hall is stunning, and the staircase taking you up to some of the screens a reminder of Gone with the Wind, even though the Regent predates that classic by a good few years.
They do a wonderful range of arthouse and blockbuster films here, too, so there is nearly always something on that we’d like to see. If it weren’t for other vintage cinemas even nearer to us in Castlemaine or Bendigo, we’d be at the Regent every week for sure.
I came back to the Regent for a tour of the building on Ballarat Heritage Weekend in May. There I met John, who has been tearing ticket stubs and doing other jobs at the Regent since the 1970s when he moved here from the local drive-ins. Great guy who told the story of the cinema well.
The films I’ve seen so far haven’t been in the main Cinema 1, so it was great to go into such a big auditorium (still around 700 seater) and feel the immensity of the place. It’s amazing to try and imagine the sheer scale of the original single screen auditorium, which sat almost 2000 people.
I loved some of the original ornate frames around the walls, the beautiful light stands with the dancer figure leaning back to hold the light bulb, and the proscenium arch, though the original bits of that which remain are hidden behind the big cinema screen now (and therefore only visible on the heritage tour).
Up in the front ‘Marble Room’ there are displays of historical photos and film reels. It is here, John told us, that staff would be checked every night before going on duty, and anybody with insufficiently polished buttons or manicured nails would be sent home.
Today, this Marble Room is also the venue for the ‘Iconic Movie Luncheons’, which is a monthly event at the Regent, where a classic film is screened in the morning (Casablanca in June 2018, Steel Magnolias in July, Fired Green Tomatoes in August, and Out of Africa in October – that’s the one I’d like to see personally on such a grand screen). And there is basically a posh afternoon tea after the movie with scones and sandwiches on a tiered tray. This is really my kind of cinema.
Join the Regent Film Club for ridiculously small fee and get money not only off cinema seats but reductions in the price of drinks from the little bar here too.
Cinema 1 is the biggie with around 700 seats.
If dining at the movies is your thing, check out the Gold Class cinema, which is all luxury and leather seating, plus waiters serving you. Not my thing, but hey they have to cater for all tastes.
I’m more attracted to the Showcase Cinema, which allows you to take a drink in and watch arthouse movies.
History and stories about the Regent Theatre, Ballarat
Ballarat’s Regent Theatre opened in 1928 joining the Regent family which already had cinemas in Perth, Adelaide and other cities across Australia. In 1929 the Regent Theatre Ballarat was reportedly one of the first theatres in the state to have the equipment necessary for the new ‘talkie’ films. A feature in the Weekly Times reckoned that the technology would have ‘rapid advancement’ as it developed and became popular.
The theatre was always used for more than just screening films. During World War 2, it was the venue for armed services’ recruitment drives, and was the place used by many politicians for election rallies and the like.
Until the big fire that gutted the building in 1943, the cinema could seat over 1900 people. But money was found to rebuild the interior after the fire due to its important role in the ‘entertainment of soldiers and war workers’.
In February 1951 – to mark the centenary of the discovery of gold in Victoria – they showed the premiere of Hollywood’s ‘Gold Fever’ directed by John Calvert.
The Regent was closed in the 1960s, but then bought by the Anderson family in 1974 and reopened in 1976 with a screening of Gone with the Wind – how appropriate! It was one of the first cinemas to convert to multi-screen in the 1980s, but they have managed to retain the sense of history and magnificence, even while adapting architecturally and technologically to the 21st century.
People linked to this place
The name that intrigued me as I searched through Trove for stories mentioning the Regent in Ballarat was Lynette Kierce. She was a young musician in the 1950s, who came to fame through her soprano arias, but who also broke new ground for women in music by becoming Australia’s only woman orchestral leader, when she took on the Ballarat Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of 23 in 1952. As a singer myself, I can remember being conducted by a young Danish man in the 1990s and being struck by how a man much younger than me could manage hundreds of singers and musicians at the same time and help produce a beautiful sound. But this was a woman at a time when women’s role was very much a domestic one, and she was even younger than the conductor I remembered.
She was caught up in controversy in 1952 when she was prevented from putting on a Sunday performance because of an industrial dispute involving union labour and musicians. But the mystery in my mind became even more intriguing when the last mention of her on Trove has her father (a local church minister) cancelling one of her concerts in 1954 at the last minute. What on earth happened to this talented lady?
Did she fall ill? Did she stop singing on getting married and just fell into a more orthodox woman’s life later in the 1950s? Did some other tragedy hit her or her family that prevented her from singing or conducting anymore?
If still alive, Lynette Kierce would be almost 90 now. Does anyone (or did anyone alive today) know her? Can anybody shed any light on her? My queries through local Ballarat sources have come up with nothing. But I would love to learn more about this pioneering musician and what became of her. Who can help?
Other links and writings on Ballarat’s Regent Theatre or cinema
I learnt from Daynaa’s blog that one of the Doctor Blake episodes was filmed in the Regent Theatre, Ballarat
A film was made about the Regent in 2017. This link takes you to the local Courier newspaper article calling on locals to send in their memories, photos etc to aid in the film-making process. Erin McCuskey was the director.
The Victorian Heritage Council has lots more details on the architecture and history of the Regent.
What are your memories of the Regent?
Did you have a memorable first date at the Regent? Were you here before it became a multiplex? What’s the best film you ever saw at the Regent? And was it made even better by being inside such a movie palace?
Whatever your story or memory of the Regent, I’d love to hear from you, so share your thoughts with other readers of the Vintage Victoria site.
And if you can help with any information on Lynette Kierce, do get in touch. I’d love to solve that mystery, Doctor Blake-style…
Coffee before the pic or a bite to eat after?
Best coffee in Ballarat? Well, Fika Coffee Brewers gets my vote. It’s also pretty close to the Regent so easy to drop in for a quick pre-film cuppa. Excellent quality, with a Melbourne coffee shop feel.
Of course if you join the Regent club you get reduced prices on drinks in the cinema bar. Or go to the Iconic Movie Luncheon for a classic movie followed by afternoon tea.
And after the show? Well, we like to pop next door for a pizza and glass of wine at …