This classic 1938 vintage cinema in Charlton still shows films three times a week, as it did when it first opened. And it survived the 2011 floods in the town.


My experience at the cinema

We went to the Rex Theatre in Charlton for one of their Sunday matinee screenings in April. They only have films here three times a week, but if that’s what’s needed to keep the cinema alive in a small country town like this, then I’m all for it.

Rex Theatre Charlton VIC

They’ve done really well to keep this place open, especially after the extraordinary floods that hit Charlton in 2011 and came right over into the cinema itself. It’s a community-run (and owned) theatre now, and it was that community spirit that came together to preserve this gem in the town. So hats off to everyone involved with that.

We had time for a quick wander round town before the film. The cinema in Charlton is certainly the highlight, though it’s quite a busy little place, with a lot of people stopping off here I guess because it is half way between Melbourne and Mildura.

The Avoca River has a bend near Charlton which means there are several bridges across it at different angles, so you can do a loop walk round town and cross two bridges in the process. By one of those bridges is a flood marker sign, which shows the amazing height the river reached in various floods over the decades. When you see how low the water is after a dry summer it is really hard to imagine just how high the water got, especially in 2011, when it entered the Rex Theatre and closed the place down for a while.

Flood marker for the Avoca River in Charlton

Back at the theatre, it is the highlight of Charlton, but it doesn’t tower over the town like some of the Melbourne (or Ballarat) palaces did when they were built. The 1938 façade must look still pretty similar to how it looked on the opening night.

Rex Theatre in Charlton's main street

It is a style also seen at Maryborough’s Paramount and the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, so typical of country Victoria art deco.

I like the R painted onto the glass doorways at the front, which will have been fitting even in the years when the Rex became the Roxy in the 1950s.

In the centre of the foyer is an old ticket booth (not original to this cinema, I believe) and off to the left is the café area where you can buy your popcorn.

Then you have the option of heading up the stairs to the Dress Circle (which I kind of wish we’d done, when I saw that the seating there looked original, and certainly more vintage than the new seats downstairs), or going down into the main auditorium. It’s still a fair size, with over 300 seats in the 2019 Rex, so it was a shame that the film we saw only attracted about 20 others.

I’m assuming the Rex in Charlton makes its big killing during the annual Film Festival in February, which we must make a point of attending in 2020!.

So the floor of the downstairs auditorium slopes down to the stage and the screen, which explains why, when the theatre flooded in 2011, it was the first six rows of seats which apparently got ruined by the waters, though I can imagine it flowed down through the higher level too, with only the dress circle seating remaining unscathed.

There are lovely light fittings around the Rex, both in the ceiling and along the walls: more of those reclining naked women holding the bulb, as we had seen in several of the vintage cinemas on this tour so far.

Grand piano in Rex Theatre Charlton

And perhaps the nicest touch of all at the Rex on that Sunday, was the grand piano on the stage half an hour before the 2pm screening and a lady playing atmospheric tunes on it to give a real vintage feel to the place. What a lovely addition to the cinema-going experience, and again, such a shame so few people there to listen.

Above the doors down at the front of the auditorium are signs for the Ladies Powder Room and Men’s Toilets. So we both went down to see what they were like, partly hoping for another vintage marvel. But the toilets actually reminded me of an old cinema in northern England, in Redcar to be exact, where the cinema sits on the beach and the toilets are the first place to flood if the tide is super high. These were just outside loos, basically, with fresh air blowing as you do your business, and as A. said afterwards, I’m not sure how much powder was applied by the ladies in those rooms in the old days?

Overall, though, the Rex Theatre in Charlton made for a really nice vintage afternoon, and a perfect entry for Vintage Victoria. Let’s hope it stays that way for decades to come.

Practicalities

Only $12 a seat, with a loyalty card showing that if you go four times, the 5th film is free. If I lived in Charlton or a bit nearer, I’d be there every week…

Screenings three times a week – Saturday and Tuesday evenings; Sunday afternoons.

History and stories about the Rex Theatre

I think my usual source for stories about places on Vintage Victoria – the National Library of Australia Trove website – must not yet have digitised the local newspapers from the Charlton area, because I found no press clipping about the Rex Theatre anywhere, or indeed using its other names ‘Roxy’ or ‘Nulty’ (former owners).

So I am indebted to the tea room round the corner from the cinema, and was grateful for the long wait we had for lunch, as it may have made us worry about missing the start of the film, but it gave me time to have a good look at a coffee table book they have in the tea room, which goes through the history of Charlton in great detail.

Taken from the book by Carolyn Olive and Grace Cadzow

Charlton – Celebrating 150 years 1863-2013 by Carolyn Olive and Grace Cadzow – was a real treasure trove for finding out about the Rex and other aspects of Charlton life. So, all the information below comes from that book, and I particularly liked the narratives from flood victims in 2011. They didn’t really mention the cinema, but those stories brought to life the reality of what those massive floods meant for Charlton and its community.

 

So the Rex Theatre opened on 15 October 1938, with a showing of A Star is Born (interestingly, the 1937 version of that film was not a musical).

It was a 600+ seater in those days, which meant that most of the town must have been at the pictures when it was full.

It always seemed to have films on for three sessions a week. In those early days, they’d be Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. In wartime, the Rex was full most Saturday nights, it seems.

As with most cinemas, the advent of television in the 1950s saw attendance figures fall off a cliff, and by the 1960s there were plans to make the Rex into a shop and offices.

Geoff and Joan Edwards were a brother and sister partnership which saved the cinema in the 1970s. They bought the building and reopened it in 1973 with a screening of Mary Queen of Scots (another film re-made recently in 2018, but with the 1970s version starring the likes of Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave). The Edwards also refurbished and reduced the capacity to 448 seats.

I loved the story from the 1970s when Star Wars first came out and was such a massive hit. Apparently, on the opening night, the projectionist realised after the screening started that the last reel was missing. An emergency call to the owner followed. He happened to be in Melbourne, and happened to know that the Kyneton cinema had just received their copy of the whole film, which was due for release there the following night. So he hot-footed it from Melbourne to Kyneton, borrowed the last reel, and made it to Charlton with ten minutes to spare before the critical changeover of reels was due.

It reminded me of an amazing experience I had in a small town cinema in Honduras in the 1980s when they were showing A Bridge Too Far to a packed house, but that night the film started late, and I can remember the cheers when some guy turned up carrying two massive reels of film in those metal film cases, and proceeded to climb up to the projection room. These things happen in cinemas, I guess, and the art of the cinema owner and projectionist includes keeping your cool and working out a solution.

Geoff Edwards died in 2000 and his sister sold the cinema to Dennis Davis and Steven Walsh in 2001 – The name was then switched back to Rex from Roxy (which it had been since 1953). When one of those gents passed on, and the other wanted to sell up, along came long-time projectionist and local farmer David Pollard, who is the man behind the Rex still functioning today.

He had the brainwave of making the Rex into a community run and community-owned cinema, and he was still hands on when it came to refurbishing the building again after those disastrous 2011 floods.

It’s a great story overall, and I can think of a few towns round the world where communities might be inspired to follow Charlton’s example to save their local cinema.

People linked to this place

I’d love to hear from people still involved with running the Rex, from selling tickets to doing the electrics and whatever else was done after 2011.

Other links and writings on the Rex Theatre

The Rex Theatre in Charlton made the front page of The Age newspaper in 2012 when it reopened after the 2011 floods. The article goes through some of the cinema’s history, too.

That article in The Age led the Public Records Office Victoria’s own blogger to write about the Rex the next day – in 2012.

This YouTube video recorded the TV news when there were reports of the Rex reopening in 2012.

I was very interested to read this piece by Speciality Theatre company who help restore and maintain cinemas – it has an amazing photo of the 2011 flood waters at the Rex.

This is the Regional Arts Victoria entry on the Rex Theatre.

The Cinema Treasures entry on the Rex pre-dates the 2011 floods.

This is quite a brief entry with no extra information on the cinema, but I rather like the concept of the Cinema Tourista website.

What are your memories of the Rex (or Roxy)?

Not having any Trove articles meant I missed out on reading of some of the crowds going to the flicks in Charlton in the cinema heydays of the 40s. Is there anybody still around today who remembers a Saturday matinee from way back? Or has a recollection of a first date at the Rex back in the 50s?

What’s your favourite thing about the Rex? What’s the best film you’ve seen there? Or the biggest audience you have sat among?

Coffee or tea before the pic or after?

Timeless Treasures Tea Rooms is a lovely little tea room, which we weren’t going to miss since olde worlde tea rooms are pretty scarce in Australia these days. They had a big crowd in for lunch that day, though, and were struggling to get any food out in good time. It gave us a few worries – and one customer stormed out angry – but when the food did come it was delicious and home-baked. Special mention for the scones that make up the ‘Devonshire Tea’ on the menu (though the tea itself was a little weak, with only one bag of Twinings for two of us), but then we do hear the Australian taste for tea has gone much weaker than when tea was in its heyday here…

Tea room in Charlton


 

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