State Secrets

The plaque inscription on the pavement outside Hobart’s State Cinema testifies to it opening in February 1914. “Incorrect”, according to historian and author, Bill Clyde. “The first film show took place on Thursday 2 October 1913, a year earlier than previously thought”. This is just one of the many misunderstandings and hitherto unknown facts that Clyde has discovered while researching his book to commemorate the forthcoming centenary, in 2013, of Hobart’s iconic cinema.

As a proud Victorian, Clyde was thrilled to discover it was two Melburnian brothers-in-law, Alfred Chenhall and Edward Morris who established the cinema on its present site in North Hobart. The families moved to Hobart in 1907 where the two men dabbled in a number of commercial ventures before securing the site of the old Baldock Fuel Depot in 1913 to establish their cinema. “A sturdy, two storey, double brick, iron roofed, building with a street frontage of 50 feet (80 metres), and a depth of 190 feet (300 metres) was soon constructed”, says Clyde.

The opening night of the North Hobart Picture Palace (2 October 1913), was greeted with a great sense of expectancy and excitement with crowds flocking to attend the inaugural presentation. Unfortunately, many were disappointed and ‘House Full’ signs were soon posted. Ticket prices varied according to distance from the screen. “Front of house cost one shilling and sixpence, middle of the cinema cost one shilling, with cheaper seats at the rear for only sixpence”, declares Clyde. The main feature, a three reeler made in 1911 by the American Selig Polygraph Company, was entitled ‘The Two Orphans’. The bill also featured six shorts including, ‘The Abduction of Jane’, and ‘The Tale of the Wilderness’, as well as ‘Pathe’s Gazette’.

Over the next 80 years, the North Hobart Picture Palace experienced periods of uncertainty and flux. There were changes in ownership, alterations to the name and amendments in the use of the venue including seasons when it operated as a billiard saloon, gymnasium, boxing arena and a vaudeville theatre. Renamed ‘The State Theatre’ in 1948, it was eventually bought by local businessman, John Kelly, in 2002. Kelly embarked on major renovations in 2005 much to Clyde’s consternation. “I just hope he doesn’t ruin the place”, he recalls thinking at the time. Kelly, too, sensed some unease amongst patrons about his plans. “I know the local community was nervous about what I was doing to the cinema”, he admits. “But it had to be done. It’s not just about screening films. I want people to leave here having enjoyed the whole experience”, he stresses.

Clyde’s research into the history of the State began in November 2009, and since then he has been steadily beavering away on the internet, in libraries, amongst archives as well as conducting interviews with relevant people seeking personal reminiscences. “I actually thought that the history of the early years of the cinema would be the most difficult”, he concedes, but that has not proved to be the case. He is still searching for 1935-48 photographs of the venue, when it was known as the ‘Liberty Theatre’.

And how will 100 years of films be commemorated on 2 October 2013? As with its initial presentation, the programme will involve something old and something new. Clyde’s book is scheduled to be launched, and, according to Kelly, “The main feature which opened the cinema in 1913 [‘The Two Orphans’] will be rescreened as part of our centenary celebrations”.  But between now and then Kelly has plans for further renovations a major café extension, a boutique bookshop, plus the inclusion of two more 50-seat theatres together with a rooftop garden. With annual attendances having increased from 20,000 in 2002 to the current 150,000, the State is well placed to continue as a major leisure venue well into its second century.

If you have any reminiscences or recollections about the State Cinema (or its predecessors) which you would like to share, Bill Clyde would love to hear from you. He is also especially interested in photographs of the building (outside and in) during the era 1935-48. Contact him at billclyde@y7mail.com

Words : JOHN HAGAN

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