The building which now houses the Classic Cinema was built in 1889, and established as a picture theatre, first in 1911 (as The Elsternwick Theatre). Opening 15 years after the very first films were screened in Australia, The Elsternwick Theatre stands with great regional, historical and social significance.
Historically important, the Classic Cinema is the longest continuously operating cinema in Victoria. While the building itself was not purpose built as a cinema, it remains notable as one of the handful of early cinemas in Victoria still operating.
The premises on Gordon Street was originally purchased by The Elsternwick Public Hall and Skating Pink Company Limited in 1888, with the capital of 5,000 pounds. The company had the intention of building a hall, skating rink, shop, club house and ‘appurtenant buildings’ before going into liquidation.
Instead of a skating rink, the building became an important community gathering place; as a public hall and lodge rooms. While continuing to be used into the new century as a community hall, the period saw the increasing popularity of moving picture entertainment and the Elsternwick Hall was used intermittently for film exhibition.
A rough canvass screen (illuminated by two incandescent gas lamps) was slung across the back of the stage … the projectionist and his equipment were mounted on a scaffolding erected inside the hall immediately over the entrance (The Age, January 3, 1970).
The Amalgamated Picture Company Ltd, acquired the Elsternwick Public Hall in March 1911. Frank Richardson, a prominent theatre architect whose cinema buildings in Melbourne included St Kilda (1911), New Richmond (1913), Empress (1913), Williamstown (1913), and Rivoli Cinemas (1921), submitted plans to build a picture theatre on the site. When built, the seating capability of the theatre was 664, with renovations increasing the seating by 107 seats in 1926. Architectural interest is focussed on the Victorian facade, with its relatively unusual three bay arrangement, each topped by large triangular pediments that project beyond the parapet, providing an interesting silhouette.
The Elsternwick Theatre was closed in August 1929 due to declining attendance and the worsening depression in Melbourne. The building operated between 1931 – 1946 as a dance palais; first the Astor, and then from 1938 to 1946 as the Dorchester Dance Hall. In 1946 the building was re-opened as the Esquire Theatre. In July 1969, the theatre had been operating as the Sharon Cinema for approximately one month when a fire severely damaged the site.
Photos left and right: The Classic Cinema, 2012
The cinema has been operating as the Classic Cinema since June 1971. In 1999 the site was purchased by Eddie Tamir, and ran in-conjunction with the US cinema chain, Readings Cinemas. In 1999 the cinema was extensively refurbished, with Mr. Tamir, taking full control of the site in 2011. Now with 5 refurbished cinemas ranging from 270 to 46 seats, 2011 saw the end of an era with 35mm projection – the screening platform used for over 100 years - cease in favour of superior digital presentation.
In 2012 the Classic commenced construction of a 6th cinema behind the screen of Cinema 1. The site was once the home of the Yiddish Theatre from 1968 - 1992 - a cultural significant group which recreated the Jewish world that migrants had left behind in Europe. It was the theatre that had a restorative and remedial effect on the immigrants who trod a line between the old world and the new. In honour of the sites legacy and cultural history, the Classic 6th cinema will be named the David Herman Theatre in honour of renowned Polish Jewish director.
Photo Left: Building site of Cinema 6 Photo Right: The Yiddish Theatre performs The Dybbuk