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Classic History: Celebrating 100 Years of Storytelling

Classic Cinemas is the longest continuously operating cinema in Victoria and has a rich and colourful history to match. While the building itself was not purpose built as a cinema, it remains notable as one of the few early picture theatres still operating in Victoria.

The Gordon Street property was originally purchased by The Elsternwick Public Hall and Skating Rink Company Ltd. in 1888 for £5,000. The company had the intention of building a skating rink, shop, and club house before going into liquidation.

Instead of a skating rink, the building became an important community gathering place, with a public hall and lodge rooms. While still used as a community hall into the new century, the period saw an increase in the popularity of motion pictures and the building sometimes housed a makeshift cinema.

“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  

In 1911 the Amalgamated Picture Company Ltd. bought the property, and prominent architect Frank Richardson – whose other cinema buildings included St Kilda (1911), Williamstown (1913), and Rivoli Cinemas (1921) – soon submitted plans to build a picture theatre on the site. The auditorium was enormous (especially by today’s standards) with 664 seats, and Richardson’s design retained Victorian-era architectural details including the facade, which features an unusual three bay arrangement.

The Elsternwick Theatre was closed in August 1929 as attendance slipped and the depression worsened in Melbourne. Between 1931 and 1946 the building operated as a dance palais – first as the Astor and then as the Dorchester Dance Hall – and in 1946 the building was re-opened as the Esquire Theatre. Then, in July 1969, only a month after reopening as the Sharon Cinema, the theatre was severely damaged when a fire ripped through the building.

Since 1971 the site has been operating as ‘Classic Cinemas’. In 1997 Eddie Tamir bought the cinema, renovated it, and ran it in-conjunction with Reading Cinemas. Tamir took full control in 2011 and has since seen the cinema fully digitised and renovated twice more.

In 2012 the David Herman Theatre was opened as a sixth cinema. This additional space was built to pay tribute to the Yiddish Theatre, a notable community organisation that was once based at the Classic site, and to celebrate the work of Polish director David Herman.

The latest chapter in the Classic story is the recent addition of four new cinemas and refurbishment of the bar and foyer area. Classic is now not only a community hub, but the home of the Jewish International Film Festival and a cultural precinct for all film-loving Melbournians.