Film has become an integral part of Melbournian culture. Approaching its 80th anniversary is the Astor, a glittering jewel in the crown of St. Kilda’s east end, which has come to play a starring role in a growing constellation of alternative film venues in this great city. There is a banquet of cinematic appeal to be experienced in Melbourne, from food truck feasts at the Coburg drive in, to summertime open-air screenings on rooftops and in the royal botanical gardens with ever the merry bustle of folks hungry for some quality salubrious entertainment.
The Astor Theatre is one of my favourite places in Melbourne. In the world, at that. However having spent more than half my life a mere five-minute amble away I may be biased. I remember meandering the oval mezzanine, tinkling away on the old grand piano and chomping down Arctic BananaTM choc tops in cool leathery seats. I would watch with unsullied thrill as the plush velvet curtains peeled open as if by magic to reveal ‘the largest screen in the southern hemisphere’, playing whatever old school classic my parents had towed me along to that week. At intermission my sister and I would creep up through the rows to look at the old projector crouching in the shadows like a museum relic, redolent of a time gone by.
Many a cinema is wanting for the effortless charisma and art deco charm of the beloved Astor. Even with its blinking neon and occasional creaky chairs, it has an atmosphere, experience and inimitable character that simply can’t be forged out of money or time or space; it is manifested in a grand old history, and in the people that love it fiercely and faithfully – an irreplaceable landmark of a bygone era. Its doors open since 1936, boasting a 1,150 seat auditoria and the last operating single-screen of its kind in Melbourne, this is a revival movie theatre to trump them all. Who else would play 007 marathons (with Sean, of course), the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, 60s sci-fi flicks and spaghetti westerns? And every night of the week, sometimes in doubles? Whether you be a small, overwhelmed child dragged along by your enthusiastic parents, a couple out to extend your knowledge of film culture, a well established film buff or simply in it for the world famous choc tops, this is a theatre for everyone.
Stories about the Astor abound in local folklore. Hell, my boyfriend even claims to have been conceived after his parents shared a romantic evening at the Astor (how he came by this knowledge I’m not sure. I’m not even sure I wanted to come by this knowledge). Nobody could overlook the regal presence of Marzipan aka the Astor cat, the true owner of the joint, gone but not forgotten <3. How she would swagger around imperiously, manoeuvring between legs or purring complacently by your side on a cushy velvet armchair at interval, somehow giving off the impression that she had allowed you this seat and that she may change her mind whenever she wished it. Her successor, a rescue cat dubbed the Duke of Astor, has some large paws to fill. His favourite films are rumoured to include the Lion King, Cat in a Hat, Stewart Little, True Grit and Harry & Tonto. My friend and I will never forget the time we were torn to shreds by a row of white-wined influenced middle-aged women for disrupting their cinematic experience. Casual cinemagoers beware; take it from a regular, phone shaming, shooshing and getting locked out by iron fisted ushers when on the less than punctual side is all part of the experience. These things, while seemingly old fashioned, are part of what keeps the Astor tradition alive and makes it such a unique institution. Be prepared for wholehearted and at times disconcertingly uninhibited dress ups by the rabidly committed on special film occasions, and by all means feel free to join the throng. Next time you feel yourself gravitating towards the Astor for a step back in time, leave your phone at home and allow yourself to enjoy it in full, uninterrupted glory.
It has been a source of great sadness and distress to myself and I’m sure to many others over the past years to see the Astor hot potato from the hands of one owner to another, struggling to stay afloat, its fate ever in the throes of uncertainty. It seems a terrible injustice that any place that brings joy and pleasure to so many and which is so firmly engrained in the culture and history of this city should ever be at risk of discontinuation or demolition. And yet we have seen this so often over the past decades – the threat or loss of magnificent old buildings in favour of whatever multi-story monstrosity or parking lot eyesore developers have their fickle hearts set on. In St. Kilda alone the Esplanade Hotel, the Palais Theatre and St. Kilda Pier have all struggled for subsistence against adversity, despite the huge amount of support rallied to protect them. It is a cruel fate for anywhere that has held a place in the hearts of Melbournians for so long, not to mention that they are utterly irreplaceable. The Astor was lucky enough to be saved – Palace Cinemas stepped in just in time to rescue it from closure earlier this year, an announcement accompanied with a huge wave of relief from supporters and lovers of the theatre citywide. In agreeing to become the new tenant they have expressed their intent to continue running the business largely as it is, and, thus far, other than some minor revamping, their word has been kept.
One of most touching and inspiring things surrounding this issue is the amount of people who are willing to rally together in an effort to support and protect iconic venues such as the Astor Theatre across Melbourne. This includes the Friends of the Astor Association Inc. Founded in 2010, this community group has a mission to preserve and develop the Astor Theatre and the film culture surrounding it by building public awareness and appreciation. Efforts such as these do not go unaccounted for, and I’d like to raise a glass to thank Friends for all it commits itself to. So here’s to the Astor – and may she be permitted to continue providing her stellar service to those who step through her doors for many generations to come.
Image: Palace Cinemas