A Wide-Screen Epic
Where did all the grand, old cinemas go? What happened to the really-big screens and the proper presentation of wide-screen films?
We all know the answers, of course, in these days of multiplex installations, of "chocolate-box" cinemas and of "projectionists" who seem to spend more time selling popcorn than looking after the show.
But if you look carefully around whichever country you are in there will still be the occasional gem - a cinema dedicated to showing films in the best possible light. The city of Melbourne in Australia has such a gem in The Astor Theatre and it is, indeed, a cinema in the grand, old manner!
The Astor knew its first existence in the early 1900s as the Diamond Theatre. It was built on the site of some old horse stables and, as was common in those days, it was part vaudeville theatre and part cinema. It then became the Rex Theatre and it continued under that name until the mid-1930s when it was demolished to make way for the building of a new cinema which opened as The Astor Theatre in 1935. The first film screened was "Hands Across the Table" starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert.
Those were heady days. The Astor had 1,700 seats and most of them were filled on many nights of week even though there were nine other cinemas in the immediate area.
The crunch came with the arrival of television broadcasting in Australia which was timed to coincide with the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. Audiences dwindled and cinema owners scrambled to survive by installing CinemaScope screens and sound systems.
The Astor coped better than most but the owners decided to sell-out in 1964. It seemed that the cinema was doomed - there were plans to turn it into a bowling alley or a local-council library.
It was saved at almost the last minute when an uncle of the present owner bought The Astor and added it to his chain of twelve specialised cinemas catering to the Greek community. Melbourne had, and still has, the largest Greek population of any city outside Greece and, for the next 17 years, the cinema prospered with a mix of Greek films and concerts.
Then, once again, audience numbers began to wane. This time the problems were caused by the introduction of a multicultural television channel, the growing popularity of video rentals and, as The Astor's owners put it, the continuing "Australianisation" of the immigrant population.
The Astor's screen went dark in 1981 and, once again, it seemed that the cinema's days were numbered - it looked as though it would end up as a bingo hall or a reception centre.
The building had been closed for more than a year when George Florence saw an opportunity to realise his life-long ambition to run a cinema.
He'd had a very-early exposure to movies - he remembers selling popcorn in one of his uncle's theatres when he was just four years old. It was not long before he decided he wanted to be a projectionist and, eventually, he went to work for the Village chain of cinemas in 1975.
However, being a projectionist just wasn't enough. He still had his dream of owning and running a cinema. But not just a cinema - it had to be what he saw as a "real" cinema. Florence was enamoured of the 70mm format and had watched with dismay the general decline in presentation standards and in the number of cinemas that could handle it at all. He was determined that, one day, he would own a cinema big enough to be able to show wide-screen formats as they were meant to be shown. That cinema turned out to be The Astor.
The "under new management" sign went up over the door and the cinema re-opened on September 17, 1982, with the 1933 classic, "King Kong".
IFor a while the The Astor saw something of a return to the early days with a mixture of concerts and films as Florence developed the basic format that is still so successful today - a different, two-feature presentation every day of the week with four features on Sundays.
But those first years were a hard struggle with the prospect of failure always just around the corner. George Florence held-down four different jobs - including his full-time job as a projectionist with the Village chain - and he put every cent of his wages into keeping The Astor open. His family pitched-in to help - his mother worked in the box office and his sister ran the candy bar.
Then, slowly, audience numbers started to improve as more and more people discovered the cinema's unusual and diverse programming and by 1985 The Astor was moving onto the road to success.
Another year went by and then Florence started an ambitious and costly programme to restore the cinema to its former glory and to update its facilities.