487-503 George Street,
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This was Hoyts premier showcase movie palace in Sydney. Designed by the distinguished architect Cedric H. Ballantyne of the firm Ballantyne & Hare, it was built by James Porter & Sons. The 2,297-seat Regent Theatre opened its doors in the heart of George Street on 30th March 1928 with Greta Garbo & John Gilbert in “Flesh and the Devil”, with the Regent orchestra containing 40 musicians accompanying the silent film. The Regent Theatre was equipped with a Wurlitzer 3Manual/15Ranks theatre pipe organ.
There had been a theatre planned on this corner site from about 1914 with many architects having an interest in the plans. The site was owned by J.C.Williamson, Australia’s leading theatrical producer who already had other Sydney live theatres and weren’t particularly interested in building another. This is why the planning went on so long and passed through so many hands, most notably architect Henry White. Williamsons eventually decided to build the theatre and immediately lease it to Hoyts Theatres Limited. The interior decoration was to be completed in a Hoyts house style similar to the other Regents' planned or already completed in other main cities of Australia.
This was one of the most desirable sites in the city, being at the rise of a slight hill running up to the City Square which contains a Cathedral and Town Hall. It had direct access to the major bus routes which stopped outside the theatre and also to the underground railway beneath. It was originally intended to occupy the entire corner site but the building right on the very corner was a small branch of the Commonwealth Bank who had no interest in losing their prime location. It was decided to build around the bank so the theatre had a side extension into Bathurst Street planned for dressing rooms.
The facade in George Street was Italianate in style and decoration. Monumental pillars and pediments soaring above a glittering bronze and glass marquee. Horizontal and vertical neon signage and urns. There were a selection of small shops along the massive George Street frontage with the main entrance to the lobby beneath the arch in the marquee. You stepped into a triple height lobby with a marble staircase and walls faced in marble. Above you hung a spectacular Art Deco crystal chandelier made of thousands of glass balls cascading down like a waterfall. This was the only evidence of deco in what was otherwise Italian Renaissance furnishing throughout.
The Regent Theatre for all of its life as a movie palace was the flagship showplace for Hoyts Theatres who were later directly owned by 20th Century-Fox. All of Fox’s biggest hits opened here and many Australian premieres were held at this theatre. This was reflected in the lavish appointments internally. The seats were comfortable, there were acres of subterranean powder rooms and plenty of refreshment areas and the foyer space was plentiful with many real antique pieces to delight. CinemaScope was introduced for Christmas 1953 with “The Robe”, and thereafter the most popular films played this theatre.
During the 1970’s J.C.Williamson decided they would sell the property to offset the cost of rebuilding their major Sydney live theatre that had been destroyed by fire. Hoyts were pulling out of any old buildings they operated and embarked on buiding one of the first multiplexes right next door to the Regent Theatre, so they had no interest in buying. The theatre was put on the market and did not sell, being passed in with a top bid of AU$4.5 million. The building was then privately sold to a Sydney entreprenuer who continued leasing the theatre to Hoyts until their lease expired.
At various points in its career The Regent Theatre hosted live entertainment and after the loss of Her Majestys Theatre to fire in the 1970’s there were regular live shows interspersed with film presentations. The Regent Theatre lent itself well to this task with an orchestra pit and a wide proscenium. There were stage facilities that were adequate but some poor sight lines and few dressing rooms.
It was decided to rectify the situation and after lengthy investigation the new owners spent millions upgrading the theatre. Sight line issues were improved, the foyers repainted in a dramatic scarlet with a gold trim. There were new bar areas and offices created within the old George Street shops, and the bars opened into the rear of the stalls. The stalls was fully carpeted and reseated. The exterior cleaned and restored including the marquee. The dressing room block into Bathurst Street was completed finally and below on the street level an expensive retaurant opened. The only thing that could not be addressed was the lack of a good deep stage. The Regent Theatre was redeveloped around some of the theatres live engagements so they were still upgrading into the 1980’s.
At this point the new owners started being offered enormous incentives to develop the site. In spite of the live theatres' success the owners were basically money oriented and decided to sell. When the public got news of this the government became involved and placed a heritage order on the building. The construction unions blacklisted the site in an attempt to preserve the building. There was a very active group inaugurated to fight to save this grand theatre for the city. The owners were at loggerheads with the planning authorities and state government and resented being told they could not develop their site so they shuttered the building, stripped it and left it to decay.
What the owners were waiting for was a change of state and local government which they eventually got, and with it and much money changing hands at the highest level, the theatre was eventually approved for development. The city was already owning another decrepit movie palace (Capitol Theatre) that they didnt know what to do with, didn’t want the Regent Theatre and so agreed for the demolition to take place as quickly as possible so as to enable a high rise to be built before the coming Olympics of 2000.
The grand lady of George Street came down with much anger and hysteria from the campaigners and the site was levelled in about three months during 1990. Due to an unforseen slump in the property market the site then sat vacant and neglected for years while the new owners waited for the market to improve. The site was still a hole in the ground for the 2000 Olympics; an eyesore and embarrasment to the city council and state governement who had approved the demolition of a beautiful civic amenity.
It is only recently (in 2006) that construction work began on the site which had been and empty plot of land for 16 years!
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