The Forgotten History of The Forum Theatre
It has Moorish turrets, a Greco-Roman interior, and a fake sky. It was a theatre, then a cinema, then… a church? This is Melbourne’s Forum Theatre.
The Forum, originally called ‘The State Theatre’, was built by Greater Union in 1929. Greater Union, already Melbourne’s largest cinema chain, wanted an elaborate, grand building, to showcase the company’s success.
To this end, they hired American architect John Eberson. Eberson, a Ukrainian who had studied design in Vienna before moving to the US, was world-renowned for his flamboyant approach.
Among his most famous buildings were the Majestic theatre in Houston, and the Capitol Theatre in Chicago, which both mixed design ideas from different schools and periods, to startling effect. Eberson also designed the State Theatre in Sydney, which remains one of Australia’s most striking buildings.
Melbourne’s State Theatre was to be a one screen cinema, with stall seating on the ground floor and a dress circle above. The capacity of the new venue, 3 371, would made it the largest theatre in Australia at the time.
Eberson’s design flourishes included Moorish towers on the building’s corners, and an art-deco style façade.
The interior was even more elaborate; marble floors, Greco-Roman columns, statues that mimicked classical art and even an artificial sky; the ceiling of the theatre was painted blue, and dotted with tiny lights, to imitate a starry night.
The effect was so over the top that it should have been overwhelming, and yet it comes together in a way that is stylish and surprising.
As well as the lavish design, Greater Union would also spring for another feature to help their flagship building stand out; The State would also boast the world’s largest organ.
Purchased by special order for the then staggering sum of 25 000 pounds, the organ, a Wurlitzer 270, travelled to Australia from the US by boat.
Arriving early in 1929, it was so large that 27 lorries were required to transport it from the dock to the theatre. The resulting convoy caused such a disruption to traffic on Flinders Street that Greater Union were fined by the local council (and revelled in the free publicity this brought).
The Wurlitzer required two musicians to operate it; one seated to the left of stage on a 'master' console, another to the right on a secondary, or 'slave,' console.
For The State’s much hyped opening season, Greater Union brought out acclaimed American organist Frank Lanterman, of the Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles.
Lanterman would spend two years in Melbourne, playing the organ most nights. After his return to the US, he was elected to Congress as a representative from California, and would eventually serve fourteen consecutive terms.
For the theatre's opening night, Greater Union organised a variety style program; a silent feature, some film shorts, some newsreels and then live music, with a thirty piece orchestra accompanying Lanterman.
A huge crowd turned out to take in the spectacle, filling the surrounding streets and spilling out into the road:
'Police reinforcements were called out to clear the road and pavements sufficiently to allow patrons to get into the theatre.
One thing is certain; Melbourne has never seen a theatre like The State, and no opening in the history of Melbourne has aroused sauch interest, or drawn such crowds.'
- Review in 'Everyman's' magazine
This successful opening set the tone for the theatre for its first two decades. While its primary function was a cinema, other acts would also be programmed, including live theatre, magicians and music. In the 1940s, the ABC broadcast a regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts on the radio, live from ‘The State’.
But after the Second World War, public taste began to change, and so change would also come to The State.
The live music program was discontinued and the organ fell into disuse. Similarly, the rise of television meant the end of newsreels, and the cinema program became more focussed on feature-length films.
Following an American trend towards multi-screen cinemas showing a greater variety of movies, Greater Union would split The State into two separate cinemas in 1963.
The dress circle was enclosed, given its own screen and dubbed 'The Rapallo', and the larger downstairs theatre was renamed 'The Forum', after it's still elaborate decoration.
This was the first instance in Australia of a single screen cinema being split into two smaller venues, something which would happen countless times since.
Another change was the removal of the Wurlitzer.
By the 1960s it had been out of use for more than a decade, and was rapidly falling into shabby dis-repair.
It was sold to a private collector, Gordon Hamilton, and removed, with some difficulty. Hamilton stored the instrument for several years and then, unable to afford a restoration himself, re-sold it to Moorabbin City Council in 1967.
The council installed it at Moorabbin Town Hall, and an estimated 8 000 hours were spent to restore the instrument to full working order.
The organ was finally unveiled in 1970 for a series of sold out public concerts and is still used by the council, periodically, to this day.
By 1981, The State had become a shadow of its former self. Its once glamourous looking exterior was dirty and dull looking, and the interior was well-worn and showing signs of neglect.
That year, Greater Union again changed the name of the theatre, now calling the whole venue ‘The Forum’. But the writing was on the wall for the property as a standalone cinema.
The cinema industry's continued drive towards larger complexes with an increasing number of screens, meant The Forum had become unprofitable. The cinema finally closed in 1985 and the building was sold.
And the new owners had a very different idea of what The Forum could be used for.
Revival Centres International (RCI) is a Pentecostal church, founded in Melbourne in 1958.
Originally based out of a private house in Auburn, known as 'Carn Brae,' RCI is a fundamentalist organisation, that believes in a literal interpretation of The Bible:
'The Bible is the inspired word of God. Everything given to us in the Bible is there for a reason. We don’t have the liberty to decide which parts matter, and which parts don’t.'
-From the RCI website, present day
Despite its rigid doctrine, RCI found followers and began to grow.
But an RCI proposal to build a new church in Auburn met with strong local opposition; the organisation was viewed in some sectors as nothing more than a cult, and an unwanted presence in the local community. This protest was successful, and building approval for the church was denied.
RCI then set their sights on acquiring an existing property, where building approval would not be required.
The Forum Theatre seemed tailor-made; rundown and unwanted it was cheap, while the building’s location and history meant that RCI would immediately become a fixture in the city.
The church set up operations in The Forum in 1985, and would operate from there for a decade.
But RCI was not a contented organisation.
Stocked with volatile personalities, and prone to factional infighting, the church’s hierarchy was impossibly compromised. In 1995 a splinter group, called ‘The Revival Fellowship’, broke away from the main church, and started their own fundamentalist sect.
But neither group could afford The Forum on their own, and so the property was again sold. Both RCI and The Revival Fellowship continue, in diminished form, to this day.
This time round, The Forum was purchased by entrepreneur David Marriner.
His company, The Marriner Group, own and operate several live venues in Melbourne, and so added The Forum to their portfolio.
Extensive restoration was undertaken, most significantly on the ground floor, and so the theatre was restored to something approaching its former glory. It is now used for a variety of purposes, primarily as a live music venue.
Films are also screened there sometimes, upstairs in what used to be the second cinema, as part of the annual Melbourne International Film Festival. And so you can still catch a glimpse of the rich, strange history of this remarkable building, a bit like it was when it opened 90 years ago.