May 22, 2022

The Forgotten History of The Forum Theatre

It has Moorish turrets, a Greco-Roman interior, a fake sky, and it was a theatre, a cinema and a church. This is the forgotten history of The Forum Theatre.

The Forum Theatre, Melbourne

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 was from Austria, and studied design in Vienna before moving to the United States. There he had made his name with a series of flamboyant buildings that had become world famous.

The Majestic Theatre Texas
The Majestic Theatre Texas

Among Eberson's most famous buildings were the Majestic Theatre in Houston, and the Capitol Theatre in Chicago. These were key examples of his style, which both mixed design ideas from different schools and periods, to startling effect.

Eberson's first building in Australia was the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, which opened in 1928. Subsequently, Melbourne was keen to have an Eberson Theatre of its own.

It would be done on a grand scale.

Melbourne's State Theatre, shortly after completion
Melbourne's State Theatre, shortly after completion

The new 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 façade.

The interior of the State Theatre, showing the dress circle
The interior of the new theatre, showing the dress circle
The lobby of The Forum Theatre in 1929
The lobby in 1929, which remains very similar today.

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.

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.

Organs in The Forum Theatre, Melbourne
The giant organs two consoles, after installation

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.

Frank Lanterman at the organ console
Frank Lanterman at the main 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.

An ad for the opening of the State Theatre, Melbourne
An ad for opening night: 'Australia's greatest theatre!'

For the theatre's opening night, Greater Union organised a variety style program; a silent feature, some film shorts,  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 such 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.

The State Theatre in 1962, shortly before partition
The State Theatre in 1962, shortly before partition

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.

The elaborate keyboard of The Forum Theatre's Wurlitzer, post restoration
The elaborate keyboard of The Forum Theatre's Wurlitzer, post restoration

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 Argus reports the Forum Thetare's organ
The Argus reports the organ's return.

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.

The Forum Theatre, 1975
The Forum, circa 1975.

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, logo
Revival Centres International, logo

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

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.

A chart that plots RCI's many different iterations and factions
A chart that plots RCI's many different iterations and factions

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.

The interior of The Forum Theatre, present day

Live music at The Forum Theatre, present day.
Live music at The Forum Theatre, present day.

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.

 More MUSEUM OF LOST

One thought on “The Forgotten History of The Forum Theatre

  1. Hi,

    An interesting piece with a few inaccuracies. A prominent piece like this deserves to have the right information.

    Some comments:

    The State was built by Union theatres, as Greater Union did not exist at that time.

    Hoyts after the merger with Electric were the larger chain of cinemas in Melbourne in 1929.

    Greater Union closed the Forum in June 1986, not 1985. I don’t forget my retrenchment date!

    Comments made that circa 1981 it was “dirty, dull, well worn” are simply not true. I worked there during this period and it was in pristine condition. Chairman and majority owner of Amalgamated Holdings/Greater Union Sir Norman B Rydge passed away in 1980 and left millions in his will for the express purpose of completely refurbishing the Sydney State and the Melbourne Forum, the funds could not be used for anything else. Alan Rydge and the board followed his wishes.

    An extensive refurbishment followed including a total repaint of the exterior (the last time it was done!) and many new, refurbished and repainted interiors. New carpets, seats redone even though little of this was actually required. Greater Union always maintained a very high standard in those days. The Rapallo entrance was closed on Russell St, a new Forum 2 entrance made of the former State dress circle foyer off Flinder St and brand new projection equipment installed in the Forum 2 (Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors).

    The theatre was actually in excellent condition even before this time, so we were somewhat surprised that so much was spent. The entire building had a sprinkler system added in 1985 and every single part of the theatre had a sprinkler head added or it was bricked up. This job took 10 months!

    The Revivalist church were already well established in the CBD before buying the Forum as they previously were located at the Palace/Metro Bourke St for several years.

    David Kilderry

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