The Regent Theatre is a former movie theatre built in 1929, which restored in 1996 and is currently a live theatre.
The Regent Theatre is part of the six city theatres that are collectively known as Melbourne’s East End Theatre District. It is located in Collins Street, in the City CBD. Cedric Ballantyne designed the building in an elaborate palatial style, with a Louis XVl style auditorium, gothic style lobby and a Spanish Baroque style Plaza Ballroom. The sight is listed by the National Trust of Australia and is on the Victorian Heritage Register.
Early years of the Regent Theatre
In the early part of the 20th Century, Hoyts theatre director Francis W. Thring bought the theatre site, to be the flagship for his Regent theatre circuit. Cedric Ballantyne designed the theatre. He had already designed theatres for Thring before and to get inspiration he toured movie theatres in the US. As a result, the theatre is inspired by eclectic sources such as Spanish Gothic and French Renaissance styles.
The Regent Theatre was opened on the 15th of March in 1929. It was a huge event and one of the attendees was Lord Mayor Cr Luxton. He declared that the theatre was an architectural asset to Melbourne, which everyone could be proud of. 3,250 seats were installed in the theatre, together with an orchestra pit and a resident orchestra.
There was a second theatre located underneath the main one, called The Plaza. The Plaza was supposed to be a cabaret, but licensing issues led to a change of plans. It was opened on the 10th of May, 1929. However, F.W. Thring sold his interest in Hoyts to Fox Film in the late 1930s.
In 1945, the cinema was subject to a catastrophic fire, which destroyed the auditorium, roof and fly tower. The Plaza and foyers survived and stayed largely intact. The Regent was rebuild exactly as it was before, due to post-war building restrictions.
It was rebuilt under the direction of architects Cowper Murphy & Appleford, making it one of the last places to be build in this kind of style. A few changes were made, such as the central bronze chandelier which became a Czechoslovakian crystal design. The Regent theatre was eventually reopened on the 19th of December in 1947.
Closure of the Regent Theatre
Hoyts shut the doors of the Regent for the last time in 1970, on the same night as the South Yarra Regent closed its doors. The Ballarat Regent and The Plaza closed its doors in the same year. Then in December 1970 an auction was held where everything that was not stuck to the ground was auctioned off. The auction raised a few thousand dollars.
A “save the Regent” committee was formed in response to the closure of one of Melbourne’s famous buildings. The committee was formed by former staff, theatre enthusiasts and others.
The Melbourne City Council chose the site next to the Regent Theatre to built the City Square, in 1966. The Council decided to buy the Regent to enable a larger scale redevelopment and the theatre was supposed to become a hotel. The Council’s decision was one of the factors that saved the Regent, since they were subject to public pressure.
The National Trust declined to list the theatre, according to them it was not of sufficient significance. In 1974, Lord Mayor Alan Douglas Whalley demanded that the Regent Theatre should be demolished, claiming that the Regent was not worthy of preservation, because it was not the Colosseum. It was argued that the long black side wall of the Regent would compromise architects abilities to create something big for the site.
The Save The Regent committee maintained their pressure, and responded by creating a petition, which later received 2000 signatures.
In 1975, Victorian premier Rupert Hamer concluded that the Regent should be saved as a theatre and concert venue associated with the City Square. He offered around $2 million in interest free loans to restore and maintain the theatre, but nothing happened.
Regent Theatre Classified by the National Trust
The National Trust changed its stance and classified the theatre in 1979.The city square was opened in 1980, while the Regent was still not being used. A lot of proposals were made, throughout the 1980s. Often involving changing the use of the building such as opening up an art center, ballet center or a casino.
The fate of the Regent became an important issue, after the demolition of the Regent in Sydney in 1988. Most regional grand movie theatres had been lost, as well as most of the major cinemas in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Many of the picture palaces remained in Sydney and Melbourne in poor condition. Although a lot of the decoration of the Capitol Theatre in Sydney had been destroyed, the State theatre remained intact but was used little and the Forum Theatre had become a mega-church.
In 1992, the city council voted on a proposal to destroy the Regent and approve the redevelopment of the site as part of a commercial precinct, however the council voted against this proposal. Eventually, the Regent remained unused for 26 years.
Reopening of the Regent Theatre
David Marriner, who restored the historic Princess Theatre in Melbourne, proposed a complicated deal to the Melbourne City Council and the new State Government. His proposal involved restoring the theatre for musicals in return for developing a large hotel on the City Square.
The idea was that the State Government would purchase a half share of the theatre, with the money being used for the refurbishment, while Marriner purchase price for half of the city square would also go to the refurbishment. The cost of this would ultimately be $25 million.
Hansen Tuncken took the lead on the redevelopment, which eventually took 3 years to complete. This redevelopment involved a complete overhaul, repairs, new services, extensive stage facilities, a creation of a new stalls lobby matching its style and more.
Old pictures were supplied bya member of the Save The Regent Theatre Committee in order to recreate its original format. Additionally, the Plaza Theatre was also fully restored to it original ballroom format. The redevelopment was overseen by heritage architect Lovell Chen.
A gala event was held at the grand reopening of The Regent Theatre on the 17th of August in 1996. On 26 October, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard premiered.
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Written by: Jessica Senden – Marketing Intern @gowest.com.au