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Saving our Cinema and Television Heritage

Posted by ken On August - 20 - 2011

It could be asked what priority does society give to preserving our heritage? For if it wasn’t for the advances in the past, there would be no building blocks for the future.

Some one had to be the pioneers, to accept the challenges and forge ahead so that we now can benefit. How sad it would be if no one remembered and no one commemorated their achievements.

Sad also if not only is the memory wiped clean, but all the artefacts destroyed or left to decay through neglect.

This is in fact happening all the time. How often do descendants throw away items that were cherished by their ancestors?

The British are surrounded by their history, which goes back many centuries, yet our nation has only existed for a fraction of that time, though over the decades we have consistently demolished Perth’s old architecture, theatres and icons, despite the calls of those who wish to preserve.

The Ambassadors Theatre Proscenium – Perth, WA

A prime example of this is the former Ambassadors theatre in Hay Street Perth, which was based on a grand, spanish style atmospheric theatre in America, the Riveria in Omaha, Nebraska, which opened in 1927, one year before the Ambassadors, and is now preserved as the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Theatre.

Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Theatre.jpg
Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Theatre (Riveria) – USA

The Riviera was also the model for The Capitol Theatre in Sydney, which opened on the 7th of April, 1928, with the Ambassadors opening on the 29th of September, that year. The Capitol has been restored to magnificence as a live theatre in that state.

Capitol Theatre – Sydney, NSW

Hundreds of atmospheric theatres were built in the US between 1924 and 1932, but only a few in Australia — of which the Capitol is the last remaining.

Additional venetian and roman elements were incorporated in the design of the Ambassadors, and the Sydney Capitol, with the theatre interior designed to evoke a romantic courtyard, with a ceiling lit to imitate a star studded night sky, as if the audience were seated in an open-air garden, surrounded by exotic plants and birds.

The theatre also featured a Wurlitzer organ, which would rise from the floor to entertain moviegoers, before the screening commenced. A band also performed from the orchestra pit, and there were stage shows.

The orchestra was dispensed with in 1931 and the exterior redesigned in “moderne” style in 1938, a late type of the Art Deco design.

The organ was replaced in 1946, by a white grand piano that had a decorative role.

The Ambassadors closed on 4 February, 1972, and was demolished soon afterwards.

Ambassadors a Lost Cinema Heritage

WA TV History
The black and white footage shown here was taken by the late Ken Alexander (former projectionist, cine cameraman and TVW film editor). The film was provided courtesy of Barry Goldman, a friend and colleague of Ken Alexander. The narrator is former TVW and ABW host and reporter John Hudson. The colour photos come from the collection of cinema pioneer, the late Ron Tutt.

Our heritage goes well beyond mere bricks and mortar, as there is our culture too, which includes the many arts and crafts that have entertained us. The story telling, the songs and dances, contained within the many fine shows made over the decades which were a reflection of the times.

If one asks to see our early WA made television programming, its unlikely that much can be found from the 1960’s. Unless it is on film. ABW veteran and AMMPT member Derrick Wright points out that when the ABC in Perth got videotape facilities in 1962, they were only allocated one machine and a handful of tapes. Tapes that had to be erased after broadcast, to accommodate new recordings. There was no thought, or capacity for archiving the hundreds of local ABC television productions emanating from the studios in Terrace Road Perth. All this content has been lost, and there’s only a few people remaining who can remembers the many shows that were made.

TV Veterans at 2010 ABW Reunion

In 1962 TVW acquired two videotape machines and a larger quantity of tapes. Formal and informal efforts were made to keep material, so by the time Seven was Seven there was enough highlights to feature in the seventh anniversary special. This included VIP guests who appeared over the years and big events such as the 1962 Perth Commonwealth and Empire Games, where TVW and ABW hosted the television broadcasting, for the rest of the world.

During the 1960’s, In Perth Tonight featured many local artists and the Channel Seven Ballet, which in turn resulted in a seven week “Best of IPT” to cover the Christmas break. During the Sir James Cruthers era, conservation was a matter of pride for the station. There was the Seven Museum with everything from a steam train, trolley bus, vintage vehicles and aircraft, farming machinery, and much more on display. There was also an extensive collection of heritage television equipment kept.

TV Veterans at 2009 TVW Reunion

All this changed when the ownership changed in 1982. The museum artefacts were spread far and wide as the rich assets were stripped. A destructive attempt was made to regain the silver content from the historic 16mm black and white film, and much of the 1960’s videotape archives were thrown out.

If it was not for the quick thinking of devoted staff, who took evasive action, much more would have been lost.

Despite this, Seven Perth’s videotape, film and photographic archives are still something to be proud of, for the vast resources that still remain. A great credit to all who participated in preserving this material.

The problem now is that equipment used to replay much of this content is now obsolete, and very little remains in service. Fortunately the Australian Museum of Motion Picture and Television’s (AMMPT) members have collected a good cross section of film, telecine and videotape equipment, which represents each era. Thats not to say that all of it is in good working condition.

With these thoughts in mind, we should reflect on AMMPT’s latest initiative in wanting to insure that vital content is no longer lost.

Please read the following Media Release for more details.

One Response to “Saving our Cinema and Television Heritage”

  1. Paul Fletcher says:

    Hello all,
    re: Ambassadors theatre. (just for interest) I have an alabaster lamp in the shape of a dancing maiden, also featuring a stylised elephant head at the back. This lamp was apparently part of the ambassadors furnishings, and was found at Gregson’s auctioneers soon after demolition of the theatre. I have been searching images of the theatre hoping that I might find the lamp in a picture, but no luck so far.
    If it would be of interest, I can send a picture of the lamp, maybe someone can recall seeing it at the theatre. Otherwise I can’t really guarantee its provenance.
    Also, I had a chance to buy the Valentino bust now at HMT museum (originally at the Capitol) but my wife found it too haunting in our hallway, so off it went to the museum.
    Regards and thanks for the site, Paul Fletcher

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