From the end of the Depression to the early years of World War Two, cinema building and remodelling boomed in Brisbane, drawing heavily on the Art Deco style.
This was cinema’s “golden age” – a time when people flocked to the pictures to enjoy a nightlife beyond the 6 o’clock closing of the pubs and to escape into fantasy worlds of adventure and romance as temporary relief from financial hardship and war.
Art Deco was a style of mass appeal in the interwar period, characterised by geometric and streamlined forms. It influenced all areas of design, from buildings and furniture to fashion, jewellery, advertising and transport.
The vast majority of these Art Deco cinemas have been lost to time, unable to survive the arrival of drive-in theatres, television and the multiplex, and the pressures of urban development.
Five examples are listed below. Only one of these, the Rialto Theatre in West End, still stands today.
Metro Theatre, Brisbane City
The Metro Theatre, built in 1937 by Hollywood studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer, was Brisbane’s most luxurious Art Deco cinema. Its vertical fins and striking neon sign soared skywards as a symbol of the modern city. Popular features included air conditioning, iced water fountains, cushioned chairs with hat racks, headphones for the hearing impaired and a sunbathing roof for staff.
In 1972 the Metro’s Art Deco facade was replaced when the theatre was refurbished to become the Albert Cinema. The building was demolished altogether in 2004.
St James Theatre, Brisbane City
Originally constructed as the Empire Theatre in 1911 and later renamed the St James, this cinema was remodelled in the Art Deco style in 1938. It was decorated in modern shades of cream, green and brown and showcased the latest materials such as plate-glass doors with chromium handles. The cinema retained its Art Deco facade when it was once again renamed as the Paris Theatre in 1965.
The building was demolished in 1986 as part of the Myer Centre development.
Boomerang Theatre, Annerley
During the Depression people sought entertainment locally, leading to a renewed focus on suburban cinemas as the target of redevelopment. An example was the Boomerang Theatre in Ipswich Road, originally built in 1924 and remodelled with an Art Deco facade in 1933. The theatre’s interior was arched and decorated with perforated plaster to increase natural ventilation – a distinctive Queensland design solution.
Despite being heritage listed as one of the last cinemas of its kind in Queensland, developers won a court ruling leading to the Boomerang’s demolition in 1995.
Savoy Theatre, Clayfield
Another suburban cinema to receive an Art Deco makeover in 1937 was the Savoy Theatre in Clayfield. The foyer was a major focus of transformation, including a square column covered in bevelled glass mirrors and an impressive light fitting made from sandblasted glass, measuring 13 feet in diameter.
Unable to survive the arrival of television, the Savoy Theatre was demolished in 1962.
Rialto Theatre, West End
The Rialto Theatre on Hardgrave Road is a rare example of an Art Deco cinema that remains standing in Brisbane, now repurposed as part of a popular restaurant strip. The Rialto’s exterior – featuring porthole windows and curved, horizontal lines – is characteristic of the streamlined style of Art Deco architecture that took inspiration from the great ocean liners.
While many suburban cinemas closed in television’s wake, the Rialto found a new life screening Greek films for the local West End community and was also used for live theatre. Today the Rialto is listed on Brisbane City Council’s Heritage Register.
Do you remember Queensland’s Art Deco cinemas? Let us know in the comments below!