Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage

Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage

Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage: The Macquarie Cinema, Corner Queen and Browne Streets, Campbelltown” by John Daley
Copyright © 1982 John Daley. All rights Reserved

The origins of the Macquarie Cinema are at this time obscure. Mr Fred Eves, proprietor of the Cinema from 1931 to 1966, dates its construction at around the late 1920s *1. However, it was of an architectural style which was highly indicative of an earlier 1920s origin. It appeared to have been built after the era of functional but rather flimsy country film-screening places, so often open-air or of fibro or canvas material (as were common in the years up to 1920); but its very basic (albeit much sturdier) design and execution still placed it before the “talking picture” and the idea of an evening at the cinema being a total evening’s entertainment, reflected in the lavish cinema architecture of the 1930s found in such buildings as the Roxy Theatre in Parramatta and the State and Capital Theatres in Sydney *2

The Cinema was built by Dr William Mawson, medical practitioner and notable Campbelltown citizen. The property appears to have been retained by the Mawson estate until comparatively recent times – Mr Eves recalls that they owned the site until he relinquished the business in 1966 *3. The earliest “Campbelltown News” advertisement for films screening at the cinema was run on 11th February, 1927 for the film “White Sister” *4.

The building material of the cinema is also of interest. By one unconfirmed account, Dr Mawson had a pile of surplus sandstock bricks left over from the demolition of the former Kendall’s mill (circa 1844). Having this surplus stock, he decided to use them up in a cinema building. Why he chose a cinema is not presently recorded *5.

Mawson hired a Mr Molesworth to manage the building, but retained his own medical practice *6. Little else is known about the management of the building prior to 1931. In that year its management changed hands, coming under the stewardship of Mr Harry Nickless and family. Harry Nickless had “considerable experience in picture theatres” in the Bathurst area in the years back to the time of the First World War *7 *8. He was also Fred Eves’ father-in-law – hence Mr Eves’ link with the Cinema back to this period.

One of Nickless’s early changes was the updating of the Cinema’s sound-on-film equipment. Mr Eves recalls that the equipment which the Nickless family took over was of the old sound-on-disc system used in so many early “talkies” (including the first commercially successful “sound” film, “The Jazz Singer”, released in 1927. This system simply involved the running of a special sound disc with the film. This proved impossible to synchronise if even the slightest bump or cut appeared in either disc or film. Under the new “Western Electric” optical sound track-on-film system, synchronisation problems were eliminated. It also permitted the Cinema to show a style of film which could take full advantage of sound, such as dramas and musicals. (The earlier “sound-on-disc” films such as “The Jazz Singer” were really only modified silent films, with short matches of dialogue and monologue between long stretches of background music and even visual sub-titles).

In a relatively insular country town such as Campbelltown, any sort of entertainment was welcome. This is certainly verified in Mr Eves’ recollections *9. It was recalled in this interview that the Cinema started under the Nickless management with a seating capacity of 400. By moving the screen right back to the rear wall, this capacity was increased by 100. An upstairs dress circle was added at about the time of the change of management, which apparently added about 200 seats.

He Cinema was only opening on Wednesday and Saturday nights in 1931. Later, a Saturday matinee was added. By 1950 the Cinema was open every evening (except Sunday) and an additional housewives’ matinee on Wednesdays *10. Films were, in Mr Eves’ recollection, shown in Campbelltown as early as one week after Sydney release. An examination of a selection of “Campbelltown-Ingleburn News” issues of the 1950s indicates generally standard light-entertainment films, American in origin. As many as two or three different films, together with accompanying shorts would be shown during the week. Mr Eves recalled that a typical program would consist of a newsreel, a travelogue, two feature films and perhaps a cartoon; a program of this length would run for about three hours, including interval. This sort of program was probably run before the 1950s advertisements mentioned above.

The Cinema’s patrons did not simply have only films to look forward to. In the 1930s, “vaudevilles, concerts, dances, balls and many other entertainments in addition to films” were staged at the Cinema *11. Mrs Eves recalls dances there on Tuesday evenings (when the Cinema did not at that time screen throughout the week). Such dances became very popular; the New Year of 1960 was welcomed in by such an event *12. It is not recorded what became of the Cinema seats during these events. Vaudeville was another popular happening; in this regard the Cinema was not unlike other Sydney suburban cinemas which augmented film entertainment with live acts and music. One such act at the Macquarie Cinema, recalled in a 1956 article, involved a live ape shooting at a piece of fruit suspended on stage. Apparently the beast’s regard for fresh fruit was higher than its competence at small arms drill; after almost shooting at its audience, (possibly mistaking them for critics), it eventually took a rather wild shot at its target, instead hitting the side of the stage (leaving a bullet-hole which presumably remained until the building’s demolition) *13.

Such a variety of entertainment in a town starved for entertainment ensured the Cinema’s success. Mr Eves recalls packed houses with bus-loads of patrons coming from various areas of the district. Sometimes extra sessions were necessary to accommodate pre-booked groups. Servicemen stationed in the area during the Second World War also provided regular, if at times boisterous, patronage. Such crowds could not have been attracted by the rather spartan comforts of the building. In addition to periodic infestations of fleas, the building was extremely cold in winter and hot in summer. An attempt to relieve the heat with the installation of fans proved unsuccessful as the fans only rearranged the hot air. Having no better use for them, patrons would then throw lollies at the fans *14.

The fact that the Cinema was an important social centre of the town can be measured by Mr Eves’ recollection of the ultimate penalty for rowdy behaviour – suspension from attending screenings. Suspensions were strictly enforced, as the small staff (mostly members of the family) all knew who the wrongdoers were. Several refusals at the box office were usually enough for the miscreant to offer his apologies to the manager *15.

The stature of the Cinema in the town can be further measured by the size of their “Campbelltown-Ingleburn News” advertisements. In the 1950s these were usually full-page (tabloid size). By the 1960s these had shrunk to a couple of columns, or even less.

This decline coincided, of course, with the television era. The traumatic effect of television on the cinema industry has been adequately documented elsewhere. In Campbelltown’s case, television simply took longer to kill off the Cinema.

Perhaps the writing was seen to be on the wall when, in 1954, Cinemascope was introduced to the Macquarie Cinema *16. This was the same year that Harry Nickless retired from the Cinema, with the business being taken over by Edward Nickless (son of Harry) and Fred Eves. As the slump in cinema patronage continued into the 1960s, costs were cut by natural wastage as hired staff left. The Cinema became an exclusively family-run business. By this time Edward Nickless had left the business and Fred Eves, after leaving the business briefly around 1955, had by this time been back in the Cinema for some years *17.

Despite such cushionings, the decline continued until, in 1966, Fred Eves decided to sell up his equipment. The Mawson estate then sold the property to the Skatelands company at a price which, according to Mr Eves, was in the vicinity of $20,000. A roller-skating rink was then opened under the control of Mr Jack Hepher (who also had a bicycle shop in Campbelltown at one stage), continuing until 1968. Commenting on this closure, the then Deputy Mayor of Campbelltown, Alderman S. Mulholland, made a somewhat prophetic statement. Referring to the rink he said: “I feel that Council, before long, will have to build something for this type of activity, either outdoors or indoors.” *18 …Years later Campbelltown City Council built another cinema!

From 1968 the building went into decay. The Queen Street frontage was converted to two shops whilst the auditorium became warehouse space for Downes department store. In 1979 the City Council considered rezoning of the land on which the building stood to permit redevelopment of shops and offices on the site *19. With approval given, the Macquarie Cinema was demolished in December 1979. The bricks dating back to Kendall’s mill (as mentioned earlier in this article) suffered the ignoble fate of being used as “fill in Ingleburn” *20.

[The author John Daley was Local History Librarian at Campbelltown City Library and a Committee Member of Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society at the time of writing this paper.]

Note: for further information about this topic, please refer to V. Fowler, ‘Dr William Mawson, brother of Sir Douglas’, “Grist Mills” Vol. 15 No. 2, Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society, July 2002; also J. Merry, “From the Days of Early Cinema”, Minto Hardware Community Project.

*1 Mr & Mrs F. Eves interview, 7 August, 1979 (cassette tape). (Local History Collection, Campbelltown Library).
*2 For a discussion on this topic, see “Picture Palace Architecture in Australia” by Ross Thorne, South Melbourne; Sun-Academy Series, 1976.
*3 See footnote 1.
*4 E. J. McBarron?s indexing of “Campbelltown News” copies held by State Library of NSW (Local History collection, Campbelltown City Library).
*5 Information supplied by Mrs V. Fowler.
*6 See footnote 1.
*7 “Campbelltown-Ingleburn News”, 1 May 1956, p. 13.
*8 See footnote 1.
*9 See footnote 1.
*10 See footnote 7.
*11 See footnote 7.
*12 “Campbelltown-Ingleburn News”, 12 January 1960.
*13 See footnote 7.
*14 See footnote 1.
*15 See footnote 1.
*16 Silver Anniversary Month of May (1956) (Cinema Program 4 pp.) (Local History Collection, Campbelltown City Library).
*17 See footnote 7.
*18 “Campbelltown-Ingleburn News”, 10 September 1968, p. 1.
*19 “Macarthur Advertiser”, 13 June 1979, p. 13.
*20 “Campbelltown-Ingleburn News”, 2 January 1980, p. 1.

(published in “Grist Mills” Vol. 1 Nos 1 & 2, Nov 1982 & Feb 1983)