Perth’s rich cinema heritage

The Ambassador. Picture: SLWA.
Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Take a step back in time with Heritage Perth executive director Richard Offen when a movie ticket in Perth cost 3 pence and outdoor cinemas ruled.

It’s 1911 and the complete film of the Johnson v Jeffries prize fight is showing at Perth’s Shaftesbury Picture Gardens.

The popularity of the film means ticket prices have ballooned to three shillings.

“Prior to the commencement of the entertainment several scores of persons who had only paid for admission to the cheaper parts of the house found themselves without seating accommodation, and as one man these (persons) suddenly scaled the barricades and occupied the 3s seats to the evident delight of the galleryites and some concern on the part of the management,” reported The West Australian on March 21, 1911.

For Perth’s working class, cinema in the early 1900s was affordable and accessible, and therefore a popular choice of entertainment.

The Shaftesbury Picture Gardens, built on the site of a wood yard on Stirling Street near the corner of James Street, opened in 1911. 

It undercut its competitor, the Melrose Gardens, by having more seats, some 3000, and lower prices. 

A seat in the front stalls was one shilling, a back stall seat, 6 pence, and 3 pence would pay for a spot in the gallery. 

Accounting for inflation, that’s equivalent to about $6.54, $3.27 and $1.64 in today’s money.

Perth’s early enthusiasm for the movies will take centre stage during the coming series of Heritage Perth’s popular Walk and Talk series, with the program to be announced on Monday.

It will feature six events, three talks, a panel discussion and two guided walks. 

The first event, Going to the Movies, is a guided walk with Heritage Perth executive director Richard Offen, reflecting on the history of movie screens in Perth.

In the early days of WA, most theatrical and musical entertainment took place in private residences or the Court House (now the Old Court House Law Museum in Stirling Gardens). 

Gradually, as the population increased and more public buildings were constructed, further venues, such as The Ambassadors, became available.

It was the open-air venues, though, which proved popular with moviegoers. 

The ideally sloped Esplanade Gardens, at the foot of William Street, presented programs where films shared the arena with boxing exhibitions. 

Melrose Gardens, the Shaftesbury Picture Gardens and the Olympia Theatre put on films with live vaudeville entertainment.

Mr Offen says the first two places to show movies regularly were both outside, on the site of His Majesty’s Theatre where the walk will begin, and at Cremorne Gardens, located further east along Hay Street.

“From early on in its history, the main feature film screenings were regularly supported by vaudeville acts, or by musical items, sometimes in conjunction with a film,” Mr Offen says. 

“Around 1913, this balance was reversed and the theatre became primarily a vaudeville house, with films sometimes in support, except for the regular Sunday film programs. “The 1930s were also a boom period for entertainment. Attending the cinema was a popular pastime and an escape from the worries of the Depression.

“A number of cinemas were built, not only in the city centres of Perth and Fremantle, but also in the suburbs.”

The Going to the Movies walk will lead you around the city, revealing where these cinemas were once located and the history behind Perth’s cinema love affair.

Top picture: The Ambassadors Theatre once stood on Hay Street. Picture: State Library of Western Australia.

Fact File

Going to the Movies walks will take place at 11am and 1pm, on February 22 and March 8.

Bookings open on February 13 at heritageperth.com.

Bookings essential as places are limited.

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