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A faded jewel in Junee

15 January 2009 4,464 views No Comment

Ross Fitzgerald on the efforts to save a crumbling rural picture palace.

Nestled in the main street of Junee in rural New South Wales, the Athenium picture theatre has seen better days. Once the lifeblood of the community and a hub for theatre, films and the latest newsreels, the cinema is now boarded up and in disrepair. While it crumbles, the Heritage Council of NSW and Junee Shire Council try to work out what to do with this faded jewel.

Listed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 2003, the theatre is recognised as a regional architectural treasure, virtually intact, if fraying at the edges. Despite heritage grants from the State and Commonwealth Governments, the necessary works are still to be implemented, and the perennial shortfall in funding threatens its future.

The grand old cinema, which contributed so much to the social fabric of Junee, was built in 1929 by Nick Laurantus and Ben Cummins. Laurantus was a Greek immigrant from Kythera, and the theatre was one of a string of venues owned or leased by the Laurantus family throughout regional NSW. These included the Globe at Narrandera, the Montreal in Tumut, the Rio Theatre in Lockhardt, and the Gundagai Theatre. In its day, the Athenium at Junee was a local landmark. After 1950 it was renamed the Broadway by new owners the Pollard brothers. In 1959, major modifications included the removal of the original proscenium arch to provide a wider opening for Cinemascope presentations, but it retained its seating, dress circle and street-facing shops. The Broadway ran until 1971 when the operating licence was finally cancelled. Slowly the building fell into disrepair.

A passionate section of the local community fought hard to save their beloved cinema, forming the Junee & District Development Association in 1977. The group raised $20,000 to purchase the building and an additional $45,000 from community donations to transform it into an indoor sports and social centre. However, by 2000 Junee Council began planning the demolition of the theatre for a medical centre, to meet modern community needs. The stage was set for the final curtain, but the community kept up their calls to save the cinema, then known as the Jadda Centre.

This campaign was supported by highly respected cinema historian Dr Ross Thorne, who identified the Junee theatre as one of the better ‘survivors’, 11 in total, of some 351 cinemas once boasted by NSW country towns. The loss over time was horrific; this class of buildings was once as important locally as the police station, the lockup, the church and the school. In fact, in Junee the cinema fulfilled many of the functions that a town hall would have done, including providing the venue for local balls. Again the petitions came in, and after consideration by the Heritage Council and the then minister for planning, in 2003 an interim heritage order was placed on the building. The intention was to buy time so its significance could be better understood. Representations by the National Trust, the NSW Ministry for the Arts and the NSW Film & Television Office called for urgent action.

Sadly, Junee Council fought against calls to save the building, openly canvassing for its demolition. The opinion of the townsfolk was mixed. Today, five years after the Heritage Council weighed up all the arguments and listed the theatre on the State Heritage Register under the NSW Heritage Act 1977, locals’ views are still polarised.

Because the Athenium (later Broadway and then Jadda Centre) was built from cheap available materials, it doesn’t rank alongside Australia’s greatest architectural treasures. But this is perhaps part of its charm, a direct equivalent of the grand theatres serving wealthy Sydney patrons of the time.

The Junee theatre harked back to a more provincial, functional style popular immediately before the advent of the Art Deco period. It still contains traces of its former Greek owners through distinctive grapevine and trellis motifs. A brick building, the interior shows a fondness for flat timber panelling and plaster decoration. The architects, Kaberry & Chard, were established in the picture theatre game during the Twenties and Thirties, and their Junee commission is recognised by experts as a fine example of that local style.

The Athenium opened two weeks before the New York stock-market crash of 1929. This was followed by waning community interest in the silent films of the late Twenties. During the Great Depression the theatre suffered, but with the arrival of the talkies things started looking up. Dr Thorne’s research revealed that in the 1930s the itinerant unemployed were allowed to stand at the back of the seating area for a few hours if only to warm up, while financially crippled farmers could come and see a movie at half time for half the price. By 1938, movies were being shown six days a week, except when dances or concerts were staged.

Patronage reached a high point during the second world war. Movietone newsreels were a lifeline for communities as they eagerly sought news of the battles raging outside Australia.

Heritage listing of the Athenium Theatre led to an initial injection of state government heritage funding. The heritage branch of the department of planning contributed $125,000 in 2004, matched by Arts NSW for urgent repair and restoration works. Junee Council did well to attract a $250,000 grant from the Commonwealth Government under its regional partnerships programme by 2007. Although Junee Council had earmarked $250,000 of its own money to support the works, by the end of 2008 little had been done.

Last month, Gabrielle Kibble, the new chair of the Heritage Council of NSW, flew to Junee to try to resolve the problem. ‘This council is facing all the hardships endured in regional NSW at present, with an economic downturn, job losses and general uncertainty,’ she said. ‘Expending considerable resources into a heritage item is a problem that the Heritage Council, State Government and the local community must tackle together.’

The council has identified blowouts in costs since the grant monies were awarded, as well as difficulties in meeting current national building codes while retaining the historic authenticity of the building. Works have now started on repairing the roof to address water damage and the council has identified a practical staged restoration programme. This aims to get the building back to a state where it can be used by the public, raise its profile, and return a unique asset to the people of Junee.

The current financial dilemmas rekindle memories of the Depression, but the theatre has outlasted challenges before. Mrs Kibble has offered the full support of the Heritage Council’s expert technical panels to find a solution to the restoration and adaptive re-use of the theatre.

‘This cinema was a local icon in its day, not grand by any means, but it survives as a representation of a past community way of life,’ she said.

The Heritage Council and the NSW Heritage Branch hope that, in time, the inhabitants of Junee will be glad that a number of concerned citizens pushed for the Athenium’s salvation.

The Spectator Australia, 10 January 2009

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