Commercial Road, Yarram
Showing films from: 1930
The Regent Theatre has been screening films in Yarram since 1930. Occupying a significant site on Commercial Road, the Regent was built by Mr & Mrs Thompson. However, it was Mrs Margaret Adelia Thompson, best known as ‘Ma Thompson’ who was the main person behind the development. The Regent was the second cinema that Ma Thompson had built in Yarram, the first was the Strand Theatre, which was built in 1914 and occupied a site at the other end of Commercial Road.
The Regent is a two-story purpose built cinema that cost in the region of $40,000 to build. It’s original seating was for 1000, distributed between 600 seats in the stalls and 400 in the balcony. The seats in the stalls were movable, allowing the auditorium to be used for multiple purposes, including concerts, dances and live theatre. The exterior of the building, which still retains most of its original features, followed a ‘Mediterranean’ design, something that was popular in many cinemas and theatres of the era. Key features of the facade include a full-length pressed metal veranda over hanging the pavement, three central glass doors with ‘sunburst’ lead-lighting insets at the top and three large fan-shaped windows, which took up much of the front wall. In the original design retail units were positioned either side of the main entrance. Across the front of the building the ‘Regent Theatre’ was spelt out in ornate lettering, and this also remains.
Walking up the three marble steps and through the glass doors the visitor reaches the foyer, which is decorated with wooden panelled walls and a detailed pressed metal ceiling. In foyer a staircase leads to the second floor, in the original design the ticket booth was situated under the back of the staircase, and there was access to a dedicated pram room, ladies cloakroom and an adjoining sweet shop. Upstairs there is a second foyer, which originally contained another ticket booth for those wishing to purchase seating in the balcony area.
At one end of the auditorium is a large stage, and this was designed so it could either display the cinema screen or could be fitted out for live performance. Surrounding the stage stands the proscenium, which has unusual dimensions, given it is taller than it is wide. In the centre of the proscenium there is a plaque displaying the initials ‘RT’, indicating the name of the theatre. The Regent had a novel way of insulating the building, which was done by using a layer of seaweed in the ceiling – making use of its proximity to the sea.
The Regent opened its doors to the public for the first time on the 18th of September 1930, with the now lost film: 4 Devils (1928, dir. F. W. Murnau, starring Janet Gaynor). While the ‘4 Devils’ was a silent film, by the 1930s many films had been made with sound, so it was important for the Regent to be wired for sound. In 1931 that happened when the projection booth was equipped with Raycophone sound equipment. When the Regent first opened films were screened on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Other forms of entertainment, such as concerts, live performance and balls took place on other days of the week.
Under tightening regulations, the projection booth, which was situated at the back of the balcony, had to be fireproofed, and this was tested out only a few months after the Regent opened. The Gippsland Times reported that there was a ‘Sensation at Yarram’ when a fire broke out in the projection booth during a Saturday night screening in November 1930. Over a 1,000 feet of film was destroyed and the performance had to be discontinued but the paper reported that the fire brigade were soon on the spot to put the fire out and no one was hurt or panicked. Two years later Yarram was hit by the worse storm that the town had seen in 50 years – and it took its toil on the Regent. The wind was so strong that it blew portions of the roof off the building leaving the cinema screen and areas of the auditorium open to the sky for some time before the repair work could be carried out.
In 1958 the Regent was purchased by the then Shire of Alberton, and since then the Council, along with various community/ management committees have managed the venue. However with the rise of television in the 1950s and the subsequent fall in cinema attendance film screenings had to be reduced (and stopped completely for some time) and the Regent became know more for holding different kinds of entertainment events. A programme of improvements and refurbishments have continued over the years, meaning many of the original features of the building are still visible and in good shape. Today, the Regent is used for many different purposes, including theatre, concerts eisteddfods, wedding receptions, as well as running a regular film programme and hosting film festivals.
 The artist Lily Hibbard engaged with this part of the Regent’s history in the play she wrote and produced as part of her work for The Cinemas Project.
Many thanks to Lily for sharing her invaluable research on the history of cinema in Yarram and the notes from the memory days she conducted as part of The Cinemas Project.