Wonderland (open-air)

Wonderland (open-air)

Wonderland (open-air)
23 Langtree Avenue, Mildura
Showing films from: 1911

Wonderland is still Wonderland and will be, for, after all, moving pictures are very wonderful…

An advert ran in the Mildura Cultivator on the 7th January 1911 announcing that the ‘Wonderland’ a new open-air cinema would ‘OPEN TO-NIGHT’. Admission was to cost one shilling for adults, half price for children and 2 shillings for a reserved chair. Tickets could be purchased in advance from Scots’ News Agency and Gilpia’s Store. The doors were due to open at 7.30pm and the film programme would commence at 8.15pm. It was probably Mildura’s first permanent cinema.

The Wonderland was situated in a prime location on Langtree Avenue not far from the railway station and The Grand Hotel. It was operated by Alex Thomson of the Mildura Amusement Company. Thomson also ran Olympia Pictures in Orange Street and later opened the indoor ‘Wonderland’ almost opposite the Wonderland open-air.

Summer screenings took place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays – as long as the weather permitted. From May or June the Wonderland would move inside to the Shire Hall for the winter months where film screenings would take place on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

The summer screenings in ‘The Garden of Pictures’, as it was sometime called, took place in an enclosed space that in many ways would have looked little different from regular cinema or hall but with the exception it had no roof. A sign spelling out the word ‘Wonderland’ in electric lights illuminated the front wall that faced onto Langtree Avenue. Once inside the ‘garden of pictures’ there were rows of individual seats facing the cinema screen.

The quality of the film programme at the Wonderland was highly regarded and the Mildura Cultivator often gave lengthy write-ups about the films screened. On any one night a selection of seven to ten short films would be included in the programme. Films would not always be given titles as we understand them today, but rather the title would act to describe what would occur in the film. For example, one popular 1911 film that had repeat screenings at the Wonderland was referred to as The Russian Lion, or the Wrestler’s Gratitude. The Mildura Cultivator called the film the ‘star picture’ of the evening describing it in some detail:

An ex-champion wrestler, living in poverty, unable to give his sick child the fruit for which she is pining, sees an advertisement announcing that 200 dollars will be given to the man who takes a fall out of the ‘Russian Lion’ and is determined to have a try. ‘The Lion’ is seen in training and subsequently the contest is reproduced. It is a highly scientific contest and an education in what can be done by a fully trained wrestler. The ex-champion fails in his attempt to get a fall and goes home disheartened. ‘The Lion,’ however, has recognised him as his former tutor and visits him in his home. Seeing his poverty, he helps him by leaving him money, which he designates as payment for 30 wrestling lessons at five dollars each. It was quite a pleasant entertainment.

Perhaps further proof that the Wonderland wanted to present an interesting programme is that from 1912 they were also screening some of the very early colour films. These films were described in the Mildura Cultivator as depicting ‘some magnificent waterfalls and cascades in the Alps; also of the mythical Flora and Zephyrus’. Given the date it is most likely that these films were hand-coloured negatives, which was one of the earliest ways colour was reproduced in film.

Other noteworthy screenings include early film versions of Shakespeare’s plays including Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, and a series of films showing Captain Scott’s explorations in the Antarctic. Not content to just show films of ‘elsewhere’ the management of the Wonderland, like that of the Olympia, started making their own films that related directly to Mildura. One of the best received of these was the Mildura Dried Fruit Industry – The Story of Fruit from Vine to Packing Shed. The film starts in Rio Vista House, the home of W. B. Chaffey before moving on to document the various aspects of the fruit drying process.

The Wonderland not only screened films, when Alfred Deakin visited Mildura on the 25th April 1912 he stood on the stage of The Wonderland and addressed the gathered crowed on the policies of the Liberal Party.

The Wonderland was in operation until 1942. When old cinemas close, mainly they are demolished but the Wonderland has a rather strange demolition story. About 10 years after the cinema closed, the owner decided to do some work on the building and was startled to discover that over a period of nine years the Wonderland had been stolen piece by piece without anyone noticing a thing! The owner reported to a Melbourne newspaper that ‘there had been enough material in the theatre to make two houses’.

Today it is only with imagination that we can picture the Wonderland open-air cinema standing as it once did on Langtree Avenue, but perhaps its bricks and other stolen materials are to be found relocated in other unknown locations across Mildura?

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2 Responses to Wonderland (open-air)

  1. In the summer of 1917/18, after injuring his hand in a work accident, the poet John Shaw Neilson stayed for a month with his sister and her family at Mildura. Hugh Anderson & Les Blake’s 1972 biography of Neilson describes how ‘He delighted to take his older nephew to the pictures at Wonderland…Neilson could lean back in his canvas chair and chuckle happily at young Jack McKimm’s reactions to the silent films or explain the titles for him, or, with a poet’s awareness, share the small boy’s imaginings as he identified himself with the adventurous characters.’ The experience resulted in the poem ‘Uncle To A Pirate’ (http://www.australianculture.org/uncle-to-a-pirate-john-shaw-neilson/)

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