Australian Silent Movie Heritage

The Broadway Theatre is an important part of Australian cinema history. It was built in 1911 as a purpose-built silent movie cinema. In early movie history, movies tended to be shown in special rooms attached to bars in hotels, or in community dance halls, but the need to appeal to a family audience in a more glitzy environment meant that theatre-like cinemas started to be built, and the Broadway was one of these early ones. The earliest venue had been the Athenaeum, a hall attached to a library in Melbourne in 1896 just a few months after the world’s first ever movie screening by the Lumière Brothers in Paris. By 1911 there were over a thousand movie venues in Sydney but only about 300 were dedicated cinemas like The Broadway. It was one of the larger ones. It seated 1200 people on two levels and the screen was behind a curtained proscenium arch and a Wurlitzer organ was located on the stage below.

Interior of The Majestic Theatre in Pomona, Queensland. It is the oldest silent movie theatre in the world that still shows silent movies
No photographs of the interior of The Broadway Theatre exist that show its Wurlitzer organ. As Illustration of what was typical from another theatre is this current interior of The Majestic Theatre in Pomona, Queensland. It is typical of the small silent cinemas built in small rural communities during the silent era. This is the oldest operating silent movie theatre in the world still showing silent movies. The Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino is a perennial favorite, but Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Australian silent movies are also screened. The Majestic has been operating since 1921 and is now a Heritage listed building. The white organ can be seen in pride of place to the left of the screen. The organist watches the movie along with the audience and adapts the music to the action on screen. In these small country cinemas the owner, ticket seller, and organist was sometimes the one person, with a projectionist the only other person operating the cinema, making it an ideal job for a married couple. A larger cinema in the city, like The Broadway, would employ several people, including sweets and ice-cream sellers who would bring treats to your seat, and a professional organist. The organs continued for many years after the debut of talking movies as entertainment music before and after the movie screening but as audiences dwindled with the introduction of television, letting the organist go was an easy cost cutting measure.



In the 1890’s and the early decades of the 20th century Australia was at the cutting edge of movie production. The Limelight Department in Melbourne in 1897 became one of the first movie studios in the world and in the new century Woolloomooloo in Sydney was home to several studios. The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906 was the first feature length movie made and its financial success lead to the adoption of the approximately 90 minute duration for feature films to become the standard length world-wide. In 1911, when The Broadway Theatre opened, there were 51 Australian made feature films released and in 1912 another 30 made. This early golden age was followed by the bust of the 1920’s when American films started to dominate theatre releases, although some of the highest grossing Australian films had yet to be made, such as For The Term of His Natural Life in 1927, On Our Selection in 1932, and The Overlanders in 1946.

Still from The Fatal Wedding, the highest grossing film of 1911. It was made near Bondi Beach and was one of the first films screened at The Broadway Theatre. image: Spencers Pictures, National Film and Sound Archive

The biggest movie of 1911, in terms of box-office, was The Fatal Wedding starring Lottie Lyell and Raymond Longford. It was shot in an artist’s studio near Bondi Beach. It was one of the first movies to screen at the newly opened Broadway Theatre. It is claimed to be the first movie in which the close up shot, in the modern sense, was used. It was also the first Australian movie that used interiors as the main set. At the time sufficient light was a problem for shooting movie film. To solve this problem the roof was removed from the Bondi building for the duration of the shoot. This story gives a feeling for the movie industry at the time that the Broadway Theatre was built.

Eight Buses for an Acme Theatres Social Club picnic are parked in front of The Broadway Theatre on a rainy Sunday in 1946. Despite the rain the buses are full. Inside the cinema Bob Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire was playing that day.

The cinema was built by Marcus Clark on land leased from the city council. McIntyre’s Broadway Theatres purchased the cinema in 1922, and it was wired for sound for the The Jazz Singer in 1929 but it is not known when the Wurlitzer organ was finally retired. In 1943 The Broadway was purchased by Greater Union. During the late 1950’s the cinema experienced rapid decline in attendance with the advent and rapid adoption of television and in April 1960 it screened its last movie and permanently closed its doors.

Sink The Bismarck! was the most popular movie on screens when The Broadway Theatre closed in April 1960

The original seating was removed but the stage remained with the idea that the venue could be converted to a ballroom. In 1968 it was purchased by John Spooner who developed it into a live music venue known as Jonathan’s Disco. Jonathan’s promoted emerging bands such as Sherbet. The way it worked at Jonathan’s, the band would be booked for long term gigs of several weeks at a time, and during their ‘residency’ would be expected to play for up to six hours a day every day.

Fire damage in 1972
Fire damage in 1972

In May 1972 when the band Fraternity was booked, a fire started, and the theatre was destroyed. It is not known exactly how the fire started but speculation has ranged from negligence on the part of someone working for the band to foul play due to opposition to Spooner from other night clubs. There was a lack of insurance to rebuild, and the night club closed.

As the Phoenician Club the venue expanded into the upper floors of the shops next to the original cinema

In 1980 the venue was rebuilt as The Phoenician Club, another live music venue. Bands such as Powderfinger and Nirvana played there and this is the version of the theatre which I am personally familiar with. It was a great venue, but in 1995 a fifteen year old girl named Anna Wood attended a dance rave at the Phoenician, and died shortly after taking ecstacy. The death of an underage schoolgirl and drug taking on the dance floor lead to the closure of the Phoenician following pressure from N.S.W. Premiere Bob Carr. It was the end of The Broadway as an entertainment venue.

In 2001 the derelict building was taken over by Australand as part of the Quadrant redevelopment. Australand restored the theatre facade to its original glory but the interior was converted to shops in 2006.

White it is sad that the interior was destroyed by fire in 1972, it is fortunate that the facade remains as a reminder of so much movie and live music history.