The Beginning

The Regent Theatre is situated in Commercial Road, Yarram. It is a large imposing structure on the town’s skyline. The theatre and its two shops were built by Mr.& Mrs. A.J. Thompson, local publican and property developers. The project cost 20,000 pounds and was the last purpose-built “picture palace” of its era constructed in the Gippsland region. The Health Department received an application to build the theatre on 24 August, 1929. This was approved, with a seating capacity of 600 in the stalls and 400 in the balcony. The theatre was never owner operated and a series of lessors was recorded up to the 1950’s.

The Auditorium

The auditorium is on two levels with the stalls space continuing under the clear spanned circle. The downstairs crush space is deep and leads to timber panelled, bi-fold doors opening into the stalls. To the left of the front entrance is a staircase leading to the upstairs foyer, the walls of which were decorated with timber veneers. A Ticket Box was located under the rake of the staircase. A gram room, switch room, managers office, a ladies cloak room and the entrance to the right hand side candy shop also opened off the down stairs area.

An unusual feature of the upstairs foyer was a second ticket box to service the circle. This was located near the access stairs on the left hand wall and was part of the manager’s office.

The rectangular auditorium is lined with unadorned hard plaster. A wide cross aisle divides the dress circle into front and rear circles. Catwalks were built from the lower circle, along each side of the theatre to exits on each side of the proscenium.

The extensive use of decorative pressed metal panels and cladding throughout the theatre provided a contrast to the plain plasterwork. Pressed metal has been fixed to the entire stepped down auditorium ceiling. These panels are of varying designs and sizes. Pressed metal designs also clad the front of the circle and catwalks as well as the saw tooth ceiling of the downstairs crush space, and the upstairs foyer. The paneled verandah ceiling has since been replaced with a modern profiled steel cladding. The imitation columns and crossbeam of the proscenium are of plain pressed metal. A large Regent Theatre logo is affixed to the crossbeam. The pressed metal sheets were most likely fabricated by the Wunderlich company in Melbourne.

Basket shaped, inverted light fittings were used in the auditorium and foyer (some are still in use). The shape of the proscenium is unusual in that it appears to be higher than its width (approximately 9 metres). This proved to be a controversial point with live performers. As was common at the time, the theatre was built as a multi purpose venue. The jarrah floor in the stalls is flat. The stage area provided some compromised facilities for live theatre such as limited wing space, two small dressing rooms on the back wall, and several rows of curtains. Scenery and props access was by large doors on either side wall of the stage.

Over the Years

In 1958 the Shire of Alberton (Yarram) purchased the theatre for 34,000 pounds ($68,000) and continued to maintain it as a multi-purpose facility. With Council subsidy and management, films were screened twenty six times per year. A traveling film festival visits the theatre for an annual season. The Regent is also used for Eisteddfods, balls, live theatre, weddings etc.

In February 1964, a large, self-contained supper/meeting room was built at the rear of the theatre facing Grant St. Part of the upstairs theatre foyer was converted into an area used by local art groups.

In 1965 the Shire of Alberton dissolved the Public Hall Association and took over the responsibility for the Regent. In 1969 the Shire approved an extensive two-stage redevelopment plan for the theatre. During 1971 various major works were completed including extension of the stage into the auditorium, removal of the incline on the stage, installation of new, gold coloured stage curtains, painting of the foyer and auditorium in beige tonings and the installation of new ducted heating. Modern light fittings were also installed. Toilets were installed off the downstairs foyer (at the rear of the right hand shop).

The Stage 2 plans were submitted to the Health Department in 1978, which proposed new toilet blocks at the front of the theatre (this would require the removal of the two theatre shops), the extension of the stalls area into some of the foyer space and new exit stairs from the circle. These plans were not implemented.

In 1996 the Committee of Management for the Regent Theatre was set up by the Wellington Shire Council.

The Building

The theatre is a solid building constructed with 14-inch cavity wall of red clay brick. The Spanish frontage features large French windows with fan shaped windows above. Terracotta tiles were used on the facade roofline which extended to the edge of the eaves. Pilasters supports under the eaves enhanced the Spanish look. The full width verandah originally had a pressed metal ceiling. Three marble steps led onto a small area of coloured mosaic tiles. Glazed tiles surround the front entrance. The entrance doors feature a radius of leadlight opaque glass in various patterns.

Two small frontage shops were located on each side of the theatre entrance. Brass framed display windows topped by opaque red-light, highlight windows were a feature of these shops.

The theatre roofline is of a skillion design and is surprisingly modern in look considering the age of the building. Parallel chord oregon trusses support the roof. The roof was originally clad in corrugated iron but is now steel decked. The original roof was severely damaged in a storm in 1932.

The Cinema

A large projection room (bio box) with its adjoining film rewinding and store room is located across the full width of the theatre at the back of the circle. This area is accessed from each aisle. In 1931 the theatre was reported as being equipped with Raycophone sound equipment. The former Gaumont Kalee projectors, installed in 1950, were sold in 1991 to the owners of Cooma’s Savoy Theatre for $1500. Two near new projectors were purchased from St. Patrick’s College, Sale and installed. These feature Universal lamp houses, Simplex 35 film heads with an Eprad Starlet sound system. A new ducted air extraction system was installed in the projection room at this time. Modern speakers have been installed in the theatre behind the mobile cinemascope screen.

Originally, the Regent screened films on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with the venue used for dances and other entertainments on the other nights. The screening frequency declined with the introduction of television in 1956. Screenings were reduced until they stopped for a time in 1984.

Personalities Behind the Theatre

Mr. & Mrs. Thompson were the builders/owners of the theatre. They were well known publicans in Yarram. Mrs. Margaret A. Thompson was the front person and was one of Yarram’s colourful characters at the time. She possessed considerable entrepreneurial skills. Better known as Ma Thompson she built the Dukes Hotel (now the Department of Conservation and Environment office), on the site of a wine shanty. In 1914 the Thompsons built the Strand Hall in Commercial Road – this building became known as Thompson’s Hall. Apart from being the first local movie theatre, the hall was used for dances and indoor sports. Movies were still screened there after the opening of the Regent Theatre.

Upon her death, in 1953, her estate was placed in the hands of two Western Australians executors by the name of T.A and O.J Twomey (of Perth). These people were believed to be her nephews. The Twomeys subsequently sold both the Strand Hall and Regent Theatre to the Shire of Alberton in 1958 which then in turn sold the Strand to help fund the Regent Theatre purchase and the construction of the Regent Supper Room. The former Strand site is now a service station.

Over the years various theatre trade magazines listed lessors including:

1930 – A. Karr

1937 – 1942 E. Cochrane

1942 – 1950 Gordon Burns

1952 – 1958 W. Baker – Gilbert

1958 – D.W. Sandilands

1962 – 1965 Yarram Public Halls Association (Council auspiced)

Mr. Rodney King, the former Alberton Shire Rate Collector, also acted as the casual cinema manager for many years . He was also responsible for film hire and the employment of casual staff. The Tarra Festival Committee was also connected with film screenings at the theatre. The current Management Committee now conducts regular screenings.

Final Refurbishments

A further refurbishment project of The Regent Theatre in Yarram was initiated by the Shire of Alberton late in 1994 following completion of its new Shire Offices and Swimming Pool Complex. The project was steered by Councillors – Smallbone, Boadle, Turnbull, Worboys and Phelan.

The building had for a long time been neglected, and it was recognised that some action would have to be taken to bring the facility up to an acceptable health and safety standard, as well as improve conditions backstage for live performers.

After some community consultation Architects Hooke Handasyde were employed to prepare drawings to embrace an upgrade of the Foyer, and redesign the Backstage area to facilitate better change rooms, an undercover rehearsal room, and a costume and props storage area. After preliminary estimates the drawings were submitted to tender under the supervision of a Contract Manager McGinley & Partners. Tender prices closed on 12th December. Some tender prices were received but the project was halted due to Shire Amalgamations that saw Alberton become part of Wellington Shire. However, following a Public Meeting in Yarram with the newly appointed Commissioners to determine community opinion on the most important project, there was overwhelming support that the Regent Theatre refurbishment should be treated as the number one priority.

The Commissioners decided that a Committee of Management should be formed and after advertising made appointments initially for nine members comprising local people who had a keen interest in the future of the building. Office Bearers were Leon Trembath President, Peter Boadle Vice President, Angus Hughes Secretary, and Ron Harvey Treasurer. The other members were Glad Ryan, Don Caithness, Kate Remfry, Ian Turnbull, and Robert Webb.

In March 1996 one of the first tasks of the Committee was to prepare a Business Plan to demonstrate that with proper management the building was going to be better utilized and not be an excessive burden to the ratepayers in the future.

A Consultant was used for this purpose, and it was not long before the Commissioners gave the project the go ahead suggesting that the scope of the project be expanded to a $500,000 budget, with $125,000 to be raised by the local community, $125,000 by Local Government, and that the balance of $250,000 be sought from The State Government through its Community Support Program.

Preliminary drawings were prepared by Hooke Handasyde and in October 1996 Lorraine Elliot, the Arts Adviser to the Premier Mr Kennett, was invited to inspect the Theatre. A presentation was made, and later the Business Plan was forwarded to form the basis of a submission for Community Support Funding. Arrangements were made for David Mariner (who was responsible for the refurbishment of the Regent Theatre in Melbourne) to visit the Theatre in April 1997 and he gave full encouragement to proceed, being particularly impressed by the amount of pressed metal used inside the building.

A Fundraising Committee was formed, and it was not long before an energetic campaign to raise the $125,000 got underway. In just over 12 months the target was achieved. This was heralded as a remarkable achievement from such a small country town with a population of approx. 2400 people. In May 1997 the State parliamentary Member for Gippsland, South, Peter Ryan, announced that the application for $250,000 funding was approved with a deadline for the works to be completed by June 1998.

In August 1997 the Deputy Premier Pat McNamara visited the Theatre and was suitably impressed with the future plans. “It is really unique in a town of this size, few towns in Victoria have a Theatre as unique and versatile as this” he said.

After some final discussions with Theatre Consultants Denis Irving, and Nina and Charles Osborn the Architectural Drawings were completed by Architects Hooke Handasyde, and the specifications submitted to a Quantity Surveyor for Preliminary Costings. These were received and appeared to be satisfactory and close to budget. Expressions of Interest were called for and drawings were issued for tender with a closing date of February 18th 1998.

Tender prices unfortunately came in at around one million dollars, well in excess of the budget, and a second tender was called with a reduced scope of works. This meant that the construction of a flytower estimated at $100,000 and Air Conditioning at $250,000 were eliminated. In addition, a compromise was made to the behind stage area, and the proposal to demolish the toilets was changed to that of an upgrade only. An agreement was finally reached in April 1998, with Builders Lemchens and Skultee who were appointed to complete the works in time for the Eisteddfod scheduled in August.

Demolition works commenced almost immediately in the foyer area and the old toilets were removed to create a new open space for a kiosk (with a direct hatch into the auditorium) and ticket selling area. In addition an electric lift was installed to provide access from street level. New and modern male and female toilets were installed, as well as a separate toilet with wheelchair access. Blackwood timber collected and donated from the local district was used to enhance the kiosk and nearby columns.

Sale Antique Dealer Bruce Arnott had a chandelier which was thought to originally have come from the Regent Theatre and he kindly donated it back for the restoration. Remodeled staff service areas and a new switchboard are located on the left side of the downstairs foyer. The foyer was decorated in blue and teal tonings with off white ceilings. Down lights have been installed in the foyer ceiling to augment the lighting provided by the original glass fittings.

Similar decorative themes have been used in the upstairs foyer, which has been fitted out with a hardwood servery designed and donated by Andy Knorr, Manager of local timber processing company Radcon. In the Dress Circle, volunteers were co-opted to dismantle 312 seats and arrange for most of them to be re-upholstered in blue/green vinyl. Many were damaged beyond repair and had to be replaced. This work, which also included painting the floor, painting the cast iron seat frames in gold, and renumbering the seats and adding donor nameplates, entailed many hours of patient work.

The left hand catwalk exit in the circle has been closed and the right hand exit now leads to a newly constructed tunnel to a fire escape, which replaces the former exterior stairs, leading into Grant Street behind the stage. Considerable demolition occurred in the back-stage area with apertures being cut in the double brick walls at the sides and rear of the stage to facilitate performer side entry and backstage movement of props.

The stage area was significantly increased by dismantling the mobile steel frame that supported the Cinema screen and erecting an electrically operated roll-up screen in conjunction with a cable operated rear speaker system.

New cement brick walls and steelwork was erected to fully enclose the area between the Theatre and the Supper Room, with a skillion roof, thereby creating a large assembly and storage area. A side ramp was constructed from the auditorium to the stage to facilitate disabled access to the stage. In addition a ramp was constructed from the stage to the Supper Room, to facilitate trolley movement of food from the Supper Room to the Auditorium for Weddings and Cabarets etc.

The original gold stage curtains were replaced with blue curtains to match the auditorium colour scheme. The design and construction work was performed by local volunteers.

Arrangements were made to purchase a portion of the neighboring Post Office land to allow a laneway access through a large side door directly on to the rear stage area. This has already proved to be most advantageous for speedy unloading of lighting and sound equipment used by touring professionals.

Unfortunately the builders were unable to complete the project before the Eisteddfod in August. Work was halted and some temporary exits constructed and other measures taken to ensure that this important event, which involves over 2000 competitors, could continue as scheduled.

Afterwards the builders constructed two dressing rooms and completed the mezzanine floor above the old toilets, refurbished the old toilets, installed a roof mounted gas heating system, and painted the exterior facade before pulling out of the project in October.

The budget unfortunately did not allow for completion of paintwork in the Auditorium, backstage, in the Supper Room, or in the Bio-Box areas, sanding and sealing of the auditorium floor, and sealing of the new external brickwork. The facade also was incomplete, and cement rendering around the stage was considered a matter of priority.

The Committee of Management held discussions with the Shire of Wellington and agreement was reached to organize where possible volunteer labour to complete the remaining works. The major part of the painting was carried out by prisoners from Won Wron Prison Farm. They spent more than eight weeks devoted to the preparation works undercoating and sealing and made a magnificent contribution to the Theatre restoration in the main Auditorium, behind the stage area, and in the Supper Room with a saving in excess of $30,000. Through the efforts of The Friends of The Regent Fundraising Group the cement rendering of the stage side walls, some additional tiling to the facade, a new Cinema Sound System was purchased (with a substantial contribution from the Rotary Club of Yarram).

Facade mirrors, facade lead lighting, brass entrance handles, wooden stairways, punching of 40,000 nails in the auditorium floor, sanding and sealing, modifying the curtain support design and installing front of stage curtains was been undertaken by members of The Committee of Management and co-opted volunteers, by holding weekly working bees.

The Committee arranged for a Consultant to report on the Acoustics of the building. From this information it appears that the double brick side walls will need to be clad with sound proof material to eliminate the reverberation problem that currently exists for Cinema productions.

The Theatre has now been completely rewired, and apart from improving the safety aspects, a significant number of additional power points have been installed including two large three phase outlets (50 amp, and 30 amp) on stage, which will provide more than ample capacity for a major professional group. A new switchboard with overload relays allows easy identification of all circuits and is vastly superior to the old fuse box system. Automatic switching of the heating system with thermostat controls replaces the old hand operated starting system and guesswork of temperature. A benefit to performers is the availability of hot and cold showers backstage. This is a feature that never existed in the past but will prove useful to the traveling professional.

The Reopening

The Theatre was officially re-opened by the Victorian Premier Mr. Jeff Kennett on Tuesday May the 18th 1999. Among the guests were local members of Parliament Peter Ryan, Peter Hall, and Phillip Davis, along with Wellington Shire Councillors and members of the Regent Theatre Committee of Management. The Yarram Secondary College Band and Yarram Primary School Choir entertained guests in the Theatre, followed by singers Vivien Mather (mezzo soprano) and Maurice Connell (tenor), with Julie Lockhart on the piano. A short film was also screened showing some newsreels of the 1930’s.

A gala concert was then staged on Saturday the 22nd of May with 150 performers and a packed audience in excess of 700 people. Master of Ceremonies was Darren McCubbin who portrayed himself as the ghosts of the Regent Theatre. Shelly Hayton dressed as Ada Crossley former queen of song performed accompanied by acclaimed pianist Timothy Young. Her powerful rich contralto voice was more than a match for the Regent, which she filled with sound without the use of a microphone. There were also many local singers, dancers and bands that contributed with enthusiasm to a truly grand performance.