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cinema history at Randwick’s Ritz Theatre

Robinson, J. Today’s technology at yesterday’s prices Eastern Herald 9.4.92

Nowhere is a more complete picture of life offered–in all its beauty, joy and tawdriness–than on the cinema screen, with everything from chirpy musicals to drama, romance or the seedy and sleazy.

The Ritz Cinema in Randwick has provided the backdrop for cinematic and real life drama since 1937, when it was built for an estimated $20,000 with the architectural lack of fuss typical of the time, now known as Art Deco style.

Walking into the cinema is almost like stepping into a time capsule, if you can ignore the flashing state-of-the-art video machines in one corner and the calorific indulgences behind the sweets counter.

Signs of the cinema's history are everywhere, from the deep-set lounge chairs to the old movie photos, gilt-edged mirrors and ornate plasterwork on the ceiling.

Mr John Langford, heritage officer for the Randwick District Historical Society, is a walking compendium of information about the Ritz, and has many curious tid-bits of history to offer. For example, he notes that the cinema's architectural plans are dated January 1937 and that it opened in July of the same year.

"Can you imagine?" he said.' "With all our whizz-bang technology now, you'd be lucky to get it through the council in that time."

Movie audiences were strong throughout the '40s and '50s, when going "to the pictures" was the favourite entertainment of a generation hooked on Hollywood.

However, television sets were entrenched in many homes by the '60s

and some cinema owners began to pull the plug on their theatres to save money.

The Ritz was closed in 1962, but was bought by the local Brigidine convent and leased to Mark Darwon, brother of the present owner, Dianne Darwon. It reopened six months later without any apparent loss of patronage.

"A lot of theatres started closing in 1956 when TV came in," said Ritz manager David Stone, "but from talking to people, I don't think the audience [here] ever declined to a point where it wasn't profitable–and certainly since 1962 it hasn't gone through a period when it wasn't profitable."

The cinema was listed by the National Trust in 1984 and the same year the kind of drama it projected on screen became reality, when the theatre was placed under the threat of demolition to make way for a block of flats with shops at ground floor level.

Locals immediately began to protest, writing letters and alerting local media, and the Heritage Council of NSW was approached to see if it could offer any help. It responded by placing an interim conservation-order on the cinema, which would protect it for two years, and with the support of the National Trust, Randwick Council, the Randwick Heritage Society and others began collecting evidence to help the cinema apply for a permanent conservation order.

"The loss of [the Ritz] was seen as something that would have been a very serious blow to the local heritage," Mr Langford explained.

"It was [in 1985] one of only three original Art Deco cinemas still operating in Sydney which had not been partly altered for other use."

Objections to the proposed conservation order from the then owner of the cinema forced an automatic public inquiry and in July 1985, the commissioner decided against making the order permanent on the grounds that the cinema was 'not of historic, social, cultural, architectural or aesthetic significance for the State' and that its permanent conservation was 'not necessary'.

Mr Langford's response to the objections was that "people usually think that if a building goes under a permanent conservation order that it can't be sold profitably or used for other purposes, but that's not necessarily correct".

"National Trust classification often adds considerably to the prestige of a building."

Ms Darwon – who had been running the Ritz since the late '70s – avoided further danger to the cinema once the interim order expired by buying it in late 1985, gradually making improvements and keeping prices well below the large chain cinemas. After all, audiences may like a cinema for its atmosphere, but low prices are a better draw card.

In 1985, tickets cost $4 (on average). In 1990, it was $8 for adults and $6 for students until a decision was made in October of that year to lower all tickets to $5. Today, they are still the same and audiences are responding accordingly, with full houses on some nights. Not a bad achievement for an 850-seat suburban theatre.

Management is moving firmly towards the future, with new seats, screens and equipment in place, and more to come.

"We have a projection box equal to any Hoyts, Village or Greater Union theatre, but our sound system is more up to date," Mr Stone said.

"There's also a new sound coming out called Digital Dolby Sound, which we are geared up to run when it comes."

"We can provide more [than other cinemas]. That's the point."

Reproduced with permission of the author, Judy Robinson.