Astor Theatre, Chapel St, St Kilda (Autumn 2012)

AstorFoyerA major preservation battle has broken out over the future of the iconic Astor Theatre in St Kilda. Constructed in 1936, the theatre (with its neon spangled facade) is famous for its double-bill cult and arthouse classics and is Melbourne’s last operational single screen cinema. It is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and is not threatened with demolition. The exterior is relatively undistinguished, but its internal spaces tell a different story with delightful metal stair railings, geometric light fittings, a terrazzo floor in the foyer, and a series of multi-coloured scenes on the auditorium walls.

But there is now doubt about whether it will continue as a film venue. A few years ago, it was purchased by the adjacent St Michael’s Grammar School, subject to the existing lease of the cinema which runs until 2015. Whilst this was regarded as great news by its many fans, it hasn’t necessarily worked as well as everyone hoped and a community group called ‘Friends of the Astor’ was formed by George Florence, the proprietor of the cinema. The school bought the building with the intention of developing it as a hub for performing arts, but the effects of the GFC meant that plans were put on the shelf.

Recently it was reported that the school intended to close the cinema for five years (when the lease expires) and redevelop it into a performing arts centre and uniform shop. An online presence was created by the Friends (www.fota.net.au) to gather support for its retention in its current form and for its continued operation as a cinema. The possibility of raising $5m to purchase the site has also been discussed. The response has been enormous and a series of events is planned to maintain and extend the support, starting on 16 June at an event featuring a free movie, popcorn, tours and Jaffa rolling. The Friends are calling on the board of St Michael’s Grammar to be good corporate citizens and respect the school’s own values by retaining the culturally and architecturally important landmark. The school places great emphasis on community in its publications.

However, the school claims that it plans to consult with the community and Head of School, Simon Gipson, has denied the school has plans to draw the curtain on the Astor Theatre. He compared the social media campaign that has flared against the school to a case of cyber-bullying. “The school has never said it will close the Astor for five years, it has never said the Astor will be exclusively a performing arts centre and a uniform shop,” he said. “The one thing it has always committed to, right from purchase, is that it would protect the theatre’s historic use as a cinema. No matter what vision for the future was for the Astor, it would include that right at its heart”.

ADMS fully supports the retention of the Astor in its current form. We know from bitter experience how difficult it is to enter into heritage battles with entities such as churches, schools and hospitals, who invariably take the moral high ground but can be as ruthless as any property developer. Let’s hope that the Board of St Michael’s will live up to the statements from the school and that the long-term future of the Astor can be satisfactorily resolved.

See: Astor to stay a cinema, says school, The Age, 18 May 2012