It’s sure been an interesting week online with regard to all things “Astor” and, in response to the very many questions appearing on facebook, twitter and elsewhere, we thought we ought to clear up a few points that seem to be causing confusion. So here it is, as we see it, in simple points:
A Brief History Lesson
In 2007, the freehold for the building at 1-9 Chapel St, St Kilda was for sale. St Michael’s Grammar School purchased the building at auction for $3.8 million dollars. With the purchase for SMGS (landlord) came an existing lease until 2015 for the the current major tenant, The Astor Theatre. The building was Heritage Vic listed when St Michael’s bought it – and we already had a lease in operation. So no matter who owned it, we were always going to be here until May 2015. No developers were interested because of the Heritage Listing and our lease which is why there was only one bid at auction. The Friends of the Astor Association Inc did not exist until 2010 which is why they did not bid at auction (it’s difficult to do things when you don’t yet exist).
Unfortunately, the media and estate agent were calling it the sale of The Astor Theatre, but “The Astor” is an entity that was not for sale. So rather than ‘Save the Astor’ in 2007, St Michael become the building’s new landlord. Much like when you privately rent a property, the landlord is the person you pay monthly rent to and just because they own (for example) ’10 Happy Lane’ doesn’t necessarily mean they own, run, understand, or have anything to do with the “home” existing inside of it. If you replace ’10 Happy Lane’ with ’1-9 Chapel Street’, and “home” with “Astor Theatre”, you see clearly the current existing relationship, one of landlord/tenant.
The Astor Theatre
This is the point with the most – and most dangerous – element of confusion; “The Astor Theatre”, “Astor Theatre”, “The Astor”, all refer to the entity currently in operation inside the building at 1-9 Chapel St, St Kilda. Furthermore, it is a trademark belonging to Chapel Theatres Pty Ltd, owned and operated by George Florence, Proprietor of The Astor Theatre as you know it, since 1982. The school have been asked to please not use the word ‘Astor’ when referring to the building as it creates confusion.
Simon Gipson, Head of School at SMGS, commented, that ‘The Astor’ will continue to show films, but this could only be true if George were to be given another lease or if the freehold was sold to someone (i.e. FOTA) who would ensure The Astor could stay. So even though the assurance is that 1-9 Chapel Street will in future show films, The Astor will not.
The school have said they will be in consultation with the broader community. Good news for everyone is that the community includes a great group of people called The Friends of the Astor who are actually offering assistance with community consultation. And so far the community are speaking up loud and clear in favour of The Astor Theatre, which is – everyone all together now – “the entity inside the building”, owned and run by George Florence.
Friends of the Astor
The Friends of the Astor Association Inc is a distinct and separate body from The Astor Theatre. It’s a not for profit incorporated body that aims to become a not-for-profit trust and was founded by a group of concerned individuals within the community who are passionate about The Astor Theatre. Their aims are to preserve and protect the Astor. Their campaign comes from a concern for the future of the Astor. Their intent is not cyber bullying, far from it, they are interested in opening up the dialogue about the future of the Astor and are calling on SMGS to be good corporate citizens, to see that thousands of people out there want the Astor Theatre to exist, in its current incarnation, for future generations to experience.
Too Early to Speculate
It has been stated by the school that it is too early to speculate on the long-term uses for The Astor (one more time – the entity inside the building) but their Preliminary vision, plus the architects who visited the building with tape measures, suggest there has already been at least some consideration for what the future may hold for “The Astor”. And as a entity, “The Astor” must take the landlord’s intended long-term use of the building into consideration: for example, The Astor has recently installed state of the art digital projection and we might be considering further technical additions/upgrades, but it’s difficult to know what to invest in if we don’t know whether or not our intended improvements have a limited time-frame of two and a half years – the time-frame we realistically have left to trade.
Moving house from a small flat with few belongings may only take a couple of days to pack up and move but moving out of a more than thirty year tenancy will take a lot longer. With that in mind, with things as they currently stand, we will close in late 2014 to give us time to take with us everything that belongs to the The Astor including, but not limited to; a cooling/heating system, courtyard full of plants, popcorn machine, film projectors, 4K digital projector, amplifiers, sound rack and sound system, as well as our iconic carpet and a much loved Astor cat. As such, there will be another seven Astor Theatre calendars. And if there are only seven calendars left and with, for example, the 70mm film print of 2001: A Space Odyssey belonging to George Florence, one thing we might like to consider is how many more times we will screen it on the Astor’s SuperScreen before that print is never seen theatrically again. Certainly without the Astor, without George, the building can’t screen it.
There’s also been some confusion about the library of films The Astor have access to. Some titles, such as Casablanca, that we regularly screen, belong to Chapel Distribution Pty Ltd, a company, though co-founded by George Florence, that is again distinct from “The Astor Theatre”. These films would continue to screen at a number of cinemas in Australia and New Zealand but of course would not screen in the building that houses the Astor Theatre without The Astor in operation.
Whether or not the people currently operating the business of the Astor wish to stay is not really what’s at stake here, what the concern is, is what the public want, and what might happen to what the public can access. The Friends of the Astor Association is an independent body who could ensure the aims and intentions of The Astor continue once the business is handed over to them as a not-for-profit trust, ensuring The Astor exists, not as a private business but as an entity open to the public. This is something the current model of The Astor strongly supports.
It would be an incredible loss if future generations could not put up an Astor Calendar on their toilet door and come see 70mm film prints of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. If the Astor doesn’t stay inside the building then no one in Australia will see those films in those formats again. No one is saying that the school wouldn’t ever show a film again – as Simon Gipson, Head of School has stated, it will do so for perhaps ten weeks of the year. But will you be able to see It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas Eve and then come back on Boxing Day for the Monty Python double? Will the Astor cat greet you in the foyer? Will you ever see the Astor logo on the big screen again as you take a bite into your Astor Choc Ice?
The Astor is so much more than just a venue and removing it from the building would be like removing its soul. The Astor isn’t bricks and mortar, it’s ethereal and it only exists today because the collective experiences of the community continue to feed its soul. If it’s gone then you will still have a building, and you will probably still be able to see films there, but do you want to enter the auditorium having purchased a scarf from the uniform shop instead of an Astor Choc Ice?
For more information please visit fota.net.au and sign the petition at change.org/astor
Written by Tara Judah, PA to the Proprietor at the Astor Theatre, for the Astor Theatre.