It is not a rumour that The Astor will close. The Astor Theatre is the business which is inside the building which St Michael’s owns. St Michael’s does not have, and never has had, anything to do with the running of The Astor Theatre. When St Michael’s bought the building The Astor had a lease with a five by five year option. Simon Gipson has worded his statements to make it sound like they very graciously extended the lease to 2015. In fact, the reason there is a lease until 2015 is because George Florence, who owns The Astor Theatre, exercised his final five year option in 2010. George Florence and Friends of The Astor had hoped that St Michael’s plan was that the stage would be renovated to accommodate school plays which could be included in The Astor programme for the four weeks of the year that they are on, that the school would use it for assemblies and educational activities during the day, and The Astor could continue on as a cinema in the evening and on weekends.
Mind you, I always wondered about the plan to adapt the stage. The building is built to house a cinema. It has no dressing rooms, no wings, no fly towers. To me, it seems like a stupid expense to adapt that stage when you could probably build a new purpose built performing arts centre for less cost. Sadly, it has become quite apparent over the years that the school has no intention of allowing The Astor Theatre to continue operating in that building. The Preliminary vision which they put together in 2011 makes that quite clear. Simon Gipson has made various statements about film being included as an important part of a new, renovated building, but has made no commitment as to how this will happen. I ask you to consider this – if the school plans to project film for only a few weeks of the year why would they go to the expense of making certain it can happen in the main auditorium? To do so will mean they will have to build a fly tower for the screen and set aside room in the bio box for two film projectors and at least two digital projectors. That would be insanity. Furthermore the architects who have looked at the building have said that the auditorium will have raked seating. The visioning statement also posits this. Raked seating is suitable for a performing arts venue. It is not suitable for a cinema. The reason St Michael’s is able to say that we are spreading rumours and what we say is untrue is simply because they make broad brush statements and claims constantly and never commit themselves to anything. It has been this way with them for years. Our campaign didn’t come from nowhere. We have tried to speak with them, we have had meetings.
A couple o f years ago the board came on a tour of the theatre. I suggested at that tour that the board set up a special sub-committee to liaise with us. They couldn’t have shown less interest. No sub-committee has ever been set up and no-one from the board has ever tried to contact us. The last meeting we had set up last year to talk with Simon Gipson was cancelled by St Michael’s on the morning of the meeting. We believe that the school, quite simply, will not run anything like The Astor as it is now. They may show films in some small purpose built cinema within the whole complex. And they won’t show film, they’ll have to show digital because there is no way they will be able to keep a trained projectionist on staff, let alone pay the cost of keeping a film projector running for a few weeks a year. No-one they employ will have the expertise that George and his staff have. They will be running a multi-purpose arts centre and they will undoubtedly think that running a few classic movies in a small cinema a few weeks of the year will be adequate. I don’t know why people think running something like the Astor is just a matter of getting all the movies you like together and inviting a few mates to pay to watch them. It is a highly skilled business, and it is one that the managers of a multi-purpose performing arts centre will have no idea about at all. It’s like someone trying to tell you that they could run your business perfectly well as part of an agency that included booking services for modelling, acting, performing animals and escorts.
We could, of course, take Simon’s word that everything will be hunky dory, despite the fact that on the other hand he keeps saying the school actually has no plans at all at the moment. It would certainly make for an easier life to do that. But if we do, and the doors to The Astor close in 2015, one thing is for certain – we will never, ever get it back again. If The Astor closes Melbourne will lose its last picture palace, one of the last ones operating in the world, and that will be it. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. It’s not a risk that anyone who loves The Astor is willing to take.
A response written by Vanda Hamilton for the Friends of the Astor Association.
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