During the years of my childhood – from the mid 1940s until the early 1960s - Coburg supported four picture theatres: The Grand, The Plaza, The Tasma and The Progress. The Grand and The Plaza were both in Sydney Road, and less than one hundred metres apart. Of the four, the "Grand" was the most impressive. It offered the choice of "Front Stalls", "Back Stalls", "Dress Stalls" and "Lounge" and a “Mothers’ Room” where mothers could take their crying babies so as not to disturb the enjoyment of other patrons, but still be able to see and hear the movie. Like the city theatres, The Grand had a kiosk. And it had lolly-boys, who took up their positions just before interval. At one stage, it even had an organ playing prior to the film.
The lolly boys were clad in red uniforms and military hats; they carried trays held around their necks by a leather strap on which were displayed a range of ice creams and lollies.
"Ice - dixie ice", they called. Dixies were small cups of vanilla ice-cream with a small wooden spoon, produced by either Peters (“The health food of a nation”) or Sennits, whose trademark was a polar bear.
"Lollies - choc................ lates," they called. There were Jaffas, Violet Crumbles, Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Milk Shakes, and, of course, Fantales. The Plaza, like the Grand, was also of the standard of the city theatres.
Suburban theatres like "The Grand" and "The Plaza" were entertainment centres for families in pre-television days. My parents had a permanent booking at the "Plaza" each Friday night, for quite a while, despite the fact that we were quite poor; this was perhaps the one small luxury of our lives.
Brunswick was served by at least three theatres: "The Padua" - which was a truly grand and impressive theatre, and two lesser theatres, "The Empire" and "The Alhambra". Of Coburg's two other theatres, I never actually went to the "Tasma"; on the other hand, I regularly frequented the "Progress" theatre. The Grand, The Plaza and The Progress were all within ten minutes walk of our house in Reynard Street. Much smaller than the other two, the Progress was also considerably less luxurious, and was given more earthly appelation of either "The Flea House" or "The Bughouse". Whether these names were deserved or not, I don't know, but whilst the Plaza and Grand boasted lush carpet, the Progress had bare boards; whilst the Plaza and Grand could each house over five hundred people, the Progress was bursting at two hundred; there was a small kiosk at the Progress, where you were shoved and jostled in your quest for Fantales, a cup of cordial, and a dixie, as compared to the orderly that which waited patiently for service from the resplendently dressed lolly-boys.
In those days, films took well over a year to reach Australian circuits after their release in Hollywood or in England. Then, they would be shown in one of the major city theatres: the State, the Capitol, the Odeon, the Regent and would then do the rounds of the major suburban theatres, like the Padua, the Grand, and the Plaza. After that they would be shown in the lesser suburban theatres, like the Progress and Tasma - so that the Progress showed only either the fifties equivalent of re-runs of repeats, or very low grade films which none of the more reputable theatres would show.
As I approached adolescence, the pictures were the highlight of the week for me, especially the Saturday afternoon matinee. The queues outside the Grand and the Progress, the two theatres which ran matinees, would begin to form at one o'clock, and by opening time, at two, hundreds of children would be there. If a popular film was on the bill, it was not uncommon for large numbers to be turned away.
I recall the bitter experience of being only three places from the front of the queue for a tremendously popular film - I don't now recall what it was - when the "Sorry – Full House" sign went up. At least one hundred kids were turned away that day - such was the popularity of the matinees.
They were good value, too. For your sixpence you got to see a full program. To begin with, there were always the Val Morgan and Sons advertisements, which were flashed onto the screen to the accompaniment of the Wurlitzer organ. Organists were regular featured at all of the larger theatres, and they would play prior to the program, during the ads, and during interval. Then came the cartoons: usually three or four, with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and so on. The full-length supporting film came next, followed by the serial. I think it was the serial, more than anything else, that kept me attending week after week; they were certainly as important as the main features, as far as I was concerned. The formula for each episode was, I now recognise, very simple:
They would begin by repeating the final minute or so of the previous episode, which showed our hero (Superman, or Batman and Robin, or Sir Galahad – whoever …) in an inescapable trap, facing certain death. A car plummeted from a cliff top to the rocks and sea below, and our heroes tied hand and foot inside; or Superman, weakened by kryptonite; or - the great suspence cliche' of those times: Batman and Robin trapped in a room by some mad scientist, and the walls closing in to crush the life from them.)
Their incredible escape, usually not terribly convincing, was then enacted, after which the plot would gradually unfold for ten minutes or so, building up at the very end to a new suspenceful conclusion - invariably facing our hero yet again with certain death!
"Is this the end for Batman? And what of Robin, trapped in the snake pit by the dreaded Black Fang? Don't miss next week's spine-tingling episode "
Then came interval, and after interval, one or two cartoons; and then the full-length main feature. Alan Ladd and Zacchery Scott still ride across the prairies of my childhood reminiscences, for that was the era of the cowboy westerns: Hopalong Cassidy and his aide-kick California; Tom Mix; Gene Autry; Roy Rogers and Trigger; and of course, The Lone Ranger and Tonto - with a hearty "Hi. - Ho Silver". These were the hero figures of my childhood.
In a way, they were all like Superman; they all fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way; and if they couldn't leap tall buildings at a single bound, or be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, they certainly "came to earth with powers far greater than mortal man." For then, there was none of today's moral ambiguities - there was Right, and there was Wrong. Before our eyes, on the magical silver screen, the eternal struggle between Good and Evil was enacted, with Good ever victorious. Apart from the Westerns, comedy films, usually with "dynamic duos" such as Laurel and Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were great attractions.
Equipment breakdowns were quite common, especially at the Progress, and would be accompanied by a tumultuous stamping of feet, and the rolling of jaffas down the aisles. This, in turn, would prompt the ushers to move around, their flashlights on, looking for the worst offenders. The advent of television all but destroyed the local suburban picture theatres. The Tasma disappeared altogether, as did the Grand –it became an office building. The Grand was transformed into a ten-pin bowling alley, and rode that fad until bowling lost popularity. It then became an Italian Community Social Club.
Only the Progress survives, a tiny suburban theatre which has managed, somehow, to stave off what seemed inevitable. Partly its survival stems from the fact that it is the home of the Coburg Film Society. It didn’t really seem to change much in thirty years. Even now, as I write, in 2004, the Progress is alive and kicking – a relic of the 40s and 50s, a gigantic piece of memorabilia.