Girish Mahajan

Capitol Theatre, Melbourne

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Current use  Education, events
Phone  +61 3 9650 4017
Opened  1924
Capacity  600
Owner  RMIT University
Architect  Marion Mahony Griffin
Capitol Theatre, Melbourne
Address  Studio 56, 113 Swanston St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
Designation  Victorian Heritage Register
Similar  Melbourne Athenaeum, Optus Centre, Storey Hall, City Square - Melbourne, The ANZ Banking Museum

The Capitol Theatre is a single screen cinema located in Melbourne, Australia (opposite the Melbourne Town Hall). The theatre was opened in 1924. On 20 May 1999, it was purchased by Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University), and is currently used for both university lectures and cultural events such as film and comedy festivals. Until its reopening in 1999 after being closed after a period of inactivity in the early 1990s, it was one of the few cinemas capable of screening films in standard 35 mm format as well as the more cumbersome yet visually superior 70 mm format. Today it is still capable of showing 35 mm films along with educational 16 mm films and documentaries as well as the modern DVD format.


The Capitol Theatre was commissioned by a group of Melbourne businessmen, including the Greek Consul-General Anthony JJ Lucas, and was designed by the renowned US architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, and today is considered the finest interior design work by this talented couple. Lucas had worked previously with Griffin on the development of both the Vienna Cafe as well as his own property Yamala in Frankston. The official plans for the Capitol were submitted for approval on 21 November 1921, and after being approved on 9 February 1923 construction began and was completed in 1924. It was officially opened on 7 November 1924. The theatre itself and ten-storey office block above it, are registered with the Australian Heritage Commission, the National Trust and Heritage Victoria. The building belongs to the interwar period and the architectural style is Chicagoesque. It was described by the leading architect and academic Robin Boyd as "the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built". Originally seating 2137 (stalls 1306, balcony 633, loges and boxes 198). During the 1930s, the seating capacity was reduced to 2115 people. The theatre was considered an architectural masterpiece, and has continued to receive critical acclaim ever since its first opening.

The theatre is notable for a number of pioneering concepts such as early use of reinforced concrete, stained glass details and a highly complex three-dimensional spatial arrangement. Its greatest feature is the geometric plaster ceiling. This was based on organic design principles of natural orders and are composed in a way which is both evocative and modern. The ceiling was indirectly lit and the lighting was used in conjunction with the original orchestral scores in the early silent film era to add drama for the spectator. Thousands of coloured lamps producing light that changed through all the various coloured hues in the spectral range were hidden amongst the plaster panels creating a crystalline cave effect.

The Capitol was also the home of the first large Wurlitzer Organ to come to Australia. The Wurlitzer was originally used to provide music and sound effects for the films. After "sound" films took over it was used for musical entertainment in between shows. It was frequently broadcast on the ABC and remained in regular use until the mid 1950s. After the advent of television in the late 1950s, audience numbers dwindled dramatically and in the early 1960s Hoyts Theatres let their lease expire. The result was that the theatre had to close. Almost immediately there was a campaign waged to 'save the Capitol' by the National Trust and a group of prominent, yet committed architects including Robin Boyd. A compromise was soon reached: After closing for extensive renovations on 17 November 1963, the interior foyer was remodelled to make way for the Capitol Arcade, although the theatre and ceiling was rightly retained. The two-level auditorium was converted to a single-level cinema seating 600. The upper balcony became the existing auditorium with a new raised floor which was raked down to a newly inserted stage. The Wurlitzer organ was removed and relocated to the Dendy Cinema in Brighton in 1967 where it has remained for nearly 50 years, longer than it ever was at the Capitol. The reconfigured Capitol Theatre reopened on 16 December 1965 under the control of Village Cinemas who held the lease until 1987. They relinquished their lease when their then (at the time) new Bourke Street Complex was opened in 1988.

The opening film after the renovation was The Great Race, which had a run of two years. Other long running engagements over the years included the films Ryan's Daughter (1970), The Towering Inferno (1974), A Star Is Born (1976) and Superman: The Movie in 1978. The present shopping arcade is where the stalls seating used to be. The old staircases leading to the dress circle foyer were blocked off and a new marble staircase from street level was built to a simplified new foyer upstairs.

In 1998 Melbourne city council hired Melbourne architecture firm 'Six degrees’ to undertake a study that would explore the possibility for the theatre to be used as a festival and arts based centre. In 1999, when Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) purchased the theatre for use as lecture halls and function space for the university as well as Melbourne’s public, they elected to keep ‘Six Degrees’ as the project architects, due to their founded knowledge in the site, but the study itself was not furthered on. The 1960s renovation was deemed as inappropriate as it enclosed many open spaces of the theatre and detracted from the original spatial qualities. The renovation plans were accordingly altered to accommodate the original spatial qualities, namely interlocking foyer areas, ceiling details as well as giving the building an overall safety upgrade, masterplanning and disabled access. The budget for this demolition and renovation work was $2,200,000 and not only saw restoration work but many new additions to the theatres original design. The new additions to the theatre included audio visual installations and theatre lighting systems, re-lamped ceilings and new lift and disabled access corridor. These new additions to the theatre were made up of soft and natural materials to complement the original design.

In 2005, RMIT announced that the theatre would get a A$190,000 upgrade, including major painting and some repairs to the Alhambra-inspired ornamental ceiling.

Free public tours were held on the third Thursday of every month from March to November commencing in 2000. These ended in 2010 due to dwindling participants. At this stage RMIT Property Services says that spells the end of the tours for the foreseeable future.


Capitol Theatre, Melbourne Wikipedia

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