Lost Theatres And Cinemas Of Sydney’s Inner City And Inner West

May 19th, 2023 - by Brad Gillespie

Sydney’s inner west once attracted massive audiences to its countless grand theatres and cinemas.

While some still remain, like the Enmore Theatre and others have been built, like the Seymour Centre, we take a look at just some of the many theatres now lost to history.

Empire Picture Theatre, Redfern

The Empire Picture Theatre, at 303 Cleveland St, wore many hats during its lifetime.

Built in 1887, the building first opened as the Palace, where visitors could swim in the summer and skate in the winter. Other entertainment included the now-questionable practice of greased pig races.

In the early years of the 20th century, the building became a boot-making factory, and by 1925, it had been reinvented yet again as the Empire Picture Theatre. During the 1930s, the Empire also staged boxing, and around that time, the building’s exterior got an Art Deco makeover, which can still be seen today.

The Empire screened its last movie in 1961, and today the building houses commercial offices.

Harry Clay’s Bridge Theatre, Newtown

While some locals might remember the Hub, on Bedford St, as an “adult” cinema, the theatre started life much more innocently.

Opening in July 1913, Clay’s Bridge Theatre was founded by vaudeville impresario Harry Clay, who also owned other Sydney theatres. The 1500-seat theatre showcased new programs and artists every Saturday, sometimes including Clay.

The hugely successful theatre drew audiences throughout World War I, and Clay employed more than 100 performers along with crew members and front-of-house staff across his numerous venues.

Clay died in 1925, and in 1934 the Broadway Theatre Company took over the theatre, renaming it the Hub. It was remodelled in an Art Deco style and then passed through different owners. In 1971 a bomb detonated when the theatre was empty, blew out around five rows of seats and several windows.

The Hub was eventually boarded up in the 1990s and, despite recent plans, remains vacant.

The Majestic and Elizabethan Theatres, Newtown

Watching Harry Clay’s success was Daniel Brennan. Already a renowned local businessman, Brennan had plans to develop his recently purchased land on the corner of Wilson St and Erskineville Rd. What eventuated was the Majestic Theatre, designed by Henry Eli White (architect of the State Theatre) and the second-largest theatre in the state when it opened in 1917.
Brennan approached theatrical entrepreneur Benjamin Fuller to lease and manage his new enterprise. Fuller presented vaudeville, Shakespeare and orchestral concerts, and the Majestic stayed afloat during the Depression by also screening films.

Fuller died in 1952. Two years later, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was formed to establish national drama, ballet and opera companies. In 1956, the Trust leased the Majestic and re-named it the Elizabethan. To help cover renovation costs, theatre-goers could donate £10 to have their name engraved on a brass plaque and placed on the back of a shiny new seat.

The Trust set up the Australian Ballet and the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (now Opera Australia). It also formed two orchestras, in Melbourne and Sydney, to accompany the opera and ballet companies, and helped found NIDA, the Australian Ballet School, Bell Shakespeare, Performing Lines and other arts organisations.

While the Trust continues today, audiences at the Newtown theatre quickly shrank, blamed on the neighbourhood’s declining reputation. The theatre eventually closed, and the building burnt down in 1980.

Phoenician Club, Ultimo

The Phoenician Club didn’t always reverberate with the sounds of iconic rock it was known for in the 1980s and 1990s. At first, it was completely silent.

The Broadway Picture Theatre was one of Sydney’s earliest purpose-built cinemas. Opening in June 1911, this “handsome new hall for moving picture entertainment”, as the Evening News called it, screened silent films such as Whose Wife, Melissa of the Hills and The Secret of the Submarine.

Embracing the “talkies” era, the cinema operated until 1960. Joanthan’s Disco then opened in the building in 1968, running until the early 1970s when a fire left the building derelict. Next, it became a ballroom before the Phoenician Club began in 1980, set up by the city’s Maltese community. As well as hosting community activities, the now-licensed premises became a much-loved live music venue in the following years before eventually closing in 1998.

Looking to make the inner city or inner west your home? Contact my team today.