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629 Hay St, Perth IN closed



629 Hay St, Perth


Photograph of cinema

The programme of the opening night of the Ambassadors, on 29 September 1928, proclaimed:
There is but one Ambassadors. Never was a theatre so beautiful, or its glory so dearly bought but that it fades into insignificance beside this Florentine garden of music, of picture, of song which you see tonight for the first time.

This purple prose overlooked the fact that the Ambassadors was the third, and the smallest, of the atmospheric theatres built by Union Theatres in the state capitals of Australia in the twenties, the others being the Melbourne State and the Sydney Capitol. It was designed by Bohringer, Taylor and Johnson, who had also designed the Melbourne State.

Nevertheless, it was a first for Perth, and the theatre was able to compete successfully with Perth's other great picture palaces of the decade - the Regent, the Capitol and the Prince of Wales. It was built under the guidance of Sir Thomas Coombe, the last thing he contributed to Union Theatres' empire in Western Australia, before retiring.

To prepare those first-night patrons, the programme explained what an ´atmospheric' theatre was, and what they might expect from this particular example:
Overhead in the sky you see stars twinkling in between the clouds that float, light as thistledown, across the heavens. It will be hard for you to believe that above them is a roof and that walls really surround you. For the ´atmospheric' theatre, as its name implies, creates an atmosphere - an atmosphere where there is a very desirable feeling of intimacy and illusion to calm excited nerves, and prepare one and all to receive entertainment in ease and comfort. To secure this atmosphere, that you see here now, sculptors, painters, color artists and students of history, and many others, have been organised in Australian workshops.

Despite the appreciation shown to the local craftsmen who installed the interior, much stress was also placed on the widely scattered sources of the decorations themselves, from Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Chicago, Naples and London, among others. The exotic decor included stuffed pigeons and peacocks from Durban, South Africa, and reproductions of statuary from the great museums of Europe. Care was taken in the programme to point out the bona fides of these works of art, such as the Venus de Medici, ´signed by Cleomenes, son of Apollodorus, the Athenian, and present in the Uffizi Museum, Florence': perhaps the patrons needed to be re-assured of the respectability of an environment in which they were surrounded by nude statues.

As well as the picture programme, the patrons could expect fine musical accompaniment, both from Bert Howell's orchestra and from the Wurlitzer organ played on opening night by Les Waldron, in the glare of a spotlight as he rose on a stand from below the orchestra pit. The Ambassadors ballet, of eight local dancers under the direction of Estelle Anderson from the J.C.Williamson's company, worked in conjunction with the orchestra to present prologues and other terpsichorean interludes.

Like most theatres in Perth, the Ambassadors claimed to be the coolest, and if the temperature was too unpleasant you could even walk up onto the roof and sit among the potted trees and shrubs of the Florentine Roof Garden. Much stress was also placed on the technical installations, both for the safety and comfort of patrons (lighting, ventilation, fire precautions) and for the quality and ease of viewing of the picture. A particular feature was the red velvet curtain, embossed with a peacock (now held by Ivan King).

Continuous pictures were no longer fashionable by 1928, though they continued at some of the cheaper venues like the Majestic and the Grand. Instead, the Ambassadors advertised four sessions daily. The doors opened at 10 a.m., with patrons entertained by the Wurlitzer till the 11 a.m. session, referred to as the ´early shopping session'. At 2.15 a session identical with the evening one commenced, then at 5 p.m. came a slightly shorter session ´for those remaining in town'. The main night session contained all the elements of the Unit entertainment - double feature films (or main feature and short features), with orchestral accompaniment, perhaps a stage prologue or interludes, and the Wurlitzer before the show and at interval.

The first sound films at the Ambassadors were on disc, opening about a year after sound had arrived in Perth. On one occasion, nearly 300ft of film was mangled in the projector and it was necessary to add exactly the right amount of replacement film, so that synchronisation with the disc was not lost. An ingenious solution was found. Instead of the piece of black film that was traditionally used, local film producer ´Dryblower' Murphy was asked to make up the appropriate length of the words of the song that Colleen Moore was singing on the disc, and the audience never realised that it was meant to be any other way.

However, the theatre had sound-on-film equipment from the beginning as well, as they screened Movietone News. So it was comparatively simple to switch over to that system entirely when it became the accepted standard. The Ambassadors also maintained its orchestra and stage shows to accompany films longer than did other city theatre, and the mighty Wurlitzer remained a drawcard, even after the Ambassadors Orchestra was finally disbanded.

During 1931, when Union Theatres was in financial difficulties, a decision had to be made which of their two large showcase cinemas in the central city area would be closed - the Ambassadors or the Prince of Wales. The company opted to leave the Ambassadors open, despite it being the less profitable and the smaller of the two, because it contained four shops dependent on the income generated from cinema patrons and returning rents to the company, compared to only one shop associated with the Prince of Wales. So the Ambassadors joined the General Theatres group in 1932. Hamilton Brown, Union Theatres' manager in Western Australia at the time, and noted for his entrepreneurial skills, tried very hard to rescue the ailing theatre. One gimmick was a wedding on stage before the opening of the film Lovers Courageous in July 1932. Live acts were also presented in support of the featured film on some occasions. But to continue to maintain a theatre as large as the Ambassadors, with nearly two thousand seats, was extremely difficult during the depression years.

Towards the end of the decade, Hoyts took over the theatre, and in 1938 it was remodelled, losing in the process much of the atmospherics which had contributed to its distinctive character:
Money has not been spared to make this theatre equal to the best in Perth. The entire front of the house has been modernised, the latest neon signs being incorporated on the facade of the building with charming simplicity, and the whole front, with its light treatment and modern lines, has a pleasing effect. Gone is the heavy, florid atmosphere of the old Ambassadors and in its place reigns a cheerful colour-scheme, combined with a maximum of comfort and restrained luxuriousness. The specially imported English carpet, upon which over 20 West Australian workers have been employed in sewing, is of a graceful pattern with an harmonious blending of colour. Comfortable, modern seating has been installed throughout in a tasteful deep green, the seats incorporating the latest scientific improvements in armchair comfort. (West Australian, 22 December 1938)

These alterations had probably been stimulated by the competition from the other theatres recently built - Hoyts' own Plaza in 1937 and the Grand Theatre Co's Piccadilly in 1938. It was a period when modernity was expected, and the Ambassadors lost some of its unique quality as a result. The theatre continued to screen regularly, though with mixed success, until it closed on 2 February 1972. The building was immediately demolished and its furnishings dispersed by auction.


Three years later, the City Centre was built on the site, containing the Wanamba Arcade - a complex of shops and restaurants, including a theatre, known as Hoyts Cinema Two, with 859 seats:

Hoyts Cinema 2 will be one of Perth's jazziest cinemas...
Be prepared for the decor - tri-striped and exciting, with wall hangings.
Former WA interior decorator Neville Marsh has chosen deep blue upholstery for the seats, blue carpeting and walls painted in blue, maroon and beige stripes....big ones!
Part of the carpet area is striped too...
Usherettes will wear long blue skirts and beige blouses.
The cinema also features unique spot-lighting.
Seating in Cinema 2 is comfortable. There is plenty of space between rows and the vinyl upholstery features tiny holes which allows the fabric to breathe. This keeps the seat cool.
The seats are also broad enough to give excellent shoulder support.
Cinema 2 has a 56ft screen.
The walls are acoustic - some even covered with felt.
(Daily News, 20 March, 1975)

This ultra-modern cinema opened on 20 March 1975, but even with only 859 seats it proved too big for the audiences of the late seventies. In 1978 it was divided down the middle, and re-opened 13 December as Hoyts Cinemas Two and Three, each seating 400. As well as new Philips projectors and Dolby sound system, the new theatres boasted historic photo-murals of Perth as it used to be, and pin-ball machines in the foyer.

In 1984 a third cinema (Cinema Four) was added to the complex, sharing the foyer and administration block with the other two cinemas. Cinema Four was built, however, like a Chinese box - inside the lounge of the old Theatre Royal, which had been next door to the Ambassadors in earlier days. An access door was knocked through the shared side wall, without interfering with the shops and offices now occupying the lower levels of the building.


Photograph of cinema

In 1988 Hoyts took over Cinema City, and after Hoyts Cinema One was closed the Cinema City theatres became Hoyts Cinema City (holding Hoyts Cinemas 1 - 4), and Hoyts Cinemas 2 - 4 (on the old Ambassadors site) became Hoyts Centre (holding Hoyts Cinemas 5 - 7): in 1997, the latter provided seating for 600, 400, and 400 patrons, but in April 1999 Hoyts Centre closed and the business was transferred to the Cinecentre (formerly Greater Union’s flagship).

Building permit, Battye 1459 (Folio 2)
Max D. Bell, Perth: a cinema history, The Book Guild, Lewes, Sussex, 1986, pp.68-72, 77
Rodney I. Francis, 'Thomas Melrose Coombe: a pioneer from vaudeville to talkies in Western Australia', Kino, no.81, Spring 2002, pp.36-38
Vyonne Geneve, ´William Leighton, architect', Kino, no.25, September 1988, pp.7-15
Jack Honnibal, ‘The MGM years at Perth’s Theatre Royal’, Kino, no.68, Winter 1999, pp.6-9; no.85, Spring 2003, p.43
Stage, Screen and Stars, West Australian, n.d. (1997?), p.12-4
Ross Thorne, Cinemas of Australia via USA, pp.74-76
Daily News, 28 September 1928; 23 July 1932; 20 March 1975; 24 August 1976; 13 December 1978
Everyone's, 27 July 1927; 10 October 1928, p.22; 7 November 1928, pp.8-9; 14 November 1928, p.42; 21 November 1928, p.56; 29 January 1930, p.18
Film Weekly Directory, 1943 - 1971
Film Weekly, 18 January 1934, p.6, 4 July 1957, 2 December 1965, p.6
Kino, no.25, p.8, 14;
Post Office Directory, 1928 - 1949
The Showman, 15 February 1964, p.10
Sunday Independent 21 November 1976
West Australian, 1929 - 1997; 8 February 1972; 20 March 1975
Interviews (Ina Bertrand): Eric Nicholls (1985), Arthur Stiles (1985)
Interview (Ina Bertrand & Bill Turner): Jack Gynn (1981)
Interview (David Noakes): Keith Reddin (1978)
2 architect's designs, b&w, 1927, Everyone's, 27 July 1927, p.84
interiors & exteriors, b&w, 1928, Everyone's, 7 November 1928, pp.8-9; 14 November 1928, p.42; 21 November 1928, p.56; 20 February 1929, p.14 (stage show)
3 interiors (Ambassadors), b&w, 1963 (Ken Booth)
Link to image Link to image Link to image
3 interiors (Ambassadors), b&w, 1929 (Battye 8292B/166-3 Series A; 4634P; 8292B 161-5)
2 exteriors (Ambassadors), b&w, 1932 (Battye 4587P, 4593P)
4 interiors, b&w, c.1970, Max D. Bell, Perth: a cinema history, pp.68-72
1 exterior (Hoyts Cinemas 2 & 3), colour, 1981 (Bill Turner) Link to image
1 exterior (Wanamba Arcade), b&w, Sunday Independent, 21 November 1976
4 interiors (Hoyts Cinema 2), b&w, 1975, Daily News 20 March 1975