The Palais Theatre: Melbourne’s Home of Live Music


[MUSIC PLAYING] You have one and you have one. Hi, I’m Brian Nankervis,
speaking from the Palais Theatre in St Kilda,
where RocKwiz Live is about to salute the
ARIA Hall of Fame before a sellout crowd
of almost 3,000 people. The Palais is the largest
seated theatre in Australia, and an incredible example of
early art deco architecture. Some of the biggest names in
show business have performed in this theatre. But first, a bit of history. Did you know that
there have been several different
venues named the Palais on the same site in St Kilda? In 1913, a dance pavilion
named the Palais de Danse was constructed where the
Palais Theatre stands today. Built by the Phillips
brothers, three Americans who owned neighbouring Luna
Park, the Palais de Danse was a dance hall until
the onset of World War I, when it was converted
into a cinema. It seated 4,000
patrons who watched silent films accompanied
by a 12-piece orchestra. The picture theatre
was such a big success that the Phillips brothers
decided to expand. In 1920, the Palais
de Danse structure was dismantled and
re-erected next door, where it resumed
life as a dance hall. The new Palais
Pictures building was designed by the American
architects Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion. The couple had arrived
in Melbourne in 1913 after they won the competition
for the design of Canberra, Australia’s new capital city. In 1925, the Griffin’s
designed an elaborate facade for the new Palais Pictures. On February 10th,
1926, just days before it was due
to be completed, a fire started in the stage
area and the entire building was destroyed. The Griffins had
moved to Sydney, so the Phillips brothers
commissioned a new architect, Henry E. White to build a
larger and much more spectacular picture theatre. Opening in November,
1927, the new Palais was a picture palace
on the grand scale. Described in
Melbourne newspapers as, “the most beautiful
theatre in Australasia.” It had a seating
capacity of almost 3,000, making it the largest
cinema in the country. In July, 1929,
Palais Pictures was among the first suburban cinemas
in Melbourne to screen talkies. Throughout the
1930s and ’40s, it was the favourite
place for Melburnians to go to the movies. Going to the Palais
back then was an event that’s difficult to
imagine in today’s multiplex world. There was only
one screen, and it showed two full-length
films every night, watched by thousands of people. Before the first
movie started there would be 30 minutes of live
music by the Palais Orchestra, led by Harry Jacobs, who was
house conductor for 22 years. There was also variety acts
involving singers, dancers, and comedians. If you bought a ticket
on a Saturday night, you also gained admission to
the Palais de Danse next door, where you could go
after the main feature and dance into the small hours. The coming of television
hit cinema attendance hard during the 1950s. The big art deco picture
palaces like the Palais were particularly vulnerable,
as they relied on filling thousands of seats every night. Sadly, most of them
were demolished over the coming decades. But the Palais managed to
survive by reinventing itself as a live concert venue. Artists who performed
at the Palais over the next two decades
included Bob Hope, Harry Belafonte, Shirley Bassey,
Eartha Kitt, Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong, the Beach
Boys, Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, and memorably on the first
tour of Australia, the Rolling Stones. In the early 1960s, the
Palais diversified further, and gave many Victorians
their first taste of both opera and ballet. Joan Hammond sang soprano
on the Palais stage with the Australian Elizabeth
Opera Company in 1960. Two years later, Edgley
International brought out members of Russia’s
Bolshoi Ballet, and Margot Fonteyn
and Rudolf Nureyev appeared with the
Australian ballet in 1964. Movies returned to the
theatre in the early ’60s, with the Melbourne Film Festival
being held at the Palais from 1962 until 1982. The musical, Jesus
Christ Superstar spent a long run at the
theatre in 1973, and then again in 1976. And dame Joan Sutherland
appeared in the Merry Widow with the Australian
opera in 1979. Ballet continued to prove
the big draw with audiences during the ’70s. But the ’80s were lean years. The opening of the Victorian
Arts Centre in 1982 drew opera and ballet
away from the Palais. And then, in the early
1990s, the restored Princess and the Regent Theatres
attracted all the big musicals. But, just as it had
shown many times before, the Palais weathered this storm. In November 2014, saving
the now crumbling Palais became a hot issue in
Victoria’s state election. Tex Perkins grabbed
headlines when he stood for the seat of Albert
Park on this single issue. But then Labor commits $13
million to save the Palais. Martin Foley beats Tex
Perkins in the elections and becomes minister for– Creative Industries. Creative Industries. What else? So thank you, Minister, for
saving not only the Palais, but my sanity. Would you join me? Welcome to the Palais
to the Hall of Fame. And so, the Palais inducted
into The Age Music Victoria Hall of Fame. Today, the Palais is
primarily a concert venue, and has been called the home
of live music in Melbourne, and remains the largest
seated theatre in Australia. We’ll never know
how many Melburnians have sat in the darkness
of this beautiful theatre, and watched silent movies,
talkies, ballet, opera, a musical or a rock concert. But the Palais
Theatre’s contribution to Melbourne’s
culture has been huge. It has fed our soul
for generations. So, it’s goodnight for
me and the RocKwiz crew from the Palais Theatre– a
beautiful, beautiful venue, that’s been operating since
it opened its doors in 1927. Come down and check it
out for yourself sometime.

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