Our guide, Stuart, arrives promptly for our tour of Sydney’s State Theatre. From then on, it’s go go go. With the interesting history and opulent décor of the State Theatre and many stories to share, in two hours he can barely touch the surface.
Who’s here for the Tour of Sydney’s State Theatre
Twenty or so mostly retirees have turned up for this morning tour of Sydney’s State Theatre. For some, it’s their first time here. A few are familiar with the State Theatre’s backstory. Others, like me, have seen shows or attended the Sydney Film Festival here, but know little about the building.
A bit of Background
The State Theatre opened in 1929. Built by Union Theatres, as a picture palace’ or “Palace of Dreams,” the theatre has, over the years, staged musicals, live shows and concerts. Since 1974 it has been the home of the Sydney Film Festival. Union Theatres became Greater Union Cinemas, then Event Cinemas and now EVT owns the theatre as part of their large property portfolio.
As Elvis the Musical is currently showing, the stage is off-limits on today’s tour.
About the Decor
While I’ve walked through the foyer many times, I’ve never looked carefully at the wonder that surrounds me. The intricate mosaic floor, complete with numerous Royal symbols was created by the Melocco Brothers whose work can be seen throughout heritage Sydney. The statues, the ornate dome, marble pillars and staircase curving up to the next level together create a rich warm atmosphere, a feeling of opulence.
It’s Fake, a Hotchpotch and a Time Capsule
And yet, Stuart tells us, the marble is mostly fake. To prove the point, he knocks on a frieze. The sound is surprisingly hollow. “It’s basically a film set,” he adds to laughter from the group. While the balustrades and stairs are actually marble from the Bathurst area, the ‘marble’ statues, friezes and columns are made from scagliola, a plaster compound, which is more economical than the real thing.
The ornate décor, typical of the time, says Stuart is a “deliberate hotchpotch” of Gothic, French, art deco and other design styles. Fortunately, the State Theatre (and the nearby Capitol) wasn’t demolished like most theatres were in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Restoration work in the 1980s means that we’re standing in “a time capsule.” The theatre is pretty much as it was when it opened. Over 94 years there has been plenty of wear and tear. Pointing to an empty square in the mosaic floor, he says “We lost a tile last night.”
Stuart talks quickly as he leads us through the theatre sharing interesting anecdotes and pointing out fascinating features of the theatre.
An unusual L-shape, the building took three and a half years to complete. Walking down George Street at night, you may notice that glass tiles along the wall of Flight Centre glowing. That’s because you are walking over the State Theatre dressing rooms.
The Smoking Rooms
Some of the features reflect the culture of the times. Six themed smoking rooms adjoin the bathrooms. Until the 1940s, smoking was only allowed in these rooms. The ceilings had to be painted regularly because of the nicotine staining. Later smoking was permitted in the foyer.
The Men’s Smoking Rooms
Each smoking room, adjoining the bathrooms on each level has a name. The men’s smoking rooms are called – with décor to match – the Pioneer Room with fake guns, the College Room with Tudor paneling and the Empire Room.
Stuart tells of a lamp being stolen from a smoking room during a film festival, and audience members scratching their names in the wood during a rock concert. Pieces of furniture and decorations were stolen or lost in a period when the future of the theatre was uncertain. In 1976, the metal of each brass door was valued $99 000. Sense prevailed and they weren’t sold off as ‘scrap’ metal.
The Women’s Parlours
There were few women’s cubicles in the ladies’ bathrooms: because women weren’t supposed to eat or drink when they were out. The women’s rooms are decorated in pastel colours. There’s the recently restored and rather delightful Butterfly Room; the art deco styled Futurist Room in the Dress Circle and the Pompadour Room on the mezzanine level.
Having always sat in the stalls, I had no idea that there’s an art gallery upstairs in the plush carpeted and dimly lit passage of the mezzanine level. Built and decorated for a wealthy clientele, the artworks include “After the Matinee” by Willliam Dobell. While my seat in the stalls is fixed, those in the mezzanine tip up.
No Standing or Dancing
A sign fascinates me. It reads “No Standing or Dancing on this Level” and is strictly policed. There’s good reason.
The building was revolutionary for its time with cantilevered systems supporting the mezzanine level. It was built to be flexible and new staff are warned to expect the floor to ‘bounce’. The floor level actually dips about 9mm when filled to capacity.
Stuart shows us two (hidden now) empty fish tanks. There’s talk of reinstating them. A hydraulic lift raised the tanks for cleaning. The lift powered by the pump house in Darling Harbour (now a pub) also powered the lift that raises and lowers the Wurlitzer Organ which until recently hadn’t played for years.
There are many stories to tell about the State Theatre. Standing in one of the smoking rooms, a guest shares his story. He was abandoned in one of the smoking rooms as a baby. Someone, presumably his mother, left him in a wicker basked wrapped in a shawl. Despite a call out in the newspaper, she was never found.
The State was the first theatre to be air-conditioned and boasted the first sprinkler system. It also houses the largest hand cut crystal chandelier in the Southern Hemisphere which weighs over four tonnes.
Standing in the rear section of the Dress Circle, Stuart explains why some seats have been removed from the back row. People would stand on their seats to souvenir a piece of cut glass from the chandelier. I look carefully. A third of one of the chandeliers is missing.
Well that was fun
And just like that, two hours is up and Stuart is ushering us out to the street. Of all the tours I’ve done, this is the first I want to repeat. Next time, when I book for a tour of Sydney’s State Theatre, I’ll make sure there isn’t a show on so that I can go on stage!
- Read more about the Palace of Dreams Tour of the Sydney State Theatre here