In the early 20th century, moving pictures became an increasingly popular attraction. They were generally considered a less acceptable form of entertainment than live theatre. Established theatre, particularly vaudeville, recognised this popularity and their stars attempted to incorporate moving pictures into their acts. For example in 1910, Houdini's Australian performances included moving pictures of his exploits.
The public's craving for motion pictures increased greatly after the First World War. This resulted in the creation of specialised moving picture theatres in the major cities of Australia. In Sydney, the Prince Edward Theatre Beautiful and the State Theatre (1929) represented this trend.
The Prince Edward theatre opened in November 1924. It's elaborate style imitated that of live theatre venues. It was the goal of the proprietors to make the moving picture experience as special and as acceptable as the live theatre.
The Carroll's concept of theatre design and operation was heavily influenced by trends in the United States. This is shown by their employment of Americans and the importation of an American Wurlitzer organ. The operation was also designed to directly compete with the vaudeville venues of Sydney such as The Tivoli.
The theatre was located between Castlereagh and Elizabeth Streets Sydney, near King Street. It had two entrances, one on Castlereagh and one on Elizabeth. For those familiar with old Sydney, it's Castlereagh Street entrance was located opposite the Hotel Australia. Today the site is occupied by the Verandah building on Castelreagh Street opposite the MLC centre.
It was a beautifully presented and designed building. It's plush carpeting, marble foyer and rich blue and gold colour scheme were magnificent. The Castlereagh Street entrance was considered the main one. It was expected that patrons would gather there during intervals. The marble foyer contained several lounges for the purpose and was highlighted by a fountain with hidden lights as a centrepiece. The State Theatre, being almost contemporaneous with the Prince Edward, probably demonstrates similar opulence.
Inside the auditorium, the stage was set at the Castlereagh Street end. Two tiers of seating faced it. The total capacity of the theatre was 1500 people . 800 in the stalls and 700 in the dress circle. One aspect of the Prince Edward which is remembered fondly by those who knew it, was the organ. It rose from the orchestra pit on an hydraulic lift. An unusual feature for the 1920s.
The theatre had the capacity to present stage and screen productions either separately or in combination. As such it was an indication of the evolution of entertainment in the country. It was a monument to the changing times when vaudeville was being replaced by the new and exciting world of film.
The influence of the live theatre tradition on this moving picture palace was evident with the instructions given to staff. They had to be "attractive", and were told "not to eat sweets, lounge about, or attempt to read" during the presentation. These instructions were designed to maintain a high standard in the theatre. They conformed to the general policy of it's directors. They believed that their picture house represented;
The turning point in this new form of entertainment from a form of amusement often criticised to a medium of expression that will attract, enthrall and hold as permanent friends all who visit this theatre.
The purpose of the surroundings and the accompanying formality was to attract a middle class, respectable audience.
Just as vaudeville incorporated motion pictures into the acts, the Prince Edward incorporated live theatre. This is evident from the presentation of the first picture shown at the theatre. Cecil B De Mille's, The Ten Commandments. The typical presentation of this movie followed a timetable set out in the free yellow programs distributed to patrons.
At 8pm, the audience was expected to be seated, the ushers were expected not to be lounging, and the nights entertainment began. It started with a "Celebration Talk" which lasted 4 minutes. At 8.04pm, Eddie Horton, American organist, entertained the audience with three numbers. "Berceuse", "Australian Maid", his own composition, and "My Hero". By 8.14 the sounds of the organ were dying and it was the orchestra's turn. Will Prior, another American, conducted the 20 person band in The William Tell overture. A tune guaranteed to increase excitement and anticipation amongst the spectators.
At 8.24pm, the lights were lowered and a live prologue presented. In this case, it illustrated the visitation of one of the plagues of Egypt upon the Pharaoh's house. The theme of course was related to the movie. This live prologue featured Eric Harrison as the Pharaoh, and was augmented by the appearance of Vera Bain as his favorite dancer and Pauline Miller and Stella MacPherson as slave girls. The prologue lasted a very short two minutes.
Then it was time for the main entertainment. The movie. At 8.26 pm the silent film, The Ten Commandments was shown. The film was accompanied by the live orchestra playing a soundtrack arranged by Will Prior.
A short interval of six minutes interrupted the movie. The audience would gather in the lavish lobby by the fountain, laughing, talking, smoking or eating. An Egyptian gong sounded to summon them back into the auditorium. Two minutes later it was time for the conclusion to the film. The whole evening was rounded off by a rousing rendition of "God Save the King" played by the orchestra and (hopefully) sung by the audience.
This program was performed twice a day, at 2pm and 8pm, for 36 weeks. The film and the theatre were both very successful and popular in Sydney.
In the 1920s films such as The Thief of Baghdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Scarmouche with Ramon Navarro, and Monsieur Beaucaire, starring Valentino were shown at the Prince Edward Theatre Beautiful.
The live orchestra persisted until 1957 whilst the theatre itself was closed in 1965. It's final movie was War and Peace. The building which had hosted 40 years of entertainment for Sydneysiders was sadly demolished shortly thereafter.