This article is based on a submission to the City of Sydney Council regarding the proposed demolition of The Globe Theatre and its neighbouring building, Dudley House.
The Globe Theatre in July 1922, during the world record run of 'The Sheik'. Photo courtesy John Stephens.
The Globe Theatre: A Unique Survivor
The former Globe Theatre, as it appeared in January 2020. Photo by author.
The former Globe Theatre (built 1914) sits in an area that has been associated with motion picture entertainment for over a century.
Sydney’s first programme of projected films was privately screened on 18 September 1896 at the Lyceum Hall, at nearby 214 Pitt St. In 1908, the same venue was converted into Cozens Spencer’s Lyceum Theatre, arguably Sydney’s first true modern cinema. The rival J.D. William’s Colonial Theatre, established at 600 George St the following year, became the cornerstone of Sydney’s first cinema precinct, ushering in the first, brief golden age of commercial cinema exhibition in the Sydney CBD.
This early period (1909-circa 1924) was distinguished by several features. For the first time, cinemas were purpose-built, boasting luxurious interiors and exotic, highly illuminated facades that were designed to attract the attention of passersby, both on public transport and on foot. A programme of different short films was screened on a continuous loop throughout the day, and the entertainment was aimed not at a cultural elite but the working class - hence Williams’ selection of the heavily trafficked thoroughfare of George Street for his new venture.
In less than a decade, the stretch of George St and Pitt Sts between Hay St and Market St became home to a flourishing motion picture precinct boasting over a dozen theatres, known colloquially as ‘The Picture Block’. It was hoped that the proximity of venues and inexpensive nature of the entertainment would encourage patrons to spend several hours travelling from theatre to theatre, taking in however much of the continuous programme interested them.
The Globe Theatre is the only theatre from this era to survive in any form, making it a unique historical outlier.
Advertisement for opening of The Globe Theatre. The Sun, 2 July 1914.
The Globe Theatre, the second of four city theatres in the burgeoning Waddington’s Pictures chain, was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Sydney on the evening of Friday 3 July 1914.
The theatre’s architects took pains to ensure that the building remained in harmony with its surroundings, its facade deliberately echoing that of the Queen Victoria Building opposite.
Inside, the theatre’s amenities included several innovations. Concealed red and green lights showed latecomers to their seats. Dress circle patrons were provided tea and refreshments free of charge. Its spectacular dome was especially noted in reports. One described it thusly:
“Here a particularly striking feature is the lofty and roomy height underneath the gallery ... in the centre of the building is a beautiful dome, carried out in blue and silver, which is certainly one of the finest pieces of work of its kind yet executed in Sydney. The dome is being illuminated with a beautiful enclosed two-thousand candlepower light, a peculiarly soft effect having, it Is stated, been obtained by charging it with nitrogen.”
The Globe Theatre as it appeared in 1920. Source: Union Theatres, 'Ten Years of Progress In The Motion Picture Industry' (1921).
Australia was one of the first nations in the world to embrace the feature length film.
In 1916, just as features were gaining traction as the public’s preferred format, Waddington’s Pictures signed a lucrative deal with Hollywood’s pre-eminent feature producer, Paramount Pictures/Famous Players-Lasky, rebranding The Globe as ‘The Home of Paramount Pictures in Sydney’.
In 1917, Waddington’s entered into a partnership with the larger Union Theatres (later reorganised as Greater Union), which assumed control of The Globe. The theatre was now the site of a daring and innovative experiment. Whereas most features screened for a single week, The Globe was designated as Australia’s first ‘long-play’ house, showing features of unusual appeal for as long as the public demanded them.
‘The Sheik’ : Australia’s First Cult Film
Newspaper advertisement for 'The Sheik'. Sunday Times, 26 February 1922.
The most noteworthy of The Globe's extended features was one of the most extraordinary seasons in Australia's early film history - the world record run of Paramount’s The Sheik (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino.
At a time when a four week season was considered a roaring success, The Sheik played for an unprecedented 24 weeks between February and August 1922, representing some 835 screenings. The film was quickly transferred to another city theatre, The Empress, where it played for a further month.
At the time, this was not only the longest continuous run of a single film in Australian film history, but one of the longest on record anywhere. It is fair to describe The Sheik as Australia’s first cult film - if not the world’s.
The Sheik’s screening was a landmark in many senses, utilising exhibition strategies that would later be emulated all over the world. These included an advertising tie-in with Lever Brothers, manufacturer of Indasia Perfume, which provided specially scented printed souvenirs of the season, as well as a method of perfuming the auditorium itself during screenings.
Sydneysider Sue Crowley, who saw The Sheik at age 16, recalled the following:
"I was living in a Sydney which almost overnight had been enchanted by a hitherto unknown actor in a silent black-and-white film - Rudolph Valentino.
Day and night outside the Globe Theatre in George Street people formed a double line in a slowly shuffling queue that awaited its turn for admittance to the holy of holies [...] So we two joined that seemingly endless queue, eventually to be ushered into the hot darkness reeking of the perfumes of Arabia, and fumbled our way to our seats ... Five times I sneaked in to see The Sheik, and if I hadn’t run out of pocket money it might well have been five hundred.”
The Globe Theatre remained the unofficial headquarters of the Rudolph Valentino fandom in Sydney, hosting popular long-run screenings of Blood and Sand (1922) and a six-week revival of The Sheik (1921) in late 1923.
The Sheik’s phenomenal success at The Globe Theatre was celebrated internationally, commemorated in souvenirs such as sheet music that were distributed as far away as Britain, and remained synonymous with the building for decades. As late as 1947, one commentator asked:
“How many of those who sit in the comfortable, modern 2UW Theatre, listening to the Telegraph Sports Parade or other 2UW shows, remember it as the setting of an earlier triumph? This theatrette is the dress circle level of the old Globe Theatre, where the Rudolph Valentino film, The Sheik, established its record run of six months, wearing out three copies in the process.”
“The Globe still swims in a glamorous haze— for there was shown Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. The Sheik gave Sydney its first long-run — of 26 weeks [sic]; it gave women so palpitating a thrill that one woman saw the film at least once a day for the length of its run.”
Newspaper Advertisement, The Sun, 31 January 1915.
Especially in its early days, The Globe Theatre screened an unusually large proportion of Australian-made films, hosting Sydney premieres of The Unknown (1915), The Sunny South (1915), Murphy of Anzac (1916), The Lure of the Bush (1918), The Hayseeds Come To Town (1918), £500 Reward (1918), and Australia’s Own (1919), amongst others. Frank Hurley’s landmark Pearls and Savages (1922) later played an extended season.
It remains probably the oldest surviving cinema in Australia to host the premiere of an Australian-made film.
Newspaper Advertisement, The Sun, 16 November 1918.
The theatre also played a small but crucial part in the career of a future Hollywood star. Renée Adorée was a relatively unknown vaudeville dancer who was touring Australia when she made her film debut in the locally-produced feature £500 Reward (1918). This film made its official debut at the Globe Theatre in November 1918.
Less than a decade later, Adorée was a well known screen actress and co-star of the epic The Big Parade (1925). Despite making an effective transition to sound film, she made only a few talkies, dying of tuberculosis in 1933, at the age of thirty five.
The Demise of the Globe Theatre
Advertisement for the Globe Theatre's new iteration as The Centreway Shopping Arcade. The Sun, 20 April 1925.
In 1923, Waddington’s Pictures ended their partnership with Union Theatres, and handed full control of The Globe Theatre to the Australian arm of Paramount Pictures.
Only a decade after construction, the theatre was considered outdated. Older venues were giving way to luxurious ‘picture palaces’. Limited backstage facilities and a relatively small 800-seat capacity further impacted the Globe’s profitability, and a series of different management strategies failed to arrest dwindling attendances.
Paramount terminated their lease after a year, designating the prestigious new Prince Edward Theatre as the home of their Sydney premiere seasons. The Globe Theatre showed its final film in December 1924 - appropriately, a revival of Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand (1922).
Much like the nearby Piccadilly Theatre, which had already been converted to the Piccadilly Arcade, the lower level of the Globe was given over entirely to a shopping arcade, known as The Centreway. The large upper level operated as an upmarket cafe and events centre, known as the Cocoa Tree Cafe, until the late 1920s. A short-lived billiard parlour occupied the space in the 1930s.
Ironically, it was the early demise of The Globe Theatre as a cinema that ensured the survival of its remaining physical fabric.
The Afterlife of the Globe Theatre: A Case of Accidental Preservation
The former Globe Theatre, circa 1930s.
During the 1920s, the majority of the Picture Block’s older theatres were closed or heavily renovated to cater to increasingly sophisticated audiences.
A second spate of modernisations in the late 1930s obliterated much of the remaining fabric of Sydney’s earliest phase of commercial film exhibition. Such was the fate of numerous George Street cinemas, such as the Empress (opened as Colonial No. 2 in 1910; demolished for the Victory Theatre in 1939, remodelled and renamed the Rapallo in 1966) and the Crystal Palace (opened 1912, remodelled as the Century in 1938). Had it still been in use as a cinema, The Globe would undoubtedly have suffered the same fate.
The Rapallo and the Century, along with the vast majority of the Sydney CBD’s remaining single-screen cinemas, were themselves demolished in the 1970s and 80s, superseded by the Hoyts, Greater Union and Village multiplexes. The precinct’s only fully surviving early picture theatres, The State Theatre (1929) and The Capitol Theatre (1928, renovated from the 1916 Hippodrome, itself a reworked former market building), date from this later and much different period, as does the former Plaza Theatre (1930), which survives in partial form.
In short, The Globe Theatre has defied the odds to become a unique survivor.
Even despite minor alterations over the years, the building’s appearance remains broadly and remarkably unchanged from its days as a cinema.
The 2UW Radio Theatre
The 2UW Radio Theatre at the time of its opening. Photo by Sam Hood. Source: State Library of NSW/Mitchell Library.
If one were not enough, the Globe Theatre building is home to yet another remarkable and incredibly rare 'accidental' survivor - the former 2UW Radio Theatre, used for the recording of live radio shows, which remains substantially intact on the upper floor.
Described as ‘one of the best in Australia, and better than many in America,’ it was built in the elegant style now known as 'Streamline Moderne', cleverly adapting the cinema's centrepiece dome into an equally arresting architectural feature. Boasting seating for 400 and a fully equipped and air conditioned lyric theatre, attended by an estimated 125,000 people per year in its heyday, it opened in the 1940s after years of war-related delays.
The Golden Age of Radio was relatively brief (approximately 1923-1960), and many facilities were demolished or repurposed for television once that medium took precedence. This makes purpose-built facilities such as the 2UW Radio Theatre incredibly rare on an international scale, comparable with the 1929 BBC Radio Theatre in London and the 1938 National Institute for Radio Broadcasting in Brussels, Belgium (now known as the Flagey Building).
The survival of the radio theatre is as remarkable in its own way as the survival of the building itself.
The Future of The Globe Theatre Building
L-R - Former Gowings Building, former Globe Theatre, Dudley House and State Theatre Annex, January 2020. Photo by author.
In 2017, the former Globe Theatre and an adjacent office building, Dudley House (1925), were sold to Greater Union organisation, owners of the neighbouring State Theatre and QT Hotel, occupying the former Gowings Building and the upper floors of the State Theatre building. In 2019, plans were lodged with the City of Sydney Council for the demolition of both the Globe Theatre and Dudley House for the extension of the Hotel.
Given its status as a unique survivor of a brief epoch, its historical and social significance and its aesthetic value, it is unfathomable that all efforts would not be made to preserve and incorporate The Globe Theatre into any future development. The evident rarity of the 2UW Radio Theatre also makes a strong case for the retention of upper floor and surviving fabric relating to that phase of the building’s history.
The restoration of the historic State Theatre as a performing arts venue was rightly celebrated as a triumph of heritage preservation. Meanwhile, QT Sydney make much of their heritage credentials in marketing their hotel, boasting on their website:
“QT Sydney embarked on a painstaking 17 month restoration project while readying the hotel, in an effort to return the building facade back to its former glory. The interior was also upgraded and original aspects of each building were kept wherever possible, for example the rooms still have their original timber floors.” The proposed demolition of the former Globe Theatre and Dudley House stands in stark contrast to this apparent regard for Sydney’s heritage. To cite one example, the Los Angeles-based 1933 Group has recently demonstrated how effectively a balance between historic preservation and modern usage can be struck, honouring a structure’s origins while producing venues that remain contemporary and dynamic.
It is to be hoped that City of Sydney can work together with the building’s owners towards a similarly enlightened approach in expanding QT Sydney, and will not only retain but celebrate the former Globe Theatre and 2UW Radio Theatre.