Our history and heritage

At the movies: Sydney's love affair with cinemas

From grand picture palaces to cineplex chains, take a front row seat to the story of our theatres from the silver screen's first century.

  • A cinematic delight for an unforgettable show

    Early types of film projectors were known as cinematographs and screenings became a sensation. The first cinematograph screening in Sydney is believed to have been in 1896, at Salon Lumiere on Pitt Street, just one year after the Lumiere brothers held their first public screenings in Paris and New York.

    On 15 March 1899, the publican at the Metropolitan Hotel wrote to the council to complain about the free cinematograph show being held every evening on the roof of the nearby Surrey Hotel (City of Sydney Archives, A-00317063). The crowds gathering on the street outside to watch the show blocked the entrances to the Metropolitan Hotel and held up passersby.

    Image: Surrey Hotel, Sydney 1903

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00022741
  • Saved from the flames, but not from a factory

    Surry Hills was home to an open-air cinema at 496-512 Crown Street from around 1910. It later became the Crown Picture Palace.

    In 1925, the cinema was saved from a fire when an off-duty cinematograph operator noticed smoke coming from the ventilator as he was passing by. He raced inside and put the flames out.

    The cinema was saved – but not for long. A few years later, the Crown Picture Palace was demolished and replaced with a factory.

    Image: Crown Picture Palace, Crown Street, Surry Hills, 1927

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00037492
  • Opening splendour and lasting legacy

    The State Theatre opened on 7 June 1929 in a blaze of colour and light. The theatre was designed in the Gothic skyscraper style with lavish interiors. An 11-storey tower building was built above the theatre and opened a year later in 1930. It was originally intended as a shopping arcade but was later converted to offices.

    Today the State Theatre serves as the landmark venue of the Sydney Film Festival, with just as much colour and light, red carpet glamour and festival buzz.

    Image: State Theatre, Market Street, Sydney, 1989

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00023911
  • A grand picture palace

    The Capitol Theatre was one of 3 grand picture palaces built in central Sydney in the late 1920s. The building was originally designed and completed in 1893 as a fruit and vegetable market but converted to a hippodrome and later, a theatre. The Capitol was Australia's first “atmospheric theatre”, with exuberant interiors intended to evoke an Italian open-air garden.

    Image: Interior of the Capitol Theatre after restoration, 1995

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00042428
  • Cinematic drama

    The Plaza Theatre movie palace on Botany Road in Waterloo was originally known as the Coliseum Theatre. Plans for an upgrade to the building in 1937 are shown here.

    When the Plaza Theatre was damaged by a severe electrical storm in 1946, lightning entered the projection box and incinerated 800 feet of film. The burning film immediately sent a brilliant glare into the theatre, causing movie-goers to scream and flee.

    Image: Plaza Theatre, Botany Road, Waterloo, 1937

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00036030
  • The big screen was a big deal

    For Alexandria local Harry Brennan (Sydney Oral Histories), going to the movies was a big deal for him as a child growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    “We weren’t permitted to go to the movies, the picture show, unless my mother said so.

    “It was a big deal. We used to go to the Lawson Theatre at Redfern, which was where the TNT towers are now. I can remember seeing Tammy and April Love up there and the serials.”

    Image: Lawson Theatre, Redfern, 1924

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00035222
  • Centre of entertainment reimagined as heart of Sydney’s film culture

    The Trocadero was an entertainment landmark on George Street, opening in 1936. It was the scene of dances, charity functions, debutante balls, receptions, gala parties, radio broadcasts and pageants. The ‘Troc’ closed in 1971. It was demolished and replaced with the Hoyts Cinema complex in the mid-1970s.

    Today the George Street site is home to Event Cinemas. You may just see excited film buffs lining up outside for Sydney Film Festival screenings.

    Image: Hoyts Cinema Complex, George Street, Sydney, 1987

    Credit: City of Sydney Archives A-00059623

Want to discover more gems from our city’s past?

The City of Sydney Archives is the place to go. Check out the Sydney cinema collection and discover photographs, plans, articles and more.

We're proud to support the 71st Sydney Film Festival, 5-16 June. See it your way and explore the full program of over 200 of the world's best new films.

Published 29 May 2024

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