The Palais Theatre, on the corner of the Lower Esplanade and Cavell Street in the seaside Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, was constructed in 1927 as the Palais Pictures, a picture theatre, to a design by prominent Sydney based theatre and cinema architect, Henry E. White. It was built on leased Crown land for the American entrepreneurs, Herman, Harold and Leon Phillips, who had previously established Luna Park in 1912 and the St Kilda Palais de Danse in 1913.
The Palais Pictures building replaced an earlier Palais Pictures designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin (1876 – 1937) which was commenced in 1920 and destroyed by fire in 1926, just before its opening. It was designed to seat up to 3000 patrons and incorporated generous backstage facilities and a broad proscenium. Like its predecessor, the form of the new Palais Pictures conformed to that of the adjacent Palais de Danse, with the adoption of a curved, aircraft hangar-type structure.
The Palais Theatre is a free-standing, rendered, concrete encased steel frame building, with brick infill walls. The roof is a two level, shallow-curved corrugated iron roof, supported on steel trusses. Extensive use was made of steel framing, with the dress circle cantilevered from a steel frame, to minimise the number of columns required in the auditorium.
The design of the Palais Theatre is highly eclectic in style, and reflects a wide range of influences, some relating to the local St Kilda context, others to broad developments in architectural thinking of the day, and still others that are specific to cinema and theatre design. The highly visible side and rear facades of the free-standing building have minimal decoration, placing emphasis on the front facade. Conceived as a signboard, the central section of this main facade incorporates a large descriptive sign on a curved, rendered parapet. Domed towers flank the facade in a similar manner to the Luna Park entrance and the Palais de Danse facade.
Wanting to convey a sense of modernity, Henry White stated that he adopted no particular style in the design of the Palais Pictures building. He used Baroque, Modern Gothic and Neoclassical elements to heighten the perceived emotional effect of the cinema interior on an audience. Henry White’s interest in Modern Gothic design was combined with a striking Spanish-Baroque influence in the detailing, leaving the interior described at times as Spanish, French and Oriental. The Palais Theatre has a large, double-height entrance foyer with giant order columns, and two sweeping staircases to the dress circle foyer above. Walls are decorated with a disc-like surface pattern and columns have a scagliola finish. Two open wells in the upper foyer, a rectangular one over the lower foyer and an elliptical one over the back stalls, are an important aspect of the design.
The Palais Theatre is one of the few theatres with a foyer in the true sense of the word. The Paris Opera House was the first theatre to include fireplaces on its landings. The French word for fire is “feu”, and it was this that led for the landings to be subsequently known as foyers. The Palais Theatre has two Rococo style fireplaces located on the first level foyer. They have imitation plaster logs that were fired by gas to create an atmosphere of cosy warmth for patrons. The internal early or original decorative scheme of the Palais Theatre, designed mainly by Melbourne firm A. E. Higgins, is still substantially intact. The interior of the Palais Theatre is adorned by a variety of lighting, including candelabras, wall lamps and illuminated glazed panels. The lighting is either part of the A. E. Higgins decorative scheme or is part of a suite of light fittings manufactured especially for the Palais Theatre by Victoria’s pre-eminent manufacturer of lighting and hardware, William Bedford Pty Ltd. Some of the William Bedford light fittings are now located off-site. A switchboard located in the dome originally controlled the lighting in the theatre. In addition to the light fittings, the building retains many other carefully resolved original or early design features including: illuminated glass directional signs to the ladies and gentlemen’s cloakrooms; illuminated exit signs; tip-up theatre seating, associated foot warmers and attendant piping; arm chair style seating and carved timber benches; wall-mounted usher’s seating; stage curtains and wall and door drapes; and moulded spotlight housings. The Palais Theatre also contains an array of original and early service equipment and some remnants of orchestra pit balustrading that contributes to an understanding of how the theatre originally operated. The carved benches located on the first floor foyer, made especially by a Melbourne furniture manufacturer, were created for the original Walter Burley Griffin building of 1920, which was far more Art Deco in style.
After World War II some alterations were made to the building to enable large live performances. The Palais Theatre subsequently became home to the Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s ballet and opera seasons, and home to the Melbourne Film Festival from 1962 to 1981. In 1973 the outdoor promenade to the upper foyer was infilled across the front facade, significantly altering the building’s external appearance. Affected by the opening of the Arts Centre theatres in the 1980s, the use of the Palais Theatre became sporadic, and it has been used largely as a live music venue since this time.
The Palais Theatre is of historical significance for its association with the development of St Kilda as an important seaside resort and as an integral part of the St Kilda foreshore entertainment complex. Its vast scale and solid construction reflect the confidence in the location and the medium of film, by the 1920s. The Palais Theatre is of historical significance for its continuous association with a major form of popular entertainment in the twentieth century. This includes its original association with American entrepreneurs, the Phillips brothers, and its continued operation through the 1960s-1980s when many other amusements in the vicinity were closed, demolished or burnt down.
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