Gus Berger, who has just spent three months stripping paint from a Thornbury building’s facade, is a cinema evangelist. He ran the George Revival Cinema in St Kilda for six months a few years back, and he’s been doing outdoor pop-up theatres (including those at QV and Barkly Square, among others) for six years. He’s not leaving behind his nomad ways, but now he has a fixed project as well.
His new venue, Thornbury Picture House, is a retro-style local cinema and bar that feels tailor made for the north-side suburb.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of what will work in this neck of the woods,” says Berger. “I live around the corner.” In that regard, he’s built the place to work as a neighbourhood bar for those who just want to come for a few drinks, not necessarily a movie.
The building, which spent the past few years as a vintage-furniture shop, has been given a glorious overhaul. Berger restored the exterior with the building’s roots in mind; it was one of Melbourne’s first drive-through petrol stations.
Original tile signs promising service and “motor spirit” – a romantic early name for what we now refer to as petrol – were discovered under decades of shoddy paint jobs. And the vintage petrol bowser out front has been freshly painted with the image of the airborne 1966 Ford Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise.
But inside is where all the glam Art Deco-style action is. The bar, designed by Julian Beattie from MakeStuff, is fitted out with refurbished 1930s vintage cinema seats, which Berger traced back to the old Carlton Movie House. The walls are lined with photographs from classic Hollywood and beyond: David Lynch, Jack Nicholson, Agnes Varda.
And then there’s the 57-seat theatre, which eschews vintage chic for comfort. On any given week expect three or four new-release films, starting with I, Tonya, The Shape of Water and Ladybird, alongside classics such as Death in Brunswick and Fargo.
Beyond the usual popcorn and choc-tops, the bar has a local focus too. A simple menu, done in collaboration with Umberto, the fine Italian restaurant up the road, includes antipasto, meatballs, polenta chips and calamari. Drinks come from Three Ravens, Hawkers and Noisy Ritual, and there’s a batch-brew coffee from Padre. In an ode to the building’s history, there’s also a cocktail called Motor Spirit.
Berger is planning special screenings, too. He’s running The General, an early Buster Keaton film from 1926, with a live score accompaniment from jazz ensemble Sounds of Silent, who are also locals.
“It’s all local people who are passionate about what they do,” says Berger. “People will really enjoy having a local theatre on their block.”
Thornbury Picture House is now open at 802 High Street, Thornbury.