The Ritz Cinema is a landmark in Randwick: a classic Art Deco outline on St Pauls Street with all the trimmings of old-world good times – from twinkling light globes to the faded grandeur of its fancy name. But in its heyday this destination would have symbolised cutting-edge modernity; a place to see the latest styles and fashions both in the building’s architecture and in the Hollywood movies that locals came to watch.

It’s a classic example of the suburban picture houses that proliferated across Australian cities and towns during the interwar period. Between 1921 and 1953, “picture-going” was the most popular leisure activity for Australians, second only to sport. And cinemas were thriving hubs of their communities. The Eastern Suburbs alone once had 24 picture houses, and now only the Ritz remains. Along with the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne, it’s the only other of its kind in Sydney to have survived and still operate as a cinema.

Now heritage-listed, the Ritz opened in 1937 with a screening of the romantic drama God's Country and the Women in Technicolor (which was still rare at the time). The sixpence ticket price would have included a newsreel, a cartoon or short film and trailers to advertise the “shoot-em-up” matinee serials popular with children on a Saturday.

The theatre itself was decked out in a subtle colour palette typical of Art Deco, with beige-pink tones and velvet seats in maroon and grey-stripes. It was designed by Aaron Bolot, a Crimean architect who made a name for himself as a creative and talented cinema designer during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Responsible for six cinemas across NSW and Melbourne, he also designed the highly innovative, curvilinear apartment block 17 Wylde Street in Potts Point.

“He was one of a number of Russian émigré architects. They were often very gifted because design in Russia led the world in the early ’20s,” says Robin Grow, president of the Melbourne-based Art Deco & Modernism Society. “He developed a house style and all the cinemas were designed to be as up-to-date and stylish as possible.”

Stylish they were, but these suburban cinemas were markedly different from the opulent movie palaces – such as the State Theatre – in the city centre. The effect of Art Deco design – clean lines and minimal furnishings – was two-fold: fashionable and economical. “It kept the construction costs down but perhaps more importantly, it kept the maintenance costs down,” says Grow. “There’s very little in the way of elaborate interior fittings to be cleaned and maintained and that was really important to people in those days because, of course, times were tough. The movie business was extremely competitive and an operator would do anything to keep the costs down and attendances up.”

So how did the Ritz come to be such a rare artefact today? And how did it prevail when others didn’t? “The whole industry took a real big dive in the ’50s when television came about,” explains Grow. “And with a lot of the migrant population coming along, many were turned into Greek, Italian or later Vietnamese film places, and they just didn’t pay their way. They were fair blocks of land and as they got older, maintenance cost more and operators were expected to upgrade their projection facilities. It was mainly economics. “There was a period in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was just regarded as inevitable that the local picture theatre would get knocked over,” he continues. “And of course by then they were seen as very old fashioned.” The Ritz, too, was slated for demolition; when the current owners bought the site in 1997, it was with a view to redevelop it. “However, people started protesting against knocking the cinema down,” says director Antoinette Katehos. Instead, the building received a permanent conservation order and the cinema was modernised, albeit subtly. Five new theatres have been added since and the impact is discreet: you wouldn’t know at first glance that the cinema had taken over its neighbouring buildings, including an old Vinnie’s to its left.

The Ritz remains independent and family owned, and – as it would have done originally – screens current, popular movies at cheap prices. The original 800-seat theatre remains intact with its vertiginous balcony, original light fittings and the power to transport you back a few decades once you step inside.

“We try and appeal to contemporary tastes by playing the very latest in quality film releases with all the latest technology and comfortable seating,” says Katehos. “At the same time, the cinema is preserved in its wonderful glory. Some would even say they just come to the Ritz for our great old-fashioned choc-tops!”

Ritz Cinema
45 St. Pauls Street, Randwick
(02) 8324 2500

ritzcinema.com.au

Sydney Classics is a column exploring some of Sydney’s icons that have stood the test of time. Have an idea for an inclusion? Email Sydney@broadsheet.com.au with your ideas.