Celebrating The Astor Theatre and Appreciating Melbourne’s Vibrant Arts Scene

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Melbourne’s winter has been colder than usual this year and some days have been bleak. Night falls early, the sky beginning to darken at 5.00pm, making it easy to stay home and cuddle up with a book by the fireside. It has to be an enticing reason to venture into the cold and on Thursday night, 25th June 2015, such a reason occurred, an offer, in Godfather parlance, I couldn’t refuse.

a very special event

Courtesy of Anne, my eldest daughter, Mary Jane and I attended a gala event to take part in a piece of Melbourne’s history – the celebration of the refurbishment and saving of The Astor Theatre, an icon of entertainment and a legend in the city.

anne at astor acknowledging the sponsors and the team that kept it opened

Anne’s gift stirred many memories of my teenage years, the 60s and 70s in Melbourne where we would travel in from the outer suburbs to taste the nightlife of the city! The Astor Theatre open long after other cinemas had closed for the evening and its Chapel Street location such a contrast to Croydon, a ‘bush’ town that still had horse rails attached to wooden verandahs outside some shops when we arrived from Scotland in 1962.

astortheatre

A short walk from Windsor Railway Station, The Astor is one of the last single screen movie palaces in the world and has shown movies continuously since 1936, a time when ‘going to the pictures’ a highlight of many people’s week.

Always a treat, to go to The Astor, the home of the double feature that grew into a cinema showing cult favourites, Golden Era classics and new releases long after the cinema monopolies take them off screen for the latest 10 day wonder. You don’t sit through 20 minutes of advertising or promos at The Astor – you see two movies or experience an event. (Mary Jane and I watched Joss Whedon’s Cabin in The Woods with an extremely appreciative audience! My friend Eva and I sat through Tim Winton’s The Turning comparing the film interpretation to the short stories we’d read.)

Thursday night’s gala event was no exception from other Astor evenings sitting in the art deco time warp. The charm of the theatre has to be experienced and you know you are with an audience that appreciates the suspension of disbelief, the wonderment of ‘going to the pictures’.

historical movie posters

Your ticket gives you a seat – first in, best dressed – sit in the Stalls or Upstairs in the balcony. The sound, large screen and projection state of the art and modern, in comparison to the now heritage listed leather seats – if you have back problems you’ll appreciate the intermission between features.

The gala event special because like many of Melbourne’s live music venues and entertainment icons, The Astor, being an old building on prime real estate was threatened with closure. Maintenance costs and expenses for upgrading seemed insurmountable in a difficult economic climate and the spread of the digital revolution .

so many peole rallied

The public outcry and support for a piece of Melbourne’s history and current culture, some wealthy investors and the Palace Cinema group combined to save the day. Miracles do happen. My daughters and I thrilled to be part of the celebration knowing when we held up our glasses of bubbly to ‘long live The Astor’ the theatre’s future is secure with a promise to retain the features supporters cherish.

art deco ceiling many in the crowd dressed up

Needless to say the champagne,wine and beer flowed freely courtesy of Brown brothers and Peroni, ‘a delicious Italian beer’ the young hosts promoted as they carried trays of bottles and glasses around the rooms. Everyone received a famous Astor Choc Ice specialty too – an ice-cream cone with thick chocolate topping. A  jazz band’s lively repertoire ensured toes tapped and punters danced.

There were nibblies served in cardboard boats – a link with the motif of the special Melbourne premiere of ‘Women He’s Undressed’, the new documentary by Gillian Armstrong on the life of Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly who dressed stars from the Golden Era of Hollywood, won three Oscars and is largely unknown in Australia.

When Mary Jane and I walked past the theatre at 5.30pm to meet Anne for dinner, we were surprised at the crowd already gathering outside The Astor – one middle-aged matron dressed like a Hollywood silent movie star knocking on the glass doors trying to get the attention of those inside.

‘She’s keen,’ I commented.
‘And we’re underdressed,’ said MJ, as we took in some of the evening and fancy dress of the crowd.

Later, egalitarian Melbourne and The Astor witnessed  plenty of folks dressed casually coming straight from university or work. We weren’t made to feel oddities.

a huge crowd anne and me at Astor

However, the number of photographers present and the ABC van parked outside while spotlights raked the night sky plus the music from the live jazz band drifting up the street  signalled this was an exciting evening.

We were part of history – a lovely memorable part of history.

Director Gillian Armstrong and co-producer Damien Parer introduced the film, Women He’s Undressed. Gillian ecstatic to be in her hometown and getting a cheer from the crowd when she said she regarded this night, not the Sydney launch, as the world premiere. Most of her family were present and The Astor was a world famous institution – what more could she ask!

She begged us to wait until after the credits at the end so she could introduce the writer, Katherine Thomson and the star, Darren Gilshenan. It was wonderful she publicly acknowledged the team who helped make the documentary, including researchers. Film  is a collaborative art, a fact often forgotten when people gush over stars or directors.

poster for the rest of the year

 The cinema length documentary explored the life of three-time Oscar winner, Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly. A man who I’ll openly admit I knew nothing about until the promos for the gala event at The Astor. Very few Australians will have heard of him, or realised he was Australian, so I’m not alone in my ignorance.

The film draws on his memoir ‘Women I’ve Undressed’, hidden until recently because Cary Grant extracted a promise it wouldn’t be published and then used the legal system to block publication. Orry and Cary (real name Archie Leach) lived together and the famous film star insisted Orry keep their relationship secret.

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We learn about Orry’s early life in Kiama and later Sydney, Australia, but most of the film concentrates on his journey in America where he makes his name as a costume designer for Warner Brothers becoming a friend and confidante to actors such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Betty Grable, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Munroe, Kathryn Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Angela Lansbury… and the list goes on. His Oscars won for An American in Paris (1951, shared with two others), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).

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The metaphor of the sea and rowing boat plus Kiama’s famous Blowhole a stroke of genius, no doubt inspired by a photograph of Orry the boy in a sailor suit and sitting in a boat, but used to great effect in the documentary.

Historically, life has never been easy if you are homosexual and Orry suffered periods of discrimination and anguish because of his sexuality. After trouble in Sydney with a gangster boyfriend he fled to New York arriving at a time when despite Prohibition, Broadway and jazz clubs thrived. Orry’s artistic talents and homosexuality soon found a niche.

Later, Orry developed an addiction to alcohol and was also known to be temperamental. A talented artist he worked at a frenetic pace. Interspersed with interviews of people who knew him, worked with him or knew of him, we return again and again to Orry in the boat – in and out of deep water, rowing gently or paddling furiously, adrift or beached, or at last in safe harbour.

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We learn about the adoring, unconditional love from his mother, her foresight paying for his art lessons, as well as his aptitude for sewing from his tailor father. When a costume designer, Orry sketched the clothes, including the faces of the actors, an unusual practice at the time. His drawings became much sought after works of art. These drawings helped him become a great costume designer, actors knew the clothes were made for them as well as enhancing their roles.

A snippit from the film reveals that Bette Davis had long droopy breasts, but refused to wear an underwire bra for fear of breast cancer. Orry accommodated her figure by having clothes with fancy pockets, large collars, designs that disguised or drew attention away from her chest. They collaborated and became great friends.

The amazing, eye-popping dresses worn by Marilyn Munroe in Some Like It Hot, whereby she appears almost naked a triumph of design and to this day people wonder how Orry managed to circumvent the strict guidelines Hollywood adhered to regarding nudity, sex, swearing etc.

The official release date of Women He’s Undressed is July 16th. A film about a talented Aussie bloke few have probably heard of – someone today’s celebrity worshippers have missed!  The documentary deserves a good run and judging by the reception it received from The Astor’s audience it was a great choice for a fabulous gala event.

The film left me wanting to know more about Orry-Kelly – let me know if you felt like that too!

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