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Few people ever get the chance to have a dream and see that dream realised. The magnificent State Theatre in Sydney stands as a monumental symphony of steel and stone to its creator Stuart Frank Doyle who travelled the world in search of novelties and ideas to incorporate into the structure.

Given an ‘A’ classification by the National Trust of Australia (NSW Division) and rated as one of the top 15 theatres in the world, the State is regarded as a building having great historical significance and high architectural quality.

The State was the last of the great movie palaces to be built in Sydney and amongst the last in Australia following the Great Depression of 1929. With today’s ‘throw away’ world and emphasis on youth, giant clubs, casinos, resorts, more intimate theatres and electronic devices, it’s unlikely the day of great luxury movie palaces will ever return.

Union Theatres, later to become the Greater Union Organisation, had erected and opened four huge theatres in three Australian States – The Capitol in Sydney, Ambassadors in Perth, the State in Melbourne and finally, the State Theatre in Sydney. There was no particular reason in choosing the name for the State but there are Crowns throughout the building on walls, floors and ceilings as a tribute to royalty.

However, the lobby is an homage to King George V with displays of St George and the Dragon and on the ceiling is a miniature of the Henry VII chapel displayed in Westminster Abbey.

Opened on 7 June 1929, the State in Sydney has played host to millions of patrons. The new building had ten floors, shopping on top, a mini golf course and a newsreel theatre, a first in Australia with 237 seats, which ran until 1969. In 1934, the State Ballroom was created, the shopping experiment failed and the top was turned into office blocks. Builders ripped out ceilings and walls in the 1980s for the offices and they were put back when it was converted into a 96 room hotel after the company bought Gowings in 2009.

There was a lot of damage incurred when changes were made to the building but it has all been restored. The State was scheduled to close in 1976 but the Builders Labourers Federation put a green ban on the move and the theatre was saved. At that time, there were 28 theatres in the city and only the State and the Capitol are left in their original condition.

Where do you start and what do you look at first when you take a tour of the State? Among your choices are the Gothic Entrance Hall, the Grand Assembly, the Royal Mezzanine, the Proscenium, the Empire Builders Room, the Pompadour, Butterfly and Pioneer Rooms, the Gallery of Australian Art, the Golden Dome and the Chandeliers.

There are three levels of seats, stalls, royal mezzanine (425 seats) and dress circle (950 seats) with an original capacity 2,600 seats which has been reduced to 2,034 after 500 were taken out to comply with fire and safety regulations. Royal Mezzanine was the preserve of the rich and famous and had curtains to keep out the noise. Downstairs were the cheap seats with no carpets where you ‘got what you paid for’.

There are 50 metal decorated doors in the theatre entrance which at one stage were going to be melted down for their iron value and not preserved for artistic quality. The mezzanine had a public notice sign ‘No standing or dancing on this level’ because with a full house, the dress circle and mezzanine dropped 5mm. Fish tanks were installed on the mezzanine floor because at that time only wealthy people could afford a fish tank.

The mezzanine floor has a corridor with an art display and winners of competitions displayed included Dobell and others. Marble and plaster statues were in niches around the walls and cemented in. Many items of value are still there including an urn valued at $130,000. In the 60s and 70s when it was thought the building was going to be demolished, people could take whatever furnishings and fittings they wanted, some bringing screwdrivers to help remove items. One man was caught with a statue he had ripped from a wall.

The men’s rooms are of heavy, dark timber with the women’s lighter in colour. Smoking was allowed only in 1940 in most of the smoking rooms. For the men, it was called the Empire Room with logos of different Prime Ministers and the rooms were classic example of class division. The men also had a College Room, with 17 steep steps to the room and logos of Sydney colleges, but all have been stolen.

Ladies toilets were hidden. In those times it was considered embarrassing for a lady to be seen going to the toilet. Known as the Pompadour Room, it had only two small mirrors because in those days only loose women wore makeup. The Ladies Smoking room was popular but nearly everything has been stolen. Women also had the Butterfly Room which was decorated with replicas of butterflies – mirrors, lights, walls, ceiling and carpets. In 1980 a water leak revealed original butterfly paintings on the walls which had been painted over up to 14 times.

The State was the first theatre in Australia to have a sprinkler system and the first to be fully air conditioned. In earlier years, cooling was by blocks of ice with fans. The stage has a fire curtain which is metal, 2½ tons of steel and must be down when shows are not being staged.

In its hey-day, the State had a 30 piece orchestra for silent films, supplemented by a Wurlitzer organ. The organ was fitted with bells, whistles, xylophone, drums, all used by the organist who had to play appropriate sounds with the silent films. The State also had a Beauty Ballet who presented four shows a day and a weekly newsletter which wrote about coming attractions such as Gladys Moncrieff and Peter Dawson.

There are 14 chandeliers, 13 in the theatre Auditorium and Grand Assembly areas. The largest, the scintillating Koh-i- Nor, hanging from the centre of the Dome and weighing 3½ tons, is a replica of the great chandelier which hung in the Reception Hall of the Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna. It needed 14 people 1½ hours to lower and then raise the main chandelier by hand; now with an electric winch it takes just four people to do the same job.

Guide Stuart Greene, who has a marvellous knowledge of the theatre, conducts tours for groups of 10 or more Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at 10am and 1pm with bookings at Ticketmaster.

There is so much more to be told about the State Theatre. Take the opportunity to visit Sydney’s most historic and magnificent theatre and enter into the magical world of the Palace of Dreams.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, December 2014, pages 16 and 17.


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