Orion Theatre 282 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, NSW - 1958

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Orion Theatre

Orion Theatre

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Orion Theatre  282 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, NSW  - 1958

The Mouse That Roared
Orion Theatre 282 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, NSW - 1958

The Mouse That Roared - The saga of the Orion theatre, Canley Heights NSW

Photo : Fred Hawkins (left) & Doug Lindsay

This is a story of endeavor, but more so it’s the story of a mighty Picture Show Man. For what I’m about to write I have one regret. I wish that Fred Hawkins was alive to read it. Fred was a true independent exhibitor, who from an early age loved every aspect of the Cinema Industry. World War two was in it’s early stages when Fred and his friend Doug Lindsay became the exhibitors at the School Of Arts in Rooty Hill, NSW. The timing was right, it was only three years since the council had conveniently constructed a bio box, which had been tacked on to the rear of the building. Doug was an electrician while Fred a fitter and turner, and as such were both classified and working in protected industries. Never-the-less between rosters they managed to kick start Rooty Hill.

On April 13 1940 they opened with Dick Powell’s Going Places and Boris Karloff in West of Shanghai. The partnership ran with patched up Powers projectors on Peco heads, and the power was supplied by a temperamental generator. Rooty Hill had no electricity at that time. Later they were to update with C & W P5’s, adapting on to Peco heads. Along the way the School Of Arts became the Regal theatre. The arrangement was to last happily for ten years, until Fred became restless and moved on, selling his share of the partnership to Bill Moore. David Wayside began his cinema career alongside Doug Lindsay in the bio box at Rooty Hil in 1953. The Regal theatre ceased screening in 1959 with Smiley Get’s a Gun. Television had now replaced many community activities, and the development of live entertainment and licenced clubs had begun.

We pick up on Fred In 1951 when he became interested in the Glenfield Progress Hall, however there were no projection facilities. A bio box was constructed and second hand seating installed. Fred grandly christened it the New Empire theatre. Opening night was on Saturday July 7, 1951 with Universal’s “The Gal Who Took The West” supported by Abbott & Costello in “Mexican Hayride”. Fred continued at Glenfield until 1953, when the on going business was sold to George Wallace from Alpine. In years to come the building was knocked down and units were built on the site.

After selling the Glenfield show Fred took over the cinema at Gladstone, which is downstream from Kempsey. There was an immediate name change to the Pacific theatre. The bio box was equipped with C & W P2’s on Magna Coustian sound heads. Two years later the theatre was sold to George Porter from Smithtown, and Fred moved into the public hall at Preston. Once again it was necessary to build a bio box, while C & W P5’s on Magna Coustian sound heads were installed. The new Preston theatre opened on Saturday January 28, 1954 to excellent figures with High Noon from United Artists. Fifteen months later the business was sold on going to Ron Purvis. In years to come the Preston hall was moved onto the side street and is now the headquarters for the district fire brigade.

Fred was about to act on a deep seated lifelong dream. An application had been made many years previous to build a theatre at Canley Heights. This is a suburb of Sydney, 31 kilometres south-west of the central business district. He proposed to call it the Orion [Latin (genitive Orionis)] represented the figure of a hunter with belt and sword. Building a theatre was a massive hands-on undertaking for a solo independent. The thought of it over the years was becoming a major cause of stress, as there had been little response from the commission. Nothing during his time as an exhibitor would prepared him for the onslaught that was to follow.

The application to build the Orion in Canley Heights had been submitted by Fred in 1946, following the end of World War 2. There were several different enemies. The Department of Building Materials, The Chief Secretary’s Department & The Theatres & Films Commission. During this period two local members Mr J. S. Freeman and Mr Jack Mannix lobbied ceaselessly on his behalf, but it wasn’t until Nov 1955 that the Commission after exhausting all avenues threw up their hands and finally granted him a licence.

The victory was short lived when Suburban Cinemas P/L operating as Hoyts in Fairfield, and the Medich Brothers (owners of a Cabramatta picture theatre) lodged an appeal against the licence. They asked the judge to reverse the approval, as the area was a semi rural community with a population of 11,000 and did not need a theatre. They argued that existing theatres in the area were sufficient to fill it’s needs. A three day court case began in 1956 to hear the appeal. To Fred’s dismay their appeal was successful, however Judge Harvey Prior ruled that it had succeeded only on a technical point. A further application was swiftly submitted and the licence finally granted on Feb 15, 1957 to F. G. Hawkins of Canley Vale, there-by ending a costly soul destroying eleven year battle. Judge Prior said that he sympathised with Hawkins as some existing theatre owners had a adopted a dog in the manger attitude towards newcomers. For Fred these words came from heaven, despite the introduction of television he would now go forward and build his own theatre.

News travels fast, and that night local exhibitor’s Percy J. Weight and Joe Cook knocked on the door offering Fred the Mt Pritchard theatre. The Parks theatre Mt Pritchard was only 8 minutes from Canley Heights and in Fred’s mind represented a direct threat to the new Orion project. The theatre was located on Meadows Road, in an area prolific with market gardens. The building was clad in asbestos sheeting and the seating was arranged in a stadium format, while the bio box was running Powers projectors sitting on top of Magna Coustian sound heads. Running Mt Pritchard would be a stretch, but better in Fred’s hands than a competing operator. For the time being Percy and Joe agreed to run Mt Pritchard for him.

The grand opening #

The Orion theatre at 282 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights opened on Monday March 31st 1958 to turn away crowds with a double bill from Universal Pictures, consisting of Thunder Bay starring James Stewart, and Bonzo Goes To College. This was the culmination of nine months of back breaking work for Fred and his friends, who had constructed the building over many weekends with hammer, nails and a welding torch. The Biz (Fairfield NSW) newspaper reported “The Orion was officially opened by Mr. N. J. Mannix, State member of Parliament for the district, who complimented Mr. Hawkins the proprietor on his tenacity and enterprise, along with the very comfortable appointments of the new theatre. This will serve our growing district for many years to come he extolled. Mr. Fred Hawkins expressed his thanks to all and announced that the theatre would operate every night of the week, with a complete change of program three times weekly.

The Orion had a capacity of 350 seats, and consisted of both front and back stalls in a single story steel framed building. A crying room had been installed with comfortable seating, and a sound proof glass window, fitted and tilted to avoid reflection. The foyer was wrapped around the projection box and was constructed with brick lined Gyprock for fire proofing, and also featured a well stocked concession bar. Vinyl plastic floor tiles in green and yellow provided the dominant colours, while the foyer ceiling and walls were lined with asbestos cement and hardboard painted in pastel colours. The auditorium was remarkable for it’s simple inexpensive yet attractive finish. The layout was traditional except for the absence of stage curtains. The interior walls were lined with hardboard painted forest green. The original projection equipment featured Minerva projectors and sound heads sitting on solid 12 inch concrete blocks. A Westrex amplifier and Paradise anamorphic lenses completed the installation. Two years later there was an upgrade consisting of C & W projectors on RCA sound heads with Westrex amplifier.

CinemaScope #

The first CinemaScope presentation featured the Warner Bros production “Bomber B52”, which was followed by The King & I. Much was made of CinemaScope in the local press. Later Fred was able to catch up with The Robe, Three Coins In The Fountain and the High and the Mighty..

For Fred running the Orion, and Mt Pritchard together had now become a major distraction, while most programs were being switched between the two cinemas. Fred writes in his long lost 1989 book The Vanishing Cinema. “In 1959 I passed Mt Pritchard over to David Wayside”. David continued to work Mt Pritchard with Gaumont British Projectors sitting on Racophone sound heads. Television eventually won the day and the theatre closed. In 1964 the Mt Pritchard theatre was the victim of an arsonist and it burnt to the ground. David continued his association with the Orion, and would often fill in with relief projection and managerial support. In addition to operating the theatre Fred had established an agency for Stromberg-Carlson, which would operate in the front theatre foyer of the Orion during daylight hours. Here he sold TV’s, radio’s and record players. David would assist with the installations, delivery and repairs. The Orion Cinema ran successfully for a five year period, until attendance’s were reduced by the inroads of television to untenable levels. Fred’s theatre was demolished in the closing months of 1963.

Fred Hawkins along with his friend Doug Lindsay remained lifelong friends and both have now passed into history. Fred’s fight to build the Orion is the stuff of what movies are made of. David Wayside revered him as a friend and a mentor and was most helpful in the writing of this article. An enduring legacy of affection remains for those who remember the amazing cinematic exploits of Fred Hawkins, independent exhibitor and mighty “Picture Show Man”.

Greg Lynch - .

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