By Elisha Hammond
Imagine this: It’s March of 1938, the weather still hot and dry on Australia’s Western coast as the state begins to crawl out of the devastating depression of the early thirties. People meander through Perth, ice creams and children’s sticky palms in tow, stopping to admire the city’s latest attraction: the Piccadilly Arcade.
It’s a grand addition to Hay Street, and today is the opening day of its crowning jewel.The Piccadilly Theatre stands out proudly amongst the bustle, winging the entrance to the arcade with grandeur and grace.
It boasts fashionable art-deco interior and furnishings, the most modern technologies, and the icing on the cake: state-of-the-art air-conditioning.
Flash forward to 2013, late September and a perfect spring. But it’s the last days at Piccadilly, the cinema poised for curtain call after the school holidays come to an end. Back in its glory days, the Piccadilly used to be one of the city’s best assets, the talk of the town. So what happened between then and now that initiated the theatre’s fall from grace?
It seems that most of the demise originates from financial problems, which in turn lead to refurbishment troubles. March of 2010 saw the arrival of one of Perth’s biggest storms, bringing with it a plethora of damage to the theatre that resulted in its temporary closing.
In May of the same year it was alleged that the roof of the cinema collapsed twice on different days during customer-attended screenings. Other problems ranging from asbestos to faulty gutters continued to pester the cinema, both resulting from a tiny renovation budget and adding to the cinemas massive debt- a vicious cycle.
In spite of the current problems facing the old theatre, its historic value cannot be understated. The Piccadilly opened on the 10th of March in 1938, just as Western Australia was approaching the end of the depression.
It was a prominent feature of the Piccadilly Arcade on Hay Street, which opened earlier in February of the same year. A project initiated by mining magnate Claude de Bernales. The arcade and theatre was such a big hit because of its beautiful art deco design and functionalist style.
The refurbishment of 1984 persevered to continue this fashion, a dedication that won architect Ian Tucker the 1986 Architecture Design Award for Renovated Buildings. And if the rich history couldn’t get any juicier, apparently the cinema has a spooky past of its own, with claims that a resident ghost has yet to abandon the derelict cinema. “I can tell you that there is a ghost. Several people saw it but it was harmless if not a little creepy,” says Chris Simmons, a former projectionist at the cinema.
“Apparently some years ago a customer was locked in and in the dark fell down the stairs and was found dead in the morning.”
A small glimmer of hope seemed to be on the horizon in February, this year when Mellen Events came to the council with grand plans to renovate the fallen cinema. Proposing to chip in ?.5 million to help the struggling Piccadilly, the company asked for a 1.7 million sponsorship deal from the council to offset costs. “The potential to refurbish that venue and bring it back to its original glory is there,” said Event Promoter Brad Mellen.
Alas, it appears darker days are in store for the cinema; ultimately the council decided not to provide the publicly funded fiscal resources as the Piccadilly is a privately owned business.
Unable to make ends meet on the project, it seems that Mellen Events has no choice but to drop the plans for a potential renovation.
Four years after its closing, the Piccadilly Theatre still stands little chance of getting back to its former glory, tragic news for a heritage listed building.
It’s disappointing that the Piccadilly’s destiny isn’t fit to match its grand legacy, the very last cinema complex to serve Perth’s CBD.
But even as a question mark hovers over future plans for the space, one thing is certain: the 75 years of film provided by the theatre meant a lot to the people of Perth, a fact that cannot be understated.
Even as the council’s decision leaves the cinema’s future up in the air, nothing stops us from looking back on its rich history.
Because, who knows, if the focus was on the Piccadilly’s contribution to the city initially, maybe its destiny would be a more fitting one.