"It's been a beautiful eight-year experience for us to really revitalise the theatre."
"It's part of the Victorian fabric really," says Neil Croker, CEO of the iconic St Kilda Palais Theatre and the venue's booker. "It's fabulous." And a grand old lady she is, designed by architect Henry E White (who also designed the State Theatre in Sydney) back in 1926 to be one of the largest and grandest picture theatres, as cinemas were then called, in the Southern Hemisphere. Opening its doors 11 Nov the following year, it was still going strong when a seemingly innocuous feature film from the US about a school teacher doing his best to prevent his students from becoming social outcasts as teenage delinquents, Blackboard Jungle — which featured in its opening credits the first international rock'n'roll hit, Rock Around The Clock — hit its screen in 1956.
"The Palais was built with a big stage and there was a resident full-time Palais orchestra from 1927 all the way through to the mid-1950s."
"The Palais was a live performance venue from the day it opened," Croker points out. "Although it opened primarily as a cinema, it was normal in that period that as well as seeing a movie in a big theatre, you would get a whole live performance, so the Palais was built with a big stage and there was a resident full-time Palais orchestra from 1927 all the way through to the mid-1950s. So when you bought a ticket for a movie, you'd have at least 45 minutes of live music with the orchestra playing hits of the day and perhaps some variety acts, excerpts from musicals — then you'd see your movie.
"Then really, from the mid-'50s onwards, with the advent of television, going to movies dropped off, screening movies became less important and the focus was more on live performances. And remember, the Victorian Arts Centre was not open at that stage, so in stages the Palais became the home to what became the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera as well as contemporary performances. Of course when the Arts Centre opened, things dropped off again because it lost that sort of 'high art' stuff and reinvented itself as a venue focusing on contemporary performance."
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With a seating capacity of 2896, the largest seated theatre in the country, the art deco Palais is included on the Victorian Heritage Register.
"The acoustics are staggering," Croker enthuses. "People who know acoustics much better than me, orchestras, ballet and opera companies and performers, just rave about the acoustics. We've got a theatre that's basically got concrete walls and you'd think that the sound would bounce back, but because [White] finished every wall with, like, this swirl finish, the sound actually dissipates when it hits the wall, so you get no sound-bounce back, and a series of small domes that he has all the way through the theatre sort of relieve air pressure and allow the sound to come in a very direct line from the stage, rather than be fighting the pressure that a full audience adds."
"People who know acoustics much better than me, orchestras, ballet and opera companies and performers, just rave about the acoustics."
Croker's own background is in directing and the promotion and managing of international touring artists, among them AC/DC, Dire Straits, Carole King and Michael Jackson, as well as productions of Riverdance and Steel City. He also managed the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He took up the position at the Palais eight years ago, the Palais having, as he puts it, "been allowed to fall into a state of some disrepair and was not being utilised very much. The year before, it had done around 20 shows — we now do around 100 a year and have about a quarter of a million people come through the theatre. So it's been a beautiful eight-year experience for us to really revitalise the theatre and it's a core part of the national performance scene again."
The Palais has hosted many a memorable performance — the first Melbourne concert by a young band of Englishmen called The Rolling Stones, for instance, touring as support to America's Roy Orbison; The Beach Boys; Tom Jones; Lou Reed and even Bob Hope — as well as, on the 'high art' end of things, Dame Joan Sutherland in The Merry Widow and Anne Woolliams' production of Swan Lake.
"There were great concerts too by Bette Midler, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Allen, Joe Cocker," Croker recalls. "One of the real highlights in the '70s for the Palais, it was where Jesus Christ Superstar was staged in Victoria. Fellow inductees in this year's Hall of Fame, The Seekers, played at the Palais. There's hardly probably a prominent Australian musician who hasn't played at the Palais at some point.
"In the last eight years since we've been looking after the theatre there have been a lot of highlights, but Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have been real big highlights." And in December 2015, the Palais will host the premiere of Georgy Girl — The Seekers Musical.