Rainy Night at the Regent

Late on a rainy night, the lights of the Richmond Regent cinema reflect on the wet road in front of it like moonlight on water. The lights are on in the lobby and in the upper-storey windows, but the building has a dramatic, shadowy presence, befitting the drama that happens on the screens within.

The Regent dates from the picture-palace days of the 1930s, when the grand facades and elegant interiors of art deco theatres offered transformation: a new atmosphere, one elegant and magical, elevated above ordinary life. The Regent opened in 1935, a handful of years after its architects had designed another landmark theatre, the Roxy in Parramatta. It is not difficult to imagine the Regent at this time. Apart from its conversion to a twin cinema in the 1990s, it has changed comparatively little.

There are posters for the new releases affixed to the doors, and the potted palms that were once by the columns in the lobby have been replaced by a hand sanitiser dispenser and a check-in table, but the same feeling comes over me when I step inside. The Regent is the kind of cinema I visited as a child, with the same textures of velvet and carpet, and the hand-painted signs, and the sense that I had already begun to enter another, fantasy world just by stepping through the door.

Perhaps the Regent has retained its identity so strongly because it has remained independent, and only ever had three owners. The first two, coincidentally, for they were not related, were both called Michael Walsh. The third and current owner John Levy, or ‘Mr Movies’ as he is known and referred to in the cinema’s communications, bought the cinema in 1989. Now in his 80s, he will retire in January, and the cinema will be taken over by new owners. Often when I’ve come to the Regent Mr Movies has been in the box office, dispensing tickets (all tickets, all day, every day are $12), but tonight it’s just the two young staff at the candy bar.

We buy tickets to the late screening of No Time to Die and linger around in the lobby for a little while, looking at the framed photographs hung on the wall that capture it in previous incarnations. A letter from the 1930s owners around the time of the cinema’s opening promises patrons that will be experiencing “the best the world can offer” in terms of sound quality, and of comfort, with the theatre’s Dunlop Cushion Pillow Seats. A wooden sign on the stairs announced the upstairs area was closed: disappointing as up there is a 30s/80s lounge area, with mirrored columns and gold velvet armchairs.

The downstairs theatre is the original of the two: in the 90s the mezzanine seating was walled off and converted into the second theatre, but there’s still a sense of how it would have been as one big, cavernous room. The film isn’t due to start for another quarter of an hour. The curtains are drawn, and there’s no sound except for the rain outside, and no one else here, yet. A spotlight illuminates the curtains, as if at any moment someone is about to walk out on stage. I sit back in the plush red seat, a child, an adult, in the past, in the present, waiting for the film to start.


7 Comments on “Rainy Night at the Regent”

  1. Loved reading this – as the great grandchild of Regal Theatre (Perth) owners. Think you will enjoy this PIX article (30 October 1948) about the Australian premiere of the MGM musical On an Island With You, starring Esther Williams, at the Regent Theatre in Richmond: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-462996492/view?partId=nla.obj-463277149#page/n23/mode/1up

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      This article is extraordinary – what a night! Almost too much for the imagination to hold all at once. 10 days with Esther Williams, Bill Smith’s first film, lookalikes, a train called ‘Pansy’! Thank you!

  2. MazzaPurple says:

    Oh that poster for the movie Sunshine. I remember seeing that as a teenager and crying my eyes out. Great article on the theatre. Thank you for exploring and bringing the past to the present.

  3. LES FEHER says:

    Thanks for this Ms Berry. I have greatly enjoyed reading your books and articles about Sydney landmarks like the radio tower at Plastics AR on Parramatta Rd. that I drive past every day.

    Good to see that you have made it out to my old home town. As someone who grew up in Richmond in the 1970s I have many fond memories of visiting the Richmond Regent. In those days it was only a single screen theatre. I vividly remember going with my mates to see Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” on a double feature with “Bride of Frankenstein” in about 1975 at the height of the kung-fu craze. The first Mr Walsh had to stop the projector during “Bride of Frankenstein” as the kids who had packed out the theatre were talking throughout the film waiting for the main feature to start.

    When it reopened under the ownership of Mike Walsh (of the Mike Walsh Show) I recall that it also hosted some live concerts including the Ted Mulry Gang and Don Lane.

    An iconic beacon of culture!!!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Les, it’s great to hear these memories, and I’m happy to hear you enjoy my eye upon the city. I love imagining that screening of ‘Enter the Dragon’, excitement must have been extremely high! It’s wonderful to think of the cinema enduring through different generations and eras.

      • LES FEHER says:

        No worries. By the way I was wondering if you still have the “Alien Sex Fiend” t-shirt from your days as a teenage goth that gets a few mentions in “Ninety 9”. That book brought back a lot of memories of recording mix tapes on cassette and staying up late to watch “Eat Carpet” -a program I had completely forgotten about.

      • Vanessa Berry says:

        Thanks Les – I’m glad Ninety9 brought back some memories. I do indeed have that shirt though it’s only hanging together by a thread!

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