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posters for the new releases affixed to the doors, and the potted palms that were once by the columns in the lobby have been replaced by a hand sanitiser dispenser and a check-in table, but the same feeling comes over me when I step inside.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.
In this month’s edition of Artlink: In Public/Inside is an article I’ve written about ceramic artist Vladimir Tichy, and the large-scale ceramic murals he made in the 1970s and 80s. Regular readers of this blog would know that I keep an eye on the remaining city Tichy murals – on York Street, Foveaux Street, and in the underground mall at Hyde Park Square. In the article I follow the story of these three murals, and the development of Tichy and his distinctive earthy, dreamlike style.
Vladimir Tichy was a ceramic artist who came, with his wife and daughter, to Australia in 1968, as a political refugee from Czechoslovakia. He had been well known as a ceramicist there, known for his work with porcelain, but after coming to Australia, worked in architectural ceramics, making striking, large-scale, ceramic murals.
In partnership with Rudolf Dybka at Studio Tichy, then as sole director at Studio Tichy, he created murals and tiles for newly-constructed commercial buildings, bars and RSL clubs, and government buildings. The 70s and 80s were a busy and prolific time for Tichy, and his works could be see throughout the city and suburbs, but now few remain. I always keep an eye out for them.
After trading for 55 years, Lawson’s Record Centre is closing. At 380 Pitt Street is the last remaining of what was once a row of secondhand record stores on this block between Liverpool and Goulburn streets. When I started shopping there the top three on this stretch were Ashwoods, The Pitt, and Lawson’s. At that time there was a vast vacant lot across from the record stores, the whole block between Pitt and George Street empty. The Anthony Horderns department store had stood here until it was demolished in the 1980s. But I paid the vacant lot little attention. The city had many such holes at the time, on pause between demolition and development. Instead my energies were focussed on the record stores, and what I might find within.
I found records inside them, of course, but as much as I enjoyed looking through the racks, I enjoyed being in the stores themselves. They were cluttered, serious places, dense with records and books, with layers of gig posters decorating their walls. Their mood was one of studious attention to the pursuit of treasure, and I joined the searchers with enthusiasm. When I was a teenager books and music were my lifeline. I navigated the city with subcultural intent, frequenting the record book stores, navigating by the cinemas and arcades.
Approaching Lawsons this feeling returns to me, although the rest of the street has changed and is now mostly restaurants. Through the door I can see the long rows of boxes inside, through to the back wall lined with 7″ records. As I turn to go in I note the handwritten sign in the window thanking customers for their support and announcing that the last day is April 27th. Once through the narrow entranceway lined by vinyl records, I see this date is also marked on the calendar affixed to the pinboard behind the counter. There’s a circle around the last Saturday in April and the words “last day of Lawson’s” written below it.
Knowing that this may well be their last visit, the store is busy with people searching through the records and CDs, heads down, flipping through. As I browse ’50s 60s R&B’ a man beside me explains to his son the system of alphabeticising artists under their first names, one of the store’s quirks.
I turn my attention to the walls and their layers of posters. My favourite, which has been on the wall since the first time I came to the store in the 1990s, is the State Rail fare evasion poster that shows a figure being consumed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “There are harsh penalties for those without a ticket”, ran a line of text at the bottom of the poster. No matter how often the LPs displayed on the rack below it changed, the day-glo scene of prehistoric fare evasion was a constant.
Lawson’s too has been a constant, a reminder of an era of the city that now has fewer and fewer traces. Climbing rents have now priced it out of the city, a familiar story for other secondhand book and record dealers such as Goulds, which had to downsize from its iconic Newtown store last year, also due to increases in rent. Another stalwart of the city book and record store circuit, Comic Kingdom, closed in recent years, and the copies of Captain America and Spiderman grow ever-dustier in its unchanging front window.
For many years Lawson’s has been the last store left of its kind in the city, but now its time is coming to a close. A For Lease sign is displayed in the front window beside David Bowie and Prince. But inside, for these final weeks, it has the same atmosphere of studious searching, looking through, hoping for treasure.
For a guide to Sydney’s record stores see Diggin’ Sydney map of record stores.
First up… Opening this week is an exhibition of the maps from the book of Mirror Sydney, at 55 Sydenham Road gallery in Marrickville. Come for a stroll past the Sydenham Reservoir, and drop by the opening, this Thursday, 5th October, 6-8pm, to see the maps of Parramatta Road, mystery structures, memorial stores, community noticeboards, and other urban and suburban curiousities that are featured in the book.
Then, on October 17th, is the book launch for Mirror Sydney, which will be held at one of my favourite central city landmarks: the CTA Building in Martin Place, in the subterranean bar. The book will be launched by Peter Doyle, of City of Shadows and The Big Whatever fame. BOOKED OUT I’m sorry!
I was interviewed on the Friday Daily on 2SER, talking about Mirror Sydney, change and development, and about documenting the city and going exploring in the suburbs. Listen to the interview at the 2SER website: http://www.2ser.com/component/k2/item/9224-uncovering-the-hidden-spaces-in-sydney.