A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Culture

From petrol pumps and tune-ups to popcorn and celluloid dreams

A Thornbury motor garage from 1919 is reborn as an arthouse cinema. Silvi Vann-Wall settles in for opening night.

Thornbury Picture House impresario Gus Berger: “We're just trying to give people something a bit different." Picture: Silvi Vann-Wall

Words and pictures by Silvi Vann-Wall
 

 

Interior; dusk. We’re in the foyer of The Thornbury Picture House – a cinema converted from a 99-year-old motor garage in Melbourne’s inner-north.

Sitting in the booths and taking a brief reprieve from buzzing opening-night clients checking out the old building’s reincarnation is owner and film curator, Gus Berger. On the window behind him there is an assortment of celluloid treasures – film canisters, projectors, and posters. In front of him is the entrance to the single-screen, 57-seat cinema. He sits for barely a moment before getting up to attend to the cinema lovers who he hopes will become regulars at the Picture House, which opened in April.

“It was supposed to open in January, actually,” says Gus. But transforming a garage into a bespoke cinema turned out to be something of an epic itself – part comedy, part drama. “If you hit a little obstacle, like the size of a door” – he nods towards the entrance –  “then that stops all these other things from happening … I think that’s just the nature of the building”.

The building’s original owner was Les Tadich, who was also something of a pioneering businessman. “It was one of Melbourne’s first drive-through petrol stations,” Gus says.

An old petrol pump stands in the cinema courtyard.

An old petrol pump stands in the cinema courtyard.

The Tadich name can still be seen on the art deco columns outside, where an old metered gas pump stands as the courtyard’s centrepiece. Gus and his wife, Lou Berger, have chosen to use these pieces – which survived intact despite the building’s recent stint as a furniture store – as part of the cinema’s aesthetic.

But how do motors and movies fit together?

Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider … I could go on,” Lou says. “There’s a painting of [Thelma and Louise] on the old pump outside.” She disappears into the kitchen to switch off an over-enthusiastic popcorn machine. The smell of hot oil fills the air, and the connection begins to make sense. When she returns, I ask her if burning the popcorn is the first thing that’s gone wrong today. She shakes her head, chuckling.

Safe-keeping the past is a subplot of the Thornbury Picture House story. But nostalgia alone won’t put bums on seats in an era when it’s all too easy to succumb to the temptation to just stay home and watch Netflix. To counteract the pull of the domestic flat screen TV, Gus has programmed a mix of silent comedy, forgotten gems and modern classics. They play on a six-metre screen, with sound cranking through a top-of-the-line system.

“We’re trying to give people an experience that I felt was lacking in Melbourne,” he says.

The locals must feel the same way – the debut evening showing The Citizen attended, and in fact most of the weekend, is sold out.

A patron visits the well-stocked bar.

A patron visits the well-stocked bar.

As the foyer fills with die-hard cinephiles, the painstakingly revived, vintage space works its magic. Patrons peruse the collection of silver-screen snaps hanging on the walls, images that inspire animated discussion of their favourite classics. Most are locals, some old enough to remember the building’s motor garage days. Many patrons have come a long way (Glen Waverley, St Kilda) to witness the opening night selection of comedy shorts.

“Friends that live nearby were super excited,” says Lisa from East Melbourne, “and we all said we have to come as soon as it opens.” Lisa’s mum Pam grew up in the area and remembers the place from its furniture shop days. “It’s very old-fashioned looking, which is nice, actually – takes us back to the theatres from years ago.”

Seated on the other side of the bar, self-confessed cinema buffs Gabrielle and Louise say they’re thankful the cinema is closer than their usual haunts, the Westgarth and Cinema Nova. They like to attend cinemas “with a little more mystique”, they explain, so this open-plan arrangement, where patrons essentially walk off the street and straight into the cinema, is a tad unexpected.

Is Gus worried that the Thornbury Picture House will struggle to compete with nearby multiplex cinemas such as the Westgarth? “My business model isn’t about trying to stop people from going to Westgarth or bringing Westgarth customers over here,” he says.

For him and Lou, it’s simply been a labour of love constructing a place that “felt local”. Now that they’re both relieved of their renovation woes, they’re excited to curate the cinema’s alternative line-up.

“I can’t think of a time on this side of town that Fargo’s played in the cinema before,” Gus says. “We’re just trying to give people something a bit different.”

Time will tell if this “something” will withstand the golden age of streaming. Checking in with Gus after his first month of operations, he says he’s had quite a few sold-out sessions, and 240 people have signed up as members of his cinema club.  “Almost everyone is surprised at how good the picture and sound quality is.”

“I’d say the only drama we’ve had is last Friday’s power outage, during A Quiet Place,” he says. John Krasinski’s horror-movie debut has appealed to many with its shocking twists, though perhaps not in the way this audience expected.

“People must’ve thought it was part of the movie. It took us 30 minutes to get the lights back on.”

An old projector turns its lens on High Street.

An old projector turns its lens on High Street.

The Thornbury Picture House can be found at 802 High Street, Thornbury, VIC. It opened on April 12, 2018. See the full program at: http://thornburypicturehouse.com.au/

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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