George Florence and 70mm at The Astor, Melbourne,
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The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Erick White, Melbourne, Australia
Melbourne, Australia, is home to one of
the world's unique cinemas, The Astor. It was built in 1936 in the
city's inner suburbs in an Art-Deco style and has hardly beeen altered
since then. It has been run since 1982 by George Florence, a man with an
outstanding love for 70mm presentation. The theatre has become over the
decades a world-leader in the presentation and nurture of the 70mm
George's family has a very strong background in the cinema business and
ran a chain of Greek language in Melbourne in the 1960s and 70s.
(Melbourne has the world's largest Greek population outside Greece.
George grew up learning all aspects of the cinema business and became a
projectionist at one of Melbourne's larger downtown cinemas. While still
in his twenties, he was offered the opportunity to take over the Astor
cinema in St Kilda by an uncle and from 1982 ran a repertory screening
policy, with a fresh double bill everynight. There was a mixture of
classsic movies, reltively new releases and imaginative double features.
The projection equipment was more or less original to the theatre, with
Australian-made Cummings and Wilson projector heads, Westrex sound, with
"üniversal" bases and Peerless Carbon arc lamps. It is still on display
in the theatre foyer.
One of the early features offered was HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE.
Somewhere an original four-track magnetic print had been found and the
movie was presented with stereophonic sound, temporarily installed.
This was an indication of things to come. In 1985 George purchased a
pair of Cinemeccanica Victoria Eight 70/35 projectors. They were
installed together with a large screen placed in front of the original
proscenium surrounded by new curtains. The screen was over forty feet
wide and came from one of Melbournes prestige cinemas, The Bercy. The
original screen and proscenium are still in place behind it all.
This was the first significant alteration to the cinema since it had
been built in the late 1930s. The six-track sound system was custom
built by a local cinema technician, Ron Haymes. Later on, a Dolby CP500
would be installed. The Cinemeccanica projectors were from a former
Melbourne drive-in theatre. They dated from the mid 1960s and had done
relatively little work, though they had been used for 70mm projection
from time to time.
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35mm and 70mm Prints
Just to clarify something, my company Potential Films imported the Tati
films, including the 70mm print on loan of "PLAYTIME" from France
for the Astor screenings. We had hopes of using it elsewhere but found
CHAPEL DISTRIBUTION is a company established jointly by myself and
This and some other pieces I’ve seen often seem to imply that every
vintage or 70mm print screened by the Astor is supplied by Chapel or
some mysterious library owned by the Astor itself. Not exactly the case!
George however has been instrumental in many of the major distributors
keeping their 70mm prints available by his regular bookings at the
Astor. It is unlikely there would be any 70mm prints left in Australia
without the dedication of the Astor to keep them screening.
am so sorry to hear of the closing of the Astor Theater. Attending
screenings of "2001" last year, and eight years before that, at this
glorious historical theater were the highlights of both Gary Lockwood's
and my tours of Australia. And what an honor that our film should be
chosen to be the final curtain at this auspicious venue. If only my
line: " Open the pod bay door, Hal!", could have kept it raised. Alas, I
guess my disconnection of Hal did the Astor no favors. In any case, I
wish I could be with you tonight to bid this beautiful and classic
theater of fond adieu. - Keir Dullea April 5 2015
One of the early 70mm seasons was the screening of the restored 70mm
version of SPARTACUS, which did excellent business over several nights,
indicating that a market for 70mm projection still existed. George
Florence then worked assiduously to build up this following, as well as
to provide other up-market presentations in 35mm such as a four-track
reprint of WEST SIDE STORY and four-track screenings of THE BLUES
BROTHERS. George kept abreast of further developments in sound
reproduction such as the various digital systems. He installed a DTS
time-code reader for 70mm prints and cyan analogue soundtrack scanners
In recent years acoustic dampening has been applied to the auditorium
walls to make the theatre less reverberant.
A brand-new twenty metre wide matte screen was installed in 1995, a few
feet in front of the earlier 40 foot screen. New screen drapery was also
The Astor's daily programme changes made it impractical to install a
platter system and to this day film programmes are run on spools with
The Astor has shown 3D movies occasionally in recent years, using the
single film technology and Polaroid glasses. About ten years ago a
special highly reflective 4x3 3D screen was constructed to be placed in
front of the normal matte screen. A number of classic 3D movies from the
early 1950s were presented, including DIAL M FOR MURDER and HOUSE OF
WAX. There seems to be little enthusiasm for recent-release 3D movies.
Over the years, a repertoire of about twenty 70mm prints has has been
built up, with the occasional importation of prints for specialty
seasons. Among the regular showings are HAMLET, BEN-HUR, THE RIGHT STUFF
and SPACE ODYSSEY. About six 70mm screenings are included in each
three-month calendar period. Recent 70mm programmes have included
INTERSTELLAR and INHERENT VICE (a rare coup at short notice). Other
special seasons have included PLAYTIME and MAD MAD WORLD, which was an
Ultra Panavision squeezed print. Special projection lenses were imported
and the effect was stunning.
The Astor saw the usefulness of electronic projection for limited
purposes about fifteen years ago. Though crude by modern standards the
screen results were quite good, though not adequate for feature
presentation. It was used, for example, to show a Jacques Tati
television short (Night Class) with a season of PLAYTIME. The Astor
imported a 70mm print of this film in the early 2000s. It was one of the
last 70mm prints to carry magnetic soundtracks. The carefully cultivated
Astor 70mm audience loved the movie and it did well.
The digital connection continued and about six years ago a Sony 4K
digital projector was temporarily installed to present a season of BLADE
RUNNER. Once again, the sophisticated Astor clientele reacted positively
to this innovation, the first 4K presentation in Melbourne. The screen
results were extremely good, with a brilliant, crisp rock-steady image
on the full width of the twenty- metre screen. Consequently a Barco 4K
DLP projector was installed, again with extremely good screen results.
The Astor programming took advantage of the greater amount of movie
title availability with the widespread introduction of digital
distribution. 35mm prints were still used when available, but the
majority of screenings were digital. Now the Astor had a bigger
repertoire than ever.
Alongside with the Astor Cinema goes Chapel Film Distribution, which is also
owned by George Florence. It has long specialised in excellent vintage
titles, especially musicals, and handles the 70mm prints as well. It
continues to supply the new management of the theatre.
The Astor has not ignored front-of-house matters and has run an excellent
candy bar, famous for its chocolate cone ice-creams and its gateaux. Light
alcoholic drinks are also available. It is a welcome contrast to
conventional multiplex candy bar fare. Nor did the Astor skimp on
front-of-house staff numbers, unlike many a multiplex.
large factor in the Astor's success is its elaborate glossy full-colour
quarterly calendars. They are the size of a one-sheeter cinema poster and
each programme day has its own carefully-chosen art work. On the back of the
calendars each movie has its own mini-critique, complete with running time
and technical details such as "4K" presentation, digital sound, "six track
magnetic stereo" and "dye-transfer print". The Astor's customers have been
educated to know what these cryptic comments mean, and appreciate them.
These calendars have been mailed to subscribers and have also been available
outside the theatre on a sidewalk stand, as well as in the theatre foyer The
programmes are also available on the Internet.
About ten years ago the freehold of the Astor building was purchased by the
private school next door. It had vague plans to develop the building, but
they never materialised and George Florence continued his lease. Then, two
years ago the building was sold to a private businessman with a background
in the cinema business and things looked set to carry on as before.
Difficulties arose, however, and the Astor mangement decided not to renew
its lease after April 2015.
It seemed that The Astor could well be lost to Melbourne, but an up-market
Australian Cinema Chain called Palace Theatres stepped in to take over the
cinema, promising to run it pretty much as it always has been. After having
been closed for refurbishment for six weeks, the Astor reopened its doors in
late June . Customers do not seem to notice any great change, which is very
welcome to the Astor's loyal customers. A new calendar has been issued, with
a quota of 70mm screenings and the famous ice-creams are as good as ever.
us on Sunday April 19th from 2pm to 5pm for a grand garage sale of books,
posters, memorabilia and general cinema related items. Our candy bar will be
open - one last chance for Astor Choc Ices! e-Newsletter 14.04.2015
George Florence, the cinema's long-time proprietor, has a deep passion for
film in general and 70mm presentation in particular. He considers film to be
superior as a medium to anything similar, particularly in the area of sound
reproduction. Magnetic analogue recording and reproduction gives superior
results to digital processes. Many digital remixes are inferior and George
fears that unique original four and six track mixes for classic films may be
lost. The original six-track sound for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA has never been
bettered, he believes and he laments the disappearance of of a rare print in
Korea. He considers it vital for original prints to be preserved. For thirty
years George has communicated his passion to the Astor's audience and
Melbourne's cinema goers are much in his debt. We are lucky to have a cinema
institution that seems to be almost unique, with its strong record of 70mm
screenings, perhaps the best in the world.
The Astor had a great farewell, with full
houses for the last couple of days. A friend of mine took his kids to
the SOUND OF MUSIC screening and it had capacity business. George
himself was seen in the candy bar making ice-cream cones in order to
keep up with the demand. I trust that by now he has recovered from the
closing. Apart from the sheer hard work, I think it would have been
The Background Situation – Until April 2nd this was the postion:
As you may know The Astor Theatre has been under threat for a few years.
The landlord, Ralamar Nominees, will not renew our lease, which expires in
May this year. Although we have tried every avenue to secure the business
you know as The Astor Theatre, all attempts have failed and we must now
resign ourselves to the fact that our last scheduled screening will be on
April 5th 2015, as per the current calendar.
We were very disappointed that there was no support offered from any wealthy
arts benefactor or organisation (that can purchase the freehold property)
nor any attempt by a Government or Council agency to avert the inevitable
demise of The Astor Theatre. Once The Astor closes it is gone forever and
will not be possible to resuscitate it as you know it – there may be a
cinema operating in that space – but it won’t be The Astor – as we will be
To be clear we should point out the distinction between the business you
know as The Astor Theatre – and the building. The Astor Theatre is the
business operating within the building located at 1-3 Chapel Street St
Kilda. The business owns the Registered TradeMark “Astor” – it is our
identity and all the goodwill generated over the past 32 years of operation
resides in that name. We rent the space within the building from the
landlord. Our business also owns all the infrastructure and plant and
equipment in use to run The Astor.
We set up the Friends of the Astor to be a vocal group of supporters of the
business known as The Astor Theatre. Unfortunately there has been a shift of
philosophy within that organisation’s committee and they no longer consider
that they are there to protect The Astor Theatre – but to protect the
premises it operates out of.
There may be an 11th hour reprieve in that another cinema operator may offer
suitable arrangements to acquire our business and a new lease from the
landlord, as unfortunately up to now this has not transpired — we will
inform you as soon as anything changes, if it does.
Over the 32 years that The Astor has been running in its current format we
have developed a very large and loyal audience base that appreciates and
recognises the significance of The Astor. It is one of the few
single–screen, large–scale movie palaces left in the world that hasn’t been
split up into multiple auditoriums and that has been running movies
continuously since being built in 1936.
Not only that, the site that The Astor stands on was previously occupied by
an earlier movie theatre called the Diamond (later the Rex) that started
showing movies around 1908 (the very beginnings of the movie industry
itself) — one of the first suburban “hard–top” cinemas in Melbourne’s St
Kilda — the hub of this city’s entertainment from its formation.
Furthermore, we are committed to film. While there is a rush towards
switching to a fully digitized projection system in cinemas, and although we
do screen the very best in digital alongside film, we believe that the Astor
must remain a working film cinema museum and be capable of presenting real
film projection. With our own library of more than 600 film prints – the
largest private film print archive in Australia – (35mm, 16mm and 70mm) we
are well positioned to ensure that the Astor can continue to present the
cinema experience it was built for — to recognise the importance of such
edifices as the prime source of public entertainment, and a social focal
point, before the days of TV and the myriad other forms of entertainment.
These are some of the reasons The Astor was classified by the National Trust
and Heritage Victoria.
While Heritage Victoria and The National Trust do fine jobs in protecting
The Structure – they DO NOT protect the use of the building. This is where
your voice is important to convince politicians and prospective new tenants
that inappropriate development (except for obvious repairs to damaged parts
of the building) will not be welcomed, and that it is important to maintain
the use of the building AS IT IS.
Palace Cinemas Announcement
from e-News 06.04.2015
huge thank you from the well of our collective Astor hearts to all of our
wonderful patrons who have made the Astor Experience so soulful throughout
our tenancy. We are forever indebted to you for your love and support and we
want to say our final thank you as we now hand over the reigns to Palace
Cinemas. After a brief period of refurbishment, the venue will re-open the
venue under their management in June. e-News 28.04.2015
Palace Cinemas are thrilled to announce that they have reached an agreement
to secure the future operation of the Astor Theatre, as Melburnians know and
love it. The Astor will be open this Easter weekend as per the current
calendar and will then close for a short period for essential maintenance
and repairs. The theatre will re-open in June 2015 with a gala event and an
exciting new calendar – all of which will be announced next week.
Under Palace’s custodianship the Astor will continue operating as a
single-screen, 1,150 seat auditoria, with its well-regarded programming of
both new release and classic films intact and showing on 35 and 70
millimetre prints as well as 2K and 4K digital projection.
Benjamin Zeccola, Palace Cinema’s CEO says of the plans:
“Palace Cinemas are
keenly aware of the importance in preserving The Astor experience and, to
that end, we see the business operating very much as it does today: one
cinema, the continuation of the brilliant programming and maintaining the
building in the art deco style in direct consultation with Heritage
George Florence, proprietor since 1982, and creator of the unique
programming and operational style, says he is delighted his legacy will
continue and states:
“I am very grateful that we have found a solution to keeping The Astor
Theatre operating indefinitely, after a long period of great uncertainty,
and that Palace Cinemas are pledging to maintain The Astor Experience, that
so many loyal patrons hold so dearly. We are sure there will be a great sigh
of relief to this positive news and we look forward to a greater Astor
Melbourne has seen thirty-two years of the finest repertory programming and
the very best in film and now digital presentation thanks to founder George
Florence. The Astor is so much more than just the bricks and mortar that has
become Melbourne’s spiritual home for film.
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