Remembering The Majestic

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The Majestic Roller Rink, formerly a cinema known as The Odeon, in 1947. Photo Ted Hood, courtesy The State Library of NSW

BY KALON HUETT

With its strikingly symmetrical art deco facade, the former Majestic Roller Rink dominates the block of New Canterbury Road and overshadows its neighbours in both size and splendour. If Petersham were a set of Lego, this heritage building would be some random, oversized piece taken from the toy box by a confused toddler, dipped in a jar of blue paint, planted recklessly onto the neatly assembled suburban scene and abandoned. The Majestic stands tall but without pride; colourful yet hardly cared for.

 Behind the picturesque exterior of this theatre turned roller rink turned massive unused space, lie eclectic features from across the decades: the tiled red, black, and cream floor; the 1920’s ornate plasterwork; the art deco detailing that consumes the foyer.  Architectural hints of Hollywood grandeur can be seen in the 1950’s renovations of Guy Crick, a well known cinema architect for Great Union Theatres. The Majestic is a reflection of Petersham’s history.

 Internally, the mishmash of styles and elements, from a variety of uses and periods, represent the changing face of entertainment in Australia from the early 20th century. The Majestic might not have fitted comfortably into any one style, but its popularity meant it always fitted into Petersham.

 The building’s charm, though, has been fading with its pastel paintwork. The line between art deco facade and part deco farce narrows yearly. ‘It’s got a very interesting history, but if it stays unused it’s an eyesore,’ says Sam Santoro, whose family has owned Charlie’s Deli – a few doors up – for 32 years.

 Mr Santoro is also a member of Petersham’s Main Street Committee – a collection of local businesspeople that regularly liaise with Council over all things Petersham. Like many other members of the community curious about the building’s future, he knew that peering through the unwashed glass doors in recent times revealed chaos and clutter, not character.

The Majestic has long resembled a London squat house – albeit one with potential – dusty; dishevelled; devoid of tender loving care. On Petersham’s main road, this empty roller rink is the elephant in the room. And it’s not an elephant with skates on; it’s an elephant on its last legs.

The vertical, multi-coloured sign out the front still says ‘roller skating’, but it hasn’t been illuminated in years and the Majestic has well and truly hosted its last skate. Now the wheels are in motion to finally make use of 49 New Canterbury Road after a long stretch of abandonment. And it seems that local residents, building developers, heritage societies, and the Council are all in rare agreement about what’s best for the future of this architectural and cultural icon of the area.

 Marrickville Council has approved a development application for the ‘retention and sympathetic adaptation of the existing building’.  And so will begin the Majestic’s new life as a mixed-use complex, with apartments perched above shops, cafes, and a basement car park – Petersham’s version of Leichhardt’s Norton Street Forum?

Such plans don’t always appeal to those who value the cultural over the commercial, but Marrickville Heritage Society reported their approval to Council because – unlike previous proposals – development is to be contained within the existing structure. It won’t be the same, but it won’t be gone.

In the past this idea would have seemed as much a fantasy as some of the movies people came in their hundreds to see on the big screen. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary since films were first screened on the site, although the existing building was actually constructed as the Majestic Theatre ninety years ago, in 1921. It spent nearly sixty years, a handful of name changes, and countless modifications operating as a picture theatre until it became a roller skating rink in 1979. The one thing that never changed was the building’s cultural and social significance in the area.

Old photographs tell the story of the Majestic’s popularity. There were queues out the door for the opening of a film; people flocked to skating nights from across the inner west.

Peter Chessell moved to Petersham as a young man in 1964, before it became little Portugal. He’s lived and worked there ever since, and despite being nearly seventy still drives people home safely in the RSL courtesy bus.

Mr Chessell was around when the rollarink began operating. He recalls the nights it stayed open til ten or eleven and kids would be skating down the street – excited, carefree, and just a little noisy. ‘A few of the locals didn’t like it because of the influx of young people,’ he says with a tone that suggests he didn’t necessarily agree.

These days, though, an influx of any people to Petersham – young, old, or in between – is viewed as a positive to most locals, believes Mr Chessell. ‘As long as they don’t just put another Portuguese chicken shop in, because we’ve got a few of those already,’ he jokes.

The reality is that nobody is quite sure what types of shops will appear when the re-development is complete. The difference between this application and its failed predecessors, however, seems to be an acknowledgement that the Majestic cannot be unceremoniously dethroned and replaced. At the same time, what is the benefit of a large derelict building that continues to deteriorate in the name of heritage?

Mr Santoro says the area has changed so much that perhaps heritage doesn’t matter as much as it used to. ‘If you’d asked me ten years ago I might’ve said something different. But there are facades on this road from so many eras – it’s not like we have all these beautiful 1920s facades alongside each other that have to be maintained.’

It’s a dilemma Mr Chessell is well aware of. The Council wouldn’t allow him to knock down his old removalist store – opposite the Majestic – because of the structure of the roof line. ‘It’s just an old shed in my eyes, but people want to maintain it. It’s all very well saying it’s a lovely building if it’s not your money being spent on it.’

Still, that old shed lacks the pedigree of the Majestic across the street. Marrickville Council might be allowing this re-development, but it has taken a long time and a lot of unsatisfactory applications to reject before reaching this point.

So the obvious question remains: how can anyone be certain that this ‘sympathetic adaptation’ or ‘adaptive re-use’ is not a euphemism for what will amount to a drastic, essentially comprehensive overhaul of an entire building that is, in fact, a listed heritage item?

For a few days in mid-March a large, black banner was hung outside the Majestic to inform passers-by that change was on its way. ‘Growthbuilt: Building on Growth’ it read, seemingly the ideal slogan for a project of this kind. The only problem was that it hung limply from one corner, as its bottom half scraped the pavement. Not an image to inspire confidence, and hopefully not an omen.

The banner disappeared for a while after that. It has since returned and been erected soundly. There is daily movement and machinery inside the building. Although still in the early stages, ‘building on growth’ has officially begun. So how will it end? What is going to take centre stage in Petersham’s shopping hub alongside Mr Santoro’s deli, Frango Charcoal Chicken, and the Locals Barber Shop?

The development application will tell you that the current pitched roof and primary facade will remain similar – punctuated, but not eradicated, by skylights, recessed balconies, and timber framed doors and windows. Good intentions, however, will mean little until the ribbon is cut and the doors opened. The final verdict will not be delivered by the planners. It will be delivered by the people of Petersham.  

Mr Santoro believes there are advantages and disadvantages to the proposal. On the one hand he expects it to add diversity to the area and create healthy competition amongst small business. However, he is also warns that attempting to combine a modern development with the historical look of the Majestic has the potential for aesthetic disaster. ‘Sometimes new and old just don’t mix. I’m not sure how this is going to work out,’ he says.

It’s a common sentiment – hopeful but hesitant. ‘With a lot of those new developments the shops stay vacant for quite a long time,’ says Mr Chessell. ‘Do we need any more vacant shops?’

The answer to these concerns, according to architect Philip Thalis’s report for the initial proposal, is that it will joyfully interpret the building’s many changes over time and be an appropriate addition to its urban heritage. 

Of course there’s no guarantee it won’t still be the elephant in Petersham’s room – a newer, fancier one, but an elephant nonetheless. In the end it comes down to one question – is Petersham better off with a decaying memory or a  modified Majestic?

Swept off their feet

The magic of dance … love blossomed on the dance floor.

 

BY KATHLEEN DALY 

Love blossomed on the dance floor at Petersham’s Town Hall in Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film Strictly Ballroom.

But ballroom dancing – and love – weren’t new to the auditorium. My own parents met there in 1953 and sparks flew. And more than 50 years later community dancing during the week continues.

On an autumn evening recently, to the sounds of Norah Jones singing Come Away with Me, couples glide across the floor; bodies entwined, skirts twirling and dancers dipping. Everyone shining from the therapeutic effects of soothing music and flowing movement.

It was just as my mother had said. She frequently rehearsed accounts of her attendance at Petersham Town Hall with her girlfriends. With a girlish blush she would relive the moment when she and my father met. Mum was literally swept off her feet. Dad was particularly dashing, arriving in the latest 1949 TC MG sports car which was “oh, so black and shiny’’.

Bobby now runs community dancing on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings, with Modern, Latin and Australian New Vogue styles.

Professional teacher Paul grew up dancing – both parents were dance teachers. He came to Australia 16 years ago and has been dancing at Petersham Town Hall for 10 years. He’s danced all around Australia and comments on how “nice and big’’ the dance floor is at Petersham, with its “nice sprung floor’’.

His competition dancing partner Patsy got into ballroom when she started research into the advantages of dancing as part of psychology research. She found a new life as a Pro-Am competitor.

“We’re very experienced together,’’ says Paul.

“Like an old married couple,’’ she quips.

Faces in the Street

Gary Mudler, one of the faces of Petersham. Photo: Millie Dondas

 

BY TROY WALSH

Then, flowing past my window, like a tide in its retreat …
But, Ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes

– Taken from ‘Faces in the Street’ by Henry Lawson

The aubergine and green-coloured minimalist décor of ‘Ubergoodness’ in Sydney’s Petersham says trendy organic; next to the bright red, yellow and green of the neighbouring Portuguese chicken shops, the crammed delis and the decaying pastels of the looming Majestic roller skating rink.

What would Henry Lawson think now if he stood in Petersham? There is a plaque at Petersham railway station commemorating Henry Lawson after he struck the keynote of one of his famous poems ‘Faces in the Street’ there. The title probably wouldn’t change but the observations and the colour in it would reflect the new, developing character of the suburb.

With property prices rising faster than anywhere else in the city, the suburb is experiencing a change in demographics. Going is the immigrant population, no longer able to afford living in the area, and moving in are the young professionals starting families.

Local schools are happy with enrolments up. So is Stephen Bealing, co-owner of Ubergoodness, who started the business 15 months ago as an online organic grocery delivery service that also sold at local markets. Just after Christmas last year they opened up the Petersham store.

Petersham, in Sydney’s inner west, is known as ‘Little Portugal’. From the 1950s to 1970s, the area had a large influx of migrants from Greece, Portugal and Vietnam, with 34% of residents in the area born overseas according to the 2006 census. This percentage is falling. Between 2001 and 2006, the biggest increase in the population was Australian-born residents.

“It is a changing suburb; the old-fashioned image of Petersham is changing. It used to be known as the Portuguese quarter in Sydney but we noticed a lot of younger families moving into the area,” Mr Bealing says. “The whole nature of the suburb is changing. People are becoming more organically minded and wanting healthier lifestyles.”

He agrees with property analysts that the area is becoming gentrified. Ubergoodness is introducing the business to a new market that is not being catered for in the area. He genuinely believes there is now a real need and demand for organic fruit and vegetables. While some of the older generation come into the shop, he says the majority of local customers are younger people living in apartment blocks and families buying houses in the suburb.

The main shopping strip of Petersham, along New Canterbury Road, seems as if it is ready and waiting for a new tide of business. There are the many closed shops like the old fruit and vegetable market on the corner of Hunter Street with filthy windows and empty trolleys inside. There are newly renovated but empty premises and looming developments that will be looking to cater to the changing character of Petersham. The Majestic skating rink has been closed since 2001 but recently has had signs put up announcing the development of the majestic old building. A prominent landmark on the strip that will be rebuilt as a group of individual businesses to cater for the incoming, upmarket tastes.

SBS’s Food Safari presenter Maeve O’Meara takes foodies around Petersham for her Taste of Portugal tours. Amongst the traffic, noise and fumes of New Canterbury Road, there are restaurants and cafes, butcheries, a bakery, and a deli focused on Portuguese cuisine. There are other tastes from regions including Asia with an interesting evolution to South American cuisine. When asked about the future of the Petersham shopping area Mr Bealing expects more diversity while still retaining the Portuguese influence. He points out the example of a Portuguese restaurant being replaced by a Brazilian one.

Being educated is an important part of living in the suburb. Petersham has more of its population holding a postgraduate degree than the rest of Australia on average. Residents holding a bachelor degree are above the average by nine percent. These figures will continue to rise as the Marrickville electorate which includes Petersham has the highest proportion of its population attending tertiary education in the state (12.6%).

The occupations of people working in Petersham are changing. Professionals are increasing, making up 36% of the workforce (national average 20%) and labourers and machinery operators are decreasing. Average income is above the national average. Higher income earners make up a larger proportion of residents, with Petersham in the $1000- 2000 per week group (Petersham 25%, National 16%) and$2000+ group (Petersham 8%, National 4%).

Petersham is also part of a changing area politically. The local Marrickville council is controlled by the Greens and was close to electing a Greens member of parliament in the state election for the seat of Marrickville. No longer is it a Labor stronghold. The state seat has now become marginal with sitting Labor member Carmel Tebbutt scraping in with 50.9% of the two party preferred votes. The final result was the second largest swing towards the Greens in state history.

The poet Henry Lawson wrote his poem ‘Faces in the Street’ inspired by the locals in the suburb. The poem was largely written while standing on Petersham train station in 1888 as a young man aged 21. The poet had connections to the White Cockatoo Hotel, or the Lord Carrington as it was known then, and it’s likely he would have worked on the poem over a couple of drinks there. The poem is about poverty and the drudgery of the worker’s life. It ends by calling for revolution, one that is red. If he could see Petersham now, the colour of change is different but it still is on the left side of politics. With his feelings about inequality, one wonders what he would make of the area’s gentrification.

While the older immigrant population in Petersham may be dwindling in number, flowing past the window of Ubergoodness, like a tide in its retreat, their influence will remain in the character of the streets as a more affluent, greener, more organic and young suburb emerges.

Click here to view the photo gallery: Streets of Petersham

After the fall: Andrew and Tamara

Andrew Garland, 28, is a media student at Petersham TAFE.  Tamara Black, 21, studies Sport Science at the University of Western Sydney. The two had been together for two years when Andrew had a near-fatal motorcycle crash in November 2010. INTERVIEWS BY ANDREW GARLAND.

Andrew: “To those in the know, there is very little in life that compares to riding a motorbike.   Some might say it’s for the thrill, other might prefer its convenience but personally I’d tell you it’s more about the serenity.  There’d be times while I was floating down some of the most beautiful roads this state has to offer, like the Old Pacific Highway to Gosford, or the Putty Road to Colo, that I’d compare myself to John Wayne, traversing the rugged untamed old west on Duke, his devil horse in Ride ‘em Cowboy.  It’s a similar bond but between man and a machine.    

The accident happened near Thredbo in the Snowy River. I went on a charity ride for the Steven Walters Foundation with Ross, Tamara’s dad, and his friend Tim.  I don’t remember anything about the accident. In fact the only thing I remember about that day at all was having breakfast at our hotel in Thredbo – sausages and eggs.  At 10 o’clock that morning I came off my bike going around the Kosciuszko National Park.  I spoke to the policeman who was first on the scene about a month ago, Constable Kevin Martin, he told me I’d hit a patch of loose gravel and fallen off sideways. As my head hit the ground the helmet’s visor broke off and I slid headfirst into a pole which hit me right where the visor should have been.  He reckoned it was one of the unluckiest things he’s ever seen and considering the extent of my injuries, didn’t think I’d make it.

 The accident left me with severe facial fractures, a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, two broken vertebrae and a collapsed lung.  I was airlifted to Canberra hospital and placed in an induced coma for three weeks while the doctors tried to fix my disfigured face and monitor the bleeding on my brain.  Whenever you watch those medical TV programmes with someone in a coma and the doctor is telling their relatives they can still hear them, it’s true to an extent.  After I got out of hospital Tamara was telling me about this time when one of the nurses took me outside one day for a bit of sun, which I remembered as a dream, I even recounted conversations that were happening around me.  

My memory of being in the ICU is pretty sketchy but I started coming to when they moved me to the high dependency neurosurgery ward.  It was a pretty big shock to find that I’d been in hospital for nearly a month. It only felt like a couple of days and trying to come to grips with the fact that you’ve missed out on a few weeks is a strange feeling.  When I found out that Tamara and my mum had been staying in Canberra since the day of the accident I remember feeling guilty and thinking they must have been bored out of their brains.  I was suffering from so much anxiety in that ward and I was crying all the time but every day at 10am Tamara’s and mum’s smiling faces walking around the corner made it all more bearable.

My recovery had come along a lot better than anyone had expected and I was desperate to get home. My best mate’s wedding was in a week and I was the best man. I was determined to walk out of the hospital. On day 21 I was discharged, and although I’d been doing a little bit of physio during the last few days on the ward my legs were still a bit like jelly. I had to wear a special back brace for a couple of months and I often tried to sneak around without it but Tamara was always vigilant.  She moved in with me afterwards and was the most amazing nurse. She changed my tracheotomy dressings, helped me shower, and took me everywhere I wanted to go.

Sometimes we’d spend hours just talking out everything that had happened which did us both a lot of good.   I didn’t really suffer too much after my ordeal but I still get angry from time to time, especially when I see other guys riding dangerously or without protective gear.  Hearing more and more stories afterwards though, what Tamara went through was much worse than what I did.”

Tamara: “When I first heard news of the accident I was at home cooking breakfast. Mum had gotten a call and I knew that something was terribly wrong. At first I thought it was to do with my grandfather, as he hadn’t been well. When she got off the phone she asked me to stop what I was doing. When she told me Andrew had come off his bike my stomach knotted, I felt dizzy and like I was going to be sick. My Dad had explained that he wasn’t there when it happened but saw him when they put him in the helicopter and that Andrew had a gash on his forehead. He said the accident wasn’t too bad and they were taking him to Canberra Hospital.

Mum got on the phone to Lesley (Andrew’s mum) and explained to her what had happened. All I wanted to do was to start driving to Canberra but instead mum drove us over to Lesley’s place so we were able to share information as soon as any of us heard anything.

Lesley was constantly phoning the hospital to see if Andrew had arrived. Finally at around 5pm the hospital explained that they had just received an ‘unidentified male’ via helicopter. While Lesley was speaking to the doctor I watched as her knees buckled. That was the point in which I knew things were definitely worse than my dad was making them out to be. The doctor had explained that Andrew was not doing very well. He said that they had stabilised him and that he had sustained multiple critical injuries including broken vertebrae, a collapsed lung, and severe head trauma including multiple facial fractures a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain and more than likely, brain damage.

We arrived in Canberra at approximately 8:30pm. We made our way to the emergency department where they informed us that Andrew was currently in the Intensive Care Unit. We walked in through the big white doors and I was scanning beds trying to find him. As we were standing at the desk waiting to ask where Andrew was we saw half a dozen nurses surrounding this one bed with the curtains half drawn. There was a young man with multiple tubes running in and out of his body, his head bandaged up and an extremely swollen face. He seemed to be thrashing about and the nurses seemed to be trying to restrain him. It was Andrew.

The doctors explained that his injuries weren’t as severe as they initially thought, but he was still not in the clear. They explained that with his brain injury there was no way they could guarantee that he would not have any brain damage until they woke him from the medically-induced coma, and that there was also the potential of second degree brain damage which may occur if the pressure inside his skull increased too much. They also explained that due to the broken eye socket, he may have potentially lost some or all of the vision in his right eye, and that there was still a possibility if he woke and thrashed about he might damage the spinal cord where his vertebrae were broken.

The next few weeks were a surreal blur. When they started weaning Andrew off the sedation the nurses and doctors explained to us many times that it wouldn’t be the same Andrew. They said that the medication he was on makes patients aggressive, and they hallucinate. This was certainly the case for about four days. The whole time Andrew and I have known each other, we have never argued or had even been close to fighting, and when I tried to stop Andrew from ripping out his IV he told me to “f*** off”. I was devastated. This was followed by many more tears and arguments over staying in bed, not moving, keeping his back brace on, having needles, and not pulling out any tubes.

The next hardest part was the hallucinations. He saw lizards on the ground, lions across the hallway, saw his sister on TV, spoke to people that weren’t there, patted an invisible cat and told us a little boy visited him and laughed at him saying he was going to die. While this was happening I was just hoping that it was the drugs that were making him like this, rather than brain damage. The last few days he was in the ward though it was the same old Andrew.

This was the hardest, most exhausting thing I have ever experienced. I would not wish this on anyone. The hardest thing was the not knowing and not being able to do anything about it.  Andrew says he can’t wait to get another bike but I don’t know if I can cope with that.”

Gallery: Streets of Petersham

ANZAC gates, Petersham Park. Photo: Tina Zunic

 

Petersham, in Sydney’s inner west, is the HQ of The West Street Journal. The slideshow below is the beginning of a work in progress – to document Petersham’s people and its streetscapes. All photography by students enrolled in the Diploma of Communications at Petersham TAFE.