The Regent reflected the status of the American movie industry at the time. Ornament was a tangible sign of grandeur and status, and the eclecticism seen in theatre design typified by the Regent was hedonistic and self-indulgent. The object of the elaborate lobby and staircase, for example, was the satisfaction of the “common man’s vanity”.
The world’s first public screening of “motion pictures” had taken place in Paris in December 1895. Only 10 months later, in October 1896 the first two motion pictures were shown in Adelaide. One screening was at the Theatre Royal and the other in a picture theatre at the Beehive building.
A night at the “flicks” in those formative days of cinema often included more than a mere film. There were juggling acts, song-and-dance routines, and musical items. As the “talkies” were developed and became longer and more sophisticated, the vaudeville entertainment that frequently accompanied films ceased altogether.
Opening night at the Hoyts Regent was an extravaganza of live and motion picture entertainment. Hundreds of patrons were filmed as they crowded into the foyer, where tapestries, statuary and reproduction antique furniture greeted them. Lights “gleamed through the Arabesque work of ceiling and walls”. The Advertiser of June 29,1928, admired the effect in the foyer of more than 3000 lights, which were “craftily hidden behind the cornices and grilles, and only their radiance remains to shed a glow of contentment and rest”.
Byron Bidwell, director of presentation for Hoyts Theatres Ltd., was brought from America to supervise the stage presentation. The orchestra pit could accommodate a full symphony orchestra and a huge Wurlitzer organ, which was installed in 1930. This is now at St Peters College.
In the grand style, the theatre management also organised a corps of Regent cadets, “boys of refinement and ambition” wearing smart uniforms and helping to conduct patrons to their seats. Ted Winter worked at the cinema for 47 years. Starting as a pageboy and finally becoming manager from 1955 to 1975, he declared the Regent, with its glamour and style, was his ideal of a movie palace. On opening night he well remembered William Cade’s 18-piece orchestra thundering out the William Tell Overture while the “electrics man” madly changed coloured lights to match the moods of the music.
The silent movie was Flesh and the Devil, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Some lucky patrons watched from special “love seats”, “thigh to thigh and sigh to sigh, without even a seat arm between them”.
Ross Thorne (Cinemas of Australia via U.S.A., 1981) states: “Like the other large, picture palace style theatres in the capital cities, Adelaide’s Regent presented variety acts periodically together with the film programme: there was an equipped fly tower stage and other necessary facilities. Adelaide was not a large city in 1928 and Hoyts under the guidance of F.W. Thring were possibly fortunate that the opposition company of Union Theatres were a little slower in building such magnificent cinemas and did not build any of this scale in either Adelaide or Brisbane.”
In March 1929, the Regent offered something big: sound, in The Red Dance and a few sound shorts featuring King George V and Beatrice Lillie. It is also claimed the theatre showed the first “all-talkie” in Adelaide – In Old Arizona, starring Warner Baxter.
Cedric H. Ballantyne (Melbourne) in association with English & Soward architects (Adelaide) designed the theatre and the contractor was J.R. Taylor and Sons of Melbourne. Structural ironwork was by Perry Engineering Co. and the elaborate plasterwork by Hopkins Pty. Ltd. The design, abstracted from Renaissance forms and imagery, is bold and majestic. This and the lavish materials and elaborate fittings and furnishings guarantee the building a place in the history of cinema in Australia.
The Regent is all that survives of several equally popular cinemas in Adelaide. In 1939, £39,000 was spent on renovations. The theatre went into decline during the 1960s, when the 2298 seat cinema was simply too big to fill while having to compete with television.
Radical plans were devised to cater for audiences of the 1970s and 1980s and on March 30, 1967, a charity variety show was held to mark the closure of the theatre for extensive renovations and alterations. The foyer and stalls were lost to create a shopping arcade and two small cinemas were built into the old shell. Since then a further cinema has been incorporated into the complex.
While these changes compromised the integrity of the original structure, the chandeliers and the arcaded wall panels in pierced fibroplaster remain, as well as enough of the exterior appearance to evoke the majestic picture palace of old.
The theatre has now been amalgamated into Regent Arcade, with various changes to accommodate shops. Aspects of the grand detail remain.