The Metro-Minerva is a local treasure Potts Point residents and theatre history buffs will know well.
It is arguably the area’s most famous example of the Art Deco style and a building with a rich and fascinating history. Its many lives have included time spent as a theatre, a cinema and a film studio. Today, theatre lovers are campaigning to see the Metro-Minerva restored to its former glory as a live theatre venue.
The original Minerva Theatre was the brainchild of David N Martin, owner of the Imperial Theatres Limited company. With grand plans for the site, Martin purchased the block of land with frontage on Orwell Street and Orwell Lane for £10,500 ($21,000) in order to develop the Minerva Theatre. It was named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and patron of the arts, and was intended to be used as a venue for motion pictures and stage shows.
Martin also purchased an adjacent block of land on Macleay Street, with hopes it would become the Paradise Theatre. Plans for the Paradise included a stage large enough for opera, ballet and musical productions and a huge semi-circular proscenium in the style of Radio City Music Hall in New York. Unfortunately, this theatre never eventuated, but the site is now the Fitzroy Gardens.
An art deco icon
Martin commissioned architect Charles Bruce Dellit, the designer of the New South Wales Anzac War Memorial and a great proponent of the art deco style, to design the Minerva. Today, it is considered one of the most exceptional examples of the style in NSW, with its vertical sweeping curves, stepped forms and horizontal lines symbolising progress and modernity. It is also seen as an example of the interwar functionalist style that emerged in Australia in the 1930s, influenced by the American and European architecture of the time, and an evolution of Art Deco and Art Moderne styles. Theatre historian Ross Thorne has referred to the Minerva as “the best example of this type of theatre architecture in Australia”.
The Minerva, then billed as ‘Australia’s Wonder Theatre’, had its grand opening on Thursday 18 May 1939 with a performance of Robert E Sherwood’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Idiot’s Delight, starring Lina Basquette and Henry Mollison. Opening night sold out well in advance with tickets at ten shillings and ninepence each (around $1.09). The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a crowd of more than 4,000 theatre-goers watched “the arrival of an immaculately-dressed first-night audience… A spirit of carnival enjoyment ruled under brilliant floodlights”.
Throughout the 1940s, the Minerva was a leading light of Kings Cross’ theatrical scene with many popular plays of the day being presented on its stage. A number of Australian stars enjoyed their first big breaks here, including Peter Finch and Ron Randell.
Act two: A rebirth as the Metro
In 1948, Martin sold the Minerva Theatre to American media company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), with MGM officially renaming it the Metro Kings Cross in 1952. This period saw the theatre venue host many important premieres, revivals of film classics, trade screenings and first release films. In its heyday, stars such as Julie Andrews, Elizbeth Taylor and Richard Burton were among the international celebrities spotted on the red carpet here. It was here that the musical Hair staged its Australian run in 1969, with Reg Livermore and John Waters appearing on stage.
However, in 1979, the theatre was sold again and its new owners announced plans to convert the venue into a specialty food market. The theatre was stripped of its fittings to create an open-plan market environment but closed soon after its 1981 opening.
The next year, film production company Kennedy-Miller acquired the theatre, which saw the historical treasure returned to the arts, being used as a studio for film and television productions including Mad Max, Babe and Happy Feet.
This came to an end in April 2019, when the building was once again sold to Abacus Property Group, who specialise in storage, office and retail space. For a time, it had been hoped the City of Sydney would purchase the building, but it ultimately baulked at the near $20 million price tag.
Act three: Rallying to restore the Metro-Minerva as a live venue
The Minerva Theatre Action Group was formed with the hope of lobbying local and state government to return the 1,000-seat theatre to its former glory as a live theatre venue. They believe that doing so could revitalise Sydney’s theatre scene, increase local foot traffic lost to the lock out laws, and bring economic benefits to the area. For example, a 2018 study by UTS showed that the flow-on effects from the Enmore Theatre contributed $39 million to the area that year.
A Change.org petition, “Make the Metro-Minerva Theatre Live Again”, has received over 2,400 signatures (as of writing) and hundreds of dollars in donations.
“The hope is that the petition and letters of support from people in the theatre industry will show the City of Sydney and the State Government and theatrical entrepreneurs that there is support for returning the theatre to a live space,” said John Moyle, theatre historian and Convenor of the Group. “Locals can help by passing on the Change petition to friends to sign and by signing hard copies at our information stand at the Kings Cross Markets.”
You can sign the Change.org petition here.
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minerva_Theatre,_Sydney