Lake Macquarie History

Melvic Theatre, Belmont

Written and researched by Bonnie Murdoch

The two Melvic theatres in Belmont made the streets come alive after dark. The joint owners of the Melvic were R.E Sanderson and Mr William (Bill) Payne. Bill Payne started from humble beginnings, his family camped near the lake in the Depression, living largely off prawns, fish, and trapped birds. He worked at Newcastle in later years but still "kept the link with the lake" in his weekend work; a projectionist using carbine lamps at Catherine Hill Bay. His love of movies and theatres probably stemmed from this job.

The first Melvic (1928-1938) was constructed on a cow paddock on the eastern side of the Pacific Highway (Cork).It opened with The Last Command. Since there was not a road to Valentine, patrons would row to Belmont Jetty then walk to the theatre.

photo: first melvic theatre 1927

It had a proscenium arch that patrons entered to watch silent films, accompanied by a pianist, as a form of escape from the Depression. It seated approximately 800 patrons. After an extra row was added tall people had to avoid hitting their head on the ceiling in the last row (Cork). The price for the front row was therefore higher since it was the only clear view.

The second Melvic was opened on the 21/12/1939 on the corner of Macquarie Street and the Pacific Highway. It was built in 16 weeks from the ground up with decoration done by hand. A good atmosphere was encouraged in the large foyer by a pianist. The upstairs foyer was supplied with flowers by Eric and Ettie Smith and was considered to be the most beautiful in the Newcastle region. The second Melvic was widely recognised as "one of the finest examples of suburban theatre in N.S.W" outside of Sydney.

photo: melvic theatre

Bill Payne recognised that they had "exclusive entertainment" rights with the Melvic theatre. There were not any hotels open after 6pm and television or clubs did not exist in Australia. People had permanent bookings on Saturday nights. Where you sat depended on your age or preferences, younger people sat downstairs where the seats were cheaper, while upstairs was quieter with better viewing. "Belmont youth" would visit the milk bar and roll Jaffas down the aisles. This was a tradition for Baby Boomers who could afford to treat lollies as toys. The milk bar also sold fresh fruit juices, hand-dipped chocolate icecreams and more James Henderson brand sweets (minties and fantails).

The Golden Age of Hollywood coincided with the suburban theatre boom. Gone With The Wind made more money than BHP did in a year. Bill Payne would advertise the Melvic by dropping leaflets from his light aircraft. This was a special advertisement for the Melbourne Cup footage which he collected from Sydney. Unfortunately one year the wind changed and the leaflets ended up floating in the lake.

photo: melvic centre

The second Melvic was successful for 25 years. Many concerts for charities were held there, for example, the Crippled Children’s Home benefited (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate, 9 June 1954). The introduction of television in 1956 had attendance for suburban theatres fall dramatically. The Melvic's last film was PT109, about President Kennedy‘s wartime exploits, on the 31/12/1964. The first Melvic was demolished. The second Melvic building now exists as shops and offices at Belmont.

References:

'Concert aid to Belmont home.' 1954. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954). 9 June. p. 7.

Cork, K.J and L.R. Tod. 1993. Front Stalls or Back? The history and heritage of the Newcastle theatres. NSW: Australian Theatre Historical Society.