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People > Notable Kytherians > Conomos Brothers, Walgett. Lambros, Emanuel & James.

People > Notable Kytherians

submitted by George Poulos on 15.12.2004

Conomos Brothers, Walgett. Lambros, Emanuel & James.

Lambros Conomos (Megalokonomos) came to Australia from Kalamos, Kythera in 1911 aged fourteen. He was employed at Aroney's Café at 9 Alfred St, Circular Quay the very first day he arrived. At that time, Circular Quay was the busiest place in Sydney. There were twenty-four men working in Aroney's three-storey fish shop and restaurant, which had two dining rooms and a very large kitchen where Lambros worked.

He wrote to his father that there was plenty of work everywhere in Australia and suggested that his younger brother Emanuel should join him. So on Thursday 29 May 1914, accompanied by his cousin Zaharias Calligeros and an interpreter, Cosmas Cassimatis, young Emanuel set sail from Kythera.

As he was only twelve years old when he arrived in Australia, Emanuel was too young to be employed full time. He continued his schooling at Fort St Public School while helping at Aroney's by peeling potatoes and folding serviettes for the waiters. He started his first full time job a year later in Cessnock, in a small mixed business style shop that stocked large quantities of fish and also served meals. His wage was five shillings a week. For this sum Emanuel would have to get up at four o'clock every morning to deliver freshly cooked fish to the coalminer's homes. However, a coal strike caused him to leave after nine months and return to Sydney where he worked for the Psaltis Brothers (John, Nicholas and Charles) at Kings Cross.

It was common in those days for Kytherians who had set up business in country towns to request help from newly arrived young boys in the city. One such request came from Gundagai to help out in some refreshment rooms. So Emanuel headed south where he spent another nine months before being called back to the Psaltis café at Kings Cross in 1917. Early the following year he had decided to go to Kiama where an Athenian had requested assistance, but a meeting with Peter Castrissios in Park Street led him to Nowra. Peter, who was wearing a mask, because of the flu epidemic, had to be hospitalised and asked Emanuel to take his place at Steve Castrission's café in Nowra. {See entry on Castrission's cafe on this website). It was there one week later that Emanuel learned of Peter's death.

By that time, Lambros, his older brother, had moved to Walgett, a small town on the junction of the Barwon and Namoi Rivers in northwest New South Wales. He was working in a café owned by Peter and Arthur Calligeros and before them, Comino and Panaretto. In 1919, Lambros bought the café, and sent for his younger brother. The locals in Walgett thought that Emanuel was too difficult a name to pronounce, and called him Hector, a name he was known by all his life. Joined by their brother, Jim, in 1922, the three Conomos brothers owned and operated the Barwon Café until 1949.

As well as the café, the Conomos Bros introduced a number of other services to Walgett. A smoke house, used for drying fish was built in the early twenties. The sawdust, which came from the pine trees in the Pilliga Scrub, was also used for the ice-works, which they built in 1927. There were no refrigerators in those days, so they would deliver ice covered with hessian in a truck for the charcoal coolers. In the summer of 1938-39, the demand for ice was so great, the factory worked 30 days non-stop when the temperature was still 118 degrees Fahrenheit at 9 o'clock at night.

It was in 1927 that the Conomos Bros started the cordial factory and started screening silent movies with only one projector (a Simplex) at the School of Arts. Two years later Lambros spent a year's holiday in Greece and in 1933, Jim also left for Greece where he stayed until 1935 when it was Emanuel's turn to visit the homeland. He booked a passage on the Monterey that took him via the Pacific Islands and America, where he made contact with many Kytherians who had settled in the United States. During his three-year stay on Kythera he rebuilt the family home in Kalamos and married Elly Haros from Livadi. They were married for 60 years and enjoyed six trips back to Kythera, the last one being in 1997 when Emanuel was ninety-six years of age.

During his absence in Greece things were happening in Walgett. Lambros and Jim had bought a wine saloon and appointed a manager to run it. They had also taken on the agency for Texaco Spirit and Oils, Peter's Ice Cream and Angus & Coote. However, the most significant event for the Conomos Bros and for Walgett was the opening of the Luxury Theatre, next door to the Barwon Café, on 19 April 1937.

Conomos Brothers, Walgett. Lambros, Emanuel & James. - Walgett Luxury Theatre Programme Front Page

The inaugural program included a "specially selected series of short subjects" such as the obligatory Cinesound Review and a Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon, followed by Born to Dance starring Eleanor Powell. A "Luxury" ball was held at the conclusion of the evening, which was repeated on the anniversary of the opening for the next two years with the proceeds going to the Walgett District Hospital. A supper following the ball was held at the School of Arts.

Admission prices ranged from 1/6 for front stalls to 5/- for a seat in the lounge upstairs. Screenings were three times a week - Wednesday, Friday and Saturday - showing a different film each night always preceded by a newsreel and cartoon or short documentary. In later years, the big film companies compelled theatre proprietors to repeat screenings of blockbusters on the weekends to cover the royalty demands.

In the fifties and sixties, there were matinees on Saturday afternoons, which nearly always featured The Durango Kid. Westerns were a great crowd pleaser with patrons cheering for their favourite 'goodies'such as Audie Murphy, by whistling and stamping their feet on the wooden floor. Crowd control was a special skill exercised by the three Conomos brothers who would patrol the aisles with torches that would be flashed on the offenders. This was especially put to the test when the movie Rock Around the Clock inspired the teenagers to jump out of their seats and 'rock n roll'.

When the Luxury Theatre was completed in 1937, the town's population was 1,000. Licensed to accommodate 500, it was a fine example of Art Deco architecture, four storeys high and boasting 375,000 bricks. The architect, Bruce Dellit, also designed the Coronet Theatre in Sydney and the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. The building was painted white, with the name Luxury written in gold. The stage curtains and seats upstairs were velvet, and in the early years the usherettes wore long gold satin frocks.

Even though there was a formal 'smoking lounge' upstairs, most people preferred to go to the café next door at interval and after the pictures for the Conomos's famous pure fruit squashes and original special sundaes such as "Battle in the Snow" or "Twin Peak". Their hospitality and dedication to customer satisfaction were renowned. One night they kept the café open until the early hours of the morning as a special request for a mob of shearers who had finished work at midnight on a property close to town and were desperate for a meal.

But World War II meant a shortage of manpower. It was impossible to keep everything running without staff. The first thing to go was the Texaco depot then the ice-works and the cordial factory. When they couldn't get anyone to work in the café kitchen, Emanuel and Jim used to take it in turns. The café was sold in 1949 and Jim and Emanuel kept the theatre and wine saloon running after Lambros moved to Sydney in 1951. Lambros married in 1953 but died four years later. Jim never married and remained in Walgett until he died in 1973, returning to Greece only one more time. Emanuel retired to Sydney a year later where he lived with his family until he died in 1998.

The Barwon Café was destroyed by fire in 1962 together with the wine saloon but both shops were later rebuilt. The Luxury Theatre continued screening until 1969 when the effects of a prolonged drought and the advent of television caused its closure for three years. It operated for another five years before it, too, was destroyed by fire in 1978.

The operation of the Barwon Café and Luxury Theatre and everything else that the Conomos Bros undertook was done with a sense of duty not only towards the town of Walgett, but to themselves and their family back home in Kythera who had given them the opportunity for a better life on the other side of the world. The souvenir program for the opening of the Luxury Theatre sums up the sense of pride in their endeavours and the aspirations of these three pioneers: "It is with distinct pride that we present to Walgett the new Luxury Theatre...pride in the knowledge that it will reflect the full meaning of its name in providing the best in entertainment to future patrons in this town.

We know that our new enterprise reflects the entire prosperity of Walgett, inasmuch as the town's success is our success...which means happiness for everyone.

With the new "Luxury," we wish you many future hours of pleasant relaxation - and we are content in the knowledge that it is our duty to successfully provide it." And that's exactly what they did.

Numerous other entries on the Conomos brothers can be sourced by searching under key words like Conomos, Walgett, Luxury Theatre, Barwon Cafe. Don't forget to consult Kevin Cork's Ph.D thesis, available at Cafes, Shops and Cinema's, under, Photography Diaspora, in particular, Chapter 2.

This article first appeared in The Greek Australian Vema, May 2003, 9/29.

It was written by daughter Nina Conomos. We thank the Vema, Nina, and the Conomos family, for permission to re-print.



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