submitted by George Poulos on 30.09.2004
Saraton Theatre, Grafton, 1926.
During the 1990's KEVIN CORK undertook extensive research into cinema's in Australia.
Tragically, he died before completing his work, but most of the chapters of his Ph.D Thesis, were completed.
His wife and children have kindly given permission for his work to be reproduced.
Most Australian's would be unaware of the degree to which Greeks, and particularly Kytherian Greeks dominated cinema ownership in Australia - especially in New South Wales.
Chapter 6 of Kevin's thesis centres on the small western town of Walgett in New South Wales, and the exploits of a number of Kytherians, including the Conomos brothers.
The importance of the Hellenic and Kytherian contribution to Australian cinema ownership and history is clearly demonstrated in Chapt 6, as in all other chapters.
It is difficult to know how to pass on to Kytherians the results of Kevin Cork's important research's.
In the end, I felt that the results should be passed on in the most extensive way - i.e. in full re-publication of Chapter's.
Eventually all Chapters will appear on the kythera-family web-site.
Other entries can be sourced by searching under "Cork" on the internal search engine.
See also, Kevin Cork, under People, subsection, High Achievers.
What follows is a continuation of Chapter 6: Case Study of Greek Involvement in Cinema Exhibition in a New South Wales Country Town, from the previous entry.
It is interesting to note that in March, Mr Bizanes, Managing Editor of the Greek Tribune Newspaper, visited the town one weekend. It has not been possible to discover why the visit took place but one assumes that it related to the war which, by then, had been brought into Greece itself.
"In keeping with their policy of progress and with it their desire to give patrons the best of sound reproduction in the screening of pictures", a new sound system was installed in the Luxury in January 1941, and opened on 12 February. Lambros was reported to have said, "[it] would prove an acquisition to the theatre and a step which they [the brothers] feel will be highly appreciated by their many patrons."
A special Greek fund-raising day was organised around the country for 28 February 1941, the aim being to raise money for the Greek Red Cross in order to assist the people of Greece during the worsening days of the war. It is possible that the fund-raising's success in this state was helped because of the Greek refreshment room proprietors and others who were scattered through so many country towns. Walgett responded positively to the day and, in the evening, Conomos Bros, who had cancelled their normal Saturday night screening, donated the use of their theatre for a dance, catered for by Messrs Pappas and Co (the opposition Greek cafe in town). "Truly the whole effort reflected every credit on those responsible for its promotion and those people who generously donated and patronised the many competitions, bought buttons and helped in many ways to make the day so successful." A sum of £250 was raised from the day. Lambros also arranged for a Greek flag to be made and presented to a Clay Pigeon Shoot held at Coonamble in March where it was sold and re-sold until the sum of £16/14/- was raised. This was added to Walgett's donation.
In the late 1940s, the ice works was sold to Charlie Conomos (no relation) who moved it from Warrena Street to a small shop in Wee Waa Street. The cordial factory was part of the ice works and provided lemonade and soda water for the town in specially-labelled Conomos Bros' bottles. The cordial venture ceased just prior to World War 2. Conomos Bros had agencies for several organisations: Bolex movie cameras and projectors; Angus and Coote jewellery, Texaco petrol and oil (the petrol bowser was situated outside the Barwon Cafe), and Peters' ice cream.
In 1947, Lambros purchased an 8000-acre property outside the town and renamed it 'Kalamos', after his Kytheran home. However, he did not live permanently on the property as he started to experience some health problems. Around this time, the dress circle foyer at the Luxury Theatre was converted into a flat for him. To lessen the burden being shared by the brothers (who were now approximately 52, 49 and 42 respectively), the Barwon Cafe business (which was "open from about 7a.m. to midnight proving a boon to the general public and particularly to travellers who were assured of a meal or cool drink at any time") was sold just prior in December 1949. Not long after, a fire destroyed the cafe, wine saloon and several adjacent shops. Conomos Bros rebuilt the wine saloon and the cafe, which was leased out.
CinemaScope arrived in the middle 1950s and expense was incurred with a new, wide screen and new lens for the projectors. "Technicians had to come up to alter the projectors into those maskings. One fellow, Aub Seward, finished up with Westrex, that's Western Electric where the boys, they really knew their work. He used to tell us a lot, you know. You had to be right to a sixteenth of an inch. You had to be very accurate." Fortunately, Conomos Bros was spared the expense that many other theatres had to face - enlarging the proscenium to take the wide screen. "We left it there as it was originally."
During their long association with the town, the Conomos family's business interests continued to expand. Letterhead dating from 1936 for Conomos Bros proclaimed that they controlled the Barwon Cafe, the Popular Pictures, the Ice Works, and the Cordial Factory. Another source claims that Conomos Bros also controlled the local "Wood Yard". Lambros, in three decades from the time that he arrived in the town, and his brothers Hector and Jim, built up not only business strength in the town, but they also became prominent members of the community.
About 1950, Lambros suffered a mild stroke and sought treatment in Sydney where he met an Australian lady who would become his wife. In 1951 he married and settled in Bondi, then Vaucluse. Dogged by illness, he saw little of Walgett in the last decade of his life before passing away at the Mosman Private Hospital on 18 March 1960. The Walgett newspaper wrote:
There is no doubt that the efforts of Hector and Jim, coupled with the guiding wisdom of our friend Lambros enabled him to reach a pinnacle of success in commerce not often achieved. They became part and parcel of the town and district and their businesses tentacles stretched in many directions...
It was in the middle 1950s that the issue of the theatre's toilets started to create trouble. It was to continue for the next sixteen years. In 1956 Walgett Police complained to the Chief Secretary that the theatre toilets were being used by patrons from the adjoining Barwon Cafe and, to make matter worse, they were being used as a place where liquor was being collected by Aborigines in the area. (At the time, it was illegal for Aborigines to obtain alcohol.) The police wanted a wire gate to close off the toilets so that only theatre patrons could use them. The local health inspector also wanted separate toilets for both cafe and theatre. Various letters passed back and forth between the owners and the Chief Secretary. With Lambros' death in 1960, the theatre was transferred to his wife, Elizabeth. On Elizabeth's death, the property was transferred to Emmanuel (Hector) and his wife, Elly, Conomos in 1963. The matter of the toilets remained unresolved.
Jim managed the wine saloon and Hector oversaw the running of the theatre. According to family recollections, Hector would double one of his daughters on his pushbike to school then pedal on to the theatre where he would arrange bookings, put up advertisements, organise newspaper advertisements, make minor repairs, and deal with correspondence. For many years, a whistle was blown at 1.00pm at the local dry cleaners to signify lunchtime. With that, Hector would ride home for lunch and sometimes partake of an afternoon siesta. If there was work to be done at the theatre in the afternoon, he would return. On picture nights, Hector would be back at the theatre by 7.00pm to supervise there. On non-picture nights, he would help his brother run the wine saloon. With the rebuilding of the School of Arts as the Memorial Hall in 1951, the Luxury ceased to be used for dances/balls, they being transferred to the new, larger hall which was not encumbered by non-availability on Friday and Saturday nights.
With the sale of the Barwon Cafe business in 1949, Jim was displaced. Although he had acquired a property north-west of Walgett in 1948, (called 'East Mullane', near Cumborah), he preferred to live in town close to the brothers' business interests. He took up residence in the theatre, at first sleeping in one of the dressing rooms, then moving into Lambros' flat (the former dress circle foyer). When the town's Rotary Club received its charter in 1959, Jim was privileged to be one of its original twenty-four charter members.
With the family growing up, Elly found that she had more time for herself. She joined the Mothers' Club, the CWA, the P & C, the Red Cross and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Hospital. "It was nice to meet all the ladies" in a friendly, social atmosphere rather than through one of the businesses. Sadly, it had taken her more than a decade to reach this point in her life. In 1961, to provide better educational opportunities for their family, Elly and the three children (Helen, George and Nina) moved to Sydney. They did, however, return to Walgett for school holidays and helped Hector with the operation of the Luxury.
The Barwon Cafe and adjacent shops were burnt down, this time in December 1962. The fire started in a clothes shop several doors from the cafe. The theatre was undamaged because, "Well, the theatre was brick and, I guess, the Fire Brigade." (Hector and his family were in Sydney at the time.) The shops were rebuilt along modern lines but not, according to the family, without difficulties. First, the architect did not fulfil his duties and another had to be engaged. Secondly, it took a long time to find a lessee for the cafe which had been made smaller than the earlier one since other shops in town now provided some of the range of stock that the old Barwon had provided. The builder took over the family house in Warrena Street and Hector moved in with Jim. Eventually the house was rented to the cafe tenant.
With country television reaching the area in 1962/63, the theatre business fell away sharply. In early 1966 it was announced that Walgett was to be sewered and the local council started pressuring local businesses to comply. In order to do this at the theatre would have meant a large capital expenditure at a time when the business was in sharp decline. It was not surprising that the theatre's owners were reluctant to spend money. Compounding the economic situation, in 1966 Hector had to undergo medical attention which required his son George to run the theatre for a time. In 1968, Hector suggested to the Chief Secretary that he might be interested in building a small, open-air cinema on an adjoining block of land. This was seen as a measure to reclaim lost patronage and, at the same time, install a new toilet system. (Nothing came of either.) The following year witnessed a number of letters and inspection reports, all aimed at forcing the issue of sewerage. One report stated that "Work is considered to be IMPERATIVE." Even the local council became involved in the correspondence. The theatre still screened three times weekly (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays). Eventually, rather than spend the money, the theatre was closed - from 30 May 1970. The final advertisement stated that it was closed for "necessary renovations".
The decision to close was not taken lightly, according to the family, and it was not worth having the building lying idle. Graham Harkens, the theatre's projectionist, organised for it to be leased to the St Mary's Catholic Church Theatre Trust (for a rental of ten dollars per annum). Although the projectionist was a Catholic, Hector was not. However, he was not prepared to keep the theatre closed, which he saw was to the detriment of the town. Hence the very cheap rental for the church since it was prepared to carry out the necessary work and run it. The church built new, sewered toilets at the rear of the theatre, and access to them was created from the auditorium. The Luxury reopened on 18 August 1972 with Paint Your Wagon, but without Conomos family involvement. Interestingly, the local newspaper's article about the re-opening mentioned that "this is being run as a community scheme. It is being run basically to provide some night entertainment for the younger generation." If there was a such need in the town, then the question remains: Why had it fallen on the owner of the property to construct the new toilets, at a time of economic hardship, and not on the community which was going to benefit from having the theatre operating?
Having cut back on business interests in the town, it was possible for Jim to take a short trip home to Kythera in September 1972 to see his sister Katina. She passed away just prior to his return to Australia. While cleaning the wine saloon one morning in June 1973, Jim was taken ill. Hector recalled the day.
He used to get up before breakfast and go down to the wine shop and mop out. Those days, we never used to open before ten o'clock. So, he used to go down first and mop out....this particular morning, after I'd finished my cup of tea, I went down and found him on the floor, with the mop.
The newspaper reported: "Mr. Jim Conomos has been taken to a Sydney hospital by Air Ambulance. His many town and district acquaintances wish him a speedy recovery to good health." A month later, on 13 July, Jim passed away at Prince Alfred Hospital.
In the intervening years, he became affectionately known as the Father of the Greeks in Walgett and was always willing to help and assist them in every imaginable manner. Should a Greek require advice, the late James Conomos was unhesitatingly approached and in his quiet, knowledgeable way, Jim would endeavour to advise...His passing leaves a gap, indeed...Jim's life centred on his business interests and friends in Walgett.
With little left to keep him in Walgett, Hector moved to Sydney in December 1973 to reside permanently with his family. (A few years later, the Catholic Church purchased the theatre.) Elly commented on the way the town used to collect for charities, and how the Conomos businesses had assisted. "They used to come and collect from the theatre, from the cafe and the wine saloon." But, she added poignantly, "When we left, I don't think anybody came to say goodbye to us."
In 1975 the Chief Secretary demanded that the mezzanine lounge area which had been "furnished as living quarters should be removed". At the demand of the Chief Secretary, the flat was removed, some 25 years after its creation. Screenings at the theatre took place on Friday and Saturday nights, Saturday afternoons and Wednesday nights. But, the glamour had faded. By 1975 the main screen curtains had been removed (as a result of them not being treated with fire retardant). An inspection by the Department of Services (which took over the Chief Secretary's role of licensing theatres and public halls) on 13 June 1979 demanded that screenings be suspended owing to necessary electrical work. The theatre was destined not to reopen.
The Luxury, which had opened in a blaze of glory, went out in a blaze of glory 42 years later. In the early hours of the morning of Wednesday, 10 October, 1979, the Luxury Theatre, along with the Barwon Cafe, the Walgett Pharmacy and Azevedo's Gift Inn were gutted by fire. As well, the Wine Saloon, the Housing Commission Offices, the St Vincent de Paul shop and the Imperial Hotel were damaged.
Considering the strong north easterly wind which prevailed at the time, the fire engines, Walgett, Lightning Ridge and Coonamble, and the firemen were faced with a very difficult task, being further hampered by the huge volume of smoke.
So strong was the wind, that pieces of burnish[sic] ash were causing great concern to people living some hundreds of yards downwind from the scene of the fire. They were kept busy for some considerable time, hosing the burning pieces before they had time to ignite their dwellings.
The fire took nearly three hours to bring under control.
The last vestiges of Conomos Bros' commercial involvement in the town had been removed by the fire. Hector recalled, "The whole thing burnt down...Well, I remember, Wally rang me up. He says, 'I was one of the first ones to get down there and,' he says, 'the whole thing was alight.'"
Although it had not been operated by its Greek owners after 1970, for a time they did continue to retain ownership. Even after relinquishing title to the property in the middle 1970s, the Luxury remained a fine cinema building, of heritage value - an unacknowledged tribute to the far-sightedness of Lambros Conomos who had received such great acclamations at the time of its opening in 1937. When asked if they thought the Luxury was too good for Walgett, each of the Conomos family present at a 1995 interview spoke.
George, Hector's son: "...you would probably have to say that the Luxury Theatre in Walgett was probably, I was going to say over-capitalised, but that may not be it. But, it was more a Sydney suburban theatre than a small town country theatre."
Elly: "It stood out in the town. It stood out."
Hector: "Nothing is too good if it is going to bring in any income. See, that's where you put your money. You say, 'Now I'm going to build this and make it a paying proposition.' It's not too good for Walgett or North Sydney or Coonabarabran."
The Conomos family's connections with Walgett stretch back to 1917 when Lambros arrived to work in Comino and Panaretto's cafe. The Barwon Cafe, the Popular Pictures at the School of Arts, the Luxury Theatre and the Wine Saloon were all important meeting places. During part of its lifetime, the Luxury Theatre was the scene of many dances and balls, in aid of one charity or another. In their time, the cordial factory, wood yard, ice works and the various agencies operated by the brothers provided Walgett with important necessities. The Conomos family worked hard and prospered. Their physical achievements provided the town with amenities that were needed and hastened their integration into the community. The town came to accept them as they became involved in more and more things. Realistically, it was of mutual benefit - the town gained from what the brothers offered, and the brothers gained acceptance. How did they do it? "Their motto was Service. They certainly gave it and all credit to them for the way they have progressed."
Physical evidence of the Conomos presence in Walgett is negligible and is the same for the other Greeks who brought moving pictures to this outback town. There has been no public recognition or acknowledgment of the names Crones, Paspal, Peters or Conomos and for the contributions they made to the town's culinary, social or business history. Only two short history books have been written that relate specifically to Walgett, neither of which mentions the Greeks. A letter to the local historical society in 1994 elicited a short piece on Smith's open air cinema, as recalled many years later by a nephew of the exhibitor. It is so vague as to be of little value to the historian. Letters from the writer in early 1996 to the local newspaper, the local historical society and the Senior Citizens Day Care Centre asking for recollections about the Greek people who ran cafes and cinemas in the town met with no replies. Either the Greeks have been forgotten or an incredible apathy hangs over the town. A sad legacy for a small group of migrants who did so much for the town.
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