Sometimes you are involved in making history without even realising it, and anyone who has seen something at the Enmore Theatre has been part of something special.
The Enmore opened in 1911 as part of a new wave of moving picture palaces sweeping through Sydney. First just an iron and timber shed with no roof, it was soon improved with a canvas tent like cover, and by 1912 had a tin roof and seating for 500.
The theatre was run by two brothers, William ‘Bill’ and George Szarka; local identities (Bill was also an alderman on Newtown Council) and entrepreneurs. The brothers set about establishing the theatre as the premier venue in town, hiring well known bands and orchestras to play soundtracks to the silent movies they were showing.
In 1920 the brothers rebuilt the theatre, replacing the iron and timber shed with a new brick Spanish Mission style theatre with busts of two turban wearing guardians moulded into the façade. With a capacity of 3000 people, it was designed by well-known theatre architects Karberry and Chard, who also designed the Valhalla in Glebe and Her Majesty’s Theatre at Haymarket. Its opening was a grand affair with the Premier, Mr John Storey carrying out the duties. The new program included movies, live music and vaudeville performances.
The Szarka Brothers’ Enmore Theatre joined a collection of theatres in Newtown and the inner west. Near the station was Clay’s Bridge Theatre (1910), still standing as The Hub, close by was Hoyts King Street, also still there but long closed as a cinema. The Odeon was on Erskineville Road from 1913, and only demolished in 2013. The nearby Elizabethan from 1929 was once the largest live venue until knocked over in the 1980s. The Coronation Picture Palace building (1913) also still stands on south King Street and Newtown’s Trocadero, which opened its doors as a skating rink and theatre in 1889, also remains on north King Street.
Due to its popularity, the theatre was also targeted multiple times by thieves. In 1931 George Szarka was attacked and robbed in broad daylight by two men who first threw pepper into his eyes before escaping in a getaway car. Despite the tough neighbourhood, the theatre thrived, and in 1925 Bill was crowned King of Newtown for the brothers’ efforts in raising money for charity. Every year they put on a free Christmas day movie for up to 1000 local poor children, giving them sweets and Christmas cake as part of the day.
In 1927 the brothers sold the business to Hoyt’s, who remodelled the building in 1936 to the one that stands today. The Spanish Mission façade was replaced with a sleek art deco style and the building was converted into a cinema. Reflecting the areas’ population, in 1969 it was purchased by another cinema company, Louis Film Company and rebranded as the Finos Theatre, playing Greek films. At the time almost 13% of the Newtown/Enmore population were Greek.
In 1986 the theatre changed hands once more, reopening as a live music and live theatre venue. The variety of music and performance it attracts has kept it in the fore of Sydney’s live entertainment. Legend also has grown around some nights, such as in 2003 when the Rolling Stones played. For a while just about everyone in the area claimed to be amongst the 2000 people inside.
And so it goes on, the longest running live entertainment venue still showing in Sydney. Rock on Enmore Theatre, rock on.
Head to the Dictionary for more theatre history!
Mark Dunn is the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!