Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Wintergarden a favourite for 44 years

Once situated on the block of land next to the Police Station in Sturt Street, the Wintergarden was once the largest theatre in North Queensland. It was one of a chain of Wintergardens built in the 1920s in regional Queensland cities for business partners George Birch, E.J. Carroll and Virgil Coyle.

Pictured in front of the Wintergarden Theatre in 1946, these “Lolly Girls” sold refreshments - which included ice cream cones, lollies and Phillips cordials (softdrinks) - from a wheeled cart outside the theatre.
Photo: Townsville City Libraries.
The Wintergarden theatres were built to conform to a “tropical theatre concept” and were of an unprecedented size for the time. The Wintergardens featured carpeted vestibules with dress circles, balconies and interior fern gardens. Special attention was paid to ventilation, and seating was made of slatted timber, all to ensure comfort in the Queensland summer.

The city’s Mayor, Alderman W.J. Heatley, officially opened Townsville’s Wintergarden on Saturday June 4, 1927. The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported, enthusiastically:

“We cannot find adjectives and superlatives strong enough to describe the thousand and one innovations of the new Wintergarden Theatre in Sturt Street, which will be opened tonight by His Worship the Mayor. It is truly the most sumptuous and stupendous theatre ever erected outside the Metropolitan area.”

The opening night performance was a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII by Alan Wilkie’s Shakespearean Company, which set the tone for many memorable live stage performances. Perhaps the two most famous performers to take the stage at the Wintergarden were the Russian prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova, in 1929, and celebrated Australian soprano, Gladys Moncrieff, in 1931.

For the first two years of its operation, the Wintergarden screened silent films, ably assisted by a small orchestra. In 1929, the first film with a soundtrack (a “talkie”) to be screened at the Wintergarden was The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
Wintergarden Theatre, Sturt Street, Townsville, 1943.
Photo: Townsville City Libraries.
The Wintergarden could seat 1,508 people, and in the 1940s, a full house was a common occurrence, with patrons packed in from wall to wall. Such was the popularity of the theatre in those days, 400 people held a permanent Saturday night reservation.

In later years, concerts by headline music acts including Col Joye, Normie Rowe and Johnny O’Keefe drew the crowds.

In 1971, Birch Carroll and Coyle, who had operated the Wintergarden for 44 years, told the Bulletin that the theatre would soon close, to be replaced by “a brand new modern, air-conditioned twin theatre complex” at the corner of Sturt and Blackwood Streets. These were to be named the Odeon and the Forum, and would seat 800 and 400 respectively.

Many of the Wintergarden’s long-serving staff transferred to the new cinemas, including: Mr Fred Fox, chief projectionist, who had served 42 years at the Wintergarden, Miss Ivy Morgan, a ticket seller and booking clerk for 29 years, Mr Henry Ford, the theatre’s utility man for 20 years, Mr Fred Carter, projectionist for 18 years, and Mr George Till, who had been manager of the Wintergarden for 15 years.

The last movie shown at the Wintergarden, on the night of August 26, 1971, was the 1958 film South Pacific. This film was chosen because it had been one of the highest-grossing films in the theatre’s history.
Demolition of the Wintergarden Theatre, 1991.
Photo: Christensen Family held by Townsville City Libraries.
The City Council then leased the building for three years but after 1974 the building was left empty and unloved, until it was eventually considered beyond economic repair and it was demolished on March 8, 1991.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Rooney's Bridge

A long awaited bridge that connected the suburbs of Oonoonba and Railway Estate opened in Townsville with the usual ribbon-cutting fanfare in December 1954 and was duly named in honour of a pioneering Townsville family – the Rooney family.

Rooney’s Bridge, Abbott Street, under construction in June 1953. The sawmill in the background (formerly Rooney’s sawmill) was by that time owned by the Stanply Timber Corporation, Pty Ltd.
Photo: Townsville City Libraries.
The proposal for the bridge was first put forward in the 1930s, and a loan was approved by the Treasury Department in 1939, but the Second World War interrupted any plans to start work on the bridge and the project was placed on hold.

It was originally planned to construct the bridge of concrete and timber, but shortages of materials after the war prompted the Council to consider constructing the bridge from steel.

Unfortunately, when it came time to make a start on the bridge in 1949, no girder steel could be obtained in Australia and the Council reluctantly had to resort to importing the steel from Britain. The steel for the bridge did not arrive until late 1952.

Another bridge project affected by the national steel shortage was the Burdekin River Bridge, between Ayr and Home Hill, which had commenced construction in 1947.

The bridge between Railway Estate and Oonoonba represented a significant investment by the Council, as it was expected to cost £50,000. It was hoped that it would not only be of great benefit to residents living in Oonoonba, but also a catalyst for industrial development in the Stuart area.

Strangely, no provision was made for pedestrians, as it was expected that pedestrians would continue to use the existing footway on the railway bridge.

One resident wrote to the Townsville Daily Bulletin about this, saying that he felt the bridge design lacked vision. He suggested, rather hopefully, that since the old railway bridge and footbridge was in such a “parlous state” it should be pulled down, and the new road bridge built to accommodate rail and pedestrians as well.

Aerial view of Rooney's Bridge at Ross River, connecting Railway Avenue with Abbott Street, 1969.
Photo: Townsville City Libraries.
Once complete, the new bridge meant that Oonoonba was only minutes away from the city by road, whereas the journey had previously taken half an hour via the bridge next to the Ross River Meatworks. Although it was soon discovered that the route from the General Post Office in Flinders Street to the Fairfield Hotel in Oonoonba using the new bridge, was only two miles shorter than the old route.

Early in the planning stages, the bridge was simply referred to as the Oonoonba Traffic Bridge, but in late 1954 the council announced that it had chosen to name the bridge Rooney’s – after the Rooney family – who had been associated with the development of Townsville from around the mid 1870s.

Brothers John and Matthew Rooney established the firms Rooney Bros. (architects, builders and contractors) and Rooney and Co. (timber merchants, sawmillers and joiners) in Townsville in the 1880s, obtaining red cedar, silky oak and other timbers from throughout north Queensland.

Staff of Rooney & Co.'s Steam Saw Mills & Joinery Works, Townsville, 1934.
Photo: City Libraries Townsville.
Rooney’s built a number of buildings in Townsville, and supplied prefabricated buildings to western Queensland mining towns. To accommodate their expanding business empire, the Rooney’s built a new sawmill on banks of the Ross River, near the site of the future bridge that would bear their name.

Employing 100 men by 1897, the North Queensland Register described Rooney and Co. as “the biggest timber business in North Queensland”.