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.