Saturday night movies at the Beech Forest Hall was an important social and cultural event for the Otway region. It was considered a great form of entertainment, enjoyed particularly by children, and families travelling into town. The National Anthem would have been played prior to the commencement of the movie, with all standing. Refreshments such as Dixie cup ice-creams with a wooden spoon would have been consumed, and surely like all cinemas at that time, Jaffas would have rolled down the aisle. Seats were probably a little uncomfortable after awhile, sound sometimes questionable and film breakage, which the projectionist would have mended, could stop the film at any time, which all added to the fun and couldn't suppress the excitement of the evening.
History of Beech Forest cinema
It was in the second Beech Forest Hall, built in 1906 that the lantern slide evenings were first held in the region. The National Gallery of Australia describes Lantern slides as, "a positive transparent photograph made on glass and viewed with the aid of a “magic lantern,” the predecessor of the slide projector. Lantern slide plates were commercially manufactured by sensitizing a sheet of glass with a silver gelatin emulsion. The plate was then exposed to a negative and processed, resulting in a positive transparent image with exceptional detail and a rich tonal range."
In 1918 a leap into modern motion pictures was made when cinema equipment was installed. This was short lived however when all was destroyed in the 1919 bushfires that ravaged the area.
In 1921 a new hall was built by the Shire, this is the hall we are celebrating today, 100 years on. It was here where going to the cinema became a regular and much enjoyed form of entertainment for the locals of Beech Forest and surrounds by 1923.
The Projectionist's Room
The construction of the new hall came with a projectionist room, 'the bio-box', which is accessed by a ladder from the council administrative offices, now home to one of the Otway Districts Historical Society's history rooms. The entrance and door can be seen today and inside the room it includes markings left by the carpenter, Stan Best- 'Stan Best 1957 10/5' . A small room typical of the less than perfect conditions that projectionists endured, it had access to the roof space with a small window for projecting the movie onto the screen in the hall below. Building regulations at the time required 2 exits, the external staircase from the roof cavity which led down to the back of the hall to the west corner (this has since been removed) and the internal one.
Glen Pictures of Colac was the first company to trial movie screenings in Beech Forest in May 1923, which soon became a regular Saturday night event. This was around the time of the establishment of the first commercial cinemas in Victoria. These movies would have been silent at this time as the first 'talkies' were introduced in 1929. Clarence Heywood, Perc Chisholm, Joe's Show and William 'Talkie' Bell followed until the first world war interrupted screenings and entertainment in general. Following the end of the war, movies resumed being shown until the 1950s.
So what was it like and how much influence did movies have?
It was during the 1950s that Roger Smith, from a local forestry family, fondly recalls attending as a young teenager weekly movie nights at the Beech Forest Hall as a highlight of the social calendar. He recalls seeing what we now consider classic movies such as Singin' in the rain, High Noon, On the Waterfront and the Greatest Show on Earth, and actors; Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and more.
Smith recalls - "There in the dark with just ourselves to answer to and with those evocative images to tempts us, and so many situations to become part of and identify with, we experienced a strange form of freedom - no one was watching over us. We were watching, experiencing and learning on our own terms. It was at the movies where we learnt about heroic deeds and the elation of success, we learnt about honour, including honour among thieves. We were fascinated with the film stars, and we fell in love with them because we believed we were being offered, there in our personal space, the privilege of a personal and intimate relationship".
Although enjoyed for many years, a slow decline began over the following decade with the arrival of television and the declining population, but who knows what the future holds in this unique and special little Otway town.
Celebrate with us at the Remember when...an afternoon of Otway History