The Civic Theatre was a prime source of entertainment in Gunnedah before the advent of television and there are many who now regret the passing of this imposing building, which was the centrepiece of the Gunnedah CBD.

Gunnedah actually boasted three theatres at one stage with the open air Garden Theatre the most popular venue during the long, hot summers

The Garden Theatre was on the site of the old Ampol service station in Marquis Street (now Rettie & Vickery) and patrons sat back in deck chairs to enjoy the show. In cold or rainy weather, a big canvas-like Worth’s Circus tent was pulled over the top and coke fires were lit in the aisles with patrons given a blanket as they came through the entrance.

The Garden Theatre in Marquis Street was very popular in the summer. This photograph, showing the back of the Bank of NSW (now Westpac), was taken in the mid-1950s. The deck chairs were a problem for youngsters who could not see over them. The building in the background is the ticket box and canteen which sold the best ginger beer.

James Grant Ogilvie was instrumental in forming the Gunnedah Amusement Company Ltd, which included shareholders George Coffin, Alex Clements, Hubert LeCussan, William LeCussan and Thomas Lorenz, to screen silent films popular during World War I years. It was in operation when the Wallaby March came through Gunnedah in 1915, with the first screening at an open-air theatre on the corner of Conadilly and Marquis Streets and later at the Manchester Unity Hall, on the corner of Chandos and Barber Streets – particularly during the winter months. For many years films were screened at the School of Arts.

The first picture theatre was established in the Town Hall soon after it was opened in 1926, by Ray Hamilton MLA and Rod Thomson, trading as Gunnedah Amusements Co Ltd. They leased the public hall three nights a week, which, together with the letting of the two shops and sundry hirings of the hall, ensured the financial success of the building.

The modern new Civic Theatre (now the site of Aldi) was opened in July, 1936. Doctor Colin Anderson, Kelly Wise, Hector Ross and James Ogilvie were the major shareholders and a struggle began to attract patrons to both the Civic Theatre and the Garden Theatre. The Civic Theatre was built at a cost of 11,000 pounds with the original directors still guiding the destinies of the company in the early 1950s. Reg Maunder’s childhood fascination with theatre was fanned by the owners of the Garden Theatre, Ray Hamilton and Wright Thompson, and he eventually became the projectionist at the theatre, along with Cyril Launders.

Ushers and usherettes on the Civic Theatre staff 1936. Left, Beryl Chudleigh (Hassan), Doug Logan, Bub Wallace (Moore), Val Weakley, Mary LeCussan (Stewart), Creighton Ogilvie and Edie Maude (Wheeler).

The Garden Theatre was very popular in the summer because there was no air-conditioning in those days – Reg Maunder used to stand in a brick operating box lined with tin with sweat pouring down his legs.

As Hitler began his march across Europe, Reg volunteered for active service and his skills were put to good use in New Guinea when the troops would sling a screen between two coconut trees for the pictures.

The men would walk for miles to come to the shows as they often showed the latest films before they were even shown in Sydney. Reg recalled that the show went on even during a tropical downpour when the men just sat there glued to the screen. The only time they scattered was if Japanese planes came too close and the siren went off. After it was over they would return to their seats as if nothing had happened, wet and muddy from the swampy dugouts. After the war Reg resumed his work at The Civic.

As a teenager Geoff Melick was paid 30 shillings on Saturday nights to run the films between each theatre. Competition was very fierce between the two venues and the Garden Theatre was eventually bought out by the owners of the modern two-storey Civic in 1939, with Reg Maunder going to The Civic to work as a projectionist with Merv Ogilvie and Tom Harrigan. One of the biggest productions shown was Lady Hamilton, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and patrons had the choice of seeing it at The Garden or The Civic with the billboard claiming that she was ‘The Woman Whose Romance Changed History’. Other big movies to show at the Garden and Civic Theatres were Gone With The Wind, Most Spectacular, San Francisco, Clive Of India, Mutiny On The Bounty and Three Coins In The Fountain which came when the Civic installed cinemascope. Patrons paid two shillings and six pence (45 cents) for seats upstairs, one and six for back stalls, downstairs and ninepence for front stalls. Many Gunnedah residents will also remember The Oasis Cafe beside the theatre, opened by Mary LeCussan, and the newsagent on the western end. Theatre was so popular after the war that plans were made for the construction of a second theatre by the Civic Theatre Pty Ltd, whose shareholders were by then drawn from people all over the Gunnedah district.

Ben Hur trackless train 1928, outside Gunnedah Town Hall. The occasion was the screening of the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer blockbuster of the day, Ben Hur, which was being taken around country centres on a tour sponsored by General Motors (Australia), as shown by the promotional lettering on the car on the right-hand side of the photograph.

The plan was to demolish the Garden Theatre – with its limited use due to seasonal conditions – and build a second modern theatre, known as the Savoy, on the site. The estimated cost of the building was to be 21,000 pounds, the cost skyrocketing to 30,000 pounds with the inclusion of the new medium of presentation in the second and third dimensional field. The new theatre was to boast a variety of wide-screen mediums to provide the illusion of depth in film screening with a seating capacity of approximately 700. For various reasons, the Savoy never drew breath and with the advent of television in Australia, picture theatres started closing down all over the country with the Garden Theatre the first to go in Gunnedah, followed by the Civic Theatre in January 1973. As The Civic was being demolished to make way for a modern new supermarket, Lloyd Hosking, of Tamworth, lost his life when a wall fell on his unprotected bulldozer, a tragic end to a wonderful era of cinema.

Over the next few decades interest in the picture theatres began to rise again and after much controversy over construction of a cinema-theatre complex in Gunnedah the project was put in the shade but on Saturday, April 3, 2001, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson officially opened the $2 million facility named The Civic.

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