Inside the Saraton Theatre?s auditorium as it stands today.
Inside the Saraton Theatre?s auditorium as it stands today.

Saraton?s ?soul? lives


IN Brisbane there is a cinema called the Dawn, built around the time of Grafton's Saraton Theatre.

A few weeks ago I drove past the Dawn. Instead of the picturesque facade I knew, bulldozers were ripping it down.

And that is precisly what sets the Saraton apart. Unlike the majority of historic cinemas in Australia, it remains standing. Only four per cent of country picture theatres built before WWII are still operating in recogniseable condition.

"There's nothing like a movie on the big screen and there's a real atmosphere about (the Saraton)," says Irene Notaras, owner of the theatre.

"The multiplexes don't have it the place really does have a soul to it. You can feel it."

The Saraton, built in 1926 by the Notaras brothers, has somewhat of a turbulent history including three fires, a complete internal remodelling, closure for 12 years and plans to raze the site and use it for a carpark.

"And there are plenty of people who think it's haunted," Matthew Fordham, the theatre's projection- ist, tells me before launching into a tale about Jeannie Carlisle, an usherette in the 1940s.

"She was a bigger lady who always wore black," he says. "Sometimes at night you see something black move out of the corner of your eye, but then when you turn around, whatever it was has gone."

When the Saraton was opened by Grafton mayor WT Robinson in July 1926, he praised the work by the Notaras brothers, and hoped that more people would consider investing their money so that 'people would feel that this was in very truth a city worthy of great district'.

The opening program for the evening included a showing of 'The Eagle' starring Rudolph Valentino ? released in Sydney only two weeks earlier.

"It used to be so packed out. People would have their seats permanently booked and they'd only ring you to tell you when they couldn't make it, otherwise they'd be there every week," says Ms Notaras of the Saraton's golden years.

"We had the cuddle seats upstairs. Couples would sit there and then the next week you'd see an engagement notice in the paper. It was the biggest marriage bureau.

"I used to help out the front working on the candy bar when I was about 10 ... and the men would buy a box of Winning Post chocolates for their girlfriends. It was the biggest meeting place in Grafton because it was where everyone went. There was no TV then so they went to the movies."

Today the Saraton is different. It still has the 'spectacle of sumptuous simplicity' promised in 1940 when it was first refurbished, but now its once modern furnishings are reminiscent of another age.

As the lights fade in the magical way that can only signify being 'at the movies', gold paint sparkles on the concave walls. The orchestra pit is still there, though long devoid of any orchestra.

These days patrons don't wear their Sunday finery or gather to share the latest gossip. But there are still choc top ice-creams and, most importantly, a big screen which has shared the magic of cinema with generations.

It captures you, draws you into other worlds and surrounds you in a way that even the biggest television screen will never quite manage. Irene says the cinema has soul ? I have to agree. It almost breathes with the history and the stories which have filled its walls over the past 80 years.

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