History in the making: 90 years at the Saraton
THE Saraton Theatre was constructed in 1926 by young Greek immigrant brothers Ioannia (Jack) and Anthony (Tony) Notaras (the theatre's name is their surname spelled backwards).
The building comprises a rarely seen two-level theatre featuring a dress circle and four shop fronts. Even its stairway is special.
Unlike so many cinemas of the 1920s and 1930s where the stairs were tucked to one side of usually a small lobby, the stairway at the Saraton is on the axis from the front door to the auditorium.
Off to the right is a short flight to a landing directly off which leads the main stairs up to another landing which splits into two dog-legs back up to the dress circle lobby.
The grand main flight occupies almost one third of the width of the foyer.
Built in cement-rendered brick with a steel truss auditorium and corrugated iron roof, stage one was designed and constructed by architect FJ Board and builder J Walters and opened by the mayor of the time, Ald WT Robinson on July 17, 1926. It has remained in the Notoras family ever since.
On its opening night, a special screening of the Notaras brothers' own 12-minute silent movie Grafton at Work and Play was screened, much to the delight of the audience who no doubt enjoyed watching themselves on the big screen.
Fire struck in 1932, the first of three to impact the theatre, damaging the screen, stage and curtains, roof rafters, baffle board and flooring. The fire closed the cinema for the next eight years; however occasional dances, concerts and other social functions were still held in the theatre.
The interior was renovated and remodelled by Brisbane architect George Rae and Grafton builders Goddard & Goddard in 1940.
Sir Earle Page - respected son of Grafton and Prime Minister at the time - opened the newly refurbished theatre the day before the Battle of Britain began, emphasising in his speech the importance of entertainment during a period of war. The picture theatre brought together a higher proportion of a country town's population than any other regular activity of that period.
A second fire caused damage to the screen and curtain in 1944 but was repaired a month later.
The 1950 Grafton flood inundated the Saraton.
The water rose so fast there was no time to remove the seating. The lower level was completely covered by floodwater.
The Saraton closed for a number of years in the 1970s as competition from drive-ins and high cost of maintenance took it toil.
Irene Notaras, daughter of Tony, undertook extensive renovations before reopening the cinema in 1982. Renamed the Saraton Entertainment Centre, the vision of the time was to provide the region with "facilities as good as any to be found in the city," Irene said to The Daily Examiner at the time.
Yet another fire threatened the future of the theatre at the beginning of 1989 when it destroyed the projection box. An employee was charged with the offence and the cinema was reopened four week later.
During the 80s and 90s more people enjoyed movies at home and cinemas across the country began to suffer financially and close.
By 1999, NSW country towns had only 13 picture theatres still operating in recognisable condition out of the 385 operating in 1951.
The Saraton is one of two still in private hands, the remainder taken over by local councils.
After surviving the Grafton Shoppingworld carpark redevelopment proposal and rejection by Grafton City Council, the Notarases invested heavily in seeing its family's heirloom restored to its formerly glory with the latest cinema technologies installed to give it a new lease on life.
Watching the latest blockbusters and live stage show surrounded by history and nationally significant architecture is a rare gift that future generations of Graftonians can enjoy for decades to come, a privilege few regional centres can offer today.