The reel fairy tale

The Astor Theatre was a cultural hub for early Greek migrants to maintain their language and identity through film and music

The Astor Theatre is one of Melbourne’s most historical and beautiful art deco buildings, and still operates after 75 years. In a time of relentless threats to theatres because of advancements in technology, the Astor Theatre has survived.
But what may not be known is the Astor Theatre’s close and intimate connection to the diaspora of Melbourne, being operated and owned by the same Greek family for more than 40 years.
The Astor cinema was built in the ’30s but the Greek fairy tale begins when it was sold to Stan Raft (Stathis Raftopoulos), the owner of Tanda Investments, in 1969. Stan’s family had immigrated to Australia in the 1860s from the Greek island of Ithaca and successfully ran cafes, grocery shops and real estate in Australia. Stan Raft, 1921-2003, was undeniably an extraordinary man that was innately fascinated by the entertainment industry, often exchanging hats between his businessman role and those of the entertainer, philanthropist, poet and showman.
Stan’s path in business and entertainment reflects his creativity, genius and love for the arts. Starting with a movie camera and a single act as Raft the Magician, he was entertaining the troops of WWII with performances in the Tivoli and Kings Theatres in the city.
With the emergence of the television in the ’50s, several theatres starting to shut their doors; that’s when Stan grabbed this unique opportunity and progressively purchased them under a syndicate that he had formed through his film exhibition and distribution company, Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures.
More than 12 Greek language theatres came under his ownership – among them the National and the Victoria, in Richmond and the Westgarth in Northcote – which are still owned by Peter Yiannoudes, one of Stan’s business partners who bought into the industry in 1965. Peter often talks about the importance of the theatres for the Greek diaspora of the late ’50s and ’60s, since the Greek movies that were showing there were not just for entertainment, but became one of the few ways the Greek immigrants were able to connect with their homeland, culture and language. The theatre became a cultural hub for these migrants and a place to watch musical acts from Greece perform. Legendary Greek artists such as Dimitris Mitropanos, Vicki Mosholiou, Bessy Argiraki and Dimitris Kollatos all performed there.
Like in all fairy tales, a dark period came to shadow the brilliance and harmony in the world of reels. The Astor Theatre closed down in February 1982 due to the rise of multicultural community television SBS reduced demand from the Greek community.
But it was the nephew of Stan Raft – and current owner, George Florence who would resurrect the Astor Theatre to its former glory
As a child, Florence would work in the candy bars of the cinemas and there, he fell in love not only with the romantic notion of cinema but also with the palpable anticipation just before the start of the movie. The Greek crowd joyfully yelling ice cream orders at the candy bar; the magic atmosphere that transformed the auditorium and foyers, all memories that the then young man wanted to recreate in modern times. Thanks to him the dark days of the Astor Theatre lasted for only six months. The Astor’s saviour, at the age of 19, managed to secure the lease and reopened the theatre against the rise of VHS in the early ’80s.
The days of the Astor Theatre as a Greek theatre were over but George’s determination to preserve the traditional movie-going experience when everyone was abandoning single screen theatres for multiplexes signalled the Astor Theatre’s comeback. And with a debut of a jungle-themed evening with the screening of King Kong and The African Queen the Astor Theatre’s niche was born. Screening classics back-to-back, themed nights with a double bill of horror or slapstick comedies, Sunday afternoon family friendly movies – The Astor Theatre paved its way in modern cultural folklore.
The Astor Theatre building is one of the last commercial single-screen art deco cinemas in Australia, the only repertory in Melbourne and one of the very few independents. Despite George’s attempts to preserve the theatre he couldn’t afford the estimated $3million that he needed to renovate the building so that the theatre retained its heritage-listed features and kept operating. Sadly, the building was auctioned on the 7 December 2007. The theatre was again in peril of closing.
Like a dream, next-door neighbour St Michael’s Grammar was at that time presented as the theatre’s white knight. The school came to the rescue by offering Florence an extended lease that would allow him to operate and run the theatre. But the dream wasn’t meant to last for long.
After a protest campaign by the Friends of the Astor that drew more than 13,000 signatures, the much discussed and criticized plans of St Michael’s to redevelop the beautiful art deco building into a multi-purpose performing arts complex came to an end.
The school recently sold the building to St Kilda businessman Ralph Taranto. The Astor’s new white knight is an 80-year-old businessman, vintage film expert and appreciator of art deco architecture. Like a modern romantic Don Quixote, he is committed to fight not for the profit but for the love and passion, and the survival and restoration of the unique building and the beloved Astor Theatre. He is planning to renovate the building’s facade, to keep it as a single-screen cinema and refurbish its interior. It is also expected that Florence will continue to run the cinema with a new long-term lease to be finalised soon.
Hopefully the Astor Theatre will have its happy ever after like in most of the fairy tales.