The magic of celluloid has fascinated audiences throughout the world since the 1890’s. A popular form of entertainment that is widely acknowledged for its cultural significance, the experience of cinema played a fundamental role in the social interaction of Greek immigrants in Australia, particularly during the era of post Second World War migration.
Many of us can affectionately recollect our fond experiences of attending suburban cinema theatres that screened classic Greek movies during our childhood, an integral part of our cultural upbringing, when Anglo-Saxon monoculturalism practices defined social constructs and behaviours.
Today, we enjoy the experience of watching a movie within the comforts of the so called “Gold Class” cinemas with luxurious seating, waiter service and an impressive restaurant menu.
Our recollections as Greek Australians of this popular, and perhaps, the only form of entertainment in our childhood seems to be all but a fading memory.
So, just imagine enjoying the experience of celluloid in the early 1900’s in Australia, when movie theatres had just commenced operation, and the experience of attending a screening of film, silent of course, felt majestic and dream-like.
What follows is an insight into the evolution of a movie theatre named Joy-Ark, a forgotten piece of Australian cinema history. The Joy Ark was commissioned and owned by two early Greek-Australian pioneers, George Panam (nee Panagiotopoulos) and Demetrius Antonios Mylonas and was constructed in 1912 on the Eastern Beach in the seaside city of Geelong in Victoria. At the time of construction, the Joy Ark was considered as the most grandiose and unique movie theatre for its time in the British Commonwealth.
Birth of a cinema
By early 1912, Demetrius Mylonas had commenced the commercial operation of screening films in the city of Geelong, together with his partner George Panam. The two had contrasting personalities and were to become pioneers in the cinema industry albeit for a limited time. George Panam the financier of the project and Mylonas the cinematic visionary.
The first cinema that they operated was at the Hibernian Hall also located in Geelong on Ryrie St. in May 1912, under the company name “Sun Pictures” which they had purchased earlier that year.
Immediatel, Mylonas – most certainly inspired by his brief residency in New York in 1907 – commenced a remarkable advertising campaign and one of the partnership’s first initiatives was to significantly decrease the price of admission, hence making the experience of cinema accessible to all.
Mylonas, also managed to secure a number of film epics from leading film production companies and the partnership invested significantly in refurbishing the Hibernian Hall as well as acquiring the most advanced model film projector.
“Mr. Mylonas opens a new nightly amusement this evening at the Hibernian Hall: The Sun Pictures. He has gone to the expense of putting in a beautiful set of converters by a well-known firm of Melbourne, also an operating machine of the latest type of Pathe-Freres, with every detail up to date. As for the films, he has signed contracts with the leading film companies for a full supply of the best that can be produced.” Geelong Advertiser May 23, 1912
The following week the “Geelong Advertiser” reported in its columns that “A reduction in the prices of admission to the Sun Pictures entertainments in the Hibernian Hall is announced, the management having arranged to charge only 6d. and 3d.”.
Within a matter of weeks “Sun Pictures” became an instant draw card with the local population of Geelong and the surrounding region flocking to their cinema, perhaps enjoying for the first time the sensory art of film that was enchanting audiences throughout the world.’
Such was the fascination that “a great number of patrons had to be refused admission: – at the Hibernian Hall on Saturday night and again last night, through the want of room.” Geelong Advertiser June 24, 1912
Both Mylonas and Panam instantly realised the potential of cinema becoming the favorite pastime for the masses and decided to capitalise on its success by embarking upon an ambitious commercial venture that was to be the creation of a movie theatre to be known as Joy Ark. By August 1912, these two Greek visionaries, upon securing the leasehold of a large site located on the Eastern Beach shore in Geelong, commissioned building contractors J.C. Taylor to create a movie theatre that would captivate the audience’s imagination.
A few months prior to the official opening of the movie theatre, Panam & Mylonas initiated an extraordinary publicity campaign with the aid of Geelong’s leading newspaper the Advertiser, methodically creating a hype amongst the city’s population. During each step of the project the spokesperson for the duo, Demetrius Mylonas, would reveal the partnerships’ bold plans by providing details of the magnitude of the venture. In an innovative move, for those times, they called for a naming competition by which readers of the Geelong Advertiser would submit their naming preference and the winner would be rewarded a significant sum of money; hence the birth of Joy Ark. Matinees dedicated to children at a cheaper admission price and major donations to charitable associations were an integral part of their marketing campaign. Both Mylonas & Panam promised to offer their patrons a movie theatre experience never seen before in Australia.
Just prior to Christmas of 1912, the people of Geelong were to witness the grand opening of Joy Ark. Built on the Eastern Geelong Beach, the movie theatre extended out over the waterfront and was set within the spacious promenade. Promoted as the most “Unique Picture Pavilion in the Commonwealth” and surrounded by the sea, Joy Ark was termed as “The House of a Thousand Lights” that illuminated across Corio bay.
The logistics involved were staggering even by today’s standards. The cost of building “Joy Ark” was said to be, in today’s terms, a staggering 4 million dollars. The capacity of the “Joy Arks” exceeded 1500 patrons and the theatre itself included an orchestra pit and the most modern and technological advanced cinema projector available at the time. The patron’s area ensured that attendees enjoyed all the up to date comforts of a modern cinematic experience along with a grand entrance hall were large buffets and refreshments were served to guests. With a staff of 25 and a string band, operation “Joy Ark” was ready to open its doors for the first time.
The Geelong Advertiser during December 1912, just days prior to official opening of Joy Ark, published the following observations in its columns:
“Built at a cost of £5600 to seat 1540 people, in comfortable tip chairs, the Joy Ark on the Eastern Beach when in full running will, the management states, costs £120 per week.
“The structure rests on 200 ironbark piles driven to an average depth of 8ft. The letters on the roof lie are 4ft. by 2ft. 6in. The promenade is 8ft. wide.. At one time the contractors, J.C. Taylor and Sons, had sixty working on the job, and to complete the building in time late hours had to be worked.
“Messrs. Panam and Mylonas are considering the advisability of arranging for the issue of joint tram and admission tickets to popularise their theatre”
Geelong Advertiser, 23 December, 1912
Joy Ark opened its doors for the first time to the public on Sunday, 22 December. The opening ceremony was conducted by the Mayor of the City of Geelong in front of a full house in the presence of the Federal Member of Corio, the Hon Alfred Thomas Ozanne. All the proceeds of opening night were donated to the Geelong Progress Association.
Joy Ark offered a new and unique way of experiencing cinema never witnessed before in Australia, with its owners turning away crowds, handing out thousands of gifts to children and filming the audience for prosperity purposes.
With the conclusion of the first season, in June 1913, over 100 classic silent films were screened at “Joy Ark” and the attendance figures were remarkable; it was reported that an estimated 140,000 adults and 10,000 children attended screenings at Joy Ark, when Geelong’s population was approximately 100,000.
The partners returned to the Hibernian Hall for the winter season and launched the Sun Picture Theatre”, which was completely remodeled at a cost of £2000, with its hall and entrance resembling “the style of the Melba Theatre in Melbourne”
By late September 1913, screenings re commenced at “Joy Ark” with Mylonas managing to secure some of the cinematic classics such the silent blockbuster films: “The Last Days of Pompeii”, “Quo Vadis” & “From the Manger to the Cross” attracting record attendances. Unfavorable weather conditions however resulted in a significant drop in admissions during the months of October and November.
Unfortunately, by start of 1914, the owners were confronted with numerous financial problems and filed for bankruptcy in February of that year, with the Geelong newsprint describing the insolvency case as one the biggest seen in many years in the Geelong district.
The local newspaper reported that “The following insolvency schedules, filed yesterday: George Panam and Demetrius Mylonas’ trading as Panam and Co., picture show – Causes: pressure of creditors, issue of a writ against the firm, unsuitable weather conditions and the opening of opposition establishments…..as to the future of both places nothing can be stated till the creditors meet it was desired to keep the two houses open in the meantime, but that proved impossible.” Unfortunately the partnership’s financial predicament resulted in the abrupt ending of an ambitious dream dubbed as Joy Ark and the Sun Picture Theatre, two cinema theatres that charmed the population of Geelong in the early 1900’s.
The owners and operators of Joy Ark
GEORGE PANAM NEE PANAGIOTOPOULOS – BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR & INVESTOR: George Panam nee Panagiotopoulos, born in the region of Magnesia in Asia Minor, was a shrewd business person with multiple business interests within the city of Melbourne. Arriving in Melbourne in 1888 he established himself as Oyster Saloon proprietor at 168 Swanston Street, Melbourne. He was also a proprietor of boarding houses providing short and long term accommodation to early Greek immigrants in the city. Panam was the financier of the partnership investing thousands of pounds in the two cinema ventures.
DEMETRIUS ANTONIOS MYLONAS – A CINEMA AND FILM PIONEER: Demetrius Antonios Mylonas, was born on the island Samos in 1883 and arrived at Perth in April 1902. For the first four years of his Australian residency, he operated an Oyster saloon in Leonora, Western Australia and for a period time was employed at the National Oyster Saloon, located on Hay Street, Perth. Upon obtaining his citizenship Mylonas decided to depart from Australia, returning to his native land of Samos however the young Mylonas was about to embark upon another adventure, this time following the trail of many Greeks who were departing en masse for the United States in 1907. Mylonas’ arrival at New York coincided with advent movie theatres in the United States. It is in the city of New York where he became acquainted with the operation and management of movie theatres before departing for Australia once again.
The Panam & Mylonas cinema legacy continued soon after with many early Greek immigrants becoming actively involved in the film industry. By 1923 Adam Tavlaradi wrote, produced and financed the film “The Boy of the Dardanelles” and in 1926 the “Saraton Picture Theatre” in Grafton NSW, was opened by two brothers, John and Anthony Notaras; the cinema still operates today.
A few years later, and according to early newspaper reports, the first screening of the Greek production film titled “Kiss Maritsa” (Filise tin Maritsa) took place in both Sydney and Melbourne in 1933. By the early 1950’s the systematic screening of Greek films in many major cities of Australia as well as regional towns was well and truly underway.
As for the two main protagonist of this magnanimous project and creators of “Joy Ark”, George Panam returned to Melbourne after his financial demise to commence building once again his business empire and Demetrius Mylonas continued as the owner and manager of the “Britannia” movie theatre in Perth for a few years before finally settling in Sydney where he played a major role in the affairs of many Greek organisations.
These Greek pioneers shaped the early Australian landscape of the emerging art of cinema and movie theatres in the early 1900’s and should be recognised for their vision and cultural contribution to early Australian cinema. Hopefully both Panam and Mylonas together with “Joy Ark” will take their rightful place within the realms of Australian cinematic history one day.
Finally, the movie theatre that was “Joy Ark” by the 1920s had become a roller skating rink, dance hall and concert hall and eventually was demolished in 1926. Sadly, today only a single sculpted bollard, one of the iconic colourful bollards along the Geelong waterfront, reminds us as to where exactly “Joy Ark” was located on the Eastern Beachfront in Geelong.
Costas Markos is a board member of the Greek Community of Melbourne. References and Resources for this article are from the Australian Newspaper Archival Collection – Trove; State Library of Victoria-Newspaper collections; The Joy Ark Theatre at Eastern Beach. Geelong, Victoria, pre 1920, Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo. With thanks to: Kostas A., Kostas K., Nikos P. and Siobhan C. K.