In the early 1960s the Princess was in trouble. It ran one session a day, from 7.45pm to about 11pm, with a matinee on Saturday afternoon. First release of any film always took place in Perth, and so it could be many weeks before it arrived in Fremantle.
The theatre had one competitor on the other side of town, the Oriana. This had once been Hoyts Fremantle, but somehow had also found itself attached to the City Theatres stable as a sort of appendix. The Oriana was a much nicer theatre on the corner of High and Queen Streets. It carried more exiting films too. Twentieth Century Fox releases and Disney. The name was changed in respect of the first visit to the port of the P&O Ship of the same name. Sadly the Oriana has now gone - replaced by some small unimaginative shops.
Assistant projectionists at the Princess were expected to make up their hours by coming in from 10 to 12 on weekday mornings and helping the cleaner. This was something I hated, but the pay was double that at MGM and what other kids my age were earning, so I persevered. The cleaner’s name was Mrs Hamilton, and she lived on Stirling Highway in Mosman Park. By this time I had taken up surfing, and she kindly allowed me to keep my surfboard on a bicycle-towed trailer beneath her house. I would ride from Attadale into Fremantle, do my two hours, then ride to her house to collect my board and surf at Cottesloe for a few hours. Then I would ride back home, have tea and go back to work on the bus.
Mrs Hamilton was a motherly figure and had a variety of young assistants come under her charge over the years. Among these was a Terry Anderson who nicknamed her Mrs Hambone. It stuck.
Terry became the projectionist at the Oriana well before my time. His father had been a well known Fremantle policeman, and his mother Iris gained a national reputation for looking after orphaned kangaroos. She eventually wrote a book on the subject.
They lived in Preston Point Road, Bicton. Terry suddenly left the movie industry when he was about 28 and took his wife and parents with him to Denmark on the south coast where they operated a caravan park at the mouth of Wilson’s Inlet. He also set up a tanker business draining the town’s septic tanks. He sent a message back to his former colleagues in Fremantle that he was “making lots of money for carting muck.”
The manager of the Princess was a Mr Roy Knight. A gentle-gentleman, with a glass eye. He had been a former cleaner at the Princess and had been promoted. Later he became manager of the Starline Drive-In in Hilton Park. Roy used to pick up the films from the exchanges and bring them to the theatre in the cavernous boot of a grey Humber Super-Snipe. He was a hard worker and I always had the impression that the company took advantage of him. The Knights had a well deserved big break in the 1960s when they won the lotteries. By that time he was at the Starline, so the Princess staff missed out on any champagne.
When he was at the Princess he disclosed that he had a favourite song which related to the early romancing of his wife. It was Moonlight and roses ... bring wonderful memories of you... Somehow a record turned up with the tune and we played it over the sound system for him. I think it always brought tears to his glassie.
Roy’s cleaning background meant he had a thing about clean toilets. I hated them and my efforts showed. Several times Roy frustratingly attempted to show me how to do the job just right, but he was trying to teach the wrong kid. In fact the lavatories, especially the upstairs ones, were quite flash art deco. It was interesting that the womens’ toilets suffered greatly from obscene lipstick graffiti. The mens’ were rarely attacked.
The Princess had a long arcade leading in from Market Street. Outside of opening hours a portable grey-painted wooden barricade was fitted across to keep out the rif raf. One of the assistant’s irksome duties was to carry the heavy sections from a storage area at about 10pm in preparation for setting up after the end of the show, but often the manager and doorman would help. Another task was to help change the front-of-house advertising posters on the last night of a show. This peeved the projectionists because they were left alone to do all the bio-box work after interval. The last night of a show was always busy, even if there were not many patrons.
The Princess had been a glamorous theatre once, going well back into the days of vaudeville. When I commenced there was peeling paint, and the red stair carpets were showing signs of wear. The general feeling amongst staff was that the place needed a good spruce up, but to repaint the entire theatre would have been an enormous expense in view of the limited patronage it was getting. Nevertheless the City Theatres management did authorise some minor work in the early 1960s.
The downstairs seating area was called the stalls, and upstairs had the most expensive softer seating in the lounge, which overlooked the balcony. Behind this was the slightly cheaper dress circle. All seats were numbered, and on most sessions there was at least one usherette on duty to show people to them. Saturday nights were the busiest and several usherettes were usually on duty upstairs before the show. At least one woman remained on duty until interval.
Staff such as usherettes, ticket sellers and doormen were part timers and often had done years of service. The doormen wore tuxedos. The usherettes were always impeccably groomed and had a uniform. One of the women I remember was Ruby Lane. She had worked during the days at Pearce Brothers boot factory in North Fremantle. After I got a car I used to give her a lift to work. Very attractive, she was quite a bit older than me but simply a work colleague. I met her again a few years ago and she hadn’t appeared to have aged at all. She had never married.
The theatre had a couple of candy bars, one upstairs which was never opened while I was there, and the other in a large partitioned area to the right side of the stalls. I am not sure how it connected financially to the theatre. It was run by a Mr and Mrs Ingram who also had an involvement with the running of the Royal Fremantle Golf Club. They dispensed great quantities of lemon and orange cordial to the theatre patrons.
There was a large storage area next to this candy bar which was nearly as large as the theatre. It contained a huge quantity of theatrical bric-a-brac which went back a long way. Posters, recordings, bit of equipment. It would have been worth a fortune today but probably went to the tip when the theatre eventually closed.
There was also the Princess Theatre shop, which was adjacent to the entrance arcade, and was run by people not connected with the theatre. The shop always had a stale gassy smell about it. The Fremantle Gas and Coke Company had a couple of small spherical gasometers behind the buildings on the opposite side of Market Street and perhaps the smell was related to some sort of underground leakage.
I remember as a young kid buying a bar of chocolate from that shop before I worked in the theatre. It was crunchy and I thought I had bought Coconut Rough by mistake. When the lights came on at interval I discovered it was plain chocolate infested with weevils.
The shop now in use by a Greek grocery family selling dry foods, coffee beans and stuff.
Some of the original ornate masonry can still be seen.
The Princess has long been closed as a theatre and converted to a warehouse. The auditorium can still be inspected from Leake Street. The upstairs area is still pretty well intact, but the seats and carpets have gone. I showed some of my kids around earlier this year. A bit spooky because I had quite vivid memories of what once was. Stairways filled with well dressed people coming to see the show, all-seeing usherettes with torches. Now all ghosts. Then there was my accidentally having a film trunk burst open and the spools crashing down the aisle amongst the patrons during the last screening of a film. We usually took them downstairs on Thursday nights in readiness for a quick getaway.
The toilets are now a mess. Not spick and span like Roy used to have them. Even so, I reckon with a decent bit of capital and some imagination the theatre could still be restored.
Coming soon: Projection equipment at the Princess.
© 2004 P. Weaver.
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