The Schonell Theatre

‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ – Anon.

The Schonell Theatre arose out of the ambition of some students at the university’s residential colleges in the 1960s to have their end-of-year Gilbert and Sullivan and other productions performed at their own live theatre space, with some lofty ambitions of it being used to stage the equivalent of the Cambridge Footlights, or some such similar production.

Student Union President Bob Wensley (right) talking with the Governor General Paul Hasluck (left). Trevor Smith is in the middle wearing an Anti-Vietnam war moratorium cap. Opening of the Schonell Theatre on 22 Sept 1970. Photo: Semper Floreat.

It was a big undertaking for the Union, even a cashed-up one, primarily led by Union President, Bob Wensley. Work on the Schonell started in 1967 with the original estimate that it would cost $260,000 and be finished in a year. In the end, the desire to give college students their own theatre stage cost the union $870,000 and several years’ work, but it was eventually finished in the 1970s. Partly to finance the overrun, the Commonwealth Bank was offered 15 years free rent in the extensions beside the Schonell, an arrangement which gave the Commonwealth a monopoly over bank services on campus (p 13, A History of the Avalon Theatre 1921-2007, Nigel Pearn and Richard Fotheringham).[Editor’s note: This claim of monopoly for the CBA is incorrect. At that time, there were two other financial institutions on campus. Bank of New South Wales housed on the ground floor of the JD Storey building and the Staff credit union (TALSA) which provided interest free loans to members.]

Eventually the Schonell opened in 1970s as a live theatre with an extravagant production of Bacchoi, based on the legend of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy. But the students showed a flair for publicity by adding a very 1970s touch of nudity to these traditional theatrical themes, and the juxtaposition of Greek mythology and nudity prompted front-page headlines and reporting. It was a great start for the new theatre.

Geoffrey Rush.jpg

Nudity was an ongoing theme of student live theatre in the early 1970s. In 1971, Geoffrey Rush, who went on to become one of Australia’s most celebrated actors, would perform nude in a musical satirical production written by renowned actor and later playwright, Error O’Neill, called I Hear What You Say, a term named after a catch-phrase regularly repeated by the then vice-chancellor and later Australian Governor-General, Zelman Cowan. Rush walked on stage and said “This is a student revue. You’re undoubtedly expecting a nude scene” and then just took his gear off, stood there naked for a couple of seconds, then walked off stage.

Why the title I Hear What You Say? Well Robyn Bardon, the co-editor of student newspaper, Semper Floreat, wrote in Semper referring to Zelman Cowen’s “Famous phrase of fatuity, ‘I hear what you say’, which committed him to nothing more than he wasn’t stone deaf. He may as well be.” Yes, they were radical times at Queensland University during the Zelman Cowan era.

Nudity may have got the audiences and the headlines early on, but it was hard to sustain. Elsewhere in Brisbane, a live theatre had been opened in the SGIO building in the CBD only a year before which provided a home for the newly-formed Queensland Theatre Company, so traditional theatre-goers suddenly had a live theatre suitable for the sort of productions they liked.

But at the same time, the world of theatre was changing, with an emerging experimental style which was far more spontaneous, “real”, using Australian playwrights and often inviting audience participation. The Schonell had been designed as a traditional live theatre, which, in addition to fixed seating in staggered rows, also had an orchestra pit. The indulgence which scandalised various union hacks over the 1970s was a lift which moved the orchestra up and down, so that they would suddenly be in sight, then suddenly gone. But it also meant a distinct gap between the stage and the audience, something completely at odds with emerging modern theatre, a style which interested more students than more traditional theatre. Later on boards were built to cover the pit, and removed as required.

However the theatre’s design was a triumph for its architect, Stephen Trotter, and for its patrons. Since it was sufficiently steeply raked, that no patrons suffered from a head protruding from the row in front and the rows were so wide that newcomers didn’t disrupt existing seated patrons. Most importantly there was no central aisle, since there were isles at either end of the seating. Uniquely in theatre design brick walls containing an arch entrance of each row were built. So separating the aisle from the auditorium. Again this isolated the disturbances normally experienced by theatre goers with late arrivals. While the foyer was huge allowing for patrons to relax in style while overlooking at the Uni grounds and Brisbane River from the theatre’s huge glass windows.

Prior to becoming the Schonell’s legendary manager, lifelong cinema obsessive Ron Wakenshaw, gave out his annual awards to Brisbane cinemas called the Ronnie’s. The Ronnies included Best Seating, Best Screen Ratio of the Auditorium, Best Sound and overall Best Cinema. For at least the first five years from its opening the Schonell’s cleaned up at the Ronnies.

Yet after the opening extravaganza the Schonell bumbled along as a live theatre for a few years, hosting the Boys Scouts’ annual theatrical production, the Gang Show, as well as a series of young student ballet performances, staged by some of Brisbane’s many private ballet teachers. Other users were the reviews done by the various residential colleges on campus. Most of the hirer’s agreements of the theatre were done at the loss making hire rate as set by the Union. At the same time the theatre was managed by an old style suburban cinema manager who typically screened the same film each night, changing weekly. None of this was exactly the cutting edge of a new theatre. Consequently the Schonell was losing the Students Union $500 a week, and the situation was patently not sustainable.

As the 1970s rolled out, the future of the Schonell became a major issue for the union. One possible solution was the use of the Schonell as a cinema rather than a live theatre, but the films shown were all the standard Hollywood releases which would arrive at the Schonell after their city screening. Again, this was hardly cutting-edge stuff, and there was little future in competing with bigger theatres in town for the same Hollywood movies.

But as live theatre was changing, but so too was the world of film and movies. Hollywood was moving away from tried and true but tired mainstream stories such as Cleopatra or musicals like Paint Your Wagon as new low-budget film films such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy which tackled contemporary issues for a younger audience. But new technology also meant that film-making did not require a blockbuster budget, and a wave of new European directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and other art house cinema were largely ignored. Outside of Brisbane there was a zing and excitement about the new style of movies, but none of this was reflected in Brisbane.

About the only place where such films could be seen in Brisbane was off campus at places such as the Brisbane Filmmakers Co-Operative, which screened films such as Warhol films from the US as well as avant-garde movies from Australia, France, Italy, other parts of Europe, and even South America.

New technology and lower costs also meant that film was also becoming an accessible art form at a local level, resulting in efforts such as Bruce Dickson’s “The RE Film” of 1974.

Jim Beatson, a mature-aged student who had lived in London in the 1960s and was active in the Students Union in the early 70s, was one of several who saw the potential of the Schonell as an avant-garde cinema rather than one simply screening the sort of films which could be seen in town a week earlier.

There were other pointers for the Union about the best direction for the Schonell. On Sunday nights the Ham brothers, Evan and Peter, would hire the cinema and screen double-feature art house movies, and they were attracting big crowds. The down side for the Student Union was that the brothers hired the cinema on a commercial basis and then kept the profits from the door. Meantime, the cinema kept losing money Monday to Saturday with their fare of regular movies, making Sunday nights the only time it was making money – but none of it was going to the union. It was obvious – there was a market there which could be easily tapped, but the Schonell programming at the time was ignoring it.

The fate of the Schonell became a passionate issue in union elections around the mid-70s, and eventually Beatson and his supporters won the argument about the direction of the Schonell. But the big question was how to get there.

The Union’s new Treasurer Alan Fowler, having met Ron Wakenshaw at the National Film Theatre screenings arranged for Ron and Jim to meet with a view to stop bleeding Union money on the Schonell.

Wakenshaw had a remarkable knowledge of local cinema distributors, and the international and local film industry as well as being a driven, engaging and slightly eccentric workaholic. Ron was a part of the Brisbane Film Society as well as being an engaging man. When Fowler first approached him, Wakenshaw wondered why the Schonell was losing money. “Every time I went, on a Sunday night, there were great movies and the place was packed,” he said.

Based on the success of the Sunday nights plus a better knowledge of what was happening around the world in cinemas, the vision of Beatson and Wakenshaw was to turn the theatre into a daily programmed mix of genre and art-house cinema showing films otherwise unavailable in Brisbane. Wakenshaw, who had excellent contacts with the four distributors in Brisbane, was to implement it, Beatson’s was to steer the vision through the Union and its stakeholders.

In late 1975 the theatre was closed down for several weeks to be overhauled for the “new Schonell”. One of the changes was better marketing, so that people – especially those from outside the university – knew where the Schonell Theatre was. Part of this involved painting in lower case “schonell theatre” using the theatre’s new type face and floodlit on the fly tower of the theatre. This was undertaken by Ralph Loveday, an architecture student who was one of the painters, said involved getting on very- high trestles and holding on. “It wouldn’t get close to passing Workplace Health and Safety laws today,” he said in 2017.

The Schonell may technically have been on the Student Union’s property but the administration still cast a stern eye over what was happening there, and the appearance of the sign irritated the university administration, who insisted it be removed, largely because, they said, of consideration of the Schonell family. The theatre had been named after Sir Fred Schonell, a former vice-chancellor of the university, who had passed away. According to Beatson, the university argued that his widow, Eleanor (who, in the sometimes small world of Queensland, had a walkway bridge across the Brisbane River named after her some 30 years later) would be offended by having her husband’s name printed in lower case. “They didn’t like that lower case font,” said Loveday. But the theatre declined to remove the sign.

But all of this was a side argument beside what was happening inside the cinema, which presented a whole new style of programs aimed not only at UQ students but also at the broader Brisbane population interested in cinema.

Innovations such as midnight screenings of Warhol movies on a Friday night were introduced, working on the sound commercial principle that students and other young people often indulged in late nights and a movie was a pretty good way to finish up an entertaining night. It also created a sort of cache – this was something new, this was something different, this was the new Brisbane. They also implemented arthouse movies on Saturday afternoons, and ballet and opera movies on Sunday afternoons, school screenings of movies on prescribed English curricula, leading to 13 program changes every week!

The “new Schonell” opened to a full house who saw Death in Venice and The Virgin and the Gypsy. Death in Venice became a popular attraction – “Every time we screened it we got a full house, 400 people,” said Wakenshaw. It was the cool theatre to be seen at. So popular, that long chains had to be installed in the foyer to separate those who’d bought tickets ready to go in, while waiting for those to come out of a previous film. Fellini’s Amacord and Truffaut’s Day for Night were the sort of films being shown at the Schonell which were not available in mainstream cinemas.

At the same time hiring fees for the Schonell were changed to reflect actual costs and so removing another drain on Union finances. To offset this the Union used clever architect and Uni Architectural school lecturer, Max Horner, to turn the dirt filled foundation under the theatre into an intimate and versatile live theatre called the Cement Box Theatre. This addition satisfied the campus theatre group, UniQ, led by Jeff Hardy[1] and a number of actors another theatre people, who went on to successful theatrical and circus careers, overseas and interstate.

At extraordinary speed the Schonell went from losing money to becoming became the most profitable single screen independent cinema in Queensland, and quite possibly Australia.

The big commercial hit was Woody Allen movies, and Annie Hall and Manhattan both made their Australian debuts at the Schonell, whom Brisbane distributors would never have previously considered for a first release mainstream movie.

By the end of the 1970s the Schonell was established as the major art house theatre in Brisbane and it retained that position until it closed for the first time in 2005.

Over time other cinemas watched the financial viability of the Schonell model so no longer had the monopoly on arthouse movies in Brisbane. Coinciding with this, the finances of the student union had changed dramatically, as the Howard Government has brought in voluntary student unionism which cut off the rivers of gold which had previously flowed into the union’s coffers. Consequently, the union could not afford to cross-subsidise the theatre

But it opened again in 2008 for limited screenings, not least because it was right beside the popular Pizza Café. But the thorny question of what to do with the Schonell which so occupied the students’ union in the 1970s came back to occupy their successors – sometimes literally their children – some 40 years later.

In 2017 it stopped screening movies altogether and has become a commercial venue for hire, a vital part of Brisbane’s popular culture for decades which had been patronised by considerably more Brisbane residents than university students. But whose time has now come. And gone.

Andrew Fraser and Jim Beatson

[1] Jeff later enjoyed an overseas career as both a theatrical entrepreneur and lawyer, finally becoming a New York-based lecturer on cinema.

Feature Image: From the poster of Leviathan, a 2014 Russian drama film directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin.

University to demolish Schonell by Ian Curr

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