‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ – Anon.
Just going through this short history and reading the list of Schonell’s first releases makes me realise how influential this theatre has been in the cultural life of Brisbane.
Thanks to former managers, Jim Beatson, Ron Wakenshaw and Desley Agnoletto for the excellent programs they put together.
Thanks to the projectionists who put them on screen and thanks to the staff who made us feel welcome.
Save the Schonell!
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). The person in middle wearing an Anti-Vietnam war moratorium cap is Australian Actor, Trevor Smith. 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 1970. 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).
Eventually the Schonell opened in 1970 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.
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, and The Crystal, Windsor, 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, Jeff Hardy (who served on the Union’s Theatre Committee) and Ron Wakenshaw from the National Film Theatre screenings met 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  and a number of actors another theatre people, who went on to successful theatrical and circus careers, overseas and interstate. Hardy later enjoyed an overseas career as both a theatrical entrepreneur and lawyer, finally becoming a New York-based lecturer on cinema.
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 hits were Woody Allen movies, and Annie Hall and Manhattan both made their Australian debuts at the Schonell. HOYTS would never have previously considered the Schonell for a mainstream first release. In fact after Annie Hall won the Best Picture Oscar, Hoyts requested a co-release with the Schonell for other Woody Allen movies as well as Equus.
By the end of the 1970s the Schonell was established as the major art house theatre in Brisbane and it retained that position until the end of the nineties. Distributors like DENDY and PALACE saw the money the Schonell was making with their films and decided to extend their chains to Brisbane. DENDY was first and established themselves in Edward Street, ironically in the cinema that Wakenshaw had established for the National Film Theatre screenings with Brisbane movie buff, CHRIS COLLIER, who had previously worked in the building in the Patents Office. When the Government offices were closed down, they contacted the Federal Government with the proposal for it to be turned into and arts space, and immediate approval was given to use one half for a cinema and the other for a live theatre with an art gallery above. Plans and construction took ages and by the opening Wakenshaw was firmly entrenched at the Schonell.
The Dendy operation was a success but the venue was too small. They then moved in to the closed-down Greater Union “GEORGE”, a previously 70mm house. PALACE saw how successful they were and so made plans to come to Brisbane and opened a 4 screen complex in the Fortitude Valley in 2000.
Wakenshaw was due to retire in 1999 and by this time the Schonell had to share audiences with a 16 screen complex and an independent 8 screen at Indooroopilly and a twin at Graceville. The Industry saw the money to be made in the Western Suburbs and he saw that the Schonell days would be numbered by 2000. He was to retire in 1999 so he proceeded to give the Union plans of how a New Schonell could survive. Unfortunately a new officer of the Union had taken up residence and proceeded to get rid of all employees with knowledge of his nefarious actions and long service. Wakenshaw was his major obstacle and he would not consider any of his plans, so he retired in October 1999 and then the Management reverted back to its old habits of being controlled by the Distributors and in a few years the losses amounted to 2 million.
The SCHONELL PIZZA CAFFE, an idea created by Desley and Pietro Agnoletto in 1992 to cater for evening students and movie-goers, was a great success story but its profits were wiped out by the Schonell losses so the cinema side was shut down in 2006.
From 2001 on the finances of the student union had changed dramatically, as the Howard Government had brought in voluntary student unionism which cut off the rivers of gold which had previously flowed into the Union’s coffers. The main auditorium was taken over by the University for a lecture theatre and luckily during vacations, The Gang Show and Ballet hires were still able to perform there.
However, two of the Schonell’s top money-making films of all time were screened in the early 2000s – What the Bleep and Cunnamulla
The theatre opened again in 2008 for limited cinema screenings, not least because it was right beside the popular Pizza Caffé. But the thorny question of what to do with the Schonell which so occupied the student’ Union in the 1970s, came back to occupy their successors – sometimes literally their children – some 40 years later.
In 2017 it stopped screening commercial movies altogether and has become a commercial venue for hire.
The Schonell was a vital part of Brisbane’s popular culture for decades, being patronised by residents from all over Brisbane as well as over 40 years of university students.
Thanks to Ron Wakenshaw, Jim Beatson, Desley Agnoletto and Andrew Fraser for compiling this history.
SCHONELL FIRST RELEASES
AMARCORD DAY FOR NIGHT
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE THE ICEMAN COMMETH THE HOMECOMING
A DELICATE BALANCE RHINOCEROUS LUTHER
THREE SISTERS BUTLEY
LOST IN THE STARS
LOVE & DEATH ROYAL FLASH SEVEN BEAUTIES
CONVERSATION PIECE BLACK MOON
F FOR FAKE
LE MARVELLIOUS VISIT MADAME ROSA LACOMBE LUCIEN
LES VIOLINS DU BAL GALILEO
JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS IN CELEBRATION
THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH
TWILIGHTS LAST GLEAMING THE RITZ
W.C. FIELDS & ME ERASERHEAD VALENTINO
7% SOLUTION SEDUCTION OF MIMI SALON KITTY1978
A WHOLE LIFETIME
(BROKE ALL AUSTRALIAN RECORDS) FEDORA
LOVE & ANARCHY MR KLEIN
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
PARDON MON AFFAIRE
ALLEGRO NON TROPPE
SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
DAYS OF HEAVEN
BREAD & CHOCOLATE
GET OUT YOUR HANDERCHIEFS
MAO TO MOZART
BYE BYE BRAZIL
ANNIE HALL*** (Australian Premiere)
BRIMSTONE & TREACLE
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE
FADE TO BLACK
PIRATES OF PENZANCE
MANHATTAN (Australian Premiere)
COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME
PHANTON OF LIBERTE
SACCO & VANZETTI
DANCE OF LIFE
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE
MAN OF FLOWERS
FANNY & ALEXANDER
PURPLE ROSE OF CIARO
SIMPLE MINDED MURDERER
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
MY MOTHERS CASTLE
COLONEL REDYL RAN
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN
DOGS IN SPACE
NAME OF THE ROSE
WITHNAIL & I
Z & 2 NOUGHTS
JEAN DE FLORETTE
MANON OF THE SPRING
LE GRAND CHEMIN
MY LIFE AS A DOG
TWO MOON JUNCTION
DOWN BY LAW
AS TIME GOES BY
HANDFUL OF DUST
SALOMES LAST DANCE
PRICK UP YOUR EARS
LAW OF DESIRE
DROWNING BY NUMBERS
ROSALIE GOES SHOPPING
PELLE THE CONQUEROR
WILD AT HEART
ANGEL AT MY TABLE
STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON
JESUS OF MONTREAL
TIE ME UP TIE ME DOWN
AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD
ROSENKRANTZ & GUILDERSTEIN
CITY OF JOY
RUBY & RATA
WHAT HAVE I DONE
MY FATHERS GLORY
LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE
WEDDING BANQUET FOR A LOST SOLDIER
WHATS EATING G GRAPE
SPIDER & ROSE
WINDOW TO PARIS
LOVE & HUMAN REMAINS
BABY OF MACON
6 DEGREES OF SEPERATION
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
BREAD & ROSES
YOUNG POISONERS HANDBOOK
MOST DESIRED MAN
STRAWBERRY & CHOCOLATE
SECRET OF ROAN INISH
LIVING IN OBLIVION
SECRETS & LIES
DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS
CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION
DEATH ON LONG ISLAND
PLUNKETT & MACLEANE
RUN LOLA RUN
GODS & MONSTERS
These films were the most popular encore screenings after they were released elsewhere.
AGUIRE WRATH OF GOD
GARDEN OF FITZI CONTINIS
TIS PITY SHE A WHORE
THE ENIGMA OF KASPER HAUSER
DISCREET CHARM OF BOURGEOISE
DEATH IN VENICE
VIRGIN & GYPSY
[First Releases provided by Desley Agnoletto]
Note: Union refers to the name of an institution and therefore uppercase should be used for Union.