ALBURY ENTERTAINMENT CENTRE CELEBRATES ITS 50TH BIRTHDAY

1960s photo of the Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre. Now called the Albury Entertainment Centre.

1960s photo of the Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre. Now called the Albury Entertainment Centre.

The year 1964 saw the Beatles visit Australia, the Voyager disaster, the return of National Service, TV for the Border and a spectacular new theatre for Albury.

“IT is a gem that will stand the test of time.” 

That was how mayor Cleaver Bunton described the Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre at its opening 50 years ago.

During a half century marked by change, the building itself has undergone several name changes.

The complex was renamed the Albury Convention and Performing Arts Centre in the late 80s and now it’s known as the Albury Entertainment Centre. 

Thousands of performers have taken to its stage, including Gene Pitney, Slim Dusty, Acker Bilk, Roger Woodward, James Morrison and Lee Kernaghan. 

Today those words from the former mayor continue to ring true as the Albury Entertainment Centre manager Brendan Maher testifies.

“He was exactly right, it has stood in time and will stand another 50 years,” Mr Maher said.

Wind the clock back to May 22, 1964 when the Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre was officially opened.

The ladies dressed in evening gowns and gentlemen in suits moving through the foyer as the brassy notes of a fanfare sounded.

It was the first official event then NSW premier Jack Renshaw had attended outside Sydney. 

Then member for Farrer Sir David Fairbairn and Albury counterpart Dudley Padman were there.

Nearly every one of the theatre’s 812 seats was occupied and crowds waited outside near the fountain to see the unveiling of the theatre that had cost the city £230,000.

A war memorial cairn was installed in the theatre’s foyer, as a tribute to the nation’s fallen sailors, soldiers, airmen and nurses. 

The memorial consisted of rocks from battlefields, with panels marking Australia’s involvement in conflicts since the Boer War and images of the Rising Sun and the Eternal Flame. 

It was removed in 2003 after it was declared a safety hazard and the stone base was moved to a site outside Anzac House in Wilson Street. 

Renshaw was mightily impressed and in a theatrical flourish of his own making declared it reminded him of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in England. 

He predicted that as the Sydney Opera House would be a world class hallmark of Australian culture, the Albury theatre would gain a nationwide reputation by giving opportunities to Australian artists. 

Centre manager Brendan Maher holds a commemorative photo of the then Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

Centre manager Brendan Maher holds a commemorative photo of the then Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

A gala concert on Thursday — 50 years to the opening day — will replicate the opening but the dignitaries won’t include the NSW Premier, nor will there be a message from Mike Baird.

But there will be a similar program and some performers will return.

“It will be nice to see what it’s like with modern sound and lighting,” Mr Maher said. 

“We hope to cover all forms of performance to represent what the Albury Entertainment Centre stands for.”

From Gough Whitlam to the Wiggles, the theatre has featured a remarkable array of people.

To name a few, they included Bob Hawke, Rodney Rude, Judith Durham, Danny La Rue, Kamahl, Bob Carr, David Helfgott, Keith Urban, Roger Woodward, Boy and Bear and the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras. 

At the opening in 1964, pianist Glennis Carter played Grieg’s Concerto in A minor on a Bechstein concert grand piano alongside her late husband Jack, then town clerk. 

This year she will play the same score on the same piano alongside her two daughters and grandson.

Glennis Carter performed at the opening of the Albury Entertainment Centre 50 years ago and will play the piano at the celebrations of the Centre's 50th anniversary. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

Glennis Carter performed at the opening of the Albury Entertainment Centre 50 years ago and will play the piano at the celebrations of the Centre's 50th anniversary. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

Mrs Carter remembered citizens being in awe of the theatre.

“There wasn’t much to do in those days,” she said.

“We didn’t have things like computers and games, we just had music, which was why it was so exciting.”

However, there was controversy surrounding the Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre that was to replace the old Mechanics’ Institute. 

“There was a debate and knockers who didn’t think it was a good idea but it was such an exciting time it went ahead anyway and wasn’t a big deal,” Mrs Carter said. 

Returning from Melbourne to rehearse for the anniversary event, Mrs Carter said Albury was still a well-cared-for city.

“It is as buzzing as a successful city and back then Cr Bunton kept telling everyone that Albury was the best place in the world,” she said. 

Elaine Buchhorn, who played piano accompaniment at the opening of the theatre, has also delved into a scrapbook of memories.

“They were good times,” Miss Buchhorn said at her Lavington home.

“We got dressed up in evening frocks and now people don’t usually get dressed up like that.”

She remembered the events she had attended and spoke about how she played 90 accompaniments in the theatre in one year. 

“We were waiting for the theatre to be opened for years and years,” she said.

“There hadn’t been a decent theatre in Albury, just the old (Mechanics) where the chairs were a bit stiff.”

Mr Maher, who has worked at the entertainment centre 25 years, said there had been no major structural changes to the original building. 

“It’s amazing to think Albury had a vision for this type of theatre back then,” he said.

“It was far ahead of its time.”

Judy Brindley has also been invited on Thursday, having performed in Ned Kelly with the Coronet Play House — together with Wendy and Barry Donnelly — two months after the theatre opened. 

 Judy Brindley holds the dress she wore while playing the role of the Jerilderie Hotel Barmaid in the production of Ned Kelly, the first local production held in the then Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

Judy Brindley holds the dress she wore while playing the role of the Jerilderie Hotel Barmaid in the production of Ned Kelly, the first local production held in the then Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

It was the first homegrown production to hit the new stage. 

“I remember Woman’s Day coming up from Melbourne and they did a two-page spread,” she said. 

“I played the barmaid at the Jerilderie Hotel when it was held up.”

Mrs Brindley and Mr and Mrs Donnelly are the only ones from the production who remain in Albury. 

She said the new theatre was an inspiration for the players. 

“Just to be on the big stage was fantastic and of course 50 years ago there wasn’t another theatre in Albury of that size.”

Mrs Brindley said the theatre was an “upmarket” addition to the city at the time. 

“It was a step forward for Albury, the Mechanic’s Institute on Dean Street was very basic,” she said.

“It just had a flat floor and a much smaller stage of course.

“To have this seemed like the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, with all the seats and the upstairs and the big dressing room.”

Mrs Brindley said the look of the theatre hadn’t changed.

“If you looked at it today you could still recognise it and know it was the same theatre,” she said.

Thursday’s anniversary concert will include performances from students at The Scots School, Albury, the Albury High School, Jan Skinner, Glenn Starr, the Murray Conservatorium Orchestra, the Regional Academy Performing Arts and the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. 

Fifty years ago the Albury Council had a grand vision and today that vision has been realised.

ENCORE AFTER HALF A CENTURY

GLENNIS Carter will return to the theatre stage at the Albury Entertainment Centre on Thursday night, exactly 50 years after she played on the theatre’s opening night.

Glennis Carter performed at the opening of the Albury Entertainment Centre 50 years ago and will play the piano at the celebrations of the Centre's 50th anniversary. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

Glennis Carter performed at the opening of the Albury Entertainment Centre 50 years ago and will play the piano at the celebrations of the Centre's 50th anniversary. Picture: MATTHEW SMITHWICK

Mrs Carter has been rehearsing the same piece, Grieg’s Concerto in A minor, which she will play on the same Bechstein concert grand piano used on May 22, 1964 at the opening gala.

On that occasion she was joined by her late husband Jack but on Thursday she will be accompanied by her two daughters and grandson.

The opening of the Albury War Memorial Civic Theatre in 1964 was undertaken by then NSW premier Jack Renshaw, with mayor Cleaver Bunton presiding.

Nearly every one of the theatre’s 812 seats was occupied and crowds waited outside to see the unveiling of the theatre that had cost the city £230,000.

Mrs Carter remembered there was some controversy before the theatre was built to replaced the old Mechanics’ Institute, for “knockers who didn’t think it was a good idea”.

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