Streaming services nor the pandemic could kill off my love of going to the movies.
As a kid, it was with my Dad almost every Saturday at the George Street complex in the city. Pretty much every ‘80s and ‘90s action flick you could think of.
These days, I still get to the cinema about once a fortnight. The ability of the big screen to capture your full attention for two or so hours is something worth savouring.
Sure, Hoyts in Penrith desperately needs an upgrade to match its stablemate in Blacktown and the multiplexes of today don’t necessarily have the same magic as yesteryear, but I’m a sucker for tradition.
Which brings me to a slice of Penrith history: It’s 30 years this week since the Hayden Cinemas on High Street in Penrith closed for the final time.
‘Accidental Hero’ and ‘Fortress’ screened at cinemas “3 and 4” on February 2, 1993, bringing down the curtain on a brief albeit memorable history of cinema at that location.
The cinemas opened as Penrith Twin in 1979, later becoming part of the Hayden Cinema Complex; half of which was up the road on Lawson Street.
Steve Maggs, who these days manages a cinema complex in Brisbane, worked as the final usher on the last night 30 years ago.
“At the beginning of each film I walked to the front of the audience, welcomed them and told them we were closing,” he said.
“I thanked them for coming. Both audiences gave me a genuine round of applause. It was very moving. We had not advertised that we were closing so the audience had no idea they were going to be the last people to watch a film there.”
As Maggs notes, there had been a big battle to build three cinema complexes at the same time back in the early 1990s.
Hayden Theatres advertised Hayden 8 opening for Christmas in 1992. This was to be a big redevelopment of the Lawson Street site. At the same time Reading Cinemas were planning a large complex at the Panthers Leagues Club and there were the plans for the cinemas in the Plaza.
It was thought the first to open would be the winner. The Panthers complex fell through, but the Hoyts complex went ahead and the rest, as they say, is history.
After the High Street cinemas closed, the complex was stripped of its fittings. A lot of the seats, projectors and screens went to the Richmond Regent, which they used in the twinning of that cinema.
There had been a plan from the team that worked at the cinema, including Steve Maggs, to run it independently and for the site’s life as a movie theatre to continue, but a prominent local business identity pulled out of his plans to back the venture.
The site on High Street has housed a number of venues since, from Stepping Out theatre restaurant to Phriction and Bloc nightclubs, as well as Mojo Lounge.
And these days? Well, my friends, these days this beauty of Penrith’s past sits in the centre of our city, unused and all but abandoned.
I had the opportunity to walk through the old complex on Monday.
Through a padlocked door opens a world of memories; despite all the changes over the years, the guts of the venue always remained the same, with the two separate rooms that once housed the theatres.
As successful as some of the ventures that followed the movie theatres were, the venue will always be remembered for the 14 years it hosted films in the 1980s and 1990s.
It was its golden time; before the Internet, a time Penrith was stuck in the middle of being something of a country town and a growing city.
Being in the venue this week, I was reminded of Steve Maggs’ words from that final night 30 years ago: “The staff stayed on for a few hours. When it was time to leave, I did the final check of the cinemas and toilets. Then, for the last time we turned and looked across the now darkened foyer and the locked doors. We said our farewells and planned a reunion in the future”.
Truth is cinema in Penrith was never quite the same after the closure of Lawson’s High Street venue on February 2, 1993.
It would set off a chain of events that would see multiplexes dominate in Penrith; some of the charm of the movies going with it.
We have all walked past the old entrance to the cinema on High Street hundreds if not thousands of times.
Next time you do, have a think about the magic and memories that happened up those stairs for 14 years.
Truth is not all that much has changed inside those doors in the past 30 years. Perhaps one day, the magic will return to that site, in one form or another.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.