Charlton’s charming art deco Rex Theatre reopens

The beloved 1930s picture theatre has reopened with a new backstage so it can play host to so much more than movies.

The Rex Theatre has survived more than 80 years. It’s endured floods – recently where water from the swollen Avoca River licked at the carpets, and in 2011 when it was inundated. It’s also survived droughts, a decline in the number of movie-goers and a pandemic. Its saviour these past 15 years is the Charlton community, who rallied together in the early 2000s to purchase the theatre and keep it going with countless volunteer hours.

“I don’t know why I’d count [the unpaid hours]; that’d scare me,” says David Pollard of the time he volunteers at the Rex each week. David has been the projectionist at the 400-seat theatre for more than 40 years. He loaded Crocodile Dundee onto the reels 16 times in the eighties to full houses.

Photograph of Rex Theatre's projectionist for 40+ years, David Pollard in a dark room holding the film of an old projection reelIn 2022, David is a member of the committee responsible for operations and maintenance. He’s also the Rex’s treasurer, so he knows the cost of running a theatre.

“The theatre needs to sell 100 tickets a week,” he says. “We screen mainstream movies three times a week, and will look into scheduling arthouse once a month, too.”.

While the Rex’s main income has traditionally come from movie screenings, its contribution to Charlton as a community venue is priceless. It hosts local debutante balls, school speech nights, informal community group meetings and varied performances, from drag queens to concert pianists, including David Helfgott.

The Rex is more than a building. It’s a hub that benefits people living in and around Charlton. It offers possibilities for participation, whether as artists, audiences, supporters, consumers, teachers or neighbours. The Rex connects and inspires people.

The Rex’s Reopening

The Rex temporarily closed in August 2021. Stay-at-home directives at the height of the pandemic coincided with the opportunity for the Rex to renovate.

Over the past year, behind the art deco façade, a new structure has been added to the back of the Rex. The modern extension houses new dressing rooms, toilets and backstage areas, including storage for sets and road cases.

“The extension means the Rex can switch from a cinema to a live theatre venue in 15 minutes,” says David.

The increased capacity opens the Rex up to performers on the touring circuit and means the theatre can host more art forms and more live performances for the community.

“We might see a local theatre group form, now that there’s a home for one,” says David.

Exterior photograph of the Rex theatre with a crowd gathered. The sign reads "Welcome David Helfgott" and a banner with his photograph hangs from the roof.A new training and meeting space has multiple uses for artists, for the local Neighbourhood House and other community groups and organisations.

More creative and community activity contributes to the region’s economy, to a culture of inclusion, to community identity and wellbeing, and to a more liveable town and region. Charlton is also 90 minutes from the next nearest cinema; so without the Rex, to see a movie or show would mean a three-hour round-trip, often driving home late, in the dark, with the threat of kangaroos hopping onto the road.

“We’re all very excited,” says local resident Kerrie Mulholland of the Rex reopening. “I think we’re all sick of our loungerooms,” she says. “We just want to get dressed up and go out.”

“Date night will be back.”

A Life in Pictures

1938 The Rex is built with bricks made on site and opens with the film A Star is Born.

1939-45 The Rex enjoys its heyday. World War II is being waged, and petrol rationing makes it difficult for people to travel too far for entertainment.

1956 Television arrives in Australia, and attendance begins to fall.

Late 1960s The Rex is closed as a theatre, its seats and projectors removed.

1971 Bought by local siblings from Wedderburn, Geoff and Joan Edwards, who restore the Rex as a theatre, noting, “removing hundreds of screws and chipping off the dried chewing gum from the floor was tedious.”

1973 Reopens as the Cinema Charlton, showing Mary Queen of Scots.

Early 2000s New owners Steve Walsh and Dennis Davis restored the Rex to its art deco glory.

2005 The theatre is almost forced to close due to the passing of Steve, the co-owner, and goes on the market for $200,000.

2005-7 During the millennium drought, the Charlton community raises $92,000 in 10 weeks to buy the Rex and receives a grant to seal the deal.

2011 Severely damaged by floods, when almost a metre of water submerges the first six rows of seats.

2012 The Rex is restored and digital equipment installed to meet current cinema protocols, with significant support from corporate foundations and donors.

2015 Charlton experiences ongoing drought and population loss.

2020-1 The Rex temporarily closes due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

2022 The Rex reopens, twice: in September with a newly built modern backstage, then in November after closing for a few weeks due to flooding.

The Victorian Government supported the Rex Theatre extension with more than $800,000.

For more information, to see what’s showing and show your support for the Rex, visit the Rex Theatre Charlton website.