ON the corner of Hopetoun Street and the Princes Highway, where Bulli meets Woonona, is a large building that currently trades as a gymnasium exclusively for women. The building originally opened as the Royal Theatre in 1924.
The silent film, lilies of the film, was screened to a selected audience when the theatre opened in 1924. However, the first public screening in the Royal was the Buster Keating silent film, Our Hospitality (1923).
The Illawarra Mercury reported on Friday September 12 1924:
A MAGNIFICENT THEATRE
The hub of Bulli-Woonona on Tuesday night was undoubtedly the intersection of Hopotoun St. with Main Sth. Coast Road, on which now stands the majestic building just completed by Wollongong Theatres, Ltd., and which on Tuesday night was opened for the first time in all its grandour and brilliant illumination. It was really a ‘trial run’ and private inspection by representatives of all sections, of the community, about 70 citizens responding to the invitation to be present. Being heartily welcomed, all personally inspected the interior, from the operating box to the stage, after which they were comfortably seated and entertained. The film selected, “Lilies of the Field,’ was undoubtedly appropriate and conveyed a good moral to men-folk, 8000 feet of film being utilised in a story of domestic life that held every gentleman interested. A comedy, ‘His Bitter Half,’ took one from the sublime to the ridiculous, but tickled the visibility of everybody, the acting being clever. There is a very large stage, eminently suited to theatrical purposes, and if any person on Tuesday night had doubts as to the acoustic properties of the hall those feelings were immediately removed when Mr. Joseph Hall appeared on the stage, and, to the accompaniment of Mr. Alexander on the piano, sang with perfect enunciation ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes,’ the applause being so continued that he returned and sang “Marchota.”
Subsequently refreshments were par-taken of on the stage, after which Mr. H. Boland, manager of the firm, thanked all for attending, and in a few words, referred to the fact that no expense had been spared in the building, and assured all that the pictures to be screened would give patrons every satisfaction. Mr. H. Cox spoke as chairman of directors of the firm. We are proud to think, he said, our building will be an acquisition to the district, and if we provide the people with a comfortable show we are sure they will patronise it. Our Crown Theatre in Wollongong is equal to anything in the city, and the same can be said of this one. We are sure the people here are proud to see such a theatre in their midst. We hope that in six months’ time patrons will be able to say we have provided good entertainment. As president of the Shire in which the theatre has been placed, Cr. McNaughton was invited to express an opinion. Gentlemen, he said, it is a great pleaure for me to take the opportunity of complimenting Wollongong Theatres Ltd. on their initiative and their evidence of a strong belief in the future prosperity of this portion of the Shire. As business men they would not have taken this step if they wore not sufficiently optimistic that their efforts to provide amusement for those who wont it would prove successful. I agree that this theatre will be a credit to the district. We have all enjoyed the two films screened to-night. As President of Bulli Shire I feel I am voicing the opinion of all my fellow citizens in saying that we are glad to see the firm build such an ornate building, which we hope will not only be a credit to them, but will also prove a profitable venture. Mr. S. Bird, as District President of the Miners’ Lodges in Illawarra, also addressed a few words. We, as miners, are just as keen as others in the welfare of this district, he said. It is for those more favourably situated to consider those not so well placed and enable them to enjoy some of the pleasures of life. I sincerely congratulate the gentlemen who have placed their money in this venture, and hope they will not have occasion to regret the investment, and that the people here will patronise the show. Ald. N. Smith (Mayor of Wollongong) and Ald. W. Pettingell (Mayor of North Illawarra) also made brief but very logical reference to the enterprise of Wollongong Theatres Ltd. Another speaker was Mr. H. F. Cotterell (Bulli), who interested all with the remark that 23 years ago the land on which the theatre was erected was sold for 12/6per foot. Before retiring Mr. Boland invited all to drink to “The Progress of Bulli and Woonona.”
With its broad frontage to the Main South Coast Road, and towering high, the building stands as a monument to initiative and enterprise, and is admittedly an asset to the locality. The front is doubly impressive with the brilliant illumination, and the two shop windows, so attractively decorated, lend an additional charm. On entering one is confronted with a commanding double staircase, in which marble work has been so cleverly arranged. The circle with its divisional sections, is comfortably fitted with, wicker chairs and carpets. The main portion of the hall is remarkably spacious — the entire seating accommodation is about 1300 — and the terraces of chairs are comfortable and neat. The walls are nicely decorated, and there are shaded lights on brackets, while the modern means of providing ventilation, with adjustable shutters around the walls, calls for much favourable comment. Proper accommodation is provided for the Orchestra in front of the stage, which, with its costly velvet curtain of royal blue and gold, and the snow white surroundings, commands immediate attention. The operating box, equipped with two machines, is a study in the advance of the mechanical world. Every detail throughout has received thorough attention, in not only the building, but also the equipment of this undoubtedly modern home of pleasure. A pronounced feature is that, not withstanding the spaciousness of the hall, an uninterrupted view of the stage or screen is obtained by the occupant of any seat in the building, which is to be known as the Royal Theatre. A representative of this newspaper was present on Tuesday night, and after keen observation voluntarily offers congratulations to Wollongong Theatres Ltd.
THE PUBLIC OPENING.
The public opening of the new Royal Theatre at Bulli-Woonona on Thursday night of last week was an unprecedented success, people attending from all parts, and at 7.30 every available seat was occupied, many being unable to obtain admission. During the interval in the picture programme, Mr. Joseph Hall, the popular singer, delighted his hearers. Prior to the entertainment Mr. W. Davies M.L.A. in a brief address, made complimentary reference to the enterprise of Wollongong Theatres Ltd.
– Illawarra Mercury Friday 19 September 1924
The first “talkie” in the Royal was screened in 1929 and featured the film, “Thunderbolt” with George Bancroft and Fay Wray. The theatre, like many in its day, was impacted severely by the advent of television, and closed in 1964.
The theatre re-opened in 1968 as the Vista Theatre, and it continued screening pictures until 1987 when authorities ordered its closure because of a lack of proper maintenance.
The old Royal operated as a Christian church until 1990. It later became an indoor sports centre, and now operates as an exclusive women’s gymnasium.