UNLOCKING THE PAST | A walk on the wild side at Paxton picture theatre

HEART OF THE COMMUNITY: Paxton's picture theatre hosted not only movies but live concerts, community singing and even boxing matches. Picture: Cessnock Library Local Studies Collection.
HEART OF THE COMMUNITY: Paxton's picture theatre hosted not only movies but live concerts, community singing and even boxing matches. Picture: Cessnock Library Local Studies Collection.

Local theatres were once the heart of the communities they served. In 1927 Paxton got its first theatre, which opened in March that year.

The building had a brick front and side walls made of stud and weatherboard. It boasted dressing rooms, a gallery area and a seating capacity of 1000, extraordinarily large for the size of Paxton's population.

The theatre showed silent film features, newsreels and shorts. It was also an all-round local entertainment venue hosting live concerts, community singing and even boxing matches.

The site for union meetings, the Miners Federation and local miner's lodges met at the theatre over many decades.

When the new craze for talking movies hit, a sound screen was installed in July 1931, so that the Paxton picture patrons would not be left behind.

To address fire concerns, an ever present threat in early theatres, a second exit out of the cinema was built. The Fire Commissioners also deemed that there be fire buckets in the theatre and they were to be kept full of water during performances.

As well as a much-loved cinema, it had a wild side as well. From the late 1930s local Paxton youths were involved in regular disturbances outside and inside the cinema. The police were often called as the manager, James Lowe, lost control of the patrons. Charges of indecent language, assault and indecent behaviour were common.

DEMOLISHED: An article in the Cessnock Eagle on November 2, 1973 after council decided the building should be knocked down.

DEMOLISHED: An article in the Cessnock Eagle on November 2, 1973 after council decided the building should be knocked down.

By 1942 legendary Cessnock police officer Billy Booth complained that the police were continually being sent to Paxton Theatre because of 'disturbances by youth' and that the venue itself had become problematic.

It wasn't all bad; the heart of the Paxton community was on display too. When the Millfield cyclone hit in 1944 the Paxton Theatre became the central venue for local fundraising efforts to help the residents impacted by the storm.

The theatre continued for decades as a hub of the community, but in 1956 a new external threat to its future emerged - television. Despite its arrival the Paxton Theatre was still screening movies twice a week into early 1958, but by October the writing was on the wall and the cinema closed permanently.

It sat empty for years and was formally de-licensed in June 1962. Sadly derelict for over a decade, it was demolished in 1973.

To learn more about the history of Cessnock's local cinemas, call into Cessnock Library and check out the Celluloid Dreams exhibition, which runs until September 30.

  • Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Email her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

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