This article first appeared on Open Journal on October 16, 2015. Images by Mick Ross.
You can spot the Hayden Orpheum’s neon blue sign lighting up the night sky long before you reach it on the Cremorne end of Military Road. The Orpheum Picture Palace has long been a Sydney institution, a defining cultural attraction in the city’s north.
Opened as The Orpheum on October 3, 1935, it began life as a two-level, 1735-seat cinema and theatre, which could host both films and live musicals. Designed by reputed theatrical architect of the time George Kenworthy, it took nine months to build and was described by then-professor of architecture at Sydney University as “the finest example of an Art Deco cinema in Sydney”.
The cinema’s hey-day was during the 30s and 40s, its success ebbing and flowing in the decades that followed, until sadly it closed in 1977, later being sold to developers in 1979. While heavily modified, The Orpheum was re-opened and operated as a cinema between 1980-1984. However after its lease ran out, the cinema closed, the stalls were removed and the Orpheum Shopping Arcade opened in its place.
Fortunately, in 1987, well-known Australian TV personality and businessman Mike Walsh purchased the property with a vision of restoring it to its former glory. Stage One restoration works were intensive, including the installation of 755 seats in the Orpheum cinema, 180 seats in the Lounge Cinema and re-creating the beautiful Rosemount Piano Bar upstairs, along with the addition of original Art Deco details such as ornate atmospheric lighting, ceiling motifs and specially designed carpet. Another of the Orpheum’s claims to fame is its remarkable 1925 Wurlitzer Hope-Jones orchestral pipe organ, which features 13 ranks and 1000 pipes and instruments, which was also installed in the restoration. The newly-named Hayden Orphuem Picture Palace re-opened on December 9, 1987.
Today, the Wurlitzer still very much features in the Orpheum’s program, the charming resident organist Neil Jensen – who has been in the role since 1987 and who continually and lovingly maintains and restores the grand pipe organ – plays it at select weekend screenings, movie luncheons and special events. Now home to six screens and subtly modernised over the years, a visit to the Orpheum is like taking a step back in time. A beautiful reminder of an era where going to the movies or a show was a truly glamorous affair.
Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace, 380 Military Road, Cremorne, NSW