This article was originally published in Honi Soit.
The films bombed in local box offices*, but Chris and Barry thought they could draw a decent crowd.
Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, 1973, Peckinpah: a Western drama featuring Bob Dylan. Nashville, 1975, Altman: a sprawling satire, featuring rowdy country music.
They could have shown something safer, more palatable. Or they could have run the risk but hedged against catastrophe – they could have braced themselves for a modest turnout and polite, uninspired applause. At the very least, they could have chosen a humble venue to hide the empty space.
But they booked the St Kilda Palais Theatre, the majestic edifice beside Melbourne’s Luna Park, and screened films that had proven to be commercial failures.
‘Why?’ I ask Chris, who is now 65, plump and affable, and a fan of pub trivia. I am struggling to see the 25-year-old risk-taker in the warm, white-haired man in front of me.
‘In programming you’ve got to trust your instincts,’ he replies. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and Nashville were ‘fresh, really fresh,’ Chris continues, and the mainstream just didn’t get it. ‘We were the target audience’ – students, young people, he clarifies. ‘So pretty much what we thought would work tended to work.’
And in this instance, Chris and Barry thought that playing two flops back-to-back would work.
The Palais nearly reached full capacity that night, in 1975.
‘We put on films that we liked and because we knew there were lots of likeminded people, we were reasonably confident that they would work,’ Barry tells me.
This faith – faith in odd films and in their own judgement – impelled Chris and Barry to sacrifice their studies at the University of Sydney and found the eccentric Valhalla Cinema.
The whole enterprise began in 1971 at the Wallace Theatre of the University of Sydney, as a small operation involving 1950s TV shows and 16mm film.
Chris Kiley was in his second year of Arts/Law and ‘quickly found that, firstly, [he] really, really liked movies, and secondly, that [he] really, really didn’t like Arts/Law.’ Barry Peak was an old friend from high school, enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. They were both bright, distracted students, burning up with creative energy.
They bought the licences to show some classic comedies – the Marx Brothers, WC Fields and Mae West – and held screenings in the Footbridge Theatre, known then as the Union Theatre.
‘After midnight we’d go around places like Macquarie Uni, UNSW, University of Sydney, with a bucket of glue and a paintbrush and glue and glue up posters for whatever we had coming up, and hope we didn’t get caught by the campus guards,’ he recalls.
They spent the next few years travelling between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, sleeping on the floor of friends’ apartments, lugging a projector from public hall to public hall.
All the while, Chris’ mother was seething. ‘She told me that I was destined to become the Chief Justice of Australia – no pressure – and here I was, throwing it all away to show movies,’ Chris says. When I ask Barry if his parents pushed him towards a certain career path, he observes that ‘parents always do that’.
Chris battled through arts and bailed on law. Barry never finished his degree – but ‘not just because of films,’ he says, ‘also because of editing Honi Soit** and losing interest in a science degree.’
Instead of becoming a lawyer and a scientist they ‘signed [their] lives away and went legit’ as professional film buffs in 1976, Chris tells me, when they took out a lease on 216 Victoria Street, Richmond, Melbourne.
Barry remembers the night they opened their first real cinema as ‘chaotic.’ ‘We’d only put in 100 of 1000 seats …We had a huge pile of seats in the theatre, probably 10 or 12 feet high …The theatre looked like a bit of a bomb shelter.’
They named the place after a pillar of Norse mythology: Valhalla ‘was the hall Vikings laid their slain heroes [in],’ Barry explains. ‘So a heaven, thus movie heaven.’
Chris and Barry earned themselves a reputation as savvy programmers by showing a different one-night-only double feature each night of the week, and by advertising the sessions six months in advance.
In 1977, a Canberra-based company called Academy Theatres took notice. They ran the Academy Twin Cinema in Paddington, Sydney and wanted to save their ailing business with Valhalla-style double feature programming. They offered the duo a deal.
Chris and Barry tossed a coin: Barry would stay in Melbourne to manage the Richmond Valhalla and Chris would move back to Sydney to manage the Academy Twin at 3A Oxford St.
Around this time, the Chief Financial Officer of Academy Theatres was heading to Cannes Film Festival to buy re-issues and new releases, and wanted help.
Someone needed to stay behind to look after the Richmond Valhalla – and besides, Cannes Film Festival wasn’t Barry’s scene. When Barry did visit the festival in later years, he didn’t like how ‘people weren’t interested in watching films, they were interested in doing deals.’ Chris had a head for the tussling of business and so, in 1978, he went to Cannes for the first time.
Chris had been sleeping under the stairs of the Richmond Valhalla for a year; now he was making small talk with the biggest names in the industry, in a gorgeous port city on the French Riviera.
But as he navigated the parties, marvelling at the chandeliers of the old casino, moving across the marble floor in a surreal daze, Chris didn’t feel like he’d ‘made it.’
‘It was glamourous beyond belief.’ He still sounds awestruck, even now. ‘Women had to wear gowns and men had to wear tuxedos. God knows what I put together because I didn’t own a tuxedo – I must have worn a gown!’
Everyone he spoke to seemed to be staying at the Carlton or the Majestic; Chris was staying at the Railway Hotel – the cheapest accommodation on offer. He was consumed by imposter syndrome, thinking, ‘I’m a fraud, what am I doing here!’
But the feeling faded. He was young and in debt and in France and so, naturally, he decided to make the most of the endless free champagne.
Chris had been watching the New Arts Cinema at 166D Glebe Point Road for years, since it housed the first Australia production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and pounced as soon as the owners put the building up for rent.
‘I thought that was the ideal location because it was so close to Sydney Uni,’ Chris says.
On Christmas Eve of 1979, Chris’s mother, who had come to terms with the fact that Chris would never be the Chief Justice of Australia, brought Christmas dinner around to 166D. Chris, Barry and their friends were in a mad rush to finish renovating the space before the Glebe Valhalla officially opened, on Boxing Day. They were taking turns to work 12-hour shifts, pulling up chairs and sanding splintered floors by hand, and powered through Christmas.
‘The opening night was a party,’ Barry says. ‘We all just let our hair down.’
In its heyday, during the 1980s, the Valhalla was an unholy sanctum for a lot of Sydney Uni students. Glebe was a scruffy suburb, packed with student sharehouses, and young locals would head to the Valhalla to watch cult, classic, and arthouse films – to indulge in bad taste, to drink the tangible nostalgia.
Kieren Dell, Vice President of Independent Cinemas Australia and CEO of Majestic Cinemas, was a regular at the Valhalla when he was studying at Sydney Uni in the 80s, and remembers the Valhalla as ‘dingy but sort of edgy,’ ‘run-down’ but very ‘hip.’
‘My best mate and I, we often used to go for a few ciders – ciders weren’t particularly popular then but we weren’t big beer drinkers – at one of the local pubs and we’d go to an 11:30 session there,’ Kieren recalls. ‘We’d had a few drinks and probably a few other substances at that point. Some of them were quite psychedelic movies,’ he says.
The Valhalla was famous for showcasing ‘art’ that you could only appreciate ironically, or if you were super high.
For instance, Chris tells me about screening Garlic Is As Good as Ten Mothers, a 1980 documentary by Les Blank, about a festival in California. He outlines the instructions that came with the film: ‘You had to dice some garlic and cook it with olive oil and a bit of red wine… and then spread it on bread and give it to everybody as they came in. When the film’s actually on you have to get the pan with the cooked garlic and run up and down the aisles like a lunatic, wafting the garlic over everybody.’
Chris followed the instructions to the letter. ‘Seriously,’ he assures me.
Perhaps the Valhalla was popular with 20-somethings because it was sufficiently outrageous and sufficiently homey; it catered to a cohort swept up in the angst and inspiration of early adulthood, who occasionally wanted to pull back into childhood. Young people could depend on the Valhalla to show sordid films that had been censored, and subsequently ditched by other cinemas. They could also attend 24-hour sci-fi and Woody Allen marathons, dressed in pyjamas and draped in sleeping bags, and receive free bacon-and-egg rolls in the morning.
Also, it was cheap. An SMH article from 1988 declared that ‘the best bargain around town’ was the Valhalla’s Saturday matinee deal. ‘For a mere $3.50, the patron gets to see one feature, two cartoons, an episode of The Shadow, and also is provided with a drink and a packet of Jaffas,’ the SMH proclaimed.
For the quirkier Sydney Uni students of the 80s the Valhalla was, true to its name, pretty damn glorious.
In October 1987, Chris and Barry were thrown into the midst of what Chris calls ‘a complete disaster.’
Chris was on holiday in Italy, meandering towards Milan, where he planned to sell a film he and Barry made together at MIFED film market. He’d travelled to Rome to meet Anna, the publicist and manager of the Valhalla at the time, who was flying in from Sydney to attend MIFED, to scout for films to show at the Valhalla.
Anna stepped off the plane and rapidly ruined his holiday: the owners of 166D Glebe Point Rd were selling the building, she said.
Chris’ only thought was, ‘Gotta find a way to buy the cinema, otherwise I haven’t got a business anymore.’ It was a classic, there-is-no-other-option moment of clarity.
The partnership with Academy Theatres ended in 1981, so Chris and Barry were operating as an independent unit once again. They had about $30,000 in the bank – nowhere near enough to buy the property, which included the cinema and the four surrounding shops. The auction was in four weeks. They needed a loan.
Just at that moment, the global stock market crashed. On October 19, henceforth known as Black Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 22.6 per cent in a day. The value of the Australian dollar started falling, giving Chris even more reason to get out of Italy, fast.
Chris contacted Barry as soon as he arrived in Australia, ‘distraught’ and ‘panic-stricken,’ to hatch a plan to save the cinema.
Barry wasn’t interested.
‘We had different agendas,’ Barry explains. ‘I was more interested in funding other films, which needed capital, and Chris was more interested in owning property.’
Chris turned up to the auction without Barry, without enough money, and without a clear idea as to how he would pay if he outbid the competition.
The competition was essentially an elderly couple, two twin brothers and their wives, who had leased the four surrounding shops since the building opened in 1937.
The brothers were now in their mid-seventies, and were also in the middle of a heated auction, and, the way Chris tells is, ‘halfway through the auction one [brother] had a heart attack and collapsed to the floor.’
‘They stopped the auction, cleared the room, ambos arrived, and he got carted off the hospital,’ he says.
The auctioneer briefly waited for the hospital to confirm time of death or signs of life, and then, after being given the all-clear, promptly resumed the auction.
Chris won – perhaps by default. A near-death experience in the family can put you off your game.
The building sold for $1.14 million and Chris wrote a dud cheque for a $113,000 deposit. He told the sellers that he was just waiting for the money to come in and, miraculously, the sellers didn’t mind. Chris managed to cover the cost of the deposit within a month by ‘borrowing money from here, there and everywhere.’ After exhausting the generosity of friends of family, he owed about $80 000 on the deposit and still needed approximately $1 million to pay the balance.
Chris pleaded with the manager of the local Commonwealth Bank branch.
‘I used to go in wearing a t-shirt, shorts and thongs asking to borrow a million dollars with no security.’
And, eventually, the manager said:
‘He just trusted me,’ Chris shrugs. ‘Lovely bloke.’
Chris rescued his business – it was his business now, now that he and Barry had parted company.
The break up was ‘a bit fraught,’ Barry tells me. ‘Because we had been partners for a long time at that stage, the identification that we were on different paths was, you know, a bit confusing. It was amicable afterwards. Not at the time.’
‘No break-ups were ever nice,’ Chris says, in response to my clunky question. ‘We didn’t fight about it. It’s just, ‘okay, the line has been drawn.’ But that was okay because it was easy to draw the line – he basically got Melbourne and I got Sydney.’
In 2005 Chris realised, with a jolt of sadness, that the Valhalla ‘could never be a goer again,’ the SMH reported at the time.
A number of factors contributed to the Valhalla’s demise. The rise of DVDs, and primeval forms of online streaming and internet downloads, led to a living room cinema boom. Mainstream cinemas morphed into gargantuan multiplexes. The Valhalla crew transformed the upstairs of 166D into a second cinema in 1994, but Chris estimates that, by then, Hoyts Broadway boasted eight screens. Mainstream film distributers began to encroach on arthouse territory, effectively poaching in the field of independent distributers. ‘Sure it’s scary,’ Chris told the SMH in 1997. ‘We have no muscle whatsoever with any of the [mainstream] distributors, so how do we survive?’ Chris also believes that the industry responded to mainstream demand for arthouse content by releasing passion projects, which should have been categorised as direct-to-video productions, for the big screen. ‘Essentially, we ran out of films we wanted to show,’ he says.
Chris was thrilled when, in late 1998, Theatresports Inc. agreed to lease the building, partly because the company planned to keep showing cult and arthouse films in the upstairs cinema. The SMH opened with the headline: ‘Theatre saved by 10-year lease to a theatre company.’ But the deal fell through when the company suddenly went into liquidation. Chris’ ideal tenant was ‘somebody with some imagination,’ the SMH reported in 1999. But he couldn’t find an interested party that met this criteria, so he closed the cinema in 2005 and sold the building to a property developer in 2006.
Chris approached the situation with grim pragmatism: ‘Go under now, or go under and lose the house in a year’s time.’
166D Glebe Point Road still stands, and, although the interior has been converted into offices, the bold, black-and-white sign above the entrance reads: ‘VALHALLA.’
And Barry is still in the cinema business. He closed the Richmond Valhalla on its 20th anniversary and vented his energy into running his other business, Nova Cinemas, as well as various other cinema partnerships in Adelaide and Perth. When I called him he’d seen fifteen films over the weekend, as part of Melbourne Film Festival.
Chris, in contrast, hasn’t attended Sydney Film Festival in over ten years. ‘I used to go to the festival to look for films to show… I think if I went it would be a bit like being the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s not my world anymore.’
In Chris’ opinion, the secret to the Valhalla’s success is simple: know your audience and, more to the point, trust that you know your audience.
‘I learnt to back my own judgement,’ he says. ‘If I’m confident this will work, you know, eight out of ten times I’d be right. But twice it’s going to be a disaster!’ he laughs. ‘And we had enormous hits, like gigantic hits, with films that everybody else had passed over or hadn’t worked anywhere else.’
*I contacted several organisations but could not find the exact box office figures. The Motion Pictures Distributors Association of Australia replied with, ‘The MPDAA is the major source of box office information and as we do not have the information that you have requested, it is difficult for me to suggest another location, or entity.’
**Chris and Barry were keen comedy writers and edited Honi in 1973, along with journalist-to-be Matthew Peacock. ‘That was when I really dropped out of uni, big time,’ Chris says. ‘Honi was always 48-hour stints to get it to the printer on time!’