The Westgarth Cinema in Northcote, the oldest cinema in Melbourne, re-opened its doors in August 2006, following a $4m investment into the restoration and improvement of its interior. The cinema was struggling and facing an uncertain future until it was rescued by Palace Cinemas, a company managed entirely by members of the Zeccola family, whose love of cinema began with grandfather Giovanni Zeccola, in a small town in Italy in the 1940s.Palace has converted the single-screen venue to three screens, lovingly restored the period features and replaced those that were missing, opened up the foyer area to encourage lingering before and after ﬁlms, added a bar/café that serves ﬁne drinks, snacks and good coffee, and has generally brought back the spirit of cinema-going days of old. venue talked to Benjamin Zeccola, General Manager, Palace Cinemas and Executive Director, Palace Films, about what it’s like to be part of Palace, and what drives his family’s desire to rescue and preserve Australia’s vintage cinemas.
venue: You really do have the cinema in your blood, don’t you?
Benjamin Zeccola: In school holidays and on weekends, my father was always at the cinema, and my mother was helping him, so from an early age I was running around cinemas. I would be working on the door and, from the age of four, cleaning up between sessions. You know the Metro nightclub on Bourke Street? It used to be the Palace Cinema, and I have memories of myself at three years old crawling up the marble staircase.I grew up in beautiful old cinemas like the Westgarth. The Metro Malvern, in Glenferrie Rd, Malvern, which is now a Nandos chicken shop, was a spectacularly beautiful art deco cinema. So for me it’s the whole thing — the foyer, the entry, the box ofﬁce and the bar, and then going into the beautiful auditoriums — I love being in these spaces.
venue: There is a sort of magic about the older cinemas, isn’t there?
Benjamin Zeccola: The contrast between these beautiful old cinemas and the multiplexes that were built during the ’80s couldn’t be greater. There is a stark difference in the whole experience. You can see the way we’ve designed this area [the foyer of the Westgarth] so people feel comfortable to hang around, to linger. And the ’80s and ’90s multiplexes are designed to walk you in, in the most efﬁcient way possible; walk you past the candy bar so you buy a huge tub of popcorn that’s so big you can’t actually digest it, and then have you exit very efﬁciently as well. And that’s opposite to the way that we do it. You know, we feel like hosts, who are hosting guests, as opposed to a factory churning out a product.
venue: In terms of design, what kind of principles do you follow in your renovation of old cinemas?
Benjamin Zeccola: From my family’s point-of-view, it’s a lifetime of experience in these beautiful old cinemas, and wanting to preserve that atmosphere, and also to recreate that atmosphere at new sites. In terms of design, when we come into an existing building like the Westgarth, it’s really important to me that the original spirit of the architecture is maintained, that the fabric of the building is consistent throughout.