Cinema s golden age under threat

As the bells of the late-night city tram rang out, a flurry of well-dressed moviegoers would shuffle out of the Cygnet Theatre in Como to head home.

Colin Stiles, 70, remembers the scene well.

It was the 1950s, before television sets filled each household and a trip to the cinema meant donning your evening finest.

"Going to the cinema was a special event - people got dressed up and made a real night of it," he recalled.

"The last tram would always ring the bell to alert people inside that this was their last chance to get home - nobody wanted to leave."

Mr Stiles remembers the silver-screen stars, the sweet shop across the road and the tin film canisters, but he does not remember the price of tickets.

He never paid. His father, James Stiles, a local film entrepreneur, built the cinema in 1938.

It was the first suburban theatre in WA to screen "talkies" and the centre of a thriving entertainment hub south of the city.

Today, the beautifully maintained art deco building is the last remaining single-screen cinema in Perth and one of only a few that still use traditional film projection equipment.

Thousands of metres of film, taped together by hand, wind through the tiny projection room of the Cygnet each day.

But with international film companies fast phasing out film in favour of digital devices, the cinema fears that within six months its equipment will be obsolete and the Cygnet will be forced to close.

Cygnet Theatre manager Graham Kahn said the cinema could not afford the $100,000 needed for a digital upgrade.

"As a single-screen theatre, we're already defying all the odds by staying open - we shouldn't be economically viable," he said.

"We operate on a shoestring budget but we can do so because the community really support us.

"We've tried to retain the ambience of the theatre the way it used to be and I think people really appreciate that."

Mr Kahn, who has worked in film for more than 50 years, said there was a sense of loss associated with the digitisation of film.

"This is the single biggest change in cinema but like every other change before it, we have to embrace it to survive," he said.

"It is a little sad - I think there is something very surreal and magical about film that digital just does not capture in the same way."

The West Australian

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