GREG Khoury has a thing for old theatres.
THE man charged with formidable task of returning Newcastle’s historic Victoria Theatre to something near its former grandeur developed his fascination while at university working part-time as an usher at Sydney’s Regent.
It was a time when old theatres where in the sights of hungry developers, and Khoury became swept up in the campaigns to save the city’s Regent and Capitol theatres. The Regent was lost to the bulldozers in the late 1980s, but the Capitol was spared and ultimately underwent a $30 million restoration.
Khoury found his calling in professional life when he linked up with Century Venues, a family-owned company that shares his affection for old theatres and commitment to seeing them kept for future generations.
It operates contemporary venues and events, including Sydney’s fringe and comedy festivals, but its showpiece is Newtown’s Enmore Theatre. The company acquired it in 1984 and, through a slow but determined program of improvement and restoration, has brought it back from the dead, transforming it into a thriving midsize music, comedy and performance venue.
“It was a wreck – it was pigeon-infested dump when the family took it over and people said they were mad,” Khoury says.
“But they persevered with it. I came in in 2001 and worked with the family and it has just grown and grown to become the cornerstone of the group.”
The Enmore will likely provide a template for the restoration of the of Newcastle’s 1890s Victoria Theatre, the oldest in NSW.
The lead-up to its sale last year was a scenario itself worthy of theatre. The building, which had not been used as a theatre for 50 years and had been permanently boarded up since 1999, was put up for auction by its owner, hotelier Arthur Laundy, with a philanthropic reserve price of just $1.
Laundy, who had fought off competition from developer Jeff McCloy to buy the building for $1.1 million in 2004, offered the peppercorn reserve in the hope of attracting a well-intentioned buyer interested in restoring the venue. But with a prime 898-square-metre city block, and mixed use zoning allowing for development of up to seven storeys, the chances of attracting someone interested in retaining it as theatre were not considered high.
Enter Khoury and Century Venues owner Elia Eliades, who made a dash up the M1 to view the property less than two weeks before the scheduled auction, after Khoury was tipped off about the sale by a friend. What they saw was enough to convince them a restoration was viable.
“I was really surprised when we went through it because although it looks such a mess, it is very solid,” he says. “It was not affected by damp because the Laundys had repaired the roof, which was really important, and the stage looks huge, which is fantastic.”
Century secured the theatre just before auction for an undisclosed amount, rousing cheers from the Newcastle performance community who had rallied to support a Facebook campaign to see the building preserved as a theatre.
As Century’s executive director, Khoury will take a leading role in the restoration and is excited by its potential.
“This is a major project, it is the oldest theatre in NSW and it is so rare now to find these sorts of buildings,” he says.
“This isn’t a cinema in a little regional village, this is a major – and this is what I really want to get across to people – building of national significance. This stands up, like the Civic Theatre does, with any major heritage building in Melbourne or Sydney, without doubt.
“When you consider that the Theatre Royal in Hobart was built in 1836, then the Princess in Melbourne, which is the oldest mainland theatre in country, in 1886. Well at 1891, that makes the Victoria very significant in terms of heritage – even though the auditorium was significantly rebuilt in 1924, the bones of the building are 1891.”
Khoury says the Victoria will have a capacity of up to 1200 when completed and will lend itself to a range of uses, including contemporary music, dance and comedy, as well as live theatre. He believes it will fill a gap for affordable medium-sized venues in the city.
He is keen to bring the community along with him as he plans its future, and has already visited Newcastle several times to speak with interest groups and hold a community ideas session. That interaction will continue once the venue is operational, with Khoury keen to offer groups using it assistance with marketing and production ideas.
“The greatest challenge for a venue operator is not to turn into a property manager,” he says. “You can’t adopt a landlord approach, you are in the business of putting on shows and selling tickets.”
While Novocastrians are relieved and thankful someone is willing to take a risk on restoring the Victoria, the heritage-theatre lover in Khoury is equally grateful for the opportunity.
“The reality is once you lose a working theatre, or a theatre building, they are well nigh impossible to get back,” he says.
“I think there is huge potential in the Victoria.”