Valhalla Cinema, Melbourne
The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valhalla, as it was in 2004
|Town or city||Victoria Street, Richmond (Melbourne), Victoria (in 1976)|
High Street, Westgarth, Victoria (Relocated in 1987)
The cinema opened its doors on 10 June 1976 at a location on Victoria Street, Richmond. The first film to be screened there was Michael Ritchie's "Smile". The cinema was started by two friends from Sydney University – Barry Peak and Chris (Christopher) Kiely. They had been running short seasons of films by the likes of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields & Mae West and Humphrey Bogart in Melbourne for some time. Realising that they needed a permanent home in Melbourne, rather than keep renting venues such as the Palais in St Kilda and the Horticultural Hall in Victoria Street, Melbourne, they leased the cinema at 216 Victoria Street, Richmond.
Although it initially had no seats, and patrons had to bring their own, it soon found a following. Among its more distinctive traits were its calendars, which contained up to six months' worth of upcoming attractions, and its request board, where anyone could add a request for any film with a reasonable expectation of its being screened.
Later, it became the home of two long-running audience participation films, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (from 1978) and "The Blues Brothers" (from 1980), as well as regular 24-hour film marathons. The marathons were often science fiction themed, showing anything from Hollywood blockbusters like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", B-grade films such as "Them!" or the complete series of Star Trek motion pictures. Animation celebrations were a popular with audiences. The cinema also ran regular weekend, or week-long, festivals on a theme: Jacques Tati, New Russian Cinema, Fassbinder, Herzog, Pink Panther, Bond Films, Astaire/Rogers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Kurosawa.
Shows like these – and the general selections played there – quickly led to the Valhalla becoming firmly associated in the public mind with cult films. At its peak audiences included 400 patrons and 30 dedicated performers.
From the late 1970s Valhalla expanded both within Melbourne and around Australia. It opened: The Academy Valhalla Twin Cinema in Melbourne on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, Valhalla at the Agora at La Trobe University, late shows at The Astor in St Kilda and then at The National in St Kilda as well as cinemas in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.
In 1987, the Valhalla relocated from Richmond to High Street, Westgarth after the sale of their original venue (it was later demolished). With the characteristic offbeat nature of the cinema, the last film screened at the old premises was the first half of "The Blues Brothers", with the second half being screened at the new venue after intermission. This caused a traffic jam in Richmond at 1 am. The Valhalla closed its doors in 1996 and became the Westgarth Cinema, after the rental costs of their Northcote site became too high to meet.
The owners of the Westgarth cinema building continued to run it, as "The Westgarth", until early 2006. At that point the cinema business was sold to the Palace Films and Cinemas chain, whilst they retain the ownership of the building. The building recently reopened after extensive renovations and the addition of two more screens. It now screens more traditionally arthouse fare. Ironically, both the expanded number of screens and the films screened have brought it closer to what the Valhalla had always wanted to do with the venue.
Glebe in Sydney was also home to a cinema called the Valhalla, which was very similar to the Melbourne version – they produced a calendar of screenings, for example. It was run by one of the original Valhalla partners; Chris Kiely. It closed in August 2005.
In March 2013, the "Valhalla Social Cinema" began operating in Melbourne. Celebrating the memory of Valhalla's 24 hour marathons, it is operated by Jose Maturana. The portable community cinema does not reside in a permanent location, instead appearing in spaces that are not traditionally associated with movie halls. It specialises in 12 and 24-hour marathons, but also partakes in festival sideshows.
The original team of people who ran the Val went on to help run a number of the other independent cinemas in Melbourne. The Nova Cinema in Carlton is partly owned by Barry Peak. In the 1980s Barry Peak and Chris Kiely wrote, produced and directed four feature films: Future Schlock, Channel Chaos, The Big Hurt and As Time Goes By. Some of the managers of various Valhalla Cinemas include Ray Pond, Sue Thompson, Jane Kendrik and Peter Castaldi.