DAY 162: Getting spooked sideways by the Castlemaine Theatre Royal

9 Feb

The latest incarnation. (These things have a habit of burning down.)

WHEN the Theatre Royal first opened in 1858, Castlemaine had a population of 20,000 to Melbourne’s 22,000; and bawdy folk would flock in for a knees-up and a knuckle sandwich from all over the Goldfields.

A second hey-day followed in the early 1900s when cinema hit its stride, but ever since then attendance has dwindled. Seven years back, the community (now population 8000) voted to turn it into a cooperative, but the money wasn’t stumped up and plans fell by the wayside.

David Stretch and Sarah Burdekin made the move from Melbourne to take the theatre over, against initial consternation from locals. They’ve faced a relentless battle to keep the place shipshape in the face of a water-logged roof, shoddy refurbs of the past and shabby paraphernalia bursting out of every nook, but by fitting a kitchen and PA, they’ve turned it into a cafe, cinema, b&b and venue.

Personally, I wonder what more you could want from a joint. I’ve been to a Mental As Anything disco, screenings of Razorback and Wake in Fright, and shows by Tex Perkins and hillbilly Charlie Parr. Today there’s a workshop for small business owners with Sunrise’s Kochie, and coming up there’s a ukulele extravaganza. Just last month, Cat Power played, with the temperamental artist ringing ahead and requesting that a puppy be on hand for her to pet. It was almost a throwback to the diva-ish behaviour of syphilitic showgirl Lola Montez, who graced the stage in the 1850s. Known for wearing no undies, her routine provoked a fight amongst the diggers, some of whom were questioning her honour, and some of whom were defending it, and by all accounts, there was a punch-on of epic proportions.

Lola’s immortalised by a mural in the courtyard and her presence haunts the guest house bathroom in the form of a painting above the bath tub (and something keeps turning the basin taps on and off).

When I enquire about the ghosts the theatre’s known for, David brushes me off as though it’s nothing, but he gets a haunted look on a number of occasions (most markedly when describing the period in the 1970s when the stalls were ripped out and the theatre was turned into a disco, with the ceiling plastered with egg cartons and the walls painted black. There was still blood under the carpet when David ripped it up).

Eventually, he gives in and gives me the paranormal tour. Popular legend has it that some time in the 1800s, a pickled Aboriginal chap galloped up the stairs to the dress circle on his horse and plummeted over the balcony to his death, which must have been all shades of gruesome. A few years back, Channel 31 brought a team of ghostbusters to the theatre, with a medium in tow. As the spods set up their infrared cameras, heat detectors and mics, the medium – who had not been informed of where he was being taken – spoke of long-gone landscapes that were painted on the walls, and described an auctioneer banging a gavel, harking back to the earliest days when the theatre doubled as an auction room.

A banging was heard from the stage as the medium was identifying a ‘hotspot’ in the dressing-room, and a motley crew of ghosts were spotted “enjoying the entertainment” up in the gallery… but the most unnerving moment came when the crew came across ‘Annie’s room’. As we approach, David tells me he never goes there alone any more – then promptly disappears to get the key, leaving me to scan the gallery uneasily.

‘Annie’s room’ turns out to be a box room these days, and I’m thankful that there are no rocking chairs or mirrors to start doing sinister things. “She’s locked in and she’s screaming she’s going to die in here,” the medium had said, before grabbing David’s arm. “You’re all right, mate,” he said, “she’s just in you at the moment.” David had tears streaming down his face, and he hadn’t even realised.

By now, I’ve got goosebumps and my own eyes start pricking… oh stop it, you big girls blouse. “I wasn’t a believer in the supernatural, but it did give me a new appreciation,” says David, shutting the door. Same here.

Keeper? David and family are selling up soon. I’m torn between encouraging people to buy this with me or The Big Lobster, which is apparently also for sale.

Lola Montez in the bathroom.

The 35mm projectors.

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