The Rex Theatre was built by Far Northern Theatres Ltd. at 3-5 Mill Street, Mossman in 1956. Construction began in January and Opening Night was Friday 29 June.
A packed house enjoyed “There’s No Business Like Show Business” after the official opening by Mrs R. D. Rex who cut a ribbon across the screen. Her husband, in whose honour the theatre was named, could not attend due to illness. He had been Chairman of the Douglas Shire for 22 years and a councillor for 42 years.
Co-incidentally his surname was Rex, a popular name for theatres. The Mossman Rex is often confused with the Cairns Rex, both of which were owned at one time by Far Northern Theatres.
All proceeds from the night went to the Mossman Ambulance.
Cairns Post 6 July 1956
“There’s No Business like Show Business” had played at the Tropical Cairns on May 16th and was released in 1954. Unnamed shorts were also screened at the opening, and speeches came from Bill Moloney, Manager of Far Northern Theatres, and its Chairman of Directors, Mr W. Smith. Chairman of the Douglas Shire Council, Cr. E Berzinski joked “that perhaps some credit should also be given to the Douglas Shire Council who had been ‘on the backs’ of Far Northern Theatre over recent years, urging the substitution of a new building for the old one which had gone into poor repair (Smiles).”
After opening night “Mutiny” with Angela Lansbury screened in the first half.
The Rex replaced the Photoplay, which closed two days before the Rex opened. The old theatre, parts of which were over 40 years old, had been falling into disrepair, and the Douglas Shire Council had been writing to Far Northern Theatres since 1952 asking for repairs.
Cairns Post 1 Oct 1952
The Council threatened to condemn the building in 1954 and gave Far Northern Theatres six months to build a new theatre, or the old one would be closed.
Cairns Post 7 April 1954
But Far Northern Theatres was busily building other theatres in Babinda and Mareeba and renovating the Plaza and Rex in Cairns, ready for the new widescreen Cinemascope and ‘three dimensional films”.
Cairns Post 4 Sept 1953
They stalled over the availability of building materials, but announced they hoped to have a new theatre in about four months.
Cairns Post 7 April 1954
In October, DSC asked FNT’s general manager Mr Bill Moloney why the Photoplay should not be demolished. His reply was that a more suitable site was still being looked for, but anyway plans for a new building were in hand.
The council pushed on, in 1955 writing to the Picture Theatre and Films commission asking that the theatre’s license be withdrawn and issuing a building permit to Far Northern Theatres.
Finally construction began in January 1956 on the site next to the Exchange Hotel in Mill Street, although the title deeds were not changed until May 17 from Lorenzo and Minnie Martinez, owners of the hotel.
It cost £30,000 (approx $60,000) to build, with a capacity of 600 in new canvas seats. The architect was Mr B Lynn, the building contractors were Kynaston and Andrews (with foreman, Mr “Slim” Leary), Maxwell and Morrow built the roof trusses, the painter was Mr R. W. Durrington and electricians were Burnells Pty Ltd. Kynaston had previously built the Cairns Rex.
Cairns Post 6 July 1956 Cairns Post 13 March 1939
There was no balcony or dress circle. Seating was on one level on a concrete floor. The projection box was upstairs on the road side of the building with two projectors which had come from the Photoplay, and a slide machine for advertisements. Projectors were adapted for Cinemascope.
Shops were built in front of the theatre and Keith Traine, the manager at the time of the changeover of venues and his father Norm had a sporting goods business there. The Candy Bar or café was on the right hand side, and was run by Freda Barnett, wife of the projectionist, Jack.
The Rex exhibited every night except Sunday with three shows on Saturday. Friday was family night. Later it became Ranch Night screening Westerns. Saturday matinees were aimed at children with cowboy serials such as the “Durango Kid”. Locals called it the “Drongo Kid”. There were two different sessions at 10am and 1.30pm.
Far Northern Theatres opened the Coral Drive-In in Cairns in 1961, which was a very popular alternative to the hard-top theatres.
They sold the Mossman Rex in August that year to Walter and Lily Plemenuk from Townsville, and opened the Mareeba Rodeo Drive-In in 1962.
The Plemenuks were experienced theatre operators, having previously owned the Estate Theatre in Townsville and the Bio Theatre in Cloncurry and with their son Bob and his wife Joan, they ran a very successful business in Mossman. Lil ran the candy car and Ron Johnston came back to work as the projectionist.
Wal improved the theatre with new sound heads and magazines on the projectors and new lamp houses. He also replaced many of the canvas seats. Bob and Joan washed 150 canvases every Saturday night in their Simpson washing machine.
During the Plemenuk’s time, the Rex was the most popular place in Mossman for families to socialise and for teenagers to meet. Although it is difficult to believe in these days of immediacy with television and the internet, then the cinema was still the only place to see moving pictures of the outside world. People had permanent bookings for Saturday nights and dressed up. No one was allowed in without shoes, or wearing just a singlet.
They promoted their films with floats in the Mossman May Day parades or with special nights for films like ‘Mary Poppins”. Sometimes local singers or bands would perform on stage before a session.
Bob rented the school bus and drove to the Mossman Gorge aboriginal community to pick up people and bring them to the pictures. He said they always sat down at the front of the theatre by choice although in this theatre, all the seats were the same.
The four family members worked in the Candy Bar during interval as well as four other girls and they would sell bags of mixed lollies for sixpence (5c) One in every five bags contained a free admission ticket for a child. Four part-time ushers were employed as well as a projectionist and many local people remember working there.
Favourites from the Candy Bar included Peters ice-cream scooped from big containers into cones, liquorice and Fantales (chocolate covered caramels with film stars’ biographies on the wrapper), and chips (crisps) and peanuts. Home-made Milo iceblocks and spiders (fizzy drinks with a scoop of ice cream) were also extremely popular. Popcorn was just being introduced to some Australian cinemas, and was considered to be “American”.
Films were ordered directly from MGM, Universal, 20th Century Fox or RKO through reps in Brisbane. The distributors sent a list to choose from but there were very few Australian-made pictures. The Rex also had an arrangement for film booking with Far Northern Theatres as the number of prints of each film was limited. Films still arrived by White Cars transport from Cairns.
Saturday night featured the main big movie hits like “Ben Hur” (1959), “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Mary Poppins”(1964), “Psycho” (1960) or the “Age of Consent” (1969).
After 12 years in Mossman, on 5 May 1973 the Plemenuks sold the Rex to Mrs Rita Quaid, wife of George Quaid, and moved back to Townsville. Wal Plemenuk passed away in 1975.
Australasian Cinema May 10 1973
The Quaids operated the theatre themselves, with help from people who worked in their other businesses. Television had arrived and audiences were staying home, so the Rex only screened on Monday and Wednesday with two shows on Saturday.
Projectionist Ron Johnston was given a job at PS Lunn’s garage, which the Quaids had also purchased, and worked at the theatre on overtime. Jim Williams from PS Lunns was also the theatre manager and film booker. Clicker McLean and Eddie Baker were other employees who worked at both establishments. Screening nights changed to Friday, Saturday and Monday. “Towering Inferno” (1974) was one of the most successful films, packing the house for three nights.
Another 1974 attraction had everybody talking due to an advertising glitch. The ad for the Saturday 18 May matinee of “Million Dollar Duck” appeared in Jack & Newell’s stencilled news-sheet with a mistake in the capital letter of Duck, to the great amusement of the community. The next edition printed a public apology.
Equipment in the theatre in 1978 was listed as two Westrex lamp houses, two Toshiba projectors with Cinemascope, one Westrex slide projector and a record player. There was a manager’s office and Candy Bar with frontage to the foyer and the street.
The picture show appears to have quietly wound to a close in 1979 or 1980. The last film is not listed in any newspaper and nobody can remember exactly when the doors finally closed.
Possibly it was still operating when the Rex was sold to William and Margaret Bourchier on 13 Feb 1980. They were approved by the Douglas Shire Council for “Cinema, Dancing and Roller Skating” usage but apparently it did not go ahead, although skating was held later in the Shire Hall opposite. Possibly William Bourchier was the projectionist for a short while.
The theatre may have been unoccupied for some time until 30 May 1985 when Christopher and Lynette Hayes purchased it. They successfully applied to Council for “Indoor Cricket” which was quite successful for some time.
On 28 March 1994 the building was purchased by Pinjarra Enterprises Pty Ltd and afterwards the space was used as a showroom for second-hand goods by Lifeline.
In 2012 the auditorium was empty, a sad end to a building that holds so many happy memories for local residents.
The property was offered for auction in 1978 but no new owners were recorded.
The inventory included:
ADVERT:FREEHOLD THEATRE AND SHOPS
Many benefits for few hours work p.week with some assistance (Perhaps family) Excellent opportunity to use the improvements to an almost unlimited degree to increase income further. Equipment can be easily operated with a small amount of basic training. FREEHOLD BUSINESS PROPERTY (stock and plant included).
Another auction was proposed in 1981 but again no change of ownership is recorded:
Substantial commercial building of predominantly concrete and rendered brick construction, located on prime 775 sq.m block opposite Council Chambers.
SUIT ARCADE, DISCOUNT STORE etc.
SEPARATE SALE OF THEATRE AND CANDY BAR EQUIPMENT
If not required by purchaser of the property as a going concern, a special auction of this plant, equipment and stock will be scheduled for 14 days after the disposal of the building.
BUSINESS PROPERTY FOR SALE FREEHOLD.
For more stories and photos, read “Let’s Go to the Pictures in Mossman” available from DSHS.