Queenstown, in Tasmania’s wild west, is well-known for its copper mine, for the scarred hillsides surrounding the town, and for its gravel oval which gives the home team an advantage.
It is also home to a rare and wonderful gem: the Paragon Theatre.
Stepping into the theatre today is a unique experience. It’s safe to say it’s unlike any other, with a hand-painted floor that grabs the viewer’s attention and doesn’t let go. The floor was the creation of Alex Stevenson, a local GP who was originally from Zimbabwe. He bought the cinema in 2003, when it had been abandoned for years. Stevenson, and later his new wife, Alice, spent five years restoring it before returning to Zimbabwe in 2012.
Joy Chappell and Anthony Coulson bought the theatre in 2017. It’s fortuitous for all of us that they had the drive, determination and above all the vision to see how this delightful theatre could fit into the evolving nature of the town. Chappell and Coulson have built on Stevenson’s work and today, with the lush red curtain that covers the screen, the subdued lighting, comfortable couches, a bar and tables and chairs, the deceptively large space creates a warm, intimate atmosphere.
The Paragon first opened in October 1933 when Queenstown was a thriving mining town. Built with a tiered ground floor and a dress circle that extended almost half way across the theatre, it was designed to seat 1,150 patrons. It was a success until the late 1970s when, like so many other country cinemas, the advent of the home video hire cut deeply into the cinema business.
The Paragon Theatre closed in 1985, and shortly after much of the interior, including all the ground floor seats and about half the dress circle, was removed to make way for an indoor cricket stadium. That also failed within a few years.
Oy Chappell grew up in Ulladulla, NSW, and has worked as a chef in the UK, the US and Majorca. She first visited Tasmania as a tourist, and fell in love. “It just felt like home. I really felt I should be here.” Anthony Coulson is a Queenstown local.
According to Chappell, “As a chef, I’ve always wanted to design my own kitchen, my own menus. It was an ideal opportunity and we thought we might be able to make a success out of it.” From the Paragon Theatre they run three businesses: accommodation at My Lyell Anchorage, RoamWild tours and the summertime dinner and movies in the renovated theatre. RoamWild has exclusive access to Lake Margaret power station and village, Mt Owen and an old mine they lease..
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Taking over the heritage-listed theatre hasn’t been an easy journey. The screen needed to be professionally repainted, a new projector was needed, the kitchen required extensive renovations while the exit doors were rotting and had to be replaced.
By far the biggest expense, however, occurred in 2018. Significant cracks began appearing in the beautiful floor. The floor had dipped in places and there were some cracks in it, but suddenly it became much worse. “We were thinking, we’ve got this beautiful, hand-painted floor which is the main feature of the place. How do we save it?” Chappell said.
They brought in engineers. They drilled four holes into the floor and found that the concrete floor, put in for the cricket stadium in 1985, had been poured directly onto the original timber floor in the front section of the theatre. That timber had since rotted, leaving vast areas of the concrete slab floating on nothing. The engineers’ advice was, “Get everything off the floor, stay off the floor as much as you can. It will collapse if you don’t.”
The quote to repair it was $68,000. The final cost was $75,000. All this happened three months before Queenstown’s large and successful Unconformity Festival. The Paragon was earmarked for some of the main events.
The government offered a grant, money was raised locally, 136 holes were drilled into the floor to underpin the structure, and the theatre was ready just three weeks before the festival.
Chappell and Coulson have created a wonderfully warm inviting place to visit. You can sit and watch the old classics over a delicious meal of home-made pasta meal, with freshly baked bread. You can enjoy a drink at the bar. You can take a self-guided tour. It’s an excellent place to hold functions.
The history of the theatre is now embedded in plaques on the floor – a long history on a stable floor.
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