Belgrave’s Cameo Cinemas, an entertainment icon of the Dandenong Ranges, re-opened December 2003, marking a new era for this cherished cinema.
The Cameo, which has National Trust Classification, was originally opened on November 22, 1935 with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s David Copperfield, together with a short program of Fox Australian Movietone News, Walt Disney cartoons, and a “musical novelty” starring Bing Crosby and Mary Pickford.
The Cameo was built by Alex Jaensch, who came to the Hills with his family in the early 1920s. An industrial chemist by trade, Jaensch later became a “picture show man”, touring the Silvan Dam and Sassafras areas showing silent films in halls and sometimes tents. In 1934 he commissioned the architects Scarborough Robertson & Love to design a cinema for Belgrave.
When the Cameo opened in 1935, it was a true “picture palace” of its time, boasting relatively ornate features of the Art Deco period and a distinctive “shadow decoration” of silhouetted trees on the cinema’s interior walls. It also featured the renowned foot warmers, still in place to this day.
From the time of its opening and through the 1940s and ‘50s, the Cameo remained a focus of social activity for both the local community and beyond, as the Dandenong Ranges became an ever-popular destination for holiday-makers.
In 1961 Jaensch retired after nearly 40 years in the cinema business, and the Cameo simply closed. It was resurrected in 1964 by Don and Elaine McWhirter, who renovated the cinema with red leather chairs, red and gold flock wallpaper, and a gold curtain across the newly installed wider screen. The McWhirters dedicated themselves tirelessly to the cinema’s rejuvenation, both in décor and audience loyalty.
When the McWhirter family moved to northern New South Wales in 1977, partners John McKenzie and Leong Lim took over the cinema and continued with upgrades, including a Dolby sound system, a curved brick façade, and two new cinema auditoriums, finally completed in 1987. These alterations did not affect the existing 1935 auditorium (Cinema 1), which retained its historical Art Deco features.
Palace Cinemas took over the lease at the Cameo in 1991 and continued to screen movies at the site until mid 2003.
On September 1, the Cameo was purchased by Eddie Tamir, who had achieved success with another cinema in need of renovation, programming expertise, and renewed energy. Tamir’s revitalization of the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick stands as an excellent example of his faith and determination in “returning the Cameo to its former glory”.
The new Cameo Cinemas, featuring five stylish cinemas and an outdoor cinema, re-open on December 26, 2003 with a mix of new arthouse films, quality blockbusters for adults and children, and world cinema classics. The cinema will retain its finest historical features from the Art Deco period, together with decorative flourishes from its post-1970s life and a “touch of glamour”.
In December 2010 an additional 2 cinemas were added to the rear of cinema 1 plus a bar and a deck over looking the outdoor cinema.
The Cameo remains one of the few architecturally notable, decorative cinemas still operating in Victoria. The Cameo has been embraced by the community since 1935 and Tamir intends to uphold this tradition. He adds, “The hills are alive, and the Cameo is absolutely a part of it!”