The Forum Theatre (on Flinders Street, opposite ACMI) is an extravagant, eccentric slice of Melbourne’s history. Most locals have fond memories of dancing to their favourite bands under the twinkling lights of the deep blue sky-ceiling, surrounded by Greco-Roman statues. It seems almost inconceivable that the venue could become even more beautiful – but that’s exactly what has happened.
Last year, the family-owned Marriner Group (who also own the Regent, Princess and Comedy theatres) closed the Forum for a major overhaul. Given that the venue was built in 1929, many of these upgrades were necessary to bring the venue up to the needs of a modern music venue and events space (including electrical wiring, lighting, bathrooms and air-conditioning) – but other changes were part of a bid to restore the Forum back to its original glory.
During the whole process, Jason Marriner, the company’s CEO, and his sister Kayley, the general manager, were mindful of maintaining the venue’s original feel. “It’s had a complete overhaul, from the basement to the auditorium… [but] when you’re doing a heritage restoration, if you get it right, you really want it to appear that that’s the way it’s always been,” says Jason.
So what’s changed, exactly? The Forum’s famous blue sky has been re-painted, for a start; but the most impressive difference is obvious the minute you walk through the doors.
The carpet in the entrance has been stripped back to reveal mosaic tiles
The Forum was originally built as a grand cinema in 1929, just as 'talkie' films were taking off. In 1937 it was carpeted over, because, as Jason explains, "in the early '30s, carpet was the luxe flooring". Now, Melburnians will be able to admire the mosaic for the first time since 1937.
The venue's original astronomical clock is now on display
Who knew this was sitting beneath the entrance to the Forum for all these decades?
A gargoyle sits on the site of the former ticket booth
See that golden rim around this gargoyle (mirroring the ones sitting on at the entrance of the theatre)? It marks where the ticket booth once sat while the Forum was a cinema. Fun fact: the venue ceased being a cinema in the 1980s, and was then bought by the Revivalist Church. In 1996, it was bought by the Marriner Group and became the venue we know today.
The original marble staircase has been restored
These stairs were carpeted over at the same time as the mosaic.
The Greco-Roman style statues have been touched up
Don't worry: all your favourite statues are still here, brighter and cleaner than ever.
The decorative friezes have been lit
Now, you can see all the intricate details of the Forum's lavishly designed walls and ceilings.
The standing room has widened
Walls and barriers have been pushed back so that the Forum now holds a capacity of 2,000, as opposed to 1,500.
New booths have been installed
Jason Marriner is particularly excited about the brand new booths lining the standing room of the theatre. "The old ones were set back so you could put a table in front of them. But people would stand in front of you, and you couldn't see. Now, you can look straight over the booth, over the heads of the people in the mosh pit!" The entire area back from the standing area is now wider, so that the Forum can host larger events.
A new artists' green room has been built
The Forum's underground lounge for performers has been completely refurbished and enlarged into what Jason calls "a 21st century green room". Now, it will be able to host more people after shows, and there's also a large blackboard for artists to make their mark.
Photographs: Graham Denholm
The Marriner Group has also dug out a huge underground network of rooms under the Forum, which means the venue now has a commercial kitchen, and a lift that could fit a car.
So what's coming up at the Forum? The refurbishment has been completed just in time for the venue to become the hub for the Melbourne Festival (Oct 4-22). The upstairs space will be transformed into a bar for artists and audiences – and the main theatre will play host to the epic 24-hour show by festival headliner Taylor Mac.
Next time you visit the Forum, make sure you explore every corner of the space; you'll be surprised at all the fascinating details you'll find.