2 September 2020

Yass community rallies to buy iconic Liberty Theatre

| Hannah Sparks
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Exterior of Liberty Theatre in Yass.

The Friends of the Liberty Theatre group hopes to buy the iconic building on the main street of Yass. Photo: Supplied.

A community group in Yass hopes to save the town’s Liberty Theatre by purchasing the iconic building through a cooperative.

The Friends of the Liberty Theatre group proposes to purchase and restore the 700-seat Art Deco theatre through philanthropic funding.

“It could be used by the community as a cinema, using the drop-down screen and digital projection; for live theatre with Yass Repertory and travelling theatre groups; to educate students on stage lighting and sound production; fashion parades; book and wine launches, among many other things,” said group member Bimbi Turner.

Interior of Liberty Theatre in Yass.

Inside the 700-seat Art Deco Liberty Theatre in Yass. Photo: Supplied.

A text line will be established by the group in September to gather the names and email addresses of residents interested in donating to the purchase of the theatre.

“It doesn’t matter if they put in $10 or $100, we will raise whatever we can,” said Ms Turner.

Around 500 names were collected by the group in a previous attempt to generate support for the theatre, according to another member, Ian McClung.

“So many of us in town are passionate about the theatre,” he said.

The Friends of the Liberty Theatre group is concerned the venue won’t be maintained as a theatre if purchased by a private buyer.

Paul Brennan, who was hired by theatre owners Touie and Denise Smith to promote the sale, confirmed they were in talks with two private buyers.

Artist image of Liberty Theatre foyer if renovations were to be undertaken.

Heritage cinema consultant Paul Brennan has created images to show what the theatre could potentially look like. Photo: Supplied.

“We would be delighted if the Friends of the Liberty Theatre bought the building, but we have other serious buyers who have bigger views,” said Mr Brennan.

One of the potential private buyers lives locally while the other lives in Canberra, according to Mr Brennan.

“There is nothing in Canberra like the Liberty Theatre and performing artists from Canberra can travel 40 minutes up the road to perform in Yass and get home in the same amount of time,” he said.

However, while meeting with potential buyers, Mr Brennan has also been working to secure a heritage listing for the Liberty Theatre that would protect its current function under any owner.

It has also been Touie and Denise Smith’s desire to see the theatre purchased by the community since placing the building on the market in 2014.

“Our preference has always been that the theatre is owned by the community,” said Mr Smith. “Public ownership increases access to grant funding and protects the building’s future as a theatre.”

The Smiths previously offered the theatre to Yass Valley Council and the community for $500,000.

However, council knocked back the offer in October 2019, saying at the time it didn’t have the funds allocated to purchase or renovate the theatre.

Repairs including repainting, new lighting and re-upholstering seats were previously estimated to cost $40,000.

Meanwhile, the Friends of the Liberty Theatre group was interested in buying it but said it would need two to three years to gather funds.

The Smiths say that offer no longer exists and they won’t put a price on the theatre again after previous offers were rejected.

“We offered that price years ago and the council and community groups didn’t take it,” said Mr Smith. “We’ve spent a lot more money promoting the theatre since then and continue to do so. So as time goes by, it’s not getting cheaper.

“We also won’t entertain naming the price we want because we have [previously done that] and it failed. What we’re saying to people is make an offer and if we can’t find a buyer we will take what the market says.

“The community needs to get serious about whether it really wants it.”

Mr Smith said he and his wife would prefer to choose a buyer, but the building will go to auction if that doesn’t happen.

The couple bought the building in 2004 for $380,000 with the intention of restoring the theatre to its former glory, but said they came up against difficulties with council.

The theatre was designed by Sydney architects Crick and Furse and built in 1939 with an ocean liner design to make residents feel as if they were going on holiday at the pictures. The building features portholes, oceanic plaster design and ship railings.

Mr Brennan believes the Liberty Theatre is the last of its kind, with two identical theatres – The Victory in Sydney and West’s Theatre in Nowra – demolished in 1983.

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It’s all good to think the community could pool together and purchase the venue, but at what cost? If the venture fails after the purchase the only winner is the current owners bank account. I really cant understand why private enterprises spend up on our old buildings and then expect the towns people to step up and take over their dreams after realising that their eyes are bigger than their bellies. I can only assume that the owners are doing ok with the current leased shop fronts. Wouldn’t it be better for the town if an effort was made to claim the title of the Pub across the road ?

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