Retirees returning beloved theatre to its former glory | Photos

Junee’s Athenium Theatre came perilously close to demolition earlier this century.

Now the historic building’s fortunes are heading in the opposite direction.

Junee’s population rallied to save the popular building from extinction over a decade ago and has since played a central role in its redevelopment.

When the Friends of Athenium committee could not afford to have the theatre’s dress circle renovated, even with council’s support, committee member Ian Manwaring knew there must be another way.

Not a single patron had ventured upstairs for almost 20 years, after original seating no longer met safety regulations.

That did not sit right with Mr Manwaring and after pondering ideas which might return the dress circle to its former glory, it suddenly came to him.

His plan was to rally a group of retired and semi-retired tradesmen and utilise their dormant skills under the supervision of qualified builders.

Unsure of the validity of his plan, Mr Manwaring put the idea to retired Junee builder Peter Logan.

“I used Peter as my barometer,” Mr Manwaring said.

“He’s a good man and ticked all the boxes in terms of skills.

“I had decided that if he liked the sound of the idea, I would go ahead with it.

“But if he said no, I would think again.”

Mr Logan gave the project a resounding thumbs up.

“When Ian approached me, I couldn't jump in quickly enough,” he said.

“I thought it was an absolutely wonderful idea, a fantastic thing to do for the community.”

Junee men Denis Hawke and Barry Brittan constructing a barrier at the front of the dress circle.

Junee men Denis Hawke and Barry Brittan constructing a barrier at the front of the dress circle.

From there Mr Manwaring continued to approach potential candidates, including retired builders, carpenters and civil engineers until he had a small army of 26 volunteers lined up.

“Initially I asked them if they would volunteer four hours of their time,” Mr Manwaring said.

“But once they got to work and caught sight of the vision, most of them would say after their shift, ‘Well, what’s happening next week?’”

The project is headlined by seating upgrades throughout the lower part of the dress circle, with original seating to be retained in the upper section and roped off as a heritage display.

The work will also include the construction of new flooring and carpet, a new barrier wall to match and protect the existing balustrade and new aisle lighting.

The project’s benefits have already extended well beyond the theatre, providing volunteers with a strong sense of camaraderie and self-fulfilment. 

“It’s great to see men enjoying each other’s company,” Mr Manwaring said. 

“They’re enjoying working together, they’re enjoying doing something creative and they’re enjoying putting their mark on a public building where they can say ‘I was a part of that.’”

The project has also provided a much needed place of solace for numerous volunteers.

“I’ve got a few volunteers with depression and in the intimacy of a morning tea, we’ve been able to talk about it,” Mr Manwaring said.

“Subjects that weren’t always discussed can be shared among this group of men because of the friendships that have been forged and the respect that exists for one another.”

But life wasn’t always quite so rosy at the Athenium.

In fact, many of the volunteers will tell you it’s a miracle their beloved theatre isn’t a pile of rubble. 

The rear of the dress circle.

The rear of the dress circle.

In the early 2000s, then Junee Shire Council general manager Greg Campbell had strongly advocated for the Athenium’s demolition and very nearly got his way.

It’s a memory which will always stick with former shire president, life-time Junee resident and dress circle volunteer Dal Eisenhaur OAM, who shares his year of birth with the theatre (1929).

“I was at an ANZAC Day ceremony in 2000,” he said. 

“The general manager said to me ‘You’ve been in Junee a long time, how do you think it would go down if that theatre was knocked over’.”

“I said ‘Well, it would leave a big hole in my heart’”.

But Mr Campbell, who viewed the theatre as a disposable relic from a bygone era, was not put off by Mr Eisenhaur’s comments and continued on his warpath.

He was determined to build a new medical centre on the theatre’s site and strategically framed the public debate surrounding the building. 

“The general manager called a public meeting and said ‘Do you want a theatre or do you want a medical centre?’,” Mr Eisenhaur recalled.

“So of course everyone said they wanted a medical centre.

“A few of us spoke up that night and said ‘Why can’t we have both?’

“But this debate really divided the town.

“A lot of people said ‘we want a medical centre and they’re trying to muck it all up’.”

The theatre’s fortunes took another turn for the worse when a notice appeared in the Junee Southern Cross in late 2002, confirming the theatre would be demolished.

After getting word that accommodation had already been booked for the demolition crew, the Friends of the Athenium committee sprang into action, announcing a meeting of their own.

Among the crowd of furious locals was then Liberal senator Bill Heffernan. 

A furious Mr Heffernan wasted no time in pleading the Athenium’s case to Premier Bob Carr.

Mr Carr slapped a hold on the theatre until the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage had the chance to inspect the building.

An ancient ice cream container, estimated to be from the 1940s, which was discovered under the seats in the dress circle during the renovation.

An ancient ice cream container, estimated to be from the 1940s, which was discovered under the seats in the dress circle during the renovation.

It was soon declared heritage listed, saving the theatre for future generations and capping off a remarkable underdog success story fit for a Hollywood film.

The animosity emanating from the anti-Athenium side of town was still palpable, but that too started to change.

Following the completion of a series of upgrades which preceded the dress circle work - including the installation of a roll-down screen and stage curtain donated by Professor Ross Thorne - the theatre took on a distinctly classy feel which harkened back to the old days. 

It caused even the strongest voices within the anti-Athenium group to fade away.

The town had once again fallen in love with the grand old girl.

The decision to save the building also staved off that seemingly imminent hole in Mr Eisenhaur’s heart, and he wasn’t the only one experiencing an overwhelming sense of relief.

The Athenium is more than an attractive old building to the residents of Junee.

It’s home to some of their most treasured memories.

“My wife and I announced our engagement in the dress circle, right here in this building,” Mr Eisenhaur said.

“Unfortunately she can’t get up the steps now, but Ian (Manwaring) said to me ‘it’s my ambition to get you and Margaret up there, perhaps on the day we open the dress circle’.”