St Michael's Grammar School has sold the Astor cinema, bringing to an end its much-maligned plan to redevelop the heritage-listed art deco building as a multi-purpose performing arts complex.
St Kilda businessman Ralph Taranto has bought the building for an undisclosed sum that is believed to be less than the $3.8 million St Michael's paid when it bought the Astor at auction in 2007.
"You'd have to spend about $20 million to build it today, but the return on it means it's not worth much more than $2 million," the 80-year-old Mr Taranto told The Age. "I'm not buying it for the return, I'm buying it for the passion, the love."
Mr Taranto said he intended to leave the running of the cinema in the hands of current manager George Florence, and to spend a significant amount of money on refurbishments and maintenance. He planned to replace the pressed metal ceiling on the building's Chapel Street awning, replace the power plant installed when the cinema was built in 1936, and consolidate the small shops at the front of the building, where the possibility of creating a cafe has been raised. "I think there'll be a big difference by next Easter," he said.
Asked if his intention was to keep it as a single-screen cinema, his response was simple. "Oh God yes. I wouldn't buy it otherwise."
The sale represents a major victory for the community campaign organised by the Friends of the Astor, a group launched by Florence in 2008 and incorporated two years ago (Florence has no executive role). Through social media, the group was vociferous in its condemnation of St Michael's, claiming its plans to "privatise" a public asset flew in the face of its avowed commitment to community.
A petition on the website change.org attracted 13,702 signatures and much criticism of the school. High-profile entertainers including including Michael Caton, Tony Martin, Sophie Lee, Stephen Curry, Rove McManus, Tracy Bartram, Adam Hills and At The Movies host David Stratton added their voices to the campaign.
"It's a stunning place and it has such a great history," Curry said in June. "It's not just the cinema, it's the poster, too — without the Astor, there is going to be a gaping hole of fridges and dunny doors right across the city.
"As everything becomes gentrified and more modern and as all the small businesses get turfed out to make way for the big brands and the big companies, it's places like this that remind you what the heart and soul of the place is. It would be a tragedy to lose it."
St Michael's unveiled its ambition for a major reworking of the building in 2009. Although it had not revealed final details of its plans, it is believed the school had engaged renowned architectural firm ARM — responsible for the Melbourne Recital Hall and the recent refurbishment of Hamer Hall — to oversee major works expected to cost up to $25 million. As community anger built in May ahead of a "save the Astor rally" planned for the following month, the school's head, Simon Gipson, said the school intended to retain a cinema program at the Astor.
"The one thing [the school] has always committed to, right from purchase, is that it would protect the theatre's historic use as a cinema," he said. "No matter what the vision for the future was for the Astor, it would include that right at its heart."
The school claimed a deliberate campaign of misinformation had made its plans impossible.
In a statement yesterday it said it had become apparent to the Board "that a shared community arts facility was no longer a viable proposition, and that a sale ... was the best option for all parties".
Enter Ralph Taranto who has been painted as something of a white knight.
Mr Taranto has been involved in the cinema industry most of his life. He worked for MGM in the 1940s and for Hoyts in the 1950s. He made his money in property development and bought the Brighton Bay cinema, which he still owns, in 1992. In 1999, he briefly had a deposit on the Walter Burley Griffin-designed Capitol Cinema on Swanston Street before backing out and buying the George Cinema on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda.
Earlier this month, he tried to sell the George, with an asking price roughly the same as he paid for the Astor, but it was passed in at auction. The purchase of the latter was not, he said, contingent on the sale of the former.
Palace leased the George from Mr Taranto until 2010. In 2011, he took over operation of the cinema, and renamed it the Aurora. "It's always been my dream to run my own cinema," he said at the time.
Less than two weeks later, he closed the cinema. "I realised when I opened it that I'd have to be there to run it myself," Mr Taranto explained. "I thought, 'This is madness.'
"I could do it, no problem — I've run businesses since I was 19 — but I'm 81 on New Year's Eve and it would be foolish of me. So I just pulled the plug. If I was younger I'd not have done that, but I want to be a bit free. While you're still well every day's a plus, that's the way I look at it."
With Mr Florence at the helm, Mr Taranto feels the Astor is in safe hands. So, too, do the Friends of the Astor.
"We're delighted that the sale has finally gone through," said FOTA president Vanda Hamilton. "We believe that Mr Taranto will act in the best interests of the Astor and we look forward to speaking to him very soon in regard to setting up a trust to ensure that the Astor runs far into the future."
Mr Taranto has not yet committed himself to setting up an independent trust for the running of the Astor in perpetuity. "That'll come later. First I'll own it, then I'll fix it up, and then we'll see what happens," he said.
But Mr Florence is confident it's not much more than a formality. "It's Ralph's and my intention to form a not-for-profit trust, and he will bequeath the Astor to that trust and I will roll my business into it," Mr Florence said.
"I believe he has honourable intentions."