Monday, 23 July 2012

Toowoomba's Crown & Strand: vintage 'Gold Class' cinema with a few spirits thrown in!

Toowoomba's Strand Theatre (Event Cinemas) as it looks now.
Toowoomba: Australia's second largest inland city behind Canberra & largest non-capital inland city overall.  Known locally as the "Garden City," Toowoomba has seen its fair share of history -  & as a result, this city west of Brisbane has its fair share of haunted houses & much so, that the haunted nature of the buildings in Toowoomba truly rival any of those found throughout Brisbane!  In a series of buildings that we'll look at throughout Toowoomba over the coming year, let's first have a look at the site of the Strand Theatre & old Crown Hotel on the corner of Margaret & Neil Streets.  The Strand Theatre was constructed throughout 1915-1916, & was tacked onto the side of the then Crown Hotel which had already been in business for over 30 years.  Designed to rival other picture theatres of its era in Australia's larger cities, the Strand's layout also took into account a functional aspect, with the upper floor segmented to provide additional hotel rooms extending across from the hotel next door.  Having passed through numerous hands over the past nearly 100 years, the Strand Theatre which is now more popularly known as Toowoomba's Event Cinemas, boasts the reputation as Australia's oldest purpose-built cinema.  Whilst the above photo provides some indication of the monumental fa├žade of the current-day cinema complex, the adjoining old Crown Hotel building is lost beneath the neon sign & crazy roof-top sculpture...back in the 1930's, the site looked more like this:

The Crown Hotel & adjoining Strand Theatre, c.1930

Over the years, the Strand Theatre saw its fair share of unusual events.  On the 19th of October 1923, the expected Friday night crowd filed into the theatre in anticipation of the night's entertainment, from the drenching rain falling out in Margaret Street...another Queensland summer was on its way, & the early season thunder storms were beginning to manifest in the region.  Midway through the performance, however, a stray lightening bolt crashed to ground nearby, blacking out a section of the city & surging through the power cables along Margaret Street.  Passing through the brick wall of the theatre via the electrical wiring, the massive power surge exploded from the conduit alongside the theatre's orchestra, manifesting as a massive bluish flame that shot out across the theatre for some distance!  The media at the time reported that, "Two youths who were sitting near where the "blow out" occurred are said to have turned a complete somersault."  Two women fainted from shock, & the majority of theatre goers - including the terrified members of the Strand Theatre Orchestra - fled up the aisles for the doors, leaving their hats & coats strewn about the theatre.  Very fortunately, no one was injured in the panic, & calm was soon restored...although the restoration of power to the Strand Theatre took some extra time.

Not even a decade later, on the 3rd of June 1935, Monday night movie-goers filed in to the Strand Theatre & took their seats in anticipation of the night's entertainment.  At 7:35pm, thick black smoke began to pour from the operating box's windows, billowing out into the theatre above the heads of the theatre patrons.  The fire brigade was immediately called for, however by the time they had arrived the theatre staff had succeeded in bringing the blaze under control.  It was discovered that an electrical short had occurred in one of the cinema's appliances, & a reel of film had combusted as a result - nitrocellulose film was utilised in the cinema industry up until the 1950's, & was notorious for being highly, highly much so, that cinema projection rooms throughout the world were required to be fire-proofed through lining with asbestos!  Once burning, nitrocellulose film is extremely difficult to extinguish, & dousing with water actually increases the amount of smoke produced - fortunately, the theatre staff tackled the fire with a chemical extinguisher, after which it was brought under control.  Amazingly, the theatre-goers below appeared somewhat oblivious to the drama unfolding above them, & remained in their seats throughout.  After a lengthy delay, the night's program went ahead...minus the length of film that had almost set the building ablaze!

So...what of the ghostly nature of the building??  In an interview conducted with ABC Southern Queensland in April this year, both the Strand Theatre's Manager Ian, as well as long-time employee John, discussed the building's numerous ghost stories.  Of least importance, but amusing none-the-less, was a story of the ladies toilets in the cinema - "Some staff were reporting a sniffing noise coming from the ladies toilet, that the believers thought was a ghost crying."  Unfortunately, after some investigative work, it was discovered that the spectral noise belonged to an air freshener!  However, on a more serious note, a multitude of ghost stories seem to be told by staff who work within the cinema - one account, taken from a staff member as she reversed out of the carpark, stated that, "She swears that she looked up and there was a figure of someone up in that tiny little window, looking back down at her."  However, do the staff at the Strand Theatre have any idea about the origins of the ghosts that apparently haunt their workplace?

Conveniently, they have two - according to the ABC, & long-time Strand Theatre staff member John, "A change of hands in the 1970's saw a darker side of the building's history come to light.  The clients were walking in asking for a box of matches. The staff would hand over the matches and charge [the clients] 20 cents, but they would say 'no, we want the $20 box of matches.'  With no idea what the customers were talking about, the new owners went on a quest to find out.  They found out the $20 boxes of matches being sold contained no matches, but a key - a key with a number on it.  And you went upstairs to the room, there waiting for you was a lovely lady."  Popular rumour has it that one of these ladies was killed in the building, & her spirit has never left...a rumour that might be possible, but is completely unfounded.  Furthermore, it is also speculated that the ghost might belong to Emma Miller, a renowned Queensland woman who holds the reputation as the "mother of the Labor Party."  According to the ABC's article, & local Toowoomba historian Peter Cullen, "In 1917, at the age of 77, she was staying at the Crown Hotel which then occupied the site, and she became sick after speaking at the local botanical gardens. There are two different reports; one says she died in the hotel, and the other says she died at the hospital."

Whilst this tale provides some historic insight into the profile of some of the visitors to the Crown Hotel, the rumour is highly unlikely & is incorrect in its detail.  In January 1917, Mrs Miller had travelled to Toowoomba to recuperate from a bout of ill-health, & had checked in at the Crown Hotel.  On Saturday the 20th of January, she had visited the Botanic Gardens where she was entertained by a number of local Labour supporters, before returning to the hotel.  Again, on Sunday the 21st of January, she visited the home of a friend and again returned to the hotel is what seemed to be her usual health.  Unfortunately, however, due to the advanced cancer that was ravaging her body, Emma Miller passed away at 9pm on Monday the 22nd of October - whilst her death occurred in Toowoomba, it is highly likely that in her final hours Emma Miller was transferred to the Toowoomba Hospital, & she did not pass away within the confines of the Crown Hotel (this legend could be easily laid to rest by anyone with access to Emma Miller's Death Certificate - a document I unfortunately do not currently possess).  As a matter of interest for those who live in Brisbane, Emma Miller is proudly represented in King George Square, where a bronze effigy of this amazing woman stands ever-present watching over Brisbane's residents as they pass under the shadow of Brisbane City Hall.

Unsubstantiated deaths aside, however, what do we know really know about the Strand Theatre's past?  Were there any deaths on-site that may have given rise to the haunting experienced by current staff?  In response to these questions, the answer is a resounding "Yes" - two events come to light, with both holding the distinct possibility of generating a haunting at the Strand Theatre...& both occurred within about 18 months of one another...

On the afternoon of the 11th of October 1929, 68 year old John Lewis Langhorne was taking a walk along Neil Street.  He had been ill for some days, but was hell-bent on ensuring that this recent illness was not going to slow him down.  A well-known resident of Toowoomba, whose family hailed from Kelvin Grove in Brisbane, John worked as a casual hand for the town's Works  Department, & hence knew the municipality's layout well.  However, as he approached the corner of Neil & Margaret Streets, John's health took a turn for the worse.  As his head swam & his body failed, John looked around frantically for a business where he might find 5pm on a Friday afternoon, the pickings were extremely slim, although the Crown Hotel's doors were wide open only metres away & the bar was populated with residents seeing out their working week.  Staggering through the door of the hotel, John collapsed on the floor, where he was immediately attended to by the afternoon's patrons.  He was lifted onto a seat & the ambulance brigade was sent for in haste, however John passed away before the hospital could be reached.  With his family located in Kelvin Grove, John's body was transported back to Brisbane, where his loved ones had his remains interred at Toowong Cemetery on the 14th of October.

Whilst John's demise on the floor of the Crown Hotel in 1929 was dramatic, it pales in comparison to another event that occurred 18 months earlier.  In the early hours on the 9th of January 1928, Hilda Voll, the housemaid of the Crown Hotel, delivered breakfast to Room 28 in the Crown Hotel, as she'd done many times before.  Inside, she expected to find Dr Thomas Drew, a long-time boarder at the hotel.  However, upon her early visit, Dr Drew appeared to be asleep, so Hilda went away with the intention of returning she did, at 7:45, to find Dr Drew still in bed apparently fast asleep.  At about 10:30am, when Thomas had not arrived at work, his employer Mr Campbell arrived at the hotel...after banging on Thomas' door to no response, Campbell entered the room to find his employee apparently still asleep. On attempting to wake Thomas without success, Mr Campbell quickly realised something was horribly wrong, & called on another local Doctor who immediately summoned the ambulance brigade.  Unfortunately, Dr Thomas Drew was pronounced dead shortly after admission at the Toowoomba Hospital, resulting from a self-induced overdose of morphine.  The Inquest into his death would reveal that Dr Thomas Drew had been complaining about feeling unwell for a few days before his death, & had spent some time in bed at the hotel amongst appointments.  The autopsy would reveal no indication of long-term drug abuse, as no visible injection marks could be found...ultimately, it was determined that Drew had taken a dose of morphine to induce sleep, & in doing so had misjudged the quantity with fatal consequences.

So, the unfounded murder of a prostitute & improbable on-site death of Emma Miller aside, is the Strand Theatre haunted by the spirit of John Lanhorne or Thomas Drew, both men having experienced their last conscious moments within the building?  Or...could the ghosts within the building harp from yet an earlier time??  As a final thought, & for the record, the site on which the Crown Hotel was built was once the location of Toowoomba's Congregational Church.  Throughout the 1860's & 1870's, many a Sunday service & funeral was conducted on these hallowed grounds before the site was cleared, after which a house of ill-repute was built in its place.  So...can we attribute the ghosts of the Strand to the death of two men in the 1920's, or are the spirits of Toowoomba's early church-going pioneers still visiting the site & voicing their disapproval over how their hallowed site has evolved??

Toowoomba's Congregational Church, c.1870 (John Oxley Library)


  1. thanks to share this informative post, i am more happy to visit this post.
    detailing toowoomba

  2. Very interesting. Love the Art Deco cinema, it is a gem, but even more interesting now!