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Braidwood’s National Theatre: historic and irrepressible

By Jill McLeod

The construction of the much-awaited second pedestrian crossing over Braidwood’s main street has led to the historic National Theatre gaining renewed attention. In particular, discussion about access by hirers and patrons is increasing as the full implication of difficulties of access due to reduced parking spots is becoming more obvious.

Easy or ceremonial access to the front steps will be a thing of the past (as when in 2007 the Governor of NSW, Her Excellency Marie Bashir, visited to participate in the celebration of the town’s heritage listing.)

But perhaps we should just be grateful that we still have the National Theatre to hire or to be entertained in and not worry about how many steps we need to take before reaching the entry steps. In the mid nineties, and much to the distress of many Braidwood citizens, the theatre was threatened with demolition. This was due to the neglect by the Tallaganda Council and the judgment of some councillors that the building was too difficult and expensive to maintain.

 Roller skating, travelling picture shows –– to film club and farmers market

The National Theatre began its life as a purpose-built roller skating rink which opened for business on September 3, 1921. The original floor with diagonal corner boards still remains in place. Albert Graham, a tailor, then changed the usage of his building known as Graham’s Hall when he opened The New Electric Theatre in July 1923.

Strong competition for custom existed between Graham’s Rink Electric Pictures and Paul Nomchong who had been screening films in the Literary Institute since 1913. Graham also presented vaudeville and travelling picture shows such as Frank Hurley’s documentaries from January 1924.

Paul Nomchong finally defeated Graham, leasing the theatre from April 1924. He continued to operate it as a rink together with other entertainment. At the end of February 1925, the building was advertised as the National Theatre (Late Rink) Electric Pictures. During Back to Braidwood Week in November 1925, films were screened on six nights.

Other Nomchong entertainments were stage shows and boxing tournaments and a jazz orchestra for functions. He screened his first sound movie in 1951 and sold the business in 1952. In 1956 MGM’s Rose Marie was the first CinemaScope film to entertain Braidwood.

 Competitive challenges such as updated technical requirements, television, licensed clubs and changing social patterns took their toll and the theatre business finally failed in 1968. The building was sold to the Tallaganda Council in 1976.

Over the next 20 years attempts were made to resurrect successful use of the National Theatre building – more film screening ventures, employment of a youth worker, indoor soccer and transition into a Community Centre.

By the mid 1990s possums had taken up residence and the roof leaked. In November 1996, the Braidwood Quilters group collected plenty of buckets and held its second Quilt Event in the National Theatre, heralding the start of a new era for the building.

A NSW Local Government Section 355 Committee was formed to manage and refurbish the neglected building. The public outcry when demolition was threatened led to the Save the Hall Ball, the first of many fundraising efforts.

As the saying goes ‘the rest is history’. The National Theatre, now much in demand, plays host to the monthly film club and farmers’ market, two annual book fairs, four makers craft markets, an antique fair, rug market, the Quilt Event, hospital fete, debutant ball, memorial services, Christmas and New Year parties and another 10 to 12 regular users.

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