This article by Zoe Stojanovic-Hill was originally published in full in Honi Soit. An edited extract is reproduced below with Zoe’s permission. Chris Kiley and Barry Peak, founders of the Valhalla Cinema, made their first foray into independent cinema at Melbourne. Zoe takes up the story.
The whole enterprise began in 1971 at the Wallace Theatre of the University of Sydney, as a small operation involving 1950s TV shows and 16mm film. Chris Kiley was in his second year of Arts/Law and ‘quickly found that, firstly, [he] really, really liked movies, and secondly, that [he] really, really didn’t like Arts/Law.’ Barry Peak was an old friend from high school, enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. They were both bright, distracted students, burning up with creative energy. …
Barry remembers the night they opened their first real cinema [in Melbourne] as ‘chaotic.’ ‘We’d only put in 100 of 1000 seats …We had a huge pile of seats in the theatre, probably 10 or 12 feet high …The theatre looked like a bit of a bomb shelter.’
They named the place after a pillar of Norse mythology: Valhalla ‘was the hall Vikings laid their slain heroes [in],’ Barry explains. ‘So a heaven, thus movie heaven.’
Chris had been watching the New Arts Cinema at 166D Glebe Point Road for years, since it housed the first Australia production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and pounced soon as the owners put the building up for rent. ‘I thought that was the ideal location because it was so close to Sydney Uni,’ Chris says.
In its heyday, during the 1980s, the Valhalla was an unholy sanctum for a lot of Sydney Uni students. Glebe was a scruffy suburb, packed with student sharehouses, and young locals would head to the Valhalla to watch cult, classic, and arthouse films — to indulge in bad taste, to drink the tangible nostalgia.
Perhaps the Valhalla was popular with 20-somethings because it was sufficiently outrageous and sufficiently homey; it catered to a cohort swept up in the angst and inspiration of early adulthood, who occasionally wanted to pull back into childhood. Young people could depend on the Valhalla to show sordid films that had been censored, and subsequently ditched by other cinemas. They could also attend 24-hour sci-fi and Woody Allen marathons, dressed in pyjamas and draped in sleeping bags, and receive free bacon-and-egg rolls in the morning. For the quirkier Sydney Uni students of the 80s the Valhalla was, true to its name, pretty damn glorious.
In October 1987, Chris and Barry were thrown into the midst of what Chris calls ‘a complete disaster’ – the owners of 166D Glebe Point Rd were selling the building. …
In 2005 Chris realised, with a jolt of sadness, that the Valhalla ‘could never be a goer again,’ the SMH reported at the time.
A number of factors contributed to the Valhalla’s demise. The rise of DVDs, and primeval forms of online streaming and internet downloads, led to a living room cinema boom. Mainstream cinemas morphed into gargantuan multiplexes. The Valhalla crew transformed the upstairs of 166D into a second cinema in 1994, but Chris estimates that, by then, Hoyts Broadway boasted eight screens. Mainstream film distributers began to encroach on arthouse territory, effectively poaching in the field of independent distributers.
[Chris] closed the cinema in 2005 and sold the building to a property developer in 2006.
166D Glebe Point Road still stands, and, although the interior has been converted into offices, the bold, black-and-white sign above the entrance reads: ‘VALHALLA.’