Mention Melba Theatre to any of Wodonga’s older long-time residents and they will tell you it was part of the Wodonga Shire Hall on the corner of High and Elgin Streets, built in 1890, and where Safeway has just been demolished.
Trawling back through old newspapers an early mention of Melba Pictures tells me that it was a travelling picture show and in January 1919 it was showing a double feature in the Mechanics’ Theatre in Albury.
In December 1929 the Wodonga and Towong Sentinel carried an advertisement for Enterprise Pictures which would be showing a double feature plus part 3 of “Haunted Island” and to be screened either in the open air theatre or Shire Hall.
In 1932 the Shire of Wodonga listed charges for the Shire Hall including “Pictures, with light and power £2/2/-.
In 1933/34 “Border Talkies” were still using the open-air picture site adjacent to the Shire Hall, but with the option of booking the hall during colder weather. They were paying 10/- a night for the use of 65 Vienna chairs and the electric appliances for power, in addition to the current used.
In 1933 Border Talkies put in a request to line the hall with material to improve conditions for talkies. Five years later it was still being debated in council meetings, with the estimated cost to be £10.
Darley’s Talkies were advertising in 1938 showing a double feature in the Shire Hall.
In 1943 “Melba Theatre, Shire Hall” was advertised. The first evidence of the name Melba Theatre.
October 1948 the Wodonga and Towong Sentinel told us that Mr K Bounader, a picture proprietor from Holbrook with 39 years in pictures behind him would assume control of the Melba Theatre, Wodonga. Karl Bounader was joined by his brother Abe who along with his family ran the Melba Theatre into the 1960’s.
If the Hall was needed for other functions the screen and seating would have to be moved aside.
Although the Hoyts and the Regent in Albury were considered more prestigious, Albury being a major outing that called for effort and Sunday best, the Melba did very well by catering to the district’s large migrant population. Abe was the first to import foreign movies, which endeared him to the residents of Bonegilla.
Allan Bounader remembers “the Forbidden Nights”, the foreign adult films that would screen to packed houses.
The advent of the drive-in theatres produced the first nails in Melba’s coffin and television finally sealed the lid. But films were Abe’s life and he kept hanging on. Finally, the Melba Theatre screened its last film in 1968 and Abe went off to work as a storeman at the Army and later as a gardener at Moore Paragon.
A school speech night in 1969 is the last known event in the Melba Theatre. It was demolished along with the Shire Hall in 1971.