It takes a lot of imagination to picture Queenstown’s Paragon Theatre brimming with laughter, applause and choc tops as the entertainment heart of a thriving mining town.
The same could be said for Queenstown itself right now. Perched near the western edge of Tasmania on the road to Strahan, its rugged hills spilled forth gold and copper for a century or so and it was, briefly, the world’s richest mining town. An army of workers, engineers, support crew and their families called it home.
But with the decline in mining, the life and population of this wild west town ebbed away: shops emptied, homes piled on the market. While tourists certainly stop in Queenstown – to ride the famed West Coast Wilderness Railway, to view the surreal moonscape created by decades of mining and logging or explore its historic buildings and hydroelectric heritage – it could do with another attraction to make them linger.
Cue Joy Chappell and Anthony Coulson. They have imagination, energy and optimism: lots of it. The couple is rolling out the red carpet at The Paragon Theatre and have big plans for the once-neglected movie palace, probably one of the few in Australia where you can tuck into dinner before snuggling into a sofa for some classic Hollywood: vintage Hitchcock, perhaps? A crime thriller from the golden age of film?
The Paragon opened on October 28, 1933 with a screening of She Done Him Wrong – starring screen siren Mae West – and Tiger Shark, with Edward G. Robinson, for a capacity house of more than 1000. The Paragon was much loved, but the arrival of home video in the 1970s was bad for business and the house lights were snuffed out for good in 1985.
You could argue that the cinema’s next incarnation was straight out of an Australian horror movie – her seats and half of the glamorous dress circle was torn out and she was reborn as … an indoor cricket centre! Over the years, a few courageous white knights tried to rescue The Paragon before Anthony and Joy took on the challenge in 2017.
Old cinemas – the fabric that knitted their communities – attract warm-hearted dreamers who, inevitably, need deep pockets. Neither Anthony nor Joy is under any illusions about what it will take to fully revive The Paragon, both in effort and dollars. It’s a journey that’s starting small, with a daytime cafe and tours (for a modest $3) of the quirky interior, as well as their dinner-and-a-classic-movie nights.
They’ve closed The Paragon for the winter for renovations and are making discoveries – good and bad – about their new labour of love. The most daunting so far is the floor, and an injection of serious cash will be needed to shore it up and stop the rot, literally.
The website declares: “the dinner menu will be at the whim of the chef and will change daily depending on seasonal produce and her mood!” On the night we visited, there was spaghetti Bolognese – with house-made pasta – and a delicious chocolatey dessert before we snuggled in for the terrifying tale of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Anthony grew up in Queenstown, then dominated by the colossal Mt Lyell copper mine, and went to work for the organisation as a teenager. His life, he notes, has taken an unexpected but deeply satisfying full turn: he now runs tour company RoamWild, taking visitors to local attractions and on wilderness adventures. On the night we visit, Anthony starts the movie and sneaks out to whisk a group to a nearby summit for the sunset, some wildlife spotting and stargazing in the velvety blackness.
His partner Joy is a talented self-taught chef who honed her skills as a private cook for wealthy clients in Europe before returning to Tasmania. The Paragon – and a bed and breakfast business they operate – gives her an opportunity to showcase her skills and, hopefully, contribute to Queenstown’s revival.
Just as the scarred hills are regenerating, a different life seems to be slowly returning to Queenstown. While there’s still limited mine activity, artisans and craftspeople are setting up, inspired in part by the biennial arts festival The Unconformity, which takes place 19 – 21 October this year (2018). The distinct architecture, space and rugged mining and logging history of Queenstown give it the atmosphere of a tough frontier town, a little bruised and battered but still full of promise.
And after a day spent among mineshafts, hydro works and in the wilderness – by train, four-wheel drive or on foot – now there’s the chance to bring down the curtain on a day’s exploring with a touch of retro glamour, dinner and a favourite Hollywood classic.
Visit The Paragon Theatre website for more information.
For more stories on Tasmania visit travelswithjb.com.au/Tasmania
- reviews, show, Tasmania
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