17 October 2023

Riverina Rewind: When the sweet treats were a luxury at the Capitol Theatre Milk Bar

| Michelle Maddison
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Theatre milk bar staff in 1930s

Photo: Courtesy of X Stathis, from In Their Own Image: Greek Australians, National Project Archives, Macquarie University, Sydney (coloured by M Maddison).

Today, the Museum of the Riverina takes us back to the 1930s to step through the doors of the Capitol Theatre Milk Bar to marvel at its mouth-watering array of chocolates and other sweet treats.

During the period immediately before World War II, some Greek cafes and milk bars were being placed directly into cinema complexes.

The Capitol Theatre Milk Bar operated from the front foyer of the Capitol Theatre in Gurwood Street.

Run by Sam Nomarhis (pictured second from left), the Capitol was also owned by a Greek migrant, Jack Kouvelis, who developed a chain of cinemas across NSW.

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Within this milk bar, customers were greeted by staff in crisp white smocks and jackets. Glass display cases and an impressive array of bottles filling the wall behind tempted movie-goers with milk chocolate bars and boxes, and handmade lollies.

Displays of sweets like this one had first appeared in Australia’s early Greek oyster saloons, and cultivated a public demand for American-style confectionary.

So popular were these chocolates and lollies that in the opening years of the 20th century, several Greek-owned factories produced them in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Away from the larger cities, some Greek cafe proprietors even handmade their own selection.

Evidence of the popularity of this new style of chocolate is also reflected in the names given to some of the cafes at this time, which were taken from well-known brands like Blue Bird, White Rose and Red Rose.

Wagga had a thriving cafe scene from the 1920s through to at least the 1970s, with venues including the Austral, Picone’s, Silver Key, White Rose, Black Cat, the Continental, Aussie, Crown Corner, Bidgee, the Bridge and many others.

Two of the best-known and well-loved Greek cafes were the RITZ, which stood on the corner of Baylis and Tompson streets (the Georgiou family), and the Bridge, in Fitzmaurice Street, operated by the Karofilis family.

Leonard Janiszewski described the quintessential cafe in the book In Their Own Image: Greek Australians: “Greek cafes – with their elaborate designs that channelled Hollywood glamour through chrome curves, etched glass, booth seating, gleaming soda fountains and milkshake machines, jukeboxes and air-conditioning – offered an American dream. They brought a shiny New World modern Americana to a country that had previously taken most of its cultural and culinary cues from decidedly Old World Britain.”

What sort of lollies do you remember having at the cinema?

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