Opening credits: Eighty-year-old cinema saviour and St Kilda businessman Ralph Taranto shows off his new acquisition.ST MICHAEL’S Grammar School has sold the Astor cinema, bringing to an end its much-maligned plan to redevelop the heritage-listed art deco building as a multi-purpose performing arts complex.
St Kilda businessman Ralph Taranto has bought the Astor for an undisclosed sum believed to be less than the $3.8 million St Michael’s paid for it at auction in 2007.
”You’d have to spend about $20 million to build it today, but the return on it means it’s not worth much more than $2 million,” the 80-year-old Mr Taranto told The Saturday Age. ”I’m not buying it for the return, I’m buying it for the passion, the love.”
St Michael’s put a brave face on the sale, chairman of the board Paul Orton telling The Saturday Age that it was ”a terrific outcome for the school, for the community and for this wonderful historic cinema”.
But in a prepared statement the school blamed what it called ”misinformation” for a protest campaign that had drawn more than 13,000 signatures on change南京夜网 and torrents of abuse in social media, finally leading it to conclude that ”a shared community arts facility was no longer a viable proposition”.
Now, it seems, it’s as-you-were for the Astor, with Mr Taranto intending to leave the running of the cinema in the hands of George Florence, the man who has run the business since 1982. Asked if his intention was to keep it as a single-screen cinema, Mr Taranto’s response was simple: ”Oh God yes. I wouldn’t buy it otherwise.”
Settlement isn’t until October 31, but he is already lining up builders, plumbers and electricians to attend to urgent repairs. He also wants to consolidate the small shops at the front of the building, probably to create a cafe. ”I think there’ll be a big difference by next Easter,” he said.
This isn’t the first foray into the cinema industry for Mr Taranto. He worked for MGM in the 1940s and for Hoyts in the 1950s. He was in the fruit and vegetable business (he also owned a shoe store) but made his real money in property.
”I used to have about 60 flats in St Kilda and Elwood,” he said. ”Never had an agent, always used to collect the rent myself.”
He bought the Brighton Bay cinema, which he still owns (it is leased to Palace), in 1992.
In 1999, he put a deposit on the Walter Burley Griffin-designed Capitol Theatre in the city before buying the George Cinema in St Kilda instead.
Palace leased the George from Mr Taranto until 2010. In March 2011, he took it over himself and relaunched it as the Aurora, saying: ”It’s always been my dream to run my own cinema.” Eight days later, he closed it.
”I realised pretty quickly that for it to work I’d have to be there to run it myself. I thought, ‘This is madness’. I could do it, no problem – I’ve run businesses since I was 19 – but I’m 81 on New Year’s Eve. If I was younger I’d not have done that, but I want to be a bit free. While you’re still well every day’s a plus, that’s the way I look at it.”
(The George went to auction this month, but was passed in.)
With Mr Florence at the helm, Mr Taranto feels the Astor is in safe hands. So, too, do the Friends of the Astor. ”We’re delighted the sale has finally gone through,” said FOTA president Vanda Hamilton.
”We believe Mr Taranto will act in the best interests of the Astor and we look forward to speaking to him very soon in regard to setting up a trust to ensure that the Astor runs far into the future.”
Mr Taranto has not yet committed himself to setting up a trust to own and manage the cinema in perpetuity, a central plank of the FOTA campaign.
”That’ll come later. First I’ll own it, then I’ll fix it up, and then we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Mr Florence is confident it’s no more than a formality. ”It’s Ralph’s and my intention to form a not-for-profit trust, and he will bequeath the Astor to that trust and I will roll my business into it,” he said yesterday. ”I believe he has honourable intentions.”
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