Chaplin silent movies amused drinkers at Sydney’s Civic Hotel

civic hotel sydney TG W
The Civic Hotel, corner of Pitt and Goulburn Streets, Sydney 2018. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Civic Hotel 1941 State Library of NSW
Civic Hotel, corner of Pitt and Goulburn Streets, Sydney 1941. Picture: State Library of NSW


High on the wall of Sydney’s Civic Hotel was a screen about 5 feet 6 inches by 4 feet 6 inches (1.6m x 1.4m) with an amplifier where publican Jack Angel regularly showed films to appreciative drinkers in 1954.

With mainstream television two years away, the Civic Hotel, at the corner of Pitt and Goulburn Streets, began broadcasting from a home-projector above illuminated shelves of whisky and wines.

The site at 388 Pitt Street for the Civic Hotel was purchased by Tooth & Company in 1937. The license was acquired in September 1940 when it was removed from the City Railway Hotel on the corner of Castlereagh and Goulburn Streets, Haymarket.

On its completion in September 1940, to a design by R.A. Provost and Associates, the Civic was a three storeyed brick structure, with a flat concrete roof and a fully tiled ground floor exterior.

The architecture is known as P&O Ship Style because of its similarities to ocean liner forms. The builders were William Hughes & Co.

civic hotel 1941 public bar anu
The public bar of the Civic Hotel, Sydney. Picture: Australian National University

Publican Jack Angel began showing movies from a projector in the pub in 1954. Jack changed the spools, threaded new films with a professional touch, and had a showman’s pride in his audience’s reaction. The Sun-Herald reported on April 4:

“There’s no actual applause, but a hum of satisfaction when a good dance band or an international top-liner enlivens the drinking scene. When Bill Fields fades out, Chaplin lurches on. Amid sawdust, spittoons and droolers of New York’s Skid Row he plays out an alcoholic classic, ‘The Face on the Bar-room Floor’. This is the young, vital, black-haired Chaplin of 1914, unrecognisable if you saw the white haired old gentleman of ‘Limelight’.

The picture is authentic Keystone, even pre-dating Chaplin’s own fame, a connoisseur’s piece. To the boys in the Civic’s surroundings of chromium and mirrors, he is an unidentified drunk act, not particularly funny, and they drink on. Suddenly an early trick of genius breaks through. Down go the glasses in a new under-standing of a great comedian, and the older generation looks pityingly at the youngsters of 1954 who have just discovered Chaplin. He will be back again in half an-hour in ‘The Fireman’.

British variety topliners, American stars, continental specialities, thrills of sport, travelogues, newsreels, musicals by Fats Waller, Spike Jones, Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders – the whole gamut of “shorts” contribute to a two hours’ programme, running continuously from 11am to 6pm.

‘I have enough pictures to go all day without a change, if I wish,’ said Mr Angel; ‘and I can always get more from the film library.’

Does it pay? Don’t films detract from the serious absorption of beer? Doesn’t the show in the public bar reduce saloon-bar receipts?

Not by Mr Angel’s cash register.

‘I’ve been running for nine weeks,’ he said. ‘Every day new faces come in. We get phone calls from all over town asking the starting times of particular pictures, then whole parties arrive to see them.’”

The Civic Hotel – virtually unaltered – continues today to grace the busy corner of Pitt and Goulburn Streets Sydney.

civic hotel sydney lounge bar anu 1941
The lounge bar of the Civic Hotel, Sydney, 1941. Picture: Australian National University

First published 2019. Updated 2022

© Copyright, Mick Roberts, 2022


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2 replies

  1. My parents met in the public bar of the Civic in 1959. They’re still married.

  2. Went there a fair bit while serving in 7 Field Regiment RAA in the early 1960s. What a place — full of uniformed soldiers, women of nearly every age and persuasion including some “veterans ” of WW2, Ada Green outside evangelising on Sunday evenings. And who would forget Ma North, the licensee in those years and her star bouncer, a gent known as Lofty. And does any old Digger recall a girl named Beverley O’Toole from Marshall St. Sorry Hills ? Have often wondered whatever became of her.

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