Two of the earliest film exhibitors in Australia were Cosens Spencer and T.J. West. Spencer opened the Great American Theatrescope in Sydney in 1905 and soon after acquired a chain of cinemas across Australia. By 1912 he was the largest importer of films in the country. West began screening films in Sydney in 1906 and within four years he owned 14 cinemas and had a nightly audience of 20,000 patrons. In 1912-13 West’s Pictures and Spencer’s Pictures merged with Amalgamated Pictures and the Greater J.D. Williams Amusement Company to form Union Theatres Ltd (exhibition) and Australasian Films Ltd (distribution).

The two companies were based in Film House in Pitt Street, Sydney, and they maintained a library of piano and orchestral music to accompany silent films. The music was lent to the 80 or more cinemas that made up the Union Theatres chain. In 1921 Stuart Doyle, the managing director, began the large-scale modernization of many of the old cinemas. In 1929 he opened the grandest cinema of all, the State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney. Designed by Henry Eli White, it had seating for 2572 people and contained a gothic entrance hall, bronze Florentine doors, stalls upholstered in red leather, a Grand Circle with paintings and rich tapestries, and a Royal Mezzanine Circle with an enormous chandelier. In its opening months, the State Theatre had an orchestra of 24 players conducted by Will Prior, a permanent ballet, and singers and solo dancers with American choreographers.

Within a few months, however, the State Theatre was facing the effects of the Great Depression. Union Theatres went into liquidation in 1931. Its assets were bought by a new company, Greater Union Theatres Ltd. Facing strong opposition from the Hoyt’s and MGM chains, Greater Union Theatres struggled to survive. It depended almost entirely on film supply from Cinesound and Universal Pictures. Its fortunes improved during World War II and ultimately it was to be the largest cinema chain in Australia. The State Theatre also survived, although it was too large for modern use and it lost money for many years. In 1974 it became the home of the Sydney Film Festival and in recent years it has been the venue for many musical theatre productions.


The State Theatre Collection of music was donated to the National Library by the State Theatre in 1974.


The State Theatre Collection consists of 12,569 music scores which were used in Australian cinemas in the era of silent films. Most of them have ownership stamps indicating that they were originally in the music libraries of Union Theatres Ltd, Haymarket Theatres Ltd, Spencer’s Theatrescope Company or West’s Pictures Ltd. In some cases the covers are annotated with the dates and names of Sydney, country and interstate cinemas that borrowed the music between about 1915 and 1930. There is also some music that was performed by the State Theatre orchestra in the first twenty years of ‘talking pictures’.

The music was written or arranged for piano and small orchestras and includes overtures, serenades, marches, medleys, waltzes, fox trots and barcarolles. Some works were written specifically for motion pictures. The great majority of the scores were published in Britain or the United States, but there are also some Australian, French, German and Italian works.

The collection contains many arrangements of works by classical composers such as Chopin, Delibes, Gounod, Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann and Sibelius. Among the composers of original works, some of which were extremely popular in the early years of the twentieth century, are Harry Akst, Thomas S. Allen, Giuseppe Becce, Irving Berlin, Eric Coates, Sam Coslow, Buddy Fields, Perry Fletcher, George Gershwin, Victor Herbert, Leo Kempinski, Jerome Kern, Franz Lehar, Pietro Mascagni, Sigmund Romberg, John Philip Sousa, Albert Stoessel, Oscar Strauss, Arthur Sullivan, Haydn Wood and J.S. Zamecnik.

There are some manuscript scores, in particular music associated with the Cinesound musical director Hamilton Webber. They include scores and parts for at least two Cinesound features, Orphan in the wilderness (1936) and Lovers and luggers (1937).


The State Theatre Collection is kept together as a formed collection within the Music Collection. Each work has been numbered in a single sequence and the scores and parts have been placed in plastic bags within boxes. All the works have been catalogued individually, although the imprints are omitted. The call numbers have the prefix MUS State Theatre N.


Doust, Russell, The 8th wonder?, National Library News, vol. 15 (1), Oct. 2004, pp. 14-17

Hall, Ken G., Australian film: the inside story, Melbourne, Lansdowne, 1977

Shirley, Graham and Adams, Brian, Australian cinema: the first eighty years, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1989