Sifting the barney from the rubble in Thebarton Theatre outcry

A petition to save Thebarton Theatre from the threat of hypothetical demolition has gone viral, and the state government’s refusal to comprehensively rule it out has only fuelled the drama.

Over the weekend, the Sunday Mail’s Matt Smith ran a story highlighting different options for the final stretch of the multi million dollar North-South corridor upgrade, one of which could affect a string of heritage buildings along South Road including Thebarton Theatre and the Queen of Angels Church, along with 600-1000 other properties. With an attention-grabbing headline, the story came in the midst of a perceived uptick in historic buildings being flattened under Steven Marshall’s government, from Shed 26 at Port Adelaide to a series of suburban properties.

The response was swift, with a change.org petition to ‘Save Thebarton Theatre From The Bulldozers’ exploding far beyond the usual heritage advocacy Facebook groups and music fans to draw 45,000 signatures in three days. By comparison, a similar petition in 2012 to save the original Jade Monkey on Twin Street attracted just 4,591. There are of course key differences; the Jade’s home – an 1872 biscuit factory built by the company that became Balfours – had no existing heritage protections, and with a fraction of the Thebarton Theatre’s capacity lacked the same level of recognition from mainstream South Australia, despite its value to local musicians.

This week’s Thebarton Theatre change.org petition recalls the unsuccessful campaign 2012 to save the Jade Monkey’s original home built in 1872 (Photo: State Library of South Australia B 58311)

By comparison, the ‘Thebby’ has been a mainstay of live music and comedy touring circuits for four decades, building on a history that goes back nearly a century. As we highlighted last year for its 90th anniversary, the 1928 art deco building has hosted everything from Christian preachers rallying against the ‘Dechristianisation’ of 1930s society to legendary drummer Gene Krupa battling through food poisoning in 1954. In more recent years it has hosted major acts from Nirvana, Hole and Jeff Buckley to Tame Impala and Stormzy. Is there a single concert-going South Australian who has not attended at least one event there? Unlikely. Thebarton Theatre is also a State Heritage Place, giving it the highest level of heritage protection currently available – albeit one that can be revised at a Minister’s discretion.

In light of this, the outpouring of support is not surprising, even as the petition reaches far beyond Adelaide to gain support from the likes of Billy Bragg. As the signature count rises, some on social media have commented with bewilderment on the enthusiastic opposition to a demolition that has never been officially recommended.

If the initial response was perhaps disproportionate to the present level of risk, the state government has only fed the drama by declining to immediately and comprehensively shut down the possibility of the theatre’s demolition. Speaking to the ABC, acting Transport Minister David Speirs again refused to “rule anything in or out”. While Speirs and Transport Minister Stephan Knoll are arguably doing their due diligence by not pre-empting the results of a thorough study, Speirs’ recent form in overturning the heritage listing of Shed 26 – even in the wake of substantial community support – made the non-committal alarming.

As the signature count rises, the political wisdom of waiting for a business case to be completed at the risk of alienating thousands of voters – and casting uncertainty over an integral part of South Australia’s entertainment economy – seems questionable. Last night, the SA Music Hall of Fame dug up 2018 footage of Premier Steven Marshall exclaiming, “Long may it continue, it must be protected, it must never be bulldozed”, an incredibly specific statement at the time time that gives merit to the argument that the Thebarton Theatre’s demolition is an unthinkable proposal.

Today, Marshall stepped in to reiterate his government’s support for the theatre, with a statement posted to Facebook highlighting a $500,000 investment in improving Thebarton Theatre’s facilities, and promising to “extensively consult with key stakeholders and the broader community regarding these upgrade plans”.

But there is a more concerning subtext: in stepping in to ‘save’ a building that faced no realistic prospect of demolition, the state government stands to gain a rare good news story of protecting a heritage icon from a wrecking ball – real or imagined. This would in turn have the effect of setting the bar for Government heritage protection even lower, and install an incredibly high threshold of community support needed for a building to be deemed worth saving – one that few other important heritage sites could match. Which would be an unfortunate precedent for a government that has already shown that it is happy to overturn SA Heritage Council recommendations in the face of mounting community opposition.

While the Jade Monkey building was eventually torn down to make way for what is now a bitumen parking lot, the policy ramifications were substantial. The outpouring of community support for the venue helped galvanise Adelaide’s music scene and prompted the then-Weatherill government to recognise the impact of live music in South Australia, giving rise to the Music Development Office, St Paul’s Creative Centre and the Live Music Thinker In Residence. The difficulties faced by the Jade and similar venues in finding a new location also shone a spotlight on the inflexibility of our liquor licensing system, and helped give rise to the small venue licence that has so transformed the city’s nightlife and bar scene.

What will the long-term impact of the Save Thebarton Theatre campaign be?

Header image:
John Dexter / Twitter

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