A Brief History of the Theatre

The original School of Arts building was built in 1871, from funds raised by the Milton School of Arts & Literary Institute. In 1927 the original School of Arts building was acquired by the Ulladulla Municipal Council for use as the Town Hall. A new School of Arts – the existing building - was erected on the next door block.

Early photos show the new Milton School of Arts to be a two storey rendered brick and fibro building painted a single light colour with a simple facade that has a gabled parapet like many of the earlier buildings in the main street.

The seating capacity was 400 with moveable seats so that the hall could also be used for dances and other functions such as weddings. The Saturday night movies were extremely popular.

In 1931 the local jeweller Mr L A Downey, bought the picture show business with Ted Thistleton as his offsider. They travelled up and down the coast from Huskisson to Cathcart in a 1924 Dodge especially adapted to cart the projector but they were always back in Milton for Saturday night. Movies such as Lives of the Bengal Lancers, The Sentimental Bloke and Dad & Dave were popular.

When the projectionist was changing reels there was often live entertainment from the locals. One interval there was even a woodchop contest.

The Milton School of Arts was also used for a variety of other social functions. During the 1950’s the Milton Ulladulla Theatrical Society was formed and a series of live dramas were performed to full crowds. Such shows as "The Inspector Calls" by J B Priestly and a "Wild Goose Chase by Dereck Benfield were performed. Bernie and Peg Faust and Dr June were amongst the performers.

It was Bernie Faust who led the fight to save the old Milton School of Arts when the newly formed Shoalhaven Shire Council called for tenders for its demolition in 1959.

In November 1959 a public meeting was held at the Milton Town Hall to discuss the proposed demolition. Active public debate followed which touched on the public’s right to voice its opinions. Bernie Faust as President of the Milton Ulladulla Dramatic Society made
the following impassioned speech:

"There are many people, myself included who have many memories connected with this building. There are many who will remember that their sons were welcomed back from the 1914-1918 war on that old front step."
A final vote was taken and the chairman Felton Turnbull announced "That
while approving of the provision of public amenities, this meeting
opposes the demolition of the Town Hall."

No more was heard about the proposal to demolish the Town Hall. The Dramatic Society and other groups continued to use both halls. Milton Central School also used the School of Arts for its presentations and other large functions.

The chairs were often packed up and the hall used as a half basketball court , a new sport which became so popular that a basketball pavilion became necessary.

Miss Ewin ran the public library in a small room just inside the front door for a good many years. The library was so small she would pack it into her car and take it over to the old School of Arts in Ulladulla to open there as well, alternating between the two Schools of Arts.

Theatrical productions and movies continued through the 1960s. The older building became rather derelict but was still used by various groups including the new Photographic Society.

Late in the 60’s the Shoalhaven Council which now owned both buildings renovated the old building to provide offices for its southern branch. It leased the 1927 building to John Kasoulis to run as a private cinema. Mr Kasoulis invested a lot of money in upgrading the building including installing comfortable, permanent seating. This reduced the seating capacity to 250 but the audience were appreciative.

Many of us remember either discussions we had with the Shire officers as it was then or the movies we enjoyed, even if it was a little cold or hot depending on the season.

In 1985 the new SCC offices were built in Ulladulla and the old School of Arts/Town Hall was returned as close as possible to its original internal format and became the Milton Library in which capacity we use it today.

Public education and entertainment were the aims of the group which built it 131 years ago and its still serving that purpose.

In the early 1990’s John Kasoulis opened a new twin cinema complex in Ulladulla and relinquished the lease on the School of Arts. The SCC purchased the seating and some other fittings but not the projection equipment.

A group of interested locals got together and formed a Management Committee and since 1993 have managed the building as a venue for live performance.

Community participation in the Grand Reopening Concert in November 1993 was enthusiastic and a great variety of both amateur and professional dramas, musicals, blues, jazz and dance have taken place since then.

In 1996 a routine inspection revealed that the building did not meet modern fire regulations as there was no second egress from the mezzanine floor. The building had to be closed until renovations could take place.

Fortunately the local community lobbied successfully for total refurbishment and funding was received from local, state and federal sources with the SCC being the major source of funds.

Local architect Richard Barraclough and builder John Johnson designed and built the refurbishment in two stages. This included demolition of the old fibro change rooms and construction of a new two storey change area at the rear. The foyer and kiosk area was also demolished and a new enlarged foyer, kiosk, light and sound box, disabled toilets and a second set of stairs to the mezzanine were provided.

The two stages of refurbishment cost approximately $460,000. A Gala Concert was held on Sat July 1998 celebrating the reopening of the newly refurbished Milton Theatre, as it was now called.

Since then it has been the venue for many professional and amateur performers from the local schools to internationally famous acts.

The continued use of both the 1872 and the 1927 Milton Schools of Arts shows their value to the people of the Milton district. Both have survived attempts to demolish them and have been the focus of organised community support for their survival and refurbishment.

It is reassuring to know that the heritage and social value of both buildings is officially recognised and they will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.