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Astor Theatre set to close

In 2012, The Age producer Tim Doldissen created this video showing a day in the life of Melbourne's historic Astor Theatre.

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The Astor Theatre will close - and show its last movie on April 5 2015 - with its owner and its proprietor citing irreconcilable differences.

And like the movie Kramer v Kramer, the child - the 1936 theatre itself - is caught in the middle.

The Astor theatre: doubts remain about its future.

The Astor theatre. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Proprietor and owner of The Astor trademark, George Florence confirmed to fans and Friends of The Astor that he and his company would be forced to leave by May 14 at the end of his lease.

Mr Florence has operated the cinema playing classic and cult films and double features since 1982.

Mr Florence and a spokesman for the building's owner Ralph Taranto both confirmed the two men were in dispute over the terms of the lease, access to the property, the renovations and which entity should pay the building's insurance.

In July, Mr Florence and Mr Taranto attended a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal mediation.

Mr Florence said he had 80 claims in dispute between the two parties.  He said, under the terms, the settlement cannot be discussed, but agreement could not be reached.

Mr Florence said he would have to return the building to its original state when he first leased it. Taking away its infrastructure including the projector, screens, carpets and fittings.

''Unfortunately, it will be like removing the entrails of my mother,'' Mr Florence said.

''That's how I see it. It is a very, very distressing thought. Not only do we have to leave but we have to dismember and dismantle what people know as the the infrastructure and essence of the Astor Theatre,'' he said.

He said a public outcry might mean the cinema continued to show classic films but it would be a different experience if Mr Taranto spent too much on renovating it.

''If you Disney-fy a building like that too much you lose the original fabric. You can throw as much money as you like at it, but if you don't put your soul into it ...  that's what I do - and people pick up on that,'' he said.

''Whatever happens there might be brilliant and a lot of money might be spent. We don't know we don't get told these things," he said. 

Spokesman Dale Smith said Mr Taranto was ''taking a break from the Astor''. Mr Taranto, 82, is a property investor and theatre enthusiast who has owned movie theatres in Melbourne.

''George (Florence) can say whatever he has to say, he will be out by next May,'' Mr Smith said.

''It has been a very, very sour marriage... it has been unbearably tough for poor Ralph,'' he said.

Mr Smith said Mr Taranto had sold a home to pay for The Astor and its future would not be known until next year.

Both Mr Smith and Mr Florence described visiting The Astor as a ''beautiful'' experience.

Both described the lease and landlord-tenant relationship as unusual and difficult.  

Mr Florence said he was originally offered a 10-year lease  but this was rejected as it was too long and had too many potential expenses.

''We had a very hostile environment. We were being treated in a hostile way and ... to us it seemed like an assault on our tenancy,'' Mr Florence said.

He said Mr Taranto had spent money replacing existing features on the exterior of the building but little on the interior.

Academy Award winning claymation director, Adam Elliot said his first film, Uncle opened at The Astor during the St Kilda Film Festival in 1997. 

''I remember watching my film in The Astor in the audience and I saw my little 16 mm film being blown up to theatre size on that great screen, even now the hairs stand up on my arms,'' Mr Elliot said.

''If it had been in one of the multi-plexes it wouldn't have been the same,'' he said.

He would not buy into whether the owner or proprietor had the high moral ground but said The Astor closing would be a loss to Melbourne. He said its carpets, toilet doors, double features and resident cat made it a unique movie house.

''When I was growing up in Mount Waverly I would get on the train and head to the big smoke to The Astor and the Valhalla. It was a way for me to see obscure films,'' Mr Elliot said.

''I saw Eraserhead by David Lynch there and lots animation that I just couldn't get on video tape. It was the only way to see independent work and to me as an independent film maker it is a place for independent work to be shown,'' he said.

Friends of the Astor president Vanda Hamilton said she was devastated by the news of the closure and hoped there was a way for the venue to continue operating in the future as a single-screen cinema showing classics.

She said there was strong community support for Mr Florence's plan to place the theatre into a not-for-profit trust so it could continue operation in perpetuity. 

"Obviously the very best option would be if two people we believe love the same cinema could come to an agreement," she said. 

As well as the cinema itself, Ms Hamilton said she would also mourn The Astor's use of 70mm film prints, one of the only theatres in Melbourne to do so regularly.

"The loss now is devastating, the loss to the future is just irreplaceable. In years to come people will mourn this even more. It's the sort of place that in 50-70-100 years time it would be a real drawcard for the city."

Former film reporter and movie lover Lawrie Zion said the closure of The Astor, with its single screen and double features, signaled the end of a particular kind of movie experience in Melbourne before the multiplex. 

He said The Astor's glamorous art-deco building and repertory cinema program, featuring films such as The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey alongside new releases, would be remembered fondly. 

"It was a place to get lost in the movies. If you went to everything that was on there, you would end up with a fantastic film education," he said.

"If you weren't a passionate cinephile, it still made the movies feel special. Even when it was past its real glory, there was this real sense of 'this is how you see a movie'."