With its sweeping curved ceiling and dramatic backlit proscenium, the theatre is considered a rare example of an Inter-war Functionalist style theatre with Streamline Moderne features.
At the same time, a joint feasibility study by Create NSW and Sydney City Council is understood to have found that Minerva could house up to 1000 patrons, a so-called sweet spot that would make the theatre financially viable.
The study identified strong interest in the Minerva from potential venue operators, producers, and promoters and said activation of the Minerva could contribute to the revitalisation of the night-time economy.
Short- to medium-run musicals of six weeks to three months in length could play at the theatre. Shows that initially played smaller venues – such as Hayes Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre or the Sydney Opera House Playhouse – could transfer to the larger capacity Minerva.
Australia’s Wonder Theatre (as it was known) opened in May 1939 with the Robert E Sherwood play Idiot’s Delight, starring well-known stars of the English and American stage and screen. It was at the Metro that Australia’s first production of Hair opened in Sydney on June 4, 1969.
Heritage listing protects the built fabric and ensures any future renovations are sympathetic, but does not guarantee its resumption as a working theatre.
One option is for a new private buyer to come in, bank the heritage floor space and lease the venue to a production company. Asked if the state government would consider buying the theatre, Mr Harwin said that would be a matter for cabinet but “never say never”.
“There is no doubt Sydney needs more theatres,” he said. “We really are the theatre capital of Australia but we’ve left too many of our theatres go in the past.”
Lord mayor Clover Moore applauded the minister’s heritage listing following council’s nomination but stopped short of campaigners’ request that the council purchase the venue.
“Kings Cross has gone through some heavy times in recent years and we are really looking at rejuvenation now,” she said.
Greg Khoury of Century Venues – which operates the Enmore Theatre, The Comedy Store and The Concourse, Chatswood, in Sydney and The Mighty Vic in Newcastle – said the Minerva was one of only two theatre opportunities remaining in Sydney. The other was the Roxy in Parramatta.
“You could never afford to build them today and make them work,” he said.
“However, with a one-off government and city investment and a well-experienced theatre owner-operator, you could re-establish them and they would stand on their own. They would not require further funding. This is the case with The Princess and Regent in Melbourne, and significantly they remain in private hands.”
Mr Khoury said a revitalised Minerva could anchor a theatre precinct in Kings Cross, which is also home to the Hayes, Griffin, and Red Line Theatre.
“We don’t want to go back to the old ways of drinking and alcohol consumption, therefore theatres and entertainment venues are vital to a renewed way of socialising,” Mr Khoury said.
Long-time campaigner Nick Phibbs said he was keen to progress discussions with the theatre’s owners. “Up until the feasibility study has been released, no one has been absolutely sure if it was going to be a feasible option,” he said. “This is a good intermediate size venue that fills the gap in Sydney. There’s the opportunity for musicals, plays and talks. That mixed use, cross-arts space is really the best use for it.”
Similar in size, the Theatre Royal in Market St is on track to reopen in September 2021, the success of that financial model giving government and property owners confidence to enliven dormant theatres such as the Minerva.
In that case, owner Dexus entered into a 55-year lease with the state government who in turn negotiated an upfront fee and lease payments from Sir Howard Panter’s Trafalgar Entertainment Asia-Pacific. It is understood air rights were banked and transferred to another CBD site.
Linda Morris is an arts writer at The Sydney Morning Herald