On the corner of Flanigan Lane there is the hand painted sign stating: “New Theatre”. Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow give a short history of the New Theatre in their book Radical Melbourne. The sign dates from around 1937 when the New Theatre occupied “an old tin-doffed loft above a dishes garage next to the Duke of Kent Hotel on La Trobe Street.” (Sparrow and Sparrow Radical Melbourne p.28). The New Theatre was established by the Communist Party in 1937 and continued into the 1990s. The theatre at Flanigan Lane saw the first performance of Bertolt Brecht in Melbourne. In 1939 the theatre was declared unsafe and closed down but the sign remains on the stone wall.
There are plenty of other ghost signs in that small network of lanes but the new theatre was the only one that I researched. The interest in finding and photographing ghost signs grows. My own take on it is less about the hand painted signs and more about the history and culture that the sign represents.
The “Do Not Spit” signs at Flinders Street Station tell of a past Melbourne with an expectorating population that had to be told not to. The metal “telephones” sign in the Degraves Street underpass points to a locked door behind which banks of telephone booths once stood before mobile phones made them obsolescent. The boomerang shaped sign from former Brunswick continental supermarket on Lygon Street and Australian identity; for more see Our Fading Past – Our History in Old Signs. I have not been able to find out anything about the sign for Balkan Club in Melbourne, but there has always been a Balkan Club somewhere around the city.
I am suspicious of the ghost signs from around Chinatown like “Commit No Nuisance” Heffernan Lane in Chinatown. These signs looks too good, perhaps they were restored in an earlier revival of interest in ghost signs. I saw them listed as number 4 selfie spots in Melbourne.The aesthetic popularity of ghost signs is leading to some being purposely revealed, restored or rectified.
After the collectors, the fans and the academics, comes the photography exhibitions of ghost signs. Stephanie Stead’s “Signs of Our Times” at the City Library in July was the first of these that I’ve seen but I’m sure that there have been others. Stead’s silver gelatine prints are black and white except for the signs that have been hand coloured in oils. This old fashioned technique matches with the old signs producing beautiful nostalgic images.