Country town's reel drawcard

A SMILING Marilyn Monroe sits in the back corner of the shipping container. She looks as glamorous as ever, yet she is slowly gathering dust.

A concerned Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall - a black-and-white image probably captured during their 1947 movie Dark Passage - stare out from another poster hidden behind the poster of Marilyn.

Just a couple of metres away stands another jewel from the golden age of movies, a poster promoting ''The Screen's Number One Man of the West'', Gary Cooper, one of Hollywood's biggest names of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and a star of many westerns. It is rolled up, torn and frayed, but a gem nevertheless.

The posters are just the tip of the iceberg. The shipping container probably spent years carrying cargo across the seas, but now - as it lies stationary by a barn and ageless peppercorn trees on a Victorian grain and sheep farm - it is overflowing with film history.

It has become a remarkable vault of theatre memorabilia and equipment dating back perhaps 100 years. There are thousands of items, including stylish sound projector speakers and projectors that would look right at home in an art deco St Kilda building, ancient and fragile wooden tripods, as well as the musty smell from thousands of books about movies and photography magazines stacked on top of one another.

The caretaker of the collection, David Pollard, steps carefully inside on a delicate reconnaissance mission. ''Wow, there's a find for you, a 16-millimetre movie camera,'' he says, holding up the decades-old device. He can't lift it too high though, for if he did it would endanger a small theatre screen suspended from the roof. The container is tightly packed, yet there are three more shipping containers full of memorabilia and equipment nearby.

One is full, virtually from floor to ceiling, with films. Metal spools hold the film for the intriguingly titled Exploits of Elaine, which a quick internet search reveals to be a 1914 film serial about a young woman trying to find the man who murdered her father.

One spool holds Phar Lap's famous victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, another a 1937 copy of Snow White. There is a copy of Desperate Adventure (1938) on nitrate film, while another spool has the simple title Melbourne Trams. A narrow but heavy wooden box has a note attached which states: ''Very old collectable slides, about 1900.'' One of the shipping containers houses hundreds of projectors.

The collection is now the property of ''The Rex'', a community-owned theatre in Charlton, after it was bought from a deceased estate last year. It was created by a farmer with a love of cinema, Keith McDonald. For many years Mr McDonald, who passed away last year, operated the projector in the town hall at St Arnaud. The four shipping containers suggest that the collection was a lifetime hobby.

While plans for a proposed museum are worked out, the collection remains on the Pollards' farm at Teddywaddy. Mr Pollard has been a projectionist at the Rex since 1980 and is the theatre's vice-chairman. He is also mayor of Buloke Shire.

''What we're aiming to do with the collection is build a museum [for it] behind the theatre. Basically try and display it to do the collection justice, and try and make it educational for the people who come and visit. There's enough projectors and things here so that we can nearly go right through the ages, up until the digital technology starts,'' Cr Pollard says.

''With this collection on display I think it's going to supplement the Rex … hopefully it will give a big boost to central Victoria, with an added attraction that's something different to anywhere else I'm aware of.

''With small communities like Charlton we've got to reinvent ourselves a little bit, we've got to look at tourism and we've got to try and get attractions that no one else has got,'' he says.

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