In the 1920s a small café stood in the main street of Inglewood. As the decades inched by, the café may have evolved, like hundreds of others, from oyster bar to fish shop, from milk bar to snack bar, and fared quite well, but for some proprietors a lifetime behind the counter was not enough. For people like Harry Corones, who started out in a café in Charleville in 1909, it was luxury hotels that would fill their dreams. For Chris Sourris it was motion pictures. The story of Chris Sourris is a tale of enterprise and resilience that demonstrates the crucial role family support played in the progress of Greek migrants. It also exemplifies the way in which a café could be the first step towards a bright, if chequered, career, since the Sourris name went on to become synonymous with Queensland’s cinema industry.
Chris (b. 1905) left the village of Karava in Kythera and came to Australia in 1923. He worked 18-hour days for 15/- a week in a café in Gosford that his father had once owned. Despite the fact that Chris was yet to master English, the proprietors, his cousins, sometimes left him in charge: on one occasion he was bewildered when a customer asked for ‘a bit of snake.’ Of course, the customer wanted a steak. Chris brought a sister to Australia. She married Sid Fardoulys, who had a café in Goondiwindi, and Sid helped his new brother-in-law set up in the small café in Inglewood.
Refreshments and bottled oysters were all very well but it was the theatre next door that whispered to the nineteen-year-old migrant. Although he knew nothing about silent films, Chris went to Brisbane with £25 in his pocket to purchase hand-operated theatre equipment. The technician who installed this stayed on for a week to show him how to operate it, and with only that week to find the balance of £50, Chris had to attract large crowds quickly. He hit upon the idea of sticking film posters to four-gallon petrol drums and hanging them in the trees around town, and on Saturday the theatre was full. The following week, when a racehorse he was riding bolted and dragged him down the main street, Chris popped up, bruised but not broken, and announced that he was advertising Saturday’s picture. Another full house. The year was 1925—early days in Australia’s motion picture industry—and as he cranked the handle in the projection booth of the theatre beside his café, while a pianist accompanied the images flickering on the screen, Chris may have been unaware that he was Queensland’s first Greek theatre-operator. He was soon touring silent films through south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales. In 1927, again with the help of his brother-in-law, Chris took on an open-air theatre in Goondiwindi, where he established a good business in the Splendid Theatre.
Then disaster struck. The Jazz Singer stopped the world in 1927 and Chris, unable to negotiate the changeover to ‘the talkies’ with the theatre-owner, went broke overnight. He turned the theatre into a boxing ring for a time before quitting Goondiwindi and taking another café, this time in Yelarbon. Australia was now in the grip of the Great Depression, and Chris took only £12/10/- in the first week. He diversified, trying a billiard saloon, a boarding house and a general store before finally putting a deposit on an old Bedford truck and touring south-west Queensland as Sourris’ Talkies. This went on for about six years—a night in each town.
In 1936 Chris moved to Stanthorpe, where he screened movies in a leased hall. He married Effie Sourry, whose father Peter was in partnership at the Arcadia Theatre in Armidale and was the first Greek exhibitor in Australia. With Peter’s help, the couple bought the Arcadia Theatre in Stanthorpe in 1938. A decade later, Chris stood beside his friend Charles Chauvel on the stage of the Arcadia when Sons of Matthew opened to a packed house. During the fifteen years that the couple had this theatre, they also ran the Rex Theatre in Wallangarra and acquired two grazing runs and a wolfram mine. Chris became president of the Stanthorpe Racing Club and the Centaur House fundraising committee.
The family went to Brisbane around 1952. They bought the State Theatre (Red Hill), Griffo’s Milk Bar and Casket Agency (Albert Street), and the Embassy Theatre (Fortitude Valley). Then disaster struck again—television arrived and picture theatres became a thing of the past. In 1961 Chris sold the Embassy and bought a 42,000-acre property at Charleville—which his son James managed—and took over the lease on the local cinema. He had opened a drive-in cinema at Aspley in 1957—the second in the state—then others at Strathpine and Redcliffe, and these subsidised the farms during the droughts of the 1970s. Chris sold the Charleville theatre, and around 1980 he sold the properties too, but the man who had arrived as a teenager almost sixty years, been dragged down the main street of Inglewood, and faced the calamitous influence of the ‘talkies’ and television, still recognised opportunity when he saw it: in 1982, then in his late 70s, Chris built a bowling alley next to the Redcliffe drive-in.
Chris Sourris was a pioneer and an entrepreneur who walked beside legendary figures like Harry Corones and Charles Chauvel, but the degree to which a humble café might prove a pathway to success for Greek migrants is most evident in the fortunes of his son. James Sourris was equally enchanted by the big screen and, apart from a decade working the family’s property at Charleville, has spent a lifetime in the motion picture industry. He started as assistant projectionist at the Beach Theatre in Sandgate, then managed the Embassy and Charleville theatres and the Aspley, Redcliffe and Strathpine drive-ins, owned the Toombul Cinema—Australia’s first shopping centre complex—and the Village Twin, and co-founded Australian Multiplex Cinemas, which included cinemas at Sunnybank, Noosa, Stafford, Redcliffe, Tweed City and Frankston. James was president of the Motion Picture Exhibitors Association of Queensland in the early 80s and was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) in 2011 for service to the arts and the community through the development of the motion picture industry and through philanthropic contributions, particularly to the Queensland Art Gallery and the State Library of Queensland. Imagination, daring and resilience echo throughout the story of the Sourris family in Australia. And the story begins with a small, unnamed café in Western Queensland.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr James Sourris)