Outside there's a neon finger-sign soaring skyward, the oversized letters reading `ASTOR'. The building’s not much to look at; the high facade brick, of cream and red. The veranda is low and squarish, the fascia lined with a string of bare light globes. From a street clogged with trams, trucks and cars, we step up and push through the bank of glass doors.
The door swings shut behind us; the clatter of traffic replaced by ambient music and dimmed lighting. We’ve gone from a mad Metropolis into an art deco opera house. The grand foyer is ship-like in warm beeswax tones; a colonial ocean-going liner afloat on orient seas. A scattering of large potted palms sit on shining terrazzo floors.
I’m inside Melbourne’s iconic Astor Theatre with my girlfriend; classic 1930s, with a single-screen, stalls and a dress circle. In continuous operation, this is the last of its kind here. But even more important, I’m told it’s the domain of Marzipan the cat.
From the foyer I peer up into a huge oval opening in the upper floor, a pink ceiling and central chandelier. On the far side, a grand terrazzo staircase leads upwards, parting flights sweep left and right. The ticket box window glows at the foot of the stairs. A long wooden counter lines one side wall and we thumb through theatre flyers and calendar programmes stacked on top. Oversized wall posters are glazed, mounted in ornate gilded frames.
We buy tickets from the seller, tucked-in behind her desk and surrounded by posters, then climb the steps. My fingers run along the smooth wooden balustrade and we step onto a carpet awash with splashes of geometric colour. There’s a wicker basket and cushion by the wall; Marzipan is not home.
Club chairs and sofas sit beneath framed posters, among further pots of palms. Dark sideboards are bedecked with tall vases of flowers. We walk to the balustrade, peer over the rail and down through the oval opening to the foyer now below us.
Around the walls there’s antique theatre projectors, radios and cinematic memorabilia. A grand piano sits off to the side. Rita Hayworth looks down from a wall, an amazon vision with flaming red hair and flowing dress of baby blue; a white stole is draped at her feet. I smell coffee and popcorn from the bar. There’s champagne, beer and homemade cake, along with the best choc-tops in town.
We’ve met Mathew – a photographer friend – and sit talking on a sofa. It’s Monday; a quiet night, with a Hitchcock double of Psycho and The Birds.
Mathew is a long-time patron. “Marzipan? Of course.” He looks around. “She’ll be somewhere about.” We’ve been here before, but have never seen the famous cat. Mathew picks up on my girlfriend’s pout. “Never mind, she is her own cat, that one.”
Marzipan is 20yrs old; enjoying the same fame in these parts as a Scarlet Johansson or Penelope Cruz. And – being a cat – Marzipan is not bothered by any perceived contradiction between feline aloofness and allowing hundreds of doting patrons to offer food and blankets. And it only adds to the legend how Marzipan magically appears when called for dinner, even though stone deaf. “You know,” says Mathew, “she once scared the hell out of an audience during a screening of Poltergeist, by running along the balustrade at an inopportune moment.”
Before the film, I ask Mathew where it all began. “Ah, there’s a story,” he says, “she waltzed in as a kitten, from under a parked truck. Still occasionally goes outside. These days she’s more likely to leap from the darkness during a movie and onto a lap of her choosing.” I look over at my girlfriend, worried about the famous Hitchcock shower scene we’re about to sit through.
My girlfriend asks if Marzipan likes horror movies. Mathew shrugs. “Well, you may laugh; but she does have a preference for some films over others.” I ask Mathew what they would be and he doesn’t blink an eyelid. “Oh, she likes some Tennessee Williams; and anything with Cat Woman of course.”
We present our tickets and make our way up more steps into the auditorium, dropping the folded swinging seats with a bang. They’re leather and squeak when we sit. The music stops and there’s the grind of the winch as the gold curtains part.
I spend most of the film peering into the shadows and around the seats, my girlfriend jumping at the crunch of a choc-top and the rustle of a chip wrapper. Another seat bangs in the gloom as someone jumps up, then trips on a step.
We stay for the credits, but alas, no Marzipan. I look down into the stalls far below. The theatre is gigantic, with downstairs generally closed off. She could be anywhere among the 1150 seats. She could be backstage, or up in the ceilings. Could she be outside counting traffic or just watching the world go by? Oh well, there is the second feature still to come.
At the end of the night we sit by the bar and chat. Eventually we trudge across to the top of the main staircase – the wicker basket still empty – then down to an almost empty foyer. There’s someone pointing; towards us it seems. Mathew nudges my arm and we turn around.
Marzipan has materialised from parts unknown and sits bolt upright, behind us on the terrazzo landing; resplendent in a tuxedo of calico tortoiseshell, white feet demurely together. Her purple and gold nametag hangs from a collar of lipstick-red. Mathew smiles at my girlfriend, “There you go. Where would a diva cat wait, other than on the exit stairs at the end of the night?”
Marzipan looks through us, then left; a bare wall obviously more interesting. Finally those wise pool-like eyes gaze down at my girlfriend’s feet. “So,” says Mathew, “meet Marzipan, the phantom cat with 500 Facebook friends and a collection of `wish you were here’ holiday postcards from all over the world.”