Tuesday, 05 March 2013 19:19

Bijou Theatre

225 Bourke Street, Melbourne — site of former Commonwealth Bank building.

Ralph Marsden's story of one of Melbourne's most loved mid-sized theatres.

 'I think a smaller theatre should be erected in Melbourne, where plays of the higher class, produced with much care and well scened, would maintain a higher standard of taste', wrote the famous Irish dramatist and actor, Dion Boucicault, at the end of his Australasian tour of 1885, apparently overlooking the fact that just such a theatre already existed literally a stone's throw from where he had recently performed. Just two years later, Boucicault's son, in partnership with Robert Brough, took over this theatre, transformed it into just such a playhouse as his father had suggested and, for a few short years, it became renowned as the Melbourne home of quality drama.

Sketch

 

The Academy of Music
Lewis's Academy of Music
Bijou Theatre
Lewis's Bijou Theatre
Fuller's Bijou Theatre
The New Bijou Theatre

  

In the beginning, however, the Bijou (or Academy of Music, as it was first called) began life when its foundation stone was laid by the Governor of Victoria on 23 May 1876. The completed theatre, opened less than six months later, was built by Joseph Aarons, a city council alderman and builder, for an estimated £60,000, to designs by Joseph Reed and Frederick Barnes. Built as part of the Victoria Arcade, it lay upstairs at the rear of this, with the back wall of the stage abutting Little Collins Street, while the arcade itself was entered through the centre of the Bourke Street frontage.

 

De-Murska

 

[ 2] De Murska performing on opening night, The Australasian Sketcher 25.11.1876 p.141

 

 

 

The auditorium consisted of two levels of seating over a stalls area minus the then conventional pit. On the first level, only eight feet above the floor of the stalls, was the dress circle. The second level above this was divided into upper circle and gallery seating areas. 'The house will comfortably hold 1600 to 2000 people, and is a neat, compact theatre in which everyone can hear and see, which cannot be said of every place of entertainment', the Herald reported on the day of opening.

This was 6 November I876, with Mr G.B.W. Lewis the theatre's first lessee and Mrs G.B.W. Lewis installed as manageress and leading actress of its dramatic company. In keeping with the theatre's name, however, the opening attraction was musical rather than dramatic: a series of six concerts featuring the beautiful Hungarian (Croatian) soprano, Ilma De Murska, from 6 to 17 November. The first dramatic season followed on 18 November: Home, a comedy by T.W. Robertson, with Mrs Lewis and Edwin Adams the leading players.

Eduardo and Giulia Tessero Majeroni, ex members of Adelaide Ristori's company, were notable attractions in a month long season from 12 March 1877 but by June, the stock company was supporting Corbyn's Original Georgia Minstrels —'Real Negroes from the American slave states'. The new theatre was evidently in poor financial shape and from mid July reduced prices, offering 'the best and cheapest entertainment in the Australian colonies', were advertised.

JosephAarons

 

[3] Portrait of Joseph Aarons (1833-1886), Johnstone Shannessy & Co, Nield Album, SLV Pictures Collection

The Academy's fortunes revived when the notable English Shakespearean actor William Creswick made his Australian debut here in Virginius on 27 August 1877. Creswick, the most famous name to appear at the theatre in its first decade, enjoyed a very successful season which ran until 12 December. John L. Hall, 'Australian star comedian' was the most notable attraction of 1878. Beginning in H. J. Byron's comedy, Our Girls, on 1 June, he notched up an impressive 54-night run with this play and followed it with Our Dad, also by Byron, which ended on 17 August.

From late August 1878 the theatre began to be advertised as 'Lewis's Academy of Music Bijou Theatre', but subsequent advertisements by Aarons highlighted managerial rifts and stressed Lewis's limited tenure of the theatre, which was due to terminate in November 1878. To quote Lazarus Morris Goldman's The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century, Aarons had 'leased his Academy to G.B.W. Lewis on a basis of a percentage of the takings, and according to Aarons, Lewis gave away too many complimentary tickets which affected his gross income.' Aarons applied legal restraint but lost his case and a lot of money on the deal which, together with an involved insurance case, eventually sent him bankrupt.

John L, Hall returned to the theatre on 8 February 1879 with his 'Byronic Comedy Company' in a series of burlesques by the then popular playwright. Directly following, on 15 March, came English actor and playwright Wybert Reeve, in two of his own dramas, George Geith and The Woman in White, for the first of many seasons he would play at this theatre. Then came George Rignold, who had made a spectacular Melbourne debut as Henry V at the Royal the year before, in a season of modest proportions although it included a 'Vice-Regal Command Night' on 18 April when the drama Clancarty, by Tom Taylor, was produced.

 George Titheradge, an English actor destined to become a great local favourite, made his Australian debut, at the Academy in False Shame on 24.May 1879, and Alice and William Lingard, English actors, singers and dancers with an American reputation, appeared in HMS Pinafore here from 7 June. This was an unauthorised production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which was such a phenomenal success that another pirated version opened in Melbourne the same night at St George's Hall.

Aarons was made bankrupt in 1879 and the theatre passed into the hands of the Victorian Permanent Building Society, later that year. Hall's tenure (he was variously listed as 'director' 'sub-lessee' and 'lessee and responsible manager') expired on 30 September, from when all performances were cancelled due to non payment of musicians' salaries. The theatre went dark for a month before reopening on 1 November under 'entirely new management', with Irish born tragedienne Augusta L. Dargon in Queen Mary.

WyberReeve 

[4] Wybert Reeve, SLV Pictures Collection

Wybert Reeve returned on 29 November 1879 - at first offering himself in a season with Eugenie Legrand, then producing the Christmas pantomime. After this, on 17 January 1880, came a localised version of W.S. Gilbert's political satire, The Happy Land, which caricatured the Victorian government of the day. Despite severe censorship by the authorities, the version eventually permitted to be staged left most of the satirical points intact: 'at every line approaching words that had been "cut" some one of the characters would give a significant cough - ahem - and remark, "prohibited". The result was invariably a general laugh', the Age of 19 January recorded.

Reeve's season petered out in familiar circumstances: 'There was no performance at the Academy of Music last evening, owing, it is understood, to the lessee being unable, through unrenumerative business, to keen open the theatre any longer', the Age of 18 February reported. The original lessee, G.B.W. Lewis, came to the rescue, reopening the playhouse on 13 March 1880 as 'Lewis's Bijou Theatre' and presenting William Creswick in a farewell season, beginning again with Virginius.

Pinafore2

 

[5] Scenes from the juvenile 'Pinafore', The Australasian Sketcher, 8.5.1880

Lewis followed this with another, initially unauthorised production of HMS Pinafore on 24 April by Mrs Lewis' Juvenile Company 'whose ages vary from three to thirteen years' and whose cast included Mary Weir, a future wife of J.C. Williamson. This production, the season of which outran Williamson's own first authorised Australian version at the Royal totalling 60 nights up to 2 July enjoyed several revivals during I880. In between, seasons by Mrs Lewis and her stock company, and Wybert Reeve held the boards.

 Reeve was back again on 19 February I881 and English comedian Fred Marshall made his Bijou debut on 25 April. The American actor James Carden whose appearances at the old Royal in The Streets of New York nine years before had ended when fire destroyed the theatre, returned in a new production of the same play on 17 September and attracted 'one of the largest houses of the season', according to the Argus. After this, Mrs Lewis' Juvenile Company (120 of them this time) returned in Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour Major for a six week run from 24 September.

 James Burdett Howe, an English dramatic actor popular at the Royal in the early 1870s, was the first fresh attraction of 1882, in a season which included Hamlet and Michael Strogoff. Mrs Lewis' stock players and an English opera company were the main attractions until 3 July, after which the Bijou closed for a month of alterations. The theatre reopened on 5 August 'extensively renovated, decorated, ornamented, upholstered, and carpeted, from floor to ceiling', with Fred Marshall and his comedy company in Mother-In-Law. Alfred Dampier followed him on 21 October, transferring from the Royal with his Australian drama No Mercy, for a season running until 1 December.

 Attractions of 1883 included a minstrel company from San Francisco, a lady lecturer from the same city who spoke of 'Love, Marriage and Parentage', Wybert Reeve in a comedy season, Signor and Signora Majeroni in a well-received season of drama, and another Royal favourite, Grattan Riggs, in some of his popular 'Irish' vehicles. John L. Hall returned with the Lewis company in February 1884 and other attractions of that year included Emilie Melville's Opera Company, in an unbroken season of nearly six months from 22 March to 13 September, and John F. Sheridan, another familiar name from the Royal, in Fun on the Bristol from 15 September. From 26 December John Derreck's comedy Confusion starred Phil Day, a local favourite whose career was cut short by his sudden death just three years later.

SingnoraMajeroni

 

[6] Poster for opening of Queen Elizabeth 1886, SLV Pictures Collection

 

On 2 March 1885 a farewell benefit was held for Mr and Mrs Lewis 'on their retirement from the lesseeship of the theatre' and on 7 March Eduardo Majeroni, the new lessee in partnership with W.J. Wilson, began a season of plays with his wife which ended on 24 April. On 25 April the new lessees announced, 'alterations in the shape of re-decorating and re-carpeting the interior of the theatre have been completed' and that electric light had been installed for a season of Majeroni and Wilson's Comic Opera Company, beginning with La Fille de Madame Angot that same evening.

 

 

 

 

Robert-Brough

 

[7] Robert Brough, carte de visite, SLNSW Pictures Collection 

 

On 3 August the esteemed American actress, Genevieve Ward, began a month-long farewell at the Bijou in her most famous play, Forget-Me-Not. Phil Day and John L. Hall followed in a comedy called Mixed, but the most notable attraction of 1885 came on I7 October, when Williamson, Garner and Musgrove's Royal Comedy Company began a season which ran until 14 April 1886. Plays presented included the first Australian production of Pinero's The Magistrate and the company included Robert Brough and Dion Boucicault Jnr who, less than two years later, began the managerial partnership that gave the Bijou its greatest years.

 Notables for the remainder of 1886 included two seasons by Frank Thornton in Charles Hawtrey's very popular comedy The Private Secretary; another season by the Majeronis with Wybert Reeve; the Australian debut of American musical comedy star Minnie Palmer in her most popular success, My Sweetheart; and Australian actor-dramatist George Darrell in his latest melodrama, The New Rush on 27 December.

 

Dion-Boucicault

 

[8] Dion Boucicault, carte de visite, SLNSW Pictures Collection

 

Returns by Grattan Riggs, Minnie Palmer and the Majeronis preceded Brough and Boucicault taking over as lessees and opening the Bijou, 'thoroughly renovated and redecorated' on 10 September 1887. Their first, rather atypical, offering was Held by the Enemy, a Civil War melodrama by William Gillette but a comedy season followed from 8 October which included The School for Scandal. A Shakespearean season with E.J. Holloway and his stepdaughter, Essie Jenyns, was the first attraction of 1888, followed by the Australian debut of young English comedian, Charles Arnold, in Hans the Boatman, The Brough-Boucicault company held the stage for most of that year, with the plays of Arthur Pinero and Sydney Grundy frequently in their repertoire and with Mrs Robert Brough, Harry St Maur, George Titheradge and George Anson prominent in the casts.

 Frank Thornton was back in The Private Secretary on Boxing Day 1883 and ended his season with the latest Pinero - a first Australian production of the drama, Sweet Lavender, from 2 February 1889. F.C. Burnand's comedy Betsy, with both Brough and Boucicault in the cast, had just began its season on Saturday 20 April 1889 when, late in the afternoon of Easter Monday, 22 April, a housemaid in the adjoining Palace Hotel first noticed a fire in the deserted theatre and raised the alarm.

GroundPlanFirstFloorPlan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[9] Plans, The Building Engineering Journal, 5.1.1889, p.12

 

 

 

 

 

Fire

 

 

 

 

[10] The Bijou fire 1889 seen from Little Collins Street, Wood engraving, Illustrated Australian News 1.5.1889, p.73

The fire was thought to have started in the hotel's kitchen chimney or to have been caused by fusing of the theatre's electric wiring. Although the hotel was saved the Bijou was completely destroyed by fire, watched by a large holiday crowd which flocked into Bourke Street from miles around. Two men were killed during the blaze: a porter trying to douse the flames fell through the glass roof of the Victoria Arcade, a fire captain was crushed under a falling wall, and seven other firefighters were also injured. About 100 firemen were present and when the blaze was over and the hotel had been saved, several 'made free with the refreshments provided for them in the bars, and not a few of them were sufficiently intoxicated to disgrace their brigades' to quote an Argus report.

Wilson

 

[11] John Alfred Wilson, Caulfield and Elsternwick Leader ‘Progressive Melbourne’, 23.2.1889 p.9 

A Reverend Mr Brewster, 'a wealthy investor', was revealed as the current owner of the property and it was he who had leased the theatre to John A. Wilson, the owner of the hotel, who then sub-let it to the Brough-Boucicault company. The company continued their season at Hibernian (now Storey) Hall before transferring their activities to Sydney.

 

 

 

 

 

Australian1890

[12] Aspects of the New Bijou: 1. Proscenium boxes, 2. Stalls entrance, 3. Portion of the ceiling ventilation, 4. Front of the dress circle, 5. A bit of the upper circle, 6. The Proscenium, 7. main entrance stair,  Australasian 12.4.1890, p.740

Less than a year later, however, the Bijou was rebuilt at a cost of £32,000 to a design by George R. Johnson for a more conventional three-level auditorium of stalls, dress circle and gallery, with seating for a total of some 1700. The Argus of 2 April 1890 found the interior 'fitted up with an elegance befitting the times. The entrance to the dress circle ... is of an imposing character. The steps are of marble, with massive balustrades, and lead to a crush-room with cloak rooms attached'. There were two fire escape passages leading under the stage to Little Collins Street. These were reached from the circle and gallery via stone steps and it was calculated that the whole theatre could be emptied in three minutes.

At either side of the proscenium were three stage boxes; the interior, 'brilliantly illuminated with the electric light', had a saucer shaped ceiling, 90 feet in circumference and perforated for ventilation via a 'capacious air shaft'. 'Brilliancy, with refinement, characterise the whole of the furnishing of the theatre'; terra-cotta; being the prevailing colour of the decorations. The Age of 5 April also praised the interior but was somewhat critical of backstage facilities: dressing rooms were 'small and meagre to a degree. They are reached by tiny iron spiral staircases like corkscrews, and are very steep'.

The Brough-Boucicault company again leased the theatre, opening it on 5 April 1890 with Bulwer-Lytton's comedy Money. Backstage staff in this season included one of Australia's most distinguished artists, Arthur Streeton, who worked briefly as one of the Bijou's scenery painters in November 1890.

 

The company continued an unbroken run up to 6 March 1891 in a repertoire including plays by Sardou, Pinero, T.W. Robertson and Boucicault Snr. Later in 1891 came a number of distinguished visitors: noted English actress, Janet Achurch began a six-week season on 7 March which included her famous production of A Doll's House; local favourite Maggie Moore appeared with the Brough-Boucicault company in Pinero's The School Mistress from 18 April; another celebrated English actress, Olga Nethersole, was partnered by Charles Cartwright in a month-long season from 23 May.

A notable addition to the Brough-Boucicault company in 1891 was the English actor-playwright, Eille Norwood, later well known as a silent screen impersonator of Sherlock Holmes. The year ended with Much Ado About Nothing on Christmas Eve, a rare Shakespearean production for the company, which ran successfully until 12 February 1892, after which the more familiar Pinero-Robertson-Grundy repertoire returned.

A local topicality was added for a couple of nights late in August 1892: The Landslip or Ta-ra -ra-boom-e-ay, a one act burlesque on the land boom depression - an amusing but ominous sign of the times, for the theatre and the entire community were now facing greatly straitened circumstances. The company's lease of the Bijou terminated on 16 December 1892 and the following year they moved their Melbourne operations to the much larger but less intimate Princess's. A short but significant era had ended for, although the Bijou was still to house many notable attractions, never again was it to enjoy a similarly prolonged period of repute as Melbourne's home of quality drama.

The theatre was unoccupied for nearly four months before The Adventuress, 'a society drama', with British actress Maud Williamson, began a two-week run on 8 April 1893. More darkness followed, broken only by the efforts of amateurs or little-known professionals, until 7 October when Frank Thornton and Charles Arnold's English Comedy Company opened in Hans the Boatman. Prominent in the company was A.E. Matthews, in later years a much loved star of the British screen as well as stage. This season was also notable for giving Australia its first production of Brandon Thomas's classic farce Charley's Aunt, on 25 November.

FlorrieForde.jpg

 

[13] Florrie Forde, private collection

Thornton and company were back from Sydney with Charley's Aunt, for a short run from 21 April 1894 then, on 5 May, came Arthur Garner, now an independent manager after his break from J.C. Williamson, with a dramatic company which held the stage until 1 June. The Cogill Brothers minstrel company transferred from the adjacent Gaiety ( a smaller space formerly the Palace Hotel Dining Room) while it was being altered in July and August. Prominent on the bills was the young Melbourne-born singer, Florrie Forde already on her way to becoming one of the 'greats' of British music hall.

The 'legitimate' returned when English actor William Elton began a season on 17 November 1894; this continued until the following 24 April. On 16 February 1895 English husband and wife, Arthur Dacre and Amy Roselle, joined Elton to make their Australian debut. Both were established players with considerable experience but both became victims of their personal misfortunes and the times. Their Melbourne season was plagued by Amy's poor health and alleged non-payment of salaries by the management and, after several indifferently received seasons in Sydney, the stresses and uncertainties of the touring actor's life seem to have pushed Dacre to desperation: on 17 November and the eve of his appearance in a new play, he shot dead his sleeping wife. He then slashed his throat with a razor and died a short time later.

 

Hamlet

[14] Mrs Lewis as Hamlet, private collection

The indefatigable Mrs G.B.W. Lewis returned to the Bijou for a seven-night season, which included her interpretation of Hamlet, early in May 1895; immediately after her came Florrie Forde, this time singing with Frank M. Clark' s company. Frederick Villiers, a prominent war artist and special correspondent, gave a series of lectures in mid-June, but the most famous name at the Bijou in 1895 was the celebrated American author, Mark Twain, in five 'At Home' evenings of life and character sketches' late in September and early October.

Much of 1895 and 1896 were extremely patchy, however, almost the only notable of 1896 being the 80 year old Polish-born pianist and composer Antoine De Kontski, who began .a. short series of recitals on 30 June. The Bijou was 'redecorated and renovated throughout', with extra rows of stalls added, by 31 October for the return of Robert Brough and his comedy company, which included some of the now disbanded Brough-Boucicault troupe, such as George Titheradge, as well as the veteran, Eduardo Majeroni. Frank Thornton and his company followed them on Boxing Day and Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance was given its first Melbourne production when the Brough company returned on 6 February 1897.

Thornton was back again from mid-July to mid-October 1897; after this, 'Professor D.M. Bristol's marvellous educated horses, ponies and mules' held the stage until mid-November. On 20 November 1897 Harry Rickards was first advertised as lessee of the Bijou. Rickards planned to use the theatre for his vaudeville companies during the enforced rebuilding of the Opera House in 1899-1901 and from this date the Bijou became a predominantly vaudeville theatre. Rickards' first featured attraction was the first screening of films at the Bijou by means of the recently invented 'American Biograph', with selected variety artists also on the programme.

Program.10.6.1899

 

[15] Rickards poster, private collection

The first dramatic attraction under Rickards' aegis was Charles Cartwright and Beatrice Lamb, with a complete London company, for six weeks from 19 February 1898. Robert Brough and his company became the last dramatic occupants before the change to vaudeville, in a season ending on 19 February 1899 with Pinero's Dandy Dick, the last association the theatre was ever to have with its glory days of the Brough-Boucicault company.

Prior to reopening the Bijou as an all vaudeville house on 4 February 1899 Rickards had two Otis elevators installed for the added convenience of patrons to the first floor foyer. Over the next two years, famous names on the bills included juggler Paul Cinquevalli; 'king of pantomimists' Paul Martinetti; singer, Lottie Collins - famed for Ta-ra-ra-boom–de–ay!; and notorious adventurer and teller of tall tales, Louis De Rougemont - although his engagement lasted just one night, after he was heckled off the stage within minutes of beginning his lecture on 16 March 1901.

Alfred Dampier, veteran of Australian melodrama, was the first attraction after the vaudevillians had left, offering such staples as Robbery Under Arms five nights a week, with Fridays set aside for his first love, Shakespeare, during a ten-week run from 18 May 1901. With Rickards still lessee, the theatre was 'thoroughly cleaned and re-carpeted' for the arrival of the Hawtrey comedy company on 24 August 1901. W.F. Hawtrey headed a cast which included such notable locals as O.P. Heggie, Clyde Cook and Gregan McMahon, as well as British actor Henry Stephenson - later familiar in scores of Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s - in one of Charles Hawtrey's most popular plays, A Message From Mars.

The Bijou's next lessees, Americans Henry Lee and J.G. Rial's 'World's Entertainers' presented 'polite vaudeville' from 23 November 1901. The following decade proved one of the patchiest in the theatre's history, with no long term lessee, no established policy of attraction, and frequent and lengthy periods of darkness. But every so often, highlights broke the general gloom; those of 1902 included George Willoughby's comedy company in popular farces like The Wrong Mr Wright; a first Australian production of Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac, with vaudevillian, Henry Lee as Cyrano; and the return of the Hawtrey company, with local veterans, Mrs G.B.W. Lewis and Olly Deering in the casts.

The year 1903 could only boast a handful of attractions, including a month-long return by Willoughby's company and another month by veteran local favourite, John F. Sheridan. On 7 May 1904 celebrated Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman gave diving exhibitions in a one night farewell prior to departing for greater fame in America.

 McMahonGregan

[16] Gregan McMahon, private collection

Next came the first of many Bijou appearances by Gregan McMahon's Players - serious amateurs dedicated to dramatic art outside the commercial sphere. Their first offering was Pinero's The Schoolmistress on 15 August 1904. Popular drama was also represented late that year when William Anderson's company transferred from the Royal while that theatre was being renovated.

Walter Sanford's American players arrived on 18 February 1905, offering melodrama of a similar kind to Anderson's, and proved the longest stayers for many years in several seasons extending to mid September. On 7 October, the veteran, William H. Lingard (who had made his Bijou debut in 1879), played a week long revival of Byron's Our Boys, a comedy he had reputedly appeared in over 2000 times.

Late in 1906 (a particularly scrappy year with only a few short-lived attractions) the theatre was closed. An Argus advertisement of 19 April 1907 reads: 'After extensive alterations and improvements during the last seven months, in order to comply with the requirements of the Board of Public Health, and being thoroughly redecorated and upholstered, this well-known theatre will be ready for occupying on 1 June 1907'. John A. Wilson, now the proprietor, announced expenditure of £10,000 to have the interior 'entirely rebuilt' with an 'absolutely fireproof system of electric and gas lighting throughout'.

Auditorium

 

[17] Auditorium, Illustrated Sports & Dramatic News 13.6.1907. p.14

Although the Board refused a reopening permit until 'minor requirements' had been complied with, the Bijou reopened on 15 June 1907 under threat of prosecution, and with a Board representative in the audience. Apart from the improved lighting, the interior had been redecorated in a scheme of 'peacock blue and gold'; The Herald opined: 'The little theatre is now entitled to rank as the daintiest in Melbourne'.

The reopening attraction, For Her Children's Sake, a 'thrilling domestic drama', was played by a troupe which The Age thought 'a very second-rate combination'. But later in the year came more-accomplished performers, including the companies of Charles Holloway and William Anderson - by then the leading loca1 producer of popular drama. His company returned in 1908, followed by another rising entrepreneur, Edwin Geach, and his company; then came Maskelyne and Devant's Mysteries, a famous English company of magicians; and on 21 November, Frank Thornton in a month-long 'good-bye forever season' of The Private Secretary.

On 6 March 1909 the Bijou reopened under the lesseeship of the World's Pictures Company, and thus became the first 'legitimate' theatre in Melbourne to screen all-film programs on a semi-permanent basis. The opening program, of 18 short comedies, dramas and travelogues, proved immediately popular. Table Talk of 25 March asserted: 'The World's Pictures have put new life into the Bijou Theatre, and it is of general opinion that the cosy auditorium begets extra attractiveness in viewing pictures'. On 5 June came 'The Cinephone', an early device which synchronised the gramophone with films to produce 'a picture instinct? with life, reproducing the voice, the song, the laugh of the actor or vocalist', an effect 'wonderfully realistic' according to Table Talk.

Proscenium

 

[18] Proscenium, Illustrated Sports & Dramatic News 13.6.1907. p.14

Films were suspended for eight weeks from 10 July 1909 for the Melbourne debut of Irish-American actor-singer Allen Doone, in a couple of his popular musical plays. Another hiatus came on 27 December for a three week season by Gregan McMahon's company. Films ran almost continuously after this, however, from early 1910 up to mid-August 1912. On 17 August came a month long season by William Cosgrove's Dramatic Company, after which films resumed but were broken for a three-week stint by a minstrel troupe. By February 1913, World's Pictures were restricted to Saturday screenings only and after 8 March had disappeared - apparently squeezed out by the proliferation of competing shows with bigger and better pictures.

After undergoing some unspecified 'alterations and improvements', the Bijou sprang back to full-blooded theatrical life on 15 March 1913,with the arrival of American vaudevillian Bert Le Blanc in The Grafters, 'a two act musical burlesque by a company of forty American artists'. A month after the close of this twelve-week season the Bijou's lease was taken up by the burgeoning Brennan-Fuller vaudeville circuit. Their first presentation, on 5 July 1913, was a four-week season of musical comedies starring Carrie Moore. A season by a company from Sydney's Little Theatre followed this on 16 August, but the Age critic was moved to record: 'The Bijou does not at present form a particularly cheerful house for the production of a smart new comedy. Time has dulled the decorations and dust has set its mark upon the furnishings'.

FullerBenHeadshot

 

[19] Sir Benjamin Fuller, private collection

The Fuller brothers, who were now the driving force of the Brennan-Fuller partnership, reopened the Bijou on 7 March 1914 as 'the home of clean vaudeville' with twice nightly shows. Perhaps as a cheap and easy distraction from the time-worn fabric, a range of mirrors was added to the auditorium at this date. These soon proved distracting in more ways than one, as a Table Talk column of 31 December 1914 observed:

The mirrors which line the Bijou Theatre all around have often proved distinctly disconcerting to artist's ... But they were simply demoralising to Nap, the chimpanzee ... He would not act or do anything but assume truculent attitudes towards the other monkeys he fancied he could see in the distance. The effect from the stage is really very trying, for not only can the performer see a reflection of himself, but it is multiplied in most uncanny fashion, and also distorted, and there are disjointed partial reflections. These, of course, move with every action of the performer, and one can just imagine what a nerve-racking experience it would be to a nervy animal.

Topping the opening bill of the '£1,000 all-star imported programme' was Hungarian violinist Henri Kubelik, 'introducing his wonderful "Kublophone" or wireless instrumentalism'... But Bevan and Flint, a musical comedy sketch act, stole the show when Miss Flint 'appeared in another freak of fashion, the "trouser gown" ... and certainly caused a sensation when she walked into the stalls while singing "You Made Me Love You" and kindly kissed a few men', to quote the Argus. Fuller's vaudeville was generally home-grown, and over the following years Bijou bills included virtually every Australian vaudevillian of distinction.

In March 1915 for instance, Jim Gerald was the Dame in the pantomime Little Bo Peep, with his wife, Essie Jennings, and Carrie Moore also featured. Other well-known names of that year included Nat Phillips, George Sorlie, Bert Le Blanc and the Britisher, Barry Lupino. In mid 1915 Ben Fuller bought the freeholds of the Gaiety Theatre and the Palace Hotel and the leaseholds of the Bijou and the Palace Hotel Arcade for around £150,000, according to a Bulletin item of 22 July 1915. In mid-May 1916, veteran actress Maggie Moore made her vaudeville debut at the Bijou; other 1916 attractions included London comedienne, Wish Wynne, and Ray Monde ('Girl? Boy? Is "she" a "he" or "he" a "she"?').

 Stiffy and Mo (Nat Phillips and Roy Rene), the most famous comic team in Australian vaudeville, made their Bijou debut on 10 August 1917, continuing in a long series of sketch 'revues' until 21 December, and closing what was probably the most successful Bijou season in years by starring in an Australian pantomime, The Bunyip, which transferred to the Palace after 18 January I918.

PaulQueenieMikeConnors

 

[20 Queenie Paul and Mike Connors, private collection

 

The youthful Queenie Paul was a featured attraction with Bert Le Blanc's Travesty Stars from 2 February 1918, with future husband, Mike Connors, also on the bill. On 20 July came 'the great American craze' The Jazz Band' - probably the first public performances of jazz in Melbourne. An old time minstrel show with Charles Pope and Fred Bluett came late in August and Le Blanc's company, again with Paul and Connors, returned late in September. The influenza epidemic closed the Bijou for over a month early in 1918 but later that year the bills included Australian comedienne Letty Craydon; English actor Roy Redgrave, making his vaudeville debut; English music hall star Peggy Pryde; and comedian Barry Lupino.

  

 

ReneRoyNLA

 

[21] Stiffy and Mo, private collection

 

Stiffy and Mo were back for another long and successful season from 13 March to 27 August 1920, broken only by a fortnight by Wish Wynne early in July. Immediately after this, the bills featured an act called Mr C. and Maud Courtney. Mr C. later enjoying greater fame in many British films as Finlay Currie. The year 1921 brought the return of Jim Gerald and Essie Jennings, with Arthur Tauchert, the original silent screen Sentimental Bloke, also on the bill, and in July came English soprano, Bessie Slaughter.

Names of 1922 included British comedy duo, brothers Eric Edgley and Clem Dawe, and British music hall (and later film and radio) comic Claude Dampier, with returns by Stiffy and Mo and Connors and Paul. Jim Gerald was back for five months of musical revues in July 1923 and late in December came English comedian Sydney Hollister, who stayed on to become locally well-known.

The Age of 25 July 1924 reported that extensive renovations were underway at the Bijou. These included moving the stage back four feet and building a new orchestra pit, improvements in stage and auditorium lighting, reduction of boxes from six to four, replacement of seats and redecoration in a scheme of cream and gold with a wine coloured drop curtain. The cost of renovations was about £10,000 and the theatre remained operating while the work was carried out.

Australian comics Fred McDonald ('Dave' of 'Dad and Dave' fame), Fred Bluett (albeit British born) and Sadie Gale (future wife of Roy 'Mo' Rene), were all featured on the Bijou bills in 1924.Mo himself held the boards with partner, Stiffy, for a further four months from 7 February 1925. Immediately before them had come comedian Jack Cannot, making his Bijou debut on 10 January; immediately after him came George Wallace, making his Bijou debut on 6 June, with his 'Merry Revue Company' including Sadie Gale and Marshall Crosby. Almost as popular as Stiffy and Mo, Wallace also scored a very successful four-month run. Although Stiffy and Mo, George Wallace and Jim Gerald remained Fuller's top draws for the rest of the 1920s, they had plenty of competition from fellow comics such as George Ward, Ike Delavale, Bert Ray and many others, each with their individual revue companies.

 

WallaceGeorge2[22] George Wallace, private collection

In mid-October 1929, the theatre was closed for a few days for renovations prior to a George Wallace season but this was suddenly transferred to the Tivoli, due to an arrangement made between Fuller's and J.C. Williamson for a rationalisation of vaudeville attractions. Hard times were befalling all live theatres with the advent of 'talkies' and the imminent depression. The Bijou was left dark until Boxing Day 1929 when Gregan McMahon and his players returned for the first of a series of short seasons that continued intermittently over the next few years.

Fullers reopened the Bijou on 19 April 1930 with a short-lived production of George M. Cohan's comedy The Baby Cyclone and, equally briefly, for a Jim Gerald season that transferred from the Tivoli on 5 July. On 20 September came The Australian Comedy Company - a cooperative of actors, musicians and stagehands 'attempting to make employment for themselves at a time when no employment was offered elsewhere', under the direction of Brett Randall. The company, which included Gregan McMahon, Fred MacDonald, Guy Hastings and Marian Marcus Clarke, offered popular drama on a weekly-change basis, but closed mid-November.

Bert Ray and Ike Delavale returned for a short season of pantomime and vaudeville on Boxing Day 1930, and from 4 April 1931,. Frank Neil presented a season of comedies with Louise Lovely, erstwhile star of American silent fi1ms. The second half of 1931 saw a resurgence of vaudeville led by Clem Dawe in a series of revues with Yvonne (Fifi) Banvard; then came Roy Rene, under the management of Connors and Paul, who transferred their enterprise to the Tivoli on 5 September. A vaudeville and pantomime company headed by Billy Maloney with Bert Ray followed, and on 31 October George Wallace returned, at first in revues, then from Boxing Day, in his own version of Cinderella, which ran just three weeks.

 More vaudeville with a little-known company from Perth came late in March 1932, but from 28 May Fullers began screening continuous 'talkies', beginning with a Fox Film Corporation double bill: The Yellow Passport, with Laurence Olivier, and the Silent Witness with Lionel Atwill. Most of the following programs comprised second-release or second-rate films. Vaudeville was reinstated on 17 September, with George Ward, Fred Bluett and Bert Le Blanc in The Gaieties of 1932.

thumb Demolition

 A musical comedy called Follow Thru ran for a week late in October before vaudeville resumed and eventually petered out in December. George Ward was back with soubrette, Olive Wallace, in a short-lived pantomime on Christmas Eve, but throughout 1933 brief seasons of revue by little-known companies or drama by amateur groups, often performing for State Relief charities, formed the bulk of the offerings.

The Bijou's last advertised attraction, opening on 23 December 1933, was Mickey the Mouse Revue, produced by Alice Uren and performed by'250 clever kiddies! Press advertisements of 5 January 1934 claimed that 9,423 children had seen the show, but when it closed on 13 January, the old theatre also closed forever. 'Yellowed programmes, which are memories of the second Bijou, are being raked through the wreckage and fed to bonfires on the debris littered floor', the Argus of 16 February 1934 lamented as demolition progressed.

Although Fullers announced elaborate plans for building a new theatre on the site, this never eventuated. A fun parlour and later a car park occupied the ground until the present building - formerly housing the Commonwealth Bank - was completed in December 1941. A few remnants of the old theatre still survive, the 'tiny iron spiral staircases' that led to the dressing rooms (and down which more than one unwary actor sometimes fell) were salvaged and built into the fabric of Montsalvat at Eltham, and Arts Centre Melbourne's Performing Arts Collection preserves the Bijou's lighting control board as well as personal mementoes of some of the many artistes who appeared there.

 

[23] The Bijou under demolition,  view towards Stage and Little Collins Street, 21.3.1934, Denis Whelan collection 

 

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