EI Cole

  • COLE, E.I. (1857-1942)

    English actor/manager. Né Edward Irham Cole. Born c.1857, Croydon, Surrey, England. Son of Irham Cole and Isabella Holliday. Married (1) Ada Dale, (2) Vene Linden (actress). Died 1 July 1942. Father-in-law of Tom Ayr (actor).

    Toured Australia with his Bohemian Dramatic Company.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 242.

  • E.I. Cole and the Haymarket Hippodrome

    Not to be confused with Wirth’s Hippodrome on the site of today's Capitol Theatre, the Haymarket Hippodrome, also in Hay Street, opened in Sydney in 1905 under the direction of flamboyant showman E.I. Cole. The venue for wild west dramas and other tales of frontier life, LES TOD explores the history of Cole’s extraordinary tent theatre.

    e i cole 3Edward Irham Cole

    The haymarket hippodromeopened on Saturday night, 4 November 1905.1 The first show was Dick Turpin, which ran for a week before being followed by a wild west show, On The Trail, the story of Custer’s Last Stand.

    The theatre was actually a tent type show, started by E.I. Cole and his Bohemian Dramatic Company, renowned for its melodrama and wild west shows based on those of Buffalo Bill in the US. The company was founded by Edward Irham Cole, born in London around 1860 and came to Australia when he was about 12. For a time he teamed with an act ‘Texas Jack’ and his Wild West Dramatic Company. He also took over the lease of the Victoria Theatre in Parramatta in the 1890s.2

    The Hippodrome held up to 3000 persons. He left his brother-in-law in charge while he set up a second tent Hippodrome in Melbourne.

    A critic who wrote in The Bulletin recorded of the Haymarket Hippodrome:

    Out of George-street into Hay-street; drop at once into one of the most unlovely parts of Sydney, and in a hundred years you come to the vast tent in which The People’s Theatre is housed … The ushering arrangements are simple; you help yourself. Away back in the dim distance rise the sixpenny planks, tier on tier. In the middle of the stalls, forms; flanking them, more tiers. The planks are best; and you can bring a cushion yourself … The band bursts in and turns itself into an orchestra; and up and down … moves the ‘boss’, his black hair flowing down his back; on his head 3ft of hat; in his hand his badge of authority, a whip with a whistle in the handle. He blows the whistle and up creeps the curtain.3

    E.W. O’Sullivan, a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, claimed to have been the first politician to climb Mount Kosciusko. He remembered the event in his play, Coo-ee, which opened at the Haymarket Hippodrome on 14 April 1906.

    For the prologue, set on top of Kosciusko, the stage in the Hippodrome tent theatre of E.I. Cole’s Bohemian Dramatic Company included raised mountain ridges, which had to carry real ‘naked horses’ in a chase after brumbies similar to that immortalised in The Man From Snowy River.4

    The Newtown Chronicle reported on 4 August 1906 that it was nearly a year since Mr Cole established his show at the Hippodrome in Hay Street. On 3 November 1906 the theatre was described as having a canvas canopy, was well ventilated and was one of the most comfortable theatres in Sydney. This description contradicts that of The Bulletin critic, above.5

    On 5 October 1907 it was announced that ‘during the past week Mr E.I. Cole has had the Haymarket Hippodrome renovated and improved, and this evening it will be reopened under the management of Mr J.S. Phelan and Son, who will present many thousand feet of the latest films … there will be a matinee on Monday.’6

    On 7 October 1907, it was reported ‘a large attendance witnessed the opening display at the Haymarket Hippodrome on Saturday night [5 October] of Messrs J.B. Phelan and Son’s electric biograph. The pictures were splendidly shown, and provided excellent entertainment. There will be a matinee this afternoon.’7

    Phelan would later become the operator of Phelan’s Picture Palace at West Wallsend, Newcastle.8

    Vene Linden cropVene Linden, Cole’s actress wife, c.1906. National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 1986.0117.4290Cole was still screening films, in between his wild west and melodramas, as late as 28 September 1908.9

    However, by 1909, advertising for his shows seems to peter out.

    The Haymarket Hippodrome was not on the site of the later Wirth’s Hippodrome, even though both were in the same street, as some writers have assumed. Nor was it on the site of Anderson’s Olympia Theatre, which was on the corner of Hay Street, Campbell and Elizabeth Streets.

    A careful perusal of Sands Sydney Directories show in the 1907 issue that Cole, E.I., The Bohemian Company, occupied Number 145 Hay Street, on the south side, between Quay and George Streets. There is also an entry for Cole’s stables at 92 Hay Street, on the north side, between Harbour Street and Kimber Lane.10

    The 1908 issue gives the same information but adds Cole’s Stores at 177 Hay Street. The 1909 issue gives the identical information as 1908.

    However, from 1910 onwards, the issues do not show Cole at all, nor his show. Instead the site is replaced by vegetable markets.11

    The Haymarket Hippodrome was therefore on the site of today’s Paddy’s Markets, as were his stables.  Cole would have used horses a lot in his productions, as they were mainly melodramas and wild west shows. His store rooms, opposite, were on the site of today’s Entertainment Centre side forecourt.



    In 1916 the disused Belmore Markets, between Hay and Campbell Streets, were dismantled and re-erected as Wirth’s Hippodrome and the Manning Building. Wirth’s Hippodrome was later converted to the Capitol Theatre, a lavish picture palace of the late 1920s.


    1. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 1905, p.6

    2. Richard Fotheringham, ‘Bohemian Dramatic Company’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, p.92

    3. The Bulletin, 26 April 1906, p.8

    4. Richard Fotheringham, ‘Coo-ee’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, p.158

    5. Newtown Chronicle, 4 August 1906

    6. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 October 1907, p.16

    7. Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1907, p.3

    8. K.J. Cork and L.R. Tod. Front Stalls or Back?, p.101

    9. Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September 1908, p.3

    10. Sands Sydney Directories

    11. Ibid.


    E.I. Cole collection of theatre and circus photographs, newscuttings, 1903-1940, and realia, 1897, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

    K.J. Cork and L.R. Tod, Front Stalls or Back?, Australian Theatre Historical Society, 1993

    Phillip Parsons (ed), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1988

    Sands Sydney Directories


  • Frank Neil—‘He Lived Show Business’ (Part 1)

    FRANK VAN STRATEN explores the life and tumultuous times of Frank Neil, one of Australia’s near-forgotten entrepreneurs.

    Frank NeilFrank Neil: A publicity portrait from the late 1920s. Author’s collection.Part 1: ‘I had the showman’s spirit born in me.’

    In 1973 I read an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly profiling a retired scenic artist called Jim Hutchings. Jim was living in Sydney with his son and daughter-in-law. He had suffered a stroke two years before and was regaining his health and confidence by developing his talents as a painter of still lifes and landscapes. I rang and Jim graciously invited me to visit him.

    He took a shine to me. Though the stroke impeded his speech, he allowed me to record his reminiscences. He had spent the most rewarding years of his life working as a scenic artist at the Sydney Tivoli. His memories were crystal clear, warm, ribald, rumbustious. We ran out of time and tape. A few days later I received in the mail some painstakingly written sheets of paper headed ‘Tivoli Days’. They were filled with more colourful reminiscences. I wrote to thank him. More followed. Then more. Jim kept up the supply, week after week, until he died in June 1974. For Jim Hutchings the Tivoli was Theatre—and Frank Neil was the Tivoli.

    ‘It was in 1928 at the Royal in Adelaide that I met Frank Neil,’ reminisced Jim. ‘I told him I remembered seeing him at the Majestic in Newtown in Sydney. I asked him if there was some scenery I could paint. He started me on the Monday morning, fixing up Charley’s Aunt. That’s how I got started. He came down to watch me paint. I was very nervous. I was painting a hedge with roses on it. “That’s the stuff I want, pink roses. And colourful roses around the college door.” I realised Frank had a weakness for roses and for bright emerald greens. I couldn’t do a thing wrong! We were friends for life. He said, “If you come to Sydney, I’ve got some shows coming up, and I’ll give you an introduction to George Marlow at the Grand Opera House”. I painted Babes in the Wood and Mother Goose, then, I think, Getting Gertie’s Garter for Frank.

    ‘I remember the time he wanted an underwater scene for the ballet. We used to all stand out in the stalls in case he should see something that needed improving or changing. Frank dusted the cigarette ash off his lapels and said, “Bring in the sea legs. Bring on the shell.” Then, suddenly, he said to Teddy Bolt, the props man, “Where are those strings of baby pink roses?” Eddie McDonald said, “Christ, Frank, you can’t have roses under the sea.” “Why can’t you? Have you ever been under the sea?” said Frank. “There’s everything down there! Get the pink roses, Teddy!” So roses we had, under the sea, at the Tivoli!

    ‘Frank was a force. Eyes on everything. He lived show business, slept show business, loved show business, was show business. No-one but Frank could have got the Tivolis back on the map. It was Frank who organised the best people he could get and inspired their love and loyalty. We worked ourselves to the bone for him. There were rumours that he was a bit homosexual. There was never any proof, but I never saw him with any females or heard of anyone who did. As one stagehand said to me, “After all, it’s his own arse. He can do what he likes with it”.’

    Frank Neil’s birth certificate confirms that he was born in the Victorian town of Corindhap on 21 December 1886—not in 1890 as several sources state. Today Corindhap is a quiet, scattered hamlet on the highway between Ballarat and Colac that has obviously seen better days. Around 100 people still call it home, but in the 1850s it had a population of 5000. Back then it was a bustling gold mining town called Break o’ Day, after a nearby reef. When the gold petered out, the community turned to agriculture. By the 1880s Corindhap was a busy, if not particularly prosperous, country village with about 340 residents—an extremely unlikely starting point for a man who made a career presenting bright, frothy entertainment and who worked with some of the greatest names in world variety.  

    Frank Neil’s father, John Isaac Neil, was a Geelong-born miner; his mother, the former Sarah Scott Thompson, had emigrated from Liverpool. Frank was the last of the Neils’ seven children.

    In 1890 Frank was enrolled at the local State School. There he met a bright boy, Percy Laidler, two years his senior, who, too, had an interesting future ahead of him: he would become a prominent socialist propagandist, and find himself, depicted as ‘Percy Lambert’ in Frank Hardy’s explosive book Power Without Glory. Percy managed Will Andrade’s bookshop in Bourke Street, a few doors east of the Melbourne Tivoli Theatre. The shop specialised in magic paraphernalia, plays props and theatrical makeup, and in leftist literature.

    Frank was an average student, but he was in his element when, occasionally, the family made the four-hour Cobb and Co coach trip to Ballarat where they’d see a show at Her Majesty’s Theatre in View Street or take in a circus or perhaps a concert at the 7000-seat wooden Alfred Hall or in the more intimate Mechanics’ Institute Hall. He revelled in the colour, the excitement, the music and the exotic costumes. Family members recalled his early love of ‘dress ups’ and Frank himself admitted, ‘I had the showman’s spirit born in me.’

    Frank claimed to have toured South Africa ‘as a boy’ with a juvenile comic opera company, though there is no documentation of this. We do know that he was still in his teens when the family moved to Melbourne, where he luxuriated in the city’s theatrical riches. At the turn of the century, half a million people lived in Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs. They patronised the city’s five great theatres, the Royal, the New Opera House (later the Tivoli) and the Bijou in Bourke Street, the Princess in Spring Street and Her Majesty’s (formerly the Alexandra) in Exhibition Street. There were dozens of smaller theatres and halls scattered throughout the city and suburbs, as well as a waxworks, two imposing cyclorama buildings, one in Carlton and the other in Little Collins Street, and even a permanent circus building in St Kilda Road. The first moving pictures had been screened at the Opera House in 1896, but it would be some years before movies would compete with live theatre for audiences.

    Personable, fresh-faced and bright, young Frank Neil haunted the city’s theatres, picking up occasional backstage jobs or working as an ‘extra’ in crowd scenes. He was also an aspiring actor, ready to play anything from young hero to comic servant or wicked villain. And he could sing and dance.

    In those far off days entertainment was certainly not confined to the cities. Country folk were treated to drama, musical comedy, variety entertainment and even opera, presented by hard-working touring companies often headed by city stars. Mostly they travelled by coach, sometimes by rail. They played in any available venue, though larger provincial towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Newcastle had fine playhouses. Some shows carried their own ‘canvas theatres’. It was with one of these adventurous itinerant enterprises that Frank Neil got his real start in show business.

    In December 1906 travelling showman Edward Irham (‘E.I.’) Cole brought his Bohemian Dramatic Company to Melbourne. He set up shop in the Hippodrome, a rough and ready open-air venue on the south-east corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale streets, where the Comedy Theatre now stands. Apparently, Cole sensed that 20-year-old Frank had potential, and he gave the eager young man a job. ‘I helped build our stage of solid earth,’ reminisced Frank in a piece published in the Melbourne Herald in January 1930.

    Not only was Cole a superb showman, he was also a shameless ‘quack’. One of his most successful creations was a pill that could miraculously cure liver complaints and almost anything else. The pills were made by Cole family members from a mixture of Epsom salts and cascara and sold in little cardboard boxes. Before and after each show, and in the interval, Cole would stand on a makeshift platform in front of the tent and regale the crowd with stories of the efficacy of his medication. As soon as someone indicated interest, it was Frank’s duty to conduct the transaction. This was known in the show world as ‘running the planks’. The pills, thankfully, were harmless.

    Frank stayed with Cole when the company went on tour, travelling by ‘special train’ and performing in their huge canvas theatre.  He reminisced: ‘I was for three years with old “Bohemian Cole”, who let his hair trail down his back, wore a yard-wide sombrero, and imagined he was an actor. I was his property man and second juvenile [juvenile lead]. He made his actors work. We had to unload the tent from the train, put it up, and build a stage. Then we had to dress and make up, and parade the town. As second “juve” I was usually a more or less dashing cowboy. At night we played, and rode on and off on our fiery steeds. Our favourite drama was Buffalo Bill. I learnt a lot of showmanship from Cole. He was not a great actor, but he was a Barnum of a showman.’

    Occasionally Frank took time off to work with other managements, such as Lilian Meyers’ Dramatic Company. Miss Meyers was a stunningly beautiful young Melbourne actress who had been stricken, wrote a reporter, ‘with the fever of bellow-drama’. Financed by her father, who was ‘not without riches’, she assembled her own company and ‘portrayed the terrible heroines with cheerful abandon.’ Her costumes—some from Paris—were said to be ‘almost too extravagant for the dingy little theatres she sometimes appeared in.’ Camillewas her favourite showpiece, and eminent Melbourne medico—and part-time drama critic—Dr James Edward Neild helped her perfect the consumptive cough that the star role called for.

    We don’t know exactly when or under what circumstances Frank Neil joined her, but we do know that on 26 October 1907 he took to the stage of the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle in Miss Meyers’ production of a lurid melodrama called The Executioner’s Daughter. Two days later The Newcastle Herald reported that his part was ‘well enacted’. It was his first press notice.

    It was after a performance of Camille at the Town Hall in Devonport, Tasmania, on 21 December 1907, that Miss Meyers and her cast and crew helped Frank celebrate his twenty-first birthday. Miss Meyers eventually went to the United States where she married a prosperous theatrical manager, Gerald Bacon, and retired from the stage. Not so Frank. Soon he was back on the road.

    He joined a now forgotten stock company called Terence Goodwin’s Dramatic Players. Goodwin was actually William Thomas Goodwin Glancy, born in Melbourne in 1873. With his wife as his leading lady, he launched his peripatetic company in 1905. Years later he conducted a real estate business in Charters Towers, Queensland. He died there in 1938, aged 65.

    Frank recalled: ‘I remember arriving at Pakenham one New Year’s Day as a member of Terence Goodwin’s company. We were a company of twenty metropolitan artists—on the daybills—but actually there were only seven of us. When we got off the goods train Terry had two shillings, and he was the only one of us who could jingle a penny. At the hotel the landlord looked us up and down and then shook his head. “No hope,” said he, “we’re full up.” So we went to the hall where we were to play, and the hall-keeper’s granite heart melted after a bit, and he let us camp inside. While Terry went out and bought two shillings’ worth of bread and butter, and some tea, one of our more adventurous spirits let his poverty but not his will consent and abducted a fowl from a nearby back yard. We had a poultry dinner that day and enjoyed it. There was enough “in” that night to get us on to the next town. A vagabond life, yes, but Terry was a good chap, and we were happy enough playing blood-and-thunder and dreaming dreams. Experiences of that sort are invaluable in the motley make-up of the theatrical manager.’

    In March 1909 Neil was back with Bohemian Cole in Bendigo. They pitched their tent at Camp Hill, but eventually moved into the grand Royal Princess’s Theatre in View Street. Their first attraction there was the perennial favourite East Lynne. On 3 May The Bendigo Independent reported that, ‘The acting of Frank Neil as the wrongly accused and outcast Richard Hare appealed greatly to the audience.’ A few weeks later, when they presented Buffalo Bill at Echuca, The Riverine Herald told its readers that the acting was generally ‘splendid’, adding, ‘Mr. Frank Neil as Joe Blake, a bartender, is worthy of mention.’

    In 1911 Neil joined Harry Craig’s Australian Players who were on tour in South Australia. The company had been founded by Kate Howarde, a talented actress, entrepreneur and playwright. It included her sister, Billie, and Harry Craig, Billie’s husband. A fine baritone as well as a popular actor, Harry had cut his theatrical teeth in everything from opera to minstrel shows. When Kate ventured overseas, he carried on the enterprise as Harry Craig’s Australian Players, creating a congenial kindergarten for several aspiring performers—Frank Neil included. His first role with Craig was in a patriotic piece called In the Heart of Australia at the Port Pirie Institute Hall. It impressed The Port Pirie Recorder: ‘It sparkles in reproducing the atmosphere of the great Australian bush life, and it has a powerful and beautiful love story that goes straight to the heart, and it throbs with soul-stirring episodes. Special mention should be made of the acting of Mr. Frank Neil as Jack Gordon, a young bushman, and Miss Ethel Chadwick as Merry Dalton, the bush flower. Mr. Neil’s acting was good, but Miss Chadwick’s was exceptionally fine.’ Their second offering was the sensational prison reform drama It’s Never Too Late to Mend. A season in Port Augusta followed.

    In December 1911 Frank was at His Majesty’s Theatre in Geelong, Victoria, for a season with the W.H. Ayr Dramatic Company. This appears to have been an offshoot of Cole’s Bohemians. Bill Ayr had acted for Cole, managed the company and had married Cole’s daughter. Their main attraction was a Wild West American crowd-pleaser called The Indians’ Revenge. The Geelong Advertiser made special mention of ‘the reappearance of the popular young actor Frank Neil, who will play Lieutenant Jack Forrest, who has been a captive of hostile Indians for three years and returns just in time to witness the marriage of his betrothed to another man.’

    On 23 December Neil was the star attraction at the regular People’s Concert presented at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Hall by the Geelong Harbour Trust Band. Supported by Ethel Chadwick and Cyril Iredale, he appeared in ‘a specially written scena, My Daddy, combining comedy, pathos and sensation.’ He also delivered a series of ‘illustrated monologues’. The evening was topped off with a screening of ‘The Great Gaumont Vitascope presentation The Rose of Kentucky, a Romance of the Fields of Tobacco.’ Seventeen minutes long, it was one of D.W. Griffith’s earliest films. Now regarded as something of a classic of silent cinema, it has been meticulously restored and made available on YouTube.

    In January 1912 Neil and Chadwick restaged My Daddy at the Temperance Hall in Melbourne. Located at 170 Russell Street, the Hall offered inexpensive Sunday night concerts as an alternative to the boozy, bawdy fare provided by pubs and music halls, and it gave valuable exposure and experience to hundreds of aspiring entertainers. It became the Savoy Theatre in 1934, but was eventually replaced by Total House, which included the Lido nightclub in a basement space which today houses a popular live music venue, 170 Russell.

    Next Neil returned to Harry Craig who had considerably expanded his range of plays and was set to visit Echuca, Kerang, Mildura, Narracoorte, Mount Gambier, Hamilton, Camperdown, Geelong and Wyalong. An interesting addition to the repertoire was Brandon Thomas’s warmly familiar farce Charley’s Aunt, with Frank as Lord Fancourt Babberley, the drag role that would become his ‘calling card’, with its memorable line, ‘I’m Charley’s aunt, from Brazil—where the nuts come from.’ Neil debuted in the role on tour in Mildura on 19 March 1912. ‘Mr. Frank Neil was particularly successful,’ said The Mildura Cultivator, ‘and kept the audience in roars of laughter.’

    In 1911 London-born entrepreneur George Marlow (real name: Joseph Marks) had built the Adelphi Theatre in Sydney, at the Haymarket end of Castlereagh Street. It was the first theatre in Australia to use the cantilever system to support its circle and gallery, thus obviating obstructive columns, and it was huge: 2400 seats over its three levels. Marlow created it as a home for his busy melodrama players.

    Neil made his Adelphi debut with Marlow’s company on 19 July 1913 in the tear-jerker No Mother to Guide Her. It was his first significant engagement in a major city theatre. Truth welcomed him as ‘A new comedian working on clean lines’. As he tackled small parts in juicy melodramas like The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning, Married to the Wrong Man, East Lynne and Driving a Girl to Destruction, how could he have imagined that one day he would be running the place as the Tivoli, the focus of Australian variety entertainment?

    Neil’s Adelphi season was not without its uncomfortable moments. First, a stage ‘hanging’ went awry, nearly choking him; then a ‘research visit’ to a Sydney opium den turned into a fiasco when the place was raided by the police. Neil narrowly avoided arrest.

    In October 1913 actor-manager George Willoughby and two partners bought out Marlow’s holdings. They renamed the company George Willoughby Ltd, but Marlow continued to ‘pull strings’ behind the scenes. George Willoughby’s Dramatic Company debuted at the Princess in Melbourne on 11 October. It was essentially the same ensemble that had been playing in Sydney, with Neil now promoted to principal comedian and character actor. Their first Melbourne offering was The Queen of the White Slaves, a sprawling new American melodrama that roved from San Francisco to China, with a rescue at sea, torture, drug dens, Japanese acrobats and, of course, white slavery. ‘Mr. Frank Neil ably delineated the moods of an opium victim,’ reported Punch, while the theatrical weekly The Hawklet said he was ‘a clever young Australian who has made rapid strides. He is a favourite with audiences at the Princess Theatre.’

    The company’s attraction for Christmas 1913 was a familiar favourite, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, optimistically promoted as being ‘as funny as a pantomime, as sensational as a melodrama, and as full of music and dancing as a vaudeville show.’ ‘There is little exaggeration in the claim,’ agreed The Age. Frank portrayed ‘Mr. Augustine St Clare, a Southern Planter’.

    In February 1914 the company moved back to the Adelphi in Sydney, introducing The Pride of the Prairie, ‘a powerful and emotional drama of Mexican life’. Next came Brisbane, where they opened at His Majesty’s on 13 July. The season was soured by the announcement on 28 July of the outbreak of war. The ominous title of the piece then in production was Brought to Ruin.

    In November 1914 the Willoughby company was back at the Adelphi in Sydney with The Kelly Gang. The Referee commented: ‘We read so much about terrorism in the war news nowadays that from that point of view the play of The Kelly Gang seems almost topical,’ adding that Frank played a comic trooper ‘with much over-exaggeration’. Unrest about the war had started to erode audiences, so Willoughby drastically reduced admission to what he euphemistically called ‘war prices’.

    When the company returned to the Princess in Melbourne early in the New Year, Neil’s contribution to Camillewas particularly praised. In its review on 29 March 1915 The Argus purred, ‘Mr. Frank Neil, whose voice is remarkably sonorous, evinced considerable ability in his portrayal of the role of Gaston Rieux, and the cleverness of his work, particularly in the final scenes, indicates that he is well fitted for a more important part.’

    Soon after this Frank was reported to be ‘contemplating a trip to the United States to join a well-known stock dramatic company.’ Indeed, many young Australian men—boxer Les Darcy included—were considering re-establishing themselves in the States, which at that point had not entered the war. Frank did not go, but it was later revealed that his application to join the Australian armed forces had been rejected.

    In July 1915 The Hawklet announced that Frank was experimenting with vaudeville. He had formed a double act with petite Maudie Chetwynd, warmly remembered for her participation in the hit Williamson production of Florodorain 1900. Frank and Maudie developed some sketch ‘turns’ that they hoped might be suitable for the Tivoli or for Fullers’ theatres, but the expected bookings did not materialise. Instead, Frank teamed up with another member of the George Willoughby company, Herbert Linden, to establish a touring company to reproduce many of the melodramas that William Anderson had recently presented at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne. They debuted on 24 December 1915 with a seven-play seven-night season at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Hall. Their first offering was The Face at the Window. Inevitably there were comparisons with the big-city ‘originals’. When they presented The Face at the Window at the Town Hall in Queenscliff in January 1916, The Queenscliff Sentinel carped: ‘There was a good house, but the piece would have been better appreciated if aided with effective scenery, which the management had promised.’

    In April 1916 A. (Albert) Brandon-Cremer recruited Frank for his eighty-strong dramatic company for a season at the recently opened Tivoli Theatre in Grote Street, Adelaide. The two men had met in George Willoughby’s company at the Princess in Melbourne.

    Irish-born, Brandon-Cremer was a theatrical all-rounder, a producer of vaudeville, drama, musicals and comedy, a manager of theatres and, eventually, cinemas, and as at home on stage as a melodrama villain as he was as a light comedian. His leading lady was, invariably, his wife, Kathleen Arnold; their daughters, Gertrude (later known as Barbara) and Molly (initially promoted as ‘Baby Cremer’) also had stage careers. Brandon-Cremer’s repertoire included Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Two Orphans, The Coward, The Great Diamond Robbery, The Three Musketeers and A Working Girl’s Wrongs. In the latter Neil played Bates, the servant of Warton, the villain. An impressed reviewer wrote, ‘He appeared in a clever disguise as an old hag, the character of which he fulfils to perfection.’

    Also in Brandon-Cremer’s company was a handsome young actor called Maurice Tuohy. A policeman’s son, Maurice Caulfield Tuohy was born in 1892 in Willunga, South Australia, and educated, first, at the little school in nearby Clare, and later at the Christian Brothers’ School in Wakefield Street, Adelaide. Like Neil, he was determined to make a career for himself in the theatre. He was in his teens when he made his stage debut at the Clare Town Hall in August 1911 with ‘The Gay Goblins’, an all-male team of youthful amateur entertainers. The review in The Blythe Agriculturalist mentioned that ‘Mr. M.C. Tuohy, as an illusionist, mystified the audience with several well-carried-out illusions, and his performance elicited merited applause. As a character vocalist he was also fairly successful.’ Tuohy subsequently ‘paid his dues’ playing ‘the smalls’ in tiny touring companies, and ‘pushed his way from a raw, gawky, country youth to a leading actor and a fine advertisement for Young Australia.’ The Weekly Judge in Perth described him as being of splendid physique, and a good all-round athlete, to say nothing of his acting abilities,’ and the Perth Mirror labelled him ‘one of the finest looking men on the Australian stage.’ Tuohy and Neil found an instant rapport. They formed a personal and professional partnership that survived until Tuohy’s death in 1926.

    Frank Neil and Maurice Tuohy were still with Brandon-Cremer when he successfully toured New Zealand in 1917. The following year Tuohy was recruited by the Fullers for their New Dramatic Company at the Princess in Melbourne, but Frank was not so lucky. He was reduced to accepting a booking as a ‘descriptive vocalist’ for a couple of weeks of vaudeville at the Theatre Royal in Broken Hill.

    To be continued

  • LINDEN, Vene (d. 1948)

    Actress. Married EI Cole (actor/manager). Died 8 November 1948.

    Performed with EI Cole’s Bohemian Dramatic Company 1890-1948.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 242.

  • The Comedy Theatre: Melbourne's most intimate playhouse (Part 1)

    IMG 1768 pale rouge 3
    In light of a recent development application to expand Melbourne's Comedy Theatre  and construct a 25-story office tower at the rear of the site, it seems an opportune time to revisit RALPH MARSDEN’s history of the theatre. First published in On Stage in 2004, Part 1 looks at some of the early entertainment uses of the site, beginning in 1852 with Rowe’s American Circus.

    The comedy’slong but broken entertainment history can be dated from 29 June 1852 when Joseph A. Rowe opened Rowe’s American Circus on this prominent corner. Arriving from California just as the first bounties of the gold-rush were flooding into Melbourne, Rowe is said to have made a fortune in the two years his circus stood here. Reputedly laden with cash and treasure, he returned to California in February 1854 and an advertisement in The Melbourne Morning Herald on the following 14 October by his wife Eliza, announced the closure of the circus and the auction of the buildings, horses and theatrical properties.

    The circus was housed in a permanent wooden amphitheatre with seating in a dress circle, boxes and pit. After Rowe’s departure the building was occasionally used by concert artistes or minstrel troupes such as Rainer’s Ethiopian Serenaders. Shortly after this, the foundation stone for the first ‘legitimate’ theatre to be built here was laid on the corner of Lonsdale and Stephen (now Exhibition) Streets.

    This theatre was made up almost entirely of cast iron. prefabricated in England and shipped out in individually numbered pieces for assembly on site. It was built for George Coppin, the energetic English born actor and entrepreneur who, when touring his homeland in 1854, had commissioned its design from Fox & Henderson of Birmingham and its fabrication from E. & T. Bellhouse of Manchester. Coppin had signed up the Irish tragedian Gustavus Vaughan Brooke to tour Australia and, according to Alec Bagot’s biography, Coppin the Great, although he considered Sydney’s theatres adequate for such an important engagement, he thought the Queen’s—at that time Melbourne’s only existing playhouse—‘a wretched hole’.

    The foundation stone for the as yet unnamed theatre, which was laid by Brooke, with Coppin and other members of his company and the press in attendance on 18 April 1855, recorded that the architect for the building was C.H. Ohlfsen Bagge and the builders George Cornwell and Company. The theatre was eventually christened the Olympic in honour of Brooke who had had his first success as Othello at London’s Olympic theatre. Coppin’s competitors immediately derided it as ‘the Iron Pot’, however, the name by which it was soon popularly known.

    Some six weeks after the cast iron components had arrived on site the Olympic was close enough to completion to be opened for the first public performance on 11 June 1855. This was by the Wizard Jacobs, ‘conjurer, ventriloquist, acrobat, rated as the world’s best one man entertainer’.

    The Olympic, whose entrance faced into Lonsdale Street, was described thus in The Argus of 11 June 1855: ‘The iron walls are for the most part cased with brick …’ while the interior presented a ‘light and exceedingly elegant appearance … The arch of the proscenium is broad and flattened; it has a span of thirty-three feet … surmounting the proscenium is an elegant casting in papier mâché of the royal arms, and the arch is supported by six Corinthian pillars, the flutings and capitals of which, being gilded, have an exceedingly rich effect. The ceiling... has been judiciously painted a blue white and spangled with gold stars.’

    The decorations by William Pitt Sr (whose son later became the foremost Australian theatre architect of his day) were in green, pink and French white. Seating capacity was variously estimated at between 1150 and 1500 in pit, stalls, dress circle and a variety of boxes. What seems to be the sole surviving photograph of the Olympic’s exterior was taken by visiting English photographer Walter Woodbury about 1855 or 1856.

    An ‘Old Playgoer’, reminiscing in The Australasian of 14 August 1886, recalled the Olympic as ‘hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Internally it resembled a chapel, with a rectangular gallery for a dress circle; and the adjacent bar was nearly half as large as the theatre itself. But it was the custom in those days for the greater portion of the male part of the audience to rush out for “refreshment” at the end of each act, and a nobbler of brandy was regarded as the cement of friendship.’

    The official opening of the Olympic took place on 30 July 1855 when a proper stage had been installed for the first dramatic season. Despite torrential rain and the streets being ‘ankle-deep in mud’ the house was ‘crowded in every part’, according to The Age of 31 July. After a much applauded prologue declaimed by Brooke, there was a ‘renewal of the applause, and to vociferous calls for “Coppin”, who, however, did not make his appearance’, The Argus of the same date reported. Without further delay, the first act of the opening play, Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons proceeded.

    Brooke’s leading lady was 22-year-old Fanny Cathcart, who later became one of the most popular and versatile local players. She had signed an onerous two-year contract with Brooke in England, and her fiancé, English actor Robert Heir, was also a member of Brooke's company. Heir soon became dissatisfied with the secondary roles he was given, however, and persuaded his wife to beak her contract so that they could star together under the rival management of John Black at the Theatre Royal. Although a court case ensued which Cathcart lost, Brooke eventually agreed to alter her contract to more favourable terms and the couple returned to his company in October 1855.  

    The Olympic was immediately thrown into direct competition with the Theatre Royal which had opened only two weeks earlier. When that management reduced admission prices Coppin was forced to do likewise, although he publicly admitted that by doing so he was running at a loss. Once, when Lola Montes was the rival attraction at the Royal, Coppin included a burlesque of her famous spider dance in his program: ‘after cavorting all over the stage in a ridiculous manner’, Coppin (according to Bagot), ‘withdrew from under an extremely scanty skirt an enormous animal resembling a spider’, and chased it across the boards. The people in the audience ‘literally rolled out of their seats with laughter... His imitation was a riot. saved from a charge of vulgarity only by the side-splitting roars of laughter it provoked.’

    The partnership of Brooke, the brilliant tragedian, and Coppin, the popular comedian and shrewd showman, soon won over the majority of the audiences—even though the Royal was much bigger, more opulent and better placed. In spite of this hard won supremacy there was still unrelenting competition from too many theatres: the combined capacities of the Royal, the Olympic, Astley’s Amphitheatre and the Queen’s was close to 8000 people. In addition to these the Salle de Valentino, Cremorne Gardens, the Exhibition Building and numerous lesser halls and hotels all sapped a share of the potential audience from a population of only 70 000.

    After tours of the goldfields and Tasmania, Brooke returned to the Olympic for a ‘farewell’ performance on 1 December 1855 and, prior to an announced departure for California, appeared before a crowded house. The departure was postponed however and Brooke was back for a fresh season on 28 January 1856 when he appeared as Brutus in Julius Caesar ‘for the first time in the colonies’. He also gave a first Australian performance of Henry V on 25 February. Brooke’s ‘most positively... last appearance’ was on 26 April and for once, as far as the Olympic was concerned, this was true.

    Coppin and Brooke had become business partners and early in June 1856 they took control of the Theatre Royal, left in charge of the Official Receiver after the bankruptcy of its owner, John Black. From this time on the Olympic went into a sudden, irreversible decline, opening only sporadically for imported players and concert and vaudeville artistes of (mostly) the second rank.

    There was nothing second rate about Madame Anna Bishop however; apart from being the estranged wife of the English composer Sir Henry Bishop, she was an internationally renowned soprano and probably the most widely travelled and adventurous opera singer of her day. Madame Bishop began a month long series of concerts at the Olympic on 13 May 1856. Mr. and Mrs. James Stark, ‘celebrated American artistes’, starred in a month-long season of drama, beginning on 18 June in Richelieu. By 20 October, however, with Coppin and Brooke now firmly established at the Royal, the Olympic was housing such attractions as ‘The Siege of Sebastopol’, a ‘Grand Exhibition of Mechanical figures, Model Scenes and Theatre of Arts… for one week only’.

    Anna Bishop returned for ‘one night only’ on 8 January 1857 and four nights later came the actress Marie Duret in a season of plays. Duret had once been Brooke’s mistress and according to his biographer, W.J. Lawrence, ‘after feathering her nest for years... without a word of warning, she ran off to America…’ Duret was evidently a versatile actress with a penchant for male roles for she first appeared as the highwayman Jack Sheppard then as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. She also played ‘three different characters’ in A Duel in the Dark and The French Spy and essayed as many as eight parts in Winning a Husband. Appearing in two plays per night, on some nights Duret portrayed as many as eleven separate characters! Energy and versatility notwithstanding, her season, although originally announced for 24 nights, was terminated half way through and The Argus of 26 January noted that ‘Mademoiselle Duret has been playing … with very equivocal success...’

    It soon became clear that the Olympic was no longer viable as a theatre and, after the closure of a short-lived ‘Polytechnic Exhibition’, it was reopened on 11 May 1857 as ‘The Argyle Assembly Rooms’ for ‘Terpsichorean pastimes’. The building remained a dance hall until 30 November 1857 when it was briefly reopened as ‘Coppin’s Olympic’ for a return season by the Wizard Jacobs. Another minstrel troupe began a season there on 1 February 1858 but by 22 May it had been converted back to the ‘Argyle Rooms’ where a ‘Full Dress Ball’ was held two nights later.

    A fresh novelty was advertised in the Melbourne press in November 1858: ‘Great Pedestrian Feat. 1000 miles in 1000 hours. Alan McKean who so successfully accomplished this trial of strength, endurance and perseverance at Ballaarat, will walk his first mile in Melbourne on Tuesday 23 November at Seven O’clock in the evening at the Olympic Theatre and terminate the undertaking (D.V.) 3rd January 1859. Hours of walking, a quarter before and one minute after each even hour. Tickets for the 1000 hours £1.1s.’

    In February 1859 Coppin and Brooke dissolved their partnership and sole ownership of the Olympic reverted to Coppin. Bagot reasons that Coppin retained the Olympic (which cost £200 per week to run and was mostly running at a loss) in favour of the profit-making Royal on sentimental grounds: ‘the building was so much his own conception that no thought of relinquishing it seems seriously to have entered his mind!’

    Coppin had been elected an MLC in the Victorian parliament in 1858 and, preoccupied as he was with a political career, he leased the Olympic to Frederick and Richard Younge who reopened it on 30 June 1859 with a program of comic plays. Coppin himself returned to the Olympic’s stage for two short seasons of charity performances—the first from 23 to 30 July and again from 24 August to 3 September. In spite of his good intentions, Coppin attracted criticism for this from a conservative element who considered it unseemly for an MLC to appear on stage. Coppin retorted that if other MLCs could practice their professions, why couldn’t he?—and very sensibly continued to perform.

    The last quasi-theatrical attraction at the Olympic was a ‘Female Pedestrian Feat’ beginning on 4 January 1860 in which a Miss Howard and a Mrs. Douglas were matched to walk 1500 miles in 1000 hours, After this the theatre was advertised as ‘to let or for sale’. As there were no takers, Coppin himself eventually converted part of the building into ‘Australia’s first Turkish Baths’. He reminisced in an Argus interview of 10 April 1899: ‘The green-room became the first hot room, the property-room the second and a dressing room the third. The ground under the stage was made into a swimming bath, and there was also a shallow bath in the space occupied by the pit. Tents were pitched in rows in the dress circle to serve as dressing rooms... But I could not make any money at it.’

    Fire destroyed the baths and most of the old theatre building early in the morning of 29 November 1866. All that remained were ‘the bare walls and iron fittings’, according to The Age of 30 November. But as late as 10 June 1933 a correspondent to the same paper reports that a portion of the ‘Iron Pot’ was still ‘working out its destiny’ as a wharfside shed at Hokitika in the South Island of New Zealand.

    The baths were rebuilt, but replaced by a furniture warehouse in 1873 and this remained until 1891. After standing vacant for several years the site came full circle when The Australian Hippodrome was built here in 1894. An Argus advertisement on opening day, 25 August announced: ‘£1000 spent on the property £500 spent on new canvas £250 spent on timber £100 spent on chairs £300 spent on new costumes and uniforms £200 spent on electric and gas lighting £100 spent on upholstery, carpets and decorations £300 spent on advertising.’ The Argusof 27 August 1894 reported: ‘The hippodrome is surrounded by a high wall, and was specially prepared for the circus. A large new tent has been erected inside and is comfortably seated.’ Fillis’s Circus and Menagerie was the opening attraction and remained here until 29 September 1894. Other circuses occasionally used the Hippodrome over the next few years but it seems never to have been very popular—possibly because of the relatively small size of the site—and by 1903 Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne Directory lists the address as vacant once more.

    Edward I. Cole, a flamboyant tent showman who liked to dress up as famed American frontier scout, Buffalo Bill, with shoulder length hair, flowing moustache and wide sombrero, brought the site back to life in 1906. After successfully establishing a tent theatre in Sydney with a repertoire of melodramas that usually featured cowboys, Indians and horses as well as actors, Cole split his Bohemian Dramatic Company in two to set up a second base in Melbourne.

    Cole had already commissioned plans for a ‘People’s Theatre and Circus Building’ from Sydney architects Parkes and Harrison which, while not specifically designed for the site, were at one stage submitted to the Melbourne City Council for approval. Now held in the council’s archives, and dated February 1905, these show a quite elaborately decorated iron roofed auditorium of brick and stucco with an arched and colonnaded facade enclosing both stage and circus ring. Unfortunately, no surviving detailed written or pictorial records of the site at this time have so far come to light but it seems unlikely that any part of this ‘People’s Theatre’ was ever built there. Cole probably renovated whatever remained of the earlier building and opened his season of ‘Drama Under Canvas’ at ‘The Hippodrome’ about 19 December 1906.

    A four-act bushranger melodrama, King of the Road, was the first offering but on Christmas night a sacred concert and biograph entertainment replaced the cowboys and horses—this leading on, a year or so later, to a series of Sunday night charity concerts and film shows that became a regular fixture. Circus-melodrama remained the staple, however, and weekly change plays followed into the new year. Although the emphasis was on outdoor action, Cole’s repertoire also included such popular dramas as Boucicault’s The Octoroon and the perennial East Lynne and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    The Bohemian Company’s first season closed in mid November 1907 and ‘Broncho George’s Team of Wild Australian Outlaws and Rough Riders’ was the attraction from 16 November until a fortnight before Cole’s return on 21 December. The Bohemians played several more Hippodrome seasons up to mid June 1909 although by now the company was appearing here only on Friday and Saturday nights and touring the suburbs the rest of the week.


    To be continued