Minerva Theatre, Sydney (Part 2)

Written by John Stephen Clark

 Minerva TheatreMinerva Theatre, c.1939. Photo by Arthur Ernest Foster. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, ON 30/Box 69, https://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110363820

In part two of the Minerva Theatre story John S. Clark looks at the period 1939 to 1950: the early years under the managements of J.C. Williamson Ltd and David N. Martin, and from 1941 under the direction of Australian actress-director Kathleen Robinson's Whitehall Productions.

This article was originally published in 1993 in booklet form by the Australian Theatre Historical Society, and is re-published here by permission of the author.

The future of this theatre is currently is doubt, having been purchased in April 2019 by a development group. With the help of the Metro Minerva Theatre Action Group which has been convened by John S. Clark, the building is currently being assessed by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to see if it is worthy of state heritage protectionensuring it remains an icon of the Kings Cross neighbourhood into the future.

For more information or to add your support to the Metro Minerva Theatre Action Group, please contact John S. Clark, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Early August 1939 saw the opening of Clare Booth’s play The Women. The cast included Pat MacDonald in her first role at the Minerva. This time the producers were lucky, since the play preceded the MGM release of the fabulous film version at the St James Theatre by three months. Most cinema enthusiasts probably think that the Minerva didn’t screen movies until the MGM takeover some years later, but this was not the case. After the conclusion of the play The Women and commencing on Thursday, August 31, 1939, a week long season of motion pictures were screened. The first programme, which ran for three days and nights, was Universal’s musical Three Smart Girls Grow Up with Deanna Durbin, as a double bill with the Paramount British production of This Man is News, with Barry K. Barnes and Valerie Hobson. From Monday, September 4, for three days at 2 and 8pm, Claudette Colbert starred in Midnight with Don Ameche, doubled with George Formby in the British comedy Trouble Brewing. On Thursday, September 7, for one day only, Paramount’s Café Society with Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll was shown as a double with the English film Stolen Life with Elisabeth Bergner and Michael Redgrave.

Two days later, the Minerva reverted to stage shows, with the production of A Kiss from Kiki. This show was notable in that the associated entertainment on the programme included a ballet, Soprano Magda Neeld performing on stage, and Roy Fox and his celebrated British Dance Band performing their most popular numbers. Other plays to follow included Dinner at Eight, Elizabeth the Queen, Gaslight, Of Mice and Men, in which Ron Randell had a leading role, French Without Tears, Charley’s Aunt, and Room for Two. November 1939 saw the last of the J.C. Williamson’s productions staged at the Minerva, after which David N. Martin and his co-directors produced all the plays. This was Yes, My Darling Daughter, starring Marie Burke.

 

  • CharleysAuntMinerva

    Cover of a flyer for the Minerva production of Charley’s Aunt, July 1940, which featured Charles Norman in the title role.

    Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

  • ReunionInVienna 001

    Robert E. Sherwood’s Reunion in Vienna, staged in January 1941, was one of the plays produced at the Minerva under David N. Martin's direction.

    John S. Clark Collection.

On Monday, November 25, 1940, Noel Coward’s play Design for Living had its Australasian premiere at the Minerva, with Coward himself attending the premiere performance. Edwin Styles, Marjorie Gordon and Lloyd Lamble were the stars. Early 1941 saw him again on the Minerva stage in Reunion in Vienna. For two performances in early April 1941 the Bodenwieser Viennese Ballet performed. April 10, 1941 saw the last show commence before Whitehall Productions took over the lease of the theatre. The play was By Candlelight, and the principals were John McCallum and Madge Aubrey.

On Saturday, May 10, 1941, the first of Kathleen Robinson’s Whitehall Productions, Mr Smart Guy, had its world premiere. The play was written and produced by Alec Coppel. Fox Movietone News filmed the opening, and radio station 2GB broadcast from the foyer between 7.40 and 8.00pm. The play starred Richard Parry, Nigel Lovell and Catherine Duncan, and opened to mixed reviews. Kathleen Robinson was a wealthy Australian actress who had studied acting in England, acted in London and travelled the world in 1932 with Dame Sybil Thorndike’s company, before taking over London’s Westminster Theatre. In 1937 and 1938 she toured the Baltic States and Scandinavia with her own company. A repeat tour in 1939 was cut short by the Munich crisis, and she remained on the stage in London for the first two years of the war. In 1941 Robinson returned to Australia and established Whitehall Productions with her co-director Alec Coppel. As co-director of Whitehall, Kathleen Robinson was an important Australian actress-manager.

The Minerva Theatre provided patrons with musical entertainment in the form of pianists playing before each performance, and at the interval. For the first Whitehall show, the pianist was Sefton Daly. Other pianists to perform over the years included Richard Farrell, Elizabeth Jones and Marcel Lorber, who sometimes performed with other musicians (violin and cello) to form the Marcel Lorber Trio. The longest serving of all the pianists at the Minerva, however, was Dot Mendoza.

In July 1941, Whitehall introduced a policy of 6.00pm plays. These were shows that had just finished the usual four week season in the 8.30 timeslot. “Come to the 6pm plays and be home in comfort and early”, was the remark in the programmes. In November 1941 the stage production of Rebecca was presented at the Minerva, to be followed on December 13 with the very popular Moss Hart comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Edwin Styles heading the cast. The play ran for over 100 performances. Early 1942 saw the Kirsova Ballet performing in a 6pm timeslot. In May 1942 Alec Coppel staged Whitehall’s first anniversary production, Believe It or Not, and there was a congratulation in the programme from David N. Martin.

  

GeorgeWashingtonSleptHere 001

Page from one of the many J.C. Williamson programme books at the State Library of New South Wales. This one shows the cover of George Washington Slept Here, produced at the Minerva in September 1943.

J.C. Williamson (firm) – programme books, 1927-1955, MLMSS 2185/143, State Library of New South Wales.

Jane Eyre Program

Programme cover for Jane Eyre, which opened at the Minerva Theatre in November 1943.

Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

Jane Eyre 8 Nov 1943 2

Myra Morton in her dressing room at the Minerva Theatre, making up for the role of Jane Eyre. Note the 1936 copy of Play Pictorial which features Curigwen Lewis on the cover, the actress who created the title role in Helen Jerome’s play in London. Photo by Ivan [Ivan Ive], 8 November 1943.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd., ON 388/Box 021/Item 063.

Minerva 29 Oct 1943 1

Alec Coppel discussing the staging of Jane Eyre with set designer William Constable and Myra Morton (Mrs Alec Coppel), who in addition to playing the title role also designed the dresses. Photo by Ivan [Ivan Ive], 29 October 1943.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd., ON 388/Box 021/Item 058. Published in Pix (Sydney), 11 December 1943, p. 15.

Whitehall Productions assisted the War effort by putting on Wednesday afternoon matinees for wounded servicemen and women, and by donating Gala Performance proceeds to war charities and so on. In August 1943, Edwin Styles starred in the Hart and Kaufman play George Washington Slept Here for Whitehall, and in November he took the lead in the costume drama Jane Eyre, with Kathleen Robinson in the cast. Christmas 1943 saw the production of the children’s play Peter Pan, and in March 1944, Peter Finch made his debut on the Minerva stage in Night of January 16th, which also starred Sheila Helpman, sister of Robert. 1944 saw the production of Pygmalion and the departure of co-director Alec Coppel. The new co-director was Roland Walton and the new show for September 1944 was Terence Rattigan’s comedy While the Sun Shines, which featured Peter Finch, Ron Randall and Pat MacDonald. This show was quite successful and ran for ten weeks. In 1944 the Whitehall Academy of Dramatic Art was established for students of the acting profession, providing instruction in acting, elocution, phonetics, department, mime, dancing, make-up, and fencing, with lectures given by prominent artists, over a two year period. A highlight of the 1945 season was Whitehall’s production of Terence Rattigan’s Love in Idleness, starring Kathleen Robinson and Richard Parry. The following year, 1946, was important for Whitehall, with a production of Dangerous Corner in February, with Muriel Steinbeck, Ron Randall and John Tate. These three stars had just completed an acting assignment together in the movie Smithy, directed by Ken G. Hall. In April, the popular play, The Corn is Green was presented with Kathleen Robinson heading the cast, and in August, The Third Visitor with Muriel Steinbeck and radio star Richard Ashley was staged. Another important event for the year was Whitehall gaining joint control of London’s Duke of York’s Theatre. The main purposed of this was “to provide an opportunity for Australian artists to gain overseas experience.”

  

Kathleen Robinson 15 Aug 1944 4

Kathleen Robinson consults with Minerva stage manager Harry Short. Photo by unknown photographer, 15 August 1944.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd., ON 388/Box 016/Item 097. Several of these photographs were published in an article ‘Actress-manger helps war funds’, Pix (Sydney), November 1944, pp. 30-31, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-449744968

Kathleen Robinson 15 Aug 1944 3

Kathleen Robinson in her dressing room. Photo by unknown photographer, 15 August 1944.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd., ON 388/Box 016/Item 097.

Kathleen Robinson 15 Aug 1944 1

Kathleen Robinson with Minerva co-director Roland Walton. Photo by unknown photographer, 15 August 1944.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd., ON 388/Box 016/Item 097.

Kathleen Robinson 15 Aug 1944 5

Selecting fabric with scenic designer William Constable and director Frederick Blackman. Photo by unknown photographer, 15 August 1944.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd., ON 388/Box 016/Item 097.

The play, Life with Father, starring Broadway artists Leonard Lord and Virginia Barton, opened the 1947 season. The Glass Menagerie followed, with the same artists, then English stage and screen star Megs Jenkins in The Late Christopher Bean. She was on stage again for the next Minerva show, The Wind of Heaven, but had to return to England to honour film commitments, thus shortening the play’s run. In September, a high point of 1947 was the production of Grand National Night, with Neva Carr-Glyn and her husband John Tate in the cast. Quite a number of Whitehall Productions also went on tour, with the Melbourne Princess Theatre playing host to some of the best that Whitehall had to offer. In 1947, Whitehall’s production of Terence Rattigan’s English comedy O Mistress Mine played at the Princess to be followed in 1948 by Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (revived in 1992 at the Sydney Opera House).

  

  • Stage Making March 1946 1

    Ron Godden, the Minerva’s chief electrician, assisted by Harold Hill (left), with a model of the stage set for The Corn is Green. Compare with the photo of the actual stage adjacent.

    State Library of New South Wales. These two photographers were used in the article, ‘Model stage in production “blueprint”’, Pix (Sydney), 25 May 1946, pp. 18-19, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-426730434

  • Stage Making March 1946 2

    A scene from The Corn is Green, with from left: John Cazabon (Morgan Evans), Edward Smith (Squire), Kathleen Robinson (Miss Moffat), Ethel Gabriel (Mrs Watty), Joy Nicholas (Bessie Watty), Walter Pym (John Goronwy Jones), Catria Howells (Sarash Pugh) and Daphne Winslow (Miss Ronberry).

December 1947 saw a completely different type of show staged at the Minerva, a topical revue entitled Sweetest and Lowest, with an actor who appeared regularly in musicals at the Theatre Royal, Max Oldaker. Minnie Love, Gordon Chater and Wee George Wood were also in the cast.

By this time, however, the Minerva was having trouble finding a large enough audience for the shows staged there. For one thing, it always suffered the problem of being in a difficult location, and down narrow Orwell Street. Kathleen Robinson described this patronage problem early in 1948 as an “unfortunate lethargy”, and went on to say “We have a beautiful little theatre in which to offer the public theatrical entertainment, and it would make me happy if you, the people of Sydney, would regard this as your theatre, and to support me in my effort to put theatre back on the plane it was some years ago.” Also in 1948, a major change too place in that David Martin, by now very much involved in running Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre, sold the Minerva to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But Whitehall, the lessees, claimed the right to continue staging their shows, and MGM’s plans to use the theatre for movies was destined not to become a reality for another two years.

The year 1948 saw the production of some important plays at the Minerva. J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was presented in April, and in June, Terence Rattigan’s drama The Winslow Boy, featuring Kathleen Robinson, Richard Parry and John Meillon was staged. Richard Parry by then was also a co-director of Whitehall Productions. The first professional Australian production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness was presented in August, with Lou Vernon and Bebe Scott, and The Philadelphia Story was staged in October with Leonard Teale in the cast.

  

  • KissForCinderella 002

    Programme cover for A Kiss for Cinderella, December 1948.

    Mitchell Library Performance Programme Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

  • Philadelphia Story   Thelma Afford 1

    Thelma Afford’s costume design for a dress worn by Gwenda Wilson in the role of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, 1949.

    Thelma Afford, Costume designs, 1932-1960, PX*D 330/ff.1-253, State Library of New South Wales.

The 1949 season commenced with the play The Streets of London at the evening sessions, and a children’s show, A Kiss for Cinderella at the matinees. In May Kathleen Robinson and Richard Parry were on the stage again in the Noel Langley comedy, Little Lambs Eat Ivy. In September, a farce by Philip King, See How They Run, was staged, playing for three months. Aileen Britton (who had appeared in the Cinesound feature Tall Timbers) was the star, and the cast included Richard Parry, with Gwen Plumb making her Minerva debut. In December of that year, Whitehall was embroiled in a court case with MGM, who wanted the lessees evicted, so that the theatre could be used for movie screenings, but an eviction order was not forthcoming, with magistrate’s decision that Whitehall management should be given a chance to recoup some of their losses, which stood at 73,000 pounds.

December through January 1950 saw a production of Separate Rooms billed as a “scintillating American comedy” and staring American stage and screen actress, June Clyde. The play also featured Hal Thompson, Sheila Helpman, and another American, Stewart Long. The nest show, commencing early in 1950, was Dream Girl, a popular American comedy by Elmer Rice, with June Clyde, Hal Thompson and Stewart Long again in the cast, which also included David Nettheim. The play, which turned out to be Whitehall’s last production, was very successful and ran until the end of April 1950, when MGM finally gained control of the theatre. Whitehall director Richard Parry continued a successful career with ABC radio as producer of The Children’s Hour, and Kathleen Robinson apparently retired in due course to Bowral.

Read 152 times Last modified on Monday, 07 October 2019 18:08