General articles
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

Theatre Programmes: Collecting history

Written by

theatre programmes 

When I was seven my parents took me to my first ‘live’ show. It was a matinee of a 1943 revival of the old musical White Horse Inn at His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. That afternoon I fell under the spell of ‘live’ theatre. Afterwards, at home, I pored over the programme. I read every word. I was intrigued by its format: a tall two-colour leaflet, 29 x 4 cm, that unfolded to become a single sheet, 29 x 44 cm, containing details of the show, its various scenes, the cast list, and advertisements for sophisticated hair products and expensive liquor. It was unpretentious, flimsy, easily torn and, I decided, well worth saving.

Some months later I went to another show. This time it was a pantomime at the Tivoli—and I took home a second program for preservation. It was subtly different from the one for White Horse Inn. I noticed a coarser paper, less sophisticated typography, more garish colours. And the advertisements were for tonic pills, introduction agencies and a strange unguent called Mercolized Wax.

Then a friend of my parents gave me a totally different type of programme—a handsome booklet, in magazine format, for a show at the Maj in the pre-war years. It was much more elaborate, its full-colour cover and glossy paper reflecting less austere times. The advertisements were for holidays, radiograms and smart cars. As the years went on I collected more and more. I treasured the programmes from every show I saw and I searched for others in second-hand shops. Soon I had hundreds. Now I have thousands!

I started to research the history of the theatre programme. I found that in 1737 some London managements started to print small playbills for display outside their theatres and inside nearby coffee houses. In 1850 playbills were distributed free to members of the audience at London’s Olympic Theatre. Thirteen years later the St James’s theatre published the first magazine format program. It included a cast list, notes on the play, transport information, and advertisements.

The earliest surviving Australian playbill dates from 1796. An unpretentious but precious little document only 20 x 12 cm, it promotes a performance of Jane Shore, ‘a popular drama of sin and redemption’, at ‘The Theatre, Sydney’ on 30 July 1796. Its survival is remarkable. For many years it lay forgotten, lodged between the pages of a scrapbook of unrelated material held in a library in Canada. After it was accidentally discovered in 2007 the Canadian government presented it to the people of Australia. It is not only our oldest playbill, it is the oldest example of Australian printing, the work our first printer, convict George Hughes. In 2011 it was recognised by UNESCO as a document of world significance.

The playbill has been digitised and can be viewed through the National Library’s catalogue.[1] It is also the subject of an engaging and beautifully designed little book, The Playbill and its People. Written by the National Library’s Gillian Russell, it was published by the NLA in 2011. Sadly, it appears to be out of print.

In nineteenth-century Australia, theatre managements usually relied on independently produced programmes in the style of a small four-page newspaper. The principal Melbourne ones were The Programme, The Call, The Lorgnette and L’Entr’Acte. Sydney had Our Amusements and Adelaide The Electric Spark. They included cast lists, theatrical gossip, reviews, and plenty of advertising. They were printed cheaply on poor quality paper that more than a century later is yellowed and brittle, and they are now extremely rare.

L’Entre’Acte was published in Melbourne from 1861 to 1874 and in Sydney from 1868 to 1892 by printers Azzoppardi, Hildreth and Co. Its main opposition was The Lorgnette, published in Melbourne by theatrical agent James J. Liddy. Its background has been researched by Clay Djubal for his Australian Variety Theatre Archive website. He explains, ‘The Lorgnette was circulated around Melbourne theatres between 1876 and 1898. Each theatre would have its own special edition, with the front page featuring a cast list for its current production.’ Later Liddy ran the Gaiety Theatre in Brisbane. He died there in 1891.[2]

Also rare are the delicate silk programmes produced for gala performances.

The ubiquitous New York Playbill debuted in 1884. Originally called The Playbill, it is basically a pocket-sized monthly magazine in various editions, each devoted to a particular show, with a cover and centre pages devoted to that show. Now operating nation-wide and reportedly an extremely profitable enterprise, Playbill distributes its programmes free to theatre patrons and relies on their advertising content for its revenue. Its vast archives have been developed to become an extremely comprehensive, freely available database of New York theatre.[3]

From 1900 the leading theatrical printer in Australia was Syd Day. One of the most charismatic figures on the fringe of the Australian entertainment industry, Syd Day was born in East End poverty in London in 1867. Seeking a better life, he arrived in Australia in 1890. In Melbourne he established himself as a printer, using the sobriquet ‘Syd Day, The Printer’, and cleverly publicizing himself through appearances at ‘smoke nights’ singing the jaunty coster songs he had learned in London, and by competing, albeit with little success, in the cycle races that were then extremely popular. He also became an enthusiastic pioneer motorist, establishing several inter-city records. Among his close friends were retailer Sir Samuel Hordern and theatrical entrepreneur James Cassius Williamson.

In 1900 Williamson commissioned Day to produce an elaborate souvenir for the re-opening of his newly-acquired Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. From then on, Day printed programmes and posters for many theatres in both Melbourne and Sydney. He also printed the magazines The Lone Hand and The Theatre, and had a substantial financial interest in the latter. In 1908 he built an impressive three-storey printery at 103 Lonsdale Street, just around the corner from Her Majesty’s. Day was only 48 when he succumbed to meningitis in 1915, but the firm he established continued his tradition of innovative techniques and work of the highest quality.[4] His Melbourne printery now houses Bomba, a popular Spanish-themed eaterie and nightspot.

In the early twentieth century, Australian theatre programmes were distributed free and were often cheaply printed on poor paper. In 1920 managements decided to publish programmes in an upgraded format that they would sell to patrons for threepence. Not only were the new programmes better produced, they were sealed with a little sticker ‘to ensure freshness and hygiene’ and were ‘less likely to end their career of usefulness on the littered floor of the theatre’. The seal ensured that staff did not try to sell discarded programmes; it also reflected the emphasis on hygiene that followed the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919.

As the years rolled on, other printers moved into the field. There were firms specialising in theatrical printing in every state. One of the most prominent was Melbourne’s The Specialty Press Pty Ltd, founded in 1909 and steered by its dynamic managing director, Thomas Allan McKay.[5] In March 1919 McKay moved Specialty into a large building at 174 Little Collins Street. Designed in 1891 by a partnership including noted theatre architect William Pitt, it had been built to house a cyclorama and concert hall.

In 1921 McKay sidelined the remnants of the Syd Day firm by gaining the contract to print the programs for Fullers’ Melbourne Theatres and to sell advertising space in them. Soon after, he won the prized contract to provide the same service to J.C. Williamson’s. Specialty became an integral cog in the JCW machine and McKay and his wife were regular guests at the Firm’s first nights. By 1934 Specialty supported a workforce of more than one hundred, and its plant covered approximately 50,000 square feet. In 1953 its busy printery attracted a young apprentice, John Payne. More than half a century later he reminisced about his career at Specialty for an article in the Spring 2005 issue of On Stage. It’s accessible online, but here are a few extracts:

‘The JCW partnership was a long one. Phil Finkelstein and Charles Dearden, who looked after JCW publicity, were often seen in our factory. Phil spent a fair amount of his time on the premises. He was a very courteous man, always nodding or saying hello as he passed. The company was printing programmes for South Pacific when I started, and I was put on a large press that printed the text pages for the programs in black and white. Many of the full-page adverts were for the same clients from programme to programme.

‘I moved to the small machine pressroom that printed the covers for the programmes. The cover for Paint Your Wagon was about my first. I enjoyed the colour mixing and register printing.

‘The initial cover for Can-Can, the Cole Porter musical at Her Majesty’s, was quite colourful, with a hand drawn illustration of a lady in frilly knickers kicking her leg up in the air. The design only survived for that one performance. There was resentment to the cover design. The next day the programmes were returned to have a new cover attached.

‘One of my most satisfying cover prints was the three-colour process cover for the programme for the Margot Fonteyn season with the Borovansky Ballet. It comprised yellow, magenta, and cyan process screens. By the time My Fair Lady opened at Her Majesty’s I had moved on into the large pressroom and scored the prestigious task of printing the text pages for the souvenir programme.[6]

‘Up to the mid-1950s Mr McKay would go for a walk through the factory, always saying hello to every person who looked his way.

‘In 1959, when Specialty Press packed up to make the move to their new factory at Blackburn Road, North Clayton, tea chests full of theatre programmes sent to the waste-paper recycling. At that time, of course, there was no Performing Arts Collection. I would have loved to have had the opportunity of looking through them. I now have made ‘a hobby of collecting them.’

T. Allan McKay died in 1961. Specialty, which held the Australian rights to the Hallmark greeting card range, eventually became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kansas-based parent company. Specialty’s Little Collins Street premises were recycled as Georges Hostess Store and, more reecently, The Georges, a complex of shops and forty smart apartments.

A revolution in Australian theatre programme production was heralded by a tiny notice in the programme for the revue Femmes and Furs at the Sydney Tivoli in October 1958. It announced that ‘This programme published by Neblich Publicity, PO Box 88, Redfern’.

Neblich was formed by Brian Nebenzahl, a top salesman for Chas E. Blanks, the theatre screen advertising contractors, and Lance Peters (his real name was Peter Lichtenstein), a singer, writer, comedian and disc jockey. Co-incidentally both men had gone to Sydney’s Scots College with Lloyd Martin. In March 1958, following the death of his father, David N. Martin, Lloyd had taken over the Tivoli’s Sydney operations.

In 1988 I chatted with Lloyd and asked him about the switch. He told me that Peters had worked for a while in the publicity department at the Sydney Tivoli. ‘He always managed to upset the artistes because he did the billing according to the way he liked the acts and not according to their contracts. My father couldn't cope with this, so when Peters auditioned as a singer he got the job! Producing the programme was always a headache so when Peters came to me and said that Brian wanted to publish our program I couldn't talk to him quickly enough! So we gave Brian the contract to publish the Sydney Tivoli programmes, and he soon adopted the name Playbill. Then we gave him Melbourne too. Peters dropped out of the scene and became a writer. Brian worked on Williamson’s for years and finally got them as well.’ Playbill’s first JCW programme was for Maurice Chevalier’s season at Sydney’s Empire Theatre in March 1960. The Sydney season of My Fair Lady was next.

In an interview with Frank Hatherley for Stage Whispers magazine, Brian confessed to appropriating the name Playbill from the US firm that had been printing theatre programmes since the 1880s.[7]

‘I really knocked their name off,’ he told Hatherley. ‘We’ve got it registered throughout Asia, the United Kingdom, South Africa. Their words to me were, “as long as you don’t get into our cabbage patch we don’t care.” When we publish in America we call ourselves Platypus Productions, a good Aussie name.’

Australia’s Playbill went from strength to strength. It has been the leader in Australian programme publishing and theatrical merchandising for over sixty years and now works with most of this country's subsidised performing arts companies and commercial entrepreneurs. At its headquarters at Moore Park, Playbill has its own editorial office, art studio and printing presses. In a nice example of events turning full circle, after he retired as head of the Sydney Opera House, Lloyd Martin became a consultant for Playbill. He died in 2005.

Playbill is still a family business, with Brian Nebenzahl as executive chairman, his son Michael as managing director and Michael’s wife, Jocelyn, as editorial director. In 1998 Brian Nebenzahl was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the publishing industry and the community.

Theatre programmes are fun to collect. You can choose specific themes: a particular theatre or theatre company; a specific period; an individual playwright or performer. You’ll find an eleven-year-old Zoe Caldwell playing Slightly in a 1944 production of Peter Pan, long before she became a bright star on Broadway. And the dancing children in the 1957 production of Peter Pan included Kelvin Coe, destined to become one of this country’s greatest dancers.

Mainstream opera and ballet programmes are easy to find and are often packed with attractive illustrations and useful historical information. Some programs turn up with monotonous frequency. It seems everybody kept their programmes from the original My Fair Lady! Conversely, some are frustratingly hard to find. The Australian Performing Group, working at the Pram Factory in Melbourne in the 1970s, changed the face of local theatre. Their programmes are historic documents but are rarely seen. Particularly collectible are programmes from entertainment presented during the 1956 Olympic Games, and from the first seasons of landmark productions like Hair and The Rocky Horror Show. Programmes from Dame Nellie Melba’s opera and concert appearances are valuable, as are programmes from Anna Pavlova’s dance seasons in the 1920s. Programmes from the Laurence Olivier–Vivien Leigh Old Vic tour of 1948 are certainly collectable. Their covers are the work of Loudon Sainthill, an Australian who had a distinguished international career as a stage designer. You will find other notable artists represented on program covers: Kenneth Rowell, William Constable, Norman and Lionel Lindsay, for instance.

 One of the annoyances facing collectors is the lack of dates on many programmes. It’s usually not difficult to track down a date, using online tools such as AusStage and Trove. If you find a ‘yearless’ date such as ‘Saturday 14 May’ a perpetual calendar will help you. There are several online. And remember to make a note of the date you saw a show, possibly keeping the ticket stub along with the programme.

Autographs give programmes extra value. It’s worth getting your programme autographed by the stars, or even the whole cast. You can usually leave your copy at the theatre’s stage door with an appropriate note, and collect it later.

You can find old programmes in some second-hand bookshops and at collectors’ fairs, and there are many offered online through sites such as eBay. You may even find other collectors with whom you can exchange your duplicates. Keep your programmes in acid-free plastic sleeves, filed in an appropriate way. You’ll find that they’ll bring you years of collecting pleasure—and they’ll settle lots of arguments about who was in what, where and when.

This is an adaptation of an article originally published in The World of Antiques and Art, July–December 1999.


  4. The Sun (Sydney), 31 October 1915
  5. Dennis Bryans, ‘Customers and others I am responsible for’: Thomas Allan McKay, printer, publisher and entrepreneur, La Trobe Journal, issue 99, March 2017
  7. Stage Whispers, November–December 2012
Last modified on Monday, 20 December 2021
Frank Van Straten

Frank Van Straten AM

Over the years Frank has amassed a vast collection of Australian theatre memorabilia. He was director of the Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum from 1984 until 1993. For 15 years Frank researched and presented ABC Radio's popular Nostalgia feature over Melbourne's 774. He contributes historical articles to many theatre programs and journals. His books include National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre (1994), The Regent Theatre: Melbourne's Palace of Dreams (1996), Tivoli (2003), Huge Deal: The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh (2004), Florence Young and the Golden Years of Australian Musical Theatre (2009), Her Majesty's Pleasure (Her Majesty's, Adelaide. 2013), Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: The Shows, The Stars, The Stories (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2018), and Hanky-Panky: The Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls (2020).