Little Wunder: The story of the Palace Theatre, Sydney (Part 1)

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In the first in a new series chronicling the history of Sydney’s Palace Theatre, ELISABETH KUMM begins the story with the theatre’s first lessee, scenic artist Phil Goatcher, who was also responsible for designing the extraordinary Indian-inspired auditorium, made almost entirely from Wunderlich metal panels.

When the palace theatre at 351 Pitt Street in Sydney opened on Friday, 19 December 1896, it was heralded as one of the most beautiful theatres in the southern hemisphere. “A dazzling spectacle of Oriental luxury and richness”, “As gorgeous as an Indian temple” and “Like a transformation scene from a pantomime”, were just a few of the phrases used to describe this little gem.1

The interior of the new theatre was indeed magnificent, designed in the Indian style, predating the atmospheric theatres of the 1920s. The design was the work of English-born Phil Goatcher (1851-1931), best known as a scenic artist, having worked principally in Melbourne on set designs for Williamson, Garner & Musgrove.

The Palace Theatre was the brainchild of George Adams (1839-1904) of Tattersall’s lotto fame. During the early 1890s, he had completely rebuilt and refurbished his Tattersall’s Hotel on Pitt Street, and in 1895 embarked on the second stage of the redevelopment that saw the design and construction of an 800-seat variety theatre.

When Adams’ hotel re-opened in January 1892 it was admired for the richness of its finishes and the luxuriousness of its appointments. One of the key elements was the redecoration of the main bar, being decked out in marble and glass and relaunched as the Marble Bar. It quickly became one of the most fashionable destinations in Sydney.

The Palace was the seventh new theatre to be opened in Sydney in the space of a decade, the other theatres being the Royal Standard (1886, reworking of the Foresters’ Lodge), Criterion (1886), Her Majesty’s (1887), Garrick (1890, replacing the Academy of Music), Lyceum (1892) and Tivoli (1893, reworking of Garrick).

For Adams, money was no object, and by 1895, he had assembled a talented team of designers to work on the theatre development, giving them carte blanche to let their imaginations runaway with them and create something remarkable. Both the architect, Clarence Backhouse (1859-1930), and the principal interior designer, Phil Goatcher, had worked together before, on the design of the Lyceum Theatre in Pitt Street, directly opposite Adams’ hotel. Backhouse had also been the architect for the Criterion and Garrick theatres.

In early 1896, after six years in Melbourne, Phil Goatcher had given up his job as head scenic artist at the Princess Theatre. At the suggestion of Arthur Garner (1851-1934), who had left the partnership of Williamson, Garner & Musgrove, Goatcher decided to try his luck as a theatre manager. With no written agreement, the two men arranged to take on the lease of the Palace Theatre. For Goatcher, the Palace was the most ambitious project he had even been involved with—and what could be better than to become manager of the theatre that showcased his talent as a designer. Goatcher borrowed money from Adams which he gave to Garner to spend on securing music hall “acts” for their new theatre. In February 1896 Garner left for England and America, leaving Goatcher behind to work on the theatre. When he returned, eight months later, relations between him and Goatcher began to sour.

To complicate matters, the new partners had also taken out a short lease at the Lyceum Theatre, where from the 26 December 1896, they presented the Irish-American comedian Charles F. McCarthy in the cross-dressing farce Lady Blarney.

Around this time, Goatcher developed an interest in decorative pressed metal and was keen to explore ways to use this product in interior design settings. Forming a strategic alliance with the Sydney-based Wunderlich company (founded in 1887 by German-born Ernest Wunderlich) he was appointed head of their Decorating Department, creating designs for pressed metal panels and other decorative items. Presumably this was a consultative role rather than a full-time appointment, but it gave him the opportunity to work closely with Wunderlich on several high profile projects. Key among them was the Palace Theatre (1896), the W.H. Paling & Co.’s music store in George Street (1896), and at the Singer Sewing Machine showroom in the Queen Victoria Building (1898).

On account of the Palace opening later than originally planned, Garner arranged for the new artists to perform in Melbourne prior to making their Sydney debut. In Melbourne, Garner placed advertisements in the press indicating the new company was under his management. Goatcher was furious, for it was his money that Garner had used to engage the artists. He struck Garner’s name off his advertisements for the new Palace Theatre and placed Harrie Skinner in the role of manager and treasurer. Just a few days before the theatre’s opening, Garner threatened Goatcher. Goatcher took out an injunction against Garner. Garner was bound over by the court and ordered to stay away from Goatcher for a period of six months.

The Palace Theatre fronted on to Pitt Street on a block 56 feet wide and 125 feet deep. Its imposing facade was in the Queen Anne style, a “handsome red brick front, with the lower storey in white glazed brick on a polished trachyte base”. The roof was of red French tiles, surmounted by a “lofty and imposing tower, rising almost 100 feet from the street level”. 2 A feature of the facade was four classical figures representing dancing girls, each “gracefully posed, and bearing in her hands a quaint-looking instrument symbolic of music”. 3 Almost life-sized, these terracotta figures were modelled by sculptor Nelson Illingworth after designs by Phil Goatcher. Illingworth also prepared a number of models for keystones in the interior of the building.

The main vestibule and corridors were richly decorated, with allegorical figures representing poetry and composition adorning the ceilings and walls. A double marble staircase, sporting elaborate candelabra, lead to the main second-storey foyer and dress circle. The foyer, described as an “exquisite” chamber, was decorated with bevelled mirrors, ornate plaster mouldings and elaborate painted ceiling executed by Phil Goatcher.

The auditorium was a feast of Oriental luxury in elaborate Indian style and considered an artistic triumph for Goatcher. All the decorative elements to the boxes and proscenium were made from embossed zinc, while balcony fronts, capitals and consoles were of perforated zinc. The groined ceiling and dome were also constructed from metal. The Indian theme was enhanced by the placement of a “Buddha” figure at the apex of the proscenium arch. The private boxes—four on each side of the stage—resembled “small Indian temples, with cupola-shaped roofs, arched fronts, and ornate tracery”. 4

The custom-designed Wunderlich panels were manufactured in the company’s Redfern facility.

Peacock blue and gold predominated in the auditorium, from the upholstery on the comfortable American “fauteuil” seating in the dress circle to the magnificent plush and satin of the drop curtain. Made entirely of needlework, this drop curtain replaced the traditional painted act drop. Of intricate Indian design, it was said to contain “eleven miles of gold Russian braid, and over 3500 pieces of satin”. 5

It was claimed that the “Indian” design adopted for the auditorium had never been employed before, though theatre historian Eric Irvin and others have pointed out that the design had previously been used at the Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado. 6

The dressing rooms, music room and property rooms were situated in the basement, as was the engine room. Refrigerating chambers, also located in the basement, ensured good air flow to all portions of the building. The theatre was the first building in Sydney to have its own generator, capable of powering over 4000 lights (i.e. in the theatre and the adjacent hotel). In the auditorium, the lights were hidden behind stained glass screens in the balcony fronts and dome to reduce glare.

At the commencement of construction, the theatre was announced to hold some 1500 people: 500 in the stalls, 250 in the dress circle and 750 in the upper circle; though by the time of opening, this number seems to have been somewhat reduced to between 800 and 1000.

This beautiful new theatre was launched on Friday, 19 December 1896. True to form, Adams’ held a ticket sweep for the opening night which saw patrons placing bids for their seats.

Billed as the Stars of All Nations company, the headline act was R.G. Knowles (1858-1919), an American music hall comic, who had achieved success in London; and Henry Lee, a lightning change artist who impersonated celebrities from Gladstone to Shakespeare. Others included specialty acts such as the Three Delevines (grotesque dancers and pantomimists), Winifred Johnson (Mrs R.G. Knowles, banjo-soloist), Lottie Moore and Albert Bellman (song and dance artists), Clotilde Antonio (ballerina and hand-balancer), the Sisters Winterton (mandolinists and dancers), as well as a boy violinist and a lady tenor.

“Everywhere the eye is dazzled with the beauty of the place, and absolutely nothing has been omitted to secure the comfort of the patrons of the house”, reported the Referee. “The programme for the opening night, even if it occasionally was wanting in quality, certainly was never lacking in quantity.” 7

In the opening weeks it seemed the Palace was doing well. “This pretty house of entertainment is filled nightly with delighted audiences, who thoroughly enjoy the excellent variety entertainment provided by Mr Goatcher”, wrote the Daily Telegraph .8 Earlier, in Melbourne, readers were informed by Table Talk: “With McCarthy at the Lyceum and Stars of All Nations at the Palace Theatre, he [Goatcher] is raking in the almighty dollar by the shovel-full. … more fresh faces are on their way to Goatcher’s Palace.” 9

On Saturday, 9 January 1897, Goatcher’s “delighted audiences” were captured in a flashlight photograph of the auditorium taken by C.H. Kerry and Co. This picture, and others, were reproduced in the Sydney Mail, 23 January 1897, and subsequently in Wunderlich’s 1899 illustrated catalogue.

But it seems, you can’t believe everything you read. Goatcher’s tenure at the Palace Theatre lasted just a month and a half. By the end of January, his Stars of All Nations company had disbanded and Goatcher himself was said to have fled Sydney. Within days he had set sail for New Zealand, having (apparently) been engaged to decorate a theatre in Wellington.

Clearly the lines in Table Talk were exaggerated puffery. According to a piece in the Champion, George Adams’ was “disgusted” with the way his theatre had been mismanaged. He blamed Arthur Garner for engaging predominately American artists “which managers ought to know does not please Australians”. Garner, the article said “toured the world to choose this feeble combination at great expense”. He was “once a member of the Firm [Williamson, Garner & Musgrove], but his own theatrical experiences and those of others seem to have taught him nothing”. 10

Adams’ turned to Harry Rickards to help get the new theatre back on its feet.

Meanwhile Phil Goatcher returned to Australia, and following another legal stoush with Garner, where he was sued for £3000 for breach of agreement, he filed for bankruptcy. Goatcher remained in Sydney for the next decade, re-joining J.C. Williamson’s as a senior scenic artist and continuing to take on private commissions decorating public buildings and shops. In 1899 he married (his second wife) and in 1906, on account of a bronchial condition, relocated to Western Australia.

 

To be continued

 

Endnotes

1. Sunday Times, 20 December 1896, p.2

2. Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1896, p.5

3. Evening News, 5 June 1896, p.5

4. Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 1896, p.5

5. Australian Town and Country Journal, 26 December 1896, p.36

6. See Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, p.292. Also, Ailsa McPherson, in her entry on Goatcher for the Dictionary of Sydney (2010) says: “It can be assumed that Goatcher drew extensively on his own experience in his decoration of the Palace, since the decor strongly resembled that of the recently completed Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado.” A 2017 article by historian Wendy Rae Raszut-Barrett in drypigment.com lists the lead scenic artist on the Broadway Theatre project as Thomas G. Moses, supported by Ed Loitz, William and Charlie Minor, and Billie Martin.

7. Referee, 23 December 1896, p.7

8. Daily Telegraph, 14 January 1897, p.3

9. Table Talk, 1 January 1897, p14

10. Champion, 30 January 1897, p.3

 

References

Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, Hale & Iremonger, 1985

Ailsa McPherson, ‘Goatcher, Philip W.’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2010, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/goatcher_philip_w

Ailsa McPherson, ‘Palace Theatre’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/palace_theatre

Craig Morrison, Theatres, WW Norton & Company, 2006

Philip Parsons (ed), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995

Ross Thorne, Palace Theatre Pitt St: A Photo Essay, www.rossthorne.com/downloads/Palace_theatre.pdf

Ross Thorne, Theatre Buildings in Australia to 1905: from the time of the first settlement to the arrival of cinema, Architectural Research Foundation, University of Sydney, 1971

Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett, Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar, Part 231: Thomas G. Moses and the Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado, drypigment.net, 7 October 2017, https://drypigment.net/2017/10/07/tales-from-a-scenic-artist-and-scholar-acquiring-the-fort-scott-scenery-collection-for-the-minnesota-masonic-heritage-center-part-231-thomas-g-moses-and-the-broadway-theatre-in-denver-color/

Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett, Travels of A Scenic Artist and Scholar: John C. Alexander, Frank R. Alexander, and the Broadway Theatre, drypigment.net, 23 November 2020, https://drypigment.net/2020/11/23/travels-of-a-scenic-artist-and-scholar-john-c-alexander-frank-r-alexander-and-the-broadway-theatre/

John West, Theatre in Australia, Cassell, 1978

Wunderlich’s Patent Embossed Metal Ceilings: Illustrated Catalogue, Sydney, 1899

 

Newspapers

Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW); Champion (Melbourne, Vic); Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW); Evening News (Sydney, NSW); Referee (Sydney, NSW); Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW); Sydney Mail (NSW); Sydney Morning Herald (NSW); Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic)

 

Acknowledgements

John S. Clark, Mimi Colligan, Ian Hanson, Judy Leech, Simon Plant, Les Tod

 

Read 154 times Last modified on Monday, 28 June 2021 15:41
Elisabeth Kumm

Elisabeth is a founding member of the Victoria Theatres Trust. Her series Pets of the Public was a regular feature of On Stage from 1999 to 2005, looking at “forgotten” nineteenth century performers. She continues to contribute articles for the THA website, and from 2018 has been editor of the THA Newsletter. As a theatrical historian and biographer she assisted Viola Tait with her book on pantomime – Dames, Principal Boys…and All That (published by Macmillan in 2001) and also worked with her on her memoirs I Have a Song to Sing (published by THA in 2018). Elisabeth has also undertaken research for the Riley/Hailes Scrapbook and JCW Scene Books projects. Most recently she has been working on the Falk Studios album project including acting as editor of The Falk Studios book (published by THA in 2021).