Frank Van Straten

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).

In the first of a five-part series, FRANK VAN STRATEN delves into the life and times of little-known Australia vocalist Walter Kirby.

Kirby 1.1 Tatler 1898Walter Kirby featured in The Tatler, 26 February 1898. Photograph by Melba Studios, Melbourne. Trove, National Library of Australia, Canberra.‘His voice thrilled with every shade of feeling, expressed every shade of sentiment. It could be gloriously high and clear one moment, and deep and tender and caressing the next, and could sink to the faintest echo, or to the supressed high of a lover’s pain…’

This is a quote from a piece published in May 1925 in the Melbourne stage and screen journal Revue eulogising the Australian tenor Walter Kirby.

Walter Kirby? Kirby, who died in 1934, was all but forgotten until Tony Locantro and Roger Neill included him in From Melba to Sutherland, their landmark 2016 CD tribute to Australia’s greatest singers. The accompanying booklet includes a capsule biography of Kirby, but his remarkable life deserves a far more detailed account.

Walter was born on 12 June 1874 at the family home in Chapel Square, Auckland, New Zealand. He was christened Walter Joseph Kirby, but as his career blossomed, he added an impressive third given name, Regis, from the Latin word for ‘king’, and ‘adjusted’ his birth year to 1877. His parents were both Irish. His mother, born Ellen Mulcahy in a tiny village in County Limerick around 1831-1832, came to Australia an ‘assisted passenger’ in 1857. Officially recorded as a ‘servant’, she went to work for Charles and Ellen Maloney in Geelong in what was then the colony of Victoria. Walter’s father, William, was born in the County Limerick parish of Pallasgreen and Templebredon, probably in 1829. He arrived in Australia about 1853-1854. Initially he worked on the construction of the Geelong Road and as a farmer, but it appears he soon went into business as a building and construction contractor. William and Ellen married in Geelong in 1858, Their first child, Bridget, was born in 1859, and their second, Maurice, in 1860.

William Kirby’s business ventures ended in bankruptcy, and in 1860 the little family migrated to New Zealand, where William had several brothers. He soon re-established himself as a building and construction contractor. The family originally lived in Dunedin, but eventually settled in Chapel Square, Auckland, opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral, and had six more children: Patrick Michael, William, John Thomas, Daniel David, Catherine (Kate) and, finally, Walter.

William dabbled in local politics. In 1871 he stood for election to the city council, but he was unsuccessful.

The Kirbys were a musical family. Bridget was choir mistress and organist at St Patrick’s, Auckland. She, sister Catherine, and Mrs Kirby eventually became music teachers, as indeed did Walter. Maurice possessed a good voice, and William had a short stage career as a comedian and song-and-dance man. His whirlwind eccentric dance with a glass of water balanced on his nose stopped many a show. After some success at the Opera House in Melbourne in the 1900s, he abandoned a stage career for architecture. He died in Adelaide in 1921.

In The New Zealand Herald of 8 October 1886 there is a report of both Walter (aged 12) and William (19), accompanied at the piano by their sister Bridget (27), appearing at the Auckland Catholic Institute in a concert that Bridget had organised to raise funds for the Auckland Christian Society.

Revue’s somewhat hyperbolic account of his life claims Walter’s first years were difficult: ‘Delicate from the first, his life was despaired of by the leading doctors of New Zealand. For four years it was an anxious fight, but with the help of the best medical science, the assiduous efforts of his brave mother won the day.’ His father then provided ‘strict training with early morning swimming, boxing and rowing, to which he attributes to his ability to overcome his naturally delicate constitution.’

To Walter, singing came naturally. As Revue put it: ‘Almost from the time when he was able to lisp, he began to sing.’ It was his sister, Bridget, who recognised Walter’s potential and gave him his earliest lessons. He was 8 when his father enrolled him in the Marist Brothers’ School in Pitt Street, Auckland, and he was 9 when he received his first press notice. On 21 December 1883, reporting on an end-of-year concert by pupils of the Auckland Infants’ School, the New Zealand Herald said: ‘Several recitations were given, and hymns and songs sung by the children. One of the latter, “The Dear Little Shamrock”, was remarkably well sung by Master Walter Kirby, who was much applauded by the visitors.’

But it was sometimes difficult to get Walter to sing. In 1931 The Arrow reminisced: ‘There was a curious contradictory streak in his make-up. A secular priest, who was his teacher at the school at Auckland that Walter attended as a young boy, said that when the school concert programs were prepared it was discovered that the best way to induce Walter to sing was to leave his name out. If he was starred on the program he would invent some excuse, but the omission of his name from the program was a sure way of getting his services.’

While the future looked rosy for Master Walter, his father faced an increasingly tortuous series of financial failures and court battles, which inevitably led, in 1887, to his second bankruptcy. The following year the Kirby family retreated to Australia.

From August 1888 to March 1889 Melbourne hosted its second great international exhibition. Designed to celebrate the centenary of white settlement in Australia, it was centred on the huge Exhibition Building in Carlton that had been built in 1880 for the colonies’ first internationally recognised exhibition. New Zealand was one of the 34 participating nations and colonies, and young Walter Kirby was contracted to represent his native country for six months, Revue says, ‘at the splendid salary of twenty pounds per week’. According to a report in The Otago Daily Times of 26 January 1889: ‘At 4 o’clock there was a concert in the German Court, when Mr Frederick Dark delighted a large audience by his humorous musical sketches, and Master Walter Kirby sang “Come Back to Erin” in a sweet, pretty voice, like a girl.’

It seems likely that Walter’s handsome remuneration enabled the Kirbys to rent a smart home at 10 Colvin Grove in the genteel Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, and to enrol him at nearby Xavier, the city’s most prestigious Catholic boys’ college. Nevertheless, Walter found an ingenious way to add to his income. In 1931 The Arrow reminisced: ‘When the family were living on the Hawthorn Flats, Walter bought a cow out of his savings and started a milk round. Many a light sleeper heard the dulcet notes of his high soprano as he went on his round in the darkness of early morning. The wife of a prominent turfite told her husband one morning: “In the early hours I heard a nightingale singing for the first time since I left England.” It was merely the dreamy-eyed Walter delivering the milk.’

Walter loved Xavier. An enthusiastic student, he found that many of his fellow pupils came from some of Melbourne’s most prosperous and influential families.  

If the 1888-1889 exhibition was a high point in Melbourne’s history, the fall came quickly. The crash that followed the 1880s land boom caused immense hardship. Businesses failed and unemployment soared. This could explain why Walter left Xavier at the end of 1889, when he was 15. Nevertheless, he retained a close connection with the school, helping raise funds by singing at many of their functions and remembering them in his will.

The family moved to more modest accommodation at 430 Swan Street, Richmond. In 1915 the Richmond Guardian recalled that at his new school in Richmond, Walter’s ‘dulcet toned voice won him the sobriquet of “Dolly” among the local schoolboys,’ adding, ‘but he sings as well today as he did on the first night he went up from his parents’ home in Swan Street and surprised and pleased the audience at the Richmond Town Hall.’ Many of the Town Hall concerts were organized by Walter’s sister Bridget, who had established herself as a peripatetic music teacher.

Walter’s voice broke in 1890; his father died of tuberculosis the following year.

Revue explained: ‘Up to this period the family position had made the future career of the boy songster an assured fact, but now the future was of grave concern for all. It meant a hard struggle to even continue the barest necessary lessons and the schooling so essential to establish a future career as an artist.’

An article published in Smith’s Weekly shortly after his death, claims young Walter was forced to find menial work and sell goods door-to-door. Stoically his mother continued his vocal training, and he gained early experience with the once admired but now forgotten Melbourne Amateur Opera Club.

In August 1894 23-year-old Walter joined Frank M. Clark’s ‘Alhambra’ Company, which was presenting weekly-change music hall entertainment at the Melbourne Opera House in Bourke Street, renamed the Alhambra for the occasion, and later rechristened the Tivoli. On the bill was the extraordinary ‘facial contortionist’ Ed. E. Ford. In May 1935 he told the Melbourne Herald: ‘Many years ago—it was in the days of Rickards’ shows— some of us players were sitting about the theatre when a shy freckle-faced youth asked the manager to give him an audition. People weren’t as polite about auditions as they are now. You would be given “the bird” right off if you were no good. Workers about the theatre used to load up the property guns and fire them off if an act were bad. But once the shy youth began to sing everyone listened, astonished. He sang “I Was Dreaming” most wonderfully. The next week young Walter Kirby was the hit of our show, and I think he got about £2 [$200] for his week’s work.’ The song, a pensive newly published ballad by a Sydney composer, August William Juncker, went on to international success, as, too, did its singer.

Kirby 1.2 CecchiPietro Cecchi, Walter Kirby’s first singing teacher. Portrait by Foster & Martin Studios, Collins Street, Melbourne, 1880. State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.Young Walter was in luck: the rapidly rising Mrs Charles Armstrong—Melba—had heard him sing. Before her departure for London in 1886 she had introduced him to her first teacher, the esteemed Italian Pietro Cecchi, who had a studio in Allan’s Music Store in Collins Street. Cecchi agreed to teach Walter, and at no cost, but sadly the maestro died suddenly in 1897. Walter then started studying with Amelia Banks, a prominent Melbourne teacher and ‘cultured soprano’.

More tragedy struck in May 1898 when Bridget, the eldest of the Kirby children, died in an horrific train accident at Pakenham, about 53km south-east of Melbourne, though, strangely, the press reports say it was younger sister Catherine and not Bridget who had died. Bridget was 39. At least she had lived long enough to see her 22-year-old brother make his debut as a serious vocalist.

In 1896 the celebrated French soprano Antoinette (Antonia) Dolores Trebelli had visited Australia to give a series of concerts. She heard Walter sing and invited him to join her touring company. On 8 June The Age reviewed the third of her concerts at the Melbourne Town Hall: ‘Mr Walter Kirby, a young tenor as yet unknown to fame, made a creditable first appearance. His voice is of agreeable quality, and though it is obviously in need of training, he sings in a naturally free and open style, without a trace of that “squeezing” of the throat which is generally so offensive in tenors who have not been through a thorough course of voice production. Neither of his selections, Stephen Adams’ “The Garonne” and “Alice, Where Art Thou?” can be called specially interesting or novel, but in both cases Mr Kirby was called upon for a supplementary number.’

In February 1898 Walter was chosen to sing at the Melbourne Town Hall reception to welcome the great Canadian soprano Emma Albani. She told the press she thought highly of the young tenor. He had, she said, ‘tears in his voice’, and she would be happy to help him should he venture to London.

After singing with Trebelli and the ‘endorsement’ from Albani, Walter found himself in great demand. Apart from numerous concerts for a wide range of charitable causes and lucrative appearances at fashionable ‘At Homes’, he began teaching, sang before Lord and Lady Brassey at Government House, appeared with the Melbourne, Metropolitan, Ballarat and Geelong Liedertafels, and was one of the featured vocalists at the grand industrial exhibitions at Albury and Ballarat in the late 1890s.

It was an era of vast self-congratulatory civic fairs, and Walter’s birth town was not to be left out. Auckland’s Industrial and Mining Exhibition opened in December 1898 and—yes—Walter Kirby was one of the featured participants. His Exhibition concerts were followed by an extensive tour of the rest of the country. Though the press reports were welcoming and complimentary, they were evenly split in describing him: was he an Australian or a New Zealander? On 17 July 1899, in its preview of a Kirby concert in Gisborne, The Poverty Bay Herald remarked: ‘A splendid program has been arranged for Mr Kirby’s concert on Thursday evening, and we have no doubt the celebrated young New Zealand tenor will be greeted with a crowded house. Mr Kirby’s success on the concert platform has been almost phenomenal. He made a decided hit at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1888. His voice has developed into a fine tenor, and he has met with success after success. Writing of his reception on his return to Auckland in January last, a local paper says: “Mr Walter Kirby not only won a success d’estime as an old Auckland boy meeting with an enthusiastic reception, but his lovely tenor voice and artistic singing created a storm of enthusiasm. His fine natural voice, under the training of Signor Cecchi, has been carefully developed into a smooth, round, even and extensive compass—the quality of tone is exquisite—neither a light tenor nor a tenore robusto, but that rare and happy blending of both. Mr Kirby’s signal triumph is more than gratifying, in view of the difficulty a prophet has to find honor in his own country. He is about to visit Europe shortly to pursue his musical studies, and a bright future undoubtedly lies before him.”

In 1900 entrepreneur George Musgrove assembled an international company to present ambitious seasons of grand opera in Melbourne and Sydney. With his keen eye for talent, Musgrove chose Walter for the role of Ruiz in Il trovatore. It would have been his debut in staged opera, but it was not to be. On 18 October Table Talk reported that Walter ‘found his nervousness an insurmountable barrier at rehearsals and so wisely decided that his time for grand opera was not yet’—but an item in The New Zealand Observer put it differently: ‘Walter Kirby was first chosen by the management for the part, but he is in serious trouble with an infection of the throat and he has had to decline an offer from Mr George Musgrove to appear in grand opera. By-the-way, Mr Musgrove’s conductor has a high opinion of Kirby’s voice, and prophesizes a great future.’

As early as 24 February 1898, Punch had reported that at a recent meeting at Allan’s: ‘a large section of the prominent citizens of Melbourne’ had determined to sponsor a benefit concert in the Melbourne Town Hall to raise funds to send Walter to England ‘to study his profession under the best masters—a laudable idea. He is a singer of great promise, only wanting the finishing so necessary to make a good artist. Lady Brassey and Lady Holled Smith are taking a great interest in the concert, and the patronage of nearly all lovers of music has been secured.’ Other reports reveal more of Walter’s distinguished benefactors: the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Richard Neville, Janet Lady Clarke, Sir Rupert and Lady Clarke, the Honorable Rupert Carrington and the Honorable Mrs Rupert Carrington, and the Victorian Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden and Lady Madden.

Kirby 1.4 Fundraiser 1910Announcement of a concert to raise money to send Walter Kirby to Europe for further study, Melbourne Town Hall, 31 August 1902. Private Collection.On 2 March 1898, the ‘large and brilliant’ attendance at the concert included the Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey, Lady Brassey, and many of Melbourne’s gracious and good but, reported Punch on 14 April, ‘The financial result has not been at all satisfactory, and will not enable Mr Kirby to seek European instruction as intended. Another appeal in a few months' time to an ever-generous public and worked on different lines might assist this deserving young artist to obtain the continental experience so necessary for a successful musical career.’ There were to be many more benefit concerts and functions.

A now virtually forgotten phenomenon of turn-of-the century entertainment was the cyclorama. These were huge buildings housing vast painted canvas representations of historic events, enhanced with realistically modelled foregrounds, music and sound effects. Melbourne had two. The first, on Victoria Parade, Eastern Hill, had opened in 1889. One of its most popular presentations had been Jerusalem, a depiction of the Holy City at the time of the Crucifixion. The Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden, launched a return season on 31 July 1902. For the occasion, baritone Horace Stevens sang ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and Walter contributed ‘The Holy City’ and ‘Star of Bethlehem’.

Meanwhile, the benefits continued. At a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on 30 August 1902 he was supported by a roster of leading local singers and, unusually, two great favorites from the musical stage, George Lauri and Carrie Moore (Australia’s original Merry Widow), as well as ‘a successful humoristic recitation’ contributed by vaudevillian Hector McLennan, father of actor and broadcaster Rod McLennan. The Age noticed that, ‘All the more highly priced seats at the Town Hall were full but the back of the hall was poorly attended.’ Its report went on to say, ‘We have often had occasion to speak in favorable terms of the quality of Mr Kirby’s voice, which, it may be remarked, is still in an excellent state of preservation. He sings easily and without effort, gets his effects as a rule naturally and by strictly legitimate means, and uses his voice well; but at the same time, the doubt will arise whether by sending Mr Kirby “home” the best possible service is being done him by his friends. In England they have singers in plenty, and if some of the rumors which travel halfway round the world be true, not every budding Melba who goes to London for a “career” finds one. We have every desire to see Mr Kirby rise as near to the top of the tree as his undoubted gifts will warrant; but Saturday’s concert was in many respects more like a society “function” than a concert.’ The Australasian was similarly grumpy: ‘Such farewell benefits are really very sad. We know by experience that if the beneficiary is very good and succeeds, he will not return, while if he is very bad and fails, he will return. It is a case of heads you win, tails I lose.’

Though it seemed Walter’s departure was imminent, Melba stepped in again. The great diva was on her first major tour of her homeland. With her was a supporting party including four singers, a harp soloist, and a bevy of accompanists. When her manager, George Musgrove, revealed plans to extend the tour to Western Australia and then to New Zealand, her tenor decided to leave the company and in December 1902 Melba announced that Walter had been engaged to replace him.

Perth greeted Melba’s arrival in Western Australia with great warmth—and even turned on a heatwave to match. The first concert at the Queen’s Hall in William Street on 13 January marked Melba’s Perth debut—and Walter’s too. The press, like the packed audience, were wildly enthusiastic, but The West Australian had one criticism: ‘Mr Walter Kirby has a tuneful and expressive tenor voice, but his stage manner is not entirely free from affectation.’ It was probably the first mention of a trait that was to characterise Walter for the rest of his career.

The party returned to Melbourne where, on 31 January 1903, Melba and Walter participated in a benefit concert at the Town Hall marking the retirement of the much-feted Australian tenor Armes Beaumont. It was their only joint appearance in Melbourne. Later that year, when both Walter and Melba were in London, an obscure Melbourne paper, The Arena-Sun, speculated cheekily: ‘Will Walter call on Melba, one wonders, or did that severe slap he received at the Melbourne concert make as much impression on his feelings as on his cheek? The haughty lady had expostulated with him on taking an encore. Walter listened, but erred again. This time Melba did not use words, but her plump, jewelled hand, and Walter’s face bore the impress for quite half an hour after.’

A concert at Launceston in northern Tasmania was to be next, but Bass Strait’s heavy seas made Melba so ill it had to be abandoned. She and her party took the train to Hobart where they were to board the SS Moeraki for the trip to New Zealand on 13 February. It was a Friday. And Walter missed the boat.

How this happened was never explained, but in his 1967 biography of Melba, John Hetherington gave an unsourced and largely fanciful account of what followed, and this has been repeated by several other writers. Inherent is the suggestion that the incident led to Walter developing a deep hatred for the diva. Contemporary reports tell a different if less colourful story, confirming that Melba continued to support and encourage him.

Melba engaged John Prouse, a sturdy local bass-baritone, to replace Kirby in her first New Zealand concert, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Dunedin on 18 February. Earlier that day Walter had disembarked from the steamer Rimutaka in Wellington. He got to Christchurch in time to sing in Melba’s second New Zealand concert there on 20 February.

Surprisingly, several New Zealand reviewers were less than impressed by their returning prodigy. Christchurch’s The Press grumbled: ‘Mr Kirby was faulty in his singing of “Angels Guard Thee” and also in his second number, “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby”. His production lacks smoothness, and he has a tendency to use the tremolo effect far too much,’ while The New Zealand Observer said: ‘The supporting company was of mixed quality. Local interest naturally attached to Mr Walter Kirby, the tenor, who was an Auckland boy. He has undoubtedly improved since he went to Australia, both in method and in vocal powers, but some of his mannerisms still remain. When London studies have weeded these out, and put the polish upon his style, we may expect to hear great things of Mr Kirby. The rest of the performers made up a concert of good average calibre.’

The Melba party sailed back into Sydney on 13 March. The country was still experiencing what is recognized as the worst drought it has ever endured. Melba had been moved by the devastation she had seen on earlier tours, so drought relief was a cause close to her heart. To raise funds, she and her party—including Walter—appeared at a hastily-arranged charity matinee at the Sydney Town Hall on 18 March. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 2800 people had packed the venue and that the proceeds—£700 [$105,500]—were the most yet raised at a charity concert.

On 11 April, almost on the eve of his long-delayed departure for Europe, Walter participated in an extraordinary Easter event staged in Wirth Brothers’ huge circus tent which was pitched in St Kilda Road, on the site of today’s Arts Centre Melbourne. ‘Bioscope views’ displayed on a large screen hung in the centre of the ring were mingled with mainly religious vocal items accompanied by a military band. The Age was shocked: ‘Most of the items were appropriate to the season, but the introduction of The “Zaza” Kiss, as displayed on the sheet [the screen], would have been in questionable taste at any part of the program, and following, as it did, a rendering of “The Lost Chord” it was almost revolting’.  This intriguing attraction, which had been teasingly advertised for many days, was apparently inspired by a controversial episode in the drama Zaza, then playing at the Princess.

A few days later, armed with funds for two years’ tuition, dozens of letters of introduction, and an adulatory testimonial from his recently recruited pupils, Walter took the train to Adelaide, where he boarded the fashionable French liner Ville de la Ciotat, bound for Marseilles.


To be continued.


Special thanks to:

Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library of Victoria; AusStage; Trove

Principal references:

Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002

Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976

Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990

John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967

Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016

Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001

John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951

Continuing our tribute to Australian playwright  Ray Lawler, who turned 100 on the 23 May 2021, FRANK VAN STRATEN takes a look at his life and legacy.

Ray LawlerRay Lawler, 1955; photograph by Henry Talbot. Henry Talbot collection, State Library Victoria, Melbourne. ‘By the mid-1950s, Ray Lawler was writing from his own bloodstream about the people he knew,’ wrote Zoe Caldwell; she was a member of the then recently established Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne, when Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was first produced. ‘His play was so extraordinary for all of us because it reflected an Australian sensibility quite apart from England. For decades Australia remained hell-bent on trying to imitate England, yet the sense of inferiority remained. Lawler was part of the change that was in the air. I felt for the first time the joy of using my own Aussie voice and speaking of places that I really knew, and at the same time knowing that the audience had the same experience. No conjuring up or imagining a world not ours. First Melbourne cheered, then Sydney, then all of Australia, and finally London. But nothing will ever be the same as that first time when a veil was lifted and communication was direct’.

Raymond Evenor Lawler was born in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray on 23 May 1921. At the age of 13 he left school and worked in a foundry. At the same time he studied acting at a school called Stage Door, run by an American, Sophie Graves. During the war she transformed it into the Stage Door Canteen for servicemen, while Lawler spent most of the war working 12-hour night shifts, squeezing in some writing during the day.

Towards the end of the war Lawler took a play called Hal’s Belles to Lorna Forbes and Syd Turnbull, who had established their Melbourne Repertory Theatre in a small disused cinema in Middle Park. Hal’s Belles was produced there in September 1945 with 19-year-old Frank Thring as Henry VIII; it was Lawler’s debut as a playwright, and Thring’s as an actor. Its success warranted a transfer to Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre in Eastern Hill. Lawler stayed with the National for a while. He acted in a number of their drama productions, but also had the satisfaction of seeing several more of his plays produced there, notably Storm in the Haven and Brief Return, which he wrote under the pseudonym Alan Sinclair.

Lawler’s professional career started in 1948 at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane, where Will Mahoney was presenting fortnightly-change revue. He became, he said, ‘secretary to Mr Mahoney, assistant stage manager, small-part walk on actor and general dogsbody.’ He also absorbed some of the material that he would later inform Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. After a year, Lawler retuned to Melbourne and the National. During the National’s 1949 drama season at the Princess he appeared as Feste in Twelfth Night. In 1951 he was one of six actors chosen for the National’s permanent professional drama company. Its repertoire was mainly unadventurous, but for Christmas 1951 Lawler devised, wrote and directed a pantomime version of St George and the Dragon. Lawler also played the witch’s servant. The Advocate said it was ‘as good as anything Barrie could have given us’.

In 1952 Lawler’s Cradle of Thunder won the National Theatre’s Australia-wide play competition. It was presented it at the Princess in the National’s 1952 Three Arts Festival. Lawler claimed that it was ‘only the tenth straight play by an Australian author produced on the professional stage in Australia in the past 35 years’. He directed and played the part of Cully, a Welsh seaman. George Fairfax, then 24, was the half-mad innkeeper. At the end of 1952 the National presented two more Lawler plays, Alas, Poor Ghost, a reworking of Hal’s Belles, and Ginger Meggs, a panto based on the beloved comic strip. Lawler wrote the book and lyrics and played the title role. The following year he provided the script for a spectacular Pageant of Royalty, staged at the Exhibition Building to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then set to work on The New Adventures of Ginger Meggs for Christmas. The Age credited with ‘a peculiar charm’.

In 1954 Lawler was recruited by John Sumner as an actor, writer and director for the second season of the Union Theatre Repertory Company, based at the University of Melbourne. He made his mark swiftly, most notably providing material for the Company’s first end-of-year ‘special’, a topical revue called Tram Stop 10! The season concluded with Lawler’s well received production of Twelfth Night, the UTRC’s first attempt at Shakespeare. In mid 1955 Sumner moved to Sydney to manage the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and Lawler took his place as director of the UTRC.

In 1954 Lawler had entered a new play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in a competition organised by the Playwrights’ Advisory Board. It shared the £200 first prize with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents but only reached the stage after much manoeuvring, largely because of Lawler’s reluctance to program one of his own works. Eventually, with the encouragement of the AETT, it was scheduled as part of the UTRC’s third season, and Sumner was released from his Sydney duties to direct it.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered at the University’s Union Theatre on 28 November 1955 with Roma Johnston (as Pearl), Fenella Maguire (Bubba), June Jago (Olive), Ray Lawler (Barney), Carmel Dunn (Emma), Noel Ferrier (Roo) and Malcolm Billings (Johnnie Dowd). The setting, by Anne Fraser, perfectly evoked the play’s setting, a terrace house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. Lawson’s sensitive exploration of mateship, ageing, change and the nature of happiness immediately won wide approval. Maguire, Jago and Lawler were retained for the Sydney season, which opened at the Elizabethan on 10 January 1956. The newcomers were Madge Ryan (Pearl), Ethel Gabriel (Emma), Lloyd Berrell (Roo) and John Llewellyn (Johnnie). This was followed by an extensive Trust tour in repertory with The Rivals and Twelfth Night. Lawler played Barney and Feste in Twelfth Night, and his wife, Jacklyn (Jackie) Kelleher, played Bubba for part of the run.

The next stop was London, where The Doll was presented under the auspices of Sir Laurence Olivier. After ‘running in’ in Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle, The Doll opened triumphantly at the New Theatre on 30 April 1957. Maguire, Ryan, Jago, Lawler and Gabriel repeated their roles, but there was a new Roo, Kenneth Warren, and a new Johnnie, Richard Pratt (yes, that Richard Pratt). In his first night curtain speech, Lawler quoted from the prologue to The Recruiting Officer, the first play performed in Australia: ‘True patriots all, for be it understood—We left our country for our country’s good.’

The Doll ran for 8½ months in London and received the Evening Standard ‘Play of the Year’ award. After its warm reception in Britain, its disastrous 29-performance New York season, at the Coronet from 22 January 1958, was a bitter anticlimax. So was the film version. Virtually everything was wrong: John Dighton’s adaptation reset the story in the more photogenic environs of Sydney, and contrived a ‘happy’ ending, while the producers, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, employed an English director, Leslie Norman, and assembled an oddly-accented international cast: Angela Lansbury (Pearl), Anne Baxter (Olive), John Mills (Barney) and Ernest Borgnine (Roo); the principal locals were Vincent Ball (Dowd), Janette Craig (Bubba) and Ethel Gabriel (Emma). In an ultimate insult, for its American release the film was crassly retitled Season of Passion.

Lawler’s next play, The Piccadilly Bushman, revolved around an expatriate actor’s return to Australia in an attempt to save his marriage. It had the unusual distinction of a commercial production by J.C. Williamson’s—who in 1944 had optioned but not produced one of Lawler’s earlier efforts. Directed by John McCallum, The Piccadilly Bushman played for eight weeks at the Comedy in Melbourne and another eight at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in 1959, but it could not match the success of The Doll.

Lawler and his family moved to Britain, and later to Ireland. In 1963 June Jago and Alfred Marks played in his The Unshaven Cheek at Newcastle and at the Edinburgh Festival, but for the next two decades Lawler’s focus was primarily on writing and adapting for television. His output—all for the BBC—includes A Breach in the Wall (1967), Before the Party with Anna Massey and Sinister Street (1969), Cousin Bette with Helen Mirren (1971), The Visitors (1972), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with Celia Johnson and Two Women (1973), and The Brotherhood with Ben Kingsley (1975). A theatrical version of A Breach in the Wall, a fantasy about the rediscovery of the body of Thomas à Becket, was staged at Canterbury in 1970.

Lawler returned to Australia for the staging of The Man Who Shot the Albatross, which the Melbourne Theatre Company premiered at the Princess on 14 October 1971 with John Sumner directing. Leo McKern, like Lawler an expatriate, played the irascible Governor Bligh at the time of the Rum Rebellion. In The Herald Gerald Mayhead said: ‘Does one expect too much? Like Bligh’s albatross, the weight of past brilliance hangs heavily on Mr Lawler’s neck.’ Nevertheless, the play did well in Melbourne and Canberra. The following year it was presented in Sydney and at the Adelaide Festival, and was televised by the ABC.

In 1974 John Sumner commissioned Lawler to write Kid Stakes. Set in 1937, it depicted the start of the relationships that culminated in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Kid Stakes premiered at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne on 2 December 1975. Its success encouraged Lawler to write Other Times, set in 1945, thus completing ‘The Doll Trilogy’. Other Times premiered on 14 December 1976; the three plays were then presented in repertory, with two memorable Saturdays on which all three were played in sequence, marathons which culminated in standing ovations. At the end of 1977 the Trilogy was directed for Channel Seven by Rod Kinnear. It was not screened until January 1979.

By this time Lawler had returned to Melbourne to live. He joined the MTC as artistic advisor, director, play assessor and occasional actor. His play Godsend, a reworking of A Breach in the Wall, was presented in 1982 but it was not a success. Lawler received an OBE in 1980 and retired seven years later.

The Doll, however, has not retired. It has been produced in translation around the world—including Der Sommer de 17. Puppe on West German television in 1968. The Melbourne Theatre Company revived it in 1962, 1977 and 1995—its fortieth anniversary. There have been countless other productions in all states. Rodney Fisher directed the Trilogy for the Sydney Theatre Company in 1985. Richard Wherrett’s STC production of The Doll played at the Pepisco Summerfare Festival in New York in 1988. He had previously directed it for Nimrod in 1973 and in 1996 directed an operatic adaptation commissioned by the Victoria State Opera. With music by Richard Mills and a libretto by Peter Goldsworthy, this premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival on 19 October 1996. There have been avant garde versions, too, such as Jean-Pierre Mignon’s anti-naturalistic interpretation for Anthill in Melbourne and at the 1988 Singapore Festival, and Jacqui Carroll’s pared down Doll Seventeen for Frank Theatre at the 2002 Brisbane Festival. In 1986 a group of NIDA graduates took a 50-minute version, approved by Lawler, to the Festival of Dramatic Colleges in Bratislava—and took first prize.

In December 2003, to mark the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 50th Anniversary, Ray Lawler presented his treasured Evening Standard Award trophy to the Australian Performing Arts Centre at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Critic Leonard Radic describes Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as Australian theatre’s finest play. ‘If Lawler had written nothing else,’ he says, ‘his position in Australian theatre history would still have been secure.’

© Frank Van Straten, 2007


Principal references

Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra. Text Publishing, 2001

Terence Clarke, ‘Benchmark play germinated theatre of a nation’ in Theatre Australasia, April 1955

Peter Fitzpatrick, ‘The Doll Trilogy’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995

John McCallum, ‘Ray Lawler’ and ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995

Leonard Radic, The State of Play. Penguin, 1991

John Sumner, Recollections at Play. Melbourne University Press, 1993

In February 2020 demolition of the Palace Theatre commenced and now all that stands is the building’s façade which is to be incorporated into a new development. With this act of vandalism, Melbourne loses another part of its theatre history. FRANK VAN STRATEN concludes his exploration of the long, colourful history of a much-missed Melbourne entertainment venue in this updated version of a series of articles that appeared in the THA magazine On Stage, 2000-2001.

The Apollo Theatre

1934 was the year of melbourne's centenary. To mark the occasion the theatre was redecorated and again renamed. It became the Apollo, in tribute to the Greek sun god. Although a new upper circle foyer was installed, the Bulletin was not impressed: ‘It is merely the old Palace with a fresh coat of paint and a new orange curtain, a winter garden and the biggest neon light in Australia to act as beacon’. The Apollo opened on 6 June with the George M. Cohan musical comedy The Merry Malones, directed by Ernest C. Rolls. American import Polly Moran had the lead in a cast that included Rene Maxwell and Alec Kellaway. The show was hopefully promoted thus: ‘Clean as a new pin, it makes the ideal treat for the children’. The Merry Malones was followed by an adventurous foray into grand opera in English, presented by a company of mainly British artists assembled in London by Sir Ben Fuller. The leading soprano was Florence Austral, an Australian returning from overseas triumphs. The season was inaugurated on 29 September with a performance of Aida with Austral in the title role. As the Bulletin observed, the intimacy of the Apollo was hardly appropriate: ‘Some of the pomp and magnificence which the Firm [J.C. Williamson’s] on other occasions has succeeded in including on the large expanse of His Majesty’s had to be left out. Only a skeleton force was allowed to participate in Radames’ triumphs’.

Australian star Marie Bremner replaced Polly Moran when The Merry Malones returned to brighten Christmas 1934. The following year brought a series of lavish Ernest C. Rolls shows: Rhapsodies of 1935 with Strella Wilson, Roy Rene (‘Mo’) and Renie Riano; Vogues of 1935 with Jennie Benson, Roy Rene, Gus Bluett and Thea Philips; and the Australian musical Flame of Desire. All had scores composed by Jack O’Hagan. In 1936 Mike Connors and Queenie Paul leased the Apollo to present the ubiquitous Roy Rene (‘Mo’) in two revues, The Laugh Parade and Top Speed. After Queenie, Mike and Roy moved around the corner to the Princess, the Apollo’s fare for the rest of the year was mainly a series of vintage musical comedies. These were presented under the aegis of Savoy Theatres Pty Ltd (a company controlled by Sir Benjamin Fuller and Garnet H. Carroll). The semi-permanent company was headed by Catherine Stewart (Mrs Garnet H. Carroll), Charles Norman and Rene Maxwell. They opened with a jolly George M. Cohan piece called Billie, and romped on with The O’Brien Girl, Vincent Youmans’ No, No, Nanette and the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face.

On 12 February 1937 Graham Mitchell, a Brisbane entrepreneur, extended his operations to the Apollo, presenting his ‘Serenaders’ company—including comedian Syd Beck and dancer Ronnie Hay—in a series of ‘new style vaudeville revuettes’.

In 1938 the radical New Theatre presented Irwin Shaw’s powerful anti-war play Bury the Dead at the Apollo for two controversial performances—these were on 12 and 14 November; there was a further performance at the Princess on 26 November. In 1939 the Apollo housed seasons of James M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton and Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound, staged by Gertrude Johnson’s fledgling National Theatre Drama Company.

After the outbreak of war, the public’s demand for escapist entertainment was met by entrepreneur Stanley McKay, who leased the Apollo for a series of revues starring Roy Rene and Sadie Gale. The last, Revels of Rhapsody, closed on 6 January 1940, an occasion marked by ‘The only appearance of Tango, the Only Dancing Dog in the World’. For the next few months the Apollo was used only occasionally, most notably, perhaps, on 5 March 1940 for a ‘happy and glorious mélange’ presented by the National Theatre to aid war charities. Local playwright Marjorie McLeod’s historical drama Within These Walls was presented by the Dramatists’ Club at the Apollo in May (it had been seen first at the Princess in 1936). In November 1940 the recently established Sydney-based Bodenwieser Ballet made its Melbourne debut at the Apollo. Unfamiliar with Melbourne life, they made the mistake of opening on Melbourne Cup Day. This, plus the competition offered by escapist fare at other theatres, ensured that the Bodenwieser’s first visit to Melbourne was a commercial disaster.

The St James Theatre

On 21 December 1940 the theatre was relaunched as a cinema, the St James—again named in line with a Sydney ‘sister’. Structural alterations provided access to all three levels via the front vestibule, and linking foyers did away with the old separate entrance for gallery patrons. ‘The policy of the St James,’ said the advertisements, ‘will be to present to a discriminating theatre-going public, through the agency of the latest Western-Electric Sound System, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures in an atmosphere of charm, unexcelled seating accommodation and luxurious appointments’. The St James became the second Melbourne home for M-G-M movies, and operated in conjunction with the Metro (the former Auditorium) in Collins Street. The inaugural double-feature programme was Andy Hardy Meets Debutante with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and Dulcie, with Ann Sothern.

The Metro Bourke Street

In 1947 M-G-M purchased the theatre and in 1951 renamed it the Metro Bourke Street. Architect H. Vivian Taylor was supervised some alterations, mainly centred on on the façade: what remained of the Edwardian original was covered in modern cream coloured cement render and a spectacular three-colour neon sign and bright marquee lighting were installed. And the disreputable billiard parlour that operated for years in the basement under the foyer was finally closed. Minor internal refurbishment included typical M-G-M ‘house’ carpeting and red plush upholstery. In 1954 the pairs of circle-level boxes were removed to permit the installation of a vast CinemaScope screen, which extended nearly the full width of the auditorium.

After over thirty years as a cinema, the Metro Bourke Street was leased by M-G-M to adventurous entrepreneur Harry M. Miller. By this time Sir Arthur Rylah, Victoria’s notoriously censorious Chief Secretary, was safely in retirement, and Miller wanted the Metro as a Melbourne venue for his production of the landmark rock musical Hair—complete with strong language and dimly-lit nudity. Coincidentally Hair had played in Sydney at the theatre’s ‘sister’ house, the Metro Kings Cross.

Brilliant young director Jim Sharman restaged the show for Melbourne, using new designs by Brian Thomson, whose innovations included a huge rainbow superimposed on the proscenium. The Melbourne season opened on 21 May 1971 with a cast including Reg Livermore and Marcia Hines.

Many of the Hair team were involved in Julian Slade’s adaptation of Winnie the Pooh, presented by Harry M. Miller for the 1971-2 holiday season. Sandra McKenzie directed, Brian Thomson designed the sets and Peter Narroway was musical director. Miller recalled sadly, ‘Like every other entertainment I have produced for children it was a costly failure.’ David Ravenswood, who played Pooh Bear, has warm memories of the theatre’s excellent acoustic: ‘It was a joy. You certainly didn’t need microphones.’

Harry M. Miller’s next Metro Bourke Street attraction was Butley, a contemporary British play by Simon Gray. ‘I had seen it in London with Alan Bates,’ said Miller, ‘and I grabbed too hastily for an available star name and signed Peter Wyngarde, who was having an enormous success in the TV series Department S. He was a charming fellow, but he had been too long away from the theatre, and had forgotten how to project. I closed the production without fuss—and lost a lot of money.’

Miller lost too on the 1950s rock musical Grease, in spite of a cast that included talents such as John Diedrich, John McTernan, Denise Drysdale, Tina Bursill and David Atkins. There was more disappointment with his next Metro show, a comedy called No Sex Please, We’re British! Miller mounted this as a starring vehicle for the popular American television clown Jonathan Daly. After only three weeks Daly walked out. His understudy, a local actor called Alan Kingsford Smith, took over but, good as he was, patrons stayed away. Miller’s last Metro offering was another comedy, Michael Pertwee’s Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something, with toothy British comedian Terry-Thomas in the lead. It too was a failure. ‘My zest for theatre production was diminishing,’ recalled Miller ruefully.

In 1973 the Metro was sold for $1,550,000. Its next owners, Kimaree Nominees Pty Ltd, bought it for a mere $600,000. During this time the theatre was used only intermittently—for instance for screenings of the film of the Kirov Ballet’s Swan Lake and for the Rock Film Festival in the last months of 1973, for which a 2000-watt sound system was installed.

The Palace Theatre—3

In 1974 the theatre came under the management of the Seven Keys Group, who relaunched it as a cinema, with the name Palace restored. Seven Keys’ Chairman, Andrew J. Gaty, explained, ‘Redecoration has been aimed at producing an interior nearer to the plush days of cream paint, gilt and red velvet, as is the proper décor for a theatre.’ In the Sun, Keith Dunstan reported that Seven Keys were installing ‘red plush wallpaper, enormous antique mirrors, busts of marble topless ladies holding lamps, statues, and loads of potted palms.’ The gently comic Peter Sellers film The Optimists was chosen to reopen the old theatre on 16 August 1974. Sadly, Seven Keys’ venture was not a success. In 1977 live performances returned briefly when Jonathan Taylor’s Australian Dance Theatre made its Melbourne debut at the Palace on 27 September.

After the building was sold by auction on 28 March 1980 a demolition permit was issued, but the proposed development did not proceed. Instead it was purchased by the Melbourne Revival Centre and became a major venue for their services. Their musical play Jonah was presented at the Palace several times.

The Melbourne Metro Nightclub

In 1986 the Revivalists sold the theatre for $4 million and transferred their meetings to the Forum (the former State) in Flinders Street. The new owner was Metro Palace Pty Ltd, whose directors, Sam and George Frantzeskos, were well known in the nightclub scene, having run the popular Inflation nightclub in King Street with notable success.

Biltmoderne, the controversial, flamboyant Melbourne architectural firm that had also designed Inflation, was commissioned to transform the 75-year-old building into ‘The Melbourne Metro’—a vast, classy disco/nightclub with eight bars, a licensed restaurant and one of the largest dance floors in Australia. Biltmoderne was a practice headed by trio of innovative and abrasive young architects, Roger Wood, Dale Jones-Evans and Randal Marsh, all only in their late twenties. Never far from headlines, talkback radio and the art world, they were experts at feather ruffling and self-promotion.

The redevelopment involved the removal of every architectural feature from the end of the balconies to the rear stage wall. The old foyers, balconies, domed ceiling and the top of the proscenium were retained. The auditorium floor was levelled and the stage was greatly reduced in depth. Above it a new mezzanine floor was installed. This was connected to the existing balconies by a series of steel walkways and stairways passing through towers supporting moveable hydraulic arms with computer-controlled lights attached.

Architect Roger Wood said, ‘It was a conscious decision to reinstate the festive and slightly kitsch nature of the theatre. Contemporary techniques were employed to continue forms similar to the circles. The use of draping silver metal has the elegance of the curving balconies. The walkways extending from the balconies are of mild steel, painted silver in the spirit of the design, and they extend the architectural towers and walkways into a robot-like form that can be animated. The auditorium is split into levels and cascades down to the timber floor and back up to the stage.’ The budget for the refurbishment, including the spectacular lighting designed by Nathan Thompson and Warehouse Systems’ 10,000-watt sound system, was reported to be $10 million.

On 25 November 1987, 4500 people packed the 75-year-old building to celebrate the opening of Metro Melbourne. By this time, however, its designers, Biltmoderne, had disintegrated in a predictable flurry of controversy. Their bricks-steel-and-mortar legacy, though, was an instant success. Metro Melbourne was the place to go. Molly Meldrum was a regular. Stevie Wonder wandered in. The venue offered glitz and glamour and good times in a heightened theatrical atmosphere that would have stunned James Brennan, left Ernest C. Rolls gasping and made Harry M. Miller envious. At last, Cinderella had come to the ball.

Over the ensuing thirteen years, over six million patrons visited the Melbourne Metro. It housed many international concert acts including Moby, Fatboy Slim, Prodigy, Hole, Chemical Brothers and Culture Club. The auditorium could stage virtually anything, from concerts, product launches and corporate functions to fashion parades, and its stunning series of dance floors could accommodate more than 1000 dancers. On the venue’s first level was the plush Rebar, which also provided a stage for comedians and budding karaoke stars. 1970s and 80s disco and retro featured in The Gods’ Bar, which was virtually ‘a club within a club’. Located in the old theatre gallery, The Gods’ had pool tables, a small stage for live bands, and spectacular views into the dance areas.

The Metro offered four different genres of entertainment: On Thursdays, ‘Goo’ attracted a young crowd who danced and listened to the latest alternative releases, and live bands performed in the Mosh Pit. ‘Discotech’ on Fridays featured dance anthems and house disco. Saturday nights brought ‘Pop’ with current dance and classic dance tracks from the 1970s to the 2000s. ‘Time’, usually on Saturdays and Wednesdays, was Melbourne’s premier supervised alcohol-free event for underage patrons.

Late in 1999 Sam and George Frantzeskos sold the Metro to Lion Nathan. Architects Wood/Marsh Pty Ltd (Biltmoderne’s Roger Wood and Randal Marsh) were contracted to upgrade the building. The bar areas were redesigned and a new internal walkway improved circulation in the auditorium.

Live music venue

In 2007 the operators of St Kilda’s Palace nightclub bought the Metro and relaunched it as a live music venue with a capacity of 1850. Over the next seven years it successfully staged popular acts such as George Clinton, The Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys and The Killers.

Final curtain

In late 2012 the venerable entertainment venue it was sold yet again, this time to the Chinese developer Jinshan Investment Group for $11.2 million. They planned to replace the theatre with a $180 million 30-storey W Hotel—a proposal that generated opposition from the city council and, especially, from Melbourne’s music community. Eventually the proposed hotel was reduced to seven storeys, and the Palace closed its doors in April 2014. Nevertheless, the fight to save the building continued in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but in early 2016, after many months of deliberation, the decision was made to allow demolition and redevelopment. An appeal was unsuccessful. Demolition began in February 2020 and is now complete. All that remains is the theatre’s Bourke Street façade, which will be incorporated into the new building—a sad, inglorious end for Melbourne’s historic ‘Cinderella’ theatre.


Principal references

Katharine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

Seymour Hicks, Hello Australians, Duckworth, London, 1925

Shona Dunlop MacTavish, An Ecstasy of Purpose, Shona Dunlop MacTavish, Dunedin, 1987

Alison Gyger, Opera For the Antipodes, Currency Press, Sydney, 2000

Harry M. Miller, My Story, The Macmillan Company of Australia, South Melbourne, 1983

Elisabeth Kumm, ‘What’s in a Name?’ in CinemaRecord magazine, August 1995

Fred Page, ‘Metro Bourke Street’, in Kino magazine, September 1989

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

Ada Reeve, Take It For a Fact, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1954

Charles Waller, Magical Nights in the Theatre, Gerald Taylor, Melbourne, 1980

John West, Theatre in Australia, Cassell Australia, 1978


Programmes, clippings and research files in the Australia Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Additional information provided by Anna Kimba and Robyn Hoyland of Melbourne Metro Nightclub, John Bick, Dr Mimi Colligan, Graeme Haigh of Grajohn Genealogical Services, Sydney, Mrs Elaine Marriner, Martin Powell, David Ravenswood, the late Maurice Scott, the late John West, the late Alex Young.

BOOK REVIEW: Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand, Cinema and Theatre Historical Society Inc.

Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New ZealandSignificant Country Theatres of Australia and New ZealandON THE GREAT EASTERN HIGHWAY, about halfway between Perth and Kalgoorlie, is Merredin, a former gold mining town in the heart of Western Australia’s wheatbelt. Remarkably, its population of around 2800 people support a thriving 500-seat theatre, the Cummins. This is just one of nearly sixty intriguing venues covered in a new book, Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand, published by our colleagues at the Melbourne-based Cinema and Theatre Historical Society Inc.

The Cummins has a particularly fascinating history. It was built as a silent cinema in 1928 by James Cummins, a local brewer and former Mayor of Kalgoorlie. It was constructed largely from elements recycled from the dismantled Tivoli Theatre in Coolgardie, which dated from 1897.

The Cummins was the second cinema in the state to be wired for sound, and the sixth in Australia. Refurbished several times, it continued as a cinema until 1973, when it was purchased by the local shire. It is now used as a live venue by the Merredin Repertory Club and by visiting artists: AC/DC, Slim Dusty, Marcia Hines, the Wiggles, Johnny O’Keefe and even David Helfgott have played the Cummins.

It is this element of discovery that makes the new CATHS book so fascinating. Each theatre is given a page with a thumbnail history, four of five pictures (most of them in colour), and details such as opening date, seating capacity, and current status. It’s good to see that many of the theatres are operational, either as live venues, cinemas, or adapted for community use. A few, sadly, have been demolished.

A number of the venues featured are the work architects best known for their major city theatres. Charles N. Hollinshed, for example, who worked on Melbourne’s Comedy, the Maj 1934 interior, the Auditorium and the Village, Toorak, also designed the now-demolished Corio Theatre in Geelong, the Princess in Launceston and the 1570-seat Regent in Palmerston North, New Zealand, which is reminiscent of his concept for the Comedy. Another prolific theatre architect, Henry Eli White, remembered for his work on Melbourne’s Palace, Princess, Athenaeum and Palais theatres and Sydney’s State and much-lamented Regent, is also credited with Newcastle’s elegant Civic, Townsville’s Winter Garden and the Theatre Royal in Timaru, New Zealand.

Most of the venues date from the Twenties and Thirties, but there are some surprisingly early survivors, such as Her Majesty’s, Ballarat (1875), the Australia in Orange, NSW (1886), and the Gaiety in Zeehan, Tasmania (1898). The most recent is the multi-purpose Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs (1984). It’s built on the site of the Alice’s first aerodrome (1939) and incorporates some of the original buildings.

Somewhat bizarrely, we can thank the COVID lockdown for Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand. It was CATHS’ way of compensating members for the suspension of their regular Sunday morning get-togethers at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville. Most of the images have been provided by CATHS members and are now preserved in the vast CATHS archive, which is housed at the Prahran Mechanics Institute.

Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand is a quality production and, at only $20 (postage included), it’s extremely good value.

For details of how to obtain a copy, visit the CATHS website:

Wednesday, 03 March 2021

Mystery Portrait by Joan Scardon

Scardon smlThis haunting portrait is the work of Joan Scardon, whose inventive costume designs for Ernest C. Rolls' 1935 revues are featured in my recent book Hanky-Panky, the story of maverick producer Rolls and his wife, revue artiste Jenny Benson.

Joan was the daughter of Melbourne-born Hollywood-based film director Paul Scardon (real name William James Raper). She was born in the US in 1913, but in the mid 1930s she lived in Melbourne, studying art and performing with expressionist dancer Sonia Revid. In 1941 she became the second wife of eminent Russian-American violinist and conductor Mishel Piastro. She died in New York in 2003, aged 90.

Joan's step daughter, Leslie Piastro Askwith, who generously made Joan's original costume designs available for reproduction in the book, is keen to establish the identity of the person in the portrait, which she thinks dates from Joan's time in the artistic milieu of mid-1930s Melbourne.

 Any ideas, theories or suggestions will be very welcome!

In February 2020 demolition of the Palace Theatre commenced and now all that stands is the building’s façade which is to be incorporated into a new development. With this act of vandalism, Melbourne loses another part of its theatre history. FRANK VAN STRATEN explores the long, colourful history of a much-missed Melbourne entertainment venue in this updated version of a series of articles that appeared in the THA magazine On Stage, 2000-2001.

Few melburnians are aware of the long, colourful theatrical history of the building that once stood at the top of Bourke Street that, in the recent past, was known as the Melbourne Metro Nightclub and the Palace.

The building dated from 1912, when it was opened by James Brennan, a Sydney-based bookmaker and boxing promoter turned vaudeville entrepreneur. In 1906 Manchester-born Brennan had transformed his ‘National Sporting Club’—a Castlereagh Street boxing stadium—into ‘Brennan’s National Amphitheatre’, offering local vaudeville acts at rock-bottom prices, in competition with Harry Rickards’ higher class bills at the Tivoli, almost next door. The following year he extended his interests to Melbourne, leasing the Gaiety Theatre in the Palace Hotel complex in Bourke Street.

Brennan’s success in Melbourne encouraged him to build his own theatre. His float of a public company with 100,000 £1 shares was oversubscribed by £35,000. He acquired a 1454 square metre site at 20 Bourke Street, just around the corner from the Princess Theatre in Spring Street, and a couple of blocks up the hill from Melbourne’s other Vaudeville houses, the Tivoli, the Bijou and the Gaiety. From 1860 to 1900 the Excelsior Hotel occupied this site. Its successor, the Douglas Hotel, was destroyed by fire in 1911.

Brennan’s Amphitheatre

Brennan’s new building boasted an elaborate three-storey Art Nouveau style façade, dominated by a huge semi-circular stained-glass window at second storey level. This was flanked by jolly illuminated clown figures. The façade was topped by a large plaster mask-like face. Behind the façade were the theatre’s foyers and lounges, with a basement underneath. At the rear, the stage and dressing room section rose to four stories. On the west side of the building, on a separate title, was a three-storey ‘attachment’ containing two flats, built over the first section of a dog’s leg right-of-way that led from Bourke Street via Harwood Place to Little Bourke Street. Exits from the east side of the auditorium opened into L-shaped Turnbull Alley, which led to Spring Street. The scenery access was located at the upstage opposite-prompt corner of the stage, adjacent to the stage door and the stairways that led to the dressing rooms. Backstage access was from a narrow, semi-private and apparently un-named lane running from Little Bourke Street, east of Harwood Place.

The Bulletin reported that the new auditorium was simply a plain white room with a single raked floor of seating, and a small balcony at the rear. The theatre could accommodate seating for ‘2000 people any night they care to pay the price of admission. The cost of the building is set down at £32 000 and none of the money was wasted on interior decoration. The balcony is placed as in the buildings where the cinematograph unwinds itself eternally, but whether this is accepted as an improvement on the old horseshoe brand of gallery there is no means of knowing yet. Up to the present Jim and Liz merely look upon it as a novelty.’

The Argus covered the opening night, Easter Saturday, 6 April 1912: ‘The building is in excellent taste, the white interior being unrelieved except by the electric blue of the covered chairs. The star attraction is Prince Charles, ‘the almost man’. Prince Charles attracted a remarkable amount of curiosity in Sydney recently, and will no doubt be a decided draw at the amphitheatre [the prince was, in fact, a superbly trained chimp]. Johnson and Wells, American singers and dancers, appeared with success; and George Stephenson’s Wanderers, a musical comedy costume troupe, will certainly have a long run. Interesting lightning-change turns were provided by Miss Eva Mudge, who has recently appeared in London with success. Miss Maud Courtney, a serio-comic artist from the Palace, London, gave some pleasing songs. Mr Maurice Chenoweth, a tenor, sang with some success and ‘Mr C.’ was appreciated as a raconteur.’ ‘Mr C.’ was the husband of Miss Courtney; he later found fame as Finlay Currie, a respected character actor in British movies.

The National Amphitheatre

Brennan’s regime at his new Amphitheatre lasted exactly one night! Monday’s papers carried advertisements indicating that the theatre was now under the management of Brennan’s rival, Benjamin Fuller, to whom Brennan had sold his circuit: ‘The new National Amphitheatre, a family resort, appealing and catering to every class of the community, as Vaudeville does in the United States and England. The whole world ransacked for your pleasure. Artistic acts of merit drawn from everywhere. Nothing too good for the National Amphitheatre, with popular prices, comfortable seating, perfect acoustic properties and ventilation. Having made you welcome and comfortable, The Play’s The Thing’.

Though occasionally the Amphitheatre had drawcards like musical comedy star Carrie Moore and, in December 1912, a rare indoor season by the E.I. Cole’s Bohemian Dramatic Company, most of its bills were pedestrian, especially in comparison to the starry offerings at its Vaudeville rival, the Tivoli. Patronage was disappointing and soon silent films, for which the venue’s austere interior was more suitable, replaced live performers.

The Palace Theatre

In 1916 the Fullers engaged architect Henry E. White, FIA, FNZIA, and interior decorator H.J. Hawkinson to convert the building into ‘The Grandest and Most Up-to-Date Theatre in Melbourne’. White, a New Zealander, was a noted theatre specialist, responsible for dozens theatres and cinemas in Australia and his homeland.

The reworked theatre was to be known as the Palace, in line with a ‘sister’ house in Sydney. The three-level interior was reminiscent of the Grand Opera House in Sydney, which White had recently refurbished, and the Majestic in Newtown, which he designed in 1917, would be virtually the Palace’s twin. The dress circle and gallery were supported on only two slim columns, one behind the other—a vast improvement on earlier theatres, such as the New Opera House (Tivoli) of 1901, which were marred by forests of pillars. The gallery boasted padded and backed seats. On either side of the proscenium White placed six boxes and above it a classical-style relief depicting musicians. The décor was said to be in the style of Louis XVI. The stage had a counterweight system permitting up to 13 backdrops to be changed swiftly. The remodelling was reported to have cost £20 000.

The Argus reported: ‘A new theatre, the Palace, opened on Saturday [4 November 1916] with one of those musical comedy mixtures known as revues. The building, formerly known as the Amphitheatre, has been transformed into a luxurious, modern theatre, with stalls, dress circle and upper circle, providing accommodation for 1700 people. The decoration has been tastefully done in brown and gold, and the Palace has been made one of the most comfortable and attractive theatres in the city. The opening bill, a happy, snappy musical comedy of school life entitled The Flirting Widow comprises singing, dancing, choruses and comic business in the approved revue fashion. It was a bright, jolly medley, with some good comic situations in it.’

The Palace existed on a diet of revue, drama and, occasionally, films. From 1917 Ben and John Fuller’s Dramatic Players, headed by Nellie Bramley and Austen Milroy, presented extended seasons of weekly-change lurid melodrama—pieces like When London Sleeps, A Lady of Twilight and In a Man’s Grip.

In April 1922 English favourite Ada Reeve starred at the Palace in the London revue Spangles. She reminisced: ‘How we broke the long-run record for musical productions in Melbourne is part of theatrical history. The Palace Theatre was then by no means as attractive as it later became. It had for years been associated with Fullers’ stock melodrama at cheap prices, and it was usually referred to in terms of the deepest disrespect, even by the roughest of its galleryites. The extraordinary popularity of the show in that unfavourable environment exploded all preconceived theories. It was at the time, I think, the only revue that had really caught on in Melbourne.’

The [New] Palace Theatre

Early in 1923 White was back, this time to redecorate the auditorium and foyers in what had become his ‘trademark’ Adam style, used a short time before for the much admired refurbishment of the neighbouring Princess Theatre. A huge stained-glass illuminated dome dominated the elegant new lobby. The Age reported that ‘Practically the whole of the space above the entrance is to be converted into a dress circle foyer. Opening off the foyer there will be a ladies’ lounge and a gentlemen’s smoking room. Similar apartments are to be provided on the ground floor for the use of stalls patrons. The auditorium is to be remodelled, and the present boxes will be replaced by others in which an elaborate scheme of decorative glass will be incorporated. For the walls and ceiling a Louis XI [sic] decorative scheme is now being designed. For the seating, upholstery fabric and art curtains of a rich ochre gold colour purchased in England by Mr Hugh J. Ward will be used. The colour scheme of the interior decoration has been plotted to conform to this tone’.

The Age also announced that ‘an imposing front in which a large copper awning and an artistic frieze of glass and metal will be prominent is to be put in. This front will embrace the present entrance and one of the adjoining shops.’ Though this exterior work was not undertaken, the designs are preserved in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

In its coverage of the reopening on 31 March 1923, the Argus reported: ‘As soon as the pantomime ended large bands of workmen took possession of the former Palace Theatre, stripped most parts of it to the brick, and in other parts left far less than that. On Saturday night [31 March 1923] playgoers found themselves in a beautiful new theatre. It was worthy to be a companion house to the Princess, which Mr White had transformed a few months before. The architect has improved considerably on his own alterations of six years before. The general effect is light and spacious. This has been aided by removing the 12 boxes of the older type, and substituting four open ones. The auditorium has some general resemblance to that of the Princess in the placing of the boxes and the illumination of the proscenium, but there are variations of detail, and the period chosen is Louis XV [sic]. Some of the arrangements on Saturday night were temporary. There will be different ornamental glass in the proscenium, and drapings and carpets will be varied in accordance with the general scheme of shades of orange, with occasional touches of blue. There is a fine curtain of old gold. As at the Princess, the uniforms of the attendants are part of the colour arrangement. One of the new features is a spacious foyer, with great doors forming a wall of glass. These may be thrown open for coolness, to give admittance to a balcony overlooking the street. Novel and artistic lighting arrangements have been provided.’

At that time the Palace and the Princess were both under the management of Hugh J. Ward Theatres—a partnership between Ward and Sir Ben and John Fuller. Though they were oriented in opposite directions, the theatres’ stages were virtually side-by-side. A passageway and stairway led up from the prompt side of the Princess’ understage to a door that opened onto the narrow lane that ran behind the Palace’s rear wall, not far from the latter’s stage door. This is the origin of the legendary ‘tunnel’ that was said to allow performers to appear in shows in both theatres; in fact, it was designed more for the two theatres to share backstage personnel.

Hugh J. Ward stated that his ‘inspiring objective’ was to present ‘Perfect Plays in Perfect Playhouses—such as the New Princess (‘The Theatre Beautiful’) and the New Palace (‘The House Exquisite’)’ His productions would be presented in ‘an atmosphere of ornate yet refined luxury’. Further, ‘One result of the Great Renaissance has been the shifting of Melbourne’s Theatrical Hub. The centre of gravity is now and for all time definitely fixed in Spring Street and the east end of Bourke Street. This will give the locality the same international prestige as is now accorded to the West End of London and Broadway in New York.’

The first attraction in ‘in the Second Pearl in the Lustrous Girdle with which Mr Hugh J. Ward is to adorn the Australian Stage’ was the contemporary mystery thriller Bulldog Drummond, with English import G.H. Mulcaster in the title role. After this Australian sisters Lorna and Toots Pounds starred in the revue Rockets, followed by the great Australian musical comedy star Dorothy Brunton, first in a farce called Tons of Money, and then as Silverbell in Mother Goose, the pantomime for Christmas 1923. Frank Neil directed, and thus started his long connection with the Palace.

The distinguished British actor-manager-playwright Seymour Hicks and his wife, Ellaline Terris, began an Australian tour at the Palace on 23 February 1924 in The Man in Dress Clothes, a French comedy that Hicks had adapted and produced. Their repertoire also included Sleeping Partners, Scrooge, The Love Habit and Old Bill, MP. Hicks later wrote that ‘all Australian theatres are very fine. Most of them are on the large side, which is bad of course for the playing of intimate comedy, but some of them are far finer than those in the English provinces, and a few more than hold their own with a number of our London houses. Australians have a virile and healthy theatre habit like the really splendid London audiences of twenty-five years ago, when playgoers thought more of the piece they were going to see than the dinner they were eating.’

The American lawyer-turned-illusionist Carter the Great played the Palace in 1924, as well as Allan Wilkie and his peripatetic Shakespeareans and the Midnight Frolics revue company led by Eric Edgley and Clem Dawe in January 1925.

In 1925 actor-manager Frank Neil, in partnership with Maurice Tuohy, leased the Palace for a season of melodrama. Poor houses forced them to turn to farce. They opened with Charley’s Aunt and developed a repertoire of perennial audience-pleasers like Are You a Mason? and The Nervous Wreck. Neil and his company toured widely but returned again and again to the Palace over the next few years. On 26 December 1925 the Palace welcomed The Music Box Revue, with its mainly forgettable Irving Berlin score supplemented by the evergreen ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’.

1926 brought Chefalo, an Italian-born magician, and an obscure British musical called Our Liz, which had lasted only one week when it had premiered in London. The Australian production was notable only for the rare appearance of dramatic actor Nellie Bramley in a singing role.

In 1927 the indefatigable actor-manager Kate Howarde, famous for her play Possum Paddock, presented its successor, Gum Tree Gully, and Philip Lytton, best known for the dramas that his company toured under canvas, produced a stage version of The Sheik, adapted from the same novel that had given Rudolph Valentino his greatest role.

Early in 1928 entrepreneur Stuart O’Brien leased the Palace for a season of plays including the classic American comedy Three Live Ghosts. November brought the farce When Knights Were Bold presented by Richard White and Eric Edgley. In mid 1929 Gladys Moncrieff and her husband, Tom Moore, decided to invest a substantial amount of the money Gladys had earned in Rio Rita in their own production company. With cavalier disregard for superstition, Gladys Moncrieff and Tom Moore Productions debuted at the Palace on 13 June 1929 with ‘a sensational play of the air’, The Zeppelin Terror. The ‘Terror’ of the title was apparently Mr Moore’s invention, as the piece had played on Broadway—albeit briefly—as merely Zeppelin. This was followed in August with a ‘chilling, thrilling, killing mystery’, The Gorilla. The venture failed. Gladys and her husband lost everything, including their marriage. So bitter for her was the experience that Glad failed to mention it in her autobiography.

As the introduction of ‘talkies’ started to seriously erode audiences for live theatre, management of the Palace passed from one sub-lessee to another. In October 1929 the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Depression made things even more difficult. Towards the end of 1929 Gregan McMahon transferred his repertory company from the Bijou to the Palace with some success, as the Bulletin noted: ‘McMahon’s counterblast to the talkies is prospering marvellously at the Palace. The house was full of students of the intellectual drama.’ McMahon was still in residence with A Message From Mars when the Fuller management announced its capitulation to the new medium: their theatres would be ‘wired for sound’. As soon as McMahon’s season closed on 14 December the electricians moved in.

Advertisements on Boxing Day, 1929, announced ‘An auspicious event in talking picture presentation: Opening today, the sensation of the Talking Screen, Radio Pictures’ masterpiece Street Girl, the 100 per cent Singing, Talking and Musical Production headed by Betty Compson. In choosing the Palace for their initial talking pictures presentation Sir Benjamin and John Fuller did so with the knowledge of the intimacy and proportions of architectural design that will bring perfection in sound reproduction.’ The Palace weathered the Depression by remaining a cinema until 1931. It reopened on 31 October 1931 with an Ernest C. Rolls revue called, hopefully, Bright Side Up with Gus and Fred Bluett and Jennie Benson. They also starred in the next revue, The League of Happiness.

In April 1932 Nellie Bramley commenced a 67-week run of weekly-change drama. Her profit of £2000 was ‘absorbed in paying off old losses’. In 1933 the illusionist Chefalo was back. On 23 September that year Frank Neil opened a revue called Pleasure Bound starring the celebrated male impersonator Ella Shields (‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’). George Wallace joined the troupe three weeks into the run.

In May 1934 Francis W. Thring presented his Efftee Players, including Ada Reeve and a youngster called Coral Brown (no final ‘e’ back then!), in Christa Winsloe’s disturbing anti-Hitler play Children in Uniform. Directed by Gregan McMahon, this was a transfer from the Garrick Theatre in South Melbourne. After this the Palace welcomed back illusionist Carter the Great, on the last of his many visits to Australia. It was a disaster. Charles Waller remembered: ‘I saw him at a matinee when, with circle and gallery closed, the entire audience was strung along the centre aisle of the stalls. Being the trouper that he was, he went through the entire show with all his old ease and smoothness of manner. He died in Bombay two years later.’


To be concluded in the next issue


Principal references

Katharine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

Seymour Hicks, Hello Australians, Duckworth, London, 1925

Shona Dunlop MacTavish, An Ecstasy of Purpose, Shona Dunlop MacTavish, Dunedin, 1987

Alison Gyger, Opera For the Antipodes, Currency Press, Sydney, 2000

Harry M. Miller, My Story, The Macmillan Company of Australia, South Melbourne, 1983

Elisabeth Kumm, ‘What’s in a Name?’ in CinemaRecord magazine, August 1995

Fred Page, ‘Metro Bourke Street’, in Kino magazine, September 1989

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

Ada Reeve, Take It For a Fact, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1954

Charles Waller, Magical Nights in the Theatre, Gerald Taylor, Melbourne, 1980

John West, Theatre in Australia, Cassell Australia, 1978


Programmes, clippings and research files in the Australia Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Additional information provided by Anna Kimba and Robyn Hoyland of Melbourne Metro Nightclub, John Bick, Dr Mimi Colligan, Graeme Haigh of Grajohn Genealogical Services, Sydney, Mrs Elaine Marriner, Martin Powell, David Ravenswood, the late Maurice Scott, the late John West, the late Alex Young.


Saturday, 06 June 2020

The Two Thomas Trap

With special thanks to Bill Egan.


Edna ThomasSir John Longstaff’s 1925 portrait of the singing Edna Thomas. On display at Castlemaine Art Gallery. From the collection of Clunes Museum.When I reviewed Bill Egan’s wonderful book African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A History, 1788-1941 for On Stage, I fell into the deadly Two Thomas trap: I mentioned that Bill had omitted Edna Thomas, ‘The Lady from Louisiana’, who made very successful concert tours of Australia in 1924 and 1925. It transpires that Bill was aware of this Edna’s Australian visit, but he omitted her from his book because he thought she was white. And he was right.

Like many other writers and historians, I assumed that this was the same Edna Thomas who enjoyed a long, notable career on the New York stage. Now, after relentless delving into dependable archives, Bill has determined that there were, remarkably, two virtually contemporaneous Edna Thomases, and that their careers have been confused and conflated by many eminent authorities.

The first was Edna Lewis Thomas. Born Edna Lewis in Lawrenceville, Virginia, on 1 November 1885, she was of mixed race, light skinned, and identified as African American. Around 1914 she married black talent manager Lloyd Carter Thomas and she became a noted actor in what was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Following her stage debut with the black theatre company the Lafayette Players in Turn to the Right (1920), her subsequent prestigious Broadway stage credits include Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ controversial ‘voodoo’ production of Macbeth (1936), Lavinia in Androcles and the Lion (1938), Sukey in Elia Kazan’s production of Harriet with Helen Hayes (1943), Mamie McIntosh in José Ferrer’s production of Strange Fruit (1945) and the Mexican Woman in Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a role she repeated in the 1951 film, her only screen appearance.

Edna supported her husband during the difficult Depression years, but from about 1930 she developed a lesbian relationship with Olivia Wyndham, an aristocratic British society photographer distantly related to Oscar Wilde. In 1930 Wyndham married a gay much-married British-American, Howland Spencer, though the marriage lasted barely a year. From then on, Edna, Lloyd and Olivia lived together in an apparently happy ménage à trois. Edna Carter Thomas died in New York City on 22 July 1974. She was 88.

Our second Edna Thomas was white. She was born Edna Alice Gery on 13 March 1888, in New Orleans, Louisiana—hence her billing as ‘The Lady from Louisiana’. She married Albert George Thomas in New Orleans on 30 October 1907. A mezzo-soprano, this Edna developed a large repertoire of ‘creole negro songs’ and ‘spirituals’. As she explained: ‘It was from my black mammy, Ninna, who reared me, that I first learned the negro spirituals. “Sperrituals” she calls them. She has been in our family so long that she insists that her name is Dare, same as my grandmother's, “Forginny Davis Dare is my name,” she says. From London last year I sent her a letter addressed “Miss Virginia Davis Dare, alias Ninna”, and she was mighty offended. “Oh, Mis’ Ella,” she said to my mother, “that alias is no good. Only criminals have dem aliases.”’

Successful forays to Great Britain in 1923 and 1924 culminated in a reported 12-week season at the London Coliseum. This was followed by her first Australian visit. She was brought to this country by J.C. Williamson’s, and although it was originally announced that she would appear on the Tivoli Circuit, which was then controlled by Williamson’s, she made her debut on a JCW variety bill at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal. On 15 September 1924 the Age reported: ‘The large audience at the Theatre Royal on Saturday night was treated to a delightful new turn. Edna Thomas, a pleasingly old-fashioned ‘lady from Louisiana’ received a remarkable reception. Her selections of plantation songs and negro spirituals, rendered in a rich contralto with the warm inflection of the Southern American States, were a great relief from the harsh jazz exhibitions, the usual offering, of her countrymen. Her quaint crinoline costume, reminiscent of the old colonial days, added the necessary atmosphere. The most pleasing item was a lullaby in the negro Creole patois.’

For reasons not yet established, Williamson’s presented Edna Thomas only in Melbourne. In Sydney she appeared not as part of a variety bill, but in concerts under the management of J.E. ‘Jack’ Brownlow. She made her Sydney debut at the Town Hall on 28 October 1924 in a concert broadcast by Radio 2FC. Most of Edna’s later Sydney concerts were presented in the Theosophical Society’s new Adyar Hall in Bligh Street, which had opened on 5 October (on 11 May 1929 the remodelled hall reopened as the Savoy Theatre). A farewell Adyar Hall recital on 13 December was so well attended that a ‘positively final’ second farewell followed two days later.

After this Edna returned to the United States, but only briefly. She was brought back by entrepreneur E.J. Carroll for a tour that started in Wellington, New Zealand, on 14 April 1925. She gave 45 concerts in New Zealand before her second visit to Australia, which opened with a recital at the Sydney Town Hall on 1 August 1925. Concerts in Melbourne (at the Athenaeum), Adelaide and several country centres followed. Even Melba was entranced. ‘I want everybody to go and hear her,’ she told the press. ‘She has a beautiful voice; rich and well-trained. Hers is the art that conceals art.’ The tour finished with a farewell concert in Sydney on 5 December 1925.

In 1933, in New York, singing Edna married for the second time. Her new husband was 58-year-old Warner Dare Huntington. After this, she appears to have retired from the concert platform. Details of her death are unknown. Her many records for the Columbia label attest to her artistry and several of her tracks—recorded almost a century ago—are now available on YouTube.

And to close the case, it’s recorded that in March 1925 the acting Edna was appearing with Paul Robeson at New York’s 52nd Street Theatre in revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and The Dreamy Kid, while the singing Edna was in San Francisco, from whence, on 20 March, she sailed for Wellington in the Maunganui.

As Bill notes: ‘Basically this new research clearly establishes that the Edna Thomas who performed in Australia was white and therefore not eligible for coverage in my book. Once this is established some other things fall into place, such as why the extensive biographical material on Edna Lewis Thomas in sources such as the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press’s Harlem Renaissance Lives, and Bruce Kellner’s Dictionary of the Harlem Renaissance make no reference to her as a singer of spirituals (of course, she wasn’t!).

‘While I am pleased that is now cleared up, I am a little bit disappointed it obviates the need for an article explaining why a prominent African American performer was passing for white in Australia and New Zealand in 1924-1925.’


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

African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A history, 1788-1941African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A history, 1788-1941 by Bill EganBOOK REVIEW: African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A history, 1788-1941 by Bill Egan, McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, North Carolina

Review by Frank Van Straten

This is an extraordinary book. In its 270 well-illustrated pages, Canberra-based researcher Bill Egan uncovers the long, colourful contribution that African Americans have made to our entertainment. He starts, surprisingly, in 1788, revealing that there were eleven African American convicts in the First Fleet—including one John Randall, whose prowess with flute and drum eventually earned him a place in the NSW Regimental Corps band.

Egan then details the successive visits of around 350 African American performers until 1941, when the United States’ entry to World War Two made transpacific travel impossible. Nevertheless, Egan mentions several important more recent visitors, such as Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson, who sang for workers on the Sydney Opera House site, and Marcia Hines, who came to star in Hair—though that, as he says, is a topic for another book. And It’s not only actors, singers, dancers and musicians. Egan covers the cycling, boxing and wrestling fraternity too, pointing out that in the early 20th Century these sports were closely allied to the stage, and many of their exponents appeared on local variety bills. Indeed, entrepreneur Hugh D. Mcintosh ‘graduated’ from promoting cycling and boxing to running the Tivoli Circuit.

The book includes a full chapter on the shameful Sonny Clay affair of 1928, which is rightly described as ‘White Australia’s darkest hour’. Happily, a wonderful Sam Hood shot of the Clay band’s arrival in Sydney adorns the book’s cover. There is also a most welcome rundown of the career of George Sorlie, a West Indian who settled here and toured his own tent show around the country for many years, though Egan does not mention that Sorlie was a prolific and popular recording artist; some of his discs were still available in early CD transfers.

The book is meticulously researched but, inevitably, in a work as comprehensive as this, there are the odd slips. On page 177, for instance, there is slight confusion about the dates of the closing of Sydney’s first Tivoli and Charlie Pope’s death; and on page 186 the figures for the original Australian seasons of Show Boat are incorrect: it ran 9 weeks in Melbourne and 7 in Sydney. It’s also worth pointing out that the Sydney Tivoli pictured on page 66 is not Rickards’ Tivoli, which closed in 1929, but the second Tivoli, the so-called ‘New Tivoli’, the former Adelphi/Grand Opera House. The original mistake was made by vaudevillian Val Napier, who commissioned the sketch from British artist Nicholas Charlesworth (making sure that her father, contortionist Hector Napier, was featured prominently on the pictured ‘bills’).

More seriously, there is one major omission: the great stage and screen actress and singer Edna Thomas (1886-1974), who toured Australia with great success in 1925/6. Billed as ‘The Lady from Louisiana’, her recitals combined art songs with creole songs and spirituals—the latter being by far the most popular. A magnificent oil portrait of her by Sir John Longstaff is in the collection of the Castlemaine Art Museum.

But these quibbles do nothing to lessen the importance of Bill Egan’s remarkable work with its potent insights into an important but largely forgotten and undocumented aspect of Australian show business history. The extensive Chapter notes contain much valuable extra detail and information, and the Index is exhaustive—unlike that provided in Richard Waterhouse’s 1990 publication From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville, which pales in comparison to Egan’s work.

This eminently readable saga reflects our changing attitudes to race and our acceptance of different and evolving forms of entertainment, and it perpetuates the memory of a legion of talented performers, some of whom, fortunately, decided to call this country home.

I heartily recommend it.



From the Archives

Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Frank Van Straten from the Summer 2012 issue of On Stage looking at the life of Australian actor, singer and dancer Max Oldaker.

Max OldakerMax Oldaker, c. 1946 (Lady Tait Collection, National Library of Australia)When Barry Humphries was working with Max Oldaker in the Phillip Street revue Around the Loop, he asked him how he managed to smile so sincerely at the curtain call on a thin Wednesday matinee. Humphries recalls: ‘He said, “Dear Barry, it’s an old trick Noel taught me, and it never fails.” He demonstrated, standing in the middle of the dressing room in his Turkish towelling gown, eyes sparkling, teeth bared in a dazzling smile. “Sillycunts,” beamed Max through clenched teeth, bowing to the imaginary stalls. “Sillycunts,” again, to the circle, the gods and the royal box. “It looks far more genuine than ‘cheese’, dear boy,” said Max, “and you’ve just got to hope that no one in the stalls can lip read.” I couldn’t help thinking of all my mother’s friends at those Melbourne matinees, their palms moist, hearts palpitating as Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols, flashed them all his valedictory smile.’

Maxwell Charles Oldaker was an Australian rarity – a matinee idol in the traditional mould: tall, dark and handsome, with a good voice, acting ability and, above all, charm.


Born into a farming family in Devonport, Tasmania, on 17 December 1907, Oldaker studied piano but soon decided to concentrate on singing. In Sydney he joined Edward Branscombe’s Westminster Glee Singers, making his professional debut at the Palace Theatre in May 1930. With Branscombe he toured Australia and the Far East, then headed for Britain. There he resumed his voice studies and sang in the chorus of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and a touring production of The Chocolate Soldier. In London he was given small roles in the Kern–Hammerstein flop Three Sisters, The Beggar’s Opera and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He was even less conspicuous in the 1936 film Whom the Gods Love, but his big break came in 1938 when Noel Coward cast him in the featured role of Paul Trevor in Operette. Later that year he was in the musical Bobby Get Your Gun and in 1939 he appeared in two musicals on television.


Max OldakerMax Oldaker as Pierre Birabeau (alias The Red Shadow) with Joy Beattie as Margot Bonvalet in The Desert Song, His Majesty’s, Melbourne, 1945Oldaker returned to Australia at the end of 1939. From 1940 until 1947 he worked for J.C. Williamson’s. He sang the principal tenor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan, and was Gladys Moncrieff’s leading man in revivals of The Merry Widow and The Maid of the Mountains. In 1944, while he was appearing in Lilac Time at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, he became involved in the performers’ revolt against Williamson’s antipathy to Actors’ Equity. Like Gladys Moncrieff, he supported the management. Two-thirds of the cast walked off and Oldaker was presented with an insulting bouquet of lilies.


In 1945 Oldaker achieved an enormous success when, as the Red Shadow, he rode a handsome white steed in a Williamson revival of The Desert Song, playing opposite Joy Beattie. They were later teamed in Rose-Marie. In 1947 Oldaker took the lead in Gay Rosalinda, a reworking of Die Fledermaus, and The Dancing Years, in which he played Rudi Kleber, the role that Novello had created for himself.


Of stage, Oldaker was a fine pianist and an accomplished composer. His ‘A Bird Market in Peking – A Chinese Episode for Piano’ was published by Allans in 1941 in its ‘Australian Composers’ series.


Max OldakerTara Barry and Max Oldaker in Gay Rosalinda, His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, 1947After his seven-year stint with J.C. Williamson’s, Oldaker tried something new: revue. At the end of 1947 he was in Whitehall Productions’ unsuccessful Sweetest and Lowest at the Minerva Theatre in Kings Cross. He returned to Britain where he starred in a touring revival of The Dancing Years. He came home hoping for a lead in Song of Norway, and he also considered the juvenile lead in Brigadoon. Instead he accepted his first ‘straight’ role: Doris Fitton cast him as the murderous Dr Jeffries in the thriller Bonaventure. This played not at the Independent, but at the far more prestigious Sydney Theatre Royal. After that, there was more Gilbert and Sullivan.


Next Oldaker tackled Shakespeare. In 1951-52 he toured Australia with the John Alden Company. His principal roles were Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, though he also played in King Lear, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Winter’s Tale. In 1953 he starred in a revival of White Horse Inn for J.C. Williamson’s in Sydney and a production of the light opera Merrie England for the National Theatre of Tasmania in Hobart. In 1954 he was at the Princess in Melbourne in two disastrous productions by Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Movement, La Belle Hélène and The Maid of the Mountains – in both of which he starred opposite a rising young soprano, Marie Collier.


Max OldakerMax Oldaker (left, as Crabtree) and John Miller (as Sir Benjamin Backbite) in The School for Scandal, Tasmania, 1971In 1955 Oldaker accepted William Orr’s invitation to star in the second of his now-legendary Phillip Street revues, Hat Trick. Oldaker stopped the show with a sparkling gem of self-mockery: ‘I’m just an old Red Shadow of my former self… a gentleman of leisure, awaiting Williamson’s pleasure…’ After that Orr included him in Two to One, Around the Loop and a musical version of Alice in Wonderland, in which he cavorted as the Duchess.


By now Oldaker had set his heart on playing Higgins in the Australian production of My Fair Lady. To reinforce his cause he went to London where he was cast as Zoltan Karpathy and understudied Rex Harrison. Though he successfully replaced Harrison in several performances, he was bypassed for the Australian production, and the role went to Robin Bailey.


Oldaker left London in mid-1959 and returned to Launceston to care for his ailing parents. In April 1960 he starred in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in The Phillip Street Revue, an amalgam of the best numbers from earlier shows. Oldaker was in good form:

‘I’d hoped to play the lead in My Fair Lady,
Until Sir Frank said, “You’re not in the race.”
It seems that Shaw’s Pygmalion
Cannot be played Australian –
Besides, they’d grown accustomed to me face.’


After this, Oldaker busied himself teaching, writing, adjudicating for drama and music competitions, directing and playing in musicals and drama in Tasmania, acting on radio, and appearing on television in variety and in plays ranging from Blithe Spirit to The Tempest – he was Prospero in a memorable 1963 ABC production with Reg Livermore and Ron Haddrick, with music by John Antill. He also raised funds to assist the ailing and almost forgotten Australian soprano Florence Austral.


At Christmas 1966 Oldaker reprised his role as the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, this time at the Sydney Tivoli. A few months later he was back with J.C. Williamson’s, garnering great reviews for his performance as the aging actor-manager Chitterlow in the musical Half a Sixpence. It was his last major mainland assignment.


Max OldakerMax in the study of his home in Launceston, shortly before his death in 1972In March 1971 Oldaker appeared as Crabtree in The School for Scandal at the Theatre Royal in Hobart and the Princess in Launceston. The cast also included Beverley Dunn, Patricia Kennedy, Syd Conabere, Robert Essex, John Miller and Jon Finlayson. Roger Hodgman directed. It was Max Oldaker’s final bow. He died of a coronary in his sleep at his home in Launceston on 1 February 1972.


The Launceston Examiner said: ‘Few Tasmanians have been more widely known, more universally liked, and more generously disposed to give the benefit of experience and judgment to the State which gave them birth.’


His old leading lady, Gladys Moncrieff, 15 years his senior, added: ‘He was such a professional and such a friendly colleague … and he was the last of the matinee idols.’


  • Some of Max Oldaker’s papers are preserved in the National Library in Canberra; others are in the Local Studies Library in Launceston, where the Princess Theatre has a room of memorabilia dedicated to his memory.


Principal references 

Richard Lane, ‘Max Oldaker’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995)
Charles Osborne, Max Oldaker – Last of the Matinee Idols (1988)
Gillian Winter, ‘Maxwell Oldaker’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 15.

This article is a slightly edited version of the Max Oldaker biography included in 2007 in Live Performance Australia’s Hall of Fame:

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