The online magazine of Theatre Heritage Australia
Ralph Marsden

Ralph Marsden

Ralph Marsden graduated with a Diploma of Art from Swinburne Technical College in 1965. A film and theatre buff from an early age, he first worked in the camera and editing departments of a company making television commercials and documentaries; later he worked in film editing for ABC TV. In more recent years he freelanced and became an independent film/video maker. 

Ralph has also appeared in a number of small roles in TVs shows starting with Bony (1992) and including Blue Heelers and Neighbours. The most recent is an appearance in MDA in 2003.

Melbourne Stage by Stage began in the mid 1980s as a sketchbook history of existing city theatres, many of which were threatened with demolition at the time. A small grant from the Victorian Ministry for the Arts encouraged further research and as this continued the scope of the project grew to include sites where the city’s earliest theatres had once stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To be continued


Saturday, 21 June 2014

Kings Theatre conclusion


The policy of showing films continued up to late 1944 when the King's became a first release house for Warner Brothers - First National Pictures. After some much-needed reseating and redecoration the King's reopened with Casablanca on 8 December 1944. This unreeled for an impressive 29 weeks and was followed by other Warner pictures up to mid May 1947. In this year Norman Rydge, chairman of Greater Union Theatres, who was then engaged on an Australia-wide theatre acquisition plan, personally bought the freehold title to the King's and thus ensured its continuing use as an entertainment site.


A mixed bag of mainly first release features from such studios as Paramount, Universal and Columbia continued until mid-April 1949 when the theatre was reclaimed for live entertainment. Aztec Services and Garnet H. Carroll sponsored Sydney's Independent Theatre production of Sumner Locke Elliott's comedy of Australian army life, Rusty Bugles.


Controversy over 'bad' language only increased its popularity and the play ran for 23 successful weeks from 16 April 1949. Following attractions included Olsen and Johnson's zany burlesque revue, Hellzapoppin, which did ten weeks from 4 October, and the return on Christmas Eve of Roy Rene in McCackie Mo'Ments, a revue he could only appear in for four nights a week due to radio commitments in Sydney.


Bob and Dolly Dyer joined Jim Gerald in another revue for a fortnight from 16 January 1950, after which Mo returned for twelve more nights up to 18 February. A brief revival of Rusty Bugles was followed by two more revues. Then came One Wild Oat, a West End farce with its original star, Arthur Rigby, for three weeks from 10 May.


More farces starring British comic actor Clifford Mollison filled a further three months from 11 August. Then came a rarity: the world premiere of an all Australian musical: The Highwayman, with book, music and lyrics by Edmond Samuels. This ran eleven weeks from 17 November and achieved considerable critical success.


From the early 1940s on, at a time when Sunday film screenings were forbidden by law, the King's was utilised for Sunday afternoon charity concerts and evening community singing, which was also broadcast on radio. These Sunday 'live' shows continued into the early 1950s, despite some conflict when they were endorsed by Actors Equity but banned by the Theatrical Employees' Union.

British actress, Sonia Dresdel, was the star of a drama, Message for Margaret, which was the following attraction. Then came the durable Philip King farce, See How They Run, which lasted just over a month from 20 April and was the final Carroll - Aztec show at the King's.


Paramount Pictures leased the property and reopened it as 'The Paramount King's' on 23 May 1951 with Cecil B. DeMille's Technicolor epic, Samson and Delilah, which ran until 4 July. Renovations, overseen by architects Cowper Murphy & Associates, were undertaken and completed without closure by October 1952. They included a new interior entrance to the gallery from the dress circle foyer, a new sweets bar and improvements to toilets. The interior was also redecorated in a green and white colour scheme with deep red stage curtains. The theatre was now advertised as 'The New King's'.


A 'Giant Wide Screen' was installed late in 1953 and White Christmas, Paramount's first production in its own widescreen process, VistaVision, was first shown here from Christmas Eve of that year. Other popular Paramount releases screened here in the mid-1950s included the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief), and the comedies of Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.


After a week-long 'Paramount Parade of Hits' (daily change double features) the King's closed for the last time on 13 February 1958. Extensive renovations were undertaken for Norman Rydge by Cowper Murphy & Associates at a cost of £200,000. The auditorium was gutted and converted into a modern two-level cinema of stalls and balcony to seat 1054. The 1908 facade was covered by a large, check-patterned glass wall set above a modern cantilever verandah.


On 11 December 1958 the theatre reopened as 'The Barclay' with a gala charity premiere attended by the Governor and the Premier of Victoria. The opening attraction was another DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, which was exhibited for 44 weeks up to mid October 1959.


Aside from the films of Paramount's then staple stars, such as Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley, other long-running attractions of the 1960s included The World of Suzie Wong (17 weeks from 9 June 1961), Breakfast at Tiffany's (31 weeks from 16 March 1962), Becket (21 weeks from 22 October 1964), The Carpetbaggers (18 weeks from 18 March 1965), Alfie (19 weeks from 15 July 1966),and Rosemary's Baby (17 weeks from 31 January I969).


The Barclay closed for more renovations from mid-March 1970, supervised by architects R G, Monsborough & Associates. These included regrading of the auditorium floor and installing a new wide screen and state-of-the-art 35/70mm projection equipment with six-track stereophonic sound. The walls were enveloped in gold velvet wrap-around curtains, while improved seating and sightlines reduced total capacity to 924. The foyers were also refurbished, with new glass entrance doors, ticket box, upholstered benches and carpets.


The Barclay reopened on 14 May 1970 with a gala charity premiere of Paramount's epic musical,. Paint Your Wagon, with Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg. This screened here for 84 weeks up to 23 December 1971, making it the longest running film in this site's history.


Over the next few years the Barclay continued to house top quality product from Paramount and other major American and British sources. Two especially strong attractions were The Godfather, which ran 66 weeks from 14 July 1972, and The Sting, which scored 67 weeks from 5 April 1974. The Barclay closed after final screenings of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest on 3 June 1976. It was then demolished to make way for the construction by Greater Union of a new six screen complex to be called 'Russell Cinemas'. Designed by R.G. Monsborough & Associates and built at a cost estimated at $7.5 million, this comprised two large foyers at ground and first floor level, with three cinemas laid out on each level. The color scheme of the foyers was basically maroon and cream with honey toned timber doors and balustrades.


According to a Herald advertising feature of 22 November 1978, Cinema One, sited below street level, seated 546 'in a classical theatre atmosphere under an elaborately coffered ceiling and six glittering chandeliers from Czechoslovakia'. Its walls were covered by burgundy drapes between white marble pillars and the seating was arranged in three blocks with two aisles.


Cinema Two, at ground floor level, seated 272, with walls and ceiling of black, except for one side which comprised a 'massive wall of white sculptured forms illuminated by multi-colored studio lights which dim to vary the shadow effects as the program is about to start'. Seating was arranged in a central block. It was the only one of the six cinemas with a 'floating' screen and no curtains or drapes.


Cinema Three, also on the ground floor, seated 418 'in a modern; auditorium distinguished by illuminated stone panel walls and the absence of the traditional stages'. Red drapes surrounded exits at either side of the screen.


Cinema Four, on the upper level, was the smallest of the auditoria with seating for 252. It was planned to screen mainly Walt Disney films here. 'The walls have been lined in angled and boldly patterned timber boarding of Victorian ash and floodlit from the timbered ceiling.'


Cinema Five, also on the upper level, seated 358 in two blocks, with walls enveloped in red drapes and the screen, again minus a stage, while Cinema Six, on the same level, was the biggest of all, seating 742. 'It features gently curved panels of richly textured brickwork and subdued lighting from a stepped ceiling.' It had red patterned carpet and orange drapes.


The Victorian manager for Greater Union opined: 'I believe it would be possible for someone to attend a film at each of the cinemas and later feel he had been to a different place each time.'


The Russell Cinemas were opened with a gala charity premiere held in Cinema Six on 23 November 1978. The opening attraction was Death on the Nile, an elaborately produced Agatha Christie murder mystery.


The other opening films, catering to a fairly wide range of tastes, were a British children's adventure, International Velvet, an Australian drama, The Irishman, Louis Malle's erotic melodrama Pretty Baby, another British children's film, Candleshoe, and the Beatles -inspired Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Death on the Nile proved the most popular of the opening films, transferring from Cinema One to Cinema Three and running for a total of 32 weeks to mid July 1979. Other hits of that year included The Deerhunter (28 weeks from 6 April), the Australian production My Brilliant Career (52 weeks-from 17 August) and Monty Python's Life of Brian, which ran 56 weeks to mid December 1980.


1981 brought an even bigger batch: The Elephant Man (28 weeks from 6 February), Ordinary People (24 weeks from 27 February), Flying High (a transfer from the Bercy which played for 51 weeks at the Russell before completing its 76-week Melbourne run at the Forum) and best of all, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which completed 73 weeks by 13 January I983.


The next year or so seemed flat by comparison, although a couple of Australian films, Far East (15 weeks from 30 July I982) and The Year of Living Dangerously (19 weeks from 17 December I982) did well at a time when audiences were especially welcoming towards local product.


An Officer and a Gentleman had the longest run in I983, completing 41 weeks to 14 December, but Sophie's Choice (28 weeks from 25 March) and Flashdance (28 weeks from 5 August) also scored well.


The popularity of home video, which had grown phenomenally since its introduction in the late 1970s, was now beginning to give cinemas their biggest competition since the introduction of television. There was then a significant time lag before the latest films were released on video, so that movies on the big screen, if they caught the public taste, still did exceptional business.


Three of the most notable box office titles of 1984 were Terms of Endearment (30 weeks from 23 February), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (33 weeks from 19 July, after which it transferred to the Forum) and Gremlins (23 weeks from 13 December).


The successes of 1985 included The Killing Fields (29 weeks from 14 February, after which it also transferred to the Forum), A Passage to India (26 weeks from 7 March), Beverly Hills Cop (37 weeks from 4 April) and Witness (33 weeks from 2 May).


By the mid I980s the long-standing tradition that any newly released film must first be shown at a central city cinema for weeks or months before being granted a wider release was gradually being abandoned. in its place came saturation releasing, where most films - particularly the latest high grossing American successes - were screened simultaneously all over the country, and even shared between the three major exhibition chains. 'Record-breaking' single runs thus became a thing of the past, with the catch-cry for most mainstream product being: 'Now in cinemas everywhere!'


There were several reasons for this change of policy, not least the fact that Melbourne's ever increasing suburban sprawl was making a visit to the pictures in the CBD an increasingly expensive and time consuming activity. People wanted entertainment within a reasonable distance of their homes - hence the proliferation of suburban cinema complexes from the mid 1980s onwards and the decline, closure and abandonment of many old CBD cinemas.


But in 1986 the crowds still came out to see Out of Africa, Top. Gun, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and A Room with a View - a surprise 'arthouse' success which - despite also screening elsewhere - managed a run of almost a year at the Russell. In late 1986 applications were made for a new walk-through candy bar in the ground floor foyer and a licensed bar in the upper foyer. The candy bar was later changed to an 'over the counter' amenity. The liquor bar was finally installed and opened late in March 1988.


Popular onscreen attractions of 1987 included Beverly Hills Cop II, Outrageous Fortune, The Untouchables, and Fatal Attraction. The 1988 crop comprised Three Men and a Baby, Moonstruck, A Fish Called Wanda and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while 1989 brought Twins, The Naked Gun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Beaches.


With the demand for home video now stabilising and its threat to cinemas somewhat abating, the resilience of big screen movie entertainment was again apparent. Despite the severe recession of the new decade, the public was still willing to pay to see films at the cinema first.


Crowd-pleasers in the 1990s at the Russell included Born on the Fourth of July, Shirley Valentine, The Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder and Ghost. 1991 seemed a comparatively lean year, with only a couple of outstanding successes amongst the 48 films on offer. The pickings were probably better for the average fan the following year, with Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast, Wayne's World, Patriot Games and Sister Act amongst the most profitable of 36 attractions.


The outstanding box office hit of 1993 was Jurassic Park, but there were also audiences for Lorenzo's Oil and The Firm. Some changes in seating capacities had taken place by this time: while those in Cinemas One, Two and Six remained the same, Cinema Three now held 369, Cinema Four 222 and Cinema Five 345 - a total reduction of 92 seats. There were also changes to signage brought about by a change of name. From 30 September 1993 the complex was advertised as 'Greater Union City Cinemas'.


In an effort to remain competitive, Greater Union was also advertising the attraction of 'Super Screens' around this time. But the installation of genuinely big screens (as well as later enticements such as 'Gold Class' cinemas) would always be precluded by lack of space, as well as a perceived managerial reluctance to spend on infrastructure.


Schindler's List, True Lies and Forrest Gump were three outstanding hits of 1994-95. There was another hit at the end of 1995 with the release of the Australian-made Babe. An Australian report of 7 September 1995 noted that Greater Union's parent company, Amalgamated Holdings Ltd now owned '33 per cent of Village Roadshow Corp, which owns 50.8 per cent of the listed Village Roadshow Ltd.'


The mid-1990s were proving one of the most profitable periods ever for local exhibitors, but for GU's City Cinemas the frenzied construction of new complexes in far flung 'burbs' began a decline that was never corrected. Many of the hit films that swelled Greater Union's bottom line were now shown elsewhere. In their place came a mixed bag of offerings averaging around forty or so features most years. These ran the gamut of good/interesting to strictly-teen-fodder/filler. Towards the end of the decade there seemed to be a general increase in the latter category, but there was still a place for the occasional quality film that could be enjoyed by both younger and older audiences.


As the new millennium approached so came new threats to cinemas: the internet the introduction of Pay TV then, rather more seriously, low cost, high quality Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs). Within a few years these would make the standard video tape cassette obsolete. High resolution DVDs could be projected with results closely comparable in picture and sound quality to 35mm film. The closure of a number of independently run cinemas in city, suburban and country areas was blamed on the fresh impetus that DVDs had given to home entertainment,.


Nevertheless, GU's City Cinemas still soldiered on, and if there wasn't excess of quality in the majority of releases on offer in 2000, above the pack were American Beauty, The Insider, Gladiator and Billy Elliot.


The 2001 crop yielded favorites such as Shrek, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Bridget Jones's Diary and The Fast and the Furious. A few very popular films would sometimes be run simultaneously at two cinemas in the complex - especially during school holiday seasons. The number of films screened annually had increased from an average of around 40 in the early 1990s to nearer 80 by the early 2000s.


Popular in 2002 were A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, About a Boy, The Bourne Identity and Bend It Like Beckham. This last film was an Anglo-Indian comedy which was run here for over four months and became a precursor for a trend that soon proved lucrative enough to become a semi-permanent fixture.


The complex was now approaching its quarter century and, with little or no refurbishment, was starting to look its age. The foyer was cluttered with gaming and popcorn vending machines, carpets and seating were often stained, sticky or torn ,and sound quality in some cinemas was decidedly inferior to other venues. City Cinemas had reached a difficult stage: no longer quite clean or modern enough for the discerning younger adults and not yet quite 'retro' enough to be appreciated by others. It seemed to be left to increasingly diminishing audiences of teenagers or elders who didn't particularly care much either way.


Not unaware of these failings, GU management had sought to be part of a joint venture with Hoyts to own and operate a new batch of cinemas at the Melbourne Central Shopping Complex. According to an Age report of 1 February 2003, the bid was rejected by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and Hoyts eventually undertook to run the complex by itself.


One initiative to halt audience decline in 2002 was the hiring out of some of the cinemas for the 51st Melbourne International Film Festival. Screenings took place between 23 July and August and became a regular event over the following years. At last there was a guarantee of at least some full houses for three weeks or so during the middle of winter!


Catch Me If You Can, Chicago, The Hours, The Pianist, Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl made an undeniably varied selection of highlights for 2003. The year 2004 seemed lean by comparison and 2005 brought no improvement. Nevertheless, that year a new niche market was exploited with the first screenings of Hindi language Indian films known as 'Bollywoods'. The name was a contraction of Bombay and Hollywood - the former being the centre of the Indian film industry. Here had been produced innumerable, highly coloured escapist movies which combined music, song, dance, melodramatic action, comedy and romance.
Initially, a single screen was devoted to Bollywood films, with a new film every few weeks and sometimes a break of a few weeks before another was shown, but as word of mouth spread, their popularity steadily grew.


A new batch of English language box office hits returned in 2006: a King Kong remake, The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Devil Wears Prada, Kenny and, most successfully of all, Casino Royale.


The successes continued into 2007: Night at the Museum, Happy Feet, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Ultimatum,  Ratatouille, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The Bollywood box office had also increased, with as many as three films screening simultaneously some weeks.


The eighty-odd English language releases screened in 2008 included The Bucket List, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, The Dark Knight, Quantum of Solace, Australia and Twilight. In addition, one, or sometimes two or three, Bollywood films were run virtually every week and the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) now utilised up to three screens in July-August.


In 2009 came another new Harry Potter (The Half-Blood Prince), Inglorious Basterds, Mao's Last Dancer and Avatar - which only managed a moderate eight weeks here, but elsewhere, in 3D and on giant IMAX/Vmax/xtremescreens, went on to become the highest grossing film ever made.


The year 2009 was also important for the local movie industry, as it introduced digital projection technology to Australia. Within three or four years this little publicized but revolutionary development virtually eliminated the use of film in cinemas, thus improving program presentation, sound and picture quality, and also cutting costs.


In the last few years of its existence City Cinemas' programs seemed to rely almost exclusively on its remaining, mostly juvenile, Anglo-Saxon audiences and its continually increasing Indian and Asian ones. Every other American release seemed to be a sequel, prequel or rehash of material that had had some freshness and (more importantly) success in previous years.. Films from India in Hindi, Punjab, Tamil, Tekugu and Nepalese, as well as Chinese and other Asian productions, sometimes accounted for well over half the patronage at the complex.


The MIFF was also a valued client and was granted four screens (Cinemas Three, Four, Five and Six) from 2010 onwards. Digital projection sometimes presented problems: there were a few protest letters in the daily Press alleging distortion and over cropping of images in 2011, and in 2012 an encrypted file was not properly checked before screening, so that the wrong film was shown.


Aside from these special events, however, declining overall attendances at the now outdated complex resulted in a 'business decision' by Greater Union's parent company, Amalgamated Holdings Ltd (AHL). An Age report of 15 August 2013 noted that AHL planned to replace the cinema building with a 12-storey hotel and apartment block, which would include a restaurant and rooftop bar - but no cinema,


A demolition permit had been granted on 19 April by the City of Melbourne and the owners had two years to begin work and four years to complete the development. The biggest losers seem to have been MIFF patrons, who had grown to appreciate the advantages of a large, centrally located multi-screen complex, with spacious foyers serving as a post screening festival hub.


Greater Union's City Cinemas closed after final screenings on 2 October 2013. The last films shown included two animated features, The Smurfs 2 and Turbo; a children's fantasy adventure, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters; a sci-fi action thriller, Riddick; an action drama, White House Down; a comedy, We're The Millers, a fantasy drama, R.I.P.D; another sci-fi thriller, Elysium; and a Hindi film, Phata Poster Nikla Hero.


Although AHL maintained its interest in the exhibition business via its 50% stake in Village Roadshow, the closure of City Cinemas also erased the Greater Union name from the motion picture industry in Victoria, after a history of just over 100 years.

Friday, 07 March 2014

The Kings Theatre

[Lay-out of this article Under Construction]

The Kings Theatre

(The New King's. The Barclay , Russell Cinemas, Greater Union City Cinemas)

Address: 131 Russell Street, Melbourne

Stage melodrama, classical drama, concerts, operas, musicals, ballets, vaudeville, revues, pantomimes, circuses, motion pictures from silents to sound to multi-cinema complex - no other entertainment site in Melbourne has offered quite as much variety as this. 


Left: One of William Pitt's designs for the Kings. Picture Collection, SLV

The first theatre built here was the King's, designed by the noted theatrical architect William Pitt Jnr, who also retained a financial interest in the property. This 'Drury Lane of Australia' was a three-level house consisting of stalls, dress circle and gallery to seat a total of 2200. Decorated in a style dubbed 'modern French Renaissance', it was built in 1908 in just over five months at a cost of more than £32,000. Three arched entrances led into a vestibule with a black and white marble floor, a tricolored marble dado and a dress circle staircase of solid white marble.

'The auditorium is large, but compact and symmetrical looking. The colour scheme is mainly a study in blue and gold, the blue predominating. The drop curtain is of royal blue, with a pattern centrepiece worked in gold. Above the curtain, and between it and the roof, is a representation of a goddess in the Grecian style. Handsomely carved and interlaid pillars run from platform to roof, on either side of the stage; while, perched above the pillars and wearing an infantile expression of quite unusual joyousness ... are white cupids with outstretched wings. The boxes, of which there are four, are tastefully ornamented', The Age of 13 July 1908 commented.


Left: Eugenie Duggan.From the collection of a THA member.

The Argus of 8 July 1908 noted: 'Sliding roofs have been introduced over the stage and the back gallery, as well as over the auditorium... The stage is particularly capacious. At the back is the scene-dock, double-paint frame, property-rooms, carpenter's shop, and limelight-room. Dressing-rooms and wardrobes run for the whole four stories of the building on the right-hand side of the stage. The electric light switchboard and dimmers are placed on the stage gallery, and from this position the whole of the 3000 odd lights are controlled.'

Also reckoned an innovation at the time was a 'ladies' retiring-room' for gallery patrons and the fact that all but the topmost gallery seats had backs to them. Galleryites got no vestibule, however, and had to climb stairs to their seats from lanes on either side of the theatre building.

The King's was built specifically to house the company of successful entrepreneur William Anderson after he had been outbid for a lease on the Theatre Royal. He took a seven-year lease on the King's and opened it on 11 July 1908 with a sensation melodrama called Man To Man. The sensations included a prison breakout and a train wreck with burning carriages and injured passengers. 

Anderson's wife, Eugenie Duggan, was the star of the show and the company also included her brother, Edmund Duggan, and Bert Bailey - collaborative playwrights under the pen-name of Albert Edmunds.


Great Rescue_568x800

Left Promotional postcard for The great Rescue. Private Collection

Melodramas staged by Anderson were often set in Australian locales and his past successes included revivals of Robbery Under Arms, For the Term of His Natural Life and Bailey and Duggan's 1907 collaboration, The Squatter's Daughter.

English actor Roy Redgrave, forebear of the distinguished Redgrave acting dynasty, joined the company as star of The Man From Outback, another Albert Edmunds melodrama which had its premiere here on 1 May 1909.

Bland Holt, 'King of Australian Melodrama', gave the Anderson company some respite when he staged The Great Rescue at the King's from 9 October 1909. The play climaxed with a race between an automobile and an express train and was the opening attraction of Holt's last ever season before retiring from management.

WhiteAustraliaLeft: Anderson catering to racist tastes in 1909. SLV

Anderson's company returned on 4 December with an atypical venture into classical theatre: Hamlet, with Walter Bentley and Eugenie Duggan, which The Age praised as 'a scholarly and well thought out piece of work', also noting that the theatre had enjoyed eighteen months of 'prosperous existence'.

After a Babes in the Wood end-of-year pantomime, melodrama again predominated in 1910 with additions to the company including Nellie Bramley and Olive Wilton and new works such as The Winning Ticket, first performed on 10 September. The highlight of this racing melodrama by Anderson and Temple Harrison was a depiction of the Melbourne Cup with eight live horses running on a stage treadmill against a revolving scenic backcloth.

Anderson's luck ran out in 1911 when the failure of his Sydney funfair enterprise, Wonderland City, eventually forced him to assign the remainder of his lease on the King's to Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan. Together with business manager Julius Grant they formed a management company which controlled the theatre for the next two decades.
















 Left Sheet music publicising the play. SLV


Nevertheless, Anderson's dramatic company continued as the main attraction at the King's; their efforts were interspersed with seasons by the still popular Maggie Moore, and Bert Bailey's own company. Bailey gave his and Duggan's most enduring work, On Our Selection, its Melbourne premiere on 14 September 19I2. Bailey was forever after identified with his characterisation of Dad Rudd in this play, via numerous stage revivals and a series of Cinesound feature films made between 1932 and 1940.

The powerful J.C. Williamson company's first attraction at the King's was a three-week season of the opera Faust, from 19 April 1913. The rising entrepreneurial firm of J.& N. Tait, later to merge with Williamson's, was first associated with the King's when they presented an eight-night season by famous Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder from 30 July 1914.

At the other end of an entrepreneurial career was the once powerful George Musgrove, who presented Nellie Stewart in a play season concluding with Sweet Nell of Old Drury on 16 December 1914 - his last ever attraction.






Left: Nellie Stewart In Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Private Collection. 

After a brief closure for some refurnishing and redecoration, the King's reopened with Bert Bailey and Julius Grant as sole lessees on 17 July 1915. Seasons by Bailey's company and Irish-American entertainer Allen Doone followed, while the highlight of 1916 was an eight-week season by Irish actress Sara Allgood in a popular comic play, Peg o' My Heart. Allgood had starred as Peg in London and was long associated with Dublin's Abbey Theatre. From 1940 she became a prominent Hollywood character player. Produced by the Tait brothers, Peg o' My Heart was their first venture into legitimate theatre and their success led them to eventual control of the J.C. Williamson organisation.












Sara-AllgoodLeft: Sara Allgood in Peg o'My Heart. SLV

The Taits were the principal tenants of the Kings from 1917 onwards; their first attraction that year was a comedy called Turn to the Right whose cast included a young Judith (then billed as Francee) Anderson. A Jerome Kern musical, Very Good Eddie, starring British comedian Barry Lupino followed. This did very good business despite Lupino straining his shoulder during an energetic encore seven nights into the season. Sara Allgood returned for a second stint as Peg from 30 June and, after a Shakespearean season with British actor Ian Maclaren, Lupino starred with Bert Bailey in an Aladdin pantomime.

The year 1918 was almost as busy, with Taits' star importations including American stage actor Guy Bates Post in the sensational dramas The Masquerader and The Nigger, and English actress Emelie Polini starring in De Luxe Annie from 29 June.

Polini returned in Eyes of Youth in 1919, as did other Tait attractions Harry Lauder and Sara Allgood in their respective entertainments. Also of note that year was the Melbourne premiere of Kate Howarde's bush comedy Possum Paddock, which ran six weeks from 1 November, and a Mother Hubbard panto, with Barry Lupino and Jack Cannot, which played for 111 performances up to 24 March 1920 - the longest run at the King's to that date. American actress Maria Ilka was the star of Tiger Rose, which opened here on 27 March 1920, with fellow American C. Henry Gordon also in the cast.

Another Emelie Polini season followed, then came American comic character actor John D, O'Hara in Three Wise Fools from 14 August. In the middle of the Polini season, on 3 July 1920, the firm of J. & N. Tait formally amalgamated with J.C. Williamson's so that the O'Hara season became the first attraction of the allied management.

A two-part farewell season by celebrated British comic actress Marie Tempest was the highlight of 1921 and, although return seasons by O'Hara and Polini figured prominently in 1922, of greater local interest was the 7 October premiere of a stage version of C.J. Dennis' verse narrative, The Sentimental Bloke. The play was written by Dennis himself, produced by Bert Bailey and starred Walter Cornock; their efforts were rewarded with a ten-week run at the King's and equal success in Sydney.

The strength of the Williamson-Tait regime really became evident in 1923 when the King's was sublet by The Firm and began to house some of their most stellar importations. As well as returns by Harry Lauder and Emelie Polini, came British comic actor Lawrence Grossmith, then Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault. Between 3 August and 15 December this famous husband-and-wife team starred in a five-play season, beginning with Pinero's His House in Order and ending with the same author's The Second Mrs Tanqueray.

220px-Dion Boucicault  Irene Vanburgh - Punch cartoon - Project Gutenberg eText 16107Right: Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault Jr. Punch

Star attractions of 1924 included tempestuous Australian-born Oscar Asche, beginning a season on 9 February with Othello; American actress Gertrude Elliot in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife from 25 March; and long-standing locally-popular Canadian-born Muriel Starr in The Garden of Allah from 29 June. Then came the return of Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault in a first Australian production of Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? On 25 October Guy Bates Post returned on 28 February 1925 with revivals of The Masquerader and The Nigger – during the run of which he offered prizes for the best essay on 'Keeping Australia White' as a 'practical demonstration of his sympathy with our White Australia'. Also that year came sterling American thespian Thurston Hall (in The Broken Wing from 11 July) and Maurice Moscovitch, one of The Firm's most popular dramatic artractions of the late 1920s, with his son, Nat (later Noel) Madison in The Great Lover from 29 August.


Left: Nellie Bramley. SLV

Local trouper Nellie Bramley returned as a star of popular plays from 17 October 1925; she was followed by Britain's Renee Kelly in Polly with A Past on 19 December. A Dion Boucicault company formed with the cooperation of J.M. Barrie presented a series of Barrie plays, beginning with Quality Street on 20 March 1926. Heading the casts were Brian Aherne, later a popular Hollywood leading man, and Angela Baddeley, whose later career also included films and television.

After this came actor-playwright Leon Gordon in his sensational masterwork, White Cargo, adapted from Vera Simonton's novel. This opened here on 26 June, was regularly revived locally up to the 1930s, and also spawned both English and American film versions. Although The Argus thought the play 'emphasises matters which are not fitted for stage treatment', the public flocked and it ran for seven weeks before transferring to the Royal.

A popular American comedy, Is Zat So?, arrived on 18 September. This starred Richard Taber (who wrote it with James Gleason); after a month this also transferred to the Royal. The year ended with return by the Boucicault company and Renee Kelly.

The year 1927 was equally busy with two seasons by Maurice Moscovitch, the return of Judith Anderson (now an established overseas stage star), who acted opposite Leon Gordon in Tea for Three and The Green Hat Another season by Dion Boucicault and Irene Vanbrugh began on 29 October, with a company that now included Hugh Williams in a season that included the first Melbourne production of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter.

Early in 1928 Hastings Lynn, brother of celebrated British farceur Ralph Lynn, starred in two famous Ben Travers farces, A Cuckoo in the Nest and Thark. Apart from seasons by Leon Gordon and Muriel Starr, the year also saw the return of William Anderson, who presented a new play, The Rudd Family, and an old melodrama, While London Sleeps, starring his daughter, Mary and his wife, Eugenie Duggan.
Anderson tried again in July 1929, but the time for stage melodrama had passed, with sound films now beginning to afflict all forms of live theatre. Anderson's season petered out after a few weeks and even the once great Nellie Stewart, whose revival of Sweet Nell of Old Drury had transferred from the Comedy on 11 May, had her next play, Trilby, 'deferred'.

Comedy and vaudeville entrepreneur, Frank Neil, had better luck with a Ziegfeld musical, Whoopee, which did twelve weeks from 31 August. He followed it with a revue called Clowns in Clover, which starred English impressionist Ann Penn, Roy Rene and Sadie Gale. The King's was completely reseated prior to the start of this season, which ran up to 17 January 1930.

With the combined effects of 'talkies' and the onset of the depression, the new decade proved the patchiest in the King's history. As most live theatres either closed or started showing sound films in the 1930s, it's quite surprising to find the King's persevering as a playhouse. In fact, it had run very occasional film programs since its earliest days – the first being a silent record of a Sydney boxing match, which screened for a week: from 29 August 1908.

Quite surprising too is the considerable number of overseas stars still imported to appear here. Although the 1930 offerings were mostly local, they included an Allan Wilkie season of Shakespeare, two musicals starring Edgely and Dawe, a last Leon Gordon season and Jim Gerald in a comic play called Little Accident.

BlokeLeft: Flyer for 'talkie' .'OzMovies

Activities were halted by a fire which broke out in a backstage scene-dock soon after 9pm on 20 January 1931. The Age of 21 January described it as 'one of the most spectacular fires for several years' but a fireproof curtain prevented it from spreading to the auditorium. Although several firemen were injured by a collapsing ceiling, the bulk of the theatre was saved, with damage confined to the stage and the paint and scenery shops backstage.

J.C. Williamson's, now sub-lessee of the theatre, undertook the repairs for a cost of about £9,000. The Argus of 6 May 1931 reported the beginning of restorations: 'A new stage and new scenery and curtains will be provided, and it is probable that the auditorium will be redecorated. Mr Albion H. Walkley is the architect.'

The King's reopened on 25 July 1931 with Snapshots, the first of a series of George Marlow revues starring local vaudevillians Nat Phillips and Syd Beck. 'The auditorium has been redecorated, and has been washed an almost uniform cement gray. It looks better for the change', The Australasian of I August 1931 opined. 'That life-sized damsel with the too-heavy head of hair who is stepping from a shell over the proscenium remains in situ, and her clinging golden draperies have also been changed to gray.'

The Marlow company lasted until 15 August, then left the King's in darkness - apart from short seasons by the Gregan McMahon Players and some amateur groups. A J.C. Williamson-sponsored play, As Husbands Go, reopened the theatre on Boxing Day. The first night was enlivened by the filming in the auditorium of a scene for the Efftee talkie The Sentimental Bloke, with the stars of the film and F.T. Thring himself in the audience.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with British stars Margaret Rawlings and Barry K. Barnes, did well for the times with a nine-week run from 13 February 1932, but the dramatic highlight of the year was the visit by Dame Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. Their first twelve-week season began on 11 June with Thorndike's famous interpretation of Shaw's Saint Joan, and included productions of Medea and Macbeth. There was a three-week farewell' from 26 November, beginning with a first Melbourne professional performance of Ibsen's Ghosts.

DSybilLeft: Sybil Thorndike as St Joan.Wiki images

Another famed British stage partnership arrived on 11 February 1933: Athene Seyler and Nicholas Hannen heading a London company that included John Longden (then making a name in British films) and Charlotte Francis. Their nine-week season of modern plays was followed by a ten-week season starring 'Dante', a Danish magician. Next came British stage and film actress Isobel Elsom in When Ladies Meet and Private Lives, then a week-long series of concerts by popular Australian baritone Peter Dawson.


Viennese actor Theo Shall and Australian musical star Josie Melville followed in a farce, Baby Mine, and another Australian-born musical star, Dorothy Brunton, partnered John Longden in a comedy-drama, Road House.

A series of musicals starring John Dudley, Sylvia Welling and Cecil Kellaway, beginning with The Student Prince on 18 November 1933, was interrupted for a Christmas-New Year season featuring Billy Milton, 'the English Maurice Chevalier'.

The Dudley-Welling season resumed on 36 March 1934, but there was little activity from late July to late October, when White Horse Inn, with Strella Wilson (the same production that had reopened the restored His Majesty's) played its last eight nights here. Another musical, Wildflower, followed briefly, then came Alexander Levitoff's Russian Ballet Company for three weeks from 1 December.

GreganLeft: Gregan McMahon in character. SLV
A Mother Goose panto, with Jim Gerald and British music hall stalwart Hetty King, opened on Boxing Day and got 1935 off to a good start but, before long, the patchiness of the previous year returned. On 8 March came the tail end of a Cyril Ritchard-Madge Elliott musical, High Jinks. Another musical, Nice Goings On, played for a month, a further six-week Dante season followed this but the rest of the year brought only brief vaudeville and concert seasons and a 'Mammoth Indoor Circus'.

The year 1936 was much the same, with the McMahon Players in short, occasional seasons, the most frequent occupants. The only professional attractions of note were an American comedy, Three Men on a Horse, which ran six weeks from 21 March, and a Gladys Moncrieff revival season for three weeks from 29 October.

McMahon's Players, isolated concert seasons and amateurs were again the main occupants in 1937. The single highlight was Fay Compton's English dramatic company which opened on 23 October with Compton as Queen Victoria in Laurence Housman's Victoria Regina. The Compton company included future film star Michael Wilding and Hayley Bell, future playwright, wife of John Mills and mother of Hayley and Juliet Mills.

Noel Coward's trio of one-acters, To-Night at 8.30 was the company's second offering. The season ended on 25 January 1938, although they returned for a three-week 'farewell' on 15 July. The only other highlight of 1938 was Clare Boothe's comedy-drama, The Women, with an all-female, all-American cast headed by Irene Purcell. The Women played for three solid months from 27 October.

Kings skylarkRight: Flyer

There was more activity in 1939, with another American comedy, Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight following The Women on 4 February but doing rather less business, American stage and screen comedienne Charlotte Greenwood starred in Leaning on Letty for a month from 27 May and, after a brief revival of The Women, came more Americans - Pauline Lord and Ian Keith in a comedy, Yes, My Darling Daughter. When this closed within less than a fortnight Lord returned home but Keith, a notable character actor in films since silent days, remained to star in a thriller, I Killed The Count, by Australian-born Alec Coppel, from 2 September.

With the war making 'star' importations all but impossible, the King's was in darkness for much of 1940 with only two attractions of note. The first was a ten-week season of comedies by Frederick Blackman's company, with Yvonne Banvard and rising talents such as Ron Randall and Lloyd Lamble, from 29 June. Marie Ney followed them on 2 November as star of No Time for Comedy, following it a month later with Private Lives. On 17 December, Noel Coward himself, then on a Red Cross fund-raising tour of Australia, appeared at a matinee performance at the King's 'giving selections from his extensive repertoire'.

Kings Never Say Die coverLeft: Flyer

The Firm's lease on the theatre expired in 1941 and was taken up by the partnership of Sir Ben Fuller and Garnett H. Carroll under the name Gaiety Theatres Ltd. The new lessees initiated a series of revues, beginning with Gaieties of 1942 on 21 November. These continued without pause into the New Year, featuring local comedians such as Ron Beck, Stan Foley and Syd Hollister.

The revues ended late in March 1942; from 2 April the King's began regular screenings of American films - usually quality revivals of fairly recent vintage. The first program comprised a Paramount double bill: Skylark, a comedy with Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland, and Bob Hope in a farce, Never Say Die.



(To be concluded)


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Gaiety Theatre


Wilson’s Palace Hall of Amusements

The Oxford Theatre

The Empire Palace

The Gaiety Theatre of Varieties

The New Gaiety

The Roxy

Address: 225 Bourke Street, Melbourne - site of the former Commonwealth Bank building.

The Gaiety occupied part of the same site as the Bijou Theatre, but lay at the front of this at street level and was separated from it by the Victoria Arcade. The Gaiety was the last of Melbourne’s theatres to have followed the 19th Century custom of evolvement from a hotel - in this case, from the dining room of the Palace Hotel, which fronted the Bijou’s Bourke Street site.

This dining room, known as ‘Wilson’s Palace Hall’ by 1889, housed ‘the first beauty carnival ever held beneath the sunny skies of the Australias’ on 26 October of that year; according to newspaper advertisements of 18 October: ‘Each lady competing will simply be required to attend in her stall, which will be fitted up for the display and sale of various articles... There will be no formal display of any lady, and no regulation requiring any competitor to assume any role or occupation derogatory to her self-respect.’

thumb Argus1889-09-28eTender notice, Argus 28.9.1889 p.15A few months later the hall had been converted into a theatre by the hotel’s owner, John A. Wilson. The architect for the conversion was George R. Johnson, the architect of the new Bijou, and ‘The Gaiety’ opened simultaneously with this on 5 April I890. Harry Rickards, the famous English music hall singer, was the Gaiety’s first lessee and his New English and Irish Comedy Company the opening attraction.

The Lorgnette of 12 April thought the interior ‘by far the handsomest music saloon in Australia. It is spacious, airy, lofty, and most elegantly and chastely decorated. The stage, though small compared with some, is large enough for the class of entertainment presented, is richly framed in a highly ornate proscenium, and is supplied with excellently painted scenery. But - the inevitable but - the floor lacks the necessary slope... and especially is this drawback felt in the sides of the gallery, where those occupying the back seats are compelled to stand up in order to obtain a view of the stage.’

The nascent theatre also seems to have had some trouble meeting the requirements of the Board of Health and Rickards’ company and several other vaudeville lessees had come and gone by 10 November 1890 when it was closed ‘for extensive alterations, decorations and improvements’. It reopened on 22 November with a variety company headed by American showman and comedian, Frank M. Clark. Table Talk of 21 November advised: ‘The hall has been redecorated and the seating accommodation greatly improved by the raising of the back chairs.’ By early December press advertisements proclaimed it ‘the coolest, most comfortable and the only theatre of varieties in Australia lit by electricity’. Clark and his 'New Folly Company remained at their ‘appy ‘ome of ‘ilarity’ ‘ right through 1891, up to 12 February 1892.

The theatre was immediately taken over by Dan Tracey and his ‘New Minstrel and Specialty Company’, and on 27 June 1892, Tracey presented the ‘first appearance of Miss Florrie Forde... the charming serio-comic artiste’. The Gaiety debut of Melbourne born Florrie, destined to become one of the ‘greats’ of British music hall, coincided with the first full-blown effects of the land boom depression, and prospective patrons were advised: ‘purchasers of front and second seat tickets will receive a coupon entitling them to a drink or cigar, and gallery patrons a glass of beer, at the Palace Hotel bar’.

1893 marked the depths of the depression but the Gaiety supplied cheap and popular entertainment and Tracey’s company, which was taken over by an associate, W. H. Speed, early that year, seems to have continued successfully enough until 17 March 1894. The Cogill brothers and their ‘Minstrel and Burlesque Company’ arrived on 24 March, and it was with them that Florrie Forde began her second Gaiety season on 16 June. On 30 June the theatre closed for alterations estimated to cost £2000 under the supervision of George R. Johnson.

The Cogill company transferred to the Bijou for the six weeks it took to complete the renovations, and the Gaiety reopened as ‘The Oxford Theatre’ on 18 August 1894. ‘The old Gaiety hall has been literally turned round – the stage moved from one end to the other, the floor given the necessary slope to afford all a view of the show, and painters and decorators let loose with a lavish hand’, The Argus of 20 August applauded. The Cogill company continued as the attraction and notables on the bills about this time included eccentric comedian, John Gourlay; English actress, Jennie Lee; contralto, Neva Carr-Glynn (an aunt of the later well-known actress of the same name); minstrels, Slade Murray and Will Whitburn; and of course Florrie Forde.

Dan Barry’s dramatic troupe joined the company from 22 December to present Round the Clock, a ‘musical, farcical extravagance’, for a few weeks over Christmas, after which the Cogill aggregation continued as before until 19 May 1895. On 15 June Frank M. Clark’s company transferred from the Bijou (with the formidable Miss Forde) and from 19 October, when the theatre was under the aegis of Philip Stuart, it was again advertised as ‘The Gaiety’. Clark, whose managerial regime had ended early in August, was again the featured artist up until a few weeks before the season closed on 25 November.

thumb GaietyBMeeting of Railway Trade Unionists 1.3.1908, Australasian 5.3.1908The theatre endured almost 18 months of closure from late November 1895 until early May 1897 – the only advertised attraction during this darkness being an American medicine showman for a few nights early in October 1896. On 8 May 1897 the theatre reopened as the grandiosely titled ‘Empire Palace’ although seats for 1350 remained at the ‘popular prices’ of 2s, Is and 6d. Frank Fordham, ‘comedian and dancer’, was the lessee, presenting the usual mixture of minstrels and variety but his company lasted barely three weeks and in less than a month the theatre was closed again and seems to have remained shut for most of the following 12 months.

On 11 June 1898 Harry Cogill’s ‘New Federation Minstrels and Burlesque Company’ reopened the Gaiety (as it was called again) for a 14 week season. An interesting feature on the bills was ‘The Biographe’ from 9 July, with a number of short films constituting a kind of forerunner of the newsreel; that first evening, for instance, a film of the Grand National hurdle race at Flemington was the attraction - ‘a picture will be taken of this event today and shown tonight’.

A further 14 months darkness seems to have followed the close of the Cogill season on 24 September, for it was not until 1 January 1900 that Harry Rickards reopened the Gaiety to accommodate the holiday night crowds from the Bijou, with the same vaudeville company featured and ‘the turns being so timed and arranged that the performances will be identical’. Rickards repeated this manoeuvre the following Easter Monday and again on Boxing Day 1900 but apart from this and a one night presentation by Mrs G.B.W. Lewis and her drama students on 29 October, the Gaiety seems to have remained dark until Boxing Day 1901 when Maggie Moore made a ‘reappearance in Melbourne after an absence of 3 years’.

The theatre was ‘entirely renovated and re-decorated’ for this, its first substantial dramatic season; Moore performed in five of her most popular vehicles, including Struck Oil, which had introduced her to Melbourne in 1874. The season ended on 29 January 1902, but Moore’s lead was not followed until 21 June, when the Cosgrove dramatic company began a month long season with Sapho, a sensational drama that had once resulted in the police prosecution of the actress Olga Nethersole in New York. A photograph published in The Australasian of 16 August 1902, showing a meeting of some 2000 public service employees, gives some idea of the interior about this time, with its ornate gallery and range of windows along either side at this level.

Barnstorming Dan Barry’s dramatic company followed immediately with. A Gilded Sin and other popular dramas for a month, then, on 16 August, came the Ada Willoughby Comedy Company with The Wrong Mrs Wright - a title that was soon judged to infringe on the rights of another popular farce, The Wrong Mr Wright and was subsequently changed to: Jane, No Longer the Wrong Mrs Wright. Dramatic activity ceased after this and the year fizzled out with three short-lived seasons by separate minstrel and vaudeville companies.

The theatre reopened again on 17 January 1903 as ‘The Gaiety Theatre of Varieties’, offering ‘twice nightly at 6.30 and 9... an innovation in amusement enterprise ... theatre and music hall combined’. The ‘theatre’ consisted of shortened versions of farces such as North-East Lynne and Fun On the Bristol but these were suspended in favour of all-vaudeville after a short closure early in February. thumb GaietyPlanBFire Safety plan dated 17.2.1904, PROVThe Gaiety’s second heyday had now begun, however; Frank M. Clark returned as a performer on 24 October 1903 and took over as sole lessee from 16 July 1904. J. Alex Allan’s fascinating reminiscence of the times is preserved in the Argus of 17 February 1934:

The prices are low - 6d and 3d. Our hearts are as light as our pockets, and we take the dingy stairs, two at a time, to the cheap seats in the gallery. Luck holds and we get places at the end, immediately facing the stage. A medley of sound fills the house. Everywhere voices cross and mingle, peanut-shells crunch, and cordial bottles pop. A bald head or two in the seats below offer a fair mark for nutshells. Collingwood and Fitzroy greet Richmond and Carlton with friendly and accurate orange-peel. There is no orchestra, but an angular young woman, at a piano below the stage, thumps out vigorously a medley of popular and patriotic airs. The gallery recognises an old favourite, and joyously stamps a rhythmic accompaniment to "Soldiers of the Queen". The curtain - complete with advertisements goes up, and the show is on.

On one side of the stage sit Harry Cowan and Frank Clark - burnt-cork "niggers" both. Opposite them are Will and "Bluch" (Blucher) Jones – genuine “cullud boys”, the real thing. The interlocutor is Cyril Iredale, son of a city tailor. Tambourines jingle; "bones" click and rattle. There is backchat and dubious jest. The floor and gallery yell with delight… The “Gaiety Bevy of Beauty” led by dark-eyed Flo Winchester, trips on to the stage, skims through the steps of a ballet, and distributes itself artistically against the backcloth… A roar of welcome greets Harry Shine - Harry, with his inimitable trick of seeming to address his patter confidentially to each member of his audience…

Featured singers and dancers follow and then:

The curtain rattles down, and the crowd crunches along its carpet of peanut-shells to the exits. The next door cordial-counter and Ransome’s ice-cream shop swallow and erupt their patrons… As we race up the stairs again Frank Clark and “the Bevy” are swinging into the opening chorus… Teddy Box comes on. Teddy, like Joe E. Brown of future film fame, is a mouth - capitalised… More ballads, ballets, “refined soubrettes”, and “comic artistes”, and then Lex McLean, Scottish athlete and physical culturist, steps out… Lex, flexing and relaxing to the wonderment of the audience, accompanies himself, so to speak, with a chant of comment and explanation. “This is the deltoid muscle – these are the stairno-cleido-mastoids, developed in maself almost to an abnormality... From the gallery a shrill voice shatters the stillness – “Show us yer stummick-muscles!” – and the house is rent in a gale of laughter.

 ‘Moving pictures’, which were becoming popular, also began to occupy a regular part of the programme from mid 1904. The theatre was advertised as the ‘New Gaiety’ from 23 October 1905 although there seems to have been no change to the fabric. The ‘New’ tag was dropped after a few months but the Gaiety’s greatest days as a vaudeville theatre were still to come: Frank M. Clark had returned to America in mid 1906 and the remnants of his company continued under another management until they closed their season on 12 October 1907. The lease was then taken up by rising Sydney entrepreneur, James Brennan, he reopened the theatre on 19 October 1907 with his ‘National Vaudeville Entertainers’ company. This debut bill included Sam Gale (‘Australia’s actor-vocalist’) with his daughter, ‘Little Sadie’ (future wife of the great Roy Rene) and Arthur Tauchert, a vaudeville comedian later famous as the original, silent screen, Sentimental Bloke.

Other notables on the Brennan bills over the next few years included comedian, Will Dyson (not to be confused with the famous cartoonist); American minstrel, Charles Pope; London born comedienne, Nellie Kolle; and British musical comedy star, Bert Gilbert. Local newcomers included Roy Rene, making his Gaiety debut as ‘Little Roy’, a ‘descriptive singer’ on 5 May 1906; George Sorlie ‘the Prince of endmen’ (later a famous tent show entrepreneur); and Queenie Paul, making her ‘first appearance’ as a singer on 6 May 1911.

New decoration scheme 1912New decoration scheme, Australasian Decorator & Painter 1.12.1912 p.57In April 1912 Brennan went into partnership with the Fuller brothers, the Gaiety thus became part of the Brennan-Fuller Vaudeville Circuit and on 28 September closed for more renovations. ‘An artistic decorative scheme in green, gold and cream, with sprays of flowers in the panels of the walls has been carried out,’ the Age reported of the 12 October 1912 reopening. The £5000 remodelling included ‘comfortably upholstered chairs to the number of 1700… Two boxes have been added to the dress circle, and the seats in the wings of that part are so placed as to face the stage directly. The latter has been lowered to provide a better view. An electric numbering device for indicating the turns is the first of its kind in Australia.’ The old minstrel ‘first part’ had been abolished but the opening programme included an appearance by ‘Mr John Fuller, father of Mr Ben Fuller, the present managing director, who sang Donizetti’s ‘Summer Night’ with which he pleased Gaiety audiences 22 years ago.’

Ironically enough, after this substantial expenditure, vaudeville had less than 18 months of life left at the Gaiety; films, which were growing more popular all the time, undoubtedly presented management with a more attractive proposition than the complexities and expenses of ‘live’ performances. The Brennan-Fuller circuit had acquired the lease of the larger Bijou early in July 1913, and when they transferred their vaudeville operations there after the close of the show on 5 March 1914, Gaiety vaudeville became a thing of the past.

On 6 March 1914 the theatre reopened under the Fuller-Brennan aegis (as the partnership had by then become) screening films continuously from 11 AM till 11 PM with the ‘sensational feature’ The Circle of Death the opening draw. The ‘New Gaiety’, as it was called again, continued to supply inexpensive film entertainment over the next eight years. Then, in mid 1922, it unexpectedly enjoyed a last brief phase as a live theatre and was renovated and redecorated again.

‘The scheme of decoration was carried out in white and gold, with a flush of pink, “like dawn o’er the rosy east advancing”, Table Talk of 10 August 1922 rhapsodized, then continued more prosaically: ‘The theatre has been reseated with wide, comfortable cushioned and tip-up seats, and with a neat proscenium and a big stage, the whole forming a capital home for dramatic presentations.’ The first of these was on 5 August 1922 when Fuller’s Dramatic Players appeared in Should a Husband Forgive? Twenty other popular melodramas followed on a weekly change policy, usually with Ronald Conway and Agnes Dobson (and latterly Lesley Adrienne) in the leading roles. The fruitier titles included The Price of Her Folly, Her Road to Ruin and From Mill Girl to Millionairess; the season wound up with such staples as East Lynne and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

thumb Whelan18aDemolition 5.5.1934, Denis Whelan Collection

The Irish-American actor-singer, Allen Doone, began the Gaiety’s last live season on 20 January 1923 with the first of five of his popular Irish romantic dramas. Hoyts leased the theatre as a cinema after this, reopening it on 21 April 1923 with The Kentucky Derby, a Universal racing drama starring Reginald Denny. ‘Souvenir whips, the exact replica of the whips used in The Kentucky Derby will be given away as a souvenir of the occasion’, press advertisements advised. The’ New Gaiety’ continued as a , ‘second release’ Hoyts house until 27 September 1929 when the prospect of an expensive refit for sound films caused the company to quit.Fullers eventually installed sound equipment themselves and also undertook some renovations including a ‘redesigned foyer and improved seating’, according to a Herald item of 2I April 1930. The theatre had reopened as ‘The Roxy’ on 19 April with a continuous run, weekly change policy and ‘Celebrity 100% Talkie Vaudeville’ - vaudeville shorts from First National studios – the first featured attraction.

 The Depression was now affecting all forms of entertainment, however, and with access only to second release or second rate product, Roxy talkies seem to have faded away about mid December 1930 – Under a Texas Moon, a Warner Brothers western with Frank Fay, being the last advertised attraction. The old theatre seems to have remained empty and abandoned after this until the closure and subsequent demolition of the Bijou in mid February 1934, when memories of the Gaiety’s ‘golden days’ were fleetingly revived while its remaining substance was being pounded to dust.