MEMORIES OF THE OLD KINGS THEATRE, MELBOURNE
by Bob Cunningham
For almost a century the old Kings Theatre graced the southern side of Russell Street just a half a block up from Bourke Street. Although not possessing a terribly exciting Edwardian façade, it did have an interesting wrought iron verandah with a central curved arch. This later was replaced by a 'modern' cantilever awning. The City Council's removal of all the old wrought iron verandahs and posts from Melbourne streets at the end of the war brought a public outcry. The Council deemed them dangerous. The only one to survive was Ogg and Co. Chemists of Collins Street; it was rescued by the Melbourne University and ended up as the entrance way to the Undergraduates' building.
The Kings was not as elaborate a structure as the Victorian-period Princess up the road, but my fading memory fails to bring details of the interior into play, except that it was constructed with a spacious stalls, dress and upper circles. The dress circle was supported by obtrusive columns in the stalls. The colour scheme as I later researched was cream, gold and blue, with a finely decorated circular ceiling dome. There was a tapering square tower of some sort on the right side of the façade by the lane, for whatever purpose is unknown, but having been designed by William Pitt, it was more than likely to have had some practical use.
The building was erected in 1908 by William Anderson, an all-round entrepreneur who built an amazing amusement park, Wonderland City, outside Bondi, Sydney, possibly the first in Australia. Anderson was famous for purchasing the famous elephant 'Alice' from the auction sale of the effects of the financially distressed Bostock and Wombwell's Novelty Circus. When Anderson also experienced the disposal of his bankrupted park, the elephant was sold to Wirths' Circus, where she became a famous attraction.
In 1912 the Kings Theatre passed into the hands of Duggan (a relative of Anderson) and Bailey leading theatrical producers. Bailey was the famous Bert Bailey who introduced to Melbourne audiences the Steele Rudd character 'Dad', from On Our Selection. Thirty years later, in 1940, I saw Bert Bailey on the stage of the State Theatre, Melbourne, in a personal appearance and school holiday attraction for Ken Hall's film Dad Rudd M.P., which had just been released. My first association with the Kings was during the anxious war years. With my father serving in the forces in the Middle East, my mother, needing some morale sustenance, enjoyed attending community singing at various theatres. A previous article about community singing relates in full the experiences my sister and I had accompanying our mother on these regular outings. For me, the Kings Theatre became the outstanding venue, with its quite decorative interior, the like of which I had never seen before. (Mind you I was only about 10 at the time!)
In 1948 the Oliviers came to Melbourne and caused some excitement... they were real film stars! They were playing at the Princess, their company being sponsored by the British Council as was the Ballet Rambert Company who performed somewhat later, also at the Princess Theatre. The Boyd Neal Orchestra and an exhibition of Henry Moore drawings and other works came to Melbourne the previous year under the same auspices. There is a photo of 'Mo' meeting the notable British actors, they possibly not knowing who on earth this weird looking fellow was.
It was the same year when, with my mate from high school, Keith Medley, who loved the theatre as much as I did, together we frequented the Tivoli Theatre revues, feasting on every lavish and entertaining show. We ventured to the Kings in 1949 to see Rusty Bugles. It was a controversial play by Sumner Locke Elliott, with swear words – warranted of course, as it was about army life. The wowsers tut-tutted loudly, but they only encouraged large attendances for the play.
As was typical, we could only afford upper circle seats as we were both just out of high school, so we arrived very early, grabbed our tickets and raced up the hundreds of stairs to get front row seats. (We followed the same procedure for the Tivoli shows.) Firmly ensconced in our eyrie while waiting the 'curtain up', we received a gentle tap on our shoulders from a matronly couple behind us who said, 'Do your mothers know you are here?' They had little to worry about, for we knew all the swear words!
The same year the Kings Theatre was the venue for the mad-cap American revue Hellzapoppin, an American show imported by the entrepreneur Harry Wren and featuring the famous Olsen and Johnson comedy duo, who used to franchise the production. There were lots of sight gags and zany comedy mixed with some exotic dancing from a lively ballet. It was somewhat different to the Tivoli revues, having a certain brashness about it. We loved it. The flowerpot routine sticks in my mind: 'Flowerpot for Mr Jones, Flowerpot for Mr Jones' calls the messenger boy walking across the stage with a small flowerpot. On each of his entries during the show, the flowerpot gets bigger and bigger.
Where it fits into the chronology of Kings Theatre productions during 1948-49 still seems a bit of a jumble, but I know we went to the Kings to see the nostalgic revue McCackie 'Mo'ments with Roy Rene 'Mo'. I had seen 'Mo' several times at the Tivoli during the war when my father was home on leave from serving in the Middle East. This was reputed to be 'Mo's' last appearance on stage. I have little memory who was in it. An old 1950 advertisement for the show at the Sydney Empire announced a one-week-only season following Hellzapoppin, and claimed a cast of 40 stars and 8 international acts. From the front row of the upper circle we roared our heads off at the comedy sketches. The contents of the show are firmly locked away in that fading memory box of time. From the Tivoli days however, I do remember one 'Mo' routine and I may be bold enough to describe it.
It went like this: A bedroom scene with a married couple in bed. The husband caresses his wife's hair and says, 'Whose beautiful hair is this, sweetheart?' 'Mine of course, dear.' 'And whose beautiful eyes are these, sweetheart?' 'Mine of course, my dear.' And the routine continues with nose, ears, lips, shoulders, when suddenly the head of 'Mo' appears from under the bedclothes between the couple and splutters, 'And when you come to the feet... they're mine!'
Harry Wren was supposed to have produced McCackie 'Mo'ments but three other memory lane type shows were produced by him at the Princess Theatre during the 1950s. The Thanks for the Memory revue was the first, with George Wallace, Jim Gerald, Morrie Barling, Queenie Paul and Jandy the musical clown. The Good Old Days followed a couple of years later, then Many Happy Returns, in which we finally said goodbye to Gladys Moncrieff. Keith and I had attended all three productions.
In pursuit of a worthwhile career in education, in 1950-1 I was a trainee art teacher at Melbourne Teachers' College. Those two years totally changed my life. As an extra curriculum activity, I joined Bill Nicol's puppetry group. This gave me further insights into theatrical production and, being the stage manager, I developed a love of practical theatre. The college was supportive of students acting, singing and mucking around in college productions, and I too made a fool of myself in several revues (I 'borrowed Sid Fields' famous 'Golfing' sketch with Ron Ginger) and I had the gall to play a couple of dreadful piano compositions as a solo, both in my favourite key, E flat.
My major art assignment in 1951 was on 'Theatre Arts', the history of costume, scenery, and so on, which concluded with a written folio-sized book and a large working model theatre. I was to have an interview with the director of the nearby Union Theatre at Melbourne University, Des Connor, to talk about theatre arts etc, on the very day he died, so I was obliged to find another source of information.
I reckoned on the Kings Theatre as an alternative. Therefore, my model was based on the Kings Theatre, a place I felt comfortable with, and when I brazenly fronted up to the theatre management for a look-see back stage I was introduced to the lovely actress June Jago. She was currently stage managing the Sonia Dresdel production of A Message for Margaret at the Kings. She was absolutely wonderful, giving me all the details about the theatre, taking me over every inch of the huge stage, the scenery loft and lighting board. The backstage was the same size as the auditorium itself, huge, and where in theatrical history, horses and coaches had raced across the stage, ('Thunderbolt' the bush ranger, Frank Ward, Cobb and Co. coaches, etc.) and where the simulated crashing of a real scale aeroplane took place. To the dressing rooms, painting gantry, storage areas and below stage where areas for the holding of animals were seen, and the mechanism for stage trapdoors, literally everywhere. It was a wonderful place which I visited several times for my assignment. On one occasion I was introduced to the stage manager of the Princess Theatre, who offered me a similar look-round. The model was a triumph, scoring me an 'A' assessment.
I demonstrated to my fellow students, various coloured stage lighting combinations from a miniature switchboard, for I had footlights and two overhead batons of lights at my disposal, and with the many strings anchored to the scenery gallery I changed painted backdrops and act curtains ad nauseam. I had constructed flats in the form of an elegant living room with model furniture based on Under the Counter, the Cicely Courtneidge musical play at His Majesty's Theatre. At the conclusion of the demonstration, a few sotto voce comments like 'Bloody conchie!' deflated me somewhat.
During those student days I had written a panto based on Alice in Wonderland (Disney killed the idea with the release of his cartoon version a year later); I still have the music somewhere. The Highwayman, an Australian musical written by the Sydney pharmacist Edward Samuels, was playing at the Kings, and I went along to see it, again sitting in the upper circle. After the performance I enquired if Mr Samuels was around, as indeed he was. Being stage-struck I asked all the right questions after saying how much I enjoyed the show. I explained about my panto and the possibility of having it produced professionally (the absolute affrontery of me... looking back, it was a terrible mish-mash of songs, all in E flat.) Little did I then realize the difficulty Mr Samuels had had in getting his own musical onto a stage. He merely said, 'Forget it sonny!' Forget it I did, and went back to College to write the score for a ballet for which the SRC gave me the ridiculous sum of five pounds for its production. A dark and moody composition followed... background music for Macbeth... thus expressing my creative frustrations. It was in E flat minor, not entirely my favourite key.
In April 1951 the remarkably popular English comedy See How They Run came to the Kings. It was produced by Kenn Brodziak. I saw it with my college girlfriend Joan Lynch who was as stage-struck as I was.
From the upper circle we enjoyed June Clyne and a popular cast romping around the stage. It transferred to the Princess later in the year and ran for years touring the country. (It has proved to be a good play for amateur companies and is revived frequently.)
Digressing briefly, Joan and I saw the remarkable Diana Barrymore in Fallen Angels at a Princess Theatre matinee the same year. It was a dreadful performance to a stalls only 'house' before a matronly audience generously perfumed with 4711. We felt so sorry for Miss Barrymore, as she seemed to need no incentive to act in a tipsy fashion as the role required. We decided to go and see her backstage and lift her spirits (excuse the pun). Sensing the actress may have enjoyed playing only comedy roles, I enquired did she ever do any dramas. In a slightly slurred American drawl she replied, 'Hell no, life is one big drama as it is!' (Therein lies a cautionary example of belonging to a theatrical dynasty. She had a dreadfully tragic life.)
See How They Run was I think the last production I ever saw at the old Kings, for it was to become a cinema a bit later and I never set foot in the place again.
In 1952 my first year as a teacher was spent in the Otway Rangers where I continued to attempt some minor amusements for the local dances, singing duets and playing piano for the local dance band, 'The Misty Heights Serenaders'. Some time was spent designing the stage setting for the district's first ever Debutante Ball and organizing the first local Carols by Candlelight with half the children at the school.
Twenty years later at the opening celebrations of a new school on the site, I was accused of having written the school anthem. When it was sung by the school choir at the beginning of proceedings it sounded dreadful. I didn't want to own it. I questioned the President of the School Council about my involvement in the anthem and he simply whipped out the original copy from inside his coat pocket and thrust it in my face as proof. I felt so embarrassed. It was certainly mine. There was no mistaking, for it was written in my favourite key, E flat.
top. Kings Theatre banner logo. Private collection.
KT03. A Kings Theatre program cover from the 1920s. Private collection.
KT04. Bert Bailey as 'Dad' in On Our Selection. National Library of Australia
KT05. Sonia Dresdel. Private collection.
KT06. A scene from Sumner Locke Elliott's play Rusty Bugles. From left: Michael Barnes, Lloyd Berrell, Ralph Peterson, Frank Curtain. Independent Theatre Archive.
KT07. Program for McCackie 'Mo'ments. Private collection.
KT08. Seated at table, from left: Hal Lashwood, Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier, Roy Rene 'Mo'. Private collection.
KT.09 Program for the Australian musical The Highwayman. Private collection.
KT.10 The bar-room can-can from The Highwayman: From left: Dawn Spry, Shirley Sunners, Msargaret Nunn, Leonie Scarlett. Courtesy Peter Pinne.
KT11. Ballroom scene from The Highwayman: Earl Covert as Jim Steel, Beryl Seton as Mary Brown. Courtesy Peter Pinne.