Wednesday, 03 March 2021

Melbourne’s ‘Cinderella’ theatre has gone to the wrecker’s ball (Part 2)

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

The Apollo Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

The St James Theatre

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

The Metro Bourke Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Palace Theatre—3

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

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

The Melbourne Metro Nightclub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live music venue

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

Final curtain

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


Principal references

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

Seymour Hicks, Hello Australians, Duckworth, London, 1925

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John West, Theatre in Australia, Cassell Australia, 1978


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

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

Read 772 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
Frank Van Straten

Frank Van Straten AM

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