with Diana Phoenix
The multi-purpose brick building erected in 1907 on a vacant allotment at 1-3 Armstrong Street was a welcome addition to the Middle Park shopping and entertainment precinct. Situated next to the hotel and opposite the railway station, the building accommodated two shops facing the street and a public hall at the rear, accessed via a narrow passage. Rates records show that the property was number 1-3 Armstrong Street, with the brick hall situated at number one. Fast forward more than a century later and the first owners, real estate agents Watts and Chandler, could never have imagined their building is now regarded as one of Melbourne’s theatrically iconic sites, best known as Frank Thring’s Arrow Theatre.
The new Middle Park building was first used as a post-office, savings bank, Masonic Lodge and a public hall, which Rosemary Goad, Diana Phoenix and Kay Rowan describe as soon becoming ‘the centre of Middle Park’s entertainment’. Other early tenants at 1-3 Armstrong Street included operators of a luncheon room, billiard saloon, printing business, milliner, blouse manufacturer, hairdresser and solicitors.
Between 1909 and 1943, ‘The Hall’ housed a cinema, initially presenting biograph entertainment screened by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, using projectors illuminated by hand-cranked oxyhydrogen gas or limelight, until the installation of electricity in 1910.
By 1918, records show Alfred King Smith, a printer, was lessee of the brick hall and in 1920 is described as the cinema’s first owner/operator. Smith used two projectors which were at first hand-cranked, but later motor driven. His entire family was involved in the cinema business, with wife Constance the ticket-seller and usher, son Frederick the assistant projectionist and daughters Winifred and Constance were pianist and violinist. Novelty nights were popular, comprising dance and fancy dress nights. Alfred King Smith, sold the business in 1923 after patrons sought the more lavish picture palaces. New owners Basil and Jack Flae introduced sound and ‘talkie’ movies, renovated the cinema to accommodate 340 people and renamed the premises the Middle Park Picture Theatre.
The Middle Park cinema had several owners and admirably survived the Great Depression, but audience sizes diminished during World War Two, partly due to competition from newly opened nearby cinemas such as the Kinema and Park Picture Theatre in Albert Park and others in Port Melbourne. Screenings were reduced to Saturday nights only by 1943, but the final straw for the cinema operators occurred in April that year when a newly delivered film left on a seat was deliberately set alight. Damage was minimal with 4,000 feet of film destroyed and some seats ruined, but the Middle Park Picture Theatre closed after 34 years.
The hall was used intermittently for community singing before being leased in 1945 by Melbourne actress/drama teacher Lorna Forbes and amateur theatre producer/engineer Sydney Turnbull to become the Melbourne Repertory Theatre. They extensively renovated the venue, enlarging the stage and fitting 210 upholstered tip-up seats. The Melbourne Repertory Theatre Group was formed and Forbes often performed in the shows she directed, including portraying Mrs Candour in the first production, The School For Scandal by R.B. Sheridan.
A fourth-generation actor, Ada Lorna Forbes (1890-1976) first acted professionally at age fifteen in Two Little Sailor Boys in Ballarat and toured Australia as an understudy in her father’s company. Mimi Colligan writes that Forbes preferred to use her second given name, Lorna. She was invited to join Allan Wilkie’s touring Shakespearian company in 1916, and performed a wide range of Shakespearian roles. Between 1924 and 1957 Forbes owned and operated the Lorna Forbes School of Drama in Melbourne, and in 1930 when Wilkie returned to England, she established her own touring theatre company with Alexander Marsh. Forbes became a familiar voice in radio drama from 1934, performing in radio plays for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Dorothy and Hector Crawford. She also formed The Lorna Forbes Repertory Players in 1941, presenting drawing-room comedies in various venues. The Melbourne Repertory Theatre established in 1945 by Forbes and Turnbull in Middle Park aimed to encourage emerging acting talent.
Ray Lawler had studied voice with Lorna Forbes and was also a keen playwright, with his first full-length stage play, Hal’s Belles, scheduled to open in the new Middle Park theatre on September 29, 1945. Hal’s Belles tells of a reincarnated Henry VIII meeting his reincarnated wives in a contemporary London flat setting. Casting the role of Henry VIII proved challenging until someone suggested 19 year old Frank Thring Junior looked like Henry VIII, but had never been on stage before. Frank was cast in the role, Hal’s Belles was a success in Middle Park and was transferred to the National Theatre for further performances. This was the beginning of Ray Lawler and Frank Thring Junior’s highly successful professional careers in their respective fields – Ray Lawler OBE as a playwright and Frank Thring as an international stage, screen and television actor.
In 1947, the Theatre Guild presented their inaugural production of William Shakespeare’s Othello, The Moor of Venice for a season of nine nights at the Melbourne Repertory Theatre, Middle Park. Directed by Warwick Armstrong and produced by Paul Hill, the ballet segment was choreographed by Xenia Borovansky and presented by the Borovansky Ballet Academy.
After four years, Lorna Forbes became involved in teaching projects and she and Turnbull did not renew the theatre lease when it expired in 1949. The theatre building’s freehold owner, St Kilda resident Mrs Mary Harriet Jones, stipulated the lease must be used to present drama and the written word. In October, 1951, Frank Thring Junior, now 25, decided to start his own theatre group and established the Arrow Theatre Company, opening with a highly praised double bill comprising Oscar Wilde’s Salome starring Frank as Herod with June Brunell in the title role, and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix to Remember, directed by Irene Mitchell. Financed by his mother Mrs Olive Thring, Frank could now present plays of his own choice. Peter Fitzpatrick points out that Mrs Thring would ‘certainly have endorsed any arrangement in which Frank guaranteed himself all the best roles’. In addition to covering production costs, Mrs Thring loaned items from her glamorous wardrobe including rubies and minks, but the actors remained unpaid.
Fitzpatrick writes that the new company aimed to be ‘radical in its ambitions, and collaborative in its practice’. Frank felt the repertoire was radical because it comprised the best classics and acclaimed works from contemporary Europe, avoiding the ‘bourgeois popularism’ he viewed as dominant in Australian theatre. From another perspective, Fitzpatrick believes the repertoire was actually ‘quite conservative’. Twenty-two plays were admirably presented at the Arrow Theatre over three years, including: Oedipus Rex (Sophocles), Othello (William Shakespeare), Volpone (Ben Jonson), The Critic (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Point of Departure and Ring Around the Moon (Jean Anouilh), Present Laughter (Noel Coward), Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde), A Phoenix Too Frequent and Venus Observed (Christopher Fry), Our Town (Thornton Wilder), The Letter (Somerset Maugham), The Green Bay Tree (Moredaunt Shairp), The House of Bernarda Alba (Federico Garcia Lorca), The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take It With You (George S. Hart and Moss Hart), Rope and Murder Without Crime (J. Lee Thompson), the fantasy Beauty and the Beast, and the melodrama Maria Maren or The Murder in the Old Red Barn (Randall Faye). The only Australian play, Ralph Peterson’s The Square Ring, was co-produced and presented by the Arrow Theatre and Kenn Brodziak’s Aztec Services in July, 1953, before transferring to the Princess Theatre the next month.
Frank Thring Junior reportedly decorated the Arrow Theatre in flamboyant colours for opening night, featuring deep blue and chartreuse, with bright pink in the foyer. Critics such as ‘J.W.K.’ (James W. Kern) of the Port Phillip Gazette felt the youthful colour scheme symbolized the Arrow Theatre’s ‘new lease of life’.
Actor Barry J. Gordon performed at the Middle Park Repertory Theatre in the late 1940s and also at the Arrow Theatre before transitioning to a professional career in the United Kingdom. Gordon recalls Frank Thring Junior taking over the ‘ailing’ venue as artistic director, at one time painting the venue all black, and sparing no expense on refurbishment. Gordon also remembers Thring’s delight when producing his large personal collection of chunky stage and costume jewellery to bedeck himself for the role of Herod in Salome, and later for Volpone, designed and directed by Robin Lovejoy.
Textile designer and printer Frances Burke undertook redecoration of the venue and would later become renowned as an interior designer, receiving a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for Services to Design. The renovated Arrow Theatre comprised a small stage with minimal wing space, seating accommodation for 199 patrons and a male and female dressing room located in the basement. A passage ran from the street front past a sweet-shop-milk bar to the theatre entrance. Off this passageway was a small room used for the foyer, and upstairs a smaller room served as ‘the office’. At the alley side of the theatre was a small area designated as ‘The Wardrobe’. Scenery was constructed partially under the stage or on the tiny stage itself.
English actor-director Frederick (‘Freddie’) Farley became Thring’s resident artistic director at the Arrow Theatre, including directing Othello in 1952 with Frank Thring in the title role, Zoe Caldwell as Desdemona and Alex Scott portrayed Iago.
The Arrow Theatre Company operated without any government assistance, generously financed by Mrs Olive Thring to ensure lavish settings and costumes. The company was, however, regarded as amateur because the actors were unpaid. Goad et al. describe shows presented by the Arrow Theatre Company under the aegis of Thring as ‘The best of contemporary and classical plays … staged in an avant-garde fashion, decidedly radical and non-mainstream in their presentation’.
Theatre directors included Robin Lovejoy, Irene Mitchell, Alan Burke and director/performer Freddie Farley, with Sheila Florance as Stage Manager for several productions. As well as the plays presented at the Arrow Theatre, a popular monthly Sunday musical evening attracted packed houses, chaired by Melbourne musician and composer Kevin McBeath, who later founded Thomas’s Record Bar.
Three years and twenty-two productions later, the Arrow Theatre Company was sadly in financial trouble. In an article in The Argus on 16 September, 1953, theatre critic Frank Doherty angrily accused Melbourne of being ‘indifferent to its own artistic talent’ and not being prepared to travel beyond the Golden Mile. Doherty wrote of Frank Thring and his staff maintaining ‘the highest standard set by any group of amateur players for many years’. Cost had been no barrier and Thring was said to have lost much of his own money. Doherty blamed Melbourne audiences for thwarting ‘the hopes, aims and ambitions of a young man willing to sacrifice his money and work hard for his goal’.
A significant impact on the Arrow Theatre Company at that time was the offer of professional work to amateur actors, including those at the Arrow Theatre, by newly arrived Englishman John Sumner. In 1953, Sumner recognised the potential of experienced amateur actors to perform in his newly established Union Theatre Repertory Theatre Company at Melbourne University, later known as the Melbourne Theatre Company. Arrow Theatre Company actors who accepted Sumner’s offer of professional work and became well known in their field included Bunny Brooke, Zoe Caldwell, Alex Scott, Michael Duffield, Frank Gatliff, June Brunell, Sheila Florance, Wyn Roberts, Ron Field, Moira Carleton and Robert Gardiner.
In October, 1954, upset at the closure of his Arrow Theatre Company and the death of his mother, Frank Thring Junior relinquished his theatre lease. Before leaving for London with Frederick Farley, Thring asked Barry J. Gordon to keep the Arrow Theatre as a ‘going concern’. At 21 years of age, Gordon took over as Manager and with actor Frank Gatliff registered the Arrow Associate Company in 1956.
The Arrow Associate Company’s first show, Sweeney Todd, was directed by Moira Carleton, with fruit pies supplied by the Four ‘n Twenty Pie Company for the audience to eat at interval. Unfortunately some patrons used the pies as missiles, with one said to have hit a distinguished guest on the back of his head.
The Arrow Theatre was now available for hire to other companies such as Spotlight Theatre Productions, the first fully professional company to perform at the Middle Park venue. John Van Druten’s comedy Bell, Book and Candle was presented under the joint direction of Letty Craydon and John Edmund, opening on 26 April, 1954.
Gordon and Gatliff worked hard to keep the theatre financially viable, assisted by their talented friends. Displayed for sale in the narrow foyer were ceramic tile paintings created by Gordon’s friend, an unknown artist named Arthur Boyd. Priced at £20 each, not one was sold. Arthur Boyd would become prominent in his field, as did the company’s photographer Helmut Newton, husband of actress June Brunell. Frank Thring and John Sumner resolved their differences after Thring’s success in London, and he too eventually joined Sumner’s Union Theatre Repertory Company (later to become the Melbourne Theatre Company) as a professional actor.
During rebuilding of the South Yarra-based Little Theatre in St Martin’s Lane between 1955 and 1956, the Arrow and National Theatres became temporary homes for Melbourne’s Little Theatre Movement. Plays presented at the Arrow Theatre during this time were: The Prisoner (directed by Irene Mitchell), Junior Miss (Peter Randall), The Love of Four Colonels (Irene Mitchell), The Guinea Pig (Brett Randall), Waters of the Moon (Irene Mitchell), Serious Charge (Irene Mitchell), The Lady from Edinburgh (Brett Randall), Only an Orphan Girl (Irene Mitchell), The Orchard Walls (Henry Allan), The Secret Tent (George Fairfax), The Lark (Irene Mitchell), Job for the Boy (George Fairfax), Sabrina Fair (Irene Mitchell), I am a Camera and A Question of Fact, both directed by George Fairfax.
The Arrow Theatre was once again leased to various companies to present theatre shows, such as George and Hana Pravda’s production of Anouilh’s Point of Departure, and Peter O’Shaughnessy’s King Lear in 1957, which played to capacity crowds with O’Shaughnessy in the lead role.
Waiting for Godot was presented at the Arrow Theatre from 2–14 September, 1957 starring Peter O’Shaughnessy, Phillip Stainton and Barry Humphries. In the same year, the Coburg Charity Players staged two productions at the Arrow Theatre, with profits going to the Middle Park Old Buffers, and another to assist old age pensioners.
On 31 October, 1958, actor/director/producer Jack Beresford Fowler hired the Arrow Theatre for his production of A Must for Dolly, a sequel to George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, presented by The Players’ and Playgoers’ Repertory Players.
Also in 1958, The Shell Company of Australia leased the theatre for eighteen months to screen 16 millimetre films three nights a week. Popular with children, the hall became known as ‘the bug house’.
In October, 1959, the Arrow Theatre was hired to stage and record Burning Bright by John Steinbeck, presented in conjunction with HSV Channel 7. The set designer was Anne Fraser.
The venue was then temporarily named the Amazu Theatre, until becoming known as ‘The New Arrow’.
Live theatre resumed at The New Arrow Theatre on 28 March, 1960 with the opening of Sons of the Morning by Catherine Duncan, presented by Delphic Productions, followed by Noel Coward’s Relative Values. Displayed in the foyer was an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by National Gallery students.
Between 1960-61, the Malvern Theatre Company was among groups hiring the New Arrow Theatre to present productions. Moral Re-Armament, an international moral and spiritual movement, presented Annie the Valiant, with free admission.
Jon Finlayson and Barbara Angell hired the New Arrow Theatre to present their revue Outrageous Fortune!, a professional show, opening 28 June, 1962.
After the success of their first revue at the New Arrow Theatre, Jon Finlayson and Barbara Angell rehired the theatre, opening on 12 October, 1962 with another revue, Don’t Make Waves.
Another professional production, the revue Christmas Crackers, was presented December 11–21, 1963 at the Arrow Theatre, directed by Peter Homewood and featuring Helen Thomas.
Cambridge Film and TV Productions leased the theatre during the 1960s with the upstairs area converted into a dance school. Seats and the stage were removed in 1965 and the next year the first floor became Greek Club Rooms, registered as The Order of the Australian Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. In 1971 while Cambridge Films still occupied the theatre, parts of the movie A City’s Child, written by Don Battye, with music by Peter Pinne and direction by Brian Kavanagh, were shot at the Arrow Theatre. The movie received an Australian Film Institute Bronze Award and actor Monica Maugham received Best Actress of the Year Award.
In 1981, a Greek community group, the Lemnian Brothers Club, acquired the building and remain the current owner. Today, the two street front shops are available for lease and a popular gymnasium/health club, Middle Park Fitness, has operated in the rear former hall and Arrow Theatre since 1998.
Two framed images of Frank Thring Junior (Othello) and Zoe Caldwell (Desdemona) from the 1952 production of Othello, proudly adorn a wall of the Middle Park Fitness health club, formerly the Arrow Theatre. Accompanying these theatrically historical photos is a personal note written in 2012 by New York-based Zoe Caldwell OBE to the current health club owner/trainer Jack Reven. This note was organised by Zoe Caldwell’s niece Sherryn Danaher.
Letter (2012) from Zoe Caldwell OBE to Jack Reven, owner/trainer of Middle Park Fitness which operates in the former Arrow Theatre
The original hand-written letter is reproduced as typed text by courtesy of Sherryn Danaher
Sherryn Danaher brought the note home from New York in 2012 after visiting her now late Aunt Zoe. For clarity of reading, Sherryn has kindly reproduced the hand-written note as typed text.
The ongoing occupancy of 1–3 Armstrong Street ensures the premises retain an active presence in the Middle Park Village. The community participation enjoying health and fitness activities in the former Arrow Theatre captures ‘that dear little theatre’s joy and spirit’ described by Zoe Caldwell in her delightful message.
A commemorative plaque supported by the Middle Park History Group and Councillor Judith Klepner was presented by the City of Port Phillip in 2010. Affixed to an exterior wall of 1-3 Armstrong Street, the plaque respectfully acknowledges the land’s traditional owners, the Boon Wurrung People. The plaque also pays tribute to the building’s colourful theatrical days from a bygone era, reminding passers-by of the iconic site’s cultural significance in Melbourne’s theatre history.
View programs on the THA Digital website
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Dr Mimi Colligan AM
Sherryn and Paul Danaher
The Middle Park History Group
Frank Van Straten AM
AusStage, Hal’s Belles 1945 (accessed 28.11.21)
AusStage, The Square Ring 1953 (accessed 27.11.21)
AusStage, Christmas Crackers 1963 (accessed 27.11.21)
Mimi Colligan, ‘Forbes, Ada Lorna (1890-1976)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1996 (accessed 28.11.2021)
Peter Fitzpatrick, The Two Frank Thrings, Monash University Publishing, Victoria, Australia, 2012, pp. 332-343
Rosemary Goad, Diana Phoenix and Kay Rowan, ‘The Heart of Middle Park’, Stories from a Suburb by the Sea, The Middle Park History Group, Middle Park Historical Series Number One, draft chapter for First Edition, 2011
Rosemary Goad, Diana Phoenix and Kay Rowan, ‘The Heart of Middle Park’, Stories from a Suburb by the Sea, The Middle Park History Group, Middle Park Historical Series Number One, 2014, pp.28–42
Barry J. Gordon, ‘Aiming the Arrow’, Victoria Theatres Trust, On Stage, Vol. 7, 2006, pp.22-25 (accessed 28.11.21)
J.W.K. (James W. Kern), Port Phillip Gazette, volume 1, no. 1, Winter 1952, p. 33
Diana Phoenix, ‘Halls of Fame: a Hidden Past’, History News, Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Issue 343, August, 2019, p.6 (accessed 16.12.21)
‘Middle Park Picture Theatre’ (accessed 23.11.2021)
Frank Van Straten, National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre, Victoria Press, Melbourne, 1994, p.95