Slide
Stage by Stage
Thursday, 01 September 2022

The Comedy Theatre: Melbourne's most intimate playhouse (Part 1)

Written by
IMG 1768 pale rouge 3
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

 

Read 174 times Last modified on Tuesday, 27 September 2022
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.