Stage by Stage
Thursday, 01 December 2022

The Comedy Theatre: Melbourne's most intimate playhouse (Part 2)

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Prior to the construction of Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in 1928, the site was used for a variety of entertainment uses, including a film studio, as RALPH MARSDEN discovers in Part 2 of Comedy Theatre story. First published in On Stage in 2004, these articles have been updated, including new picture research.

Film shows were beginning to oust stage melodrama in popularity with the public and on 30 July 1909 the site reopened `under new management’ as ‘The Paragon Pictures’ with the boasts of ‘comfortable seats’ and an ‘unobstructed view for 4000 people’. The program was made up of short films and a few vaudeville acts accompanied by a ‘full Bavarian Band’. After mid August the site was briefly advertised as ‘Majestic Square’ but by early October this was dropped in favour of ‘Paragon Picture Pavilion’. The change of names seems to have done little to popularize the venture, however, and it closed early in November 1909.

The Argus of 13 December 1909 reported: ‘The Hippodrome, in Exhibition street, has been transformed into a theatre, and henceforth will be known as the Criterion. Rows of seats occupy the old ring, a stage has made its appearance out of the wall, and an orchestra has taken the place of the brass band. The lessee, Mr. Phil Bernard, aspires to entertain his patrons with healthy dramas and musical comedies.’

A revival of an old musical, My Sweetheart, complete with ‘Sheep supplied by Angliss and Co.’, was the opening attraction on 11 December. Another musical followed this but by late January 1910 these had given way to weekly change melodramas which continued until about mid March.

The property now also caught the eye of the colourful promoter Hugh D. McIntosh, who would later control the Tivoli vaudeville circuit. McIntosh took out a lease in April 1910 and commissioned plans from architect Frank Stapley for a large two-level octagonal-shaped stadium for boxing matches. Although the plans, dated 18 November 1910, were lodged with the Board and the site leased to a McIntosh company in October 1911, the building was never begun.

It's quite possible that McIntosh’s ambitions outreached his resources; it’s also possible these ambitions reignited Williamson’s interests in the property, for within a short time The Firm had acquired the lease. Aside from thwarting McIntosh’s threatened incursion opposite their august Her Majesty’s Theatre, The Firm obviously saw the prominent corner as perfect for a modern playhouse. This would be ideal for more intimate offerings than the spectacular melodramas and musical comedies then occupying their larger theatres.

The Firm first announced the creation of a ‘Williamson Theatre’ for comedy productions here in July 1913. This was to be a memorial to their founder, James Cassius Williamson, who had died in Paris earlier that month. According to press reports in The Age and The Argus, plans had been commissioned from architects Kent and Budden of Sydney and William Pitt of Melbourne. Although building was announced to start ‘almost immediately’, nothing was done before the declaration of war in August 1914 threatened the economic outlook, thus halting the project.

Meanwhile, threats of a different kind were coming in the shape of American film versions of plays to which The Firm held Australasian performance rights: the film Sealed Orders with J. Warren Kerrigan had opened in Sydney in May 1914, during the run of JCW’s stage production of a popular melodrama of the same name. The Firm had been forced to seek an injunction to prevent further screenings, while the question of copyright was debated.

This case may well have given rise to the idea of JCW venturing into film production for itself. That this was public knowledge by mid-1914 is made clear by an item in the Adelaide paper, The Green Room: ‘Melbourne theatrical people and picture showmen are still discussing the proposed entry of the J.C. Williamson firm into the film business, but, from all accounts, it may not come to pass. What will probably happen, however, is that on the return of Hugh J. Ward (one of JCW’s directors) The Firm will film a number of its plays and send them on tour in the smalls hitherto not reached by any properly equipped dramatic company.’

In fact, JCW held fire for a further nine months before acting—a slight added incentive coming in December 1914 with the introduction of a Commonwealth Government import duty on all overseas-produced films. The Firm was again goaded, in late January 1915, by Melbourne screenings of The Sign of the Cross with William Farnum. The Wilson Barrett play on which this film was based had been an outstanding popular vehicle for their matinee idol Julius Knight.

Decisive action was essential: while injunctions against further screenings of The Sign of the Cross were granted, a ‘Notice of Intent to Build’ dated 29 March 1915 was lodged with Melbourne City Council (there was no compulsory submission of plans at this time). A.W. Purnell, acting as architect and builder, was to construct a ‘wood and fibro-cement studio’ with work to commence on that date on land at the south-east corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets, of which The Firm was now the owner. The total estimated cost of the building seems to have been £66/6/6—little more than $5000 in today’s currency.

The idea of using the cleared corner site for a film studio may well have originated late in 1914 when, on 5 December, motion picture inserts for JCW’s stage musical comedy The Girl on the Film were photographed there under the direction of English stage producer Harry B. Burcher. Punch carried a pictorial feature on the Saturday morning shoot of the period film within the play, Napoleon and the Miller’s Daughter, with Charles Workman and Dorothy Brunton in the title roles: ‘Surrounded by an interested crowd, the actors and actresses went through their parts, not under the limelight, but in the broad light of day, while the operator turned the handle …’

The Hawklet concluded: ‘The JCW Ltd have taken possession of the old Hippodrome site on Exhibition Street, opposite Her Majesty’s Theatre, for the sole purpose of building a studio, etc. for the developing of films of their productions.’ The Bulletin reported: ‘The Firm will film some of the Niblo and Julius Knight shows in its own studio, and a Yankee picture-play producer has been engaged to instruct the companies how to make Get-Rich Quick Wallingford etc. interesting in a silent potted form.’

The studio seems to have been completed within a few weeks and the same paper noted that The Firm had ‘fixed up its cinema studio, Pathé system … It’s a simple affair, just a wooden shed with two sides and the roof of glass.’ The glass roof and walls were an essential feature of studios at this time, as daylight was the primary source of illumination for the interior sets. The harsh sunlight was diffused either by use of frosted glass, or by muslin drapes strung across clear glass to give a soft, even light to the scenes being shot.

The first production from the J.C. Williamson studio was a four-reel (approximately one hour) version of George M. Cohan’s comic play Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, starring Cohan’s brother-in-law Fred Niblo, who along with his wife, Josephine Cohan, became one of The Firm’s most popular ever importations.

Everything about this first humble Australian effort was rushed, however: W.J. Lincoln’s scenario is said to have been prepared in a few days and, although The Firm had tried to hire an experienced American director, it was probably pressure of time that resulted in Lincoln, then Niblo, being appointed, as the Niblos were booked to sail from Sydney for San Francisco on 5 June.

Most of the filming seems to have been completed in little more than a fortnight. Within a few days of finishing Wallingford the Niblo company were hard at work on their second film: another adaptation of a George M. Cohan play, Officer 666. The film was completed by late May 1915, but as with the Wallingford film, release was delayed for nearly a year.

The studio’s third film, a propaganda feature, Within Our Gates, was the first to be released, premiering at the Victoria Theatre, Melbourne on 19 July 1915. Of the four stage adaptations filmed by JCW it seems likely that Within the Law (their fourth film) was the best, with Muriel Starr in the lead. A second war movie, For Australia followed. Most of the film seems to have been shot in and around Sydney, but post production, including shooting of inserts, titles and film editing, was probably completed in the JCW studio in Melbourne.

The Firm lodged a second ‘Notice of Intent to Build’ with the Melbourne City Council on 29 October 1915. This recorded the proposed erection of an ‘insulated building measuring 50 ft x 100 ft (15.24m x 30.48m) on the JCW studio site for what seems to have been a total estimated cost of £80/9/9 (about $6100 today).

Work was due to start on 1 November and seems to have been completed in about a month. An MMBW Melbourne Water map made after this date shows the plan of an irregularly shaped building of around these dimensions, set about 35 feet (about 10.6m) away from what appears to be a plan of the original JCW Studio Building. It’s probable this second building was intended for film storage, laboratory, cutting room or administrative purposes rather than as additional studio space.

The fourth and final JCW stage adaptation to be filmed was a four-reel version of Seven Keys to Baldpate, directed by Monte Luke. The script was adapted from another George M. Cohan play that had been a popular stage vehicle for Fred Niblo. English actor Fred Maguire performed Niblo’s role in the film supported by Australian stage favourite Dorothy Brunton. Seven Keys to Baldpate seems never to have had a city screening in Sydney or Melbourne, but was first shown at the Hub Theatre, in suburban Newtown, Sydney, on 24 May 1916 and seems to have been ignored by reviewers.

JCW feature production activities were halted after completion of this film, and late in January 1916 The Firm sent Monte Luke to the USA to study film production techniques, but ‘after witnessing work on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, he returned, overwhelmed, to recommend that Williamson should abandon production and leave it to the Hollywood experts’.

Although J.C. Williamson’s feature production activities were halted after the completion of Seven Keys to Baldpate, the JCW studio on the Exhibition/Lonsdale Street corner was not immediately left idle.

Early in February 1916, W.J. Lincoln, now released from his Williamson contract, returned to production with an independently financed project, Nurse Cavell, inspired by the real life story of the heroic World War I English nurse executed by the Germans in October 1915. No doubt Lincoln was also inspired by the box office success of a recent NSW production on the subject, The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell.

Lincoln’s Nurse Cavell seems to have been shot largely at the JCW studio in just four days, from 16 to 19 February. It premiered at the Palais Pictures, St. Kilda, on 21 February 1916.

Less than a fortnight after the release of Nurse Cavell, Lincoln was preparing a second film of the same subject, La Revanche (The Revenge).

Production of La Revanche seems to have taken only a little longer than its predecessor and within a fortnight the film was ready for preview. The Winner opined: ‘In the manner and mounting and dressing, everything is on a more elaborate scale than has hitherto been the case with locally produced screen subjects, and some striking effects have been achieved. A notable feature of the film is the bright, crisp photography for which, it is said, natural light was used throughout.’

In spite of this goodwill, La Revanche failed to draw; it was pulled from the Britannia Theatre, Melbourne, just three days after its 10 April 1916 opening.

The public may have felt the novelty of the Cavell story wearing thin after three films in as many months and may also have found the French title off-putting. Lincoln was nothing if not resilient; The Winner of 7 June 1916 reported him ‘busy just now looking for types, locations for exteriors, and a lot of other things for his forthcoming film based on the life of Adam Lindsay Gordon’.

After six years of hopeful activity, Melbourne’s motion picture production business had also ground to a halt. A Bulletin item noted: ‘Of three movie studios erected in Melbourne, one is now used as a laundry, another as a store and the third is full of cobwebs.’ The cobwebs seem to have remained undisturbed at the JCW studio until 1918 when the Australian Red Cross decided to add film production to its other fund raising activities.

A driving force behind the Melbourne production was Captain N.C.P. Conant, the young aid-de-camp to the Governor of Victoria. He devised a scenario set in England entitled His Only Chance, about the spoiled son of a wealthy family who is saved from a life of dissolution when he enlists in the army.

His Only Chance was the last chance for the JCW studio; with no further film production planned by The Firm and no apparent interest from independent producers the old studio building was converted into a scenery dock for Her Majesty’s Theatre—the original purpose J.C. Williamson had originally intended for the site back in 1908.

Fresh plans for a smaller theatre to house repertory plays were then drawn up by Albion H. Walkely and C.N. Hollinshed and imminent construction was announced in April 1927.

The Comedy Theatre, as it was now to be called, was a five storey building whose upper floors became the administrative headquarters of Williamson’s entire Australasian organisation. The exterior was modelled on a Florentine palace and the theatre itself comprised the wide rather than deep auditorium with two levels of seating in stalls, dress circle and boxes to a capacity of 1050. There was much use of marble and artificial Italian stone in the foyer, and the decorations included two large, Spanish style chandeliers and an intricately painted wood beamed ceiling in the auditorium. There was also what was claimed as the first thermostat regulated heating and ventilating system in any Australian theatre, according to The Argus of 27 April 1928. The prevailing colours were green, gold and walnut but the original ‘unlucky’ green front curtain was held responsible for the deaths of several theatre personnel soon after.

Costing over £100 000, the still incomplete Comedy opened on 28 April 1928 with Canadian born Margaret Bannerman in W. Somerset Maugham’s society drama, Our Betters. The Bannerman season, which was only moderately well received, was followed on 16 June by the Ben Travers farce, Rookery Nook, with Hastings Lynn (brother of the play’s original London star, Ralph Lynn) and Basil Radford.


To be continued


Read 165 times Last modified on Wednesday, 07 December 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.