Minerva Theatre, Sydney (Part 1)

Written by John Stephen Clark

 MinervaSyd bannerThe Minerva at night: photo by Sam Hood taken at the official opening of the theatre, 18 May 1939.
Sam Hood Photographic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

 

Since the 1980s, the Metro Minerva in Sydney’s Kings Cross has been the headquarters of George Miller’s film production company. In April 2019, Miller’s association with the former Minerva Theatre came to an end, when he sold the building to developers for $19.8 million.

Described by theatre historian Ross Thorne as ‘the best example of this type of theatre architecture in Australia’, restoration and painting works prior to the sale provide an idea of what the theatre may have looked like in its heyday. Internally, alterations have occurred, but nothing that can’t be rectified.

The Metro Minerva Action Group has been convened by John S. Clark, with the hope this Art Deco gem will remain an icon of the Kings Cross neighbourhood, and be fully restored as a venue for the performing arts and help address Sydney's dire shortage of suitable performance spaces.

We re-print with the permission of John S. Clark, his seminal history of the Minerva Theatre, originally published in 1993 in booklet form by the Australian Theatre Historical Society.

For more information or to add your support to the Metro Minerva Theatre Action Group, please contact John S. Clark, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

During the 1940s, the Minerva Theatre played host to a veritable Who’s Who of Australian show business personalities. The likes of Peter Finch and Ron Randell both got their first big breaks there, and others to grace the Minerva stage included Sumner Locke-Elliott, the playwright; Gwen Plumb, Pat MacDonald, Leonard Teale, Michael Pate, Richard Ashley, Hal Lashwood, Neva Carr-Glyn, Diana Perryman, John Tate, David Nettheim, Sheila Helpmann, Gordon Chater and John Meillon, to name but a few. Many very popular plays were presented there, and even films from as far back as 1939, not long after the theatre had opened. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took over the theatre, there were important premieres, revivals of film classics, trade screenings, and first release films. In 1969, Reg Livermore and John Waters appeared on the Metro stage when Hair was premiered by Harry M. Miller.

So the Minerva, later to be the Metro Theatre, has had an interesting, sometime turbulent history, and this is its story.

  • MartinDavidN 001

    David N. Martin, 1940s

    Photo courtesy of Frank Van Straten.

  • MinervaSyd 016

    Minerva Theatre programme cover, February 1940.

    Courtesy John S. Clark.

The idea for the Minerva Theatre, named after Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, originated with David N. Martin, who had begun his theatrical career doing advertising work for the Waddington’s Theatre Circuit in Sydney. In 1933 he formed his own company, Imperial Theatres Limited, became the Managing Director, and acquired the former Union House, the old Rialto Theatre in Pitt Street, Sydney. He rebuilt this, using the shell of the building, in a remarkable six weeks, and opened it as the Liberty Theatre on March 31, 1934. The foyer featured marvellous sculpture works by the renowned G. Rayner Hoff, and the theatre itself was decorated in art deco-moderne. The venture was very successful, with long-run motion pictures being presented there, including Irene Dunne in Showboat.

In 1937, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leased the Liberty on a long term basis. Martin had plans in 1933 for a much larger and grander New Liberty in Castlereagh Street, linked with a 14-storey apartment building and shopping arcade. The New Liberty was to be completed and opened in 1934 with ‘stage space to accommodate any legitimate performance’, and with the most up-to-date projection facilities for motion pictures. Sadly, this project never eventuated.

By 1937, David N. Martin and his co-directors had their minds set on another project, the Minerva Centre in Kings Cross, on the outskirts of the city proper. This was to include the Minerva Theatre and the Paradise Theatre. A company, Minerva Centre Limited, was formed with Martin as the Managing Director. For the proposed Minera Theatre, a block of land in Orwell Street, close to Macleay Street, was purchased for the sum of ten thousand five hundred pounds ($21,000). The land had a frontage along Orwell Street of about 152 feet, and along Orwell Lane of about 91 feet, although only 78 feet of the width was actually used. About 200 feet away on the other side of Macleay Street, another block of land was purchased for the Paradise Theatre. The Paradise was to be the larger and most magnificent of the two. It was to be equipped for motion pictures, and with a stage large enough for opera, ballet and musical productions. It was to feature a huge semi-circular proscenium, in the style of Radio City Music Hall in New York. The building was to include the Paradise Roof Garden dance-restaurant, providing facilities for cabaret shows, large spacious foyers, and a large fountain on the second exterior landing. The Grand Assembly, and it would have been truly grand, was to include more sculpture work by Rayner Hoff. The Paradise Theatre, like to proposed New Liberty before it, was unfortunately never built. The building was to be designed by noted architect Bruce Dellit (creator of Sydney’s War Memorial in Hyde Park), and his impression of the Paradise exterior and proscenium is reproduced elsewhere in this booklet.

The prospectus stated ‘The new theatres will inaugurate an era in theatre construction; they will combine the intimacy and acoustical features of the legitimate theatre with the modern equipment and luxurious comfort of the newer picture theatres. There will be an atmosphere of restfulness and relaxation.’

Even the Minerva Theatre was planned on a grander scale than what was to be the final result. A Rayner Hoff sculptured façade was planned, but never eventuated, and artist Norman Lindsay was given the task of painting a watercolour as the forerunner for a large mural, to be painted in oils, for the Minerva vestibule. The mural was to include pillars of Lalique glass, embedded into the painting. The pillars themselves were to be sculptured by Rayner Hoff. (Hoff was responsible for the wonderful fountain in the upstairs lounge of the now demolished Wintergarden Theatre at Rose Bay. Prior to demolition the fountain was to be removed for re-use elsewhere, but this did not happen and it was destroyed, along with the theatre.) As it turned out, the mural was never painted, and instead, a photo-mural aerial view od the City of Sydney was used in its place, this being located in the vestibule above the entrance doors. Today, one can view Norman Lindsay’s Minerva watercolour at his home (now a museum and art gallery) at Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains.

  • MinervaSyd Prospectus 400px

    Cover of the Prospectus for the Minerva Centre Ltd, Websdale, Schoosmith Ltd, Sydney, 7 September 1937.

    Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney, https://ma.as/379374

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    'Sketch of new Sydney theatre,' Decoration and Glass, vol. 3, no. 12, April 1938, p. 10.

    National Library of Australia, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-373505680/

The Minerva was to be the first of the two theatres to be built under Martin’s scheme, and the whole project was due for completion by the end of 1938. The intention was to use the Minerva for movie presentations as well as stage productions, as a dual purpose venue. By May 1938, excavation work on the site was complete and construction commended on 8 May. The architects for the project were C. Bruce Dellit, Guy Crick, Bruce Furse, and Dudley Ward, all prominent men. Dellit had designed the Liberty Theatre, Anzac War Memorial (as mentioned)—with sculptures by Rayner Hoff, and the Brisbane City Hall. Crick and Furse were the architects responsible for Sydney’s architecturally notable King’s Theatre circuit.

The building contract was negotiated and construction was expected to be completed by October 1938, however, there were a number of unfortunate construction delays, and the Minerva was not ready to open its doors until May 1939. The building was created in the art deco-moderne styling popular at the time. From the designs of Bruce Dellit, building plans were prepared by, and the building construction under, the supervision of Crick and Furse. Fibrous plaster details and decorative features were designed and constructed under the supervision of Dudley Ward, who also supervised the interior decoration. A pale pastel green colour scheme was used on the cemented exterior of the building.

Decoration and Glass magazine reported: ‘Vertical flutings ornament the tower on one side, while on the other the name sign is against a background of horizonal flutes. Horizontal lines give a modern effect to the awning fascia, and an unusual stepped effect has been used to compensate for the fall in street level. Beneath the awning, walls and piers are faced with Laminex structural glass, in a curly birch finish. The entrance is at the corner, and showcases and small shops are on the street facades. Bent glass is used with satisfactory effect.’

Two ticket boxes, made of structural glass and metal with chromium plated grilles, were placed in the round corners outside on each of the entrance doors. Another ticket box was provided in the entrance foyer. The frames of the three pairs of entrance doors were made of monel metal, and were silvery-white in appearance. The air conditioned vestibule of the theatre was spacious, 60 feet long and 25 feet high, and fully carpeted.

Decoration and Glass magazine commented on the foyer: ‘The arched ceiling is fluted, and fluorescent lighting concealed in coves accentuates the flutes … two pairs of flush panelled doors lead from the vestibule to the stalls, while a broad flight of stairs lead to the upper lounge, from which the dress circle is entered. The stair balustrade is chromium, and a balustrade gives a balcony effect to the lounge. On the first landing of the stairs a stepped recess with mirror background accommodates a flower pedestal. The newels at this level are glass pillars, set on textured bases and encircled with metal bands. Interior illumination adds to the importance of this feature.’

On the wall, on the opposite side of the vestibule to the dress circle foyer, at the balustrade level, mirror glass was used along the entire length to give the whole area a more spacious effect. The ceiling of the dress circle foyer was also arched like the vestibule, but not fluted, and mirrors were again used against the circle foyer wall.

An aquarium, containing brightly coloured fish, was a feature beside the main circle entrance stairway. At the top of the two circle entrance stairways, two velour curtained doorways, opening onto the cross-aisles, provided access to the circle seating. Comfortable Dunlopillo chairs were used throughout the auditorium. Each seat had a footrest and plenty of space between the rows. The auditorium seating capacity totalled 1,006. The circle held 420 of these, plus 14 in the side ‘boxes’. The stalls capacity was 572. Two murals by Miss Van Gapp, one on either side of the auditorium at the rear of the circle, decorated the otherwise plain walls. Acoustic plaster was used on the rear of the circle wall.

Decoration and Glass magazine commented: ‘The original ceiling treatment over the auditorium is the principal feature in the decorative scheme. A series of transverse ribs across the theatre, each being set a little lower than the preceding one, looking towards the stage. Fluorescent tube lighting is concealed in the forward edge of each rib, which is coved. Colours are green, red and amber, and the space between the ribs is flooded with light from this concealed source … The stage opening is framed in a fluted, curved reveal, which is also coved to conceal lighting on its outer edges. The colours here are amber, blue and green … Various colour changes are used while the audience is arriving. As the performance is about to begin, these will give place to a moonlight green, with the proscenium still in atmospheric colour. The latter will fade to blue and the remainder dim right out.’

More than one and a quarter kilometres of Cleora fluorescent tubing was used to light the auditorium.

An off-gold crushed velvet curtain graced the main stage. The auditorium was fully carpeted. The carpet contained autumn tints, blending in with the rust coloured exit curtains. ‘The orchestra pit is equipped with the latest type of sounding board, similar to that used in the Hollywood Bowl. Tallow-wood is used for the stage floor. Footlights and microphones disappear and are controlled from the switchboard. Italian velour has been used for the drops, and so complicated have the backstage fittings become, that seven and a half miles of rope and steel cable are in use, and fourteen tons of counter balance weights are needed’, commented Decoration magazine.

The back stalls section was lit by concealed fluorescent tubes, set in indirect coves within the stalls ceiling. A crying room, fully amplified from the stage, was provided at the rear of the stalls. The auditorium was air conditioned and so were the dressing rooms. The projection box behind the dress circle, was fully equipped with three 35mm E7 Simplex projectors, on Simplex heavy duty pedestals and with Peerless magnarcs. The projectors were equipped with Western Electric Microphonic Sound. Western Electric also supplied the other sound equipment used in the auditorium. It was mentioned in Minerva programmes that the theatre was the best equipped in the southern hemisphere for the presentation of motion pictures, and that the theatre was available for hire for this purpose when not in use for stage shows.

On the other side of Orwell Lane, next to the theatre, the Minerva Café and Nightclub was built, with offices and flats extending to and fronting Macleay Street, where another vertical Minerva sign was placed. David N. Martin commented that ‘every possible feature of modern theatre construction was included in the planning of the Minerva’, and praised the acoustics by stating that ‘no matter what seat you occupy, be in the farthest part of the dress circle or stalls, you can hear without effort on your part the merest whisper from the stage.’

Renowned actor Leonard Teale is of the opinion that the designers of the Minerva didn’t know the difference between a theatre and a cinema. In a letter to the author, he states ‘One’s psychic communication with the audience ended about five rows from the stage. The rest of the theatre was a black, unknown territory from whence only a huge laugh would give me an idea of what was going on out there in no-man’s land. I think the fact that the auditorium was a rectangle shape [i.e. narrow and long], contributed to this.’

The main entrance.

Photographs of the Minerva Theatre taken for Building magazine (published 24 May 1939, pp. 35-41). Photos by Sam Hood. Sam Hood Photographic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

The foyer.

The auditorium.

The dress circle.

The building work was completed on the opening day, and the Minerva, Australia’s Wonder Theatre (as it was billed) opened with the evening performance on Thursday, 18 May 1939. The show chosen to open the theatre was Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Idiot’s Delight, with well-known stars of the English and American stage and screen, Lina Basquette and Henry Mollison. Opening night was sold out well in advance with tickets at ten shillings and ninepence each ($1.09). The theatre was leased by Australian and New Zealand Theatre Ltd, a division of the J.C. Williamson organisation. The crowds had begun arriving at the Minerva at 5pm and by 7.30pm the narrow street was crowded with patrons and onlookers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported ‘A Grauman’s Chinese Thearew premiere was rivalled last night when the Minerva Theatre at King’s Cross opened. Gasps of approval greeted the entrances of the more soignee women, while well-known actress Marie Burke’s arrival was heralded by clapping and shouting.’

The reviews of the play were generally flattering, with one reviewer commenting that the play ought to run for six months, another called it a ‘notable offering’, and Herald mentioned that it was ‘strong meat for such a sparking occasion’. Two weeks after Idiot’s Delight opened at the Minerva, MGM released the movie version at the St James Theatre in Sydney, with a comment in their ad ‘The film, not the play’. On Thursday, 15 June, a new play opened at the Minerva, Gordon Sherry’s Black Limelight, with the same cast.

One month later, Lina Basquette and Henry Mollison were cast in the nest Minera offering, the P.G. Wodehouse comedy Good Morning, Bill, which also starred well-known Australian stage and screen actress Joy Howarth. It was with this production that Lina Basquette and Henry Mollison’s romance with the Minerva Theatre was to come an abrupt end. On a Tuesday night in late July, Mollison fell down the steps on the stage and sprained his ankle, forcing him to relinquish his part. Later that week, both he and Lina Basquette, plus other cast principals, had a dispute with David Martin over a statement Martin had made to the press about Mollison being incapacitated. Basquette arrived at the theatre for the evening performance but was refused admittance by the doorkeeper. She demanded access to her dressing room, where she had valuable belongings, including jewellery. David N. Martin was called, and he also refused her entry. She wouldn’t budge until he promised to return her personal belongings, and to make a suitable announcement from the stage that she would not be appearing. Martin was of the opinion that actresses were to do as they were told. And there were shades of 42nd Street here, as an unknown lady suddenly became a star. As the Sydney Morning Herald explained: ‘A few minutes before the curtain rose on Good Morning, Bill last night, Miss Jean Ferguson, a ticket-seller with no previous acting experience, was given a part which had suddenly become vacant. She said she knew the part off by heart, and was hurried to the dressing room and when the curtain went up, she was on the stage lone to open the action.’ The new cast retained their parts for the remainder of the play’s run.

To be continued...

  • Portrait of Henry Mollison and Lina Basquette in the J.C. Williamson production of Idiot's Delight, 1939.

    Photo by Athol Shmith. National Library of Australia, PIC P828/IDI/8 LOC Album 1024/18.

  • Principals and cast in the J.C. Williamson production of Idiot's Delight: the cocktail lounge, 1939.

    Photo by C.J. Frazer. National Library of Australia, PIC P828/IDI/3a LOC Album 1024/18.

 

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