On Christmas Eve 1896, George Adams opened his little vaudeville theatre in Pitt Street, Sydney, amongst much fanfare. ‘With regard to decorations, the theatre has no equal in Australia, and possibly it is superior to any building of its kind in London’, wrote one paper. Scenic artist Phil Goatcher, who designed the auditorium in a spectacular Indian style, was also the first lessee. But lack of experience as a theatre manager and arguments and law suits with his business partner, spelled disaster for the enterprise. ‘For a few nights it drew large audiences, and then a bit of a frost set in.’1
After only six weeks, Goatcher’s lesseeship of the Palace Theatre came to an abrupt end. George Adams turned to Harry Rickards, striking a three-year lease with Australia’s undisputed King of Vaudeville. For Rickards this was an opportunity to secure a monopoly in this class of business, look at expanding his empire, and at the same time fend off any competition. But could Sydney support two variety theatres?
Without any interruption to programming, Goatcher’s company made their final appearance on 29 January 1897, and the following evening, Harry Rickards’ company took over the stage, with Rickards’ brother John C. Leete as General Manager.
While a couple of Goatcher performers joined the ranks of the new company, most were drawn from Rickards other theatres, the Sydney Tivoli and Melbourne Opera House.
Grand Opening Night on Saturday, 30 January 1897, was a great success and boded well for the new venture. ‘Mr Harry Rickards has reason to feel satisfied with the result of his initial performance at this bright little playhouse on Saturday night’, wrote the Evening News. ‘From a financial as well as artistic standpoint it was a gratifying success.’ 2
The line up boasted a number of popular artists, seen before at the Tivoli, including American illusionist Carl Hertz, supported by his wife Mdlle D’Alton, and champion whistler Frank Lawton in his ‘The Whistling Waiter’ sketch. Other artists were Australian serio-comic Florrie Forde (singing ‘Oh Harris, Ain’t it Nice in Paris’ and ‘I am an Innocent Dickie Bird’); grotesque dancers and acrobats The Three Delevines; American sketch duo Albert Bellman and Lottie Moore; mandolin artists, the Winterton Sisters; child serio-comic and dancer Little Alma Gray; and Ada Colley, the Australian Canary. Of the newcomers, there was Edgar Granville, an English character comedian who delighted audiences with several songs, including ‘I Haven’t Got it Out Yet’ and ‘This Life is But a Derby’, and ‘Tiddle-ee-wink, what d’ye Think of Me’, which he sang, dressed in widow’s weeds!
Three weeks later, armed with photos of his new theatre, Rickards left for England and Europe to recruit enough new talent to fill the bills at his three theatres.
Over the next three months, the programme at the Palace changed, with new artists joining the bill. From England came vaudevillian all-rounder Will Crackles; C.H. Chirgwin (‘The White-Eyed Musical Kaffir’); serio-comic and dancer, Jessie De Grey; and comedian Harry Shine. Among the locals there was soprano Florrie Esdaile; dancers Lucy Cobb and Millie Osborne; and ‘the clever contralto’ Hettie Patey.
The vaudeville season closed on 3 April 1897 ‘pending the new engagements now being made by Mr Rickards in Europe and America’. 3
While waiting for his brother to return with the new artists, John C. Leete oversaw a varied programme of entertainment at the Palace. From 17–30 April 1897, star violinist Ovide Musin gave a series of concerts, and from 1 May, John Gourlay and Percy St John’s Musical Comedy Company presented a short season of plays, including Gourlay’s musical farcical comedy Skipped by the Light of the Moon. With the conclusion of the Gourlay season on 29 May, the Palace closed, and remained so until Rickards’ return from overseas in August 1897.
Rickards’ plan was to run the Palace along new lines from the Tivoli, with completely different entertainments at his two Sydney theatres. During the break, the Palace stage was enlarged by six feet to accommodate some of the new acts.
Among the novelties secured by Rickards was the Biograph—an early motion picture projector—billed as the ‘very latest and most wonderful invention’ and the ‘marvel of the Nineteenth Century’. Rickards was said to have paid £3,000 to secure the sole Australian rights for six months. In an interview, he described it as being ‘a great advance upon Lumière’s Cinematographe’, which Carl Hertz had introduced to Tivoli audiences in 1896. 4
Made and operated by the American Biograph Company, the projector was the invention of Herman Casler (1867-1939). Unlike Edison’s Kinetograph, which used 35 mm gauge film, Casler’s Biograph employed 68/70 mm sprocket-less film which produced an exceptionally large and clear image. From September 1896 it was being presented at vaudeville houses in America, and in March 1897 it was included on the bill at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in London for the first time. It would remain an attraction at the London Palace until 1902.
Rickards’ Biograph-Vaudeville Company re-opened the Palace on Monday, 23 August 1897. The first night programme comprised twelve short films including ‘President McKinley Receiving the Result of His Election, ‘Union Square New York, ‘The Falls of Niagara’ and ‘The Horseless Fire Engine’. This last named film, which showed a New York fire engine ‘snorting out volumes of smoke and raising clouds of dust’ as it races off to a extinguish a fire, was one of the most popular and repeated on subsequent nights by popular demand. 5
The Biograph was just one of the highlights of a packed programme. Opening night also saw the first Australian appearance of Fanny Wentworth, an English pianist, vocalist and character entertainer, who introduced the song ‘The Little Tin Gee-Gee’; the return of Lilian Tree, an operatic prima donna, who had previously been seen in Australia with the Simonsen Opera Company; Master Arthur Sherwood, a boy mezzo-soprano; illusionist Professor Charles Marritt; and Australian popular favourite, operatic and character vocalist Fanny Liddiard. The Biograph-Vaudeville combination ran until 30 September 1897.
A season of American musical comedies by Charles H. Hoyt followed on 2 October with A Bunch of Keys, featuring another of Rickards’ recent acquisitions, Addie Conyers, supported by Fannie Liddiard, Lottie Moore, Albert Bellman and George Lauri. This was not Conyers first Australian appearance, she had been seen in 1892–93 as a member of the London Gaiety Burlesque Company.
Binks the Photographer followed on 20 October, with William Gourlay, Addie Conyers, Minnie Everett, Marietta Nash and George Lauri, but it lasted only a week. It seems American plays were not a popular choice and audiences stayed away. The musical comedy season came to an abrupt end on 26 November 1897—and with it, Harry Rickards’ lease on the Palace.
With audience numbers at the Tivoli in decline, Rickards soon realised that Sydney couldn’t profitably support two vaudeville houses. He reluctantly decided, after eleven months, to give up his lease on the Palace and devote his energies to the management of the Tivoli and the Opera House in Melbourne.
With Rickards’ early departure, George Adams’ representative Harrie Skinner was given the task of finding a suitable tenant for the theatre, and soon communications were being issued to leading English, American and European agents and managers.
In order to keep the ‘lights on’ between seasons, the theatre was made available to amateur groups such as the Lotus Club and Sydney Comedy Club.
From 8 October 1898–9 December 1898, the theatre played host to an extended season by the 29-year-old American magician Dante the Great, who was making his first appearance in Australia. Hailed as ‘the greatest magician living’, Dante lived up to the hype and enthralled audiences with his ‘original experiments in sleight-of-hand’. He also performed a number of elaborate tricks including ‘The Marvellous Bicyclist’, wherein his assistant Mdlle Edmunda (the stage name of his wife Virginia Eliason] ‘cycles through the air, upside down, in and out, backwards and forwards, in complete defiance of all the laws of gravitation’. In another trick, ‘The Beggar’s Dream’, Mdlle Edmunda, wearing rags, is placed under a canopy on a platform, and almost immediately her rags vanish and she is wearing a magnificent evening dress. Dante kept audiences spellbound for two months. 6
Skinner’s next big coup was the engagement of Orpheus Myron McAdoo, an American singer and minstrel impresario, who was making a return visit to Australia.
McAdoo was a big draw card, having cemented a position as a favourite with Australian concert-goers since his first trip in 1888 with Fisk’s Jubilee Singers. He made a second extended visit with Fisk’s company in 1892 and remained on until 1895 with his own company, McAdoo’s Jubilee Singers. McAdoo had a deep voice, described as an ‘A-flat basso profundo’.
McAdoo’s Jubilee Singers, during the 1890s. McAdoo is in the back row, second from left, with Mattie Allen McAdoo on his right. Photo by Talma, Melbourne.
National Library of Australia, Canberra.
The McAdoo company opened at the Palace on Saturday, 17 December 1898, for an initial three weeks, but ended up staying for two-months. The company specialised in singing plantation songs, jubilee choruses and glees. Favourite songs included ‘Steal Away to Jesus’, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and ‘Hear Dem Bells’. In addition to McAdoo, the principal members of the company were Mattie Allan McAdoo (Mrs McAdoo), billed as ‘the only lady tenor’—her rendition of ‘Come into the Garden, Maude’ was warmly encored; and Susie B. Anderson—described as ‘America’s Black Melba’—who sang the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria from The Magic Flute.
The current season ended on 28 January 1899 and in March 1899, McAdoo departed for America to organise a full-size African-American minstrel troupe. He placed recruitment advertisements in the Indianapolis Freeman informing prospective artistes: ‘The Palace Theatre, Sidney [sic], is the handsomest and most complete vaudeville house in the world.’ 7
During McAdoo’s absence, the Lands Department Draftsmen's Association gave a performance of Farnie and Lecocq’s operetta The Sea Nymphs on Friday, 10 May 1899. The following night, Dante returned for a four-week season (11 March 1899–8 April 1899), bringing with him a raft of new illusionistic wonders.
In June 1899, McAdoo returned with his new company, the Georgia Minstrels and Alabama Cakewalkers. They opened at the Palace on the seventeenth of the month. The first part of the entertainment resembled an ordinary minstrel show, ‘but the numbers introduced were greatly above those in the usual minstrel show’, including comic songs and dances. One of his leading recruits was the singer Flora Batson, known as the ‘coloured Jenny Lind’. Another was William Ferry, a rubber-boned performer known as ‘The Human Frog’. The second part of the bill introduced the ‘Cakewalk’, which saw the complete company strutting about the stage amid ‘rousing roars of laughter’ from the audience. 8
Two weeks into the season, a rival minstrel company opened at the nearby Criterion Theatre. The presence of two similar outfits in Sydney proved challenging for McAdoo, and after struggling on for a further fortnight, he closed his season at the Palace on 12 July 1899 and embarked on an extended tour of the regions.
Programme for the week commencing 28 October 1899. Richards’ recycled the front covers of his Tivoli programmes for his shows at the Palace.
Mitchell Library Performance Program Collection, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
In the early hours of Monday morning on 11 September 1899, fire broke out in Harry Rickards’ Tivoli Theatre in Castlereagh Street. The building was entirely gutted, destroying valuable sets, costumes and personal belongings. Rickards had only recently purchased the freehold of the building, having leased it since 1893. Fortunately the theatre was insured, but only for half its value. Though Rickards was in England at the time of the fire securing new acts, manager Leete lost no time in finding a new venue and the following day the company re-opened at the nearby Palace at a matinee performance. As one journalist put it:
The pretty little ‘Palace’ Theatre—one of George Adams’ white elephants—will now have a chance to return the owner some interest on the outlay in its construction and elaborate decoration, which was carried out on a scale that no one but a “sweep promoter” could stand.’ 9
Rickards’ company remained at the Palace for five months, while the Tivoli Theatre was being rebuilt. To save costs, they reused the Tivoli programme covers.
Artists who appeared at the Palace at this time included the London comedian and raconteur G.W. Hunter; the world renown Polish juggler Paul Cinquevalli (said to be one of the highest-paid entertainers ever engaged by Rickards); opera singer Signor Jesse Brandani (who interrupted his walking tour of the world to appear for a few nights); character vocalist Tom Costello; and the Russian specialty performers the Newsky Family; along with numerous old favourites such as Little Alma Gray.
The Tivoli company gave their last performance at the Palace on 19 January 1900. As the new Tivoli was still not complete, Rickards relocated his company to the Criterion Theatre pending the launch of his new variety theatre on 12 April 1900.
With Rickards out of the way, Adams had big plans for the Palace.
To be continued
1. Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), 6 April 1897, p.4.
2. Evening News (Sydney), 1 February 1897, p.3.
3. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 April 1897, p.6.
4. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 August 1897, p.6.
5. Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1897, p.3.
6. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 October 1898, p.9.
7. Bill Egan, African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand, p.72.
8. Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1899, p.8.
9. Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 5 October 1899, p.24.
Gae Anderson, Tivoli King: Life of Harry Rickards, Vaudeville Showman, Sid Harta Publishing, Glen Waverley, Vic, 2008.
Bill Egan, African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A history, 1788-1941, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019.
Frank Van Straten, Tivoli, Thomas C. Lothian, South Melbourne, Vic, 2003.
Charles Waller, Magical Nights at the Theatre, Gerald Taylor Productions, Melbourne, 1980.
Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW); Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW); Evening News (Sydney, NSW); Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA), Sydney Morning Herald (NSW); Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic)
John S. Clark, Mimi Colligan, Bill Egan, Frank Van Straten