Wednesday, 01 December 2021

Little Wunder: The story of the Palace Theatre, Sydney (Part 3)

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palace theatreMontage by Judy Leech.

As ELISABETH KUMM discovers in Part 3 of the Palace Theatre story, with the departure of Harry Rickards and the enlargement of the theatre’s stage, the new century heralded in a change of focus of the Pitt Street venue, with vaudeville giving way to long runs of farcical comedies performed by the companies of Charles Arnold and William F. Hawtrey. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2»

Rickards’ tivoli company made their last appearance at the Palace on 19 January 1900. With their departure, short-lease seasons resumed at the theatre, ranging from single performances to one or two week seasons. They included Victor the conjuror; the Sydney Comedy Club; the Sydney Liedertafel (who premiered a new opera by Alfred Hill called Lady Dolly), and McAdoo’s Georgian Minstrels (with a variety programme and performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). During February 1900, the tragedian Walter Bentley was using the theatre for rehearsals prior to taking his company on an extended tour around Australia.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, manager Skinner was making arrangements for significant alterations to the theatre to make it suitable for large-scale dramatic presentations.

In May 1899 Adams had purchased the premises of Gowing Brothers, tailors and outfitters, which occupied the corner of Market and George streets, part of which backed onto the Palace Theatre. In addition to consolidating his property holdings on the block, it also gave him the opportunity to expand the rear of the Palace Theatre. Minor works had been undertaken in mid-1899 when the stage was increased by a few feet. Now it was proposed to increase the depth of the stage by a further sixteen feet, making it 46 feet deep. Other changes to the auditorium and the widening of the proscenium by two and a half feet, would provide better views of the stage, allowing for increased seating capacity of the theatre. While still one of the smallest theatre in Sydney, the house could now seat over 1,300 patrons. Contracts were struck with builder Alexander Dean, and James Bull Alderson, the architect, was engaged to draw up the plans. Alderson had been responsible for the design of Adams’ Marble Bar in 1891.1

Sometime in 1901 Adams and Skinner commissioned the firm of Melbourne-based metalworker James Marriott to design a new verandah and portico to the Palace Hotel and Palace Theatre. These drawings, dated 1901, are at the State Library Victoria. It is not clear if these designs were carried out, but the new wrought iron canopies may have been proposed ahead of the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York who arrived in Sydney on 27 May after opening the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne on 9 May 1901.

With the re-working of the interior complete, the Palace could now welcome a wider range of companies. The plan was to open with a comedy season by Charles Arnold and company on 9 June 1900, but Arnold’s plans changed and the date was pushed back to 28 July, though this too was altered and he was expected to open in late August following the completion of his Melbourne and Adelaide seasons.

To bridge the gap, Johnstone Sheldon’s War Lecture (with limelight views) occupied the theatre for a week from 30 June, and Boar War films, under the direction of Messrs Wyld and Freedman, were screened from 28 July to 21 August 1900.

Charles Arnold’s company finally opened at the Palace on 25 August 1900, launching their comedy season with What Happened to Jones. Arnold was well-known to Australian theatregoers, having made two previous visits, during the 1880s, and again in the 1890s with Hans the Boatman, Captain Fritz and other plays.

For his third tour, he brought with him several new comedies. The first, What Happened to Jones, a three-act farce by George Broadhurst, had been performed in New York in 1897, with George C. Boniface as Jones, the travelling salesman who disguises himself as a cleric in an attempt to escape the police. Having purchased the British and Colonial rights, Charles Arnold first produced the play at the Grand Theatre, Croydon on 30 May 1898 (with himself as Jones), prior to opening at the Strand Theatre in London on 17 July 1898, where it played for 325 performances. With the conclusion of the London season, he took it and other plays to South Africa. He arrived in Australia in April 1900, opening at the Melbourne Princess’s on the 18th of the month. The play proved a huge success and played an unprecedented eight weeks or 52 nights (76,000 people). Arnold was said to have made £5000, with the nightly receipts eclipsing all previous records for the theatre (with the exception of the Bernhardt and London Gaiety Burlesque seasons of 1895).2

In Sydney, What Happened to Jones played to full houses for seven weeks. It closed on Wednesday, 17 October 1899, the occasion of its 54th night, thereby eclipsing Melbourne by two performances! As a result of playing Jones for the full term, Sydney did not get to see The Professor’s Love Story, which had been given its Australian premiere in Melbourne.

With the conclusion of the Arnold season, the company departed for New Zealand, via Hobart.

Pending the arrival of the Hawtrey Comedy Company in December, the theatre remained dark, with the exception of a few one-off performances. The most notable was the world premiere on 1 November 1900 of Thou Fool by the Rev. George Walters, author of Joseph of Canaan. The play was being performed for copyright purposes, with the prospect of producing it in London (though this does not seem to have happened). The play was staged by Philip Lytton, who also played the leading role. He was supported by a cast of amateurs.

The next play at the Palace was A Message from Mars, a fantastical comedy-drama in three acts by Richard Ganthony, which was being performed for the first time in Australia on 22 December 1900. This play had been a huge hit in London, and was still playing at the Strand Theatre when the Australian production opened.3 The play was a morality tale, not unlike Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, whereby a selfish man is reformed after a visitor from Mars appears to him in a dream and shows him the effect of his actions on the people around him. When the play opened in London, the principal characters were played by Charles H. Hawtrey (Horace Parker), Arthur Williams (Tramp), Jessie Bateman (Minnie Templer) and G.S. Titheradge (Messenger from Mars).

The Hawtrey Comedy Company was managed by Charles Hawtrey’s brother William F. Hawtrey, who also played the role of the tramp in A Message from Mars. Hawtrey had been working in Australia since 1897 as stage manager for Williamson and Musgrove’s Dramatic Company, but on the dissolution of the partnership had returned to England to arrange the current tour. The role of Horace Parker was played by Herbert Ross, Ruby Ray was Minnie Templer, and the Messenger from Mars was portrayed by Henry Stephenson, who had understudied the role in London. With the conclusion of the Australian season, Stephenson would join Charles Hawtrey in New York, making his Broadway debut in the role of the Messenger.

Ahead of the company’s arrival scenic artist Harry Whaite recreated the London scenery.

The play proved a huge success in Sydney and played to packed houses for eight weeks.

To mark the new year 1901 and the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia, Sydney’s building were decked with lights. The illuminations along Pitt Street were considered particularly striking:

Tattersall’s Hotel and the Palace Theatre were prettily lighted up with electric lights, small coloured globes outlined the windows; over the verandah in the centre of the building was a transparency scene representing Her Majesty the Queen; above this likeness were the words ‘Our People, One Destiny’, underneath a representation of the British coat of arms, supported by the Australia coat of arms with the words ‘The Crimson Thread of Kinship Sealed with Australian Blood’.4

The second play of the Hawtrey season was Tom, Dick and Harry, a three-act farcical comedy by Mrs Romualdo Pacheco, described as a ‘hyper-inflated farcical version of The Comedy of Errors’ involving three identical red-headed men: one pair of twins and another who for reason of his own copies their appearance. First produced in New York in 1892 under the title Incog, it starred Charles Dickson, Louis Mann and Robert Edeson as Tom, Dick and Harry, with Clara Lipman as Mollie Somers. When Charles H. Hawtrey produced the play in England he changed the title and relocated the setting from San Francisco to Margate. The first production took place at the Theatre Royal, Manchester in August 1893, and it opened in London at the Trafalgar Square [Duke of York’s] Theatre in November 1893. In London, the complexity of the plot with three identical characters, confused audiences and when the play was sent on tour, Charles Hawtrey hit on the idea of adding an additional scene that showed the bogus twin applying his make-up.5 The play later formed the basis for the 1908 musical Three Twins.

Tom, Dick and Harry was performed for the first time in Australia at the Palace on 23 February 1901. The cast included Herbert Ross, O.P. Heggie and Philip Lytton as the eponymous Tom, Dick and Harry, with W.F. Hawtrey as Colonel Stanhope, and Roxy Barton and Ruby Ray as Molly [sic] Somers and Daisy Armitage. Also on the bill was the one-act play A Highland Legacy by Brandon Thomas (the author of Charley’s Aunt), with W.F. Hawtrey as Tammy Tamson MacDonnel. This Scots trifle, first performed in London in 1888, saw W.F. Hawtrey as a Scottish laird who disguises himself as an old Highland retainer in order to discover the character of an estranged nephew who stands to inherit a substantial fortune.

The double-bill played to packed houses at the Palace until the end of the season on 29 March 1901.

The following evening saw the return of Charles Arnold with the comedy Why Smith Left Home. This piece, like What Happened to Jones, had been written by George Broadhurst. In England, the title role had been created by Maclyn Arbuckle at the Grand Theatre, Margate, 27 April 1899. Arbuckle would go on to star in the first London (Strand Theatre, 1 May 1899) and New York (Hoyt’s Theatre, 2 September 1899) productions.

First produced by Charles Arnold during his South African tour, Why Smith Left Home was given its Australian premiere at the Palace Theatre on 30 March 1901. The farce concerned a newly married couple who decide to spend their honeymoon at home, but are unable to get any time together when their house is filled with noisy servants and visitors. The roles of Mr and Mrs Smith were played by George Willoughby and Agnes Knights, with Charles Arnold as Count von Guggenheim and Dot Frederic as Julia. Smith was played until 3 May 1901.

With the departure of Charles Arnold, there was a change of pace at the Palace.

On 4 May 1901, G.H. Snazelle presented Our Navy. This was not a play, but an illustrated lecture on the capabilities of the British Navy. Rather than simply a catalogue of achievements and a description of the Navy’s arsenal, Snazelle’s ‘lecture’ included anecdotes and songs delivered in his own inimitable way. The illustrations were provided in the form of a projected film made by G. West and Son of Southsea, which was made on board HMS Jupiter during manoeuvres. Snazelle was well known to Sydney audiences having toured Australia in the early 1890s, presenting his one-man show Music, Song and Story. The possessor of a fine baritone voice, during his first visit he also sang with the Royal Comic Opera Company, notably as Bouillabaisse in Paul Jones, alongside Nellie Stewart and Marion Burton.

Snazelle’s entertainment held the stage at the Palace for five weeks.

On 27 May 1901, the Hawtrey Comedy Company returned to the Palace. A Message from Mars and Tom, Dick, and Harry were revived for the first four weeks of the season, and on 15 June 1901, they presented a new three-act farce, In the Soup by the late Ralph R. Lumley.

In the Soup concerned an impoverish junior barrister, Horace Gillibrand, who after marrying takes on an expensive London apartment. In order to maintain its upkeep and deceive a visiting uncle, the apartment is sub-let to a number of different tenants, the play culminating in an riotous dinner scene in which sleeping powder is added to the soup. Following a ‘tryout’ at the Opera House, Northampton in August 1900, a revised version of the farce was brought to London later the same month. Comedian James A. Welch (who would go on to score a huge hit in When Knights Were Bold) played one of the lead roles, supported by John Beauchamp, Audrey Ford and Maria Saker.

In Sydney, the role of the barrister was played by Herbert Ross, with W.F. Hawtrey as Monsieur Moppert, one of the tenants, Henry Stephenson as the peppery uncle, and Ruby Ray as Mrs Gillibrand. The farce, which had played for over a year in London, proved just as popular with Sydneysiders and played until the end of the season on 13 July 1901.

 

To be continued

 

Endnotes

1. Australian Star, 6 January 1900, p.3; Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1900, p.4

2. Evening Journal, 2 July 1900, p.3

3. A Message from Mars was performed at the Avenue Theatre, 22 November 1899 to 30 March 1901, transferring to the Prince of Wales Theatre, 6 April 1901 to 20 April 1901, a total of 544 performances.

4. Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January 1901, p.14

5. Charles Hawtrey, pp.245-246

References

Gerald Bordman, American Theatre: A chronicle of comedy and drama, 18691914, Oxford University Press, 1994

Guide to Selecting Plays, Samuel French, 1913

G.S. Edwards, Snazelleparilla, Chatto & Windus, 1898

Charles Hawtrey, The Truth at Last, Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1924

J.P. Wearing, The London Stage: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 18901899, 2nd edn, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

Newspapers

The Arena (Melbourne); Australian Star (Sydney, NSW); Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA); Sydney Mail (NSW); Sydney Morning Herald (NSW)

With thanks to

John S. Clark, Judy Leech

Read 245 times Last modified on Monday, 20 December 2021
Elisabeth Kumm

Elisabeth is a founding member of the Victoria Theatres Trust. Her series Pets of the Public was a regular feature of On Stage from 1999 to 2005, looking at “forgotten” nineteenth century performers. She continues to contribute articles for the THA website, and from 2018 has been editor of the THA Newsletter. As a theatrical historian and biographer she assisted Viola Tait with her book on pantomime – Dames, Principal Boys…and All That (published by Macmillan in 2001) and also worked with her on her memoirs I Have a Song to Sing (published by THA in 2018). Elisabeth has also undertaken research for the Riley/Hailes Scrapbook and JCW Scene Books projects. Most recently she has been working on the Falk Studios album project including acting as editor of The Falk Studios book (published by THA in 2021).