General articles
Frank Van Straten

Frank Van Straten

Frank Van Straten AM

Over the years Frank has amassed a vast collection of Australian theatre memorabilia. He was director of the Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum from 1984 until 1993. For 15 years Frank researched and presented ABC Radio's popular Nostalgia feature over Melbourne's 774. He contributes historical articles to many theatre programs and journals. His books include National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre (1994), The Regent Theatre: Melbourne's Palace of Dreams (1996), Tivoli (2003), Huge Deal: The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh (2004), Florence Young and the Golden Years of Australian Musical Theatre (2009), Her Majesty's Pleasure (Her Majesty's, Adelaide. 2013), Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: The Shows, The Stars, The Stories (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2018), and Hanky-Panky: The Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls (2020).

Having returned home in 1910 after success abroad, the third instalment of FRANK VAN STRATEN’s biography of tenor Walter Kirby focuses on the years 1912 to 1926.

A position of genuine eminence

Walter continued to sing frequently for charity, but major professional engagements were elusive. His principal income was from teaching and from the countless social set ‘At Homes’ at which he entertained.

On 24 October 1912 he turned the tables and presented his very own ‘At Home’. It was spectacular. He staged it at the Grand Hotel (now the Windsor) in Spring Street and invited dozens of the city’s most celebrated citizens. Punch covered the event in detail: ‘The gifted tenor made an admirable host. He welcomed his guests in the wide corridor leading to the large reception room. This handsome room, made still more artistic with a number of rich foliaged palms and delicate pink roses, was soon crowded to overflowing, and many of the guests lingered in the corridor, listening to the program with intense enjoyment. It was a delightful program. Everyone was in good voice and the items were well selected. Mr. Kirby filled a dual role with marked success. He never sang better or with more effect; and he was an untiring host in seeing to the comfort of his guests. He was most enthusiastically encored for every number.’ Punch went on to detail the musical program and list dozens of guests, including ‘a party from Government House’. The report concluded: ‘Signor Di Gilio’s band played a charming program of music during the reception. Refreshing tea, coffee and wine cups and dainty refreshments were deftly served both in the reception room and in the corridor.’

In 1913 Walter sang for the first time in Tasmania. Promoted as ‘Australia’s Caruso’, he gave well-attended concerts in the Hobart Town Hall and at the Mechanics’ Institute in Launceston. From Tasmania Walter sailed to New Zealand. He spent seven months touring his homeland. He was well received, but The New Zealand Observer had reservations: ‘Time seems to hang very heavily upon the hands of Walter Kirby, the noted tenor. His foot is upon the native asphalt, but he sighs for the broader ways of imperial cities. He raises a few highly skilled notes now and then as he remembers his happy days of exile, but most times he looks sad and depressed, for the good people of Auckland cannot seem quite good enough to fondle the man who has sung to queens and been the darling of princes. He has threatened two or three times to go away back to Russia or Berlin or somewhere where they have some blue blood. Now that the Prince of Wales threatens to come to New Zealand, why can’t he wait?’

Walter’s final weeks in New Zealand coincided with the visit of the great American dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, who was as renowned for her glorious voice as she was for her three failed marriages, her extravagant Parisian wardrobe, and her hearty commercial endorsement of a wide range of products including Coco-Cola and her own line of beauty preparations. As Walter told it, he was singing in his room at the Grand Hotel in Auckland when someone knocked on his door. It proved to be Madame Nordica, who expressed surprise at the quality of his voice and asked him to join her tour, replacing Canadian baritone Paul Dufault. In Melbourne in November 1913 they gave several enthusiastically received concerts at the Taits’ recently opened concert hall, the 2400-seat Auditorium in Collins Street. Tragically these were to mark the end of Nordica’s stellar career. On the way back to America, her ship, the steamer Tasman, was stranded on a coral reef for several days, and she suffered hypothermia. She was transferred to Batavia (now Jakarta) and died there of pneumonia in May 1914.

Walter’s 1914 diary was filled with innumerable charity concerts, engagements to sing at society ‘At Homes’ and wedding ceremonies, and regular appearances at the Taits’ Saturday ‘Pops’ concerts at the Auditorium. He sang at the gala opening of the Plaza Ballroom, an elaborate update of the well-worn 1887 Victoria roller-skating rink adjacent to South Yarra railway station. He sang, too, at the Austral Salon’s ‘Welcome Home’ to Dame Nellie Melba on 20 August, and organized a ‘Grand Patriotic Festival and Sacred Concert’ at the Princess Theatre on 30 August to raise funds for the Red Cross. War had been declared on 28 July, and this was the first of Walter’s countless contributions to the nation’s war effort. As well as Walter, the participants included baritone Frederic (real name Frederick) Collier and his wife, soprano Elsie Treweek, flautist John Amadio, and the ground-breaking Magpie Ladies’ Orchestra.

But perhaps the year’s highpoint came in New Zealand. Walter had briefly returned to his homeland for a series of recitals, but at the Wellington Town Hall on 18 September he took the tenor role in the Royal Wellington Choral Society’s concert presentation of Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah—the opera’s New Zealand premiere. His Delilah was local contralto Mina Caldow who, like Walter, had studied and found success overseas. The performance was judged a triumph for the singers, but it seems the work was a little beyond the capabilities of the 250-strong orchestra and chorus.

Early in 1915 Walter revisited Tasmania, offering singing lessons as well as five concerts. During his stay he was frequently the guest of the state governor, Sir William Ellison-Macartney, and Lady Macartney. Both were keen musicians, and Her Ladyship accompanied Walter in many private recitals at government house. Also in attendance was Her Ladyship’s mother, Mrs. Hannah Scott. She presented Walter with several books detailing the adventures of her ill-fated son, the late Robert Falcon Scott, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.

For Walter, most of 1915 was devoted to activities designed to support the war effort, and he developed an unusual way to raise money. Often unannounced, he would visit a popular restaurant or social gathering, and ‘auction’ performances of his most popular songs. Table Talk reported that on ‘Belgian Flag Day’, 26 March, he sang at the Oriental, Menzies and Savoy hotels, at the Café Francatelli and at the Vienna Café, his efforts raising a splendid £121 [$12,800].

On 11 August Walter joined soprano Amy Castles and flautist John Amadio in an outstanding concert at the Melbourne Town Hall to help the Australian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. They were accompanied by an orchestra of 82 and a choir of more than 200. The Argus was impressed: ‘Very flattering attentions were paid to the gifted Australian, Mr. Walter Kirby, who has, by natural talent and arduous study, raised himself to a position of genuine eminence. As he has so often shown, Mr. Kirby proclaimed himself not merely a fine tenor, but (what is not always the case with tenors), a fine artist as well. In sheer beauty of tone his voice was a delight to hear, and similarly attractive were his technical finish and excellent feeling for atmosphere.’

 Walter’s activities were widely covered in the local press, but in New Zealand on 3 December 1915 the Wellington weekly Free Lance published this odd piece: ‘The matrimonial affairs of Melbourne’s principal tenor, Walter Kirby, occupy much attention—so a Melbourne correspondent writes. Mr. Kirby is not married, but it is said he may be soon. Rumour hath it that he is at present paying much attention to the daughter of a deceased doctor. The girl is musical, and very well dowered. Walter Kirby first lifted up his sweet tenor—probably it was not tenor in those days—in Auckland. As to the above the only thing surprising to The Free Lance is that Mr. Kirby has not taken the matrimonial plunge much sooner.’

For Walter, the highlight of 1916 was the visit of the Italian Gonzales Grand Opera Company. He was, of course, in the audience for its Australian debut at the Princess Theatre on 17 June, but behind the scenes he acted as a host, guide, advisor and translator for the company, few of whom had any knowledge of English. He became particularly close to the leading tenor, Bettino Cappelli, so close, in fact, that on the last night of the season, when Cappelli was not scheduled to sing, he insisted that Walter join him and the Italian consul in a decorated box, and to take a bow for himself. And, reported Punch, when the company departed for Sydney, ‘he found their throbbing gratitude almost too much to be borne. Seeing them off by train at Spencer Street, he was talking to Signor Cappelli through the open carriage window, when suddenly the departing Italian jumped up from his seat, exclaiming that “he must go out on to the platform for a minute”. He swept out in a whirl, rushed up to Mr. Kirby, and before our astonished tenor could defend himself, kissed him resoundingly on each cheek, a fervent expression of “a little gratitude for his many kindnesses”. Mr. Kirby blushed purple with embarrassment.’

The Gonzales company returned to Melbourne for a second season in 1917. In June, Walter was one of the guests of honour when Cappelli’s four-day-old son was baptized Melbourne Vittorio Carlo Cappelli in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Walter also spearheaded a series of remarkably successful Saturday evening concerts at the 1700-seat Lyric Theatre on St Kilda Esplanade. In more recent years the Lyric was transformed into the now demolished Earls Court dance palais.

For his January 1917 concerts in Hobart, Walter was accompanied by a brilliant 31-year-old Melbourne pianist, Doris Madden. A niece of Sir John Madden, she had been Melba’s accompanist on her 1914 Australian tour. From 1939 she enjoyed a successful career in the United States as a soloist, teacher and music columnist for The New York Times. She died in 1976.

As we have already seen, the New Zealand press often had news of Walter that did not appear in the local papers. On 15 February 1918, for instance, the following intriguing item appeared in The Free Lance: ‘From the Victorian capital comes a little narrative of a silvery-voiced tenor whose reputation clings to the concert platform, the Melbourne “Block” and vice-regal drawing-rooms. He is reported recently to have had an offer to appear on the music-hall stage, but, as the descent from social engagements and a certain standing involved some sacrifice, the offer was rejected. The remuneration offered, it is said, was quite attractive from a lay point of view. Can it be that the silvery-voiced one referred to is our own Walter Kirby?’

Walter celebrated the last day of the war, 11 November 1918, in the Edmonton Private Hospital in Brisbane. His health had not been good, and his holiday trip north ended with a severe bout of pneumonia. He was well enough to return to Melbourne to attend, via a window in the nearby Grand Hotel, the State Memorial Service on the steps of Parliament House on 17 November.

The next few months were difficult for Walter. The Spanish flu pandemic meant social events and charity concerts were fewer, and paid appearances were scarce. Perhaps in desperation he announced that he would give a ‘Farewell Recital’ in the Princess Theatre on 26 November 1919—though there was no indication of where or when he intended to go. He was treated to a packed house and the patronage of the Governor-General of Australia. According to Table Talk: ‘After his recital Mr. Kirby entertained some friends at supper at the Grand Hotel, where they spent the remainder of the evening dancing the jazz. Among those who accepted invitations were Sir David and Lady Hennessy, Sir Robert and Lady Best, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Emmerton, Senator and Mrs. Keating, Miss Verah Madden and Dr Harold Smith, plus Mr. John O'Hara and Miss Diana Wilson [stars of the play Lightnin’ then at the Theatre Royal].’ Just over a year later, on 4 December 1920, Walter gave a second ‘Farewell’ recital in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Princess 1921Advertisement for the Good Friday Concert at the Princess Theatre, 25 March 1921. From The Herald, 19 March 1921, p.6.Before this, though, on 13 May 1920, he sang before a gathering of 10,000 at the Exhibition Building. The occasion was another farewell, this time to Archbishop Mannix, who was about to depart for a visit to Rome. Walter’s fellow artists were soprano Maggie Sherlock, contralto Ella Caspers and baritone Ambrose McMahon, backed by the 1000-strong Christian Brothers’ Boys’ Choir and several bands. The Age noted that: ’the hall was decorated with 100 red and green electric lights picking out a huge cross and a shamrock, and Sinn Fein flags were everywhere.

In April 1921 Walter paid a rare visit to Sydney to sing at the Town Hall in a major St Patrick’s Day concert. The reviews were ecstatic. Said the arts journal The Triad: ‘To many people in this state Walter Kirby is but a name; others of us have not even heard of him. But to lovers of vocalism in Italy, Ireland and England, Mr. Kirby is well known as a tenor who has the three essential qualities of a real singer—the voice, the right method, and the gift of interpretation.’ The journal’s reviewer helpfully hinted that the city should import a comparable talent, ‘because, generally speaking, our tenors are a wretched lot.’

Early in 1922, when Walter returned to Sydney for a holiday, Truth similarly extolled him in a column headed ‘The Doings of Mr. Kirby’: ‘This heading is likely to mislead Truth readers; but it had better stand. It is not so much what Mr. Walter Kirby does as what he does not do that concerns us. Mr. Kirby is said to be in Sydney; in fact, to have been in Sydney for some time. This should mean more than it does, for Mr. Kirby is the only really fine tenor singer in Australia. He has a voice, a style, and a repertory of music of sufficiently high grade to make him a distinguished singer in any company or in any quarter. Yet we never hear him. Nor is he heard in Melbourne, his place of residence, except on rare occasions. Certainly, the frequent appearances of an artist so well-graced vocally would be of immense advantage to many of our students, who rarely hear a good tenor voice and a good singing method combined in a local singer. Those who know Mr. Kirby and admit the excellence of his singing are sometimes disposed to be hyper-critical of this fine artist. Mr. Kirby certainly has some eccentricities of deportment and even some affectations of manner which have become second nature to him. But these offend only the dull and conventional-minded. To the more tolerant, they serve only to make of Mr. Kirby a picturesque figure in our art life as well as an extremely well-equipped singer. The Melbourne tenor sets a high value on his art and talents and is right in so doing. His fees are high; he is not at the beck and call of every bounding patroness of our “charity” shows. He knows, as we know, that a voice like his and a beautiful Italian singing style such as he commands are qualifications rarely met with in this part of the world. And so, when is Mr. Kirby going to be heard in Sydney?’

Walter took the hint. Towards the end of the year he announced that he would be giving concerts in Sydney and Brisbane. Brisbane came first. His two concerts at Her Majesty’s Theatre were received rapturously, but what was described as a ‘slight operation’ meant that the Sydney concerts were postponed.

The rapidly increasing popularity of movies was reflected in the use of Melbourne’s main concert venue, the Auditorium in Collins Street, for film screenings—it was later recycled as the Metro, then the Mayfair—and the building of smart new suburban cinemas. In 1921 Walter had sung at the gala openings of two of them, the Rivoli in Camberwell and the Rialto in Kew, as well as at the Victory in Malvern and at the Palais in St Kilda. Another unusual venue was the Tivoli Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne’s most popular vaudeville house. There, on Sunday 23 October 1921, he presented a ‘Grand Festival of Sacred Song’. The state Governor and Lady Stradbroke and the Lord and Lady Mayoress were in the audience. The well-attended event raised £220 [$18,050] for Lady Stradbroke’s Hospital Day Appeal for the Sick and Homeless.

In 1923 Walter did two things that were then considered quite revolutionary. Firstly, during his season in Brisbane, he participated in an Australia-wide radio broadcast. Fully professional radio would not start until November, but around the country there were many enthusiastic amateur broadcasters paving the way. One of the most prominent was a Brisbane radiologist, Dr. Val McDowall, who had set up his 4CM studio and transmitter at what was then one of the city’s tallest buildings, eight-storey Preston House in Queen Street. On 1 October the Brisbane Daily Mail enthused about the previous night’s broadcast of a studio concert: ‘The bright particular star of the occasion was Walter Kirby who, in an adventurous spirit, had cast aside all preconceived ideas respecting radio, and consented to lift up his voice in that glorious song for which he is justly famed. He was almost lamb-like in his readiness to sing into the quaint contraption—an instrument resembling the old-fashioned type of telephone—that was held before his face. With what effortless ease he produced the liquid notes! Voice and artistry combined to produce an effect which it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear at 4CM’—albeit via earphones and a cat’s whisker. Thus Walter became the first artist of any stature to broadcast in Australia. Interestingly, a little over two years earlier, Dame Nellie Melba had pioneered broadcasting in Britain by singing for an experimental broadcast—but she got £1000 [$82,000] for her trouble.

Walter’s second surprise was his appointment of a woman to manage his concert appearances and publicity. Though The Herald said that Kathleen Malone was ‘following a new occupation for women’, Miss Malone was already experienced in concert presentation, and a familiar figure at first nights and social gatherings. Her first assignment for Walter was to organize further concerts for him in Brisbane and—at last—in Sydney. These were successful, but his return to Melbourne was not.

Kathleen Malone had announced that Walter would give three concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall. The first went reasonably well, but the second, on 25 October 1923, was a disaster. The Herald said that barely 200 people were in the body of the hall, mostly occupying the cheaper seats at the back; there were fewer than a dozen in the gallery. At the end of the concert Walter thanked the audience then launched into a bitter tirade: ‘One goes to Europe for years of training to make a name and to make oneself worthy of one’s hires, but because one is an Australian, one is not appreciated. Had I come back with a Russian or an Italian name, this place would have been packed tonight. I can assure you that this series of concerts is the last I shall give in Melbourne for many years. I thank you.’

Walter began 1924 with a series of concerts in Sydney and in several Tasmanian centres. He was back in Melbourne for the brilliant debut of the second Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company on 29 March in the lavishly redecorated and renamed His Majesty’s Theatre. Table Talk described it as, ‘What in London used to be known as a diamond night—truly a most brilliant sight. Everywhere the eye glanced a sea of faces of beautifully dressed women—everywhere, for the gallery was but a second dress circle in effect—and diamonds lending their gleams enhanced the effect. Many men wore their decorations, which tell so much—also women who had distinguished themselves.’

Walter made sure he was in the audience for the gala first performance of every new opera in the season. He was keen to assess the success of Alfred O’Shea, a 35-year-old Sydney tenor of Irish heritage, who was cast in several major tenor roles, most notably as Rodolpho opposite Melba’s Mimi in La Bohème.

Around this time Walter moved from his rooms at 32 Collins Street to number 5, almost opposite. These were at the Spring Street or ‘top end’ of the gracious street, and a haunt of the city’s artistic community. Many of the era’s great painters had studios at number 9. It was a short stroll to the Austral Salon and the Auditorium, and a jaunty cable car ride to the fashionable heart of Collins Street, ‘The Block’ where, at Allan’s music store, Walter taught his pupils. He was a familiar figure at Allan’s. In his book The Music Sellers, Peter Game quotes Allan’s secretarial stalwart Rai Feil: ‘He was a “difficult” personality and often very irritable and petulant. He liked to get a new song before anyone else in Melbourne had sung it. When he was ready for [us] to hear it, he would come in, kneel down, close his eyes, and sway around a bit. Gravity was a bit hard to come by on those occasions, but when he sang the voice had the quality of the angels.’

Australia’s first professional radio stations, 2SB and 2FC had begun broadcasting in Sydney towards the end of 1923. Walter made a quick trip to Sydney to sing on 2FC on 8 May 1924. ‘Live’ broadcasts were a frequent feature of early programming, and Melbourne’s 3LO—founded by a consortium including theatrical entrepreneurs J.C. Williamson and J. & N. Tait—was launched on 13 October 1924 with a ‘live’ broadcast from Her Majesty’s Theatre of Melba in a charity performance of La Bohème. Walter made his Melbourne radio debut on 24 April 1925 when he was the soloist in a concert at the Auditorium by the Victorian Postal Institute Choir, which was transmitted ‘live’ by 3LO. He made a few more appearances on 3LO but, though ‘the wireless’ had the potential to provide him with a useful extra source of income, he was reluctant to embrace the new medium. In February 1928 he told an interviewer that he had ‘the gravest apprehensions as to the effect of wireless on musical art’, and in August Wireless Weekly announced that ‘he would not be broadcast for any money’.

Though the demand for Walter’s participation in ‘At Homes’ and other social events began to dwindle, he was kept busy with innumerable concerts supporting a wide range of charitable causes—many of which he organized himself. Particularly affecting was a concert at Mont Park Mental Asylum on 15 May 1925 to raise the spirits of 1000 mentally affected soldiers. The Argus reported that ‘cigarettes, sweets and fruit were distributed, and the artists were conveyed to the hospital in cars provided by Sidney Myer’. On 15 December 1925 Walter sang at a benefit for the City Newsboys’ Society at the Palace Theatre, and a few days later at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind’s Christmas Concert at Ormond Hall, St Kilda Road.

Walter was invited to appear in several unusual theatrical galas, such as a tribute to the much-loved veteran actress Maggie Moore at His Majesty’s on 13 October 1925, and a fund-raiser at the Princess on 13 July 1926 to help the indefatigable Shakespearean actor and producer Allan Wilkie, who had lost his entire stock of scenery, props and costumes in a fire at Geelong.

Walter continued to teach and coach aspiring and—occasionally—professional singers. Entrepreneurial giant J.C. Williamson Ltd engaged him to help musical comedy favourite Dorothy Brunton prepare for her role as a nervous operatic soprano in the play The Climax. ‘She took her voice to Walter Kirby,’ said Table Talk, ‘and had it shingled and manicured, with a permanent wave thrown in.’ ‘The Firm’ employed him to coach Robert Chisholm, Marie Burke and Warde Morgan of the Katja company, and Harriet Bennet and Reginald Dandy, the stars of Rose-Marie. So successful was Walter’s teaching that in 1926 a Madame Marion Rowse was advertising in The Argus, offering voice production lessons at her home at 4 Coppin Grove, Hawthorn, using ‘the Walter Kirby Method’.

In December 1926 Walter headed north. After a concert with the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra in Central Hall and a Christmas concert in the city’s Theatre Royal, he went on to Sydney to prepare for yet another new adventure: recording.


To be continued


Special thanks to:

Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove

Principal references:

Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002

Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976

Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990

John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967

Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016

Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001

John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951

Part 2 of FRANK VAN STRATEN’s biography of little-known New Zealand-born Australian tenor continues with Walter Kirby’s departure for London in 1903.

‘The darling of tip-top society’

Kirby 2 Lafayette CopyWalter Kirby, 1898. Photo by Lafayette, Melbourne.

One of Walter’s fellow passengers on board Ville de la Ciotat was another young Melbourne tenor, George Castles, keen to study in Paris, and to reunite with two of his singing sisters, Dolly and Amy. In Paris Amy was under the tuition of the eminent Belgian baritone Jacques Bouhy. Walter sang for him, and he was said to have praised the quality of young man’s voice. In London it was similarly endorsed by the celebrated Alberto Randegger, composer, conductor and teacher of many of Britain’s great singers.

London was host to dozens of aspiring young Australians. Hopefully following in the footsteps of established stars like Melba, Ada Crossley and Frances Saville, were antipodean up-and-comers such as violinist Keith Kennedy, pianist Percy Grainger, artists John Longstaff and E. Phillips Fox, and the sculptor, Bertram Mackennal. Walter initially shared a house with several other Australians, including the Ballarat-born baritone Hal Cohen, pianist George Boyle, and tenor Thorold Waters, later to become a respected music critic. In July Walter started studying voice production with Lorenzo Valentini. A former operatic conductor said to be ‘of the Paris Opera’, he was married to an Australian mezzo soprano, Nora Dane, who many years later taught singing in Melbourne. Walter also visited the picturesque village of Kilteely in Ireland to meet a relative, William Lundon MP, variously described as an uncle or a cousin. Lundon’s brother James had married Catherine Mulcahy, the sister of Walter’s mother, Ellen. Lundon was the popular member for East Limerick in the Westminster parliament. During his stay in Kilteely, Walter sang in several local Catholic churches, and at Dublin Castle. The visit of this noteworthy ‘antipodean Irishman’ was widely covered in the local press.

On 22 January 1904 the Melbourne Argus published a surprising letter from Lady Madden, the State Governor’s wife and a great lover of music, bringing readers up to date with Walter’s progress. She wrote: ‘He has made and is making the most of the funds so kindly placed at his disposal, and has lost no opportunity of doing justice to his Victorian friends. My own relations who have recently seen and heard him inform me that in style and presence he is greatly improved, and that his voice is indeed splendid; that it has gained surprisingly in richness and volume, without having lost any of its sweetness.’ Lady Madden’s letter was reprinted in the Catholic weekly The Advocate. Walter and the Madden family had become close friends.

In February Melbourne Punch reported that Walter had been auditioned by conductor Hans Richter and the 93-year-old vocal master Manuel Garcia, and was being taught by Garcia’s son, Gustave (1837-1925). He was also studying oratorio with ‘the severe’ Randegger and had refused an offer of the tenor part in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, thinking it better to finish his studies first. He had also sung ‘for the poor of the East End’. A few months later Punch noted that Walter was now being taught by Guy d’Hardelot, a member of what was then that rarest of species, a flourishing female composer; her greatest success, the throbbing ballad ‘Because’, had been published in 1902. She was a great friend of Melba’s, and it was Melba who arranged the tuition. She set up four meetings for Walter to sing for the legendary tenor Jean de Reszke who, said The Age, was so impressed that he promised to give him lessons. Melba also introduced him to Enrico Caruso at the Hotel Cecil. Walter later confided that the world’s greatest tenor had given him ‘vocal hints’ and had taught him how to sing ‘On With the Motley’ from Pagliacci. As well there were memorable encounters with notables such as Sir Edward Elgar, Lord Baden Powell and Mark Twain.

Early in 1905 the Adelaide’s The Mail reported that Walter was the tenor soloist in the Handel Choral Society’s presentation of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. The same item mentions that he had recently sung at a private concert with fellow Australian Ada Crossley and at two concerts ‘given in aid of some clubs for young men’ by the Honorable Everard Feilding, an odd figure who today is remembered mainly for his energetic efforts to expose fake spiritualism.

By mid-1905 Walter had established himself as a regular contributor to the musical entertainment provided by the nobility and the rich and famous at their lavish ‘At Homes’. ‘Our golden-voiced tenor is evidently succeeding as well socially in the great English centre as he did when here.’ Said Melbourne Punch on 17 August. ‘He is at present the guest of the well-known multi-millionaire Sir George Newnes, Bart, with whom and a small select party he is enjoying a summer cruise on the French coast in that gentleman's magnificent yacht, Albion.’ The Melbourne Herald revealed that in a private letter Sir George had expressed “mad delight in the voice of his guest”.

On 1 October 1905 Sydney’s The Sun couldn’t resist this comment: ‘The somewhat effeminate Melbourne tenor, Walter Kirby, continues in demand at aristocratic functions in London. Taken all round, Mr Kirby seems to be living the social life for what it is worth—and to the Melbourne tenor it is probably worth a great deal.’ Years later his former housemate Thorold Waters described Walter as ‘a drawing-room darling of duchesses’.

Despite his frequent lucrative social engagements, Walter had not yet sung at a formal public concert, or ‘on the platform’ as it was known. One of his supporters, the philanthropic Duchess of Somerset, contrived to have him engaged by entrepreneur Ernest Newman and conductor Henry J. Wood to sing at the popular Promenade Concerts that they had inaugurated at the Queen’s Hall in 1895.

Walter made his ‘Prom’ debut on 3 October 1905 singing two of his favorites, the tender berceuse ‘Angels Guard Thee’ from Godard’s opera Jocelyn and Jacques Blumenthal’s ‘An Evening Song’. London’s Morning Post critic was impressed: ‘A great success was achieved by Mr Walter Kirby, who possesses a beautiful tenor voice, soft and penetrating in quality. He sang with great taste, and was several times called onto the platform at the close.’ Walter’s triumph was widely reported in Australia.

On 18 December 1905 Walter and British soprano Margaret Cooper sang at an afternoon concert at the town house of the influential publisher Sir George Newnes, given in aid of the Pulteney Hospital. Punch gave it good coverage: ‘Mr Walter Kirby must be congratulated on the enormous success of this concert. Almost every person in smart society was present. Mr Kirby sang in German, French, Italian and English, and met with a splendid reception. Mr Kirby’s voice has developed wonderfully since his arrival in England; the upper notes, which were always easy, have become broader. He sings with perfect ease and flexibility, and his singing was admired by all, and his friends in Australia and New Zealand have every reason to be gratified at his success.

‘His patrons and patronesses, many of whom were present, include Her Royal Highness the Princess Louise (who is a great admirer of Mr Kirby’s voice), the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn, the Duke and Duchess of  Sutherland, the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle, the Duke of Pleneuf, Sir George Clarke [the former Governor of Victoria] and Lady Clarke, and a very large number of noblemen.’ Miss Violet Clarke, daughter of Sir George Sydenham Clarke, who was to have made her professional debut at this concert, was indisposed, so her place was taken by Miss Nora Long, a soprano from New Zealand, who was well received.’ Miss Long was later known as Nora D’Argel.

Also in the audience was the elegant Lady Methuen. So impressed was she with Walter’s voice that she invited him to dine at her London home in Cavendish Square. It was there that he met Lady Wantage.

Lady Wantage was the extremely wealthy 69-year-old widow of the first Baron Wantage, a notable military man. Their munificence was legendary, and they had been instrumental in founding the British Red Cross. Lady Wantage was a lover of art, and her impressive collection of paintings adorned the walls of their Oxfordshire mansion, Lockinge. She contributed to countless charitable causes and delighted in supporting aspiring youngsters. Walter would be one of them.

In February 1906 Walter sang the tenor part, including the fervent solo ‘Onaway! Awake, Beloved!’, in the Dulwich Choral Society’s presentation of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s landmark three-part cantata Hiawatha at the mighty Crystal Palace. Soon after this he made a second visit to Ireland, where, reported Table Talk, ‘He was chosen to sing at one of the principal social entertainments of the Dublin season given by the Lord Lieutenant and Lady Aberdeen at their castle.’ He sang one of his most beloved airs, the nostalgic ‘Bells of Shandon’, with harp accompaniment.

On 27 September, Punch music critic ‘Orfeo’ printed a letter he had received from Walter. ‘At present I am the guest of the Dowager Countess of Crawford, at her country seat; plenty of boating, bathing and cycling, and if I were her ladyship’s own son I could not be better treated. Before leaving here today she presented me with a magnificent new bike. I am very happy, and in splendid vocal form. I have seen a lot of the Maddens. They are mad over my voice. I also recently sang at a private concert before Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Albany. The Princess spoke to me and said, “I have never forgotten the quality of your voice since hearing you twelve months ago.” I have been engaged by Lady Wantage to sing before Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and their daughter Princess Patricia next Friday at her country seat, Lockinge, which is famous for its collection of pictures.’ I teach in my spare time. Lord Aberdeen, the present Viceroy of Ireland, has had two courses of singing lessons from me.’

Walter started 1907 grandly: in January, he met the King. Later he recalled the occasion for the Sydney Daily Telegraph:

‘It was at Chatsworth, the famous seat of the Duke of Devonshire, in Derbyshire, that I had the honor of being presented to their Majesties King Edward and Queen Alexandra. They had gone to Chatsworth in accordance with their long-established custom to spend a week with the Duke and Duchess. The Duchess had asked me to stay at Chatsworth for the week that their Majesties were there and help in the impromptu concerts. I was the only professional singer there. My most vivid recollection of King Edward recalls him as he sat in the front row of the stalls at the private theatre at Chatsworth, with his legs stretched out at full length in front of him, laughing heartily at the ten minutes’ comic picture show with which the evening's entertainment commenced. The audience in the private theatre included not only the large house party invited to meet their Majesties, but also the surrounding gentry and county magnates, who were charged an admission fee, the money being devoted to assisting the poor of the neighborhood. King Edward wore ordinary evening dress, with several orders, including the sash of the Order of the Garter. He was in great good humor, laughing and joking incessantly with those who sat near him. After the picture show a little comedietta called The Ninth Waltz [by Richard C. Carton] was played by Miss Muriel Wilson, the famous beauty of Tranby Croft, and Viscount Dungannon. The honorary stage manager was the Austrian Ambassador, Count Mensdorff [Count Albert von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichtstein]. After the comedietta Lady Maud Warrender, sister of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who came to Australia as aide-de-camp to Lord Brassey, sang several songs, and then I sang a bracket of German lieder and some English ballads. The supper in the great banquet hall was a wonderful sight. There must have been fully 300 people present. They were seated in small parties at separate little tables, and I was placed at the same table with the King. The others at that table were Daisy, Princess Henry of Pless, Miss Muriel Wilson, the Russian Ambassador, and the Austrian Ambassador. It was a very merry supper table—everybody laughing and joking and telling good stories. King Edward talked to me a great deal, asking me many questions about Australia, and commenting upon the number of singers that Australia has produced. It was a wonderful week at Chatsworth, and King Edward seemed to enjoy every minute of it.’

Walter’s triumph at Chatsworth inspired Marion Miller Knowles, a prolific writer for the Melbourne Catholic paper The Advocate, to pen a long celebratory poem. It was published on 19 January 1907. Here is an extract:

Kirby 2.3 Chatsworth clWalter Kirby singing for King Edward VII at Chatsworth, January 1907. Sketch by Douglas Macpherson, published in The Graphic, 12 January 1907. British Library, London.So you’ve sung before the King, Walter Kirby,

More power to you, boy, for that same!

But I knew ’twas yourself would win the glory.

Luck galore followed ever on your name.

’Twas the wonderful voice you had, always—

Sure the angels had lent you their own—

It can touch any heart that has feeling.

Let alone them who sit on a throne.

Though your voice rings among ‘the high and mighty’,

And by castle and manor you stray,

None can say you forget the dear old mother,

In the cottage in Hawthorn, far away!

’Tis the blessing will follow, Walter Kirby,

For the loving words she gets every mail;

For the comfort that your heart’s still untainted,

That your soul still pursues the Holy Grail.



Soon after the excitement of Chatsworth, Walter sang at another regally patronized ‘At Home’. Among the distinguished guests were the Prince and Princess of Wales, who would become King George V and Queen Mary on King Edward’s death in 1910.

In August 1907 Walter and Amy Castles provided the entertainment at an ‘At Home’ at 46 Hanover House, Regent’s Park, the London residence of Australia’s greatest theatrical entrepreneur, J.C. Williamson, and his second wife, former dancer Mary Weir. The occasion was a welcome to Eugenia Stone, a ‘handsome, sprightly, 6ft 2in’ Sydney writer who, a few days later, was to marry a prominent British parliamentarian, Sir George Doughty.

Kirby 2.4 RigolettoWalter Kirby costumed for the role of the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. The production is unidentified and unconfirmed, but when the picture was published in the Australian edition of Punch on 10 November 1910 it was credited to the Henry Edmonds studios in Hull, UK. Trove, National Library of Australia.In 1908 Walter finally got to Italy. His trip was financed by a generous ‘loan’ from the benevolent Lady Wantage. While we do not have a detailed record of his activities on the Continent, his reminiscences, published in The Advocate on 1 October 1910, provide us with a somewhat coloured personal account: ‘My journey round the old world was a big revelation! My rambles through historic old palaces and ruins made me catch the spirit of the long-gone centuries. When standing in the Colosseum in Rome, or outside Notre Dame in Paris, I felt, in every particle of my being, the truth of the saying, “What an education it is to travel and see for oneself all that is worth seeing in this wide world of ours!”—and I was much interested in making comparisons with relics of antiquity and our own small beginnings in Australia, concluding, however, with a feeling of amazement at our fast progress. I was received in Rome by the beautiful Queen of Italy with the utmost kindness, and I sang at the “soiree” given at the Palace—afterwards receiving from Her Majesty a scarf pin set with her royal initials and her gracious thanks for what she was pleased to consider “the pleasure” of hearing “a beautiful voice”. At the English embassy my songs were accompanied by Her Excellency, Lady Egerton. In Rome I was engaged to sing by Count Luigi Primoli, the grand-nephew of Napoleon I, in the Villa Primoli. In every nook and corner of the villa I met treasures which belonged to the great Napoleon and his ill-fated Empress, Josephine, and could have spent days in gloating over them, so full of interest were they to the soul of an artist. I sang in offertory at Rome in the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle. It gave me the most peculiar of feelings—and pleasurable as well—to sing there, because I was studying the part of Cavaradossi in Tosca, and it is in this Church that the opening scene of Tosca is set. One of the most cherished memories of my life will always be my privileged visit to the Papal Palace in the Vatican, the home of his Holiness the Pope [Pope Pius X]. Filled with a compelling awe, inexpressible as it was wonderful, and trembling from head to foot, I entered the studio alone, and knelt, with the desire to display the usual courtesy to the revered Head of the Church on earth. His Holiness, with a benign countenance, at once gave utterance to a kindly request that I would arise and take a seat. I spoke in Italian, of course, and answered as fully as possible his anxious and interested questions about Australia and the marvelous progress of the Catholic Church out here.’

In May Walter was reported to have taken the leading role of Cavaradossi in Tosca in Milan. He sang, too, he claimed, in Rigoletto, and was ‘the favorite lyric tenor’ at the Teatro Quirino in Rome. Though there are photographs of him in costume for Il trovatore and Rigoletto, there is no reliable record of what would have been his only appearances in fully staged professional grand opera. Nevertheless, he seems to have made the most of his time in Rome, where he studied under Lorenzo Perosi, the revered composer, conductor, teacher, and Master of the Sistine Choir. Thanks to Perosi, Walter sang with the Choir on several occasions.

In addition, Walter claimed to have studied with Signora Zaira Cortini Falchi, headmistress of St Cecilia’s College of Music, and in Berlin with soprano Lilli Lehmann, the Wagnerian expert Franz Emmerich, and the illustrious teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti.

In September 1909 Melbourne Punch told its readers that Walter had ‘returned to London from Italy ‘with a voice more beautiful than ever. Under the influence of the great Perosi and the Italian atmosphere, he has become as one of themselves, and in their mood the last trace of the gum and wattle has vanished from his constitution. The Italian Queen Margherita presented him with a valuable gold trinket as a token of royal love and esteem.’

In October Walter was the guest of Lady Wantage on a private cruise around Scandinavia. In Stockholm, ‘by royal command’, he sang at the Palace before King Gustaf, Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf, the Crown Princess, Margaret Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Connaught and, recounted Punch, ‘a select party of notable guests. Mr Kirby sang eight numbers and, at the request of the Crown Princess, gave three encores. When Mr Kirby had finished, the Royalties present showered congratulations on him and presented him with signed photos.’

The highlight of Walter’s thirty-sixth year, 1910, was his return to Australia. He was booked by Melbourne-based entrepreneurs J. and N. Tait to tour the country with another returning Australian, 36-year-old soprano Mary Conly, on whom the Taits bestowed ‘top billing’. Born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, Mary had gone to London in 1902, and had, like Walter, achieved much. Strangely, also like Walter, she has been virtually ignored by modern Australian music researchers and writers.

Walter arrived back in Melbourne in RMS Mooltan early on the morning of 22 August. That afternoon the Lady Mayoress and Lady Madden welcomed him with a reception at the Town Hall, after which he and Mary Conly were treated to a lavish ‘At Home’ attended by 200 members of the Austral Salon in their rooms in the Austral Building at 115 Collins Street. The Salon was a club dedicated to fostering women in the arts, especially singing, and Lady Madden was its president for many years.

Two days later, on 24 August, an enthusiastic audience packed the Melbourne Town Hall for the first of their three concerts. Mary earned great praise from the reviewers, but Walter was a little less well received. The Herald, for instance, said: ‘Mr Kirby’s tenor voice is both strong and pliable. He never forces it, but rather indulges in mezza-voce singing. Yet the result Is not satisfactory. Instead of cultivating a broad and noble tone, he sports a whimsical play with his voice that may be ingenious but is rarely beautiful.’ The Age damned him with faint praise: ‘He has, if anything, broadened the tone and learnt some of the secrets of head notes and mezza-voce. He has likewise dropped to a certain extent that lackadaisical manner which “goes down” in drawing-rooms, but spells ruin in the concert hall and, if not exactly a strenuous young artist, he has most certainly developed into a very capable one.’ And then, for reasons never revealed, the Taits cancelled the rest of the tour. After a giving a few concerts in country centres, Mary Conly returned to London.

Walter soon established himself in Melbourne as a sought-after singing teacher and vocal coach, and he continued singing at fashionable ‘At Homes’ and charity events. Though his voice was warmly praised, the local popular press published frequent references to his appearance and demeanor. His attendance at the 1910 Melbourne Cup drew this notice in Labor Call: ‘Walter Kirby, Australia's lovely tenor, who is back in Melbourne after being tenderly looked after by “markisses” in the Land of Fog and Poor Wages, went to the Melbourne Gup [sic] last week. He wore a silk hat that was not more than 20 years of age, and his general make-up was that of a prosperous undertaker’s assistant. Walter needs a close haircut. How is it that these tenors almost invariably insist on looking so far from “husky”?’ He was described by one paper described him as looking ‘rather plump and very prosperous’ and another commented on his ‘Titian moustache’, but it was Truth, on 13 November, that was really quite nasty, calling him ‘a Cornstalk who went ’Ome, got on, and returned. He is as faultlessly dressed as a tailor’s dummy; and sings pretty love songs charmingly. You’ve heard of a tea-and-toast young curate—well, Walter may be described as a tea-and-toast tenor. He made his debut with the glamor of the royalties he has met turned full on—he is not popular with the crowd, but he is the darling of tip-top society at ’Ome. On the program was a list of the crowned heads that have listened to Walter—British, Spanish, Italian, and Swedish—so no person could be so rude as to hint that Waiter is not a second Orpheus.’ And then the snide clincher: ‘Walter is good on the flute, too.’

In October 1910 Walter ventured to Sydney. He and Amy Castles sang at ‘a small musical party’ in the ballroom at Government House, hosted by the flamboyant Governor-General of Australia, the Earl of Dudley and Lady Dudley, who was said to have taken ‘a keen interest in Mr Kirby’s artistic progress’. At the party Amy sang ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto and joined Walter in the duet ‘Parigi, o cara’ from La traviata. Lady Dudley was an accomplished pianist and singer and, as the Goulburn Evening Penny Post reported: ‘At Government House many pleasant mornings have been spent in song by the tenor and her Excellency, who is a skilled accompanist.’

On 22 October Walter sang in the smart new YMCA Hall in Pitt Street, under the patronage of the Governor General and the Countess of Dudley. The following month his Victorian patron, Lady Madden, arranged a benefit concert for him in the Melbourne Town Hall. His associate artist was the brilliant 28-year-old Melbourne pianist, Una Bourne. The concert was well attended, and Walter was £200 [$28,000] richer.

Walter had said that he had to be back in London early in 1911 to fulfill an engagement at the Royal Albert Hall. If this were true, he must have cancelled it, as he stayed on Melbourne, providing support and care for his ailing mother.

On 25 January 1911 Walter joined Amy Castles in a concert in Bendigo, Amy’s hometown, in support of the bizarrely named ‘Watson Sustentation Fund for Old and Worn-Out Miners’, which aimed ‘to relieve the suffering more or less inescapable from Bendigo’s great industry, Gold’. The Royal Princess Theatre was so crowded that some patrons had to be seated on the stage. The concert raised about £200 [$28,000].

On 27 March, at the invitation of Sir John and Lady Madden, Walter sang at the reception at fashionable Menzies Hotel that followed the St Paul’s Cathedral wedding of Sir John’s niece, Viola, to Anthony Hordern, a member of the prominent Sydney retailing family. It was the society event of the year, and Walter was very much at home. In April he sang with Amy Castles at a function at Cathedral Hall (now Central Hall) in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, marking the inauguration of the Newman Society, whose principal aim was to establish a Catholic college at Melbourne University.

In September Walter sang at Her Majesty’s Theatre in a marathon concert to raise funds for the redevelopment of G.W.L. Marshall-Hall’s Conservatorium at the University of Melbourne. It began at 2pm and trundled on for over four hours. There were slices of opera and drama, recitations, a ballet, and many vocal items. Walter contributed several favorite songs. He was, said a reviewer, ‘in splendid voice’.

He was back at Her Majesty’s on 28 November, but this time in the audience. The occasion, described by Punch as ‘a triumph unparalleled in the history of the lyric stage of Australia’, was the Melbourne debut of the first great Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company. Though all the principals were imports selected by Melba, many smaller roles went to Australians. Despite his links to the great diva, Walter was not amongst them.

Shortly before this, on 8 November 1911, Walter’s mother Ellen had died, aged 81, after a long illness. She had been in the care of the nuns at the Convent of the Good Shepherd at Oakleigh, where Walter had been a frequent visitor. She was laid to rest in Boroondara Cemetery, Kew, with her daughter, Bridget.


To be continued


Special thanks to:

Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove

Principal references:

Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002

Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976

Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990

John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967

Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016

Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001

John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951

In the first of a five-part series, FRANK VAN STRATEN delves into the life and times of little-known Australian vocalist Walter Kirby.

Kirby 1.1 Tatler 1898Walter Kirby featured in The Tatler, 26 February 1898. Photograph by Melba Studios, Melbourne. Trove, National Library of Australia, Canberra.‘His voice thrilled with every shade of feeling, expressed every shade of sentiment. It could be gloriously high and clear one moment, and deep and tender and caressing the next, and could sink to the faintest echo, or to the supressed high of a lover’s pain…’

This is a quote from a piece published in May 1925 in the Melbourne stage and screen journal Revue eulogising the Australian tenor Walter Kirby.

Walter Kirby? Kirby, who died in 1934, was all but forgotten until Tony Locantro and Roger Neill included him in From Melba to Sutherland, their landmark 2016 CD tribute to Australia’s greatest singers. The accompanying booklet includes a capsule biography of Kirby, but his remarkable life deserves a far more detailed account.

Walter was born on 12 June 1874 at the family home in Chapel Square, Auckland, New Zealand. He was christened Walter Joseph Kirby, but as his career blossomed, he added an impressive third given name, Regis, from the Latin word for ‘king’, and ‘adjusted’ his birth year to 1877. His parents were both Irish. His mother, born Ellen Mulcahy in a tiny village in County Limerick around 1831-1832, came to Australia an ‘assisted passenger’ in 1857. Officially recorded as a ‘servant’, she went to work for Charles and Ellen Maloney in Geelong in what was then the colony of Victoria. Walter’s father, William, was born in the County Limerick parish of Pallasgreen and Templebredon, probably in 1829. He arrived in Australia about 1853-1854. Initially he worked on the construction of the Geelong Road and as a farmer, but it appears he soon went into business as a building and construction contractor. William and Ellen married in Geelong in 1858, Their first child, Bridget, was born in 1859, and their second, Maurice, in 1860.

William Kirby’s business ventures ended in bankruptcy, and in 1860 the little family migrated to New Zealand, where William had several brothers. He soon re-established himself as a building and construction contractor. The family originally lived in Dunedin, but eventually settled in Chapel Square, Auckland, opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral, and had six more children: Patrick Michael, William, John Thomas, Daniel David, Catherine (Kate) and, finally, Walter.

William dabbled in local politics. In 1871 he stood for election to the city council, but he was unsuccessful.

The Kirbys were a musical family. Bridget was choir mistress and organist at St Patrick’s, Auckland. She, sister Catherine, and Mrs Kirby eventually became music teachers, as indeed did Walter. Maurice possessed a good voice, and William had a short stage career as a comedian and song-and-dance man. His whirlwind eccentric dance with a glass of water balanced on his nose stopped many a show. After some success at the Opera House in Melbourne in the 1900s, he abandoned a stage career for architecture. He died in Adelaide in 1921.

In The New Zealand Herald of 8 October 1886 there is a report of both Walter (aged 12) and William (19), accompanied at the piano by their sister Bridget (27), appearing at the Auckland Catholic Institute in a concert that Bridget had organised to raise funds for the Auckland Christian Society.

Revue’s somewhat hyperbolic account of his life claims Walter’s first years were difficult: ‘Delicate from the first, his life was despaired of by the leading doctors of New Zealand. For four years it was an anxious fight, but with the help of the best medical science, the assiduous efforts of his brave mother won the day.’ His father then provided ‘strict training with early morning swimming, boxing and rowing, to which he attributes to his ability to overcome his naturally delicate constitution.’

To Walter, singing came naturally. As Revue put it: ‘Almost from the time when he was able to lisp, he began to sing.’ It was his sister, Bridget, who recognised Walter’s potential and gave him his earliest lessons. He was 8 when his father enrolled him in the Marist Brothers’ School in Pitt Street, Auckland, and he was 9 when he received his first press notice. On 21 December 1883, reporting on an end-of-year concert by pupils of the Auckland Infants’ School, the New Zealand Herald said: ‘Several recitations were given, and hymns and songs sung by the children. One of the latter, “The Dear Little Shamrock”, was remarkably well sung by Master Walter Kirby, who was much applauded by the visitors.’

But it was sometimes difficult to get Walter to sing. In 1931 The Arrow reminisced: ‘There was a curious contradictory streak in his make-up. A secular priest, who was his teacher at the school at Auckland that Walter attended as a young boy, said that when the school concert programs were prepared it was discovered that the best way to induce Walter to sing was to leave his name out. If he was starred on the program he would invent some excuse, but the omission of his name from the program was a sure way of getting his services.’

While the future looked rosy for Master Walter, his father faced an increasingly tortuous series of financial failures and court battles, which inevitably led, in 1887, to his second bankruptcy. The following year the Kirby family retreated to Australia.

From August 1888 to March 1889 Melbourne hosted its second great international exhibition. Designed to celebrate the centenary of white settlement in Australia, it was centred on the huge Exhibition Building in Carlton that had been built in 1880 for the colonies’ first internationally recognised exhibition. New Zealand was one of the 34 participating nations and colonies, and young Walter Kirby was contracted to represent his native country for six months, Revue says, ‘at the splendid salary of twenty pounds per week’. According to a report in The Otago Daily Times of 26 January 1889: ‘At 4 o’clock there was a concert in the German Court, when Mr Frederick Dark delighted a large audience by his humorous musical sketches, and Master Walter Kirby sang “Come Back to Erin” in a sweet, pretty voice, like a girl.’

It seems likely that Walter’s handsome remuneration enabled the Kirbys to rent a smart home at 10 Colvin Grove in the genteel Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, and to enrol him at nearby Xavier, the city’s most prestigious Catholic boys’ college. Nevertheless, Walter found an ingenious way to add to his income. In 1931 The Arrow reminisced: ‘When the family were living on the Hawthorn Flats, Walter bought a cow out of his savings and started a milk round. Many a light sleeper heard the dulcet notes of his high soprano as he went on his round in the darkness of early morning. The wife of a prominent turfite told her husband one morning: “In the early hours I heard a nightingale singing for the first time since I left England.” It was merely the dreamy-eyed Walter delivering the milk.’

Walter loved Xavier. An enthusiastic student, he found that many of his fellow pupils came from some of Melbourne’s most prosperous and influential families.  

If the 1888-1889 exhibition was a high point in Melbourne’s history, the fall came quickly. The crash that followed the 1880s land boom caused immense hardship. Businesses failed and unemployment soared. This could explain why Walter left Xavier at the end of 1889, when he was 15. Nevertheless, he retained a close connection with the school, helping raise funds by singing at many of their functions and remembering them in his will.

The family moved to more modest accommodation at 430 Swan Street, Richmond. In 1915 the Richmond Guardian recalled that at his new school in Richmond, Walter’s ‘dulcet toned voice won him the sobriquet of “Dolly” among the local schoolboys,’ adding, ‘but he sings as well today as he did on the first night he went up from his parents’ home in Swan Street and surprised and pleased the audience at the Richmond Town Hall.’ Many of the Town Hall concerts were organized by Walter’s sister Bridget, who had established herself as a peripatetic music teacher.

Walter’s voice broke in 1890; his father died of tuberculosis the following year.

Revue explained: ‘Up to this period the family position had made the future career of the boy songster an assured fact, but now the future was of grave concern for all. It meant a hard struggle to even continue the barest necessary lessons and the schooling so essential to establish a future career as an artist.’

An article published in Smith’s Weekly shortly after his death, claims young Walter was forced to find menial work and sell goods door-to-door. Stoically his mother continued his vocal training, and he gained early experience with the once admired but now forgotten Melbourne Amateur Opera Club.

In August 1894 23-year-old Walter joined Frank M. Clark’s ‘Alhambra’ Company, which was presenting weekly-change music hall entertainment at the Melbourne Opera House in Bourke Street, renamed the Alhambra for the occasion, and later rechristened the Tivoli. On the bill was the extraordinary ‘facial contortionist’ Ed. E. Ford. In May 1935 he told the Melbourne Herald: ‘Many years ago—it was in the days of Rickards’ shows— some of us players were sitting about the theatre when a shy freckle-faced youth asked the manager to give him an audition. People weren’t as polite about auditions as they are now. You would be given “the bird” right off if you were no good. Workers about the theatre used to load up the property guns and fire them off if an act were bad. But once the shy youth began to sing everyone listened, astonished. He sang “I Was Dreaming” most wonderfully. The next week young Walter Kirby was the hit of our show, and I think he got about £2 [$200] for his week’s work.’ The song, a pensive newly published ballad by a Sydney composer, August William Juncker, went on to international success, as, too, did its singer.

Kirby 1.2 CecchiPietro Cecchi, Walter Kirby’s first singing teacher. Portrait by Foster & Martin Studios, Collins Street, Melbourne, 1880. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.Young Walter was in luck: the rapidly rising Mrs Charles Armstrong—Melba—had heard him sing. Before her departure for London in 1886 she had introduced him to her first teacher, the esteemed Italian Pietro Cecchi, who had a studio in Allan’s Music Store in Collins Street. Cecchi agreed to teach Walter, and at no cost, but sadly the maestro died suddenly in 1897. Walter then started studying with Amelia Banks, a prominent Melbourne teacher and ‘cultured soprano’.

More tragedy struck in May 1898 when Bridget, the eldest of the Kirby children, died in an horrific train accident at Pakenham, about 53km south-east of Melbourne, though, strangely, the press reports say it was younger sister Catherine and not Bridget who had died. Bridget was 39. At least she had lived long enough to see her 22-year-old brother make his debut as a serious vocalist.

In 1896 the celebrated French soprano Antoinette (Antonia) Dolores Trebelli had visited Australia to give a series of concerts. She heard Walter sing and invited him to join her touring company. On 8 June The Age reviewed the third of her concerts at the Melbourne Town Hall: ‘Mr Walter Kirby, a young tenor as yet unknown to fame, made a creditable first appearance. His voice is of agreeable quality, and though it is obviously in need of training, he sings in a naturally free and open style, without a trace of that “squeezing” of the throat which is generally so offensive in tenors who have not been through a thorough course of voice production. Neither of his selections, Stephen Adams’ “The Garonne” and “Alice, Where Art Thou?” can be called specially interesting or novel, but in both cases Mr Kirby was called upon for a supplementary number.’

In February 1898 Walter was chosen to sing at the Melbourne Town Hall reception to welcome the great Canadian soprano Emma Albani. She told the press she thought highly of the young tenor. He had, she said, ‘tears in his voice’, and she would be happy to help him should he venture to London.

After singing with Trebelli and the ‘endorsement’ from Albani, Walter found himself in great demand. Apart from numerous concerts for a wide range of charitable causes and lucrative appearances at fashionable ‘At Homes’, he began teaching, sang before Lord and Lady Brassey at Government House, appeared with the Melbourne, Metropolitan, Ballarat and Geelong Liedertafels, and was one of the featured vocalists at the grand industrial exhibitions at Albury and Ballarat in the late 1890s.

It was an era of vast self-congratulatory civic fairs, and Walter’s birth town was not to be left out. Auckland’s Industrial and Mining Exhibition opened in December 1898 and—yes—Walter Kirby was one of the featured participants. His Exhibition concerts were followed by an extensive tour of the rest of the country. Though the press reports were welcoming and complimentary, they were evenly split in describing him: was he an Australian or a New Zealander? On 17 July 1899, in its preview of a Kirby concert in Gisborne, The Poverty Bay Herald remarked: ‘A splendid program has been arranged for Mr Kirby’s concert on Thursday evening, and we have no doubt the celebrated young New Zealand tenor will be greeted with a crowded house. Mr Kirby’s success on the concert platform has been almost phenomenal. He made a decided hit at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1888. His voice has developed into a fine tenor, and he has met with success after success. Writing of his reception on his return to Auckland in January last, a local paper says: “Mr Walter Kirby not only won a success d’estime as an old Auckland boy meeting with an enthusiastic reception, but his lovely tenor voice and artistic singing created a storm of enthusiasm. His fine natural voice, under the training of Signor Cecchi, has been carefully developed into a smooth, round, even and extensive compass—the quality of tone is exquisite—neither a light tenor nor a tenore robusto, but that rare and happy blending of both. Mr Kirby’s signal triumph is more than gratifying, in view of the difficulty a prophet has to find honor in his own country. He is about to visit Europe shortly to pursue his musical studies, and a bright future undoubtedly lies before him.”

In 1900 entrepreneur George Musgrove assembled an international company to present ambitious seasons of grand opera in Melbourne and Sydney. With his keen eye for talent, Musgrove chose Walter for the role of Ruiz in Il trovatore. It would have been his debut in staged opera, but it was not to be. On 18 October Table Talk reported that Walter ‘found his nervousness an insurmountable barrier at rehearsals and so wisely decided that his time for grand opera was not yet’—but an item in The New Zealand Observer put it differently: ‘Walter Kirby was first chosen by the management for the part, but he is in serious trouble with an infection of the throat and he has had to decline an offer from Mr George Musgrove to appear in grand opera. By-the-way, Mr Musgrove’s conductor has a high opinion of Kirby’s voice, and prophesizes a great future.’

As early as 24 February 1898, Punch had reported that at a recent meeting at Allan’s: ‘a large section of the prominent citizens of Melbourne’ had determined to sponsor a benefit concert in the Melbourne Town Hall to raise funds to send Walter to England ‘to study his profession under the best masters—a laudable idea. He is a singer of great promise, only wanting the finishing so necessary to make a good artist. Lady Brassey and Lady Holled Smith are taking a great interest in the concert, and the patronage of nearly all lovers of music has been secured.’ Other reports reveal more of Walter’s distinguished benefactors: the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Richard Neville, Janet Lady Clarke, Sir Rupert and Lady Clarke, the Honorable Rupert Carrington and the Honorable Mrs Rupert Carrington, and the Victorian Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden and Lady Madden.

Kirby 1.4 Fundraiser 1910Announcement of a concert to raise money to send Walter Kirby to Europe for further study, Melbourne Town Hall, 31 August 1902. Private Collection.On 2 March 1898, the ‘large and brilliant’ attendance at the concert included the Governor of Victoria, Lord Brassey, Lady Brassey, and many of Melbourne’s gracious and good but, reported Punch on 14 April, ‘The financial result has not been at all satisfactory, and will not enable Mr Kirby to seek European instruction as intended. Another appeal in a few months' time to an ever-generous public and worked on different lines might assist this deserving young artist to obtain the continental experience so necessary for a successful musical career.’ There were to be many more benefit concerts and functions.

A now virtually forgotten phenomenon of turn-of-the century entertainment was the cyclorama. These were huge buildings housing vast painted canvas representations of historic events, enhanced with realistically modelled foregrounds, music and sound effects. Melbourne had two. The first, on Victoria Parade, Eastern Hill, had opened in 1889. One of its most popular presentations had been Jerusalem, a depiction of the Holy City at the time of the Crucifixion. The Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden, launched a return season on 31 July 1902. For the occasion, baritone Horace Stevens sang ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and Walter contributed ‘The Holy City’ and ‘Star of Bethlehem’.

Meanwhile, the benefits continued. At a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on 30 August 1902 he was supported by a roster of leading local singers and, unusually, two great favorites from the musical stage, George Lauri and Carrie Moore (Australia’s original Merry Widow), as well as ‘a successful humoristic recitation’ contributed by vaudevillian Hector McLennan, father of actor and broadcaster Rod McLennan. The Age noticed that, ‘All the more highly priced seats at the Town Hall were full but the back of the hall was poorly attended.’ Its report went on to say, ‘We have often had occasion to speak in favorable terms of the quality of Mr Kirby’s voice, which, it may be remarked, is still in an excellent state of preservation. He sings easily and without effort, gets his effects as a rule naturally and by strictly legitimate means, and uses his voice well; but at the same time, the doubt will arise whether by sending Mr Kirby “home” the best possible service is being done him by his friends. In England they have singers in plenty, and if some of the rumors which travel halfway round the world be true, not every budding Melba who goes to London for a “career” finds one. We have every desire to see Mr Kirby rise as near to the top of the tree as his undoubted gifts will warrant; but Saturday’s concert was in many respects more like a society “function” than a concert.’ The Australasian was similarly grumpy: ‘Such farewell benefits are really very sad. We know by experience that if the beneficiary is very good and succeeds, he will not return, while if he is very bad and fails, he will return. It is a case of heads you win, tails I lose.’

Though it seemed Walter’s departure was imminent, Melba stepped in again. The great diva was on her first major tour of her homeland. With her was a supporting party including four singers, a harp soloist, and a bevy of accompanists. When her manager, George Musgrove, revealed plans to extend the tour to Western Australia and then to New Zealand, her tenor decided to leave the company and in December 1902 Melba announced that Walter had been engaged to replace him.

Perth greeted Melba’s arrival in Western Australia with great warmth—and even turned on a heatwave to match. The first concert at the Queen’s Hall in William Street on 13 January marked Melba’s Perth debut—and Walter’s too. The press, like the packed audience, were wildly enthusiastic, but The West Australian had one criticism: ‘Mr Walter Kirby has a tuneful and expressive tenor voice, but his stage manner is not entirely free from affectation.’ It was probably the first mention of a trait that was to characterise Walter for the rest of his career.

The party returned to Melbourne where, on 31 January 1903, Melba and Walter participated in a benefit concert at the Town Hall marking the retirement of the much-feted Australian tenor Armes Beaumont. It was their only joint appearance in Melbourne. Later that year, when both Walter and Melba were in London, an obscure Melbourne paper, The Arena-Sun, speculated cheekily: ‘Will Walter call on Melba, one wonders, or did that severe slap he received at the Melbourne concert make as much impression on his feelings as on his cheek? The haughty lady had expostulated with him on taking an encore. Walter listened, but erred again. This time Melba did not use words, but her plump, jewelled hand, and Walter’s face bore the impress for quite half an hour after.’

A concert at Launceston in northern Tasmania was to be next, but Bass Strait’s heavy seas made Melba so ill it had to be abandoned. She and her party took the train to Hobart where they were to board the SS Moeraki for the trip to New Zealand on 13 February. It was a Friday. And Walter missed the boat.

How this happened was never explained, but in his 1967 biography of Melba, John Hetherington gave an unsourced and largely fanciful account of what followed, and this has been repeated by several other writers. Inherent is the suggestion that the incident led to Walter developing a deep hatred for the diva. Contemporary reports tell a different if less colourful story, confirming that Melba continued to support and encourage him.

Melba engaged John Prouse, a sturdy local bass-baritone, to replace Kirby in her first New Zealand concert, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Dunedin on 18 February. Earlier that day Walter had disembarked from the steamer Rimutaka in Wellington. He got to Christchurch in time to sing in Melba’s second New Zealand concert there on 20 February.

Surprisingly, several New Zealand reviewers were less than impressed by their returning prodigy. Christchurch’s The Press grumbled: ‘Mr Kirby was faulty in his singing of “Angels Guard Thee” and also in his second number, “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby”. His production lacks smoothness, and he has a tendency to use the tremolo effect far too much,’ while The New Zealand Observer said: ‘The supporting company was of mixed quality. Local interest naturally attached to Mr Walter Kirby, the tenor, who was an Auckland boy. He has undoubtedly improved since he went to Australia, both in method and in vocal powers, but some of his mannerisms still remain. When London studies have weeded these out, and put the polish upon his style, we may expect to hear great things of Mr Kirby. The rest of the performers made up a concert of good average calibre.’

The Melba party sailed back into Sydney on 13 March. The country was still experiencing what is recognized as the worst drought it has ever endured. Melba had been moved by the devastation she had seen on earlier tours, so drought relief was a cause close to her heart. To raise funds, she and her party—including Walter—appeared at a hastily-arranged charity matinee at the Sydney Town Hall on 18 March. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 2800 people had packed the venue and that the proceeds—£700 [$105,500]—were the most yet raised at a charity concert.

On 11 April, almost on the eve of his long-delayed departure for Europe, Walter participated in an extraordinary Easter event staged in Wirth Brothers’ huge circus tent which was pitched in St Kilda Road, on the site of today’s Arts Centre Melbourne. ‘Bioscope views’ displayed on a large screen hung in the centre of the ring were mingled with mainly religious vocal items accompanied by a military band. The Age was shocked: ‘Most of the items were appropriate to the season, but the introduction of The “Zaza” Kiss, as displayed on the sheet [the screen], would have been in questionable taste at any part of the program, and following, as it did, a rendering of “The Lost Chord” it was almost revolting’.  This intriguing attraction, which had been teasingly advertised for many days, was apparently inspired by a controversial episode in the drama Zaza, then playing at the Princess.

A few days later, armed with funds for two years’ tuition, dozens of letters of introduction, and an adulatory testimonial from his recently recruited pupils, Walter took the train to Adelaide, where he boarded the fashionable French liner Ville de la Ciotat, bound for Marseilles.


To be continued


Special thanks to:

Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove

Principal references:

Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002

Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976

Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990

John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967

Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016

Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001

John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951

Continuing our tribute to Australian playwright  Ray Lawler, who turned 100 on the 23 May 2021, FRANK VAN STRATEN takes a look at his life and legacy.

Ray LawlerRay Lawler, 1955; photograph by Henry Talbot. Henry Talbot collection, State Library Victoria, Melbourne. ‘By the mid-1950s, Ray Lawler was writing from his own bloodstream about the people he knew,’ wrote Zoe Caldwell; she was a member of the then recently established Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne, when Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was first produced. ‘His play was so extraordinary for all of us because it reflected an Australian sensibility quite apart from England. For decades Australia remained hell-bent on trying to imitate England, yet the sense of inferiority remained. Lawler was part of the change that was in the air. I felt for the first time the joy of using my own Aussie voice and speaking of places that I really knew, and at the same time knowing that the audience had the same experience. No conjuring up or imagining a world not ours. First Melbourne cheered, then Sydney, then all of Australia, and finally London. But nothing will ever be the same as that first time when a veil was lifted and communication was direct’.

Raymond Evenor Lawler was born in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray on 23 May 1921. At the age of 13 he left school and worked in a foundry. At the same time he studied acting at a school called Stage Door, run by an American, Sophie Graves. During the war she transformed it into the Stage Door Canteen for servicemen, while Lawler spent most of the war working 12-hour night shifts, squeezing in some writing during the day.

Towards the end of the war Lawler took a play called Hal’s Belles to Lorna Forbes and Syd Turnbull, who had established their Melbourne Repertory Theatre in a small disused cinema in Middle Park. Hal’s Belles was produced there in September 1945 with 19-year-old Frank Thring as Henry VIII; it was Lawler’s debut as a playwright, and Thring’s as an actor. Its success warranted a transfer to Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre in Eastern Hill. Lawler stayed with the National for a while. He acted in a number of their drama productions, but also had the satisfaction of seeing several more of his plays produced there, notably Storm in the Haven and Brief Return, which he wrote under the pseudonym Alan Sinclair.

Lawler’s professional career started in 1948 at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane, where Will Mahoney was presenting fortnightly-change revue. He became, he said, ‘secretary to Mr Mahoney, assistant stage manager, small-part walk on actor and general dogsbody.’ He also absorbed some of the material that he would later inform Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. After a year, Lawler retuned to Melbourne and the National. During the National’s 1949 drama season at the Princess he appeared as Feste in Twelfth Night. In 1951 he was one of six actors chosen for the National’s permanent professional drama company. Its repertoire was mainly unadventurous, but for Christmas 1951 Lawler devised, wrote and directed a pantomime version of St George and the Dragon. Lawler also played the witch’s servant. The Advocate said it was ‘as good as anything Barrie could have given us’.

In 1952 Lawler’s Cradle of Thunder won the National Theatre’s Australia-wide play competition. It was presented it at the Princess in the National’s 1952 Three Arts Festival. Lawler claimed that it was ‘only the tenth straight play by an Australian author produced on the professional stage in Australia in the past 35 years’. He directed and played the part of Cully, a Welsh seaman. George Fairfax, then 24, was the half-mad innkeeper. At the end of 1952 the National presented two more Lawler plays, Alas, Poor Ghost, a reworking of Hal’s Belles, and Ginger Meggs, a panto based on the beloved comic strip. Lawler wrote the book and lyrics and played the title role. The following year he provided the script for a spectacular Pageant of Royalty, staged at the Exhibition Building to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then set to work on The New Adventures of Ginger Meggs for Christmas. The Age credited with ‘a peculiar charm’.

In 1954 Lawler was recruited by John Sumner as an actor, writer and director for the second season of the Union Theatre Repertory Company, based at the University of Melbourne. He made his mark swiftly, most notably providing material for the Company’s first end-of-year ‘special’, a topical revue called Tram Stop 10! The season concluded with Lawler’s well received production of Twelfth Night, the UTRC’s first attempt at Shakespeare. In mid 1955 Sumner moved to Sydney to manage the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and Lawler took his place as director of the UTRC.

In 1954 Lawler had entered a new play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in a competition organised by the Playwrights’ Advisory Board. It shared the £200 first prize with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents but only reached the stage after much manoeuvring, largely because of Lawler’s reluctance to program one of his own works. Eventually, with the encouragement of the AETT, it was scheduled as part of the UTRC’s third season, and Sumner was released from his Sydney duties to direct it.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered at the University’s Union Theatre on 28 November 1955 with Roma Johnston (as Pearl), Fenella Maguire (Bubba), June Jago (Olive), Ray Lawler (Barney), Carmel Dunn (Emma), Noel Ferrier (Roo) and Malcolm Billings (Johnnie Dowd). The setting, by Anne Fraser, perfectly evoked the play’s setting, a terrace house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. Lawson’s sensitive exploration of mateship, ageing, change and the nature of happiness immediately won wide approval. Maguire, Jago and Lawler were retained for the Sydney season, which opened at the Elizabethan on 10 January 1956. The newcomers were Madge Ryan (Pearl), Ethel Gabriel (Emma), Lloyd Berrell (Roo) and John Llewellyn (Johnnie). This was followed by an extensive Trust tour in repertory with The Rivals and Twelfth Night. Lawler played Barney and Feste in Twelfth Night, and his wife, Jacklyn (Jackie) Kelleher, played Bubba for part of the run.

The next stop was London, where The Doll was presented under the auspices of Sir Laurence Olivier. After ‘running in’ in Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle, The Doll opened triumphantly at the New Theatre on 30 April 1957. Maguire, Ryan, Jago, Lawler and Gabriel repeated their roles, but there was a new Roo, Kenneth Warren, and a new Johnnie, Richard Pratt (yes, that Richard Pratt). In his first night curtain speech, Lawler quoted from the prologue to The Recruiting Officer, the first play performed in Australia: ‘True patriots all, for be it understood—We left our country for our country’s good.’

The Doll ran for 8½ months in London and received the Evening Standard ‘Play of the Year’ award. After its warm reception in Britain, its disastrous 29-performance New York season, at the Coronet from 22 January 1958, was a bitter anticlimax. So was the film version. Virtually everything was wrong: John Dighton’s adaptation reset the story in the more photogenic environs of Sydney, and contrived a ‘happy’ ending, while the producers, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, employed an English director, Leslie Norman, and assembled an oddly-accented international cast: Angela Lansbury (Pearl), Anne Baxter (Olive), John Mills (Barney) and Ernest Borgnine (Roo); the principal locals were Vincent Ball (Dowd), Janette Craig (Bubba) and Ethel Gabriel (Emma). In an ultimate insult, for its American release the film was crassly retitled Season of Passion.

Lawler’s next play, The Piccadilly Bushman, revolved around an expatriate actor’s return to Australia in an attempt to save his marriage. It had the unusual distinction of a commercial production by J.C. Williamson’s—who in 1944 had optioned but not produced one of Lawler’s earlier efforts. Directed by John McCallum, The Piccadilly Bushman played for eight weeks at the Comedy in Melbourne and another eight at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in 1959, but it could not match the success of The Doll.

Lawler and his family moved to Britain, and later to Ireland. In 1963 June Jago and Alfred Marks played in his The Unshaven Cheek at Newcastle and at the Edinburgh Festival, but for the next two decades Lawler’s focus was primarily on writing and adapting for television. His output—all for the BBC—includes A Breach in the Wall (1967), Before the Party with Anna Massey and Sinister Street (1969), Cousin Bette with Helen Mirren (1971), The Visitors (1972), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with Celia Johnson and Two Women (1973), and The Brotherhood with Ben Kingsley (1975). A theatrical version of A Breach in the Wall, a fantasy about the rediscovery of the body of Thomas à Becket, was staged at Canterbury in 1970.

Lawler returned to Australia for the staging of The Man Who Shot the Albatross, which the Melbourne Theatre Company premiered at the Princess on 14 October 1971 with John Sumner directing. Leo McKern, like Lawler an expatriate, played the irascible Governor Bligh at the time of the Rum Rebellion. In The Herald Gerald Mayhead said: ‘Does one expect too much? Like Bligh’s albatross, the weight of past brilliance hangs heavily on Mr Lawler’s neck.’ Nevertheless, the play did well in Melbourne and Canberra. The following year it was presented in Sydney and at the Adelaide Festival, and was televised by the ABC.

In 1974 John Sumner commissioned Lawler to write Kid Stakes. Set in 1937, it depicted the start of the relationships that culminated in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Kid Stakes premiered at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne on 2 December 1975. Its success encouraged Lawler to write Other Times, set in 1945, thus completing ‘The Doll Trilogy’. Other Times premiered on 14 December 1976; the three plays were then presented in repertory, with two memorable Saturdays on which all three were played in sequence, marathons which culminated in standing ovations. At the end of 1977 the Trilogy was directed for Channel Seven by Rod Kinnear. It was not screened until January 1979.

By this time Lawler had returned to Melbourne to live. He joined the MTC as artistic advisor, director, play assessor and occasional actor. His play Godsend, a reworking of A Breach in the Wall, was presented in 1982 but it was not a success. Lawler received an OBE in 1980 and retired seven years later.

The Doll, however, has not retired. It has been produced in translation around the world—including Der Sommer de 17. Puppe on West German television in 1968. The Melbourne Theatre Company revived it in 1962, 1977 and 1995—its fortieth anniversary. There have been countless other productions in all states. Rodney Fisher directed the Trilogy for the Sydney Theatre Company in 1985. Richard Wherrett’s STC production of The Doll played at the Pepisco Summerfare Festival in New York in 1988. He had previously directed it for Nimrod in 1973 and in 1996 directed an operatic adaptation commissioned by the Victoria State Opera. With music by Richard Mills and a libretto by Peter Goldsworthy, this premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival on 19 October 1996. There have been avant garde versions, too, such as Jean-Pierre Mignon’s anti-naturalistic interpretation for Anthill in Melbourne and at the 1988 Singapore Festival, and Jacqui Carroll’s pared down Doll Seventeen for Frank Theatre at the 2002 Brisbane Festival. In 1986 a group of NIDA graduates took a 50-minute version, approved by Lawler, to the Festival of Dramatic Colleges in Bratislava—and took first prize.

In December 2003, to mark the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 50th Anniversary, Ray Lawler presented his treasured Evening Standard Award trophy to the Australian Performing Arts Centre at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Critic Leonard Radic describes Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as Australian theatre’s finest play. ‘If Lawler had written nothing else,’ he says, ‘his position in Australian theatre history would still have been secure.’

© Frank Van Straten, 2007


Principal references

Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra. Text Publishing, 2001

Terence Clarke, ‘Benchmark play germinated theatre of a nation’ in Theatre Australasia, April 1955

Peter Fitzpatrick, ‘The Doll Trilogy’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995

John McCallum, ‘Ray Lawler’ and ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995

Leonard Radic, The State of Play. Penguin, 1991

John Sumner, Recollections at Play. Melbourne University Press, 1993

In February 2020 demolition of the Palace Theatre commenced and now all that stands is the building’s façade which is to be incorporated into a new development. With this act of vandalism, Melbourne loses another part of its theatre history. FRANK VAN STRATEN concludes his exploration of the long, colourful history of a much-missed Melbourne entertainment venue in this updated version of a series of articles that appeared in the THA magazine On Stage, 2000-2001.

The Apollo Theatre

1934 was the year of melbourne's centenary. To mark the occasion the theatre was redecorated and again renamed. It became the Apollo, in tribute to the Greek sun god. Although a new upper circle foyer was installed, the Bulletin was not impressed: ‘It is merely the old Palace with a fresh coat of paint and a new orange curtain, a winter garden and the biggest neon light in Australia to act as beacon’. The Apollo opened on 6 June with the George M. Cohan musical comedy The Merry Malones, directed by Ernest C. Rolls. American import Polly Moran had the lead in a cast that included Rene Maxwell and Alec Kellaway. The show was hopefully promoted thus: ‘Clean as a new pin, it makes the ideal treat for the children’. The Merry Malones was followed by an adventurous foray into grand opera in English, presented by a company of mainly British artists assembled in London by Sir Ben Fuller. The leading soprano was Florence Austral, an Australian returning from overseas triumphs. The season was inaugurated on 29 September with a performance of Aida with Austral in the title role. As the Bulletin observed, the intimacy of the Apollo was hardly appropriate: ‘Some of the pomp and magnificence which the Firm [J.C. Williamson’s] on other occasions has succeeded in including on the large expanse of His Majesty’s had to be left out. Only a skeleton force was allowed to participate in Radames’ triumphs’.

Australian star Marie Bremner replaced Polly Moran when The Merry Malones returned to brighten Christmas 1934. The following year brought a series of lavish Ernest C. Rolls shows: Rhapsodies of 1935 with Strella Wilson, Roy Rene (‘Mo’) and Renie Riano; Vogues of 1935 with Jennie Benson, Roy Rene, Gus Bluett and Thea Philips; and the Australian musical Flame of Desire. All had scores composed by Jack O’Hagan. In 1936 Mike Connors and Queenie Paul leased the Apollo to present the ubiquitous Roy Rene (‘Mo’) in two revues, The Laugh Parade and Top Speed. After Queenie, Mike and Roy moved around the corner to the Princess, the Apollo’s fare for the rest of the year was mainly a series of vintage musical comedies. These were presented under the aegis of Savoy Theatres Pty Ltd (a company controlled by Sir Benjamin Fuller and Garnet H. Carroll). The semi-permanent company was headed by Catherine Stewart (Mrs Garnet H. Carroll), Charles Norman and Rene Maxwell. They opened with a jolly George M. Cohan piece called Billie, and romped on with The O’Brien Girl, Vincent Youmans’ No, No, Nanette and the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face.

On 12 February 1937 Graham Mitchell, a Brisbane entrepreneur, extended his operations to the Apollo, presenting his ‘Serenaders’ company—including comedian Syd Beck and dancer Ronnie Hay—in a series of ‘new style vaudeville revuettes’.

In 1938 the radical New Theatre presented Irwin Shaw’s powerful anti-war play Bury the Dead at the Apollo for two controversial performances—these were on 12 and 14 November; there was a further performance at the Princess on 26 November. In 1939 the Apollo housed seasons of James M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton and Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound, staged by Gertrude Johnson’s fledgling National Theatre Drama Company.

After the outbreak of war, the public’s demand for escapist entertainment was met by entrepreneur Stanley McKay, who leased the Apollo for a series of revues starring Roy Rene and Sadie Gale. The last, Revels of Rhapsody, closed on 6 January 1940, an occasion marked by ‘The only appearance of Tango, the Only Dancing Dog in the World’. For the next few months the Apollo was used only occasionally, most notably, perhaps, on 5 March 1940 for a ‘happy and glorious mélange’ presented by the National Theatre to aid war charities. Local playwright Marjorie McLeod’s historical drama Within These Walls was presented by the Dramatists’ Club at the Apollo in May (it had been seen first at the Princess in 1936). In November 1940 the recently established Sydney-based Bodenwieser Ballet made its Melbourne debut at the Apollo. Unfamiliar with Melbourne life, they made the mistake of opening on Melbourne Cup Day. This, plus the competition offered by escapist fare at other theatres, ensured that the Bodenwieser’s first visit to Melbourne was a commercial disaster.

The St James Theatre

On 21 December 1940 the theatre was relaunched as a cinema, the St James—again named in line with a Sydney ‘sister’. Structural alterations provided access to all three levels via the front vestibule, and linking foyers did away with the old separate entrance for gallery patrons. ‘The policy of the St James,’ said the advertisements, ‘will be to present to a discriminating theatre-going public, through the agency of the latest Western-Electric Sound System, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures in an atmosphere of charm, unexcelled seating accommodation and luxurious appointments’. The St James became the second Melbourne home for M-G-M movies, and operated in conjunction with the Metro (the former Auditorium) in Collins Street. The inaugural double-feature programme was Andy Hardy Meets Debutante with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and Dulcie, with Ann Sothern.

The Metro Bourke Street

In 1947 M-G-M purchased the theatre and in 1951 renamed it the Metro Bourke Street. Architect H. Vivian Taylor was supervised some alterations, mainly centred on on the façade: what remained of the Edwardian original was covered in modern cream coloured cement render and a spectacular three-colour neon sign and bright marquee lighting were installed. And the disreputable billiard parlour that operated for years in the basement under the foyer was finally closed. Minor internal refurbishment included typical M-G-M ‘house’ carpeting and red plush upholstery. In 1954 the pairs of circle-level boxes were removed to permit the installation of a vast CinemaScope screen, which extended nearly the full width of the auditorium.

After over thirty years as a cinema, the Metro Bourke Street was leased by M-G-M to adventurous entrepreneur Harry M. Miller. By this time Sir Arthur Rylah, Victoria’s notoriously censorious Chief Secretary, was safely in retirement, and Miller wanted the Metro as a Melbourne venue for his production of the landmark rock musical Hair—complete with strong language and dimly-lit nudity. Coincidentally Hair had played in Sydney at the theatre’s ‘sister’ house, the Metro Kings Cross.

Brilliant young director Jim Sharman restaged the show for Melbourne, using new designs by Brian Thomson, whose innovations included a huge rainbow superimposed on the proscenium. The Melbourne season opened on 21 May 1971 with a cast including Reg Livermore and Marcia Hines.

Many of the Hair team were involved in Julian Slade’s adaptation of Winnie the Pooh, presented by Harry M. Miller for the 1971-2 holiday season. Sandra McKenzie directed, Brian Thomson designed the sets and Peter Narroway was musical director. Miller recalled sadly, ‘Like every other entertainment I have produced for children it was a costly failure.’ David Ravenswood, who played Pooh Bear, has warm memories of the theatre’s excellent acoustic: ‘It was a joy. You certainly didn’t need microphones.’

Harry M. Miller’s next Metro Bourke Street attraction was Butley, a contemporary British play by Simon Gray. ‘I had seen it in London with Alan Bates,’ said Miller, ‘and I grabbed too hastily for an available star name and signed Peter Wyngarde, who was having an enormous success in the TV series Department S. He was a charming fellow, but he had been too long away from the theatre, and had forgotten how to project. I closed the production without fuss—and lost a lot of money.’

Miller lost too on the 1950s rock musical Grease, in spite of a cast that included talents such as John Diedrich, John McTernan, Denise Drysdale, Tina Bursill and David Atkins. There was more disappointment with his next Metro show, a comedy called No Sex Please, We’re British! Miller mounted this as a starring vehicle for the popular American television clown Jonathan Daly. After only three weeks Daly walked out. His understudy, a local actor called Alan Kingsford Smith, took over but, good as he was, patrons stayed away. Miller’s last Metro offering was another comedy, Michael Pertwee’s Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something, with toothy British comedian Terry-Thomas in the lead. It too was a failure. ‘My zest for theatre production was diminishing,’ recalled Miller ruefully.

In 1973 the Metro was sold for $1,550,000. Its next owners, Kimaree Nominees Pty Ltd, bought it for a mere $600,000. During this time the theatre was used only intermittently—for instance for screenings of the film of the Kirov Ballet’s Swan Lake and for the Rock Film Festival in the last months of 1973, for which a 2000-watt sound system was installed.

The Palace Theatre—3

In 1974 the theatre came under the management of the Seven Keys Group, who relaunched it as a cinema, with the name Palace restored. Seven Keys’ Chairman, Andrew J. Gaty, explained, ‘Redecoration has been aimed at producing an interior nearer to the plush days of cream paint, gilt and red velvet, as is the proper décor for a theatre.’ In the Sun, Keith Dunstan reported that Seven Keys were installing ‘red plush wallpaper, enormous antique mirrors, busts of marble topless ladies holding lamps, statues, and loads of potted palms.’ The gently comic Peter Sellers film The Optimists was chosen to reopen the old theatre on 16 August 1974. Sadly, Seven Keys’ venture was not a success. In 1977 live performances returned briefly when Jonathan Taylor’s Australian Dance Theatre made its Melbourne debut at the Palace on 27 September.

After the building was sold by auction on 28 March 1980 a demolition permit was issued, but the proposed development did not proceed. Instead it was purchased by the Melbourne Revival Centre and became a major venue for their services. Their musical play Jonah was presented at the Palace several times.

The Melbourne Metro Nightclub

In 1986 the Revivalists sold the theatre for $4 million and transferred their meetings to the Forum (the former State) in Flinders Street. The new owner was Metro Palace Pty Ltd, whose directors, Sam and George Frantzeskos, were well known in the nightclub scene, having run the popular Inflation nightclub in King Street with notable success.

Biltmoderne, the controversial, flamboyant Melbourne architectural firm that had also designed Inflation, was commissioned to transform the 75-year-old building into ‘The Melbourne Metro’—a vast, classy disco/nightclub with eight bars, a licensed restaurant and one of the largest dance floors in Australia. Biltmoderne was a practice headed by trio of innovative and abrasive young architects, Roger Wood, Dale Jones-Evans and Randal Marsh, all only in their late twenties. Never far from headlines, talkback radio and the art world, they were experts at feather ruffling and self-promotion.

The redevelopment involved the removal of every architectural feature from the end of the balconies to the rear stage wall. The old foyers, balconies, domed ceiling and the top of the proscenium were retained. The auditorium floor was levelled and the stage was greatly reduced in depth. Above it a new mezzanine floor was installed. This was connected to the existing balconies by a series of steel walkways and stairways passing through towers supporting moveable hydraulic arms with computer-controlled lights attached.

Architect Roger Wood said, ‘It was a conscious decision to reinstate the festive and slightly kitsch nature of the theatre. Contemporary techniques were employed to continue forms similar to the circles. The use of draping silver metal has the elegance of the curving balconies. The walkways extending from the balconies are of mild steel, painted silver in the spirit of the design, and they extend the architectural towers and walkways into a robot-like form that can be animated. The auditorium is split into levels and cascades down to the timber floor and back up to the stage.’ The budget for the refurbishment, including the spectacular lighting designed by Nathan Thompson and Warehouse Systems’ 10,000-watt sound system, was reported to be $10 million.

On 25 November 1987, 4500 people packed the 75-year-old building to celebrate the opening of Metro Melbourne. By this time, however, its designers, Biltmoderne, had disintegrated in a predictable flurry of controversy. Their bricks-steel-and-mortar legacy, though, was an instant success. Metro Melbourne was the place to go. Molly Meldrum was a regular. Stevie Wonder wandered in. The venue offered glitz and glamour and good times in a heightened theatrical atmosphere that would have stunned James Brennan, left Ernest C. Rolls gasping and made Harry M. Miller envious. At last, Cinderella had come to the ball.

Over the ensuing thirteen years, over six million patrons visited the Melbourne Metro. It housed many international concert acts including Moby, Fatboy Slim, Prodigy, Hole, Chemical Brothers and Culture Club. The auditorium could stage virtually anything, from concerts, product launches and corporate functions to fashion parades, and its stunning series of dance floors could accommodate more than 1000 dancers. On the venue’s first level was the plush Rebar, which also provided a stage for comedians and budding karaoke stars. 1970s and 80s disco and retro featured in The Gods’ Bar, which was virtually ‘a club within a club’. Located in the old theatre gallery, The Gods’ had pool tables, a small stage for live bands, and spectacular views into the dance areas.

The Metro offered four different genres of entertainment: On Thursdays, ‘Goo’ attracted a young crowd who danced and listened to the latest alternative releases, and live bands performed in the Mosh Pit. ‘Discotech’ on Fridays featured dance anthems and house disco. Saturday nights brought ‘Pop’ with current dance and classic dance tracks from the 1970s to the 2000s. ‘Time’, usually on Saturdays and Wednesdays, was Melbourne’s premier supervised alcohol-free event for underage patrons.

Late in 1999 Sam and George Frantzeskos sold the Metro to Lion Nathan. Architects Wood/Marsh Pty Ltd (Biltmoderne’s Roger Wood and Randal Marsh) were contracted to upgrade the building. The bar areas were redesigned and a new internal walkway improved circulation in the auditorium.

Live music venue

In 2007 the operators of St Kilda’s Palace nightclub bought the Metro and relaunched it as a live music venue with a capacity of 1850. Over the next seven years it successfully staged popular acts such as George Clinton, The Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys and The Killers.

Final curtain

In late 2012 the venerable entertainment venue it was sold yet again, this time to the Chinese developer Jinshan Investment Group for $11.2 million. They planned to replace the theatre with a $180 million 30-storey W Hotel—a proposal that generated opposition from the city council and, especially, from Melbourne’s music community. Eventually the proposed hotel was reduced to seven storeys, and the Palace closed its doors in April 2014. Nevertheless, the fight to save the building continued in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but in early 2016, after many months of deliberation, the decision was made to allow demolition and redevelopment. An appeal was unsuccessful. Demolition began in February 2020 and is now complete. All that remains is the theatre’s Bourke Street façade, which will be incorporated into the new building—a sad, inglorious end for Melbourne’s historic ‘Cinderella’ theatre.


Principal references

Katharine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

Seymour Hicks, Hello Australians, Duckworth, London, 1925

Shona Dunlop MacTavish, An Ecstasy of Purpose, Shona Dunlop MacTavish, Dunedin, 1987

Alison Gyger, Opera For the Antipodes, Currency Press, Sydney, 2000

Harry M. Miller, My Story, The Macmillan Company of Australia, South Melbourne, 1983

Elisabeth Kumm, ‘What’s in a Name?’ in CinemaRecord magazine, August 1995

Fred Page, ‘Metro Bourke Street’, in Kino magazine, September 1989

Philip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995

Ada Reeve, Take It For a Fact, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1954

Charles Waller, Magical Nights in the Theatre, Gerald Taylor, Melbourne, 1980

John West, Theatre in Australia, Cassell Australia, 1978


Programmes, clippings and research files in the Australia Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Additional information provided by Anna Kimba and Robyn Hoyland of Melbourne Metro Nightclub, John Bick, Dr Mimi Colligan, Graeme Haigh of Grajohn Genealogical Services, Sydney, Mrs Elaine Marriner, Martin Powell, David Ravenswood, the late Maurice Scott, the late John West, the late Alex Young.

BOOK REVIEW: Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand, Cinema and Theatre Historical Society Inc.

Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New ZealandSignificant Country Theatres of Australia and New ZealandON THE GREAT EASTERN HIGHWAY, about halfway between Perth and Kalgoorlie, is Merredin, a former gold mining town in the heart of Western Australia’s wheatbelt. Remarkably, its population of around 2800 people support a thriving 500-seat theatre, the Cummins. This is just one of nearly sixty intriguing venues covered in a new book, Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand, published by our colleagues at the Melbourne-based Cinema and Theatre Historical Society Inc.

The Cummins has a particularly fascinating history. It was built as a silent cinema in 1928 by James Cummins, a local brewer and former Mayor of Kalgoorlie. It was constructed largely from elements recycled from the dismantled Tivoli Theatre in Coolgardie, which dated from 1897.

The Cummins was the second cinema in the state to be wired for sound, and the sixth in Australia. Refurbished several times, it continued as a cinema until 1973, when it was purchased by the local shire. It is now used as a live venue by the Merredin Repertory Club and by visiting artists: AC/DC, Slim Dusty, Marcia Hines, the Wiggles, Johnny O’Keefe and even David Helfgott have played the Cummins.

It is this element of discovery that makes the new CATHS book so fascinating. Each theatre is given a page with a thumbnail history, four of five pictures (most of them in colour), and details such as opening date, seating capacity, and current status. It’s good to see that many of the theatres are operational, either as live venues, cinemas, or adapted for community use. A few, sadly, have been demolished.

A number of the venues featured are the work architects best known for their major city theatres. Charles N. Hollinshed, for example, who worked on Melbourne’s Comedy, the Maj 1934 interior, the Auditorium and the Village, Toorak, also designed the now-demolished Corio Theatre in Geelong, the Princess in Launceston and the 1570-seat Regent in Palmerston North, New Zealand, which is reminiscent of his concept for the Comedy. Another prolific theatre architect, Henry Eli White, remembered for his work on Melbourne’s Palace, Princess, Athenaeum and Palais theatres and Sydney’s State and much-lamented Regent, is also credited with Newcastle’s elegant Civic, Townsville’s Winter Garden and the Theatre Royal in Timaru, New Zealand.

Most of the venues date from the Twenties and Thirties, but there are some surprisingly early survivors, such as Her Majesty’s, Ballarat (1875), the Australia in Orange, NSW (1886), and the Gaiety in Zeehan, Tasmania (1898). The most recent is the multi-purpose Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs (1984). It’s built on the site of the Alice’s first aerodrome (1939) and incorporates some of the original buildings.

Somewhat bizarrely, we can thank the COVID lockdown for Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand. It was CATHS’ way of compensating members for the suspension of their regular Sunday morning get-togethers at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville. Most of the images have been provided by CATHS members and are now preserved in the vast CATHS archive, which is housed at the Prahran Mechanics Institute.

Significant Country Theatres of Australia and New Zealand is a quality production and, at only $20 (postage included), it’s extremely good value.

For details of how to obtain a copy, visit the CATHS website:

Wednesday, 03 March 2021

Mystery Portrait by Joan Scardon

Scardon smlThis haunting portrait is the work of Joan Scardon, whose inventive costume designs for Ernest C. Rolls' 1935 revues are featured in my recent book Hanky-Panky, the story of maverick producer Rolls and his wife, revue artiste Jenny Benson.

Joan was the daughter of Melbourne-born Hollywood-based film director Paul Scardon (real name William James Raper). She was born in the US in 1913, but in the mid 1930s she lived in Melbourne, studying art and performing with expressionist dancer Sonia Revid. In 1941 she became the second wife of eminent Russian-American violinist and conductor Mishel Piastro. She died in New York in 2003, aged 90.

Joan's step daughter, Leslie Piastro Askwith, who generously made Joan's original costume designs available for reproduction in the book, is keen to establish the identity of the person in the portrait, which she thinks dates from Joan's time in the artistic milieu of mid-1930s Melbourne.

 Any ideas, theories or suggestions will be very welcome!

In February 2020 demolition of the Palace Theatre commenced and now all that stands is the building’s façade which is to be incorporated into a new development. With this act of vandalism, Melbourne loses another part of its theatre history. FRANK VAN STRATEN explores the long, colourful history of a much-missed Melbourne entertainment venue in this updated version of a series of articles that appeared in the THA magazine On Stage, 2000-2001.

Few melburnians are aware of the long, colourful theatrical history of the building that once stood at the top of Bourke Street that, in the recent past, was known as the Melbourne Metro Nightclub and the Palace.

The building dated from 1912, when it was opened by James Brennan, a Sydney-based bookmaker and boxing promoter turned vaudeville entrepreneur. In 1906 Manchester-born Brennan had transformed his ‘National Sporting Club’—a Castlereagh Street boxing stadium—into ‘Brennan’s National Amphitheatre’, offering local vaudeville acts at rock-bottom prices, in competition with Harry Rickards’ higher class bills at the Tivoli, almost next door. The following year he extended his interests to Melbourne, leasing the Gaiety Theatre in the Palace Hotel complex in Bourke Street.

Brennan’s success in Melbourne encouraged him to build his own theatre. His float of a public company with 100,000 £1 shares was oversubscribed by £35,000. He acquired a 1454 square metre site at 20 Bourke Street, just around the corner from the Princess Theatre in Spring Street, and a couple of blocks up the hill from Melbourne’s other Vaudeville houses, the Tivoli, the Bijou and the Gaiety. From 1860 to 1900 the Excelsior Hotel occupied this site. Its successor, the Douglas Hotel, was destroyed by fire in 1911.

Brennan’s Amphitheatre

Brennan’s new building boasted an elaborate three-storey Art Nouveau style façade, dominated by a huge semi-circular stained-glass window at second storey level. This was flanked by jolly illuminated clown figures. The façade was topped by a large plaster mask-like face. Behind the façade were the theatre’s foyers and lounges, with a basement underneath. At the rear, the stage and dressing room section rose to four stories. On the west side of the building, on a separate title, was a three-storey ‘attachment’ containing two flats, built over the first section of a dog’s leg right-of-way that led from Bourke Street via Harwood Place to Little Bourke Street. Exits from the east side of the auditorium opened into L-shaped Turnbull Alley, which led to Spring Street. The scenery access was located at the upstage opposite-prompt corner of the stage, adjacent to the stage door and the stairways that led to the dressing rooms. Backstage access was from a narrow, semi-private and apparently un-named lane running from Little Bourke Street, east of Harwood Place.

The Bulletin reported that the new auditorium was simply a plain white room with a single raked floor of seating, and a small balcony at the rear. The theatre could accommodate seating for ‘2000 people any night they care to pay the price of admission. The cost of the building is set down at £32 000 and none of the money was wasted on interior decoration. The balcony is placed as in the buildings where the cinematograph unwinds itself eternally, but whether this is accepted as an improvement on the old horseshoe brand of gallery there is no means of knowing yet. Up to the present Jim and Liz merely look upon it as a novelty.’

The Argus covered the opening night, Easter Saturday, 6 April 1912: ‘The building is in excellent taste, the white interior being unrelieved except by the electric blue of the covered chairs. The star attraction is Prince Charles, ‘the almost man’. Prince Charles attracted a remarkable amount of curiosity in Sydney recently, and will no doubt be a decided draw at the amphitheatre [the prince was, in fact, a superbly trained chimp]. Johnson and Wells, American singers and dancers, appeared with success; and George Stephenson’s Wanderers, a musical comedy costume troupe, will certainly have a long run. Interesting lightning-change turns were provided by Miss Eva Mudge, who has recently appeared in London with success. Miss Maud Courtney, a serio-comic artist from the Palace, London, gave some pleasing songs. Mr Maurice Chenoweth, a tenor, sang with some success and ‘Mr C.’ was appreciated as a raconteur.’ ‘Mr C.’ was the husband of Miss Courtney; he later found fame as Finlay Currie, a respected character actor in British movies.

The National Amphitheatre

Brennan’s regime at his new Amphitheatre lasted exactly one night! Monday’s papers carried advertisements indicating that the theatre was now under the management of Brennan’s rival, Benjamin Fuller, to whom Brennan had sold his circuit: ‘The new National Amphitheatre, a family resort, appealing and catering to every class of the community, as Vaudeville does in the United States and England. The whole world ransacked for your pleasure. Artistic acts of merit drawn from everywhere. Nothing too good for the National Amphitheatre, with popular prices, comfortable seating, perfect acoustic properties and ventilation. Having made you welcome and comfortable, The Play’s The Thing’.

Though occasionally the Amphitheatre had drawcards like musical comedy star Carrie Moore and, in December 1912, a rare indoor season by the E.I. Cole’s Bohemian Dramatic Company, most of its bills were pedestrian, especially in comparison to the starry offerings at its Vaudeville rival, the Tivoli. Patronage was disappointing and soon silent films, for which the venue’s austere interior was more suitable, replaced live performers.

The Palace Theatre

In 1916 the Fullers engaged architect Henry E. White, FIA, FNZIA, and interior decorator H.J. Hawkinson to convert the building into ‘The Grandest and Most Up-to-Date Theatre in Melbourne’. White, a New Zealander, was a noted theatre specialist, responsible for dozens theatres and cinemas in Australia and his homeland.

The reworked theatre was to be known as the Palace, in line with a ‘sister’ house in Sydney. The three-level interior was reminiscent of the Grand Opera House in Sydney, which White had recently refurbished, and the Majestic in Newtown, which he designed in 1917, would be virtually the Palace’s twin. The dress circle and gallery were supported on only two slim columns, one behind the other—a vast improvement on earlier theatres, such as the New Opera House (Tivoli) of 1901, which were marred by forests of pillars. The gallery boasted padded and backed seats. On either side of the proscenium White placed six boxes and above it a classical-style relief depicting musicians. The décor was said to be in the style of Louis XVI. The stage had a counterweight system permitting up to 13 backdrops to be changed swiftly. The remodelling was reported to have cost £20 000.

The Argus reported: ‘A new theatre, the Palace, opened on Saturday [4 November 1916] with one of those musical comedy mixtures known as revues. The building, formerly known as the Amphitheatre, has been transformed into a luxurious, modern theatre, with stalls, dress circle and upper circle, providing accommodation for 1700 people. The decoration has been tastefully done in brown and gold, and the Palace has been made one of the most comfortable and attractive theatres in the city. The opening bill, a happy, snappy musical comedy of school life entitled The Flirting Widow comprises singing, dancing, choruses and comic business in the approved revue fashion. It was a bright, jolly medley, with some good comic situations in it.’

The Palace existed on a diet of revue, drama and, occasionally, films. From 1917 Ben and John Fuller’s Dramatic Players, headed by Nellie Bramley and Austen Milroy, presented extended seasons of weekly-change lurid melodrama—pieces like When London Sleeps, A Lady of Twilight and In a Man’s Grip.

In April 1922 English favourite Ada Reeve starred at the Palace in the London revue Spangles. She reminisced: ‘How we broke the long-run record for musical productions in Melbourne is part of theatrical history. The Palace Theatre was then by no means as attractive as it later became. It had for years been associated with Fullers’ stock melodrama at cheap prices, and it was usually referred to in terms of the deepest disrespect, even by the roughest of its galleryites. The extraordinary popularity of the show in that unfavourable environment exploded all preconceived theories. It was at the time, I think, the only revue that had really caught on in Melbourne.’

The [New] Palace Theatre

Early in 1923 White was back, this time to redecorate the auditorium and foyers in what had become his ‘trademark’ Adam style, used a short time before for the much admired refurbishment of the neighbouring Princess Theatre. A huge stained-glass illuminated dome dominated the elegant new lobby. The Age reported that ‘Practically the whole of the space above the entrance is to be converted into a dress circle foyer. Opening off the foyer there will be a ladies’ lounge and a gentlemen’s smoking room. Similar apartments are to be provided on the ground floor for the use of stalls patrons. The auditorium is to be remodelled, and the present boxes will be replaced by others in which an elaborate scheme of decorative glass will be incorporated. For the walls and ceiling a Louis XI [sic] decorative scheme is now being designed. For the seating, upholstery fabric and art curtains of a rich ochre gold colour purchased in England by Mr Hugh J. Ward will be used. The colour scheme of the interior decoration has been plotted to conform to this tone’.

The Age also announced that ‘an imposing front in which a large copper awning and an artistic frieze of glass and metal will be prominent is to be put in. This front will embrace the present entrance and one of the adjoining shops.’ Though this exterior work was not undertaken, the designs are preserved in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

In its coverage of the reopening on 31 March 1923, the Argus reported: ‘As soon as the pantomime ended large bands of workmen took possession of the former Palace Theatre, stripped most parts of it to the brick, and in other parts left far less than that. On Saturday night [31 March 1923] playgoers found themselves in a beautiful new theatre. It was worthy to be a companion house to the Princess, which Mr White had transformed a few months before. The architect has improved considerably on his own alterations of six years before. The general effect is light and spacious. This has been aided by removing the 12 boxes of the older type, and substituting four open ones. The auditorium has some general resemblance to that of the Princess in the placing of the boxes and the illumination of the proscenium, but there are variations of detail, and the period chosen is Louis XV [sic]. Some of the arrangements on Saturday night were temporary. There will be different ornamental glass in the proscenium, and drapings and carpets will be varied in accordance with the general scheme of shades of orange, with occasional touches of blue. There is a fine curtain of old gold. As at the Princess, the uniforms of the attendants are part of the colour arrangement. One of the new features is a spacious foyer, with great doors forming a wall of glass. These may be thrown open for coolness, to give admittance to a balcony overlooking the street. Novel and artistic lighting arrangements have been provided.’

At that time the Palace and the Princess were both under the management of Hugh J. Ward Theatres—a partnership between Ward and Sir Ben and John Fuller. Though they were oriented in opposite directions, the theatres’ stages were virtually side-by-side. A passageway and stairway led up from the prompt side of the Princess’ understage to a door that opened onto the narrow lane that ran behind the Palace’s rear wall, not far from the latter’s stage door. This is the origin of the legendary ‘tunnel’ that was said to allow performers to appear in shows in both theatres; in fact, it was designed more for the two theatres to share backstage personnel.

Hugh J. Ward stated that his ‘inspiring objective’ was to present ‘Perfect Plays in Perfect Playhouses—such as the New Princess (‘The Theatre Beautiful’) and the New Palace (‘The House Exquisite’)’ His productions would be presented in ‘an atmosphere of ornate yet refined luxury’. Further, ‘One result of the Great Renaissance has been the shifting of Melbourne’s Theatrical Hub. The centre of gravity is now and for all time definitely fixed in Spring Street and the east end of Bourke Street. This will give the locality the same international prestige as is now accorded to the West End of London and Broadway in New York.’

The first attraction in ‘in the Second Pearl in the Lustrous Girdle with which Mr Hugh J. Ward is to adorn the Australian Stage’ was the contemporary mystery thriller Bulldog Drummond, with English import G.H. Mulcaster in the title role. After this Australian sisters Lorna and Toots Pounds starred in the revue Rockets, followed by the great Australian musical comedy star Dorothy Brunton, first in a farce called Tons of Money, and then as Silverbell in Mother Goose, the pantomime for Christmas 1923. Frank Neil directed, and thus started his long connection with the Palace.

The distinguished British actor-manager-playwright Seymour Hicks and his wife, Ellaline Terris, began an Australian tour at the Palace on 23 February 1924 in The Man in Dress Clothes, a French comedy that Hicks had adapted and produced. Their repertoire also included Sleeping Partners, Scrooge, The Love Habit and Old Bill, MP. Hicks later wrote that ‘all Australian theatres are very fine. Most of them are on the large side, which is bad of course for the playing of intimate comedy, but some of them are far finer than those in the English provinces, and a few more than hold their own with a number of our London houses. Australians have a virile and healthy theatre habit like the really splendid London audiences of twenty-five years ago, when playgoers thought more of the piece they were going to see than the dinner they were eating.’

The American lawyer-turned-illusionist Carter the Great played the Palace in 1924, as well as Allan Wilkie and his peripatetic Shakespeareans and the Midnight Frolics revue company led by Eric Edgley and Clem Dawe in January 1925.

In 1925 actor-manager Frank Neil, in partnership with Maurice Tuohy, leased the Palace for a season of melodrama. Poor houses forced them to turn to farce. They opened with Charley’s Aunt and developed a repertoire of perennial audience-pleasers like Are You a Mason? and The Nervous Wreck. Neil and his company toured widely but returned again and again to the Palace over the next few years. On 26 December 1925 the Palace welcomed The Music Box Revue, with its mainly forgettable Irving Berlin score supplemented by the evergreen ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’.

1926 brought Chefalo, an Italian-born magician, and an obscure British musical called Our Liz, which had lasted only one week when it had premiered in London. The Australian production was notable only for the rare appearance of dramatic actor Nellie Bramley in a singing role.

In 1927 the indefatigable actor-manager Kate Howarde, famous for her play Possum Paddock, presented its successor, Gum Tree Gully, and Philip Lytton, best known for the dramas that his company toured under canvas, produced a stage version of The Sheik, adapted from the same novel that had given Rudolph Valentino his greatest role.

Early in 1928 entrepreneur Stuart O’Brien leased the Palace for a season of plays including the classic American comedy Three Live Ghosts. November brought the farce When Knights Were Bold presented by Richard White and Eric Edgley. In mid 1929 Gladys Moncrieff and her husband, Tom Moore, decided to invest a substantial amount of the money Gladys had earned in Rio Rita in their own production company. With cavalier disregard for superstition, Gladys Moncrieff and Tom Moore Productions debuted at the Palace on 13 June 1929 with ‘a sensational play of the air’, The Zeppelin Terror. The ‘Terror’ of the title was apparently Mr Moore’s invention, as the piece had played on Broadway—albeit briefly—as merely Zeppelin. This was followed in August with a ‘chilling, thrilling, killing mystery’, The Gorilla. The venture failed. Gladys and her husband lost everything, including their marriage. So bitter for her was the experience that Glad failed to mention it in her autobiography.

As the introduction of ‘talkies’ started to seriously erode audiences for live theatre, management of the Palace passed from one sub-lessee to another. In October 1929 the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Depression made things even more difficult. Towards the end of 1929 Gregan McMahon transferred his repertory company from the Bijou to the Palace with some success, as the Bulletin noted: ‘McMahon’s counterblast to the talkies is prospering marvellously at the Palace. The house was full of students of the intellectual drama.’ McMahon was still in residence with A Message From Mars when the Fuller management announced its capitulation to the new medium: their theatres would be ‘wired for sound’. As soon as McMahon’s season closed on 14 December the electricians moved in.

Advertisements on Boxing Day, 1929, announced ‘An auspicious event in talking picture presentation: Opening today, the sensation of the Talking Screen, Radio Pictures’ masterpiece Street Girl, the 100 per cent Singing, Talking and Musical Production headed by Betty Compson. In choosing the Palace for their initial talking pictures presentation Sir Benjamin and John Fuller did so with the knowledge of the intimacy and proportions of architectural design that will bring perfection in sound reproduction.’ The Palace weathered the Depression by remaining a cinema until 1931. It reopened on 31 October 1931 with an Ernest C. Rolls revue called, hopefully, Bright Side Up with Gus and Fred Bluett and Jennie Benson. They also starred in the next revue, The League of Happiness.

In April 1932 Nellie Bramley commenced a 67-week run of weekly-change drama. Her profit of £2000 was ‘absorbed in paying off old losses’. In 1933 the illusionist Chefalo was back. On 23 September that year Frank Neil opened a revue called Pleasure Bound starring the celebrated male impersonator Ella Shields (‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’). George Wallace joined the troupe three weeks into the run.

In May 1934 Francis W. Thring presented his Efftee Players, including Ada Reeve and a youngster called Coral Brown (no final ‘e’ back then!), in Christa Winsloe’s disturbing anti-Hitler play Children in Uniform. Directed by Gregan McMahon, this was a transfer from the Garrick Theatre in South Melbourne. After this the Palace welcomed back illusionist Carter the Great, on the last of his many visits to Australia. It was a disaster. Charles Waller remembered: ‘I saw him at a matinee when, with circle and gallery closed, the entire audience was strung along the centre aisle of the stalls. Being the trouper that he was, he went through the entire show with all his old ease and smoothness of manner. He died in Bombay two years later.’


To be concluded in the next issue


Principal references

Katharine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

Seymour Hicks, Hello Australians, Duckworth, London, 1925

Shona Dunlop MacTavish, An Ecstasy of Purpose, Shona Dunlop MacTavish, Dunedin, 1987

Alison Gyger, Opera For the Antipodes, Currency Press, Sydney, 2000

Harry M. Miller, My Story, The Macmillan Company of Australia, South Melbourne, 1983

Elisabeth Kumm, ‘What’s in a Name?’ in CinemaRecord magazine, August 1995

Fred Page, ‘Metro Bourke Street’, in Kino magazine, September 1989

Philip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995

Ada Reeve, Take It For a Fact, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1954

Charles Waller, Magical Nights in the Theatre, Gerald Taylor, Melbourne, 1980

John West, Theatre in Australia, Cassell Australia, 1978


Programmes, clippings and research files in the Australia Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Additional information provided by Anna Kimba and Robyn Hoyland of Melbourne Metro Nightclub, John Bick, Dr Mimi Colligan, Graeme Haigh of Grajohn Genealogical Services, Sydney, Mrs Elaine Marriner, Martin Powell, David Ravenswood, the late Maurice Scott, the late John West, the late Alex Young.


Saturday, 06 June 2020

The Two Thomas Trap

With special thanks to Bill Egan.


Edna ThomasSir John Longstaff’s 1925 portrait of the singing Edna Thomas. On display at Castlemaine Art Gallery. From the collection of Clunes Museum.When I reviewed Bill Egan’s wonderful book African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A History, 1788-1941 for On Stage, I fell into the deadly Two Thomas trap: I mentioned that Bill had omitted Edna Thomas, ‘The Lady from Louisiana’, who made very successful concert tours of Australia in 1924 and 1925. It transpires that Bill was aware of this Edna’s Australian visit, but he omitted her from his book because he thought she was white. And he was right.

Like many other writers and historians, I assumed that this was the same Edna Thomas who enjoyed a long, notable career on the New York stage. Now, after relentless delving into dependable archives, Bill has determined that there were, remarkably, two virtually contemporaneous Edna Thomases, and that their careers have been confused and conflated by many eminent authorities.

The first was Edna Lewis Thomas. Born Edna Lewis in Lawrenceville, Virginia, on 1 November 1885, she was of mixed race, light skinned, and identified as African American. Around 1914 she married black talent manager Lloyd Carter Thomas and she became a noted actor in what was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Following her stage debut with the black theatre company the Lafayette Players in Turn to the Right (1920), her subsequent prestigious Broadway stage credits include Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ controversial ‘voodoo’ production of Macbeth (1936), Lavinia in Androcles and the Lion (1938), Sukey in Elia Kazan’s production of Harriet with Helen Hayes (1943), Mamie McIntosh in José Ferrer’s production of Strange Fruit (1945) and the Mexican Woman in Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a role she repeated in the 1951 film, her only screen appearance.

Edna supported her husband during the difficult Depression years, but from about 1930 she developed a lesbian relationship with Olivia Wyndham, an aristocratic British society photographer distantly related to Oscar Wilde. In 1930 Wyndham married a gay much-married British-American, Howland Spencer, though the marriage lasted barely a year. From then on, Edna, Lloyd and Olivia lived together in an apparently happy ménage à trois. Edna Carter Thomas died in New York City on 22 July 1974. She was 88.

Our second Edna Thomas was white. She was born Edna Alice Gery on 13 March 1888, in New Orleans, Louisiana—hence her billing as ‘The Lady from Louisiana’. She married Albert George Thomas in New Orleans on 30 October 1907. A mezzo-soprano, this Edna developed a large repertoire of ‘creole negro songs’ and ‘spirituals’. As she explained: ‘It was from my black mammy, Ninna, who reared me, that I first learned the negro spirituals. “Sperrituals” she calls them. She has been in our family so long that she insists that her name is Dare, same as my grandmother's, “Forginny Davis Dare is my name,” she says. From London last year I sent her a letter addressed “Miss Virginia Davis Dare, alias Ninna”, and she was mighty offended. “Oh, Mis’ Ella,” she said to my mother, “that alias is no good. Only criminals have dem aliases.”’

Successful forays to Great Britain in 1923 and 1924 culminated in a reported 12-week season at the London Coliseum. This was followed by her first Australian visit. She was brought to this country by J.C. Williamson’s, and although it was originally announced that she would appear on the Tivoli Circuit, which was then controlled by Williamson’s, she made her debut on a JCW variety bill at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal. On 15 September 1924 the Age reported: ‘The large audience at the Theatre Royal on Saturday night was treated to a delightful new turn. Edna Thomas, a pleasingly old-fashioned ‘lady from Louisiana’ received a remarkable reception. Her selections of plantation songs and negro spirituals, rendered in a rich contralto with the warm inflection of the Southern American States, were a great relief from the harsh jazz exhibitions, the usual offering, of her countrymen. Her quaint crinoline costume, reminiscent of the old colonial days, added the necessary atmosphere. The most pleasing item was a lullaby in the negro Creole patois.’

For reasons not yet established, Williamson’s presented Edna Thomas only in Melbourne. In Sydney she appeared not as part of a variety bill, but in concerts under the management of J.E. ‘Jack’ Brownlow. She made her Sydney debut at the Town Hall on 28 October 1924 in a concert broadcast by Radio 2FC. Most of Edna’s later Sydney concerts were presented in the Theosophical Society’s new Adyar Hall in Bligh Street, which had opened on 5 October (on 11 May 1929 the remodelled hall reopened as the Savoy Theatre). A farewell Adyar Hall recital on 13 December was so well attended that a ‘positively final’ second farewell followed two days later.

After this Edna returned to the United States, but only briefly. She was brought back by entrepreneur E.J. Carroll for a tour that started in Wellington, New Zealand, on 14 April 1925. She gave 45 concerts in New Zealand before her second visit to Australia, which opened with a recital at the Sydney Town Hall on 1 August 1925. Concerts in Melbourne (at the Athenaeum), Adelaide and several country centres followed. Even Melba was entranced. ‘I want everybody to go and hear her,’ she told the press. ‘She has a beautiful voice; rich and well-trained. Hers is the art that conceals art.’ The tour finished with a farewell concert in Sydney on 5 December 1925.

In 1933, in New York, singing Edna married for the second time. Her new husband was 58-year-old Warner Dare Huntington. After this, she appears to have retired from the concert platform. Details of her death are unknown. Her many records for the Columbia label attest to her artistry and several of her tracks—recorded almost a century ago—are now available on YouTube.

And to close the case, it’s recorded that in March 1925 the acting Edna was appearing with Paul Robeson at New York’s 52nd Street Theatre in revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and The Dreamy Kid, while the singing Edna was in San Francisco, from whence, on 20 March, she sailed for Wellington in the Maunganui.

As Bill notes: ‘Basically this new research clearly establishes that the Edna Thomas who performed in Australia was white and therefore not eligible for coverage in my book. Once this is established some other things fall into place, such as why the extensive biographical material on Edna Lewis Thomas in sources such as the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press’s Harlem Renaissance Lives, and Bruce Kellner’s Dictionary of the Harlem Renaissance make no reference to her as a singer of spirituals (of course, she wasn’t!).

‘While I am pleased that is now cleared up, I am a little bit disappointed it obviates the need for an article explaining why a prominent African American performer was passing for white in Australia and New Zealand in 1924-1925.’


theatre programmes 

When I was seven my parents took me to my first ‘live’ show. It was a matinee of a 1943 revival of the old musical White Horse Inn at His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. That afternoon I fell under the spell of ‘live’ theatre. Afterwards, at home, I pored over the programme. I read every word. I was intrigued by its format: a tall two-colour leaflet, 29 x 4 cm, that unfolded to become a single sheet, 29 x 44 cm, containing details of the show, its various scenes, the cast list, and advertisements for sophisticated hair products and expensive liquor. It was unpretentious, flimsy, easily torn and, I decided, well worth saving.

Some months later I went to another show. This time it was a pantomime at the Tivoli—and I took home a second program for preservation. It was subtly different from the one for White Horse Inn. I noticed a coarser paper, less sophisticated typography, more garish colours. And the advertisements were for tonic pills, introduction agencies and a strange unguent called Mercolized Wax.

Then a friend of my parents gave me a totally different type of programme—a handsome booklet, in magazine format, for a show at the Maj in the pre-war years. It was much more elaborate, its full-colour cover and glossy paper reflecting less austere times. The advertisements were for holidays, radiograms and smart cars. As the years went on I collected more and more. I treasured the programmes from every show I saw and I searched for others in second-hand shops. Soon I had hundreds. Now I have thousands!

I started to research the history of the theatre programme. I found that in 1737 some London managements started to print small playbills for display outside their theatres and inside nearby coffee houses. In 1850 playbills were distributed free to members of the audience at London’s Olympic Theatre. Thirteen years later the St James’s theatre published the first magazine format program. It included a cast list, notes on the play, transport information, and advertisements.

The earliest surviving Australian playbill dates from 1796. An unpretentious but precious little document only 20 x 12 cm, it promotes a performance of Jane Shore, ‘a popular drama of sin and redemption’, at ‘The Theatre, Sydney’ on 30 July 1796. Its survival is remarkable. For many years it lay forgotten, lodged between the pages of a scrapbook of unrelated material held in a library in Canada. After it was accidentally discovered in 2007 the Canadian government presented it to the people of Australia. It is not only our oldest playbill, it is the oldest example of Australian printing, the work our first printer, convict George Hughes. In 2011 it was recognised by UNESCO as a document of world significance.

The playbill has been digitised and can be viewed through the National Library’s catalogue.[1] It is also the subject of an engaging and beautifully designed little book, The Playbill and its People. Written by the National Library’s Gillian Russell, it was published by the NLA in 2011. Sadly, it appears to be out of print.

In nineteenth-century Australia, theatre managements usually relied on independently produced programmes in the style of a small four-page newspaper. The principal Melbourne ones were The Programme, The Call, The Lorgnette and L’Entr’Acte. Sydney had Our Amusements and Adelaide The Electric Spark. They included cast lists, theatrical gossip, reviews, and plenty of advertising. They were printed cheaply on poor quality paper that more than a century later is yellowed and brittle, and they are now extremely rare.

L’Entre’Acte was published in Melbourne from 1861 to 1874 and in Sydney from 1868 to 1892 by printers Azzoppardi, Hildreth and Co. Its main opposition was The Lorgnette, published in Melbourne by theatrical agent James J. Liddy. Its background has been researched by Clay Djubal for his Australian Variety Theatre Archive website. He explains, ‘The Lorgnette was circulated around Melbourne theatres between 1876 and 1898. Each theatre would have its own special edition, with the front page featuring a cast list for its current production.’ Later Liddy ran the Gaiety Theatre in Brisbane. He died there in 1891.[2]

Also rare are the delicate silk programmes produced for gala performances.

The ubiquitous New York Playbill debuted in 1884. Originally called The Playbill, it is basically a pocket-sized monthly magazine in various editions, each devoted to a particular show, with a cover and centre pages devoted to that show. Now operating nation-wide and reportedly an extremely profitable enterprise, Playbill distributes its programmes free to theatre patrons and relies on their advertising content for its revenue. Its vast archives have been developed to become an extremely comprehensive, freely available database of New York theatre.[3]

From 1900 the leading theatrical printer in Australia was Syd Day. One of the most charismatic figures on the fringe of the Australian entertainment industry, Syd Day was born in East End poverty in London in 1867. Seeking a better life, he arrived in Australia in 1890. In Melbourne he established himself as a printer, using the sobriquet ‘Syd Day, The Printer’, and cleverly publicizing himself through appearances at ‘smoke nights’ singing the jaunty coster songs he had learned in London, and by competing, albeit with little success, in the cycle races that were then extremely popular. He also became an enthusiastic pioneer motorist, establishing several inter-city records. Among his close friends were retailer Sir Samuel Hordern and theatrical entrepreneur James Cassius Williamson.

In 1900 Williamson commissioned Day to produce an elaborate souvenir for the re-opening of his newly-acquired Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. From then on, Day printed programmes and posters for many theatres in both Melbourne and Sydney. He also printed the magazines The Lone Hand and The Theatre, and had a substantial financial interest in the latter. In 1908 he built an impressive three-storey printery at 103 Lonsdale Street, just around the corner from Her Majesty’s. Day was only 48 when he succumbed to meningitis in 1915, but the firm he established continued his tradition of innovative techniques and work of the highest quality.[4] His Melbourne printery now houses Bomba, a popular Spanish-themed eaterie and nightspot.

In the early twentieth century, Australian theatre programmes were distributed free and were often cheaply printed on poor paper. In 1920 managements decided to publish programmes in an upgraded format that they would sell to patrons for threepence. Not only were the new programmes better produced, they were sealed with a little sticker ‘to ensure freshness and hygiene’ and were ‘less likely to end their career of usefulness on the littered floor of the theatre’. The seal ensured that staff did not try to sell discarded programmes; it also reflected the emphasis on hygiene that followed the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919.

As the years rolled on, other printers moved into the field. There were firms specialising in theatrical printing in every state. One of the most prominent was Melbourne’s The Specialty Press Pty Ltd, founded in 1909 and steered by its dynamic managing director, Thomas Allan McKay.[5] In March 1919 McKay moved Specialty into a large building at 174 Little Collins Street. Designed in 1891 by a partnership including noted theatre architect William Pitt, it had been built to house a cyclorama and concert hall.

In 1921 McKay sidelined the remnants of the Syd Day firm by gaining the contract to print the programs for Fullers’ Melbourne Theatres and to sell advertising space in them. Soon after, he won the prized contract to provide the same service to J.C. Williamson’s. Specialty became an integral cog in the JCW machine and McKay and his wife were regular guests at the Firm’s first nights. By 1934 Specialty supported a workforce of more than one hundred, and its plant covered approximately 50,000 square feet. In 1953 its busy printery attracted a young apprentice, John Payne. More than half a century later he reminisced about his career at Specialty for an article in the Spring 2005 issue of On Stage. It’s accessible online, but here are a few extracts:

‘The JCW partnership was a long one. Phil Finkelstein and Charles Dearden, who looked after JCW publicity, were often seen in our factory. Phil spent a fair amount of his time on the premises. He was a very courteous man, always nodding or saying hello as he passed. The company was printing programmes for South Pacific when I started, and I was put on a large press that printed the text pages for the programs in black and white. Many of the full-page adverts were for the same clients from programme to programme.

‘I moved to the small machine pressroom that printed the covers for the programmes. The cover for Paint Your Wagon was about my first. I enjoyed the colour mixing and register printing.

‘The initial cover for Can-Can, the Cole Porter musical at Her Majesty’s, was quite colourful, with a hand drawn illustration of a lady in frilly knickers kicking her leg up in the air. The design only survived for that one performance. There was resentment to the cover design. The next day the programmes were returned to have a new cover attached.

‘One of my most satisfying cover prints was the three-colour process cover for the programme for the Margot Fonteyn season with the Borovansky Ballet. It comprised yellow, magenta, and cyan process screens. By the time My Fair Lady opened at Her Majesty’s I had moved on into the large pressroom and scored the prestigious task of printing the text pages for the souvenir programme.[6]

‘Up to the mid-1950s Mr McKay would go for a walk through the factory, always saying hello to every person who looked his way.

‘In 1959, when Specialty Press packed up to make the move to their new factory at Blackburn Road, North Clayton, tea chests full of theatre programmes sent to the waste-paper recycling. At that time, of course, there was no Performing Arts Collection. I would have loved to have had the opportunity of looking through them. I now have made ‘a hobby of collecting them.’

T. Allan McKay died in 1961. Specialty, which held the Australian rights to the Hallmark greeting card range, eventually became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kansas-based parent company. Specialty’s Little Collins Street premises were recycled as Georges Hostess Store and, more reecently, The Georges, a complex of shops and forty smart apartments.

A revolution in Australian theatre programme production was heralded by a tiny notice in the programme for the revue Femmes and Furs at the Sydney Tivoli in October 1958. It announced that ‘This programme published by Neblich Publicity, PO Box 88, Redfern’.

Neblich was formed by Brian Nebenzahl, a top salesman for Chas E. Blanks, the theatre screen advertising contractors, and Lance Peters (his real name was Peter Lichtenstein), a singer, writer, comedian and disc jockey. Co-incidentally both men had gone to Sydney’s Scots College with Lloyd Martin. In March 1958, following the death of his father, David N. Martin, Lloyd had taken over the Tivoli’s Sydney operations.

In 1988 I chatted with Lloyd and asked him about the switch. He told me that Peters had worked for a while in the publicity department at the Sydney Tivoli. ‘He always managed to upset the artistes because he did the billing according to the way he liked the acts and not according to their contracts. My father couldn't cope with this, so when Peters auditioned as a singer he got the job! Producing the programme was always a headache so when Peters came to me and said that Brian wanted to publish our program I couldn't talk to him quickly enough! So we gave Brian the contract to publish the Sydney Tivoli programmes, and he soon adopted the name Playbill. Then we gave him Melbourne too. Peters dropped out of the scene and became a writer. Brian worked on Williamson’s for years and finally got them as well.’ Playbill’s first JCW programme was for Maurice Chevalier’s season at Sydney’s Empire Theatre in March 1960. The Sydney season of My Fair Lady was next.

In an interview with Frank Hatherley for Stage Whispers magazine, Brian confessed to appropriating the name Playbill from the US firm that had been printing theatre programmes since the 1880s.[7]

‘I really knocked their name off,’ he told Hatherley. ‘We’ve got it registered throughout Asia, the United Kingdom, South Africa. Their words to me were, “as long as you don’t get into our cabbage patch we don’t care.” When we publish in America we call ourselves Platypus Productions, a good Aussie name.’

Australia’s Playbill went from strength to strength. It has been the leader in Australian programme publishing and theatrical merchandising for over sixty years and now works with most of this country's subsidised performing arts companies and commercial entrepreneurs. At its headquarters at Moore Park, Playbill has its own editorial office, art studio and printing presses. In a nice example of events turning full circle, after he retired as head of the Sydney Opera House, Lloyd Martin became a consultant for Playbill. He died in 2005.

Playbill is still a family business, with Brian Nebenzahl as executive chairman, his son Michael as managing director and Michael’s wife, Jocelyn, as editorial director. In 1998 Brian Nebenzahl was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the publishing industry and the community.

Theatre programmes are fun to collect. You can choose specific themes: a particular theatre or theatre company; a specific period; an individual playwright or performer. You’ll find an eleven-year-old Zoe Caldwell playing Slightly in a 1944 production of Peter Pan, long before she became a bright star on Broadway. And the dancing children in the 1957 production of Peter Pan included Kelvin Coe, destined to become one of this country’s greatest dancers.

Mainstream opera and ballet programmes are easy to find and are often packed with attractive illustrations and useful historical information. Some programs turn up with monotonous frequency. It seems everybody kept their programmes from the original My Fair Lady! Conversely, some are frustratingly hard to find. The Australian Performing Group, working at the Pram Factory in Melbourne in the 1970s, changed the face of local theatre. Their programmes are historic documents but are rarely seen. Particularly collectible are programmes from entertainment presented during the 1956 Olympic Games, and from the first seasons of landmark productions like Hair and The Rocky Horror Show. Programmes from Dame Nellie Melba’s opera and concert appearances are valuable, as are programmes from Anna Pavlova’s dance seasons in the 1920s. Programmes from the Laurence Olivier–Vivien Leigh Old Vic tour of 1948 are certainly collectable. Their covers are the work of Loudon Sainthill, an Australian who had a distinguished international career as a stage designer. You will find other notable artists represented on program covers: Kenneth Rowell, William Constable, Norman and Lionel Lindsay, for instance.

 One of the annoyances facing collectors is the lack of dates on many programmes. It’s usually not difficult to track down a date, using online tools such as AusStage and Trove. If you find a ‘yearless’ date such as ‘Saturday 14 May’ a perpetual calendar will help you. There are several online. And remember to make a note of the date you saw a show, possibly keeping the ticket stub along with the programme.

Autographs give programmes extra value. It’s worth getting your programme autographed by the stars, or even the whole cast. You can usually leave your copy at the theatre’s stage door with an appropriate note, and collect it later.

You can find old programmes in some second-hand bookshops and at collectors’ fairs, and there are many offered online through sites such as eBay. You may even find other collectors with whom you can exchange your duplicates. Keep your programmes in acid-free plastic sleeves, filed in an appropriate way. You’ll find that they’ll bring you years of collecting pleasure—and they’ll settle lots of arguments about who was in what, where and when.

This is an adaptation of an article originally published in The World of Antiques and Art, July–December 1999.


  4. The Sun (Sydney), 31 October 1915
  5. Dennis Bryans, ‘Customers and others I am responsible for’: Thomas Allan McKay, printer, publisher and entrepreneur, La Trobe Journal, issue 99, March 2017
  7. Stage Whispers, November–December 2012
Page 2 of 4