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The Kings Theatre
(The New King's. The Barclay , Russell Cinemas, Greater Union City Cinemas)
Address: 131 Russell Street, Melbourne
Stage melodrama, classical drama, concerts, operas, musicals, ballets, vaudeville, revues, pantomimes, circuses, motion pictures from silents to sound to multi-cinema complex - no other entertainment site in Melbourne has offered quite as much variety as this.
Left: One of William Pitt's designs for the Kings. Picture Collection, SLV
The first theatre built here was the King's, designed by the noted theatrical architect William Pitt Jnr, who also retained a financial interest in the property. This 'Drury Lane of Australia' was a three-level house consisting of stalls, dress circle and gallery to seat a total of 2200. Decorated in a style dubbed 'modern French Renaissance', it was built in 1908 in just over five months at a cost of more than £32,000. Three arched entrances led into a vestibule with a black and white marble floor, a tricolored marble dado and a dress circle staircase of solid white marble.
'The auditorium is large, but compact and symmetrical looking. The colour scheme is mainly a study in blue and gold, the blue predominating. The drop curtain is of royal blue, with a pattern centrepiece worked in gold. Above the curtain, and between it and the roof, is a representation of a goddess in the Grecian style. Handsomely carved and interlaid pillars run from platform to roof, on either side of the stage; while, perched above the pillars and wearing an infantile expression of quite unusual joyousness ... are white cupids with outstretched wings. The boxes, of which there are four, are tastefully ornamented', The Age of 13 July 1908 commented.
Left: Eugenie Duggan.From the collection of a THA member.
The Argus of 8 July 1908 noted: 'Sliding roofs have been introduced over the stage and the back gallery, as well as over the auditorium... The stage is particularly capacious. At the back is the scene-dock, double-paint frame, property-rooms, carpenter's shop, and limelight-room. Dressing-rooms and wardrobes run for the whole four stories of the building on the right-hand side of the stage. The electric light switchboard and dimmers are placed on the stage gallery, and from this position the whole of the 3000 odd lights are controlled.'
Also reckoned an innovation at the time was a 'ladies' retiring-room' for gallery patrons and the fact that all but the topmost gallery seats had backs to them. Galleryites got no vestibule, however, and had to climb stairs to their seats from lanes on either side of the theatre building.
The King's was built specifically to house the company of successful entrepreneur William Anderson after he had been outbid for a lease on the Theatre Royal. He took a seven-year lease on the King's and opened it on 11 July 1908 with a sensation melodrama called Man To Man. The sensations included a prison breakout and a train wreck with burning carriages and injured passengers.
Anderson's wife, Eugenie Duggan, was the star of the show and the company also included her brother, Edmund Duggan, and Bert Bailey - collaborative playwrights under the pen-name of Albert Edmunds.
Left Promotional postcard for The great Rescue. Private Collection
Melodramas staged by Anderson were often set in Australian locales and his past successes included revivals of Robbery Under Arms, For the Term of His Natural Life and Bailey and Duggan's 1907 collaboration, The Squatter's Daughter.
English actor Roy Redgrave, forebear of the distinguished Redgrave acting dynasty, joined the company as star of The Man From Outback, another Albert Edmunds melodrama which had its premiere here on 1 May 1909.
Bland Holt, 'King of Australian Melodrama', gave the Anderson company some respite when he staged The Great Rescue at the King's from 9 October 1909. The play climaxed with a race between an automobile and an express train and was the opening attraction of Holt's last ever season before retiring from management.
Left: Anderson catering to racist tastes in 1909. SLV
Anderson's company returned on 4 December with an atypical venture into classical theatre: Hamlet, with Walter Bentley and Eugenie Duggan, which The Age praised as 'a scholarly and well thought out piece of work', also noting that the theatre had enjoyed eighteen months of 'prosperous existence'.
After a Babes in the Wood end-of-year pantomime, melodrama again predominated in 1910 with additions to the company including Nellie Bramley and Olive Wilton and new works such as The Winning Ticket, first performed on 10 September. The highlight of this racing melodrama by Anderson and Temple Harrison was a depiction of the Melbourne Cup with eight live horses running on a stage treadmill against a revolving scenic backcloth.
Anderson's luck ran out in 1911 when the failure of his Sydney funfair enterprise, Wonderland City, eventually forced him to assign the remainder of his lease on the King's to Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan. Together with business manager Julius Grant they formed a management company which controlled the theatre for the next two decades.
Left Sheet music publicising the play. SLV
Nevertheless, Anderson's dramatic company continued as the main attraction at the King's; their efforts were interspersed with seasons by the still popular Maggie Moore, and Bert Bailey's own company. Bailey gave his and Duggan's most enduring work, On Our Selection, its Melbourne premiere on 14 September 19I2. Bailey was forever after identified with his characterisation of Dad Rudd in this play, via numerous stage revivals and a series of Cinesound feature films made between 1932 and 1940.
The powerful J.C. Williamson company's first attraction at the King's was a three-week season of the opera Faust, from 19 April 1913. The rising entrepreneurial firm of J.& N. Tait, later to merge with Williamson's, was first associated with the King's when they presented an eight-night season by famous Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder from 30 July 1914.
At the other end of an entrepreneurial career was the once powerful George Musgrove, who presented Nellie Stewart in a play season concluding with Sweet Nell of Old Drury on 16 December 1914 - his last ever attraction.
Left: Nellie Stewart In Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Private Collection.
After a brief closure for some refurnishing and redecoration, the King's reopened with Bert Bailey and Julius Grant as sole lessees on 17 July 1915. Seasons by Bailey's company and Irish-American entertainer Allen Doone followed, while the highlight of 1916 was an eight-week season by Irish actress Sara Allgood in a popular comic play, Peg o' My Heart. Allgood had starred as Peg in London and was long associated with Dublin's Abbey Theatre. From 1940 she became a prominent Hollywood character player. Produced by the Tait brothers, Peg o' My Heart was their first venture into legitimate theatre and their success led them to eventual control of the J.C. Williamson organisation.
The Taits were the principal tenants of the Kings from 1917 onwards; their first attraction that year was a comedy called Turn to the Right whose cast included a young Judith (then billed as Francee) Anderson. A Jerome Kern musical, Very Good Eddie, starring British comedian Barry Lupino followed. This did very good business despite Lupino straining his shoulder during an energetic encore seven nights into the season. Sara Allgood returned for a second stint as Peg from 30 June and, after a Shakespearean season with British actor Ian Maclaren, Lupino starred with Bert Bailey in an Aladdin pantomime.
The year 1918 was almost as busy, with Taits' star importations including American stage actor Guy Bates Post in the sensational dramas The Masquerader and The Nigger, and English actress Emelie Polini starring in De Luxe Annie from 29 June.
Polini returned in Eyes of Youth in 1919, as did other Tait attractions Harry Lauder and Sara Allgood in their respective entertainments. Also of note that year was the Melbourne premiere of Kate Howarde's bush comedy Possum Paddock, which ran six weeks from 1 November, and a Mother Hubbard panto, with Barry Lupino and Jack Cannot, which played for 111 performances up to 24 March 1920 - the longest run at the King's to that date. American actress Maria Ilka was the star of Tiger Rose, which opened here on 27 March 1920, with fellow American C. Henry Gordon also in the cast.
Another Emelie Polini season followed, then came American comic character actor John D, O'Hara in Three Wise Fools from 14 August. In the middle of the Polini season, on 3 July 1920, the firm of J. & N. Tait formally amalgamated with J.C. Williamson's so that the O'Hara season became the first attraction of the allied management.
A two-part farewell season by celebrated British comic actress Marie Tempest was the highlight of 1921 and, although return seasons by O'Hara and Polini figured prominently in 1922, of greater local interest was the 7 October premiere of a stage version of C.J. Dennis' verse narrative, The Sentimental Bloke. The play was written by Dennis himself, produced by Bert Bailey and starred Walter Cornock; their efforts were rewarded with a ten-week run at the King's and equal success in Sydney.
The strength of the Williamson-Tait regime really became evident in 1923 when the King's was sublet by The Firm and began to house some of their most stellar importations. As well as returns by Harry Lauder and Emelie Polini, came British comic actor Lawrence Grossmith, then Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault. Between 3 August and 15 December this famous husband-and-wife team starred in a five-play season, beginning with Pinero's His House in Order and ending with the same author's The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
Right: Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault Jr. Punch
Star attractions of 1924 included tempestuous Australian-born Oscar Asche, beginning a season on 9 February with Othello; American actress Gertrude Elliot in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife from 25 March; and long-standing locally-popular Canadian-born Muriel Starr in The Garden of Allah from 29 June. Then came the return of Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault in a first Australian production of Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? On 25 October Guy Bates Post returned on 28 February 1925 with revivals of The Masquerader and The Nigger – during the run of which he offered prizes for the best essay on 'Keeping Australia White' as a 'practical demonstration of his sympathy with our White Australia'. Also that year came sterling American thespian Thurston Hall (in The Broken Wing from 11 July) and Maurice Moscovitch, one of The Firm's most popular dramatic artractions of the late 1920s, with his son, Nat (later Noel) Madison in The Great Lover from 29 August.
Left: Nellie Bramley. SLV
Local trouper Nellie Bramley returned as a star of popular plays from 17 October 1925; she was followed by Britain's Renee Kelly in Polly with A Past on 19 December. A Dion Boucicault company formed with the cooperation of J.M. Barrie presented a series of Barrie plays, beginning with Quality Street on 20 March 1926. Heading the casts were Brian Aherne, later a popular Hollywood leading man, and Angela Baddeley, whose later career also included films and television.
After this came actor-playwright Leon Gordon in his sensational masterwork, White Cargo, adapted from Vera Simonton's novel. This opened here on 26 June, was regularly revived locally up to the 1930s, and also spawned both English and American film versions. Although The Argus thought the play 'emphasises matters which are not fitted for stage treatment', the public flocked and it ran for seven weeks before transferring to the Royal.
A popular American comedy, Is Zat So?, arrived on 18 September. This starred Richard Taber (who wrote it with James Gleason); after a month this also transferred to the Royal. The year ended with return by the Boucicault company and Renee Kelly.
The year 1927 was equally busy with two seasons by Maurice Moscovitch, the return of Judith Anderson (now an established overseas stage star), who acted opposite Leon Gordon in Tea for Three and The Green Hat Another season by Dion Boucicault and Irene Vanbrugh began on 29 October, with a company that now included Hugh Williams in a season that included the first Melbourne production of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter.
Early in 1928 Hastings Lynn, brother of celebrated British farceur Ralph Lynn, starred in two famous Ben Travers farces, A Cuckoo in the Nest and Thark. Apart from seasons by Leon Gordon and Muriel Starr, the year also saw the return of William Anderson, who presented a new play, The Rudd Family, and an old melodrama, While London Sleeps, starring his daughter, Mary and his wife, Eugenie Duggan.
Anderson tried again in July 1929, but the time for stage melodrama had passed, with sound films now beginning to afflict all forms of live theatre. Anderson's season petered out after a few weeks and even the once great Nellie Stewart, whose revival of Sweet Nell of Old Drury had transferred from the Comedy on 11 May, had her next play, Trilby, 'deferred'.
Comedy and vaudeville entrepreneur, Frank Neil, had better luck with a Ziegfeld musical, Whoopee, which did twelve weeks from 31 August. He followed it with a revue called Clowns in Clover, which starred English impressionist Ann Penn, Roy Rene and Sadie Gale. The King's was completely reseated prior to the start of this season, which ran up to 17 January 1930.
With the combined effects of 'talkies' and the onset of the depression, the new decade proved the patchiest in the King's history. As most live theatres either closed or started showing sound films in the 1930s, it's quite surprising to find the King's persevering as a playhouse. In fact, it had run very occasional film programs since its earliest days – the first being a silent record of a Sydney boxing match, which screened for a week: from 29 August 1908.
Quite surprising too is the considerable number of overseas stars still imported to appear here. Although the 1930 offerings were mostly local, they included an Allan Wilkie season of Shakespeare, two musicals starring Edgely and Dawe, a last Leon Gordon season and Jim Gerald in a comic play called Little Accident.
Left: Flyer for 'talkie' .'OzMovies
Activities were halted by a fire which broke out in a backstage scene-dock soon after 9pm on 20 January 1931. The Age of 21 January described it as 'one of the most spectacular fires for several years' but a fireproof curtain prevented it from spreading to the auditorium. Although several firemen were injured by a collapsing ceiling, the bulk of the theatre was saved, with damage confined to the stage and the paint and scenery shops backstage.
J.C. Williamson's, now sub-lessee of the theatre, undertook the repairs for a cost of about £9,000. The Argus of 6 May 1931 reported the beginning of restorations: 'A new stage and new scenery and curtains will be provided, and it is probable that the auditorium will be redecorated. Mr Albion H. Walkley is the architect.'
The King's reopened on 25 July 1931 with Snapshots, the first of a series of George Marlow revues starring local vaudevillians Nat Phillips and Syd Beck. 'The auditorium has been redecorated, and has been washed an almost uniform cement gray. It looks better for the change', The Australasian of I August 1931 opined. 'That life-sized damsel with the too-heavy head of hair who is stepping from a shell over the proscenium remains in situ, and her clinging golden draperies have also been changed to gray.'
The Marlow company lasted until 15 August, then left the King's in darkness - apart from short seasons by the Gregan McMahon Players and some amateur groups. A J.C. Williamson-sponsored play, As Husbands Go, reopened the theatre on Boxing Day. The first night was enlivened by the filming in the auditorium of a scene for the Efftee talkie The Sentimental Bloke, with the stars of the film and F.T. Thring himself in the audience.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with British stars Margaret Rawlings and Barry K. Barnes, did well for the times with a nine-week run from 13 February 1932, but the dramatic highlight of the year was the visit by Dame Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. Their first twelve-week season began on 11 June with Thorndike's famous interpretation of Shaw's Saint Joan, and included productions of Medea and Macbeth. There was a three-week farewell' from 26 November, beginning with a first Melbourne professional performance of Ibsen's Ghosts.
Another famed British stage partnership arrived on 11 February 1933: Athene Seyler and Nicholas Hannen heading a London company that included John Longden (then making a name in British films) and Charlotte Francis. Their nine-week season of modern plays was followed by a ten-week season starring 'Dante', a Danish magician. Next came British stage and film actress Isobel Elsom in When Ladies Meet and Private Lives, then a week-long series of concerts by popular Australian baritone Peter Dawson.
Viennese actor Theo Shall and Australian musical star Josie Melville followed in a farce, Baby Mine, and another Australian-born musical star, Dorothy Brunton, partnered John Longden in a comedy-drama, Road House.
A series of musicals starring John Dudley, Sylvia Welling and Cecil Kellaway, beginning with The Student Prince on 18 November 1933, was interrupted for a Christmas-New Year season featuring Billy Milton, 'the English Maurice Chevalier'.
The Dudley-Welling season resumed on 36 March 1934, but there was little activity from late July to late October, when White Horse Inn, with Strella Wilson (the same production that had reopened the restored His Majesty's) played its last eight nights here. Another musical, Wildflower, followed briefly, then came Alexander Levitoff's Russian Ballet Company for three weeks from 1 December.
Left: Gregan McMahon in character. SLV
A Mother Goose panto, with Jim Gerald and British music hall stalwart Hetty King, opened on Boxing Day and got 1935 off to a good start but, before long, the patchiness of the previous year returned. On 8 March came the tail end of a Cyril Ritchard-Madge Elliott musical, High Jinks. Another musical, Nice Goings On, played for a month, a further six-week Dante season followed this but the rest of the year brought only brief vaudeville and concert seasons and a 'Mammoth Indoor Circus'.
The year 1936 was much the same, with the McMahon Players in short, occasional seasons, the most frequent occupants. The only professional attractions of note were an American comedy, Three Men on a Horse, which ran six weeks from 21 March, and a Gladys Moncrieff revival season for three weeks from 29 October.
McMahon's Players, isolated concert seasons and amateurs were again the main occupants in 1937. The single highlight was Fay Compton's English dramatic company which opened on 23 October with Compton as Queen Victoria in Laurence Housman's Victoria Regina. The Compton company included future film star Michael Wilding and Hayley Bell, future playwright, wife of John Mills and mother of Hayley and Juliet Mills.
Noel Coward's trio of one-acters, To-Night at 8.30 was the company's second offering. The season ended on 25 January 1938, although they returned for a three-week 'farewell' on 15 July. The only other highlight of 1938 was Clare Boothe's comedy-drama, The Women, with an all-female, all-American cast headed by Irene Purcell. The Women played for three solid months from 27 October.
There was more activity in 1939, with another American comedy, Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight following The Women on 4 February but doing rather less business, American stage and screen comedienne Charlotte Greenwood starred in Leaning on Letty for a month from 27 May and, after a brief revival of The Women, came more Americans - Pauline Lord and Ian Keith in a comedy, Yes, My Darling Daughter. When this closed within less than a fortnight Lord returned home but Keith, a notable character actor in films since silent days, remained to star in a thriller, I Killed The Count, by Australian-born Alec Coppel, from 2 September.
With the war making 'star' importations all but impossible, the King's was in darkness for much of 1940 with only two attractions of note. The first was a ten-week season of comedies by Frederick Blackman's company, with Yvonne Banvard and rising talents such as Ron Randall and Lloyd Lamble, from 29 June. Marie Ney followed them on 2 November as star of No Time for Comedy, following it a month later with Private Lives. On 17 December, Noel Coward himself, then on a Red Cross fund-raising tour of Australia, appeared at a matinee performance at the King's 'giving selections from his extensive repertoire'.
The Firm's lease on the theatre expired in 1941 and was taken up by the partnership of Sir Ben Fuller and Garnett H. Carroll under the name Gaiety Theatres Ltd. The new lessees initiated a series of revues, beginning with Gaieties of 1942 on 21 November. These continued without pause into the New Year, featuring local comedians such as Ron Beck, Stan Foley and Syd Hollister.
The revues ended late in March 1942; from 2 April the King's began regular screenings of American films - usually quality revivals of fairly recent vintage. The first program comprised a Paramount double bill: Skylark, a comedy with Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland, and Bob Hope in a farce, Never Say Die.
(To be concluded)