THE GAIETY THEATRE
Wilson’s Palace Hall of Amusements
The Oxford Theatre
The Empire Palace
The Gaiety Theatre of Varieties
The New Gaiety
Address: 225 Bourke Street, Melbourne - site of the former Commonwealth Bank building.
The Gaiety occupied part of the same site as the Bijou Theatre, but lay at the front of this at street level and was separated from it by the Victoria Arcade. The Gaiety was the last of Melbourne’s theatres to have followed the 19th Century custom of evolvement from a hotel - in this case, from the dining room of the Palace Hotel, which fronted the Bijou’s Bourke Street site.
This dining room, known as ‘Wilson’s Palace Hall’ by 1889, housed ‘the first beauty carnival ever held beneath the sunny skies of the Australias’ on 26 October of that year; according to newspaper advertisements of 18 October: ‘Each lady competing will simply be required to attend in her stall, which will be fitted up for the display and sale of various articles... There will be no formal display of any lady, and no regulation requiring any competitor to assume any role or occupation derogatory to her self-respect.’
A few months later the hall had been converted into a theatre by the hotel’s owner, John A. Wilson. The architect for the conversion was George R. Johnson, the architect of the new Bijou, and ‘The Gaiety’ opened simultaneously with this on 5 April I890. Harry Rickards, the famous English music hall singer, was the Gaiety’s first lessee and his New English and Irish Comedy Company the opening attraction.
The Lorgnette of 12 April thought the interior ‘by far the handsomest music saloon in Australia. It is spacious, airy, lofty, and most elegantly and chastely decorated. The stage, though small compared with some, is large enough for the class of entertainment presented, is richly framed in a highly ornate proscenium, and is supplied with excellently painted scenery. But - the inevitable but - the floor lacks the necessary slope... and especially is this drawback felt in the sides of the gallery, where those occupying the back seats are compelled to stand up in order to obtain a view of the stage.’
The nascent theatre also seems to have had some trouble meeting the requirements of the Board of Health and Rickards’ company and several other vaudeville lessees had come and gone by 10 November 1890 when it was closed ‘for extensive alterations, decorations and improvements’. It reopened on 22 November with a variety company headed by American showman and comedian, Frank M. Clark. Table Talk of 21 November advised: ‘The hall has been redecorated and the seating accommodation greatly improved by the raising of the back chairs.’ By early December press advertisements proclaimed it ‘the coolest, most comfortable and the only theatre of varieties in Australia lit by electricity’. Clark and his 'New Folly Company remained at their ‘appy ‘ome of ‘ilarity’ ‘ right through 1891, up to 12 February 1892.
The theatre was immediately taken over by Dan Tracey and his ‘New Minstrel and Specialty Company’, and on 27 June 1892, Tracey presented the ‘first appearance of Miss Florrie Forde... the charming serio-comic artiste’. The Gaiety debut of Melbourne born Florrie, destined to become one of the ‘greats’ of British music hall, coincided with the first full-blown effects of the land boom depression, and prospective patrons were advised: ‘purchasers of front and second seat tickets will receive a coupon entitling them to a drink or cigar, and gallery patrons a glass of beer, at the Palace Hotel bar’.
1893 marked the depths of the depression but the Gaiety supplied cheap and popular entertainment and Tracey’s company, which was taken over by an associate, W. H. Speed, early that year, seems to have continued successfully enough until 17 March 1894. The Cogill brothers and their ‘Minstrel and Burlesque Company’ arrived on 24 March, and it was with them that Florrie Forde began her second Gaiety season on 16 June. On 30 June the theatre closed for alterations estimated to cost £2000 under the supervision of George R. Johnson.
The Cogill company transferred to the Bijou for the six weeks it took to complete the renovations, and the Gaiety reopened as ‘The Oxford Theatre’ on 18 August 1894. ‘The old Gaiety hall has been literally turned round – the stage moved from one end to the other, the floor given the necessary slope to afford all a view of the show, and painters and decorators let loose with a lavish hand’, The Argus of 20 August applauded. The Cogill company continued as the attraction and notables on the bills about this time included eccentric comedian, John Gourlay; English actress, Jennie Lee; contralto, Neva Carr-Glynn (an aunt of the later well-known actress of the same name); minstrels, Slade Murray and Will Whitburn; and of course Florrie Forde.
Dan Barry’s dramatic troupe joined the company from 22 December to present Round the Clock, a ‘musical, farcical extravagance’, for a few weeks over Christmas, after which the Cogill aggregation continued as before until 19 May 1895. On 15 June Frank M. Clark’s company transferred from the Bijou (with the formidable Miss Forde) and from 19 October, when the theatre was under the aegis of Philip Stuart, it was again advertised as ‘The Gaiety’. Clark, whose managerial regime had ended early in August, was again the featured artist up until a few weeks before the season closed on 25 November.
The theatre endured almost 18 months of closure from late November 1895 until early May 1897 – the only advertised attraction during this darkness being an American medicine showman for a few nights early in October 1896. On 8 May 1897 the theatre reopened as the grandiosely titled ‘Empire Palace’ although seats for 1350 remained at the ‘popular prices’ of 2s, Is and 6d. Frank Fordham, ‘comedian and dancer’, was the lessee, presenting the usual mixture of minstrels and variety but his company lasted barely three weeks and in less than a month the theatre was closed again and seems to have remained shut for most of the following 12 months.
On 11 June 1898 Harry Cogill’s ‘New Federation Minstrels and Burlesque Company’ reopened the Gaiety (as it was called again) for a 14 week season. An interesting feature on the bills was ‘The Biographe’ from 9 July, with a number of short films constituting a kind of forerunner of the newsreel; that first evening, for instance, a film of the Grand National hurdle race at Flemington was the attraction - ‘a picture will be taken of this event today and shown tonight’.
A further 14 months darkness seems to have followed the close of the Cogill season on 24 September, for it was not until 1 January 1900 that Harry Rickards reopened the Gaiety to accommodate the holiday night crowds from the Bijou, with the same vaudeville company featured and ‘the turns being so timed and arranged that the performances will be identical’. Rickards repeated this manoeuvre the following Easter Monday and again on Boxing Day 1900 but apart from this and a one night presentation by Mrs G.B.W. Lewis and her drama students on 29 October, the Gaiety seems to have remained dark until Boxing Day 1901 when Maggie Moore made a ‘reappearance in Melbourne after an absence of 3 years’.
The theatre was ‘entirely renovated and re-decorated’ for this, its first substantial dramatic season; Moore performed in five of her most popular vehicles, including Struck Oil, which had introduced her to Melbourne in 1874. The season ended on 29 January 1902, but Moore’s lead was not followed until 21 June, when the Cosgrove dramatic company began a month long season with Sapho, a sensational drama that had once resulted in the police prosecution of the actress Olga Nethersole in New York. A photograph published in The Australasian of 16 August 1902, showing a meeting of some 2000 public service employees, gives some idea of the interior about this time, with its ornate gallery and range of windows along either side at this level.
Barnstorming Dan Barry’s dramatic company followed immediately with. A Gilded Sin and other popular dramas for a month, then, on 16 August, came the Ada Willoughby Comedy Company with The Wrong Mrs Wright - a title that was soon judged to infringe on the rights of another popular farce, The Wrong Mr Wright and was subsequently changed to: Jane, No Longer the Wrong Mrs Wright. Dramatic activity ceased after this and the year fizzled out with three short-lived seasons by separate minstrel and vaudeville companies.
The theatre reopened again on 17 January 1903 as ‘The Gaiety Theatre of Varieties’, offering ‘twice nightly at 6.30 and 9... an innovation in amusement enterprise ... theatre and music hall combined’. The ‘theatre’ consisted of shortened versions of farces such as North-East Lynne and Fun On the Bristol but these were suspended in favour of all-vaudeville after a short closure early in February.The Gaiety’s second heyday had now begun, however; Frank M. Clark returned as a performer on 24 October 1903 and took over as sole lessee from 16 July 1904. J. Alex Allan’s fascinating reminiscence of the times is preserved in the Argus of 17 February 1934:
The prices are low - 6d and 3d. Our hearts are as light as our pockets, and we take the dingy stairs, two at a time, to the cheap seats in the gallery. Luck holds and we get places at the end, immediately facing the stage. A medley of sound fills the house. Everywhere voices cross and mingle, peanut-shells crunch, and cordial bottles pop. A bald head or two in the seats below offer a fair mark for nutshells. Collingwood and Fitzroy greet Richmond and Carlton with friendly and accurate orange-peel. There is no orchestra, but an angular young woman, at a piano below the stage, thumps out vigorously a medley of popular and patriotic airs. The gallery recognises an old favourite, and joyously stamps a rhythmic accompaniment to "Soldiers of the Queen". The curtain - complete with advertisements goes up, and the show is on.
On one side of the stage sit Harry Cowan and Frank Clark - burnt-cork "niggers" both. Opposite them are Will and "Bluch" (Blucher) Jones – genuine “cullud boys”, the real thing. The interlocutor is Cyril Iredale, son of a city tailor. Tambourines jingle; "bones" click and rattle. There is backchat and dubious jest. The floor and gallery yell with delight… The “Gaiety Bevy of Beauty” led by dark-eyed Flo Winchester, trips on to the stage, skims through the steps of a ballet, and distributes itself artistically against the backcloth… A roar of welcome greets Harry Shine - Harry, with his inimitable trick of seeming to address his patter confidentially to each member of his audience…
Featured singers and dancers follow and then:
The curtain rattles down, and the crowd crunches along its carpet of peanut-shells to the exits. The next door cordial-counter and Ransome’s ice-cream shop swallow and erupt their patrons… As we race up the stairs again Frank Clark and “the Bevy” are swinging into the opening chorus… Teddy Box comes on. Teddy, like Joe E. Brown of future film fame, is a mouth - capitalised… More ballads, ballets, “refined soubrettes”, and “comic artistes”, and then Lex McLean, Scottish athlete and physical culturist, steps out… Lex, flexing and relaxing to the wonderment of the audience, accompanies himself, so to speak, with a chant of comment and explanation. “This is the deltoid muscle – these are the stairno-cleido-mastoids, developed in maself almost to an abnormality... From the gallery a shrill voice shatters the stillness – “Show us yer stummick-muscles!” – and the house is rent in a gale of laughter.
‘Moving pictures’, which were becoming popular, also began to occupy a regular part of the programme from mid 1904. The theatre was advertised as the ‘New Gaiety’ from 23 October 1905 although there seems to have been no change to the fabric. The ‘New’ tag was dropped after a few months but the Gaiety’s greatest days as a vaudeville theatre were still to come: Frank M. Clark had returned to America in mid 1906 and the remnants of his company continued under another management until they closed their season on 12 October 1907. The lease was then taken up by rising Sydney entrepreneur, James Brennan, he reopened the theatre on 19 October 1907 with his ‘National Vaudeville Entertainers’ company. This debut bill included Sam Gale (‘Australia’s actor-vocalist’) with his daughter, ‘Little Sadie’ (future wife of the great Roy Rene) and Arthur Tauchert, a vaudeville comedian later famous as the original, silent screen, Sentimental Bloke.
Other notables on the Brennan bills over the next few years included comedian, Will Dyson (not to be confused with the famous cartoonist); American minstrel, Charles Pope; London born comedienne, Nellie Kolle; and British musical comedy star, Bert Gilbert. Local newcomers included Roy Rene, making his Gaiety debut as ‘Little Roy’, a ‘descriptive singer’ on 5 May 1906; George Sorlie ‘the Prince of endmen’ (later a famous tent show entrepreneur); and Queenie Paul, making her ‘first appearance’ as a singer on 6 May 1911.
In April 1912 Brennan went into partnership with the Fuller brothers, the Gaiety thus became part of the Brennan-Fuller Vaudeville Circuit and on 28 September closed for more renovations. ‘An artistic decorative scheme in green, gold and cream, with sprays of flowers in the panels of the walls has been carried out,’ the Age reported of the 12 October 1912 reopening. The £5000 remodelling included ‘comfortably upholstered chairs to the number of 1700… Two boxes have been added to the dress circle, and the seats in the wings of that part are so placed as to face the stage directly. The latter has been lowered to provide a better view. An electric numbering device for indicating the turns is the first of its kind in Australia.’ The old minstrel ‘first part’ had been abolished but the opening programme included an appearance by ‘Mr John Fuller, father of Mr Ben Fuller, the present managing director, who sang Donizetti’s ‘Summer Night’ with which he pleased Gaiety audiences 22 years ago.’
Ironically enough, after this substantial expenditure, vaudeville had less than 18 months of life left at the Gaiety; films, which were growing more popular all the time, undoubtedly presented management with a more attractive proposition than the complexities and expenses of ‘live’ performances. The Brennan-Fuller circuit had acquired the lease of the larger Bijou early in July 1913, and when they transferred their vaudeville operations there after the close of the show on 5 March 1914, Gaiety vaudeville became a thing of the past.
On 6 March 1914 the theatre reopened under the Fuller-Brennan aegis (as the partnership had by then become) screening films continuously from 11 AM till 11 PM with the ‘sensational feature’ The Circle of Death the opening draw. The ‘New Gaiety’, as it was called again, continued to supply inexpensive film entertainment over the next eight years. Then, in mid 1922, it unexpectedly enjoyed a last brief phase as a live theatre and was renovated and redecorated again.
‘The scheme of decoration was carried out in white and gold, with a flush of pink, “like dawn o’er the rosy east advancing”, Table Talk of 10 August 1922 rhapsodized, then continued more prosaically: ‘The theatre has been reseated with wide, comfortable cushioned and tip-up seats, and with a neat proscenium and a big stage, the whole forming a capital home for dramatic presentations.’ The first of these was on 5 August 1922 when Fuller’s Dramatic Players appeared in Should a Husband Forgive? Twenty other popular melodramas followed on a weekly change policy, usually with Ronald Conway and Agnes Dobson (and latterly Lesley Adrienne) in the leading roles. The fruitier titles included The Price of Her Folly, Her Road to Ruin and From Mill Girl to Millionairess; the season wound up with such staples as East Lynne and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Irish-American actor-singer, Allen Doone, began the Gaiety’s last live season on 20 January 1923 with the first of five of his popular Irish romantic dramas. Hoyts leased the theatre as a cinema after this, reopening it on 21 April 1923 with The Kentucky Derby, a Universal racing drama starring Reginald Denny. ‘Souvenir whips, the exact replica of the whips used in The Kentucky Derby will be given away as a souvenir of the occasion’, press advertisements advised. The’ New Gaiety’ continued as a , ‘second release’ Hoyts house until 27 September 1929 when the prospect of an expensive refit for sound films caused the company to quit.Fullers eventually installed sound equipment themselves and also undertook some renovations including a ‘redesigned foyer and improved seating’, according to a Herald item of 2I April 1930. The theatre had reopened as ‘The Roxy’ on 19 April with a continuous run, weekly change policy and ‘Celebrity 100% Talkie Vaudeville’ - vaudeville shorts from First National studios – the first featured attraction.
The Depression was now affecting all forms of entertainment, however, and with access only to second release or second rate product, Roxy talkies seem to have faded away about mid December 1930 – Under a Texas Moon, a Warner Brothers western with Frank Fay, being the last advertised attraction. The old theatre seems to have remained empty and abandoned after this until the closure and subsequent demolition of the Bijou in mid February 1934, when memories of the Gaiety’s ‘golden days’ were fleetingly revived while its remaining substance was being pounded to dust.