Stage by Stage
Monday, 14 December 2020

Melbourne’s ‘Cinderella’ theatre has gone to the wrecker’s ball (Part 1)

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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.


Read 1556 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
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).