Down Under In The 19th Century

"There's a little group of isles beyond the wave-so tiny, you might almost wonder where it is"

The beginnings | Instant success | Non  stop  hits | The partnership | Big Boxoffice | Revivals and  more | Approaching  a new Century

From an Interview with J.C. Williamson:
"It is very mysterious how a first night's verdict spreads amongst theatre-goers. I have seen the house crowded on a Saturday, and every paper on the Monday has praised the performance, yet on the Monday evening the audience will scarely half fill the house. A good criticism can help the popularity of a good performance, but it cannot bolster up a failure. Operas pay best, if they can hit the public taste, but their initial cost is very great. It would take six weeks business to crowded houses before the original outlay on the new opera is returned, and yet six weeks is counted as a long in Melbourne. I have the right to produce Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe, but the risk is too great, until I see whether it really is popular with all classes of theatre-goers. At present it has only been played in London, where it is impossible to tell how much of its success is due merely to sumptuous mounting, excellent performances, and the prestige of novelty. I shall wait till it has been played in the provinces, in America, and in Europe. One cannot take a piece on its London success alone."

Table Talk 4th December, 1891

J C Williamson 1894

The Australian premiere of the musical comedy, La Cigale was held on February 13th, 1892, at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. The cast included Howard Vernon, Charles Ryley, and William Elton. Elton was an instant success in the role of Uncle Matt. When the work closed on April 24th Elton went off to London for an engagement. When Williamson decided to revive La Cigale for a further week in May he could not find anyone capable of filling Elton's shoes. Williamson recalls: "'La Cigale' was announced for the Saturday night, and on the Wednesday I was still without an Uncle Matt. That night I went to the theatre and asked for the 'script'. I took it home and studied the part, and on Saturday I played it without missing a line."

1892: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

Historic Note:
The best known of all Australian songs, Waltzing Matilda, began its life at, of all places, the race track at Warrnambool, Victoria, in April 1894. Christina Macpherson heard a band playing an old Scottish air, Thou bonnie woods o'Craigielea and remembering the tune she attempted to set it to words by 'Banjo' Patterson when they met in 1895. The song was never published until 1900 when Patterson sold his poem to the Sydney publisher Angus & Robertson.

The Australasian premiere of Ruddigore was given by Wellington's Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society on 22nd May 1895 (read review) - the first professional performances did not take place until June 23rd, 1927 when it was presented at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide by the J.C. Williamson company.

Throughout the 1890s there were regular revivals of the more popular of the Savoy operas as well as various others popular operettas of the day. Although many of the artists performing with J.C. Williamson stayed with the company for many years there were always one or two new faces added every year.
In 1893, the tenor, Joseph Tapley was one of these new faces. Joseph commenced his professional career as a choirboy at the age of twenty. Through the kindness of Arthur Sullivan, he obtained a scholarship to study at the Albert Hall College of Music and the Guilhall Scholl of music. In 1885 he appeared in an open-air production of "As You Like It" and his career then took off. For the next few years he appeared in several plays and comic operas in London. He created the part of Gaston in the play "The Old Guard".

A major tour in 1895 produced a rather novel production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" in which two different Josephines appeared on stage. Juliet Wray played the role in Act One and Florence Young played her in Act Two. Rather puzzling for the audience members who hadn't managed to get a programme. George Lauri played Sir Joseph in this production and Joseph Tapley played Ralph.

Juliet Wray as the Act One Josephine with Joseph Tapley

For the Sydney revival of 'The Mikdao' in 1895 new scenery was painted by Phil Goatcher. There was also a general refurbishing of costumes and properties.

Historic Note:
In 1896 Williamson wanted to use the recently invented Cinematographe in a pantomime at Her Majesty's Theatre. However the invention was too new as in the following correspondence between Musgrove and Williamson:
"The cinematogaphe has not developed sufficiently to do what you purpose in the pantomime. It is a novelty but it is as yet unsatisfactory. The picture only lasts 30 seconds, and there is at present great difficulty with the films."

In late 1895 there was a dearth of suitable overseas shows. The J C Williamson company was in dire straits. In desperation Williamson decided to write one himself and called in his staffer Bert Royle as collaborator and the pantomime Djin Djin was born. To mount the production there was a major problem - a lack of money. Williamson called the company together after a performance and gave them the bad news. After a tearful speech the entire company made a voluntary reduction of a third of their salaries.
Djin Djin opened to fantastic reviews on Thursday December 26th, 1895. "Nothing quainter, prettier, more elaborate or more magnificent than the pantomime of Djin Djin has yet been provided in Australia by Messrs Williamson and Musgrove." (The Herald) It played to capacity audiences and toured for months across Australia and New Zealand, saving the company from ruin.

Mr. Bert Royle deserves special mention. Bert first came to the notice of J.C. Williamson when he appeared in the chorus of the first Melbourne production of The Yeomen of the Guard. He was a bit of a poet and wrote topical verses. His first success was Djin Djin which lead to more collaborations, including Matsa, which was set in Egypt and incorparated many special effects.

When an arrangement was made for Tom Pollard to mount the Williamson musical successes in New Zealand, Bert crossed the Tasman as representative of J.C. Wiliamson Ltd. Bert continued in the same role until his death in 1929.

Historic Note:
The Fullers Opera House in Auckland was host to the first public showing of moving pictures in New Zealand. This was on October 30th, 1896. The season lasted five days.

Historic Note:
Savoyard Durward Lely, who created the role of Cyril in Princess Ida, arrived for a short visit to New Zealand in 1898. During May he gave concerts of ballads and songs around the country.

Historic Note:
Auckland was host to the first New Zealand public presentation of The Golden Legend in 1898. There were two performances in December of that year. A newspaper critic of the time said: "Of course it cannot be said that the performance was a perfect one, still considering the tremendous difficulty of the music the performance was a very good one indeed."

Historic Note:
In 1899 the first wireless message in Australia travelled over a short distance in Adelaide. By 1901 messages were transmitted from ship to ship, and wireless transmission had come to stay. The wireless set would become common household equipment, and further stern competition for the theatre.

from "The Silent Showman, Sir Georg Tallis" by Michael and Joan Tallis.

As the century drew to a close the Royal Comic Opera Company added various other operettas to their repertoire. These included "The Mountebanks", "The Vicar of Bray" and "The Gaiety Girl".

On June 20th, 1900, a rather special event happened in Wellington, New Zealand. The Wellington Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society mounted an Australasian first again. This was the first production of 'The Grand Duke' in this part of the world (read review). Even though this was staged by amateurs a lot of work went into getting everything just right. Orchestral parts were sent out from England and special elaborate scenery was painted for the occasion. It was an honest attempt by a local company to give as faithful a representation as possible to a new and comparatively unknown work. Of interest E. J. (John) Hill was in the cast. He was the brother of composer Alfred Hill, who provided an interpolated song just for this production.

Wellington newspaper ad. for 'The Grand Duke' June 1900

In 1900 Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne underwent a complete refurbishment. The 'Musical and Dramatic Notes' column of the Sydney Morning Herald said: "(Williamson's) lavish expenditure upon Her Majesty's theatre has, in effect, given another magnificent playhouse to the Victorian capital. The actor-manager describes the crush-rooms, and approaches to the old theatre as superior in spacious elegance to anything he has seen in London or New York, and there is now a fine facade unbroken by the intrusion of shops or saloons."

The first work to be mounted in the new theatre was The Rose of Persia which opened on Saturday October 27th, 1900.(read review).

Wallace Brownlow as the Saltan in 'The Rose of Persia'. Picture courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum of the Victorian Arts Centre George Lauri as Hassan in 'The Rose of Persia'. Picture courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum of the Victorian Arts Centre

Wallace Brownlow

George Lauri

This operetta proved to be very successful and was still running the day that Arthur Sullivan died on November 22nd.

This was followed in mid December by Floradora by Leslie Stuart.

Historic Note:
Electric power filled Melbourne's streets with light for the first time on March 8th, 1894.
In Sydney part of King St had been electrically lit as early as 1892. However Sydney's streets were not fully lit with electric light until July 8th, 1904, when a trial run took place. Street lighting had been connected to the recently built power station at Prymont.
The first Australian city to have full electric street lighting was the New South Wales country centre of Young in 1888.

1900 saw revivals of several of the operas in Sydney and Melbourne. The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, The Gondoliers and H.M.S. Pinafore were performed with a cast that included George Lauri, Charles Kenningham, Wallace Brownlow and Carrie Moore.

Wallace Brownlow was an interesting artist. He created the roles of the Lieutenant of the Tower and Luiz at the Savoy Theatre in London. In 1894 he travelled to Australia and played in the 1895 revival of H.M.S. Pinafore. Unfortunately he suffered a weakness for drink which lead to a failed attempt to manage a hotel in Western Australia. He migrated to America where he appeared in a few Broadway productions. He returned to Australia but lapsed into his old habit and died in Melbourne in 1919. Of note, Wallace appeared in the 1913 silent movie The Hoyden's Awakening. He also wrote the lyrics to the ballad Without thy love with music by Charles Kenningham.

Historic Note:
The biggest production in J.C. Williamson's theatre history was staged in February 1902. This was Ben Hur which Williamson spent £14,000 in mounting the epic. The Sydney Mail said: "It is a riot of scenic magnificence, a revel of superb mounting and dressing and a triumph of mechanism."
Lasting nearly four hours the production contained, not only, huge choral numbers and marches but a spectacular chariot race. Trained horses galloped at top speed on a treadmill in front of a moving backdrop. The music for Ben Hur was composed by American Edward Stillman Kelly. His music for this stage drama was immensely popular in its day.

Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, leased by Mr. J.C. Williamson, was completely destroyed by fire in the early morning of March 23rd, 1902. The fire killed a woman and injured three firemen. The huge collection of machinery and scenery used in the spectacular Ben Hur were completely destroyed. The damage to the theatre was estimated at £40,000. It was only insured for £18,000.

Gladys Moncrieff (1892–1976)
Queensland born singer Gladys Moncrieff toured extensively in Australia, New Zealand and England. She made many recordings and became known as 'Australia's Queen of Song' and then 'Our Glad'. In her early career she appeared in many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
From her autobiography 'My Life of Song':
"Then came the Gilbert and Sullivan season that began in 1914, and this was the beginning of a great new era for me. We opened in Sydney, with an Australian chorus but English principals…..I studied all the soprano roles and played every one of them at one time or another; loving the music, the libretto, and everything about Gilbert and Sullivan. When you love songs, you sing them well, and I'm sure that is why I was a success during that run."
In December 1914 and early 1915 she toured New Zealand with the Williamson Gilbert and Sullivan company. Wellington's Dominion said "Miss Gladys Moncrieff, as Gianetta, was vivacious, sparkling, and altogether pleasing, and her singing was excellent...clear and limpid, and sings with artistic expression, and always with a true conception of her role." (Jan 28th)


Gladys Moncrieff as Marco in The Gondoliers. Townsville c.1904

After an interval of sixteen years The Sorcerer was revived at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, in December 1905. The cast included Arthur Crane, Charles Kenningham, Howard Vernon, Celia Ghiloni and Dolly Castles. Trial By Jury was also on the programme.

'Dolly' Castles had a short career in Australian musical theatre. She was born in Bendigo in 1884 the younger sister of the more successful operatic soprano Amy Castles. She appeared for several seasons with the J.C. Williamson company and then made her way to America where she appeared in the principal soprano role in the first production of the musical The Tik-Tok Man of Oz based on the OZ books of L. Frank Baum (music by Louis Gottschalk). This was in Los Angeles on 31 March 1913. She retired from the stage after World War 1 and died in 1971.

Dolly Castles in 'Iolanthe'. By permission of the National Library of Australia.

During the 1905 Sydney season the first revival of Princess Ida also took place. Dolly Castles appeared in the title role with Celia Ghiloni as a formidable Lady Blanche. Also in the cast were two singers that had also been in the original Australia premiere 18 years earlier. They were May Pollard and Howard Vernon.

Celia Ghiloni as Lady Blanche in 'Princess Ida'.  Photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. Ref EPh-D-KENNA-1906-01 Howard Vernon as King Gama in 'Princess Ida'. Photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. Ref EPh-D-KENNA-1906-01

Celia Ghiloni and Howard Vernon in Princess Ida


Silly Fact:
It was not generally known but Howard Vernon was in the procession of many fine engravings and artists' proofs. Tavelling as he did he would search throughout the nooks and crannies of various towns in the hope of finding some forgotten old picture or some possibly famous sketch by a master.

The first production of Utopia Ltd was at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on Saturday January 20th, 1906 (read review). The cast included Howard Vernon, as King Paramount, Charles Kennington as Captain Fitzbattleaxe and Vinia de Loitte as Princess Kalyba.

Programme for the first performance of Utopia Ltd

The company then toured New Zealand, opening Utopia Ltd in Wellington on April 19th, 1906. (read review). Also in the same season were performances of The Gondoliers, Princess Ida, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Mikado and Patience.

The Act 2 cast of the Princess Ida revival

The productions toured the rest of the country. In Auckland the reviewer in the New Zealand Herald said of Utopia Limited: "The composer, in fact, has entered a new realm, and the wonderful portraiture in melody of the libretto, the soaring flights in complex metre, the pure theme throughout, and the opulent chorus work could only have come from his pen."

Historic Note:
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century New Zealand had the following theatres operating in the main centres.
Dunedin: Princess Theatre, Alhambra Theatre & His Majesty's
Christchurch: Theatre Royal, Canterbury Hall & Opera House
Wellington: Opera House, His Majestys & Theatre Royal
Auckland: Opera House & His Majestys

Although Gilbert and Sullivan operettas remained popular New Zealand would have to wait fifty six years before there was another production of Princess Ida and fifty eight years for Utopia Ltd. These were both performed by Auckland based Pocket Opera Club, an amateur group that performed exceptionally good productions with full orchestra.

Musical note: The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1906 as an amateur organisation by Alberto Zelman Jr, who continued to conduct it until his death in 1927.

September 26th, 1907:
New Zealand was today raised from a colony to the rank and status of a Dominion.


Historic Note:
Melbourne boasted the Australian premiere of Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow on May 16th, 1908. The operetta, which had its world premiere in Vienna in 1905, featured an exceptional cast including Florence Young, Andrew Higginson and Carrie Moore in the title role.


Carrie Moore. Courtesy of the HAT archive.

Ms Moore had been working for J.C. Williamson since she was 12 years old. She traveled to London in 1903 to further her career and was brought back to Australia by Williamson especially for this production.
The Merry Widow ran for 66 nights in Melbourne. It then went to Adelaide and then to Sydney where it played for 100 nights - a record for that city.
In 1909 the operetta toured New Zealand with Florence Young in the title role.

Historic Note:
Australia's first purpose-built cinema was the Bijou Picture Palace. This opened in Railway Square, Sydney, in 1909. The theatre featured an Edwardian style facade with sliding segments in the ceiling to make it cool in summer.
Movie houses opened not long after in Brisbane, Adelaide and then Melbourne.

Historic Note:
The Bijou in Auckland, operated by J.B. Leon, was the first theatre in New Zealand to show 'Continuous Movies'. This was in November 1910. An electric plant was installed for power supply.

Sadly the first staged performance in Australia of The Grand Duke was not until 1957. The first performance was in New South Wales by the Blackheath Musical Society who opened a short season on June 18th.

James Cassius Williamson died in Paris in 1913. He was 67. The J.C. Williamson company continued to hold complete control of Gilbert and Sullivan productions in Australasia until the copyright expired in 1961.


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