Down Under In The 19th Century

"I have preached in workhouses, beershops, and Lunatic Asylums, and I have been received with enthusiasm."

Picture of J.C. Williamson c. 1868

J.C. Williamson - The Early Years

James Cassius Williamson (Cassie to his family) was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, in 1845. He was the third child and first surviving son of James and Salina Williamson. In his early teens the Williamsons moved to Milwaukee where James received his education.

In 1857 his father suffered a fatal accident. Shortly after his father's death Cassie attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice. He immediately became infatuated with the theatre. Of all the six Williamson children James alone was the only one interested in the theatre. At one stage he even managed to appear briefly on stage with a traveling acting troupe visiting Milwaukee.

In 1861 James became assistant treasurer of the local theatre. The company toured Wisconsin and while in Madison James made his first official stage appearance. As James recalls: "I used to act in amateur theatricals, and when I was sixteen I got an engagement with a company at the Milwaukee theatre. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, and did pretty well everything. My mornings were spent in learning fencing and dancing. In the afternoon I'd look after the box office, and at evening help the stage manager and take my part - sometimes three or four parts."

In 1862 James was invited by a member of the Milwaukee theatre to join a traveling company about to tour the United States and Canada. The touring company was not successful and after some box office disasters disbanded. James had by now developed a taste for traveling and decided to try his luck in New York city. At the Olympic Theatre he opened in a curtain-raiser on a salary of $10 per week. There followed a season at Wallack's Theatre, New York's newest and foremost popular theatre.

In August 1865 James received his first specific mention in the New York press. Reviewing his performance as Daly in The Colleen Bawn the New York Leader states: "Mr. Williamson, too, is not over-excellent as Daly; but I never yet saw an actor who seemed to have the least conception of what the author intended by that capital fellow."

Early in 1866, after the sudden illness of one of the leads in The Rivals, James got the opportunity to appear in a major role. In less than twenty four hours he memorized word perfect the 250 lines his role demanded.

After several years engaged as a moderately successful actor with Wallock's James made his debut in musical comedy at the Theatre Comique under the management of W.H. Lingard. There is no doubt that this production would be an influence on him in later years.

Prior to the close of the 1871 season at Wallack's James was offered an engagement as leading comedian at the California Theatre, San Francisco.

From his seven year apprenticeship at Wallack's Theatre James emerged with a thorough knowledge of acting, play production and stage management.

The California Theatre in Bush Street was San Francisco's leading playhouse. Throughout the following months Williamson played the routine comic roles without scoring any pronounced hits and patiently waited for an opportunity to win the favour of the press and public.

The California Theatre c 1871

In the early part of 1872 Williamson first met Maggie Moore (Margaret Virginia Sullivan), the talented young actress who for the next twenty years was to share his rise to theatrical fame. Born July 10th 1851 in San Francisco Maggie was one of a family of six daughters and one son. Her Irish parents were former Australian colonists drawn to California by the Gold rush. Maggie was appearing at the Metropolitan Theatre and it was here that James first became impressed with her acting ability.

James was ambitious to secure a play of his own and he foresaw his need for such a partner as Maggie.

James arranged for an introduction to Maggie and after much debate Maggie was engaged to appear at the California in Ireland as it was on October 28th, 1872.

James and Maggie were married on February 2nd, 1873.

Maggie Moore  c 1873

In early 1874 J.C. Williamson was approached by an Irish amateur playwright named Sam W. Smith. He offered Williamson an after piece entitled The German Recruit. Williamson purchased it for $100 and eventually the famous Struck Oil was constructed out of this work.

The management of the California Theatre refused to produce the play so Williamson booked an engagement in Salt Lake City. Struck Oil opened on February 23rd, 1874. The Salt Lake City Daily Tribune was favourably impressed : "…we advise all who would enjoy a hearty laugh these dull times, to witness their presentation tonight."

Arrangements were made for James and Maggie to travel to Australia. They were taking with them a collection of the material which had been staged at the California. They traveled with the recently established Australasian and American Mail Steamship Company on the S.S. Mikado. They arrived in Sydney on July 1st 1874.

A fellow passenger, William S. Lyster, the Australian entrepreneur and brother of Fred Lyster, former business manager of the California Theatre, did his best to give the young American couple a pleasant welcome to Sydney. They managed to attend a performance of the Royal Italian Opera Company before sailing a few days later to Melbourne.

The Theatre Royal, Melbourne, where James and Maggie were to open their Australian season had been completely rebuilt in 1872. It was there they opened with Struck Oil which became an instant success.

So popular was Struck Oil in Melbourne that it played at the Theatre Royal without interruption until September 19th. Its run of 43 nights was the longest yet known in the colonial theatre. 93,000 people paid to see James and Maggie in this production.

The Willamsons then toured throughout Victoria. Of interest a young English actor called Arthur Garner appeared with them on these tours. Garner was to be closely associated with Williamson in the years ahead.

In February 1875 the Company sailed for Sydney. It was there that their success with Struck Oil was repeated. The work played for forty four nights and yielded even larger profits than its Melbourne run.

James and Maggie in Struck Oil

The Williamsons returned to Melbourne repeating their success. They then traveled on to Adelaide and eventually to India. Everywhere they went Struck Oil was a resounding success.

Struck Oil opened at the Royal Adelphi Theatre, London on Easter Monday, April 17th, 1876.

It must be pointed out that during all these various seasons other works by the Williamson company did get performed but it was always Struck Oil which had the audience cheering in the aisles.

The Willliamsons returned to San Francisco in June 1877. They had completed a round-the-world professional tour which had taken them forty thousand miles and had covered five continents.

Struck Oil was produced again in San Francisco. This time in turned out to be a major success.

Until December 1878 the Williamsons toured their successful work throughout all parts of the United States.

Early in 1879 J.C. Williamson commenced negotiations with W. S. Gilbert for the acquisition of the Australian performing rights to H.M.S. Pinafore. Assuring Williamson that his rights were exclusive, W.S. Gilbert wrote on April 3rd, 1879 "Neither Mr. Sullivan nor I have made any arrangements with any manager or actor for the performance of the piece in these colonies."

For £300 Williamson purchased one years exclusive rights to the production of H.M.S. Pinafore in Australia and New Zealand.

The Williamsons set sail once more for the antipodes on July 7th, 1879.

They commenced their second Australian season under the management of George Coppin at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on Saturday August 23rd. Once again the work was Struck Oil.

Now holding the legal rights to perform all productions of H.M.S. Pinafore Williamson took no time in taking out injunctions against companies illicitly performing the operetta in Australia and New Zealand. Although these actions were long, hard and costly each was successful.

With his exclusive rights to Pinafore firmly upheld Williamson staged the first legitimate Australian production of the operetta at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on Saturday, November 15th, 1879. (read review) This production, superior in every respect to its pirated predecessors, won unanimous acclaim of press and public.

In early 1880 Williamson formed his Comic Opera Company renamed the Royal Comic Opera Company, because of its early association with the Theatre Royal in Sydney and Melbourne.

The huge success of the Williamson production of H.M.S. Pinafore prompted a negotiation with D'Oyly Carte for the Australian rights to The Pirates of Penzance. For £1,000 he secured the rights for the work which opened at the Theatre Royal Sydney on Saturday March 19th, 1881. (read review) For this production all costumes, wigs, swords and properties were especially imported from the leading theatrical suppliers of London and Paris.

Between their appearances in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas James and Maggie Williamson continued to play engagements of Strike Oil along with similar popular favourites The Danites, Arrah-na-Pogue, The Colleen Bawn and Rip Van Winkle.

On September 8th, 1881, J.C. Williamson signed an indenture which made him sole lessee of the Theatre Royal. This transaction marked the beginning of Williamson's long career as Australia's foremost theatrical manager. From it was to evolve the vast theatrical organisation of J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, known affectionately the world over as "The Firm".

I am indebted to the publication "A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson" by Ian Dicker from which the above has been extracted.

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