Viewing the construction that now occupies the site of the very first grand theatre to be built in Australia, it is impossible to comprehend that such a magnificent structure would be demolished to be replaced with that, that we see today. Another example of Melbourne’s total disregard for its pioneering firsts – and, the quality, beauty & pride of Melbourne’s pioneers, its original buildings and infrastructure . . .
A Timeline Synopsis of ‘The Theatre Royal’
Jun 1856 – The cost of the building rendered the builder John Black bankrupt. The lease of the ‘Theatre Royal’ was subsequently acquired by George Coppin and Mr GV Brooke in the June of 1856:
” . . . Mr Coppin then entered into partnership with Mr G. V. Booke. Purchased lease of the old Theatre Royal and the freehold of Cremorne Gardens, upon which; they expended upwards of £100,000. Commenced management at the old Theatre Royal on the 9th June, 1856, with the comedy of ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ and a concert, when the, receipts were £470 15s 6d. The first grand opera season ever given in the Australian colonies was commenced on the 11th of June, and was followed by English Opera. The following’ is a list of the singers engaged : Madame Anna Bishop, Mesdames Carandini, Mrs Fiddes, Mr Guerin, Mrs, Hancock, Mr Laglaise, Mr E. Coulon, Mr Lyall, Mr Howson, Mr Gregg ; Conductor, M. Lavenue. For English Opera, Julia Harland, Sarah Flower, Walter Sherwin, Farquharson. With a selection from the Italian Opera Company ; Conductor, Lindley Norman. Full chorus, band, and ballet ; leader of the orchestra, M. Strebenger. The following Operas were produced : “Norma” “Der Freischutz” “Bohemian Girl” “La Sonnambula,” “Lucretia Borgia” “Masaniello,” “Martha,” “Lucia Di Lammermoor,” “Maritana” “Mountain Sylph. The result was a loss of £3000 to the treasury . . . ”
Source: Excerpt – Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas) – ‘Mr George Coppin’ – 3rd December 1881
Jul to Aug 1856 – The performances continued in great splendour:
Mr. G. V. Brooke first appeared at the old Theatre Royal for one night when passing through Melbourne to Sydney, the 2nd of July, 1856, when the programme, was “The Serious Family” and to “Oblige Benson,” and the receipts, £531 16s. The regular dramatic receipts, £531 16s. The regular dramatic season commenced on the 25th of August, 1856 with Mr G. V. Brooke as Mathew Elmore, in “Love’s Sacrific” ; receipts £356, 15s, expenses £400 a week . . . ”
Source: Excerpt – Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas) – ‘Mr George Coppin’ – 3rd December 1881
17th Jun 1860 – A Special Sunday Baptist Religious Service was held in the ‘Theatre Royal’ to a packed audience:
” . . . A stranger coming up Great Bourke-street this afternoon, between 2 and 3 o’clock, would have wondered what could he meant by the mob of people he saw standing so thickly together before the doors of the Theatre Royal. His astonishment, however, would have abated immediately he learned that a well-known minister was about to preach the Gospel to the people from the stage of a temple devoted to the love of Thespis rather than to the worship of Almighty God. Curiosity and religious zeal were undoubtedly the prime incentives which a few minutes after 3 o’clock filled the boxes, pit, and gallery of the largest and most handsome place of amusement the capital of Victoria can boast . . . “
” . . . As my eye wandered round the spacious theatre, crammed as it was from floor to ceiling, my thoughts became very histrionic, and I expected every moment to hear the bell ring, to see the curtain rise, and behold G. V. Brooke upon the scene of so many of his triumphs. The law of association, very probably, produced a similar kind of feeling in the minds of many others. These thoughts, however, were soon dispelled by the entrance from the stage door of the Rev. James Taylor, the well-known and much-respected minister of the Baptist Chapel in Collins-street . . . “
Source: Excerpts – South Australian Weekly Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) – ‘Special Sunday Services for the Masses at the Theatre Royal Melbourne’ – published 30th June 1860
Click here to read the full article.
24th May to 21st Jun 1862 – the ‘Theatre Royal’ was converted into a concert-hall to house the WS Lyster Opera Company singers for a series of monster promenade concerts, à la Jullien
Mar 1871 – George Coppin became the sole proprietor of the ‘Theatre Royal’
19th Mar 1872 – the ‘Theatre Royal’ was devasted by fire. Though a massive blow, Coppin soldiered on, went on to purchase a 99 year lease on the land and proceed to rebuild:
” . . . He bought his partners out, and, after twelve months sole proprietorship, suffered the loss of having the old playhouse destroyed by fire on 19th March, 1872, there being not a penny of insurance on the property. “The Theatre Royal Proprietary Association” was then formed . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Leader (Melbourne, Vic) – ‘Representative Men – The Hon. George Selth Coppin’ – published 1st February 1903
” . . . Purchased his partner’s interests and after conducting it for 12 months upon his own responsibility, a fire broke-out upon the stage ; the interior building was burnt to ashes on the 19th March, 1872, without any portion being insured for one half-penny. This was another very serious loss. Mr Coppin rented St. George’s Hall for the sake of’giving employment to his dramatic company, and he then leased the ground for 99 years upon which the ruins of the old Royal stood. He had plans prepared and accepted tenders for building the present Theatre Royal, which he afterwards formed into’ the ‘Theatre Royal Proprietary Association (Limited),’ now paying 20 per cent. It was let to Messrs Harwood, Stewart, Hennings, and Coppin, who opened it on the 5th of November 1872 . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas) – Article ‘Mr George Coppin’ – published 3rd December 1881
5th Nov 1872 – the new ‘Theatre Royal’ opens – bigger, better and more beautiful than before – designed (by Architect George Brown), planned and built within a mere 8 months !!
Jul 1874 – James Cassius Williamson & his wife perform Struck Oil:
” . . . It was a most casual going — this trip to Australia. They [James Cassius Williamson & his wife Miss Maggie Moore] travelled out in the same boat with Harry Rickards, who was afterwards, after much travail, to also achieve Australian prominence. The young American comedian and his wife brought no company and no flaring posters with them, as Rickards did. They brought themselves and their talent, and locked away in a box a new play — that quaint old Dutch comedy which, was to make them famous in two hemispheres, “Struck Oil.” The name itself was an omen : and they regarded it as such. Thus, without prospects — merely with the play with the mascotte name— they landed in Melbourne, and went to see the Napoleon of the Australian theatre — George Coppin. A couple of years before, the old Theatre Royal had met the fate which seems reserved for all Melbourne theatres, and had been burned to the ground. From its ashes sprang the magnificent, roomy, mammoth-staged theatre which, improved and altered, is the Royal of to-day. Coppin, Harwood, Stewart and Co. were running it in July 1874, when the two young Americans arrived. The firm was on the look-out for talent, and George Coppin was keen to recognise it.
To the Williamsons it seemed inadvisable at such an early stage in their new careers to take any risks, and they urged Coppin to put them and their play on salary. But Coppin, too, eschewed risks, and would agree to nothing but the share system, where, if the venture were a failure, part of the loss would be borne by the newcomers. It was said at the time that the salary asked and refused was £30 a week. This was vehemently denied, and it was probably considerably more than that. Anyway, on the 1st of August 1874, Mr. J. C. Williamson and Miss Maggie Moore opened at the Theatre Royal to a crowded house with “Struck Oil.” They were an instantaneous success, and there was no sorrier man in Australia, than George Coppin when he found that he might have had these two wealth – producers on a salary, and had refused it. He had thrown away thousands. Everybody knows that J.C. Williamson played John Stofel, and that Mrs. Williamson played Lizzie Stofel as nobody else has ever played those parts. The critics raved over them. The public fought at the doors of the theatre to be allowed by buy their way in. The Dutch dialect became for a time the language of the street and the hotel. The supreme height in wit was reached when one man said to another, “Is dot so?” or “Vat ye vant?”
The reason for this sudden flight into fame and popularity is not hard to find. The Williamsons belonged to what was in 1874 the new school of acting. They were natural. This was their success. This was their secret. The John Stofel of J.C. Williamson was a real, live, natural Dutchman. It was impossible to believe that Williamson was not Stofel. While he was on the stage he lived the part, lost himself in it, was the character he portrayed, and so he captured and enthralled and delighted his audience. The old style of acting — the style of the Kembles and others — had been artificial, frigid, unconvincing. There were set rules, there were unalterable traditions. There were rigorous formulae. All these had to be obeyed, and respected, and followed. The part of Hamlet or Othello had as many conventions and traditional usages attached to it as a test match or the opening of Parliament. As a consequence, the sympathy and the ability of the actor were never given full rein, and the acting was formal and precise.
“Struck Oil” was kept on the boards week after week, and still the audiences were crowded . . . “
Source: Excerpt – Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) – ‘Chapter of Theatrical History – Mr. J.C. Williamson’s Career’ – published 5th March 1908
1877 – At the termination of the original 5 year lease to Harwood, Stewart, Hennings & Coppin, the theatre was leased for a 4½ year term to Coppin, Hennings and Greville
18th Sep 1880 – Following exhaustive tours across Europe and America, the Williamsons returned to the ‘Theatre Royal’ to perform the huge success of Struck Oil at the theatre where it had all begun . . .
Jun 1882 – Mr JC Williamson takes on the lease of the ‘Theatre Royal’
1904 – the ‘Theatre Royal’ was redesigned by architect William Pitt – reducing the original three levels of balconies to two
1921 – the Maid of the Mountains premiered at the ‘Theatre Royal’
1934 – the ‘Theatre Royal’ is demolished. Australia’s first regal theatre that had nutured actors, writers and performers from all over the World was destroyed → to house a department store.
Manton’s Department Store built a 6-storey Art Deco style structure to replace the beautiful historical building in which Melburnians had previously flocked to to enjoy some respite and entertainment for 79 years. Manton’s would later be replaced by another department store in 1955, GJ Coles & Co – it remains as such until this very day – reclad in the questionably barren style of the modern age . . .
– Located within the Melbourne Town Centre – obtain Directions here
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- Sealed Road