Theatre has been an important part of the Melbourne cultural landscape since its inception. Community theatres have become meeting places for artists and audiences to converge, study, challenge and share creativity and ideas and often experiment with the Avant Guard. Professional theatres have generally provided more ‘mainstream entertainment’ and an important part of the artistic economy and creative support structures for Melbourne. The first ‘official’ theatre in Melbourne was Queen’s on the west side of Queen Street between Bourke and Little Bourke Streets and opened in 1843. This was after much conjecture when the other ‘penal’ colonies had already began theatrical presentations. Queen’s was well built, but small, it’s packed house only earned 91 pounds/11/-. Royal, the Alexandra (in 1928 referred to as His Majesty’s and currently Her Majesty’s) was built in 1886.
Did you know that the PMI has the original Opening Souvenir of the Melbourne Comedy Theatre from 1928? A beautiful book with original ribbon intact detailing the opening night of “Australia’s Latest and Most Artistic Playhouse – The Comedy”. In fact, not just this building, but this historic site, holds much interest for theatre goers. The opening of The Comedy was a part of the longstanding plans of J.C. Williamson Ltd (The Firm) to provide “an intimate” theatre for Comedy. Prior to 1855 this was the site of the Hippodrome where “circuses and horse-and-tank drama’s flourished”. The stage was a solid dirt embankment and had a tank for “water sensations”. The stage had a roof, but the stalls and pit “were open to the skies” so when it rained and audience took shelter in the covered gallery the performers would shout out across to them. The Kelly Gang was played “and when in doubt as to his lines, Ned Kelly on his steed would fire a few rounds of revolver shots and yell, “To the bush, boys, to the bush!” and gallop off. Nobody seemed to mind.”
George Coppin and his wife often starred in the earlier mentioned Queen’s and are integral to the history at the site of the Comedy Theatre. Coppin built 6 theatres in Australia. He make his fortune in 2 years when he took a weatherboard theatre in Geelong with a capacity of 500 and extended to catch all the passing gold diggers from Ballarat flocking through Geelong and to Melbourne. At 35 he returned to England. He knew how difficult it would be to get a theatre in Melbourne, so had an iron theatre constructed and prepared into sections in England. Coppin brought this portable theatre to Melbourne and had it erected on the corner of Lonsdale and Stephen (now Exhibition) streets. In 1855 The Olympic, 88ft. by 40ft, fondly known as The Iron Pot, was opened by George Coppin who “has it on record that he saw diggers in the ‘roaring days’ wrap nuggets of gold in banknotes and throw them onstage. ”
Jump through the years of vaudeville and travelling tents and we land in the 1960’s where I’m going to highlight some amazing resources from our collection that celebrate one of our most integral and persistent theatres in Melbourne: La Mama.
From the earliest days, Lygon street had its fair share of artists, but in the late 1960’s the artists started to define Carlton. The establishment of La Mama theatre by Betty Burstall was the most significant factor in Carlton becoming, at this time, the home of alternative theatre in Australia. Bustall had just returned from New York where coffee houses put on theatrical performances that punters could watch for the price of a coffee. She wanted to create “cheap, accessible theatre that was immediate, exciting and challenging” reflecting Australian voices and experiences. She thought Carlton, with its flair and nearby students, was the place to try.
Behind the Del Monaco tailor shop on the corner of Lygon and Drummond Streets there was a small, two storey building that had been around since 1883. It had been used as a printers’ workshop, a boot and shoe factory, an electrical engineering workshop and a silk underwear factory. Burstall opened La Mama as a coffee house staging poetry and play readings with the first play staged being Jack Hibberd’s Three Old Friends. La Mama continues to thrive under the direction of Liz Jones, despite the building being reduced by flames last year, with patrons and government funding pledged to a rebuild; it is acknowledged as one of the most important small theatres in Australia. “La Mama is virtually unique in Australia as a place that nurtures new theatrical talent at a grassroots level and it continues to provide a vital stepping stone for emerging artists…to get a first show.” With a second theatre, The Carlton Courthouse Theatre in Drummond Street, La Mama’s influence continues. La Mama spawned many offshoots and breakaway groups, two of the most well known being the Australian Performing Group operating out of the Pram Factory in Drummond Street and the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-Operative based in the Holdsworth Building. Our very own Judith Buckrich created two shows at La Mama in the 1980s, Uncultured Pearls and Reflections in Water and Glass and it seems that the building and the ethos of the place have remained much the same since I also worked there too in 2014 with A Pocketful of Joy (except that the family of stray cats who used to live at the top of the La Mama stairs had moved out).
Whether it be stray cats that frequent stairs, Gold Prospectors throwing nuggets onto the stage or the actual pistols and water tanks of the Hippodrome; one can never say that the stories held in the PMI’s collection are not also performative or theatrical. Perhaps this will spark your interest to investigate and enjoy the theatrical and performative corners of our collection which house many interesting Australian Drama, Theatre and performance resources.
Used in this article:
La Mama / Adam Cass and the La Mama community.
Lygon Street : stories and recipes from Melbourne’s melting pot / Michael Harden.
Comedy Theatre: opening souvenir Saturday April 28th, 1928 / compiled by Phil Finkelstein
Theatre buildings in Australia to 1905: from the time of the first settlement to arrival of cinema : volume 1: text and illustrations / Ross Thorne.
Curtain call / as told by Nancye Bridges to Frank Crook.
Just some of the many resources that might interest you:
The dictionary of performing arts in Australia. Vol. 1, Theatre, film, radio, television / Ann Atkinson, Linsay Knight and Margaret McPhee.
La Mama, the story of a theatre / Liz Jones with Betty Burstall and Helen Garner.
The Pram Factory : the Australian Performing Group recollected / Tim Robertson.
Community theatre in Australia / edited by Richard Fotheringham.
Summer of the seventeenth doll / Ray Lawler.
The Drover’s Wife / Leah Purcell
Minefields and Miniskirts: Australian women and the Vietnam War / Siobhan McHugh
Theatre Heritage Australia: Onstage 2009-2012
CATHS’s databases are available on our public computers for members to search and they work out of the building and are always up for a chat. The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society are a wealth of knowledge to tap into.