The depression and the Australian Theatre
Even in the late 1920s Australia was regarded as ‘the lucky country’. The standard of living was high and the democratic institutions strong. So when Wall Street crashed in 1929, the effects on Australia were unexpected. The population was not prepared for the ramifications of a depression.
The Depression hit the country hard. Australia relied on exports and loans to maintain itself. It was particularly reliant on wool and wheat. The prices of both slumped after the Wall Street crash and the economy suffered as a result. Unemployment rose dramatically, and the unions fought to maintain wages and conditions in industries such as mining and shipping. Industrial unrest was a feature of the early depression years.
Abject misery was another feature. The scarcity of work and the subsequent eviction of tenants lead to widespread homelessness. The establishment of a slum area called ‘Happy Valley’ in the Sydney suburb of La Perouse was one of the many results of this. Men resorted to selling door to door, living on commissions, others found it necessary to undertake relief work for a pitiful government allowance.
Those who managed to maintain regular employment were relatively well off. Food was cheap, but imports were restricted. High tariffs precluded luxuries and government legislation banned certain imports in order to protect the economy. Entertainment became a distraction, and a luxury that replaced those that were not available.
For those who could barely afford to live, entertainment became one of the first luxuries to be dispensed with. In this time of necessity, live theatre became inaccessible to many.
Entertainment at that time came in many forms. Almost everybody, including those in ‘Happy Valley’ had access to the radio. The talkies had arrived in Sydney in 1929 and with them had come the movie palaces such as The State Theatre and the Prince Edward Theatre. The talkies were the most popular choice of entertainment. The novelty of talking pictures fascinated the Australian public and the live theatre paid the price.
The first theatrical victims of the talkies and the depression were the vaudeville theatres. The movies were direct competitors with this form of entertainment. Indeed the price of the movies at one shilling and three shillings and five pence targetted the vaudeville clientele. In contrast to the stately, but old, live theatre buildings, the new movie palaces, no less grand, came equipped with all modern conveniences. Seeing a movie rather than a vaudeville show was an easy choice.
In September 1929, the Tivoli in Sydney closed it’s doors to vaudeville and became a movie theatre. In February 1930, Fullers theatre, one of the last bastions of vaudeville did the same. When Fullers closed Sir Ben Fuller the proprietor said
‘Of course it is no secret that until a year or so ago it was a little goldmine. But it has lost thousands-say tens of thousands-during the past year. The end of the entertainment which thousands of people had enjoyed for many years was inevitable. The desires of people have changed.’
Sir Ben was merely acknowledging reality. The legendary Fullers theatre was renamed the Roxy, and became a haven for talking pictures.
The legitimate theatre was also hard hit by the combination of government taxes, the general economic climate and the new entertainment. In 1929, the oldest theatre in Sydney, the Theatre Royal was turned into a movie theatre. Fortunately, this only lasted until February 1930 when it switched back to live production. Williamson’s also vacated the Palace theatre in 1930 and turned it into a golf course. It was announced that there was no use for it as drama theatre. In that year, Williamson theatres also reduced their prices in order to make their form of entertainment more attractive to a financially restricted audience.
The big theatres relied on revivals such Gilbert and Sullivan Operas to attract their audiences. In September 1931, The Yeoman of the Guard was being advertised at Her Majesty’s at ‘popular’ prices. Revivals had several advantages. Not only did Williamson have the rights to all Gilbert and Sullivan operas in Australia, which reduced costs, they could also reuse props and scenery from former productions. This circumvented the government’s restrictions on imports and also kept production costs low. They also had a nostalgic appeal for a population longing for better, more prosperous, days. Although suffering throughout the depression the major theatrical entrepreneurs survived.
The segment of the theatrical industry that was hardest hit by the depression were the performers. The change over to movies maintained profits for the theatre owners and managers. However, it directly affected the lives of variety performers, musicians, actors and dancers. In early 1930, the secretary of the Theatrical Employees association Mr. Huckerby, petitioned the acting Labour Minister Mr Beasley about the plight of his members. Mr Huckerby described many employees as destitute and singled out the plight of members of ballets and choruses who were particularly suffering due to the effect of the talkies. The government was sympathetic but declared itself unable to help.
Even when they managed to find work, many performers were not paid. Union membership made no difference. The manager of the Nellie Bramley Company continued his performances in Brisbane, after union members took action for non-payment of wages. A similar situation arose in Melbourne, when a pantomime manager employed non-union labour and had his pantomime, Old Mother Hubbard, declared ‘black’ by the union. People were so desperate for work, that they were willing to be employed for wages far less than the award, leaving union members in the cold.
The economic necessities, the effect of the talkies, the ineffectual lobbying of the unions, resulted in real hardship for the ordinary theatrical employee. The theatrical community was forced to help itself and this it did in a variety of ways. In the early 30s, there were many benefit performances to aid suffering members of the profession.
In October 1930 Vinia De Liotte arranged a series of entertainments to relieve the distress of those in the acting profession. Vinia, a lady of independent means and a prominent member of the acting establishment, found the situation so distressing that she resorted to philanthropy as a cure. Her efforts were indicative of a comradeship that pervaded the industry despite the hard times.
She was not the only person or organisation to follow this path. Musicians shared a sense of community by organising recitals to aid unemployed members of the profession. In 1931 several musicians organised a recital to aid unemployed musicians at Marrickville in inner western Sydney. The cinemas, too, attempted to help those who were suffering. In 1932, the Prince Edward theatre advertised it’s contribution to "The Create More Employment campaign.’ They presented ‘Gladys Moncrieff in Gems from Rio Rita, supported by a company of thirty-two Australian artists.’
Despite these attempts to alleviate the economic difficulties faced by performers, the fact remained that times were hard and employment scarce. Yet the hard times also created opportunities. Next to the declining popularity of the larger commercial venues, there was a simultaneous rise in amateur productions. The so-called ‘peoples theatre’ movement came to prominence during the depression and became a cornerstone of the Australian Theatrical profession.
In Sydney, the guiding force of the movement was Doris Fitton. In 1930, Doris asked for a subscription fee from twenty fellow actors and friends and formed the "Independent Theatre’ The Independent produced a variety of plays. They chose material that was not considered suitable by the larger professional theatres. The plays were performed for a limited time and on a limited budget and through the efforts of volunteer actors and producers. In August 1930, The Independent Theatre produced it’s first play, "By Candlelight" at St. James Hall in Sydney. Harry Tighe and Doris Fitton were in the cast, and Harry was the producer.
The Independent was not the only repertory society of the time. Sydney had several, including, Scott Alexander’s, Sydney Repertory Society and The Children’s National Theatre, directed by Fay Hornby.
These theatre companies ensured that actors had the opportunity to practice their art. In some cases the success of the amateur production lead to success with commercial theatres. Although these companies kept theatre alive and gave opportunities for native actors and playwrights, they did not ensure the continued profitable employment of actors. In fact many performers left the profession permanently due to the depression.
By 1932, the economy was improving. It was a slow process. Hand in hand with this was the improvement of prospects for the theatre. Mike Connors and Queenie Paul opened the "New’ Tivoli in Sydney in 1932. Comedians Nat Phillips and Roy Rene were beginning their ascent to fame. In the legitimate theatre sphere, Dame Sybil Thorndike toured Australia and in 1933, Madge Elliot and Cyril Ritchard exploded on stage. There continued to be setbacks however and in 1933, the grand old lady of theatres, Her Majesty’s in Sydney was closed and demolished.
The depression changed the nature of Australian theatre forever. It forced the closure of some of Australia’s most famous theatres. In Sydney Her Majesty’s was lost forever, as was the original Tivoli. Traditional vaudeville entertainment gave way to revues that never recaptured the magic of the old style. Australian performers however, became more prominent and the people’s theatre movement continued. Yet the depression era foreshadowed the effects of new technology on the older forms of live entertainment and paved the way for another foe, television, which proved to be a greater threat than any that had come before.