In December 1884, Sydney Mayor Playfair, laid the foundation stone for a new theatre. It took almost three years for the theatre to be completed. On September 10th 1887 it was opened as Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney.
Located on the north eastern corner of Pitt and Market Streets Sydney, the theatre was a grand edifice that welcomed Sydneysiders for a period of eighty years. It was located where Centrepoint stands today.
The original building was designed by Morell and Kemp and included a large seven storey hotel complex. The theatre had three tiers, dress circle, family circle and gallery or gods. It had a capacity of 2000 people. The interior was decorated in ivory, gold and primrose tints. A large electric chandelier and grand marble staircase dominated the inside of the building.
The opening night was a stellar occasion. The Governor, Lord Carrington, and his wife arrived in a large well-equipped carriage with a military escort. Sydney’s most respectable citizens joined others, of less respectability to view the show.
The opening play was Henry V. George Rignold, the lessee and lead player was anxious that night. His mood was not improved when a loud muttering emanated from the gallery.
"In God’s name, what’s the matter?" Rignold snapped at the muttering mob.
The ‘gods’ explained that the arches constructed around the gallery blocked the view of the stage. There was nothing Rignold could do, so he continued the performance.
This was not the end to his first night woes. As the play continued, a loud whistling could be heard. It once again came from the gallery. The indignant Rignold approached the audience.
‘Has not anyone the courage to turn that man out?’ He asked.
As the whistling continued, Rignold renewed his appeal.
‘Oh I throw myself on your mercy; for heavens sake, give me a fair hearing.’
The theatre erupted in thunderous applause at these words and the whistling stopped.
Henry V was not the most successful play and it closed after three weeks. Rignold followed it with a performance as a blind cardinal in ‘Alone’ and as William the sailor in another play called, ‘Black eyed Susan.’
George Rignold was a colorful character and he held the lease of Her Majesty’s Theatre for almost ten years. He had been a well-known actor in England and America and his performance as Henry V had been praised in those countries.
Apparently the lease of Her Majesty’s was not always profitable and one day a collector came calling at the theatre. Seeing Rignold, lounging in a chair, the collector presumed that he was a servant of some sort, and asked for the manager. ‘Handsome’ George pointed to himself. ‘But who is higher than you?’ asked the collector. Rignold in his magnificent Shakespearean voice pointed upwards ‘God’.
During his tenure, Her Majesty’s hosted a series of national and international stars in dramatic and operatic performances. Her Majesty’s and The Royal became the two primary venues for legitimate theatre in Sydney.
The plays produced during this time included ‘Faust’ in 1887-88, ‘Hamlet’ starring American actor, George Miln in 1888, and ‘Julius Caesar’ starring George Rignold and James Cathcart.
Rignold also introduced his brother William to Sydney audiences, when he starred in a play called ‘Nowadays’. In 1890, George produced Macbeth with Janet Achurch as Lady Macbeth and Charles Carrington, her husband, as Macduff. Rignold was a dramatic producer and his version of Macbeth included the three witches flying from treetops.
In 1891 Rignold moved temporarily to the Royal, so that a major event could take place at Her Majesty’s. JC Williamson and George Musgrove had arranged for the greatest actress of the age to appear in Australia.
The ‘divine’ Sarah Bernhardt was at the height of her powers in 1891. Her tour to Australia spawned various anecdotes regarding her demanding nature and eccentric habits. One such story revolved around property master Rock Phillips. During a dinner scene in ‘Camille’ Miss Bernhardt always ate two or three grapes. Grapes were therefore on the property master’s list. Phillips provided stage grapes. One night the stage manager, Monsieur Merle, tried to eat one, he exploded in Gallic hysteria upon discovering that they were inedible.
"Ze Grap! Look! Mon Dieu! Mr Philleeps, ze grap!’
Phillips explained to Merle that it was not grape season and that it was impossible to provide real grapes. Merle insisted that there must be a place where grapes were available. Phillips mentioned Adelaide. Merle replied.
‘Ah, quick, quick , my friend! A cab and bring them from Adelaide.’
It was eventually explained that this was not possible. Phillips used raisins expanded in wine to substitute for the grapes. This proved both satisfactory and tasty.
During the Sydney part of the tour, Sarah performed in ‘Camille’, ‘La Tosca’, ‘Fedora’, ‘Jeanne D’Arc’ and ‘Cleopatra.’ Her performances were in French and Sydney audiences were provided with English translations in the form of booklets. They followed the play using these booklets. This meant that the house lights were not lowered during the performances. Despite the language difference, Sydney theatregoers rapturously received Sarah Bernhardt.
The late nineteenth Century was a period of growth and development of Australian Theatre. Her Majesty’s Theatre was an integral part of this process. Amongst many performances hosted at the theatre were ‘La Cigale’ starring the Royal Comic Opera Company, ‘Marjorie’, which introduced George Lauri to Sydney, and ‘Faust up to date’, by the third London Gaiety Company. Amongst the performers who graced the stage during this time were, Howard Vernon, Teddy Lonnen, Hosea Easton, and Robert Courtneidge
In 1895 Rignold ended his long lease. His final production as lessee was ‘Cloncarty’ on September 21st. After a brief period where Alfred Woods leased the theatre, JC Williamson and George Musgrove took over in 1896. Under the care of these two impressarios, Her Majesty’s hosted grand opera, pantomime, melodrama and a number of international and Australian stars. Amongst these stars were Harry Conor, an American comedian, and American actors, Louise Hepner and Oscar Girard Ichabod Bronson. Girard became ill during his performance of The Belle of New York in 1899. Arthur Whelan replaced him in the role. Whelan, an Australian, was to become a major player in the local theatre scene. Another major player who debuted under the auspices of Williamson was Hugh J Ward.
In February 1902, the theatre presented a revival of ‘Ben Hur’. It starred Conway Tearle. The production was dogged by bad luck. It had been open a few days when it had to be closed because of plague. It reopened three weeks later but disaster struck. The theatre was consumed by fire. The blaze broke out on Palm Sunday March 23rd, at the rear of the stage. A wall collapsed and killed a young woman. Three firemen were injured as they attempted to fight the flames. The loss of life and property was devastating.
Yet the theatre was rebuilt. It’s original three tiers was reduced to two, dress circle and gallery. The original staircases were removed to make access easier and the whole was centred on a marble staircase. The new theatre was designed by William Pitt and built by Baxter and Boyne.
The new structure was as magnificent as the old. It opened on August 1st 1903. The theatre continued it’s fine tradition of presenting the best local and overseas acts.
In 1904, Julius Knight and Maud Jeffries presented ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’, and the ‘Eternal City’. Later that year, American, Cuyler Hastings appeared in ‘the Admirable Crichton.’ Howard Vernon appeared in a production of ‘Patience’ and the Royal comics continued their excellent productions with performances of ‘The Cingalee’ and ‘Little Michus.’ In 1904, film star, John Barrymore appeared at Her Majesty’s Theatre as part of an American company headed by William Collier.
Australian sensation, Nellie Stewart appeared as Rosalind in ‘As you like it’ in 1909. Two years later, HB Irving, son of legendary actor, Sir Henry Irving, took to the stage as Hamlet. In 1913 another Australian star, Gladys Moncrieff, made her principal debut at Her Majestys. Gladys appeared as Josephine in HMS Pinafore. She was soon to become a major Australian stage star. She was offered further fame and fortune overseas but turned it down in favour of remaining in Australia. At Her Majesty’s in 1921 she appeared for the first time in her signature role, as Teresa, in ‘The Maid of the mountains.’
Stars such as Gladys, the ever-popular Royal comics, Marie Burke, and Beppie De Vries dominated the 1920s. Ballet star, Anna Pavlova danced across the stage in 1926.In 1928 Nellie Melba joined the Williamson company to present a grand Opera Season. The season included , ‘Turandot’, ‘The love of the three kings’ and ‘Tabarro’.
Australian stars, such as Dorothy Brunton, Maud Elliot and Cyril Ritchard appeared at Her Majestys in the early 1930s. By this time almost every major star of the legitimate stage had appeared at the theatre at some time. The theatre had a tradition and reputation for presenting the best the world had to offer. It had been operating at the Pitt and Market Street site for almost 80 years.
In 1933 John Tait managing director of JC Williamson announced that the tradition was about to end. Tait cited the new amusement tax as a primary reason for the closure of the theatre. In his announcement Tait said that
‘A recent season in one of the capital cities showed that amusement tax amounting to almost 1000 pounds was paid during a short season, but for this same season JC Williamson Ltd will be lucky if it comes out without a loss.’
The amusement tax was not the only reason. Competition from the new talkies had eroded the popularity of legitimate theatre and the economic climate had eroded the cost effectiveness of productions. Tait announced that the final night of the theatre would be June 10th 1933.
That night the cream of Australian society arrived to farewell Her Majesty’s theatre. Theatrical personalities such as John and Frank Tait, Andrew Mc Cunn, Minnie Love, Vinia De Liotte, Hugh Ward and Carrie Moore gathered to reminisce . Sydney Lord Mayor Hogon and his wife joined them.
Fittingly, the last performance was Maid of the Mountains, starring Gladys Moncrieff.
It was an emotional night. During interval, the Lord Mayor expressed regret that a theatre held in such sentimental regard was closing. He stood on stage and showed the large audience the original mallet and trowel used by Lord Mayor Playfair when he laid the foundation stone in 1884.
At the conclusion of the performance, the cast appeared on stage with a variety of floral tributes. One of them was a tall ladder with each rung labelled with a piece in which Gladys Moncrieff was the star. Then Arthur Stignant introduced a pageant which featured representations of past performers. Included were George Rignold, Sarah Bernhardt, Nellie Stewart, HB Irving, Howard Vernon, Nellie Melba and Pavlova. Carrie Moore appeared as herself.
Gladys Moncrieff sang a lovely ‘Farewell’, the orchestra played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the audience joined in. Then everybody stood and sang the national anthem for the last time.
After the audience left, a late supper and dance was held. Stagehands, stars, chorus and ballet performers all danced on the hallowed boards. They sang and laughed and cried until 3am. Then the last person left the theatre, the brown velvet curtain hung motionless and the empty auditorium echoed to the sound of a door closing for the final time.
The next day the bulldozers moved in and the graceful old building was demolished. A Woolworth’s store was opened on the site on 22nd March 1934.