William Anderson- a short biography.
In the early 20th century the most Australian theatrical entrepreneurs were foreign born. There was one exception, William Anderson. For over thirty years Anderson dominated Australian melodrama and actively supported native writers, actors and producers.
William Anderson was born in Bendigo on January 14th 1868. He began working as a young boy to support his family and his first job was as a bill poster for the local Princess Theatre. He was a charismatic youngster who quickly became popular with the lessees of the theatre, so much so that they allowed him to book all their shows.
Through his work as a booker, Anderson met English actor/manager Charles Holloway. By 1895 he had become Holloway's business manager. However, it was more than business that attracted him to Holloway's company. Its leading lady, Eugenie Duggan, was a talented, attractive and increasingly popular young actress. In 1898, she became Mrs William Anderson and thus began one of Australiaís most popular melodramatic companies, the William Anderson Company.
It was a family affair that featured Eugenie, her brother Edmund and a host of Australian actors. Anderson believed in Australian drama and also supported local writers and set designers, an unusual action for the time. His plays featured realistic sets, Australian themes and Australian accents. Typical of his melodramas was Thunderbolt, a play about the notorious bushranger, Frank Ward. The scenery consisted of gum trees, koalas and an authentic Cobb and Co coach which was driven on stage.
Anderson was a man of grand ambitions and grandiose plans. By 1905 his company was one of the most popular in Australia but William wanted more than a company, he wanted an empire. By the end of that year he was presenting several different productions across Australia and New Zealand. They included Sinbad the Sailor at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, a season of melodrama at The Royal in Hobart and a tour of New Zealand by Czerny a magician.
William was a gambler who owned several racehorses. According to his long time friend , Jack Ricketts, ' he was modest in his successes and a sport in his losses'. Andersonís business decisions combined a gamblerís recklessness with gamblerís luck.
In 1906 he paid 3650 pounds for land at Bondi in Sydney to build Wonderland City, an open air amusement park. The park included a circus, flying machines, aquarium, a maze, a Merry Go Round skating rink and a miniature railway. There was also a vaudeville act and several novelty features, including Alice the elephant. It was designed as a pleasure palace and beautifully situated next to the sea. By the time it opened in 1907, Anderson had spent 15000 pounds on this folly.
His ambitions were endless, in 1907 he hired architect William Pitt to build a grand theatre on Russell Street in Melbourne. The theatre was called the Kings Theatre and Anderson paid a 1000 pound deposit and committed to a 7 year lease of the building at a grand rate of 4420 pounds per annum. These were enormous sums for the time.
Yet his grandiosity did not stop there. In addition to his playground and theatre, in 1906, Anderson toured Wonderland Circus across Queensland. The endless delays and logistical nightmare of transporting a circus which featured exotic animals cost a fortune. But William persisted despite the obvious difficulties.
The Kings Theatre in Melbourne was speedily finished and opened in 1908 with the play Man to Man. The first season featured a series of bush dramas written by Albert Edmunds ( Edmund Duggan and Bert Bailey). Edmund was Eugenie's brother and Bert was a long time member of Anderson's company. Their plays had realistic settings and in one case included shearing a sheep on stage.
In 1909 Anderson was featured in The Referee newspaper as one of the preeminent theatrical managers in the country. His picture stood side by side with JC Williamson, Harry Rickards and James Brennan, a situation which proved his importance to the Australian theatrical industry.
However by 1910, it was clear that Anderson had been too ambitious. The Sydney manager of Wonderland City was being hounded by creditors and desperately asking his boss for funds. Anderson, ensconced at the Kings Theatre studiously avoided the pleas and his secretary was responding to letters with
' So far I cannot get the boss to fix up these outstanding accounts of Sydney. The boss is only here a few minutes every day.í
By 1911 a combination of bad debts and local opposition to the park forced Wonderland City to close. For months afterwards, Jack Ricketts, the manager, dodged and weaved his way through bills and demands with little help from his boss who had many other problems.
Anderson was in severe financial difficulty and never recovered his former glory. In 1912 he sub leased the Kings Theatre to Duggan and Bailey who had a magnificent success with their version of Steele Rudd's, On Our Selection. This was another wholly Australian production which would never have been produced without Anderson's financial and logistical support. The play became a staple of Australian theatre for decades.
Anderson continued in theatrical production; however he never reproduced his former successes. He settled for a time in Adelaide, and often staged an annual pantomime. However it was clear by World War 1 that the public had outgrown his traditional melodramatic fare.
In the 1920s he and Eugenie moved to Melbourne, and the couple separated later in the decade. She died in 1936 and William died shortly afterwards in 1940.
William Anderson was a proud and extravagant Australian entrepreneur who embodied the reckless abandon and creativity of his time. He was a man who thought that Australian product was as good as or better than foreign productions and backed his theory with practical support of Australian actors, writers and artisans.
back to anderson index