Harry Clay and Clays Theatres
Harry Clay was born Henry Clay at Patrick's Plain, Singleton in 1865. His parents were John and Mary A Clay and he had at least two brothers, George and Ralph. At that time Patrick's Plain was a young and small settlement to the north of Sydney in the Newcastle area.
Harry apparently began his theatrical career as a performer in the local area. He later became involved in minstrel companies and by the 1890s was working for Harry Rickards as a Tivoli regular. Harry Clay was a tenor singer of some repute according to later accounts
By 1905, Clay was beginning to promote his own vaudeville company. Clay's operation was to become a training ground for many artists, such as George Wallace and George Sorlie who later played the Tivoli. In that way his association with his former employer continued.
Clays operation was smaller, cheaper and relied more on local talent than did the larger vaudeville empires of Rickards and James Brennan. By 1910, Harry Clay had set up head quarters in Newtown, to the west of Sydney, and was promoting shows in the Sydney suburbs.
In that year his primary venues were the Hippodrome, later the Bridge Theatre, in Newtown and The Royal Standard Theatre in the city. The Hippodrome, for those who know the Newtown area, was located where the old Hub Theatre still stands. It was centrally located on a major Sydney tram route and opposite Newtown railway station. As such it was in an attractive position for Clay's targeted clientele, the working class residents of Sydney. The Standard theatre was also centrally located. It stood near the 'new Mark Foy's building' , built to two stories in 1908, in Castlereagh Street. It was thus close to Central station and to the heart of Chinatown.
Clay was unique in that he took the theatre to the burgeoning suburban areas of Sydney. In 1910 a typical Clay's programme had a performance at Petersham Town Hall on Monday, Parramatta on Tuesday, Newtown on Wednesday, Ashfield on Thursday, North Sydney on Friday and The Royal Standard on Saturday.
The cheap prices and the suburban audiences made for a rowdy, exciting, and interactive experience. Whilst the Tivoli attempted to gentrify it's shows and make them more family and middle class friendly, Clays appealed to a more earthy, less sophisticated crowd.
At this stage Clay seemed to be running two companies, who toured the circuit. Number One company probably played the two major theatres, The Standard on Saturday and Newtown bridge on Wednesday. Number Two company toured the suburbs. One feature of the shows were the picture songs. A singer would perform in front of a projector screen to the cheers of the audience. An attempt to mix the new movie technology with the old vaudeville traditions. One exponent of this art was Miss Thelma Woods. Thelma was a balladist, whose picture songs were well received by a Newtown Bridge audience in 1910. Clays attracted large audiences throughout this period to all its shows. Its success was only limited by the small size of the venues.
Clays continued to grow. During World War One, Clay continued to present performances. Perhaps his circuit was less effected by the war because it had always relied on a strong local element to attract patrons. The other theatres such as the Tiv had a strong tradition of importing major international acts. A tradition that was threatened by the outbreak of hostilities.
In 1917 Clay had expanded to include country areas and more players. The Newtown Bridge Theatre was still, however, the centre of the Clay mini empire. Clays advertised a complete change of programme every eight days at Newtown bridge. A rapid change in the programme was central to the success of a circuit with limited seats and small prices. The routine of the regular performers was hectic as a result. A company would come in one Saturday and leave for the country the next Friday. It would be replaced by the incoming country company who would play one night at Newtown, before touring the suburbs. Then the next company would come in to perform that Saturday night. At this stage Clay had added the Coliseum Theatre in North Sydney to the circuit. This theatre is now called the Independent and is still operating in the area.
Clay seemed to have at least three different companies operating at one time . They went by a variety of colourful names. For example, The Bullfighters Company, the Where's My Wife Company, the Tomboy company. Each company regularly toured the country areas. Towns included on the itinerary included, Goulburn, Albury, Wagga, Junee, Cootamundra, Young, Harden, Cowra, Bathurst and Lithgow. All of these towns were on major train lines, with many being on the Melbourne to Sydney route. The life of a performer on the Clays circuit would have been one of small town hotels, the sound of trains rattling, and the constant threat of luggage loss. The country tours were also an opportunity to hone their skills with a less sophisticated and smaller audience.
The performances at this stage mimicked the structure of the larger vaudeville theatres. A first part revue based on a theme, followed by a second part of more traditional vaudeville fare. One winter 1917 performance at Newtown Bridge boasted a 'breezy and bright' musical burlesque called Miss Chilli from Chill as the first part. It was followed by a second part which included Wong Toy Sun and Company in 'oriental magical creations' and the Harmonious Trio.
Many of the performances included moving pictures, which was a popular trend. This was an attempt to forestall the incursions of the new medium upon the old.
By 1922, Harry Clay was considered a respectable Newtown and Sydney businessman. Ten years earlier he had been excluded from the official jubilee souvenir of Newtown. In 1922 he was warmly welcomed. The Bridge Theatre was featured in a large advertisement in the official programme. It boasted ' The Greatest and Cheapest show in the southern Hemisphere', urged, Save Hours Of Worry -Smile (SHOWS) and Come Laugh Away Your Sorrows (CLAYS). Prices however had risen to two shillings, perhaps reflecting this new respectability.
Harry Clay was a self made businessman and in keeping with his new status lived in Vaucluse in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney with his wife Kate and daughter Essie. The eastern suburbs had been the home of Rickards and Williamson and seemed to be a popular area for theatre impresarios.
In 1925, Clay was principal of a company which controlled The Princess Theatre in the city, the Gaiety in Oxford Street, and the Bridge Theatre in Newtown. He was 60 years old and suffering from a long illness. He died in February of that year, at Vaucluse in Sydney.
His funeral was attended by a large theatrical contingent. The hearse was preceded by about 200 members of the theatrical employees union. Representatives from the Tivoli theatre, Fullers Theatres, the Sydney Stadium, Wirth's Circus, Vaucluse Council and Newtown Council attended. A host of actors, actresses, vaudevillians, and show people, also attended. The service at the grave side concluded with the attendees singing 'Nearer my God to thee.'
Henry Clay was buried at South Head cemetery. One obituary in a Sydney paper said, that he was ' a staunch friend of Australian artists' and that he had 'won a high name in the profession for generosity.' An apt epitaph for a man who was a much beloved figure in the Australian vaudeville scene.
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