The Tivoli Melbourne to 1914

The Opera House, which became the Tivoli Theatre in 1914, was a place with a great deal of history and a great history of trouble. Both began almost at the same time. The site began it's long history by hosting a timber yard and stables in the mid 19th Century. In the 1860s this building was replaced by the Australian and New York Letting and Livery stables which were topped by a hall or assembly room. M De La Chapelle was reportedly the manager. A little later in 1866, the hall was known as The Varieties and later as the Opera Comique. As The Varieties the hall hosted the first performance in Australia of the Can Can.

In 1870, a fire destroyed part of the building and in 1871 it was described as having a capacity of 2200 people with poor ventilation suspected of being polluted by the stables and kitchen yards.

In 1872 it was taken over as The Prince of Wales Opera House, with William Saurin Lyster as manager. Lyster had in the 1860s toured Australia with the Durand Opera Company and was credited with introducing opera to Australia. A syndicate, calling themselves the Opera House Company, which included W Dean, H Hoyt, A Crawford and Dr Motherwell paid rent of 1000 pounds a year for the building. Under the management of these gentlemen The Opera House presented a wide variety of popular entertainment. The Australian written pantomime, Australia Felix was performed in 1873. In 1874, an English singer and comedian named, Harry Rickards graced the stage. Whilst in 1883 "The Colonel" a play which satirised the aesthetic craze was produced. It also hosted such performances as the first Melbourne production of HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. This wide variety of performances was necessary to cater to the diverse audience which attended the theatre.

In 1886, the Board of Health noted that there was no closet or urinal accommodation for the stalls or pit. The building was still being used for theatrical purposes at that stage, hosting luminaries such as Nellie Stewart and The Brough- Boucicault Company.

In 1890, the Board of Health was complaining about the building and the city council said that it was operating without consent. The owners insisted that the Opera House Company had a lease until 1893 and that nothing could be done.

In 1894, the walls of the building were leaning and The Opera House was being described as more dangerous and risky than any other theatre in Melbourne. At his stage the building had a capacity of 2127 people. When they were all crammed into the space together , it was a fire and health hazard.

A year later Harry Rickards took a 3 year lease on this rattle trap building which was obviously in need of serious renovation. Later that year a fire broke out in a dressing room during a performance. Rickards who four years later would suffer a worse fate by fire, was uninsured.

By 1897, the city council was objecting to the place being used for entertainment purposes. Harry wrote to them asking for a delay in closure as he still had 3 years left to run on his lease. Finally in 1899, a month after his lease expired, the city council closed the theatre. It was essentially condemned as unhealthy and dangerous.

The owners advertised for new leasees, but conditions were attached to the lease.The old building was to be demolished and a new one built. Harry Rickards who never seemed to give up despite the odds against him, negotiated a new lease with the owners. The lease extended for fifty years and included the large sum of thirty five thousand pounds for rebuilding. That same year Rickards lost a large amount when the Tivoli in Sydney was destroyed by fire. The family empire must have been very close to tottering.

Nonetheless, Harry went ahead with his building plans the old theatre was demolished. The New Opera House, standing at 249 Bourke Street, was built and completed in 1900. It was designed by William Pitt who also designed the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. It was made of red brick with marble columns and terra cotta ornamentation. It had a three level auditorium, with red and gold colours dominating the decor. Columns which supported the three tiers hampered the view from many areas of the theatre. It was apparently well known for the intimacy it created between performer and audience. It had a capacity of approximately 1400 people.

The building was apparently surmounted with an illuminated beacon with the words "Opera House" upon it. It was known throughout the Rickards management era, as The New Opera House. In 1914 it was renamed the Tivoli.

The New Opera House had a strong tradition of importing international acts. Such famous performers as Cinquevalli, the juggler who could catch a cannon ball on his neck, Sandow the strongman, and W C Fields, amongst others appeared on it's stage. Together with the Tivoli in Sydney, it represented Harry Rickards' flagship operation.

-Leann Richards

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