Her Majesty's Pleasure
A Centenary Celebration for Adelaide's Theatre of the Stars
by Frank Van Straten
Frank Van Straten’s interest in the performing arts started when he was still at school. Over the years he has amassed a vast collection of Australian theatre memorabilia, including much of South Australia. He has written historical articles for theatre programs and journals as well as several books. To him each theatre is unique, each has its own personality, its own traditions and its own heart.
In Her majesty’s Pleasure he has skilfully set out the remarkable history and legacy of this wonderful working theatre and its important part played in South Australia’s history. He also believes that every theatre enshrines the history of the community it serves. When that history spans a century it is certainly something worth recording and celebrating.
Adelaide’s long theatrical history began in 1838 when the ballroom of the Adelaide Tavern in Franklin Street was transformed into a playhouse. Many others have since come and gone until the opening of the Royal in Hindley Street in 1878, replacing two earlier smaller theatres on that site. In 1900 Adelaide got its first Tivoli Theatre.
However in 1912 Adelaide born architects David Williams and Charles Thomas Good designed the Princess Theatre for which the foundation stone was laid on 14 October 1912. When completed it was officially opened as the New Tivoli by J. Lavington Bonython, Mayor of Adelaide, on 5 September 1913.
It soon proved that Adelaide was not a stuffy city of churches. In fact, the city and suburbs bustled with theatres, cinemas, dance halls, circuses, waxworks, fetes, balls and gala get-togethers. For a short time it even had a cyclorama. Yes Adelaide was well served with theatres for entertainment. It had now nine, ‘not including Parliament House, which provided the greatest extravaganza of the lot’ according to Adelaide journalist Willie J. Sowden.
Within a very short time the Tivoli played host to a parade of outstanding international vaudeville talent. Not all audiences were equally pleased with what was offered. Within a year many were enraged when at a special ladies matinee the Tango dance was demonstrated. The Rev. S.J. Evans of the Stow Memorial Church found the whole thing quite stupid, vulgar and unattractive – an insult to the public of Adelaide.
Even after one hundred years the Grand Old Lady has shown no sign of slowing down. During that time Her Majesty’s, under various names and owners has been entertaining Adelaide with the ribaldry of Stiffy and Mo, the soaring soprano of Joan Sutherland, the earthiness of Indigenous performances, the grace of ballet and almost any other form of entertainment.
Her Majesty’s was created as a variety house, part of the legendary Tivoli vaudeville circuit and is the only one original Tivoli still standing. The roll call of its performances is impressive, to say the least, and provide a potent demonstration of what has entertained, challenged and delighted South Australians for the past century.
Among its many different kinds of entertainment have been, art exhibitions, ballet, comedy, community singing, concerts, cowboy shows, country music, dance, drama, ice show, jazz, live radio shows, modern films, musicals, one-person shows, opera, puppetry, plays, religious meetings, rock concerts, silent movies, talkies, theatre and even wrestling. The book pays tribute to all of them and those people who have contributed to the theatre’s long life and success. It is a nostalgic celebration designed to evoke memories of shows and stars and to offer an encore for some of the forgotten plays and players of times gone by.
During World War I the theatre was forced to close ‘until conditions in Australia were more settled’. Instead came the Tivoli Follies with local productions such as For the Term of his natural life, My Boomerang and the Mallee Root as well as films. After another name change it became the Prince of Wales and some of Adelaide’s and Australia’s best talent performed on its stage. Among them Stiffy and Mo, The South Australian Opera Group and Steele Rudd’s Dad and Dave.
In 1930 the name reverted back to the Tivoli once more. The onset of the depression saw the Tivoli empty for lengthy periods but on 16 March 1935 it reopened with Tivoli Follies 1935, which ran for 23 weeks. In 1936 the play Colonel Light – The Founder, by the Adelaide Repertory Theatre contributed to the State’s Centenary celebrations. It was written by Max Alford, a former scriptwriter at Radio 5DN.
Two years later it was professional wrestling which proved a big draw-cart. In 1942 the Tivoli saw the first performance of Aussies on Parade. It attracted big audiences and the players, all men from the 6th Division enjoyed themselves as much as the audience. The show was in aid of the Cheer-up Society. A highlight of the Repertory Theatre’s 1948 repertoire was the production of The First Joanna, a new play by Dorothy Blewett, set in a Reynella vineyard.
A year later there were three Bill Holyoak’s Swing Shows to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In 1950 the Tivoli was put up for sale but passed in at £49.000. Even so, the shows went on regardless. Four years later it was announced that £60.000 would be spent on upgrades, including air conditioning. Nothing came of it but by the middle of February 1954 the theatre was on the market again. This time it was sold, but remained closed until Bill Haley’s tour of 1957.
From then on regular performances were staged until the final show of the Sentimental Bloke in 1962, inspired by South Australian born C.J. Dennis. For three weeks the Tivoli was packed to the rafters. A few hours after the Bloke had ‘dipped his lid’ for the last time the jackhammers took centre stage. This time the theatre was in for some major renovations and upgrades.
When it reopened on 8 November 1962 for business it had also acquired a new name. This time it became Her Majesty’s Theatre. For the next 14 years it staged ballets, opera and theatre but now it faced strong competition from Television and once again it fell on hard times.
It was saved by the Dunstan government when on 9 November 1976 it announced that it would buy Her Maj for $440.000. With its new owner, The State Opera, the theatre was also named The Opera Theatre. After a million dollar upgrade it was reopened on 10 March 1979.
Among some of the best attractions of the 1980s were The Rocky Horror Show, An Evening’s Intercourse with Barry Humphries, The Flying Dutchman and Sweeny Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. On 31 August 1988 The Opera Theatre was renamed once more to Her Majesty’s Theatre. For the next few years Her Maj remained busy with one-night-stands and short seasons.
Among some of the best acts were Jeanne Lewis with her Piaf showcase, John Williamson, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Allen. The highlight for 1996 was Jesus Christ Superstar. During 2002 Australian films brought audiences back in droves. They enjoyed The Tracker, Beneath Clouds, Kabbarli, Walking on Water and Australian Rules.
Now after one hundred years Her Majesty’s is still the only commercially viable theatre within the city. It is a place of precious memories and a place that promises good things to come. No other theatre in Australia has fostered so much emerging talent, Barry Humphries, Keith Mitchell, Robert Helpman, to name but a few.
Enriched by a treasure-trove of rare photographs, posters, costumes and set designs, Her Majesty’s Pleasure will be a delight for anyone who loves show business and Adelaide. Van Straten was awarded the Medal of Australia (OAM) in 1999 in recognition of his services to the performing arts.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Her Majesty's Pleasure, by Frank Van Straten,
Telephone 08 8352 4455
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