Princess Theatre, Melbourne
Spring Street facade
|Address||163 Spring Street
|Designation||Victorian Heritage Register|
It was first erected in 1854 by actor-manager George Coppin, who would create Melbourne's theatre land. He already owned the Olympic (known as the 'Iron Pot') on the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets, installed gas lights in November 1855 into Astley's, and then he would go on to take over the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street.
The Princess Theatre is the second building on the present site - the first being Astley's Amphitheatre which opened in 1854 containing a central ring for equestrian entertainment and a stage at one end for dramatic performances. It was named in honour of the Astley Royal Amphitheatre, also known as Astley's Amphitheatre, near Westminster Bridge, London.
In 1857, the amphitheatre was renovated and the facade extended, then re-opening as the Princess Theatre and Opera House.
By 1885, the partnership of J. C. Williamson, George Musgrove and Arthur Garner, had been formed and they became known as 'The Triumvirate', the business becoming known as J. C. Williamson's. The Triumvirate resolved to build a new theatre.
Completed in 1886 to the design of architect William Pitt; George Gordon to design the interior; and Cockram and Comely as the builders; re-development of the Theatre took place at a cost of £50,000. The design is in the exuberant Second Empire style, and the theatre forms part of the Victorian streetscape of Spring Street.
When completed, it featured the world's first sliding or retractable roof and ceiling. It also featured state-of-the-art electrical stage lighting.
The theatre re-opened, again, on 18 December 1886, with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. The marble staircase and foyer was hailed as equal to that of the Paris Opera, the Frankfurt Stadt and the Grand in Bordeaux.
On 26 December 1922, new owners Ben Fuller and Hugh J. Ward renovated and reopened the theatre, with a performance of The O'Brien Girl.
The theatre was purchased from Fuller in 1933 by Efftee Films, the film production company of F. W. Thring, the theatrical and film entrepreneur, who had his initials FT carved over the proscenium arch. He produced several musicals there, and made it the first home of his radio station 3XY, founded 1935.
When Francis W. Thring died, Ben Fuller and Garnett Carroll took over the lease of the Princess in Melbourne and in 1946 they formed another partnershipforming Carroll-Fuller Theatres Ltd to purchase the Princess Theatre.
After Sir Ben Fuller's death in 1952, Garnet H. Carroll assumed complete control. For the following 12 years, often in association with other entrepreneurs, he presented an eclectic array of opera, ballet, musical comedy and drama, though he was constrained by the lack of an interstate circuit. At the Princess in 1954 he hosted the National Theatre Movement’s gala performance of The Tales of Hoffmann for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Other notable productions included Ballet Rambert (1947-48), the Old Vic Theatre Company with Sir Laurence (Lord) Olivier and Vivien Leigh (1948), the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company (1949), the Vienna Boys' Choir (1954), the Chinese Classical Theatre (1956) and the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (1960 and 1962). Garnett Carroll often staged elaborate American musicals—among them Kismet (which he himself produced in 1954), The Sound of Music (1960), The King and I (1960) and Carousel (1964)—while they were still in their early months on Broadway, and tried unknown singers and actors.
Garnett Carroll died on on 23 August 1964 and ownership passed to his son, John Carroll. For some years he maintained the pattern set by his father, but in 1969 the family company, Carroll Freeholds Pty Ltd, leased the Princess to the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.
In 1987, David Marriner purchased the Princess Theatre; he renovated and had the 1922 origins documented, then 9 December 1989, the theatre re-opened with the musical Les Misérables, followed by The Phantom of the Opera, establishing a new record for the longest running show ever staged in Victoria.
On the evening of 3 March 1888, the baritone Frederick Baker, known under the stage name "Frederick Federici", was performing the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod's opera Faust. This production ended with Mephistopheles sinking dramatically through a trapdoor returning to the fires of hell with his prize, the unfortunate Dr Faustus. As Federici was lowered down through the stage into this basement, he had a heart attack and died almost immediately. He never came back onstage to take his bows, but when the company was told of what had happened at the end of the opera, they said that he had been onstage and taken the bows with them. Since then, various people have claimed to see a ghostly figure in evening dress at the theatre. For many years, a third-row seat in the dress circle was kept vacant in his honour.
When a documentary was made nearly 80 years later, by Kennedy Miller in the early 1970s, a photograph of the film set revealed an ashen-faced, partly transparent observer. No-one on the set saw the figure on that day; only the photograph revealed 'the ghost'.
Restored in 1989, the theatre is regarded as Melbourne's home for international musical productions, including:
- Kraftwerk (1981)
- Les Misérables (1989 & 1998)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1990)
- Cats (1993)
- West Side Story (1994)
- Disney's Beauty and the Beast
- The Boy from Oz
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- The Sound of Music (2000)
- The Witches of Eastwick 2002
- Mamma Mia! (2002)
- The Producers (2004)
- Swan Lake on Ice (2006)
- Dirty Dancing (2006)
- Kiss Me, Kate (2006)
- The Phantom of the Opera (2007)
- Guys and Dolls (2008)
- Jersey Boys (2009)
- Hairspray (October 2010)
- "Legally Blonde (musical)" (May 2013)
- Argus, 4 August 1993, p.7, quoted in The Two Frank Thrings, Peter Fitzpatrick, Monash University Publications 2012
- The theatre ghost from the ABC
- Stone, David. Frederick Federici at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 27 August 2001, accessed 4 September 2011
- "Shocking Occurrence at the Princess's Theatre: Tragic Death of Mr. Federici", The Argus (Melbourne), 5 March 1888, p. 8; and "Production of Faust in Melbourne", The Press, Volume XLV, Issue 7025, 29 March 1888, p. 3, National Library of New Zealand
- Graeme Blundell, "Marvellous Meelbourne", The Age, 27–28 August 2005
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