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Reginald Spencer and Her Majesty's theatre Brisbane

Brisbane Theatre of the Old Days

In J.J. Knight's 'In The Early Days' there is a reference to Brisbane's first theatre act:

Our First Theatre and Its Promoter


by Reginald Spencer Browne

Theatre Royal

It was in April 1881 – April 18 as a fact – that the new Theatre Royal – then new- in Elizabeth Street, was opened. An impression exists, and I may have helped it, that the Montague – Turner Co., gave the opening performance. The question arose lately in connection with my discussion of the Albert Hall, afterwards the Gaiety Theatre, and I looked it up in the “Courier.”

It was J. L. Hall, “Johnny” Hall, who opened the house with the farcical comedy, “Our Girls,” and he played “Captain Gingah” with incomparable humour. The company were the Marsh sisters, Sam Poole, A. C. Boothman (of the heavy melodramatic type), and, I think, Lancelot Booth, a poet, journalist, and “dam bad” actor.

Miss Lily Thynne read the prologue or opening “Ode.” It may be mentioned that the lady was not one of the Colonel A. J. Thynne family, but a bright young actress and daughter of a well-known Brisbane theatre manager of the period.

Richard Newton in the “Courier” had rather a sneer at the “Ode,” the “Observer” spoke of it very kindly, but the author is to this day under the veil of anonymity – and there let him rest.

A letter from Adelaide told me that in noticing the opening of the Theatre Royal in Brisbane by “Johnny” Hall and his company, I omitted mention of Maggie Ford, the principal broad comedy element with Mr. Hall. The plea is guilty, but it was a slip.

Maggie Ford was very clever, of the old singing chambermaid type, and she occasionally shook us up, so much indeed that one critic said that her method in a song rather “savoured of the music hall.”

Today, girls might even take their mother to hear the rowdiest things Maggie Ford ever gave us. Music halls, of course, in the old days were what we now call vaudeville shows. They were considered not quite respectable. With Victorian airs and graces we had the old Dickens idea of the modest maiden who should not be shocked – a violet by a mossy stone, in the Wordsworthian way of putting it.

And that reminds me – rather I looked up the “Courier” file to find out names – that Miss H. Browne and Miss Greenlees were also with “Johnny” Hall in addition to those formerly mentioned, and Russell also, and John Hesford.

The “Courier” spoke of the interior of the new theatre – the same little Royal that we know today – as of “graceful dimensions and elegant designs,” and said also of the orchestra that “all the available talent has been secured.” Our available talent for Brisbane theatre orchestras was then very limited. Probably good instrumentalists would get £1 a week, or 5 /- a night, to supplement the incomes from their ordinary employment.

As to contemporary performances, I wrote in 1881 some “notices” of the Kelly and Leon opera performances at the Town Hall, and especially good was “Girofle-Girofla,” with Emma Wangenheim, Lucy and Amy Fraser, Hettie Croucher, Edward Kelly, Edwin Lester, Stewart Bolton, Martyn Hagan, and Dignan, and Fred Eugarde’s orchestra.

Emma Wagenheim was a tremendous success in the brilliant “See how it sparkles, this drink divine,” the famous “champagne song”; but I was to hear it again a year later and under different circumstances. It was at a Band of Hope entertainment at St. John’s schoolroom up in George Street.

Various youngsters played their pieces, and some recited, and then the chairman, a stern, uncompromising “abstainer,” announced: “Miss Kitty Munro will now favour us with a song”. A saucy minx, probably just in her tees, bustled up to the piano, raised the screw seat, fluffed down, banged some pretentious chords, and then came the introduction to “See how it sparkles!”

And the young imp sang it with all the joyousness of a canary, and all the abandon of Emma Wangenheim – trills, shakes, runs, and everything- and the audience applauded wildly.

The chairman was probably shocked, but he had a sense of humour, and when the quiet came, he just said: “The child does not understand the occasion.” But the child was hustled home and spanked. Her family had not anticipated the contribution to the programme. That kiddie, and I often laugh over it all; but I must not say too much, for she is my wife!

In 1881, we had nothing in the way of a theatre until the enterprising syndicate built the Royal. The old School of Arts, where the Queensland National bank now stands, was not going when I first knew Brisbane, nor was the Bijou, which flourished in Edward Street near Exchange Hotel (on right), and had seen some notable people. We had only the Town Hall until the days of the Royal, and we all know how little space there was for an audience.

Albert Hall

Southall and Treacy came along and built the Albert Hall, in Adelaide Street, for a company, but they were interested in it as part owners. Richard Southall was well-known as an alderman, and as Mayor of Brisbane, a very good, honest man; and Mr. Treacy was his son-in-law.

It was in the Albert Hall that Wilhelmj, the violinist, appeared when he visited us, and it was there also that we had the first display of the phonograph, as we then called it, by our old friend, Professor Pepper, if I remember correctly, with a lecture on good old Polytechnic style. It was also there that Professor Denton, a very brilliant American, lectured on “Geology.”

What a wonderful lecturer! Geology, under Denton’s exposition, was not a dry scientific subject. He opened up to us the history of the earth as though it were some marvelous book. Later, he died up in New Guinea. He was a rather small, spare man, but his voice was musical, and his lectures were most beautiful prose.

Many concerts , too, were given in the Albert Hall in the days when the performers were not named in the programmes. Amateurs did not get personal publicity. It would be: “Song (Sentimental), Lady Amateur”; or “Song, ‘The Vision,’ Gentleman Amateur.”

And the papers in their reports put it that such-and-such an item was delightfully rendered by a lady amateur. We go for a little more publicity now. What would the censor morum of years ago have said to an illustration in a paper showing some of our lady amateur swimmers, or even the swimming girls of some of our schools. Gosh!

Percy St. John, who later built and ran the Empire Theatre, produced at the old Albert Hall, at Christmas time, in 1887 – but it was then known as the Gaiety Theatre a very clever pantomime, and took a hand in it himself.

I’m not sure that he was not the Dame. I remember going to it before getting on board ship for England, where I then intended to settle; but Australians have a way of becoming homesick. We call it nostalgia when it affects soldiers. It is the call of one’s own land.

Gaiety Theatre

At the Albert Hall or Gaiety Theatre, whichever it was at the time, we had some very fine performances of comic opera with Emelie Melville, Gracie Plaisted, that most wonderful tenor Charles Harding (a New Zealander, as was Phillip Newbury) and many other very fine artists.

It was at the Gaiety Theatre also that I last heard Theobold Vincent Wallace Bushelle, or “Toby” Bushelle, one of the finest of bassos, and who traveled for a time with the Carrandini Concert Company. Bushelle, as stated earlier, was with me on the “Observer” when it was a morning paper. The theatre later became a vaudeville house, then the storehouse for the parcels post, and later was absorbed by the spread of the great Finney, Isle and Co. establishment.

In the old days we loved the negro minstrels. Even in 1888 in London, it was a delight to go and hear the Burgess and Moore Minstrels – somewhere up in Oxford Street, I think. “Pony” Moore was a wonderful little chap, the father-in-law of Charlie Mitchell, who fought a draw with John L. Sullivan in France in 1888.

Here, shortly after I came to Brisbane, John Liddy, a capable and experienced manager, had a company running, including Billy Sweatman, R. McDonald, W. Horace (“Billy”) Bent, H. Shannon, Beaumont Read, and Maggie Glendenning, the last-named a very effective soprano. Bent was a mighty clever little chap; and Beaumont Read was an alto male whose voice, though an unnatural sort of thing, was inexpressibly sweet and sympathetic.

I remember in the programme “Kiss Me to Sleep,” “Pretty Blue Eyes,” “Bells of Memory,” and some of the older stuff, cleverly harmonised, such as “Write Me a Letter from Home.” These minstrels were all white men, and mostly American. They had a wonderfully good quartette, and their voices meant real music.

They had peculiar enunciation, a form which belonged to the American minstrel cult, but, with all that given in, their singing was a treat.

Later, John Liddy took over regular theatre management, and I remember well that he always had the sympathy of our chief sub-editor, E. J. T. Barton, because he would never allow any grossness in companies, no matter how boisterous the plays might be. Bent, Beaumont, Read, Shannon – gone; all of them gone years ago. Dear Reader, does it ever occur to you that we are getting to the period which youth considers for itself an impossibility – getting old.

- Reginald Spencer Browne (Portrait) (Bio)