Palace Theatre Melbourne Secrets
The Palace Theatre on Bourke Street, Melbourne – slated for demolition – has had many names. It also has secrets. A tunnel linking it to the Princess Theatre next door. The starting point for Peter Finch, who went onto Hollywood fame with Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Glenda Jackson. A special role in Chrissy Amphlett’s life. A rumoured Eureka Stockade hiding place. Melbourne’s centenary opera season. It is a theatre like no other.
The theatre has Nick Cave posters backstage and floorboards walked by the young Peter Finch. The tiles, smashed during the first stage of demolition inside the theatre, are Art Nouveau (below).
These are 1916 – built Louis 16th style decorations to the galleries, and tiles from the 1912 – built art nouveau dado from the Bourke Street staircase. They have been rescued and saved.
The Palace Theatre backs onto the end of Amphlett Lane, at the top of Little Bourke Street, near Spring Street. Chrissy Amphlett played at The Palace Theatre on Bourke Street with Divinyls on Friday 2nd June 1995 with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Map: MIXFM
Life as The Metro
The mirrored ball from The Palace Theatre’s time as the re-named Metro has been saved and stored along with the spotlight. Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum was an occasional DJ at The Metro. This is his iconic cowboy hat, stored the new Melbourne Music Vault. The hat is a museum piece – but The Metro/The Palace is slated for destruction, so it can be turned into a hotel.
TWO STAGE DOORS
This is the Princess Theatre from Little Bourke Street. The Palace Theatre is linked to her sister theatre by a small alleyway and two hidden stage doors, coming off Amphlett Lane. Destroying The Palace destroys the historic connection. If you walk up Amphlett Lane today you will find the tiny alleyway on your left, and the two doors, steps away from each other.
THE PALACE THEATRE AND THE EUREKA STOCKADE
The site of The Palace Theatre today housed the National Hotel in the early days of Victorian gold rush. Writing in her book, A City Lost and Found (Penguin), Robyn Annear notes, ‘By the end of 1854, the National Hotel was under the management of Tom Mooney, proudly Irish and of nationalist persuasion. The cartoon below shows The Palace Theatre when it was the National Theatre. Tom Mooney is centre-stage with glasses and sideburns.
Legend tells us that Mooney harboured the injured rebel leader, Peter Lalor, in an attic room at the National ‘for months’ after the clash at the Eureka stockade in December 1954.’ If this story is true, then perhaps it involves the secret tunnel to The Princess Theatre next door, described by an usherette who worked at The Palace during the 1940’s.
THE SECRET TUNNEL FROM THE PALACE TO THE PRINCESS
This account appears in On The Home Front, by Professor Kate Darian-Smith, from the University of Melbourne. An usherette named Ngaere Macgregor worked at The Palace when it was known as the St. James, and remembers:
‘I was working at St. James Theatre (in Bourke Street) and there was another girl there – a stuck-up little devil. We got together and decided we’d have a ball, just usherettes, and we had a competition for the best-dressed at this ball. Well, Sheila her name was, she went to no end of trouble, and money, to get this glorious dress. And I had no money – Mum took it all! – so I devised this thing in my head and I found this material at Norman’s – a very cheap place, but it was nice white pique. I wanted to have sparkly things, but you just couldn’t get them.
But I had a secret. At the back of St. James, at the back of the stage, I was snooping around one day and I came across one of those big, big old security doors. So I strained at it, and poked and pushed and it creaked open into a long stone corridor. It was all vaulted – ooh, cold and dark – it was like the sewers of Paris! And I found myself in the Princess Theatre around the corner. I wandered right through this labyrinth thing – and you know the Princess is haunted! I don’t know how I had the nerve! I found myself in the wardobe room and you’ve got no idea how spooky that was, with all these costumes hanging up in the semi-gloom and swords in corners and suits of armour and all these marvellous costumes! But then I came across this beautiful black velvet crinoline and around the hem there were all these stones. ‘My God, that will do for the dress!’ But I couldn’t take the whole thing, so the next day I went back with scissors and I cut the bottom right off. I unpicked them all and took them to a dressmaker and Voila! I won ,I won, and the other girl looked awful! Not really, she had on a beautiful royal blue georgette and I thought she’d win.’
THE PALACE IN 1934 AND MELBOURNE’S CENTENARY
The Palace Theatre played a very special part in the history of Melbourne in 1934 when it was chosen to host what was hoped would become the start of an Australian Opera House – some forty years before Sydney Opera House.
Sir Benjamin Fuller’s Royal Opera Company in Melbourne, which launched for the 1934 centenary of the city, can still be seen in the decor of The Palace Theatre today. Or at least – you can see it in this plasterwork, ripped from the building’s amazing interior and saved.
The Palace Theatre was renamed The Apollo for the centenary of Melbourne and Sir Benjamin Fuller gave it ‘the biggest neon light in Australia’ and presented two of Australia’s greatest singers, the soprano Florence Austral and the bass Horace Stevens.
The Lord Mayor of Melbourne (Sir Harold Gengoult Smith) welcomed the opera season to a huge fanfare in 1934.
According to Sir Benjamin Fuller the costumes were from The Met in New York. His aim was to establish The Royal Grand Opera Company in Australia, in Melbourne. Thus, The Palace Theatre (then known as The Apollo) would have preceded The Sydney Opera House by forty years. Fuller’s biggest attraction was Florence Austral, below.
FLORENCE AUSTRAL – THE PALACE SUPERSTAR
Dame Nellie Melba called her, “One of the wonder voices of the world”. Florence Austral, born in Melbourne, was a world-class Soprano who sang with the New York Philarmonic at Carnegie Hall in the 1920’s and went on to became an opera star in London. This is one of her preserved jackets.
During her 1934 season in AIDA Florence was suffering with M.S. (Multiple Sclerosis) in an uncanny parallel with Chrissy Amphlett, who was to take the Palace stage sixty years after her. Florence is one of the famous faces immortalised in the Personalities of Opera mural in the dining room of the Melbourne Myer emporium.
This costume (below) is from the AIDA production at The Palace, from the Arts Centre Melbourne archive. Florence’s jacket is preserved at The Dress Register
PETER FINCH AND THE PALACE THEATRE
The young Peter Finch (who later went on to star in films with Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway and Glenda Jackson) got his start at The Palace Theatre in 1935 when it was known as The Apollo. Finch later won an Oscar for his work in Hollywood.
If walls could talk at The Palace Theatre, they would describe everything from Peter Finch’s performance in the 1935 season of So This Is Hollywood to Kylie’s season at the venue. Kylie and Grace Angelou (whose armlet in the 1934 production of AIDA is shown here) both have their costumes preserved at The Arts Centre, Melbourne, so why were parts of the stunning Art Nouveau tiles and Picton Hopkins plasterwork from the same theatre, being sacrificed? But – it’s not over yet.
This is from the Save The Palace Facebook page:
“A sad day today for the the Save The Palace crew. Together with Melbourne Heritage Action, National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and Australian Music Museum Project, we trudged down to an isolated industrial yard where a single skip sat, protected from the elements by a mish-mash of tarps hurriedly thrown over to protect its contents from the elements.”
“The skip was emptied and we started our heart-wrenching foraging for items of significance. Crushed Baroque plasterwork, smashed 100 year old Art Nouveau tiles (pictured above), classical Grecian cameos ripped from balconies made our job all the harder. It took hours to retrieve salvageable items with our small team and as each layer of plaster was turned over, that had been ripped inconsiderately by uncaring construction workers our unease started to fade.”
“There was so much more we had been expecting to find that just wasn’t there. This renewed our hope. Regardless, there is ultimately still a 100 year old theatre standing there. What was taken can be restored. The cultural history can never be ripped out and it is what we will continue to fight for. “
It’s Not Over Yet
You can help rescue this historic Melbourne theatre before it’s too late. It has had many names. The Apollo. The Metro. The song remains the same, though – and despite its part-destruction – the beat goes on. It’s not too late to Save The Palace!