Theatre Royal (Brisbane)

The Theatre Royal, at 80 Elizabeth Street, had the distinction of standing on the site of the first official theatre in Brisbane and so is integrally linked with Brisbane’s earliest theatrical history.  Mason’s Concert Hall on Elizabeth Street opened on 25 January 1865 in the presence of Governor, Sir G.F. Bowen.  The first performance was “a selection of songs, glees, &c., with solos on the pianoforte, together with dramatic representations by professional and amateur artistes” (Brisbane Courier 24 Jan. 1865: 2).  George B. Mason, who has since been credited with introducing the first regular theatrical performances to Brisbane,  built the theatre which was close to, and subsequently adjoining, the Victoria Hotel where he was the lessee.  Mason was not only a hotelier, he had previously been the proprietor of a music shop in Queen Street, he was also a teacher of music, and he was responsible for running some public concerts (Royal Historical Society of Queensland Bulletin 1).  William Coote was the architect and John Bourne was contracted to complete the building which accommodated 500 people (Thorne, Theatre Buildings in Australia to 1905 103).  The Elizabeth Street entrance was flanked by two double storey shops.  The auditorium was 72ft long and 38ft wide while the stage was 20ft wide and 16ft deep (Brisbane Courier 26 Jan. 1865: 2).  A skylight formed much of the ceiling.  The audience sat on benches “with comfortable backs” and “from about a third of the distance from the stage…the benches rise gradually one higher than the other to the entrance, so that those of the audience farthest off can command a clear view of the stage over the heads of all before them” (Brisbane Courier 26 Jan. 1865: 2).  By having no box, pit or gallery, the hall could be used for balls and meetings on the flat floor.  On 8 April 1865, Mason was already announcing the closure of the Hall for one week for alterations and improvements.  For the next fifteen years the theatre was perpetually being renovated and renamed.  It was variously Mason’s Concert Hall, Mason’s Theatre or the Victoria Theatre in 1865, the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1867, and the Queensland Theatre on 21 April 1874 (refurbished by Morton Tavares), before it was demolished by James Thynne in 1880 who entirely rebuilt the theatre. 

The Queensland Theatre was distinctive because “it was built entirely of iron but, as there had been so many fires in Australian theatres at that time, it was probably felt to be safer” (Sunday Mail Colour 17 June 1979: 5).  Morton Tavares announced on 13 April 1874 that the newly named Queensland Theatre was “undergoing Repairs and Alterations, with NEW PROSCENIUM, nicely-furnished Cloak-room, increased comfort in the arrangement of Raised Seats for the Audience” (Brisbane Courier 13 Apr. 1874: 1):

Our readers have been made aware that considerable improvements as regards the comfort of the audience and the decoration of the interior of this hitherto dingy and cellar-like place of entertainment have been promised by the present lessee, and he certainly has redeemed his pledge.  The whole of the interior has been painted in light, well-blended colors, thus imparting a cheerful look in pleasing contrast to the old gloom that pervaded the place.  The old proscenium has been removed, and the stage thus enlarged.  (Brisbane Courier 22 Apr. 1874: 3)

When the Theatre Royal opened on 18 April 1881 it had a seating capacity of 1350; the Dress Circle held 350, the Stalls held 250, and the Pit accommodated 750 (Companion to Theatre in Australia 583).  The theatre was designed by Andrea Stombuco.   A private refreshment room was provided for the patrons of the dress circle and a smoking room was at the front of the theatre “so that every facility is given for the bored playgoer to lounge away the acts in perfect comfort” (Brisbane Courier 19 Apr. 1881: 3).  The Brisbane Courier praised the elegance of the interior design of the new theatre despite its ‘modest’ exterior.  The golden Corinthian columns of the proscenium were particularly liked. The paper was critical, however, of the shape of the Dress Circle “which is too much of the horse-shoe shape, the heels of the shoe as it were projecting in a manner that somewhat obscures the stage for those sitting at the side” (Brisbane Courier 16 Apr. 1881: 4).  Refurbishments again took place in 1911 when electric lighting was installed and new decorations were added.  Brennan’s Amphitheatres Ltd. had control of the Theatre Royal at this time and invited the press to inspect the renovations. Decorations in salmon pink, green, and cream, “with a rich but tasteful embellishment of gold”, formed the aesthetic changes to the space while improved seating and ventilation, including the installation of a sliding roof, enhanced the audience comfort (Brisbane Courier 10 June 1911: 16).  The theatre was renovated again in late 1940 and when the theatre re-opened early in 1941, the alterations were largely cosmetic.  “£2000 has been lavished on renovating, refurnishing, reseating—on new Lighting, new Scenery—on the new Theatre Royal” (Courier-Mail 10 Jan. 1941: 10). 

The Theatre Royal was commandeered by the American military forces from 1942 and was only used for a small number of Revues for US servicemen.  At the end of the war, the Courier-Mail’s theatre reviewer, Te Pana [1] recalled that “Last time I was in the Theatre Royal, the Yanks were boiling their billies in the stalls.  That was two years ago.  Now the old playhouse has been transformed into an intimate theatre, with modern furnishings and comfortable lounge chairs (Courier-Mail 29 Nov. 1945: 5). 

The theatre had been taken over by Will Mahoney who returned it to a functioning theatre again.  Few other changes were made to the theatre before its closure on 19 December 1959 (Thorne, Theatre Buildings in Australia to 1905 104).  It was sold in 1960 and was used by a variety of groups like the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Theatre Company.  It finished its life in the 1980s as a nightclub called “Swizzles” before being totally demolished to make way for the Myer Centre in 1987.

[1] ‘Te Pana’ was the pseudonym used by Nelson Burns in his articles in the Courier-Mail (Courier-Mail 24 Nov. 1939: 2).  Burns was a particularly strong supporter of amateur performance in Brisbane in the 1930s and 1940s.