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The Silent Showman

Chapter Three - The Firm

theatre royal and bourke st melbourne As George Tallis strolled away from his meeting with JC Williamson, he would have been impressed by the bustle of Melbourne’s Bourke Street. It was a thoroughfare swarming with Cobb & Co. hansom cabs, cyclists and carts. For the tired pedestrian or frazzled businessman there were coffee palaces, tea rooms and pubs galore. For casual shoppers and tourists there were stalls, bookshops, jewellers, shoe and leather goods shops, barbers and a large emporium or two. Photographers spruiked: ‘Excuse me sir, let me take a picture of you with your lovely lady.’ Pop, click. Night revellers were offered a variety of billiard halls, taverns and dives. Theatres, large and small, advertised plays, concerts, musicals, opera and vaudeville. Bourke Street was the vibrant hub of Melbourne and its breathless pace was infectious. It gathered up all who had energy, ambition and imagination and propelled them into the exciting future of a rapidly growing colony.
‘Melbourne,’ British novelist Anthony Trollope had written in 1873, ‘looks as though she were boasting to herself hourly that she is not as other cities’.1 Yet only fifty years before Tallis’s arrival in 1886, Melbourne had just thirteen buildings, eight of them turf huts. Then it bore the quaint name ‘Dootigala’,2 which it might well have kept had it not been for unprecedented progress, and politicians.

By the 1850s Melbourne, stimulated by the discovery of gold at nearby Ballarat, was said to be the richest city in the world. Katharine Brisbane, theatre critic and publisher, puts to rest the old story that Australia was a forgotten backwater of entertainment when she describes a colonial society:

with a huge disposable income spent on grand public buildings, parks and private houses, and on food, drink and entertainment. Entrepreneurs built theatres and hippodromes the size of our present arts complexes in the major cities and on the goldfields, widening the opportunities for touring and attracting opera singers, tragedians, circus stars and low comedians from around the world.3

George Coppin By the time George Tallis arrived, Australia was already established as a land where theatre fortunes could be won and lost. One early great impresario was the amazing George Selth Coppin, sometimes called the father of Australian theatre. Coppin was a twenty-two-year-old English actor playing comic roles in Dublin when, in 1843, he decided, on the throw of a dice, to take his talents to Australia. With his companion, the American actress Maria Burroughs, Coppin packed Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre for its manager, Joseph Wyatt, but soon left to follow his own star. Over the next sixty-three years he managed to cram several careers into one lifetime. He was in turn, and often at once, actor, theatre-builder and manager, hotelier, politician, philanthropist and entrepreneur, importing stars, spectacles and pantomimes, and mounting lavish shows. Always a visionary and gambler, he made and squandered riches with equal abandon.

No move that Coppin made in his startling life was more consequential than his decision in 1873 to bring to Australia the American husband-and-wife acting team of James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore. Williamson, at twenty-nine, was the leading comic character actor at San Francisco’s California Theatre, having learnt his trade at New York’s Wallack’s, then America’s leading theatre and its finest training ground. Of his journey to Australia with his bride and a new star play, Struck Oil, that he had acquired in its original draft from an Irish-American backwoodsman, Williamson later recalled:

After three years of San Francisco I determined to try a trip to Australia. Horace Greeley’s advice, ‘Go West, young man! go west!’ was a popular saying in America about that time and we determined to go still further West. Well, we came to Australia and landed in Melbourne in 1874, and opened at the Theatre Royal with Struck Oil.4

The rather flippant tone is uncharacteristic of Williamson, who throughout his career was cautious and shrewd. He was shrewd enough to open his Melbourne season with Struck Oil, despite gloomy predictions that Australian audiences wouldn’t understand its Dutch dialect comedy. Of the play a critic once remarked:

If our readers will take the trouble to recollect, they will see that comedian star plays have been, without exception, merely dramatic shells, owing their life and vigour to some one central character, into which the genius of the actor has infused human nature É [they] are all of them dramatic absurdities, and yet they have all drawn and will draw thousands to see and hear them. And so it is with Struck Oil, and such will be Mr Williamson’s luck with the piece.5

Williamson and Moore made a smash hit of the play in their Melbourne and Sydney seasons. They left for a world tour in 1875, but were to return - with a vengeance. In the meantime the pair had charmed audiences across five continents, proving Williamson’s uncanny ability to read the popular Victorian taste for novelty.

the Triumvirate George Coppin was not the Australian theatre’s only impresario in the 1870s. Another influential figure was Irishman William Saurin Lyster who, over two decades of management, toured international opera companies to the larger cities, and also presented drama and variety seasons. While Coppin helped introduce Williamson to Australia, Lyster was instrumental in the careers of the two men who would become JC Williamson’s partners in the most potent theatrical force in Australia during the 1880s - the ‘Triumvirate’ of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove.

Arthur Garner was a softly spoken, elegant English actor who had worked at the Melbourne Theatre Royal and toured country Victoria with the Williamsons. He was married to the well-known actress Blanche Stammers. Under Lyster’s instructions, Garner assembled a London comedy company which, with its fine repertoire of light plays and players, superb scenery, stage accessories and costumes, had Melbourne and Sydney critics in raptures in 1879 and 1880.
George Musgrove was Lyster’s nephew. He had learnt opera in his uncle’s office at the Opera House in Bourke Street before somehow borrowing money to travel to England and engage a company to play Offenbach’s comic opera La Fille du tambour-major in Australia in 1880. Musgrove’s companion, the great actress and singer Nellie Stewart, later wrote:

Nothing like [this production] had ever been attempted in Australia before, and I know of no other example of such enterprise in a young man of twenty-six. He brought out his complete company from England and every member of it had scored at least one individual success on a big scale É Mr Musgrove carried his innovation still further, he was the first Australian manager to import and introduce showgirls. He brought out eight, all most beautiful, among them the famous Consuelo, nearly six feet of blazing loveliness.6

JC Williamson and Maggie Moore returned to Australia in 1879 to play again under the management of George Coppin, but Williamson was soon taking his own steps into theatrical management. He had arrived bearing the exclusive Australian and New Zealand performing rights to Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. He was unimpressed to find a number of ‘pirated’ versions of the operetta already playing, and expressed his dissatisfaction through the courts, serving a stiff warning that English copyright laws would apply equally in Australia. The London D’Oyly Carte company noticed Williamson’s ethical approach, and over the years allowed him to secure all of the new Gilbert & Sullivan works at a very good price. These comic operas continued to feed the coffers of companies bearing the Williamson name until the 1960s.
In order to stage Gilbert & Sullivan and popular French light operas, Williamson in 1880 set up the Comic Opera Company, soon renaming it the Royal Comic Opera Company. Now busy presenting both drama and comic opera, Williamson needed a base, and in September 1881 he took up the lease of the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, even though he had said that he would never go in for permanent management, ‘because, you see, a manager’s life is never his own. He has to be at work all the time’.7

Williamson was soon to learn the soundness of his intuition, later describing his activities as a one-man management:

I stage-managed the productions of these delightful comic operas, and [these have] become ‘traditional’ here. At that time I had not even an assistant stage-manager - just a prompter. There was work in plenty then. In addition to producing new pieces I watched the business side, and wrote all my own advertisements. The post of treasurer and business manager was one. It is very different now.8

Given the strains, it is not surprising that Williamson agreed when first Arthur Garner, and then George Musgrove, asked him to join them in partnership after the death of their mentor WS Lyster in 1880. The firm of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove was instituted in May 1882, and this marked the beginning of the mighty Williamson theatre organisation. For over eighty years it was to be the principal purveyor of theatrical entertainment in Australia and New Zealand. Even George Coppin was a sleeping partner for a while before he again lapsed into temporary impecuniosity.

These two mergers of rival groups became models that succeeding Williamson firms adopted. As time went on, the mergers became larger, until they assumed the form of amalgamations. The philosophy, which never wavered, was this: it is better to eat at the table in a civilised manner than to fight over the meal. By combining abilities and resources, the partners were demonstrating a method by which theatrical managements could grow and outlast their principals. No longer would all the responsibility rest on the shoulders of the particular actor-manager or entrepreneur.

Of course there were reactive cries of monopoly, and they grew louder over the decades. But in the first years at least, criticism was muted when dire predictions of lowered theatrical standards and crushed oppositions, in the interest of partnership profits, failed to materialise.

At the same time, an experienced hand like George Coppin, in a letter written to Henry Edwards in 1882, foresaw that there might be problems of conflict in this ‘super-group’:

The only difficulty I see is the improbability of their agreeing very long together - both Williamson and Garner are very self-opinionated with bad tempers. This draw back with wife actresses will make it rather difficult for them to work in harmony unless they separate - one taking the management in Melbourne and the other in Sydney - keeping Mr Musgrove travelling.9

The Williamson, Garner and Musgrove combination had youth as well as experience on its side - in 1882 the men were thirty-six, thirty-one and twenty-nine respectively - and the three were ideally placed to take advantage of the vacuum left in theatrical management by Lyster’s death and Coppin’s roller-coaster fortunes.

The Triumvirate set the stage for great development. Within four years it gained control of the Theatre Royal and the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne, the Sydney Theatre Royal, and set up an arrangement with the Adelaide Royal. This flourished into a large-scale business that was quickly noticed by producers and agents on the other side of the world. The early success of the Triumvirate lay in the partners’ ability to import players and the latest shows from overseas, often within twelve months of their premiere. Country touring involved whole companies, which were transported from town to town for short seasons of a few days. Occasionally shows crossed the Tasman to test the New Zealand market. Here the Triumvirate was in the vanguard, as it managed companies on tour and balanced engagements. The tyranny of distance was overcome as the partners serviced the theatrical thirst of dispersed populations, and made money besides.
At the core of the partnership was Williamson. According to Punch:

The JC Williamson organisation in those days was a modest affair when compared with what it is today. There was no careful subdivision of duties. Everybody did a little of everything, and JC Williamson did most of all.10

Williamson brought to Australia a financially responsible attitude towards all theatre management. Although he was a shrewd bargainer, he was always fair in his dealings with agents and companies. The news got around that Williamson was a man of his word; he was, in fact, the man to do business with.

brough boucicault Williamson had noted only too well the financial mistakes of other theatre entrepreneurs, and he had experienced Coppin’s boom-bust economics himself. Clearly, that was not the way to survive, and he developed a more reliable approach to management. In his last interview in Australia he outlined the model which had brought him success over three decades:

My object has always been, in working at high pressure and going in for very expensive productions in all kinds of entertainment, to offer plays that I felt the whole audience wanted ... My desire has been to amuse and interest, to elevate if possible, and at the same time to meet all demands on treasury day.11

Williamson always regarded theatre as a business. By keeping this creed in full view, he became, over the years, the survivor of various partnerships as they broke up. And throughout the 1880s it was the Williamson philosophy that helped the Triumvirate to head off opposition.

But no man can build an empire on his own. Williamson had an instinct for picking the right helpers, and it seems that when George Tallis appeared in November 1886 Williamson at once saw an appropriate applicant. The eyes of the partners would be upon the raw recruit; his performance carefully measured against expectations. Said Punch many years later:

Tallis, no doubt, had luck in the fact that he entered a business where merit is marked out and recognised so speedily. He had luck also in the fact that James Cassius Williamson was at the head of that business. [Williamson] speedily noticed the keenness and the marked ability of the new youngster in the office. He saw that Tallis meant to get on, and that was just the sort of man Williamson wanted.12

This, then, was the ‘Firm’ that young George Tallis joined in 1886. Although his older sister counselled mistrust of ‘play people’ in her letters to him, she would surely have been pleased by the tenor of the show run by JC Williamson. It provided family entertainment and was run on strict business principles.

The year George arrived was an annus mirabilis of the Australian theatre. A letter written by Williamson in February 1886 confirms just how busy the Triumvirate then was:

Frank Thornton and our Private Secretary company have just returned from New Zealand ... and are now playing at the Bijou ... At our Theatre Royal, Melbourne, our opera company are now finishing their ninth week in The Mikado, which has been an enormous success. We shall run it through Easter ... At our Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, the Majeronis begin a season, on Saturday, with Queen Elizabeth. At the Opera House we produce Falka, at the same date. In Sidney [sic] our stock dramatic company, now in the seventh week to excellent business, produce The Magistrate next Monday. At the Gaiety, The Great Pink Pearl is running well.13

And the Triumvirate, of course, was not the only show around. Tallis recalled in his unpublished memoirs other great managements of the day, including one that began its long influence on the Australian stage in the year of his arrival:

A partnership was formed by two well known London actors, Robert Brough and Dion Boucicault. An organisation which had a profound effect on the future of the Australian Theatre was created in 1886. The Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, and the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, both intimate houses and eminently suited to Comedy, were secured and the new company Brough and Boucicault surrounded themselves with a brilliant company of overseas artists ...

bland holt Tallis discussed this ‘fruitful and prolific period in the theatre world’, during which playwrights Pinero, Wilde, Chambers, Shaw, Barrie and others ‘were drawn upon for their best’ by Brough and Boucicault. Their works were faultlessly staged by Boucicault, regarded as one of the greatest producers in the world in his time. George continued:

Unfortunately, these high class plays and comedies were to a great extent caviar to the average theatre goer at this early stage... but the seed was well and truly sown and bore fruit later.

Nor was robust drama neglected during these remarkable years of profusion. The Adelphi and Drury Lane London were in their prime and Mr and Mrs Bland Holt, supported by a strong and virile dramatic company, presented all the great London Adelphi and Drury Lane successes at the Theatre Royal Melbourne. So, in this very interesting period starting in 1886 playgoers were provided with a very varied and excellent fare with elaborate pantomimes, of course, at Christmas.
Thus from the nineties to a time before the introduction of the Radio or the Talkies may well have been the Golden period of Australian theatre.

The Brough-Boucicault and Holt companies, among others, were competition for Williamson and partners, although the friendly associations that existed between these entrepreneurial groups led to more cooperation than opposition. They were all part of the 1880s surge of theatre of all kinds. This energy was felt in local halls, on the streets and in the outback. Groups of painted buskers and players roamed the cities, and travelled by train and Cobb & Co. to remote settlements. Formalised into bush stock companies these barnstormers left hardly a trace; that is unless the ring master was Dan Barry, who was described by JC Williamson as the ‘worst actor and the best showman in Australia’.
There were no frills in the tough business of bringing fun and enlightenment to the frontiers of the colonies. Barry plagiarised good scripts, and with faithful bulldog Paddy at his heels roamed the hinterlands of Australia - where he was better known than Williamson himself. Dan and Paddy often appeared in the same show, when it was difficult to decide which of the two had put on the worse performance.

With Australian theatre so very alive, no wonder the Triumvirate was looking for young men with management potential. And those young men would need to look sharp because the 1880s were rich in plays, players and managements competing for audiences. George Tallis had joined the biggest and most professional outfit in town, and the one that would outlast all its rivals. He was ready to put his shoulder to the wheel.

1 Ronald J Walker, Foreword, Melbourne’s Yesterdays
2 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Vol 18, p 90
3 Katharine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, p 12
4 JC Williamson, Life-Story Told in His Own Words with Valedictory Messages,p 18
5 cited in Ian Dicker, JCW: A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson, pp 80, 81
6 Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, p 45
7 JC Williamson’s Life Story, p 21
8 Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1913
9 cited in Dicker, p 103
10 Melbourne Punch, 22 May 1913
11 Theatre Magazine, 1913
12 Punch, 1913
13 cited in Dicker, p 107

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Last Updated: 1 June 2003 By: Brenda Aynsley © 2000-3 M and J Tallis