Victoria Theatre

The Victoria Theatre stood on the site of the Adelphi Theatre, in Main Road, Ballarat. In 1855, the Adelphi was destroyed by the huge and damaging fire of December 1855.

Ballarat’s Main Road featuring the Victoria Theatre between the Criterion Store and United States Hotel, circa 1859, artist Francois Cogne (Ballarat Historical Society collection, acc no 78.2403)

Along with the United States Hotel, the Victoria Theatre emerged from the ashes of the old Adelphi – amazingly, the buildings took a mere 15 days to be rebuilt.  The Victoria Theatre was ready for action.

The new proprietors were Henry Moody and Rufus Smith, both Americans.

According to the Ballarat Times, the theatre was ‘capable of accommodating 2500 persons, with a stage thirty-five feet by twenty-seven feet, embellished in an artistic manner, with Dramatic Scenery, Landscapes, Allegorical, and other figures, etc’[1]

Advertisements confirm that the theatre was regarded as a ‘most valuable property’ and was ‘crowded nightly’.  It was ‘constantly used for public Meetings, Concerts, Balls, Theatres etc.’[2]

Gold generated a new prosperity in cities like Melbourne and Ballarat, and in the early gold rush days, theatre was beginning not only to flourish, but was aiming to improve its ‘respectability’. There was a conscious development of a new understanding of ‘theatrical responsibility’, where more appropriate ways for audiences to behave were encouraged in the name of ‘gentility”. 

Some theatre genres were considered to be ‘unsuitable’ for ladies to attend, but a distinction was beginning to be made between ‘legitimate’ theatre (opera,Shakespeare) and ‘lower’ forms of entertainment such as the song and dance routines of the working class music halls. 

Raising the standard of theatrical productions came to be seen as a means of ‘improving’ the lower classes and rendering them more ‘progressive’ members of society.

Sovereign Hill’s United States Hotel bar which neighbours the Victoria Theatre

Many early Australian playhouses were allied to ‘grog houses’.  This was certainly the case on the gold fields, where the Charlie Napier Theatre was attached to the eating-house of the same name, and the Victoria Theatre was attached to the United States Hotel.

The size and number of the hotels and theatres on the goldfields speak for a period when to eat, drink and enjoy themselves was the miners’ chief leisure activity.

Theatre on the goldfields covered a very broad spectrum: audiences demanded light and sometimes boisterous relief from the tough conditions in which they lived, and to address these needs, players were required to possess a wide variety of skills. 

Performance inside Sovereign Hill’s Victoria Theatre

It was not unheard of for the owner of the theatre to play comic and tragic roles, to play in the orchestra, and also to print his own publicity bills!

To survive, companies had to appeal to a very wide audience on very restricted budgets.  Add to this the difficulties of transporting whole theatre companies to places like Ballarat in a country where roads and public transport were almost non–existent, and it is really quite amazing that so much theatre actually occurred in Ballarat in those early years. 

A typical evening’s programme began with the major play, progressed to musical interludes, orchestral pieces and dances, and finally concluded with a farce. There were full length plays – pieces from Shakespeare, songs and dances, pantomimes, acrobats, magicians, singers, minstrels called the Ethiopian Serenaders, ballet, and phrenology. 

Good comedians were always popular, and the legendary Charles Thatcher, the ‘Colonial Minstrel’, was known to have performed in the Charlie Napier on more than one occasion.  And of course, the infamous Lola Montez made her legendary appearances at the Victoria Theatre. 

Victoria Theatre posters advertising Lola Montez’s infamous performance, 1856 (Sovereign Hill Museums Association collection, acc no 2010.0579)

In fact, we know that it was enormously popular, and that Ballarat boasted several large theatres and concert halls, all of which flourished in the first ten years of the city’s existence. 

Audiences were generally honest and more immediately responsive than we are today.  If the performance was good, and appealed to the onlookers, flowers, coins and even gold nuggets were showered upon the actors; if audiences were displeased, the hapless performers were likely to be on the receiving end of an assortment of vegetable matter, bad fruit, and even stones and fireworks!

Victoria Theatre interior showing the stage and seating area at Sovereign Hill

Theatre Interior

The whole of the Sovereign Hill recreated building is subject to strict departmental regulations; the theatre is therefore a concrete shell to observe fire regulations, but it is clad in weatherboard according to descriptions in newspapers of the 1850s.

The chandelier dates from the 1850s, and is said to have come from the palace of an Indian Maharajah. The metal pillars are over-painted with marbling patterns. 

Victoria Theatre Retiring Room at Sovereign Hill

Theatre Retiring Room

This room originally functioned as a sitting or retiring room for ladies and gentlemen whilst they waited to attend the theatre.  They would have sat at small tablesor stood and made polite conversation. 

In 1856, Moody and Smith put a doorway between the theatre and the hotel, so that patrons need not be inconvenienced by having to ‘go through to the streets to the theatre’. 

As noted by Weston Bate, the relatively large size of the venues, (the Victoria Theatre 38 feet x 140 feet) spoke of their important status and function in the community when eating, drinking, and entertainment were the principal leisure pursuits of the male-dominated population.

Written by Dr Jan Croggon, Historian, Sovereign Hill Museums Association


Footnotes

[1] Ballarat Times, 15 March 1856, advertisement.

[2] Ibid.

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