This citation was issued by the Melbourne City Council as part of a Central Activities District Conservation Study in 1985.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, former Alexandra Theatre
199 – 225 Exhibition Street
Jules Joubert, residing at the princely address of Regent Street, Fitzroy, commissioned this grand theatre after a design by the young Nahum Barnet in 1886. His builders were Smith and Upton. Jules was financially embarrassed by the project but lessees, such as Alfred Dampier, pursued the muse at length midst a row of more pedestrian retailers who inhabited the theatre’s shopfronts. A Corporation pattern iron verandah (replaced) was the corollary to the retailing and the now demolished Mansard Tower and widow’s walk marked the theatre entrance. It opened in the same year as Williamson, Garner and Musgrove’s Princess Theatre.
The American actor and entrepreneur, James C Williamson purchased the theatre early this century, in his progress towards a national monopoly. Under his leasehold, the present name was acquired in c.1900.
After the cinematic extravagance of the Regent and State Theatres in the late 1920s traditional theatres were shunned for the new sound cinema, which also boasted live entertainment during interval. The established houses looked to ‘conversions’ which gave them the new Carrier air-conditioning and the wonder Dunlopillow seating. At Her Majesty’s, JC Williamson’s conversion of 1934 also gave them Moderne detailing which achieved its decorative effect through the use of form rather than applied detail. There was subdued lighting from new geometric light fittings, acres of Queensland walnut, a revolving stage and Australia’s most comprehensive and innovative stage lighting … but there were no cupids, masks of tragedy or the voluptuous belles of traditional theatre. CN Hollinshead and A Walkley were the architects, Hansen and Yuncken Pty Ltd the contractors and Williamson’s own Albert Grosse, the lighting engineer.
This conversion also changed the shopfronts and added a cantilevered canopy.
Externally, the design is more subdued that its contemporary, the Princess Theatre; possessing originally only one mansard tower. Segment and fully arched windows once took their turn on the façade, overlaid with Tuscan order trabeation. Above, the cornice enrichment reflects each window bay, which in turn supports a foliated pediment at the parapet. Foliation is also applied in the spandrels and on the upper pilasters. Barnet’s typically mannered application of details is evident at the entrance tower where the large lunette fans out behind the stern male head, placed on a central pedestal. Unusual pilaster capitals, either side of the lunette and pilasters grouped around a central marrow light are seemingly assembled as a tour-de-force of detailing leading up the formerly complex roof shapes and enriched cornice above. A row (three) of more conventional two-storey shops and residences adjoined to the north and possessed little ornamentation.
Internally, the 1934 ‘conversion’ survives almost complete from the subdued atmosphere of the lounges to the three seating tiers of the auditorium. Barnet’s swagged balustrading and rich plaster detail have gone and in their place, more subtle ornament has been applied as borders and dentillation is the only major moulding, stretched around large surfaces, recessed or plain.
The mansard tower roof, pediment balls and finials, the iron verandah and glazing details, both in the upper windows and shopfronts have gone or been replaced. Bricks have been painted over, a neon sign and canopy added and window openings altered. The wall facings, canopy and entry doors of the theatre are near as original to the 1934 form. The Chinese portal intrudes on the south façade.
Part of a Victorian period retail and residential streetscape; extending to the south.
One of the two oldest surviving theatres in Melbourne, both of which have been altered externally. One of the diminishing group of near original Moderne styled theatre and cinema interiors and one of the few live theatre interiors to be decorated in that manner in Victoria. It was also the first major building designed by the prolific and skilled architect, Nahum Barnet.