In 1986, the year of the theatre’s 100th anniversary, the building was classified by the National Trust and listed on the Victorian Heritage Register, by virtue of its ‘historical, social, architectural and technological significance to the State of Victoria’.
For these reasons, and many more, Her Majesty’s Theatre is a notable building, and has received several citations detailing its significance.
This citation was issued by the National Trust in 1986, the one hundredth anniversary of the original Alexandra Theatre.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
199 – 219 Exhibition Street
Municipality: Melbourne City
Region: Inner Melbourne
File No.: B5110
Place Type: Theatre
Class State: Classified 20 February 1986
Citation Type: Trust
This Moderne styled theatre, housed in an altered 19th century shell designed by Nahum Barnet, is the second known large-scale use of this European style surviving as an Australian interior and the earliest surviving example to utilise most of the style’s eventual palette of finishes and forms.
As such, it heralded the countless Moderne styled cinemas which proliferated in the late 1930s. Complementary to the new cherubless decor, were the technological innovations announced at its 1934 opening. It was the first theatre to employ an acoustic consultant (H. Vivian Taylor) and reflected this in its good acoustics and through the extensive use of veneered ply wall cladding. It appears to be the first to provide air conditioning (heating, cooling and humidity control) for a large interior in Victoria and the first in the state to achieve magical lighting effects on a cyclorama from a new compact control board (now dismantled), which was made by Siemens but developed by J. C. Williamson’s engineer.
The architects were C.N. Hollinshead and Albion Walkley, leading Australian theatre specialists. This was the J.C. Williamson national flagship for nearly 40 years. Within three years of the 1934 opening, the theatre had successfully staged musical comedy, grand opera, Gilbert & Sullivan opera and ballet. It was to become the Melbourne home of the Borovansky Company for 17 years and was also used for the early seasons of the Australian Ballet and the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (now The Australian Opera). It is, however, as a musical comedy venue that Her Majesty’s has been most successful: more than 100 musicals have played there since 1934, from White Horse Inn to Song and Dancevia Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Camelot and A Chorus Line – a lineup probably unequalled in any other theatre in the world.
This Statement of Significance was issued by Heritage Victoria.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
199 – 227 Exhibition Street and 84 – 98 Little Bourke Street
VHR Number: H0641
File Number: 605234 (1-3)
Year Construction Started: 1886
Year Construction Completed: 1934
Municipality: Melbourne City
Extent of Registration: To the extent of all buildings and the land as defined by the Heritage Council
Other Listings: Melbourne City Planning Scheme
Architect / Designer: Barnet, Nahum
Architectural Style: Victorian Period (1851 – 1901) Second Empire
Heritage Act Categories: Heritage Place
Item Group: Recreation and Entertainment
Item Category: Theatre
Statement of Significance
What is significant?
Her Majesty’s Theatre was originally designed in 1886 by noted Melbourne architect Nahum Barnet. The theatre was the national flagship of American entrepreneur James C Williamson for nearly 40 years. In 1929 the interior was gutted by fire. Renovations in 1934 were designed by architects C N Hollinshead and Albion Walkley, leading Australian theatre specialists. H Vivian Taylor was employed as a sound consultant to the design. Significant technological advances were incorporated including heating, cooling and humidity control as well as cyclorama lighting effects managed from a central control board made by Siemens but developed by Williamson’s engineer. Within three years of the re-opening the theatre had successfully staged musical comedy, grand opera, Gilbert & Sullivan opera and ballet. It was to become the Melbourne home of the Borovansky Company for 17 years, and was also used for the early seasons of the Australian Ballet and the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (now the Australian Opera).
How is it significant?
Her Majesty’s Theatre is of historical, social, architectural and technological significance to the State of Victoria.
Why is it significant?
Her Majesty’s Theatre is historically significant as the traditional home of musical comedy in Melbourne. Most of its success was derived from more than one hundred musicals played since 1934, with a line-up to match any other theatre in the world. The theatre is additionally significant for its associations with performers such as Dame Nellie Melba, Anna Pavlova, Eduard Borovansky and Joan Sutherland.
Her Majesty’s Theatre is of social significance for its continuing role in the theatrical life of Victoria and its place at the heart of the entertainment precinct of Melbourne.
Her Majesty’s Theatre is architecturally significant as one of the earliest examples of the European Moderne style surviving in an Australian theatre interior. The styling was significant for heralding the countless Moderne style cinemas which proliferated in the later 1930s. The craftsmanship and detailing in Australian timbers is particularly notable. Externally the Second Empire style established the theatre as a local landmark and represents one of the very early red brick buildings in the city as well as one of the earliest works of the prolific architect Nahum Barnet.
Her Majesty’s Theatre is technologically significant as the first theatre to employ an acoustic consultant. Excellent acoustics were achieved by the extensive use of veneered ply wall cladding. The theatre appears to be the first to provide air conditioning for a large interior in Victoria and the first in the state to achieve theatrical lighting effects on a cyclorama from a compact control board.
This Statement of Significance was issued by the Historic Buildings Council (the forerunner to Heritage Victoria) in 1986, the one hundredth anniversary of the original Alexandra Theatre.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
199 – 225 Exhibition Street
VHR Number: H0641
File Number: 605234
Year Construction Started: 1886
Municipality: Melbourne City
Extent of Registration: To the extent of all the buildings and the land as defined by the Heritage Council.
STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE
The building now known as Her Majesty’s Theatre was opened on 1 October 1886 as the Alexandra Theatre in honour of The Princess of Wales. It was designed by the Melbourne architect, Nahum Barnet, for a French born exhibition entrepreneur from New South Wales, Jules Joubert.
The building was constructed in a quarter of the city that, even in 1886, had long been associated with entertainment and theatrical ventures. The eastern end of Bourke Street was the entertainment centre of the central city area and the corner of Exhibition Street and Little Bourke Street was within this entertainment precinct, but was hardly its best aspect.
The Alexandra was an early work of the architect, Nahum Barnet. Stylistically, it was an amalgam of mainly renaissance derived English and French sources. The second empire, or French renaissance style, was reflected in the slight projection of the central pavilion and the emphasis of a steep mansard roof over this portion, capped by a cantilevered Belverdere or Widow’s Walk. This quickly became a local landmark. The English component was seen in the use of cement pilasters and dressings against a red brick carcase in the manner of the Queen Anne revival and cognate British modes of the day.
The architect, Barnet, was an advocate of the use of red brick, amongst other features, and the Alexandra Theatre was an early material expression of his views. This aspect of the building has been impaired with painting. Another prominent feature of the early building that has been lost is the mansard roof. While this detracts from the nineteenth century character of the building, this is only one aspect of its importance. The ground floor facing Exhibition Street has also been altered beyond recognition. Originally, the theatre entrance was flanked on either side by shops, with a castiron verandah along the footpath, arched over the entrance, an early addition. The 1886 building featured a central tower with a half- wheel window (reminiscent of that of the Exhibition Buildings).
Joubert had hoped that his building would be the home of high class entertainment, opera and drama, but in its initial years low melodramas were the main fare and Joubert and his partner, Captain de Burgh, did not achieve financial success. By November 1886, the theatre was under new management. Only gradually did it develop the range of drama, light opera, grand opera, theatre and other stage shows with which the it came to be associated. It was through melodrama that the Alexandra’s first real successes were achieved.
Alfred Dampier, an English Shakespearian actor / manager, leased the theatre between 1888 and 1893. The Alexandra was billed as ‘the Australian theatre’ and presented plays on Australian themes written by Dampier and the litterateur, Garnet Walch. These included Marvellous Melbourne (1889), stage versions of the novels For the Term of His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms and sensation dramas such as The Miner’s Right and The Scout and the Trapper (1891). These melodramas were staged with spectacular realism and their themes and cliffhanging suspense anticipated the motion pictures of the twentieth century.
J.C. Williamson’s historic involvement with the theatre began towards the end of 1899 when his lease of the nearby Princess Theatre ended. He now leased the Alexandra and opened it as Her Majesty’s in 1900 after renovations. More extensive renovations were undertaken by the architect William Pitt later in the year. Pitt had already designed many places of entertainment in Melbourne, including the Princess Theatre. Among Pitt’s alterations were the removal of the shops. From this time, Her Majesty’s was the venue for a great number of theatrical successes.
The theatre was particularly associated with Dame Nellie Melba, who appeared here in September 1911. She was also associated with alterations to the theatre. Two years before she had claimed that the acoustics of the theatre were ‘dead’ and alterations were made to the proscenium and auditorium to accommodate her requirements. For many years, a Rupert Bunny portrait of her hung in the foyer of the theatre.
During the next seventeen years, the management of J.C. Williamson’s Theatres Ltd consolidated the position of Her Majesty’s as being of equal importance to the now demolished Theatre Royal as an outlet for opera, Gilbert and Sullivan and musical comedy. The name of the theatre was changed to His Majesty’s after the first world war. On 29 October 1929, the auditorium of the theatre was destroyed by fire. It was to be nearly five years before the interior was restored but even in its burnt condition it proved a suitable sound stage for motion picture production under the management of F.W. Thring and his Efftee film company.
In 1933, J.C. Williamson decided to rationalise its theatre holdings. The Theatre Royal was closed and a decision taken to redevelop Her Majesty’s. C.N. Hollinshed and Albion Walkley were chosen as architects and reconstruction began on 24 March 1934. The 1934 works effected changes to the decoration of the auditorium. The crimson and gilt colour scheme and heavily ornate wallpaper gave place to pale applegreen and oyster walls, Australian timber surfaces and rose floor coverings. The thickly encrusted mouldings beside the stage were replaced by elegant bas-reliefs. The traditional horseshoe with its balconies and boxes in a continuous circle, gave way to a more open design with the upper circle more as a top tier than a balcony. Structurally, many elements of the theatre were sound and in a position to be retained. As well as the renovated facade and interior, the ground and first floor foyers were also among the striking new elements of the theatre. These spaces, with their fine detailed wood and metalwork conveyed an overall impression not of revolutionary design but of modern comfort and affluence, catering to the tastes of the well-to-do citizens of Melbourne.
Stylistically, and technologically, the new interior represented a major advance for Australian theatres. Hollinshed had entirely rejected traditional theatre design features in a bold new conception that distinguished the interior from other recently renovated theatre interiors (such as the Princess) and challenged the most modern cinemas with this restrained and elegant expression of modernism. The theatre was also the first in Australia to employ the services of an acoustic consultant (H. Vivian Taylor) in its design. To this day, Her Majesty’s is recognised by Australian theatre performers for the distinct and appealing timbre of its acoustics. In employing extensive atmosphere control facilities, His Majesty’s was now one of the best equipped large theatres in the country.
The general impression of the theatre as it stands today is one of contrast, revealing a sequence of stylistic accretions over time. The outer shell is late nineteenth century in character while the interior is distinctively 1930s, almost cinema-like even. ‘Modernisation’ of the interior in the 1930s enabled the continuing popularity of what is essentially a nineteenth century theatre in its form. It may also have helped J.C. Williamson to defend live theatre against the new appeal of the motion picture industry.
As far as Australian entertainment is concerned, Her Majesty’s is a shrine of major significance. Opera, ballet, theatre, musical comedy, pantomime and cinema have all had their day here, and many major Australian and international artists have been associated with the theatre. For example, Anna Pavlova was the highlight of 1926. The theatre played a role in the development of an Australian ballet company as host to Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monto Carlo in 1936. Several of its dancers stayed on in Australia, notably Eduard Borovansky, after whom the Borovansky ballet (the fore-runner of the Australian Ballet) was named. The theatre also proved a successful opera house. The 1940s and 1950s saw seasons of Italian opera and in 1965, Williamson’s introduced Joan Sutherland to Australian audiences here. Dr. Harold Love, reader in English and an authority on Australian opera and the stage, has described Her Majesty’s as ‘the most important major theatre still standing’ in terms of its contribution to Australian theatre history.
After its renovation in 1934, Her Majesty’s became J.C. Williamson’s principal venue for large scale productions ranging from opera and ballet to musical comedy. It has proven itself extremely well suited for the latter by virtue of its location and design attributes. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the traditional home of musical comedy in Melbourne, with such productions of the 1930s as The Chocolate Soldier, Rose Marie and No No Nannette, to the new type American musicals of the 1940s and 50s, like Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma!, culminating in the long running My Fair Lady in 1959. The modern period has seen such productions as Evita and Guys and Dolls (1986).
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne may be regarded to be of architectural and historical significance for the following reasons: as a well-known landmark institution of entertainment with a hundred year history of contribution to the cultural life of Victoria’s capital; as a key element of the entertainment precinct of central Melbourne; as a surviving feature of the redevelopment of the Little Bourke and Exhibition Street entertainment precinct in the 1880s; as an important focus for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century development of melodrama and opera; as an important focus for the twentieth century development of entertainment in Victoria, including opera, Australian film, radio, ballet, plays and musical comedy; for its singular and intimate association with such famous Australians as Jules Joubert, William Dampier, J.C. Williamson, Dame Nellie Melba, F.W. Thring and Eduard Borovansky; as the leading theatre and production centre of the J.C. Williamson chain of theatres after 1934; as the traditional home of musical comedy in the past 1945 period; for its contribution to employment and the development of production skills in the entertainment industry over a long period; as an early major work of the noted architect Nahum Barnet; for its association with the noted architect William Pitt; as a material expression over a long period of changing commercial and design considerations to the entertainment industry; as a restrained expression of modernism in the reworking of the interior to the design of the architect C.N. Hollinshed undertaken in 1934; for the popular appeal of its interior (including foyers), which have successfully accommodated Melbourne theatre audiences for over fifty years; as an expression of fine craftsmanship in the detailing, materials and overall design of the theatre interior and as a distinctive and successful performing venue.
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.
This citation was issued by the Melbourne City Council.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
199 – 225 Exhibition Street
Demolition Prohibition: Previously subject to demolition prohibition 1982 IDO
Reason for Specification: Registered Building – HBR [Historic Buildings Register]
MCC Conservation Study Grading: Listed by National Trust – Classified B
References: HBC [Historic Buildings Council] Citation, Trust [National Trust] Citation, HBPC [Historic Buildings Preservation Council] Studies, MCC [Melbourne City Council] Studies
A building of great cultural importance, the theatre opened as the Alexandra Theatre in 1886. The building was designed by Nahum Barnett. The interior and ground floor exterior were remodelled in 1934 after a fire some years previously. These alterations are also significant in themselves for their innovation and role in the development of modern theatre design. The building has been and remains a key element in Melbourne’s entertainment precinct.
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