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The Criterion Theatre

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The intersection of Park and Pitt Streets Sydney has a colourful history, writes AussieTheatre.com history correspondent, LEANN RICHARDS…

In the 1860s the South East Corner was occupied by a poetical basket maker. He used his skills to make rhyming advertisements to attract customers. 20 years later this corner became the home of one of Sydney’s most famous theatres, the Criterion or ‘Cri’.

The theatre had a neo renaissance exterior designed by architect George R Johnson. Johnson built the theatre for proprietor John Solomons in 1886.

The theatre had an intimate and charming auditorium. There was a broad stage of semi circular shape and a long red velvet curtain covered the traditional drop scene. The scene, painted by Alfred Clint represented Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay and raising the Union Jack. It was intended as an early celebration of the centennial.

The furnishings of the auditorium echoed the colour schemes of the stage. The chairs were cushioned and covered with red velvet and the area decorated with gold ironwork. The auditorium according to the Sydney Morning Herald held 1500, however a year later Colonial Architect put this number at just over 900. It was smaller than Her Majesty’s and The Royal the two major legitimate theatres in Sydney. The Cri had a unique intimate feel that these larger and more famous venues lacked.

On December 23rd 1886, John Solomon invited selected guests and reporters to inspect his new theatre. The Sydney Morning Herald described the theatre as ‘a great advance on Sydney Theatres’.

This enthusiastic response suggested that the theatre was a fine addition to the Sydney streetscape. The visitors on that first night toasted the owner and wished the theatre good luck.

On December 27th the Criterion officially opened to the public. The Governor General and his wife Lady Carrington attended and the packed house was treated to a lively rendering of the comic opera Falka.

Before the opera began, Miss Colborne Baker christened the new stage by singing the national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen.’ Her cream coloured evening dress complimented the crimson curtains behind her.

Falka was typical fare for the day. It starred Emelie Melville as Falka, and Mr George Dean as Tancred. A stellar cast including John Forde, Fanny Liddiard, Edwin Kelly and Aggie Kelton supported them. The plot involved an inheritance, gypsies, women masquerading as men, confused identities, romance and weddings. The Sydney Mail praised its ‘lively and tuneful music’ but described the dialogue as ‘too lengthy’. The main characters were well portrayed and the opera played continuously for three weeks.

The Cri prospered throughout 1887. It was well patronised by the Sydney citizenry and they seemed pleased with the city’s new acquisition, but the colonial architect was not so pleased.

In November 1887 he wrote a report which criticised the ventilation and exit arrangements of the theatre.

According to the report the stage lacked fireproof doors and did not have a fire proof curtain. Sydney theatres had a terrible history with fire. In the 1840s The Royal burnt to the ground. In the 1860s the Prince of Wales theatre met a similar fate Given this history it was surprising that the Cri was built with such inadequate safety precautions. The lack of egress from parts of the theatre was a serious problem.

The report also commented on the lack of ventilation in the back stage area. According to the inspector ‘a disagreeable smell’ from the lavatories pervaded the dressing rooms. The odour was so bad that it nearly made the inspector ill.

In general , the report gave the impression that the audience was better served by the theatre than the performers. The red plush velvet hid a multitude of backstage smells, dangers and death traps.

Although the theatre seemed to lack some basic amenities, it continued to attract the elite names of the theatre.

The Brough and Boccicault company soon became synonymous with the Cri. They produced a series of performances which were long remembered by Sydney theatregoers.

Dion Boccicault and Robert Brough produced plays of good quality with solid casts that included Emma Temple, George Titheradge and of course Dion and Robert themselves. Nicknamed B and B the company was famous for its naturalistic acting and innovative direction.

In 1888 the company produced Ali Baba and the forty thieves, Jim the Penman, and Sophie. Later they supported international stars such as Janet Achurch in A Dolls House and Myra Kemble in Dr Bill.

The B and B seasons were tremendously popular and people lined up for hours to gain entrance to the shows. Sydney Morning Herald Reporter S Elliot Napier remembered his experiences almost 50 years later:

“Every Saturday Night for years I think, I and one or other of my friends as eager as myself, waited in the crush outside those doors, like Peris at the gates of paradise; and when at last the sound of the bolts being withdrawn fell on our ears and we pushed our way between the opening portals, a few swift strides carried us to heaven.”

The tradition of good quality performances at the Cri continued through the 19th century. In 1889, Henry Bracy’s Comic Opera Company with Lillian Tree and Flora Graupner appeared.. This season was so successful that it prompted another vice regal visit by Governor Carrington and his wife.

In 1892 G W Anson packed the theatre with New Men and Old Acres. The season was so popular that the Sydney Mail stated it ‘sorely taxed the seating accommodations’ and ‘every available corner was occupied’.

Four years later Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company appeared. A young Maud Beatty thrilled Sydney in Paul Jones. The Referee called her ‘one of the most promising young actresses and vocalists seen here for many a day’. Maud later became a well known name in Sydney.

George Rignold appeared in a memorable Othello in 1899. The Curtis Minstrels also appeared in that year. The century closed at the Cri with a performance of The Kelly Gang when crowds were turned away from the doors.

The first decade of the 20th century proved that the Criterion Theatre could showcase the elite of the acting profession. In 1901 Alfred Dampier produced the popular hit The Bush King. The next year the Cri continued a Sydney tradition and hosted a Christmas pantomime. In 1902 it was Cinderella.

Later in the decade William Anderson leased the theatre from Frank Musgrove and produced The Squatters Daughter starring Australia’s own Eugenie Duggan. In 1909, Meynell and Gunn’s company stayed for a long season and gave She Stoops to Conquer and The Hypocrates. The company featured the talents of Harcourt Beatty and Gaston Mervale.

As the First World War approached, the quality of theatre continued to be first rate. In 1915 the Cri was taken over by J C Williamson’s and Company. That year, Fred Niblo, a famous comedian appeared. His comedy The Travelling Salesman was an antidote to the troubles of war. In 1918, Marie Tempest, one of the most famous actresses of the age, graced the stage of Sydney’s intimate home of drama.

The post war era saw a wave of relief and celebration flood the world. The Australian theatre echoed this optimistic mood. The Criterion’s offerings during this period were reflective of that trend.

In 1920, Chester Clute, comedian, starred in a musical comedy Irene. American comedian, Joseph Coyne played the Cri in 1921, to great reviews and popular applause. As the decade progressed the Cri hosted plays by Maugham, East of Suez (1924,) the return of the Vanbrugh-Boccicault company and dramatic actors such as Maurice Moscovitch in 1926.

As this spectacular parade of artists performed at the Criterion Theatre, another phenomenon appeared opposite it. The Cri stood proud and protective on the Southeast corner of Pitt and Park, whilst Poverty Point grew on the Northeast corner.

Poverty Point was a meeting place for out of work performers. They gathered there, swapping tales of the theatre or trying to pick up bookings. As the 1920s drew to a close, the population of Poverty Point grew, and the auditorium of the Criterion grew emptier. The depression, the theatre tax and the competition of the talkies affected the Cri. However, they were not the cause of the theatre’s demise

In 1935, it was announced that the Criterion Theatre was to be demolished to facilitate the widening of Park Street. The increasing use of cars necessitated the upgrade of the city’s roads.

The closing date was set for 13th July 1935. The play chosen for the final night, was The Patsy. It was a comedy starring Agnes Doyle, Marshall Crosby, Sadie Bedford and Franklin Bennett.

On the final night, a packed house gathered to farewell the Criterion. Amongst the crowd was George Dean, who had starred in Falka, the first production at the Cri. George made an amusing speech to lighten the dismal atmosphere. Mr Harold Bowden, J C Williamson’s general manager thanked the the players, the stage staff and the public. To the disappointment of many he did not announce the replacement of the Cri with a new theatre. Instead he explained that the theatre taxes and the general economic climate did not make such a move viable.

The evening closed with Nellie Barnes and Oscar Denes singing a song from their current play at the Royal, Ball at the Savoy. With that, the fifty year career of Sydney’s most intimate legitimate theatre venue was over.

Some days later the bulldozers moved in and demolished the theatre. An extensive series of photographs were taken by A J Perier. The citizens of Poverty Point probably watched in horror as the old building was torn down.

All that remains to remind Sydney of that proud old traditional theatre is a hotel. The Criterion Hotel stands where it always stood, but its next door neighbour is a traffic filled street rather than its old partner, the Criterion Theatre.

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Leann Richards is a guest writer for AussieTheatre.com