LEANN RICHARDS looks at the St James Theatre, which opened in Sydney in the 1920’s and was applauded by audiences and critics alike…
In March 1926, The Fuller Brothers and Hugh J Ward presented Sydney with a new theatre. They called it the St James Theatre. It was located at 107-111 Elizabeth Street near the current David Jones building. According to The Sydney Mail, it represented ‘the last word in comfort and elegance of appointments and artistic decoration.’
The architect of the St James was Henry E White. White later contributed towards the design of the Sydney State Theatre. The Stuart Brothers were given the job of building the St James, and managed to do so on schedule. On top of the St James was a shopping complex consisting of exclusive stores. Overall the building was designed as the epitome of 1920s affluence.
It was an auspicious time to build a new theatre. 1926 was the height of the flapper era. Jazz was echoing in the streets, the motor car was flying down them and the movies were still silent. Lavish, joyful and opulent theatre musicals echoed the effervescence of the times.
The interior of the St James was magnificent. It had a colour scheme of silver and blue complemented by rose tinted drapery and upholstery. There was a three tier auditorium and the luxurious chairs were a special feature. The Sydney Mail compared them favourably to the cramped accommodation of the Town Hall. Overall the theatre was a splendid example of 1920s optimism.
The show chosen to open the theatre was No No Nanette. The musical had originated in the United States. Irving Caesar and Otto Harbarch wrote it with composer Vincent Youmans. Starting in 1925, Nanette played for over a year in Chicago before being produced on Broadway. By 1926 it had been successfully produced in London and Melbourne.
The Sydney Mail described the plot as ‘slight’. It concerned three couples and their trials in love. Nanette was a wealthy heiress and a member of one couple. She and her friends travel to Atlantic City to escape their mates. A series of misunderstandings and complications ensue. However all three couples including Nanette find love and a happy ending.
Although the plot was trite, the score included two hit songs, ‘Tea for Two‘ and ‘ I want to be happy’. These were two catchy tunes guaranteed to be whistled in the streets of Sydney. This production also featured prominent imported stars such as Elsie Prince and Jimmy Godden.
Elsie Prince was in her early 20s when she received the offer to appear in Ausralia. Her career in London was in its early stages, so a leading role in Australia promised fame and good wages. Elsie came from a theatrical family. Her father, Reginald was a famous concert platform entertainer. Given this background it is not surprising that she was 15 months old when she made her stage debut. From there she had appeared as a child performer in a Dublin pantomime. She also played the part of ‘Little Miss Nobody’ in Jack and Jill for four years. Her two sisters replaced her in the role after she relinquished it, aged 14.
Elsie progressed in the profession until she played the principal role of Aladdin in pantomime with Phyllis Dare playing the principal girl. After that she appeared in the musical, Bright Lights of London at the Hippodrome. It was then that she was approached by Hugh Ward to appear in Australia.
Elsie had some Australian connections. Her aunt Ciss lived in Sydney. So when Hugh Ward offered her the role of Nanette she had extra incentive to accept it. Elsie’s mother accompanied her to Sydney and acted as her chaperone at social events.
The English girl was young and fashionable with a black ‘kiss’ curl’ sitting in the middle of her forehead. She was a good singer and dancer and an accomplished comedienne. One of her greatest assets was her smile, and in London she was known as ‘Our Elsie.’ She was ideal for the role of the young, wayward and rebellious Nanette.
Supporting Elsie in the production was a strong cast of local and imported actors. Jimmy Godden an English comedian, headed the list. He was an experienced performer who had starred in revue and had graduated to musical comedy in London. His credits included comic roles in The Shop Girl at The Gaiety and The Cousin From Nowhere in 1923. Others in the cast included May Beatty and Elsie Parkes. May was a New Zealander who had performed since childhood. She was familiar to Australian audiences from her work in musical comedy and had recently returned to the country after a moderately successful career in London. Elsie Parkes was an Australian who had started her stage work as a child performer She was a well known actress to Sydney audiences. The combination of a new musical and a new theatre with a cast of experienced players, promised great success for No No Nanette.
On March 26th 1926, the 1800 seat auditorium of the St James Theatre was at capacity. The audience included the cream of Sydney and Australian society. Amongst its members were the Governor General and his wife Lady Stonehaven and the State Governor and his wife Lady De Chair. All were anticipating a wonderful event at a unique venue.
The vivacious music of No No Nanette was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd. Many were familiar with the show’s tunes due to its long run in Melbourne. This familiarity combined with the colourful costumes and dainty dancing of Elsie Prince combined to produce a wonderful evening of theatre. The spectators enjoyed the show and the main musical numbers were ‘vigorously applauded.’
The critics also praised the performance. The Referee said that ‘The operetta is bright and tuneful and its dominant characteristics are rhythm, colour and dancing in infinite variety’.
Jimmy Godden and Elsie Prince were singled out for special attention. The Sydney Mail said of Elsie that ‘She acts very well, sings sweetly and dances in fascinating style’.
The Referee agreed stating: ‘Miss Elsie Prince is an athletic Nanette with a pleasing personality, a pretty voice in its upper reaches and much enthusiasm. She is an accomplished dancer and comedienne.’
Jimmy Godden’s comic abilities were also applauded: ‘Mr Jimmy Godden is a comedian of outstanding ability. He scores his points with perfect ease and naturalness, and made a hit, a very palpable hit.’
However the supporting cast did not receive such favourable reviews. The Referee was critical of the singing of some of the minor parts. Elsie Parkes, in particular, received criticism for her ‘little trickle of a voice’. Whilst May Beatty was accused of ‘being vulgar at times’. Overall the general impression given by the critics was that the singing was lacking in skill, but that the quality of the production and the catchiness of the tunes made up for these deficiencies
There was no such reservation about the theatre that was christened that night. It was unanimously and warmly regarded. The Referee called it simply ‘beautiful’, whilst The Sydney Mail stated that ‘…on every hand were heard exclamations of delight at the beauty and dignity of the interior and the satisfying manner in which the comfort of patrons had been studied’.
It was clear that the theatre was designed to last forever. It was built in the certainty that live theatre would continue its popularity and that patrons would continue to gasp at its beauty for eternity. Alas the dreams of its builders were not to be realised.
The certainties of 1926 were dashed a mere three years later. The depression and the arrival of the talkies destroyed the demand for live theatre and the St James foundered. In 1929 the theatre became a cinema and after a brief return to live theatre in 1930, it became a permanent home to movies in 1931. Most shockingly its spectacular 1920s decoration was covered by later renovations which desecrated the spirit of the 1920s.
In 1971, the theatre, which The Referee predicted would ‘remain for a generation and after as a monument to the enterprise of the Fuller-Ward organisation’, was demolished to make way for an office block.