The Tivoli Theatre survives deep in the memories of Sydney-siders. It’s still talked about it crowded foyers, and remembered fondly by countless performers. But there’s much more to the story of this famous venue that is best remembered as being on the corner of Hay and Campbell Streets. AussieTheatre.com’s history correspondent LEANN RICHARDS investigates….
Until 1928 the Tivoli theatre in Sydney was located at 79-83A Castlereagh Street. This site is now occupied by the Sky Garden shopping complex, next door to the Imperial Arcade. There is no indication that it was once the site of a grand old theatre.
The only site acknowledged as the Tivoli, is one on the corner of Hay and Campbell Streets, further south near Central Station. A green plaque marks this as once being the site of the Tivoli Theatre. This is true, but only from 1928 when the Adelphi theatre (1911) which stood on the site was renamed The Tivoli .
The 79 Castlereagh Street address had a long theatrical history, dating back to at least 1868. In that year it was opened as the Scandinavian Hall. It charged sixpence and three pence for entrance. The elite sixpenny patrons sat around tables, drinking and smoking and spitting into the provided spittoons. The others spat into the sawdust. Young ladies in white dresses with blonde plaits, sashayed between the patrons, serving the drinks. They were the reason the hall was named ‘Scandinavian’.
The Scandinavian was a typical music hall. It had all the features of this sort of establishment, including the slightly risqué performances and the primarily male, working class, clientele.
In 1874, the place was renamed Sullivan’s Athletic Hall and became a boxing venue. It then became a clothing factory for a period of time. Then in 1878 a billiard saloon. The place changed names from Victoria Hall to The Academy of Music in the successive years.
In 1882 it was the site of a Home Rule for Ireland meeting, held by John Redmond and William Redmond. They could find no other place to have the meeting. There was fear that the large Irish population would riot. The meeting however defied expectations and was remarkably peaceful.
In 1890 the old building was demolished and The Garrick Theatre was built. Plays such as The Middleman and The Idler were produced there.
On Saturday February 18th 1893, Harry Rickards took up the lease of the Garrick and renamed it, The Tivoli Theatre. Rickard’s wife Kate, had persuaded him to take up the lease and it proved a good investment. As the Tivoli, the theatre introduced the Sydney public to such acts as illusionist, Chung Ling Soo, and Little Tich. Harry Rickards’ Tivoli Theatre, soon became a byword to the people of Sydney.
In early 1899, Rickards bought the freehold title of the site, but disaster struck soon afterwards. In September that year, the Tivoli Theatre burnt to the ground. It was an unmitigated disaster. The loss was estimated at 25,000 pounds. Rickards did not have any insurance. One thing was rescued from the ashes. A lucky horseshoe which was placed upside down in the new Tivoli that was built on the site of the old.
The night after the fire, the Tivoli programme went ahead as scheduled. John Leete, Harry’s brother had organised a lease on the Palace Theatre . In true, “the show must go on” tradition, G W Hunter, Spry and Austin, and Little Alma Grey performed that night. They had improvised props and wardrobe, but were warmly received by a large audience.
Rickards immediately proceeded to rebuild his theatre. It took eighteen weeks for architect Backhouse and Backhouse and builder Alexander Stuart to design and build. It cost 20,000 pounds.
The new theatre was an arched sandstone marvel. It was decorated in colours of turquoise, cream, gold, silver and light grey with terracotta tints. There were elaborate decorative schemes, including ornamental pilasters and specially commissioned paintings. The theatre was electrically lit by fixtures in the domed ceiling and the style was described as “French Renaissance” by the Building Engineering and Mining Journal of 1900. A hotel was associated with the theatre with the entrance towards Castlereagh Street.
According to Valentine Day who attended the opening of the new theatre on April 12 1900, it was a place of unobstructed views and unrestricted acoustics. It had a new capacity of 1200 people, about 200 more than the old theatre.
This extravagant example of theatre design was closed as a live venue in 1928. It became a cinema, as did most of Sydney’s live theatres. Many older Sydney residents may remember it as the Embassy Cinema. It was demolished in the 1960s.