A Place Across The River: the home of entertainment in Melbourne for over 100 years

Aerial photograph of St Kilda Road (now Arts Centre Melbourne site) showing the Trocadero dance hall, 1960

Arts Centre Melbourne’s 4.5 hectare St Kilda Road site is steeped in entertainment history.  Here, in the heady gold-rush days, stood the miners’ Tent Town where hopeful diggers thronged the crowded alleys, singing and whistling the music hall airs they brought with them from London.

Photograph of Melbourne from St Kilda Road with Cooper and Bailey’s Great American Circus tents in the the background. Photograph by Charles Nettleton, c.1878. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

By 1877 Cooper and Bailey’s Great American International Circus became one of the first travelling shows to pitch its big top on the site and in 1901 a permanent Olympia was built by Fitzgerald Brothers’ Circus, the greatest of all the 19th century Australian circuses.  Three years later, Fitzgeralds’ developed the rest of the site into “an up-to-date fashionable rendezvous” called Prince’s Court which boasted a Japanese tea-house, miniature railway, a huge water chute and an open-air theatre with its own 15-member military band.

Postcard, “Shooting the Chute” at Princes Court, c.1904. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection


Stereographic photograph of Princes Court, c.1904. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection

It is Wirths’ Circus, however, that most people associate with the site. In 1907 Wirths’ Circus took over the entire site from Fitzgeralds’ and became a mainstay of Melbourne entertainment for the next fifty years. By 1911 Wirths had built a vast new Olympia and a fashionable new roller skating rink. During the First World War the Olympia was converted into a cinema and many other buildings were pressed into service as rest homes for soldiers and nurses.

Wirths’ traditionally arrived in Melbourne every October and played through until February, before moving to Sydney for the Easter season.  The rest of the circus’s year was spent touring Australia in a special train.  Wirths’ introduced a commemorative gold whip which was presented to the winning jockey of each year’s Melbourne Cup in a special ceremony in the ring on Cup Night – a tradition which continues track-side today.

Equestrienne act at Wirth’s Olympia, c. 1950. Photograph by Harry Jay. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

As the city recovered from the trauma of the First World War, the Olympia again became a focus for entertainment when it was converted into a dance hall in 1920s named the the Green Mill.  Situated on the northern corner of the site, a replica Dutch windmill provided the entrance through which patrons passed into a foyer and grand ballroom graced with a fernery and waterfalls. Hostesses wore green Dutch costumes and patrons danced under a ceiling featuring twinkling stars or admired the miniature indoor lake known as the Zuyder Zee.

During the 1920s and 1930s the site continued to evolve with the addition of another cinema on the corner of Sturt Street and City Road.  Opposite, on City Road, was the Glaciarium ice skating rink which was also used to show films during the summer months.  Around the corner, overlooking shady Snowden Gardens, was the Snowden picture theatre, later the Playhouse, then the Garrick, best remembered as the home of Gregan McMahon’s busy repertory company.  Here, in a 1922 production, an aspiring 16-year-old architect named Roy Grounds (later architect of Arts Centre Melbourne) played the part of a boy scout.

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Roller skates found when the site was excavated to build Arts Centre Melbourne. The skates were acquired by the Performing Arts Collection in 1977. Programme for The Glaciarium, 1929.

During the Second World War the Green Mill was renamed the Forty Club and then the Trocadero and was a popular rendezvous for servicemen and their partners. In 1946 the Melbourne South Land Act was passed designating the Wirths’ Park site for the development of a “cultural centre” which would eventually include the National Gallery of Victoria, the Melbourne Concert Hall (Hamer Hall) and the Theatres Building.

Wirths’ Circus survived the Depression and the World War II but in 1953 Wirths’ Olympia was destroyed by fire leaving a circus-shaped hole in the heart of all Melburnians.

The Girls Who Stayed at Home

‘The Girls Who Stayed at Home’ was a Melbourne based singing and dancing troupe who gave concerts and toured extensively to raise money for the war effort in WW1.  They were active between 1915-1918 and raised over £12,800. This collection has only recently been catalogued and made accessible for research.

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Programme for concert by The Girls Who Stayed at Home, The Playhouse, 11-12 September 1918. Gift of Mr Terry Wills Cooke, 1990. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection

It was truly wonderful to see it being used in academic research, by a student who had not otherwise visited Arts Centre Melbourne. History honours student, Michael Tran accessed ‘The Girls Who Stayed at Home’ collection this week. He had never visited Hamer Hall and was wide-eyed to learn of the Research Service here at Arts Centre Melbourne having discovered ‘the girls’ in newspaper articles via Trove.

Although some of  ‘The Girls who stayed at Home’ are not at home, being on tour with the ‘Theatres of War’ exhibition, Michael said he had the most productive research day he’s had in a while.

Ercole and Nancy Filippini: Opera Pioneers in Australia


This year marks the centenary of the arrival of baritone Count Ercole Filippini in Australia. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1885 to Italian parents, he made his professional debut in his home city, before gaining a contract with Italy’s prestigious La Scala opera house in Milan in 1912. With the closure of theatres in Europe during World War I, Filippini joined the Gonsalez Opera Company for a tour that included India, China, and the Philippines, followed by 14 months in Australia and New Zealand from June 1916.

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Count Ercole Filippini in the title role of Rigoletto, c.1914 and Contessa Nancy Filippini as Marguerite in Faust, Perth, 1930. Images courtesy of Coralie Tonti-Filippini.

When the tour ended Filippini remained in Australia and, in 1918, opened a school of opera in Sydney. One of his students was a young music graduate, Anne McParland (later known as Nancy), and by the end of the year the couple were married. In 1919 Filippini joined Frank Rigo’s touring company, which featured other Italian principals and Australian singers.

During the 1920s, the Filippinis set up Grand Opera companies in South Australia and Western Australia, all the while envisioning a national audience. Ercole performed onstage while Nancy produced and directed. She became Australia’s first female conductor of symphony orchestras and later joined her husband in lead roles.

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Programmes for the Italo-Australian Grand Opera Company, 1927 and 1932. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.

The pair were dedicated to making Italian opera widely accessible, touring regularly to the outback and remote corners of the country as well as major cities. In order to make ends meet, Ercole also sang in vaudeville venues and cinemas, and together with Nancy, experimented with shortened versions of operas. In the early 1930s they broadcast regularly on ABC radio in Perth, even performing full operas with their company in the studio.

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Nancy Filippini, Sonara House Studio, Melbourne, 1936.  Image courtesy of Coralie Tonti-Filippini.

Ercole Filippini died at the age of 48 in 1934. Nancy continued her involvement with singing, broadcasting, and leading choirs and orchestras; she died in 1987, aged 91. Instrumental in sharing Italian opera across Australia, their musical legacy also continues through many family members including grandson, singer-songwriter Paul Kelly.

“Opera Pioneers in Australia” is on display in Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne until 30 August 2016.

Celebrating the life of David Vigo

David Vigo in the offices of Clifford Hocking & David Vigo, Melbourne, 1986. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. 

It was with great sadness that we learnt of the death of David Vigo. David was best known as one half of Clifford Hocking and David Vigo presents, the most influential promotion team in Australia over the past four decades.

David Vigo was born near Plymouth, England in 1943. From an early age he expressed a love of music, an interest in other cultures and a fascination with numbers – passions that would form the bedrock of his later success as one of Australia’s most respected international promoters. In 1957 the Vigo family migrated to Australia, the first of many journeys undertaken by Vigo throughout his life. In 1960, aged just 16, Vigo moved to Melbourne where a chance encounter with Clifford Hocking, co-owner of Thomas’ Record Shop in Bourke Street proved to be a turning point in his life. A Monash University student by day, Vigo spent much of his free time attending concerts and discussing music, books, art and philosophy with Clifford and his friends at the bohemian Norman Robb bookshop.

David Vigo with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Adelaide Airport, 1972. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.

In 1962, Vigo attended Hocking’s first two offerings as a promoter. The first, a concert  by Indian musicians Sharan Rani and Chantur Lal, the second, Barry Humphries’ first one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment. In his own words, he was hooked and after several false starts working in publishing and libraries, Vigo formally teamed up with Clifford Hocking in 1965.

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Photograph signed to Cliff and David by Zakir Hussain, Ali Akbar Kahn (centre) and Susan Rosenblum, 1973. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.

Over the next 40 years Clifford Hocking and David Vigo were a dominant force in the Australian entertainment industry. They promoted artists they loved and that they believed Australian audiences would embrace. In many cases they helped artists to build international careers. The work they presented was eclectic and adventurous ranging from stand-up comedy to classical music.

They were a wonderful partnership firstly because they did different things. Clifford was all instinct, all feeling, all heart. David did the mechanics. And I don’t say that dismissively. He did the arithmetic, he did the budgets with enormous detail. He did the marketing…he had all the contacts in the newspapers. He knew all the venues so when they said they wanted to have these dates, they trusted them…They were scrupulously honest.

Carrillo Gantner, 2014

Drawing everything together was an abiding interest in the improvisational nature of jazz, comedy and the music of Northern India, Spain, Ireland and Africa. Among the many, many acts they championed were guitarists Paco Pena, John Williams and Leo Kottke; singers Jeannie Lewis, Blossom Dearie, Cleo Laine and Christy Moore; comedians Rowen Atkinson and Lenny Henry, and musicians Stephane Grappelli, Jacques Loussier, and the Buena Vista Social Club. In 2003 they were instrumental in establishing the award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.

Always generous with his time and knowledge David Vigo was a Trustee of Arts Centre Melbourne from 2007 to 2014. He worked closely with the Performing Arts Collection to create the Clifford Hocking and David Vigo Collection and with colleague Ian Roberts recently recorded archival interviews with many of his artists and associates including Paco Pena, John Pinder, Carrillo Gantner, Jeannie Lewis and Slava Grigoryan. When discussing his own extraordinary career with Roberts in 2014, David Vigo attributed the success of Hocking & Vigo to a very simple philosophy, “We kept ourselves small…We acted independent of government money and sponsorship…We were free. We did what we wanted.”

Selected items from the Clifford Hocking & David Vigo Collection are currently on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza, Arts Centre Melbourne. For further online information on the work of Clifford Hocking and David Vigo please visit Clifford Hocking: An Australian Impresario.

Cutting The Collection & Thumb Through

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Two costume designs, one with gold trims and pink flowers, and the other with green sash and four strands of beads under the chin, by Attilio Comelli for act two from the musical The Girl From Utah, c.1913/ upon a photograph of the stage set for the musical comedy Follow Through, 1930 or 1932. Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison, collage from Cutting The Collection digitally printed zine, edition of 100, 2016

One of the most rewarding things about being custodians of this great Collection is seeing the surprising ways in which people engage with history to create new work. The Performing Arts Collection is a valuable resource for students, historians, writers, documentary makers, designers and other arts practitioners seeking to find out more about Australia’s rich performing arts history. Every once in a while someone comes along and re-imagines the Collection in ways we never thought possible.

Artists and avid theatre-goers, Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison visited the Research Service earlier this year and found a treasure trove of imagery ripe for digital re-interpretation. The result of their investigations can be found in two new zines, Cutting The Collection and Thumb Through which were recently launched at the Melbourne Art Book Fair at the National Gallery of Victoria. Gracia speaks eloquently about the thought process behind Cutting The Collection informed by ‘the ephemeral nature of dance; the thrill of a live performance and the trace it leaves; notions of recording what was, whilst not ever able to capture or document it fully; and the importance of such collections’. You can read more about the creative process and development here.

Not content with one remarkable publication, Gracia and Louise hit upon the idea of creating Thumb Through as both a flip book  and as a moving collage which re-energises the static images in new and unexpected ways. Both publications evoke the brilliant, always ephemeral energy captured (but not quite) in the objects left behind after the curtain has come down.

Shakespeare 400


Tomorrow, 23 April marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare – poet, playwright and actor. Across the globe Shakespeare’s influence and legacy is being celebrated as part of Shakespeare400 with works of theatre, dance, music, art and literature inspired by the Bard being performed throughout the year.

Australians have long been enthralled by the plays of Shakespeare. The first known performance of his work in Australia is believed to be a production of Henry IV staged in Sydney on 8 April 1800. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Australia played host to many international Shakespeareans from Charles Kean and George Rignold to Laurence Olivier, however, only the work of local actor-managers Allan Wilkie and John Alden seemed to hint at the possibility of a permanent company. This dream was finally realised in 1990 with the founding of The Bell Shakespeare Company by actor John Bell and philanthropist Tony Gilbert.

To coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death we’re sharing some highlights from our Bell Shakespeare Collection including costumes and production photographs from the company’s past twenty five years. Also on display are some very special items donated to the Performing Arts Collection by John Bell earlier this year which reflect the history of Shakespeare in Australia. These include two very fine prop swords used by 19th century Shakespearean actor, George Rignold who performed in Australia from 1886 to 1899. In true theatrical style these pieces and a number of others were passed down to John Bell by actress Amber May Cecil, whose father actor/director Captain Lawrence H. Cecil came into possession of them following Rignold’s death in 1912.

Shakespeare 400 is currently on display in Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne.