The theatre collection is the largest and most diverse part of the Performing Arts Collection. It represents many aspects of traditional and contemporary theatre including drama, comedy, magic, musical theatre, puppetry, vaudeville and variety.
At the centre of the theatre collection is the J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd Archive, a vast photographic and paper-based collection generated by what was the largest commercial theatre enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere for almost a century. Other large collections highlight the contributions made at both a personal and company level to Australian theatre.
The presentation of drama in Australia – through comedies and tragedies, classics and new works – is documented in collections relating to many theatre companies, including J. C. Williamson Ltd, St Martin’s/Little Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, New Theatre, Playbox Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare.
Individuals represented include internationally recognised actors Oscar Asche, Frank Thring, Coral Browne and Zoe Caldwell, along with local heroes such as Bland Holt, Patricia Kennedy, Irene Mitchell and Sheila Florance.
Central to the area of comedy is an extensive archive and costume collection tracing the career of Barry Humphries and his alter egos, particularly Dame Edna Everage. Melbourne’s lively comedy scene is also represented through artists including Mary Hardy, Wendy Harmer, Max Gillies, Los Trios Ringbarkus, Rod Quantock and the Doug Anthony Allstars.
Magic-related items provide an insight into the mysterious world of illusionists and their fearless assistants. Australian performers including The Great Levante, Parer the Magician, Wong Toy Sun and Moi-Yo Miller Montes are represented, along with visiting international magicians who influenced the local magic scene.
The enduring practice of staging large-scale international musicals in Australia is documented in the extensive collections from J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd and the Gordon Frost Organisation. Home-grown musicals reflecting Australian stories are also represented, such as Lola Montez and The Boy From Oz.
Significant collections also trace the careers of musical comedy stars including Gladys Moncrieff, Evie Hayes, Maggie Fitzgibbon, Toni Lamond, Jeff Warren and Reg Livermore, along with designers such as John Truscott and Brian Thomson.
The traditions and spectacle of pantomime are captured through material associated with J. C. Williamson Ltd annual productions, most notably original costume designs from the early 20th century. Also represented are individuals who performed in pantomimes including Nellie Stewart, Jenny Howard, Maggie Fitzgibbon and Kenneth Laird.
The creativity of Australian puppetry is documented through the extensive Handspan Theatre Collection, along with items relating to the work of J.F. Ley, Joan and Betty Raynor, Pilgrim Puppet Theatre and Polyglot Puppet Theatre. The puppetry collection is also home to a unique cast of well-known characters including Ossie Ostrich from Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday and Claude the Crow from Shirl’s Neighbourhood.
Vaudeville and Variety
The history of the Tivoli Circuit, the home of vaudeville and variety from 1901 to 1966, is highlighted by hundreds of costume and set designs by resident designer Angus Winneke, and photographs by Harry Jay and Zeus Merfield. Rival vaudeville managements run by George Sorlie, Max Reddy and Harry Wren are also represented, along with performers such as Roy Rene (‘Mo’), Will Mahoney, Charles Norman, Queenie Paul and Toni Lamond.
Arts Centre Melbourne's Performing Arts Collection is the national leader among specialist performing arts collections in Australia. Established in 1975, it is formally recognised as a State collection and encompasses the history of circus, dance, music, opera and theatre. The Collection features over 640,000 items including costumes, designs, photographs, set models, puppets, props, posters, programs and archives.
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