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.
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.
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.
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.
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.