Tales from the Research Centre

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Up on level 7 of Hamer Hall at Arts Centre Melbourne, a room walled with books overlooks the river and a beautiful view across the bridge to Flinders Street Station, St Pauls’ Cathedral and the imposing city skyline.  But rarely is time spent appreciating this grand vista, as this small room is our Research Centre for the Australian Performing Arts Collection.   Anyone researching the performing arts can book an appointment to study our archival collections for their projects. It’s our own little mini reader’s room, if you like.  The view might be grand, but heads are down as researchers pore through extant documents to learn more about performers, directors, designers, productions, producers and theatre process from the nineteenth century to today.  The online service also facilitates use of collection images for publications, academic theses, television documentaries, genealogy and even the odd school project!

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The Research Centre is always a quietly busy place.  A snapshot from this year shows research on theatre architecture, pantomime, costume, company finances and performers such as Billy Maloney, a well-known child singer and vaudeville comedian during the inter-war period, who later headed up children’s performance troupes. Billy was known as “the man with the Silver Stick” – the titular item being presented to him by the Prince of Wales (the future but short reigning Edward VIII) in 1920.

The bright orange clown costume pictured below, was owned by Michael Horowitz, a famous circus clown in Warsaw in the 1930’s.  Sue Smethurst got in touch as she is currently researching the family tree. Consequently three generations of Michael Horowitz’s descendants came to visit the Collection to see the costume owned by their ancestor.

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Clown outfit worn by Michael Horowitz, a member of the USSR Circus, c 1925, Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

During their visit, the family told the story of Michael Horowitz who was a famous Polish clown. In order to escape the invading Nazis, Horowitz joined a Russian circus which was about to tour to Australia.  Michael made his home here and after working menial jobs, was employed at GTV 9 in the 50’s as one of the clowns on the children’s programme “The Tarax Show”, along with Alf Gertler and Norman Brown. He was very much a member of the channel 9 ‘family’ in the early days of Australian television.  Ernie Carroll, the man behind Ozzie Ostrich later on, supported Michael Horowitz’s application to remain Australia.

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Back row from L: Henry Horowitz, Meg Horowitz, Sue Smethurst, Paul Horowitz
Front from L: Charlie Horowitz, Alex Horowitz

Pertaining to the costume itself, the family believe that Michael might have done the exquisite embroidery as he was a great sewer.  However, the costume is dated around 1925 when Michael was only fifteen years old. Is this the costume of a 15 year old? Is it an appropriated costume from use elsewhere? If that date is accurate, why did he choose to take it with him years later when fleeing the country?

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Detail, Clown outfit worn by Michael Horowitz, a member of the USSR Circus, c 1925, Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

These are the kinds of questions which both frustrate and fascinate the researcher. The detective work our researchers do is painstaking. They read volumes of material and piece lives and events together from a line in a newspaper clipping here; a letter there, and in the case of Michael Horowitz, they also draw on generational memory passed down through the family.

Thanks to all our researchers for keeping us so busy and special thanks to Sue Smethurst and the Horowitz family for their permissions and images for this piece.

The Australian Performing Arts Collection Research Centre at Arts Centre Melbourne is open by appointment only on Mondays and Tuesdays.  researchservice@artscentremelbourne.com.au

Claudia Funder
Collections Coordinator, Online and Research.

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