Creating the State Theatre Stage Drop Curtain

Graham Bennett, Paul Kathner, Ross Turner, Kevin Pierce and Peter Petit painting the State Theatre curtain at Scenic Studios, Melbourne, 1984, Victorian Arts Centre Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

One items in our collection about which the Research Centre has received multiple enquiries this year is the Drop Curtain on the State Theatre stage.  I’m sure not many people realise that the curtain itself is an official museum object, catalogued into the Australian Performing Arts Collection!  Actually, it’s quite possibly the hardest working object we have, as it is never in storage and always takes pride of place, working nightly on stage.

Early design ideas for the curtain included using a method of embroidery and applique, (think Bayeux Tapestry) or even hand-weaving the entire curtain into a giant actual tapestry! As an artwork it would have been majestic indeed but may have dated over time. The medium of tapestry also was not going to work as a stage curtain which needs to be heavy for the correct drape but also requires the flexibility to fold and move quickly, easily and repeatedly.
John Truscott commissioned Graham Bennett to design the curtain in 1984. Bennett also designed and painted the beautiful celling of the Vic Restaurant. Next time you are in there, look up and admire his work.

The Design
Graham Bennett’s design features a representation of a lyrebird’s fanned tail as the centrepiece where the two halves of the curtain meet. A clustered spray of native flora comprising fern leaves, gum leaves and wattle flowers are painted on the far right and left lower sides; an exact mirror image of each other.  Above each of these, a smaller Victorian Coat of Arms is presented, on each top corner of the curtain.  In this insignia the female figures of Peace and Prosperity stand either side of the Southern Cross and a Kangaroo holding a crown.  The figure of Peace on the left, holds an olive branch and Prosperity on the right, has a cornucopia by her side.  They stand on a grassy mount with the State motto ‘Peace and Prosperity’ at the base of the figures. Depicting the Coat of Arms at a smaller size emphasises height of the curtain and allows the native flora and fauna motifs to dominate the eye.  Four ribbons draw all the elements of the curtain together. They hang vertically from the crests at each side and are laced through the bouquets.  Large golden curls of ribbon then work their way along the bottom section of the curtain becoming entwined in the lyrebird motif.

Painting the enormous curtain, Victorian Arts Centre Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Creation
The finished curtain is made of dense red upholstery velvet from Windsor Fabrics.  There was much interest in the curtain when our social media page posted some information on it and everyone asked “How did they get it looking so glimmery?”  In fact the surface was painted in multiple layers of “impasto”, a technique whereby the brushstrokes are thick and visible. Each layer was dried before adding the next, so that the result is a thick buildup of shimmering paint that glistens under the spotlights. The other secret about the paint itself is that there is gold leaf mixed through it.  When lit, the light bounces off the colour of the paint and the metallic gold particles, bringing out all the more brilliance to the piece.

The curtain cost $90,000 and was the gift of the then State Bank of Victoria. It took three months to create at Scenic Studios and the team who worked on it included Graham Bennett, Paul Kathner, Ross Turner, Kevin Pierce and Peter Petit.

By Claudia Funder, Collections Coordinator, Research Centre

The Arrival – behind the Scenes in the Performing Arts Collection

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The Australian Performing Arts Collection recently received an exciting new acquisition of costumes from Opera Australia. This acquisition included 44 costumes from the past 60 years of Opera Australia’s history, and were worn by some of Australia’s most renowned opera singers including Emma Matthews, Cheryl Barker, Anthony Warlow, Robert Gard and many others. The acquisition included almost 200 individual parts including dresses, pants, vests, shirts, crinoline, armour, hats, wigs and accessories.

The costumes began their journey at Opera Australia’s headquarters in Sydney, and traveled to Melbourne in a specially fitted costume truck with our courier, International Arts Services, in partnership with Garde Robe.

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Australian Performing Arts Collection and International Art Services staff unloading costumes from the Opera Australia acquisition, June 2017
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Australian Performing Arts Collection and International Art Services staff unloading costumes from the Opera Australia acquisition, June 2017

On delivery day in Melbourne, members of our Collections team were on hand to carefully unload the costumes for sorting. Each item was labeled and a condition report completed to help us better understand and care for the object appropriately. Capturing this information on arrival provides a valuable reference point to monitor any changes that occur to the materials over time.

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Sorting, sorting, sorting.
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In order to keep track of almost 200 items, all the new arrivals were checked off our inventory list and labelled

In addition, each item was photographed in our in-house studio, with the photographs used for internal reference only and added to the object catalogue record in EMU (our collection management database) for tracking purposes.

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Photographing the costume worn by David Hibbard as Pietro Fleville in Andrea Chenier, 2001/2, Opera Australia

Once the photography was complete, the costumes entered quarantine. All new arrivals must undergo quarantine before entering the collection to kill any pests that might have made their homes within the garments. This is particularly important for objects that may have been in storage for extended periods, as was the case here. The first step is to deprive insects of oxygen, this is achieved by placing the items in airtight plastic storage for several weeks. Once this phase is complete, additional freezer treatment will be undertaken to kill stubborn pests. Pests pose a huge risk to organic based cultural material as many love to feast on fabric and paper, and could potentially cause carnage if they managed to enter the collection undetected.

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Costumes from Opera Australia in quarantine storage

After the quarantine period, the costumes can finally enter the collection. At this point the registration team fully catalogue, rehouse (using archival grade boxes and padded hangers), and professionally photograph each item for online publication. Each item is given an individual identification number so it can be easily located and tracked for use in exhibitions and research.

A selection of our new Opera Australia costumes will be on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza at Arts Centre Melbourne (near the box office) from 14 October 2017.

 

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From left: Margot Anderson, Curator of Dance & Opera, Fiona Wilson, Collections Coordinator, Elyse White, Collections Operations & Logistics Registrar, Jean Chen, Assistant Registrar, Collections and Nicole Bowller, Assistant Curator (not pictured) June 2017

 

 

 

 

Open House 2017

Quietly tucked away, beneath the lawn at Arts Centre Melbourne, hidden below Inge King’s iconic Forward Surge (colloquially known as ‘The Wave’) is the home of Australia’s performing arts history.

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Inge King, Forward Surge, 1976, 50mm mild steel 
Commissioned in 1975, William Angliss Art Fund
Public Art Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Established in 1975, the Australian Performing Arts Collection is formally recognised as a state collection but has a national focus encompassing the history of the performing arts in Australia across dance, music, opera, theatre, circus, comedy, puppetry and magic. The collection currently holds over 650,000 objects including costumes, set models, stage designs, props and puppets, photographs, posters, programs, and the archives of some of Australia’s most significant performers, companies and designers.

It is not often we get to open our doors to the public, but once a year during Open House Melbourne we get to do just that. During twelve tours over two days, we brought over 100 people through on a whirlwind, showstopping tour of the Australian Performing Arts Collection. So much to see and so little time!

This year the highlights included:

  • Dame Nellie Melba’s costume from La Traviata
  • Kylie Minogue’s gold hot pants worn in the ‘Spinning Around’ music video
  • Geoffrey Rush’s costume worn in Diary of a Madman
  • A handwritten notebook  by Nick Cave
  • Wirth’s Circus scrapbook documenting the early history of Australian circus
  • Costumes from Dame Edna’s stage wardrobe
  • Peter Allen’s maracas
  • MTC’s set model for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll 
  • Leather jacket worn by Bon Scott of AC/DC
  • Designs from Australia’s leading stage designers including Ann Church, Jennie Tate, Mel Drummond and Roger Kirk.
  • Not to mention clown shoes, ballet shoes, magic tricks, puppets and much much more!
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Notebook compiled by Nick Cave, 1984-1985, Gift of Nick Cave, 2006, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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Hot pants worn by Kylie Minogue in Spinning Around video, 2000, Gift of Kylie Minogue, Cultural Gifts Program, 2004, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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Set model for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Melbourne Theatre Company, 1995, Gift of the Melbourne Theatre Company, 1995, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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Maracas purchased by Peter Allen in Rio de Janeiro, 1977, Gift of Larry Rinehart, 2009, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thank you to everyone who attended! We absolutely love showing you around and hope to get to share more of Australia’s performing arts history with you. We think this collection deserves a permanent gallery of it’s very own. What do you think? Tell us in the comments below!

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.