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!

In anticipation of the circus

Posters have always played a crucial role in the promotion of travelling circuses. High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus celebrates the recent donation of the Vern Ellis Collection, consisting of over 40 circus posters, to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Performing Arts Collection and provides an insight into the rich history of circus in Australia.

Dating from the 1920s to 1960s, these posters (also known as bills) were part of pervasive campaigns that announced the imminent arrival of each circus. Advance agents employed by the circus were sent out several weeks ahead of the company to paste posters in prominent locations across towns: on walls, billboards, shop windows and telegraph poles.

Gwen Chaplin and Olive Ellis promoting Wirth’s Circus, Brisbane, 1940s
Gift of Mrs. Barbara St. Leon, 2015
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

During World War II when men were unavailable, Wirth’s Circus employed women to post bills in major cities. Wearing crisp white uniforms, they created a sense of excitement and additional publicity for the circus.

A well-designed poster differentiated a circus from its competitors and enticed potential visitors to attend. By the mid-twentieth century Australian circus posters had evolved from heavily text-based designs to more elaborate graphic imagery. Bold, eye-catching and colourful, these posters offered a glimpse into the circus tent, inviting audiences into a world of breathtaking skill and spectacle. Borrowing from the American circus poster and comic book traditions, posters often depicted complex narratives with aerial views of large performances contrasted with feature acts in close detail.

L-R: Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, c.1920s–1930s; Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, Wellington, 1929; Poster for Holden Bros Combined Comedy Stage Show, 1930s; Poster for Bullen Bros Circus, Townsville, 1961
Vern Ellis Collection, 2017
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Early posters made use of bold text to differentiate each circus from its competitors. As the number of circuses increased, and international companies toured Australia, further distinction was required to set each circus apart. Imagery became more elaborate as printing technology improved, while the claims on posters grew wilder in an attempt to draw larger crowds using phrases such as ‘death defying, danger deriding’, ‘the greatest’ and ‘the only big responsible show coming this season’. The location and date of performances provided the specifics of the event but were less prominent. This information was often handwritten, printed or attached to posters at each town, allowing a generic poster to be used for an entire tour.

High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus is on display from 29 June – 15 August, 2017 in the Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator

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.

Perfect Portraits

One of the treasures in the Performing Arts Collection is a album containing 160 carte de visite photographs of Australian performers from the 1860s and 1870s. A carte de visite is a small photograph, usually a portrait, presented on a piece of card 6.5 cm x 10cm. The size of carte de visites made them an economical and extremely popular format as they could be easily shared and mailed to friends and family.

The beautiful photograph above is of one of the Wiseman sisters, most likely Fanny Wiseman (1846-1933), an actress who performed on the Australian stage for over four decades in pantomime and melodrama. Her theatrical family included sisters Emily (1844-1881), Alice (1850-1940) and Laura (1857-1943).

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Laura Wiseman 1992.079.001-136. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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Emily Wiseman 1992.079.001-133. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

These photographs show an exquisite level of detail, capturing the intricate costume decorations and elaborate hairstyles of the actresses. Their photographer achieved such perfection by using a headrest; a metal frame that prevented the sitter from moving and blurring the photograph. The base of the headrest has been carefully hidden beneath draped fabric, but is visible in Fanny and Laura’s portraits.

Not all photographers during the period used headrests. This lively photograph of Benhamo and Zebrediah of Burton’s Circus (1877) gives some idea of the extraordinary balance and strength of circus performers who could remain still during the long exposure time.

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Brothers Benhamo (William Benham) and Zebrediah (Zebediah Benham), 1877. 1992.079.001-190 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Another striking portrait from the album is of Lena Carey, dressed in costume for the production “Pygmalion and Galatea”. Carey appeared as ‘Galatea’, a statue come to life, in the very successful 1873 production with George Coppin (1819-1906) and Hattie Shepparde (1848?-1874). The State Library of Victoria have two portraits of Hattie Shepparde in the role of ‘Cynisca’. When Shepparde died the following year in childbirth, Lena Carey was among the famous actresses to be pallbearers at her funeral.

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Lena Carey, c.1873. 1992.079.001-29. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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Hattie Shepherd, 1873, by Charles Hewitt. State Library of Victoria, H9476. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/273170

Can you help?

There are a number of unidentified photographs in the album. If you know the names of any of the performers below we’d love to hear from you. As a hint, the handwritten notes around the edges of the photographs are mostly misleading. Please post any suggestions in the comments field below or contact us via our Research Centre.

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1992.079.001-128. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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1992.079.001-191. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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1992.079.001-195. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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1992.079.001-196. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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1992.079.001-128. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

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.

Roll Up! Roll Up! Circus Automata Is In Town

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Circus Automata by Mark Ogge, 2015

There has been quite a buzz around Arts Centre Melbourne this week with the arrival of Circus Automata, a mechanical coin-operated diorama created by Melbourne artist Mark Ogge.  The diorama is the culmination of Ogge’s lifelong fascination with set painting, circus, vaudeville, commedia dell’arte, Weimar cabaret, Renaissance painting, automata, 18th century miniature paper theatres and Daguerre’s popular diorama theatres of early 19th century Paris.  Ogge has also drawn inspiration from historical circus and performance photographs held in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection which he has studied over many years.

Within the diorama’s proscenium arch a fanciful world of some twenty-three characters including a strongman, acrobats, a human cannonball and a whimsical donkey unicorn come to life. Each figure is powered by a tiny motor and is accompanied by its own sound effect and choreography.

Detail2Photograph by Mark Ogge

Ogge’s circus-inspired paintings and installations have been drawing gasps from audiences around the world since the early 2000s. In 2001 he designed and painted an elaborate new façade for the much-loved Famous Spiegeltent and for ten years Melbournians have watched it magically appear and disappear from the Arts Centre Melbourne’s forecourt.

Since 2006 Ogge has been the official artist of Speigelworld, an Australian-led immersive entertainment experience based in New York. Under the patronage of Australian impresario Ross Mollison, Ogge has created a series of works designed to celebrate the opening of each new Spiegelworld show. Artworks have included a monumental archway for Spiegelworld’s New York base and this three-dimensional mechanical diorama created for the opening Absinthe in 2015.

Circus Automata, accompanied by its original artwork, will be on display in Smorgon Family Plaza, Arts Centre Melbourne until 20 March 2016.