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

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.

Bold and Beautiful: The Creative Vision of Ann Church

A new acquisition capturing the creative vision of Melbourne born designer Ann Church joins Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection. In a career spanning the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Church designed the set and costumes for companies such as the National Theatre Ballet, Victorian Ballet Guild, The Australian Ballet and the West Australian Ballet. This new acquisition  features set and costume designs, notebooks, photographs and newspaper clippings that provide a valuable insight into our early dance repertoire.

Set design by Ann Church for Les Belles Creoles, National Theatre Ballet, 1949 Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

There are vibrantly coloured set and costume designs for one of Ann Church’s earliest commissions for the stage, Les Belles Creoles. Presented by the National Theatre Ballet in 1949, this production was choreographed by Australian dancer Rex Reid and was the first of many ballets on which they collaborated.

Church continued to design for the National Theatre Ballet’s following seasons.  A selection of costume designs from Margaret Scott’s production of Peter and the Wolf (1950) and the full-length version of Swan Lake (1951) are also represented and show the designers bold use of colour. They capture a sense of movement that makes her designs so in tune with the needs of dance.

Notebooks compiled by Ann Church during the 1950s and 1960s. Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

Notebooks containing fabric samples and working drawings provide a rare glimpse into the creative process Church followed when developing new designs. In some we see whimsical ideas for future  ballets, while other pages tackle the practicalities of fabric selection, measurements and garment construction.

Set design by Ann Church for Melbourne Cup, The Australian Ballet, 1962. Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017 Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

The costumes designed by Ann Church for the production of Melbourne Cup were donated by The Australian Ballet in 1998, as treasured pieces from the company’s inaugural season of 1962. This recent acquisition provides further representation of Melbourne Cup through a selection of set designs that formed the backdrop to these costumes. Based on the very first running of the famous horse race in 1861, Melbourne Cup presented a number of challenges for the designer. One of these was to capture the historic setting of the event on stage. A carefully compiled scrapbook of newspaper clippings and articles reveals the depth of research she conducted to recreate this spectacle. The scrapbook also includes photographs that capture the magical journey from page to stage.

Margot Anderson
Curator (Dance and Opera)

 

 

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.