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.

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.

MELBOURNE OLYMPIC GAMES

PART 2

The Olympic Arts Festival 

12 NOVEMBER – 15 DECEMBER 1956

The Olympic Arts Festival was a special feature of the 1956 Melbourne Games. While fine arts competitions were associated with previous Olympics, Melbourne was the first Games to have an arts festival as part of the official program.

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Programme for the Olympic Arts Festival. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

This program included fine art and design exhibitions and a Festival of Music and Drama that aimed to communicate something of Australia’s national character to overseas visitors and showcase the county’s best talent.

Music was a large part of the Festival with the Melbourne Symphony and Sydney Symphony Orchestras presenting concerts. This included a unique combined performance at the Olympic Swimming pool, where Sir Bernard Heinze conducted what was claimed to be the largest symphony orchestra ever assembled in Australia. During the performance soprano Glenda Raymond sung Ah, fors’è lui from La Traviata, and Olympic Overture by Clive Douglas was premiered. This work was the winning entry in an Olympic Composers Competition staged by APRA and the ABC.

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The combined Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras during the Olympic Swimming Pool performance, 2 December 1956. ABC 344 Laurie Richards Collection. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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Glenda Raymond and Sir Bernard Heinze at the Olympic Swimming Pool performance, 2 December 1956. ABC 340 Laurie Richards Collection. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

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The Duke of Edinburgh was in the audience at the joint Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestra concerts, 2 December 1956. ABC 340 Laurie Richards Collection. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
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Prime Minister Roberts Menzies at the Olympic Swimming Pool performance, 2 December 1956. ABC 339 Laurie Richards Collection. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Other festival events included free Music for the People concerts at the Botanic Gardens conducted Hector Crawford and a chamber music festival at Melba Hall. At Her Majesty’s Theatre the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust presented a program of four operas by Mozart, Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and the Children’s marionette play The Tintookies.

Companies not included in the Festival also staged special Olympic productions. At New Theatre, Dick Diamond’s Australian musical Under the Coolibah Tree was presented. Despite public suspicion of communism and condemnation of the Soviet Union after the Hungarian Uprising (this famously manifested in a brawl between the USSR vs Hungary water polo teams), the left leaning New Theatre kept things friendly by inviting Soviet journalists and a Chinese theatre company to view the show.

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At the Tivoli, re-opened after an extensive refurbishment, the Olympic Follies was presented. This was an extravaganza of variety featuring the Hungarian acrobatic dancers Julia and Darvas, with lavish stage design by Angus Winneke.

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The amazing Darvas and Julia, c.1956. 2002.034.465 Betty Stewart Collection. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

As you can see, life in Melbourne during the Games was friendly, social and entertaining. If you’d like to learn more about what was on during the Games check out the digitised newspapers in Trove . You can also ask our Research Centre for help in locating objects and information about this and other Performing Arts topics.

Celebrating the life of David Vigo

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David Vigo in the offices of Clifford Hocking & David Vigo, Melbourne, 1986. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. 

It was with great sadness that we learnt of the death of David Vigo. David was best known as one half of Clifford Hocking and David Vigo presents, the most influential promotion team in Australia over the past four decades.

David Vigo was born near Plymouth, England in 1943. From an early age he expressed a love of music, an interest in other cultures and a fascination with numbers – passions that would form the bedrock of his later success as one of Australia’s most respected international promoters. In 1957 the Vigo family migrated to Australia, the first of many journeys undertaken by Vigo throughout his life. In 1960, aged just 16, Vigo moved to Melbourne where a chance encounter with Clifford Hocking, co-owner of Thomas’ Record Shop in Bourke Street proved to be a turning point in his life. A Monash University student by day, Vigo spent much of his free time attending concerts and discussing music, books, art and philosophy with Clifford and his friends at the bohemian Norman Robb bookshop.

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David Vigo with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Adelaide Airport, 1972. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.

In 1962, Vigo attended Hocking’s first two offerings as a promoter. The first, a concert  by Indian musicians Sharan Rani and Chantur Lal, the second, Barry Humphries’ first one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment. In his own words, he was hooked and after several false starts working in publishing and libraries, Vigo formally teamed up with Clifford Hocking in 1965.

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Photograph signed to Cliff and David by Zakir Hussain, Ali Akbar Kahn (centre) and Susan Rosenblum, 1973. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.

Over the next 40 years Clifford Hocking and David Vigo were a dominant force in the Australian entertainment industry. They promoted artists they loved and that they believed Australian audiences would embrace. In many cases they helped artists to build international careers. The work they presented was eclectic and adventurous ranging from stand-up comedy to classical music.

They were a wonderful partnership firstly because they did different things. Clifford was all instinct, all feeling, all heart. David did the mechanics. And I don’t say that dismissively. He did the arithmetic, he did the budgets with enormous detail. He did the marketing…he had all the contacts in the newspapers. He knew all the venues so when they said they wanted to have these dates, they trusted them…They were scrupulously honest.

Carrillo Gantner, 2014

Drawing everything together was an abiding interest in the improvisational nature of jazz, comedy and the music of Northern India, Spain, Ireland and Africa. Among the many, many acts they championed were guitarists Paco Pena, John Williams and Leo Kottke; singers Jeannie Lewis, Blossom Dearie, Cleo Laine and Christy Moore; comedians Rowen Atkinson and Lenny Henry, and musicians Stephane Grappelli, Jacques Loussier, and the Buena Vista Social Club. In 2003 they were instrumental in establishing the award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.

Always generous with his time and knowledge David Vigo was a Trustee of Arts Centre Melbourne from 2007 to 2014. He worked closely with the Performing Arts Collection to create the Clifford Hocking and David Vigo Collection and with colleague Ian Roberts recently recorded archival interviews with many of his artists and associates including Paco Pena, John Pinder, Carrillo Gantner, Jeannie Lewis and Slava Grigoryan. When discussing his own extraordinary career with Roberts in 2014, David Vigo attributed the success of Hocking & Vigo to a very simple philosophy, “We kept ourselves small…We acted independent of government money and sponsorship…We were free. We did what we wanted.”

Selected items from the Clifford Hocking & David Vigo Collection are currently on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza, Arts Centre Melbourne. For further online information on the work of Clifford Hocking and David Vigo please visit Clifford Hocking: An Australian Impresario.