Alas, poor Tivoli, I knew it well.

First published

The night the old Tiv burnt down

I would like to have a good cry over the old Tivoli, but it is not easy. The old dear hasn't been well for long time. The City Council nearly bought the whole block of Tivoli buildings for $2 million back in 1963 and last year the theatre closed as a variety theatre and reopened as a cinema.

Last week in the middle of the night came the fire. Your correspondent hurried along next morning to look at the cadaver. The mess was frightful. The roof and the projection-room had crashed into the dress circle.

The Bourke Street facade alone remained untouched. The signs were still aloft: "Uncensored, new," "Angelique returns in her new amorous adventures," "Road to Versailles." There was a picture of Angelique lying naked on a bed and one suspected that the ravages she suffered during the fire were not the equal of the amorous ravages she suffered four sessions daily.

Unfortunately, we're awfully good at burning down theatres in Melbourne. They all go that way eventually. At various times we have burnt down the Theatre Royal, the Bijou, the Kings, His Majesty's, the Haymarket. The burning down of His Majesty's was a pretty good fire in 1929. The only picture that survived a singeing was a painting of Dame Nellie Melba by Rupert Bunny. There was almost mystic feeling about this. The old diva was so formidable the flames didn't dare touch her.

But there has been a theatre on this Tivoli site back to the 1850s, and it has outlasted all the old ones: the Theatre Royal opposite with its mirrors and saucy wenches out the back and the Bijou which was said to be terribly opulent with red satin and plush.

Originally the Tiv was the Varieties Music Hall and it was here in the golden 'fifties that the excited diggers threw their nuggets on the stage. Next it became the Alhambra, then the Opera House, and in 1900 (Dammit, you've guessed already) it was burnt down.

Harry Rickard, the marvellous comic singer and entrepreneur, rebuilt it for ₤13,000. The ‘Argus’ purred about the glories of the new Opera House. It wasn't Renaissance like every other piece of architecture in town; it was Moorish with splendid Moorish arches. There were spandrels, there were arabesques, there was a gold dado and the walls were hung with handsome gold paper richly embosser with flowers. On the way to the dress circle there were ferns and a fountain.

Furthermore, the carpet was the same as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York used in the Ophir on their Royal visit, no less.

Your correspondent, as he thumbed through the old ‘Argus,’ was most impressed with the advertising. Mr. Rickard had gusto. For the opening day, May 18, 1901: ‘Absolutely the most gigantic and magnificent first part ever designed in Australia. The most gorgeous and luxurious ever devised in any part of the world.’ Then for the star we had London's idol Marie Lloyd in her first appearance: ‘Absolutely the most marvellous artist the world has ever seen.’

The ‘Argus on Monday clearly adored Marie Lloyd, but there was a suggestion of alarm about Miss Lloyd's bracket of five songs ‘Some of the incidents she described were not such as would meet the approval of the print.’ Another critic found her songs ‘irredeemably vulgar.’ ‘Coarseness may at times be associated with wit, but the songs to which the audience was treated on Saturday night did not even have the saving grace of humour.’

She sang ‘Dear Little Shamrock’ and ‘Robin Adair,’ but there were other songs that went like this:

"Where's the harm, where's the harm, Will anyone tell me, pray, If the sexes bathe together In the beautiful summer weather. . .

Yes, as the ‘Argus’ said, Marie Lloyd could interpret ‘with an archness and a meaning that few singers knew how to infuse.’

On Monday Harry Rickard took an ad to announce, ‘Everyone is saying: The setting is unsurpassed, the line of sight is perfect, the corridors are unanimously admired . . .’

Prices of admission were 3s, 2s, 1/6d, and 1s, and 6d for matinees. Harry Rickard paid salaries on Mondays just to make sure that all performers were present and correct on Saturdays. He was superstitious, forbade the chorus to wear yellow and black and he was terribly cautious about Fridays and the number 13. Which, no doubt, was very wise of him because he died on Friday, October 13, 1913. The building didn't change but it was renamed the Tivoli in 1914, in line with Harry Rickard’s other Tivoli in Sydney.

We could sentimentalise for ever about the people who performed there. Little Tich dancing in his three-foot boots was paid an unbelievable ₤250 a week in 19I5. Ada Reeve had a salary of ₤300 a week, and Harry Musgrove paid Tommy Trinder and George Formby ₤1000 a week. W. C. Fields performed in 1903 before he went to Hollywood. It was about 1905 that we saw Houdini. As a splendid publicity stunt he had himself manacIed and straitjacketed and he jumped off Princes Bridge into the Yarra. In 1908 Rickard booked Tommy Burns, who regrettably failed to win the world title. Then he had Jack Johnson, who did win it. The crowd booed Johnson as he came on stage.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I came to your lovely Australia to fight and win the world's championship. I have done so. Could I do more?’ This was very good P.R. The audience then stood and cheered him.

There were other names: Sandow the strong man; Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily; George Robey; Chico Marx; Allan Wilkie, right through to Roy Rene, Athur Askey and Dick Bentley.

The big question now is what will happen to the old Tiv? The present managing director, Gordon Cooper, is not saying anything. However, the chances are that it could come back as a picture theatre. After all, the old Opera House staged Melbourne's first movie in 1896 and we had some jolly good Boer War films there around 1900.

But look, the movie-picture business here has never been so prosperous in its history. Picture theatres are being built and rebuilt all around the city. Just around the Tiv, we have the Palladium Centre with two new theatres; we have the Bercy, the Paris, and the Esquire. Over the road, Hoyts are building a $4m. cinema centre with three theatres with capacities of 960 seats, 840 seats, and 800 seats. The cycle has taken a full turn. Why, business is so good in motion pictures the standard line is that soon they will be converting bowling alleys into cinemas.

The point at this stage is not to let Mr. Cooper lose heart. With a little encouragement I am sure he could put up something gigantic and magnificent with furnishings that would be superb, with seating unsurpassed and corridors that would be unanimously admired.