The Ghost of the Princess

First published

The ghost-of-honour didn't make the party

FRANKLY, it is surprising there are not a great many ghosts in Melbourne. After all, this is a city in which a vast number of bodies are buried, and one can only presume that there must be many very restless spirits abroad.

Our only regular ghost lives in the Princess Theatre. This is an utterly marvellous building. It could have been designed by a consortium of artists, which might have included Cruikshank, Tenniel, Ronald Searle, and Charles Addams. It is in the very best Victoriana-Berserk style. It has the lot, urns, stained glass windows, balconies, balustrades, little cast-iron cupolas, muses all over the place, and an utterly magnificent golden angel with trumpet.

Actually, the architect was William Pitt and he modelled his theatre on Italy's renowned Politaema. It opened on December 18, 1886. The 'Argus' on December 20 said it was the handsomest theatre south of the Equator. Indeed, with its splendid marble staircase and beautiful foyer, the new Princess was the equal of the Grand Opera in Paris, the Stadt Theatre in Frankfurt, and the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, which contained the finest approaches and foyers in Europe. What's more, our theatre had a mechanical roof, which opened to the stars, and grottoes, and waterfalls on either side of the proscenium; irresistible to ghosts.

Yes, Federici's ghost has been the only decent Melburnian ghost we have been able to cling to, so to speak. Why, Federici turned up even as recently as July last year. Singer June Bronhill told the ‘Australian’ she saw Federici at the back of the dress circle during a performance of ‘Robert and Elizabeth.’

'It was during the second act,' she said. 'During a dialogue scene I saw this very pretty pink light, more a pinpoint than anything. But it wasn't like any other light. I'm sure it was Federici's ghost.'

So, seeing that Federici is our only permanent movable ghost game, it is most satisfying to find that the whole story is laid down in Frank Cusack's book ‘Australian Ghost Stories,’ just out.

Now, Federici was an English baritone named Frederick Baker, who came out here to play Mephistopheles in ‘Faust.’ The F. Federici bit was just an idea to give him added style. Opening night was March 3, 1888. The performance went very well, indeed; Mephistopheles, as the agent of the devil, had claimed his victim and was descending the stage trap door when he collapsed and died. As the ‘Illustrated Australian News’ said at, the time, Mephistopheles, while descending with, Faust amid stage-fire and flames, turned the mimic scene, by his own death, into one of tragic reality.

Then the funeral was a very painful affair. The Reverend T. H. Goodwin, of the Church of England, who exhibited great emotion, according to the 'Argus,' collapsed, fainted away, and was unable to be revived for some considerable time. This happened just after he had finished the second prayer and the coffin was being lowered into the grave. ‘Mr Charles Warner, the well-known actor, had to take up the reading.’

Gounod's ‘Faust’ had a very short run at the Princess in 1888. Some members of the cast claimed that Federici had taken the curtain call on the substitute's first night and again on subsequent nights.

But, as Frank Cusack points out, the best authenticated stories of Federici's ghost have always had him in evening dress. George Musgrove, the theatre's original producer, saw him in evening dress at a late rehearsal. Federici was sitting in the front row of an otherwise empty dress circle.

Miss Betty Beddoes, who worked the greater part of her life at the theatre as wardrobe mistress, saw the ghost in 1917 during the season of Allan Wilkie's 'School For Scandal.' She was getting costumes ready for the opening night when a fireman knocked at the door and said 'Would you like to see a ghost?' She and the fireman saw a figure sitting quietly in the second or third row of the dress circle. Cusack writes- 'The figure made no movement and could be seen quite plainly and appeared to be staring straight ahead at the empty stage. It was dressed in evening dress and gave the impression of being well built with either grey hair or a wig. The face was in profile and not very distinct. Her most vivid recollection of the occurrence, Miss Beddoes says, is of the studs in the white shirtfront, which seemed in the half-light to give off a sort of glitter.

‘The fireman asked her if she were afraid. In a whispered reply she assured him she wasn't. Fascinated, they watched it for some time during which there was neither sound nor movement . . . Miss Beddoes does not pretend to be able to explain what she saw. She cannot accept that it was a case of "imagination playing tricks." She prefers merely to recount what she and another observed and leave it at that.’

Soon after this incident John Charles Gange, a fireman, saw the figure in evening dress standing in the centre of the dress circle. He thought it was a theatregoer who had found himself locked in. Gange called out to him. The figure didn't answer, and, slowly, it began to fade and disappear. Altogether, according to Cusack, there have been nearly 30 authenticated sightings of our ghost and at one stage the management offered ₤100 to anyone who would spend a night alone at the Princess. There is no record that the reward was ever claimed.

Heinemann had a late-night book launching of Cusack's book right there in the theatre. They played the last act of Gounod's Faust, and tried to get everything as it was on March 3, 1888. They had dim lights and even used dry ice to provide ghostly vapors on the stage.

Everything was done to encourage Federici's appearance. Miss Betty Beddoes, now in her late 80s, was there. So, too, was Mrs. Garnet Carroll, who saw Federici in a dark cloak one night during a ballet rehearsal.

Special cocktails, invented just for the evening, were served. For example, there was the Mephistopheles Cocktail, which was devil-red and consisted of cherry vodka, Polish pure spirit, and pineapple juice. Then there was 'The Spectre' …half an ounce of Polish pure spirit, 1oz. Zubrowka Bison vodka, and lemon juice.

However, by 1.30 a.m. Federici had failed to appear. Undoubtedly it was the cocktails. No respectable devil would be seen drinking them.

First published in the Bulletin Magazine, 1967.

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MelbournePrincess TheatreRonald SearleT. H. GoodwinThe ArgusWilliam PittJune Bronhill

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