Theatres/Venues 6a: Melbourne


(1912-1927) 9 Upper Esplanade (northern corner of Pollington Street).

In 1912 the building known as Wickliffe House was converted into a café with an open-air theatre situated out the back. Named the Arcadia Theatre (after a previous St Kilda venue), it operated as a live entertainment venue, largely between late-spring and mid-autumn, for fourteen years. By the 1920s it had also become a popular venue for wedding breakfasts (and occasional weddings), dances, private functions, and social events. The two most prominent companies to be associated with the Arcadia were Edward Branscombe‘s Dandies (1912-1917) and the Famous Diggers (1920-1923). The last troupe to play there was the Court Cards in early 1926.

NB: Upper Esplanade is now more commonly referred to as simply the Esplanade.



(1912-1976) 288 Sydney Road.

Located adjacent to the Retreat Hotel, the Empire Theatre was built on the site formerly occupied by Pictureland, a film house established in 1908 by exhibitors/producers Johnson and Gibson. Between its opening on 27 June 1912 and at least the late-1910s the Empire’s management routinely presented a mix of live acts and film, and indeed by mid-decade the venue was being promoted as Melbourne’s premiere vaudeville and picture theatre. From the 1920s until it closed down in 1975 it served primarily as a cinema under the management of several firms, including Hoyts (1926-), and even the local migrant community which showed films from Greece and Italy there in the 1950s. The building was destroyed by fire on 12 December 1976.

  • For further details see: C. Pere “The Empire Theatre” (research blog) [sighted 25/05/2017] • Laurie Cunningham. “The Rise and Fall of the Empire.” In Brunswick: One History, Many Voices. Ed. Janet Blagg. South Melbourne: Law Printer, 1994 (Chapter 32).
1: The building known as the Retreat Hotel still stands at 280 Sydney Road.
2: The numerous live entertainments offered at the venue included sacred concerts and community events. The first entertainers to appear at the Empire (on opening night) were English humourist Harry Graham and local singer/songwriter Ella Airlie. Among the numerous professional entertainers engaged were the Paul Stanhope Revue Co, Kingsley & Graham, J.C. Bain, and Con Morenie (1916); Pearl Ladd, Villiers Arnold, Frank, Lank & Alice, Musical Bentleys and Jolly John Larkin (1917).
3. The Empire’s first music director was the ‘colourful’ composer and former entrepreneur, Hermann Florack.
Image source: Cinema Treasures.



aka Lyric Summer Picture Gardens / Earl’s Court

(1912-late 1980s) Upper Esplanade.

Built as an open-air theatre, the Lyric was known in 1912 as the Lyric Summer Picture Gardens. The following year it was converted into a 1,700 seat all-weather venue – presenting both live theatre and moving pictures. By 1924 the Lyric was almost exclusively exhibiting films. It was converted into the Earl’s Court dance hall in 1928 and over the next six decades operated as either a dance hall or a nightclub (and under different names). The building was demolished in the late 1980s..


EARL’S COURT: See Lyric Theatre (St Kilda)



Northcote Theatre [marvmelbourne.blogspot](1912-1960) 212-220 High Street (corner of Bastings Street)

Although built as a cinema, the Northcote Theatre was also designed to accommodate live theatre, and it did this at various times throughout its almost fifty years of operations. Variety acts are recorded as being included as between-films entertainment from 1914. Management also presented occasional stand-alone vaudeville programmes and in later years it was used for other theatrical entertainments, including the 1952 musical comedy Night Club (adapted from the 1938 film Show Business). The first owner, Northcote Theatre Company, comprised local businessmen and directors from Melbourne-based film company Amalgamated Pictures. Victorian cinema pioneer Robert McLeish is identified as the theatre’s manager in 1915. It became part of the Hoyts chain when he later joined the company.

Image source: http://www.marvmelbourne.blogspot



(1934-ca.1961) 403-405 High Street, Northcote

Commissioned by Ludbrok Mench, and designed by Phys Hopkins in an Art Deco style, the Plaza Theatre opened on 29 December 1934 with a seating capacity of 1,100. For the first 15 years the venue operated as in independent cinema, initially screening MGM, Paramount and British films that had already been released a few weeks earlier by the city-based cinemas and exhibition chains. The only recorded variety show staged during this time was part of the 1939 Argus Appeal (5 Feb.). In 1949 film director/producer and exhibitor, A. R. Harwood, transformed the Plaza into a live variety venue (at the time the only 100% live theatre in suburban Melbourne).* Vaudeville, cabaret and revue was presented there until the venue returned to film exhibition (1953-1961).

*1: Most secondary sources, possibly citing either “Plaza Variety Theatre: Against the Odds.” Cinema Record 66 (2010) or the Cinema and Audience Research Project (CAARP) website, record that the Plaza was converted into a live venue in 1941. A search through newspapers digitised by the Australian National Library (Trove), beginning 1941, provides no evidence of this occurring until 1949, however. Indeed the Age newspaper explicitly refers to the venue in its 3 December 1949 edition as having “transitioned… from a picture house to a live stage theatre” (“Stage Variety at Northcote,” 6), while the Argus describes it as: “The Plaza Theatre, Northcote – a film house for 16 years [that] has been transformed into a variety theatre” (“Suburban Variety Theatre Opens.” 5 Dec. 1949,18). There’s also no evidence confirming that variety entertainment was included in the 1940 Mothers’ Day event (13 May) as claimed by the Darebin Heritage website.
2: Ike Delavale, Nellie Kolle, Al Mack, Len Rich, Toni Lamond, Horrie Dargie, Joff Ellen, Val Jellay, and Buster Fiddes are just some of the entertainers whose careers have been identified with the Plaza.
3: The Plaza Theatre briefly operated as an Italian cinema in the early 1960s before being converted into a ten-pin bowling centre in 1963 (ctd. National Trust of Australia, Victoria News May 2010, 6). In 1986 the building was used as a reception venue, The Elysee Centre. It fell into disuse by 2009 and was later demolished to make way for an apartment building.
Image: ca. 1940s. Source: Walking Melbourne.



(1861- Corner of Chapel and Greville streets.

As with most suburban and regional town halls, the Prahran civic centre hosted numerous concerts, theatricals and dramatic and variety-style entertainments during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The earliest recorded variety show was a combined bill – Campbell’s Minstrels, Billy Barlow and the Minstrels of the Moon in July 1864. Known local and touring variety companies to play the Town Hall during the late-1880s included the Imperial Minstrels (1874), Sutton’s Minstrels (1875), South Yarra Picnic Minstrels (1885), Southern Troubadours (1887), and Prahran Amateur Minstrels (late-1880s). Firms to operate out of the hall in the early 1900s included Rebottardo’s Shilling Pops (ca. 1902), North’s Concerts (1909-11) and Robert McLeish (ca. 1907-10).

Richard Stewart and his daughters, Nellie, Doccie and Maggie, staged Garnet Walch‘s Rainbow’s Revels at the Town Hall in 1878.
Image source: National Library of Australia.


Image citation details for entries without expanded biographies are noted at the bottom of the overview. All other image details are provided in the expanded PDF biographies.
For information concerning copyright issues see “Copyright” attachment in the AVTA “About” page.

Pages: 1 2 3

Published on June 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm  Comments Off on Theatres/Venues 6a: Melbourne