Help the performing arts recover

28 May, 2020

 

Did you know that on the site of Arts Centre Melbourne, there were once circuses, a roller skating rink, a dance hall, and even a water slide?

The area where the Spire now stands has long been a centre of entertainment, performing arts and nightlife, where you could marvel at daring acrobats, catch a film, or dance till dawn.

 

The circus comes to town


Magazine of Wonder, Wirth Bros Circus

 

Magazine of Wonder, Wirth Bros Circus, 1926
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Land alongside the Yarra River (Birrarung) has been an important gathering place for the People of the Kulin Nations for thousands of years, and remains so today.

In the late nineteenth century, travelling circuses started pitching their tents alongside St Kilda Road just south of the river. The site appealed because it was close to the city and an easy ride by cable tram from the southern and eastern suburbs.

But in 1900, Melbourne’s changeable summer weather struck the FitzGerald Bros Circus, when their tent was blown down by ‘a howling north wind’. The next year, they erected the first permanent building on the site. When both FitzGerald brothers died in 1906, their building was taken over by Wirth Bros Circus and named Wirth’s Olympia. Becoming one of Australia’s biggest and longest-lasting circuses, Wirth’s performed their annual Melbourne season on the site for the next 50 years. Arriving in time for Cup Week, they caused great excitement with their band playing as the circus animals were paraded into the park.


The band plays as an elephant arrives at Wirth’s Olympia

 

The band plays as an elephant arrives at Wirth’s Olympia, c.1914
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

All the fun of the fair

In 1904, a ‘pleasure resort’ and amusement park, Princes Court, opened on land next to the circus. Attractions included an open air variety theatre, a Japanese teahouse, a ride-on dragon, a toboggan slide and the prime attraction, a 25 metre high water slide. ‘Shooting the Chute’ became a popular sensation and even the Premier of Victoria, Sir Thomas Bent, tried it out: according to Melbourne Punch, the rotund politician went down the slide ‘like a streak of greased lightning’.


Sir Thomas Bent shoots the chute at Princes Court

 

Sir Thomas Bent ‘shoots the chute’ at Princes Court, 1904
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Wirth’s Park

When the owners of Princes Court encountered financial difficulties in 1908, the Wirth brothers bought the park and combined it with their circus building. They added a roller skating rink, and a band stand on the corner of St Kilda Road and Sturt Street. Out of season, visitors could watch boxing matches or films in the two large circus buildings. During the 1919 influenza epidemic, the closed skating rink was taken over by the government and used to house Red Cross nurses.


Wirth’s Park seen from across the Yarra River

 

Wirth’s Park seen from across the Yarra River, c.1908
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

A district for pleasure

The whole area around Wirth’s Park became a hub of entertainment and nightlife. An ice skating rink, the Glaciarium, was established on City Road in 1906. There were several cinemas nearby, and in 1916 the original Playhouse Theatre opened just opposite what is now Hamer Hall’s stage door. The YMCA built their Melbourne headquarters on Sturt Street in 1926.


Arts Centre Melbourne and its surrounds

 

Nellie Melba performed on the Playhouse Theatre’s opening night in 1916, wearing a magnificent purple velvet robe, which is now part of the Australian Performing Arts Collection.


Robe worn by Nellie Melba as Desdemona in Otello

 

Robe worn by Nellie Melba as Desdemona in Otello, c.1900–16
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977

 

A place to dance

In 1926, the northern end of the Wirth’s site became a dance hall, the Green Mill. The bandstand was converted into a brightly lit Dutch-style windmill to entice revellers across the river. During the Second World War the hall, relaunched as the Trocadero, was a popular place for off-duty service personnel to meet and dance. But the buildings were poorly maintained. In 1940 health officials shut the venue down deeming it a fire hazard. It reopened after repairs, but the predictions proved right a year later when the main building burnt down, reducing the dance floor to the smaller forecourt area.


Newspaper advertisement for the Green Mill dance hall

 

Newspaper advertisement for the Green Mill dance hall, c.1933
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

A new vision

During the Second World War a group of Melburnians developed a new vision: a new art gallery and cultural centre that would give the post-war city a concert hall, theatres and galleries that it could be proud of. The Wirth’s site was allocated for this in 1946, but progress was slow. The circus continued to perform until 1953, when Wirth’s Olympia was destroyed in another fire.

It was not until 1984 that the grand vision was fully realised, with the opening of the Victorian Arts Centre’s Theatres Building under its iconic Spire.


The site on St Kilda Road was allocated in 1946

 

The site on St Kilda Road was allocated in 1946
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The Arts Centre Melbourne buildings have temporarily fallen silent due to COVID-19 closures, but we are looking forward to reopening them and the Victorian Government’s Melbourne Arts Precinct project means that the future is bright. Arts Centre Melbourne and surrounding areas are set for transformation to continue as a vital hub of entertainment, performance and excitement.

 

Ian Jackson
Assistant Curator, Theatre and Popular Entertainment
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

The land on which the Melbourne Arts Precinct and Arts Centre Melbourne sit has long been a place of gathering, storytelling, song, ceremony, celebration and commemoration for First Nations people.

The People of the Kulin Nations have gathered on the site for thousands of years and continue to do so today. We pay our respects to their elders, past, present and future.



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