His Majesty’s Theatre
His Majesty’s Theatre was financed by a hot-headed and occasionally violent developer, who later became Mayor of Perth, and designed by an architect who probably lied about his qualifications. Yet despite this inauspicious start, His Majesty’s remains one of the jewels of Perth’s heritage and is the only operating Edwardian-era theatre in Australia.
At the time the theatre was opened in 1904, it was the largest theatre in the country, and had seating for over 2,500 people. It is also thought to be the first reinforced concrete building constructed in Perth. At first it was also a hotel, providing luxury accommodation for travellers from out of town.
Over its life, the theatre has hosted large-scale musicals, ballet, opera, Shakespearean plays and many other events, including political rallies, boxing matches and movie screenings. The list of famous names who have performed here is extensive, such as Anna Pavlova, Judy Davis, Sir John Gielgud, Katherine Hepburn, Barry Humphries and Angela Lansbury.
Following several years with an uncertain future and a public campaign to save it, in 1977 the theatre was bought by the Government of Western Australia who undertook an extensive restoration while modernising its facilities. Since that time, it has been the home of the West Australian Ballet and West Australian Opera companies, both of which perform regularly.
When it opened in 1904, His Majesty’s was a four-storey ornately decorated building which combined both a hotel and theatre. Western Australia was experiencing the prosperity of a long running gold boom, and with this new money came ever more impressive architecture. His Majesty’s Theatre was, and remains, one of the finest Edwardian buildings to be erected in Australia.
It was built for Perth businessman, and future Mayor of Perth, Tom Molloy. By the 1890s, Molloy owned several hotels and had built the Metropole Hotel in Hay Street. After he built the Royal Theatre next to the Metropole in 1897, this proved very profitable and he decided to open another theatre on the corner of King and Hay Streets.
His Majesty’s Theatre was designed by architect William Wolf (who also spelt his name Woolf). Born in New York, Wolf claimed to have trained as an architect in Germany, but recent discoveries have shown there was no architecture course at the university from which he said he graduated. He migrated to Australia in 1877 and worked in Melbourne and Sydney before setting up a successful practice in Perth in the mid-1890s.
The builder, Gustav Liebe, had come to Perth in 1892. He specialised in commercial developments and by 1904 had already built several office blocks, hotels, and banks in Perth. After building His Majesty’s Theatre he would go on to build the Art Gallery in Beaufort Street and the Peninsula Hotel in Maylands.
When the new theatre opened in 1904, the newspapers were full of admiration:
Viewed from outside the most striking impression is the compact solidarity of the structure. The architecture is of the Italian school. Two tiers of balconies, carried out in the Doric order, run around the whole front, while the windows on the top floor. have annexed to them balconettes, which form a happy blend with the rest of the façade. Roman columns, piers, and pilasters support the outside fabric. The main pediment bears the Royal crest, while the minor pediments, which are set in a series of segment arches, are surmounted by the models of six lions.
Unfortunately, the two tiers of balconies were removed in 1947-48, as the supporting pillars were considered a traffic hazard in that era.
Entering His Majesty’s Theatre, you would go up the main staircase, which had marble treads and rises, together with cement balustrades and alabaster white handrails. The stairs divided at the landing to meet again in the foyer outside the circle, a room described as “the most gorgeous” in the building. The foyer had elaborate floral designs, a stamped steel ceiling with a 12ft [3.5m] lantern, and fairy lights were set around the outer ring outside the circle.
The itself was an in impressive space, with a stage 20 metres by 24 metres, and an auditorium of 23 metres by 21 metres, seating 2,584 people in three tiers: 974 on the ground floor, 540 in the dress circle, and a further 1,070 in the family circle and the gallery. The auditorium featured four artificial waterfalls and the dome of the roof could slide open to improve ventilation, and on warm nights the audience could sit under the stars.
After Sir John Forrest had declared His Majesty’s officially opened, Tom Molloy responded by complaining about the amount of “red tape” (such as fire regulations) with which an entrepreneur needed to comply. In fact, the opening night’s performance was nearly cancelled as compliance with several planning regulations was in doubt.
But open it did, with a pantomime, The Forty Thieves. One reviewer gives an impression of the experience of this new theatre:
There are the thieves, dressed as never the most gorgeous robbers wore ever dressed; Eastern palaces with towers and minarets reaching even above the top of the proscenium; and a cave which opens to the ‘sesame’ much as other stage caves have opened. The mounting of the piece is excellent. The dresses have been cleverly selected to form the most effective combinations, and the scenery, rich in Oriental tints and colouring, forms a fine background to the stage display.
Since then, His Majesty’s Theatre has been the performing venue for artists as diverse as Nellie Melba, Pavlova, Jascha Heifetz, Sybil Thorndike, Vivien Leigh and Margot Fonteyn. But by the 1970s, it had fallen into disuse because of its outdated facilities. The new Perth Concert Hall (1973) had taken over as the venue of choice. The Hotel was rundown and it was proposed to demolish His Majesty’s.
A determined public campaign persuaded the State Government to buy the theatre for local performing arts companies and to restore it to its former glory. As one newspaper wrote at the time: “It’s not a case of trying to revive a dead body, it’s a matter of rejuvenating a lady who has given this city a great deal of pleasure.” The restoration involved the loss of the hotel facilities, turning His Majesty’s into a dedicated theatre.
Since then, His Majesty’s Theatre has been used to host local and international performances, and continues to be one of the most loved and most visited arts venues in Western Australia.
State Heritage Office assessment, His Majesty’s Theatre
‘His Majesty’s Theatre,’ West Australian, 2 September 1904
‘The New Theatre,’ West Australian, 26 December 1904