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Theatre Royal and Metropole Hotel

Both the Hotel Metropole and the Theatre Royal were built by local businessman, Thomas George Anstruther Molloy, one of the largest landowners in Perth and also a successful politician, serving as Member for Perth in the Legislative Council in and as a Perth City Councillor including stints as Mayor. 

The Hotel Metropole, designed by well-known architect Henry Stirling Trigg, was built first, with construction starting in 1893 and completed by the end of that year.   One of the main features of the Hotel was the magnificent vestibule on the ground floor.  It was also built with a flat roof which had an altitude of 60 feet providing an ideal setting for the promenade concerts that Molloy held on the roof.   

In early 1895, Molloy announced that he was planning to build the city’s first real theatre next to his Hotel, news that was received with much delight from the people of Perth.   This time, Molloy selected lesser known John Stuart Jackson as his architect owing to his experience in the construction of theatres.  Jackson was originally from Geelong in Victoria and despite being a successful architect and having various business ventures, he experienced financial difficulties and came to Western Australia, leaving his wife and daughter behind, in 1891 to try and improve his fortunes during the gold boom.  

The Theatre Royal was officially opened on 19 April 1897.  Although separated by a right of way, the Theatre and Hotel were connected via verandahs and connecting chambers and the façade of the Theatre was designed in a complimentary style to the Hotel to make a kindred pair of fine buildings.  When it was opened the Theatre was compared to the best theatres of the time and together the Hotel Metropole and Theatre Royal formed the largest commercial building in Perth.  His Majesty’s Theatre, at the western end of Hay Street, also built by Molloy, was the only other combined Hotel/Theatre built in Perth.   

By the 1930s, the Theatre was converted for the screening of films, becoming the most popular picture house in Perth.  Next door, the Hotel Metropole was sold in 1962 to the lingerie company, Sussan (WA) Pty Ltd, who converted it into a retail shop.  In 1977 the Theatre was also converted to commercial premises.

Detailed Description

The Theatre Royal was the first purpose built theatre in Western Australia, officially opening in 1897.  Built next to the already existing Hotel Metropole (1894) it was also one of only two theatre/hotel complexes built in the central city area, the other one being His Majesty’s Theatre.   

Both the theatre and hotel complex were built by local businessman, Thomas George Anstruther Molloy.  The Molloy family arrived in Western Australia in 1862 and by the 1890s Molloy had become one of the largest landowners in Perth due to his shrewd real estate investments and business acumen complimented by the onset of the gold rush years in Western Australia which brought great wealth to the State and a boom in population.  Molloy also had success as a politician, serving as Member for Perth in the Legislative Council in and as a Perth City Councillor including stints as Mayor.  Being well connected, Molloy was assisted in the development of the hotel and theatre by the Forrest brothers: Alexander Forrest also a Mayor of Perth, and John Forrest, Premier of WA. 

Plans for the Hotel Metropole were drawn up by architect, Henry Stirling Trigg, who was a very popular and busy architect during the gold rush years in Western Australia.  Construction of the hotel started in 1893 and was completed by then end of the year, and once satisfying the Perth Licencing Court with the final fittings installed, the hotel was ready for opening either at the very end of December 1893 or in January 1894.  Molloy was Mayor of Perth at this time.  The façade was described in a local newspaper article as being a handsome and skilfully treated ‘American Romanesque style’.  Below ground was a cellar, the ground floor featured a magnificent vestibule, saloon bar, parlors and commercial rooms. On the first floor was a music saloon drawing room, dining room and billiard room and the second floor had the bedrooms as well as lounge and sitting rooms for the guests.  The mansard roof on the third floor had dormer windows to the attic space at the front of the building which was also used as bedrooms.  The flat roof had a promenade which had an altitude of 60 feet providing an ideal setting for the promenade concerts that Molloy held on the roof.  There was also a water tank installed on the roof.   

Molloy originally intended to call his hotel the Grand Hotel and this name appeared on the original plans from which a provisional licence was granted to Molloy in 1892.  However, not long after this, another publican Mr J Hurst applied for a licence for his hotel on the corner of Barrack and Murray Streets which he wanted to name Grand Hotel and this was granted.  Mr Hurst claimed he wasn’t aware Molloy had intended to use this name and so had already put the name of the hotel on the front in cement.  Despite Molloy’s objections, and also suspicious of Hurst’s supposed ignorance of the naming issue, the licencing court granted Hurst his licence, allowing him to use the name.  Molloy then rebranded his hotel as the Hotel Metropole.  

In early 1895, Molloy was having plans prepared for a 1,000-seat theatre to be built on the land adjoining his hotel.  The news that Molloy was planning to build Perth’s first real theatre was received with much enthusiasm.  Before this, the people of Perth had been expressing dismay over the absence of a theatre, believing it not only to be stalling progress in comparison to the eastern colonies but also demonstrating the overall backwardness of Western Australia.  Although there was the Town Hall, St George’s Hall and the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute which had all been used for theatrical shows, they were not purpose-built theatres and considered wanting.    

Molloy selected John Stuart Jackson as his architect owing to his experience in the construction of theatres. Jackson was a mysterious but well-connected figure from Geelong in Victoria.  He arrived in Australia in 1875 with his parents and as well as training as an architect and surveyor, also became involved in local amateur dramatics clubs.  In addition to his work as an architect, he took on the lease of the Exhibition Theatre in Geelong in 1883, carrying out refurbishments to the building to improve it as a theatre venue.  He married Alice Parker in Geelong in 1884 and they had their only child, a daughter also called Alice.  He built and lived at Angelsea House on the Angelsea River at Geelong which was a very popular tourist destination and run by Alice.  In addition to paid commissions Jackson was the honorary architect for the Geelong Agricultural and Horticultural Society and did work for gratis for the local volunteer Fire Brigade.  Jackson was also an accomplished artist, and his 5 panel pentaptych panorama of Geelong dated 1891 was exhibited to much acclaim and became a well-known work of art which today hangs in Geelong City Hall. 

Unfortunately, Jackson was not so successful with his finances.  In 1887 he was declared insolvent over losses incurred with the Exhibition Theatre (which he no longer managed) and also his architectural practice.  Financial problems continued to dog Jackson who was arrested in 1890 for issuing a bad cheque.  He came to Western Australia in October 1891 to try and improve his fortunes during the State’s gold boom with many of his friends and associates pitching in and sending him money to help him with this renewed start in life.  His wife and daughter stayed at Angelsea.  

The tender for the new theatre and shops was advertised in March 1895 with the contract awarded to D. Gray and construction commencing that year.  Although separated by a right of way, the theatre and hotel were to be connected via verandahs and connecting chambers.  The façade of Molloy’s new theatre was designed in kindred character to the hotel so that when completed they would make a fine pair.  It was also to incorporate shops at the ground floor to provide some additional income as well as having the hotel working as an adjunct to the theatre.  On 8 May 1895, the foundation stone for the theatre was laid by the Mayoress, Mrs Alexander Forrest, and a bottle containing an inscription to the effect that the theatre was the first to be erected in Perth was placed under the stone.  The formal ceremony was followed by drinks in the Hotel Metropole with a speech by the Premier Sir John Forrest.   

It appears Jackson’s financial problems may have followed him to the West, as he also experienced difficulties in completing the Theatre Royal building and in the end it was left to Mr F. W. G. Liebe who would later be the builder for Molloy’s other theatre His Majesty’s.  After delays with its completion and in securing a lessee, the theatre was officially opened on 19 April 1897 under the management of Messrs Jones and Lawrence.  The opening production was a performance of ‘Silver King’ by the Stanford & Barnes Company. 

The Theatre presented a grand and intricately detailed façade in the Federation Free Classical style.  It was designed with a sliding roof and air shafts providing ventilation which was a high priority in the hot climate of Perth.  It featured a large proscenium stage, stalls, dress circle, gallery, vice-regal box, an orchestra pit and a 200 light crystal chandelier.  The Theatre was compared to the best theatres in Melbourne of the time and together the Hotel Metropole and Theatre Royal formed the largest commercial building in Perth at that time.   

Despite the anticipation and delight around its establishment, the Theatre got off to a rocky start.  Although it was popular and attracted big productions by professional theatre companies, Perth’s population could not support long seasons and Jones and Lawrence filed for bankruptcy a little over a year after the theatre opened.  Other problems were in relation to health and safety issues.  It was even temporarily closed a year after its opening under a work order by the Director of Public Works to address the lack of exits.   Then there was also the objections placed by the Church to the Sunday theatre performances and as a result Sunday performances ceased.  However, Molloy was not discouraged, and in 1902 applied for a licence to build a second theatre and hotel larger and more opulent than the Theatre Royal.  This was His Majesty’s Theatre and Hotel completed in 1904 with the claim of having the largest stage in Australia.  Molloy also went on to build many more hotels in Perth and the suburbs. 

The Theatre Royal was originally built to accommodate large productions of full-length scripted plays and operettas, many from the classic repertoire, and patronised by those in the upper class of Perth’s society.   This was in contrast to the other smaller theatres venues that existed in Perth at this time which presented vaudeville type theatre which tended to be patronised by the working class.  During its first twenty years of operation, the Theatre was subject to many changes in management, ad hoc modifications and the introduction of other styles of entertainment such as vaudeville to enable the theatre to remain viable.  The biggest change was the screening of films, introduced in 1934 when the Grand Theatre Company took lease of the Theatre.  From this time on the Theatre became exclusively a cinema house and no live performances were ever staged there again.   But this paid off with the Theatre Royal becoming  the most popular picture house in Perth with the nine week season achieved by ‘Naughty Marietta’ at Christmas 1935 claiming not only a new Perth record, but also, for this particular film, a world record.  Extensive refurbishments, designed by Architectural firm Baxter Cox & Leighton, were carried out in 1939 to cope with the demands of new celluloid technology.  In 1954, the Theatre was purchased by the Stiles’ family company, which ran City Theatres.  

Hotel Metropole remained the property of the Molloy estate until 1962, when the lingerie company, Sussan (WA) Pty Ltd, purchased it.  The ground floor was cleared of all fittings to allow for contemporary shop fronts and a central arcade, and the accommodation rooms on the upper floors were converted into large open areas. The architects for this work were Krantz and Sheldon. 

In 1965, a new, wider 40-foot curved screen and stereophonic system were installed in the Theatre Royal as well as new ticket and bio-boxes. The completed works were officially opened by the then Lord Mayor Veryard, and kicked off with the screening of the very popular film ‘My Fair Lady’. 

With the age of large and glamorous cinemas diminishing which saw the demolition of many of Perth’s theatres or conversion into retail space, in 1977 the Theatre Royal closed and approval was given for the ground floor into shops, although the canopy and facade of the theatre were retained.  For a time, the Hoyts Cinemas which was located next door, used the former dress of the Theatre Royal circle for one of its cinemas. 

 

Daily News 5 March 1892 p. 3 

West Australian 27 August 1891 p. 4 

West Australian 2 February 1894 p. 7 

West Australian 31 December 1894 p. 4 

West Australian 18 February 1895 p. 4 

West Australian 14 March 1895 p. 6 

West Australian 15 May 1895 p. 2 

West Australian 5 May 1953 p. 7  

Inquirer and Commercial News 1 March 1895, p. 10. 

Inquirer and Commercial News 10 May 1895, p. 12. 

Walker, Sonia, ‘The History of the Theatre Royal: 1897-1979, unpublished manuscript, 1979 

Honniball, J. H. M., ‘The Golden Age of Cinema in Perth’, ‘Early Days’, Journal of the Royal WA Historical Society, Vol. 8, Part 6, 1982, 

WA Building and Construction Journal, 7 July 1939, p. 5 

Geelong Advertiser 23 January 1884 p. 3 

Geelong Advertiser 8 January 1885 p. 4 

Geelong Advertiser 16 April 1887 p. 3 

Geelong Advertiser 20 October 1891 p. 2 

Geelong Independent 20 June 2014, p. 6

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