Ballarat, as the premier city of the Victorian goldfields, should have a theatre worthy of its status

Her Majesty’s has been a central part of the cultural life of Ballarat since it first opened its doors in 1875. Australia’s best preserved theatre building, it has been continuously used as Ballarat’s home of live performance ever since. It has been owned and operated by the City of Ballarat since 1987 and functions as Ballarat’s premier performing arts centre.

The Theatre was first known as the Academy of Music, a name calculated to overcome religious and temperance scruples against patronising a “theatre.” The Academy had a flat floored auditorium suitable for dances and dinners, and a fully equipped stage. It was built to supersede Ballarat’s Theatre Royal (1858), which stood around the corner in Sturt Street, near where the Myer Department store sits today. While very grand, the Royal had become outdated and no longer met the technical requirements of the touring companies.

The Academy was built by the wealthy Clarke family at the initiative of a group of local people who felt that Ballarat, as the premier city of the Victorian goldfields, should have a theatre worthy of its status. They guaranteed to rent it from the Clarkes at 10% of the construction cost, which was £13,000.

The building of Ballarat’s handsome new theatre was supervised by Clarke’s architect, George “Diamond” Browne. It was ready ahead of schedule, and opened on 7th June 1875. The first production was a comic opera by the French composer Lecocq, “La Fille de Madame Angot,” presented by the Royal Opera Bouffe Company run by W. S. Lyster, Australia’s first opera impresario.

Soon after the Academy opened, the large Supper Room above Lydiard Street was leased to William Bridges, a former miner, who ran it as an art gallery, displaying an excellent collection of European and Australian artworks, including his own tapestries. After Bridges moved his operations to Melbourne in 1883, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery was formed. The Gallery Society ran the Gallery from the Academy from 1884 until 1890, when the present Art Gallery in Lydiard Street North was opened.

For twenty five years, the Academy of Music was unchallenged as Ballarat’s main theatrical venue. It was never as popular as the old Theatre Royal, however, as the rather cavernous hall lacked the intimacy of the older playhouse. In 1898, when Sir William Clarke died, the building was bought by a local consortium and transformed into the delightful theatrical space we know today.

The new owners commissioned Australia’s leading theatre architect, William Pitt, to remodel the interior and improve the stage facilities. Pitt, who had been apprenticed to “Diamond” Browne, also designed Melbourne’s Princess Theatre and the auditorium of Hobart’s Theatre Royal. The present layout of the auditorium with sloping floor and double balconies, is Pitt’s creation. The colour scheme is a recreation of the interior decoration undertaken at that time by Hugh Paterson, one of Melbourne’s leading designers.

Paterson also decorated the dome and proscenium arch with murals. The mural in the dome depicted a carnival scene, with dancers in fanciful costumes; Comedy and Tragedy were featured on either side of the proscenium arch, with Shakespeare over the top. Unfortunately all the murals were destroyed in 1907 when Government regulations required the proscenium wall to be replaced with a solid firewall. The dome was removed at the same time for structural reasons, and was restored in 1990. The Dress Circle Lobby also dates from 1907.
From the First World War on, the Theatre was increasingly used for cinema presentations. A Bio Box (projection room) was built above the Dress Circle Lobby in 1916, and the Theatre was wired for sound in 1930. In 1928, the Hoyts cinema chain took over control over the building through its local subsidiary, Ballarat Theatres P/L, which ran Her Majesty’s in tandem with their Regent Theatre.

In 1936, Her Majesty’s was leased and operated by Ballarat Amusements P/L, part of the Woodrow Distributing Company, presenting MGM and Paramount movies. Ballarat Amusements ran it until the early 1960’s.

During the silent movie era, a theatre orchestra provided the film accompaniment. The Ballarat Theatre Organ Society installed the Theatre’s Compton Theatre Organ in 1982. Even when Her Majesty’s was primarily a cinema, it was always available, to a lesser or greater degree, for live performances. It was used regularly by J. C. Williamson’s and other touring companies as well as local groups. Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s huge crowds came to see the annual pantomimes staged by the Wavie Williams Pantomime Company. For the last forty years, the Theatre has been used to stage locally produced musical comedies.

Television came to Ballarat in 1962, and had an immediate impact on attendances at the local cinemas. Ballarat Amusements decided to cease screenings and Hoyts put the building on the market.

In 1965, the Theatre was bought by the Royal South Street Society as the home for its Annual Competitions. The Bolte State Government gave the Society £20,000 towards the purchase price and a further grant towards the adaptation of the building for the Competitions. The Society raised a massive appeal to cover the cost of purchase of the theatre. Renaming Her Majesty’s as The Memorial Theatre was a move which made donations to its renovation appeal tax deductible. Further assistance towards both purposes came from local businessman, Alf Reid.

The Theatre was adapted for the Competitions by the installation of two levels of dressing rooms below the stage and the insertion of an adjudicator’s box into the Dress Circle. It was clearly understood at the time that the Society would manage the Theatre as a community facility.

It became the home of Competitions from that time, and saw many thousands of people, young and old, come through it to show their skills in a broad range of performing arts disciplines. However, when not in use for the Competitions, the Theatre continued in its role as Ballarat’s home of local amateur and touring professional theatrical performances.

By the mid 1980s, the Theatre again required a complete upgrade to enable it to continue to operate safely. In order to achieve this, the State Government led negotiations which in 1987 saw the Society transfer ownership of the building to the then City of Ballarat. In doing so, the Society reserved the right to continue to hold their Competitions at the Theatre every year between August and November

The City undertook a major renovation, upgrades and repairs including restoration of the building to “heritage authenticity”, seeking funding from a wide range of businesses, individuals and organisations. Once again named Her Majesty’s the Theatre reopened on 1st November, 1990.

Her Majesty’s continues to be a professionally equipped and staffed performing arts centre. The Theatre presents an annual Theatre Season of touring professional productions alongside local theatre productions. It is also hired for commercial tours, school concerts, dance recitals, and conferences.

At times visitors can see a display of historical material on the walls of the Theatre’s Long Room Bar, with images drawn from the Theatre’s Archive Collection. In 2007 Her Majesty’s published an attractive and readable history of the building and its place in the Ballarat community, which is available from the Box Office.