Sydney had a vibrant theatre scene in the late 19th century. And one of the most famous entrepreneurs was Harry Rickards.
Harry Rickards was a popular performer in music halls in London before touring the colonies in the 1870s and 1880s. He was considered a great comic singer and performed Cockney character costume songs and also adopted the persona of the ‘swell’ man-about-town.
We have several great photographs of Rickards in the Dictionary showing him in character.
Rickards settled in Sydney with his second wife Kate, an acrobat and trapeze artiste, in 1892. They leased the Sydney Opera House – no, not our modern one but a 19th century theatre in the heart of the city at King & York Street – and put on a season of Rickard’s New Tivoli Minstrel and Grand Speciality Company of Forty Great Artists. (Try saying that quickly!) After a successful season, he leased the Garrick Theatre in Castlereagh Street between King and Market Streets, renaming it the Tivoli. The Sydney Tivoli Theatre, became and remained the Rickards’ flagship theatre.
As a producer and entrepreneur, Rickards encouraged local acts and performers, while also bringing international acts to Sydney.
In April 1910 he brought the famous escapologist Harry Houdini to Sydney. The act included three Sydney carpenters and joiners challenging Houdini to escape from a box constructed by them.
Over time Rickards limited his own time on stage, to concentrate of developing the Tivoli vaudeville touring circuit. According to the biography in the Dictionary, written by the late Ailsa McPherson, Rickards was a well-liked man, debonair, portly in later life, good-natured, generous and benevolent by action and reputation. He was also notoriously unpunctual and rather gushing in manner. He died in 1911 in London and his remains were brought back to Sydney, where he was buried in Waverley Cemetery.
Another interesting theatre biography written by Ailsa is probably someone you’ve never heard of: Alfred Clint.
He was a talented artist who made his living and his reputation as a cartoonist and scenic artist in the Sydney theatres.
Scenery and props is something we often don’t think about, but they are integral to the success of any theatre production. Ailsa McPherson makes the point:
“The art of the scene painter was a valued one in the nineteenth century, and the practitioner had a gruelling apprenticeship of seven to nine years in the theatre. These artists were expected by their audiences to fulfil a growing public desire for verisimilitude in theatrical representation in contrast to the stylistic images of previous theatre fashion. Victorian audiences wanted naturalistic stage action and enterprising local managers wanted local colour. Thus the scene painter provided a visual performance. The artists worked on site, often in hazardous conditions, using tall ladders and a bosun’s chair to cover large hanging canvases. These giant pictures were for many viewers, particularly in colonial society, the only way to experience paintings first hand, before there was easy access to public art galleries.”
Alfred Clint arrived in Sydney in 1869 and he was immediately appointed scenic artist at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Theatre. Clint also worked at the Royal Victoria, Her Majesty’s, the Opera House and the Criterion, where his history painting of the landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay formed the act drop at the theatre’s opening.
Clint was highly successful and his sons also became painters. He died in 1923.
These are just two of the articles written by Ailsa McPherson on theatre life in Sydney for the Dictionary of Sydney, which we will look at later in the year.
Ailsa died after a short illness in early March, and we wanted to pay tribute to her great support of the Dictionary and her extensive knowledge of Sydney’s theatre history which she shared so generously. We will miss her greatly. Vale Ailsa, and thank you.
If you missed today’s segment with Lisa & Mitch, you can catch up here via the 2SER website. Tune in 2SER Breakfast with Mitch Byatt on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:20 am for more Sydney history!