Thursday, May 24, 2018

Ep. 259 - Melbourne's Princess Theater

Moment in Oddity - The Mars' Cursed Sunken Treasure in Baltic Sea
Suggested by: Markus Watt

The pride of Sweden's 16th century navy was a warship called Mars. Fittingly, it was named for the Roman god of war. It was equipped with 107 guns and measured 48 meters, which made it the perfect flagship for the Swedish fleet and it lead it into the Northern Seven Years' War. In 1564, during the battle of Öland in the Baltic Sea, the Mars caught fire and it sunk beneath the sea, consigning 800 to 900 Swedish and German sailors and a fortune in gold and silver coins to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Some believe that the ship was doomed from the start by a curse. King Erik XIV had an ego and he enraged the Catholic Church when he confiscated church bells to melt down and make cannons for the Mars. The church felt the ship was too big and too powerful and some wonder if it didn't do something to ensure its fiery fate. Other stories persist in telling stories of ghosts that rise up from the ship to conceal its location. And that would nearly seem true as it took until very recently for archeologists and treasure hunters to find the Mars. The most unusual thing though is that the Mars was found nearly fully preserved, despite being on the bottom of the sea for hundreds of years and that, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Hoover's Claim About Black Tuesday

In the month of May, on the 2nd, in 1930, President Herbert Hoover made the idiotic claim that the stock market crash was a temporary setback. On October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday hit Wall Street with a catastrophic crash of the Stock Market. Investors traded 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day and billions of dollars were lost. Very wealthy people lost everything and many of them took their own lives in their desperation. Despite the fact that this threw the industrialized world into a downward spiral, President Hoover made this statement, "While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover. There is one certainty of the future of a people of the resources, intelligence and character of the people of the United States-that is prosperity." As history would reveal, the Great Depression ensued as the longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world up to that time lasting ten years.

The Princess Theater in Melbourne
(Suggested by listener Rick Kennett)

Melbourne is the capital of Victoria and home to close to 4 million people. This city is a center of diversity and for the history of Australia it is a symbol of the independent spirit. Victoria and Melbourne were established as autonomous colonies, working outside of government regulation and permissions. This attracted men with that same spirit. One of them would re-purpose an amphitheater as The Princess Theater. This is a theater with roots running as far back as the founding of Melbourne and with that kind of history, one just knows this theater is ripe for hauntings. And there does seem to be some ghostly activity going on here. Join me as I share the history and hauntings of Melbourne's Princess Theater!

The Kulin Nation used to live on the land that is now the city of Melbourne.  That nation is made up of five separate aboriginal language groups: Boonwurrung (Boon-wur-rung), Dja Dja Wurrung (Jar-Jar-Wur-rung), Taungurung (Tung-ger-rung), Wathaurung (Wath-er-rung) and Woiwurrung (Woy-wur-rung.) The Kulin are represented by the Bunji, which is the wedge-tailed eagle and symbolizes the creation spirit and the Waa, which is the crow and symbolizes the protector of the waterways. *Fun Fact: There are 1500 Kulin archaeological sites with around 200 of them within the Melbourne metropolitan area itself.*

The British were the first to occupy Victoria and their original reason for this was out of fear of possible French settlement. British Lieutenant David Collins brought a party of convicts and free settlers to Port Phillip in October 1803 and established a small colony. Through the early 1800s, the area became popular with whalers and sealers. Initially, settlers from Tasmania filtered into the area and began squatting on the land. When the government tried to remove them, they resisted. John Batman was an Australian entrepreneur and explorer and he was one of the first white men to live in Melbourne. He came to Port Phillip Bay in May 1835 and 'paid' the local Aboriginal people in blankets and trinkets for about 243,000 acres of land near the Yarra River. This would become the township of Melbourne by 1837 and Captain William Lonsdale was named magistrate. New South Wales was frustrated at the lack of compliance from the autonomous Victoria and they were forced to recognize it as a successful colony. This lead to the Port Phillip District gaining independence from New South Wales in 1850 and they established a separate police force, a customs office and a separate Lands Office. Things really boomed for Melbourne after that as the gold rush hit.

In November 1851, alluvial gold was discovered north of Melbourne at Clunes, Anderson's Creek, Buninyong, Ballarat, Mount Alexander and Bendigo. Ships from all over the world brought miners into the town of Melbourne. The colony swelled from a population of 80,000 to 300,000. By 1856, more than 86 million grams of gold were mined, which equalled around $100 million. This eventually made Melbourne Australia's major financial centre and Victoria became an extremely wealthy colony. The good times were not always rolling though as the town was hit with depressions in both the 1890s and 1930s. After World War II, many migrants from Europe arrived and today the city is considered a culturally diverse city. One of the historical sites in this town is The Princess Theater.

The Princess Theater stands in the footprint of a previous theater. That first theater dates back almost to the founding of Melbourne and was an equestrian amphitheater name the Astley Ampitheater after the Astley Royal Ampitheater in London. This was built by Tom Moore during the Gold Rush. In 1857, that amphitheater was remodeled into a theater and opera house by George Coppin. Coppin had spent his entire life on the stage, making his first appearance as an infant. At the age of seven, he and his sister had their own act. He was born in England, but set his sights on Australia in 1842. Actually, that's not entirely honest. A coin set his sights on Australia. If it had been tails, he would have been headed to America. He started in Sydney working in theaters and bought a hotel. He moved on to Melbourne eventually and started converting buildings into theaters. He also started importing luxuries that included ice, deer and live turtles. But it was theater that he really made his mark on Australia. He only owned the newly remodeled amphitheater for a short period of time and the theater changed hands almost every year. Due to the constant change in ownership, the building deteriorated and was basically taken down to a shell and rebuilt from scratch in 1865. The theater was successful again after that, but by January 3, 1885, it was closed after falling into disrepair once again.

Three of Australia’s most influential theatre practitioners, JC Williamson, George Musgrove and Arthur Garner, formed The Triumvirate and they bought what was left of the theater, demolished it and rebuilt the theater that stands today at a cost of £50,000. The architect was Willaim Pitt. Construction took nine months and the new Princess theater opened on December 18th, 1886. The theater was built in the Second Empire style. The Second Empire refers to elements from the Second French Empire. This can be seen in the theaters three four-sided gambrel-style mansard hip roofs with dormer windows on each side. Each of these roofs also has its own crown made with cast iron filigree. The middle section of the exterior features two sections of exquisite stained glass. These were added in 1901 to outdoor terraces to create a Wintergarden Bar. The front foyer and stairs were made from marble and were said to be equal to that found in the Paris Opera, the Frankfurt Stadt and the Grand in Bordeaux. The stage lighting was state-of-the-art. The most unique thing about the theater was the retractable roof. The first performance was of The Mikado.

Ownership changed again in 1910 and the poor theater found itself in the hands of several owners again. In 1915, theatrical producer Ben Fuller took control and partnered with American stage actor and dancer Hugh J. Ward. Several years later, they hired architect Henry Eli White to extensively renovate the auditorium and foyers and the grand copper awning was added at that time. The theatre reopened on December 26, 1922 with a performance of The O'Brien Girl. In 1933, Efftee Films purchased the theater and the initials FT were carved over the proscenium arch for F. W.Thring, the theater entrepreneur. He made the Princess Theater the first home of his radio station 3XY. When he died, Ben Fuller took over the lease once again and eventually purchased the theater with Garnett Carroll. From 1942 to 1947, the Princess ran exclusively as a cinema, due to the scarcities of World War II. Fuller died in 1952 and Carroll assumed full control bringing an array of opera, ballet, musical comedy and drama to the stage. His big moment was hosting the National Theatre Movement’s gala performance of The Tales of Hoffmann for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Carroll was fond of American musicals and produced many of them including, Kismet (1954), The Sound of Music (1960), The King and I (1960) and Carousel (1964).

Garnett Carroll died in 1964 and ownership of the Princess passed to his son, John Carroll. He eventually leased the theater to the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. In 1973, the theater was listed by the National trust. David Marriner purchased the theater in 1986 and refurbished it back to its 1922 state, minus the old technical stuff. 2,000 paint samples were microscopically analyzed to ensure an accurate reproduction. Painters were trained on-site in the special techniques used in 1922 like colour glazing, which is the colors being blended from a darker hue to a lighter range near the central sunburst. Original light fixtures were found and replicated. The Princess reopend yet again and this time it was the musical Les Misérables, followed by The Phantom of the Opera. That production of Phantom would become the longest running show ever staged in Victoria. Today, the Princess Theatre is known as the home of musical theatre in Australia. And on the topic of phantom's, the Princess has its own resident ghost it would seem.

Frederick Baker, known to the world as Federici, was an Italian-born opera singer who performed during the late 1800s. He was world renowned for his work in the bass-baritone roles of the Savoy Operas written by Gilbert and Sullivan. His career started in London in 1872 when he was 21 and he eventually originated the role of the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance. In 1887, Federici traveled to Australia with his wife and kids and joined J. C. Williamson's company. This brought him to the stage at the princess Theater. He played Florian in the first production in Australia of Princess Ida. Other roles in Australia included the Mikado, the Pirate King, Dick Deadeye, Colonel Calverley and Strephon. His final role would be at the Princess Theater in 1888 and he played the role of Mephistopheles in Faust. Eerily, as he was traveling down a trap door through what looked like smoke and flame to portray his character's plunge into Hell, he suffered a deadly heart attack. 

Even though the actor's body was removed from the theater, his spirit has not left. There are many stories of people experiencing the ghost of Federici. Stories come from past and present staff and theater patrons. The first story is about the night he died. Many of the cast had no idea that he had passed away until after the final curtain call. When they were told, they were shocked because they all swore that he was on stage with them taking that final curtain call. Many people have seen what they describe as unexplained balls of fluorescent light that hover about the stage. Equipment malfunctions during performances. Unexplained noises are heard coming from within the wings and corridors. More harrowing are the bizarre accidents that have taken place.

“Fred is very much a benevolent presence, nothing nasty ever happens. He’s more of a friendly poltergeist,” says Jesse Cain, the theater's business development manager. When a documentary was made nearly 80 years later, by Kennedy Miller in the early 1970s, a photograph of the film set revealed an ashen-faced, partly transparent observer. Nobody had seen anyone matching that person on the set that day. Ernest St Clair took on the role of Mephistopheles after Federici's death and he swore that every time he stepped forward to take his bow, invisible hands pushed him backwards. During a late night rehearsal, a staff member saw a figure sitting in the dress circle and asked his staff who had let a visitor in. The employees said they hadn't let anybody in and a search was called for to find the stranger. He was never found.

Many performers have seen the full-bodied apparition of Federici walking in the halls. His ghost is most often seen in the dress circle. (For those who don't know, the dress circle is the second level of seating or first few rows of the first balcony.) He is seen dressed in evening attire complete with cloak and top-hat. His specter seems to be scrutinizing the stage performances. His apparition is seen sitting in a seat also and has stayed so long that people can make out the finer details. When his spirit is seen on an opening night, it is thought to be good luck for the run of the production. The theater staff always ensure a vacant seat within the dress circle on opening nights to better ensure that his spirit makes its appearance.

An article about the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour says, "Early theater owners spotted a way to get a bit of good publicity for the theater and offered up 100 pounds to any member of the public prepared to spend a night alone in the theater. There is no record of anyone ever taking up their challenge. In the very early 1900's a new fire alarm system was placed in the theater. The resident fireman was required to punch a time clock every hour, triggering a light on a switchboard at a nearby fire station. If he failed to clock in, an alarm was raised and a brigade dispatched to the theater. One particular night during a heat wave no message came through on the hour and within minutes the brigade was dispatched. On reaching the theater the firemen, finding no sign of a fire, discovered their colleague huddled in a corner terrified beyond belief. He later claimed that he had opened the sliding section of the roof to let the heat out and some air in. As the panels opened, bright moonlight came into the auditorium revealing a figure standing, statue-like, on center stage. He described this figure as a tall, well-built man with distinguished features, dressed in evening clothes with a long cloak and a top-hat. The best known sighting of the ghost occurred in 1917. The theater's wardrobe mistress was working back late to finish costumes for an upcoming production. At approximately 2.30am a fireman knocked gently on her workroom door and stuck his head inside and asked her if she'd like to see a ghost. The skeptical woman's curiosity got the better of her and she went with him. They went up some side stairs to a landing beside the dress circle. The fireman pointed to Federici who was sitting in the middle of the second row of the dress circle. He was staring down at the empty stage as the fireman and the wardrobe mistress looked on. They eventually left the ghost and returned back to their work quite amazed at what they'd seen. A couple of years later another fireman had an experience. He saw the ghost standing in the same spot on two separate occasions."

The Princess Theater was unique and innovative in its day with a retractable roof. The theater faced many years of disrepair and neglect and then renovation. This alone with the emotions connected to acting usually ensure that a theater is going to have ghostly activity. Throw in the death of an actor and you might just have yourself a haunted theater. is Melbourne's Princess theater haunted? That is for you to decide! 

1 comment:

  1. A job well done! This is a beautiful piece. Trust me, the sky is your limit

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