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Queensland’s oldest-standing theatre is now Brisbane’s newest home for live music and performing arts.

Our Story

At 133-years old The Princes Theatre reigns as Queensland's oldest standing theatre. The heritage-listed building, which opened in 1888, has over the years housed a picture theatre, a rag merchant, a secondhand dealer, a paper wholesaler, an engineering firm, and most recently, a church.

The reopening of this iconic destination was helmed by The Tivoli owners, brothers Steve Sleswick and Dave Sleswick, alongside prominent Brisbane businessman Steve Wilson.

Following meticulous and faithful restorations, The Princess reopened to the public in 2021 and now boasts a state-of-the-art performance auditorium designed for a standing capacity of 900 and a seated theatre capacity of 500. It also features four bars, a public cafe, private event spaces, a rehearsal room and an outdoor courtyard.

If you'd like to dive deeper into The Princess' rich history, you can check out a short history of The Princess Theatre by Historian Robert Allen below.

Introduction

​The Princess Theatre’s story is one of survival. Through a combination of good luck, good management and good geography it has managed to survive floods, economic depressions, changing consumer tastes and the danger of Japanese air attack. It has narrowly averted several disastrous fires and outlasted insensitive redevelopment proposals.

For a while it seemed such cumulative threats might prevent the Princess seeing inthe twenty first century, but now - having survived long enough to be rejuvenated with a sympathetic renovation - it stands ready for its next phase of life.

Early days in Woolloongabba

Brisbane was originally founded as a penal settlement called Moreton Bay. The settlement was ruled from Sydney from 1824 until Queensland’s self-government was eventually granted in 1859.

A number of Turrbal people lived on the south side of the Brisbane River during this period, and their clans travelled, hunted and camped along the ridges we now know as Mater Hill and the Vulture Street rise. Ceremonial activities were common and a major bora ground associated with initiation ceremonies was located at what is now Merton Road on the ridge behind the Princess Theatre.

For the first few decades of white settlement, the district south of the Brisbane River was a “frontier settlement”, known for its hotels, brothels and wharves and the low-lying area we now call Woolloongabba was a series of creeks, waterholes and open woodland known as ‘One Mile Swamp’.

Over time, Boggo Road to the west of this swamp became the start of the main overland route to Ipswich. Woolloongabba’s population grew quickly between 1860 and the 1880s, aided by the extension of the tramways and railways, the expansion of the wharves and the spread of retail businesses along Stanley Street. In 1887, South Brisbane and Woolloongabba were excised from greater Brisbane to form the Municipality of South Brisbane.

The Boggo Road Hall 1888/9

With Woolloongabba in the midst of an industry and building boom, local residents began lobbying for a local hall which could be used for public meetings, lectures, balls and theatrical and musical performances. The main instigator was Philip Hardgrave, a prominent Brisbane solicitor, Mason and philanthropist. In 1887, Hardgrave bought a site on Boggo Road near the Stanley Street corner, established a subscription company and set about hiring an architect to design a public hall.

The architect Hardgrave chose was John Beauchamp Nicholson, an English emigrant who had arrived in Brisbane in 1876 and worked as a clerk and foreman before setting up practice in the Brisbane Town Hall in 1885. A public notice seeking tenders to construct the hall was issued in April 1888. The hall was to be built in the Italianate Revival style, with a 66 foot wide frontage ornamented with Ionic and Doric pilasters. The main entrance was to be flanked by two shop fronts, with a box office immediately inside the front door and a large staircase leading to the proposed dress circle. The auditorium was to measure 52 feet by 70 feet with seating for 700 while the stage, which was 52 feet by 45 feet, would feature fly galleries. Six dressing rooms were to be built under the stage. The theatre would include extensive ventilation and an upstairs dress circle was proposed to be added at a later stage.

The winning project tender of £5 220 was submitted by Blair Cunningham, an Irish-born contractor who had arrived in Queensland in 1863. The South Brisbane Theatre was officially opened on Saturday, 6 April 1889 with a program that included song and dance numbers, a comedic skit, a magic act and a “serio-comic drama”. By the time the theatre opened, its ownership had passed from Philip Hardgrave to his father John, a former bootmaker, property speculator, alderman and Brisbane Mayor.

The First Decade 1889 - 1899

The hall was known by several different names throughout its early years: during 1889 alone it was variously referred as the ‘South Brisbane Theatre’, the ‘South Brisbane Hall’ and the ‘Boggo-road Hall’. The hall hosted an eclectic mix of events, ranging from “minstrel entertainments” to boxing matches. Schools staged concerts to showcase their students’ musical talents, churches held fundraising bazaars and political candidates chaired public meetings to spruik for votes. The South Brisbane Musical Society were early tenants, providing regular performances.

There were occasional hiccups: some performers had difficulty adjusting to the hall’s acoustics and there were several larrikin gangs in Woolloongabba who delighted in disrupting performances from the rear stalls. While press reports show the hall was often filled to capacity for school concerts and civic fundraisers, it was less patronised for ‘high brow’ productions such as classical concerts and theatrical dramas. And herein lay a conundrum: while the venue was an ideal size for local community events it was not grand enough to compete with the Theatre Royal or Gaiety Theatre in attracting visiting professional productions but too large for ‘second tier’ theatrical and concert troupes.

There were other factors which inhibited its financial viability. Brisbane’s 1880s economic boom was followed by a bust which lasted much of the 1890s. Commodity prices fell, overseas investment was withdrawn and several local banks collapsed. The discretionary spending of many local residents would have been hit hard by the prolonged downturn.

Added to this, several disastrous floods swamped South Brisbane and parts of Woolloongabba in February 1893. The floodwaters destroyed the Victoria Bridge, severing the only permanent link to the city. By the time it was rebuilt in 1897 a number of businesses based around Stanley Street had already relocated to the city or Fortitude Valley.

A State of Flux 1899 - 1912

At the end of May 1899, a small paragraph in the local press informed readers that Finney, Isles and Company had “recently purchased the building known as the Boggo Road Theatre.” The buyer was Thomas Finney, a successful Irish-born merchant who sat in the Queensland Legislative Assembly as the Member for Toowong.

The hall, however, soon came under the ownership of clothing manufacturer John Burke Dent, who turned the theatre into a “cash drapery and cloth emporium.” And the hall received yet another name: the ‘Boggo Road Drapery Theatre’. John Dent had suffered a fire when he had previously owned a store in Stanley Street, and fire struck his Annerley Road premises in April 1909. Dent repaired the damage but by 1912 he was involved in litigation brought against him by his business partner and brother Frederick. He subsequently advertised the Boggo Road Drapery Theatre for sale in September that year “in order to adjust partnership accounts”.

Off to the Flicks 1912 – 1929

Its unflattering name and the fact it shared it with Brisbane’s prison had led the then- Stephens Shire Council to change Boggo Road’s name to Annerley Road in 1905. In the Autumn of 1912, advertisements in the local press informed readers that a new picture theatre would “open shortly” in the theatre on Annerley Road. The proprietor was Thomas James West, an entrepreneurial Scot whose company was already managing the Olympia picture theatre at North Quay. West took a ten year lease on the renamed ‘Princess Theatre’ for £500 per annum.

A number of modifications were needed to enable movies to be shown at the theatre. Seating for 1 200 people was installed, new ventilators ensured fresh air and the walls were decorated with “charming scenes” painted on canvas. Somewhat curiously, the film projection box and its operator were “situated outside the building proper, the pictures being projected through a hole in the wall …”

The Princess under its business manager Andrew Kirk quickly became a popular evening entertainment for the residents of Woolloongabba and surrounding suburbs. Mr Kirk, who was also an accomplished vocalist, often sang at sessions. Solicitor Herbert Brealey Hemming bought the Princess in 1914. He continued to lease it out as a cinema and under his ownership it was refurbished in 1925. Movies were shown each night during the week and twice on Saturdays; most were short comedies or documentary-style films. Local resident Annie McKenzie later recalled going to matinees at the Princess during the early 1920s: “Silent movies were the order of the day, and a very accomplished pianist would set the mood of the film.”

The introduction of ‘talkies’ to Australia in 1929 led to even larger theatre audiences, and Hemming took the opportunity to replace the Princess’ seats and install the latest ‘Pacent’ brand of sound amplification equipment from the United States.

Depression and Resurgence 1929 - 1942

Queensland was soon swept up in the worldwide Depression which began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Thousands were thrown out of work and many families were forced to rely on religious charity or philanthropic organisations for sustenance. Either the Depression had an effect on the Princess’ takings and / or Herbert Hemming was under business pressure because he advertised the theatre’s sale or lease for more than four years without success between mid-1931 and mid-1935, and again sporadically in 1936 and 1937. Movie sessions, school concerts and church services continued to be held in the theatre in the meantime.

Brothers Ray and Ted Stapleton worked as “lolly boys” at the Princess cinema between 1939 and 1945. The brothers sold drinks and lollies to patrons, carefully balancing their tray of refreshments with one hand while taking money and providing change with the other. “There would be the same people in the same seats every Saturday night,” Ted later recalled. “You knew what they wanted before they asked.”

The late 1930s and early ‘40s witnessed the Princess’ first heyday for live theatrical performances, as a number of “little theatres” began to use the venue. The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society was Brisbane’s first “little theatre”, established in 1925. Beginning with the comedy ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ in March 1939, the “Rep” mounted a further dozen productions at the Princess until May 1942, leasing the theatre for £9 per week.

The Rep shared the Princess with the Unity Theatre, a “working class theatre company” which staged four plays between March and October 1939, and the fledgling Twelfth Night Theatre Company, which had been formed in 1936. Twelfth Night staged Ödön von Horváth’s drama ‘Judgment Day’ at the Princess in late 1938 and then settled in for a further five productions during 1940.

The University of Queensland Dramatic Society, the Workers Education Association (WEA) Dramatic Society and the Brisbane Shakespeare Society also staged occasional productions at the Princess between November 1938 and June 1940, before ceasing operations for the remainder of the war.

Depression and Resurgence 1929 - 1942

Queensland was soon swept up in the worldwide Depression which began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Thousands were thrown out of work and many families were forced to rely on religious charity or philanthropic organisations for sustenance. Either the Depression had an effect on the Princess’ takings and / or Herbert Hemming was under business pressure because he advertised the theatre’s sale or lease for more than four years without success between mid-1931 and mid-1935, and again sporadically in 1936 and 1937. Movie sessions, school concerts and church services continued to be held in the theatre in the meantime.

Brothers Ray and Ted Stapleton worked as “lolly boys” at the Princess cinema between 1939 and 1945. The brothers sold drinks and lollies to patrons, carefully balancing their tray of refreshments with one hand while taking money and providing change with the other. “There would be the same people in the same seats every Saturday night,” Ted later recalled. “You knew what they wanted before they asked.”

The late 1930s and early ‘40s witnessed the Princess’ first heyday for live theatrical performances, as a number of “little theatres” began to use the venue. The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society was Brisbane’s first “little theatre”, established in 1925. Beginning with the comedy ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ in March 1939, the “Rep” mounted a further dozen productions at the Princess until May 1942, leasing the theatre for £9 per week.

The Rep shared the Princess with the Unity Theatre, a “working class theatre company” which staged four plays between March and October 1939, and the fledgling Twelfth Night Theatre Company, which had been formed in 1936. Twelfth Night staged Ödön von Horváth’s drama ‘Judgment Day’ at the Princess in late 1938 and then settled in for a further five productions during 1940.

The University of Queensland Dramatic Society, the Workers Education Association (WEA) Dramatic Society and the Brisbane Shakespeare Society also staged occasional productions at the Princess between November 1938 and June 1940, before ceasing operations for the remainder of the war.

The Americans Arrive 1942 - 1945

For the first two years of the war, Australia’s focus was squarely on its troops fighting in the Middle East and north Africa. This suddenly changed in December 1941, when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour brought hostilities to the Pacific and catapulted the United States into the War. A Japanese invasion suddenly seemed a real possibility and a thinly-defended state found itself on the front line. General Douglas MacArthur,

Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, chose Brisbane as his headquarters, arriving in July 1942. Brisbane suddenly played host to thousands of American troops, many of whom were headquartered at South Brisbane. US submarines were serviced and repaired at the South Brisbane Dry Dock and Boggo Road Gaol was used by the US and Australian armies for military hearings. At least three brothels servicing allied soldiers operated at South Brisbane, including one near the Princess Theatre at Ernest Street.

Local Air Raid Wardens used the theatre for regular meetings from mid-1942, where they were given instructions on air raid drills, possible gas attacks and how to deal with unexploded bombs. From 1942 to 1945 the Princess was used as the administrative and rehearsal headquarters for the Entertainment Unit of the American Armed Forces. Local teenager Mavis Donovan (née Taylor) was a self-described “stage-struck” teenager dreaming of becoming a movie star when the Americans arrived.

Mavis was invited to dance in the Stars and Stripes Revue, which would rehearse at the Princess before travelling around Queensland to entertain US and Australian troops. She met and performed alongside a number of visiting American entertainers, including comedian Jack Benny, actress Carole Landis and harmonica player Larry Adler.

One night Mavis arrived early for rehearsal and noticed a glow in the middle of the Princess’ stage. “I found an electric iron sitting on the ironing board, red hot, as
someone had forgotten to turn it off,” she later recalled. “It would have burnt through in a short time if I had not found it.”

Despite the Americans’ presence, the Princess remained a venue for plays, fundraising concerts and movies during the War. The death of Herbert Hemming in 1942 ended an era and the Liberty cinema chain purchased the theatre late the following year. Liberty was a movie distribution company associated with Fred Thornley and Ivy Mary Teasdale, who expanded their chain by also acquiring the Broadway at the Woolloongabba Fiveways and the Alhambra in Stones Corner. Paul Ruckert was managing the Broadway during this period and helped update the projection equipment at the Princess for the chain. The three local Liberty cinemas often showed the same film with staggered start times, and a motorcycle rider was hired to relay the movie reels between the three venues.

Ruth Common’s mother was employed as a bookkeeper at the Princess soon after the war ended. Ruth later recalled that: On a Saturday night, Mum would stay behind to collect the takings for all the theatres … she would collect probably hundreds of dollars [pounds] of takings, put it in her handbag, put it in her string bag and we would go home by tram to Camp Hill. It would never happen in this day and age!

The Factory Years 1948 - 1980

After the war the Princess was hired out to a variety of community groups such as ballet schools, college revues and scout troops. The young Hugh Lunn, future journalist and author, was a reluctant student of the Avril Granville School of Dancing which often rehearsed and held concerts at the theatre. Movies continued to be shown, but only until 1948 when the cinema closed for the last time. From then until 1985 the Princess was sublet to various small businesses, including paper merchants ‘Spicer and Detmold’ and a second hand furniture dealer named ‘B and S Trading Company’. The backstage area was leased separately to the printing firm ‘E. Sydes and Company’ for over thirty years from 1948.

During the mid-1960s the theatre was used as a factory for the local branch of J. A. (Jack) Witter, a Sydney-based fabric merchant. The ‘schmatte factory’ - ‘schmatte’ being the Yiddish word for ‘rag’ - was managed by Morris Singer, who sold cleaning rags and demineralised water to service stations around Brisbane. Old rags can be highly flammable: Jack Witter’s Sydney factory suffered several serious fires after the war and it was no doubt due to Morris Singer’s careful management that the Princess didn’t suffer a similar calamity.

Despite such decidedly unromantic uses, the conversion of the Princess to industrial and commercial use for some three decades spared it from the types of changes that were forced on other live theatre venues. Its distance from the Brisbane CBD also meant it was seldom in developers’ sights, and helped protect it from demolition.

In 1973, the theatre was sold to Val Bogatari and George Fomenko. The pair continued leasing the building to the various businesses, including a second hand goods business known variously as the Mater Furniture Mart and the Mater Seconds Warehouse. Fomenko became the Princess’ sole owner in 1980.

Threats and Renewal 1980 - 1991

In the absence of legislated heritage protection, many of Brisbane’s oldest theatres and concert venues were demolished during the 1980s to make way for new developments. The casualties included the Winter Garden, the Cloudland Ballroom, Her Majesty’s Theatre, the Paris Theatre and the Theatre Royal.

The demolition of Her Majesty’s in 1983 left the Princess as Brisbane’s oldest remaining theatre and the National Trust of Queensland thought its continued survival important enough to add it to its Heritage Register in June 1985. In 1985, George Fomenko sold the Princess to the construction firm REMM Pty Ltd. REMM originally planned to demolish the venue and build a new retail development, but their decision to engage noted architect Fred Kirkegard to provide heritage advice proved fortuitous for the theatre’s survival.

Kirkegard had a long-standing connection to the Twelfth Night theatre company: in 1965 he had successfully sought help from its then-director, Joan Whalley, to help him cure a lifelong stutter. Twenty years later, Kirkegard knew that the company - now renamed TN! - was looking for a new home and he played a crucial role mediating between the two parties. As he neatly explained at the time: “I’ve been able to explain to the theatre people about development philosophy and to the
developers about theatre philosophy.”

REMM struck a deal with TN! under which it would refurbish the Princess and the company would take out a long term lease. The external work undertaken by REMM included repairs to the ornate façade and decorative features, the rebuilding of verandah floors and extensive waterproofing, sanding and repainting.

Many replacement internal fittings were sourced from old and demolished buildings: the Kern Corporation donated 400 seats from the demolished Her Majesty’s Theatre, backstage equipment and scenery came from the old Paris Theatre, the Suncorp Theatre donated carpet and replacement balustrading came from the old Barry and Roberts building in Queen Street.

The old ‘Princess’ sign - which had been given to a Mount Gravatt picture theatre of the same name when it opened in 1955 and gifted back when it was demolished in the 1970s - was taken out of storage and re-erected on the building’s exterior. TN! moved into the Princess on a ten year lease in mid-1986, thus re-establishing a partnership which had begun with the Twelfth Night Theatre Company’s first performance at the same venue 50 years previously.

TN!’s opening night performance on 12 June 1986 was Noel Coward’s ‘Design For Living’. Productions over the next few seasons included Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’, Steele Rudd’s ‘The Old Selection’, Henrick Ibsen’s drama ‘Hedda Gabler’ and ‘Vulture Culture’, a “fable of survival” set in a desert that required 30 actors and dancers, a 34 piece orchestra and 42 tonnes of sand.

Uncertainty and Hope 1991 - 2021

Significant legislation to protect the Princess finally came with the election of the Goss Labor Government in December 1989 and the passing of Queensland’s first Heritage Act in 1992. The Princess was added to the accompanying Queensland Heritage Register in October that year.

In the meantime, however, TN! was going through financial problems. After losing its previous state government funding it was forced to forgo the remaining five years of its lease and vacate the theatre in late 1991. In 1992, a consortium which included Graham Hesse and antique dealers Heather and John Mildwaters bought the Princess. They originally wished to open an antique centre but these plans fell through and they continued to hire out the theatre instead.

News of the Princess’ possible resale later in the decade led to intense speculation about its future. A number of uses were proposed, ranging from a performing arts museum to a working space for the Queensland Performing Arts Trust. In 2001, the Princess was leased to the Metro Central Community Church (later the Lifecity Church), who purchased the theatre two years later. While used mainly for religious services, it continued to be hired out to the public as a theatre and wedding venue and for live music, school productions and other events.

The church’s purchase had saved the Princess from the imminent threat of demolition, but it remained in a kind of limbo. In 2011, poet Rupert McCall recalled the Princess’ long theatrical and musical history in an article for the Courier Mail. McCall praised its recent revival, but concluded that: Despite this honourable rescue, however, the danger [of demolition] remains very much imminent. The danger that, if and when possession is next transferred, her place in time may be lost …

Theatrical productions continued at the Princess during this period of limbo. In 2019, Hugh Lunn and Gerry Connolly staged a world premiere of their ‘State of Origin: The Musical’ to packed houses.

In February 2020 the Princess was once again put up for sale. Local entertainment writer and heritage campaigner Brett Debritz no doubt spoke for many when he mused: Along with many, many others, I would love to see theatre return to the Princess. But only a ‘white knight’ or an entire army of them, with deep commitment and even deeper pockets can make that happen.

In late 2020, historians’ and theatre lovers’ prayers were answered when the Princess was bought by prominent businessman and former South Bank Corporation chair Steve Wilson and Tivoli Theatre owners Steve and Dave Sleswick.

In April 2021, the new owners revealed their plans to renovate the Princess as Brisbane’s newest home for live music and the arts. The theatre was to become a state-of-the art performance auditorium capable of holding 500 seated and 900 standing patrons. It would feature four bars, a café, private event spaces, a rehearsal room, an office and workshop space and an outdoor courtyard, as well as provide a home to the visual theatre company Dead Puppet Society.

A number of creative experts were hired to complete the transformation, including heritage architect JDA, interiors expert Sophie Hart and builder Herron Coorey.

And so the Princess Theatre has come full circle. Built 133 years ago as a local gathering place for the working class residents of Woolloongabba and South Brisbane, it is now roaring back to life as a Brisbane jewel attracting audiences from around the country and acts from around the world.

Sources and Acknowledgements

Heather Jones’ paper ‘The Princess Theatre: From Then to TN’ published in 1985 provided an excellent summary of the theatre’s history up to that point, and Paul Granville’s well-researched recent blog on the theatre [https://highgatehill-historical-vignettes.com/2021/08/01/brisbanes-princess-theatre] provided further leads and insights.

Written histories of Brisbane’s theatres and dramatic companies and personal reminiscences proved very useful, and several participants and relatives of those involved in the Princess’ history kindly shared their memories, including writer Hugh Lunn, entertainer Mavis Donovan’s son Brian, cinematographer Paul Ruckert’s son

Mike and factory owner Morris Singer’s son Peter. I am also indebted to cinema historian Les Tod for sharing his notes on the Liberty movie theatre chain and Peter
Dunn for his excellent World War II history site [www.ozatwar.com].

A number of websites helped me track the Princess’ use by theatre companies during various eras, including the Australian Live Performance Database
[www.ausstage.edu.au], the Australian Variety Theatre Archive [www.ozvta.com], the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Australia [www.caths.org.au] and the online theatre resource established by the Australian Catholic University’s Delys and Simon Ryan [https://resource.acu.edu.au/siryan/Academy/theatres/Bris_Hist_Intro.htm].