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.