By David Thompson
Few theatre-goers pushing through the crowded foyer of the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne take note of the brass plaque beside a door leading to the stalls.
The plaque tells how “… George Selth Coppin, Philanthropist and Father of the Theatre in Victoria, Erected the Olympic Theatre on this Site in 1855”.
The Olympic was remarkable for the fact that it was imported, prefabricated, from England and assembled in six weeks, surely making it Melbourne’s first pop-up theatre.
George Coppin was an actor and theatrical entrepreneur. Born in England, he came to Australia in 1843 and played at various theatres around the country before returning to England in 1853. The next year he came back to Melbourne, this time bringing a theatre with him. It was a prefabricated iron structure manufactured by E. & T. Bellhouse of Manchester. The site chosen for the theatre was on the corner of Lonsdale and Stephen (now Exhibition) streets, where the Comedy Theatre now stands.
On April 18, 1855, the foundation stone of the new Olympic Theatre was laid by Gustavus Brooke, a noted Irish actor who had been engaged by Coppin in England. At the ceremony, Coppin was presented with an inscribed silver builder’s trowel “… as a token … of your serious endeavours to provide for the public of this city a source of legitimate, innocent and instructive amusements”. Coppin passed the trowel to Brooke who deposited a bottle containing coins of the realm, a copy of The Argus and a commemorative inscription in a hollow over which the foundation stone was laid. (The trowel is now one of the treasures in the RHSV Collection.)
The construction of the 1500-seat building was carried out by Cornwall & Co. An ornamental front of brick and glass was added to the iron structure to provide foyers, box office and bars and the theatre was completed in about six weeks.
The Olympic Theatre opened on Monday, June 11, 1855. The first show featured “The Great Magician, Ventriloquist, and Improvisatore, MR JACOBS, The Wizard of Wizards, and the Monarch of all Necromancers!” Admission prices were seven shillings and sixpence for a box seat, six shillings for the dress circle and stalls, and three shillings for the pit.
As a “travel and theatre package”, Jacobs arranged for people from Williamstown to travel by steamer and carriage to and from the theatre and see the show, all for 10 shillings. Jacobs’ season ended on July 23 with a benefit performance for the Melbourne Hospital.
The drama season at the Olympic opened on July 30 with a performance of The Lady of Lyons in which Gustavus Brooke took the lead. This play was followed on the same night by a second feature, a farce entitled To Oblige Benson, starring George Coppin himself. The program received favourable reviews, with the performances of Brooke and Coppin attracting particular praise.
On August 24 the program included a farce entitled Old and Young. This marked the debut of a young actress called Julia Mathews who became very popular with audiences. Later in her career, while on tour in Beechworth, she caught the eye of Robert O’Hara Burke. In 1860, just before leaving on his disastrous expedition with Wills, Burke proposed to Julia. She refused his offer but later campaigned via The Argus for the organisation of a search for the explorers.
The Olympic did not last long as a theatre. Popularly known as the “Iron Pot”, because of its metal structure, it was cold in winter, hot in summer, and the noise of rain on the roof could sometimes make it difficult to hear the actors.
When Brooke’s engagement came to an end in 1856 Coppin tried unsuccessfully to sell the theatre. In 1857 it became a dance hall and in 1860 Coppin converted it into Australia’s first Turkish baths. In this form, the building was more financially successful than as a theatre. By 1890 it was a furniture warehouse and it was finally demolished in 1894.
Ultimately, the Comedy Theatre was built on the site, opening for business in April, 1928. The plaque in the foyer of the Comedy is today the only reminder of the Olympic, Melbourne’s first pop-up theatre.