Melbourne is rightly proud of its theatre district, encompassing the Regent, the Princess, the Comedy, and the jewel in the crown, Her Majesty’s Theatre.
There has been entertainment on the site of The Maj (as it is affectionately known) since 1880, when the Hippodrome opened for business.
Eminent Melbourne theatre historian and raconteur extraordinaire, Frank van Straten has written a glorious hardback tome of more than 300 pages, tracing the history of theatre on this spot from the 19th century days of Marvellous Melbourne.
The Hippodrome lasted just five years, after which the Alexandra Theatre (dubbed the Aleck) took over from 1886 until 1900, and it was in 1900 that The Maj came into being. It has had trials and tribulations, fires and changes of management but it is still thriving more than 130 years since it was established as a place of entertainment for Melburnians.
Theatre lovers may recall that it hosted Dame Nellie Melba’s opera tours, and of course was headquarters for so many musicals produced by “The Firm” (J. C. Williamson’s).
But Melbourne nearly lost the grand old lady when, in 1982, there were plans to demolish The Maj and build a car park! Thankfully for Melbourne theatrical history, TV personality and entrepreneur Mike Walsh entered the picture and saved and restored the theatre, which is still going strong today.
Most Australian theatrical legends have performed at The Maj over the years, from expat Peter Allen to the much-loved Nancye Hayes and the late Ruth Cracknell. It has also played host to some of the world’s greatest entertainment names, such as The Two Ronnies and Dame Maggie Smith.
Van Straten weaves a magical tale of the theatre and its fortunes and misfortunes, and the book is a delight to read. One of its particular strengths is the wealth of archival material, and it would be a wonderful gift for the theatre tragic in your life.