Theatre’s history is worth it’s weight in gold.

28 Apr

The Opera House when it was originally built in the 1870s. Picture by Gulgong Information Centre.

“Rough-built theatres and stages where the world’s best actors trod, Singers bringing reckless rovers nearer boyhood, home and God, Paid in laughter, tears and nuggets in the drama fortune plays – ‘Tis the palmy days of Gulgong – Gulgong in the Roaring Days.” – Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson wrote about it, Dame Nellie Melba sang there and boxer Les Darcy fought there – the Gulgong Prince of Wales Opera House is rich in history and continues to provide the town with entertainment.

Built in 1871, the unassuming building situated in the centre of town, holds the title of Australia’s longest running performing arts theatre.

Over 140 years on, the building hasn’t changed all that much, not unlike the rest of the historic town, whose narrow streets and charming weatherboard buildings look as though they belong to a time long-gone.

Born on the rough goldfields, the Prince of Wales Opera House was originally a bark structure with a dirt floor and no roof, built by John Cogden during Gulgong’s thriving goldrush days.  At a time when Gulgong’s population was up to 20,000, the theatre was doing a roaring trade.  People flocked from the goldfields to be entertained by some of the world’s greatest actors, singers and dancers.

Booking organiser for the Opera House, Brian Cook, says that Cogden and his business partner, international actress Joey Gougenheim, were running two shows a day, seven days a week.

The Opera House as it is today. Picture by Gulgong Information Centre.

“They were making pretty good money,” Mr Cook says.

“I’ve seen some old programs and they say they can fit 2000 people in here, which I very much doubt, but maybe 1000, and the minimum price was two and sixpence, so if you work that out they had a pretty good income each day.”

“It’d be better money than you could make these days,” Mr Cook says laughing.

Gulgong’s population is now just over 2,000 and the Opera House seats only 340, however it continues to be used for everything from plays to concerts to movie nights and for the local Eisteddfod.

“During a typical year of 365 days, it’s probably used about 150 of those days,” Mr Cook says.

The theatre is the home of the local Musical and Dramatic Society (MADS), who usually put on a theatre restaurant or one act plays every year, which are very popular amongst the locals.  Not only do MADS use the opera, but they also own and run it.

Mr Cook, also a member of the MAD Society, says up until the early seventies the opera house was being primarily used as a movie theatre, however, with the introduction of TV, it was in decline.

“That’s how our Music and Dramatic Society came to take over the building because they were going to demolish it,” Mr Cook says.

Mr Cook says that the MAD Society are very lucky to be one of the few dramatic societies that own their own theatre.

“We pay a whole two dollars for membership, so it’s pretty heavy,” says Mr Cook laughing.

“Our major expense is insurance of course, because it’s a national trust building so that’s why we’ve got to run the shows, not only because of that but because we love doing it.”

The rustic building oozes character and charm.  The red velvet curtains are over a hundred years old, the blue-patterned velvet seats lining the rows are as old as they are uncomfortable and the wooden floorboards creak as you walk.  Some locals swear the place is haunted by the ghosts of those that had once trod the stage.  The original iron bark roof creates such impressive acoustics that microphones aren’t needed.

Mr Cook believes that is part of the appeal and why it has attracted some first class musicians such as pianist Roger Woodward and trumpeter James Morrison, who regularly return to perform here.

“We get good artists wanting to use it in between our shows,” Mr Cook says.

“We’ve got John Waters coming up in June, so that’s another major show.”

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2 Responses to “Theatre’s history is worth it’s weight in gold.”

  1. metan April 28, 2012 at 1:53 am #

    I love that an old building was not only saved, but is still used for its original purpose. Great stuff! I love the historic photo too 🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Waters to come to Gulgong « The Wonderful World of Theatre - May 6, 2012

    […] organiser for the Gulgong Opera House, Brian Cook was very surprised when he got a call from John Waters himself wanting to bring the […]

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