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JC WILLIAMSON LIMITED

by Paul Bentley

January 2000

 

Struck oil

The Triumvirate

The death of JCW

The Taits take over

Finale or resurrection?

Bibliography

Library, archival and museum resources
Websites

  


Struck Oil 

 

When Struck Oil opened at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on 1 August 1874, it signalled for its American stars, James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore, the beginning of a prosperous and unexpectedly lengthy association with Australia. Williamson had established a reputation for comedy and character roles in the theatres of New York and San Francisco, where he had met and married Maggie Moore. Struck Oil was a melodrama recently commissioned by Williamson and performed to popular acclaim in Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Originally engaged by George Coppin for a season of 12 weeks, the Williamsons, with Struck Oil and supporting plays in their repertoire, were such a spectacular success that the Australian tour, under other managements, was extended to 15 months, with engagements in Sydney, Victoria and Adelaide. Richer by 15,000 pounds, the couple then embarked on successful tours of Britain and the United States and, their fame and fortune established, returned to Australia in 1879, intending it to be the first stop of another world tour.
 

In a sentimental return of Struck Oil at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, The Australian newspaper reported that 'when Mr and Mrs Williamson made their first entry there was a sort of electric theatre all through the theatre. Australians had taken them to their hearts.
 

Before returning to Australia, Williamson had secured the rights of a new comic opera, HMS Pinafore, and on 15 November 1879, it was given its Australian premiere in a polished and triumphant production at the Theatre Royal, Sydney. Ideas of another world tour were shelved. In 1980 he formed the (Royal) Comic Opera Company, which introduced the Australian public to another successful Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Pirates of Penzance

 


The Triumvirate

 

In 1881, he became the sole lessee of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, and his course as a theatre entrepreneur was firmly set when, in the following year, he formed a partnership with Arthur Garner and George Musgrove. As the Triumvirate, these three young men laid the foundations of the firm which was to dominate the Australian theatre industry for 100 years.


Arthur Garner, a 31 year actor from Somerset, had worked with Williamson on his first Australian tour in the early 1870s. After returning to England in 1876, but was engaged by W. S. Lyster to form the London Comedy Company for a tour of Australia, opening in June 1879.


The 28 year old George Musgrove was a grandson of the celebrated English thespian Mrs Sarah Siddons and a nephew of W. S. Lyster. He had arrived in Australia at the age of 12, subsequently joining his uncle's company as treasurer. Inspired by the success of Williamson in the 1870s, Musgrove acquired the rights of Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour Major, which he presented at the Opera House, Melbourne, in December 1880. It was an outstanding success.
 

The eighties were a prosperous time and the Triumvirate took full advantage of it. A successful season of Patience was followed by productions of Youth and After Dark, featuring George Rignold, the first of many imported international celebrities who would appear for the firm. But in 1889 a rift developed between Williamson and Musgrove over the contract for Nellie Stewart, Williamson's leading local star and Musgrove's paramour. Both Musgrove and Stewart left the Triumvirate the following year.
 

The 1890s were as tough as the 1880s were buoyant and they were characterised by further upheavals in the management of the firm and J.C. Williamson's personal life. In 1891, Arthur Garner withdrew from the partnership to pursue his own business - with disastrous consequences. In 1892, Musgrove and Williamson were reconciled and Musgrove became the firm's London agent in 1896. Towards the end of the decade, however, a new rift developed over Musgrove's adventurous management style and the partnership was dissolved, this time for good, in 1900. The turn of the century also marked the end of his marriage Maggie Moore and the start of a new marriage with a dancer in the company, Mary Weir.
 

On stage, the uncertainties of the depression were met with some notable successes. In 1891, the big event was the Australian tour of the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt. It represented a considerable risk for Williamson. For one thing, all of the performances were to be presented in French. For another, Madame Bernhardt was accompanied by an entourage of 40 performers, a considerable wardrobe and special scenery. Ticket prices were raised from 5 shillings to 10 shillings to cover the costs. The tour was an unqualified success and a vindication of JCW's judgement. In 1896, with the organisation teetering on the brink of disaster, J.C. Williamson pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the Christmas pantomime Djin Djin; or The Japanese Bogeyman, a spectacular production featuring an earthquake and the eruption of Fuji San, staged with startling mechanical effects. In similar vein, Matsa Queen of Fire, presented in 1896, featured the flooding of the Nile and a sensational aerial ballet by Mary Weir.
 

With JCW at the helm, there were further success in the first decade of the 20th century: the 1902 production of Ben Hur, racing chariots and all; an Australian verse drama, Parsifal, based on the Wagner opera; and, in 1911, successful tours by the English actor H.B.Irving and 'the Melba-Williamson Opera Company, a highly successful collaboration which brought not only critical acclaim, but 51,000 pounds each to the pockets of J. C. Williamson and Madam Melba. In 1909, the Firm, as it had become popularly known, employed 355 people. Their spectacular melodramas commonly engaged 100 extras. Each new production required 15 squire miles of new canvas and 9 1/2 miles of new timber. They regularly controlled the movements of 8 touring companies.
 

The first ten years of the century also brought further changes to the management of the Firm. In 1904, J.C. Williamson acquired new partners in George Tallis, his Melbourne manager, and Gustav Ramaciotti, a legal adviser.
 

On Ramaciotti's retirement in 1911, Hugh J. Ward became a partner and, in the same year, there was a merger with the theatre entrepreneurs Clarke and Meynell . J.C. Williamson made his farewell stage appearance at Scott Memorial Appeal matinee on 22 February 1913, performing the title role in Dion Boucicault's Kerry
 


Death of JCW

 

In 1913, he left Australia to join his family in France and died in Paris on 8 August that year, leaving an estate of 250,000 pounds. For an evening, almost every theatre in Australia stood dark in tribute.
 

A valediction, published after his death by the New South Wales Bookstall Company, pays tribute to the imagination, discipline, integrity of Williamson, his capacity to transform ideas into action and gain loyalty from his employees. "He was a hard taskmaster, but an appreciative one, and all his employees gave him the affection which no money could buy ... his employees always possessed the esprit de corps seldom seen among such a large body of people, a camaraderie the more wonderful because it existed among all sorts and conditions of men.'
 

But he was not without his critics, who questioned his policy of importing actors and productions, his interest in the drama of emotions rather than the drama of ideas, and his failure to encourage Australian drama. Yet, without Williamson and his enterprise the colonial stage might have lingered for years in a state of unpolished mediocrity. As an entrepreneur, J.C. Williamson reversed the prevailing tide of cultural defeatism and rescued the stage from the threat of colonial insularity.'
 


The Taits take over

 

The fortunes of The Firm over the next half century were guided by a family of brothers. J. and N. Tait had demonstrated an adventurous streak in 1905, when they made history by producing the first full- length feature film in the world, The Story of the Kelly Gang. Their business reputation, however, had been established as organisers of successful concert tours of Dame Clara Butt, Amy Castles, Peter Dawson, John McCormack, Harry Lauder and others.
 

In 1916 they entered the field of legitimate theatre with a production of Peg O' My Heart.
 

In 1920, George Tallis invited the five Tait brothers to amalgamate with JC Williamson Ltd. The offer was accepted, with John, Nevin, EJ and Frank Tait becoming managing directors. Their older brother Charles, who had led the others into the concert field, remained with Allans' Music Store, where he was Managing Director. The J. and N. Tait organisation continued to function as a separate company, operating the concert management arm of the Firm.
 

After a successful collaboration throughout the 1920s, highlighted by two major tours of opera with Dame Nellie Melba and two tours of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, growing tensions between the Taits and Sir George Tallis (who had been knighted in 1922) culminated in the retirement of Sir George in 1931. There was talk of liquidation as the combined effect of the depression, the talkies and a double entertainment tax challenged the economic viability of the company.
 

In 1938 the brothers were again tested when Ernest C. Rolls, an entrepreneur with a chequered history of expensive productions, bankruptcy, a prison sentence for voyeurism and court appearances 'for tax evasion apparently engineered a takeover. This situation allegedly had its roots in the long-term animosity between Sir George Tallis and E. J. Tait, who had been employed by the Williamson organisation between 1900 and 1916, before becoming a partner in 1920. Hugh J. Ward had left the firm in 1922, selling his shares. to a wealthy solicitor Arthur Allen for 120,000 pounds. In 1938 the combined shares of Arthur Allen and Sir George Tallis, representing a controlling interest in JCW, were sold to Sir John McKenzie, a former Victorian who had established a successful chain of stores in New Zealand. In selling his shares, Sir George Tallis and Arthur Allen had stipulated that Rolls was to be a managing director and principal partner.
 

Under the new ownership, a second company - Australian and New Zealand Theatres Ltd - was formed to run the theatres, leaving J. C. Williamson Ltd to act solely as a property and investment company. Under Rolls' lavish plans and productions, the Australian and New Zealand Theatres Ltd lost 100,000 pounds in the first year. Rolls departed for London, never to return, the ANZ name disappeared from company's stationery and publications, and the Taits set about rescuing the firm from its decline.
 

The restrictions of the war years were counteracted with successful performances of Gilbert and Sullivan by the D'Oyley Carte Opera Company and a steady stream of comedies and thrillers. In 1944, the Firm helped to establish the Borovansky Ballet, support which continued until the death of Edouard Borovansky, its founder, in 1959. A successful production of Annie Get Your Gun in 1947 heralded the beginning of a long run of American musicals throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
 

It also heralded further changes in the management of the Firm and a period in which it lost its domination of Australian entertainment. Government subsidy of entertainment, cinemascope and television all posed their threats. Talk of mergers was punctuated by deaths - EJ Tait in 1947, John Tait and Sir John McKenzie in 1955, and Nevin Tait in 1961. The Sutherland-Williamson tour of 1965 was the swan song of the last remaining brother, Sir Frank Tait. The tour lost money, but, in Sir Frank's words, 'it was, without question, the most extraordinary event in living memory... not only in. this 21 country, but in any part of the world".
 

The reign of the Taits, like the reign of J. C. Williamson, has attracted criticism from theatre commentators, who charged the brothers with cementing conservative expectations in its audiences and failing to give sufficient encouragement to local actors and directors. 22 The balance sheet, however, must take into account the long list of commercial productions of outstanding quality, their support and encouragement of the enterprises of Gregan McMahon, Allan Wilkie, John Alden and Edouard Borovansky, and the financial and administrative storms they had to weather.

 


Finale or resurrection?

 

With the passing of the Tait brothers, the J. C. Williamson organisation struggled to survive. There was conflict between John McCallum, the Managing Director of JC Williamson Theatres Ltd since the death of Sir Frank Tait, and John MeFarlane, Managing Director of the parent company, JC Williamson Ltd. In 1969 both men resigned and the Firm formed a partnership with the Herald and Weekly Times of Melbourne. In 1971 Williamson-Edgley Theatres was set up as a subsidiary of JC Williamson Theatres Ltd, with Michael Edgley as Managing Director. Edgley withdrew a year later.
 

A grandson of John Tait, Alistair Mitchell, became Managing Director in 1973. His attempts to obtain government assistance to solve the firm's financial difficulties failed and, in 1976, the firm was sold to a new company, JC Williamson Productions Ltd, a consortium headed by Kenn Brodziak of Aztek Services Pty Ltd, with Stadiums Ltd and Edgley International. The directors of the new organisation included Lady Viola Tait, widow of Sir Frank. The new company presented plays and musicals including Chorus Line, before moving into the area of concert promotions.
 

In 1984, the company was acquired by the Danbury Group, a private investment company, and provided stage musicals including La Cage aux Folles, Me and My Girl, They’re Playing Our Song and Sugar Babies. Film distribution interests were pursued in association with Kingcroft Australia Pty Ltd.
 

In 1997, Danbury gave new prominence to the name J.C. Williamson as the American-based independent group of companies involved in the production and distribution of live and film entertainment, the ownership of live theatre facilities, film libraries and ancillary production-related operations including equipment rental and production facilities. 
 

JC Williamson Entertainment Inc is committed to “continue the Williamson tradition of producing outstanding entertainment for the enjoyment of audiences around the world”.

 


Bibliography

 

Bevan, I. The story of the Theatre Royal. Sydney: Currency Press, 1993.

Dicker, Ian. J.C.W. a short biography of James Cassius Williamson. Sydney: Elizabeth Tudor Press, 1974.

Kingston, Claude. It don't seem a day too much. Adelaide: Rigby, 1971. 

Parsons, Phillip. Companion to Theatre in Australia / general editor Phillip Parsons with Victoria Chance. Sydney: Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press 1995. For entries on JC Williamson, George Musgrove, Tait brothers, George Tallis and many others associated with the company.  

Stone, Richard and Thomson, John. There's no photograph like a show business photograph: a progress report on the JC Williamson publicity photograph project at the National Library of Australia, ARLIS/ANZ Journal no 61 June 2006: 19-27

Tait, Viola. A family of brothers: the Taits and JC Williamson: a theatre history. Melbourne, Heinemann, 1971.

 

Library, archival & museum resources

 

National Library of Australia
 

J.C. Williamson Theatre Ltd records MS 5783 <www:nla.gov.au/1/ms/find-aids/5783>

Tait Family Papers 1908-1966. MS 309 Finding aid at www.nla.gov.au/1/ms/find_aids/309.html;

Prompt collection. JC Williamson opera programs. <www.new.nla.gov.au/collect/prompt/jcwill.html

 

State Library of New South Wales
 

JC Williamson Sydney Office records. A paper by Marie Alcorne on reprocessing the collection was presented at the annual meeting of the Performing Arts Special Interest Group of Museums Australia in 2005. The collection, dating from the 1870s, comprises 148 cartons and 69 volumes transferred from the Sydney Office in 1971. It includes administrative and production files, playscripts, librettos, music manuscripts and printed music, programs, theatre journals, press books, posters, photographs and early costume designs. Facsimiles of some of the posters 1902-1909 were presented in the State Library's exhibition A Magnificent Spectacle: Theatre Posters of JC Williamson's 1904-1914. In due course, it is expected that expanded entries for the entire collection will appear in the Pictures and Manuscripts (PICMAN) database, accessible via the library's website http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au
 

Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum
 

JC Williamson documents, programs, photographs, 1900-1980.  
 

Websites  

J.C. Williamson Entertainment
http://www.jcwilliamson.com

Site includes a history behind the JC Williamson name and a chronology of some major events of the JC Williamson Group 1874-1998. [Leth Maitland of the WEA Sydney Film Society contacted the Wolanski Foundation in September 2008 to report that this URL is no longer applicable and the chronology is no longer available. Based on a search of the Wayback Machine, he suggested that J.C. Williamson Entertainment Inc used the www.jcwilliamson.com domain name between January 1999 and March 2001. No one used the domain name between March 2001 to mid-way through March 2007, when the JC Williamson Company of Pittsburgh acquired the domain name]

The Silent Showman
http://www.tallis.on.net

Website of a history of the first 50 years of JCW Theatres and biography of Sir George Tallis, written by Mike and Joan Tallis (Adelaide: Wakefield Press 2003)
 

 

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