Sydney’s Capitol Theatre – a century of entertainment

A horse bus trundles past and carts line up outside the New Belmore Markets, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1893-1909, MAAS Collection, 85/1284-1538
A horse bus trundles past and carts line up outside the New Belmore Markets, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1893-1909, MAAS Collection, 85/1284-1538

Have you ever wondered why the Capitol Theatre in Sydney’s Haymarket is such a strange design? It was originally a fruit and veggie market! 2016 marks the theatre’s 100th birthday. What a century it’s been, filled with performing seals, elephants, mermaids and now the von Trapp children.

New Belmore Markets

In 1893 George McCrae designed the markets for the whole city block bounded by Campbell, Pitt, Hay and Parker Streets. The outside featured 36 arches and was appropriately decorated with stylised terracotta representations of fruit.

Despite the building being a success, its location wasn’t.

It was too far away from rail and sea transport and overcrowded due to the rapid rise in country fruit production. By 1909 the Fruit Grower’s Union and stallholders campaigned to move the market to the other side of George Street, on the corner of Ultimo Road and Quay Street. A building now familiar to University of Technology, Sydney students as part of their Haymarket campus.

Wirths' Circus performers and animals on stage and in the circus ring, photograph by J D Cleary, Australia, 1916, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-2/9
Wirths’ Circus performers and animals on stage and in the circus ring, photograph by J D Cleary, Australia, 1916, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-2/9

Make way for the circus

Rather than demolish the New Belmore Markets, council decided to remodel the building. The arched walls were re-erected on top of a new single-storey building which was divided into two parts: a performance space called the ‘Hippodrome’ and the Manning Building with shops and offices. Leased by the Wirth Brothers, the famous circus proprietors, the Hippodrome opened with a traditional circus program in 1916.

Enlarged section of opening night photograph above, photograph by J D Cleary, Australia, 1916, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-2/9
Enlarged section of opening night photograph above, photograph by J D Cleary, Australia, 1916, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-2/9

The theatre included an indoor circus ring 12.2 metres in diameter for animal acts with special pits underneath where elephants and other circus animals waited before their performances. Some of the pits are said to still survive under the Capitol’s stalls.

Three tunnels ran under the road to Parker Street to move the animals from nearby paddocks to the theatre. The most amazing thing was that the circus ring floor could be hydraulically lowered 3.7 m to become a tank for performing seals, polar bears aquatic events!

Wirth's Circus ring at the Hippodrome converted for aquatic acts showing the performers, twin diving boards and dripping wet performers leaving the pool, c. 1920, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-3/61
Wirth’s Circus ring at the Hippodrome converted for aquatic acts showing the performers, twin diving boards and dripping wet performers leaving the pool, c. 1920, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-3/61
Enlarged section of photo above showing King Neptune with mermaids and sea nymphs in the pool, c. 1920, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-3/61
Enlarged section of photo above showing King Neptune with mermaids and sea nymphs in the pool, c. 1920, MAAS Collection, 2012/104/1-3/61

The Capitol is born

In 1927 the Hippodrome’s lease was taken up by Capitol Theatre (Sydney) Ltd, formed by Union Theatres, who’d been busy converting old barn-like silent picture houses into modern cinemas. It was given a complete makeover and turned into one of the new American-style ‘atmospheric’ cinemas decorated in ‘exotic’ styles borrowed from Egyptian, Spanish, Aztec and Chinese cultures.

The stage was reduced by half, the circus ring covered over, the upper two tiers replaced with one dress circle sweep and new re-raked stalls added. The interior theme was an enchanted Florentine garden with classical statues, roman soldiers, urns, gates and columns and gilded vine-encrusted porticos around the walls. Subtitled, ‘The House of Dreams’, the Capitol opened in 1928 and caused an immediate sensation. A thirty-piece orchestra was raised on a hydraulic platform and a Wurlitzer organ played popular melodies. Variety acts added to the cinema entertainment together with a twenty-piece band and chorus. The Depression and Second World War saw the theatre close periodically, reopening in the 1950s staging everything from jazz to beach girl contests.

Musicals

The Capitol’s days as a cinema ended in the 1970s but the theatre’s extraordinary acoustics and sightlines were rediscovered when Her Majesty’s Theatre in Quay Street was burnt down and the remaining season of the Australian Opera had to be performed at the Capitol. The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar opened there in 1972 ensuring a whole new generation of patrons would experience the extraordinary interior. Unfortunately during subsequent rock concerts the theatre’s decorative plasterwork suffered from vandalism and badly deteriorated with one performer even climbing a ladder to smash the arms off one of the statues.

By 1983 the theatre was pretty derelict and there was talk of its demolition. Thankfully its heritage value was appreciated as the last of four surviving atmospheric theatres in Australia and probably one of only three outside the USA.

After an initial delay, the Capitol was restored to its 1928 appearance under architect, Andrew Andersons. Trevor Waters, a conservation architect, pieced together Eberson’s original lighting effect to reproduced the twinkling stars of the midnight southern winter sky. Lost and damaged statues were replaced by replicas cast from objects in Melbourne’s State Theatre and the Nicholson Museum at The University of Sydney.

The Capitol Theatre at the start of its hundredth year, photograph by M Simpson, Australia, 2016
The Capitol Theatre at the start of its hundredth year, photograph by M Simpson, Australia, 2016

The Capitol reopened in 1995 and has continued to stage musical theatre productions and other performances. So, this year as you sit in the audience of The Sound of Music waiting for the von Trapp children to learn their Do-Re-Mi, spare a thought for the Capitol’s extraordinary history in providing a venue for entertaining Sydney audiences for 100 years.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

References

Margaret Simpson, ‘Old Sydney Buildings: a social history’, Kangaroo Press, 1995, pp.18-21

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3 responses to “Sydney’s Capitol Theatre – a century of entertainment

  • Absolutely fascinating – thank you for posting this little gem 🙂 whenever I go to a show there I always wonder about the history of the building but have never taken the time to look it up – what an amazing journey this place has had.

  • My mother’s parents owned the Capitol Candy Store across the road from the theatre in 1940s. My mother recalls how theatre patrons would rush across the road during intervals to buy drinks and sweets.

  • I’m trying to track down details of a show in Sydney (at the Capitol ??)around 1994/95 – do you have records that far back? The show had “magic” performances, and a marvellous piece with Geraldine Chaplin and an older French man.
    I know there is a great piece on web, but can’t find it. Need the man’s name I think.

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