Thomas (Dad) Garrick, after a nautical career, became a pioneer of cinema in Queensland. His family company established the Lyric Theatre in West End in 1912 and in 1923 they built the Rialto in Hill End. Only the Rialto survives, repurposed as commercial premises.
Thomas Garrick’s Nautical Career
Thomas Garrick was born in London in 1853. At age 15, after a short stint working in an office, he followed in his father’s footsteps and went to sea. By 1875, he had gained his master mariner’s certificate. Tom later recalled that as a youthful first mate, he was “left in charge of the barque Lord Clyde, with an injured captain and a second officer as much use as the fifth wheel on a coach.”
Tom married Isabella McLintock in 1875 and they continued living in London. After he returned from a voyage to Australia on the “Taldara” in 1881, the family, including a baby daughter, emigrated to Brisbane.
Tom worked on Australian coastal steamers for some years, and then started dairy farming at Milora in the Scenic Rim district of South East Queensland. Suffering financially from a severe drought, the Garricks purchased a grocery store in James Street, Fortitude Valley. Tom went back to sea leaving his family, which now included three sons, to run the shop.
In 1908, Tom ended his career as a mariner. He retained his love of sailing ships and in the early 1930s built a large floating model of the famous clipper, the “Cutty Sark”.
He became interested in the new technology of “living pictures”, purchased a horse drawn travelling picture show business from cinema pioneer Sidney Cook, and toured the Brisbane Valley.
Sidney Cook was a pioneer film exhibitor and cinematographer. In 1906, he became well known locally after showing his film of Brisbane streets shot from a moving tram. In 1910, in addition to using hired premises, he established a permanent base called the “Valley Picture Palace”, leasing the Foresters’ Hall in Fortitude Valley.
Sidney Cook in 1910 and Forester’s Hall in Fortitude Valley
Towards the end of 1910, Cook established a second theatre in leased premises on Boundary Street, West End, next to the School of Arts, which he called the “West End Picture Gardens”. It was open air and featured an iron screen. Tom Garrick was Cook’s partner in the venture as well as theatre manager.
Garrick’s Entertainments Pty. Ltd.
The lease expired in 1912 and the location was moved down a few doors towards Vulture Street and rechristened the Lyric Theatre. Tom signed a two year lease and Sidney Cook withdrew from the venture.
In 1913, Tom and a business partner Richard (Dick) Stephens purchased the site and formed Garrick’s Entertainments Pty. Ltd. Stephens had been managing Sidney Cook’s four Brisbane theatres. He later left the firm and acquired his own theatre at Paddington. Tragically, in 1932 Mrs. Lillian Stephens was murdered at the couple’s Dutton Park home during a robbery of their night’s theatre takings .
The Lyric was a financial success, and in 1923 the family company built the Rialto Theatre on Hardgrave Road. They continued to expand, building the Arcadia Theatre in Bayswater Street Milton and purchasing the Victory in Taringa. Both were sold by the mid 1930s and the family concentrated on the two West End theatres.
The company employed many family members and managed to survive the difficult depression years, although the opening of the Davies Park Speedway in 1927 adversely impacted audience numbers (see my post The Davies Park Story).
The late 1930s and 1940s were good years for the business and Garrick’s refurbished both of their theatres, as described individually below. Members of the extended family worked in many roles such as ticket sellers, ushers and projectionists. “Bicycle boys” transferred reels of film between the two theatres at interval. The first feature film at the Lyric was the second at the Rialto and vice versa.
In 1938, Isabella and Tom celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary and seven years later Tom’s 90th birthday was recognised by his peers.
Captain Thomas Garrick passed away in 1945 and Isabella in 1948. Although adversely affected by the introduction of television broadcasting, Garrick’s continued operating the two West End theatres until the early 1960s. By then, family members had moved on to other activities and the company was sold.
The Lyric Theatre
The Lyric Theatre opened on the 12th of October, 1912. The Mayor of South Brisbane, John Burke, christened it in a ceremony in the style of a ship launch, devised by Tom Garrick. It was described as being commodious with a full width gallery of 80 foot (24 metres). Patrons sheltered here when it rained, as the theatre was largely open-air.
The popularity of open-air theatres dropped off in winter and Garrick’s started leasing the nearby West End School of Arts hall in the colder months. In 1918, the theatre was roofed in.
Around this time, Garrick’s used a searchlight to attract the attention of prospective patrons and lure them the short distance up Boundary Street from the tram stop.
As well as operating as a cinema, the large size of the theatre made it useful for community events. For example, during the 1920s, ANZAC Day memorial services were held with up to 500 attending.
“Talkies” were introduced to Brisbane in 1929 but were taking some time to become popular, in part because the artistic quality of silent films was yet to be matched. Also, the cost of equipping a theatre for sound was high. In 1930, Tom Garrick took the plunge and installed the RCA Photophone sound system at the Lyric.
In 1937, with continuing financial success, Garrick’s decided to refurbish the theatre.
During World War Two, as well as continuing as a cinema, the Lyric was used for activities such as meetings of air raid wardens and recruiting drives.
After the war, national radio quizzes recorded in front of live audiences became very popular and the Lyric was regularly packed to capacity to watch shows hosted by household names such as Jack Davey and Bob Dyer. Amateur theatre groups also occasionally performed at the Lyric and it was also used for political meetings.
In 1952, the theatre catered for baby boom families by installing a children’s crying room, unique in Brisbane at the time. My mother recalls going to the pictures here in the early 1950s when my family lived nearby, sitting in the end canvas seat with my sister in her pram next to her.
A policeman was hired on Saturday nights to dampen boys’ enthusiasm for rolling jaffas and bottles down the aisle and releasing stink bombs.
Across the street was Pickam’s milk bar, famous for its pineapple juice which sold for 6d (5c) a glass. It was popular with theatre patrons in the interval between movies.
The Lyric continued to operate until 1961, around the time that the Garrick family sold the company. Until then, old traditions such as an organist playing during interval were kept alive. Advertisements for films showing at the Lyric cease from then on. The building was hired for community events and at one stage housed a toy store. It burnt down sometime around 1967.
Building on the the financial success of the Lyric Theatre, Garrick’s decided to expand and built the Rialto on Hardgrave Road. It was located just 4 stops down the West End tram line from the Lyric. The Rialto opened on the 11th of October, 1923, with a screening of “When Knighthood Was In Flower” starring Marion Davis, together with supporting features. As was usual at the time, the films were supplemented by live musical performances.
Garrick’s installed an RCA sound system in 1933, three years after the sister Lyric theatre. The Rialto remained predominantly a film venue although some political meetings were held there.
In 1941, the family company extended the stage and built the Art Deco style façade that became the Rialto’s distinguishing feature. The original roof is visible in both images below but with the old and new facades.
The improved facilities, along with good acoustics and an ability to seat over 700, contributed to the Rialto becoming a major live theatre and music venue for some 50 years. From the immediate post-war years, the number of productions presented there steadily increased.
Amongst the many organisations using the Rialto was Scouts Queensland with its Gang Show held there every year but one, from 1953 to 1969. Others included the Queensland Light Opera Company, Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the Brisbane Choral Society. The 1960 production of the pantomime “Jack and the Beanstalk” included the Bee Gees, who played during the interval and while sets were being changed.
With various changes in ownership in the 1970s, live theatre productions dropped off. However the Rialto became a popular venue for the screening of Greek language films, which had previously been screened regularly at the Rialto in the mid 1950s.
In 1983, the well known classical pianist Nancy Weir, wishing to revitalise live theatre in Brisbane, purchased the Rialto. Highlights of this period include a 1984 production of “The Rocky Horror Show” starring Reg Livermore and the “Roll Back the Years” series of vaudeville shows.
For one “Roll Back the Years” production in 1985, Nancy played piano despite having a broken arm. These productions featured a group of dancers who had all performed in Brisbane during World War Two at the “Cremorne” and “Theatre Royal”. Some had also entertained troops at military bases (see my post Brisbane’s Princess Theatre).
A consortium purchased the theatre from Nancy Weir in 1987. The new owners completed a refurbishment, converting the dress circle into a piano bar and adding additional dressing rooms. Neville Jones was the enthusiastic operator for some years.
In 1991, two RCA Standard Superlight projectors that had been installed in the Rialto in 1935 were discovered hidden behind a bar, restored and used for special screenings.
Gail Wiltshire bought the Rialto sight unseen in 1993. She already owned the Playhouse Theatre at Clayfield and the Twelfth Night at Bowen Hills.
Late in the night of the 29th January 1995, during a screening of the cult classic “A Clockwork Orange”, a fierce storm tore off the roof of the Rialto. Miraculously, there were no injuries amongst the audience of 100. The debris was spread over three adjacent streets.
The future of the building was in doubt for some time, especially as it was found to be in a poor condition due to termites and wood rot. In 1997, it was purchased by Jim Varitimos and after 8 months of building work, the Rialto started a new life as commercial premises.
Thomas Garrick Papers, State Library of Queensland This includes the recollections of Mrs. Jocelyn Munro (nee Garrick), Cedrick and Ron Garrick, all grandchildren of Thomas Garrick, as recorded by Dorothy Atthow, which I have drawn on in writing this post.
© P. Granville 2022