Tom Garrick and his West End Theatres

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.”

Lord Clyde 1875 clydeshipscouk

The “Lord Clyde” in 1875. (clydeships.co.uk)

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”.

garrick with cutty sark 1933 tele 15 april

Tom Garrick with his model of the “Cutty Sark”. (Telegraph, 15th April 1933 via Trove)

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

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. 

lyric theatre site

The location of the Lyric Theatre in Boundary Street. (P. Granville)

In 1913, Tom and a business partner Richard (Dick) Stephens purchased the site and formed Garrick’s Entertainments Pty. Ltd. Stephens had instigated open air films at Dutton Park ( see my post The Dutton Park Garden Theatre ) and then 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 .

garrick anniversary 1938

Isabella and Thomas Garrick at the time of their golden wedding anniversary in 1938. (Telegraph. 25 June 1938 via Trove)

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.

 

garrick award 90 years old slq

Thomas Garrick was presented this certificate in 1943 on the occasion of his 90th birthday. (Garrick papers, State Library of Queensland)

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.

lyric summer opening tele 15 sep 1917

Tom Garrick invites patrons to enjoy the “invigorating open air” of the Lyric. (Telegraph 15th September, 1917 via Trove)

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.

lyric 1935 ps

The Lyric Theatre, Boundary Street West End, in 1935. (Telegraph 5th August 1935 via Trove)

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 September 1930, The “Vagabond Lover” was the first “talkie” shown at the Lyric.

In 1937, with continuing financial success, Garrick’s decided to refurbish the theatre.

lyric theatre alterations telegraph 5 oct 1937

An illustration of the Lyric Theatre after alterations. (Telegraph, 5th October 1937).

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.

aamw recruitment cm 15 march 1943 lyric

Lieutenant D M Sheridan of the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service addressing potential volunteers at the Lyric Theatre. (Courier-Mail 15th March 1943 via Trove)

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.

The Lyric with a full house for a recording of a Jack Davey quiz show. (Brisbane Truth, 16th March, 1952, via Trove)
Robert Menzies opened his 1954 election campaign at the Lyric in front of a crowd of 600. (Courier-Mail, 6th May, 1954 via Trove)
boundary street lyric 1949

Looking down Boundary Street in 1949 with the Lyric theatre in the distance. (Brisbane City Council)

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.

jaffas australian food timelinecomau

The ever popular Jaffas were often rolled down the sloping floors of Australian cinemas. (australianfoodtimeline.com.au)

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.

arthur pickham milk bar west end 1950 slq

Many patrons of the Lyric Theatre crossed the street for a milkshake or pineapple juice at Arthur Pickham’s milk bar at the corner of Vulture and Boundary Streets, (State Library of Queensland)

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.

lyric rialto cm 1 july 1960

Double features at the Lyric and Rialto. (Courier-Mail 1st July 1960)

The Rialto

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.

The Rialto opens. (Daily Standard 10th October, 1923 via Trove)
“When Knighthood Was In Flower”, the first film shown at the Rialto, was then the most expensive film ever made, costing an estimated $US1,500,000 to make.

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 Rialto Theatre (Brisbane Telegraph, 7th August, 1935 via Trove.)
The Rialto with a passing tram (Facebook Railshop.com.au)

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.

The Mackay born Le Garde Twins left Australia in 1957 for a 50 year career in the USA. (State Library of Queensland)
Ray Lawler’s classic play was performed at the Rialto in 1956, the year after its first performance. (State Library of Queensland)
rialto 1950 bcc crop

The Rialto shopping strip in 1950. (Brisbane City Council)

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. 

rialto gang show sm 26 sep 1954

Sunday Mail 26th September, 1954 (Trove)

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.

The “Jack and the Beanstalk” program from 1960. (State Library of Queensland)
The musical “ORG” from 1970. (State Library of Queensland)

brannigan rialto 1979 fryer

The Rialto, pictured here in 1979, continued as a cinema as well as a live performance venue. (Lyndon “Bud” Brannigan Collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland)

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.

nanacy weir camelote facebook

Nancy Weir, possibly 1984. (Facebook, Alan Lee)

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).

The Rialto in 1984. (State Library of Queensland_)
The Rialto stage in 1984. (State Library of Queensland)
cm 13 mar 91 keith wilby

In 1991, former Rialto projectionist Keith Wilby came out of retirement to operate the restored 1935 projectors. (Courier-Mail, 13th March, 1991)

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.

rialto ticket collage 2

Rialto tickets from the 80s and 90s. (State Library of Queensland Ephemera collection)

Rialto roof collapse CM april 1 1995

Operator Denis McDonald surrounded by the roof debris, January 1995. (Courier-Mail, April 1st, 1995)

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.

The Rialto just after the storm with the remnants of the roof and in 2022.

References:

Captain T. R. Garrick Looks Back Over 85 Years

Thomas Garrick Papers, State Library of Queensland This includes the recollections of Mrs. Joycelyn 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

4 thoughts on “Tom Garrick and his West End Theatres

  1. Such a comprehensive article on the whole history of the two cinemas, most interesting to read. Thanks Paul for your time and effort.

    Like

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