Tivoli Theatre (Brisbane)

Construction began on the new Tivoli Theatre in 1914.  By the close of the year “good progress is being made with the new theatre being erected in Albert-street on the site of the old Turkish Baths.  Architecturally it promises to be an ornament to Market-square.  It should also be a valuable addition to our places of amusement” (Brisbane Courier 19 Dec. 1914: 13).  The new theatre held a Grand Opening performance on Saturday 15 May 1915 “when Mr. Hugh D. McIntosh will have much pleasure in presenting to the Theatre-going Public of Brisbane the Latest Vaudeville Innovation—The Tivoli Follies” (Brisbane Courier 1 May 1915: 2).  According to Nancye Bridges, Hugh D. McIntosh is “still the most flamboyant showman and promoter Australia has known” (Bridges 12).  His role in the Tivoli Circuit certainly made him one of the most influential figures in Australia’s vaudeville history.  The Brisbane Tivoli was situated on Albert Street; if it existed today it would stand opposite City Hall on the site of the present King George Square:

"The Tivoli is the latest thing in theatres.  For once there has been an effort to build a theatre to suit the climate, and first impressions suggest that it has been successful.  The Tivoli is really two theatres—an enclosed theatre, admirably ventilated, and a roof theatre, which will be a delight in the hot summer nights.  Mr. H.D. McIntosh has spared no expense or trouble, and he has secured something novel as well as satisfactory.  There is a suggestion of Orientalism in the Market-square front, but the architectural effect generally is striking” (Brisbane Courier 15 May 1915: 12)

The architect, Henry E. White [1] , designed the Tivoli main auditorium to house 1800 people in three levels while the Tivoli Roof Garden Theatre was built as an open-air venue holding 1200 (Companion to Theatre in Australia  604 and Brisbane Courier 4 May 1915: 5).  “The Tivoli’s main auditorium is specially cooled by a large air plant, which pumps 40,000 cubic feet of ice-cold air through the theatre every minute” (Brisbane Courier 7 Oct. 1916: 3).  Plush ruby carpets were installed (Brisbane Courier 3 May 1915: 4). 

The Tivoli Roof Garden boasted open sides which were designed to let evening breezes cool the audience while specially designed steel shutters could protect the audience from rain. According to Australian Variety the Tivoli Theatre was one of only six theatres in the world to have a roof garden at that time (Australian Variety 29 Dec. 1915: N.pag.) and it was promoted as “the Coolest Theatre in Australasia” and the management claimed that it provided “full protection from inclement weather” (Brisbane Courier 10 Feb. 1916: 2). 

One of the attractions of the garden theatre was that smoking was allowed, “and the modern appointments tend to make the theatre a veritable Eden” (Brisbane Courier 25 Apr. 1916: 5).  McIntosh was always good with self-promotion and his media contacts assured him a glowing presentation in the press for the opening of the new theatre:


“This is a real theatre,’ said Mr. Hugh D. McIntosh, the governing director of the Rickards Tivoli Theatres Ltd., as he walked through the latest addition to the company’s buildings in Brisbane yesterday, accompanied by a representative of this journal.  It was a snappy, epigrammatic sentence, characteristic of the man, and it conveyed a great deal; but nevertheless it would require a column of equally potent sentences to do full justice to the building which rears its handsome façade upon Albert-square.  (Brisbane Courier 4 May 1915: 5)

When it opened, the Tivoli was unique in Australia for combining two theatres in the one building; the design allowed for two separate companies to function autonomously.  The building permitted distinct entrances for the audiences of the two separate theatres.  One of McIntosh’s publicity boasts at the opening of the new theatre was that:

“It is built on what is termed the intimate plan,” said Mr. McIntosh; “every seat is close enough to the stage for the occupant to thoroughly appreciate every word and every expression of the artists.  The lighting is all on what is known as the indirect.’  When complete there will not be one light to shine direct in the eyes, the rays being softened and diffused until they resemble the sunbeams on a golden summer afternoon.” (Brisbane Courier 4 May 1915: 5)

McIntosh promoted the theatre as being so good that even the southern cities would be extremely jealous of Brisbane, “I wish we had it in Sydney; other people will be imitating this theatre 10 years hence” (Brisbane Courier 4 May 1915: 5).  The Tivoli opened on 15 May 1915 with the well-known Tivoli Follies in the main auditorium and a vaudeville company playing in the roof garden.  Throughout its early history, both venues were used for live performances as well as films.

The motion picture company Union Theatres Ltd. renovated the Tivoli Theatre in 1927 using the Sydney architects, Kaberry and Chard; architectural plans for the reconstruction of the Tivoli Theatre can be found in Building 12 May 1927 [2] .  The basic design principle was to sacrifice the stage for the inclusion of more seats; the live theatre was being converted into a picture theatre.  The two galleries were removed to make way for a single dress circle, effectively decreasing the seating capacity 1,400 (Treading the Boards 51).  Building describes the ornate chandelier which was a feature of the main auditorium:

The centre of interest is the great chandelier, which is beautifully managed, but being so low down it takes the eve off the proscenium, which effect theoretically, is wrong, although this is frequently the most ornate feature of a theatre’s interior, and is apt to afford an air of oppression in spite of the grace and glitter of the illumination.  (Building 12 May 1927: 37)

Despite the fact that Building claimed in 1927 that “the theatre business in Australia would seem to be booming, for not only are new theatres being built in all the eastern cities and suburbs, but the old ones are being remodelled” (Building 12 May 1927: 155), the 1920s was not a good time for live theatre.  The ‘remodelling’ to which the magazine refers typically involved the transformation of a live theatre into a picture theatre.  The Tivoli at this time was almost exclusively used for talking pictures.  More renovations, this time to the foyer as well as the auditoriums took place in 1935 with the theatre being reopened on 26 December.  The Tivoli was purchased by the Brisbane City Council in 1963 and closed in 1965; it was demolished when King George Square was constructed.


[1] Henry E. White was also responsible for designing several picture palaces in Brisbane in the same year, namely the Strand Theatre and the Majestic Theatre (Australian Variety 29 Dec. 1915: N.pag.).

[2] See Building 12 May 1927 (pages 61, 62, and 155).