The Melbourne Athenaeum will be closed for the public holiday on Friday 26 January.

Normal hours will resume on Saturday 27 January.

History

The story that unfolds here is about a unique organisation which continues to contribute to the city's culture in a building that was first completed in 1842.

Exhibitions, meetings, musical, theatrical and other entertainments, films, lectures, educational classes, dances and formal balls have been held within the building's walls. The theatres continue to entertain Melbourne's people and provide a space for social and cultural events.

A theatre has existed at 188 Collins Street since 1842. The first hall was built on the first floor of the Mechanic's Institution and completed in 1842. The building became the cultural, educational and social hub of the town.

The original building had a library and museum downstairs and a hall upstairs. The Mechanics' Institution Hall was a popular meeting place, and also accommodated cultural and educational events and church services.

Although the Committee of Management wanted to build a larger space in the 1850s, it was not until 1872 that the new large hall was completed. This was also a very popular performance space which was also used for lectures, classes, official balls, exhibitions and fairs.

In 1923 the large hall was transformed into an 'intimate theatre' by Frank Talbot, working with architect Henry White. Tons of clay were removed to lower the floor and the new theatre was built inside the old one, so that the floor level of the current dress circle was once the floor level of the old hall.

The new theatre built on the ground floor in 1872 was a popular venue until 1923 when Frank Talbot renovated the entire space. This photo, taken circa 1920, shows the stage area only.
Theatre 1842-1923

It's difficult to believe, when you step into the brightly lit, welcoming foyer of the Athenaeum Theatre that the first building on this site was a modest, Georgian-style brick building of two storeys, set back from the footpath, with a green lawn and cast-iron, picket fence. In those days Collins Street was a muddy road, with trees and...

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Intimate Theatre 1924

The secretary, Mr Wilmot, with his Hall Manager, Samuel Shergold, rented out the hall for all kinds of events - from boxing matches and exhibitions for Baby Week to live performances and films.

The next, and most amazing, major change to the theatre came in 1924. Frank Talbot, who had been leasing the hall for short terms to show films and live performances, had travelled...

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Harold Aspinall, projectionist at the Athenaeum Theatre, 1957. Photograph supplied by Harold Aspinall.
Frank Van Straten's Reflections

There's something very special about an old theatre.

When you look around, you feel as though you've been here before. It's a bit like returning to a familiar, friendly lounge room. And you're not alone. There are hundreds of others here to keep you company, all intent, like you, to experience the magic of a shared live theatre experience.

At the Melbourne Athenaeum, it's been like this since 1842. Yes, that's how long the Athenaeum has been at the very heart of...

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The Athenaeum building in 1957. Photograph held in the archives.
Alan Winn, Film Projectionist

Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of busy Collins Street one afternoon in the mid-fifties my friend and I entered the crowded foyer of the Athenaeum Theatre, our intention being to see the Laurence Olivier production of Richard III.

Being busy teenage schoolboys at the time we had rarely had the opportunity of visiting a city theatre and were a little awed by the experience. As we were directed to our seats I became aware of the ornate plasterwork which surrounded us, lit by crystal chandeliers, creating a feeling of antiquity which was...

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