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Source: Tait Memorial Trust
J. C. Williamson's Ltd J. C. Williamson's Ltd i(A67778 works by) (Organisation) assertion (a.k.a. J. C. Williamson's Theatres Ltd; Williamson-Tait Ltd)
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Although Australia's longest-running theatrical organisation began in 1882 as a merger between James Cassius Williamson, George Musgrove, and Arthur Garner, it was not legally established as a public liability company until 1911. While the line-up of co-managing directors changed over the years, Williamson remained the company's mainstay and, by the time of his death in 1913, had helped build the organisation into the country's premiere theatrical production company. The Firm, as it was later known, was responsible for bringing to Australia some of the greatest names in international theatre for almost a hundred years. Although often criticised for not giving enough support to the Australian entertainment industry, the company employed many hundreds of local performers (dancers, actors, singers, etc) and associated practitioners (including writers, composers, musicians, and production crew) over the years.

The J. C. Williamson's Ltd trading name came into operation when Williamson merged his interests with those of Rupert Clarke and Clyde Meynell. While Williamson effectively took a back seat, the company was run by Meynell, along with George Tallis and Hugh J. Ward. In 1920, Tallis invited four of the Tait brothers, then largely trading as J. and N. Tait, to merge their theatrical operations with J. C. Williamson's. Apart from a few years during the late 1930s, when the company was briefly controlled out of New Zealand by former Melbourne businessman John McKenzie, one or more of the brothers was associated with running the company until the mid-1960s. Following Frank Tait's death in 1965, the company was briefly run by actor John McCallum. After he left, the company's fortunes slid severely and by the early 1980s, after several takeovers, J. C. Williamson's ceased operations entirely.


1882-1891: The theatrical organisation which eventually came to be known as J. C. Williamson's Ltd was founded in July 1882 when Williamson, Musgrove, and Garner joined forces to lease the Theatres Royal in Melbourne and Sydney. By the mid to late-1880s, the trio (often referred to as the 'Triumvirate') had established themselves as the leading Australian-based theatrical entrepreneurs of the era. This led, however, to the firm being heavily criticised for monopolising the local industry and ignoring local actors in favour of those from overseas. It has also been said that their dominance was such that they stifled the growth of repertory societies in the two major capital cities during that decade. On the other hand, Australian audiences were treated to many quality companies and performers, most notably the actor/managers George Rignold and Dion Boucicault Snr. Local actors with talent, and perhaps the necessary connections, were nevertheless given opportunities and training, as Nellie Stewart's early career demonstrates.

Among the locally written Williamson, Garner, and Musgrove productions during the 1880s were the annual Christmas pantomime extravaganzas, beginning with Jack and the Beanstalk (1882). Later pantomimes included Harlequin Aladdin and Robinson Crusoe and His Man Friday (1883), Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella (1884), Sleeping Beauty (1885), Sleeping Beauty and Robinson Crusoe (1886), Robinson Crusoe and Jack the Giant Killer (1887), and Sinbad the Sailor (1888). The triumvirate also staged the first Australian production of Estrella (by Luscombe Searelle and Walter J. Parke) in 1884.

By 1886, the company was required to expand its operations in Melbourne through the acquisition of the Princess Theatre, which they opened with Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado. Although the company's business operations and productions continued to grow exponentially, the relationships between the three entrepreneurs were often strained. Rivalry over Nellie Stewart eventually caused a rift between Williamson and Musgrove, with the result that Musgrove resigned in 1890. The new partnership found initial success in 1891 when they brought Sarah Bernhardt to Australia, but personality differences between the two men saw Garner leave within a year to pursue other business options. It is likely, too, that as George Coppin once pointed out, both men were far to ill-tempered to work together (ctd. van der Poorten, n. pag.) .

1892-1909: In 1892, Williamson reunited with George Musgrove to form Williamson and Musgrove, and the two men remained in partnership until 1899. Among their many successes during that eight-year period were the locally written pantomimes Little Red Riding Hood and Harlequin Boy Blue (1892), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1892), Cinderella (1894), Djin Djin the Japanese Bogie Man (1895), Sinbad the Sailor (1896), Matza - Queen of Fire (1896), The Babes in the Wood (1897), and a re-working of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1898). Other significant musical works produced by Australian (or Australian-based) practitioners included Fritz Hart and Sir William Robinson's Predatoras (1894) and Alfred Moulton's opera Lelamine (1897).

The partnership eventually ended with much animosity when Musgrove undertook some risky business ventures in London on their behalf, forcing Williamson to run his Australian operations on his own for several years. He continued as sole lessee of the Princess's Theatre (Melbourne) until May 1900, while also adding the city's old Alexandra Theatre to his stable of venues. After it was renovated, he renamed it Her Majesty's. In Sydney, his theatrical enterprise was similarly based out of Her Majesty's Theatre, although when the building burned down on 23 March 1902, he was temporarily forced to relocate to the Theatre Royal. Despite suffering a huge financial loss as a result of the fire, Williamson soon afterwards organised a Shakespearian company at the Royal and began rebuilding his flagship theatre. It reopened in August 1903. The following year, he again entered into a business partnership, this time with George Tallis and Gustave Ramaciotti. Tallis had previously been engaged as Williamson's Melbourne-based manager while Ramaciotti had been his legal adviser for a number of years.

1911-1929: The first decade of the new century saw the partnership's operations expand considerably as the economic woes of the 1890s' depression receded. By this period, the company was employing some 650 people on a permanent basis, and had begun specialising almost exclusively in extravagant and spectacular theatrical productions. When Gustave Ramaciotti retired in 1911, Williamson invited Hugh J. Ward to take his place as partner. On 1 September 1911, the company also merged with theatrical entrepreneurs Rupert Clarke and Clyde Meynell, with Williamson remaining as governing director and consultant while Meynell, Tallis and Ward ran the business. At this point, the company's name officially became J. C. Williamson's Ltd (and unofficially 'the Firm').

Following Williamson's death in 1913, the company underwent some difficult years, especially when the importation of foreign artists slowed down and eventually stopped altogether during the war years. The firm was also by then in direct competition with several other theatrical organisations, notably J. and N. Tait. In 1920, George Tallis, having realised the implications of the two companies going head to head in the same limited market, invited the Taits to merge their theatrical operations with J. C. Williamson's Ltd. The Taits continued to stage their concert productions independently of the Williamson partnership, however.

The 1920s saw the firm elevate itself again to the country's premiere theatrical organisation, staging successful tours by such stars as Gladys Moncrieff, Oscar Asche, Josie Melville, and the Vanbrugh-Boucicault Company. Anna Pavlova and her company also toured twice with much success (1926 and 1929). The firm also moved into the area of vaudeville in 1924, after taking over the Tivoli Circuit. These operations were run under the banner Tivoli Celebrity Vaudeville.

While J. C. Williamson's Ltd continued to expand its operations throughout the 1920s, continual rifts between the governing directors created a good deal of tension. Hugh J. Ward, who had always opposed the merger with the Taits, had had enough by 1922 and departed, leaving his shares to a Tallis ally, Arthur W. Allen. Clyde Meynell retired in 1924. Under the Taits and Tallis, J. C. Williamson's Ltd began purchasing the freehold on their theatres during the late 1920s and also ventured out of Australia by mounting productions in London, the English provinces, and America. When the depression hit Australia, the firm was forced to abandon its vaudeville operations (1931) and contract its overall business. This included cancelling the reconstruction of His Majesty's in Melbourne (which had burned down in October 1929) and selling the Melbourne Theatre Royal. The company was also forced to abandon live theatre at His Majesty's in Sydney and turn to film exhibition for a period of time.

1930-1949: In the early 1930s, the company attempted to stem the heavy losses by reviving a number of popular musical shows, including three starring Gladys Moncrieff. They also had much success with a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and, in 1934, brought to Australia the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet, led by Olga Spessivtseva and Anatole Vilzak. In subsequent years, Williamson's continued to bring large theatrical dance companies to Australia, including ballet companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet and a variety of folk dance companies, including many from the USSR. Despite their efforts, the board was still forced to close down parts of its operations as the depression created economic havoc around the country. Her Majesty's (Sydney) was closed in June 1933, with the Melbourne Theatre Royal lasting until November that same year.

Following George Tallis's retirement in 1931, the company was run largely by John and Nevin Tait, although Tallis still retained a seat on the board for some years. The 1930s were made more difficult for the Taits, too, because they were unable to gain control of the company, having only 40 percent of its shares (Tallis and Arthur W. Allen controlled 46 percent, with the remaining 14 percent owned by individuals not on the board). In 1937, control of the J. C. Williamson's Ltd board went to an outsider, Victorian businessman John McKenzie, after he purchased the Tallis and Allen shares. Under McKenzie, the firm was split into two operations: a property and investment arm (J. C. Williamson's Ltd) and a theatrical production company (Australian and New Zealand Theatres Ltd). Producer Ernest C. Rolls, who was then leasing a chain of theatres in New Zealand after having suffered financial losses in Australia during the early to mid-1930s, offered the positions of managing director of the latter arm and principal producer. This manoeuvre saw the Taits restricted from running the company's theatrical operations despite being board directors. By 1939, however, Rolls had run up significant losses for the company and was forced to resign. Although financial control of the company remained with the New Zealand-based headquarters, the Taits effectively regained creative control of the company. They also renamed it J. C. Williamson's Theatres Ltd.

In the early 1940s, J. C. Williamson's backed Australia's first professional ballet company, the Kirsova Ballet, and by 1943 was presenting seasons of the Borovansky Ballet. But it was to be the firm's musicals that proved a regular source of employment for Australian dancers throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, thereby helping provide significant industry stability and training for that area of the arts. Among the biggest success were imported musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun (1947), Oklahoma! (1949), Brigadoon (1951), Kiss Me, Kate (1952), South Pacific (1952), The Pyjama Game (1958), and My Fair Lady (1959). The Williamson organisation was also involved, along with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, in the establishment and early seasons of the Australian Ballet.

1950-1984: Although the company managed to overcome the financial difficulties that resulted from the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, it underwent significant changes during the late 1940s and early 1950s. These changes were forced on it as a result of competition from new entertainment media, particularly television and cinema, and the deaths of two of the Tait brothers, E. J. in 1947 and John in 1955. Two years after the latter brother's death, expatriate Australian actor John McCallum returned to the country to take up an offer from Frank Tait to act as the company's assistant managing director. McCallum found much success in 1959 with an Australian production of My Fair Lady. Such was its popularity that he was forced to tour two simultaneous productions just to meet demand. When Frank Tait died in 1965, McCallum took over as sole managing director, despite not being on the governing board. Although he had played a significant part in helping the company return a profit margin, McCallum's stay was short, due to a decision by the board to appoint a Melbourne businessman (with limited theatrical experience) as executive director. McCallum resigned in protest shortly afterwards and went on to found his own film and television company, Fauna Productions.

The remainder of the 1960s and early 1970s saw the company struggle to survive mergers and restructuring, and when its theatres and other assets were sold off in 1976 to repay skyrocketing debts, J. C. Williamson's Ltd was effectively a brand name only. A consortium headed by Michael Edgley and Kenn Brodziak secured the rights to use the name (as J. C. Williamson Productions), and as such staved off its demise for almost eight years. In 1984, however, that company was acquired by the Danbury Group, marking the end of the country's longest-running theatrical organisation.

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Last amended 13 Feb 2014 07:04:41
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