The Princess theatre, initially named Princess’s Theatre, is a 1452-seat theatre in Melbourne, Victoria.

The theatre was established in 1854 and reconstructed in 1886. The design was created by Melbourne architect William Pitt. The Princess Theatre is the oldest remaining entertainment site on continental Australia. It is built in a Second Empire style, which reflects the opulence of Melbourne’s boom period. It had a number of ground-breaking features, such as state of the art electric stage lighting and the world’s first sliding ceiling which was rolled back on warm nights to give effect of an open-air theatre. 

The theatre is listed by the National Trust of Australia and it is listed on the Victorian Heritage register. 

The beginnings of the Princes Theatre – Astley’s Amphitheatre

Entertainment on the location of today’s Princess Theatre dates back to the golf rush period in 1854. Entrepreneur Tom Mooney constructed a barn-like structure called Astley’s Amphitheatre.

The structure featured a central ring for equestrian entertainment and a stage at one end for dramatic performances. It was named after Astley’s Amphitheatre, near Westminster Bridge, London. Its first tenant was George Lewis who staged a series of concerts, starting from 11 September, 1854. Lewis went bankrupt and within a year Mooney sold the amphitheatre and the adjacent Mazeppa Hotel to Samuel Boyle. 

It was later leased by George Coppin, who already established himself as an actor at the Queens Theatre. He would later go on and build the Olympic Theatre which was located on the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets, as well as the Haymarket Theatre and Apollo Music Hall, and lease/rebuild the Royal Theatre located in Bourke Street. 

Opening the Princess’s Theatre

In 1857, the amphitheatre was renovated and the front of the building was extended. Then it reopened on 16 April as the Princess’s Theatre and Opera House. John Black, its first manager founded the Theatre Royal two years earlier. 

L.M. Bayless took a long term tenancy on the Princess’s Theatre, in September 1877. He also had a lease on the Queens Theatre in Sydney during this time.  He had the Princess Theatre refitted and it reopened its doors on the 28th of December, 1877. 

Constructing the Princess Theatre

The theatre came under control of a partnership between J.C. Williamson, George Musgrove and Arthur Garner, in 1885. The partnership was also knowns as “The Triumvirate”. The Triumvirate decided to demolish the already existing structure, since it had become rundown. 

The new theatre was completed in 1886 at a cost of $50.000. It was designed by architect William Pitt, the interior was designed by George Gordon and it was built by Comely. The design is built in Second Empire style, and the theatre forms a fragment of the Victorian streetscape of Spring Street. It reopened on December 18 1886, this time named Princes Theatre.

When the new building was completed, it contained state-of-the-art electrical stage lighting, as well as Australia’s first rectangle roof and ceiling, which provided the auditorium with ventilation. The marble staircases and grand foyers had the same design as the ones from the Paris opera, the Grand in Bordeaux and the Frankfurt Stadt.

In 1899, Williamson left the Triumvirate to form his own company, while Musgrove continued to operate the theatre till 1910.  The Princes theatre had a lot of owners until 1915, when Ben Fuller took control. Hugh J. Ward went into a partnership with Fuller, and in 1922 architect Henry Eli White joined the partnership. They extensively renovated the foyers and auditorium. Additionally, they added the grand copper awning.

First shows held at the Princess Theatre

The improved Princess Theatre reopened its doors on 26 December 1922, with a performance of The O’Brien Girl. Efftee Films purchased the theatre from Fuller in 1933. The film production company was owed by F. W. Thring, who produced several musicals there, such as the Cedar Three.

Sir Ben Fuller and Garnet Carroll took over the lease, when F.W. Thring died in 1946. They formed another partnership called Carroll-Fuller theatres LTD. Carroll took over completely, when Fuller died in 1952. He represented a diverse range of opera, ballet, drama and musical comedy.

Notable productions that he hosted included; the sound of Music (1960), the King and I (1960) and Carousel (1964). In 1954, he hosted the National theatre Movement’s gala performance of The Tales of Hoffman for Queen Elizabeth ll and Prince Philip.

Carroll died in 1964 and his son John Carroll took over ownership of the Princess theatre. John maintained his father’s pattern for a few years, before he leased it to the Australian Elizabethan Theatre trust, in 1969. The theatre started to get used less and fell into disrepair. 

Ghost Sightings at the Princess Theatre

The Theatre opened its doors in 1854 and is a famous home for international musical productions. The Princess Theatre has a resident ghost, in addition to many excellent performance spaces. Since 1888, the actor Frederick Federici’s ghost has been fervently haunting the theatre.

Frederick Baker also known as Frederick Federici, came to Australia in the mid-1880s to perform in numerous operas around the country. This is how he ended up in Melbourne in a production of Faust in the Princess Theatre. The opening night of the production was on the 3rd of March in 1888. Federici was playing the role of Mephistopheles.

The production typically finishes with Faust and Mephistopheles descending into hell through a trapdoor. However, during this scene the audience noticed that Federici was slumped over slightly when descending through the trapdoor. He had actually suffered from a heart attack and he died that precise moment. 

Apparently, none of the cast members knew what happened and they went back out onstage for the curtain call. They discovered that Federici had died, once they left the stage. However, the weird thing about this was that everybody at the performance including the cast, swore that he had been onstage for the curtain call, taking his bows with the rest of the cast members. 

The spirit of Federici has apparently been seen numerous times during the past years. Everyday staff members have also reported ghostly experiences. Nowadays, the theatre reserves a seat for him every opening performance. 

If you want to learn more about the history and attractions of Melbourne – join us on a Go West Tour!

If you are visiting Melbourne, be sure to check what shows are currently playing at the Princess Theatre.


Written by Jessica Senden – Marketing Intern