Skip to main content

The Maj's History

Adelaide's Her Majesty’s Theatre officially opened as The New Tivoli in 1913 and was regarded as the finest theatre in Australia.

A photo of Her Majesty's Theatre auditorium, side view

For many years Her Majesty’s was part of the famous Tivoli circuit.

The theatre has withstood two world wars, the Great Depression, redesigns, bankruptcy, and numerous ownership changes. Her Majesty’s has the distinction of reaching a centenary and continues to play a significant role in Australia’s theatre history. 

  • 1912 – 1913 | Princess Theatre
  • 1913 – 1920 | The New Tivoli Theatre
  • 1920 – 1930 | The Prince of Wales Theatre
  • 1930 – 1962 | Tivoli Theatre
  • 1962 – 1977 | Her Majesty’s Theatre
  • 1977 – 1988 | The Opera Theatre
  • 1988 – Now | Her Majesty’s Theatre

A cavalcade of stars have appeared at The Maj including W C Fields, Stiffy and Mo, Sir Robert Helpmann, Googie Withers, Rudolf Nureyev, Dame Maggie Smith, Luciano Pavarotti, Lauren Bacall, Dame Joan Sutherland, Barry Humphries, Angela Lansbury, Whoopi Goldberg and Nancye Hayes.

As well as our own Her Majesty’s Theatre ambassadors – Robyn Archer AO, Greta Bradman, Rhonda Burchmore OAM, David Campbell, Kate Ceberano AM, Peter Goers OAM, Ali McGregor, Todd McKenney, Meow Meow and Geoffrey Rush AC.

Following over two years of redevelopment, Her Majesty’s re-opened in June 2020 – as a completely reinvigorated proscenium theatre, returning to her world-class status.

A stylish fusion of modern architecture, whilst still maintaining the integrity of the original heritage design; the gorgeous proscenium theatre, seating close to 1500 people across three levels, has redefined the audience and artist experience.

Find out how you could buy a seat in Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Adelaide Festival Centre Trust has managed and operated Her Majesty’s since 1988.

Her Majesty's Theatre - A New Beginning

She’s more than 100 years old, has survived two world wars, the great-depression and two pandemics and she’s shining bright on Grote Street. Now it’s your turn to step inside the new Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Her Majesty's Documentary Thumbnail

The Maj's Past

Her Majesty’s Theatre has had a number of name changes over the last 100+ years.

The foundation stone for the grand new Princess Theatre in Grote Street Adelaide was laid in 1912. As the mortar dried, the theatre was leased to “show-biz” entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh. McIntosh toured international and local stars as part of the Tivoli Circuit. He renamed the theatre The New Tivoli and it would become Adelaide’s home of vaudeville.

Proudly promoted as the most commodious, comfortable and hygienic theatre in the southern hemisphere, The New Tivoli was built with all the mod cons including lavatories, fire extinguishers, ventilation, and a lighting switchboard. The theatre officially opened in September 1913 with headliner English comedienne Lillie Langtry and a bevy of stars. Unbeknown to the opening night audience however, a terrible accident backstage took the life of mechanist William Fischer after he fell off a ladder. A benefit matinee for his family was held at the Tivoli a few days later.

The Tivoli’s early years saw the world’s greatest stars like Ada Reeve, W. C. Fields, Peter Dawson, Sir Harry Lauder and the debut of a young local actor named Francee Anderson. Annette Kellerman and Charlie Chaplin also appeared at The New Tivoli but only on celluloid.

With the ravages of the first world war in 1914 audience numbers began to dwindle. McIntosh promoted half price tickets for soldiers and discounted prices for the general public to encourage audiences. By November however the Tivoli was closed and during the war years the theatre was intermittently dark. With the legislated six o’clock closing (ostensibly as a war measure) patronage further declined and the theatre’s bars were shuttered after dark. The six o’clock closing restriction was finally lifted by Premier Don Dunstan fifty-two years later in 1967.

In late 1919, Adelaide pilots and brothers Ross and Keith Smith made a record breaking 28-day flight from Britain to Australia. It was then the longest flight in aviation history. A welcome home celebration was held at the Tivoli in March 1920 with the streets and theatre packed full of people. The “acclamation of welcome was almost deafening” reported The Advertiser.

Hugh McIntosh did two extraordinary things – he renamed the Tivoli to The Prince of Wales and produced the first all-Australian musical. F.F.F. was written by Reg A. A. Stoneham and opened in August 1920. The mysterious title was chosen to generate publicity and a competition invited people to solve the riddle of the three F’s with a prize offering. Not long after however McIntosh suffered a financial crisis and was forced to sell his Tivoli Circuit to Harry G. Musgrove.

Fullers put on Cinderella in 1921 to rave reviews. Its success was largely to the clowning of Stiffy and Mo (Nat Phillips and Roy Rene) whose antics as the bumbling bailiffs stole the show. Stiffy and Mo became the country’s raciest and best-loved comedy team.

In 1924 two prominent citizens, solicitor H.W. Uffindell and S.W. Savery of Savery’s Piano Warehouse arranged for Count Ercole Filippini to establish an opera school in Adelaide. They announced the South Australian Grand Opera Company would debut at the Prince of Wales with four operas: Il Trovatore, Rigoletto and the perennial double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci.

The Great Depression descended on Australia in 1929 and excluding a variety of short run bookings, the Prince of Wales remained dark for almost an entire year.

After trading as the Prince of Wales for almost a decade, the theatre reopened as the Tivoli in September 1930. Hugh McIntosh spruced up the theatre with plans to revive the Tivoli Circuit with nostalgic variety shows and pantomimes. However, Australia in the 1930s was in the grip of the Great Depression and a new form of entertainment, the talkies, vied for the audience dollar. Old time favourites like Back To Vaudeville, The Sibling of the Sausage and Sinbad the Sailor failed to bring in audiences. McIntosh went bankrupt within months and the Tivoli was boarded up. In fact, the theatre scene in Adelaide was in the doldrums and the Tivoli theatre itself was very run down.

The Tivoli from 1931 to 1935 under the new stewardship of Bert Lennon had some success with long run revues such as Snapshot, Frivolities of 1934 and The Tivoli Folies. In 1934 Adelaide’s own Roy Rene (aka ‘Mo’) brought the house down in a nine-week run. Local productions by Heather Gell, Nora Stewart, Adelaide Drum and Fife Band, University Footlights Club, South Australian Operatic Society and Trixie Wilson also made regular appearances on the Tiv stage. The Majestic Theatre around the block had switched entirely to talkies. Despite best efforts, the Tivoli continued to endure many periods of extended darkness.

In 1936, after nine months of closure, the Tivoli was reinvigorated with two local plays celebrating the centenary of European settlement in South Australia. Heritage, staged by Heather Gell, with a cast of 500 celebrated South Australia’s achievements pageant style. Colonel Light - The Founder written by Max Afford was a dramatic triumph for The Repertory Theatre. The Rep would go on to lease premises at the Tivoli in 1939 for fourteen years.

The new lessees, Adelaide Repertory Theatre, spruced up the theatre for the opening of Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus in March 1940. Between its season, the Repertory Theatre continued to make the Tivoli available to an assortment of casual hirers. Among them were Joanne Priest’s newly formed South Australian Ballet Club.

On Parade was such a success that it became an annual event with the Tivoli its home. It was the creation of J.E. Becker, founder of the Adelaide College of Music. It usually boasted a company of more than a thousand eager music students. Over the years the money raised from On Parade shows bought 16 beds for the Children’s Hospital and contributed to the YMCA Military Services Appeal.

The first of many Australian Army Entertainment units had been formed in 1939 from men of the 6th Division. For two years their show Aussies On Parade provided entertainment for troops throughout the Middle East. In 1942 at Adelaide’s Tivoli Theatre, they gave their first public performance to a sellout audience. With no program and no names announced, the whole show was anonymous and in aid of the Cheer Up Society.

Throughout the war years the Repertory Theatre continued to present plays. A shortage of young male actors however meant they would only do eight productions and not their normal ten.

In October 1946 the Tivoli was sold to The Waterman brothers for £26,000. Adelaide Repertory Theatre were invited to buy the theatre but could not marshal the funds in time.

The Tivoli itself was making headlines with the announcement that the theatre was to be auctioned in April 1950. Neither the Commonwealth or State Government would intervene despite public protest and campaigning. Luckily the Tivoli was passed in at auction and limped on. In 1954 John Tait announced that Theatrical Investments Pty Ltd (in which J.C. Williams had an interest) would extensively remodel the Tivoli.

The theatre would be renamed Her Majesty’s Theatre to commemorate the Queen’s coronation. The renovation and name change would not happen until 1962. The fate of Adelaide theatres at this time was grim. The Majestic Theatre was sold to the Commonwealth Bank in 1950 and subsequently demolished. Ownership changes to the Theatre Royal in 1954 also sadly resulted in the theatre’s demolition eight years later.

Highlights for the Tivoli were Colin Ballantyne’s Shakespearean productions, appearances by conductor John Bishop and the Adelaide Repertory productions whose tenure at the theatre finished in 1953. On Parade saw 2133 performers and continued to return to the Tivoli annually. Anges Babicheva a former Russian ballerina presented two ballets with Bushland being “the first original childrens’ ballet presented in Adelaide”. Dorothy Slane’s ballet Circus was “a variety of dancing, costume and colour”. Barry Humphries at 19 years of age first trod the Tiv stage in a university production called The Winds of Heaven, starting his long love affair with the theatre.

From 1955 to 1957 the Tivoli remained shuttered. When the lights came back on it was Lee Gordon’s Big Shows ushering in rock and roll with screaming teenagers as a new audience. Wrestling promoters called the theatre The Tivoli Stadium and programmed heavy weight champions fights to keep the doors open.

Under architect Charles N. Hollinshed, the Tivoli was transformed into Her Majesty’s Theatre in just 27 weeks. The interior was decked out in “modern plastic materials”, air conditioning, along with state-of-the-art technical capabilities, a larger foyer, and new (but less) seating. It opened in 1962 with a performance of The Mikado. The theatre hosted a short season of Gilbert & Sullivan works including The Pirates of Penzance, Trial by Jury and The Gondoliers.

Marcel Marceau, the silent genius with many faces, made his first of many appearances in 1963. The show was a roaring success with Marceau’s performance of his most famous alter ego Bip and finishing with the standout The Mask Maker.

During March 1964, Her Majesty’s hosted The Adelaide Festival of Arts, then in its fourth year. Events included the first and only Australian staging of Troilus and Cressida by William Walton and the Elizabethan Trust Opera. Happily, for opera fans 1965 saw the Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company performing five operas, two including their star and partial-namesake, Joan Sutherland.

The Queen Mother attended Her Majesty’s for the 1966 gala evening of ballet. She “had a special smile and wave for the four pajama-clad Madigan children of Netherby in their brightly coloured dressing gowns. Hundreds more pajama-clad children were in the large crowd behind barricades at the theatre” reported The Advertiser. Grote Street was packed to a standstill and her chauffeured Rolls Royce was barely able to move through the throng of the adoring crowd.

Returning to Australia for the second time in 1966, the traditional dance production of Les Ballet Africains caused controversy. The program stated that “Each movement and expressions has great significance and meaning and it is for this reason the girl dancers perform baretop”. New Guinea’s National Dance Company was Africa’s first globally-touring folk performance ensemble.

The Adelaide Festival of the Arts brought international shows to Her Majesty’s including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Winter’s Tale. This production starred Judi Dench amongst other notables. It was on an Adelaide beach that her partner and fellow touring thespian, Michael Williams, proposed to Dench. She said “I told him to ask me again because it was so gorgeous in the Australian sunshine with the sea glistening and the white sands”.

Hair was the benchmark American Tribal-Love Rock Musical of hippie counterculture. Marcia Hines was 16-years-old when she performed in the musical in 1973. She became Australia’s Queen of Soul, taking over the role of Mary Magdalene in the initial run of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Further countercultural shockwaves followed in 1976. On opening night of his confronting one-man show Betty Blokk Buster Follies, Reg Livermore (in the guise of repellent Leonard) offended an audience member. The audience member yanked him off the stage. Later, Livermore speculated about a possible newspaper headline, Drag Queen Pulled Off By Lesbian. In spite of – or because of this, the season had to be extended.

In 1977 the theatre was renamed The Opera Theatre. Premier Don Dunstan purchased Her Maj for $440,000 and transferred ownership to State Opera of South Australia. Two years later the theatre opened. The refurbishment was undertaken by Geoffrey Ashton Brownell Harrison Pty Ltd and Hansen Yuncken. Although etched into the original commemorative plaque and in attendance - Dunstan did not open the theatre. Dunstan had resigned a few days earlier due to waning health. His former deputy-then-Premier Des Corcoran proceeded with duties and was overwhelmed with much public protest and noise.

The Opera Theatre was extremely busy during the 1982 Adelaide Festival of Arts with A Map of the World, written and directed by David Hare and the brilliant Pina Bausch. Rodney Fisher’s production Steaming caused controversy with an all-female cast stripping off in Shaun Gurton’s starkly realistic bathhouse set.

Opera continued to be programmed throughout the early 1980s with Adelaide audiences treated to nine operas in 1985 alone, including the Australian premiere of Richard Strauss’ last opera Capriccio.

In 1988 the theatre reopened with its sixth name change since 1913. The theatre would no longer be named The Opera Theatre, but Her Majesty’s Theatre. The State Opera of South Australia relocated its performances to the Adelaide Festival Theatre. In addition, the theatre would now be managed by the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust. Her Majesty’s Theatre was officially re-opened on 31 August 1988 by the Premier John Bannon.

A highlight of the decade was an extraordinary one-night gala, held on 5 March 1989 which raised over $40,000 for AIDS research and education. State Theatre Company artistic director John Gaden put together the event and co-compered with Robyn Archer. The evening featured a cast of 250 with headliners including Ruth Cracknell, Gary McDonald, Nancye Hayes, Greg Roberts, Edwin Hodgeman and Dennis Olsen.

The 1990s for Her Majesty’s Theatre saw increasing financial strain and a lack of commercial investment, which meant a dramatic fall in patronage. In 1992 a reported 12% drop in overall attendances was recorded. During this time however, The Adelaide Summer Film Festival opened in 1992. The Festival had 26 screenings of quintessentially ‘90s celluloid works including Jeunet & Caro’s post-apocalyptic cannibal black comedy Delicatessen, Ken Loach’s slice-of-London’s-working-class Riff Raff and Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary on the New York ballroom scene, Paris Is Burning.

In a similarly gritty ‘90s spirit, the Actors Theatre of Louisville brought Jane Martin’s Cementville to the stage in 1992. It showed a rag-tag bunch of professional wrestlers shambling to plan a “card” of matches. As The Advertiser’s Tim Lloyd exclaimed “this is about as bold and brassy and dirty and nasty as they get. Go to Cementville, make a meal of it and wallow in it like hogs in s**t“. Unsurprisingly, it was a work that divided audiences.

Australian-made productions were also in full flight. Returning to The Maj stage was Barry Humphries’ Look At Me When I’m Talking To You. Dame Edna and Sir Les’ return in 1993 was so successful that the season was extended. The playwright David Williamson’s post-structuralist critique and dig at intellectualist pretensions, Dead White Males appeared in 1996. The show included a young Joel Edgerton. Samela Harris of The Advertiser noted: “Once again Williamson has hit a cultural nerve – and, although this play gives every cause to rib the dedicated feminists, it taps into the common funny bone, hits home truths, scarifies academia – and has the intellectual substance to get away with it”.

Towards the end of the decade, the theatre’s external façade was overhauled with a grant of $34,000 provided by Adelaide City Council.

Her Majesty’s Theatre during the 2000s saw an incredible array of artists and performances including Ruby Wax, Siberian Cossacks, Menopause The Musical, Namatjira, Marianne Faithfull, Anh Do and the screening of Rolf de Heers’ Ten Canoes with the cast in the audience.

A revitalised program introduced in 2006 by Douglas Gautier, Adelaide Festival Centre’s CEO and Artistic Director, meant Her Majesty’s Theatre was busier than ever. Incoming shows were remarkable for their variety, quality and appeal. The theatre would change overnight to accommodate dance, standup comedians, bands, theatre and musicals. In 2011 The Maj hosted over 66 different shows. The theatre had a new lease on life, but it also had its problems. The theatre suffered from a cramped foyer, bad sight lines, outdated technology, and problematic plumbing. The theatre desperately needed upgrading and discussions for its redevelopment began.

The Maj celebrated its 100th birthday in 2013 in style with a gala performance and a firm commitment to raise money for its renewal. Over the next 5 years fundraising, lobbying and planning would commence in earnest. In 2018 Her Majesty’s Theatre was given a farewell concert and its doors temporarily shut.

In 2020 the new Her Majesty’s Theatre opened, ready to usher in the next 100 years of this fine theatre’s history.

Credit: Frank van Straten, Her Majesty’s Pleasure, 2013, Adelaide Festival Centre and Wakefield Press.

Sub­scribe to our newsletter

Choose your interests and get the latest news straight to your mailbox.

North TceHindley StCurrie StWaymouth StFranklin StGrote StGouger StWright StSturt StGilbert StSouth TceRundle MallKing William RdFestival DrKing William StWest TceMorphett StMontefiore RdPultney StBank StLeigh StKintore AveGawler PlGrenfell StPirie StFlinders StWakefield StAngas StCarrington StHalifax StGilles StPitt St