Tivoli Gardens Theatre: Vaudeville and Picture Shows in Early 20th-Century Hamilton

Tivoli Gardens Theatre
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Did you know that in the early 20th century, apart from going to the races, locals from Hamilton and the nearby suburbs of North Brisbane enjoyed vaudeville and picture shows at the Tivoli Gardens Theatre for entertainment?

The first Tivoli Gardens Theatre was a tent structure that could hold over 1,000 people along Hamilton Road, now Sir Kingsford Smith Drive.

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Opened in 1907, the open-air theatre had its own dressing rooms and a large stage with decorative painted scenery as the backdrop. Seatings were set up by appointments and proved to be quite popular with the locals as many Brisbane residents, including the  Mayor and Mayoress,  would travel to Hamilton by tram to catch the shows.

Tivoli Gardens Theatre
Photo Credit: National Library of Queensland

Before and after each show, theatregoers would hang by the tables and seats in the gardens, where a brass band, the Hamilton Band Stand, would play their favourite tunes. A kinetoscope would be set up so guests can watch moving pictures. This was before the development of motion picture projectors or the cinema.

But the theatre was not open full-time. It ran three nights a week during the warmer seasons and closed during the colder months. 

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Top Performers at the Tivoli Gardens Theatre 

Eva Lee (singer), Clivalli and Sport (boxing and juggling act), Bert Lambert (singer), Miriam Russell (mezzo-contralto), C.E. Morgan (tenor), and the Jolly Rovers were stage regulars at the Tivoli Gardens Theatre but Miss Isabella Maria Sutherland, or best known as Bella Sutherland, who was the theatre’s sole proprietress, was also the star performer. 

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Ms Sutherland got her start as an entertainer for the Lancashire Bellringers in Melbourne in 1864. She was a well-travelled performer who did drama and comedy skits, as well as danced and sang at a variety of minstrels shows in England, India, and New Zealand.

Miss Bella Sutherland
Photo Credit: State Library of Queensland

After marrying her third husband, George Gibson, in the mid-1880s, Ms Sutherland formed The Vital Spark, a theatre touring company. However, by the early 1900s, she and Mr Gibson decided to make Brisbane their home base after years of touring. They bought a house in Hamilton, where they mounted the first Tivoli Gardens Theatre.

In 1910, Ms Sutherland and her husband bought another house in Hamilton near the Hamilton Hotel, which became the second site of their vaudeville theatre. The venue ran until 1912 as the couple moved and opened the third theatre near the second site. 

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Ms Sutherland named her Hamilton properties as “Southdean,” suggesting a reference to her Scottish heritage. When there are no live performances, the Tivoli Gardens Theatre ran Scottish picture shows.

In 1912, the theatre presented “Cinderella” and also held concerts and fundraisers during the First World War.

After Ms Sutherland’s death in 1918, Mr Gibson managed the theater until 1921 with the help of the other performers. However, he didn’t sell the property until 1923 and died a year later. The pair is buried on the same plot at the Nundah Cemetery. 

One of the performers, Ms Lee, was presumed to have purchased the theatre equipment from Mr Gibson after she acquired and opened Arcadia Theatre on Racecourse Road.

Tivoli Gardens Theatre Today

The structures of the Tivoli Gardens Theatre have long been demolished. The first site along York and Cooksley streets is now a modern private residence. The second and third locations, which were active for more than 10 years, were along the corners of Racecourse Road and Allen St, which is now a commercial and retail precinct.

Tivoli Gardens Theatre
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