George Musgrove 1854 – 1916
- George Musgrove 1854 – 1916
George Musgrove 1854 – 1916
Born in Surbiton, England, on 21 January 1854, he was 12 when the family came to Australia.
He worked for a while in the box office for Lyster’s opera company and, at the age of 20, married Emily Knight
A great and good man
‘In the theatre George Musgrove was a law unto himself,’ wrote journalist Claude McKay. ‘He played pranks with his German opera company, sometimes with disastrous consequences. At times he had them completely out of control. Many of them were heavy-witted and without the slightest appreciation of a joke. He thus brought on his own head occasions when the curtain would rise on one opera and fall on another, through company squabbles. His misguided bantering was not confined to the singers. On one occasion, when a party of late arrivals in full evening dress said to him, “So it’s The Valkyrie tonight, Mr Musgrove?” “Just a minute,” George said, “I’ll go and see.” And he solemnly walked to the back stalls entrance and looked into the theatre. “Yes,” he said on his return, “so far it’s as you say”.’
There was a time when the name Musgrove was synonymous with entertainment in Australia. In the early years of the 20th century there were no less than eight Musgroves in the entertainment business; now there are none.
The Musgroves proudly traced their ancestry back to the supreme British tragedienne, Mrs Siddons. Her niece had married a music-seller and composer called George Hodson, and their children – George, Fanny, Georgina and Henrietta – all made names for themselves on the stage. George was a comedian in London; Henrietta an actress; and Georgina a fine contralto. Georgina married the Irish opera impresario William Saurin Lyster. They came to Australia in 1861 for a six-month season but stayed on, pioneering opera in this country.
Fanny, the fourth of the Hodson children, carved a career as an actress in London, and married an accountant, George Musgrove. They somehow managed to raise a family of 14 and migrated to Australia in 1866. Five of their sons – George, Henry (known as Harry), Arthur, Frank and Charles – made their mark in theatre.
It was George who made the biggest impression. Born in Surbiton, England, on 21 January 1854, he was 12 when the family came to Australia. He worked for a while in the box office for Lyster’s opera company and, at the age of 20, married Emily Knight. They had three daughters – Lily, Rose and May; Rose distinguished herself as a sensitive actress in drama and light opera, much against her father’s wishes.
George was front-of-house manager for Emily Soldene during her 1877-8 tour of Australia. His firstbig entrepreneurial venture came in 1880. At age the age of 26 he went to London, bought the rights to Offenbach’s operetta La Fille du Tambour Major, and engaged a company to play it in Australia. It opened at the Melbourne Opera House in December 1880 and packed the theatre for 101 performances. For the subsequent tour 22-year-old Nellie Stewart took over the role of the Drummer Boy, and so started her long, legendary and loving relationship with George Musgrove.
Unlike J.C. Williamson and his contemporary producers, Musgrove was not an ‘actor-manager’. He never appeared on stage and was, in effect, our first ‘modern’ theatrical entrepreneur. In 1882 he went into partnership with Williamson and Arthur Gamer to form their famous ‘Triumvirate’. George supervised the productions, Williamson the acting and Garner the finances. Each contributed £3000 to the venture, which got off to a good start with the Australian premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 1 July 1882; a week later they debuted a series of plays starring George Rignold at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.
After that came a steady stream of glossy, crowd-pleasing productions of drama and light opera, often featuring illustrious imported companies; nevertheless, Nellie Stewart was their most consistently popular star. In 1885 Musgrove managed a concert tour by the Australian violinist Johann Kruse. Kruse is now forgotten, but his associate artist, billed as Mrs Armstrong, went on to international fame as Nellie Melba.
In 1886 the Triumvirate rebuilt Melbourne’s Princess Theatre to designs by William Pitt, though Nellie Stewart claimed that the grand conception was Musgrove’s and that he was responsible for many of the building’s features. She was Yum-Yum the revival of The Mikado, the new theatre’s opening attraction.
One of the Triumvirate’s most enterprising endeavours was the 1889 tour by Janet Achurch in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which opened at the Princess in Melbourne a mere three months after she had premiered it in London. It was one of the partners’ last ventures. After nine fruitful years – in one of which they had shared a profit of £45,000 – George Musgrove struck out on his own. He continued to capitalise on Nellie Stewart’s popularity, presenting her in Paul Jones, Boccaccio and La Fille de Madame Angot. Musgrove and Nellie Stewart ventured to London; there she made her West End debut and Musgrove signed up the Gaiety Theatre Company for its second colonial tour which was a major failure.
In 1892 Musgrove rejoined J.C. Williamson. One of their first joint ventures was an Italian operaseason, notable for introducing Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana, which were staged here on the same night for the first time in the world. Supplementing the operas was a new ballet, Turquoisette, or, A Study in Blue, the first classical ballet created in Australia. Musgrove then headed back to London, ostensibly to represent the partnership and to look for new shows and stars. Nellie Stewart went with him. Their daughter, Nancye Stewart was born in England in 1893.
Away from Williamson’s dominance, Musgrove could not resist feathering his own nest. In September 1897, without consulting Williamson, he leased the Duke of York’s Theatre to present Françillon, a comedy with Kyrle Bellew and Mrs Brown-Potter. Next he took the Shaftesbury for The Scarlet Featherwith his beloved Nellie Stewart, and a disappointing drama called Sporting Life.
In 1898 Musgrove brought an American musical comedy called The Belle of New York to the West End. It had flopped on Broadway but it took London by storm. Understandably, Williamson was furious. The expiration of their joint lease of the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in December 1899 was also the end of their 17-year partnership.
In May 1900 Musgrove took up the Princess lease. One of his first attractions was a Grand Opera Company drawn from the British Carl Rosa organisation. The repertoire included the Australian premieres of Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman.
The following year Musgrove was appointed ‘Director of Amusements’ for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. The Duke, the future King George V, opened the first Federal Parliament in the Exhibition Building on May 9. Musgrove organised an orchestra of 100 under the baton of Léon Caron, to perform ‘a selection of high class instrumental music’ during gaps in the ceremony, and Nellie Stewart sang a Memorial Ode called ‘Australia’.
Musgrove managed Melba’s triumphant concert tour of 1902, and presented Nellie Stewart in Sweet Nell of Old Drury the same year – a production that she revived repeatedly for nearly 30 years. A 1906 American tour of Sweet Nell was cut short by the San Francisco earthquake, in which Musgrove very nearly lost his life.
Undaunted, he took Nellie Stewart on a gruelling ‘smalls’ tour of New Zealand and outback Australia. Musgrove’s 1907 Royal Grand Opera Company gave Australians their first experiences of Hänsel and Gretel, Die Walküre and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. The season concluded with an even longer than usual performance of Die Walküre, at the end of which, according to The Bulletin, ‘a few staunch adherents were sleeping at their posts in the dress circle and stalls, but the majority had rushed home to be in time to put out the jug for the milkman.’ The tour was another financial disaster for Musgrove.
In 1908 Musgrove foolishly turned down a film franchise and missed out on a potential fortune,though he did produce a successful film version of Sweet Nell of Old Drury in 1911. Sadly, no copy exists. He lost any profits in a disastrous scheme to build a theatre restaurant at Darlinghurst, and his last production, Belasco’s Du Barry, failed because it coincided with the outbreak of the Great War. J.C. Williamson’s bought his mountains of scenery and costumes for a mere £1000. Broken by ill health and money worries, George Musgrove died at his home in Sydney on his 62nd birthday, 21 January 1916. Nellie Stewart called him ‘a great and good man’. She was inconsolable.
George’s brothers continued the family tradition. Harry Musgrove (1858-1931) was treasurer for the Triumvirate. When the partners separated, Harry remained with Williamson, but later joined George. His diplomacy was largely responsible for the reconciliation between Williamson and Musgrove. A keen cricketer, Harry managed of the Australian XI tour of Britain in 1896. He managed Williamson’s Theatre Royal, Melbourne, until 1924. Arthur Musgrove (1864-1904) served as treasurer for J.C. Williamson at Her Majesty’s in Sydney. The fourth brother, Frank (1872-1915), was lessee of the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, and the fifth, Charles, was a well-known figure in United States theatrical circles.
From the next generation came two more theatrical Musgroves: Harry’s son Henry George, and Arthur’s son Jack. Henry (1884-1951) was popularly known as Harry G. Musgrove to distinguish him from his father. He spent his youth largely in the Princess Theatre offices of his uncle George, and then joined the pioneering film exhibitor T.J. West. By 1910 Harry was a director of West’s, which evolved to become part of the Union Theatres and Australasian Film companies. In 1920 Harry combined with E.J. and Dan Carroll to form Carroll-Musgrove Theatres, builders of Australia’s first picture palace – the Prince Edward in Sydney. Harry also established Musgrove’s Theatres Pty Ltd, which took over the Tivolis in Melbourne and Sydney and converted them into cinemas. The venture was not successful. Harry’s empire crashed spectacularly in 1924. He died in Sydney, penniless and forgotten.
Harry’s cousin Jack Musgrove (1893-1956) was christened with the middle names William Lyster, after his illustrious great uncle. His early grounding was with Fullers’ vaudeville, first at the National in Sydney and then at the Melbourne Bijou, where his brother George was also employed. By the time he was 25, Jack was in control of all Fullers’ vaudeville activities in Victoria. In 1921 he joined his cousin Harry at the Tivoli, which he managed until the circuit collapsed in 1929. He worked for a while for Hoyts then, in 1936 he was chosen to revive the fortunes of the ailing Sydney Trocadero dance hall. He stayed there for 20 years. With his death in 1956, after an 80-year contribution to virtually every facet of Australian entertainment, the illustrious Musgroves took their final curtain.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Ian Bevan: The Story of the Theatre Royal, Currency Press, 1993
Jean Gittins: ‘George Musgrove’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 5, Melbourne University Press
Claude McKay: This is the Life, Angus & Robertson, 1961
Nellie Stewart: My Life’s Story , 1923
John West: ‘George Musgrove’, in Companion to Theatre in AustraliaCurrency Press, 1995