James Cassius Williamson 1845 – 1913
- James Cassius Williamson 1845 – 1913
James Cassius Williamson 1845 – 1913
James Cassius Williamson was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, on 28 July 1845.
He was playing at the Californian Theatre there when he met, engaged and, in 1873, married actress Maggie Moore.
When Struck Oil opened at the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street, Melbourne, on 1 August 1874, 30-year-old James Cassius Williamson did indeed strike oil! Over 43 record-breaking nights, 93,000 tickets were sold – this in a city of 110,000 people.
‘James Cassius Williamson was a potentate,’ wrote Claude McKay, who was his secretary from 1908 and later a well-known journalist. ‘Everything about him was ease and elegance. His clothes were from Poole of Bond Street, his linen, whether for wear or on his dining table, was of the finest. His home at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, was the expression of his taste: the spacious rooms were restfully furnished, and only on examination was it seen that every piece was expensive. Williamson’s cellar was stocked by his London wine merchant with the rarest vintages, and he had bought the claret from a bin that had been reserved for Queen Victoria. In his acting days Williamson was known as “Handsome Jimmy”. Williamson excelled in his knowledge of the theatre both behind and in front of the curtain. He was, one might say, a re-producer of plays – of those that had proved successful in London and New York. Though he felt that some of the productions were likely to result in loss, all the same he thought it wise to stage them, for he believed that it was necessary to keep abreast of the movement of the drama. If the movement advanced too far ahead of the public the gap created would eventually become too costly to bridge; and he realized too that the successes would be able to carry the failures. Although he never lost his American accent, Williamson was a cosmopolite, as much at home in Paris or any other Continental capital as in London, New York, or Sydney. Like a good American, he died in Paris.’ For over 100 years, the name ‘J.C. Williamson’ dominated Australian theatre.
James Cassius Williamson was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, on 28 July 1845. He was only 11 when he saw his first play – and he remained stage struck for the rest of his life. He joined a Milwaukee stock company while he was still at school and, aged 19, secured an eight-year engagement as the juvenile comedian at Wallack’s Theatre in New York. In 1871 he moved to San Francisco. He was playing at the Californian Theatre there when he met, engaged and, in 1873, married actress Maggie Moore. She was born Margaret Virginia Sullivan in San Francisco in 1851. Her Irish-born parents had forsaken a new life in Australia to try their luck in the rush for Californian gold.
James and Maggie were a perfect match, on stage and off. And Williamson found them a perfect play – a quaint comedy melodrama called Struck Oil. They introduced it at Salt Lake City in February 1874 and included it in the repertoire they brought to Australia, under the enterprising management of George Coppin.
When Struck Oil opened at the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street, Melbourne, on 1 August 1874, 30-year-old James Cassius Williamson did indeed strike oil! Over 43 record-breaking nights, 93,000 tickets were sold – this in a city of 110,000 people. After similar successes in other Australian centres, the Williamsons went to London and back to the United States. Everywhere, Struck Oil continued to draw full houses. They returned to Australia in 1879.
Seeing his future as an entrepreneur, Williamson had astutely secured the Australian rights to theGilbert and Sullivan repertoire. He swiftly scuttled a flotilla of unauthorised Australian productions of H.M.S. Pinafore, leaving the way clear for his own, in which he appeared as Sir Joseph Porter, with Maggie as Josephine.
In the early 1880s, Williamson founded the Royal Comic Opera Company, and leased the Theatre Royal in Melbourne and other theatres interstate. For the next 32 years, sometimes in partnership with George Musgrove and Arthur Garner, he headed an organisation that dominated the Australian stage. He purchased the latest London and New York successes, and imported the brightest stars to play in them. He established a chain of fine theatres around the country, beginning with the Princess in Melbourne in 1886.
Williamson and Maggie Moore separated in 1891. The split was a bitter, both claiming the rights to Struck Oil. Maggie married actor Harry Roberts, and continued to revive Struck Oil for many years, much to Williamson’s fury. He even managed to write his autobiography without mentioning her name! Maggie retained the loyalty of her fans, finally retiring in 1924. She died in 1926 in San Francisco.
‘The Divine Sarah’ – Sarah Bernhardt – toured for Williamson in 1891, packing theatres with productions performed in French. During the difficult years of the depressed 1890s, Williamson maintained his fortunes, largely through a hugely popular pantomime, Djin-Djin, which he wrote in association with Bert Royle. A dancer in this production, Mary Weir, became his second wife. They had two daughters.
In 1902, Williamson staged Ben Hur, only to lose the entire production in the fire that destroyed Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney. From 1904 he worked in partnership with George Tallis and Gustave Ramaciotti. It was an era of great actors – Wilson Barrett starred in The Sign of the Cross, Julius Knight in A Royal Divorce, and Roy Redgrave (Michael’s father) in L’Aiglon. Florodora, The Merry Widow, and Our Miss Gibbs were the big musicals. When Ramaciotti retired in 1911, Williamson became governing director of his last and largest company, J.C. Williamson Ltd – referred to by everyone as ‘The Firm’. His partners were Tallis, Hugh J. Ward and Clyde Meynell. Williamson’s final major enterprise, marking the 50th anniversary of his professional theatre debut, was the celebrated Melba–Williamson Grand Opera Company of 1911.
Williamson was persuaded to return to the stage in a one-act play, Kerry, which was presented
as a highlight of a charity matinee at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney on 22 February 1913. It was his final curtain. James Cassius Williamson died in Paris on 8 July 1913.
‘The Firm’ announced that a playhouse named in Williamson’s honour would be built in Melbourne on the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets, on the site of George Coppin’s old Olympic Theatre. Plans were abandoned on the outbreak of World War I, but when the theatre was built, in 1928, Williamson’s called it the Comedy. Nevertheless, through a succession of amalgamations and management changes, the firm that James Cassius Williamson founded continued to provide Australians with a giddying array of quality entertainment – serious and light drama, comedy, opera, ballet, musicals, pantomimes, concert attractions.
In 1971, the Williamson and Edgley interests merged, with Michael Edgley as Managing Director. This partnership lasted a little over two years.
In 1974 The Firm marked the centenary of J.C. Williamson’s arrival in Australia with a new production of Irene. But by now, ‘the largest theatrical management in the Southern Hemisphere’ was running out of steam. In 1976, after an unsuccessful application to the Industries Assistance Commission, the company was wound up, its assets realised and its theatres sold. Kenn Brodziak of Aztec Services obtained the rights to the name ‘J.C. Williamson Productions’, and produced under this banner for a number of years. After that, the name passed to other enterprises.
Most of the vast archives of J.C. Williamson’s are now housed in the National Library in Canberra and the Performing Arts Collection at the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne.
In 1998 Live Performance Australia inaugurated the annual J.C. Williamson Award (formerly the James Cassius Award), the foremost honour that the Australian live entertainment industry can bestow. The awards recognise individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the Australian live entertainment and performing arts industry, and have shaped the future of our industry for the better. Mr Williamson would have been proud.
Frank Van Straten, 2007