The 1940s - Premises

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When conditions became cramped at 36 Pitt Street the League exchanged premises with the International Seamen’s Club, and in 1943 took out a three-year lease in Angus House 167 Castlereagh Street, a three-storey building owned by the Grand United Order of Oddfellows (GUOOF).

Opposite was a telegraph office and next door a chemist at street level where “Mark” helped actresses find the right shade of lipstick. In the same building was the headquarters of the Masonic Club whose male members sang loudly in competition with those rehearsing in the theatre. The local watering hole was the Castlereagh Hotel where, at a time when women were not allowed in public bars, both sexes drank together at a big round table in an upstairs back room: “Ask the waitress – they know us”. The Sydney committees were egalitarian in contrast to Melbourne New Theatre where men and women had to drink in separate areas in their pub.

The theatre was on the first floor, reached by wide concrete steps. The space felt vast in comparison to the old premises, and echoing wooden floorboards added to the familiar noise of trams rattling past. Below was Phillips Café with its smelly garbage bins. Above was a clothing factory run by two Austrians who had escaped from Vienna the day Hitler marched in. They and their children sat in the front row every opening night.

The New managed to stay on at 167 Castlereagh Street for over a decade although the City Council, Fire Brigade and the building’s owners regularly tried to close it down as breaching the Theatres and Public Halls Act.

Finally, served with an eviction notice and deciding not to fight a court case, a special meeting voted to find other premises. This was in November 1953 when the theatre’s finances and committee were both exhausted. A month later the smash hit Reedy River turned everything around.

In preparation for the first show in 1943 members pitched in to transform the big, empty rooms, and Jack Bickerdike and his team built a Louis XIV style stage, painted cream with gold decoration with a plush red curtain. But Council workers forced their way in, wrecked the stage, pulled down the lights and curtain and ripped out the switchboard. A new stage, covered in hessian, was hastily built and Let’s Be Offensive‘s opening was delayed, but only by one night.

In the audience was newly married Peter Finch who drank with NTL people and who was cast as the lead in the 1943 repeat of Golden Boy. He pulled out, perhaps warned by Security, and the part was taken by Rosaleen Norton’s husband. In 1948 NT members Jock Levy, Edgar Yardley, Catherine Duncan, Alan Herbert and Ken McCarron acted with Finch’s Mercury Theatre Club. Finch went to England after Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh saw him in a Mercury lunchtime performance at O’Brien’s Glass Factory at Waterloo.

In November 1943 the City Council again dismantled the Castlereagh Street lighting board and stage, claiming it was erected without Council approval, that the building was being used as a theatre despite having only one fire exit, and that the GUOOF forbade any fixtures on the premises. The next weekend’s Counter Attack was lit by torches and lanterns. League members erected a non-fixture stage, and scenery from then on was provided by flats leaned against the walls like a pack of cards.

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