With few organised social and entertainment venues, theatres were important places in the goldfield towns of Ballarat and Mount Alexander. Often attached to a hotel, theatres showed a wide variety of entertainment, from plays, dances and dramas to operas and concerts. In July 1852, the Illustrated London News informed its readership that Mr Ellis, a notable entertainer, had left for Victoria and ‘takes with him scenery, properties, and the necessary adjuncts for a portable theatre, to be erected at the diggings, a complete band of musicians and a Thespian company.’ The first theatres were housed in makeshift tents but, as a sense of permanency was established, crude buildings, followed by more substantial constructions, were erected. Although principally used for entertainment, some theatres served a civic function; they were used to hold public meetings, political rallies, charity events, and even police courts and municipal offices.
Ballarat’s first theatre was built in August 1853, and four others followed in quick succession. East Ballarat’s Red Hill quickly became the town’s entertainment hub, with the Adelphi Theatre, and theatres associated with the Star, Charlie Napier and United States Hotels. Conversely, the more upper class and gentile Ballarat West largely abstained from housing its own theatres. While the Adelphi consisted of a tent, wooden benches and a crude stage, the Assembly Rooms were plush. Opening in October 1854, the Adelphi Rooms held numerous formal balls, where women wore silks, men donned tailcoats, and an entrance fee of three guineas was charged. Most theatres, however, were not that sophisticated. As noted by Weston Bate, the relatively large size of the venues, (the Victoria Theatre was 38 ft by 140 ft) spoke of their important status and function in the community during an era when eating, drinking, and entertainment were the principal leisure pursuits of the male-dominated population.
With three-quarters of Ballarat’s population being men, and two-thirds of them single and aged between twenty and forty years of age, theatres not only provided a social outlet and release from the rigours of mining, but also an opportunity to mix with women in a social setting. There was one theatre in particular ‘which, in addition to a capital brass band, owned three German girls . . . and it was considered the highest possible honour to get a dance with one of these fair damsels.’ For most men, though, the opportunity never arose and so ‘hairy men sometimes cavorted with each other like polar bears.’
Castlemaine’s Royal Theatre, built in 1855, was destroyed in a fire two years later. Originally a wooden music hall, the theatre comprised a bar at one end and a stage at the other. Touring Victoria’s goldfields in 1853, Lola Montez – the ‘demon courtesan, once mistress of the King of Bavaria’ – played at the Royal Theatre, where her famous ‘spider dance’ nearly caused a riot.