Ghosts of the city

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It is well understood that given Melbourne’s Victorian historical legacy it harbours haunted buildings. Even some of its most independent fringe theatres like the La Mama Theatre in Carlton, with its creative workshop atmosphere, and The Butterfly Club in South Melbourne, where performers can devise and stage their own cabarets, have tales to tell about the other side.

Some of the oldest theatres in Melbourne, including Her Majesty’s Theatre and the Princess Theatre, claim hauntings (particularly the Princess Theatre though; whose “phantom” has inspired actors and staff alike). The Princess Theatre was remodeled in 1986 and visitors instantly absorbed the elegant interior décor, drawing them into a history of performance dating back to 1854

Her Majesty’s Theatre, when devoid of props and costumes, is left with a bare backdrop beyond the sets and the illusion of theatre; belying the arching balconies which emanate the murmur of crowds who entered its auditorium and enjoyed shows throughout the modern century. Its resident ghost predicts the unpredictable fortunes of the theatre industry.

Melbourne’s Princess Theatre has a history spanning back to 1854, and the tale of its fated star, Federici, is a much celebrated local legend. In 1888, Francesco Federici collapsed during the final apocalyptic scene of Gounod’s ‘Faust‘. In a turret of reddish smoke arch demon Mephistopheles descended into the vaults of Hell, his crimson cloak wrapped around the alchemist, and central character, Faust, who traded his soul in return for the heart of the heroine Marguerite, played by Nellie Stewart, and by doing so set a chain of events into action, leading ultimately to misfortune and corruption.

‘Federici’ was the stage pseudonym for the experienced opera singer Frederick Baker. An Import of the English stage, Federici performed light operettas; particularly Gilbert and Sulllivan. The English version of Faust, in which he performed, was pioneered and staged by George Musgrove under the banner of J.C. Williamson Theatres (who owned the Princess Theatre at the time).

Following Federici’s death the cast said that they had sighted his ghost on multiple occasions; first during the show’s curtain calls, then culminating throughout countless stories. But the most notorious sighting occurred in 1917: when a fireman knocked on the door of the wardrobe mistress, Betty Beddoes, and announced; ‘would you like to see a ghost, Miss Beddoes?’ the ensuing description of a gentleman in evening dress, sitting in a lonely seat in the centre of the dress circle, the silver buttons on the front of his suit reflecting the moonlight filtered through the opened roof of the dome, gave rise to the title ‘the devil in evening dress’ to describe the ghost on multiple occasions (the ghost resembling Federici in his costume from Faust).

Faust by Gounod Act 1 1864

Ghost tours are now available throughout the central part of Melbourne and at particular sites of interest including: the Royal Melbourne Jail and the Victoria Market. So In every corner of Melbourne, wherever a historical theatre or building lies, reflect on the lives and emotions that have passed through its corridors, lending a richly imbued history to the dark ochre hues of the city of Melbourne.

By Danielle Shelley Carr

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