The Tivoli Theatre had a hold on the hearts of Sydney’s theatre-going public from its beginnings in 1893, through to its decline in the 1950s. 

The first Tivoli Theatre was located on Castlereagh Street, in the block bounded by King and Market Streets. It was established by London-born impresario and comedian, Harry Rickards. Vaudeville was Rickards’s shtick, and he presented a line up of diverse acts, both local and international. 

Gilded statue dancer at the New Tivoli

Acts were varied, verging on the spicy, and included minstrel shows, necromancers, conjurers, card tricks, strip tease artistes, dancers, singers and comedians. 

In 1899, the Tivoli was burnt to the ground, but Rickards oversaw its reconstruction within seven months.

It was reopened with much fanfare on 12 April 1900, and could hold up to 1200 patrons.  The original facade was retained, but behind it was a four-storey ornate splendour. The interior of the theatre was painted in hues of ‘cream, gold and turquoise blue’, and was decorated with ‘acanthus leaves and clusters of fruit’.

One of the acts at the Tivoli, surrounded by glamour girls

Star attractions included American escapologist Harry Houdini in 1910, Aboriginal tightwire artist Con Colleano and juggler Paul Cinqueviali

Rickards died in 1911, and the Tivoli Circuit was taken over by a consortium headed by Hugh D Macintosh aka ‘Huge Deal’.

After Macintosh was bankrupted, the circuit was taken over by J C Williamson, and later by Mike Connors and Queenie Paul.

The theatre itself remained in family ownership until the late 1920s, owing to a codicil in Rickards’s will specifying building not be sold. 

The Tivoli on Castlereagh Street closed its doors in 1929, following the death of Rickards’s daughter. 

But the New Tivoli in Haymarket, near Central Station, was opened within the year. It accommodated up to 1200 patrons. 

Acts at the New ‘Tiv’ included Maurice Rooklyn, the Human Target, whose trick was to catch bullets fired from a .303 rifle in his teeth, and comedian Mo Rene. Scantily clad chorus girls and nearly nude gold-painted statue dancers were also a draw card. 

While live vaudeville theatres like the Tivoli survived the introduction of other popular entertainments such as radio and cinema in the first half of the twentieth century, the death knell was sounded with television, introduced to Australian shores in the mid 1950s.