The Library Institute Hall and Arts Theatre: Ray Kelly

A brief history preamble: 1914-1950

The Library Institute Hall on the eastern side of the Library Institute in Douglas Street had been the major centre of community social life for the residents of Port Moresby since its construction in 1914 (1916?), where public and social meetings, balls, concerts, bazaars etc were regular events. For many years during WWII it had been a Comforts Fund Canteen, serving welcome refreshments to a large number of servicemen and women.

At the end of the war, it became the head office for the operations of the Australasian Petroleum Company, or APC as it was known, in a township where virtually every company and government department were only ever referred to by their initials ie BP, DCA, PMF, CMB, STC, DASF, PNGVR, PSC, CDW, CWA, RSL, etc.

I recall in late 1949 being driven from Jackson’s strip, noting the commanding view from 3-Mile hill before winding down past the unusual canoe village of Koki and adjoining market followed by a most pleasant drive along the Casuarina lined Ela Beach Road eventually arriving at the APC office. There were several steep steps and upon entering the building I was welcomed as a new employee. Here I received miscellaneous instructions about the company plus some details of the life style and services available in Port Moresby, before being transferred to the modest indignity of my “tent” accommodation at Badili. Housing for APC employees was still under construction, with many billeted either at the “Top Pub” or later in the Christie’s building, corner Kermadec-D’urville Streets.

In the centre of the hall were desks for the office staff, while the area adjoining the sidewalls had been partitioned into offices of Departmental Management. Little did I realise how much time I would eventually spend within these walls during the next few years.

During early-mid 1950, APC vacated the building and transferred all staff to their extensive workshops, stores and residential accommodation at Badili, three miles from town.

The Library Institute Committee identified that the hall was in dire need of immediate renovation which included the considerable war damage previously unattended, such as shrapnel holes to be filled in, while a new floor, wall lining and electrical wiring installations were also undertaken. The interior was subsequently painted in pale grey and rose pink.

In the post war period, live entertainment for residents was mainly restricted to evenings arranged by the Port Moresby Musical Society which, in their early years, saw Monty Phillips at the helm. On Tuesday 19 December 1950, a single performance programme of Christmas carols and solo items, titled To Music, was presented under the baton of Musical Director Dr D Lincoln-Crow.

The choir comprised 17 ladies, including the wonderful voices of mother and daughter, Prue Frank and Pat Gordon, while I (a 24-year-old) was one of the 12 male members which included the popular and flamboyant local GP, Dr AJ (Tony) Tonakie.

Hall Renovations, a new name and a new lease of life, 1950-1951

Hall renovations commenced and, during this period, the Library Institute Committee was reconstituted to form The Port Moresby Branch of the Arts Council of Australia and, when renovations were finally completed, the Library Institute Hall was named “The Arts Theatre”.

Lester Sims and the Live Theatre in Port Moresby, 1951-1952

In early 1951 an English gentleman of fine Royal Naval Officer stature, a Londoner named Lester Sims, with obvious skills and a good knowledge of the London West end, gathered around him a group of enthusiastic amateurs who were willing to enter the live theatre, either performing in front of the foot lights or labouring behind the scenes.

It was not known at the time, but he would subsequently bring to the Port Moresby residents several of the reasonably recent West End productions.

Rehearsals began in January 1951 for the sophisticated 3-act comedy, By Candle Light, written by Siegfried Geyer, which South Pacific Post noted was “chock full of double-entre pre code dialogue”. The leading role which was that of Bastian, the ultra-dutiful valet of Count von Bommer, was in the hands of Marc Infante. The libidinous count von Bommer was played by George Bardsley, while Jean Lane took the part of Marie, a maidservant to Count von Richenheim.

These three shared the majority of the dialogue with Allison Crawford, J Otto-Anders, Anita Jones, Kelvin Wallace and Raymond Kelly all in supporting roles. Several weeks into rehearsals Marc was unable to continue due to business reasons, and his role was given to Raymond Kelly who, when originally cast as the personal driver to the Count had previously nothing to say. Eric Oakes was given this role.

The hall renovations were behind schedule and the Papuan Theatre (open air with deck chairs and films three nights per week) became the venue. It was rather fortunate that the “Papuan” had stage production space behind the movie screen, although there was a modest amount of finesse necessary with reassembly of the Arts Theatre “set”, after moving to the new venue.

On Tuesday 13 March 1951, the curtain opened on By Candle Light, which was attended by a most appreciative and enthursiastic audience including the Administrator, Colonel JK Murray and Mrs Murray who, following the last curtain, went backstage to congratulate the players and share in the celebratory supper. There were two further performances where, on other nights, a popular spot was Lexy’s and her “After Theatre Suppers” in the Twilight Cafe, the only cafe in town. It was owned and operated by the popular dynamo, Lexie Seager. Staying out late was not a real option in Port Moresby due to lack of public transport. Without your own vehicle, travel was usually by “Titch” Corlett’s Taxis (Chevvies), which doubled the amount of the fare showing on the meter after midnight.

The South Pacific Post Social Editor noted “A Gala Audience Attends First Night” with particular attention to the pretty gowns worn by the ladies, not only of the cast, but also the audience and in particular Mrs Michael Healy, Mrs Claude Champion and Mrs AVG Price. Another entry in the Post wrote a glowing revue: “Play at Papuan Deliciously Spicy”, noting that the valet Bastian, carried most of the continuity of the story, Count von Bommer was suavely superficial and Marie had no more difficulty in intriguing a nobleman than she had in falling in love with his valet. It was a story with a chuckle in every line.”

The response from the public stirred Lester into action, and within weeks he had selected the cast for another production. This was the traditional 3-act satirical farce Captain Carvallo, written by Denis Cannon. The play had received raving reviews when staged in the St James’s Theatre, London, in 1950 and directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier.

The three leads from By Candle Light were given the bulk of the dialogue, with a support cast of four. Hall renovations were still incomplete, and again the play had to be moved to the Papuan Theatre where it ran for three nights.

Tuesday 15 June 1951 was opening night and the audiences were good. Port Moresby residents were enjoying what Post referred to as “The Little Theatre” atmosphere, even without their little theatre. The theme of this farce brings Captain Carvallo (George Bardsley) and his batman Private Gross (Raymond Kelly) into a foreign country as part of an occupying force. Unknowingly they are billeted in the farmhouse of a member of the Resistance Movement. The farmhouse serving-maid (Jean Lane) is attracted to Private Gross while Captain Carvallo occupies himself by trying to seduce the farmer’s wife. Many awkward situations arise, giving the audience much to laugh at.

Arts Council membership was increasing, with the majority of members wishing to perform. Lester solved this problem by selecting to stage a Revue, with many small acts in front of curtain and a selection of short one act plays and musical routines on the main stage. The larger acts were given a backdrop for atmosphere, and these were made from rolled cartridge paper glued together and hand painted scenes applied by anybody who could handle a brush.

Several of the backdrop scenes had been designed by Muriel MacGowan. With so many acts to rehearse, and many backdrops to paint, which were spread all over the theatre floor, the building was buzzing and was a hive of industry for many weeks.

At long last the building renovations were complete. The title for the revue was Over She Goes and it was to be the centrepiece for a Grand Opening night.

Members enjoyed rehearsing in their own theatre and getting a feeling for the surrounds while identifying the acoustic quality. There was a cast of at least 25-30, with many of them appearing several times in different sketches, etc. Co-ordination of all these acts was a mammoth task, and the lack thereof would ultimately become a major concern.

On the morning of opening night the theatre was still buzzing with activity and some last minute adjustments, when it was reported there was a rumour spreading around town that the curtain would not go up as advertised. Immediately a large sandwich-board was prepared and placed on the pavement, with the message “Over She Goes Definitely Goes over Tonight”.

Little did we realise what was ahead, and that opening night was one that would long be remembered. Individual acts and sketches were all well rehearsed, a programme describing each act and sequence had been printed, but an overall “Dress Rehearsal”to establish continuity and timing had not been undertaken.

Gala Opening of the renovated Arts Theatre

This occurred on a pleasant evening in late September 1951 when, to a full house and enthusiastic audience, the curtain rose for Over She Goes. With this very large cast and many scene changes there were bound to be a few gremlins and, as the programme wore on it was soon apparent that changes to schedule were necessary.

By 10pm, the 9.30 pm “Interval” was not in sight and when the present act concluded, the curtain came down and Interval was announced. Many of the audience had gathered on the pavement outside for a chat and a smoke, and it was obvious from the murmurs some wondered what activity the second half would bring.

Surprisingly there was lots of laughter and the audience were enjoying themselves, but by 11.30 pm, it was clear that they would prefer to go home.

There were still numerous acts listed in the programme, but as midnight approached, the curtain fell for the last time and the sounds of “God Save the King” emerged over the speaker system.

Many comments were later made, but all agreed that it was a great night and that the new Arts Theatre had had a most spectacular and memorable christening.

The programme was reduced for the remaining performances, which was sad for those artists who had rehearsed so long, just to see their act cut. Apparently news of opening night had spread around town and subsequent audiences were disappointing. Those who did attend appreciated the efforts of raw amateurs which had produced lots of laughter and loud applause.

After the dust had settled, an undaunted Lester Sims selected his cast for the WWII British farce See How They Run, a 3-act play by Philip King. It is the story of village inhabitants preparing themselves for the imminent threat of Nazi invasion. With a cast of ten including a nosy-parker spinster, meddling neighbours, a vicar’s wife having an affair and lots more, it provided audiences with lots of wonderful and blissful hilarity.

In late January 1952 the curtain rose for opening night, which introduced many new faces among the cast including John King, Joan (Kit) McMaster, Keith Cornwall, Kevin Shorthouse and Peter Graham. I regret I do not have other names: I had “gone south”.

Once again Post gave a glowing report of good audiences and complimented the cast for their most professional smooth running performances. The Over She Goes drama was forgotten.

Following the earlier run of comedy and farce, Lester chose a drama for the next production. In early February rehearsals commenced for A Murder Has Been Arranged, a melodrama-ghost story by well-known mystery playwright Emlyn Williams.


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