Princess Theatre in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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As I've mentioned previously, I keep a long list of things I'd like to write about. The list is currently over 600 items long, with more added weekly. Because there are so many items, I leave it to a random roll to determine my next topic. Occasionally, the randomness brings about a theme. Last week, we journeyed into Junee, New South Wales, Australia, to visit "Australia's Most Haunted House" over at the Monte Cristo Homestead. This week, we're paying another visit to Australia and its ghosts. This time, in Melbourne, to a place called Princess Theatre.

The golden front of Princess Theatre. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Princess Theatre. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

History of the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, Australia

Back in the 1850s, Victoria, Australia, experienced a gold rush that lasted nearly two decades. The gold mining created so much wealth that the capital of Victoria, Melbourne, became known as "Marvellous Melbourne." How much gold? In 1856 alone, 94,982 kg (~209,400 lbs), and between 1851 and 1896, a total of about 1,898,391 kg (~41,852,356 lbs or nearly 21,000 tons) was brought up from mines. That's a hell of a lot of gold. The lure of gold brought the non-indigenous population of Melbourne from precisely zero in 1835 to 123,000 in 1854. It never really stopped growing, and the city is now home to more than 5 million people.

During the rapid growth of the gold rush, an Irish-American entrepreneur named Tom Mooney built an entertainment venue called Astley's Amphitheatre. If that name sounds familiar, you might know it from the many Astley's Ampitheatres that Philip Astley made in London, Dublin, or perhaps Paris. (I promise none of those links are Rick Astley.)

Old photo of barn like structure that was Astley's Amphitheatre, c. 1850s
Astley's Amphitheatre, c. 1850s

In 1857, Astley's Ampitheatre underwent an extensive renovation, reopening as the "Princess's Theatre." The Princess's Theatre operated for two decades, changed hands yet again, experienced yet another renovation, and reopened under yet another name: New Princess Theatre.

Drawing of the inside of Princess Theatre from 1865.
The Interior of the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1865. Wood engraving, published in The Illustrated Melbourne Post, November 25th, 1865.

In 1885, a controversial group known as "The Triumvirate" (you can't make this stuff up) took control of the building. The Triumvirate, comprised of J. C. Williamson, George Musgrove, and Arthur Garner, seems to have both created a monopoly on live entertainment and brought acts that may have never otherwise performed in Melbourne. The group's first order of business was to demolish and rebuild the existing structure. The newly named "Princess Theatre," designed by architect William Pitt, opened in 1886.

An old car with a couple in it outside Princess Theatre
Outside the Princess Theatre, Spring Street, Melbourne, Victoria - 1913
Princess Theatre Melbourne ca. 1894. Herbert Percival Bennett, photographer.
Princess Theatre Melbourne ca. 1894. Herbert Percival Bennett, photographer.

The building kept changing hands over the years and was used less frequently, eventually falling into a sad state of disrepair. In 1989, David Marriner purchased the theatre and restored it to what it was like in 1922. In 2018, the Marriner Group gave the building yet another makeover in preparation for hosting Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—which turned out to have the most successful first year of a production in the entire history of Australian theatre. As of 2022, it's still owned and operated by the Marriner Group, which is taking excellent care of it—and keeping it a prime place to house a ghost.

The Ghost of Frederick Federici

Princess Theatre. Saturday evening, March 3rd, 1888. An outstanding production of Gounod's opera Faust ended with Mephistopheles, played by a baritone singer named Frederick Federici, dramatically sinking into the basement through a trapdoor on the stage, returning to the depths of hell with his prize, Dr. Faustus.

Drawing of Frederick Federici, c. 1888
Frederick Federici, c. 1888

The entire company came out at the opera's end, taking bows, much to the audience's delight. Afterward, Frederick Federici was found dead in the basement. The audience later reported noticing that Frederick Federici was slumped over slightly as he descended through the trapdoor. Though his fellow performers said he took bows on stage with them, Frederick Federici had never made it out of the basement alive.

Frederick Federici's body was carried to the theatre's green room, where a doctor could not revive him, and Frederick Federici was pronounced dead. He was declared as having suffered a heart attack during his descent through the trapdoor.

Frederick Federici's death notice in the local paper from 1888.
Frederick Federici's death notice in the local paper from 1888.

Ever since his death, a ghostly figure of a man has been seen wandering the theatre, and for years after his death, a third-row seat in the dress circle was kept vacant in his honor. This tradition continues, even today, where staff saves Frederick Federici a seat for every opening night performance.

Grave of Frederick Baker "Federici" in Melbourne General Cemetery
Federick Baker "Federici"
22nd April 1850 – 3rd March 1888
Melbourne General Cemetery
Attending the theatre when a fire alarm had sounded, it was a false alarm, one of the fireman attempted to open a sliding section of the roof to let some fresh air in. He was later found by his colleagues, huddled in a corner, shaking with fear. As moonlight flooded the theatre, the fireman claimed he had seen a figure standing, statue like, in the middle of the stage. 'I could see through him!' the fireman claimed. 'And his eyes! They were like a cat's eyes.'

— Richard Davis, 'Great Australian Ghost Stories'—reported in 1900

Over a hundred years of reports of ghostly activity at Princess Theatre include odd noises, a shadowy figure near the stage, staff and audience feeling strange or uncomfortable, sudden onset of goosebumps, wild temperature swings in small areas, strange lights flashing during performances, and the feeling of a person brushing past.

"Something, I felt, bad behind me. It just touched my hair and my shoulders and my body on the back. And I just, like, frozen. I know what there is because no one was there – no human. Only me myself, because the theatre was closed."

— Trina Dimovska, Princess Theatre Cleaner. Interviewed on ABC radio, 2004.

Though Frederick Federici's presence at Princess Theatre can be unsettling to some, staff at Princess Theatre welcome him and believe that seeing him in his reserved seat for an opening night performance is good luck.

"Fred is very much a benevolent presence. Nothing nasty ever happens. He's more of a friendly poltergeist."

— Jesse Cain. Director, Theatre and Production at Marriner Group.

I've always been a big fan of performing arts, and a venue with an interesting history makes the experiences more enjoyable. Just imagine yourself sitting for a show in the Princess Theatre, enthralled at what's happening on stage, only to spot a ghost wandering around on the side stage, or, better yet, taking a seat right next to you.

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