Sunday, May 8, 2011

Darlinghurst Blog: Books: Set in Stone - The Cell Block Theatre, by Deborah Beck

Deborah Beck is an archivist and lecturer at the National Art School, housed in the old Darlinghurst Gaol, and she has developed a passion for the history of her workplace. In 2005 she released the book, Hope in Hell: A History of Darlinghurst Gaol and the National Art School (Allen and Unwin publishers) and now she has followed that up with a pictorial history of the Cell Block Theatre, which was published by the UNSW Press last month.
The Darlinghurst Gaol (built between 1822-1885) was converted into the Sydney Technical College in 1922 but it was only in 1957 that the women's cell block, or D-wing, was restored and transformed into the Cell Block Theatre and over the next two decades it became a cultural hub for alternative and avant garde productions in Sydney. 

Beck traces the sandstone building's history from its days as a women's prison - including the time when French actress Sarah Bernhardt came to tour the facilities in 1891, and when the jail housed such crooks as sly grog dealer Kate Leigh in 1905 - to the late 1970s when it played host to wild parties and performances by people like dominatrix Madame Lash.
Beck has also pieced together some marvellous stories of the women who were jailed there and the women who later studied at the college in the 1930s, who would sneak into the derelict women's cell block to have a snoop around.
In 1955, when the director of the college, WR (Bill) Crisp, was trying to gain support to turn the women's cell block into a theatre, he invited American actress Katherine Hepburn to visit the site in order to generate publicity for his plans. And, she accepted.

This photo shows Australian theatre legend Sir Robert Helpmann puffing on a fag with college director Mr Crisp and Hepburn:

Beck's beautifully illustrated book also includes a lengthy chronology of the dance and theatre performances, parties and music gigs, which were held within its walls from July 5, 1955 to October 21, 2010. 
The chronology includes the book launch of The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa, by Murray Waldren, which was held on October 28, 2009. I note this because I was lucky enough to attend that launch and it was one of the most magical nights I have experienced in Sydney. 
When I arrived there were candles, or small lights, dotted through the grounds leading to the Cell Block Theatre and waiters bearing canapes and Champagne. The book was launched by Mambo founder Dare Jennings and Mombassa's band, Dog Trumpet, gave a live performance in the theatre. 
Apart from Beck's fascinating story of the building's history and restoration, my favourite part of her book are the historical photographs. They just have a beautiful silver glow about them.

If you want to see this excellent and well-researched publication, there are nine copies of the book in various libraries in the City of Sydney network, including two copies at Kings Cross Library. Or why not just buy a copy from the publisher's website and support this amazing local historian.

Set in Stone - The Cell Block Theatre, by Deborah Beck
UNSW Press, 272pp, $49.95

1 comment:


Another entertaining and intriguing piece of Sydney's history. Loved the photos and enjoyed thinking about Katherine Hepburn walking around Sydney.