Ivan’s quest to preserve our theatre history for future generations

Ivan King OAM © Photo by Alison Rodrigues

Ivan King OAM has always loved the theatre. Since being taken to a pantomime as a small boy in Midland, he decided life in the theatre was for him. After an adventurous stage career which took him interstate and overseas he is now archivist and historian for the Museum of Performing Arts at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth.

“I created the position because I felt that a vital part of our history, WA’s cultural life with its stories and yarns, was mainly unrecorded,” Ivan tells Have a Go News in an interview inside His Majesty’s, the theatre he knows and loves so well.

“It’s 50 years since I took to the stage downstairs with Max Kay in Fat Cat in Double Double Trouble,” Ivan chuckles. “I did the splits and   he couldn’t.

“I started to record our cultural history and to collect memorabilia relating to it because not only did it tell me about myself and my own profession, but it also told me about my own environment and my own state.

“Much has been made about our noble pioneers, the miners, farmers, shopkeepers, lawyers and teachers, but those who entertained these people were totally overlooked. I realised what guts these troopers had and that was the start of my interest.

“They speak about the tyranny of distance and isolation yet the people who were most affected by this were the strolling players, how the hell did they do it? I first became interested in the situation in the Goldfields when I read about the dust and dirt and water being two shillings a bucket.

“You read about Dame Nellie Melba and other artists going there to entertain at the turn of the century but where was the hot water to wash and dry costumes before showtime?

“I realised what guts these troopers had and that was the beginning. My inspiration was the collections being developed in the newly built Arts Centre in Melbourne and the Adelaide Festival Centre, both with strong state backing. The Melbourne collection now has worldwide status. We in Perth have a lot of catching up to do.”

Now called the Museum of Performing Arts (MOPA), it has a collection of more than 45,000 catalogued items. Photographs, programs, posters, press clippings, scripts and scores form everchanging displays reminding patrons of the luminaries who have graced the stage at the Maj.

Among them are Percy Grainger, Anna Pavlova, Katharine Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Claudette Colbert, Geoffrey Rush, Angela Lansbury, Sir Ian McKellan, Eileen Joyce, Maggie Smith, Cate Blanchett and, of course, our own glorious Jill Perryman.

As an actor, Ivan went to England for two years after performing in The Merry Widow and touring the backblocks of NSW doing children’s shows three times a day with actor Judy Nunn, long before she became an author.

“I spent a sun-drenched summer in Butlins holiday camp doing regional tours, paying £13 a week rent at the mercy of the local theatrical landlady.

“At times I couldn’t pay the rent and Sir John Gielgud and I survived on sandwiches from a local shop. I bumped into Frank Baden Powell who was in Britain talent scouting and he asked what I was doing. 

I said: “I’m broke and want to come home.” 

And he said: “Come and work for us.”

So I got home expecting to perform at the Old Time Music Hall.

“Instead, Baden Powell put me in a car and took me to Inglewood to the old Civic Theatre, saying “tomorrow night we are opening Diamond
Lil’s Wildwest Review
and we want you in it.

“There was a rather statuesque lady on stage named Joan Sydney. That was our Diamond Lil and so we went to a disposal shop in Barrack Street and bought cowbody chaps and sprayed a broadbrimmed hat yellow and I went on stage the next night as Cecil the Sexy Sheriff.

“We ran the show for three years, making enough money for Frank Baden Powell to open the Dirty Dicks chain of theatre restaurants.

Following my Baden Powell years I returned to Sydney and worked backstage at the opening of the Sydney Opera House six weeks before it opened in 1973 and six weeks after the opening.

“I was in the thick of it all. I was sitting holding court in the Green Room one day when I heard a woman’s voice behind me. It was the Queen chatting on her way through to the Concert Hall.

“I returned home for good with all these experiences colouring my sensibilities.” 

Ivan has played a wide range of roles at the Playhouse, the Regal Theatre, the Hayman Theatre, His Majesty’s Theatre and the Hole in the Wall. He wrote skits for revues, entertainment features for Music Maker magazine and social columns for a suburban newspaper.

As the founder of the Museum of Performing Arts Ivan has created 54 exhibitions highlighting the history of entertainment in Perth. 

In 2009 he was given the Premier’s Award for Active Citizenship and in 2016 the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the performing arts as an art historican and archivist.

Born in Midland in the shadow of the Town Hall clock, he came from a railway family when the Midland workshops were established. Family history has it that his great grandmother drove cattle from Gingin to Midland abattoir until she was 66.

Ivan recalls the raw beginnings of MOPA. 

“I found some yellowing photos from a 1932 production at the repertory club. I stuck them for all to see on the wall of the Hole in the Wall theatre with gaffer tape. That was my first display.”

He laments the loss of so much memorabilia. 

“In 1978 the theatre basement at His Maj was chock full of posters, programs, photos, props and costumes but they all went to the tip. I crawled into the basement among the dust and dirt and came out with 50 or 60 photos, sheet music and old vaudeville photos. Fifty years of history went to landfill.”

The museum is now housed at the King Street Arts Centre and has a professional footing. 

“We have had to wade through oceans of apathy but the benefits are now being realised and appreciated,” Ivan says.

He has done historic theatre tours for 25 years, speaking for two hours without a microphone and also does Morning Melodies shows to delighted audiences.

Ivan reflects on the way politics and the arts merge, looking at the Anzac Cove exhibition which depicted troops being entertained at the front. 

“I discovered the amazing influence show business had on the young soldiers through patriotic and  jingoistic songs.

“It was a recruiting field set to music. The young man would be sitting in the theatre and the leading lady would come down and sing such songs as Be a Man and Enlist Today. That was the way arts and politics intereacted.

“The most dangerous thing society can do is to ignore the arts because there are other forces ready to come in and fill the void.

“Too many people in Perth like their culture the way they like their workers – fly in, fly out. The arts must be nurtured at street level 12 months a year,” he said.