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The Criterion Theatre, popularly known as 'the Cri', was situated on the corner of Park and Pitt Streets and opened just after Christmas, on 27 December 1886. It was built for entrepreneur John Solomon to a design by architect George Johnson. The building was extensively remodelled in 1892 to designs by Backhouse and Laidley, and again modified in 1905. The theatre operated until 13 July 1935.
The building's exterior was in the Victorian baroque style of the times. It also followed the colonial tradition of a link between theatre and hotel, with the Criterion Family Hotel occupying the street front. The interior was in the colonial version of the late Georgian style, with seating in stalls, a dress circle with an ornamented face, side boxes and a gallery, lit by a central chandelier. The theatre's exact seating capacity is unclear, but it was around 1000 people.
The colour scheme of the auditorium was light blue and gold. The seats in the stalls and circle were gold-coloured iron, upholstered in ruby plush, and the stage boxes were hung with brocade fringed in ruby and gilt. The gallery seating, in the manner of the time, consisted of unnumbered benches. The stage curtain was made of gold-fringed ruby plush, a break with the convention of using green baize, and the act drop featured a framed painting of Captain Cook proclaiming British acquisition of the Australian east coast.
The local press considered the new Criterion an improvement on the existing Sydney theatres, but the Colonial Architect was unimpressed, complaining the theatre was malodorous. The orchestra pit, under the stage, and the actors' dressing rooms, in the basement, lacked natural light and had poor ventilation. This problem was partially remedied in the 1892 alterations when the roof was raised and a sliding panel fitted, a scene dock added at the back, the proscenium lowered and the stage enlarged, with dressing rooms built above it. At the same time, the interior was redecorated in the currently fashionable Moorish style, featuring pale blue, fawn and old gold. The proscenium arch was remodelled in terracotta and crimson, with figure studies depicting the Shakespearean Seven Ages of Man, while the nationalist imagery of the act drop was replaced by the interior of a Moorish palace. More pragmatic changes, including increasing the number of exits and some fireproofing, came in 1905 as a result of safety legislation, and these alterations also increased the seating capacity.
The Criterion served Sydney as its major intimate playhouse for nearly 50 years. It opened with a recent overseas success, the operetta Falka, and closed with Barry Connor's farce The Patsy. In between it hosted, among many others, the Brough Boucicault Comedy Company which, in various combinations, presented the partners Robert Brough and Florence Trevelyn and Dion (Dot) Boucicault junior and Irene Vanbrugh in their 'society' comedies and 'serious plays', particularly Pinero and Wilde, from 1894 to 1906. The theatre also saw the sensation drama of The Kelly Gang in 1898; William Anderson's popular melodramas including Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan's The Squatter's Daughter in 1907; expatriate Oscar Asche and his wife Lily Brayton in 1909 on the first of their three tours; and in 1920 the premiere of the musical comedy Irene.
Frank Musgrove purchased in the Criterion in 1913 and from 1915 leased it to JC Williamson's. With the amalgamation of JC Williamson Ltd and J & N Tait in 1920, it came directly under the control of Williamson's, who used it for the next 15 years as the Sydney outlet for their imported London West End comedies. Like most of Sydney's nineteenth-century theatres, the 'Cri' did not survive the pressures of economic depression, entertainment taxes and imported cinema. In 1936, a year after the last performance, the building was demolished, with part of the site going into the widening of Park Street and the other part to retail expansion. Following the colonial tradition of linking hotel and theatre, the 'Cri' was memorialised in the Criterion Hotel which was, in the years after World War II, a popular watering hole for actors recording at the nearby ABC radio studios.
Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre 1788–1914, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985, p 288
Ailsa McPherson, 'The Lost Theatres of Sydney', unpublished lecture, Sydney, 2005
Philip Parsons (ed) with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, Sydney, 1995, pp 107–8, 168, 575–6