Intimate Theatre 1924
The secretary, Mr Wilmot, with his Hall Manager, Samuel Shergold, rented out the hall for all kinds of events - from boxing matches and exhibitions for Baby Week to live performances and films.
The next, and most amazing, major change to the theatre came in 1924. Frank Talbot, who had been leasing the hall for short terms to show films and live performances, had travelled to the USA in 1921, to publicise the new Australian film, The Sentimental Bloke. While touring he discovered a new concept, that of the 'little theatre' - a smaller theatre with tiered balconies, where the audience was closer to the stage, giving a more intimate experience. When Talbot returned to Melbourne he discussed his ideas with the Secretary of the Melbourne Athenaeum, Mr Wilmot, and together they went to the Committee of Management with a proposal to build a modern theatre inside the old hall, provided Talbot could arrange an extended lease.
The lease agreed to was 20 years, provided that Talbot would spend £4,000 on improvements to the theatre. A new appraisal of the scheme gave a projected cost of £20,000 for which the lease was extended to 25 years, but the final, actual cost was closer to £54,000 with further lease extensions to compensate.
The work was carried out by Turnbull & Dick under the direction of architect Henry White. The Athenaeum Theatre, built inside the old hall, was opened on 23 December 1924 with a performance of Sir James Barrie's comedy "Dear Brutus" by the Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company.
To many of the audience ... it seemed incredible that such transformation could have been wrought in so brief a period. The occupants of the stalls last night sat in a perfectly ventilated pit, carved out of the clay, portion of Collins Street hill, on which in 1843 the first Athenaeum Hall was erected. Soft tints of mauve and gold now shone below and above the level of the walls of that old hall, where Mark Twain had once lectured, while from the rear seats of the gallery on high an uninterrupted view could be gained through a curiously wrought proscenium of moulded plaster on to the stage, from where, by a perfect design of acoustics, every spoken word was audible throughout the entire theatre. In harmony with the rich silk brocade of the drop curtain was the soft tint of fabric of the chair seats, wider than regulation size, which may have limited the accommodation of the theatre, but certainly increased the comfort of the audience.
"NEW THEATRE OPENED." The Argus 24 Dec 1924: p.17. [accessed] Web. 4 Dec 2011.