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Anderson, William (1868–1940)

by Margaret Williams

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Anderson (1868-1940), theatrical entrepreneur, was born on 14 January 1868 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of James Anderson, miner, and his wife Jane, née Matthews. He left school at 10 to help support the family, and became a bookseller and a billposter at the Royal Princess Theatre. In 1889 he was Bendigo agent for the MacMahon brothers, theatrical managers on the Victorian provincial circuit, and showed an early entrepreneurial flair by opening a roller-skating rink in Bendigo. By 1893 he was manager for various companies touring Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong, including that of Charles Holloway, for whom he had become business manager by 1895.

On 30 November 1898 at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Anderson married Eugenie Marian Duggan, leading lady in the Holloway company, based at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. Eugenie, daughter of Dennis Duggan and his wife Mary Ann (Marianne), née Walsh, was one of a theatrical family which included her brothers P. J. and Edmund and sister Kathleen. An ardent Shakespearian, she studied under Mrs G. B. W. Lewis (Rose Edouin), and made her first appearance as Juliet at the Theatre Royal in 1890. She was soon in Dan Barry's company, and joined Holloway in 1895. Not long after their marriage Anderson took over the Holloway company, and Eugenie became leading lady in his 'Famous Dramatic Organisation', formed in 1900.

From now on Anderson had at least two permanent companies, one sharing the Melbourne Theatre Royal and the Sydney Lyceum with his friend and rival in melodrama, Bland Holt, and another touring Australia and New Zealand. He was now well known as the youngest theatrical manager in Australia. On 1 December 1906 he opened 'Wonderland City', a large fun-fair on the waterfront at Tamarama Bay, south of Bondi in Sydney, which he claimed cost him £20,000 and which was dubbed the Coney Island of Australia. At this time Anderson was very wealthy, maintaining large houses in Melbourne and Sydney and spending and entertaining lavishly. A great lover of sport, he owned racehorses and at the Bendigo Jockey Club's meeting in November 1913 won the President's Plate with his mare The Beggar Maid, named after a favourite role of his wife. Genial in personality, he was very popular with his companies and had the reputation of never sacking a needy employee.

In 1908 Anderson built the large King's Theatre in Melbourne (opened in July), and next year visited England where he engaged Olive Wilton and Roy Redgrave for his company. In contrast to J. C. Williamson, he made it his policy to foster local talent. He is best remembered for the spectacular Australian melodramas he staged at the Theatre Royal and King's, Melbourne, including The Squatter's Daughter (1907), a drama based on Ben Hall, and The Man from Outback (1909) by 'Albert Edmunds' (Edmund Duggan and Bert Bailey). These melodramas made a great feature of bush settings and exhibitions of country skill such as whip-cracking and wood-chopping; in The Squatter's Daughter several sheep were shorn on stage. In 1910 Anderson presented a film of this play, said to be the longest yet made in Australia and featuring the original cast, at his new open-air Olympia Theatre in Sydney. Unlike most managers of his day he was never an actor, but he collaborated in writing two melodramas, produced in 1910, for the King's: The Winning Ticket, a drama of the Melbourne Cup, and By Wireless Telegraphy, based on the Crippen case, with Temple Harrison and Roy Redgrave as respective co-authors.

In 1911 'Wonderland City', whose initial popularity had not been revived even by such stunts as a couple married on elephant-back, had to be closed, having virtually ruined Anderson financially. Though he retained nominal lesseeship of the King's, Melbourne, until 1915, he handed over the theatre to Bailey and Duggan, who staged their famous dramatization of On Our Selection in 1912. From the end of World War I until the late 1920s he was based at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Adelaide, with his daughter Mary often playing leading roles. In 1929 he staged a season of old-style melodrama at the King's, but it closed earlier than advertised; the lurid sensation-drama on which his reputation had been built had been largely superseded as popular entertainment.

In the 1930s Anderson returned to Melbourne to live. The last show in which he had an interest was a pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, staged by Charles Wenman at the King's in 1939. Eugenie, who had conducted a drama school after her retirement from the stage, died at St Kilda, Melbourne, on 2 November 1936, aged 64. Survived by their daughter, Anderson died of chronic nephritis at St Kilda on 16 August 1940; he and his wife were buried in the Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • E. Irvin, ‘The great Australian play’, Quadrant, Jan 1976
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Jan 1908
  • Herald (Melbourne), 10 Feb 1958
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 15 May 1963
  • Anderson collection (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Margaret Williams, 'Anderson, William (1868–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anderson-william-5023/text8357, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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