Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James MacMahon (1858–1915)

by Margaret Williams

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Charles MacMahon

James MacMahon (1858?-1915) and Charles MacMahon(1861?-1917), theatre and cinema entrepreneurs, were born at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, sons of Patrick MacMahon, contractor, and his wife Mary Ann, née Delany, and two of four brothers who all became noted theatrical managers. At 17 James, after interludes as a lawyer's clerk and journalist, pioneered the family business by becoming a Bendigo theatrical agent, staging a disastrous pantomime at Christmas 1875; but two years later the visiting actress Mrs Scott Siddons was impressed enough to engage him as manager of her company. For six years James toured North America and the British Isles as manager and freelance journalist, and in the early 1880s worked for a time for Henry Irving's company. Meanwhile Charles and his brother Joseph Francis (1863?-1918) had established themselves as managers and agents in the Bendigo-Ballarat-Castlemaine area.

On James's return in 1884, the brothers formed a partnership with the actor-manager George Leitch which lasted, apart from a rift in 1887-88, until about 1890, and toured productions such as Leitch's His Natural Life (1886) through Australia and New Zealand. The MacMahons also had a long association with the actor Grattan Riggs from 1882 until the 1890s, and managed the tours of performers such as John F. Sheridan, Dion Boucicault, George Darrell, Alfred Dampier, the Majeronis and Wybert Reeve. James oversaw the general running of the firm, while Charles and Joseph travelled with the companies.

In 1887 the brothers expanded their activities into Queensland with a presentation of The Mikado; in 1888 their company opened Her Majesty's Opera House in Brisbane. Next year Charles and James took a long lease on the Melbourne Opera House, presenting such successes as the Nellie Stewart Opera Company in Paul Jones, and John F. Sheridan's Fun on the Bristol. Concurrently they presented variety entertainments in the Exhibition Building and Wirth's Circus in a marquee in Swanston Street. While in the United States in 1890 James recruited the famous Evangeline Burlesque Company and the retired champion boxer, John L. Sullivan, but financial difficulties, compounded by a court case for debt, forced the closure of the Sydney season and the Opera House lease at the end of 1891.

During the 1890s the brothers' theatrical activities were greatly reduced but, always interested in the latest technology, they made several trips to the United States in search of 'novelties'. In 1890 James displayed a model of Edison's phonograph and obtained a new model for the Sydney Tivoli in 1899. Charles exhibited an electric weighing machine in 1891, and in 1895 toured a demonstration 'kinetoscope'. In 1896-97 James opened the Salon Cinématographe in Pitt Street, Sydney, introducing a new cinématographe with special colour effects and a coupon system of payment. From this time the brothers' interest in cinema grew; their last major Australian theatrical venture, a twenty months' tenancy of the Sydney Lyceum in 1897-99, initially presented films before the melodrama main bill.

In 1907 Charles made the first of his two silent feature films, Robbery Under Arms, 5000 feet (1524 m) long and costing £1000, with Jim Gerald, later a noted vaudeville star, as the Aborigine, Warrigal. After a première in Melbourne it was screened at the Oxford Theatre, Sydney, where eager patrons 'stormed' the ticket office. Next year Charles, in conjunction with Edward Carroll, made a 2000-feet (610 m) film of For the Term of his Natural Life, shot in the ruins of Port Arthur, Tasmania, at a cost of £7000. The film broke records with an eight-week run at the Queen's Hall in Sydney in 1908. The MacMahons now branched into film distribution, in 1910 setting up the Dominion Picture Theatres Co. in New Zealand, and in 1910-15 opening cinemas in Auckland and Wellington. Charles's last film, a travelogue entitled London by Day and Night, was made and released in 1914. Both James and Charles died of pneumonia, James at Ashfield, Sydney, on 29 April 1915 and Charles in Melbourne on 27 June 1917; they were buried with Roman Catholic rites in Waverley and Brighton cemeteries. Charles left his estate of £585 to the actress May Granville who was widely accepted as his wife.

The brothers and their two sisters were an affectionate and close-knit family, and there were many tributes to their business integrity and enterprise. James, a 'genial and companionable man' known as 'Mighty Atom', was the innovator and driving force before 1900, after which 'Charlie' seems to have become the leading partner. Although he seemed a 'hard-bitten showman' to the young entrepreneur Claude Kingston, his sunny nature, his love of practical jokes, his legendary generosity and the perpetual flower in his button-hole made him a colourful and endearing personality.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Reade, Australian Silent Films (Melb, 1970)
  • C. Kingston, It Don't Seem a Day Too Much (Adel, 1971)
  • A. Pike and R. Cooper, Australian Film, 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980)
  • Theatre (Sydney, Melbourne), 1 Aug 1917
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 11 May, 28 Sept 1888, 15 Aug 1890
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 Aug 1889
  • Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand), 18 Apr 1911, 30 June 1917
  • New Zealand Times, 18 Apr 1911, 30 June 1917
  • Bendigo Independent, 1 May 1915, 29 June 1917
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 1 May 1915, 29 June 1917, 27 Nov 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 May 1915, 28 June 1917
  • Auckland Weekly News, 28 Nov 1918
  • Leitch papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Williams, 'MacMahon, James (1858–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


29 April, 1915 (aged ~ 57)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.