Thebarton Theatre has seen everyone from Gene Krupa to Nirvana step onto its stage, and as it celebrates its 90th anniversary we look back on the colourful history of a beloved Adelaide music venue.
Today it’s better known for its legacy of live music, but when it opened in June 1928 the building was to be Thebarton’s second Town Hall. The first had arrived in 1885 just a few years after incorporation, but the area’s 20th century expansion saw calls for a more “commodious” and modern structure. With its Spanish-influenced façade and ornate interior details, building such a grand hall was also a statement, a declaration that Thebarton was not simply a suburb on Adelaide’s outskirts but a township on the rise. The council even pushed the completion date and £33,000 budget to add last minute flourishes to its construction.
The new Town Hall served up popular entertainment from the outset, with moving picture promoter D. Clifford securing a 21 year lease to host weekly screenings in the dance hall. In its first decades the hall hosted an eclectic array of performances and events, from grassroots community fare like dance classes and boy scout fundraisers to Maori Choir recitals, a whistling violinist, Shakespeare performances, orchestral concerts and countless fundraisers and charitable dos.
In 1936, a sold out crowd of god-fearing South Australians packed out the hall to hear Reverend S.M. Hogan bemoan the “Dechristianisation of Society”. Hogan warned that between “empty churches and crowded beaches in a country which was predominantly non-Catholic, Australia was already half paganised already”. “Was there any difference,” he asked, “between the scantily clad women who competed in the public games of pagan Greece and the scantily clad women who took part in public sports in Australia today?” Poor Reverend Hogan could scarcely have imagined that within decades that very stage would become a temple to the very values he feared, hosting shadowy figures with names like Black Sabbath, Bad Religion, New Order and Kylie Minogue at the height of her rebellious Impossible Princess phase. Think of the children!
The Town Hall’s descent into highly listenable moral depravity stepped up a notch in the 1950s, as the arrival of adventurous new forms of music from the United States began to transform the Thebbie into the live music venue it is today.
Not even food poisoning could stop groundbreaking US drummer Gene Krupa from giving an “explosive” concert at the Hall in August 1954. Dosed up with a pre-show injection of painkillers, the excitable crow could hardly tell the difference as Krupa’s “facial expressions ranging from ecstasy to exquisite pain were all taken as part of the drummer’s stock in trade”, as he played “in a way no drum in Adelaide had been hit before”. For the record, the poisoning came from a batch of Melbourne spaghetti and meatballs.
The venue’s current era took hold in 1981, with a name change, heritage listing and renovations coinciding with the hall’s takeover by current operators Weslo Holdings.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the rechristened ‘Thebarton Theatre’ cemented its place as a peg in national touring circuit, and provided generations of South Australian music fans with some of their formative first experiences of a major concert. The 80s saw acts like Combat Rock-era The Clash, Tracy Chapman, Joan Jett, INXS and too many Split Enz concerts to count, while the 90s ushered in the cathartic noise of Nirvana.
Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic’s January 30 1992 concert came just weeks after Nevermind usurped Michael Jackson from the top spot on the Billboard charts, confirming the arrival of the grunge age. Apparently the show was originally booked for a much smaller venue, but like many dates on Nirvana’s 1992 tour had to be moved twice as the band’s popularity grew. As the third venue, the mid-sized Thebbie proved just right.
Bless you, bootleggers
The din of Hole, Beastie Boys, Veruca Salt and Blur shows was occasionally punctuated by tender moments like Jeff Buckley’s February 1996 concert. Coming at the tail end of touring for his sole studio album Grace, you don’t need bootleg recordings to imagine the sound of Buckley’s seminal cover of Hallelujah bathed in the natural reverb of the Theatre’s lofty ceiling. Perhaps it was also the 90s that birthed the Thebbie’s other alias, as the 1991 arrival of youth broadcaster triple j in Adelaide saw waves of unassuming East Coast presenters stumble over ‘The Barton Theatre’ while announcing tour dates on air.
Today the 2,000 capacity venue occupies an important niche in Adelaide’s live music scene. A stepping stone between city and inner-metropolitan venues, which are generally sub-1000 capacity, and the stadiums and arenas of Hindmarsh, recent years have seen big concerts from the likes of Tame Impala, PJ Harvey, Stormzy, Gang of Youths, the Preatures, Portishead and more. To mark the anniversary, it will join iconic venues like the Governor Hindmarsh and the Grace Emily hotels in the South Australian Music Hall of Fame, with a Sunday, July 29 induction ceremony at the Theatre itself. It has already sold out.
Some of its patrons may have taken an unfortunate nosedive – like the Dune Rats fan who hospitalised himself last year by stage diving from the 90 year old balcony – but it seems the Thebarton Theatre’s fortunes are safe as a treasured piece of Adelaide’s musical landscape.
Header collage: Main image collage: The News, July 27 1954 via National Library of Australia, The Southern Cross, Friday 27 November 1936 via National Library of Australia
The Avalanches, Sia Duff, Nirvana tour poster, January 1992 via Nirvanaguide.com