12 July 2023

Riverina Rewind: The Oddfellows, Dame Nellie Melba and the Oxford Theatre

| Michelle Maddison
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Old theatre building

Wagga’s old Oxford Theatre building has a fascinating history. Photo: Museum of the Riverina.

If you’re ever sitting at the lights facing Romano’s, you may have noticed that to the left (beyond the mural) are modern brick structures. But what was there before?

Directly next to Romano’s was an adjoining hotel, the Criterion, and next door to that was the old Oxford Theatre building with its decorative and distinctive red-brick facade.

Wagga’s first Freemasons’ Hall stood on this site. The foundation stone was laid on 6 October, 1870, built by James Markey and completed in October 1871 for £2300.

Designed for dramatic performances by local amateur and visiting professional companies and artists, the auditorium could seat 600 people. Two stops fronted Fitzmaurice Street on either side of an arched lobby leading into the theatre.

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On the evening of Friday, 15 October, 1880, one of the most appalling catastrophes to befall Fitzmaurice Street occurred in the form of a devastating fire that resulted in an “alarming sacrifice of property”, as reported in the following day’s Wagga Wagga Advertiser.

As the whole block caught alight, Adrian’s Furniture Warehouse (an old wooden building where the fire started), the Masons’ Arms Hotel, the Criterion Hotel, the Masonic Hall and several small surrounding businesses were lost.

The building pictured was constructed by Charles Hardy & Co for £4000. Opening in November 1881, it became Manchester Unity Hall, having been sold to the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows. It later became known as Oddfellows’ Hall in 1888.

As with the Masonic Hall before it, numerous events were held within. It was there that Wagga celebrated Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, and it was the site of Wagga’s first eisteddfod. The building hosted guest speakers, community meetings, theatrical productions, picture shows, grand balls (both fancy and military!), and once even housed a skating rink.

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In 1923, it was renamed the Oxford Theatre. On the evening of Tuesday, 19 July, 1927, Dame Nellie Melba performed a successful concert at the crowded hall. Later that year, Dame Nellie’s Australian basso protege Mr A E Y Benham, who had just returned from concerts in London, gave a free recital at the Oxford Theatre while in town on a business trip.

Other famous names to perform within its walls included the ”Australian Queen of Irish Song”, Temora-born Marie Narelle, English Shakespearean actor Allan Wilkie, Australian tenor Browning Mummery and Wagga’s own Billy Kerr.

The theatre hosted its last performance, a musical comedy, Glassasheen, in December 1936. Sadly, the building fell into disrepair, and in 1959, was purchased by local firm Jeremy, Browne & Cox, which set up its wholesale and retail farming products business on the ground floor.

If you look closely at the photograph, you will see the ghostly lettering reading ”OXFORD THEATRE” across the top of the building.

Despite this business’s success, the firm didn’t last within the walls of this historically and culturally significant building.

The former Oxford Theatre (after a short stint as an army disposal store) was demolished on 22 June, 1968.

The modern premises of Denniston and Day Lawyers now stands in its place.

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