ABOUT THE THEATRE
The Lilydale Athenaeum Hall was built in 1888 and has had a rich and interesting history which has been recorded in detail by Anthony McAleer in the magnificent publication "Lilydale Icon" which can be borrowed from the Theatre.
The Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre Company Inc. was founded in 1976 by Russell Johnson and Geoff Page, and shortly after this the name of the Hall was officially changed to the Athenaeum Theatre.
The Lilydale ATC is a non-profit organisation, administered by a Board headed by Alan Burrows and supported by a large group of enthusiastic volunteers.
The Company produces five shows annually, each running for a three week season, in addition to a number of other events and productions.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Alan Burrows (Chairman)
Nicholas Ryan (Vice Chairman)
Bianca Johnson (Treasurer)
Les Wallis (Secretary)
ATC PRODUCTION SUB-COMMITTEE
Stage Extensions 1977
Russell Johnson and the Premier 1979
Geoff Page was a skilled business manager as well as an accomplished performer and director. He directed "The Anniversary", the first performance of the newly formed ATC in 1976, and went on to direct six other productions, "The Loudest Whisper" (1978), "Cue for Passion" (1980), "Everybody Loves Opal" (1981), "The Liver Birds" (1983 - with Ron Moore), "Gaslight" (1984) and "The Blue Goose" (1985).
He also appeared in several productions including "Uncle Harry" (1976), "See How They Run" (1978), "The Drunkard" (1984), "On Golden Pond" (1985), "Amadeus" (1986), and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1987). His last appearance with the ATC was as the Professor in "Who Lies There" (1999).
On 7 November 2002 the entire theatre community was saddened when Geoff Page suffered a fatal heart attack.
2005 saw the Company celebrate its 30th anniversary, and the publication of the magnificent three-volume publication "Lilydale Icon". Volumes 1 and 3 of the Icon are dedicated respectively to Geoff Page and Russell Johnson, each with the words: "... one half of a partnership that devoted so much to the Athenaeum Building and, in doing so, became its saviour."
Australia Day Awards 1997
Following the death of Geoff Page, Russell had some difficulty in chairing board meetings. Richard Longmore had been a board member for some time after completing his term as Chairman of Commissioners of the Yarra Ranges shire. Russell asked Richard if he would take over as chairman and unaware of the implications Richard accepted. Russell continued his association with the theatre and was a constant presence until his death.
Russell Johnson died in Lilydale on 6 July 2009 and was laid to rest in the old Lilydale Cemetery, not far from the grave of Dame Nellie Melba. He was fondly remembered by many of his theatre friends and colleagues at a Memorial Celebration held at the theatre on 25 October 2009.
The long-awaited completion of the new building for the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum in 2010 provided internal access between the Theatre and the Museum, allowing our patrons to share the new toilet facilities with the museum.
Geoff Page 2002
In 2014, a new ticketing system was introduced, allowing on-line booking for the first time. Air conditioning was installed in the foyer, the auditorium and the Green Room, and the gas heating system was replaced. The storage area underneath the auditorium was refurbished (courtesy of the Shire of Yarra Ranges). All auditorium and foyer lighting was replaced with low consumption LED globes. New seating was installed, and the stage curtains replaced.
The management of the theatre rests with a Board of up to twelve members who meet monthly. Apart from two part-time staff, all those who manage and run the theatre are volunteers. Each year, the Production Committee recommends shows for approval by the Board. Much effort goes into selecting shows that will entertain our audiences.
In 2018 Richard Longmore, who had been a Board member since 2002 and Chair since 2006, announced his retirement. The Board recorded its deep gratitude for his wisdom, guidance, and tireless work over this long period.
The Chair passed to Alan Burrows, who has been associated with the theatre since 1979 in numerous roles including Director, Production Manager and Choreographer. The winner of many awards on behalf of the ATC, and a Board member since 2007.
Also in 2018, Office Manager, John Martin, retired. John managed the theatre and its finances with skill and devotion for thirteen years. He was replaced by Fiona Carter. In 2022 a further 5 year lease was negotiated with the Shire of Yarra Ranges.
The most recent event has been the upgrading of the “Green Room” under the stage, which contains the dressing rooms and costume and prop stores. The area was in poor condition, as it was last upgraded more than 40 years ago. The ATC is extremely grateful to the Shire of Yarra Ranges for organising and funding these welcome changes.
THE LILYDALE ATHENAEUM THEATRE COMPANY
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre Company was founded in 1976 by Russell Johnson and Geoffrey Page, the owners of "The Gift Box", a business in the main street of Lilydale, 40k east of Melbourne.
Together with Pat Lyall, Dr Bill Hardy and his wife, former Lilydale mayor Gwen Hardy, they formed a formidable combination that steered the Athenaeum in its formative years, laying the foundations for the successful theatre we have inherited today.
Geoffrey Arch Page was born in 1924, grew up in Caulfield and attended Melbourne High School where he developed an interest in drama and, in his final year, produced his first play. After school he joined the Bank of New South Wales where he remained until the mid-sixties, ending up as head of the bank's Foreign Exchange department. He remained involved in the theatre throughout his time at the bank, and also performed on Melbourne radio station 3DB and in children's television in the early days of Channel 7.
Russell Kevin Johnson was born in 1927 and spent his early life in Wangaratta, where he was a choir boy and then a church organist. He had a successful career in retailing, eventually becoming a buyer for the Myer store. He continued to play the organ and also joined the Myer dramatic society where he directed his first play at the Arts Theatre in Richmond.
It was here that he met Geoff Page, starting a lifetime friendship. When Russell's Kalorama home burnt down in the bushfires of 1962, he and Geoff pooled resources to rebuild in the same spot. Around this time both were considering a career change, and this resulted in their partnership in "The Gift Box". It also began their long association with the Lilydale community.
In 1975 they sponsored two amateur productions in the local Athenaeum Hall, and in August of that year they arranged a meeting of people interested in forming a "Lilydale Theatre Club". This resulted in the foundation of the Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre Company in 1976.
The Athenaeum Hall had a long and varied history. Erected in 1888 it served as the local Mechanics Institute and meeting hall. It served as the local picture theatre from 1922 to 1974, it housed the Public Lending Library, and provided a venue for concerts, bazaars, public meetings, roller skating, badminton, volley ball, dances, church services, wrestling, baby shows and chest x-rays!
But in 1975, with the final closure of the picture theatre and losing its attraction as a venue for other public functions, the Hall was in a sad state of disrepair. Geoff and Russell approached the Lilydale Council with a proposal to turn the historic building into the "Lilydale Athenaeum Theatre", resolving that they would "restore the Theatre to its former glory and make it a place of which the Shire would be proud".
A long process of repair and refurbishment ensued, involving amongst other things the complete rewiring of the building, installation of heating and the construction of a partition to create a foyer and an intimate theatre atmosphere.
The Company had to overcome many obstacles, including Health Department requirements, severe financial crises and political arguments and disagreements over the use of the Hall and the right of other groups to access it.
In 1976, however, the Company still managed to move from a "three night stand" to a regular three week season for its shows.
1977 saw the name of the building formally changed from the "Athenaeum Hall" to the "Athenaeum Theatre", and over the next few years more refurbishment resulted in the enlargement of the backstage area, the construction of dressing rooms and a wardrobe department, widening of the proscenium, installation of new seating, new velvet curtains and a fire safety curtain and fire escapes.
In 1980 the old "Hall Committee", which had been responsible for managing the building, was disbanded by the Council and the ATC was granted a 10 year lease. Shortly after the Council decided to close the Athenaeum Library, which had operated since 1888, and the area it had occupied became a new box office and administration area.
Years of bureaucratic arguments with the Health Department were resolved in 1985, and the Company decided it should finally have an "official" opening. Accordingly, on 7 July 1985, with due ceremony, the theatre was opened by the Minister for the Arts, the Hon. Race Matthews.
1988 marked the Centenary of the Athenaeum Building, which in 100 years had evolved from the original Mechanics Institute to what was now "an elegant and luxurious boutique theatre".
Tragedy struck in 1991, when in the middle of a season of "Gigi", a fire started under a wooden outbuilding. A magnificent effort by 85 firefighters saved most of the building, but a toilet block was destroyed, the kitchen damaged and there was extensive smoke damage to the foyer area. An amazing community effort saw a cleanup completed in time to enable the season to be completed.
The early nineties were difficult times financially, but the theatre managed to prosper, and in 1994 it was granted another 15 year lease. Later in the nineties the theatre had an external facelift and more internal redecoration, installation of new lighting and a digital lighting console. Also at this time the Australian Heritage Commission placed the Theatre on its "Interim List of the National Estate".
From 1975 to his retirement from the Board in 2005, Russell Johnson worked tirelessly for the theatre, as well as continuing as organist for a local church. He loved to entertain elderly citizens, loved to travel and was a loyal monarchist. His contribution to the community was recognised by a number of awards by the Shire of Yarra Ranges, and he was inducted into the Lyrebird Hall of Fame in 2004.
Dame Nellie Melba sang at the Athenaeum Hall on four occasions; Russell was an enthusiastic collector of Melba memorabilia and had assembled the largest collection in Australia. The theatre's ornate Melba Room displays some of Russell's rare items. In 2005 he donated the collection to the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum.
Russell loved a party and until his retirement was a fixture, greeting patrons in the foyer as they arrived and remaining to socialize afterwards. He was involved in all aspects of production, from selling tickets to wardrobe, set dressing, directing and even on occasions, acting.
Russell in the Melba Room 1984
Surveying the fire damage 1991