This 5 Minute History article appeared in the Esperance Tide. The Bijou is a local landmark and icon with a fascinating history.
In 1896, businessman E. J. McCarthy decided that the rapidly growing town of Esperance needed a hall. The town had just been officially gazetted as a Municipality in 1895. The result was the Bijou Theatre, which is the oldest surviving theatre in the state. McCarthy built the Bijou next to the two-story general store which he also built on Dempster Street. Amazingly, building the Bijou took McCarthy only 31 days. Built from timber and iron, with a pine floor, the Bijou was lit by brass oil lamps hung from the ceiling beams. The walls were decorated with large paintings of sailing ships. McCarthy proposed that the Bijou would accommodate around 600 people.
In those early gold rush days, Esperance was a bustling town and a busy thoroughfare for people traveling to the goldfields. The newly built Bijou theatre was immediately put to use. Warner’s Merry Moments Theatre Company visited Esperance in 1896, and local pianist Mr. Jones accompanied the performers from England and Sydney. Advertisements from 1896 proclaimed an ‘Ethiopian Minstrel Show’, a Teamsters’ Ball, and the Quadrille Club fancy dress ball, as well as ‘Venderhatta, the Great Rocky Mountain Wonder on the invisible wire’. Dances were held at the Bijou every Saturday night. Local government meetings were held there, as were political rallies and court proceedings. The Esperance Agricultural Show was also held at the Bijou, with the inside of the hall used to display the produce and exhibits. The equestrian events were held on a vacant block of land opposite the theatre. The large Norfolk pine tree in front of the building was planted in 1897 by the Esperance Shire, and was watered by the McCarthy family.
As the town declined in size following the goldrush boom, the Bijou remained the centre of the town’s civic life. Weddings, school plays, socials, and other events were held in the hall. Films were screened in the hall once a month by a travelling projectionist. When roller-skates came into vogue, the Bijou was used for weekly roller-skating events. This rather quickly destroyed the pine floor, making it unsuitable for dancing, so the floor was replaced with strong jarrah boards. Roller-skating was then only permitted around the outskirts of the floor. Seating in the hall was a collection of wooden chairs and stools, and they were said to be so uncomfortable that theatre goers brought their own cushions for comfort. The most fortunate patrons were seated in deck chairs. Entrance to the films screened at the Bijou cost 10 pence for children and 20 pence for adults.
In 1947, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB) purchased the Theatre from the McCarthy family and used it as a meeting hall. The ‘Buffaloes’ are a men-only social and charitable club that was started in England in 1822. The Bijou continued to be used for movie screenings and social events. After the RSL hall was built in 1954, it was used for town social events, leading to a decline in the Bijou’s use. The opening of Esperance’s two drive in theatres brought a stop to movie screenings at the Bijou. After this, the rundown old Bijou was virtually closed down, and rarely ever used. In 1968, the Esperance Theatre guild was established and began staging performances in the RSL hall. In 1971, the Theatre Guild obtained the lease on the Bijou Theatre, almost certainly saving it from being demolished.
The Guild purchased the Bijou from the RAOB in 1975, raising the funds to buy the building through their productions, and by getting people to ‘buy a seat’. The brass nametags on the seats in the theatre show the many people in the town who contributed. The Theatre can now accommodate 160 people, a far cry from the 600 or more people who squeezed into the hall for movies in the early days of the Bijou. The Guild made many improvements to the Theatre, including re-roofing the building, putting in tiered seating, and expanding the stage. These improvements were carried out with the hard work of Guild members, and local builder John Crawley’s expertise. In the 1980s, the theatre was extended, with a wardrobe room, kitchen, supper room, and new toilets added. The Guild has produced many amazing productions at the Bijou, including ‘Cheap at Half the Price’, a play about Esperance history that was written by local Dale Johnson, and produced for the Bicentenary in 1988. Notable visiting producers have directed some of the Bijou’s productions, providing an opportunity for locals to learn valuable skills. One of these visiting directors was Raymond Omodei, who went on to direct across Australia, including at the Sydney Opera House. The Theatre Guild is still going strong, with many of the founding members still involved.
The French word Bijou means ‘little jewel’, and the Bijou Theatre has been a local gem for over a century. With any luck, the Bijou will still be providing entertainment for Esperance locals for many years to come.