Stage Royalty comes to Elizabeth Bay House
On its completion in 1839, Elizabeth Bay House was considered the finest house in the colony. Through its long life it has borne witness to family misfortune, societal upheavals, and the influx of new ideas and tastes. But in 1935, the house was host to the most talked-about event in Australia. After an extensive yet sympathetic restoration, it had reopened as an events venue. The first major party held there was the wedding reception of musical comedy stars Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard. Simply put, Madge was the darling of the Australian public – and she chose Elizabeth Bay House for her grandest performance.
Leah Madeleine Elliott, affectionately called ‘our Madge’ by her fans, had been born in London in 1896. Her family emigrated to Australia when Madge was a baby, and she spent her childhood in Toowoomba, southern Queensland. When she was in her early teens, the family moved again, settling in Sydney’s east, where the talented Madge began dance classes. She launched her stage career at the age of 15 and went on to star in the light musical comedies popular in the 1920s, typically featuring male and female stars who could sing, dance and perform physical comedy. Madge was paired with the tall, debonair and handsome Cyril Ritchard, and the duo would become one of Australia’s most successful and beloved stage partnerships.
Australia’s parochial cultural scene struggled to compete with the lure of the theatrical epicentres abroad, and the pair briefly separated when Madge headed to London while Cyril tried his luck in New York. But by 1925 they were reunited, taking the lead roles in Lady Luck in London’s West End, and so began a period of international success. In 1932, they made the decision to return to Australia and re-establish their careers here. Madge’s fear of not being welcomed back proved unfounded: on arrival in Sydney she was greeted by cheering crowds. She recounted, ‘My heart glowed with the warmth of that reception, leaving no doubt in my mind that I was home again’.1
- 1. M Elliott, ‘Thus far – the story of my life’, ‘Woman’s Realm’, supplement to The Mercury, 24 July 1935, p3.
A spectacular theatrical wedding
In 1935, after more than 15 years of professional partnership and much speculation about the nature of their relationship, Madge and Cyril announced their engagement by means of a large sapphire ring – blue being Madge’s favourite colour.
The date was set for 16 September 1935, conveniently timed to fall between theatrical tours of Australia and New Zealand. Despite protesting that they wanted a simple affair, the pair chose to hold the service at St Mary’s Cathedral. Hundreds of guests were invited, and a three-tier ticketing system was implemented to deal with the overwhelming interest: 40 guests for the Archbishop’s sacristy (for relatives to witness the ceremony), 250 for the reserved section of the cathedral (for friends), and a further 2000 general tickets for the remaining space in the cathedral. On the day, guests were unable to contain their excitement, even jumping up on the pews to get a view of Madge as she walked down the aisle, and a priest had to shout, ‘Kindly remember that you are in the house of God’.2
Outside the church, thousands of people listened to the service as it was broadcast through speakers. Some had arrived hours earlier to secure the best spot. Barriers had to be hastily erected and more than 50 police officers called in to help control the crowds, which had stopped traffic. When the bride and groom emerged from the service, the waiting audience erupted in applause.
- 2. The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1935, p9.
… they will have a setting for their reception not to be found anywhere else in Sydney … What bride, entering the stately circular vestibule of this hall … could have a lovelier setting? What bouquets will be flung from the head of the cantilever staircase which climbs the circular sides of the central hall, with its domed roof reaching through to the top of the house …
The Sydney Morning Herald, Women’s Supplement, 18 July 1935, p12.
‘What bride ... could have a lovelier setting?’
During the reception at the newly refurbished Elizabeth Bay House, 300 guests – including the who’s who of the theatrical world – were entertained in style. Oriental rugs, tapestries, damask wallpaper, gilt mirrors and cedar furniture gave the house a glamorous old‑world charm. The library had been converted into a ballroom, and Madge descended the cantilevered staircase to the song ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’ (despite the incongruous lyrics ‘my love has flown away … I am without my love’).
As she descended, Madge displayed her Peter Russell–designed gown to great effect – a dress described as being the finest ever worn in Australia:
In the century that has passed since its building, many lovely and gracious ladies have swept down the winding staircase, but none more lovable or better loved than the little bride in the wonderful lace gown with the true-lovers knot nestling under its folds – our Madge.
The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 September 1935, p2.