The Princess Theatre is one of Melbourne’s most iconic buildings. It is also home to one of the world’s most famous ghosts.
The theatre, situated on Spring Street, was built in 1854 and was originally called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’.
Astley’s was a simple joint; a barn like structure that offered low rent vaudeville acts, popular with new arrivals brought by the Gold Rush.
In 1885, the run-down theatre came under new ownership, and was extensively renovated. The new design was supplied by famed local architect William Pitt, designer of St Kilda Town Hall and Queen’s Bridge, and featured an elaborate facade, decorative electric lighting and a domed roof.
Now dubbed ‘The Princess Theatre and Opera House’, it re-opened with a lavish staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's ‘The Mikado’, in 1886.
Among the cast was Frederick Federici.
Frederick Baker was born in London, in April 1850.
The son of a soldier, he spent some time in the Army, before a stint as a junior diplomat. But his passion was theatre, and he turned to the stage in his early twenties. Of Italian heritage, he adopted the stage name ‘Federici’, to add some panache to his resume.
Federici found success as a nightclub singer, and then graduated to stage musicals and opera. He had a powerful bass tenor voice, and striking on stage presence.
He showed a particular affinity for light, comic opera, and was the star of several Gilbert and Sullivan productions.
Federici appeared in the first ever staging of both ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, in 1880, and ‘The Mikado’, in 1885. Both were smash hits on the West End, and were subsequently staged on Broadway, Federici touring America with both productions.
The success of these, and other shows, firmly established Federici as one of the leading theatre actors of the period.
In early 1887, Federici joined J.C.Williamson’s touring company, who had been engaged for a series of shows at the Princess Theatre, in Melbourne.
He arrived in the city in July, and his first appearance was playing Florian, in ‘Princess Ida.’ More successful shows followed; new roles in ‘Dorothy’, and ‘Erminine’, and a reprise of his performances in ‘Pirates’ and ‘The Mikado’.
In early 1888, the company embarked on a production of ‘Faust’.
Faust is a popular German legend, recounted in folk stories, songs, ballet, theatre and the opera.
Whatever the medium, the story is much the same; Faust is a diligent academic, trying to acquire as much knowledge as possible. The Devil, named Méphistophélès in the story, takes advantage of this, and offers Faust the meaning of life, in exchange for his soul.
Faust agonises over this offer, but finally accepts, only to regret his decision as he is dragged off to hell. It is a simple morality tale, but has proved enduringly popular, especially on stage.
For the 1888 production at the Princess Theatre, the 37 year old Federici was to play Méphistophélès.
Opening night was March 3, 1888.
A full house was in attendance for the eagerly anticipated show, and the first few acts were generously received; Federici giving a dynamic performance.
At the dramatic conclusion to the piece, Federici was lowered through a trapdoor in the floor, symbolising his descent to hell. The enraptured crowd erupted into thunderous applause, lasting several minutes.
But as he was reached the cellar below the stage, Federici suffered a sudden heart attack and collapsed. A doctor was summoned and the actor was carried through to the green room.
But efforts to revive him were in vain.
He had died almost instantly.
Federici was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery two days later, and was widely mourned.
Glowing tributes were published in the local press, and a collection taken up for his widow and two children (who returned to England shortly afterward).
And there the matter may have rested. O
‘Attending the theatre when a fire alarm had sounded, it was a false alarm, one of the fireman attempted to open a sliding section of the roof to let some fresh air in.
He was later found by his colleagues, huddled in a corner, shaking with fear.
As moonlight flooded the theatre, the fireman claimed he had seen a figure standing, statue like, in the middle of the stage.
‘I could see through him!’ the fireman claimed. ‘And his eyes! They were like a cats eyes.’
- Richard Davis, Great Australian Ghost Stories
It is not known when Federici’s ghost was first sighted, the report above dates from 1900, but accounts of his appearance soon began to mount.
Night staff, maintenance and security workers mostly, heard odd noises, or saw a shadowy figure near the stage.
Other theatre staff simply reported feeling strange or uncomfortable, getting goose pimples for no obvious reason, or experiencing unexplained changes in temperature.
Audience members reported odd lights flashing on and off during theatre performances. Stagehands and artists described feeling something brushing past them in empty corridors.
Some even saw Federici himself:
‘A tall figure of a good-looking man, in full evening dress, hair slightly greying at the temple, and of stylish appearance.’
- Un-named witness, Federici sighting.
And these reports are not limited to some distant period of ancient history:
‘I felt something bad behind me. It touched my hair, and my shoulders, and my back. And I was just, frozen.
I turned around, and there was no one there. The theatre was closed. I never believed in ghosts before, but I believe in them now.’
- Trina Dimovska, Princess Theatre Cleaner
Interviewed on ABC radio, 2004.
In recent times, Federici’s ghost has most often been seen sitting in a chair in the dress circle, occasionally watching performances.
Paranormal investigators from all over the world have come to the Princess Theatre, to investigate the case. Federici has been widely discussed on TV, in print, and on YouTube.
On opening night’s, theatre management keep one seat vacant for Federici, in tribute to his death, 130 years ago. It is considered good luck if he shows up.