October 20, 2021

The Princess Theatre Ghost

The Princess Theatre ghost is said to haunt one of Melbourne's most iconic buildings. Is it the spirit of a singer who died onstage?

The Princess Theatre, shortly after re-opening
The Princess, shortly after re-opening

The theatre, situated on Spring Street, was built in 1854 and was originally called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’.

Astley’s was a basic venue; a barn like structure that offered vaudeville acts. It was cheap, and popular with new arrivals brought by the Gold Rush.

By 1885, the theatre had become run-down, and was sold. The new owners would renovate extensively. The 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.

The Princess Theatre Ghost: Federici
Frederick Baker, AKA: 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 name ‘Federici’, to add some panache to his stage persona.

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.

The Princess Theatre Ghost: Federici as 'The Mikado'
Federici as 'The Mikado'

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 toured America with both productions.

The success of these shows, established Federici as one of the leading theatre actors of the period.

The interior of The Princess Theatre, circa 1888
The interior of The Princess Theatre, circa 1888

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 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’.

Traditional depiction of Faust and the Devil
Traditional depiction of Faust and the Devil

Faust is a popular German legend, recounted in folk stories, songs, ballet, theatre and opera.

The character 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 the offer, 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.

Origin of the Princess Theatre Ghost: Federici dies onstage
The local press reports the story.

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, Satan wrapped his scarlet cloak around Faust, and the pair were lowered through a trapdoor, symbolising the descent to hell. The enraptured crowd erupted into thunderous applause, lasting several minutes.

But as he reached the cellar below the stage, Federici collapsed. A doctor was summoned and the actor was carried through to the green room. Efforts to revive him were in vain, he had died almost instantly.

It was later determined the actor had suffered a heart attack.

The Princess Theatre Ghost: Federici's grave
Federici's grave

Federici was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery two days later, and was widely mourned. His coffin was festooned with wreaths from mourners, several attendees at the funeral service collapsed in grief.

Glowing tributes were published in the local press, and a collection taken up for his widow and two children (who later returned to England).

But shortly afterwards, reports began to surface, of strange happenings at the Princess Theatre.

‘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, heard odd noises, or said they saw a shadowy figure near the stage.

Other theatre staff felt strange or uncomfortable, had goose pimples for no reason, or experienced unexplained changes in temperature.

Audience members reported odd lights flashing 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.

The theatre's bistro is also named after the actor

Paranormal researchers 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 nights, theatre management keep one seat vacant for Federici. From people who claim to have sighted him, he is usually spotted in the dress circle, in the second or third row.

It is considered good luck if he shows up.

THE MELBOURNE FILES 

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