James Cassius Williamson 1844-1913

James Cassius Williamson

James Cassius Williamson

James Cassius Williamson was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, on 28 July 1844.

He was playing at the Californian Theatre there when he met, engaged and, in 1873, married actress Maggie Moore.

When Struck Oil opened at the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street, Melbourne, on 1 August 1874, 30-year-old James Cassius Williamson did indeed strike oil! Over 43 record-breaking nights, 93,000 tickets were sold – this in a city of 110,000 people.

 

Firm Foundations

‘James Cassius Williamson was a potentate,’ wrote Claude McKay, who was his secretary from 1908 and later a well-known journalist. ‘Everything about him was ease and elegance. His clothes were from Poole of Bond Street, his linen, whether for wear or on his dining table, was of the finest. His home at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, was the expression of his taste: the spacious rooms were restfully furnished, and only on examination was it seen that every piece was expensive. Williamson’s cellar was stocked by his London wine merchant with the rarest vintages, and he had bought the claret from a bin that had been reserved for Queen Victoria. In his acting days Williamson was known as “Handsome Jimmy”. Williamson excelled in his knowledge of the theatre both behind and in front of the curtain. He was, one might say, a re-producer of plays – of those that had proved successful in London and New York. Though he felt that some of the productions were likely to result in loss, all the same he thought it wise to stage them, for he believed that it was necessary to keep abreast of the movement of the drama. If the movement advanced too far ahead of the public the gap created would eventually become too costly to bridge; and he realized too that the successes would be able to carry the failures. Although he never lost his American accent, Williamson was a cosmopolite, as much at home in Paris or any other Continental capital as in London, New York, or Sydney. Like a good American, he died in Paris.’

For over  100 years, the name ‘J.C. Williamson’ dominated Australian theatre.

James Cassius Williamson was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, on 28 July 1844. He was only 11 when he saw his first play – and he remained stage struck for the rest of his life. He joined a Milwaukee stock company while he was still at school and, aged 19, secured an eight-year engagement as the juvenile comedian at Wallack’s Theatre in New York. In 1871 he moved to San Francisco. He was playing at the Californian Theatre there when he met, engaged and, in 1873, married actress Maggie Moore. She was born Margaret Virginia Sullivan in San Francisco in 1851. Her Irish-born parents had forsaken a new life in Australia to try their luck in the rush for Californian gold.

James and Maggie were a perfect match, on stage and off. And Williamson found them a perfect play – a quaint comedy melodrama called Struck Oil. They introduced it at Salt Lake City in February 1874 and included it in the repertoire they brought to Australia, under the enterprising management of George Coppin.

When Struck Oil opened at the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street, Melbourne, on 1 August 1874, 30-year-old James Cassius Williamson did indeed strike oil! Over 43 record-breaking nights, 93,000 tickets were sold – this in a city of 110,000 people. After similar successes in other Australian centres, the Williamsons went to London and back to the United States. Everywhere, Struck Oil continued to draw full houses. They returned to Australia in 1879.

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Biographical references

Ian G. Dicker: ‘J.C. Williamson’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Ian G. Dicker: JCW – A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson, Elizabeth Tudor Press, 1974
Richard Fotheringham: ‘Maggie Moore’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Claude McKay: This is the Life, Angus and Robertson, 1961
Richard Refshauge: ‘Maggie Moore”, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 5, Melbourne University Press
H elen M. van der Poorten: ‘James Cassius Williamson’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 6, Melbourne University Press