Melbourne Gang Show is one of Melbourne's longest-running amateur theatre companies, and among the most successful Scout Shows in the world.
Over the course of our 66-year history, our Show has seen significant changes—in style, technology, audience preferences and demographics—as well as having influenced the development of a number of other Scout shows around Australia.
Explore some of our rich history below.
The beginning... in London
The Gang Show story begins 1932 in London when a Rover Scout named Ralph Reader—who was working in theatre with contemporaries including Lionel Bart—agreed to write and produce a show to raise funds for a swimming pool at a Scout Camp.
The show opened with borrowed scenery and costumes to a small audience at the large Scala Theatre. When Scouting's founder, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, attended the second performance, he realised what a valuable experience the performing arts could provide to young people.
The London Gang Show grew from strength to strength. It commanded a Royal Variety Performance—the first given to amateur players—and a film was even made about the show!
During World War II, the show temporarily ceased production—but in its place, Gang Shows popped up in Royal Air Force units and even prisoner-of-war camps. In 1950, the London Gang Show returned, performing annually until its final curtain came down in 1974. Over 42 years, Ralph Reader put his creative genius into Scouting and left a wonderful legacy for others.
Melbourne in the 1950s
Our show's story begins in 1951 when the 9th Brunswick Scout Group staged We'll Live Forever, a musical comedy written by Ralph Reader. John Wass, the Group Leader, had seen the London Gang Show—and was keen for Melbourne to join in on the fun.
In 1952, Scouts Victoria backed a second season of We'll Live Forever, which led to the establishment of the first Gang Show in 1953 when it was decided that the London Gang Show formula could be presented to Melbourne audiences—there was certainly ample talent and enthusiasm within Scout Groups across Melbourne to emulate London's success.
In the Show's early days, Australia was still an ‘outpost of the empire’ and early productions were often an exact copy of the London Gang Show—including songs, British political jokes and even London street names. For the first two decades this was Melbourne Gang Show. The cast often wore traditional Gang Show ‘whites’ and sang songs about a 'home' they had never been to!
The first Gang Show found it hard to sell seats—even though there were only 498 to fill at the Union Theatre at Melbourne University. The Show had a cast of 60, and they found it hard to fit backstage too. So the next year, the show moved to Cathedral Hall in Fitzroy, where the backstage space was larger and could accommodate the increasing number of young people wanting to join the cast. Under the leadership of a new director, Doug Clarke, audiences steadily increased each year.
In 1960 the Melbourne Gang Show reacted to the need to grow further and took a big gamble—moving to the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, which lifted the potential audience capacity from 700 to nearly 3000 per performance! The move was a near-disaster, and ended in a huge loss that was luckily underwritten by the then Gang Show director, Bosun McKellar. Had he not invested in the future of our Show, this story might well have ended then.
Confronted with this problem, the Gang responded and in 1961, Betty Stewart Enterprises was engaged to promote the show to the theatre-going public of Melbourne, including in newspapers and on television and radio, and it worked—on four of the five nights of the show, "house full" signs were put up! With Ken Bayly as the next director and Betty as promoter, Gang Show became part of the annual fare for Melbourne theatre-goers—many of whom had never had prior contact with Scouts or Guides.
To fill the vast Palais stage for an audience up to 70 metres away, the show changed its staging with lots of massed movement, large sets and props. In keeping with the politics of the time there were lots of references to Queen and country, as well as Scouting sketches and songs, and lots of English slapstick pantomime. In these early days a cast member might be in six or seven items, each requiring different costumes and make-up. Make-up was originally applied with sticks of Leichner mutton fat that required powdering to ‘set’ it on faces.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Australian society began to detach itself further from England and—led by Ken Bayly—Melbourne Gang Show did the same. Initially still in a revue format but now with songs about Melbourne and local events, the Show developed a truly Australian feel. In fact, in 1968, to the shock of Gang Shows around the globe, Melbourne introduced girls into the cast!
Our Expanding Influence
In the 1960s, Melbourne Gang Show inspired the creation of a number of other Scout and Guide shows—including both Camberwell Showtime and Whitehorse Showtime, which were established in 1965.
The entire Melbourne Gang also toured, and on one occasion even travelled on a RAAF Hercules jet to perform the first Gang Show in Canberra. That show inspired the beginning of the now successful Canberra Gang Show in 1966.
A program of 'Gangster' shows, where a small number of cast and crew from Melbourne Gang Show would spend weekends in Victorian country towns to put on shows with local Scouts and Guides, resulted in the first locally-produced Albury Gang Show in 1967, and led to the creation of the Strzelecki Showtime in 1969.
Melbourne also inspired its members to take Gang Show further afield—in 1969, Gang member Dennis ‘Rip’ Butler moved to Sydney and started the Cumberland Gang Show, and another, Ted Blamey, became the director of the Hornsby Gang Show.
The 70s saw MGS become a much more technically-spectacular production: marvellous special effects, massive sets, breathtaking costumes and lighting, real rain, electrified dresses, whispered choruses, up-keys and very special ultraviolet ‘black’ light. The spectacle continued as MGS celebrated being Australian with lots of flags and processions through the audience.
Ken was prolific in his compositions, which were often inspired by his many overseas trips. One year Ken went to France and Germany, so the next year we produced Paris in the Spring and Gemutlichkeit. After he toured to Spain, we created Toreador. We went to the circus with a live merry-go-round, travelled back in time to the days of Aladdin and Camelot, and journeyed with Marco Polo. Ken had a talent for writing every kind of music from the spectacular to the quiet and moving.
We did more Gangster runs all over Victoria, performed in the Moomba Parade, and at the Myer Music Bowl. We took the show on tour to Mildura, which inspired a team to create the Sunraysia Gang Show in 1977. We provided the entertainment at the Dandenong Jamboree, and even recorded a highly successful album with the Royal Australian Air Force Band!
Rising costs brought problems for MGS in the 1980s and so again the Show reacted to this change and moved to the National Theatre in St Kilda in 1984 and 1985. This move created challenges of its own. The dressing rooms were much too small for the large Gang Show cast numbers, so portable buildings were sourced and placed in the park next door to the theatre. The more limited technical facilities caused in the backstage teams to show their skills in adapting to the new environment.
Yet more Scouts were inspired to begin their own show, and 1981 saw the establishment of South Metro Showtime.
It was back to the Palais in 1986 and 1987, and then came the chance for a season at the historic Princess Theatre in Melbourne, then on the eve of refurbishment. After a four-year return to the Palais, costs and lower audience numbers brought a return to the National for some years.
In a world-first for Gang Shows in 1988, Melbourne Gang Show accepted an invitation to tour the entire show to the Philippines and perform at the fabulous Meralco Theatre in Manila, as well as being joined on-stage in Melbourne by two Scouts from the Philippines.
In 1992, at the invitation of the King of Thailand, we were joined by Scouts and Guides from across the country to tour Bangkok and Chiang Mai as the Australian Gang Show. We performed to packed houses in both cities, including a special Royal Command performance to the Thai Princess in Bangkok.
At the end of that acclaimed tour, Ken Bayly retired after 29 years of leading the show and Rob Motton was appointed as our show's director.
Theatre tastes had changed from the revue style and, after a few shows with related sequences in the early 1990s, Melbourne Gang Show again reacted to audience demand and—uniquely amongst Gang Shows—moved to presenting two original one-act musicals.
These shows—usually a more dramatic first act and a pantomimic second—presented increasingly technical performances that allowed the show to remain creative and relevant to modern theatre audiences.
Following a number of split seasons between the Alexander Theatre at Monash University and the Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre in the late 1990s, we settled into our current home in 2002—the wonderful Besen Centre in Burwood.
Throughout this decade we also staged the Arena Entertainment at the Ballarat Jamboree and the Cuboree at Gilwell Park. In 2011, MGS was the supporting act for Bear Grylls' live stage show at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.
The show has continued to advance and adapt, using live-to-screen visual technologies, amazing technical effects in lighting, sound, and evolving to stay relevant to its members and you, our audience.
In 2016, after 24 years as our Show's director, Rob Motton retired and David Venn was appointed to the role. Under his leadership, Gang Show continues to develop young directors and choreographers to ensure our show stays always fresh.
Melbourne Gang Show has been successful for over 60 years because it has been able to adapt. The contemporary Gang Show is a very different from the more ‘innocent’ Scout revue of 1953.
Our show will continue to evolve and adapt to the changes and opportunities that present themselves. Each year our show is created by a unique community of individuals who give their passion, talent and time to present the best possible performance.
The performance itself however is only the vehicle for the real aim of Gang Show—providing training and development for young people, and demonstrating the best of what Scouting and Guiding can offer.