More than a decade ago, Australian entertainer and presenter Julia Zemiro took to the stage for a production of the musical Spontaneous Broadway. It was here, surrounded by ornate decor, that she first discovered the joy of performing in The Famous Spiegeltent.
“What I love about it is that there’s an intimacy. You feel like you’re in a special room, with a special place, watching something that’s just for you,” Zemiro says of the venue.
Now, as the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s new artistic director, she is bringing The Famous Spiegeltent here for the duration of the June 7-22 festival. Sitting on the terrace outside the Festival Centre’s Dunstan Playhouse, it will serve the venue for performances by artists such as Australian singer and actor Paul Capsis, West End and Broadway star Ruthie Henshall and New York jazz ensemble The Hot Sardines.
The festival program, released today, shows that The Famous Spiegeltent will also transform into a late-night club – to be known as The 11 O’Clock Number – on weekends, with DJs and live entertainers including Hans, Zemiro’s Eurobeat character Bronya and vaudevillian act Hot Gin Punch (presented by the duo behind previous festival hit Mother’s Ruin).
While a number of new spiegeltents, or mirror tents, have popped up across the globe, The Famous Spiegeltent is one of only a handful that remain from the late 19th and early 20th century. Built in 1920 of wood, canvas, mirrors and leaded glass, the ornate venue has hosted myriad performers around the world.
It has the ghosts of thousands and thousands of audience members and all sorts of artists
“A lot of people think they’re a German invention, but they’re not. They’re an indigenous Belgium construction,” says The Famous Spiegeltent owner David Bates.
“The story of spiegeltents is that they were travelling dance halls, built by circus tent owners. They wanted to find a way to build a structure that would sit on a hard or soft surface. So, unlike other tents, the spiegeltent isn’t anchored to the ground. It stands on its own.”
Like Zemiro, Bates says he fell in love with The Famous Spiegeltent as a performer. In the late ’80s, as a jazz piano player, he travelled to Scotland to play in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.
“I played music in it and I fell in love with it. I thought what an amazing, incredible space,” he says.
It was this passion for the venue that led him to bring The Famous Spiegeltent to Australia.
It was packed into two 12m shipping containers for the journey by sea, and made its Australian debut at the Adelaide Fringe Festival’s Garden of Unearthly Delights in 2000. Every time the tent is moved and reconstructed, it requires about 12 people to carry its 3000 pieces and fit together the 19m round venue, but it still travels regularly around Australia and to Edinburgh.
“The building process of a spiegeltent cannot be helped with any modern building methods,” says Bates.
“It just needs old-fashioned labour. One piece after another, just like a big jigsaw puzzle.
“It travels in two containers…and when you open the second container, it’s like they say about an old theatre: If you walk in the back of an old theatre you can sense the ghosts that have been there before. And that’s what the old Famous Spiegeltent feels like.
“It has the ghosts of thousands and thousands of audience members and all sorts of artists from over the years.”
Adding to the ambiance is a 99-year-old chandelier which will be hung in The Famous Spiegeltent for the Cabaret Festival – the first time it’s been used in the tent since 2004. Bates says the antique lighting mounted above the 300 to 350 audience seats will give the space a “special sparkle”.
Zemiro says the tent is an ideal venue for a cabaret festival because of its intimate and transformative nature.
“It’s the sort of space that can have that sort of party atmosphere and also have people like Paul Capsis in there with his amazing band, so it will be like being in a rock gig. He wants to be the Mick Jagger of cabaret, and indeed he will be.
“So you’ll go in there and there’ll be like this hot sweaty mass of stuff happening.
“You’ll have an amazing performer like Ruthie Henshall, who performs in the West End of England, doing beautiful solo songs with a piano and just making your heart stop.”
In a bid to draw new audiences into the space, Zemiro says the Famous Spiegeltent line-up will include a show about football: “It’s called Presentation Night and it’s been going on in Melbourne for a while, but it’s its first time in Adelaide. Basically… it’s a footballer who likes music [in this case, former Western Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy], talking to a musician who loves football [singer-songwriter Tex Perkins] about life, love and their love of music. And how to win a premiership.”
Other artists performing in the tent will include Australian singer and actor Elaine Crombie (Black Comedy, Kiki and Kitty), Adelaide musician Max Savage (performing with a seven-piece band), and the “faboriginal“ writer and performer Steven Oliver. There will also be a Pub Choir night, where audience members learn a three-part harmony in 90 minutes and then perform it, and an LGBTI+ Elders Dance Club.
When the Adelaide Cabaret Festival finishes, The Famous Spiegeltent will be packed away before heading to its next location, just like it’s done for almost a century.
It’s a tradition that Bates says is a large part of the tent’s magic: “You can create a little world for three weeks, and then it disappears. The world is gone.”
Other Cabaret Festival highlights include:
Kate Miller-Heidke: Performing her favourite songs plus new music, with collaborator Keir Nuttall, Iain Grandage and a string quartet (Thebarton Theatre).
RocKwiz Salutes The Rock Musical: Julia Zemiro and the team from SBS’s RocKwiz pay tribute to the songs from great rock musicals (Thebarton Theatre).
Lior with Paul Grabowsky: A Beautiful Collision: Singer-songwriter Lior and composer and pianist Grabowsky reinvent some of Lior’s most cherished songs (Dunstan Playhouse).
Vika and Linda: Between Two Shores: A new show in which singing sisters Vika and Linda Bull share their own story (Dunstan Playhouse).
David Campbell: Back in the Swing of Things: Featuring the songs of Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and Bobby Darin, “as well as some modern classics given the swing treatment by a 14-piece ensemble” (Thebarton Theatre).
Bobby Fox: The Irish Boy: The former Jersey Boys and Riverdance star combines traditional and modern Irish music with dance and storytelling (Dunstan Playhouse).