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Frederick John (Freddie) Gibson (1934–2013)

by Margaret Leask

Frederick (Freddie) John Gibson, theatre manager and producer, who has died aged 79, was born on 12th April 1934 in Hobart, Tasmania, to bank manager Hedley Gibson and his wife Charlotte (nee Elliott), who died two weeks after their son’s birth. Raised mostly by his grandmother and his mother’s sister, actress Kitty Stewart, and her husband, Garnet H. Carroll, Freddie was educated as a boarder at Beecroft Grammar School during WWII and later at Sydney and Melbourne High schools. Theatre was in his blood and he began his varied theatrical career as a supernumerary in the 1949 production of The Taming of the Shrew which starred the celebrated Irish Shakespearean actor, Anew McMaster. He also featured in Larger Than Life in 1952 with Jessie Matthews and in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince in 1955 with Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Ralph Richardson, who later remembered Freddie as a “lovely fellow, terrible actor”! Gibson wisely took his place behind the scenes thereafter.

He trained as a Telecommunications Operator during his National Service in the RAAF, after which he worked back stage in all areas under the auspices of Carroll, the proprietor of Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. He was then ‘packed off’ to learn theatre management at the family’s Capitol Theatre in Perth, which he likened to being ‘sent to Coventry’ as he would have preferred the bright lights of Sydney. From 1956 he worked in various management capacities for the Carroll organization, becoming General Manager in 1961. He was Executive Producer for such large-scale musical shows as The King & I, Carousel and Robert & Elizabeth and his great love affair with musical theatre began at this time. He was associated in an executive capacity with major musical productions such as The Merry Widow, Orpheus in the Underworld, West Side Story, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Bells Are Ringing, Salad Days and Lock Up Your Daughters as well as plays such as Auntie Mame and Come Blow Your Horn. At the opening night of Lock Up Your Daughters at the Palace in 1961, he met Janice Elizabeth Heine and they married at All Saints, Woollahra, on 29th October 1962.

In 1967 he moved to Sydney as Deputy Administrator of the Australian Elizabeth Theatre Trust (AETT), with whom he would later collaborate as an independent producer, where his principal responsibilities included the first Trust Orchestra and the Marionette Theatre of Australia. Two years later entrepreneur Harry M. Miller invited Gibson to become his joint Managing Director and principal executive director in which capacity his credits included the Australian productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Dames at Sea, The Secretary Bird, Butterflies Are Free, Butley, Sleuth, Conduct Unbecoming, No Sex Please, We’re British and Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something. Before leaving Miller Attractions in April 1974, he played a major role in securing the Australian rights of the Leningrad Kirov Ballet Company’s highly successful cinematic treatment of Swan Lake. As a freelance producer he formed and administered the orchestras for the Stuttgart Ballet’s Australian tour which began in October 1974.

In 1975 Gibson co-presented the Australian tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hedda Gabler starring Glenda Jackson and The Hollow Crown with Sir Michael Redgrave which also toured New Zealand. Other presentations that year included the English raconteur, David Kossoff, in his one man show and Roy Dotrice’s highly acclaimed Brief Lives, based on the life of John Aubrey, which was presented in association with the Old Tote Theatre. At the same time, he was an advisor to Australia ’75, the ambitious celebratory showcase of arts and science in Canberra, directed by former AETT colleague, Stefan Haag.

In June 1975 Lend Lease appointed him to manage the new Theatre Royal, which opened in January 1976 in the MLC Centre, Sydney. Unfortunately, the opening night show, A Night to Remember, a vehicle for singer Suzanne Steele, was one most people quickly forgot, although Sydney-siders were pleased to have the Royal back, after almost losing it in the development of the site. In 1978 Lend Lease created the MLC Theatre Royal Company with the view to being more than just a receiving house, giving Gibson the opportunity to apply his tough, but intuitive entrepreneurial skills to programming which included many well known stars in popular West End successes. During his 16 year stewardship he produced such successful shows as The Bed Before Yesterday with Rachel Roberts, Deborah Kerr in The Day After the Fair and Warren Mitchell and Gordon Chater in The Dresser. While not many Australian plays were presented, between 1978 and 1985, productions of five of David Williamson’s plays grossed upwards of $1.5 million and the playwright described the Royal as ‘the theatre in which my plays worked really well.’

Gibson worked with the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies and Marian Street Theatre for transfers from their stages, including the STC’s memorable Chicago in 1981. Gibson remembered Chicago as his happiest experience at the Royal: the rental terms he agreed with the STC and the show’s profit worked well for both the company and the theatre, an outcome he always sought but was not easy to achieve. His commissioning of the STC, a subsidized company, to produce Noel Coward’s Present Laughter for a commercial venue, was an industry first. While he described some subsidized theatre in the 1970s as ‘cultural masturbation’, he knew that the days of the solo promoter were long gone and recognized that co-operation and collaboration were essential if theatres as venues were to survive and thrive. He couldn’t bear the Royal being ‘dark’ or putting off technical and front of house staff for lack of a show. He was quoted in the SMH in January 1978 as saying, “As long as I show reasonable success and everybody in the theatre is doing their job, enjoying what they do and being compensated for it properly, what more do you want out of life?” He thrived on risk, fully aware that “In showbiz, high profits go hand in hand with high risk. If I could look into a crystal ball and predict the outcome of a show, I wouldn’t be talking to you now – I’d be on the beach in the south of France.” (Sun Herald 25 July 1982).

He was a Co-Executive Producer of Cameron Macintosh’s Australian presentations of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance. Their success led to Macintosh extending his world-wide operations to Australia with his mega musical presentations of Cats (which ran at the Theatre Royal under Gibson’s stewardship for a record breaking two years in 1985-7), Les Miserables (which ran for 85 weeks in 1987-9) and later Phantom of the Opera. The opening night of Cats, on 27 July 1985, was memorable not only for the lavish production but also for the pre-interval bomb scare which stopped the show for an hour. The audience included Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Treasurer Paul Keating and many show business identities including Reg Livermore, Barry Humphries and Sir Robert Helpmann, who waited patiently for the theatre to be searched and cleared before returning to enjoy the second half.

In 1990 John West observed that during Gibson’s time, 14 musicals, 46 plays, 8 solo performers, six dance companies and various other events at the Royal attracted in excess of 4 million patrons. The Stalls Foyer was the preferred venue for the annual presentation of the Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle Awards. Gibson worked hard to keep the theatre open – there were some ‘dark’ periods and closures for repairs and maintenance but overall the theatre presented a wide spectrum of attractions – what West called ‘a whole education in 20th century theatre in a brief decade and a half.’

Gibson retired from the Theatre Royal in October 1990 to pursue his interests in antiques, especially early Georgian silver, Australian Art, writing and travel. As a freelance Theatre Consultant, he was involved in Miller’s arena concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1992 and the production of M. Butterfly in 1993.

He was instrumental in the formation of the Live Theatre Council of Australia in 1976 and a former President, Vice-President and Executive Council member of the Australian Entertainment Industry Association (Live Performance Australia). He was elected to Life Membership of this Association in 1989. He encouraged and mentored his colleague and friend, the late Ian Bevan, to write The Story of the Theatre Royal, which was published by Currency Press in 1993. In 2004 he became a committed and generous benefactor of the National Institute of Dramatic Art and his estate will continue to provide assistance for a variety of projects there. He is survived by his wife Janice.

Citation details

Margaret Leask, 'Gibson, Frederick John (Freddie) (1934–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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