The Grand History of the Melba Spiegeltent *
The Melba Spiegeltent, built in Belgium in 1910 by the mirror designer Oscar Mols Dom and tent maker Louis Goor, was originally named The Bacaladera Spiegeltent. There seem to be various meanings of the name but they all seem to be related to codfish, either it’s processing or the boat from which they were fished! A glamorous association indeed.
Oscar Mols Dem went on to start a family glassworks business in Belgium with his wife Elza Dom. That business, OMD Glassworks, is still thriving and remains in the family.
All Spiegeltents have a similar structure of a basic wooden framework clad in wooden pieces – all of which slot together to make the tent without any bolts or screws. This structure allows the tents to be erected and dismantled quickly and easily.
The Bacaladera was one of a handful of Spiegeltents that had their heyday in the 20s and 30s travelling across Europe as mobile cabaret venues, featuring some of the finest artists of the time from Kurt Weill to Edith Piaf.
As cinema became popular, the attraction of the Spiegeltents began to wane. In an effort to compete, shows became more and more risqué with some even becoming mobile ‘Waffle Houses’ that offered a little extra… patrons who stepped inside would be greeted by ladies dancing the ‘hooch’ and given the opportunity to head to a private booth for a more intimate encounter.
By the late 60s the tents had all but vanished, those that hadn’t been completely lost to the ravages of time became forgotten in storage.
In the late 1980s, David Bates bought the Famous Spiegeltent and it made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Something about the history and the romance captured the hearts of the punters and marked the beginning of a resurgence of the Spiegeltent.
Many people in Australia still think that there is only one Spiegeltent, and they are often thinking of the Famous but whilst she does have a certain magic, she is still made from glass, wood and steel and cannot be in more than one place at once.
So back to the story of the Melba Spiegeltent…
Frank Gasser had long admired the beauty of the Spiegeltents and was desperate for one of his own. His dream came true when he met Frau Vita Sachtler. She had acquired the Spiegeltent as a deal in a barter. While in Germany chasing up a debt, the client had no money to offer but said that he had something that might just work instead. The two went out to an old shed in the middle of the Black Forest and there, forgotten and forlorn, was The Bacaladera Spiegeltent. An agreement was made and the Spiegeltent was restored and re-introduced to the touring circuit running a show called Palais Des Fous in Germany.
When Frank met Frau Vita Sachtler he could not believe his good fortune as she was prepared to sell and, after nearly a century of traveling Europe from festival to festival, The Bacaladera found a home in Melbourne. Frank did some loving restoration, updated the façade and re-named her The Melba Spiegeltent. The façade does still feature the lady from the Bacaladera days so whether she was a siren or a fishwife is open to interpretation!
The Melba settled in Northcote and ran successful seasons as a dinner and show venue under the watchful eye of Frank Gasser but when Circus Oz heard that he was looking to sell, they were excited. They had just finalised plans for their new headquarters that included a space outside that would be large enough for a venue, and The Melba would be perfect. Despite not having even broken ground on the works yet, Circus Oz purchased the Melba in 2010. She then found a temporary home in Docklands as she waited for her permanent resting place at Circus Oz HQ.
Finally the time was right and in August 2014 The Melba found her new home in the forecourt of Circus Oz home base in Collingwood. She opened with a season of Glory Box and has hosted all kinds of events since. Everything from fringe seasons to weddings with some swing dancing in between.
We’re thrilled to have her here and look forward to finding out more about her history whilst shaping her future. She is one of 9 original antique tents and that number will continue to grow as new spiegeltents are being made all the time – some as recently as 2006. At the moment we estimate that there are around 14 Spiegeltents, both old and new, travelling around the world.
As far as we know only two others have a permanent home: Teatro Zinzanni in Seattle operating as a dinner and show venue and one at Parc de la Villette in Paris which has been running as Cabaret Sauvage for the last 17 years.
The Melba Spiegletent is a permanent fixture at Circus Oz with an ongoing program of shows and events. If you would like to hear more about what is going on join our Melbas mailing list here.
*The information included may or may not be embellished. As far as we know it’s true, but nobody wants to get in the way of a good story!