Wheeler Theatre Company

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The Wheeler Theatre Company was founded in Cape Town in May 1886 by impressario Ben Wheeler (Benjamin Wheeler, "the Gov'nor") and his son Frank Wheeler, two actor managers who focused on musical comedy or comic opera which included farce, and minstrel programmes (on occasion referred to in playbills as "negro absurdities").

They came became among the foremost theatrical managers in South Africa in the period before the Anglo-Boer war, were famous in all the large towns in South Africa and acted as impresarios to many great singers and musicians.

The names given to various Wheeler companies

Over the course of their period in South Africa both the company and the father-and-son business were usually referred to as Ben and Frank Wheeler, The Wheeler Brothers or simply The Wheelers, but they also created, named and managed a number of different companies by going into partnerships with other managers, and the name of the company was thus adapted to fit the case, e.g.The company names over the years include:

The Wheeler Comedy Company

The Wheeler Company

The Wheeler Juvenile Opera and Musical Company

Wheeler-Edwardes Combination

Wheeler-Edwardes Gaiety Company (also Wheeler-Edwardes Company)

Wheeler and Smith ("managers and proprietors" of the Opera House, Cape Town)

Some activities by the Wheelers in South Africa

In 1886 Luscombe Searelle was with the company for a year. Among other venues, they used the Good Hope Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Burg Street for their shows. The Hawtrey Comedy Company performed Charley's Aunt under the Wheeler Theatre Company management at the Good Hope Theatre in 18**

1887: The Wheeler Theatre Company brought a new company to Cape Town to play in the Theatre Royal, Cape Town in April and May. Consisting of a cast chosen by their manager, Frank Weston, and for the most part directed by Sutton Vane, a new appointee with the company, their repertoire included Dandy Dick (Pinero), The Harbour Lights (Sims and Petitt), The Schoolmistress (Pinero), The Workman (Towers), My Sweetheart (Maeder and Gill), Two Orphans (D'Ennery and Cormon), Lady of Lyons (Bulwer-Lytton), Confusion (Moore) and Peril (Saville and Bolton).

1983: They offered a short season which included Little Lord Fauntleroy, Niobe, Dandy Dick and L'Enfant Prodigue,

1894: They brought the first Gaiety Company to appear in the country to South Africa, to appear in Cape Town. Led by Cairns James (and popularly referred to as the Cairns James Company), the company opened their season on 9 June with a performance of In Town (Ross, Leader and Carr), followed by Mam'zelle Nitouche (Meilhac and Millaud), Miss Decima (Burnand), A Gaiety Girl (Hall).

1895: They presented the company of W.J. Holloway at the Lyceum Theatre, Johannesburg with Hamlet (Leonard Rayne as "Hamlet").

1896: Hamlet done by the Ben Wheeler Theatre Company in Cape Town (Leonard Rayne once more playing "Hamlet").

1905: A company under the management of the Wheeler Brothers appeared in the Opera House, Cape Town, with a season that included The Darling of the Gods, Véronique

1906: The year began with performances of Savoy operas at the Opera House under the management of Wheeler and Smith, by a company consisting that included C.H. Workman, Fred Billington, Albert Kavanagh, Jessie Rose and Nancy Freyne, with Francois Cellier as conductor. The company presented a season including Iolanthe , Yeoman of the Guard, H.M.S. Pinafore and Patience.

Next, the Wheeler-Edwardes Gaiety Company performed The Duchess of Dantzic in the Opera House, Cape Town in the first half of the year, followed by a season that included revivals of Véroniqueand The Orchidand the new pieces, and the new piece Mr Popple, done under the Wheeler management.

During the second half of the same year the Wheeler Brothers hosted a company that included such fine performers as Herbert Greville, Marie Housley, Wilfred E. Payne and the six year old Sylvia Edney, the Opera House, Cape Town, during the second half of the year. They offered a season of plays that included Mr Hopkinson (Carton), Beauty and the Barge (Jacobs and Parker), His House in Order (Pinero), The Freedom of Suzanne (Gordon-Lennox), The Perfect Lover (Sutro) and The Walls of Jericho (Sutro).

In 1909 they put on The Girl Behind the Counter (Bantock, Anderson and Talbot) in Cape Town.


"Mr Frank Wheeler in the City," Eastern Province Herald, April 7, 1934.

D.C. Boonzaier, 1980. "My playgoing days – 30 years in the history of the Cape Town stage", in SA Review, 9 March and 24 August 1932. (Reprinted in Bosman 1980: pp. 374-439.)

F.C.L. Bosman, 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1916. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp.

Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg.

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