From Australia’s Jewish Past: John Lazar – from theatre to jewellery to local politics

November 16, 2021 by Features Desk
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John was born on 1 December 1801 in Edinburgh Scotland.  He was the son of Abraham and Rachel, Abraham being a prominent stockbroker.

John Lazar

John, and his wife Julia Solomon, left London with seven children, unfortunately losing three through typhus on their journey arriving in Sydney on 26 February 1837, under the name of Lazarus, which was actually his mother’s maiden name. He claimed to be a tailor and an actor, having apparently appeared on well-known London theatre stages including Drury Lane and Convent Garden.

In May 1837, he contacted Mrs Barnet Levy of the Theatre Royal and began his Australian career as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice.  His ten-year-old daughter, Rachel, who later married the violinist Andrew Moore, became the principal dancer and main attraction during the last months of this theatre. In December that year, he was made manager of the theatre, which unfortunately closed in March 1838.

He then moved to the new Victoria Theatre as actor and stage manager. The press was not kind to him, attacking him for his limited acting capabilities and ‘vulgar cockneyism’.  He gave acting away as a result of this and concentrated on management until the end of 1840 when the Queen’s Theatre in Adelaide engaged him to play a role in Othello which opened on 11 January 1841. This is the theatre that had been built by Vaiben and Emanuel Solomon who has been written about previously in From Australia’s Jewish Past.   On the same bill, interestingly enough, was his daughter Rachel, who appeared in a farce and as a solo dancer.

John then took on the lease of the Queen’s Theatre and struggled amid the unfavourable early Adelaide atmosphere of puritanism, lack of general interest, and economic distress. Despite varied bills of many different styles of theatre, music and attempts at opera, he had to abandon his leave at the end of 1842 and decided to return to the eastern Australian states where he felt his theatrical fortunes would be more securely established.  In May 1843, when the monopoly of Sydney’s Victoria Theatre was threatened by the opening of the City Theatre, he was brought back as manager until August 1844, and again in 1846. In these later years of his Sydney management, he laid the foundations of opera and gave encouragement to local drama.

John Lazar’s grave in the Hokitika Cemetery NZ

In 1848, he once more returned to a more prosperous Adelaide and became associated with George Selth Coppin, who had successfully established the New Queen’s Theatre in a building adjoining the old Queen’s Theatre. This time Adelaide treated him with more respect and he enjoyed considerable popularity. The climax of his theatrical career in Adelaide was his reappearance in 1850 at the old Queen’s Theatre, remodelled and renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre. This time he was highly regarded as a comedian and he enjoyed frequent praise in contemporary newspapers for his endeavours both as a manager and as an actor.  Although life began to change for him, a number of the productions he tried to introduce to the Queen’s Theatre were not well accepted by patrons.  In fact, at times they were declared offensive and his management style, once again, did little to encourage respected audiences.  Interestingly enough, although not the first actor to play in Adelaide, John Lazarus – who in business went under the name of Lazar – occupies an important place in the city’s theatrical history since this was the first serious theatrical enterprise undertaken there.  John was also involved in the foundation of the Adelaide Jewish Community.

By the 1850s, his interest in the theatre lessened and he established a jeweller’s and silversmith’s business in Hindley Street, Adelaide, and with this commercial background launched into civic affairs, becoming an alderman of the Adelaide City Council in 1853. He was mayor of Adelaide from 1855 to 1858, and he retired from the council in 1859. In 1863 he went to New Zealand where, somewhat surprisingly, he filled a number of purely administrative posts in various local government organizations and, was again involved in the community there.

Two of John and Julia’s sons, Samuel and Abraham, both became prominent in theatre management and his daughter Rachel who gained her fame as a ballerina and actress.  John Lazar (Lazarus) died in New Zealand on 8 June 1879. A portrait in oils is exhibited in the Freemasons’ Hall, Adelaide.  Julia returned to Sydney and died in Woollahra six months later on 26 December.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page.

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