Queenie Williams & the last Pollard’s tour of North America

Above: “Queenie” Ina Williams at the height of her success in the US with Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company, c 1917. Cover for the sheet music – Kind Treatment by Tom Pitts. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Alfreda Ina Williams was born in Footscray, a western suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 17 November 1896. Following several years on stage in Australia as a child actor, she went on to have a significant stage career in North America. She first arrived in the US in 1912 with the last Pollard’s troupe, but separated from them in 1919, when the Pollard activities came to an end. She then worked in vaudeville, mostly in cities of the US east coast. She retired in 1932 and died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

 


At the age of 10, “Queenie” Ina Williams was already a popular stage performer in Melbourne Australia. The oldest of four children, she was born Alfreda Ina Williams in 1896 to jockey Frank (Ferdinando) Williams and his wife Annie nee Armstrong. As she explained many years later, she was “puny” as a child, and a Melbourne specialist recommended “calisthenic” dancing as a means to building up her physical strength. She took to it readily, although as an adult was a little under 5 foot (152 cm) tall. A pupil of a well known dance school run by Mrs William Green and Miss Florrie Green in Melbourne, she gained a role in the melodrama The Fatal Wedding. In one scene she famously led a children’s “Tin Can Band,” with a kerosene tin drum. A cautious reviewer (presumably in view of her age) at Melbourne Punch”  wrote “combined with her very clever acting and singing, this child is an excellent dancer. She has been a pupil of Mrs. Green for four years, and she predicts a great future for this little artist.”  The play toured Australian cities – she was in Western Australia when her mother died in December 1906. Such were the expectations of the child performer of the time, she could not leave. She went on to appear in other touring productions, including The Little Breadwinner, with Beatrice Holloway.

Queenie Williams SLVTin Can Band022

Above Left: Queenie Ina Williams in The Fatal Wedding. State Library of Victoria Collection. At right, Queenie, centre with cast. Postcard in the Author’s Collection. She was 10 at the time, but short and and underweight as the photos show.

Sometime in mid 1912, Nellie Chester (formerly Pollard) decided it would be a good idea to take another group of young Australian performers to North America. She had worked the US-Canada route with several “lilliputian” (underage) troupes over the previous decade, in collaboration with her older brother Charles Pollard. A number of talented young Australians got their start this way and by 1912,  some were already at work in the US – Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Harold Fraser (“Snub Pollard”) amongst them.

Nellie Chester brought many familiar faces back for the 1912 US Canada tour, and some new ones. Old favourites Teddy McNamara, William and May Pollard were amongst the best known performers – while newcomers included “Queenie” Williams and Billy Bevan. But the new Australian legislation that followed Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s disastrous tour of India in 1909-10 required all performers leaving Australia to be aged over 18 years of age for females or 16 for males. Six of the troupe’s girls were underage – Queenie (16), Ivy Moore (16), Patsie Hill (16), Ethel Naylor (16), Jessica Braydon (17) and Daisy Wilson (16). It is hard to believe Nellie Chester was not aware she was breaking the law.

The SS Makura arrived in Vancouver in late August 1912, and newspaper reviews show the company followed Pollard’s well-travelled performance route across Canada and up and down the US west coast. Performing familiar musicals – The Mikado and The Belle of New York, they also added Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly to their repertoire. Not surprisingly, the cities the troupe visited welcomed a return of the “Pollard Juvenile Opera Company”. Nellie Chester may have hoped that Queenie could take the place of Daphne Pollard, who had last performed with Pollard’s five years earlier. On the troupe’s arrival in Honolulu, Pollard’s publicity announced Queenie was their “rising star”. Daphne had been a major draw-card until her departure in 1907 and now had a significant profile of her own. Queenie was similarly charismatic onstage, and resembled Daphne – also being short and slight .

Queenie in 1914 while in Los Angeles  Pollards in VAncouver 1913  Queenie Hanford Journal (Daily) 3 December 1915

Left: “Queenie” Ina Williams in the “Los Angeles Herald”, 17 February 1914. She was 18 years old.
Centre: Pollard’s advertisement in the “Vancouver Daily World”  23 May 1913. Eva, Willie and Teddy had all previously travelled to the US before with a Pollard troupe. Note the variation in the troupe’s name – one of many.
Right: Top to bottom – Daisy Wilson, May Pollard and Queenie Wilson. “The Hanford Sentinel” 3 December 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

Over the next eighteen months, as the troupe travelled the US and Canada, the members clearly changed, and the “brilliant chorus of 40” reduced to about 20. William “Billy” Bevan left sometime towards the end of 1913, and joined Alf Goulding and Daphne Pollard in their own stage show in California. But others joined up, including Pollard regular Freddie Heintz.

In October 1913 the troupe travelled to Alaska, a first for the company, and finally, in February 1915, they arrived in New York and performed there for a few months – 15 years after the city had first been mooted as a destination for a Pollard troupe. The “Gerry Society” had successfully kept previous Pollard under-age troupes away from the US east coast (See Note 1). And another event of significance occurred for Queenie. In November 1914 she married Ernest Chester, the son of Nellie Chester and one of the troupe’s managers.


Pollards Spokane Chronicle Dec 23 1913

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Nellie Chester is almost certainly the conservatively dressed woman in black at the centre of the rear row. Ina may be third from the right in the front row.

By 1916, the Pollard’s troupe were probably well aware that vaudeville was under siege from the booming film industry, although movie shorts were already being incorporated into vaudeville programs. Late in 1916, the company launched their own new spectacular musical “playlet” Married Via Wireless, that more than challenged available film fare, relied on a smaller cast and was apparently easily portable. For two years the production, with its impressive “behind the scenes maze of machinery… responsible for passing ships, a blinking lighthouse, (and) a murderous submarine at its work of destruction,”  toured the US and Canada. Ernest Chester was credited with the scenery design. The very slight plot related to “the romance of the wireless operator and the daughter of the ship”.

Wisconsin State Journal 30 Jan 1919

Above: The Orpheum circuit advertises Married by Wireless as a major feature of its program, in the “Wisconsin State Journal”, January 30, 1919. Note the other offerings – which included comedians, song and dance routines and short films. Via Newspapers.com.

By mid 1919, Married Via Wireless had run its course, and apparently so had Queenie and Ernest’s marriage. Queenie left Pollard’s altogether, indeed this production seems to have been the end of the troupe’s activities. Queenie now used her real name, Ina, a name more suited to a twenty-four year old. She also found new roles in vaudeville – particularly in cities of the US east coast, including Midnight Rounders with Eddie Cantor, which for a short time placed her as a supporting player alongside Madelon La Varre, the daughter of Melbourne-born dancer Saharet.

Ina made the long trip home to Australia to see her family in 1922, and expressed a desire at the time to enter the movies, but was back at work in US vaudeville by September. Now often specializing in routines with just one other comedian; Dick Keene, Hal Skelly, Johnny Dooley and Jere Delaney were amongst her vaudeville partners over the next ten years. She also appeared with fellow Australia Leon Errol. In reviewing her performance with Skelly in Vancouver, one paper described her as “the little dynamo of pep… Their droll remarks and eccentric dance steps keep (the laughter) running throughout their performance.”

Theatre magazine 1924 enlarged Daily News 1924 Leon Errol 1927 Yours Truly

Left: Ina and Johnny Dooley in Keep Kool, “Theatre Magazine” August 1924. Via Hathitrust.org. Centre: Ina explains her childhood start as a dancer. “Daily News” (New York) 28 June 1924. Via Newspapers.com. Right: Ina as a supporting actor to Leon Errol in Yours Truly “Pittsburgh Daily Post”, 9 January 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Interviewed in 1943, Ina acknowledged she knew that with the coming of sound film – the writing was on the wall for vaudeville. She retired in 1932, after twenty solid years of comedy, song and dance on the North American stage. In that year, the last of the US theatres that once hosted vaudeville programs were being converted to sound cinemas. The ever astute Daphne Pollard had made the leap across to film in 1927.

Ina in 1943

Above: Ina Williams being interviewed at home in 1943. Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Via Newspapers.com

In July 1923, Ina married Charles Stecher, a consulting engineer, who had nothing to do with the theatre. A daughter was born of the union in 1925. Ina died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

 

Note 1
In the late 1920s, Ina acknowledged the difficulty the “Gerry Society,” (the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), had created for Pollard’s. She stated that they had barred her from performing in New York because they discovered she was underage, although she did not give a date for this. (See the Cincinnatti Post, 30 November 1930)

Note 2
Freddie in 1922Not all of the performers in this final “adult” Pollard troupe enjoyed the success in the US that Ina did. Arriving in the US in 1914, Freddie Heintz struggled to find an ongoing career – renaming himself Freddie Garland (doubtless dropping his German surname because of the war) and then Freddie Steele. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918 and was briefly married in the 1920s. He ended his days working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer – he stayed at home and became a pastry chef in Adelaide. An older brother who had also once been a performer for Pollards, Oscar Heintz, moved to Portland, Oregan in about 1910 and became a manager for Neon Manufacturing.

Above: A report of Freddie visiting his brother Oscar in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

 

Nick Murphy
April 2020

 

Special Thanks
to Jean Ritsema, for sourcing so much from US archives. 

 


Further Reading

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child.
    “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Louis Botto (2002) Playbill. 100 Years of Broadway shows, stories and stars. Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
    [Note- Downes’ book only documents the Tom Pollard branch of the family business in Australia and New Zealand]

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

National Library of Australia Trove.

  • Table Talk (Melb)  26 Mar 1908
  • The Herald (Melb) 26 Aug 1922
  • The Daily Mail (Bris) 3 Sep 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Honolulu Star Bulletin 23 July 1912. Pollards bring a future star
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC), 20 Aug, 1912. Pollard Kiddies arrive from South
  • Spokane Chronicle, 11 Nov 1914. Queenie Williams marries Chester
  • Daily Arkansas Gazette, 29 March 1919.
  • Times Union (New York) 13 July 1919. Page 4. With Cantor and La Varre
  • Boston Post. Dec 29, 1920. Wears ring she bought herself.
  • Los Angeles Express. April 20, 1922. Modern Damon and Pythias role
  • Vancouver Daily World 27 March 1923. Long and Short of it coming to Orpheum
  • Daily News (New York) · 29 Jun 1924. He Ill Health to thank…
  • Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Ina Williams, Cast as Avon housewife – she loves it.

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