Of Elsie Morris, ‘Male impersonator’ & Jolly John Larkins

Above: Elsie Levine Morris in male attire, c1915. Photo courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

Elsie Lavinia (or Levine) Morris was born in South Melbourne in June 1896, to Charles Morris, a bootmaker, and Mary nee Howard. Two years later, Mary then aged 44, had another daughter – her sixteenth, making hers a very large family, even for the time.

Above: Elsie Morris and her mother Mary Morris nee Howard. Photo undated but probably taken about the time she appeared on stage in male attire. Courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

In the early twentieth century, the life and career options for the children of Australian working class families living in cities were limited. Even if they found some work in their teens, girls were expected to end up working in the home, boys to take an apprenticeship or work in a factory. With only private schools offering a pathway to university, a career on the stage could be an attractive and possibly lucrative option for a working class girl or boy who showed some performance skills. Elsie Morris was therefore typical of the children who were signed up with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company in the period 1898-1909. 

Pollards advertises for new children to audition at Ford’s Hall, Brunswick St, in the heart of working class Fitzroy. Elsie or her family probably saw a similar advert sometime in 1909. The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie goes to India with Pollards

Elsie departed Australia as a member of the Pollard troupe of about 30 children, on the SS Gracchus in July 1909, bound for South East Asia and India, to be followed by a long tour through North America.

Above: Elsie Morris as a child performer, as shown in Table Talk, 7 December 1916, P8. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Gillian Arrighi’s article on the Pollard 1909 tour of India cites one newspaper account where manager Arthur Hayden Pollard described the parents of his child actors as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep [their children].” Overwhelmingly girls, the child performers were indentured to the supervising Pollard adults in a way we would find unthinkable today, and were away on overseas tours for lengthy periods – up to 24 months in several cases. The Pollard repertoire included popular musicals – The Belle of New York, A Gaiety Girl and HMS Pinafore and the child performers took multiple roles, girls often playing male roles. It was a format that had been refined over the previous twenty years.

Despite the company’s successful track record, Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s 1909 tour of India was a disaster. Pollard was inexperienced as a manager and temperamentally quite unsuited to be a supervisor of children. The tour fell apart and the child performers returned home in early 1910, with considerable press attention. The Pollard reputation was ruined and new Federal legislation followed soon after that restricted the employment of children overseas.

Above: Elsie is in this photo of the Pollard 1909 tour of India, but where? She is possibly in black in the second row, seated, fourth from left. The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove,

Finding her place on stage in Australia

Three years after the Pollard tour, Elsie appeared on stage at Melbourne’s Temperance Hall, singing and performing comedy sketches using skills she had learned, in part, with the Pollard troupe. She took the soubrette role in her choice of song – the voice of a sometimes wistful and slightly flirtatious young female. Although only 17 she was popular enough to be one of the headline acts wherever she went. But in addition to this, by mid 1915 she had also perfected a male impersonation act and was performing it on the Fuller’s circuit. In March 1916 she took the act to Sydney.

Above left: Photo of Elsie Morris courtesy Brenda Young. Above right: Other former Pollard players – like May Martyn (as Maie Vine) also performed as male impersonators – Source Prompt Scrapbook of the performance career of John Martyn Young. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie had experience as a male impersonator from the Pollard troupe, where many male parts were played by young women, for comic effect. The male impersonator was also an established comic routine in variety, and popular characters presented included the pretentious upper class “swell” or “toff”. This send-up of men and masculinity sometimes bordered on the scandalous, but audiences loved it. Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), Hetty King (1883-1972) and Ella Shields (1879-1952) were amongst the best known British male impersonators, the latter two visiting Australia to perform. Another English actress, Nellie Kolle (1892-1971) moved to Australia and became the most famous of local male impersonators.

Above: Vesta Tilley, popular English male impersonator. Undated post card in the author’s collection.
Above: Nellie Kolle, with The Bunyip Panto Company. Critic (Adelaide), 30 May 1917 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In December 1916, Adelaide’s The Mail, left this report on Elsie’s act;Elsie Morris, who appears at the Majestic Theatre, is a male impersonator of excellent appearance and fine wardrobe. She looks sufficiently a boy without carrying the deception to extremes. As a matter of fact, Miss Morris makes a charming boy because she is so essentially a charming girl. She has a variety of songs sung in a voice of some power. Among her best numbers are— Never a Girl Inside, You Were the First One to Teach Me to Love, and A Little Loving Every Day.”

The first verse of Elsie’s song Never a Girl Inside gives us a taste of the stage “swell” character:

Now Algenon Brown was a Clerk in the town,
And when he was through for the day,
He’d wander up west, where the windows are dressed,
And make himself dizzy where drapers are busy.
He’d gaze at the wonderful fashions
And marvels of feminine wear…

Above: Source of Lyrics – Maurice Scott, and Clifford Grey. Never a Girl Inside. Star Music Pub. Co., London, 1915. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A good example of how close male impersonators came to overstepping the bounds of acceptability can be heard here. This is a link to a clip of Nellie Kolle singing In the Woodshed in December 1929. (Click here), with its suggestive refrain “In the woodshed she said she would.”

Elsie seems to have offered a more innocent version of the male impersonation act. In September 1916, New Zealand’s Observer reported Elsie Morris was “too sweet a boy to deceive a recruiting sergeant.”


Enter “Jolly” John Larkins

In September 1920, Elsie married John Larkins (also known as “Jolly” John Larkins and John Larkin Smith), an African-American comedian and singer who had been performing in Australia and New Zealand since his arrival from the US in May 1917. Larkins and Elsie were both appearing together for Harry Clay at the time of the marriage in Sydney but may have known each other since 1917.

Above: Larkins on the cover of sheet music. Authors: James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. A Royal Coon. Will Rossiter, Chicago, 1907. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Historian Bill Egan‘s recent study of African American performers in Australia provides a precis of Larkin’s successful career in the US before he arrived. Egan has described Larkins’ act as singing and dancing “interspersed with humorous anecdotes known as ‘patter’. This was delivered in the continuous laughing style that had earned him the title ‘Jolly’ .” The content of his shows regularly changed; in 1918 the Sydney Sun commented on the “ludicrous sight” of the 16 stone Larkins playing a messenger boy in his act. Despite the deeply entrenched racial prejudice in Australia at the time, Larkins was very popular with Australian and New Zealand audiences and the reviews were enthusiastic, although patronising and still racist by the standards of today.

Above: Elsie and Jolly John Larkins performing for Harry Clay in Sydney in September 1920, ten days after their marriage. The Sun (Sydney) 27 Sept 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Contrary to some claims, it was not illegal for Larkins to enter Australia or to marry Elsie. The discriminatory Immigration Restriction Act that existed was designed to exclude non-europeans (particularly Chinese, Indians and Japanese) from entry to Australia as migrants. The shameful “dictation test” that was sometimes used as a tool to do this, would not have been applied to Larkins, who was travelling on a US passport with a contract to perform as an entertainer on the Fuller circuit. Similarly, the state laws that restricted marriages between European Australians and Indigenous Australians would not have applied to Larkins, as he was neither.

The couple were married at St Peter’s Church Darlinghurst on Wednesday 15 September, 1920 by Reverend F W Tugwell with Elsie’s mother Mary as one of the witnesses.

Above: “John Larkin Smith” on his 1917 passport application. Despite claims he was born in 1883, his three available passport applications and the 1880 US Census make it clear he was born in 1877. (US) National Archives via Family Search.

Unfortunately, Larkins was a poor choice of husband. Perhaps unbeknown to Elsie he had already fathered two children by two different women in Australia – a daughter to Rachel “Ray” Anderson, born in Sydney in February 1919 and a son to another woman in Melbourne born in November 1920. (See note 1 below)

Well intended or not, the marriage didn’t last very long and neither did their appearances in the same shows on stage. By February 1921, Nellie Kolle had replaced Elsie as the Fuller’s male impersonator, appearing on the same bill as Larkins. Elsie’s last featured performance on stage in Sydney was in April 1921. Larkins moved on to Queensland and later that year, to perform in New Zealand again. It appears he abandoned Elsie as readily as he did his other Australian female companions. Larkins spent much of the next four years performing in small town venues in New Zealand, although he returned to Australia for short tours several times and to father another child with Ray Anderson in 1924. In July 1925, after eight years in Australia and New Zealand, he left for the US, and never returned.

Elsie’s later life

Why Elsie left the stage is unclear. Her 1928 divorce papers from Larkins suggest that he had abandoned her after three years. Gambling and money troubles were mentioned, but there was no mention of Larkin’s Australian children. However, Elsie herself was named in a different divorce action between Marguerite and Leo Trew in 1922. She was living with Leo Trew in Fitzroy in Melbourne by this time, demonstrating that Larkins had ceased to be a part of her life quite soon after their marriage.

Elsie married Leo Trew in Melbourne in 1929, with her loyal mother Mary again a witness at the ceremony. She later lived and worked with Leo in regional New South Wales and finally in Bondi, where she died in 1966. Of her life on stage she left no commentary at all – a reminder that while for some, a start with the Pollard troupe led to great things on stage and sometimes in film, for most it was, at best an interlude in life.

Above: Elsie later in life. Courtesy Brenda Young.

Note 1
“Jolly” John Larkins

John Larkins is rightly regarded as something of a pioneer amongst African-American performers – on the US and world stage and in Hollywood. The IMDB lists more than 40 film appearances made before his death in 1936, a remarkable success considering the circumstances of the time and the obstacles he would have faced. But there was another side to him that seems much harder to comprehend.

As both Bill Egan and US writer Steve Goldstein have noted, while in Australia, in February 1919 Larkins had fathered a child to a “Ray” Anderson, who is often described as a “dress maker” (but the child was not born in 1921 as the writers mistakenly claim). Ray (or Rae) Anderson was surely Rachael Anderson, a stage performer of the 1910s and a daughter of Laura Wiseman – one of the well known Wiseman sisters who had performed on the Australian stage in the late nineteenth century. Ray Anderson and Larkins had met by the end of 1917, when they were performing together on the same bill in New Zealand.

This writer finds it difficult to believe that in the hot-house world of Australian variety performers, where actors travelled and lived together, and regularly watched each other to “borrow ideas”, Elsie Morris and Rachael Anderson did not know each other. They had both appeared on the Fuller’s and Harry Clay circuits, lived in the same city and were of the same age. In Auckland New Zealand, their acts followed each other by only a few weeks – in late 1917. Their soubrette acts were similar – but in view of that, not surprisingly, they had never appeared on stage at the same time.

Of course, this is speculation, and it hardly explains for the modern reader why Larkins repeatedly took up with women only to leave them soon after. The 1924 divorce case Westbury v Westbury describes the rather sad state of affairs that ensued following Larkin’s five month relationship with a married woman in Melbourne in 1920 and the fate of their child. Just two months later Larkins married Elsie in Sydney. As noted, in 1924, he returned to Ray Anderson and fathered another child, a woman who only at the end of her life, finally discovered Larkins was her father.


Nick Murphy
May 2021


  • Special Thanks
    To Brenda Young, Elsie Morris’s great grand-niece, who wrote to me and encouraged me to return to Elsie’s story. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce several of her precious photos.

References

  • Library of Congress
    • Never a Girl Inside (1915) Scott, Maurice, and Clifford Grey. Star Music Pub. Co., London. Notated Music.
    • A Royal Coon. (1907) James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. Will Rossiter, Chicago, Notated Music.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Elsie Lavinia Morris, Birth cert 1896. Doc 21723/1896
    • Alan Westbury, Birth cert 1920. Doc 29373/1920
    • Thomas Leopold Trew & Elsie Larkins, Marriage cert. Doc 8604/1929
  • State of New South Wales: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • John Larkins & Elsie Morris, Marriage cert 1920. Doc 14941/1920 
    • Olga Larkins, Birth cert 1919. Doc 1563/1919
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Frederick Lancelot Westbury, Divorce Case No. 1924/84
  • New South Wales Archives
    • Marguerite Brereton Trew & Thomas Leopold Trew, Divorce case 1922/74
    • Elsie Levine Larkins John Larkins, Divorce papers, 24-02-1928 to 28-06-1929. 272/1928
  • National Archives of Australia
    • John Larkins Smith. Alien Registration Certificate No 7349
  • Family Search (US National Archives)
    • John Larkins Smith, Passport applications 1917, 1919 & 1920
  • 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 69, (2017) John Hopkins University Press.
    • Bill Egan (2019) African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand. A History 1788-1941. McFarland.
    • Dagmar Kift (1996) The Victorian Music Hall. Culture, Class and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.
    • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
      [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful novel is closely based on the events of the Arthur Pollard troupe in India and is highly recommended]
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
    • Truth (WA) 2 April 1910, P8
    • Referee (Syd) 13 April 1910, P16
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910 P2
    • West Australian, 6 May 1910, P3
    • Herald (Melb) 17 May 1910, P5
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Mar, 1913, P2
    • Riverina Herald (Echuca, Vic) 26 May 1913, P3
    • The Age (Melb Vic) 15 Sept 1913, P7
    • Truth (Qld) 8 March 1914, P6
    • Queensland Times 17 April 1914, P6
    • Sun (Syd) 14 Feb, 1915, P2
    • Labor Call (Melb) 25 Nov 1915, P8
    • Everyone’s 9 July 1924, P34
    • Sun (Syd) 17 Ap 1928. P18
    • Sydney Morning Herald 3 Nov 1918. P14
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Paper’s Past
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 6 Sept 1915, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 31 July 1916, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 1 Aug, 1916, P3
    • The Observer (Auckland), 23 Sept 1916
    • The Observer (Auckland), 3 Nov 1916, P6
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 17 April 1917, P7
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 21 Aug 1917, P5
    • The Observer (Auckland), 15 Dec 1917 P6
    • New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 3 May 1918, P8
    • New Zealand Police Gazette 8 Nov 1922, P654
    • Nelson Evening Mail (Nelson), 25 June 1925, P10

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