Reita Nugent (1905-1986) – “the girl with the smile in her voice”

Above: A very glamorous looking Reita Nugent – now with blonded hair and using the stage name Janet Lind – in London in 1936 and under the management of “Madame Cecilia Arcana”. Spotlight Directory 1936, Author’s collection


The five second version
Reita (actually Margaurite) Nugent,[1]while this spelling is unusual, it is what appears on her birth and death certificates born 1905, began her career on the Australian stage in 1916, aged just 11. She gained a reputation for impressive “acrobatic dancing” in Australia, Europe and Britain, in variety and musical comedy. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish herself on the US stage in the early 1930s, she rebooted her British career in 1935 as singer, using the stage name “Janet Lind,” performing and recording with Louis Levy (1894-1957) and on a few occasions with Webster Booth (1902-1984). She became a regular singer on BBC radio and also appeared in early television. Short and vivacious, she had a stage charm that delighted audiences and although she was not given leading roles she became a close friend and associate of other actors – like Australian Cyril Ritchard (1898-1977). In 1940 she returned to Australia with her husband, and after wartime work for ABC radio, she disappeared from the public eye. She became an interior decorator and later in life ran a second hand shop in Fitzroy, where famously, she occasionally sold some of her records to collectors. She died in Fitzroy, Melbourne in July 1986.
24 year old Reita Nugent at her glamorous best – singing and dancing in Mr Cinders at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1929. [2]Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 16 March, 1929. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library Newspaper Archives

When 75 year old “Janet Lind” was interviewed as a guest on a Melbourne nostalgia radio programme in 1978, the audience must have wondered what all the fuss was about. While Alex Kenworthy’s programme played plenty of her music, she said little that informed listeners about her achievements, and Kenworthy was poorly prepared – even to the point of not being aware she was Australian born. One must conclude she had either forgotten these achievements, or really didn’t want to discuss her working life.[3]Thanks to Stephen Langley the 1978 interview has been preserved and uploaded to Youtube and can be heard here

15 year old Reita, in a large spread on Yes Uncle! [4]The Theatre Magazine 1 Sept 1920, via State Library of Victoria

This is surprising, because her reputation as a dancer on the Australian stage was an impressive one – even before she was an adult. In 1920 the Sydney Referee reported 15 year old Reita as “One of the pleasant surprises awaiting the visitor to [the play] Yes Uncle!, at Her Majesty’s… [Her] terpsichorean abilities not possessed by many of her profession.”[5]Referee (Syd) 29 Sep 1920 P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

19 year old Reita (standing centre and at her full height of 5 foot or 150 cms tall) with Albert Frith and Cecil Kellaway in an Australian production of Cabaret Girl, 1924. [6]Photo by Monte Luke, Lady Viola Tait Collection, via National Library of Australia‘s Trove

Reita’s Australian career 1909-1926

Born Margaurite Olive Nugent in South Melbourne, Australia in 1905,[7]Victoria Birth Certificate, Margaurite Olive Nugent, 24 February 1905,12141/1905 “Reita” or “Rita” was the fifth child of Margaret nee O’Shea and Michael Joseph Nugent, a Victorian Railways employee. The two oldest children of the family – Ella (born 1894) and Patrick (born 1896) both performed in the ill-fated Pollards Opera Company tour of India in 1909-1910. Despite the experience, both continued performing for some time. Brothers Len (born 1902) and Ray (born 1900) also became performers.[8]Len also became a recording artist in the 1920s and 30s, by this time calling himself Terrance Nugent – hear one of his songs here, thanks to Stephen Langley

Reita’s earliest appearances on stage began when she was only five years old – she was noted as being in the chorus of Sweet County Kerry at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre, in July 1909.[9]Table Talk,15 Jul 1909, P24, via National Library of Australia’s Trove This suggests that the Nugent family, by now living in Gore Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy,[10]Australian Electoral Roll, Division of Batman, 1909 had made a conscious decision that all their children should pursue careers on the stage. As this writer has noted elsewhere, this was not simply a matter of obliging an early interest by a child. It was a pathway to opportunity and wealth that was otherwise not possible for working class families. In the case of Ella and Patrick,[11]aged 15 and 13 years respectively the Nugent parents were party to an agreement with Arthur Pollard, who was taking the children on an overseas performance tour with other juveniles – and intending to be away for a year or more. The Nugents were paid via a trust fund.[12]For an example of a similar contract see Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, P212, Steele Roberts

Reita and her regular Australian dance partner Jack Hooker. c1924[13]Enlarged from Sheet music, The Cabaret Girl, author’s collection

In later life, Reita was inclined to suggest that she was self-taught as a dancer and singer, and in her 1978 radio interview she made no reference to tutors or mentors.[14]Also see her March 1941 interview in The Wireless Weekly: the hundred per cent Australian radio journal Vol. 36 No. 12 (March 22, 1941) P3, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove However, contemporary newspaper reports confirm that she was a student of Melbourne dance teacher Jennie Brenan for most of the ten years 1916-1926.[15]The Herald (Melb) 30 Oct 1926, P22, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Ausstage Live Performance Database lists at least twenty-five Australian performances for her – the names Reita and Rita were used interchangeably.[16]As they were in life – Theatre programmes also spelled her first name both ways The lists also indicate that she began a serious stage career at the age of 11 or 12, and then worked almost continually – for JC Williamsons’ troupes – as a featured dancer, often in partnership with Jack Hooker. Interviewed in 1923, she stated a wish to become a singer and move into roles in musical comedy.[17]The Herald (Melb) 2 June 1923, P13 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove She did so – at the end of 1924 she had her first major speaking part in Betty, while a few months later she was dancing AND singing in Primrose, “with charm.”[18]The World’s News (Syd) 3 Oct 1925, P6, REITA NUGENT’S RISE, via National Library of Australia’s Trove One newspaper reviewer asked “Why, why doesn’t some enterprising producer make a star of Reita? She is a magnificent dancer, and can sing and speak pleasingly. The dancing was superb.”[19]The Australian Jewish Herald (Melb) 24 Sep 1925, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Reita in Europe and Britain 1926+

Reita in the Empire Theatre lineup, Paris, April 1927. Programme in author’s collection

Clearly ambitious, when a chance to perform overseas arose in 1926, Reita took it. She left Australia in June 1926 with a contract to perform in a touring variety show in Berlin, Vienna and Paris, alongside Australian dance partner Charlie Brooks – although this was, again, in specialist dance numbers and part of a larger show.[20]The Argus (Melb) 22 Jun 1926, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Reita’s footsteps across Europe in 1926-1927 are faint, but the variety tour she joined, likely began in Berlin. When the show reached Paris in March 1927, Paris-Midi provided a rare critical review of her performance which may also have highlighted a challenge she was experiencing: “Reita Nugent has at least as much talent as [Brooks] and she dances just as well. [But] it seems quite inaccurate to consider their complicated exercises as a dance. A dance has a rhythm… Certainly, Charlie Brooks and Reita Nugent are excellent acrobats, but… without rhythm… Moreover, they seem to forget that comedy is born of observation and simplicity. The complexity of the act… evokes the idea of ​​a terribly concerted effort. I don’t think effort, toil and application have ever provoked laughter.[21]Paris-Midi, 14 April 1927. Via Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Translation is the responsibility of this author The reader can view Reita’s unique and acrobatic style of dancing here, in the short British Pathe newsreel entitled “India Rubber Muscles,” filmed in 1928. Perhaps, while popular with some audiences, a career in acrobatic dancing[22]or “eccentric dancing” as it was sometimes called was hard work, plus – as a niche area of performance, not likely to lead to anything else.

Madge and Cyril, 1928, So this is Love[23]Theatre programme – Author’s collection

Back in London her ability as a dancer and singer saw her in the supporting role of Peggy in the new George and Ira Gershwin musical about bootlegging, Oh Kay! in late 1927. While The Times felt the plot was “incomprehensible” and the music “commonplace,”[24]See J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. P539, Rowman and Littlefield it was a success with audiences, running for over 200 performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre. In April 1928, she appeared in a long run of Stanley Lupino’s So this is Love with old colleagues from the Australian stage, Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott. Ritchard and Elliott were good enough friends to attend Reita’s wedding to English businessman William Fairbairn Hall in August 1931.[25]In fact, Ritchard gave Reita away at the wedding. See Table Talk, 27 August 1931, P1. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Sylvia Leslie, the petite Reita, Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in So this is Love, in 1928.[26]Theatre programme – author’s collection

Then, following a long run at the Hippodrome in Mr Cinders, Reita went to Berlin with a German version of the play. Years later her young Australian dance partner Renee Murphy recalled that performing this gender-reversed version of the Cinderella story, in German, was “heavy weather” because of cultural differences in humour.[27]ABC Weekly May 5 1945, P38, via National Library of Australia’s Trove However, German reviews of Reita’s “extraordinary dancing” were enthusiastic.[28]Sport Im Bild Issue 21, 1930. Via Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Reita was well enough known in Britain to be advertising Lux soap at the time of Mr Cinders.[29]The Nottingham Evening Post, 27 Mar 1930, P6 via British Library Newspaper Archive

Reita tries the US 1931-2

Reita and her husband travelled to the US soon after her wedding, and she did not return to London until December 1932. On her return to Australia ten years later, she gave some accounts of what she had done in the US. She said she had appeared in a 1931 tour of the play Gay Divorce[30]When made into a film by RKO it became The Gay Divorcee with Fred Astaire and Clare Luce. She also claimed she used the names Judy Kent, Janet Lorraine and Janet Faye, because of problems with Actors Equity.[31]The ABC Weekly, 22 March 1941, P9. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Perhaps. However, there is no evidence of a person going by any of these names in the touring cast, or when it opened on Broadway on November 29 1932. In her 1941 Australian accounts, Reita also claimed that she had trained in dance while in the US, which is plausible. She also mentioned performing in unspecified “variety,” but what this work entailed seems impossible to verify.[32]The Home, an Australian Quarterly, Vol 22, No 6, 2 June 1941. P60-61 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Becoming Janet Lind 1935 +

On her return to London Reita appeared in another musical, the spectacular Ball at the Savoy, at the Drury Lane. However, at the same time she was increasingly involved with BBC radio, and appeared as a singer and dancer in some of the very early televised programmes,[33]See for example, News Chronicle, March 23, 1934, P13. Via British Library newspaper Archive. Also see BBC Programme index available only to the handful of people with television receivers at the time, and unfortunately lost to us today.

Sometime in September 1935 Reita signed up with agent Cecilia Arcana, or Madame Arcana as she liked to be called. A former singer and now also a voice coach (see Note 1 below), Madame’s management coincided with the start of Reita’s serious singing career and possibly it was she who helped Reita find a new stage name and made connections.[34]Reita herself said she took the new stage name from a Bond Street store In October 1935 Madame announced Janet Lind as her new “find,” performing in a radio version of the comic opera Veronique.[35]Evening Standard (London) 8 Oct 1935, P18 via Newspapers.com The name Reita Nugent disappeared overnight. But it was not until August 1936, five months later, that there was public acknowledgement Janet Lind really was the well known Reita Nugent.[36]See for example Birmingham Gazette, 4 August 1936, P4. “Janet Lind, radio’s mystery vocalist…is a mystery no longer” via British Library Newspaper Archive and The … Continue reading

It is difficult to be certain how much influence Madame had on Reita, particularly as neither made reference to the other in later years. However, it is the case that the glamorous studio photos (see top of article and below) date from this time, as does Reita’s first appearance, now as Janet Lind, performing in the BBC programme Music from the Movies with conductor Louis Levy and the Gaumont British Orchestra.[37]The first performance by Janet Lind with Levy and the house orchestra for Gaumont British Studios is mentioned in British newspapers in March 1936. Levy was also music director for the studio In various interviews, Reita suggested she auditioned several times as a singer before she was successful. Given that Reita’s singing voice had already been heard and remarked upon in 1924, it appears that she was indeed, naturally very talented. However, it would be unusual for an Australian who had finished formal education at age 12 to have developed the singing voice we hear in her surviving recordings without some training.[38]The refined Australian accent we hear in her 1978 radio interview might have evolved in her 14 years in Britain and Europe, but is unlikely to have survived the 46 years 1940-86 in Australia without … Continue reading

As Janet Lind, Reita performed for the BBC almost continuously between 1936 and 1940. In addition to singing (most famously music from films), she appeared in radio versions of musical comedies, varieties and apparently also dramas. By 1939 she was also compering radio programmes for the armed forces.[39]See BBC Programme Index The slogan “The girl with the smile in her voice” also dates from this busy pre-war period.[40]Daily News(London) 17 July, 1936, P14. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive

A very glamorous Janet Lind photo accompanying a very inaccurate 1941 article in The Home. The photo, probably taken in Britain, is a reminder of the skills of studio photographers at the time. [41]The Home, an Australian Quarterly, Vol 22, No 6, 2 June 1941. P60-61 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Surviving recordings of her performances with Louis Levy in the late 1930s are easily found – a number are listed at the end of this article. Also existing (click here) is one of her performances with Webster Booth (1902-1984), which collectors Stephen Langley and Jean Collen suggest showcases her singing at its best.

Janet Lind returns to Australia 1940

In August 1940, Reita and her husband decided to leave Britain for Australia, via the USA.[42]Jean Collen has reminded me that this move was quite dramatic and remains unexplained. Why would she leave a successful career in Britain? They departed Liverpool, bound for New York on the SS Samaria. In the US, Reita sang several times for radio stations, but the couple were in Sydney by early October. A performer newly returned to Australia from the London scene, and of Reita’s prowess, was a novelty in 1940 and there were numerous newspaper reports.[43]not all of which seem to match what is otherwise known of her activities – but some might be, such as her story of her luggage being on a different, torpedoed ship

Janet Lind, looking different again, on the cover of an Australian magazine in 1941. [44]The ABC Weekly Vol 3, No 12, 22 March 1941, Page 1 Cover. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In April 1941, Reita joined ABC radio’s Out of the Bag, a light entertainment style programme featuring Australian comedian Dick Bentley,[45]Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 11 June 1941, P4. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove who had also recently arrived home from London. It had been devised by another recent returnee – Harry Pringle (1903-1985), whom Reita had known in London, ten years before.[46]National Film and Sound Archive, Title No: 793604, collection photo of Reita with Pringle in London in 1930-not digitised

As for so many people, the Second World War seems to have changed Reita’s fortunes. Her husband joined the Army,[47]it was brief, presumably due to health issues while she continued performing on Australian radio, however there were fewer live performances – the last possibly being a US forces musical in 1944.[48]The Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 11 Nov 1944, P4, via National Library of Australia’s Trove By 1948, it seems she had drifted into an entirely new career, as Australian newspapers reported that she was now an interior designer,[49]The Mercury (Hobart) 27 Sept 1948, P3. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove and now used the name Jane Hall.[50]The Argus(Melb) 25 Jan 1950, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Although she lived in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak in the late 1960s and 1970s, she appears to have moved above the second hand shop she ran in Fitzroy soon after her husband’s death in 1984. Her death certificate clearly states her place of residence was 345 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and that she also went by the name Jane Hall. While Australian newspapers appear to have missed her passing, British newspapers did not. The London Daily Telegraph ran an obituary reminding British readers of her past success as a singer, with her “light, well-articulated voice of refreshing clarity”, and stating that she had taken up singing under the guidance of Madame Arcana.[51]The Daily Telegraph, 5 Aug 1986, P10, via Newspapers.com

345 Brunswick Street Fitzroy in 2022. The vegan shoe shop was once Reita’s shop. At the time of her death in 1986, she lived upstairs. Author’s collection.

Note 1

Madame Cecilia Arcana (Olive or Mary Clifton c1887-1969) had a career on the English stage as a singer before becoming a teacher of voice and elocution. She ran her own agency in London from about 1930 until 1940 when she moved to the US and attempted to reestablish herself. In the early 1950s she settled in Kings Cross, Sydney, where she again took up teaching voice and elocution. She died in Sydney in May 1969.[52]NSW Births, Deaths & Marriages, Madame Cecilia Arcana, Death Certificate 23075/1969 To the end of her days she remained proud of the performers she had mentored and convinced of her almost mystic ability to predict success – although she did not mention Janet Lind again after the initial announcement noted above. In 1967 she predicted “Mark my words! Don Lane will become an international film star of the first water”[53]The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jan 1967, P6, via Newspapers.com US born Don Lane (1933-2009) did become a popular Australian TV presenter but not a film star. She was inclined to speak about herself in a most grandiloquent way, as this advertisement in The Era illustrates.

Madame Arcana advertising her skills in 1934. [54]The Era 28 March, 1934, P2. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

Madame Arcana still at work, ABC weekly, 1956
[55] ABC Weekly Vol. 18 No. 25, 23 June 1956 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
 

Special thanks

to Stephen Langley for assistance with this account.

Further Reading

  • Text
    • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, Steele Roberts
    • Kurt Ganzl (2001) The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre. Schirmer Books
    • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Newspaper & Magazine Sources
    • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • State Library of Victoria
    • Newspapers.com
    • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Österreichische Nationalbibliothek-Austrian National Library, digitised newspapers
    • Bibliothèque Nationale de France -National library of France, digitized newspapers
  • Primary Sources
    • Familysearch.com
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • General Register Office, HM Passport Office.

This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive



Footnotes

Footnotes
1 while this spelling is unusual, it is what appears on her birth and death certificates
2 Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 16 March, 1929. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library Newspaper Archives
3 Thanks to Stephen Langley the 1978 interview has been preserved and uploaded to Youtube and can be heard here
4 The Theatre Magazine 1 Sept 1920, via State Library of Victoria
5 Referee (Syd) 29 Sep 1920 P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 Photo by Monte Luke, Lady Viola Tait Collection, via National Library of Australia‘s Trove
7 Victoria Birth Certificate, Margaurite Olive Nugent, 24 February 1905,12141/1905
8 Len also became a recording artist in the 1920s and 30s, by this time calling himself Terrance Nugent – hear one of his songs here, thanks to Stephen Langley
9 Table Talk,15 Jul 1909, P24, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
10 Australian Electoral Roll, Division of Batman, 1909
11 aged 15 and 13 years respectively
12 For an example of a similar contract see Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, P212, Steele Roberts
13 Enlarged from Sheet music, The Cabaret Girl, author’s collection
14 Also see her March 1941 interview in The Wireless Weekly: the hundred per cent Australian radio journal Vol. 36 No. 12 (March 22, 1941) P3, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 The Herald (Melb) 30 Oct 1926, P22, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 As they were in life – Theatre programmes also spelled her first name both ways
17 The Herald (Melb) 2 June 1923, P13 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 The World’s News (Syd) 3 Oct 1925, P6, REITA NUGENT’S RISE, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 The Australian Jewish Herald (Melb) 24 Sep 1925, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Argus (Melb) 22 Jun 1926, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 Paris-Midi, 14 April 1927. Via Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Translation is the responsibility of this author
22 or “eccentric dancing” as it was sometimes called
23 Theatre programme – Author’s collection
24 See J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. P539, Rowman and Littlefield
25 In fact, Ritchard gave Reita away at the wedding. See Table Talk, 27 August 1931, P1. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 Theatre programme – author’s collection
27 ABC Weekly May 5 1945, P38, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Sport Im Bild Issue 21, 1930. Via Österreichische Nationalbibliothek
29 The Nottingham Evening Post, 27 Mar 1930, P6 via British Library Newspaper Archive
30 When made into a film by RKO it became The Gay Divorcee
31 The ABC Weekly, 22 March 1941, P9. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
32, 41 The Home, an Australian Quarterly, Vol 22, No 6, 2 June 1941. P60-61 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
33 See for example, News Chronicle, March 23, 1934, P13. Via British Library newspaper Archive. Also see BBC Programme index
34 Reita herself said she took the new stage name from a Bond Street store
35 Evening Standard (London) 8 Oct 1935, P18 via Newspapers.com
36 See for example Birmingham Gazette, 4 August 1936, P4. “Janet Lind, radio’s mystery vocalist…is a mystery no longer” via British Library Newspaper Archive and The Queenslander, 6 August 1936, P11 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
37 The first performance by Janet Lind with Levy and the house orchestra for Gaumont British Studios is mentioned in British newspapers in March 1936. Levy was also music director for the studio
38 The refined Australian accent we hear in her 1978 radio interview might have evolved in her 14 years in Britain and Europe, but is unlikely to have survived the 46 years 1940-86 in Australia without conscious effort
39 See BBC Programme Index
40 Daily News(London) 17 July, 1936, P14. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive
42 Jean Collen has reminded me that this move was quite dramatic and remains unexplained. Why would she leave a successful career in Britain?
43 not all of which seem to match what is otherwise known of her activities – but some might be, such as her story of her luggage being on a different, torpedoed ship
44 The ABC Weekly Vol 3, No 12, 22 March 1941, Page 1 Cover. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
45 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 11 June 1941, P4. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
46 National Film and Sound Archive, Title No: 793604, collection photo of Reita with Pringle in London in 1930-not digitised
47 it was brief, presumably due to health issues
48 The Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 11 Nov 1944, P4, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
49 The Mercury (Hobart) 27 Sept 1948, P3. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
50 The Argus(Melb) 25 Jan 1950, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
51 The Daily Telegraph, 5 Aug 1986, P10, via Newspapers.com
52 NSW Births, Deaths & Marriages, Madame Cecilia Arcana, Death Certificate 23075/1969
53 The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jan 1967, P6, via Newspapers.com
54 The Era 28 March, 1934, P2. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive.
55 ABC Weekly Vol. 18 No. 25, 23 June 1956 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

4 thoughts on “Reita Nugent (1905-1986) – “the girl with the smile in her voice”

  1. I was most interested to read your excellent article about Janet Lind. My initial interest in her was that she sang in several recordings with Webster Booth in the 1930s. I look forward to reading other articles you have written.

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