Carol Coombe (1908-1966), who “bluffed her way to stardom”

Above: Gwen (now calling herself Carol) Coombe soon after arrival in London, photo credited to Hughes of London. Universal Filmlexikon, Berlin, 1932. Via Lantern, The Digital Media Project. Carol herself made the comment used as the byline above. (See also below)

carol-daily-mirror-11-oct-1935-1
The Five Second Version
Born Gwendoline Coombe in Perth, Western Australia in 1908, she arrived in London in 1930 to pursue an acting career, inspired perhaps, by her mother’s previous career in Australia, her Sydney school and her father’s business interests in theatre. For someone with little previous acting experience she had a remarkably successful start on stage in 1931, and took a speaking part in the film The Ghost Train (1931). She had a brief and unsuccessful outing in Hollywood in 1934, after which she returned to England. She retired on marrying lawyer Ronald Armstrong-Jones in 1936, but returned to the stage about ten years later. She died as a result of a car accident in Italy in 1966. (See Note 1 below for links to her reminiscences of being Antony Armstrong-Jones’ step-mother) 
Photo – Daily Mirror, 11 October 1935. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive

Writing for The Era in April 1934, London based journalist Leslie Rees listed Carol Coombe as one of the “Antipo-Deities”, meaning Australian girls who had “captured the British stage and screen.” The group also included others who have been featured on this website – including Nancy O’Neil, Judy Kelly and Lucille Lisle. But Carol Coombe was particularly notable – because as Rees commented, she was someone “without any stage or film training of any sort,” yet she arrived, succeeded and enjoyed an impressive burst of activity and publicity.

Growing up in Australia

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1908, Gwendeline Akhurst Coombe was the third of three daughters of Sir Thomas Coombe and Alice nee Senior. Her older sisters were Vera (born 1900) and Lorna (born 1902, who usually went by the name Judy). A brother, Hastings, was born in 1912.

Alice Senior had been a performer in Australia in the 1890s, retiring from the stage when she married Thomas Coombe at Christ Church in North Sydney in 1900. Thomas Coombe was an importer of sporting goods until he became involved in film distribution, then progressing to building and operating cinemas. He was Manager for the Union Theatre chain by 1913, and then President of the Theatrical Managers’ Association. He was knighted in June 1924, “in recognition of public service,” his ADB entry suggesting this might also be by virtue of his political donations. By the 1920s, Sir Thomas was a wealthy man, who had a reputation as a generous philanthropist, a keen sportsman and was the owner of several properties in Perth’s desirable Mount Street. For a time, his daughters attended Miss Parnell’s school in Claremount, Perth. From the early 1920s Lady Coombe and the children went to live in Sydney, at Darling Point. Unfortunately, by 1932, this 3200 kilometre separation had become the grounds for their divorce, Sir Thomas arguing that Lady Coombe refused to live with him in the west.

Gwen attended Sydney’s Ascham school from 1920-1926, where records show she became an outstanding athlete, talented tennis player and competent dancer. By the late 1920s, society pages of newspapers often photographed the women of the Coombe family and Gwen, as “one of Sydney’s leading debutantes,” was even advertising the benefits of “Kit Kat Powder for the complexion”, in the pages of The Australian Women’s Mirror.

Above: Photos of the three Coombe girls taken by society photographer Bernice Agar. Left – Vera, and centre – Judy, from The Home, 1 June 1928. Right – Gwen, from The Home, 2 July 1928. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Trying her luck in London

In June 1930 Gwen departed Sydney on the SS Moldavia, determined to try her luck on the British stage or screen. In later years she said her “creeping ambition” to be an actress started at school, but she also acknowledged the influence of her mother in the choice. And like some of her Australian contemporaries, she had the confidence and resources to try this. The newspaper accounts of her life to 1930 (and there are many) emphasize her life of social and charity events, glamour and immaculate fashion. Despite being the height of the Depression, her father had agreed to support her for a year while she established herself as an actor.

Gwen’s move to England might also be understood in a broader context. Angela Woollacott’s To Try Her Fortune in London (2001) analyses the phenomenon of Australian women travelling to London between the 1870s and 1940s, and finds that the journey “home” was a way for them “to compete for success, fame and…financial rewards” in a much larger arena – the capitol of the Empire – and achieve independence away from Australia’s “stridently masculinist culture”. (Woollacott p3-7).

Gwen was not alone in deciding to leave Australia for an acting career nor was she completely new to London, she had travelled there with her mother several years before, and her sister Vera was already settled there. Friends who pursued an acting career at about the same time included Pearl Appleton (as Phyllis Edgar – in the US) and her sister Bonita in Australia.

Gwen, now calling herself Carol, was armed with a handful of helpful introductions provided by her father. She soon signed up with Connies Ltd, a new “go ahead casting agency” run by Miss Constance Spark in Regent St. She quickly found work as an uncredited extra, although most of her early films do not survive today. They were reported to include comedies like P.C.Josser (1931) and Michael Powell’s murder mystery The Rasp (1931). She was also an extra in the Gracie Fields film Sally in Our Alley (1931) – which does survive, although it is difficult to identify her. However, it was a filmed version of Arnold Ridley’s play The Ghost Train, that saw her in her first featured and speaking part. Part of the film was found and restored by the BFI in the early 1990s, and although some of soundtrack is lost, the last twenty minutes has survived.

Above: Screengrabs of Carol in The Ghost Train (1931) with Allan Jeayes and Cicely Courtneidge. It can be viewed on Youtube here. For reference, the 1941 version is available here.

However, without a doubt, Carol’s major breakthrough came in January 1933 when, as an understudy, she took over Jessica Tandy’s leading part in Children in Uniform at the Duchess Theatre. Adapted from a play written by Christa Winsloe, it was a dramatic story of a schoolgirl’s love for her school mistress. Theatre Historian J P Wearing notes that the play was well reviewed and popular, The Times giving it “a rave review.” Carol appeared in several more British “quota quickies” before another piece of dramatic news was announced – she had a contract and was going to Hollywood.

Above: Straight from the Heart is one of three Hollywood films Carol appeared in. But her roles were inconsequential. Picturegoer Weekly 9 January, 1935, P7, covered Lady Coombe meeting her daughter in the US. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

An outing in Hollywood & success in London

Of course, the reports of a generous 7 year contract were misleading. The reality was that studio contracts were not generous, and at least one British correspondent correctly identified such a move for any young actors as “a huge gamble… To go to Hollywood as a prospective star is to ask for the indignities which have been shown to Sydney Howard, Jane Baxter, Carol Coombe, and Antoinette Cellier, to name a few.” (The Era 24 Oct, 1934). In December 1934 she returned to England. She politely said the contract was “unsuitable”, but the reality was, she had been given just a few days work in the four months she was there (The Era, 19 Dec 1934). The IMDB lists her with roles in three Hollywood films – two of which were uncredited – and none of which are easily accessed today. Her widely reported decision to leave Hollywood was not unusual. Sixteen months later, Australian actors Janet Johnson and Margaret Vyner both (seperately) declined studio contracts, and travelled on to England rather than pursue Hollywood careers. Vyner said  “I‘d hate to feel I had to spend my life there …  never quite sure of good parts. So I turned (the contract) down and felt even more pleased with myself for being able to resist it.” 

Above: Carol in the leading role in Lady Precious Stream. The Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 1935, P17, Via British Library Newspaper Archive. Also in the cast was fellow Australian Lucille Lisle.

Ironically, Carol’s greatest success followed soon after her return to London. She was cast in a leading role in the play Lady Precious Stream, which ran for much of 1935 at London’s Little Theatre. The play’s Chinese author, Hsiung Shi-I (Xiong Shiyi) wrote the play in English while living in London, but based it on a traditional Chinese opera. Hsiung co-directed the play with actor Nancy Price, and the 1935 cast consistedly entirely of Europeans dressed-up and made-up to look vaguely Chinese. But the play was popular with audiences and reviews of Carol’s performance were consistently positive.

Marriage to Ronnie Armstrong-Jones

In 1934 Carol met Ronald “Ronnie” Armstrong-Jones, a London lawyer who was divorcing his first wife. In June 1936 the couple married, and Carol became a step-mother to his two children, Antony (later Lord Snowdon) and Susan. Also, in spite of her great success with Lady Precious Stream, she retired from the stage – she later said this was at Ronnie’s request. Lord Snowdon’s biographer Anne de Courcy suggests that in marked contrast to Ronnie’s cool, impeccably styled first wife – Carol was “breezy” and “vivacious”. Ronnie delighted in Carol’s pretty Australian girlfriends and impromptu parties.

Above: Ronnie and Carol. Undated photo that appeared in Carol’s story on Antony Armstong-Jones, produced in the The Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 Apr 1961 P19. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

For those interested in Carol’s memories of being step-mother to Antony Armstrong-Jones, (who took the title Lord Snowdon after he married Princess Margaret in 1960), links to her account are given in Note 1 below. Carol claimed that they became close as he grew up, more like friends, and that she sometimes called him “Tone” (derived from a still common Australian habit of abbreviating everyone’s first name to form a nick-name). Antony was only 6 years old when they met, and in his late twenties when Ronnie and Carol decided to divorce in the late 1950s, so it was an important parent-child association as Antony grew up between two households. Anne de Courcy suggests the relationship was complex, partly because Ronnie’s relationship with his first wife remained acrimonious. De Courcy has also written that in time, Tony sometimes found Carol “brash and even vulgar’.

Later life and career 1945-66

After almost ten years away, Carol returned to the stage at the end of World War II and was now represented by agent Rita Cave. Although her screen appearances seem to have largely come to an end, her work on the stage over the next fifteen years must have been professionally rewarding. 1945 saw her touring with Claire Luce in It Happened in New York and in early 1946 she appeared in a successful run of the comedy – thriller, Mr Bowling buys a Newspaper, which toured and then played at London’s Embassy.

Her roles over the post war period were increasingly with repertory theatre companies, in supporting roles and in a wide range of familiar pieces – School For Scandal (1947) and Henry V as well as contemporary theatre – The Snow was Black (1953), new comedies such as Widows are Wonderful (1958). There were a mixture of successes and flops but generally good reviews of her performances. The Eastbourne Gazette reported that Carol was “delightful and vivacious” in the lead role in the comedy To Christobel! (7 April 1954) while The Stage complimented her on “a smooth performance of feminine guile, without a touch of conscience” in Angelina Pantaloon (24 June 1954).

Unfortunately Carol’s marriage to Ronnie came to an end in April 1959, but she remained close to her step-children and attended Antony Armstrong-Jones’ marriage to Princess Margaret in May 1960. Her reminscences of being a step-mother to Antony, by then Lord Snowdon, was syndicated worldwide soon after, entitled He Called me Carol (See Note 1 below). And in July 1959 Carol married Italian lawyer Guiseppe Lopez.

A six month run in The Big Killing at the (Princes) Shaftesbury Theatre from late 1961 was a highlight of her later career. The Stage described it as “a good specimen of the traditional British murder play” – while The Tatler reported it was “gin, tonic and murder”. Here she appeared opposite Leslie Phillips, playing a thoroughly unpleasant wife, who is killed off at the end of the first act. It was entertaining enough for Queen Elizabeth to bring Earl Mountbatten to a performance in March 1962.

Above: Carol about the time she attended the marriage of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstong-Jones on 6 May 1960. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 March 1961 P4. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In the early 1960s there were reports of plans for Carol to go into production of advertising films, which seems not to have come to fruition, and there is also some evidence that the couple struggled with the question of where to live – Rome or London. Carol complained that Guiseppe found it difficult to work in England, and allowed herself to be quoted (with what might be characteristic Australian frankness) saying “the best jobs in England go to the English… People over here are so narrow minded, they think that an Italian is either a janitor or a waiter” (Daily Mirror, 12 July 1960).

Sadly, Carol and Guiseppe’s lives came to a tragic and sudden end only a few years after their marriage. They were involved in a catastrophic head-on car accident in Italy on 4 October 1966 and Carol, Guiseppe, and a London friend died. The shocking news was carried in the British, US, Canadian and Australian press.

Carol Coombe described herself as an actor who “bluffed her way to stardom.” It’s a witty comment, but it seems unlikely that she got as far as she did without some meaningful study of elocution or the dramatic arts. Yet she was quite unique in many ways – straddling dramatically different contexts in life with ease and maintaining a strong sense of self throughout. Perhaps it was true.


Note 1

Carol Coombe’s reminscences of Lord Snowdon, “He Called me Carol” was syndicated worldwide by Beaverbrook Newspapers soon after Antony Armstrong-Jones’ marriage to Princess Margaret in May 1960. In Australia, the Australian Women’s Weekly carried the account in four instalments, which can be read here at the National Library of Australia’s Trove:


Note 2

In Australia, Carol’s sister Judy had married pastoralist Jim White in 1926 and raised a family at Belltrees, a very large property in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The magnificent 50 + room federation-era homestead still stands and is still in the hands of the family. In time, Carol’s other siblings, Vera and Hastings, also returned to Australia.


Nick Murphy
October 2021


References

  • Special Thanks
    • To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Gwen Coombe’s schooling.
  • Films
    • The Ghost Train (1931) Fragment. Uploaded by Youtube user/Channel Spondonman
  • Australian Women’s Register, The University of Melbourne & The National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW)
  • Text
    • Helen Cathcart (1968) Lord Snowdon. W H Allen
    • Anne de Courcy (2012) Snowdon, The Biography. Orion
    • Gale Research (1978) Who was Who in the Theatre, 1912-1976. Gale
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen, BFI
    • J P Wearing (1990) The London stage, 1930-1939 : a calendar of plays and players Scarecrow Press.
    • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her fortune in London. Australian Women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sun (Syd) 28 Jan, 1923
    • The Home, 1 Dec 1924, P22
    • The Home, 1 Sept 1926
    • The Western Mail (Perth) 23 Feb, 1928
    • The Home, 1 June 1928, P39
    • The Home, 2 July 1928, P27
    • The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 24 Dec, 1929, P29
    • The Daily Telegraph (NSW) 20 May, 1929, P21
    • Daily News (Perth), 23 June 1930, P 3
    • The Home, 1 Aug, 1930
    • The Home, 2 Jan 1931
    • Everyone’s, 14 Dec 1932
    • The Home, 1 Feb 1933
    • The Home,1 Dec 1933, P41
    • The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 27 Feb 1934, P11
    • West Australian, 26 March 1935, P3
    • Table Talk, 19 April 1934, P11
    • The Sun (Syd), 12 Dec 1935, P44
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Mar 1936, P13
    • The Sun (Syd), 9 Nov, 1938, P13
    • The Canberra Times, 6 Oct 1966, P 25
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage, 23 Nov 1933, P12
    • Reynold’s Newspaper, 2 Sept 1934, P18
    • The Era, 4 April, 1934, P3
    • The Bystander, 31 July, 1934, P7
    • The Era, 19 Dec, 1934, P1
    • The Era, 20 Feb 1935 P12
    • The Bystander, 27 March 1935.
    • Daily Mirror, 11 Oct 1935
    • Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 1935, P17
    • News Chronicle, 9 Nov, 1935, P5
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1946, P4
    • The Stage, 2 April, 1953, P9
    • Eastbourne Gazette, 7 April, 1954, P16
    • Daily Mirror, 12 July, 1960, P2
  • Newspapers.com
    • Evening Standard (UK), 4 Oct, 1966, P1, P32
    • The Age (Melb, Aust), 6 Oct 1966, P5
  • Lantern, Digital Media Project
    • Universal Filmlexikon, Berlin, 1932, P472
    • Picturegoer Weekly, 9 January, 1935, P7

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

Joan Wetmore -The flashing brunette with the charming voice

Above: Joan Wetmore photographed c1943. Newspapers reported that her hair had been done in this new style at Elizabeth Arden’s New York salon. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington Special Collections.

joan-c1940The Five Second Version
Joan Wetmore was a busy actor on Broadway and in the early days of live TV in the United States. Born in Sydney Australia, on 29 August 1911 as Joan Deery she moved with her family to New York in 1917. It might be a stretch to describe her as a forgotten Australian, as almost all of her life was lived in the US, where she also had her start on stage. Yet throughout her life she was described as Australian and even after living in the US for twenty five years, she had to go through the process of becoming naturalised. She died in New York in 1989. It was Australian journalist Allan Dawes who described her as a “flashing brunette with (a) charming voice and unidentifiable accent.”


At left: Joan Wetmore in The Daily News (New York) 15 Apr 1941, P75, via Newspapers.com

Theatre in the family

Both Joan’s parents were Australian born. Her mother Agnes “Aggie” Thorn was an acclaimed soubrette for JC Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company, very active between 1904 and late 1906. After schooling at Presentation Convent in Melbourne, Aggie studied music at the University of Melbourne and also studied privately with Charlotte Hemming, a well known elocutionist. Aggie appeared in a burst of performances around Australia and New Zealand until she married Arthur Deery and left the stage. Arthur Deery was an up and coming Sydney lawyer whose cases were regular material for newspaper reports. In 1913, the young family lived at what must have been a comfortable home at 92 St George’s Crescent in Drummoyne, a spot that even today has spectacular views of central Sydney across the water.

Above: Left – Aggie Thorn on a postcard. David Elliott Theatrical Postcard Collection, c 1905. Right – Arthur Deery in The Sunday Sun (Syd) 27 May 1906. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, family life soon became less enjoyable. Following a court case in March 1915, Arthur was struck off as a solicitor and several months later, he boarded the SS Niagara for the US. He settled in New York, soon managing an engineering business. A divorce followed, Aggie claimed he had been unfaithful and had failed to support her. The divorce was granted. For a time, Aggie lived in Melbourne and attempted to start a business, with Joan and her older sister Kathleen attending Presentation Convent as their mother had. And yet, in June 1917, Aggie packed up the girls and left for the US on the SS Makura. The US census return shows that by 1920, the family was living together again, in Manhattan. Aggie and Arthur stayed together for the rest of their lives and were buried side by side at Mount Hope Cemetery in New York’s Westchester county. Whatever their differences, they had successfully reconciled. According to Joan, while in the US Aggie still pursued her passion for singing.

Joan’s US career

Interviewed in late 1944 by Allan Dawes, an Australian journalist based in North America, Joan gave an account of her life in United States that was unusually accurate, and avoided so much of the creative narrative favoured by established actors of the time. After arrival in New York, she had attended the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, and the George Washington High School.

One thing she did not mention to Dawes was that in 1930 she had eloped with William “Bill” Wetmore, whom she had met on an European break. Aggie told some newspapers she did not even know about the impending marriage. Joan was only 19 years old and William, a Harvard hockey and football star, was 23. He was the son of architect Charles Delaven Wetmore, of the well known New York firm Warren & Wetmore. Bill and Joan became a well known society couple in New York, and Joan also developed a reputation as a model. Photos taken of her in 1933 for Vogue magazine by well known photographer Edward Steichen, still circulate today. A son, William, was born of the union in November 1930. But sadly their marriage was reported to have failed by 1936.

Above: Left – William Wetmore, Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin) 5 April 1930, P15. Right – Joan about the time the couple divorced. New York Daily News, 16 Dec 1939, P309. Via Newspapers.com

In the early 1930s Joan studied under Benno Schneider, a drama teacher who had once been a member of Stanislavski’s Art Theatre in Moscow, and now ran his own school in New York. (In time he was the Columbia Studio drama coach, and his many pupils included Kim Novak, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price and James Garner). In the 1944 interview, Joan did not explain to Allan Dawes exactly what had fed her “stage ambitions”, but her mother’s influence on her life was acknowledged (although Aggie had died in 1932). But the path to the stage had been hard, she admitted to Dawes. “Lots of girls have come to me for advice about a stage career…and I warn them all how deeply you must pay for your ambition and experience.”

Above: 29 year old Joan listed in the 1940 revival of Kind Lady with Grace George in the lead. Working with Grace George would have been an profound experience. She had been appearing on Broadway for 40 years. Author’s Collection.

Joan Wetmore became an active and successful actor and it seems that she was busy almost continuously until the early 1970s – an impressive career of over thirty years.

Joan’s earliest performance on Broadway was in the operetta The Two Bouquets at the Windsor Theatre in June and July 1938. In late 1940 she appeared with Grace George in a 3 month revival of an old favourite, the melodrama Kind Lady at the Playhouse Theatre. By this time Joan had divorced Bill Wetmore, and in February 1941 she married W Palmer Dixon, a New York broker. With the outbreak of war she volunteered as a nurse’s aide at New York’s Bellevue hospital, while Dixon joined up as an officer in the US air force. Despite reports she would leave the stage, she did not, nor did she change her established stage name.

It is hardly surprising that her career reflected the changes taking place in US society and the theatre world. She clearly chose the New York and east coast stage in preference to Hollywood and her choice of role suggests she had a great interest in trends in theatre. For example, during the war years she appeared in several plays written and directed by Elmer Rice – including A New Life (1943). The latter play gained some notoriety for its harrowing on-stage birthing scene, and a first for the US stage. Both were produced by the Playwright’s Company, established in 1938 to give leading US playwrights better exposure.

In November 1942 she began a most successful run in a leading role in Elmer Rice‘s Counsellor at Law, with Paul Muni reprising the leading role (he had first played the role ten years before). While New York’s Daily News complemented Joan for her excellent portrayal of the cold socialite wife (26 Nov 1942), Billboard gave her a thorough pasting – Joan’s was an “unbelievably bad performance” the paper reported (5 Dec 1942). However, obviously not everyone felt this way, as the play ran for eight months – more than 250 performances. Home on leave from the war, Colonel Palmer Dixon reportedly enjoyed it immensely and apparently any doubts about his wife continuing a career on stage vanished.

Above: Franchot Tone with Joan Wetmore in the play Hope for the Best. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), 13 Jan 1945, P12. Her wartime appearances also brought her into the company of many performers of note – Jane Wyatt, Vera Allen and Betty Field among others. Via Newspapers.com

With the benefit of hindsight, her roles often seemed consigned to beautiful but aloof women. In Counsellor at Law (1942-3) she played the hero’s unsympathetic society wife. In Hope for the Best (1945) she played a liberal columnist’s “snobbish fiancée” who discourages Michael Jordan (Franchot Tone) from writing about controversial social topics. In The Great Indoors (1966), a play about racial prejudice, she played a “boozy heiress.” Yet perhaps this says much about the range of roles being written for women.

Above: Left – Joan on tour – with Fay Bainter and Arthur Storch in Put Them All Together (1955), The Boston Globe, 2 Jan 1955. Right – Joan with Don Ameche in The Pleasure of His Company (1966) Fort Lauderdale News, 3 Aug 1966, P24. Via Newspapers.com

After the war, as television rapidly became dominant as a source of entertainment, audiences for theatre generally contracted. Broadway survived but declined in influence – while alternatives appeared in new theatre companies, and new performance venues sprang up outside New York. New plays reflected the social changes in US society. Post-war, Joan sometimes appeared off Broadway, for example in the Equity Library Theater productions of Leonid Andreyev’s The Sabine Women (1947) and Margaret Curtis’s A Highland Fling (1949).

Short of program material, post-war television networks increasingly used stage actors in adaptions of well known plays, filmed live to air. But in a report on the Philco Television Playhouse version of Counsellor at Law in 1948, one reviewer was frank in acknowledging the challenges: “Technically the film was none too smooth but action was good on the small set required for the play. Paul Muni was good…although he was guilty of too much mugging [over-acting] in his video debut. The cameras were far from kind to Joan Wetmore…”(Dayton Daily News 1 Nov 1948). Technicians and actors persevered – some surviving examples of early television programs that include Joan are listed below.

Joan’s mid-Atlantic accent was undoubtedly a product of parenting, schooling and elocution. This is highlighted in a short clip from And Adam Begot, a 1951 episode of the NBC supernatural series Lights Out. She appears here with Phillip Bourneuf and Kent Smith. The full episode can be seen here.

Joan Wetmore remained active on the stage and small screen well into the 1970s. She had a recurring role in the CBS TV series The Nurses, but much of her later creative effort went into short runs of popular comedies performed in theatres up and down the US east coast. These included Cornelia Otis Skinner‘s The Pleasure of His Company and Paul Osborn‘s The Vinegar Tree.

Joan died of cancer at her New York home in early 1989. Her numerous US obituaries noted her long career on stage and that she specialised in playing “elegant women”. Palmer Dixon had died in 1968 and her son by Palmer had died in a tragic shooting accident in 1960, aged only 14. She was survived by her son to Bill Wetmore, William Thomson Wetmore Junior, a journalist and successful author, and her older sister Kathleen, who lived much of her life in Venezuela.

Above: Joan in 1963. The Miami News. 17 Nov, 1963

Note 1

Joan was not tested for Gone With the Wind. This appears to have been a PR or sub-editors story. The names of those tested for the part of Scarlett O’Hara are quite well documented.


References

Early TV & Radio
[Examples of early live TV programs are hard to find. A few examples – featuring Joan Wetmore – can be seen here]

New York Public Library Digital Collection

University of Washington Special Collections

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Text

  • Gerald Bordman (1996) American Theatre; A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama. Oxford University Press
  • Louis Botto (2002) At this Theatre, 100 years of Broadway Shows Stories and Stars. Playbill/Applause
  • Edward Bronner (1980) The Encyclopedia of the American theatre. A S Barnes
  • John Langeloth Loeb (1996) All in a lifetime; a personal memoir. John L Loeb
  • Felicia Hardison Londré & Daniel Watermeier (1998) The History of North American Theater : the United States, Canada, and Mexico : from pre-Columbian times to the present. Continuum
  • Anthony F R Palmieri (1980) Elmer Rice, a Playwright’s vision of America. Associated university Presses
  • Walter Rigdon (Ed)(1966) The biographical encyclopaedia & who’s who of the American theatre. J H Heineman
  • Toby Gordon Ryan (1985) Stage left : Canadian Workers Theatre, 1929-1940. Simon and Pierre

National Library of Australia

  • Melbourne Punch, 21 April 1898, P9
  • Australian Town and Country Journal (Syd), 29 Nov 1905, P34
  • The Gadfly, 14 March 1906 P11
  • Critic (Adel) 9 Jan 1907, P22
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 3 March 1915 P12
  • Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1916, P3
  • Truth (Melb) 2 Dec 1916, P4
  • Herald (Melb) 9 Dec 1944, P9
  • Mercury (Hob) 8 Jan 1945 P3

Internet Archive

  • Billboard 5 Dec 1942
  • Newsweek, 19 Feb 1945
  • Billboard, 19 April 1947

Newspapers.com

  • Daily News (New York) 1 Apr 1930, P16
  • Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin) 5 April 1930, P15
  • Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania) 7 Apr 1930, P5
  • The Plain Speaker (Pennsylvania) 29 Sep 1939, P6
  • Daily News (New York), 16 Dec 1939, P309
  • The News Journal (Delaware) 12 Apr 1941, P17
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 13 Jan 1945, P12
  • The Winona Daily News (Minnesota) 5 Dec 1953, P4
  • The Boston Globe (Massachusetts) 2 Jan 1955, P110
  • Newsday (Nassau New York) 25 Jun 1960, P5
  • St. Louis Globe-Democrat (Missouri) 27 Jul 1962, P56
  • The Bridgeport Post (Connecticut) 11 Aug 1963, P52
  • The Miami News, 17 Nov 1963, P78
  • Fort Lauderdale News, 3 Aug 1966, P24
  • Daily News (New York) 10 Oct 1967, P402

Nick Murphy
September 2021

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

Murray Matheson (1912-1985), the busy actor from Casterton

Above: Murray Matheson on a signed fan photo, Undated. Author’s Collection.

Murray enlargementThe 5 second version
Born near Casterton in Victoria, Australia in 1912, Sidney Murray Matheson established himself on stage in the 1930s. He moved to the UK in 1937. His first British film was a small part as an Australian in the RAF, (which he really was) in The Way to the Stars in 1945. In the early 1950s he had moved to the US where he built an extraordinarily successful career playing character roles – often eccentric authority figures – in films and on TV. On his passing, obituaries noted the extraordinary breadth of his screen work, but also acknowledged his lifelong passion for the stage, which is less well known. He died in Los Angeles in 1985. (This article only lists some of his many screen and stage performances)

Growing Up in Australia

Sidney Murray Matheson was born at “Maryville,” a sheep station (ranch) at Sandford, near Casterton, Victoria, Australia on 1 July, 1912. He had four older sisters – Mavis, Joan, Roma and Beryl, and a brother who had died in infancy. While sheep grazing in Victoria’s “Western District” was very lucrative, it was not for the faint hearted. His parents, Kenneth Murray Matheson and Ethel Sunderland nee Barrett had both been born in country Victoria and were prepared to make the effort on the land. But when Murray was twelve his mother Ethel died – as a result of an awful mix of diabetes, rheumatic fever and heart failure. When Kenneth remarried in 1926, his new wife spent half an hour on the property before leaving for the city again, flatly refusing to live on the land. The second marriage did not survive.

Above: Murray’s older sister Mavis posing on a reaper and binder at Sandford in about 1915. In the 1990s, Museums Victoria collected a large archive of photos from rural Victoria, including this one and several others from the Sandford area. Via Museums Victoria Collections

Years later, Murray said one of his earliest memories was droving (herding) sheep – riding along behind his father. “I can still see him, his back completely black, covered with flies, the scourge of Australia” (Ogden Standard 16 June 1973). For part of his schooling Murray attended Geelong Grammar, a famous Australian independent boarding school, long favoured by wealthy Western District pastoral families and modelled on the English boarding school model, that is well known for educating Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1966.

On the stage

Murray had no intention of following tradition and staying on the land, much to his father’s disappointment. By 1934 he was living in leafy East Melbourne, whilst working as a bank clerk. In later years he recounted that his inspiration for becoming an actor was seeing the musical Sally. Probably starting off as an amateur, in the early 1930s he began to be associated with the Melbourne Little Theatre, where British actress Ada Reeve gave tuition in “Musical Comedy, Drama, Monologue, Film and Broadcasting”. He always claimed to have appeared in the musical Roberta with Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in early 1935, perhaps in the chorus of this JC Williamson production. By early 1936, he was definitely a professional, on the road performing at small country towns through rural New South Wales and Queensland with George Sorlie‘s “tent company” (that is, they put up a tent for performances at each stop). Sorlie rather grandly called this the “English Comedy Company” and advertised his tour with the slogan “always a good show at Sorlie’s,” but it was really all designed to coincide with country agricultural shows. Their repertoire included While Parent’s Sleep, Wandering Wives and Ten Minute Alibi, and amongst the performers was a young Peter Finch, who in time became a good friend. For years, Murray’s experiences on this tour became the subject of endless witty stories about performing in remote Australia. Newspapers also reported Murray was engaged to the company ingénue, Leslie Crane. In June 1936, he took a leading role in a season of the musical Billie at Melbourne’s Apollo Theatre. Almost certainly encouraged to try his luck in London by actor friends like Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott, Murray boarded the SS Orsova for England in August.

Above: A youthful Murray Matheson, looking very like his friend Cyril Ritchard, who became a friend in the mid 1930s. The Telegraph (Brisbane) 11 Jul 1936 P12 Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not long after arriving, Murray found work with the Bournemouth Repertory Theatre company. In 1937 he was reported by a reviewer as demonstrating “adaptability and poise” in plays like If Four Walls Told and London Wall. (Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937). A year later he was performing with Edward Stirling’s English Players Company on an extended European tour, taking him to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw, whilst performing Inferno and The End of the Beginning. He was “a find,” reported The Birmingham Mail (23 Oct 1940). However, with the outbreak of war he joined the war effort, as did so many other young Australians living in Britain. By 1941 he was in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Leslie Crane, who had followed him to England in 1938 also left her repertory theatre company and joined the Women’s Land Army. But the couple did not marry. Years later, he claimed he had been briefly married, but did not say to whom or when (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Feb 1968). He said he “did not like it.”

By 1939 Murray had been joined in London by his sister Roma, a restaurateur, and together they lived in Old Church St, Chelsea.

Above: Murray Matheson in his Royal Air Force uniform, c1941. Source; Cyril Ritchard album of theatrical performance and personal photographs, 1939-1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The RAF and Murray’s early films

Many sources list Murray as a RAF Intelligence Officer, a title which might suggest many things – but what exactly, is today unclear. He was acting again by late 1944, or at least for some of the time. His early films date from this time – set in the RAF and written by Terence Rattigan. The first was a small supporting role in Anthony Asquith‘s The Way to the Stars – which featured John Mills and Michael Redgrave. Unfortunately the print currently in circulation appears to have been cut down for US release (under the title Johnny in the Clouds), and his role as Lawson, an Australian officer in the RAF, has all but disappeared – which is a pity, as contemporary reviews singled it out. Not so his role as Pete, the Australian radio operator in Journey Together, a tale of bomber command, directed by John and Roy Boulting, featuring Richard Attenborough.

There were also more real-life adventures before he was demobilised. He was reportedly in Moscow on some unspecified Admiralty mission at the end of the war, during which he broke his leg skating, or skiing. But it cannot have been all that bad an injury, as within a few months he was onstage at London’s Garrick Theatre in Better Late, with Beatrice Lillie.

Above: Screen grab of supporting players Hamish McNichol as Angus and Murray Matheson as Pete (the Lancaster bomber’s radio operator) in the final scene of Journey Together. The bomber’s crew are on a raft and have just been seen by a rescue aircraft because of the efforts of their excellent navigator (Richard Attenborough). Author’s collection. Following this he had a very small part in another war drama – Peter Ustinov’s Secret Flight, a story of the development of radar.

In 1948, the British Ministry of Information made a 25 minute docu-drama about the work of Dr George M’Gonigle, Chief Medical Officer in the 1920s and 30s for the northern English town of Stockton-on-Tees. Murray Matheson was cast to play M’Gonigle – one newspaper claimed he “was chosen for his sympathetic face and because, like Dr. M’Gonigle he has limp.” (Daily Herald, 10 Nov 1948, 3). McGonigle is hardly remembered in the 21st century, but he should be. A social pioneer – his reports on poverty and malnutrition impacted British social planning for years. For Murray, this role gave him valuable and lasting exposure as a capable performer, able to carry a successful film in a leading role.

Above: Screengrab of Murray in the lead role in One Man’s Story, a docu-drama made by the British Ministry of Information in 1948. Now in the public domain, it can be viewed online.

Move to North America

Sometime in late 1948 he travelled to Canada to appear for Brian Doherty – in The Drunkard, or the Fallen Saved an old temperance play, presented as “a stylised revue” now with music and played for comic effect. Although it was not to everyone’s taste, it appears to have been a reasonable success, and the play toured much of Canada before wrapping up in Chicago in March 1949. Murray must have enjoyed it because he was back in Canada doing another revue – There Goes Yesterday later that year.

Above: John Pratt, Charmion King and Murray in There Goes Yesterday. The Province (Vancouver), 17 March 1950, P6, via Newspapers.com.

Following this, in 1950 Murray appeared on tour in the US with old friends Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliot in the 17th century comedy The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger. The play had recently been directed by Anthony Quayle at London’s Phoenix Theatre, before being brought to Broadway by Ritchard.

By the early 1950s, the US and soon California had become his home. But Murray’s connection to Australia remained surprisingly strong. Although he never returned to Australia (he said more than once that he would), Murray remained an active correspondent with his two surviving sisters and the Australian journalists he knew, more so than many other expat Australians.


A snapshot of a prolific US career

Murray’s letters home from the UK and later North America documented what must have been an exciting time in his career. His early US work was notable as a mix of “legitimate” stage, televised theatre (a common device used by TV networks in the early 1950s when they did not have enough material) and film. The film roles were at first a mix of menacing or alternatively affable authority figures – consider – the Communist brainwasher in The Bamboo Prison (1953) and Major MacAllister in King of Khyber Rifles (1953). He can also be found playing police inspectors, doctors, and even vicar roles, including a convicted reverend in Paramount’s formulaic 1952 colonial drama, Botany Bay, directed by Australian John Farrow, but mostly featuring British players.

Above: Leading players of Botany Bay (1952), James Mason, Patricia Medina and behind the frightened Koala (which briefly appears in the film) is Murray Matheson. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23, Via Newspapers.com

Baby-boomers would recall Murray fondly as a guest in many popular TV series of the time. The very long list of appearances includes The Man from UNCLE (1965), Get Smart (1966), The Invaders (1967), McMillan and Wife (1973), McCloud (1970), Hawaii Five-0 (1973) and Battlestar Galactica (1978). On many occasions, he reappeared – in a different episode and as a different character. Not so his regular role as Felix Mulholland in Banacek (1972-4), a detective series with George Peppard as private investigator Thomas Banacek. Here Murray played an extremely well read bookseller – a fellow wit like Banacek, whose encyclopedic knowledge assists in solving cases.

It was while working on Banacek that Murray told reporters he had appeared in all of Noel Coward’s stage productions, which, given his passion for the stage, may well be true. On his passing in 1985, it was claimed he had appeared on stage almost 500 times.

Above Left; Murray in Visit to a Small Planet, The Greenville News, 6 June 1962, P6. Centre; Murray with Jane Powell in Peter Pan, The Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 1965, P93. Right, Murray with Pat Galloway in Lock Up Your Daughters, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Oct 1967, P47. Via Newspapers.com

It is beyond the scope of this article to document all of Murray’s many appearances on the US stage, but a glance at US newspapers shows an impressively wide variety of roles played across the country. Reviews of his stage work were consistently positive, explaining why he was in such demand. In the musical Damn Yankees in 1965 he sang and danced skilfully as the Devil, “with a dry diabolical charm.” (San Francisco Examiner 5 Aug 1965, 30). When he appeared in Peter Pan later that year and again in 1968 he was “downright humorous and sometimes awesome” in the dual roles of the children’s father and Captain Hook (Independent, Long Beach, 21 Dec 1965, 8). He carried the leading role in Sleuth at the Little Theatre in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1972 with great skill – “an excellent portrayal of the snobbish, selfish but somehow likeable author…” (The Greenville News, South Carolina, 2 Feb 1975, 30). The stage clearly remained a passion and probably his preference.

Of Murray the man, his contemporaries had universally good things to say. Canadian born actor Beatrice “Bea” Lillie was a great friend in London – they had appeared together in revues like Better Late at the Garrick Theatre in 1946. In Hollywood, he was a close friend of Agnes Moorehead, sometimes escorting her to social events – as well as appearing with her in one episode of Bewitched.

In 1978 Murray was interviewed for Trader Faulkner‘s upcoming biography of Peter Finch. Murray recalled his occasional catch-ups with old friend “Finchie”, during which they would reminisce about George Sorlie’s tent shows in outback Australia. He said they would “both become terribly common, and Peter, despite the fact he was English, would become absolutely Australian and talk in ‘Strine’.* He was often more Australian in his outlook than I ever was.”

Murray Matheson died on 25 April 1985, following a stroke. He was only 72 and had been working almost to the end. His final film was a small role in Steven Spielberg‘s The Twilight Zone (1983).

However, for this writer, a favourite was his role as the Captain of the Queen Mary in Assault on a Queen.(1967). As a teenager, this writer made a decision to always be as urbane and cordial as the dapper and tanned Murray Matheson – playing the ship’s Captain, with officer’s cap just slightly askew, in the best ex-service tradition. You can watch the relevant clip at Turner Classic Movies here.

Above: Murray Matheson at the height of his TV activity, with his tanned face and distinguished white hair. Photo taken in about 1975. The Greenville News (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26. Via Newspapers.com.

*Strine – meaning a broad Australian accent, usually also interspersed with plenty of local and incomprehensible slang.


Nick Murphy
September 2021


References

  • Text
    • Amalgamated Press (1942) Picture Show Annual 1942
    • Lotta Dempsey (1976) No Life for a Lady. Musson Books
    • Trader Faulkner (1979) Peter Finch, a biography. Taplinger Pub. Co.
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. BFI – Methuen
    • Alex Nissan (2017) Agnes Moorehead on Radio, Stage and Television McFarland.
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Sidney Murray Matheson, Birth certificate 1912. Doc 24110/1912
    • Ethel Matheson, Death certificate, 1924. Doc 4749/1924
  • Public Records Office, Victoria.
    • Divorce Case Files, 1860-1940. VPRS 283. Kenneth Murray Matheson v Hannah Margaret Matheson, 1933/387
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 Feb 1936, P6
    • The Scone Advocate (NSW) 18 Feb 1936, P1
    • The Warwick Daily News (Qld) 11 Mar 1936, P2
    • Telegraph (Qld) 11 July 1936, P12
    • The Herald (Melb) 8 Aug 1936, P21
    • Table Talk (Melb) 8 Oct 1936, P18
    • Telegraph (Qld) 27 March 1937, P14
    • Telegraph (Qld) 12 June 1937, P14
    • The Herald (Melb) 7 May 1940, P15
    • The Home (Aust) Vol 22, No 1, 1 Jan 1941, P18
    • The Herald (Melb) 10 Mar 1949, P19
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Bournemouth Graphic 29 Jan 1937, P10
    • Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937, P12
    • The Stage 16 June 1938, P9
    • Blyth News 12 Nov 1945 P3
    • The Sketch, 15 May 1946
    • Daily Herald, 10 November 1948 P3
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Age (Melb) 8 June 1934, P10
    • The Province (Vancouver) 17 March, 1950 P6
    • The Times (Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23
    • The Greenville News (South Carolina) 6 June 1962, P6
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 5 Aug 1965 P30
    • The Los Angeles Times 19 Dec 1965, P93
    • The Los Angeles Times 2 Oct 1967, P47
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd) 4 Feb 1968, P40
    • The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Utah) 16 June 1973, P23
    • The Greenville Times (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26
    • The Los Angeles Times, 26 April 1985, P30

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

Blanche Satchel – the Australian Ziegfeld girl

Above: Blanche Satchel, in a photo probably aboard the SS George Washington when she first arrived in the US, in September 1925. Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress. (Enlargement)

The 5 Second version
Born in Sydney in 1906 as Blanche Schachtel, she had a long experience as a juvenile stage performer in Australia, encouraged by her mother. She travelled to London in 1925 but soon after went to the US to appear as a showgirl for Florenz Ziegfeld in his revues, including his Follies. Her final performance was in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 – a US career of only 7 years. She died in New York in 2004. She appears to have been the only Australian born Ziegfeld Girl.

Growing up in Australia

She was born at the family home (and business) in Liverpool Street, Sydney Australia on 30 September 1906, as Blanch Sybil Schachtel, to Montague Schachtel and Doris nee Polack. Montague ran a pawnbrokers for many years at 92-94 Liverpool Street, but he is sometimes also listed in documents as an importer and auctioneer. In her earlier days, Doris had appeared on stage in Australia and New Zealand as Dorrie Melrose, a member of the Princess Comic Opera Company. By 1924, the family were living in a comfortable house at 24 Watson Street Bondi, not far from the famous beach, while Blanche finished school at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. It is quite possible that accounts told later in life are true – these suggest she grew up the sporty, outdoors – loving, Australian girl, in the established traditions of Annette Kellerman and Beatrice Kerr.

Above left: Blanche – a photo showing her as a youngster. The Sunday Times (Syd) 6 December 1925, P12. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: An unmade-up Blanche, soon after arrival in England. Daily Mirror, 25 August 1925, P1. Copyright held by Reach PLC. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Doris was to be an important force in her daughter’s success – and there is strong evidence she fostered her Blanche’s interests in a stage career from an early age. Blanche learnt dancing with Minnie Everett, one of Sydney’s well known ballet mistresses, and in early 1916, she was on stage in Sydney with Douglas Ancelon and Stella Chapman‘s College of Dramatic Arts, one of the best known Australian elocution and drama schools. As Desley Deacon has noted in her article on Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming, in the early twentieth century, elocution schools served a much broader purpose than just knocking off vestiges of an Australian girl’s colonial accent. It also taught girls marketable skills and instilled discipline.

Two years later, Blanche was on stage with Miss Ruby Davies’ Bondi-Waverley Players, appearing in the popular comedy-drama Little Lord Fauntleroy in the title role of Cedric. On one occasion the state’s Governor even watched a performance. Over the next few years, and now using the surname Satchel, Blanche also appeared in Davies’ pantomimes, including Snow White and Aladdin. She may also have performed in the chorus for Hugh Ward professional productions in the early 1920s. At some point, Blanche and her mother decided that she should try her luck as a performer in England. They arrived in London on the Orient line ship Ormuz in late May, 1925.

Launching an international career

Blanche’s quick success in London was remarkable. Soon after arriving she had a place in the chorus at the Prince’s nightclub cabaret, reportedly on £6 per week. However, by late August 1925, she had a new offer from none other than visiting US theatre impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932), to join his spectacular follies in New York. His trademark show was the annual Ziegfeld Follies, with its lavish numbers and hugely spectacular synchronized pageantry, performed with dozens of glamourous showgirls.

The story of their meeting and his offer to her got longer and more complex with each telling. This writer is inclined to the view that the earliest accounts were the most accurate, including this one which directly quoted Blanche; “My mother must really get the credit for this, as it was she who saw in the newspapers Mr Ziegfeld’s request for six girls, and brought me to him… Mr Ziegfeld thought I was a little too short at first and I waited in an agony of suspense until he finally said ‘All Right – you’ll do!’ “ (Daily Mirror, 25 Aug 1925). Of course she was not short at all – the very comprehensive US passenger manifest for the SS George Washington recorded that she stood a completely average height of 167 cm, or 5’6″. But she was good looking.

Above: Blanche, at her glamourous best and now a established Ziegfeld girl, in a US newspaper photospread. The Baltimore Sun (Maryland) May 27, 1928, P97, via newspapers.com

Described during his lifetime with a mix of gushing admiration – “his work of the last year is the work of genius” (Daily News 20 Mar 1928) and mock indignation “the acknowledged master of skin opera” (Austin American 18 Jan 1928), “Flo” Ziegfeld has been the subject of many biographies. Understandably, our appreciation of his work has changed over time. He might be best thought of today as a “man of his time.” In a 1994 article for The American Scholar, Michael Lasser has written “how strange it must seem to those under forty [today] that a theatrical producer could have become one of the most celebrated….figures of his day for his success at the public display of women…” Amongst the most recent biographies is Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s 2015 Ziegfeld and his Follies, which aptly introduces him as “a man of triple and quadruple personalities” (using his second wife Billie Burke’s words) and provides a masterful account of his life, including his reputation as the “Glorifier of the American girl.”

Above: Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men did not invent the Lucky Strike slogan “It’s toasted”, it has been around for many years. Here Florenz Ziegfeld appears with the slogan in 1928. Motion Picture Classic Jul-Dec 1928. Via the Lantern Digital Media Project.

Blanche was just one of many young women Flo chose as a performer and feted as a showgirl, not some special case. Lasser estimates there were more than three thousand girls selected up to the time of Flo’s death in 1932. Cynthia and Sara Brideson also cite Eddie Cantor’s view that “glorifying the American Girl… was an actual process invented by Zieggy”. Well-planted publicity stories made many of his girls stars off stage and the stereotype that all Ziegfeld girls married millionaires was well established. However, in Blanche’s case, there was also a real controversy accompanying her arrival in the US. Her London employers were not at all keen to let her go, and threatened legal action – claiming she was abandoning a contract. Today we can see why she left – the opportunities working in the US were much more attractive and it all came with a salary four times higher than she was receiving in London. Estimates are that the showgirls were paid the equivalent of $75 per week (approximately $1500 in 2021 money). Newspapers lapped the story up and it gave Blanche some much needed publicity, although there is no sign the dispute ever worried Flo Ziegfeld. Blanche was soon performing in a Ziegfeld chorus – in fabulous extravagant costumes.

Above: Blanche in costume and an unwieldy headdress from an unspecified show. The Journal (Connecticut)19 Feb 1929, P10. Via newspapers.com

In the interests of good publicity, from about 1916 Flo arranged for Alfred Cheney Johnston to photograph (the Bridesons suggest “glorify”) his showgirls – in time this included Blanche – usually the girls being in a state of genteel undress, occasionally nude. Most of the suggestive but less scandalous photos would appear in theatre programs – these were subtle and classical enough that Blanche’s mother could say she approved, as she did of a portrait painted by Howard Chandler Christy. However, these photos of the Ziegfeld girls remind us that no matter how kind Flo was as an employer, the girls were commodities, being employed for their looks, sex appeal and only sometimes their stage craft. Blanche Satchel was no different.

Above: Charcoal drawing of a painting of Blanche by Howard Chandler Christy, in The Oakland Tribune, 24 March 1929, P68. Via Newspapers.com. The Getty archive image here shows Christy posing with Blanche in front of the original painting.

The glamour publicity associated with the Ziegfeld girls extended to various alleged romances, often created for publicity purposes. In Blanche’s case, in October 1928 Time magazine associated her romantically with aviator Charles Lindbergh. There is no evidence this was the case, it appears the couple never met. But it is likely that in the early 1930s she had a short romance with “Cuba’s most eligible bachelor” – a certain Paul Mendoza.

In August 1928 Blanche took up a role with Flo’s competitor Earl Carroll, for his revue – Vanities. Carroll publicized Blanche in his program with more fanfare that usual, but by July 1929 she was back with Ziegfeld again – in the chorus of his new musical Show Girl. Blanche’s other performances for Ziegfeld included Simple Simon, Smiles, and the last Follies show before Ziegfeld’s death in 1932. For Blanche it was busy work, although like most of the girls, she was never singled out in reviews. If she appeared in Paramount’s Glorifying the American Girl – a 1929 film that romanticized Ziegfeld’s shows – it was merely as an extra. But in early 1933, newspapers reported she was about to take a film test in Hollywood.

Above: Made under the “personal supervision” of Florenz Ziegfeld, Glorifying the American Girl was made by Paramount Pictures in 1929. However, the film had spent several years in development. Here, it is announced as a forthcoming 1926 production by the Motion Picture News (April 1926), via the Internet Archive. The 1929 film, directed by Millard Webb, can be watched here. It is unclear if Blanche had a role in it.
Above: Blanche’s final performance for Ziegfeld was in 1931. She was not a featured player, however the layout of the program reveals the style and format of the show had not changed much. Author’s collection.

Life after her career

The film test never eventuated. Instead Blanche married stockbroker Max Bamberger in June 1933, the ceremony taking place at the very quaint Pickwick Arms Hotel in Greenwich Connecticut, about an hour from New York. Blanche and Max then headed off for a holiday in Canada, and then spent some time in Bermuda. She had well and truly retired from the stage, aged only 26. About the same time, Blanche’s father Montague arrived in New York. He had been bankrolling some of his wife and daughter’s overseas lifestyle, and now, finally, he was permanently joining them. He and Doris set about becoming US citizens.

Above: Blanche, now a celebrity because she was a “former Ziegfeld Follies actress,” promises she won’t remarry. But two months later, she did. The Dayton Herald (Ohio), 1 Aug 1938, P10, via Newspapers.com.

Unfortunately Blanche and Max’s marriage was short-lived. In July 1938 she went to Reno, Nevada to initiate a “friendly divorce” on the grounds of incompatibility – she said she preferred living in the city while Max preferred the country. Only a few months after the divorce, Blanche married William B Yeager, an executive in the US government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and soon after this, she became a US citizen. But this second marriage also failed sometime in the late 1940s.

Blanche lived in Beverley Hills for a time in early 1960s. She may have married a third time in later life, possibly living until the early years of the 21st century, as a person matching her profile died in March 2004 and was buried in the same cemetery as her parents in Westchester County, New York. This would make Blanche amongst the last of the Ziegfeld girls, although unfortunately she was never interviewed about her experiences. Doris Eaton Travis, who lived to 2010, is accepted as the last, and she left commentaries and appeared in several interviews.

In Sydney’s Bondi, the pretty house where Blanche grew up still stands, apparently little has changed.

Above: The beautiful Blanche – a photo that was regularly used through the 1930s, although she no longer performed. Daily News (New York) 4 Sep 1938, P128. Via newspapers.com

Blanche’s beauty competition?

Blanche was not a “Miss Australia” and did not enter any such competition – which did not start until the 1950s. The basis of the story appears to be this – in 1904 her mother Doris entered an “Australian types of Beauty” competition run by Sydney’s Lorne Photographic Studios. The photo she took, or arranged, or was in, won her the first prize – a piano. What the photo was or showed is now lost. It had nothing to do with Blanche, as she wasn’t born for another two years.


Nick Murphy
August 2021


References

  • Special thanks to – Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.
  • News South Wales Births Deaths & Marriages
    • Blanch Sybil Schachtel Birth Certificate. #31083/1906
  • Lantern Digital Media Project @ Internet Archive
    • Motion Picture News April 1926
    • Motion Picture Classic 1927
  • Internet Archive
    • Time Magazine 1928, 10-15. P10
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 11 Jan 1904, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 13 May 1904, P2
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 27 March 1916, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 2 August 1918, P10
    • Newcastle Morning Herald (NSW) 28 July 1924
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 15 April 1925, P9
    • Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 26 August 1925, P5
    • The Sun (Sydney) 26 August 1925, P20
    • News (SA) 27 August1925, P4
    • The Examiner (Tas) 6 March 1928, P7
  • Newpapers.com
    • Daily News (New York) Sept 4, 1925, P54
    • Daily News (New York) Apr 8, 1928 P116
    • The Baltimore Sun (Maryland) May 27, 1928 P97
    • The Journal (Connecticut)19 Feb 1929, P10
    • The Oakland Tribune (California) 24 March 1929, P68
    • The Pomona Progress Bulletin (California) Jul 14 1931, P7
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Daily Mirror 25 August 1925

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

Glen Alyn – the actress who was chased by a shark

Glen Alyn (1913-1984) in Picture Show Annual, 1942, P117, via the Internet Archive. The cropped article in the background, that reported the shark attack, is from the London Evening Standard, Nov 19, 1940, P8, via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

The Five Second Version
Born Glen Pointing in Sydney in 1913, she developed a career on the English stage and in mostly supporting film roles after 1930. She said she hated her first film experience in The Outsider in 1931, but she took a Warner Bros (UK) contract for two years in the late 30s. She continued to perform on stage until the 1960s. Late in life she retired to Australia, where she died in 1984.
Audrey Pointing, born 1910, also appeared on the English stage in the 1930s, and briefly on Broadway. She married and became Lady Doverdale in 1933, retiring from the stage. She died in Monte Carlo in 1970. 

Was a young Glen Alyn really chased by a shark, as the London Evening Standard reported in November 1940? Well, probably not. Although this does occasionally happen in Australia, it was almost certainly a tall story developed for publicity purposes, – like Lotus Thompson’s “acid on the legs” story or Errol Flynn’s “Irish birth”. Glen left a clue to the reason for this story when speaking to the same newspaper years later. By 1954, she could honestly report that her career had been “a persistent plodding on,” and she had never really had an outstanding success. Other Australian actors reported similar experiences – ten years later Australian born actor Betty McDowall, complained that working in London was “tough as hell”. But why would we expect it to have been anything other than hard work.

Left: “Vivacious Glen Alyn” photographed while the drama The Ware Case was being filmed, The Daily Mirror, 26 Sept, 1938. At no point in the film did Glen pose like this, it is apparently a “glamour shot”. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

The Pointing family of Sydney

Glenore Joan Pointing was born in Sydney on 30 September 1913, to Arthur Pointing (1883-1944) and his wife Elsie nee Davis (1888-1956).

Arthur Pointing owned several butcher’s shops in Sydney which had a reputation for high quality and modern cleanliness. But Arthur also had other interests and he didn’t work in the shops himself. These other interests included harness racing and some unspecified but obviously very lucrative investments. Arthur’s father, Albert, had been a City of Paddington alderman for many years, and was Mayor in 1900 and 1911-12.

Arthur and Elsie’s family lived in Woollahra for most of the 1910s and early 1920s, in a large beach front home they had built themselves, on Beach Road in Darling Point.

Above: One of Arthur Pointing’s chain of butcher’s shops, as shown in The Sun (NSW) 6 Sept 1913. Customers were greeted with attractive displays of choice cuts of meat amongst the palm fronds, served by smartly dressed butchers. A very different experience to many butcher’s shops of the era. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Glenore attended Ascham School in 1918 and 1919 (where she was known as “Glennie”) and her older sister Audrey (born 1910) was also a student at the school. The girls were very young boarders for a time in 1919, while Arthur and Elsie took a trip to the US. It seems the parents enjoyed the tour so much they decided to take the girls to the US, departing on the SS Ventura in January 1921. Some accounts claimed Glen was a keen dancer and suggest that while on this trip aged only 7 years, she determined to go on stage. In later years, the story was that the Australian comedian Clyde Cooke, then working in Hollywood, had shown the two girls around a studio. This might be so, and we know Cooke directed her in his British film Trouble in Store, in 1934, about the time the story gained currency. However, as with so many aspects of Glen’s early career in the UK, details that might confirm this story are sketchy.

Audrey steps on stage

It was actually Glen’s older sister Audrey who was first on stage and who proved to be the passionate dancer. Audrey was a “star pupil” of well known Sydney dance teacher Minnie Hooper. In late 1923 and early 1924, 14 year old Audrey appeared on stage at the Grand Opera House in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, for Hugh Ward‘s “revusical” panto The Rockets, and in March 1924 in Tons of Money. Ward had been managing director for J C Williamson’s for ten years and had resigned in 1923. These were productions he mounted in a new collaboration with John Fuller.

Possibly enthused with what they had seen of the world on their trip several years before, the Pointings packed up and departed on the Ormonde for England, arriving there in June 1924. Advancing opportunities for Audrey and Glen almost certainly was at the heart of this permanent move, although Arthur was to return every few years to “attend to his affairs.” The Pointing’s Beach Road home was finally sold up in October 1925, including all its contents. The family had relocated to an apartment near Hyde Park, in London’s west end.

Above: Audrey Pointing – while appearing in Out of the Bottle at the Hippodrome, London Daily Mirror, 8 June 1932 P7. A year later she was Lady Doverdale. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Audrey Pointing can be found in the chorus lineup for several shows from the late 1920s – such as the musical Peggy Ann, that ran at Daly’s Theatre for four months in 1927. By the early 1930s Audrey had made a name for herself on the British stage, especially for her well received work in some new Noel Coward productions. These included the London and New York versions of the revue This Year of Grace, the operetta Bitter Sweet and the comedy Private Lives. However, in May 1933 she suddenly married Edward Alexander Partington, 3rd Baron Doverdale, and soon after, retired from the stage for good.

Glen starts her career

Unfortunately there is no reliable information telling us what Glen did between the time of the family’s arrival in London and her first recorded performances in 1931, aged about 18. Film biographies of the 1930s claimed she spent six years training as a dancer and indeed, like Audrey she first appeared on stage in the chorus for musicals in the early 30s. Her first credited role in film was a supporting one in the 1931 British medical drama, The Outsider, based on a popular British stage play. (The better known 1939 movie version starred Australian starlet Mary Maguire). It was followed by another supporting role, in Michael Powell’s Born Lucky, a 1932 “B film” or program filler, in this case based on a novel. She also took the love interest role in Clyde Cooke’s 1934 Trouble in Store, another British B film (sometimes called a “quota quickie”) – a vehicle for comedian James Finlayson who was more usually associated with Laurel and Hardy films in Hollywood.

For newspaper reviewers, Glen’s roles were big enough to be noted in passing, but not significant enough to be seriously critiqued. All the Kinematograph Weekly could report of her role in Trouble in Store was that she “spoke well.” (18 Jan, 1934, P22) When she appeared opposite Hugh Williams in The Perfect Crime (1938), another journalist would characterise her only as “glamorous”.

Above: Glen Alyn in early 1937, about the time her Warner Brothers contract was announced. The Leeds Mercury 5 Jan 1937 P3. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

On the stage, Glen was listed as a dancer in He Wanted Adventure, a musical which ran at the Saville Theatre for five months in 1933. In late 1933 she adopted the stage name Glen Alyn, at about the same time she took a credited role in the Stanley Lupino musical That’s a Pretty Thing, which ran at Daly’s Theatre for four months.

The Warners contract

Following several good reviews for her part in the 1936 film Grand Finale, Glen signed a contract with Warner Bros (UK). Much less exciting in reality than it sounded at the time, studios expected actors to appear in all the films thrown their way, and the contract was not designed to develop a actor’s career or serve any interests other than that of the studio. While under contract to Warners over the period 1937-38, Glen appeared in at least 13 films – a very mixed bag, but many of them requiring her to perform what she later described as “other woman” roles. Many of these Warner Brothers films are lost or inaccessible today.

Above: George Saunders and Australian born actress Margaret Vyner arrive at a 1938 cocktail party at Glen’s London flat. Unusually, even for the time, the article also listed Glen’s address in Grafton Street, Mayfair. The Newcastle Sun, 6 April 1938, P14. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

We can gain a little insight into Glen’s work in the late 1930s from her surviving films. In Ealing’s The Ware Case (1938) she took a supporting role in several short scenes as Clare, a girlfriend to the playboy Hubert Ware (Clive Brook). One can see how this might once have worked as a stage play – heavy on dialogue, Hubert is presented as a strangely appealing but caddish dandy. Law and Disorder (1940), a film with a stronger cast – including Alistair Sim, Barry K Barnes and Diana Churchill – was probably slightly more enjoyable to make. It was a spy drama with Glen appearing in several scenes as an overdressed foreign (German) spy, pretending to be a reporter.

Above – screen grabs from several of Glen’s pre-war films. Left: Glen with Clive Brook in a casino scene from The Ware Case (1938). Right: Diana Churchill, Barry K Barnes and Glen in Law and Disorder (1940). Here Glen plays the enemy spy, in one of her few scenes. Both films are still available from specialist DVD providers. Author’s collection

Above – a publicity photo of a very blonde Glen with Michael Redgrave. This was another very brief film appearance – a bar scene in Lady in Distress (1939). The Evening Sun (Maryland), 9 April 1942, P26, via Newspapers.com.

Above: Many British actors did their best to support the war effort. Here Glen poses with US tennis player Don Budge, in a photo widely syndicated through the US. The article noted she was an ambulance driver – her steel helmet hangs behind her. The San Francisco Examiner, 13 August, 1939, P19. Via Newspapers.com

Plodding on

Glen did not pursue film work after the outbreak of war – instead she was widely reported as having volunteered to drive ambulances. She found time to appear in a cabaret at the Cafe De Paris, a Coventry Street night club that in December 1940 advertised itself as the “safest” in London because it was 20 feet below the ground. (Six months later the restaurant was bombed out and 34 people were killed, with scores injured – Glen was not there at the time). Glen’s sister Audrey provided at least one public letter from London when the girls were living together in the height of the London Blitz, reminding us how hard life was for Londoners in early 1941.

In 1943, Glen toured provincial England in the popular musical Chu Chin Chow.

Sometime in the mid 1940s, Glen met Stanley Grove Spiro, a London financier. Spiro had fled England in early 1937, after arrest warrants alleging significant financial fraud were issued, but he returned and surrendered himself in early 1938. He was found guilty and imprisoned for eight years, however he was released early, reportedly in exchange for providing helpful information to the authorities. A lesser known side to Spiro was that he was an avid theatre enthusiast, and he had backed the popular musical Balalaika in 1936 – perhaps this was how the couple met. Glen and Stanley (who dropped the surname Spiro in 1944) married very quietly in England in early 1947. Sadly for Glen, he died of heart failure barely a year and a half later, in October 1948.

Glen returned to acting full time after the war – she must have achieved some satisfaction from her role in the musical (or more accurately “comedy with music”) Under The Counter, with Cicely Courtneidge. The show enjoyed a long run on the West End but it closed after three weeks at New York’s Shubert Theatre in October 1947 – its theme of wartime black marketeering did not resonate in the US. All the same, she impressed US critic George Jean Nathan, who picked the “Australian siren” out for praise in what was otherwise, a vehicle for Courtneidge. Courtneidge subsequently decided to bring the play on to more enthusiastic audiences in Australia, but Glen and most of the original cast turned the trip down and returned to England.

Above: Glen’s signature. Undated, in the author’s collection.

Glen continued to appear on the British stage for the next twenty years – and comments she made suggest the stage had become her preference. Her work was a mix of comedy and drama in new and established work, and was often well received. For example, in reviewing the 1950 play The Non-Resident, Hubert Griffiths singled Glen out as an “actress of considerable talent and force,” but he qualified this with the comment that Glen’s was “a name new to me”. As she observed herself to the Evening Standard in 1954, this was her challenge – Glen had not had a major success to establish her name.

Above: Glen Alyn (left), June Clyde (centre) and Margot Lister (right) in It’s Different for Men. Photo from The Sphere, 16 April 1955, P33. The Spectator described this as “a feeble little comedy”. It ran for a month in 1955 at the Duchess Theatre. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

Amongst Glen’s last screen appearances was a leading role in the BBC’s 1954 historical drama The Gentle Falcon, a seven part children’s television serial based on Hilda Lewis’ historical novel. Unfortunately, like so much early television, this series has been lost.

Glen returned to Sydney, permanently, in January 1972. Her mother Elsie had died in England in 1956, and sister Audrey, Lady Doverdale, had died in Monte Carlo in 1970. Glen noted on her Australian entry form that she had not been in the country for 40 years. This was a mistake – she had lived in England for almost fifty years. The form also noted she was an actress, although she made no effort to resume her career in Australia. Glen lived her remaining life in modest apartments in Double Bay and then Bondi, near the famous sunny beach. She died there in October 1984, Australians completely oblivious to her presence. Perhaps this was what she wanted.


Nick Murphy
August 2021


References

  • Special Thanks
    To Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School.
  • Text
    • Amalgamated Press (1942) Picture Show Annual 1942
    • Harrison’s Reports Inc (1933) Harrison’s Reports
    • Douglas Jerrold (Ed)(1950) The English Review Magazine
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen, BFI – Methuen
    • George Jean Nathan (1948) The theatre Book of the Year 1947-1948
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • National Archives of Australia
    • Passenger Card, Glenore Jean Grove, 10 Jan 1972.
  • Clay Djubal, et al (2012) Australian Variety Theatre Archive
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sun (Syd) 6 Sept 1913
    • Sydney Sportsman, 14 Nov 1923, P7
    • Truth (Syd) 6 Jan 1924, P5
    • Sunday Times, (NSW) 27 April 1924, P20
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1920, P16
    • Sydney Morning Herald, July 31 1933
    • Newcastle Sun (NSW) 6 April 1938, P14
    • Daily Telegraph (NSW) 1 Oct 1938, P2
    • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton Qld) 14 Oct 1938, P7
    • Sydney Morning Herald 4 March 1941, P2
    • The Sun (Syd) 29 May 1944, P2
    • Truth (Syd) 4 Feb 1945, P14
    • The Sun (Syd) 30 Nov 1952, P49
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Guardian, 13 April 1925, P1
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 13 Aug 1939, P19
    • The Evening Standard (UK) 19 November 1940, P8
    • The Evening Sun (Baltimore, MA), 9 Apr 1942, P26
    • Daily News (New York) 4 Oct 1947, P131
    • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 Oct 1947, P12
    • Latrobe Bulletin (Latrobe, PA) 16 Oct 1947, P4
    • The Evening Standard (UK) 29 Feb, 1954, P8
    • Sydney Morning Herald 9 Oct 1984, P21
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Bournemouth Graphic 10 July 1931, P3
    • Kinematograph Weekly 15 Dec 1932, P7
    • Daily Mirror, 8 June 1932. P7
    • The Bystander, 16 Oct 1935, P97
    • Leeds Mercury, 5 Jan 1937, P3
    • Derry Journal, 11 Oct 1937, P6
    • Daily Mirror, 26 Sept 1938, P6
    • Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 7 Jan 1939, P3
    • The Tatler and Bystander, 15 Jan 1941, P89
    • The Stage, 27 Jan 1955, P9
    • The Sphere, 16 April 1955 P33
    • The Stage, 19 Feb 1970 P16

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

Irene Finlay (1891-1962)-the longest serving Lilliputian

Above centre – Irene Finlay, then aged about 10, with other performers, enlarged from a group photo of the Pollard troupe c1902-3, (outside the Badminton Hotel, Vancouver). Source Vancouver As It Was, A Photo Historical Journey, used with their kind permission – it remains one of few high quality and well photographed images of the Pollard children.

In early 1910, 18 year old performer Irene Finlay (1891-1962) eloped with 37 year old Arthur Hayden Pollard (1873-1940), the manager of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour to India and the Far East, and the junior member of the famous Pollard family. Arthur Pollard had been accused of mistreating the children in his care on the tour, and the news of this had slowly filtered back to Australia. His relationship with Irene Finlay was also a central feature of the scandal. The collapse of the tour has been well documented by Gillian Arrighi (2017) and in a creative retelling by Kirsty Murray (2010).

After the protracted and embarrassing legal proceedings in Madras and the subsequent press attention, Irene and Arthur disappeared. Reports suggested they had gone to Pondicherry, or maybe Saigon, or perhaps North America. In the wake of the tour, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed new laws to restrict children leaving the country as performers.

Above: Despite its grainyness, this photo shows Arthur Hayden Pollard (seated, centre) with the performers in his 1909-1910 troupe. Most of the children are in makeup and are therefore difficult to identify. The Leader (Melb) 21 May, 1910. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nine years before, in September 1901, Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester brought their troupe of 30 young Australian child performers to Honolulu, en route to Canada and the US for a 13 month tour. Interviewed by journalists, Charles Pollard had a well prepared story, possibly anticipating the company would face with some child labour laws – especially in the eastern states of the US. The child performers varied in age, but were mostly in their early teens.

Charles Pollard told the Honolulu Advertiser: “Every one of our children hails from Melbourne, and most of them from the five mile radius… that includes Collingwood, Fitzroy and Carlton. They come from all classes, some from respectable parents, some from the street with no parents.” (The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept, 1901, P10). But they didn’t really come from “all classes” – they were instead usually from working class families. They were predominantly girls, 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 or more in several cases. At first glance, Irene Finlay appears to match this profile of a typical Pollard performer. 

In early 1910, Arthur Hayden Pollard, used even starker language for the press – he described the parents of the children in his care as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep them.” (The Madras Times cited by Arrighi 2017, 168). All this fitted well with a narrative that child performers were being taken overseas as some type of public service. The fact that it was also an extremely lucrative business for the supervising Pollards was not mentioned.


The Finlay family

Irene was born in Brisbane in August 1891, to Amelia “Millie” Robins. No father was listed on Irene’s birth certificate – in fact, in the space for father’s name it was specifically stated that Millie was “not married”. The document acknowledged Irene’s living older sisters Nellie (born 1885) and Nattie or Nathalie (born 1889), whose own birth certificates have proved elusive. In 1893, Millie married widower and former pastoralist George Charles Finlay. While living in New South Wales, two children were born of this union – Myra (born 1893) and Nigel (born 1895). George Finlay had already fathered a large family with his first wife, but they all appear to have stayed in North Queensland. In the late 1890s, the newly combined family moved to Melbourne, to a very modest cottage in Napoleon Street, Collingwood.

Above: Napoleon St, Collingwood, today. The Finlay home was at number 11, to the right of the silver car. Today, Irene might recognise the cottages in the left distance, but other buildings are testament to the suburb’s many stages of development – on the left; factories of the post WW1 period, in the distance residential tower blocks of the 1960s, and at right apartment living of the 21st century.

It was while living at No 11 Napoleon Street that 9 year old Irene joined her first Pollard tour – in 1900. She then appears to have dutifully attended every single one of Charles Pollard‘s extended overseas tours thereafter – making six in all. In the eight and a half calendar years between July 1900 and February 1909, she was touring for over seven years. It was a childhood spent in the company of a small group of Australian juvenile performers and the supervising Pollard adults – and she knew Arthur Hayden Pollard well, even as a child. Of the quality of Irene’s performances for Pollards we have limited information. Reviewers of Pollard performances were encouraged to write about the troupe’s leading players – Daphne Pollard, Teddie McNamara and the like. Irene Finlay “acquitted herself well” was a familiar comment made by North American papers, although her success in male roles seems to have been particularly well received.

Above: There are few photos of Pollard performers in costume who can be identified with absolute confidence. However, here is Irene Finlay playing a boy’s part while on Pollard’s lengthy 32 month North American tour (July 1904-Feb 1907). Sacramento Daily Union, 14 May, 1906, via Newspapers.com

The Finlay’s home life was to prove tragic – step father George Finlay died of tuberculosis in 1902, and mother Millie died of liver failure in 1907. For Irene, perhaps her relationships with other Pollard performers was what sustained her as she grew up. Yet while photos such as the one below might suggest normal childhood friendships, we have no other corroborating evidence of this. (Although at least one enduring friendship from Pollards has been noted elsewhere – between Daphne Pollard and Alf Goulding).

Irene and Leah
Above: Irene Finlay and a smiling Leah Leichner sitting side by side in about 1905, possibly on the SS Empress of India. Five years later, Irene eloped with Arthur Pollard, and Leah had been struck by him for “misbehaviour” and sent home early. Enlarged from a photo in the collections of the University of Washington, Special Collections JWS21402

Nellie Finlay takes charge of the family 1907+

In 1900, it was not Irene but her 15 year old sister Nellie Finlay who the Pollards were most keen to employ. She had been appearing on stage from a very young age – in 1897 Nellie was listed in pantomimes in Sydney and in 1898 she performed as part of the lineup at Harry Cogill’s Gaiety Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne. But in late 1899, entrepreneur Harry Hall contracted Nellie and Nattie to appear in his “Australian Juvenile Theatrical Company” for a performance tour of South Africa. Charles Pollard promptly issued a writ against the Finlays with the intention of stopping Nellie and Nettie, arguing they had made a prior agreement. The Pollards sometimes threatened legal action against the parents of their performers, and their writs still exist in public records collections in Victoria. Unusually for the time, Minnie Finlay vigorously defended her girls and the Pollard’s case did not hold up in court. Within a year, the two older Finlay girls were in South Africa, performing with Hall, while Irene was appearing with Charles Pollard’s troupe. No hard feelings apparently!

Above left; Nellie Finlay as Dicky, the crossing sweeper, in Bluebell in Fairyland, with Tom Pollard’s troupe. The Critic, 23 Dec, 1908, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nellie Finlay married fellow vaudevillian Harry Quealy in early 1904, while they were performing in Perth, Western Australia. Quealy had a nation-wide reputation as a regular comic performer and by 1904, the couple were both with Tom Pollard’s “Comic Opera Company.” Reviews of Nellie’s work on stage for Tom Pollard were equally positive. She was, observed The Truth in 1908, a favourite with audiences and her performance as Dicky in the musical panto Bluebell in Fairyland was greeted with great enthusiasm. By 1916, and after 3 years working side by side with Harry on the Fuller circuit, The Sunday Times reported on her “good voice… good [stage] presence..[showing] all the essentials for success in the rapid-fire sketches she and her husband present.”

When Minnie Finlay died in 1907, Nellie Quealy became the family matriarch – she was listed as the contact for Irene when she travelled, and even as late as 1915, for her step-brother Nigel when he joined the Australian Army.


The Disaster in India 1909-1910

When Arthur Pollard arranged his 1909 tour, Harry Quealy was signed up as stage manager, with Nellie also attending as one of the supervising adults, (some reports claim she was Ballet mistress), in addition to Irene and younger sister Myra as performers. Thus Irene had two sisters and a brother in law on the tour with her.

What is often not mentioned in accounts of the scandals that overwhelmed the tour is that Arthur Pollard had plenty of experience with juvenile troupes already – he had helped his older siblings Charles and Nellie (Chester) manage at least five extended tours successfully over the previous ten years. He also knew many of the children very well from previous tours – Freddie and Johnnie Heintz, the three McGorlick sisters, Willie Howard as well as Irene Finlay. He therefore knew exactly what was involved in a performance tour and one is left with the conclusion that he was simply unsuited to managing young people. His very indiscrete relationship with Irene began while on the ship from Australia, or according to Arrighi, in Australia before leaving. It was later reported that when the relationship was noticed, adults on the tour spoke to Harry and Nellie Quealy about it, presumably hoping they could help bring it to an end. They couldn’t.

Much of what Australians knew of the problems with the India tour was reported with a delay of several weeks. Arthur Pollard did attempt a defence at first, and it was given some publicity, but it was to little avail. Calcutta’s weekly The Englishman, reported Arthur Pollard’s court evidence in early April. Pollard told the court “he had always behaved properly and fairly towards the children”… “It was not true he had ruined a girl”… “It was not his intention to divorce his wife” (The Englishman, April 14, 1910, P7). Four days later, the Madras court found Pollard was “not a fit a proper person to be in charge of children” and soon after, he and Irene were gone.

On his return to Australia in mid April 1910, Harry Quealy went out of his way to give his version of events to the Australian press. Pollard’s relationship with Irene was never mentioned in his reports, which at first focussed on ensuring Tom Pollard (still active as an entrepreneur in Australia) and Arthur Hayden Pollard weren’t confused with each other. His story became more dramatic over the next two weeks, particularly after accounts of Pollard hitting children gained currency. By early May, Quealy’s account included suggestions he and Nellie had tried to intervene when Pollard hit some of the children. “Here cut that game, Pollard” he claimed he said. 

The child performers had all returned home by early May 1910 – the further careers of some of them has been covered elsewhere.

Above: Melbourne’s Leader was keen to cover the 1909-10 Pollard tour of India. This photo of the troupe was reportedly taken on 26 Feb 1910 near Bangalore, two days after they broke up. The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Harry Quealy stands at rear, 13th adult from the left. His wife Nellie is not in the photo, neither is Irene Finlay, who had thrown her lot in with Arthur Pollard. Also missing was Leah Leichner, who had already been sent home to Australia. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Harry and Nellie working together 1910 +

Whatever Harry and Nellie experienced on the India tour, or thought of Irene or Arthur Pollard, they did not allow it to hold them back. By July they were back on stage for Harry Rickards at the Sydney Tivoli and by the end of 1910, they had developed their own musical comedy turn, Fun in the Kitchen. They regularly performed together, including four years on the Fuller circuit around Australia, until September 1916, when they departed for a performance tour of South Africa.

Above; Nellie performing in Sydney. The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Quealys moved on to the US in 1917, where they worked up touring vaudeville acts with some success. An effective self-promoter, Harry attracted publicity by all means necessary and with some success. By 1920 Harry, Nellie and their children were living and working in New York.

Top; Nellie and Harry performing together in Indiana on a touring vaudeville program in 1920. Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 December 1920. Below; the diminutive Harry Quealy as an English sailor in Rain, which ran for 600 performances in New York. Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20. Via Newspapers.com.

Irene and Arthur’s later life 1910+

Arthur Pollard was 37 years old when he eloped with Irene in India, taking the company profits with him. Probably using aliases to travel, the couple quickly made their way to England, where they settled in the east Sussex area. Arthur had left behind his wife Mary and their two children, in Charters Towers, Queensland. In spite of his abandoning them, his wife and children stoically carried on and made a success of their lives.

Above: Irene Finlay in 1909, about the time of the last Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour. The Leader, 21 May 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

The very thorough 1911 United Kingdom census reveals the couple living as man and wife in Hastings, Irene now calling herself Irene Olga Pollard. Although provincial England was probably a good place for Australians on the run to live; as local cinema operators, they could not entirely avoid attention. The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly covered the couple’s work in East Sussex several times during World War One – they ran cinemas at Rye, Tenterden and Hastings. Arthur appears to have been happy to comment on matters of public entertainment, being an opinionated person from an established theatrical family. When their 200 seat “Electric Palace” theatre in Hastings caught fire in January 1915, Arthur publicly committed to rebuild. (Although he and Irene lived on the buildings’ upper floors, the rebuild does not seem to have happened). At the end of the war, Arthur and Irene seem to have divested themselves of their remaining cinemas.

Above: The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

On 27 February 1925, Irene and Arthur married in New Zealand. What had happened in the intervening seven years seems unclear. On the wedding certificate, Arthur claimed that he was a widower – although he wasn’t, his wife Mary was still alive in Queensland. He was recorded as a “retired Theatrical Manager” while Irene was described as a “Theatrical artiste”. The couple lived comfortably in the suburb of Ponsonby, overlooking Auckland Harbour, until Arthur’s death in 1940.

It is worth noting that in October 1940, Irene Pollard needed to publicly acknowledge the many “expressions of sympathy,… letters, cards, telegrams and floral” tributes she had received when Arthur died. (Auckland Star, 11 Oct, 1940, P1). The few contemporary writers about the Pollard 1909-10 tour were understandably often torn between admiration for the Pollard family as pioneer Australian and New Zealand theatre entrepreneurs, and having to acknowledge that some of Arthur Pollard’s behaviour was reprehensible, even by the permissive standards and lax child labour laws of the time.

Above centre – Arthur Pollard, enlarged from a group photo of the Pollard troupe of 1902-3, (outside the Badminton Hotel, Vancouver). Source Vancouver As It Was, A Photo Historical Journey, used with their kind permission.

Harry Quealy returned to Australia in 1925, after he suffered a stroke during the production of Rain. He died in Australia in 1927. Nellie stayed on in the US, and died at Saranac Lake in New York in 1936, an actress to the end. Irene died in New Zealand in 1962 – there were no children by her marriage to Arthur. Myra left the stage and married an engineer in 1916. She ended up living in Peru. Nathalie also left the stage and appears to have ended her days working at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne as a domestic.

To the best of this writer’s knowledge, none of the Finlay girls were ever interviewed about their work on stage, with the Pollards or about the ill-fated India tour.


Nick Murphy
July 2021


References

  • 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) Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Peter Downes ( 2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • 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]
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • 2 March 1902. Death Certificate. George Charles Finlay
    • 24 April 1907. Death Certificate. Amelia Finlay
    • 27 Sept 1917. Marriage Certificate Oliver Oates and Nathlie Finlay
  • State of Queensland: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • 16 August 1891. Birth Certificate. Irene Robins
    • 21 March 1914. Marriage Certificate. Theodore Evans and Myra Finlay
    • 14 June 1945. Death Certificate. Mary Pollard
  • New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages
    • 27 Feb 1905. Marriage Certificate. Arthur Haydon Pollard and Irene Olga Finlay
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Quiz and the Lantern (SA) 28 Jan 1897, P15
    • The Age (Melb) 13 June 1898, P8
    • The Herald (Melb) 12 Mar 1900, P4
    • The Referee (Syd) 17 July 1901, P10
    • Maitland Weekly Mercury (NSW) 8 Feb 1902, P13
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Mar 1902, P1
    • The Argus (Melb) 26 Mar 1903, P4
    • Evening News (Syd) 25 Feb 1904, P6
    • North Coolgardie Herald (WA) 25 Mar 1905, P2
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 27 Nov 1905, P2
    • Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 July 1908, P4
    • The Critic (SA) 23 Dec 1908, P6, P7
    • Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7
    • The Register (SA) 30 March, 1910 P7
    • Leader (VIC) 2 Apr 1910 P23
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 22 April 1910, P2
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910, P2
    • The Register (SA) 25 April 1910 P8
    • Advertiser (SA) 28 April 1910 P9
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 29 April 1910, P2
    • Leader (VIC) 30 April 1910, P34
    • Evening Star (WA), 11 May 1910, P 3
    • The Herald (VIC) 17 May 1910
    • Leader (VIC) 21 May 1910 P24
    • The Telegraph (Bris), 12 Mar 1925, P5
    • Sunday Times (WA) 21 Aug 1927, P14
  • The British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Times of India, 6 Jan 1910 P5
    • The Times of India 31 March 1910, P9
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 31 Mar 1910 P7
    • The Times of India, 13 April 1910, P7
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 14 April, 1910
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 12 May, 1910, P6
    • The Bioscope, 1 June 1911, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 11 Feb 1915, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser, 14 Sept 1901, P10
    • Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), 20 May 1908, P4
    • The Boston Globe, 7 Oct 1917, P52
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past
    • Auckland Star, Oct 11 1940, P1

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

Billy Williams and the lost story of his little sister Madge

Above: Billy Williams – enlarged from a Song Book cover, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Madge Williams, while performing for Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company. Photographed while in Hong Kong and on tour, c1901 – courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Five Second Version
Melbourne born Madge Williams (sometimes also Madge Woodson, but born Banks)(1893-1977) was a star performer with two Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company tours in 1900-1902. Still aged under 10, she left the company while in the US, subsequently performing there and in Britain with her older sister Lily before marrying vaudevillian Bert Coleman. Her older brother Billy Williams (1878-1915) became a very popular music hall performer and an early recording artist in the UK, achieving great fame before his death in England at the height of his career, in 1915. After a final return tour of Australia in 1920-21, Madge retired from the stage. She died in Texas in 1977. 

The Banks Family

Above: Madge in Pollards production of The Belle of New York c1901. Madge’s brother Billy Williams was establishing himself in Britain at the same time. Photo courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Madge Williams, sometimes Little Madge Woodson – real name Margaret Hilda Banks, was born in Melbourne on August 15, 1893, to Richard Shaw Banks, a draper, and Mary nee McIntosh. Unfortunately a certificate verifying her birth never seems to have been issued – nor one for her older sister Lillian, born in 1875. Based on public death notices for parents Mary and Richard, birth certificates for the family’s boys and on later US documents for Madge, we can see there were six Banks children who survived infancy, four of whom went on stage:

  • Lillian (Lily) born 1875,
  • Richard (Dick) born 1876,
  • William, Will or later Billy (but confusingly also named Richard Isaac on his birth certificate) born 1878, (See below and Note 1 below regarding his name)
  • Reginald (Reg) born 1880,
  • Rowland (Rowley) born 1885 and
  • Margaret (Madge) born 1893

There is no doubt the Banks family had an unorthodox approach to formalising the births of their children, even by standards of the time. All the births for the family’s male children were registered. However, births for the two surviving girls – Lily (b 1875) and Madge (b 1893) appear not to have been registered at all. The birth for another daughter – Margery Valentine (b 1888 – d 1888) wasn’t registered for 10 months, until about the time of the child’s death, and in that case it was reported by 13 year old Lily rather than one of the parents, which appears to be most unusual. Two other daughters’ births were registered, but both had died after only a few weeks. These unusual circumstances suggest a seriously dysfunctional dimension to family life.

Richard Shaw Banks and Mary McIntosh were married on October 23, 1877, at their home – May Cottage on Reilly Street, North Carlton, now called Princes Street, a major Melbourne thoroughfare. Richard Shaw Banks was illiterate and he signed the marriage papers with a mark. The two oldest children of the family – Lily and Richard, were thus born before their parents marriage.

The family rented and moved about, as was common for Melbourne’s urban poor. Jeff Brownrigg has traced some of their movements through inner Melbourne and suggests that the family progressed to more affluent suburbs over time. Electoral rolls show by 1910 Richard and Mary Banks lived at 15 Moffatt Street in South Yarra, further from the industrial inner suburbs but still in a very modest cottage.


“A doll-like child.” Madge on stage 1899

Above, Left: “Little Madge Woodson” featured in Pollard’s advertising in the Salt Lake Telegram, 15 Feb 1902. Right: Madge Woodson having left Pollards, in the San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902. Via Newspapers.com

While Madge’s exact pathway onto the stage is now lost to us, we know that amongst her earliest appearances was one when she was aged only about 6, in a performance in Fitzroy in May 1899, where she attracted attention for singing Maude Nugent‘s new song Sweet Rosie O’Grady. In September 1899 she appeared on stage with her brother Will Williams (later to become Billy Williams), who was then part of the Ettie Williams’ troupe. Also appearing with her was another performing brother, Reg. This is the only time members of the Banks family performed together, as far as this writer can determine.

Soon after this appearance, Madge joined Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, to take a long overseas performance tour through the Far East – and then on to North America from September 1901- October 1902. Will meantime, left for England in late 1899.

As Madge Woodson, she became a popular Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company performer, often vying with Daphne Pollard for pride of place in newspaper reports. That contemporary audiences were so taken with juvenile performers in adult roles seems clear from reviews. The “cute,” “petite” Madge was an “unusual talent” who had a “wonderful French accent”, and was also a “graceful dancer”, while Daphne Pollard was the “sweetest thing that ever happened.” The Great Falls Tribune described Madge as “a doll like child.” (27 Jan 1902)

Above: Madge Woodson with Pollards – and other Australian child performers listed here, with a mix of real and stage names. This is the cast list for the week commencing November 11, 1901, for The Belle of New York, in San Francisco. Author’s collection

In July 1902, while in the US, Madge left the Pollard troupe. They had been performing away from home for 11 months on this tour, and were due to return to Australia. But Madge Woodson did not return, instead, she began a stage career in the US – although still not yet ten years old. Who looked after her interests at this time we do not know for certain, but the likely choice was her older sister Lily, with whom she would later collaborate. Perhaps anticipating the criticism of child stage performance then gaining ground in the US, a long article in the San Francisco Call of 3 August 1902, soon after her break from Pollards, extolled her virtues as an animal lover and an award she had reportedly been given by the Melbourne branch of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

1903 saw Madge as part of mixed variety lineups in California with a “Lily Boyd”, perhaps her sister Lily, performing in the sketches or “character comedies” The Cook Lady and The Big and the Little of It. Her footsteps in the US for the remainder of this decade are harder to trace, although her sister Lily’s marriage to performer Ed Daly was recorded in Iowa in 1907. In the same year, Madge performed with Australian vaudevillian Leon Errol and his wife Stella Chatelaine as part of Jimmy Cooper’s Jersey Lilies in New York, with good reviews. As Frank Cullen et al note, “Errol was manager, director, sketch writer and chief comic” for the troupe. We can only speculate whether this association with Leon Errol sharpened Madge’s performance skills.

Madge and Lily 1910 -1922

Above: A very grainy photo of Madge and Lily performing as part of the variety lineup at The Lyric Theatre at Muskogee in Oklahoma. Muskogee Times Democrat, 21 March 1910. Via Newspapers.com

The period 1910 – 1922 saw Lily and Madge performing together in the US, South Africa, England and finally Australia again. In 1910, their older brother Billy was at the height of his popularity as a music hall entertainer and recording artist, and at times, they used his songs. Williams was now settled as a stage surname and occasionally their familial connection to Billy was noted, although the sisters appear never to have performed with him. Always a part of a variety lineup, the sisters act consisted of comedy patter and songs, not unlike the one Billy was developing, before his sudden death in 1915.


Above: Madge and Lillian in England, The Sunday Post, 13 August 1916, Via the British Newspaper Archive.

In May 1917, while in South Africa, Madge married Bert Coleman (Jacob Cohen), a fellow vaudevillian – who had a reputation as an amusing “impersonator” and “comic whistler“. Bert was often presented to audiences as English, but in reality he had been born in Savanah, Georgia and made his home in Texas. Following the marriage, Bert often appeared on the same vaudeville bill as Madge and Lily. Two children, Billy and Barney, were born of the union while they performed in England.

Above: Bert Coleman and Madge Williams on a 1917 US passport application. Source US National Archives via Family Search.

In early 1920, Bert, with Madge and Lily, who were now billed as the “Williams Sisters,” came to Australia to appear around the country with Fuller’s theatres. Their vaudeville turn again appears to have been some clever humorous patter between popular songs. Adelaide’s Register reported “Bert Coleman again told humorous stories, sang funny songs, and whistled so musically that it was difficult to judge which section of his turn one admired the most. The Williams sisters continue to be great favourites with their audience, [with] their reputation for producing ‘miles of smiles…”

In April 1921, Adelaide’s The Advertiser commented on their touching rendition of one of Billy’s last songs (he had died in England suddenly in 1915) – Our Little Kiddie Sings the Best Song of All. You can hear an original recording of Billy singing it here.

Above: Bert, Lily and Madge in the Fullers lineup at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre – appearing alongside Roy Rene and Nat Phillips as “Stiffy and Mo”. The Age (Melbourne) 26 July, 1920.

Madge and Bert returned to the US in November 1922 and moved back to Bert’s home state of Texas, where they lived in Waco, Forth Worth and finally Dallas. Already under siege from cinema, the days of mixed vaudeville programs was well and truly coming to an end by the 1920s and although there is some evidence Bert occasionally performed, Madge did not. Bert turned to running some small businesses.

Madge died in Dallas, on 9 July 1977. By then, she was listed as Margaret Hildegard Cole, daughter of “Jack” and “Maggie” Banks of “New Castle”, Australia, reminding us how wildly inaccurate death certificates can be. Only her date of birth and shared address with Bert, who had died in 1971, remain to confirm her identity. Unfortunately her sister Lily’s later fate remains unknown.


Billy Williams on the Stage c1897 – 1915

As Jeff Brownrigg has noted in his very detailed 1989 account, little is known with certainty of the early days of William Banks or “Billy Williams” (confusingly named Richard Isaac Banks on his 7 Feb 1878 birth certificate)(See Note 1). There were plenty of anecdotes about him given in later years, including stories of his early experiences as a strapper or groom for jockey Tommy Corrigan and his nickname being “Curly Banks.” There was also a tale that the name Billy Williams was borrowed from a successful Australian boxer of the time. Frank Van Straten‘s 1968 interview with Billy Williams’ widow Amy Jennings provides confirmation of his work as a strapper, but not much else of use as regards what happened in his early years. Amy was clearly wanting to protect Billy’s image with some of her answers – she claimed that he was born in Collins Street Melbourne (the most prestigious street in the city’s main business district) and that his father was secretary of the Albert Park Golf Club. But perhaps she just didn’t know. Her memories of Billy as a performer in England seem much more considered and were probably more reliable – the couple had met and married in London in September 1901. Billy had had limited schooling Amy said, and he had no formal musical training. But he had a beautiful voice.

Billy’s first publicly reported appearance as a comedian and singer was as “Will Williams” in late 1897, in Melbourne. He was soon touring regional Australian provincial venues as an “English vocalist” in vaudeville programs, when he was picked up by the Harry Cogill Musical Comedy Company.

Above: Billy Williams, The Edison Phonograph Monthly Jan-Dec 1912, P3. Via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library.

According to Amy Jennings, Melbourne entrepreneur George Adams saw him and sponsored him to try his luck in England. Possibly, or perhaps he just saved up. He is known to have departed Australia aboard the SS Afric in late 1899.

Will was fortunate and appeared at the London Hippodrome soon after arriving, billed as an “Australian comedian.” His memory of the early days was that it was a struggle, according to Amy’s 1968 interview. Early newspapers do not give a very clear idea of exactly what his act entailed, but humorous songs on sentimental, contemporary and popular topics (like The Taximeter Car in 1908 – then a relatively new phenomenon in London) were always a major part of the act. Frank Van Straten has described his style as “fresh, breezy” with a “rollicking repertoire.”

Above: Billy, still appearing as Will Williams, in early 1901. The Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901. A few weeks later, he was listed as Billy. Via British Library Newspaper Archive

In early 1901 Will re-named himself Billy Williams for the stage. In September that year he married London actress Amy Robinson, but on the wedding certificate he now used the name William Holt Williams, and his father was listed as a draper called Richard Holt.

Billy’s songs – sometimes of his own composition – such as John, John, Put your Trousers on (1906), lent themselves well to gramophone recordings and there were soon plenty in circulation. Jeff Brownrigg suggests it was fellow Australian Florrie Forde who encouraged him to begin recording songs. Some of these remained popular for many years – such as When Father Papered the Parlour (1909). Indeed, Williams is rightly identified as “Australia’s first popular recording star” by Brownrigg. As early as 1907 he sang songs written by Fred Godfrey (born Llewellyn Williams), but after 1911 nearly all of the songs he sang were jointly credited with Godfrey, like The Kangaroo Hop (1912). From late 1906 he was billed on stage as “The man in the velvet suit”, and Amy Jennings confirmed that he usually wore one on stage. He would come offstage wringing wet with perspiration, she recalled.

On 4 March 1910, Billy, accompanied by Amy and his son Reg, returned to Australia for entrepreneur Harry Rickards, on the RMS Omrah. He shared the program with psychics, comedy sketch artists and acrobats but it was a very successful tour, especially when Australian audiences were reminded he was one of them. Valerie Abbey from the National Film and Sound Archive has given a summary of Billy’s 1910 tour, which appears as an appendix to Jeff Brownrigg’s 1989 article, here.

Above – left: Billy appears in Australia again “after an absence of 12 years”, part of Rickards Vaudeville lineup. The Age, 16 April 1910. Right: Billy Williams Song Book cover, National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By Christmas time 1910, he was back in England again, performing for enthusiastic audiences and making more gramophone records. In 1912 he performed at the first Royal Variety performance.

Following the death of his mother Mary in South Yarra in 1912, his father Richard joined him in England, but he also underwent a change of name, becoming “Richard Holt Williams”. He died at Billy’s home in 1914.

Billy Williams died only a few months later, on 15 March, 1915. There had been newspaper reports of his indisposition in October 1914, but by November he had returned to giving concerts in Scotland. On 24 November, The Edinburgh Evening News noted a large group of enthusiastic soldiers in the house, ” who welcomed Williams as an old favourite. They proclaimed their choice of songs, and he responded with a bright and breezy rendering of several popular numbers…” He was ill again by February 1915 and his death certificate clearly lists septic prostatitis, which must have been an exhausting condition for a performer where boundless good humour and energy was essential. His death occurred following an operation, but there is no evidence supporting the suggestion of syphilis – as appears in the current manifestation of Wikipedia’s page on Billy. (He had several children with Amy and she lived another 65 years, which renders this unlikely)


Note 1 – Billy Williams’ birth name

Billy Williams name is the source of understandable confusion among his biographers – partly because his 1878 birth certificate gives his name as Richard Isaac Banks. However, every other document attributable to the family (such as public memorial notices for the deaths of parents Mary and Richard, the birth and death certificates for his siblings), give his name as William Isaac Banks, or Billy. Most importantly, when the child who would become Billy Williams was born on 7 Feb 1878, as already noted the family already had a child named Richard, born on 2 August 1876, in addition to Richard being the father’s name.

The most obvious explanation was that this was human error made when William Isaac Banks’ birth was being registered – but perhaps there are other explanations. At any rate, there is no evidence of him being called anything other than William, Will or Billy during his lifetime, or “Curly” as a nickname. (William was also a grandfather’s name.)


Note 2 – Other family members

Richard Shaw “Dick” Banks (1876-1930) The oldest of the Banks boys, he became a professional golfer in Australia. He died at the young age of 53. A National Library photo is here.

Rowland “Rowley” Banks (1885-1928) was also a professional golfer. Suffering ongoing ill health, he died in Newcastle, NSW whilst seeking a warmer climate.

Reginald Banks (1880 – ?) Reg also adopted the surname Williams and performed on stage with some success. However his later fate is unknown.

Above: Reg Williams performing in comedy in Adelaide, The Gadfly, 21 Aug 1907, via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nick Murphy July 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Richard Banks Birth Certificate 9 August 1876 . 14675/1876 (This is Richard “Dick” Banks)
    • Banks Marriage. 4144/1877
    • Richard Isaac Banks Birth Certificate, 7 February 1878. 9017/1878 (This is Billy Williams)
    • Margery Valentine Banks Birth Certificate, 15 February 1888. 32706/1888
      (This sister died 10 months later)
    • Mary Banks Death Certificate, 5 November 1912. 15487/1912.
  • HM Passport Office, General Register Office.
    • William Holt Williams. Death Certificate. Died Hove, England, 13 March 1915
  • Texas Death Certificates
    • Barney Cohen, 16 June 1930. #31546
    • Jacob Bert Cole, 8 August 1971. # 55022
    • Margaret Hildegard Cole, 9 July 1977. #48767
  • US National Archives via Ancestry and Family Search
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen (Stage Name Bert Coleman). 2 May 1917
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen. 28 Feb 1918
    • Passport Application for Margaret H Cohen. 1 May 1920.
  • National Film and Sound Archive (Australia)
    A large collection of material relating to Billy Williams, including photos, audios and Peter Burgis’ 1972 with Amy Jennings (not read for this article)
  • Clay Djubal – The Australian Variety Theatre Archive
  • Music Hall MastersBilly Williams series All the songs Album 2 (CD) 2001
    • Frank Van Straten (Dec 1968) Interview with Amy Jennings (Billy’s former wife)
  • Text:
    • Jeff Brownrigg (1989) [Notes to accompany recording] Australia’s Billy Williams, A Selection from the Brownrigg-Williams Collection at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.
      Downloadable at Move Classic Music Label here.
    • Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly (2007) Vaudeville, Old & New, An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol 1. Routledge.
    • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 24 Sept 1897 P9
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 8 Jan 1898 P10
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 Aug 1898, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 May 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 21 Sept 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 5 Oct 1899, P2
    • Fitzroy City Press,(Vic). 28 Sept 1900, P3
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P6
    • Brisbane Courier, (Qld). 13 Oct 1902, P6
    • The Argus, (Vic). 26 March 1903, P4
    • Sunday Times, (WA). 19 June 1910, P1
    • The Age, (Vic). 9 Nov 1912. P5
    • The Age, (Vic). 2 Oct 1914. P1
    • The Argus (Vic). 1 May 1915, P11
    • The Daily News, (WA). 18 June 1920, P6
    • Daily Herald (SA). 8 April 1921. P1
    • The Advertiser, (SA). 11 April 1921, P8
    • The Journal, (SA). 16 Ap 1921, P4
    • The Sun (NSW). 8 Aug 1928, P13
    • The Age, (Vic). 15 Oct 1938, P35
  • Newspapers.com
    • San Francisco Call. 30 June 1901, P18
    • The Honolulu Republican (Hawaii). 19 Sept 1901, P4
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 10 Nov 1901, P9
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 3 Aug 1902.
    • Vancouver Daily World (BC, Can). 19 Aug 1902, P2
    • The Honolulu Advertiser (Hawaii). 29 Sept, 1902, P10
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902, P40
    • Standard Union, (New York). 8 Oct 1907 P3
  • The British Newspaper Archive
    • The Era, 20 Oct, 1900
    • Surrey Comet 2 Jan, 1901, P3
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901, P4
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 March 1901, P4
    • Preston Herald, 17 March 1915, P2

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

On the road with Pollards Opera – Irene Goulding remembers.

Above: Alice Pollard (1885-1943) and Irene Goulding (1888-1987) photographed in Shanghai, China c 1901, dressed for the comic opera Dorothy. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Sometime in 1985, Sally Dawes, a researcher with the Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne Australia, recorded an interview with 97 year old Irene Smith nee Goulding (1888-1987). Irene was the younger sibling of Alf Goulding (1885-1972) and Frank Goulding (c1882-1897) and is apparently the only member of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company to be interviewed for posterity. Listening to this precious recording held by the Australian Performing Arts Collection, the listener cannot help but admire how much Irene recalled, 85 years on. I am grateful to Claudia Funder, APAC Research Centre and Acquisitions Coordinator, for drawing this interview to my attention – it tells us so much. But the interpretation of Irene’s words and meaning, as she leafed through many of the photos shown here, is my own.

Above: Left – Alf Goulding in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896, long before his success as a Hollywood director. Right – Irene Goulding (left) with Ivy Trott in The Gaiety Girl;  Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Irene’s first remark when Sally Dawes turned on her tape recorder in 1985 was to exclaim that her older brother Frank had died (from smallpox while on the 1897 Pollard tour of India), and that she herself had been so sick (on a later tour of South Africa) that she became delirious. She recalled that at one stage she imagined the Prince of Wales was attending to her.

Above left – Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896, shortly before his death from smallpox in India. Above right – Many of the photos in this collection were acquired from the Goulding family. This inscription on the reverse of another photo was written by Alf, addressed to his father, a bootmaker in Fitzroy, and contains the words “rest Frank’s soul.” Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Despite the awful death of Frank, Irene had also signed up with the Nellie Chester – Charles Pollard troupe in about 1899. Her father had asked her if she also wanted to join, and although her favourite teacher at the Bell St State School (Fitzroy) strongly disapproved, she did. Later in life she apparently regretted her limited education, a consequence of a childhood spent on performance tours, but her comments when interviewed also reveal a strong sense of loyalty to “Aunty Chester” in particular, as the children called Nellie Chester. Irene’s first touring experience was in South Africa, probably departing Melbourne in early 1899. Learning parts for the company’s repertoire of musical comedies such as The Belle of New York and The Geisha, was very hard work, Irene recalled. Payment for her work was sent to her widowed father in Melbourne. She recalled being given pocket money while on tour, to buy sweets.

Occasionally one or other of the Pollard adults let slip how much money they made from their enterprise. In one unguarded moment in 1901, Charles Pollard revealed that he had netted £30,000 from the previous few years touring. This is the equivalent of about $AU 2,270,000 today. Another report on the operations of Tom Pollard in 1900 suggests similar success with his troupes travelling through Australia and New Zealand.

Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Referee , the child performers were probably all instructed to not mention the downside of endless travel such as the inevitable homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the Sydney Referee correspondent wrote approvingly of the Pollard’s operation, and described Alf Goulding, as “the clever young comedian of the company, aged 12 years” and Irene Goulding“a bonny girl of 8 years.. who hadn’t been very well lately.” The Pollards had learned, years before, during their 1884 tour, that bad publicity could be fatal. This report from South Africa was all very positive.

A distant memory of Irene’s when interviewed in 1985 was of the South African tour being cut short, as the “Boer War” broke out in October 1899. The children were hurried back to Western Australia and then resumed a touring schedule in South East Asia.

Above: The Pollard troupe in Manila, posing with US soldiers. The presence of Teddie McNamara, sitting front left, dates this photo to mid 1903, not long after the Philippine-American War. Irene Goulding stands behind and to the left of the tall white-uniformed officer, and is flanked by Jack Cherry and Ivy Trott. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne .

The performance stops made by the Charles Pollard-Nellie Chester troupes might surprise readers today. On the way to North America, the tours usually included colonial outposts – Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities which all provided enthusiastic expatriate audiences. The fact that these performance tours went to places that had been or would soon be risky colonial war zones (such as South Africa, China and the Philippines) also reminds us that the Pollards were running a business, not a school or a charity, and their decisions were always commercial ones. Fighting had only just ended in the Philippines when the photo above was taken. (An extraordinary photo taken on the next tour in 1904 seems to show many of the same child performers posing with Filipino prisoners at a Manila gaol. See University of Washington Special Collections image here).

Irene’s memory was of a wonderful time as a child on the Pollard tours – and of the young men who were so attentive, of the unusual buildings in the tropics with their wide verandas, of being served dinner in hotels. America was “so big” she recalled, and not surprisingly, many of the Pollard performers returned and made their homes in the US – there was so much more work there.

Above: Some of the female Pollard performers in Manila, c1901-3. Front row left to right: Florrie Sharpe, Ivy Trott, Mrs Nellie Chester (nee Pollard), Alice Bennetto and unidentified. Back row, left to right: May Topping, Nellie McNamara and Irene Goulding. Irene disliked this photo – she said she felt her parted hair made her look like a grandmother. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Overwhelmingly comprised of girls, who usually also took on many of the male rolls, the members of Pollards troupes were drawn mostly from inner Melbourne suburbs. Indeed, of the children in the photo above, the Topping, Trott, Goulding and Bennetto families all lived in close proximity to each other in Fitzroy, suggesting they knew each other before joining up.

Irene was the daughter of Frank Goulding, a bootmaker and sometime performer, and Margaret nee Walsh, a performer. She was born in a house in Greenwood Street, Collingwood that no longer stands. As well as her older brothers, she had a step-sister Elsie, from her mother’s side, who later performed under the name Elsa Golding (sic). At the time of Margaret’s sudden death in April 1895, the Goulding family lived at 431 George Street, Fitzroy.

Interviewed by “Curious” for the Calcutta Englishman in mid 1901, Charles Pollard admitted that most of the children lived in a five mile radius of Melbourne. However, he insisted they came from “all classes”, and “selection, together with training” was the secret of Pollard’s success. He also pointed out that the child performers willingly learned from each other – he said Irene had taught Madge Woodson the role of Molly Seymour for The Geisha.

Above left: Some of the cast of The Geisha c 1901-2. Officers – Emma Thomas, Irene Goulding, Lily Thompson and Daphne Trott (aka Daphne Pollard); Girls – May Topping, unidentified, unidentified and possibly Merle Ferguson (aka Merle Pollard). Above right: Madge Woodson, (aka Madge Williams), born Margaret Banks in Richmond. Date of photo unknown. Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Caring they may have been, but the Pollard company played fast and loose reporting the children’s age, no doubt adjusting these as it suited their preferred public profile. On the shipping manifest for SS Sierra, bringing the troupe to the US in September 1901, Alf Goulding, now the Stage Manager, was represented as 19. Irene’s age was listed as 11. Their real ages on this trip were sixteen and thirteen. On the same trip, Daphne Trott (usually Daphne Pollard) was really ten, not 6 years old as reported.

Possibly unbeknownst to Irene and other children, Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard were quite prepared to use force to make some of their parents fulfil their contracts. In 1900 the Pollards issued a writ against Frank Goulding (amongst others) to discourage him from letting Irene perform with Harry Hall’s proposed juvenile company. They won, or Frank backed down, but Frank remained aggrieved with the company, even while they employed Alf and Irene. In 1904, when the company’s former conductor Ernest Wolffe attempted to start his own new juvenile troupe using many of the Pollard’s most popular players – including Alice and Teddie McNamara, Oscar Heintz, Daphne and Ivy Trott, the matter ended up in court again. Wolffe lost and the children stayed with Pollards, for the mammoth 32 month tour of 1904-1907.

Above: A Pollard program flyer (here the company is titled Pollard Juvenile Opera Company) from November 1, 1901, when they performed in San Francisco. No ages are given here, and there is a long list of real and stage names, mixed in with joke names. Fred Pollard was really Freddie Bindlass from Collingwood, but Irene remembered this boy with the sweet voice by an alternative stage name – Freddie Stewart. Irene Goulding herself used the stage name Irene Loftus. Author’s Collection.

There is compelling evidence a child’s size and physical development were critical to being a Pollard’s performer, rather than simply just their age. Children who were physically undersized – like Willie Thomas and Daphne Trott, enjoyed longer careers with Pollards than most. Irene said she was always “little” too – but she finished up with Pollards when the SS Miowera brought her home in early April 1904. She was 16.

After her time with the Pollards, Irene Goulding performed in some smaller roles on stage, apparently in pantomimes and perhaps in the chorus for shows on the Tivoli circuit – and she was able to recall some of these details for Sally Dawes in 1985. Irene married Albert Smith, a driver, in 1931. Of her famous brother Alf, she seems to have last seen him during World War 2, when he lived in Australia again. He was “a clever boy” Irene recalled, but foolish with money. She said “he went through three fortunes” during his lifetime, perhaps in saying so she was a little regretful of her own opportunities missed. Of the other children in Pollards, Irene Goulding could recall gossiping with them about their parents’ Fitzroy businesses. Her contemporary in age and Fitzroy neighbour Ivy Trott she remembered clearly, but as Ivy and her family had left Australia in 1907, she had apparently lost contact.

Irene died in Melbourne, Australia in 1987.


Special thanks
to Claudia Funder at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, and Dr Kate Rice, the collection’s inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow.

Nick Murphy
June 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Irene Goulding 28436/1888
    • Alfred John Goulding 5583/1885
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/195
        1900/199
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/199
        1901/562
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Frank Goulding Irene Goulding
      • VPRS 267/ P7 unit 1280, item 1900/200
        1900/187
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Harry Hall Alice Landershute Marie Sheddon Neillie Sheddon May Victoria Topping Nellie Finlay
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1307,  item 1901/562
        1900/188
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon M E Sheddon Marie Sheddon Nellie Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/188
        1904/329
        Charles Albert Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lillipution Opera Company v Ernest Augustus Wolf
        fe
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1360,  item 1904/329
        1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • 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) Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Peter Downes ( 2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • 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]
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Argus (Melb) 19 June 1884, P6
    • The Age (Melb) 6 April 1895, P3
    • Referee (Sydney) 5 July 1899, P10
    • The British Australasian, 17 May 1900
    • The Ballarat Star, 14 July 1900, P2
    • The Ballarat Star, 7 Feb 1901, P4
    • The Age (Melb) 7 May 1903, P9
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept 1901, P10

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

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

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

Molly Fisher & Fred Conyngham try their luck in London

Above: Fred Conyngham with Lu Ann Meredith,(looking suspiciously like Fred and Ginger from Hollywood) in the 1936 British musical With Pleasure, Madame, (aka Ball at Savoy). Sydney Mail, 8 April 1936, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1908, Fred Conyngham had a successful career as a dancer and comedian in JC Williamson’s productions in Australia in the ’20s. Travelling to London in late 1928, he established himself on stage and also appeared in a series of mostly forgettable British films. Molly Fisher was born in Hobart Tasmania in 1908. She first performed on the Australian stage in the early ’20s before moving to England in 1930. Like Fred she appeared on stage and in a mix of films. The couple married in 1932. After World War II they returned to Australia to perform together in a show (that flopped). In 1950 they moved to Sydney and left acting behind for good
Fred moved into insurance.

Above – Left: Molly Fisher about the time she and Fred married in London, on a signed fan card, c1932, Author’s Collection. Right – Fred Conyngham in Film Star Who’s Who on the Screen 1939 magazine (UK). Author’s Collection

Fred establishes himself as an actor

Frederick Ronald Talbot Conyngham (pronounced “Cunningham”) was born in Sydney in June 1908, to George Michael Conyngham and Edith nee Goggins. In time George, a tobacconist, became an actor, director and stage manager of some standing with JC Williamson’s, and their Royal Comic Opera Co, and was later was involved with tours by Dion Boucicault Jr. From a young age he coached his two sons, Fred and Russell (born 1904), as singers and performers. Fred and Russell also had training from Guido Cacialli, a well regarded member of the Gonsalez Opera Company, who had been stranded in Australia by the war.

Above left: George M Conyngham in costume for the musical comedy Whoopee!, playing at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre. The Herald (Melb) 28 Sept 1929, P20.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Fred (sometimes called Freddy) Conyngham was first recorded as appearing on the Australian stage in May 1926, on a J C Williamson’s Australasian tour of the popular farce The Last of Mrs Chaney. As a juvenile, he had a minor role as a butler, but one that was noted positively by reviewers. He must also have pleased Williamsons, as he was busy with “the firm” for the next three years. He appeared in a leading role in the play Cradle Snatchers, then in Good News in 1928 and finally the new US musical comedy Whoopee! in 1929. In the latter three plays he was on stage with young Tasmanian actor, Molly Fisher. When their relationship began is now impossible to verify, but it seems likely they were at least very fond of one another before Fred departed for England on the Esperance Bay in late 1928. Perhaps they had an agreement that Fred would establish himself first in London, to pave the way.

Above left: Advertisment for Good News playing at St James Theatre in December 1928, and including Fred and Molly in the cast. Truth (Syd), 30 December 1928. At right: Chorus lineup from Whoopee! J C Williamson’s kept the spectacular and amusing shows running throughout Australia, in spite of the Great Depression. The Sun (Syd), 10 July 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly on stage aged 13

Molly (Molly Irene Selina) Fisher was born in Hobart in December 1908. There was no family dynasty of performers in her family, both her father and brother Vernon were both motor engineers. But unlike Fred, who throughout his career seems to have avoided the press, Molly was quite adept at speaking to journalists to help create a public persona. Speaking in 1930 to a journalist from the Melbourne paper Table Talk of her leading role in Turned Up, she said “It is an ingenue part, and I am not fond of playing the nice girl with pretty pretty ways, but prefer something in the comedy line, or with some acting possibilities.” Aged only 21, she already felt she was well experienced – her mother had brought her to Melbourne in 1916 to learn to dance (some of the time under the tutelage of well known Melbourne dance teacher Jenny Brennan) and she had been on stage since that time. Her name had first appeared in J C Williamson’s pantomimes as early as 1921, when she was only 13 years old.

Above left: Molly Fisher (left) with Nellie Barnes hamming it up for the camera, while appearing in the pantomime, The Babes in the Wood, Table Talk (Melb) 2 Feb, 1922. Above right: Molly Fisher in a leading role in Turned Up, Table Talk (Melb) 26 Dec, 1929.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly’s departure from Australia was well publicised by newspapers – “Another Australian Girl for London” reported Sydney’s Daily Pictorial, with a mixture of pride and mock dismay. Molly had been quite open about her plans to leave for England for some time – she felt it was “the only way to see the best artists and watch their work…(and) even to tour in a provincial company means experience.” Following another leading role in the musical Follow Through, she left for England in April 1930, on the P&O steamer Balranald.

Fred Conyngham’s appearances in England

Fred’s first appearance in London was in the musical The Love Race, written by Stanley Lupino and performed at the Gaiety Theatre in June 1930. It ran for over 230 performances with good reviews – Lupino knew the sort of light entertainment audiences liked. Years later Australian actor John Wood would claim Lupino preferred to avoid casting actors with refined English Oxford accents, which explained his “employment of Australians whenever possible.” It is difficult to verify this claim, although a number of Australians did appear in The Love Race. But when British International Pictures (BIP) made a film of the play later that year, it had been reconstructed for the screen, much of the music had been dropped and many of the stage actors, including Fred, did not appear, probably due to scheduling commitments.

Above: Australians in the cast of The Love Race featured in The Home magazine, 2 January 1931. Left to right – Esme Tosh, Harry Wotton, Madge Elliot and Fred Conyngham. All were born in or had grown up in Australia, as was Cyril Ritchard, who was also in the play. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove

After a tour of South Africa in 1931, Fred appeared in a healthy run of the musical The Cat and Fiddle at London’s Palace Theatre. His stage performances kept him busy for much of the next decade and established his reputation as a capable performer – these included Wild Violets at the Drury Lane in 1932, She Shall Have Music at the Savoy in 1934 and The Flying Trapeze in 1935. It is evident from reviews of Fred’s performances that his singing, dancing and comic timing were regarded as “first class”, “clever” and that he projected “a pleasant personality” on stage. However, this reputation was largely built on consistently good performances in fairly lightweight material – shows that were an entertaining distraction. but often not much more.

In 1932 he appeared in his first film – a 63 minute musical for BIP called The Indiscretions of Eve (it was also the first film for Steffi Duna and Jessica Tandy). In his book on British musical films, Cheer Up! Adrian Wright counts about 320 musicals made in Britain in the first 15 years of sound film. Unfortunately, because of the patchiness of the genre, many are difficult to find today, including this one. However, David Quinlan has described it as “bright and amusing mini musical comedy about an earl [Fred Conyngham] who falls in love with a girl [Steffi Duna] who models in a wax factory…” Most of Fred’s 1930s films comprised musicals – notably Ball at Savoy (1936), Rose of Tralee (1937) and The Minstrel Boy (1937), plus several dramas, comedies, and a thriller, The Crouching Beast (1935).

Above: Fred Conyngham and Peggy Cochrane in Radio Parade of 1935. (1934). This scene is a highlight of the film. The film is still available from Networkonair.com

Radio Parade of 1935, one of only a few of Fred’s films currently available for purchase, was typical of many British musicals of the era. The film has a weak plot – it is essentially a series of musical acts held together by a superficial narrative about a radio station needing to update its programming. Fred had a brief appearance, playing himself, performing There’s no excusing Susan with Peggy Cochrane. Their colour scene together was a highlight at the end of the film.

In December 1938 Motion Picture Herald magazine listed Britain’s top stars – by popularity at the box office. It is a long list starting with actors still recalled today – George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews, Anna Neagle etc. Fred Conyngham was amongst the others listed, his popularity coming off the back of three musical films he made in 1937. But contemporary film historians Denis Gifford and Adrian Wright have also characterised Fred as “Britain’s B-picture Fred Astaire,” which seems to accurately reflect the problem many British actors faced at the time – the film material (plot, direction, photography and effects) was often mediocre.

Early in 1931 the rest of the Conyngham family arrived in London – 25 year old brother Russell, George M and his second wife Gladys and their 4 year old son. His parents stayed for two years, George M being keen to see Russell establish himself.

Molly Fisher in England

Molly Fisher’s first English appearance was in Sons of Guns in Liverpool, which started less than a month after she arrived, a placement she arranged before she left Australia. Her salary was £40 per week, (the equivalent of about £2500 today). Her first London production was a revival of the old favourite The Belle of New York, which ran at Daly’s and then the Winter Garden in mid 1931. However, a great success followed when she took a part in the new musical The White Horse Inn, which ran for a year at London’s Coliseum. In July 1932, in the midst of their busy schedules, Molly and Fred married.

Above: Molly Fisher as Mamie with Johnny Schofield (Blinky Bill) and Norman Page (Von Pumpernick) in The Belle of New York. The Tatler, April 15, 1931, P91. The copyright for this photo is held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive

Like Fred, Molly Fisher appeared in a handful of British films. These were a mixture of thrillers and comedies, with Molly generally taking the supporting role of “best friend” to the leading actress. Unfortunately, like Fred’s films, most of these are B films and difficult to source now. Two that are still available both feature Ivor Novello in the leading role, with I Lived With You (based on Novello’s own play) standing out as a fine romantic comedy.

Above left: Screen grab of Molly (right foreground) as a telephonist with Elizabeth Allen (centre) in the thriller The Lodger (aka The Phantom Fiend) 1932. Above right: Screen grab of Molly (right) with Ursula Jeans (left) in I Lived With You, 1933. This latter film is available through Renown pictures.

Working together again

On several occasions Fred performed with familiar Australian faces. Lucille Lisle had appeared with Fred in Cradle Snatchers in Melbourne. They appeared together again in the film The Minstrel Boy, described by Adrian Wright as “a tepid attempt to establish Lisle as a romantic leading lady.” Also in 1937, Australian born director Alf Goulding used both Fred and Molly for his B-film Sam Small Leaves Town, filmed at Butlin’s famous holiday camp in Skegness (another film that now seems to have entirely disappeared). In 1939, John Warwick, his wife Molly Raynor (actually New Zealand born), Lucille Lisle and Fred all appeared on tour with A Star Comes Home.

Perhaps these are merely coincidences, but Australians still like to think they “look out” for each other. Actor Esmond Knight recalled meeting a fresh faced, newly arrived Australian actor who visited him and Fred in their dressing room during the run of Wild Violets. Fred gave the young man the names of helpful managers to contact. The young man was Robert Helpmann.

While both Molly and Fred continued to perform on tour and in London in the 1930s, as the decade came to a close they made more of an effort to work together. A daughter had been born in 1934, so there was another reason for the family to spend more time together. In 1937, Fred and Molly appeared on stage together at the Shaftesbury in Crazy Days, another Stanley Lupino production. And in early 1940, they performed together in Revue Des Allies at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Records also show that in 1940 they were appearing on BBC radio as part of a variety performance.

A volunteer fireman in 1939, Fred served in the Army during the war and this was very likely as a member of the Entertainment National Services Association (ENSA), providing entertainment to the British and Allied forces. Fred’s brother Russell was also an ENSA performer and director. (See below)

Post war return to Australia

Above: Linda Parker and Fred Conyngham in a scene from When You Come Home (1947), his last British film. This is a screen grab from a short clip on Youtube, the author had been unable to source a full copy.

Following the war, the couple had returned to the English stage and probably appeared in some now lost BBC TV programs. Before leaving England, Fred also appeared in the film When You Come Home, a Frank Randle comedy. Another film difficult to find today, it reportedly used the old familiar device of a story shaped around a music hall, providing plenty of opportunity for varied performers and sketches to hold it all together.

Sometime in late 1947, Fred and Molly were offered work in Marinka, (an operetta inspired by the 1889 murder-suicide involving the Crown Prince of Austria) and planned for a season on Australia’s Tivoli circuit by producer David N Martin.

There are any number of reasons why Fred and Molly may have wanted to come home, but Marinka (even with its shift to light romance and a change of ending) was an unfortunate choice to kick off a rebooted Australian career, if that is what they hoped for. Despite the efforts that David Martin made with the production, it received only modest reviews and was not a success at the box office. Theatre Historian Frank Van Straten suggests it was “out of place” at the Tivoli, which promptly returned to traditional vaudeville fare.

Above: Molly and Fred posing for a publicity shot at the time they appeared in Melbourne in Marinka. Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By 1950, Fred and Molly had decided to leave the stage behind. They moved to Sydney, and Fred went into insurance.

Regrettably, but like so many Australian actors, they were never interviewed about their years of acting and dancing. Molly died in April 1966, aged only 57. Fred’s inscription on Molly’s headstone at Sydney’s North Rocks cemetery is touching and speaks of the couple’s strong bond: “You were the one, the only one, to be linked with my restless soul…”

Fred died in 1974.

Russell Conyngham

Fred’s brother Russell did build a successful career in Britain as an actor and later a director. He appeared as a “twinkle-toed” dancer on stage in Britain, often with Iris Boyers, who he married in 1939. In September 1935 The Stage magazine announced that Russell, “the eccentric light comedian… and Iris Boyers, soubrette and leading dancer have formed a new comedy variety act”. During World War II both Russell and Iris worked for ENSA, but in December 1949 they also departed for Australia, with their children, and pursued other interests. Russell died in 1984.

Above: Russell Conyngham about 1934. Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

References

  • Text
    • Denis Gifford (1978) The illustrated who’s who in British Films. Batsford.
    • Esmond Knight (1943) Seeking the Bubble. National Book Association. Hutchinson.
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen, BFI – Methuen
    • John Parker (1936) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Eighth Edition) Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons
    • John Parker (1939) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Ninth Edition) Pitman Publishing
    • David Quinlan (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928-1959. B T Batsford
    • Jeffrey Richards (Ed) (2000)The Unknown 1930s, An Alternative History of the British Cinema. I B Tauris. esp Chapter 5, Stephen Guy; “Calling All Stars: Musical films in a Musical Decade”
    • Frank Van Straten (2003 Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Adrian Wright (2020) Cheer Up! British Musical Films 1929-1945. The Boydell Press.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Table Talk 2 Feb 1922
    • The World’s News 14 May 1926, P6
    • Table Talk, 4 Aug 1927, P9
    • Arrow (Syd)), Friday 23 Nov 1928, P15
    • Truth 25 Nov 1928, P11
    • Sunday Times (Syd), 6 Jan 1929, P18
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 3 Feb 1929, P14
    • Table Talk 2 Jan 1930, P20
    • Daily Pictorial (Syd) 27 Mar 1930, P23
    • The Home 2 Jan 1931, P34
    • Labor Daily (Syd) 2 Ap 1936, P10
    • Sunday Mail, 8 May 1936, P12
    • Mercury (Hob) 22 March 1938, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, Mon 16 Oct 1939, Page 6
    • The Sun (Syd) 11 Jan 1948, P2
    • The Herald (Melb) 21 May 1948, P6
    • The Argus (Melb) 29 May 1948 P5
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 10 July 1948, P13
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Tatler, 15 April 1931, P91
    • The Sketch, 16 March 1932, P476
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 5 May 1932, P40
    • The Worthing Gazette, 9 Nov 1932, P11
    • The Stage,  21 June 1934, P15
    • Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19
    • The Era, 2 Sept 1934
    • The Bystander, 29 May 1935, P375
    • Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, 18 Dec 1936, P6
    • The Stage – Thursday 19 October 1939, P6
    • Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 12 Jan 1940, P60
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 19 Dec 1946
  • Lantern Digital Media Project
    • Motion Picture Herald 31 Dec 1938, P13-14

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