Phyllis Gibbs from Coogee says “No” to Cecil B DeMille.

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on the front page of The Western Mail (Perth), 28 April 1927. She had just won the First National Pictures “Quest for an Australian Star” competition. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version.
Phyllis Gibbs was born on 24 July 1908 in Sydney. She won several competitions including the 1927 “First National Film Star Quest” which took her to Hollywood, and gave her a test with Cecil B DeMille studios. She appeared in Lois Weber’s The Angel of Broadway but after 10 weeks returned to Australia. She appeared in promotions for cinemas and then in Arthur Higgin’s first film – Odds On. After this she took no further interest in film making and died in Sydney on 4 May 1943.

Phyllis Gibbs was barely out of school and working as a hairdresser in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee, when she began to appear in competitions. Like some of the other women profiled on this website, Phyllis’s journey to very brief fame – including an appearance in several films – owed much to the support of an eager parent. And like many, it all lasted only a very short time.

Born to Ethel Cora Wynne in 1908, her mother married insurance salesman Henry Leslie Gibbs (or sometimes Salter – Gibbs) in 1910 (See Note 1). She attended Coogee Public School, not far from the family’s flat in Havelock Avenue. Her passions were tennis and ocean swimming – Sydney’s iconic Coogee beach was within easy walking distance of the family home.

In August 1926, the Sydney Evening News reported that Phyllis had just won first prize in the “unshingled” hair competition. Unshingled meant she kept her hair long, not cut short in a bob, as was the fashion at the time. The competition was partly sponsored by the Crystal Palace Cinema in George St, Sydney and part of the prize was a £10 per week payment to appear in a live prologue performed before the popular Douglas Fairbanks film Don Q, Son of Zorro. Ethel complained about the difficulty she had faced, trying to interest her daughter in competing.”She has never gone in for anything like this before,”  she told the Evening News. She is a real home girl.”


Phyllis Gibbs4  The Sun August 1926

Above left: Phyllis Gibbs with her spectacular “unshingled” hair, in Table Talk. 12 Aug 1926.  Above right: Appearing at the Crystal Palace in August 1926. The live prologue appears to have included sword-play.  The Sun (Sydney) 6 August 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Such was the power of the fantasy of a “career in the pictures” that the Sydney Evening News had little difficulty attracting widespread interest in the First National “Film Star Quest” in March 1927. There were, reportedly, 2,000 contestants across Australia. As a representative from Sydney, New South Wales, Phyllis was amongst the favourites and her beautiful hair, good looks and pleasant personality impressed reporters. She was “unspoiled, unaffected, and sincere, with a love for her home, her work, and for all things beautiful” wrote the Evening News. Her untested performance skills and lack of acting experience seemed much less important than her good looks and admirable personal qualities. Not very surprisingly, Phyllis won the finals – with the prize being a trip to Hollywood and a test with Cecil B DeMille. The Evening News covered all the good news, with prominent articles and a big Page 1 photo.

In late May 1927, Phyllis and Ethel boarded the SS Sierra, bound for California and a new career – perhaps. US newspapers happily reprinted photos of the young Australian in bathers and at the beach – photos that could have only been supplied from Australia.


Phyllis at the beach Phyllis 1927Phyllis welcomed

Above: Phyllis received plenty of  publicity in the US in 1927, and the bathing suit photos may have helped. In the US, the competition had become “Miss Australia” and there had been 12,000 contestants. Left; The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927. Centre; The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927, Right; The Fresno Morning Republican 11 July 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, Phyllis’ fans had a hard time keeping up with her activities in Hollywood because there was not much to report. At the end of July, Australians read that she had started work in her first film for DeMille Studios, The Angel of Broadway, directed by Hollywood’s leading female director, Lois Weber. Several Australian papers claimed she appeared in as many as four films for the DeMille Studio, but this seems impossible to verify now. If she ever did appear in Forbidden Woman, Main Event or The Girl in the Pullman, it is likely she was an extra. Just how much time she really spent with DeMille himself is also difficult to determine. Sadly,  the censor would not approve The Angel of Broadway for release in Australia and unfortunately is now considered a lost film.

In late August and only eight weeks after arriving, Phyllis suddenly announced she had had enough, and was coming home. The official reason was that she and her mother were “homesick”. The contract DeMille’s studio had presented to her looked wonderful to Australian eyes – with its increasing rates of pay and the chance of a new contract if all went well. But she declined it – perhaps she realized it was just a typical contract of the time. By early October she was at home in Sydney again, embracing her friends.

Gibbs on return

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on her happy return. Table Talk, 20 October 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

So what happened? Not surprisingly, she was careful to find the right form of words. She assured the Evening News it had been “like a dream” and that she had had a wonderful time. She was, after all, deeply indebted to the paper that had been her staunch advocate. She was also careful to say that everyone in the industry had been so welcoming. But, she explained, the whole Hollywood “atmosphere… was an environment I could not have lived in.” She wished she could have the same opportunity in Australia. 

And she did.  Within a few months, cinematographer Arthur Higgins had signed her up to appear as the love interest in his first film as director – a horse racing drama entitled Odds On, with popular actor Arthur Tauchert. The ever loyal Evening News claimed, apparently in all seriousness, that there was “little left in Australian literature but racing themes for film work.” Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper note that the film was made for a modest £2000 in mid 1928. It had a release in the UK as a “quota film” which means it probably returned its money. However, it was a silent film – which is possibly another reason it has not survived. Like The Angel of Broadway, it is now considered a lost film.

During 1928, Phyllis was employed on a lecture tour of provincial Australian cinemas, where she sometimes screened the footage of her test for DeMille’s studio and talked about her Hollywood experience. She was also paid to drum up publicity for Odd’s On after its release in October 1928. Again she appeared in person at some screenings.

Heenzo ad 1928Hats advertising

Above left: Phyllis advertising for Heenzo, a cough cure, in the Sydney Morning Herald 24 May 1928. Via Newspapers.com
At right: A full page spread modelling hats in Truth, 14 April 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She continued with advertising engagements but by 1933 had returned to hairdressing in Coogee, keeping her own business going until the late 1930s. She married Charles Young, a salesman, in April 1933. A son was born of the union in 1935.

1937 hairdressing

Above: Phyllis advertising for a new hairdresser in her salon- Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

What really happened to Phyllis in Hollywood? In the absence of meaningful interviews we can only speculate. Phyllis was not alone in rejecting a Hollywood contract – Margaret Vyner, John Wood and Janet Johnson all did this in the 1930s. This writer thinks Phyllis was probably astute enough to see how most actors ended up – in supporting roles, waiting around a lot and often far from family and friends, doing work that was nowhere near as exciting as some claimed. If that was what she thought, and she got out while she could, she is worthy of our admiration today.

Phyllis died unexpectedly in May 1943. She was 35 years old.

Nick Murphy
April 2020

 


Note 1
No father is listed on Phyllis’ 1908 birth certificate, and the place of birth given is 203 Albion St. Presumably this is Albion Street Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney which had many boarding houses at the time. It appears likely that Ethel (a 19 year old from Ballarat in Victoria) went to a boarding house to give birth, probably one that specialized in hosting expectant women who were on their own. The 1840s cottage (with the cottage next door) is now preserved and owned by the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

Further Reading

Text

National Library of Australia Trove

  • Evening News 5 August 1926
  • Evening News 6 August 1926
  • The Sun 6 August 1926
  • Table Talk  12 August 1926
  • Evening News 13 August 1926
  • Evening News  30 March 1927
  • Evening News  31 March 1927
  • Table Talk 14 April 1927
  • Evening News 19 August 1927
  • Evening News 22 August 1927
  • The Mercury 9 September 1927
  • Evening News 7 October 1927
  • Table Talk, 20 October 1927
  • Daily News, 11 November 1927
  • Evening News, 16 December 1927
  • Forbes Advocate, 6 January 1928
  • Evening News, 24 January 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1928
  • Brisbane Courier 14 June 1928
  • Daily Standard  27 October 1928
  • Truth , 14 April 1929
  • The Daily Telegraph 26 July 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937.
  • Truth, 9 May 1943

Newspapers.com

  • Intelligencer Journal, 18 June 1927
  • The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927.
  • The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927.
  • Lancaster New Era, 5 July 1927
  • The Fresno Morning Republican, 11 July 1927.

Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) – “This is not a laughing matter and don’t call me girlie!”

 Above: A screen grab of twenty year old Shirley Ann Richards in Tall Timbers (1937),  her second Australian film for Director Ken Hall. The by-line is from Dad and Dave come to Town (1938) and part of it is used as the title for a documentary made by Andree Wright in 1985. Source: Loving the Classics. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Born as Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 20 December 1917, died California, United States, 25 August 2006. Known in the US as Ann Richards. After a short stint with amateur theatricals in Sydney, she moved to acting with Cinesound. There she appeared in six films directed by Ken Hall before moving to Hollywood. Between 1942 and 1952 she performed in a dozen films, including one directed by Edmund Angelo, her husband.
She pursued writing and philanthropic interests after 1952 and returned several times to Australia.
.

Growing up in Australia

Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards hardly qualifies as a “forgotten Australian” actor. Alone amongst Australians who went overseas to pursue an acting career in the 1930s, she returned to Australia later in life to discuss the experience and celebrate a new wave of Australian film making.

Her New Jersey-born father Mortimer Richards was the Australian manager of the successful US – owned S. F. Bowser Company, while her mother Marion nee Dive was a 24 year old from New Plymouth in New Zealand. Shirley Ann and her younger brother Roderick grew up in comfortable surroundings – first at Killara on Sydney’s north shore, then in Double Bay.

Mortimer regularly appeared in newspaper reports of the doings of Sydney’s small US community, sometimes addressing business groups about Australia’s great un-tapped potential (a favourite topic of the 1920s), while Marion was active in the newly established English Speaking Union.

Shirley Ann attended Ascham School in Edgecliff from 1925-1928, but left after the sudden death of her father in August 1928. She completed her Leaving Certificate at the Garden School, run by the Theosophical Education Trust in Mosman. Like Ascham, the school was educationally progressive, with a focus on the performing arts, literature and elocution.  These interests stayed with Shirley Ann all her life, together with a strong sense of social conscience and public duty. Later in life she reflected that her upbringing and education (and the untimely death of her father) had also exposed her to an amazing group of independent and opinionated women – her mother, teachers (Lily Arnold and Jessie MacDonald at the Garden School) and family acquaintances like social reformer and politician Millicent Preston-Stanley. Her first publicly reported appearance on stage appears to have been in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Savoy Theatre in October 1933.


A Cinesound Career

After leaving school and whilst working for the Russell Roberts Studio in 1936, she threw herself into amateur theatricals with the Sydney Players Club. While there she came to the attention of Ken G Hall, an Australian Producer-Director of enormous energy and capacity, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship.

Truth Feb 1936By 1936, Table Talk was able to introduce her to readers, commenting on her  “lovely complexion and teeth…”  They also reported that she was an “excellent fencer and swimmer.” She was “very well read, being extremely fond of poetry… completely unpolluted; doesn’t drink or smoke; has splendid self-possession, but is always completely natural.” Some of these comments were true, even if they were all courtesy PR from Ken Hall’s Cinesound Studios, who had put Shirley Ann under long term contract as quickly as they could. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper credit Cinesound’s “Talent School” for refining her skills.

18 year old Shirley Ann reported as interested in amateur theatricals, by Truth 23 Feb, 1936. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her first film with Hall was It Isn’t Done,  a rags to riches comedy (or “bush to baronetcy”) with a script by Cecil Kellaway. The film was a great success, establishing Shirley Ann as a popular favourite with Australian audiences (and incidentally also providing Kellaway with a pathway to work in the US). Shirley Ann recalled that the established actors in this film, including British actors Frank Harvey and Harvey Adams, realizing the 18 year old was new to film, “spoiled her” on the set.

Shirley Ann Richards 1936 via Mitchell Library

Above: Shirley Ann Richards at the opening of Tall Timbers at the Sydney State Theatre in 1937. She toured much of Australia for Cinesound. Source: Hood Collection, via the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

TT on stage

Above: Shirley Ann Richards appears live on stage as a part of Cinesound publicity.  The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Oct 1937 via National Library of Australia’s Trove 

She appeared in a total of five feature films for Cinesound over the very busy period 1936-39. These were It Isn’t Done, Tall Timbers, Lovers and Luggers, Dad and Dave Come to Town, and Come Up Smiling. She also appeared in the surprisingly entertaining 100,000 Cobbers, a propaganda recruitment short made for the Australian Government by Cinesound after the outbreak of War. A 1984 audio interview, mostly focusing on her Cinesound years can be heard here.

L&L1   L&L2

Above: Screengrabs of Shirley Ann with Lloyd Hughes in Lovers and Luggers (1938). Unfortunately Hall’s Cinesound films have never been released on home video in Australia, they are only available via US specialist providers, often made from shortened and/or low-quality prints. Author’s Collection.

In addition to working with established Australians, the Cinesound films brought her into contact with a number of visiting British and US actors – including Cecil Kellaway, John Longden, Will Mahoney, Lloyd Hughes and James Raglan. Doubtless they talked of their experiences and the opportunities to be had working internationally. However the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 and the closure of feature production at Cinesound Studios hastened her decision to try her luck in the US. She continued with some work on the Australian stage in the meantime, having toured in Charley’s Aunt through Australia and New Zealand.


Film career in the US

Shirley Ann often recounted the story of being on the last passenger ship after Pearl Harbour. It was true. She had booked to leave Australia on 13 December 1941, on the Matson liner Mariposa. She did not cancel her travel after the sudden Japanese attacks in the Pacific and South East Asia. Shirley Ann’s name appears on the passenger manifest along with other US citizens anxious to get home from Australia, and from Hawaii where the ship had a brief stop. The ship docked in San Francisco on 31 December. She arrived with “the equivalent of $75, a weighty scrapbook…  film clips and introductions” courtesy Ken Hall. (The film clips were promptly lost somewhere in Hollywood, unfortunately).

And the risk she took?  The Mariposa had no defences, but it could manage over 20 knots, while Japanese submarines of the time might manage less than 7 knots when submerged. And a slight comforting factor also existed for Shirley Ann – both her parents were US citizens, and her own birth had been registered with the US embassy in Australia. Her father’s surviving sister Grace lived in the US –  although far from Hollywood California.

Years later Shirley Ann recalled that MGM signed her up quickly – they respected her Australian experience, but to avoid being confused with Anne Shirley, her screen name was shortened to Ann Richards. A small part in a short – to test her – followed, then MGM gave her a very, very small role in Random Harvest with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson – so small a role she doesn’t have any lines. Shirley Ann said later that most of her part ended up on the cutting room floor. But in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant, another in the popular Dr Kildare series and also made in 1942, she played an Australian nurse working in US. This was also a small role, but at least she had a few lines and some close-ups. Richard Quine‘s “Australian-isms” are excruciating and Dr Gillespie’s (Lionel Barrymore‘s) every second comment unbelievably inappropriate for today’s viewers, but Shirley Ann manages her role with the characteristic class and good manners that she was to give all her roles.

Dr Gillespie 1  Dr Gillespie 2

Above: Screen grabs of Richard Quine as the Australian doctor and Shirley Ann Richards as the Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. 
Richard Quine and Shirley Ann in a short piece of dialogue. Quine, a US actor, tried hard to sound convincing as a young Australian doctor from Wooloomooloo, Sydney.

King Vidor‘s film An American Romance – a story of an emigrant who makes good in the US steel industry – could have been a breakthrough film for her, but it was expensive to make and at two and a half hours in length, way over-long. It was in technicolor, but it still met with a mixed reception. Australian reviewer Lon Jones felta trifle disappointed, for…(Ann Richards) is forced to compete with auto assembly lines and steel plants. The story is essentially one of men and machines and the camera is continually focused on them to the disadvantage of Miss Richards.”

Ann Richards postcard006

Above: Shirley Ann at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Her resemblance to Greer Garson was often noted. Post card in the Author’s Collection.

Despite claims that Shirley Ann was very busy in Hollywood, it seems that over the seven years 1942-48 she appeared in only eleven films – a modest output. While she was as selective as she could be with her roles, she later acknowledged that she also spent a lot of time waiting around for offers to come her way. However, it should be noted that compared to her Australian contemporaries, Mary Maguire and Constance Worth, the films she appeared in were quality films and she had credited roles in most. She worked with some of Hollywood’s leading players at this time, although Tom Vallance, her obituarist for “The Independent,” is correct in suggesting she was often consigned to “best friend” roles.

Unhappy with working for MGM, she negotiated a contract release. She then appeared in three films for independent Producer Hal WallisLove Letters (1945), The Searching Wind (1946) and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). Biographer Bernard Dick may be accurate when he suggests Wallis never intended to make a star of Shirley Ann, rather his need was for a talented actress with a faintly British accent who could also pass for an upper-class American. And although not paid at the same rate as Barbara Stanwyke or Burt Lancaster, she was still paid $US 1750 per week for her work on Sorry, Wrong Number according to Dick, the equivalent of $US 20,000 today.

Sorry wrong number
Above: Blonded-up for Hollywood,  Shirley Ann as Sally Hunt in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number. Screen grab from the trailer, via Youtube. The film is still widely available.

In June 1946, Shirley Ann flew home to Australia for a visit to see her mother, and possibly also to convince her to move to the US. She was given a rousing welcome on arrival in Australia. The joy of her return disguised the fact that Shirley Ann and her mother had suffered some shocking news in late 1945. Her brother Roderick, who had been a Medic in the Australian 8th Division, had died as a prisoner of the Japanese in early 1945.

In early 1949 Shirley Ann married Edmund Angelo, a 36 year old theatre director and producer. In the same year, Angelo published a small book of his lectures on theatre-craft. He dedicated it to Shirley Ann, “whose brilliant artistry exemplifies what I have endeavored to express in this book.” However, the foreword by Shirley Ann makes it clear that the essays included were selected by her.

Curtain - You're On! cover

Above: Curtain – You’re On! by Edmund Angelo, with his portrait. It was dedicated to Shirley Ann, while she wrote the foreword. Author’s Collection.

She made one final film after this, with Angelo as director – a crime drama based on the boxing themed play “The Samson Slasher” – wisely re-titled Breakdown for the cinema. Angelo claimed it was made in just 11 days, on “a shoe-string budget,” and it ended up being shown as a B (supporting) feature. There was talk of further films being planned and more stage work, but the couple seem to have left Hollywood film-making behind soon after that.


After Hollywood

Following Breakdown, Angelo threw his efforts into engineering and the US aerospace effort. It could be forgotten today just how exciting this period of development and space exploration was – starting in the late 1950s and culminating in the moon landing of July 1969. Shirley Ann spoke with some pride about his work as early as 1956.

Shirley Ann turned her attention to raising her three children and pursuing some of the other interests she had always had. From the early 1950s she was active in Zeta Phi Eta, an organisation of female leaders in the arts, communication and science fields, that still describes itself today as “a friendly society of service”. Much of her work appears to have revolved around fund-raising activities for social justice causes, particularly for disadvantaged children and those with speech difficulties. Meanwhile, the family lived comfortably at W.C.Fields’ former home at 2015 De Mille Drive in Los Angeles. One of Shirley Ann’s best known (of many) anecdotes was of meeting Fields whilst peeking at the property some years before. (see Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1972)

Shirley Ann 1956
Above: Shirley Ann with her two sons Chris and Mark, photographed for the Australian Women’s Weekly 11 July 1956. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

She also continued to write poetry – her first collection – The Grieving Senses and Other Poems, was published in 1971. The US journal Poet Lore reported that her poetry “reflected a rare sensitivity to the things around her…”


Rebirth”

Bind her close with roots of flowers
And leave her dreaming in the gloom
Where the light autumnal showers
Kiss the clover into bloom


Later life and visits to Australia

Shirley Ann returned to Australia in 1977, in part to appear in an episode of This is Your Life with Ken G Hall. It was her first visit since 1946 and again she was given a joyful welcome home, as she had been thirty years before. Her place as a living connection back to Australia’s fledgling film industry of the 1930s and to Hollywood’s Golden Age was well understood. She was interviewed at length and yet again on another visit in 1981. In 1986 she appeared in Andree Wright and Stewart Young’s documentary film about women in the Australian Cinema. Its title, Don’t Call Me Girlie, is part of the line she has in the film Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Following Edmond’s death in 1983, she remarried. She continued pushing personal boundaries until very late in life, writing poetry and lecturing on travel – for example being amongst the first Western wave of tourists into China and Tibet in the 1980s. We use the hyphenated term “Australian-American” often today, to describe Australian actors working in the US, probably because we cannot think of a more apt descriptor. In Shirley Ann’s case, she really did straddle two cultural environments with complete ease.

Much admired and always fondly remembered in Australia, she died in 2006, long after most of her Australian and Hollywood contemporaries.

Nick Murphy
March 2020 Updated September 2020


Note 1: The IMDB currently conflates Shirley Ann Richards with US-born actress Sally Ann Richards (1947-2005) – in doing so muddling up some of their appearances.

Note 2: The claim that Shirley Ann Richards “often appeared on TV” in the ’50s and ’60s appears to be another case of mistaken identity. The person referred to is almost certainly US-born Jazz Singer Ann Richards (1935-1982).


Special Thanks
To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Shirley Ann’s schooling, and alerting me to her first credited public performance in October 1933.


Further Reading

Documentary films

  • Don’t Call Me Girlie (1986) Directed by Andree Wright and Stewart Young. Available from Ronin Films
  • History of Australian Film 1896-1940, Part 3 “Now You’re Talking” (1979) Directed by Keith Gow. Film Australia

Film Clips @ Australian Screen, an NFSA website

Youtube

Audio Interviews

Hollywood Forever Family Memorial Site

Text

  • Edmund Angelo (1949) Curtain-You’re On! Murray & Gee Inc.
  • Bernard F Dick (2004) Hal Wallis, Producer to the Stars. The University Press of Kentucky.
  • Ken G Hall (1980) Australian Film, The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Films 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature production. Oxford University Press/ AFI.
  • Ann Richards (1971) The Grieving Senses and Other Poems. Branden Press.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October, 1933, Cast of Children.
  • Smith’s Weekly, 10 Apr 1937; The Rise of Shirley Ann Richards.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1937; Amateurs carry on stage traditions.
  • Table Talk, 28 Oct 1937; Cinesound School for Talent.
  • Truth (Sydney), 23 Feb 1936; The Jottings of a Lady
  • Evening News, 14 Aug 1919; Young Australia. Needs Virus of Self Reliance.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sep 1944; Romance and Steel. Ann Richards’s role.
  • The Age, 4 July 1946. Advice to would be film stars.
  • The Canberra Times, 1 Jul 1977; An Australian star remembers

Newspapers.com

  • The Monrovia News-Post. 1 July 1988: Actress to speak of China and Tibet.

The Independent

Leah Leichner (1890 – ? ) & Pollard’s last tour of India

Above: 13 year old Leah Leichner (centre) and unidentified girls, and a US soldier, while on the 1903-4 Pollard tour. This photo is enlarged from a group photo taken in Manila in 1903, held in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Leah Leichner was a performer with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. She is significant because in March 1910, reports of her – and others – being mistreated while on the Pollard tour of India formed part of a damning public commentary. This in turn led to legislation banning Australian children being taken out of the country to perform.

Australian newspapers reported that company manager Arthur Hayden Pollard had beaten Leah with a heavy stick, “inflicting a severe wound over the eye, because she went out with a man in a motor car, which was against the rules.” Other child performers had been similarly treated, or confined to bread and water, or had their hair cut, or were punished in other ways. As well as being beaten, Leah Leichner had been sent home to Australia in December 1909, because she was “unruly.” But the Pollard tour was already collapsing by that time, and within a matter of weeks almost all the performers announced they wanted to go home, and more dramatically still, members of the Madras Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had become involved and removed the children from Pollard’s care.

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555. The Commonwealth of Australia was 4 years old when this photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines sometime in mid 1904. Leah stands at the front, on the left, on her second tour. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. Reproduced with permission.

Institutionalized Children?

Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performance tours of the early 20th Century. It is worth pausing and looking past the nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, and recognizing that this was really a form of genteel child exploitation. Talented they may have been, but almost all of the Pollard’s child performers were underage and some were even under 10 when they travelled overseas for two years or more. Signing their child’s guardianship to Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester, or after 1909 to Arthur Pollard, meant parents received payment for their child’s performances.

Charles pollard 1906   Nellie Chester 1906   Arthur Hayden Pollard 1906

Above, left to right; Charles Pollard, Nellie Chester (nee Pollard) and Arthur Hayden Pollard in 1902. (See a 1910 image of Arthur here). These enlargements are from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) and is used with their kind permission. 

Excitement, a chance to travel, a possible career path and a mighty ego boost were the benefits for the children, but they did not directly receive any form of salary and at best a fitful education. With only a handful of exceptions all came from working class families in inner Melbourne (See Note 1 below). It seems likely the Pollards targeted these suburbs, presumably because they found parents and children more receptive to their plans. And as novelist Kirsty Murray has noted, without a state secondary education system, this form of apprenticeship was an attractive option for some parents – an alternative to dreary factory work or an apprenticeship.

Pollards call for kids

Pollard’s advertises for new child performers at Ford’s Hall, 150 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. The Age, 13 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Today we might wonder about the impact of this enterprise on a young person, so far from family and for so long, in these formative years. It should also be noted that the Pollards performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that even some contemporary commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” As Gillian Arrighi notes in her 2017 article on the case, “the authors of these musical comedies never intended them for performance by children.”

East coast US audiences never got to see Pollard’s perform. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the “Gerry Society”) appears to have kept Pollard’s Lilliputians away from the big cities on the US east coast, where the society was most active.


Leah’s birth and childhood in Melbourne

Born Leah Caroline Cohen on 9 July 1890 in Fitzroy, like many Pollard’s performers Leah was from working class inner Melbourne.  Her mother Minnie nee Grant had been born in Mount Gambier, South Australia, while her father Samuel Harris Cohen was an English-born tailor. Only a few years after her birth, Minnie and Leah had left Samuel. In 1900 Minnie married Isaac Leichner, a Rumanian-born fruiterer based at the Queen Victoria Market. Together they lived in nearby Little Lonsdale Street. Leah took her step-father’s surname for her own.


Leah and two Pollards tours of North America

At the age of 12, Leah auditioned for a Pollard’s tour in late 1902, managed by Nellie Chester and her brother Charles Pollard. Manifests show she joined the troupe on SS Changsa, departing in January 1903, bound for Hong Kong and then on to North America. She was in company with names familiar to us now – Daphne Pollard (Trott) and her sister Ivy Trott, Teddie McNamara and Alf Goulding and his sister Irene Loftus (Goulding), and others whose adventures are documented elsewhere including Midas Martin and Willie Thomas.

In 1904 she joined a second Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company tour, first travelling to Queensland, where they tested out their repertoire of musical comedies. In September 1904 the company departed Australia to give performances in the “far east” (Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai) before arriving in the USA in March 1905. This group of Australian child performers stayed away from home for an extraordinary 28 months – not returning until late February, 1907. Leah can be traced through some of the positive publicity given by the press, but Canadian and US audiences also had their particular favourites in the company, most notably Daphne Pollard.

Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)
Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. The photo is credited to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai. It was taken in either 1903 or 1904, on Leah’s first or second tours, before the company reached North America. Used with permission.

The repertoire performed by this troupe included the musicals “A Runaway Girl”, “The Belle of New York”, “The Lady Slavey” and “HMS Pinafore”.

The Geisha

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905

Above: This is the cast from The Geisha being performed in Montreal, Canada, in November 1905. The ages in this  program are all incorrect despite the Pollard company assurances. For example, Daphne Pollard was 14, Leah Leichner 15. Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.

Leah and her secret, 1907 – 1908

Leah did not join the next Pollard tour of North America, but in 1907 and 1908 she appeared with troupes in eastern Australia. Perhaps she decided it was time to try out on her own – or maybe she was thought to look too old. She spent much of her time performing at the Adelaide Tivoli Theatre. According to some reviewers she was “dainty”, “sang well”, and was “the brightest item on the bill.” But she did not appeal to all Australians – whose taste in theatre could still be conservative. According to Adelaide’s Gadfly, she made the mistake of appearing on stage in trousers as a “soldier boy”, as she had previously looked “much better in skirts”. 

SMH 17 OCT 1908

Above: Sydney Morning Herald advertisement, 17 October, 1908. for Harry Rickard’s Tivoli Theatre. Leah appears in company with May Dalberg (presumably the same Mae Dahlberg who was later associated with Stan Laurel) Soon after this, Leah disappeared from the stage. Via Newspapers.com

Then in October 1908 Leah received some news that must have been a shock. She discovered she was pregnant and soon after, she ceased appearing on stage. We know nothing of the context of her pregnancy and the birth certificate for her son, born in May 1909 is rather sad and stark. The baby was born at the family home in Little Lonsdale Street, with Leah’s mother Minnie assisting at the birth. No father is named, the responsibility for parenting an illegitimate child then rested entirely with the mother, who also faced extraordinary social stigma. Almost certainly the baby was adopted out, as he disappeared entirely from the historical record. And 6 weeks later, Leah, joined the next Pollard’s tour – that might take another two years. It would be extremely unusual if she were not in a fragile state following the birth.


Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard Tour of India

In April 1909 Charles Pollard announced he was retiring from running the North American tours. Arthur Pollard would take over as manager. (Nellie Chester chose not to join him). The next troupe was partly made up of new faces, but there were a good number of former Pollard players, including Leah Leichner, Irene Finlay, Willie Howard, the three McGorlick sisters, Leslie and Charlie Donaghey and John and Freddie Heintz. Perhaps Arthur Pollard wanted some experienced players in the group and approached seasoned performers such as these to join. (He knew all of these performers well – he had been on several previous Pollard tours). About thirty young people and various adults departed on 3 July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore. At 19 years of age, Leah was the oldest performer in the troupe.

Arthur Pollard’s assault on Leah apparently took place in Malaya, and she was sent home to Australia in mid December 1909 ( With several other performers – also see Note 1). Of the “motor car” incident we have very little information. But later reports confirm that the problems on the tour started very early on – and demonstrate that Arthur Pollard clearly had a temperament completely unsuited to working with children. Although legally guardian of the children, he had also started an intimate relationship with 18 year old Irene Finlay while on the trip, or possibly before. He attempted to defend himself in a letter to The Madras Times but this only seems to have made things worse, as he denied mistreating the children, but then admitted he had! Pollard also brought “charges” against one of the girls in the troupe, which papers refused to publicise – perhaps this was the story of Leah and her baby.  Pollard also complained “The three girls in question are telling falsehoods and so is Fred Heintz. I have boxed Fred’s ears, and I smacked him on the proper place several times, but never without good cause…Yes it has been a rule in this company to cut a girl’s hair off…” He also complained that he had done the right thing by paying salaries to some parents in advance and he had also paid for some of the children’s clothes.

By April 1910, Australian newspapers were regularly reporting all of the claims and counter claims that were being made in the Madras High Court. The Melbourne Herald  cited a letter from Alice Cartlege to her mother which gave a 12 year old’s simple but indignant perspective:

Madras Feb 17 1910
Dearest Mother,
A few lines to tell you everything at last. I would have told you before but feared you would fret. The company is broken up. Mr Pollard and — (a member of the company) are getting away to America. Pollard has been a pig to us and the way he has banged some of us about is awful. His talk was disgusting. He mocked at us and said we couldn’t get away for two years. In Bangalore he banged every boy except his favorite, and he knocked Violet Jones about. He hit Freddie Heintz about dreadfully, and the people interfered owing to his screams… Mrs Quealy and Miss Thorn the matron are now in charge of us, and they are good to us. Don’t worry, I shall be with you soon. Your loving daughter Alice Cartlege.

It seems Arthur Pollard, unwilling to face a court outcome, made a run for French Pondicherry with the proceeds of the performances to date, taking Irene Finlay with him but abandoning the rest of his charges in the process. A few months later, in May 1910, the child performers were returned home to Melbourne on the SS Scharnhorst and the French steamer SS Caledonian. The disastrous Pollard tour of 1909 was over.

The Leader 2 April 1910

Above: The company on Sunday 26 February 1910, two days after breaking up, photographed on the estate of Mr Scovell, near Bangalore. The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Outcomes

The Australian Emigration Act of 1910, written and passed by Federal parliament within 10 months of the tour, prohibited any child being taken out of Australia to perform “theatrical, operatic or other work.”(See Note 3)

The bad publicity brought the days of Pollard’s extended overseas tours for child actors to an end. But while the Pollard’s popular reputation had been damaged, it was not so badly that Nellie Chester could not run a final North American tour in 1912, with older children.

Leah Leichner appeared again on the Australian stage in early March 1910. She made one short public comment to correct details of events of the tour – the motor car incident, then nothing more. She continued performing until she married actor-turned electrician Frederick Johnstone, in 1914. Johnstone joined the Army in late 1915, in the great surge of enlistments following the Australian landings at Gallipoli. But Johnstone launched divorce proceedings against Leah in 1919. He said she had been living with another man, pretending he had been killed at Gallipoli. Sadly, Leah disappeared completely from the historical record after this and what became of her we do not know.

She left an intriguing footnote behind. Both Minnie and Isaac died within months of each other in 1916. Presumably, respecting their wishes, Leah buried her mother in the Anglican section of Boorondara Cemetery. However, Isaac was buried in the Jewish section of Fawkner cemetery, some 20 kilometres away. The headstones express similarly warm sentiments to both Isaac and Minnie.

   Belle Leichner c 1920

Above “Bella Lichner”, most likely to be Leah’s step sister Bella (born to Isaac and Minnie in 1900)  is known to have performed at the Tivoli in Adelaide in the early 1920s. Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook

Note 1
While making their way home in April 1910, Truth newspaper  listed some of the members of this company. It is reproduced here to give some idea of the group’s strong inner suburban Melbourne profile. However, the list appears to be missing some names, including Leah Leichner’s and Irene Finlay’s, and the author has corrected some spellings.

Alma Young, 12 years, 28 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy;
Ruby Ford, 17 years, 368 Cardigan Street. Carlton;
Florrie Allen, 8 years, 437 Cardigan Street, Carlton;
Rita Bennett, 12 years, 58 Osborne Street, South Yarra:
Dora Isaacs, 16 years, 280 Lygon Street, Carlton;
Millie 17 years, Rose 15 years, Clara 12 years, McGorlick, 81 Rokeby Street, Collingwood;
Lottie Parry, 9 years, 74 Rupert Street, Collingwood;
Violet Jones, 15 years, “Waratah,” 26 Moore Street, South Yarra;
Ella 13 years, Pat 12 years, Nugent, 95 Rowena Parade, Richmond;
Elsie Morris, 13 years, 5 Greeves Street, Fitzroy;
Ethel 14 years, Nellie 18 years, Naylor, c/o Lucas’s Cafe, Swanston Street, Melbourne;
Ivy Ferguson, 12 years, 104 Grey Street, East Melbourne;
Alice Cartlege, 15 years, 322 Lygon Street, Carlton;
Willie Howard, 11 years, 46 King Williams Street, Fitzroy;
Mary [Myra] Finlay, 16 years, Sydney;
Fred and John Heintz, 14 years, 84 Kerr Street Fitzroy
Charlie, 13 years, Leslie Donaghey, 14 years, Sydney,
Arthur Austin [no address]
Walter Byrne [no address]

The interested reader should note that the manifest for the SS Gracchus, arriving back in Sydney on 16 December 1909 from Calcutta, appears to contain the names of 9 other girls and two boys, in addition to 19 year old Miss Leah Leichner. If a third of the troupe had been sent home by December, it was already in serious trouble.

Gracchus enlargement 16 December 1909

Above: Part of the manifest of the SS Gracchus, arriving in Sydney, 16 December, 1909 from Calcutta, India.
Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (British Ports). Microfiche VPRS 7666, copy of VRPS 947. Public Record Office Victoria, North Melbourne, Victoria

Note 2
There are several newspaper reviews of the Pollards troupe in Hawaii in March 1908 that mention performances by Leah Leichner. It is not likely that she travelled for a short time to Hawaii to briefly join a Pollard tour, and she would not have been there on 11 March, as she was performing at Launceston’s Empire Theatre on 29 February. (See for example, The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908)


Note 3
Between 1912 and 1919 Nellie Chester organised yet another group of Australian performers to work in North America, using Pollard’s in their Company title. Some of these were adults, others older adolescents. The troupe changed as time went by but continued to trade off the company name. Some had been performers in the past. You can read more of this troupe in the page on Queenie Williams.

22 July 1912

Above: The Honolulu Advertiser 22 July 1912.Via Newspapers.com

Special Thanks

University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use the photo of Daphne and Leah.

Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Their collection – donated by Irene Goulding in the 1980s, is invaluable.

To Jean Ritsema, in Michigan, for her research efforts in North America.

To Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne


References

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
  • University of Washington Special Collections

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi & Victor Emeljanow (Eds) (2014) Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry, Chapter 3, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • 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.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]
  • Justine Hyde’s blog Hub and Spoke which includes an interview with Kirsty Murray about India Dark.
  • Leann Richards (2012) Theatrical Child Labour Scandal  Stage Whispers website.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Telegraph, 17 Apr 1909.
  • The Herald , 23 March 1910, 17 May 1910
  • Truth, 2 April 1910.
  • The West Australian, 21 Apr 1910
  • The Age, 25 Apr 1910
  • Barrier Miner 29 Apr 1910
  • The Leader, 20 April, 1910, 21 May 1910
  • The Argus, 18 October 1910

Newspapers.com

  • The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908, 22 July 1912

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project – Newspaper SG

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

Nick Murphy
March 2021

Marcia Ralston (1906-1988) – finding her place in Hollywood

Above: Marcia Ralston in a Warner Brothers publicity pose, about the time she appeared in Sh! The Octopus in 1937. Her resemblance to Merle Oberon was noted at the time. Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Marie Mascotte Ralston
Born Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 19 September 1906, died Rancho Mirage, California USA, 23 November 1988. Active on the Australian stage 1923-1927. Moved to the US with first husband Phil Harris. She re-booted her career several times in the mid 1930s but only made a few films. From the late 1960s she appeared semi-regularly in the Marcus Welby M.D. TV series.

 

Above: Marcia Ralston and Mona Barrie (right foreground), in Busby Berkeley’s romantic comedy Men are such Fools made by Warner Bros in 1938. Also in these screen grabs are Humphrey Bogart and Wayne Morris. The two Australian girls have supporting roles to Bogart, Morris, Priscilla Lane and Hugh Herbert. The film is still available for purchase through TCM. Author’s Collection.

Marcia Ralston was born Marie Mascotte Ralston to popular Australian stage performer John Ralston and his wife, former performer Rose nee Everson in 1906. Unfortunately she suffered through a disjointed acting career, circumstances requiring her to restart it several times over. One might imagine that having well-connected show-business parents and, after 1927, a husband who was a well-known band leader, would make for easy success in the US. It was not so. As with so many Australian women who went to Hollywood during its “golden age”, it appears her US career was not without frustrations.

Below: Ralston as Schubert in Lilac Time.”The Australasian,” Jan 30, 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

John Ralston as SchubertJohn Ralston, better known to friends as Jack, was a popular singer and comedian who travelled the length and breadth of Australia, often performing for J.C. Williamsons, or “the Firm” as it was known and even appearing in one of their patriotic wartime films. He counted performers like Clyde Cook amongst his friends – apparently staying with him during a visit to California in 1923 and possibly performing as an extra in one of his films. Ralston apparently had no interest in staying there, his observation was that “America …is not a country for a home-loving man.”  He died suddenly in April 1933, at the age of 51, in Perth Western Australia, while on tour. The obituaries were effusive.

Despite newspaper accounts that John Ralston was not keen for his daughters to go on stage and this was the reason he sent his girls to be educated at Bethlehem Convent in Sydney, both Mascotte (her preferred name being inspired by the Opéra comique “La Mascotte”) and Edna went on stage as soon as they could. Pauline also appears to have worked later for J.C. Williamson.

Marcia Table Talk June 8 1933  Edna Sydney Sun 1924  Pauline May 9 1936 Melbourne Herald

Above: The three daughters of John Ralston. Left to right – Mascotte later Marcia (born 1906), Edna (born 1904) and Pauline (born 1914).  “Table Talk,” 8 June 1933, The Sun”, 28 Sep 1924, The Herald”, 9 May 1936. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In the few biographies about her, Mascotte Ralston’s list of attributes is long, and for once these accounts appear to be true. In 1927, Australia’s “Wireless Weekly” magazine reported that the young actress, then appearing on radio, was “lavishly gifted in a dozen different ways” – these included swimming, singing, dancing, acting and apparently even playing the ukelele.

Amongst Mascotte’s first credited outings on stage were several J.C.Williamson’s productions with Gladys Moncrieff and also featuring her father –  The Street Singer and The Maid of the Mountains in 1925-26. She and her sister appear to have been working solidly with the help of their father’s patronage.

nla.obj-148807124-1

Above: Second from right, Mascotte Ralston and right, Edna Ralston in the J.C. Williamson production of Whirled into Happiness, 1924. From the Lady Viola Tate Collection – via the National Library of Australia‘s Trove.

Not only was she talented, she was also beautiful – in early 1926 she came second in the Melbourne Sun Pictorial‘s “Beauty” competition, and in June she placed third in a “Miss Australia” competition.

Wedding photo from Table Talk.In 1927, Mascotte had a leading role in Arnold Ridley‘s new comedy thriller, The Ghost Train, playing successfully around cities in Australia. However, in early September 1927 Mascotte withdrew from the play when she married Phil Harris, a visiting US band leader. Soon after, the couple boarded the Matson liner SS Sonoma bound for the United States. Mascotte never returned.

Above: Phil Harris and Mascotte Ralston as they appeared in the “Adelaide News”, 7 September 1927. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mascotte disappeared from the public record for five years, although the travels of the Phil Harris orchestra can be traced across North America in newspaper reports. Then, in 1933 it was announced that Mascotte had signed up to act with MGM. We know her sister Edna had arrived in Hollywood at about the same time – she was probably checking out her chances too.  And from now on,  Mascotte would be Marcia Ralston. Phil reportedly said that “Marcia was very understanding” of his busy career as a band leader. She was, he joked, “willing to live a life of solitude.”

Despite the usual studio publicity, not much happened at MGM, and Marcia only appeared in un-credited roles in a few films. In this, Marcia was not alone. Other actors experienced a great deal of waiting around for roles, including Gwen Munro and John Wood. It was also stated to be the reason Janet Johnston and Margaret Vyner didn’t stay in the US. It must have been thoroughly demoralising, because all this happened about the time John Ralston suddenly died back in Australia.

Marcia Ralston reappeared in late 1936, now “under contract” to Warner Brothers and with another burst of publicity, that made scant reference to her work three years before with MGM. She now seemed to have more luck finding work, and over the next two years she appeared in twelve films – many of these are still widely available today. Sh! The Octopus, a B comedy thriller film made in 1937 is amongst the best known – mostly for the amazing transformation made to Elspeth Dudgeon using makeup and lighting effects. Not withstanding this, it’s a film with a ridiculous plot, as was often a feature of the B film, a program filler. Marcia spends much of this film screaming and fainting.

marcia from australia
Above: Marcia Ralston as featured in “Hollywood” magazine, Jan-Dec 1938. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

In 1937, 18 year old Australian Mary Maguire was also working for Warner’s. Maguire made three underwhelming B films and had a small part in an a major film with Kay Francis. With high expectations of a booming career and both her parents on hand to advise her, Maguire bravely declined a role in a B comedy thriller called Mystery House, in early 1938. She was immediately laid off, and appeared in only one more Hollywood film. Marcia Ralston was turning 31 at the same time. Talented and experienced though she may have been, Marcia Ralston’s experience in Hollywood’s golden age might be viewed in the same context. The studios had dozens of aspiring young actors to use, and she was a just another commodity.

Marcia and Phil Junior 1940In 1940, Marcia and Phil adopted a child, to be named Phil Junior, known in the family as “Tookie”. Unfortunately, this did not normalise the marriage – it failed soon after. In divorce, Marcia complained that he stayed out too late and that they spent too little time together – those matters he had joked about some years before had become the issues that undermined the marriage.

Above Marcia Ralston with Phil Junior,Sydney Morning Herald,” 27 Feb 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She continued to work, but the roles were less and less significant, perhaps W.C.Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is the most intriguing today. She also had extended work in the 1941 Universal spy serial Sea Raiders. Two years later Constance Worth waded through the very similar plot of G-Men versus the Black Dragon for Republic Pictures. These did nothing for either women’s careers.

Above: Screen grabs from her last films: In a minor role as an Air Stewardess in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) with W.C. Fields, in fleeting roles in Paris Calling, (1941) and in Out of the Blue (1947). These films are still commercially available today. Author’s Collection.

Marcia in 1954

Her last film role appears to have been a small part in the screwball comedy Out of the Blue, in 1947, which newspapers claimed, she had come out of retirement to make.

It is reassuring to this writer to find that at least some of the Australians who travelled to act on screen in the US before the Second World War eventually found some normalcy in their lives. Marcia Ralston appears to have done so.

In 1954, Marcia married John “Bud” Henderson, who was an executive with the Santa Fe Railroad. By this time, she had also established herself as an instructor for Arthur Murray Dance studios, pursuing a passion she had enjoyed since her youth. The grainy photo at left from the California “Desert News”, 8 Feb 1954, shows her with dance partner Claud Sims, with a beaming smile and still looking every inch the movie star.

Good fortune had also connected Marcia to actor Robert Young, who had married John Henderson’s sister Betty, in 1933. This connection led to a small occasional role in the very popular Marcus Welby M.D, a TV series that ran for six years.

Marcia Ralston died at Rancho Mirage, an area of southern California, in 1988. She had no family left in Australia, both Australian sisters having pre-deceased her. She was fondly remembered by those who knew her in the US. Reportedly, her ashes were scattered at sea.

 

Nick Murphy
January 2020

 

Further Reading

Online

Text

  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian, South Melbourne.
  • Terry Rowan (2016) Motion Pictures From the Fabulous 1940’s. Terry Rowan
  • Scott Wilson (2016) Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons.  Third Edition. McFarland and Co.

A list of ships and their actor passengers

Above: The Matson liner SS Monterey, which carried many hopeful Australian actors to the US. State Library of Victoria, Allan Green Collection. Allan C Green 1878-1954 photographer. ca. 1932-ca. 1952.

These are the first departure dates of some twentieth century Australian actors. Of course, many travelled to the US or UK under other names, but for ease of reading their best known stage name is used.

P&O Ad 1932

Above: A symbol of status and  modernity – a P&O advertisement from The Home, 1 March, 1932, P3. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Readers may find Angela Woollacott’s book To Try Her Fortune in London (2001) interesting, particularly Chapter 1.

Maie Saqui
Sailed to the UK in May 1897 on the RMS Orizba 

Marc McDermott
Sailed to North America in July 1902 on the RMS Miowera

Dulcie Cooper, Ashley Cooper and Emily Curr
Sailed to North America in June 1905 (Ashley) and August 1905 (Emily & Dulcie) on SS Ventura 

Paul Scardon, Mario Majeroni and Giorgio (George) Majeroni
Sailed to North America in December 1905 on SS Sonoma

Oliver Peters (O.P) Heggie
Sailed to the UK in 1906 on the SS Grosser Kurfürst

Queenie Williams, Billy Bevan, Ivy Moore and other Pollard performers Sailed to North America in August 1912 on the SS Makura

Elsie Mackay
Sailed to the UK in November 1912 on the SS Morea

Arthur Shirley
Sailed to the US in November 1914 on the RMS Niagara

Louise Lovely
Sailed to the US in December 1914 on the SS Sonoma

Matson lineEnid Bennett
Sailed to the US in March 1915 on SS Ventura

Nina Speight
Sailed to the US in April 1916 on SS Great Northern

Dorothy Cumming
Sailed to the US in July 1916 on SS Makura

Sylvia Bremer
Sailed to the US in October 1916 on SS Ventura

Marjorie Bennett
Sailed to the US in December 1916 on SS Ventura

Judith Anderson
Sailed to the US in January 1918 on SS Sonoma

Ena Gregory
Sailed to the US in January 1920, on the SS Ventura

Trilby Clark
Sailed to the UK in July 1920 then to the US in Feb 1921.

Suzanne Bennett
Sailed to the US in October 1922 on the SS Niagara.

Lotus Thompson lotusabouttodepart
Sailed to the US in March 1924, on SS Ventura.

Robert Grieg and Isabelle Holloway
Sailed to the US via the UK in 1925

Blanche Satchel 
Sailed to the UK in May 1925 on RMS Ormuz, then on to the US in August.

Phyllis Gibbs
Sailed to the US in June 1927 on SS Sierra

Marcia Ralston
Sailed to the US in October 1927, on SS Sonoma.Carol on her way to UK 1930

Fred Stone
Sailed to the UK in May 1929 on SS Benalla.

Lucille Lisle
Sailed to the US on the SS Sonoma in May 1930

Carol Coombe
Sailed to the UK on the SS Moldavia in July 1930

Click to enlarge: This is the menu from the MV Warwick Castle, in 1936.  Clearly aspiring actors had to be careful what they ate from this huge menu! The Union Castle ships ran from South Africa to England, but it is typical of ship board food of the time. Author’s collection.

Judy Kelly
Sailed to the UK in June 1932, on the RMS CathageBlanche and Judy leave Australia

Mary MacGregor
Sailed to the UK in February 1933, on the SS Mongolia

Mona Barrie
Sailed to the US in June 1933, on the SS Monterey.

Gwen Munro
Sailed to the US in September 1933, on the SS Monterey.Gwen on the way home

John Wood
Sailed to the UK in October 1933, on the MV Troja.

Margaret Vyner
Sailed to Europe in late April 1934, on the RMS Orsova.

Margaret Johnston
Sailed to the UK in March 1935, on the SS Mongolia

Janet Johnson
Sailed to the UK in March 1936, on the SS Largs Bay.

Constance Worth
Sailed to the US in April 1936, on the SS Montereyconstance worth returning home by Sam Hood

Mary Maguire
Sailed to the US in August 1936, on the SS Mariposa

Joan Winfield
Sailed to the UK in late 1936, then to the US in 1939

Murray Matheson
Sailed to the UK in August 1936 on the SS Orsova. 

Shirley Ann Richards
Sailed to the US in late 1941 on the SS Mariposa.

Joy and George Nichols
Sailed to the UK in September 1946 on the Dominion Monarch 

Above: Click to enlarge. The RMS Queen Elizabeth’s menu in 1947. Author’s Collection.

Patti Morgan
Sailed to the UK in March 1947, on the MV Selandia

Allan Cuthbertson
Sailed to the UK in March 1947, on the RMS Rangitiki

Gwenda Wilson
Sailed to the UK in February 1949, on SS Arawa

Dorothy Alison
Sailed to the UK in April 1949, on SS Orion

Michael Pate
Flew to the US via Hawaii in November 1950

Victoria Shaw
Flew to the US via Hawaii in July 1955

Above: Menu from the SS Orion in April 1947. The austerity of the post war world is still obvious. Author’s collection

departing Melbourne036

The joy and excitement of overseas travel by ship is obvious on this girl’s face. Port of Melbourne, c 1937. Author’s collection.

Photos – from the top
1. Screen grab of Lotus Thompson saying farewell in Sydney in 1924 before departing on the SS Ventura.Source Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.
2. Carol Coombe on the SS Moldavia. The Home, Vol 11, No 8, 1 August 1930. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
3. Judy Kelly and her mother departing for England on the RMS Cathage. Source: The Home. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.
4. Gwen Munro returning from the US on the SS Mariposa on 26 August 1934. Source uncredited. Photo in the author’s collection.
5. Jocelyn Howarth (Constance Worth) on her return from the US in June 1939 on the SS Monterey.  Via State Library of New South Wales.

Thanks, links and sources

Robert Maynard provided this photo of former Pollard’s star William Thomas at his butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine, sometime in the 1920s. William (centre) proudly holds his daughter Emma. His years performing for Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in North America and Asia are far behind him. 

Thanks to…

My lecturers so long ago – Tom Ryan, Arthur Cantrill and Ken Mogg.

And the following people deserve special thanks;

  • Sandra Joy Aguilar, Warner Bros Archives, University of Southern California regarding Mary Maguire
  • Julie K Allen, Brigham Young University, regarding Saharet
  • Melissa Anderson, regarding Lotus Thompson
  • Norm Archibald, regarding Mary Maguire
  • Richard Bradshaw, regarding Fred Stone
  • Dianne Byrne, regarding Mary Magurie
  • Sophie Church, Geelong Grammar School regarding Joan Lang
  • Catherine Crocker, regarding Midas Martyn and the Pollards
  • Simone Cubbin, regarding Mary Maguire
  • Jane Cussen
  • Bill Egan, regarding Daphne Pollard & Jolly John Larkins
  • Jim Eldridge, regarding Saharet
  • Lina Favrin, Yarra Libraries regarding the pollards
  • Katie Flack, State Library of Victoria.
  • Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection Melbourne regarding the Pollards
  • Alan Garner, regarding Norma Whalley
  • William Gillespie regarding German representations of Australia
  • Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham College regarding Shirley Ann Richards, and also Archivist at Redlands, Sydney Church of England Coeducational Grammar School regarding Anona Winn.
  • Martin Goebel, regarding Saharet
  • Robert Gott
  • Dan Gulino, at radiowasbetter.com,
  • Julie Hansen, regarding Shirley Ann Richards and the Garden School
  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst regarding Nancy O’Neil
  • Joe Henderson, National Archives in Kew, England
  • Joe Jordan, regarding The Desert Rats (1953)
  • Stephen Langley regarding Reita Nugent/Janet Lind
  • Mark Lepp, regarding Saharet
  • Robert Maynard regarding Willie Thomas and the Pollards
  • Michael McCullough regarding Saharet
  • Joyce Mostyn regarding Mary Maguire
  • Jock Murphy, former Director of Collections at the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne,
  • Ingrid Purnell, editor
  • Kate Rice, inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow, Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.
  • Jean Ritsema, regarding Saharet, Wanda Radford, Leah Liechner, Dulcie and Ashley Cooper
  • Sister Helen Salter, Loreto Convent in Brisbane, regarding Mary Maguire
  • John Shrimski, regarding Maie Saqui
  • Robbie Stockfeld
  • Tony Tibballs, Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Australia
  • Patsy Trench, regarding her mother Nancy O’Neil. Her website is here.
  • Trish Van Der Werff, regarding Shirley Ann Richards
  • Dorothy Weekes, former Archivist at Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy, regarding Mary Maguire
  • Jeffrey Weissman, regarding Hal Roach and Lotus Thompson
  • Stephanie Welsh, regarding Jocelyn Howarth
  • Elizabeth White, regarding Barbara Smith (Lamble)
  • John Armine Wodehouse, Earl of Kimberley regarding Mary Maguire
  • Brenda Young, regarding Elsie Morris
  • Charles Zhang, regarding Saharet

and

  • Zetta Florence of Brunswick St Fitzroy, who provide all my archival materials. They don’t know it, but they are in such good company, surrounded by the spirits of Daphne and Ivy Trott, Alf and Irene Goulding, the Topping girls, the Finlay girls, the Heintz boys and many other forgotten performers in Fitzroy.

Key Sources

Further reading is provided, wherever possible, at the end of each article. Hot links exist in the text to key primary and secondary sources online. The most common sources used include

Podcasts

  • Dr Kate Rice (2020-2021) Performing the Past. A series of podcasts based on the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.

Text

  • Kaz Cooke (2017) Ada. Comedian, Dancer, Fighter. Viking /Penguin. A fictional account of Ada Delroy‘s life  [funny, extremely well researched and valuable in the absence of interviews with so many early Australian performers.] Her website is here
  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia.
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd.
  • Brian McFarlane, Anthony Slide (2003): The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen Publishing Ltd
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin. [A fictional work inspired by the Pollard Tour of India in 1909-1910.]
  • Phillipe Mora, Peter Beilby, Scott Murray (eds) and others (1974-2001): Cinema Papers (Magazine) Cinema Papers P/L, Richmond, also MTV Publishing  and Niche Media. See digitised collection at the University of Wollongong
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1981 and 1998): Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production. Oxford University Press.
  • Graham Shirley & Brian Adams (1989): Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years. Currency Press
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Lothian Books
  • Andrée Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers; Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books Australia.
  • Angela Woollacott, (2001). To try her fortune in London. Australian women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Digital resources

Lists of films and stage performances are not provided. Moderately accurate lists of films are often found on the Internet Movie Database. (IMDB), however the reader should note that these are sometimes inaccurate. A list of Broadway performances can be found at the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB).

A list of some Australian stage performances can be found at The Australian Live Performance Database.

Maud Hobson (1860-1913), the gaiety girl who dreamed of Colorado

Maud Hobson c.1890-1900. A widely known “Gaiety Girl” in the George Edwardes’ Company, she was born in Melbourne in 1860. Her family moved back to England when she was an infant. She had lived in Hawaii, Colorado and London by the time she was 30. Talma Photographers, Sydney. Author’s collection. (I have taken something of a liberty with the title of this article. I only have one piece of evidence that she dreamed of Colorado.)

Born in the emerging suburb of Toorak, 5 kilometres south of Melbourne, Australia, on November 13, 1860, Jane Elizabeth Manson would eventually become one of the hugely popular English “gaiety girls” of George Edwardes‘ Gaiety Theatre Company, performing under her stage name, Maud Hobson. Tall, “stately, statuesque and classic” (by this the Brooklyn Standard Union meant she was attractive), she had earned a formidable reputation in Britain, the US and Australia by the end of the nineteenth century. And more than most of the “gaiety girls”, from the mid 1890s Maud was only too happy to speak at length to the press about anything that came to her mind – matrimony, the state of society, costumes and jewellery, and American as opposed to Australian audiences.

Her parents John Manson and Eliza nee Hollingshead, arrived (separately) in Melbourne in 1853, at the height of the Victorian gold rushes. For two Britons in their early twenties, it must have been an exciting environment of extraordinary opportunity. Many of the international arrivals of the 1850s were, like them, aged between 21 and 35. By 1858, half of the newly arrived Australian population lived in the colony of Victoria and Melbourne was the continent’s largest city. How the couple met we do not know, but they married at Melbourne’s St Peter’s Anglican Church in June 1855. John was soon to become “Head Teller” (Manager) of the Union Bank of Australia – an opportunity a young man could never hope to have achieved in London. Yet like some who did well in the booming colony, the couple returned to Britain soon after their daughter’s birth. Perhaps they had “made their pile” or possibly, they still weren’t convinced life in the young city was superior to life in Britain. Maybe John Manson was simply offered a better job back home.

bullion buying

Above: 27 year old John Manson announces the appointment of a bullion broker at the Union Bank’s Bendigo goldfields branch. The Age Saturday 9 Jan 1857. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Maud Hobson’s own account of her early childhood was – typically for an ambitious actor of the time – often short on detail. In several early interviews she suggested her parents were “just passing through” Melbourne when she was born. Later in life she embraced her Australian birth with gusto. It was claimed she was born Jennie or Jeannie, but this appears to have been a pet name used by the family.

MAud performing in 1881

Above: Maud appearing on stage before her marriage to Lieutenant Hayley in May 1881. The Era, 12 February 1881 via The British Newspaper Archive.

A popular up and coming performer in 1880, she admitted in several later press interviews that she owed some of her success to her uncle, the writer and manager of the Gaiety Theatre, John Hollingshead, who had also suggested her stage name. However, she left the stage in 1881, when she married Lieutenant Andrew Burrell Hayley, an officer of the 11th Hussars. A son, William Burrell Hayley, was born in early 1882. Soon after, Maud and little William joined Lieutenant Hayley in a new adventure – a posting to the Kingdom of Hawaii, of all places. There, Hayley took on the role of an attache to King Kalākaua. But while the last King of Hawaii received recognition for his efforts to reinvigorate Hawaiian national identity and shore up its economy, not all of the king’s European advisors were welcomed. On 31 July, 1884, The Honolulu Evening Bulletin took the unusual step of very publicly criticizing Hayley for his “lack of sobriety” and therefore his unsuitability as a Commander of the Mounted Police. He was appointed to this position anyway.


 

The Hayleys in Hawaii. Left; King Kalākaua with officers, including Lieutenant Hayley looking very splendid in white, third from the right. Via Wikimedia Commons. Right; Maud was still occasionally performing in Hawaii – The Honolulu Advertiser, 5 Jan 1886, via Newspapers.com. (click to enlarge)

In 1886, Maud returned to England, for reasons that are no longer known. Of her next few years, we only have court records to guide us, as she did not appear on stage again until mid-1889. Hayley petitioned for divorce from Maud in November 1887. He claimed Maud repeatedly committed adultery with Captain Owen Richard Armstrong, an officer in the Seaforth Highlanders. Hayley was extremely well informed about the places and dates of his wife’s adulterous behaviour, which included travel to the US and five months living “as man and wife” in Colorado. Before the court Maud and Armstrong strenuously denied the charges, but a divorce was granted in October 1888. The case was played out in newspapers in excruciating detail, although as Maud’s stage name wasn’t used, many readers may not have made the connection. The story that Maud spent the summer of 1887 in Colorado with a man she wasn’t married to would be hard to believe, if it wasn’t corroborated by records of shadowy movements that we can access today.

armstrong and maude

The faded manifest of the ship Servia, arriving in New York in June 1887. Owen R. Armstrong, Army Officer and his wife Maud(e) are listed. Via US National Archives and Records Administration, Via Ancestry.com

From mid 1889, Maud reappeared on stage in London for George Edwardes in such productions as ‘Faust Up to Date” and “Carmen Up to Data” – both burlesques with music written by Meyer Lutz. Edwardes was Hollingshead’s successor at the Gaiety Theatre at the eastern end of London’s Strand. She moved in to live with Hollingshead and his family in Kensington at about this time, continuing to enjoy her uncle’s advice and patronage.


Left: Maud – a photo taken well before 1896 (from “Around the world with a Gaiety Girl” page 100, via the Internet Archive). Centre: Maud on an undated postcard (probably about 1890). Right: Maud in The Sketch, July 21 1899. Author’s Collection.

In March 1892, Edwardes and George Musgrove arranged for a tour of some of the London Gaiety regulars, including Maud in a supporting role, to take “Faust Up to Date” on tour to Australia. The London Gaiety Burlesque Company (note how often the name changed) first performed in Melbourne in May. Four months later the company wrapped in Sydney and headed for home. It had been a success. On the eve of the show’s closing, the Sydney Referee reported “‘Faust Up to Date’ at Her Majesty’s still draws the people, fills the exchequer, and promotes hilarity.” Interestingly, Maud sought no personal publicity and made no public comments during this first trip back to the city of her birth.

1893 saw some dramatic changes. In early April the news reached her that ex-husband Andrew Burrell Hayley had died. She did not regain custody of her son from Hayley’s family, but following this event she seemed to find her voice and her place in the world. Later in the year she took a leading role as Alma Somerset in George Edwardes’ new production “A Gaiety Girl”, alongside Marie Studholme and Decima Moore. While a few reviewers felt the leading role required her to do little more than look “exceedingly handsome,” other reviewers were effusive in their praise. At the same time she wrote and appeared in a short one act sketch for the theatre, and it was performed as a matinee at the Gaiety Theatre in early July 1894. “A Successful Mission,concerns Alice Gray, a burlesque actress (played by Hobson), and John Winton, a conservative vestryman (played by George Mudie) who attempts to convince Gray to discourage his love-lorn son’s attentions – to the point of offering her money to shun him. Of course, by the end, he discovers she is an admirable philanthropist and more than honourable. “Brightly written and neatly condensed, it was amusing and effective… and acted with much spirit” reported The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. One cannot help wondering whether there was a strong element of personal experience being recounted here! 

In September 1894, “A Gaiety Girl” was taken on tour. It opened in New York that month, had moved on to San Francisco and then on to Australia by June 1895. Finally, Maud Hobson freely discussed her Melbourne birth and talked at length about her time in Honolulu, with her “late husband”. One Sydney journalist described her thus; “a young lady tall and most divinely fair” She told the same journalist I, who am a native of Australia…feel that in coming to this country I am just visiting my own folks.” And she went on in this celebratory tone for the entire tour.

Gaiety Company 1895

Maud as part of a large photo spread in The Pictorial Australian, 1 April 1895, shown here with company members Cecil Hope and Harry Monkhouse. Fellow cast member Decima Moore married Cecil Hope in 1894 in New York while on tour (Hope was another former army officer whose real name was Cecil Ainslie Walker-Leigh) and like Maud and Hayley, they divorced a few years later. Monkhouse died in 1900, after being declared bankrupt. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

While she was in Australia (and two years after Hayley’s death), a convoluted account of Maud’s relationship with Captain Armstrong appeared in some western US papers. This suggested that she had divorced Hayley herself, first, in the US, on the grounds of cruelty, and then had married Armstrong, only to find these arrangements were not recognised in the UK. Someone very well acquainted with her circumstances had written or provided the story. This writer cannot find the story in any Colorado papers, but more than thirty syndicated papers in nearby Kansas carried it. Following this brief outing, the story disappeared.

At the end of October 1895, the company departed Australia for England. The rather underwhelming 1896 travel book, “Round the World with A Gaiety Girl,” documents the successful trip.

Maud Hobson was now established as a leading regular in the Edwardes’ company. In August 1897 she appeared in the musical “In Town.”  She again joined the troupe travelling to the US in September 1897, where “In Town” ran at New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre, in company with another very young Australian – Norma Whalley .

Left: “In Town” At New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre.  The Sun, (New York)  September 11, 1897. Right; “In Town” at the Garrick Theatre a month earlier in August 1897, with an almost identical cast.  The Era, August 14, 1897. Via Newspapers.com.

Maud was now approaching 40, but she was regularly referred to as the “reigning English beauty”.  In 1900 she appeared in London as Lady Punchestown in the musical “The Messenger Boy.” The cast also included another young Australian, 21 year-old Maie Saqui from Melbourne. She must have felt some degree of national consciousness as she also appeared in a patriotic sketch with Maie and other Australian favourites in June, entitled “Australia’s tribute to Britannia” (in aid of widows and orphans of Australians and New Zealanders who had fallen in the Boer War).

By 1902 she was at a highpoint in her career – light comedy and musicals had become her forte. That year she played Lady St. Mallory in “Three Little Maids”She travelled to perform in the US again, and briefly to South Africa. After a “serious operation,” Maud travelled again to Australia in 1904 with another Edwardes’ Gaiety troupe. She was extremely popular in Australia, and she knew it. A journalist for a newspaper in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, put a typically Australian voice to this popularity when he wroteMaud is the biggest-hearted woman the stage has ever known. Last time she was here she sold some of her magnificent emeralds to pay doctor’s bills for a girl member of the Company, and more of ’em to pay the hotel bill of a now- dead fascinating man member. You never heard of a woman speaking ill of Maud. That’s the record!” 

Maud 1904

Maud Hobson during her final 1904 tour of Australia. The Australasian, Sat 14 May 1904 via National library of Australia, Trove. 

She spoke at length about herself and her career during this visit. She admitted to a nervous disposition, a condition she said had seen her spend much of 1903 resting. But she also spoke of her future, and mentioned her fiance who had an American ranch and was a minor cattle king. It was again, a successful tour.

1905 was her last year of activity on the stage – she took on a role in the popular musical Lady Madcap, in company with Zena Dare, Gabrielle Ray and Marie Studholme. Over the next few years she travelled to the US again but there were now stories of serious ill health. After what some papers reported was “a lingering illness,” she died in London on January 6, 1913. Maud Hobson was remembered fondly in British, US and Australian newspapers. The Era stated she had “a handsome appearance… amiable personality and was an intelligent and agreeable actress.”

Its notable that Maud’s acknowledgement of being born in Melbourne occurred later in life, when she was well established and a contemporary of Nellie Melba, Nellie Stewart, Norma Whalley and Maie Saqui. It would be wrong to over-emphasize Maud as an Australian –  for other than being her place of birth, her experiences of Australia were confined to her theatrical tours. In her mind, she was almost certainly British, more than anything else. And yet, one senses she developed a fondness for Australia – she was happy to make the long trip out on three occasions. She reputedly also made friends while on her Australian tours – perhaps these were old acquaintances of her parents, from the roaring days of the Victorian gold rushes.

Maud’s son, William Burrell Hayley died in 1967, after a distinguished military career. Her uncle and mentor John Hollingshead died in 1904. The Gaiety Theatre, which had seen Maud and the other Gaiety Girls perform so often, was seriously damaged by bombs during World War Two and was finally demolished in the 1950s.

 

Nick Murphy
May 2019

 

Notes:
1. The most accurate account of Maud’s divorce is the actual petition, held by the National Archives in Britain. The Era of 28 April 1888 also provides an accurate account of her life to that time. Hayley was in the 11th Hussars (not 10th or 5th as is sometimes reported) and was not a General, even if given this title as a courtesy.

2. Was she ever known as “the White Queen” of Honolulu? There is no evidence of this other than Maud’s own words.

 

Further Reading

Text

  • Granville Bantock and Frederick G. Aflalo (1896) Round the World with a Gaiety Girl. London, J. Macqueen. Digitised by University of California Libraries
  • Boyle Lawrence (1900) Celebrities of the Stage. London, George Newnes.
    Digitised by the Public Library of India.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013 ) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.

Websites

Newspaper archives

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • Australian Star, April 3, 1895. The Gaiety Girl Company
  • Australasian, September 28, 1895. Gentleman Joe at the Princess Theatre
  • Melbourne Punch, October 17, 1895. A Gaiety Girl at Home.
  • The Critic, June 15, 1904. Miss Maud Hobson at Home
  • The Sunday Times, July 3, 1904. Confidences of Stage Favourites
  • Table Talk. May 16, 1904. Miss Maud Hobson

British Library – British Newspaper Archive

  • The Era, April 28, 1888. The London Theatres
  • The Era, 11 June 1913. The Death of Miss Maud Hobson
  • Sunday Post, October 22, 1922. My Thirty years at the Gaiety

Newspapers.com

  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. December 26, 1894. Burlesque and Comedy
  • The Washington Times. December 16, 1894. The Theatres
  • The Pittsburg Mail. October 17, 1895. Gaiety Girl’s Life

Sylvia Breamer (1897-1943) – I’m not a German!


Enlargement of a photo of Sylvia Bremer, possibly from the Witzel Studios, Los Angeles. c 1918. Author’s Collection.

The 5 Second version
Born Sylvia Poppy Bremer, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 9 June 1897, she died in New York City, USA, 7 June, 1943. After very successful stage work in Australia, she travelled to the US with her first and much older husband Willett Morrison. Her first film in Hollywood was for Thomas Ince, and she was active in film from 1917-1926. She could not re-establish herself after the coming of sound and an unhappy second marriage.

Sylvia Bremer is hardly a forgotten Australian at all. Ralph Marsden’s biography Who was Sylvia? was published in 2016 – making use of hitherto unseen private photos of Bremer – and including a great deal of painstaking new research on her career. Here are two photos of a very young Sylvia from Australian libraries – they are now out of copyright.

Above: Sylvia Bremer by May and Mina Moore. c1910-1913. State Library of Victoria. (Ralph Marsden dates this to 1916)
Above: Sylvia Bremer by May Moore, c 1912. State Library of New South Wales.

Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. As with several of the other women documented on this website, she was a student at Ascham College, which is probably where she developed her interest in theatre. Following several years of stage work in Australia, in October 1916 she travelled to the US with her first husband, 48 year old actor-director Willett Morrison on the SS Ventura. And there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitterreleased in 1917.

Above; Sylvia in Motion Picture Magazine, August 1917. She had just appeared in The Narrow Trail with William S Hart. The rest of the story here reminds us how unreliable movie mags are as a source – she supposedly grew up in “the Australian bush” at “Baggadella”. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

As Ralph Marsden recounts, Sylvia’s story was not a happy one at all. Her career in film did not last – it was over well before the coming of sound in 1927 (she made over 40 films in just ten years). She was active on stage from 1926 -1930, her performances with the Bainbridge Players in Minneapolis in late 1930 appear to be her last, except for a role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Although its not really clear why she lost her currency, her tumultuous private life and widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood probably did not endear her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who might otherwise have employed her. “Sylvia now loathes pictures and everything Hollywood means. There can be no real friendship in Hollywood-nothing but jealousy and sham,” she was reported as saying in 1930.


Here is part of Sylvia Breamer’s only scene in “Too Many Parents”(1936), as the mother of the insufferable Billy Miller (Billy Lee). Twenty years after arriving in the US, her accent is an English one. Copyright held by Universal films.

Breamer 2
A postcard of Bremer, produced about 1920. Ironically, it appears to have been printed in Germany. Author’s Collection

Sylvia married three times,  but each relationship ended acrimoniously or abruptly. There were no children from any of the marriages.   

Her origins seem to have been a constant source of interest for the press, or embarrassment for her. In an interview with Julian Johnson for Photoplay magazine in 1918, she tied herself in knots to emphasize (or exaggerate) her British naval connections.  Her father was not a battle-ship captain as she claimed, but a hard working public servant in the Lands Department, who had died when she was only 13. She was obviously sensitive to accusations of German ancestry, as only a year before, she had changed the spelling of her surname from Bremer to Breamer, apparently to make her sound less German in the midst of war.

She died in New York aged only 45, in 1943. Perhaps one of the most moving photos in Marsden’s book is a grainy photo of Sylvia and her sister on the streets of New York, taken shortly before she died. Her passing appears to have gone unnoticed in Australia. Her mother, step-father, sister and brother all moved to the US. For a time, her brother Jack worked as a cinematographer. 

Marsden’s book is recommended for anyone interested in Breamer’s career and those of the other early Australian women pioneers in Hollywood with whom she was acquainted – including Enid BennettMarjorie Bennett and Louise Lovely. 

Nick Murphy, December 2018


Further Reading

Text

Library Collections

Florrie Forde (1875-1940) – Gertrude Street’s gift to Music Hall

Above left: The United Service Club Hotel on the corner of Young Street and Gertrude Street, about the time Florrie was born. Source the State Library of Victoria Picture Collection. At right: The very altered building today. Author’s collection.

Florrie Forde was born Flora Flannagan in Fitzroy on 16 August 1875, to Lott Flannagan and Phoebe (Simmons). In time, she would become one of the great British Music Hall stars of the early twentieth century. A great deal has been written about her – she cannot be described as a forgotten Australian! Yet it perplexes the author that in a neighbourhood that also saw the births of Daphne Trott, Alf Goulding and Saharet, there is, today, no acknowledgment she was ever there.

Florrie and sister

Above: Florrie Forde and sister. Stewart & Co., photographer. [ca. 1889-ca. 1906] This beautiful photograph is from the collections of the State Library of Victoria.

This short article is intended to showcase her birthplace and her birth certificate. Links to longer articles can be found below.

FF better copyAbove: Part of Flora Flannagan’s birth certificate. Column 2 – date of birth, place of birth (no street number given); 3 – name  (Just Flora and no May Augusta); 4 – gender; 5 – father’s name, profession, age and place of birth; 6 – date and place of marriage, other children; 7 – wife’s name age and place of birth (unknown, America). Via Victoria Birth Deaths & Marriages.

She was born at one of the family residences in Gertrude Street Fitzroy – the handsome but modest United Service Club Hotel run by her father at 88 (now 122) Gertrude Street being a possibility – although her birth certificate does not give a definitive address.

The 1875 Sands and McDougall directory for Melbourne lists her father’s business at 200 Gertrude Street. Today, this site is a tiny park, on the corner of Smith and Gertrude Streets, Collingwood. But this was surely only a business address at the time anyway.

Sands Directory 1875 for Flanagan. jpg

In the same edition, the United Service Club Hotel is listed as managed by David Garcia:

Sands Directory 1875

Two years later however, the 1877 edition lists Lott Flanagan at the hotel. But it should be noted that there was probably some “lag” in time between when information was collected and the directory was published.

1877 Sands Directory

Source: State Library of Victoria, online digitised versions of the Sands and McDougall Directories for Melbourne.

In addition, in a very thorough survey of her early life in Australia, researcher Tony Martin Jones has suggested that instead of a noisy pub, her place of birth may have been at her maternal grandparents shop and residence nearby. Barnett and Susannah Simmons ran a crockery store at 181 (now 203) Gertrude Street. That building is still only a few doors from an even larger, noisy pub – the Builder’s Arms. Unfortunately, we are now unlikely to ever know for sure.

Gertrude Street

A terrace of shop/residences in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Taking into account the change to street numbers, the Simmons crockery store was the building on the right, behind the blue car. Author’s Collection

Florrie first appeared on stage in Sydney in early 1892, and quickly became a popular singer and performer in pantomime. By 1894 she was a regular performer in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1897 she made her first appearance in London – apparently playing three music halls in the one night.

Left: Florrie Forde in 1898. Source: Melbourne Punch August 24, 1898, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Centre: Florrie Forde not long after her breakthrough on the stage in London. Source: “The Sketch,” Sept 21, 1898. Photo copyright Illustrated London News Group. Author’s Collection. At right – A signed postcard taken sometime later in, life, probably in the early 1930s. Author’s Collection.

A talented singer with an exceptional wit, she was supremely confident on stage and held a genuine affection for her audiences – music hall being her favourite. Her name is still connected with many of the music hall songs she made popular, such as the World War One favourites “A Long Long Way To Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and “Has Anybody here seen Kelly.”  She appeared as herself in several British films in the mid 1930s, and in character in “My Old Dutch” in 1934.  Her Australian accent remained with her all her life, as the numerous recordings she made demonstrate. As theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, she achieved all this without any formal musical training – a remarkable achievement.

alice004
This C1930 booklet of sheet music lists many of Forde’s popular songs. Author’s Collection

Jeff Brownrigg’s entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography provides an account of her work and quite tumultuous, perhaps dysfunctional, upbringing. She worked all her life – dying suddenly after entertaining in a Scottish naval hospital in April 1940. Obituaries in the UK and Australia were effusive. Florrie was very much the voice of the people, and apparently even Dame Nellie Melba was an admirer.

anona-1940-
Above – Only a few months before her death, Florrie was still on stage, here with fellow Australian Anona Winn, in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940, listing shows commencing 26 Feb. Via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

Nick Murphy, Rewritten November 2020


Further Reading

Norma Whalley – the Mysterious Australian “Gaiety Girl”

Norma Whalley is shown here at the height of her fame as an actress in the US and England. Big hair and extravagant headwear seems to have been the trademark of a “Gaiety Girl”. But we are no closer to knowing who she really was today than audiences were in 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection.

Norma Whalley first appeared on the stage in London as the Comtesse d’Epernany, in the popular musical The Circus Girl at the Gaiety Theatre, in late 1896 or early 1897. By September 1897 she was appearing in New York in a minor role in the play In Town, a member of the Gaiety Theatre Company, brought over by George Edwardes. Edwardes had already had great success with other musicals – in particular A Gaiety Girl in 1893-4. Under-studying for Marie Studholme, Norma appeared in a leading role soon after arriving, when Studholme became unable to perform due to “lameness.”

The term “Gaiety Girl” was to become a popular phrase to describe some of the young, glamorous British female performers, most often members of Edwardes’ company at some time. Like Norma, the Gaiety Girls could sing and dance, and were adept at “light comedy.” All presented as well-mannered and well dressed, purportedly representing modern womanhood, and they apparently dazzled audiences wherever they went. Edwardes seems to have chosen his female cast members deliberately to have that effect. His pioneering efforts to establish musical comedy were successful and helped establish the genre we know today.

Of her past, Whalley was always vague. In 1899 she was to claim that she had toured South Africa soon after the Jameson Raid (January 1896) and met President Kruger. He was a “squatty, ugly old man…devoid of manners.” Unfortunately, its impossible to track anything of her life before 1897.

Left: George Edwardes c1900. Source; James Jupp (1923) “The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre”. Via the Internet Archive. Centre: Marie Studholme c 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection. Right: Melbourne born Maud Hobson who also travelled with the Gaiety troupe to New York in 1897. From “The Sketch”, July 21 1899.

Born in the mid to late 1870s, Norma Whalley was supposedly the daughter of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, a well-known physician of Sydney.” Other accounts state it was Melbourne.  But equally likely, it was neither. Despite this claim being repeated ad nauseam in biographies of her (all of which cross-reference to each other or the same few newspaper sources), there is simply no evidence of a person called Henry Octavius Whalley living in Melbourne or Sydney in the mid to late nineteenth century. Not only did Australian newspapers of the time not mention him, but census records and shipping records make no mention of him either. And most importantly, no one of this name appears in any of the usually reliable Sands directories for Sydney and Melbourne  produced between 1860 and 1900. And there are just nine recorded births of a child called Norma in Sydney between 1870 and 1880 –  and just four females born with the surname Whalley – but none called Norma Whalley. And there is, similarly, no matching child in the Melbourne birth records. The usually comprehensive history of Australian actors by Hal Porter (produced in 1965 – when many of his subjects were still alive) provides no information.

Norma Whalley in about 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection

Norma Whalley’s identity seems to have been deliberately obscured. There is nothing to verify that she was Australian at all, except her word. Perhaps like Saharet she wished to obscure a humble birth, or maybe an impetuous marriage gone wrong or an embarrassing parent. What better way to stay in command of one’s destiny than create an interesting but deceased father on the other side of the world! Perhaps the confusion also relates to our understanding of nationality today as opposed to then. In the late nineteenth century, a person born in the colony of New South Wales was just as likely to think of themselves as British – Australia not becoming self-governing until 1901.

After her successful season in New York, in January 1898 she returned to London on the S.S. St Louis with Studholme and some of the other Gaiety company members. Later contracted to George Lederer, she was back in New York again by March 1899, performing in The Man in the Moon, “a spectacular fantasy in three acts.” It ran successfully for some months at the New York Theatre, although not everyone was enthused with its four-hour running time or her performance (see Brooklyn Life, 10 June 1899 for example). Her involvement in this production came to a sudden end when she was dismissed for breaking character and chatting to a friend or admirer in the audience, during a performance in late September. But within a month, she had teamed up with Walter Jones, a popular “tramp “comedian, touring cities in the US. The partnership was both personal and professional, but it too came to a sudden end in July 1900 when Jones suddenly left to marry a wealthy widow. Nevertheless, her popularity was at its height by mid 1900 and for the first time she mentioned her Australian birth to inquisitive US journalists.


Norma with Walter Jones, Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900.  Her matrimonial affairs attracted considerable press attention. At right Norma in The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900. Via Newspapers.com

Hoyts 1900

Dunne and Ryley’s troupe traveled all over the US, headlined by Mathews and Bulger. Norma Whalley and Walter Jones are listed in the cast in this advertisement from Montana’s Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900. Via newspapers.com.

Soon after, it was announced that she was engaged to another performer – James “Sherry” Mathews, one half of the comedy team Mathews and Bulger.  They married in New York on 29 March 1901. Here, on the marriage licence, she recorded her birthplace as Sydney, Australia, and her age as 22. Her mother was listed as Mary J Rayson, her father “Harry”. Intriguingly, she was also recorded on the marriage certificate as divorced – hinting at another, earlier marriage.

Unfortunately the relationship with Sherry Mathews also failed. He was already ill in 1901 and suffered a stroke in mid 1902, and was severely incapacitated, being admitted to Sterne’s Sanatorium in Indianapolis, one of the most exclusive that could be found. Norma was at first praised for caring for him, but then came in for savage press criticism, particularly after she sued for a divorce in 1904, officially on the grounds that Mathews had deceived her about his state of health. The Broadway Weekly of 26 May 1904 even suggested that she was responsible for breaking up the Mathews and Bulger team and that when Mathews became ill, she was one of the first to desert him.

Norma had indeed left the US to perform in England in September 1902, in productions that included George Edwarde’s new musical The School Girl (where she was in company with other familiar Gaiety girls – Edna May, Marie Studholme, Violet Cameron, Marianne Caldwell and Billie Burke). Following the granting of her divorce, she married London lawyer (Edward) Percival Clarke, the son of barrister Sir Edward George Clarke. Percival Clarke followed his father into the law and was knighted in 1931.

Norma School Girl
Norma Whalley in “The School Girl,” with G.P Huntley as Sir Ormesby St. Leger. The musical ran at  London’s Prince of Wales Theatre from May 1903. Postcard in the Author’s Collection.

With the publicity surrounding her 1904 marriage, the Australian dimension to her story was finally picked up by the Australian press. Unfortunately, these accounts were not well researched or accurate – it was now that the story of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, the well-known physician of Sydney” was introduced and gained currency. It was also claimed that she had once been a popular comedienne in Sydney. Perhaps she was, but it’s hard to believe there are no existing records to confirm this.

Following her marriage to Clarke, she did not retire from the stage, as Australian newspapers predicted, but she did become more selective with roles. For example, she appeared as Mrs. Fergusson, the wicked husband-stealer, in W. Somerset Maugham‘s new comedy Penelope in 1909 and in J.B. Fagan’s play Bella Donna, in 1916. In 1915 British society magazine Tatler reported she was going into nursing to support the war effort, accompanied by a serious picture of Norma in a nurse’s uniform. This may explain why she disappeared for the later part of World War One. The British Journal of Nursing also reported her training as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital.

Above: Norma Whalley and Graham Browne in ‘Penelope.’ “Now what does all this mean?”she demands. Postcard signed by Whalley in the author’s collection. Dover Street Studios. 

Between 1920 and 1926 she appeared in regular supporting roles in at least 16 British silent films. Women and Diamonds, made in 1924 with Victor McLaglen and Madge Stuart, appears to be the last of these. She later appeared in a few small character parts in the first years of sound film. We can only guess, but it seems that film work was an after-thought to a successful stage career, not something she aspired to do for the rest of her life. By the time she traveled to Cairo to appear in the 1934 Michael Balcon comedy-adventure The Camels are Coming, she was almost 60, and had been performing for almost 40 years. Her persona was well and truly British, as her role in this film demonstrates. Listen to her voice in this scene, which takes place outside the famous Shepheard’s Hotel. Norma, as a stereotypical British tourist, is escorting her daughter (Peggy Simpson) around the sights of Cairo when she runs into a bogus guide.

If she ever was Australian born, one would not guess so from this voice.

One of Norma Whalley’s final roles in the Gaumount British adventure-comedy, “The Camels Are Coming “(1934). Source: VHS copy in the author’s collection.

Sir Percival Clarke died suddenly in 1936. Norma, now Lady Clarke, remarried in 1940, this time to John Beauchamp Salter. When she died at her home in Grosvenor Square in London, in October 1954, she left a significant estate. There were no children from any of her marriages. A few reports in later life and British obituaries on her death noted her Australian birth. However these were more concerned to comment that Lady Clarke had “married well,” like some other Gaiety Girls. There were no Australian obituaries.

As Lady Percival Clarke, Norma visited Australia in late 1938. Although she made some comments on the Australian sense of dress, attitude to tipping and the hair raising speed of Melbourne taxis, she made no reference to being Australian born.

The mystery of Norma’s origins remained well into the 20th century. Norma’s mother Mary died at her cottage in Church Rd, Whitstable in June 1932. The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald reported her death, and the fact she was the widow of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley” of Melbourne Australia.

        
Other Gaiety Girls who “did well” for themselves in marriage.
Left: Zena Dare, who after marriage became Lady Maurice Brett.
Centre – New York born 
Edna May who married millionaire Oscar Lewisohn.
Right Denise Orme who became the Duchess of Leinster. Postcards in the author’s collection.

A British Pathe newsreel from 1946 includes footage of some of the Gaiety Girls later in life, including Norma. See it here


Nick Murphy
Updated June 2020

Note 1.
Researcher Alan Garner has listed some of the other British productions Norma Whalley appeared in, which include the following. (For further information refer to works by J.P. Wearing, listed below)

Comtesse d’Epernay in The Circus Girl – Gaiety, 5th December 1896
Lady Rosemary Beaulieu in Three Little Maids – Apollo, 10th May 1902 (transferred to Prince of Wales’s, 8th September 1902)
Birdie Beaulieu in The Linkman – Gaiety, 21st February 1903
Pepita in Madame Sherry – Apollo, 23rd December 1903
Mrs Olivia Vanderhide in Lady Epping’s Lawsuit – Criterion, 12th October 1908
Countess Marie of Riest in The King’s Cup – Adelphi, 13th December 1909
Mrs Crespin in The Liars – Criterion, 27th October 1910
Mrs Chepstow and Mrs Marchmont in Bella Donna – St James’s, 9th December 1911
Yvonne Stettin in The Turning Point – St James’s – 1st October 1912
Mrs Marchmont in Bella Donna – St Jamses’s, 31st May 1916 (revival of 1911 production)
Mme. Lemaitre in Buxell – Strand Theatre, 7th November 1916

Note 2.
The story that Norma Whalley had an early marriage to actor Charles Verner (really Charles E.V. Finlay 1848-1926) appears in a few accounts in Californian papers after her 1904 marriage to Percival Clarke. Verner himself appears to have claimed so. Despite the significant age difference it is possible. However, so far, there is no supporting evidence of this and it may just be a muddled-up account based around Verner’s real 1878 marriage in Melbourne to actress Mary Hendrickson, which ended in a very messy US divorce in 1888.


Further Reading

Texts, including those via Internet Archive

  • The British Journal of Nursing, January 1915
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • “The Editor’s Chat.” The Broadway Weekly 26 May 1904
  • James Jupp (1923) The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre. With an introduction by Mabel Russell Philipson.  London, Jonathan Cape. Digitized copy –  University of Toronto
  • J.P. Wearing (2013) The London stage 1890-1899 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield
  • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage, 1900-1909 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman & Littlefield
  • San Francisco Dramatic Review 1899 Volume 1-2
    Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant
  • The Wasp 1900, Volume 43 Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant
 

Via Newspapers.com

  • “Thinks Krugers Manners Bad.” Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec 1899, Sat, Page 2
  • “Hoyt’s A Rag Baby” Advertisment. Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900
  •  “Walter Jones and Norma Whalley at the Orpheum.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900. 
  • “Miss Norma Whalley has no tears to shed.” The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900

Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • “London Personal Notes”  The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA)  Tue 20 Sep 1904  Page 7 
  • “Our Well-Dressed Women “Amazes” English Visitor” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld.) Tue 22 Nov 1938 Page 1 

Other Media