While at the cinema…

Perhaps you’d like some MacRobertson’s Old Gold Chocolate while watching the show?

Old Gold

Mmmmm!

Or some Turkish Delight – as favoured by the scantily clad harem dancers shown here?

 

Maybe you have a cough? That Allen’s nurse looks like she knows what she’s on about.

 

Or maybe its time for something filter smooth… in the foyer? Actors Evelyn Laye and David Niven are reputed to have helped market this brand of tobacco.

Capstan

(As far as I can tell, smoking was banned in Australian theatres from the 1940s, largely for safety reasons. Not so the UK. In the 1970s  the author watched a Sean Connery film in a stuffy London cinema – through clouds of smoke – an experience I have no desire to repeat.)

After all those lollies and soothing smokes, you might need some of this?

califig

Should be good – plus Califig is 11 percent proof!

So after all, maybe all you need is some fresh Aussie fruit?

aussie011

Or perhaps just a nice cup of Glen Valley Tea?

glen valley tea

Glen Valley tea sign, Johnson Street, Fitzroy, January 2019. Author’s Collection

Nicholson Street, Fitzroy North 2013

In 2013 this painted sign for Indian Root pills was briefly exposed in Nicholson Street North Fitzroy when an unstable terrace house was demolished. A new building has since covered the sign. 

But perhaps you shouldn’t have been at the cinema! Perhaps you needed some furniture carefully removed!

removalists

Westgarth Street, Fitzroy, December 2017 – a few streets from Daphne Trott (Pollard)’s birth place. Author’s Collection

The labels shown here were collected from a former lolly shop my brother purchased in Rathdowne Street Carlton in 1992. Most of the collection was taken by Museum Victoria.

Nick Murphy, December 2018.

Robert Greig and Beatrice Holloway go to Hollywood

Above: Years before he became well known as a Hollywood character actor, Robert Greig is shown here with fellow actor and wife Beatrice Holloway. They remained a devoted couple until his death in 1958, although the move to the US meant the end of her career. Source; Table Talk, Thursday 29 June 1922. Via National Library of Australia Trove 

Robert Greig was the quintessential movie butler of Hollywood’s golden age. He first appeared in the Marx Brothers “Animal Crackers” in 1930, playing the role of Hives the butler, followed by another twenty years of related roles – more butlers, doormen, stuffy judges and remote English lords. Various online biographies generally make no reference to the first fifty years of his life, or the significance of Beatrice Denver Holloway, his wife and on-stage collaborator for many years, who moved with him to the US in the late 1920s.

Beatrice Denver Holloway was born in Richmond, Melbourne Australia in 1884. The daughter of actor-manager Charles Holloway and actress Alice Doerwyn, she learned her stagecraft with her parents and the Holloway Dramatic company, travelling Australian cities and towns. Her earliest appearance was at the age of 10, as the child Anne, in “The World Against Her,” a drama on the “question of marriage.”

Beatrice Holloway

Beatrice Holloway c.1900-1910. The Royal Studios, Brisbane. Via The National Library of Australia

She later had notable success in a popular, sentimental story of two homeless boys – “Two Little Vagabonds” by George R. Sim and Arthur Shirley. This production was toured throughout Australia and New Zealand in 1903, with Beatrice playing Dick and Sophie Lashmore as the consumptive Wally. While it is a style of production that audiences would now find very dated, it found enthusiastic audiences in 1903. The following typical lines are spoken by Wally as he departs this world;
“I won’t be a thief never no more, lady, never so more so long as I live. And I shall see my muvver, my real muvver in Heaven. Good-bye, my old pal Dick.”

Otago Witness 1904.jpg

Source: Otago Witness, 30 March 1904. Via National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past

Robert Greig was born in Toorak, Melbourne, Australia in December 1879. At birth, he was named Arthur Alfred Bede Greig. However, Robert Greig was his stage name and in life he was known as Bob or Bobbie to all who knew him well. After an education at Xavier College and some mundane experience working at Dunlop Tyres and as a commercial traveller, he became increasingly interested in amateur theatricals, and then, nearing the age of 30, made the transition to professional performer. He was offered a contract with the Hugh Ward Comedy Company, in 1909. He toured with them for a season, performing comedy roles in “The Man from Mexico” and “Mr Hopkins”.

Beatrice and Bob met and first performed together in “Beauty and the Barge” in 1911. It was the start of a long and productive partnership. They married in December, 1912. It was a novelty wedding for the time – considerable press attention was given. Melbourne Punch ran full page photos of the wedding party which included Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan – who had arrived from the US only six months before. They had met while preparing for George M Cohan’s “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” which had its Australian premiere at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney, in August 1912. Niblo gave the bride away and was a witness. 

1912 wedding

Beatrice and Bob’s wedding reception at the Oriental Hotel, Melbourne. Standing L-R; Tom Cochrane, Josephine Cohan, Fred Niblo. Seated L-R; Bertha Ballenger, Beatrice, Bob, Mrs Holloway (Constance Doerwyn) Source; Punch, 26 December, 1912  Via National Library of Australia, Trove.

During Niblo and Cohan’s three years in Australia, they often worked with Beatrice and Bob, although apparently not on Niblo’s two Australian filmed versions of “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and Officer 666, made for J.C.Williamson’s in 1916. Bob stated a great admiration for American plays. “They are all about natural people…there is always a big, good-natured man in anything American,” he told Adelaide’s Critic in November 1913. 

As Elisabeth Kumm has noted, Australian theatre was already undergoing change even before the outbreak of World War One. After a brief hiatus in 1914, Australians flocked back to the theatres for escapism, and US comedies and performers filled some of the headline acts once dominated by British stars, now difficult to engage. In early 1918, Bob became Associate Director for the Tivoli theatre circuit. It seems the disruption of the War and attractive local contracts kept the couple busy in Australia for more than ten years, touring Australian towns and cities. Often under the banner of the Greig- Holloway Comedy Company the couple performed new plays like “Baby Mine” and familiar favourites including “Officer 666”.

                        Bob and Bea 1918  Officer 666 in 1924

At left – Bob and Beatrice in 1918. Melbourne Punch, August 22, 1918. via National Library of Australia, Trove.
Right – Bob Greig and Beatrice Holloway – still performing ‘Officer 666’ in Adelaide in 1924, ten years after the play’s first run in Australia. The Adelaide Register, 12 July 1924. via National Library of Australia, Trove

With many friends and connections overseas, Bob and Beatrice often spoke of travelling to the United States, where both he and Beatrice felt sure they would find work. The demand in the US for Beatrice’s “style of work” was great, he once said. In fact, it was not until 1925 that they travelled to the US, and then it was Bob who appeared onstage at Philadephia’s Garrick Theatre in “A Night Out”, not Beatrice. 

Bob’s first Hollywood role was an important straight character role as Hives the Butler,  in the 1930 Marx Brothers’ film “Animal Crackers”. Bob had played the same role in the Broadway musical production a year before. But aged in his 50s and by now, very overweight, he found himself consigned to playing similar roles in Hollywood films. An Australian newspaper report appeared in 1936, stating he was feeling typecast and had tried a trip to the UK to break the cycle. If this was so it didn’t work. In a career of more than 100 films, the movie butler became his signature role.

A few years after settling in the US, Robert Greig had a refined transatlantic accent. In this short clip from Dorothy Arzner’s “Merrily We Go to Hell”(1932),  Jerry Corbett (Frederic March) complains he can’t find a baritone. Bartender Robert Greig explains that he is one. 

By the time of the 1940 US census, he and Beatrice lived comfortably in an apartment on Franklin Avenue Los Angeles, living on a modest income from his films. Robert died in 1958, Beatrice in 1964. What became of Beatrice’s career aspirations we do not know. 

Robert Greig memorial

Robert Greig’s memorial plaque at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. A sign of the couple’s enduring affection. 

The couple did not return to Australia and soon lost touch with their Australian admirers. One hopes that the couple lived a happy life. But one can’t help feeling that the “fondest memories” Beatrice referred to on Robert’s memorial were of the years before Hollywood.

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further reading

 

Sylvia Breamer – I’m not a German!

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

Of course, Sylvia Bremer is not a forgotten Australian at all, I just wanted an excuse to include this photo from my collection!  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. Copies are available from bookshops – also Amazon and ebay.

Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. Following several years of stage work in Australia, in 1916 she travelled to the US with her first husband and there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitter, released in 1917. But as Ralph Marsden recounts, her 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 small role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Possibly her widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood had not endeared her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who otherwise might have employed her.

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.

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

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

Breamer 2This author can claim some small contribution to the unusually accurate Wikipedia article on her  – I found and added her interview with Julian Johnson for Photoplay magazine in 1918. In this interview 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. 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. 

 

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further Reading

Florrie Forde – 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.

Part of Flora Flannagan’s birth certificate. She was very clearly named Flora, not “Florence” and without middle names “May Augusta” even if these were adopted later. 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 the most likely – although her birth certificate does not give a definitive address. However, 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. However, I think this is less likely – that building is 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 about 1898, not long after her breakthrough on the stage in London. Source: The Sketch, Sept 21, 1898. At right – A postcard taken sometime later in, life, probably in the 1920s. 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 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.

Explanatory signage for Orlando Fenwick and Samuel Amess, on streetsigns in nearby North Carlton. I’m certain they were honourable men, but where’s the similar sign for Florrie Forde!? Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy, December 2018

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 (or occasionally Normah) Whalley first appeared on the stage in New York in a minor role in the play In Town, in September 1897, a member of the Gaiety Theatre Company, brought over from the UK 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.

 


Right: Marie Studholme c 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection
Left: George Edwardes c1900. Source; James Jupp (1923) “The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre”. Via the Internet Archive.

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!

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.

The School Girl 1903
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.

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.

        
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

 

Notes:
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.

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.

Further Reading

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 

Other Media

Texts, including those via Internet Archive

  • 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
  • Lewis Clinton Strang (1907) Famous stars of light opera. L.C. Page & company, Boston. Digitized copy – Google. From the collections of University of California
  • 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

 

Willie Thomas’ great adventure with Pollard’s Lilliputians

More than a century later – this is the remains of Willie Thomas’ make-up box, including false moustaches. Photo courtesy of his grandson Robert Maynard.

“Willie” Thomas was a child performer in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, as it toured cities in South East Asia and North America, several times, between 1901 and 1906. He is shown below with his older sister Emma Thomas, while the company was in Vancouver.

willie and may
Willie was perhaps 15 in this photo, while his sister Emma was 18. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website.

William Thomas was born in Collingwood in January 1889 to Ironmonger William Albert Thomas and his wife Emma, nee Stone. There were four older children – two brothers and two sisters in the family. Two other sisters died in infancy.

Much of the history of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company is lost to us today and confusingly, there was more than one troupe of performers using this or a similar name in the early twentieth century.  But we know that this particular troupe ran several extended and highly acclaimed tours to the Philipines, Japan, China and North America between 1901 and 1909 – each lasting a year or more, punctuated by a short break of a few months at home in Melbourne. The performers were talented young Australians, most from suburbs of inner Melbourne. Managed by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, this troupe is also of interest historically, because a number of its performers went on to stay on in the US and work in Hollywood – including Alf Goulding, Harry Fraser or “Snub Pollard“, Daphne Pollard and Teddie McNamara. And the talented Willie Thomas from Collingwood worked amongst them.

Pollards call for kids

Pollard’s advertises for new child performers. The Age, 13 Feb, 1907. Ford’s Hall, at 150 Brunswick Street where these auditions were held, was very close to the former home of Daphne Trott (Pollard) in King William Street. Perhaps Willie had seen an advertisement like this when he joined up.

Willie Thomas (with Emma serving the company in a supporting role) went on three separate trips with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company.  Historian Gillian Arrighi points out that several Australian companies employed child actors for prolonged offshore tours at this time. This practice enabled the producers to avoid contravening child labour and education laws in newly federated Australia. And apparently it was lucrative – for families and the organisers. Child performers made pocket-money selling postcards of themselves, parents back in Australia were paid via a trust fund.

Pollards

Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in costume, taken in the US about 1905. It appears to show Willie Thomas, second from right at the front, next to Daphne Pollard. Copy of postcard courtesy Robert Maynard

The Thomas’ names are found amongst other Pollard performers on the shipping manifests of the time. More interesting are the accounts that appeared in US and Australian papers as they travelled, that documented some of their experiences. Willie was amongst the Company’s leading performers.

Sioux_City_Journal_Wed__May_28__1902_     San Francisco Chronicle 6 Sept 1903 cropped

Left: On his first tour of North America, Willie Thomas and three other performers had a near miss with a gas leak, according to The Sioux City Journal (Utah), May 28 1902. Via Newspapers.com
Right: A second tour, another performance. The San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 1903, announces a new Pollard season and some of the stars – including Willie. Both these articles confirm the constant rotation of shows while on tour. Via Newspapers.com

willie Thomas4

Robert Maynard still holds the postcards, makeup box and other ephemera that belonged to his grandfather. There are also over 50 postcards that Willie collected including several from Shanghai, Japan, Suva, Canada and the United States. These are unmarked, so he apparently never posted them home, rather – keeping them as mementos of his travels. The remains of his makeup box includes fake moustaches and numerous sticks of grease paint etc.

Willie’s final North American tour with Pollard’s seems to have ended in early 1907, when he was 17 years old. Perhaps it was his age, but the reasons for leaving are not clear today, particularly as he ceased performing altogether. Maybe the marathon Pollard tour of 1905-1907 convinced him performing on stage was not what he wanted to do.

This writer has written elsewhere of the controversy accompanying Pollard’s travels to the Far East and North America.  The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the “Gerry Society” kept Pollard’s away from the east coast of the US. The society’s opposition to children performing on stage was well-known. The Chicago Tribune of 19 May 1902 touched on this issue in a long article about the company during their only visit to that city; “Although the idea of keeping children on the stage is repugnant to Americans, and although it is forbidden by law in some states, the Pollards claim that their children… suffer no evil effects from the experience.” 

Whatever his reason for leaving the stage, a few years on and now calling himself “William,” he had became a butcher. He was also a competent Australian Rules Football player, playing for teams in Boulder Western Australia (where he spent a few years between 1910 and 1913) and Sunshine, Victoria.

Above left: William in the Boulder City (Western Australia) Football Club in 1911, seated front left,
Above right: William seated at right with Sunshine Braybrook Football Club in 1914. Photos courtesy Robert Maynard.

Following the outbreak of war and during the surge of enlistments following the Gallipoli landings, William and his two older brothers Albert and Jack (John) joined the Australian Imperial Forces. With other soldiers of the 3rd Division AIF, they sailed on the Medic, arriving at England in July 1916. William went on to serve in France with the 29th and 30th Batteries, 8th Field Artillery Brigade. In the photo enlargement below, William is seated on the left, Albert is on the right – unusually the two brothers served together. In February-March 1918 William’s military record shows he was granted leave in England. There he saw Albert De Courville‘s latest review, Box o’ Tricks, at the London Hippodrome, featuring a very old friend, Daphne Pollard in the line-up, whom he met after the show. The conversation must have been a joyful one about show-biz;  it defies belief that William, having been under fire and in action for the last 14 months, would wish to talk about the appalling reality of trench warfare.

Photos courtesy of Robert Maynard

Miraculously, all three Thomas brothers survived the war and returned to Australia in 1919. In the early 1920s William set up a butcher’s shop in Sunshine, a western suburb of Melbourne, in partnership with brother Albert. In 1924 he married Lizzie O’Brien and brought up a large family, at first in the house next to the shop, and later in nearby Adelaide Street. Lizzie, the “life of the party” and a favourite with all the children in the family, called him “Butcher.” Like many returned soldiers, William liked a drink, and earned a reputation for regularly being thrown out of the Sunshine pub. One can’t help wondering if the Sunshine pub became the place he liked to practise the keen sense of humour he had developed on stage with Pollard’s, years before.

Thomas Butchers Sunshine c 1927

William Thomas’s Butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine. William Thomas is proudly holding his daughter Emma, with brother Albert (second from left) and nephew William (at right) and another butcher. Before widespread refrigeration, the horse and gig was a quick and convenient way to sell and deliver meat. Photo Courtesy Robert Maynard.

Unfortunately, the Depression hit William’s family hard. Such businesses were used to extending credit and dependent on a regular cash flow. A kind man (in 1924 he had paid for his nephew to travel to a scout jamboree in England) William’s generosity eventually got the better of his business in the hard times of the 1930s, and it closed down.

By 1941, the family had relocated to Boulder, Western Australia, where William, determined to make a fresh start, became a butcher again. He died there, aged 80, in 1969. Sister Emma had died in Sunshine in 1963.

A few years after Willie Thomas’ final tour, the era of the travelling troupes of Australian children came to an end. In 1910, another Pollard family member, Arthur Hayden Pollard, who had been on some of the North American trips as a mechanist, raised a mostly new troupe to perform in South East Asia and India. It was a disaster and amid the claims of impropriety, cruelty and underpayment, the troupe broke up, with the children forced to find local support to make their own way home. William had no association with the company anymore, but he knew Irene Findlay, one of the performers, well enough to write her postcards. New legislation in 1910 banned Australian children travelling overseas to perform.

William kept his Pollard’s make-up box all his life, which says something about how fondly he viewed this exciting stage of his childhood. If he regretted his five years of travel and performing, and then leaving the stage behind forever, he never said.

Nick Murphy, Updated January 2019

Special Thanks

To Robert Maynard, William Thomas’ grandson, for so generously sharing his family history – much more than I could fit in this article.

Note:

The Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company Tours of South East Asia and North America under the leadership of Charles Pollard appear to be:

1. Departing Australia via SS Sierra 3 September 1901
Returning to Australia via SS Aorangi 17 October 1902

2. Departing Australia SS Chansha 18 January 1903
Returning to Australia SS Miowera 2 April 1904

3. Departing on a Queensland tour July – Sept 1904, then to “the far east” late September 1904, then SS Empress of India arriving Vancouver BC, March 1 1905
Apparently returning home on the SS Moana in February 1907, an extraordinary tour of over two years.

4. Under the leadership of Arthur Pollard, another trip departed sometime in late 1907, arriving US on the SS Nippon Maru from Yokohama, Japan on Mar 3, 1908.
Arrived home in Australia on RMS Makura on April 17, 1909

Further Reading


Websites

“STAGELAND.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 27 September 1902: 2 (EVENING NEWS SUPPLEMENT).

Evening Entertainments.” The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947) 26 July 1904: 7.

SEND-OFF TO SCOUT THOMAS (1924, May 24). Sunshine Advocate (Vic. : 1924 – 1954), p. 4.

“POLLARD’S LILLIPUTIAN OPERA COMPANY.” Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918) 2 April 1910: 23.

“THE POLLARD TROUPE.” Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918) 21 May 1910: 24. Web. 15 Oct 2018

“POLLARD OPERA COMPANY.” The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) 22 April 1910: 8. Web. 15 Oct 2018

Mary Macgregor’s brief adventure in Hollywood

An enlargement of a publicity still. Myrna Loy (left) and Mary Macgregor of Queensland (as the maid Ellen), in “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936). Author’s Collection. Source – probably MGM.

Mary Macgregor (often confused with Mary Maguire) was born Francis Mary Macgregor on 16 August 1904, into a Queensland family with considerable social standing; her father Peter Balderston Macgregor was a highly regarded King’s Counsel and later a Judge. At a young age she earned a reputation for her prose –  and she won a prize for a patriotic poem in 1916. The first stanza reads:

Oh, soldiers of Australia, Who went to give your all
Right gallantly you did obey, the Mother Country’s call !
When Britain’s bugle-call rang out across Australia’s plains.
You left our peaceful wattle land to fight where cruel war reigns.

 

Brought up in a family that encouraged the arts, she first performed on stage at University, where she was studying literature, and then won a breakthrough role as Jill in Oscar Asche‘s Melbourne production of “The Skin Game”by John Galsworthy, in 1924.

The Skin Game

Prince and the Pauper 1930

Left: The Melbourne Argus, 26 April 1924 advertises Mary in “The Skin Game” via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: The Telegraph (Brisbane), 22 April 1930 praises her on her performance in “The Prince and the Pauper”, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

She spent the next ten years on stage in Australia and New Zealand – earning consistently positive reviews and becoming so popular she was never out of work. Amongst her notable stage work were roles for the Leon Gordon company. This company travelled Australia performing several of his plays, including “White Cargo”, where Mary took the role of the sultry mixed race character, Tondelayo.

Of playing Tondeleyo, she remarked; “The part is, to say the least, unconventional, and different from anything I have ever played … the idea of browning myself all over and wearing the scanty attire of the coloured vamp, was hard to get accustomed to. Moreover, my mother, when I mentioned the matter to her, was most disapproving …” In the minds of many Australians, acting was still a questionable profession, and for some, only a few steps removed from prostitution.

The Age Feb 1930Tondelayo

Left; The Age, Melbourne, announces the first run of “White Cargo” in Australia. 1 Feb, 1930, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Right; Mary Macgregor on stage at a Melbourne theatre as Tondelayo. Table Talk, 13 Feb, 1930. National Library of Australia, via Trove

Macgregor departed for England on the SS Mongolia in February 1933,  and soon after found work on stage in a season of “Cynara”and a part in John Gielgud‘s tour of “Hamlet.” Now approaching thirty, she was an experienced actress – witty, good-looking, good-humoured and extremely confident.

She went on to California in June, 1935 where she joined John Wood, another Australian stage actor she knew well from Australian performances together in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and with whom she had already spent time in England. Wood had just starred as Flavius in the RKO film “The Last Days of Pompeii.” Mary’s account of her voyage to the US, the only passenger on board the Norwegian freighter Heranger, as it endured a heavy crossing of the Atlantic, became a story she often recounted. In February 1936, her engagement to Wood was publicly announced.

Macgregor then appeared in a small role in the film “Wife Vs Secretary” – a romantic john woodcomedy starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Australian-born May Robson. Macgregor’s part was as the maid, Ellen. She then returned in some haste to Brisbane to see her ailing father. But Wood returned to London, where he was to act in a number of films, including two with Mary Maguire. Macgregor was coy when questioned about the engagement, and it was soon dropped as a topic for newspaper publicity pieces. They did not marry.

Above: John Wood about the time he was in Hollywood. The photo appears to have been used by Herbert de Leon, a London agent, soon after Wood’s return to London.  He was extremely handsome and was supposedly made offers of marriage by love-stuck viewers of “The Last Days of Pompeii”. Author’s collection.

Sounding every bit the English maid, Brisbane born Mary Macgregor as Ellen, in MGM’s “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936), her only Hollywood outing. The MGM film is widely available for purchase and held by Turner Classic Movies.

At home in Brisbane, Macgregor was treated as film-making royalty and the story of her six months in Hollywood was endlessly spun out in newspapers. In April, the Brisbane Sunday Mail reassured readers about her time in Hollywood – The Brisbane actress met many celebrities there. Macgregor was much more blasé – “Once you know two or three people in Hollywood’s film world, it is no time before you have met nearly all the others.” When the film was released in Australia in July, she was employed to appear at some screenings to introduce the film and discuss “Hollywood and noted stars.”

The Brisbane Courier Mail’s review of the film was typically effusive and very much in a Wife v secretarycelebratory style;  “In the strong glare of the stars in…Wife versus Secretary, which started a season at Cremorne Theatre yesterday, patrons might fail to recognise the talented actress who plays the role of a maid. She is Mary Macgregor, of Brisbane, who has achieved no small name as a stage actress, and whose feet are now planted on the ladder of success at the top of which glitters screen stardom.”

Above: “Wife vs Secretary” opens at the Cremorne Theatre. Mary’s role was uncredited. The Courier Mail, 23 July 1936. National Library of Australia, Trove

When Macgregor joined radio station 2GB’s BSA Players (Broadcasting Service Association Players, later the Macquarie Players) in 1937, The Australian Women’s Weekly explained that she had decided to stay in Australia – Hollywood would have to wait for this star. And in the same vein, on John Wood’s return in late 1939, he also returned to radio and the stage with great fanfare. When the play, “The Quiet Wedding” opened at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney, he was heralded in the press as “Australia’s great film and stage star, John Wood, fresh from triumphs overseas.” A few more stage roles followed, including a season of Dorothy Sayers’ “Busman’s Honeymoon” which included a rather joyful re-teaming with John Wood. But in November 1940, Wood joined the Australian Army,  being captured 14 months later at the end of the Malayan Campaign. The story of his efforts with the Australian Concert party in Changi are well documented.

By 1942 Mary had turned to war work, and she appeared less and less on radio. In February 1944 she married John Chirnside, one of the sons of John Percy Chirnside , and the couple moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Her acting career came to an end. Mary died barely ten years later in February 1954, aged only 50. Chirnside died the following year, leaving a significant estate. The couple did not have children.

Following repatriation, John Wood left Australia in 1948, joining the great exodus of Australian actors moving to England at the time. He performed on the West End for a few years, but then retired to Spain with his wife, actress Phil Buchanan. He also died young – in 1965.

Unfortunately, the group of performers who knew Mary well have also passed on – Lloyd Lamble, Peter Finch, Alan Cuthbertson, Lou Vernon – only Lamble left an as yet unpublished memoir. It’s a great pity Mary did not leave her own memoirs for us – we know that she was a great raconteur and her memoirs of the Australian stage would have been entertaining.

MMacgregor

From Table Talk 30 Jan, 1930 Via National Library of Australia – Trove

Nick Murphy
September 2018

Further Reading

  • All Australian newspapers Via National Library of Australia – Trove – Digitised Newspaper Collection
  • Daily Mirror, Dec 12, 1961 Via British Library Newspaper project