Lotus Thompson (1904-1963) & her troublesome legs

Above: Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of a photo in author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born Lotus May Thompson in Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia on 26 August 1904, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA, 24 May 1963. She was on stage in Australia from 1915, then appeared in five Australian films 1921-24. She moved to California in 1924 where she found some minor roles. She is mostly remembered today for a stunt in 1925, when she claimed to have splashed acid on her legs. She was then active in US films for four or five years, but after an unhappy marriage and with the coming of sound films she found only uncredited roles. This writer suggests her voice was regarded as unsuitable.

Lotus Thompson is remembered today largely because of a well-publicised incident in February 1925, when she supposedly poured nitric acid on her herself, frustrated with Hollywood producers only offering her parts where she showed off her attractive legs. ”I’ll go mad if they don’t stop it!” she had wailed to her mother. “I know I can play parts, but they won’t give me a chance. It’s legs-always legs! I hate them!” US Newspapers widely reported the event. Film Weekly produced a sensational half-page sketch showing the scantily clad but distressed actress dribbling the acid on her legs. The journal suggested theatre owners might use the event to promote her latest film, The Yellow Back. At the same time, a more sober account in The Los Angeles Times included a photograph of Lotus posed on a bed, “burnt legs” bandaged up, looking miserable. A month later the story was still running, as on March 8, The Detroit Free Press listed the four things that drove Lotus Thompson to “disfigure herself for life” – which included “displaying her bare limbs in an endless series of frivolous bathing pictures” some of which the paper helpfully reprinted. It’s such a preposterous story it is hard to believe it still has currency today.

Lotus's legs SF Examiner March 8 1925

Lotus, posed with heavily retouched “bandaged legs”, a month after the alleged event –  from The San Francisco Examiner. “Deliberately spoiled her too beautiful legs” the paper reported on March 8, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

Lotus May Thompson, was born in Charters Towers, Queensland on 26th August 1904. She first performed on the Sydney stage in juvenile theatre in 1915, and thereafter appeared in concerts, fancy dress balls and carnivals.

Lotus as a child

Above: Lotus Thompson at the age of about 12 or 13, about the time she first appeared on stage. Photograph courtesy of Melissa Anderson

By 1921 she had featured in her first Australian film for Franklyn Barrett, Know Thy Child,  the film and her performance gaining some good reviews. The Daily News of Western Australia suggested Lotus played her part with “admirable fidelity.”

Vera James and Lotus Thompson

Vera James (as the sickly “fallen woman” Sadie) and Lotus Thompson (as Eileen, her vibrant daughter with a rosy future) in “Know Thy Child” – Via Wikipedia commons. Find a beautiful photo of Vera James during her brief stint at Universal Studios here at the NFSA website.

She appeared in four more films in 1922-3;  The Dinkum Bloke for Lottie Lyell & Raymond Longford and several Hayseed family comedies for Beaumont Smith. Sadly, none of these are known to survive today.


lotus3 Lotus 1923s

By 1923 Lotus was well established as an up and coming Australian movie actress. There was endless positive publicity which largely focused on her physical appearance – as can be seen in these examples.
Via National Library of Australia’s Trove; The Sunday Times, 28 January 1923, and The Sun Monday 24 April 1923

Determined to pursue a career in film, on 5th March 1924 she sailed for California on the Matson liner Ventura, with her mother Sarah. A newsreel camera was on hand to capture the scene. (click here to follow link)

lotusabouttodepart

This newsreel footage of Thompson surrounded by well-wishers on the eve of departure for the US is unusual – and a testimony to her popularity in 1924.Source of screen grab Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.

She settled in Hollywood and a few bit parts followed, but she obviously found the going tough. The “acid” incident occurred on 1st February 1925 – she had been in Hollywood for ten months. Many fan magazines and newspapers in the US and Australia dredged the story out for the next few years, although not all papers accepted the story as fact. Everyones magazine seems to have identified it as nonsense in a May 1925 report.   Motion Picture Magazine also suspected it was probably a hoax, and announced (tongue in cheek) that as the “acid” had caused no lasting disfigurement to her legs she would have to use scissors to cut them off next time.

Smith Weekly Aug 19,1933

Above: Smiths Weekly, August 19, 1933, via National Library of Australia Trove

Eight years later, on a return to Australia, she told the truth. It was entirely a publicity stunt, she confirmed. She told Smith’s Weekly, the whole thing had been arranged by five men – ‘”publicity go-getters.’ She was told that the subtle hint that the directors couldn’t keep their eyes off her legs would provide a spicy and sensational story, and she would be overwhelmed with big film offers… The promise of fame lured her into agreeing to it… ” She added I was not much more than a kid at the time, or I would never have entertained the proposition.'”

Lotus and Olive1

Above: US actress Olive Borden (left) and Australian actress Lotus Thompson (right). The source of this postcard, very widely available on the net, is unknown, as is the exact date it was taken. It is reputed to have been the mid twenties, when Borden was at the height of her Hollywood popularity and Thompson was just beginning to make her way. Author’s Collection.

All the same, the event achieved the publicity she wanted and kick-started her career. And by October 1926 she was under contract to Paramount Studios – she was posed prominently in a photo lineup of major Paramount stars in late 1926. (See Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the Silent Movies, page 294 here). Over the next five years a string of movies followed, some of them Westerns, a few of them directed by Australian-born director J. P. McGowan.

Unfortunately it is often difficult to review the work of silent era actors – so many of their films have been lost. Even the ten episodes of Universal’s 1930 serial Terry of the ‘Times’ – which saw Lotus with a starring role, has disappeared. However, we know Lotus Thompson was noted for her work as a comedienne and her Westerns were well received in Australia. In the late 1920s there was speculation that she could soon become a leading star.

Paramount serials 1930

Above: Terry of the Times advertised as a talking serial. It wasn’t really – but it did include music and sound effects. Motion Picture News, April-July 1929 Via the Internet Archive.
               The Picture Show 1928    Motion Picture Mag 1927
Left: Lotus as Bessie Lang with Ranger the dog, in Flashing Fangs (1926). The Picture Show Annual 1928 , via the Internet Archive. Right – Lotus at right, as a Floradora Girl, in  Casey at the Bat (1927). Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927, via the Internet Archive.

January 1929 saw another change in Lotus’ life when she married Edward Wilder Churchill in Manhattan. The 1930 US census showed the young couple settling down to live with E Wilder Churchill Senior and his wife Alice on the family estate in California’s Napa Valley. This year was also her busiest for acting, and then in 1930, she appeared in her last credited roll, as Eve in Cecil B. DeMille‘s saucy pre-code musical fantasy, Madam Satan.

Lotus in Madam Satan
Above: A screen grab of Lotus in the kissing competition scene of Cecil B DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930). The film is available through the Warner Archive Collection. Author’s Collection.

For the next three years she did not appear in any films. Then without much warning, in August 1933, she was suddenly home in Australia again, supposedly forced to leave the US because she had overstayed her 6 months visa by some 9 years!

lotussanfrancisoexaminer29april1936It was during this visit home that she owned up to the acid on the legs stunt. Yet she was not being entirely honest when she spoke of being thrown out of the US as an illegal immigrant, because it seems the return home to see her mother was more to do with the state of her marriage than her visa. She went back to the US in March 1934, but she followed this trip almost immediately with another to the UK, apparently to see if she could drum up any work. She returned to acting in the US, but the roles she was given were now un-credited – she had well and truly lost her currency in the new sound-era Hollywood. Her marriage to Churchill formally came to an end in 1936, and she remarried on April 18 1937, to Stanley Robinson at Tijuana, Mexico. Finally in 1939, she applied to become a naturalised US citizen. According to the Internet Movie Database, the last of her film roles was in 1949, although there is evidence she appeared in some films that are not recorded.

Lotus in The San Francisco Examiner, 29 April 1936. Via Newspapers.com

There is another story here of course – and it’s not to do with burned legs. Even if the event was a stunt, was Lotus a victim of a publicity machine that chewed up young women like her? Or was she creatively playing the system and trying to take some initiative to manage her own destiny? Self publicity was then, as it is today, an important activity for aspiring stars.

lotus2

The San Francisco Examiner ran this article with the photo shown above. It was very easy to be stereotyped.  29 April, 1936. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the last years of her life, except that she lived comfortably on Laurel Canyon Drive and later in Burbank. She had no children from either marriage. She died in California in 1963, aged only 59.  Both her parents had succumbed to pneumonia in late 1934, at Cootamundra, New South Wales. Her brother Eric and father Archie both worked at the Cullinga Mine near Cootamundra, New South Wales.

Lotus as Queen

Lotus’s advice on beauty appeared in The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924. “Get plenty of out of door exercise” she said. Via Newspapers.com

A voice not suited to sound?

With the advent of sound film, many famous screen actors of the 1920s found themselves “washed up”, although others who had some experience with dialogue from stagework seemed to have breezed through. This writer spent six months sourcing Lotus Thompson’s few pieces of dialogue in obscure films of the early 1930s. It is only speculation by this author of course, but one wonders whether Lotus’ voice was simply not regarded as suitable for sound.

Lotus’ one line in I Found Stella Parish, a Warner Brothers film of 1935. She plays the unnamed secretary to Mr Reeves. “What shall I answer?” she asks. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.
Lotus’ one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse, a Warner Brothers picture of 1936. These few words – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.

Note 1
Errors around her details of birth abound. Her DOB is regularly and incorrectly stated across the web to be 1906 or that she was born in Sydney. Queensland birth records are quite clear however.

Note 2
There is a tendency for modern accounts to take the newspaper reports of the acid incident literally. The current manifestation of the Wikipedia article deals with the event at very great length.

 

Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020

 

Special Thanks

Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’ Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback – and for unequivocal family feedback that the leg story was indeed, a stunt.

 


Further Reading

  • Daniel Blum (1982) Pictorial History of the Silent Movies. Perigee Books
  • Liz Conor (2004) The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Indiana University Press
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland
  • Buck Rainey (1992) Sweethearts of the sage: biographies and filmographies of 258 actresses appearing in western movies. McFarland
  • John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Australian Narrative Cinema 1919-1929. Currency Press.
  • Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sunday Times (Sydney) 28 Jan 1923 “Three Girls with Claims to Perfect Figures”
  • The Sun (Sydney) 23 Apr 1923  “Eyes that mock the violet”
  • Everyones Magazine Vol.4 No.271, 13 May 1925 “Lotus and her legs”
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney) 19 Aug 1933 “Inside story of a stunt that hoaxed world!”

Newspapers.com

  • The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924.
  • The San Francisco Examiner 8 March, 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner 29 April, 1936

Lantern Digital Media Archive – Internet Archive

  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1925.
  • The Picture Show Annual 1928
  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927
  • Motion Picture News  April-July 1929

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

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on the front page of Table Talk, 14 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. Unfortunately, Mortimer died suddenly in August 1928, when Shirley Ann was only 9 years old.

Shirley Ann completed her Leaving Certificate at the Garden School, run by the Theosophical Education Trust in Mosman. 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.


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 in Australia with the US embassy. 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 Japanese POW 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 retitled 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

 


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). Other than repeats of Shirley Ann’s films, the author cannot find any evidence to support this claim.

 


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

  • 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: 16 year old Leah Leichner and others on the marathon 1904-7 Pollard tour. This photo is enlarged from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) with their permission. The author believes Leah Leichner is the girl in the centre of the photo.

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 Haydon 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.


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 (unfortunately with his eyes closed), Nellie Chester (formerly Pollard) who ran troupes to North America until 1909 and Arthur Haydon Pollard who ran the 1909 troupe to India. 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 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 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 organisation 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.

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 Pollard’s performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that 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.”

At least some 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, Teddie McNamara and Alf 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” 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, indicating it was probably taken in late 1904, 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 the Pollard tour of 1905-7). 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 (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 unsuited to working with children. Although legally guardian of the children, he had also started an intimate relationship with 17 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!  “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 20 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 prohibited any child being taken out of Australia to perform “theatrical, operatic or other work.” The days of Pollard’s extended overseas tours for child actors was over, although Nellie Chester gave a variation on the scheme one more try in 1912.

It took the Australian Parliament less than 10 months to design and enact the law. (See Note 3)

Leah Leichner had 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.

Irene Findlay   Belle Leichner c 1920

Above left: Irene Finlay , The Leader, 21 May 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.  Right:”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

Irene Finlay and Arthur Hayden Pollard finally married in New Zealand on 27 February 1925. They lived comfortably in the suburb of Ponsonby, overlooking Auckland Harbour, until Arthur’s death in 1940.

Nick Murphy
March 2020


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 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 15 years, Pattie 16 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 Findley, 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.

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. Their collection of photos of the Pollard’s troupe is invaluable.

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

Further Reading

  • 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

Enid Bennett (1893-1969) – The Australian who kept her accent

Above: Enid Bennett in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). She was at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Sadly it is a lost film. Via Wikipedia Commons. See below for full length photo.

The 5 second version

Born Enid Eulalie Bennett, York, Western Australia, Australia, 15 July 1893,
Died Malibu, California, USA 14 May, 1969. Busy on stage in Australia 1910-1915. Also appeared in Fred Niblo’s two Australian films before working in the US. Most active in Hollywood between 1917-1927, during which time she gained great attention. Some later minor roles in sound films and worked until her death for the Christian Science Church. Married to Fred Niblo 1918-48.

Enid Bennett, a young Australian who arrived in the US with Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan in June 1915, hardly qualifies as “a forgotten Australian actor.” She received widespread publicity in the early 1920s and was, at the time, one of Hollywood’s premier stars. Many of her films still exist and she has been the subject of numerous biographies since her death in 1969. However, there are several special reasons for including her on this website.

Although most famous as a silent star, what interests this writer is her accent, as evidenced by her voice in the talkies she appeared in between 1931 and 1941. It is not the broad and theatrical accent often heard when an “Australian voice” is used in Hollywood films, but the authentic accent of many middle class Australians living on the coastal fringe.

Why accents evolve and vary as they do is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to note that Bennett’s accent is a feature of her ethnicity, social standing and education. Desley Deacon has also established that middle class girls like Bennett often attended schools of acting and elocution as a first step on the path to acting on stage and screen. Yet her accent is clearly still one of middle Australia.

It is also notable that Enid Bennett plays essentially the same role in all these films – usually an earnest and thoroughly decent mother figure. Here are some examples:


The Big Store (1941)

In this well known Marx Brothers comedy,  Bennett plays an unnamed store clerk in the millinery department. Nasty Miss Peggy Arden (played by Marion Martin) makes life very hard for her. (Harpo Marx then plays a clever trick on Miss Peggy – which is the point of the scene.)

The Big Store 1941
Above: Screen grab of 48 year old Enid Bennett in her final film role – the Marx Brothers film The Big Store, of 1941. The film is widely available on DVD. Author’s collection.

Strike Up the Band (1940)

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland star in this cheerful Busby Berkeley musical. In this scene Bennett is welcoming Jimmy, although he soon learns he is not allowed to play at her daughter Barbara’s birthday.

strike up the band

Above: This is Rooney as Jimmy Connors, with Enid Bennett playing Mrs Morgan and June Preisser as her daughter Barbara Morgan. Strike Up The Band, 1940. Author’s collection.

Meet Dr Christian (1939)

This is the first of six Dr Christian films made between 1939 and 1941, starring (and partly written by) Danish actor Jean Hersholt, as the sensible small town Doctor. Enid Bennett plays the Mayor’s wife, but her role is not reprised in the later films. In this scene she is talking to her husband.

Enid Bennett in Meet Dr Christian

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett as Mrs Hewitt in Meet Dr Christian. This film is widely available, and apparently now  in the public domain. Author’s Collection.

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Waterloo Bridge was based on the play of the same name by Robert Sherwood. In this scene Mrs Wetherby (Enid Bennett) welcomes her son Roy’s new girlfriend Myra (Mae Clarke) and insists she stays, not yet knowing she is really a prostitute. When Myra admits this later to Mrs Wetherby, she is unbelievably nice about it, although naturally she doesn’t think marriage is a good idea.

waterloo bridge 1931

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett from Waterloo Bridge (1931). The film is still available from TCM. Author’s Collection.

Skippy (1931)

Director Norman Taurig won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film. Jackie Cooper‘s character might be regarded as tiresome today, but in 1931 the film was immensely popular. Enid Bennett plays Skippy’s mother and Dr Herbert Skinner’s wife. A sequel was made with many of the actors reprising their roles, including Bennett.

This is a sound clip from the beginning of the film, where the Skinners are having breakfast while Skippy is still lying in bed upstairs pretending to get dressed.

Skippy 1931, Breakfast scene
Above: Screen grab of Willard Robertson and Enid Bennett as Skippy’s parents, in the breakfast scene that begins the film. Skippy is available from TCM. Author’s Collection

Did she retire? Well, not exactly. By 1930, Enid Bennett was an active Christian Scientist, in company with many Hollywood actors – including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell.

She remained so to the end of her life, and there is plenty of evidence she devoted much of her time and expertise in front of the camera and microphone in the cause of the church, particularly after the death of her first husband Fred Niblo, in 1948. She regularly appeared on radio and TV, sometimes credited as Enid Bennett Niblo, hosting short Christian Science programs on healing, including Light of Faith and How Christian Science heals. She died in May 1969.

Melbourne Age Aug 18 1956
Above: The Melbourne Age, 18 August 1956, reporting on Enid’s work as a Christian Scientist but already seriously muddled up about her connection to Australia. (If she ever lived in St Kilda, Melbourne it wasn’t for very long.) Via newspapers.com

In case you don’t know who she was !

Below: Enid Bennett photographed by May and Mina Moore, C 1910, about the time she began to develop a reputation in Australia.  State Library of Victoria, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

enid bennet about 1910She was born Enid Eulalie Bennett to Francis Bennett and Nellie nee Walker at York, Western Australia in 1893. She had an older brother  – Francis Reginald (born 1891) and a younger sister Marjorie Esme (born 1896). Having attempted to open his own school in the inland town of York, about 100 kms east of Perth , Western Australia, her father Francis Bennett became the founding Principal of Guildford Grammar School in 1896. It wasn’t for very long unfortunately. He apparently took his own life in 1898 while suffering the increasingly debilitating effects of locomotor ataxia. Nellie, who seems to have been the school matron, then married the school’s new Principal Alexander D Gillespie in 1898. Two children were born of this union – Catherine Fanny (born 1901) and Alexander David (born 1903). But Gillespie also died only a few years later.

Enid Bennett’s career can be traced through early performances first in Western Australia and then under the tutelage of Julius Knight. In 1910 visiting US performer Katherine Gray had also encouraged her to pursue a career on stage. In the eastern states she performed in Everywoman with British actress Hilda Spong and another up and coming Australian, Dorothy Cumming, in 1911. However, her major breakthrough was to find work with Fred Niblo and his wife Josephine Cohan, on their extended tour of Australia. About the same time Nellie moved the family back to Sydney, where she had been born, eventually settling down in Rose Bay. 

Below: Enid Bennett as featured in a US comedy she performed with Niblo, Excuse Me.  From “The Lone Hand”, 1 August 1913, via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lone Hand 1913Niblo was effusive about the Australian performers in his company, and young Enid Bennett in particular. In early 1915 he told Perth’s Sunday Times; Miss Enid Bennett is a splendid actress, and the Perth people will watch her career with interest and pride,” noting how well she had filled in for Josephine Cohan when she was (often) indisposed. The Niblo-Cohan troupe traveled Australia for three years, despite Josephine’s declining health. In June 1915 Niblo, Cohan and 22 year old Enid packed up and headed for the US on the Matson liner Ventura. Before they departed, Niblo quickly made two filmed versions of popular plays for J.C.Williamson’s – Get Rich Quick Wallingford and Officer 666.  According to film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, the surviving reels of Officer 666 “reveal a crude production doggedly faithful to the stage.” These were Niblo’s first efforts as a director – he was to significantly refine his skills in Hollywood. Watch a clip from Officer 666 here

Soon after arriving in the US, Enid Bennett appeared in a supporting role in Henry Arthur Jones‘ comedy Cock O’ The Walk, a vehicle for popular comedian Otis Skinner being performed in east coast US cities, including New York. At about the same time she also appeared in her first film, A Princess of the Dark for Thomas H. Ince and Triangle Studios.

A princess of the dark

Above: Thomas Ince marketing his latest star in March 1916. “El Paso Times”, 2 March 1916. Some commentaries incorrectly date this to a release in 1917. Via Newspapers.com

Enid Bennett first play in US

Above: Enid Bennett in her first US play, Cock O’ the Walk, with Janet Dunbar and Rita Otway, in early 1916. Author’s Collection

Enid’s sister Marjorie was to claim that the family pressured her to join Enid in the US, to keep her company.  But the early years in Hollywood appear to have a degree of excitment about them even if the transition to work in the US was tough. Sylvia Bremer‘s biographer Ralph Marsden reproduces one photo showing a happy Bremer, Enid and Marjorie Bennett swimming at California’s Arrowhead Springs, in 1917. According to Theatre historian Desley Deacon, the success of these young Australian women inspired others, including Judith Anderson.

In Australia in late 1917 Nellie, Catherine and Alexander received some catastrophic news. The family’s oldest son, Frank Reginald, had been killed in fighting at Passchendaele, Belgium on 9 October 1917, not long after being promoted to Lieutenant. Nellie’s few letters held in Frank’s Australian military file reflect the deep grief the family must have felt. Soon after, Nellie and Enid’s two step-siblings packed up and departed for the US on the SS Ventura.

Enid and Fred Niblo married in late February 1918 – his first wife Josephine Cohan had died in July 1916. The impending wedding was almost certainly the main reason for the Bennett family’s arrival in the US a few months before. But there the family stayed, all building careers for themselves in the US. For a few years in the early 1920s, Catherine enjoyed a career in comedy films, often with Monty Banks. Alexander Bennett is reported to have become an accountant. Marjorie, the reluctant actress, would eventually build a remarkable career in Hollywood character roles from the late 1940s, after a long career on stage, including two years performing back in Australia (1921-23).

Fred Niblo’s first US directing experience was The Marriage Ring, with Enid in a leading role, in 1918. He had learned a lot since the days of his Australian film experience; he went on to direct until the early 1930s and the first years of sound film. Kevin Brownlow has documented Niblo’s work on one of his most famous films – Ben Hur, a Tale of the Christ made in 1925. Like Enid, he also took on small acting roles in sound films later in life. He died in 1948.

Enid Bennett was busy – her most prolific period was the ten years between 1917-1927. There were some stand-out roles in films that still survive. These included Robin Hood in 1922 with Douglas Fairbanks, The Sea Hawk with fellow Australian Mark McDermott, and The Red Lily with Ramon Novarro, both in 1924, the latter also being directed by Niblo.

Enid and Fred had three children in the 1920s – Loris, Peter and Judith. They also parented Niblo’s son Fred Junior, from his marriage with Josephine. Late in life, Enid married family friend and former film director Sidney Franklin. But Enid Bennett’s ashes were interned next to Fred Niblo’s after her sudden death in May 1969.

Marjorie Bennett outlived all her siblings. She died in Hollywood in 1982, working almost to the end of her life.

1923 comedy silence of the night

Above – The author’s favourite photo of Enid Bennett as  she appeared in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). Via Wikipedia Commons  (which has more than 50 public domain images of her).

Nick Murphy
February 2020

 

Further Reading

Online

  • Film – Robin Hood 1922 – on Youtube and Internet Archive
  • Film clip –Officer 666 National Film and Sound Archive
  • National Library of Australia – Trove.
    • May and Mina Moore Collection
    • The Daily News, 3 Aug 1910. Page 3
    • The Lone Hand, 1 August 1913. Pages 326-7
    • The Leader, (Vic) 30 Dec 1911. Page 27
    • Sunday Times  21 Mar 1915. Page 25
    • The Catholic Paper – Freeman’s Journal, 10 Dec 1931. Page 3
    • The Age, 18 August 1956. Page 11
  • Peter Niblo (2006) –Remembering My Father, Fred Niblo  The Silents are Golden website
  • Australian Live Performance Database
    AusStage – Enid Bennett
    Austage – Majorie Bennett
  • Newspapers.com
    • Boston Globe. 13 July 1916. (This extraordinary newspaper article attributes Josephine Cohan’s death to “Too much dancing” rather than heart disease, which it was)
    • New York Tribune. 2 August 1915. P9
    • El Paso Times 2 March 1916 P9
    • Los Angeles Times. 30 Oct 1935. P13

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By. University of California Press.
  • Desley Deacon (2008) “Cosmopolitans at Home: Judith Anderson and the American aspirations of J C Williamson’s Stock Company Members” in Robert Dixon, Veronica Kelly (Eds) Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s-1960s. University of Sydney.
  • Desley Deacon (2013) Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol 18, No 1 “From Victorian Accomplishment to Modern Profession: Elocution Takes Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming to Hollywood, 1912-1918
  • Desley Deacon (2019) Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage. Kerr Publishing.
  • Al Kemp, Tina Kemp (2002) Enid Bennett A Forgotten Star : Life of a Jazz Actress
    Pen Productions Media/Publishing. [Book could not be sourced for this narrative]
  • Ralph Marsden (2016) Who was Sylvia? An autobiography of Sylvia Breamer. Screencrafts Productions.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • Scott Wilson (2016) Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons.  Third Edition. McFarland and Co.

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.

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

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, Teddy McNamara, Ivy Moore and other Pollard performers sailed to North America in August 1912 on the SS Makura

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

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

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

Marcia Ralston
Sailed to the US in October 1927, on SS Sonoma.

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

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 probably 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

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

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

Victoria Shaw
Flew to the US via Hawaii in July 1955

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. Judy Kelly and her mother departing for England on the RMS Cathage. Source: The Home, An Australian Quarterly. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.
3. Gwen Munro returning from the US on the SS Mariposa on 26 August 1934. Source uncredited. Photo in the author’s collection.
4. Jocelyn Howarth (Constance worth) on her return from the US in June 1939 on the SS Monterey.  Via State Library of New South Wales.

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

Thanks 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;

  • Julie K Allen, Brigham Young University, regarding Saharet
  • Richard Bradshaw regarding Fred Stone
  • Jean Ritsema regarding Wanda Radford and Leah Liechner
  • Joyce Mostyn, Norm Archibald, John Armine Wodehouse Earl of Kimberley, Dianne Byrne and Simone Cubbin regarding Mary Maguire
  • John Shrimski regarding Maie Saqui
  • Martin Goebel, Jean Ritsema, Charles Zhang and Mark Lepp regarding Saharet
  • Melissa Anderson regarding Lotus Thompson
  • Catherine Crocker regarding Midas Martyn and the Pollard’s
  • Robert Maynard regarding Willie Thomas and the Pollard’s
  • Stephanie Welsh regarding Jocelyn Howarth
  • Alan Garner regarding Norma Whalley
  • Tony Tibballs, Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Australia
  • Writer Robert Gott , Editors Jane Cussen & Ingrid Purnell
  • Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe
  • Katie Flack, Original Materials and Legacy Data Manager, State Library of Victoria.
  • Sandra Joy Aguilar (Director of Archives and Curator at the Warner Bros Archives at the University of Southern California)
  • Joe Henderson (National Archives in Kew, England),
  • Dan Gulino (radiowasbetter.com),
  • Jock Murphy, (former Director of Collections at the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne),
  • Dorothy Weekes, (former Archivist at Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy),
  • Sister Helen Salter (Archivist at Loreto Convent in Brisbane)
    and
  • Zetta Florence of Brunswick St Fitzroy, who provide all my archival materials. They are in such good company, surrounded by the spirits of Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and many others.

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

Text

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

Patti Morgan (1928-2001) – from Bondi beach to Beirut

Patti Morgan on the cover of Sydney’s Sunday Sun, 19 May, 1946. She was almost 18, and the world was at her feet. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Photographer unknown.

The 5 second version
Patricia Joan Morgan
Born Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 7 September 1928, Died London, England, 2 February 2001. Singer, dancer and model in Australia 1944-47, then moved to the UK where she made a few films. Also continued modelling and appeared on British TV’s “Dancing Club” with her first husband Victor Sylvester Jnr. In Lebanon 1958-80 while married to Dany Chamoun.

Patti Morgan was born Patricia Joan Morgan in Sydney in 1928. Her mother was Irene, her father James was a company manager, and the family lived in the comfortable eastern suburb of Vaucluse, Sydney. Their old home has long since been demolished but looking around the suburb today one can still imagine what a sunny life was had by Patti and her younger brother Jim, at 99 Kings Rd, even in the dark days of the early 1940s. Patti attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School, a private girls school that still operates in inner Sydney today.

Throughout her life, Patti’s modelling and acting was well documented by an enthusiastic Australian press. Patti’s appearance – she was 172 centimetres or 5′ 8″ tall, blonde and trim, epitomized the stereotypical sporty outdoors Australian girl. In the end Patti did relatively little acting, although she did become a well known model and TV hostess in England.


Below: A very young Patti Morgan, from the Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Patti in 1944She first popped up in publicity in 1944, when she was 16. She was a young singer and dancer with ability and some connections, and she gained a small role in a Red Cross show for US Forces in Australia, singing and taking on the role of cartoon character “Windy City Kitty”. (Kitty was a similar character to Norman Pett‘s “Jane” who appeared in the London Daily Mirror during WWII). Despite the publicity, she did not particularly resemble Jack Crowe‘s character, drawn for Yank Down Under magazine, nor the many Kittys who were usually drawn  on the noses of USAAF aircraft. Never the less, appearing to enthusiastic service audiences was a great opportunity for a patriotic young woman who had her heart set on a career as a performer, and she seems to have reveled in it.

In May 1945 she entered the Miss Australia contest with the support of the New South Wales Police Boys Clubs. The preliminaries for the contest dragged on for months and in the end she didn’t win, but it didn’t matter – the fund raising events, parades and modelling assignments put Patti firmly in the public eye. Patti’s appearances as a “pin-up” photo model also dates from this time. She gained such popularity that one RAF Lancaster squadron allegedly wrote to her asking her “permission” to paint her image on one of their aircraft. Writer Madeleine Hamilton’s survey of Australian women who became pin-ups at this time includes Australasian Post’s account and Patti’s response. The Australian War Memorial also holds the accompanying photo.


AWM Photo   Sunday Telegraph April 1946

Above left: Patti Morgan (Undated but probably 1945-46) from the Australian War Memorial collection. The record accompanying states Patti’s portrait was painted on one of the Lancaster bombers of 50 Squadron RAAF. (But 50 squadron was a RAF squadron)
Above right: Patti with Sub Lieutenant Geoffrey Ross Downer of HMS Venerable, shortly after their engagement was announced in April 1946. She broke off the engagement in October 1947. The Sunday Telegraph, April 1946, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In April 1946 her engagement to a Royal Navy officer from the British Pacific Fleet (then based in Sydney) was announced. She continued modelling and took up acting classes. In October, newspapers picked up the story that she had been offered a 7 year contract with the Rank film organisation. It was wrong, of course. Rank had offered her an audition if she made her way to London. Somehow, Australians and their journalists remained convinced a film contract could be offered to an untested but beautiful antipodean. Very similar accounts of Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth being offered overseas film work had appeared ten years before.


Patti Morgan as movie stars, Pix, July 1946 / photographed by N.  Patti Morgan as movie stars, Pix, July 1946 / photographed by N.  Patti Morgan as movie stars, Pix, July 1946 / photographed by N.

Patti in July 1946, photographed by Norm Herfort. Source Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd. This is part of a large folio of photos of Patti now in the Mitchell library.

In mid March 1947, Patti and her mother headed off for England aboard the MV SelandiaThe Daily Telegraph reported that she took a wardrobe that “included 20 evening gowns, 35 dresses, 15 suits, three dozen pairs of shoes, and a dozen hats.” On arrival in London she may have been tested by Rank, but within a few weeks she announced that she had a contract with Premier Productions, a new company under the leadership of Maurice Ostrer. Ostrer had left a successful career at Gainsborough films after a serious disagreement with J Arthur Rank, regarding the artificial and “lurid tone” of films he believed the public liked. Rank did not approve.

Patti had good reason to be confident about her first film, Idol of Paris. Apart from Ostrer’s involvement, the director was Leslie Arliss who had directed The Wicked Lady and the cast included well known actors Michael Rennie, Margaretta Scott and Miles Malleson. Unfortunately, the completed film, meant to be in the “Gainsborough style,” was a complete critical and popular disaster. The film is impossible to find today, but we know that on release the reviews were universally negative and the box office did not ignite. C. A. Lejeune, the London Observer’s film reviewer, even felt it could be the worst film of 1948, were it not for the fact it made him laugh and laugh it was so silly. “Such stupendous imbecility in a film… (with) such excruciating dialogue, demands a sort of recognition…” he wrote in his 7 March review. Variety’s review dismissed the script as “ill-written and corny” and the film not worthy of export to the US. The film stalled the careers of a number of young actors, including Beryl Baxter and Patti, while it ended Maurice Ostrer’s efforts at independent film production altogether.


Beryl Baxter Leslie Arliss and Patti on set Pix 10-4-1947    Patti Morgan 1947021

Left: Beryl Baxter, Director Leslie Arliss and Patti on the set of “Idol of Paris.” From Pix Magazine, 4 October, 1947. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove  
Right: Patti in a random English publicity shot in 1947 when she was under contract to Premier Productions. Author’s Collection. 

Patti was able to develop a profile through work as a model however, and a new opportunity also beckoned in Britain’s fledgling TV industry. In 1949 she met and married Victor Silvester (Junior) and at the same time, joined Victor Silvester (Senior)’s very popular television show Dancing Club, as the regular hostess.


PAtti and Victor May 1948  Northern Whig 1949 Wedding Photo  Patti and Jim Morgan in 1953

Left: Victor Silvester Junior with Patti. The Sydney Sun, May 9, 1948. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove
Middle: Patti on her wedding day – in a dress made by mother Irene. The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, July 29, 1949 via British Library Newspaper Archive Project.
Right: Patti met younger brother Jim again, when HMAS Sydney visited Britain for the Coronation. Here she stokes Jim’s naval beard. The Argus, May 15, 1953. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Although Patti did not find more than a few roles as an extra in British films and the odd role on stage in a production for charity, she was very active throughout the fifties as a mannequin for designers like Norman Hartnell and with her television work. British Pathe newsreels regularly featured Patti, the following being some examples:

In 1957 Patti finally did take a leading role in a film. Booby Trap was a rather silly suspense/crime film that at 70 minutes in length was almost certainly intended as a cinema program filler – a second feature. Here Patti finally did demonstrate her ability as an actress – and she performs well given the limitations of the role as Jackie. Even after ten years in the UK, her voice sometimes still sounds as though it’s straight from Sydney, as in this example!

Patti Morgan as Jackie and Harry Fowler as Sammy in “Booby Trap” (1957). Renown Pictures re-released this film in 2015. 

Patti’s marriage to Victor Silvester ended soon after she made this film. In January 1958 she married Dany Chamoun, the second son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. Thereafter she spent much of her time in Beirut. Her 2001 obituary in the London Daily Telegraph, apparently written by someone who knew her well, states that she set up her own modelling agency and television production company in Beirut. But her businesses and her marriage did not survive Lebanon’s catastrophic civil war – that raged from 1975 to 1990. She moved back to London in about 1980. Dany and his second wife were murdered in 1990.

Patti made several return visits to Australia – briefly in 1962 and for a longer visit in 1972. On the latter occasion, The Sydney Morning Herald claimed “the goddess has returned,”  and indeed she was welcomed by many old friends, spending her month in Sydney near the beach at Bondi, where she had spent so much time in the 1940s.

Patti in Australia in 1972Patti in Sydney in 1972, surrounded by admirers. Source; The Australian Women’s Weekly, August 24, 1972. Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia via Trove.

Patti died in London in 2001, aged only 72. Almost every account of Patti records her good humour, confident sense of self and her resilience. There are numerous press references to the difficult life she coped with while living in war-torn Beirut. Her obituary also states that she struggled with diabetes in later life.

Patti’s daughter Tracy Chamoun was born in 1960 and closely resembles her Australian-born mother in appearance. Fluent in Arabic, French and English, she has been a key voice advocating for liberal democracy in Lebanon. At the time of writing she is Lebanon’s ambassador to Jordan.

Patti signature

Patti’s signature – c 1955. Author’s collection

 

Note 1

The IMDB incorrectly credits Patti with roles in several films made in Hollywood in 1947-8. However, this is a different person. The US Patti Morgan who signed with the Hal Roach studio in April 1946 was a US-born actress, and a brunette.

 

Nick Murphy
July 2019

 

Further Reading

  • Madeleine Hamilton (2009) Our Girls; Aussie pinups of the 40s and 50s. Arcade Publications
  • Harris M. Lentz (2002) Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2001: Film, Television, Radio, Theatre, Dance, Music, Cartoons and Pop Culture. McFarland Books
  • Joe Moran (2013) Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV. Profile Books
  • James Nott (2015) Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960. Oxford University Press
  • Michael Brooke: Screen Online; The Definitive guide to Britain’s Film & TV History. Maurice Ostrer
  • The Telegraph, 6 February 2001. Patti Chamoun obituary. Anon
  • Variety, March 1948. Review of the Idol of Paris. At the Internet Archive.
  • Tracy Chamoun website

The strange story of Maie Saqui

Maie Saqui as she appeared at the height of her fame on the London stage as a “Gaiety Girl,” c 1900. Postcard in the Author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born May Vivian Saqui, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 19 December 1879,
Died, London, England, UK, 28 March 1907. Joined the cast of the visiting London Gaiety Company in Melbourne in 1892, after this appearing in other stage plays. Departed for London in 1897. She found work with George Edwardes at the Gaiety Theatre and was joined a year later by her sisters Gladys and Hazel, who also performed in London.

Gaietygirl1896May Vivian Saqui was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne Australia on December 19, 1879. For a short period of time she was one of London’s celebrated “Gaiety Girls”, performing in musical comedy at George Edwardes Gaiety Theatre. Her father John Isaac Saqui (also known as John I or Jack) was a bookmaker and property speculator, later to try his hand at cigar manufacturing. Her mother Esther nee Barnett (or Stella) was the daughter of the owner of a large central Melbourne grocery store. She and John I married in 1877. At the time of May’s birth, the family home was listed as living on the corner of Nicholson and Moor Streets, Fitzroy. Five years later, they lived next door. The two fine “boom era” buildings still stand, and today they speak of the opulence and confidence of the young colony. The family were wealthy enough to be advertising for servants at the time of May’s birth.

Above – the stereotypical Edwardes chorus girl from the play A Gaiety Girl.” Public domain image by Dudley Hardy, Paris, 1896 via Wikipedia Commons.

120 and 122 Nicholson St

The very grand building at left, now No 122 Nicholson street, was built in 1862 by architect John Denny. The white building next door is “Heatherleigh”, a more traditional terrace. The Sands and McDougall directories reveal that in 1880 the Saqui family lived at 122, while by 1885 they lived at No 120. These constant moves probably reflect John I’s activities as a property speculator. Photo- Author’s Collection.

Austin Saqui at BeechworthMay’s English-born grandfather, Abraham (Austin) Saqui (1834-1889) had arrived with some of the extended family in the colony of Victoria in the mid 1850s – like so many, they were attracted by the fabulous stories of easy fortunes to be made on the goldfields. A talented musician, Austin departed for Beechworth, in the centre of the Ovens Valley goldfields almost immediately. In time, he became a Melbourne hotelier, a “flamboyant bookmaker” and dabbled in owning horses. Austin’s great breakthrough came in 1869, when his horse “Warrior” won the Melbourne Cup, at odds of 20-1, winning him almost £20,000 – a fortune at the time.

Left: Newly arrived Austin Saqui making money performing at the El Dorado Hotel in June 1857. From “The Ovens and Murray Advertiser.” June 6, 1857. Source National Library of Australia’s Trove.

John I Saqui (1855-1916) thus followed his father’s footsteps as a bookmaker, and after May’s birth, fathered several more children – Barnett “Baron” Napoleon (1881-1967), Gladys Mignonett (1884-c1919) and Hazel Eileen (1887-1975). Another daughter, Phyllis, died in infancy. By the time Hazel was born at Zabulon Terrace in Drummond Street in 1887, John I was describing himself as a cigar-maker, although he was also still a bookmaker and the constant move of addresses also suggests he was still speculating on properties.

Zabulon Terrace

The spectaular Zabulon Terrace in Drummond Street, Carlton where the Saquis lived when Hazel was born in 1887. The family lived at No 22, the unaltered building on the left. But by 1890, they lived over the road at an almost identical terrace at No 27. Author’s Collection.

From the late 1880s, May and sister Gladys appeared in concerts under the tutelage of a relative, well known Melbourne dance teacher Miss Julia Green. May earned a name for herself as a talented dancer before she was ten – even in 1888, Melbourne Punch noted “this little lady really deserved the encore she received” with her performance in Dance Du Nuit. The family valued music and dance, and May was also to become a talented violinist. By May 1892, at the age of only 13, she had apparently done with school and moved onstage for good, joining the cast of the Australia tour of the London Gaiety Company, in Faust up to Date, (choosing to spell her name “Maie” from this time on). This brought her into the company of numerous talented English performers – Maud Hobson and Grace Wixon amongst others. From 1893 she appeared in pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and then Djin-Djin. Perhaps the highlight was performing  in the first Melbourne run of Trilby in 1896, a play based on a new novel by George du Maurier. May’s high-kicking dance in Act 2 was particularly memorable. The anti-Semitic theme of the play (the evil manipulator of the heroine is Svengali, a archetypical Jewish villain of the Fagin, Oliver Twist type) was apparently something May could live with or was used to. 


Click to enlarge.
Left: Maie appears in the first Melbourne outing of Faust Up to Date in 1892, with some of George Edwardes’ visiting London troupe, including Maud Hobson and Grace Wixon. “Lorgnette”, Tuesday 3 May 1892. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Centre: Maie performing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, at the age of 16. “The Australasian”, 30 March, 1895. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: John Saqui advertising his services. (He was a little hopeful in selling his father’s “gout cure.” In 1889 Austin had taken a fatal overdose of laudanum to manage the pain of his gout) “The Sportsman,” Tuesday 9 Jan 1894. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The pantomime Djin-Djin, The Japanese Bogie Man, A Fairy Tale from Old Japan, opened in Melbourne on December 26, 1895. These screen grabs are from the full program held by the State Library of Victoria – which can be viewed online. Maie Saqui is listed in the program, together with numerous other well known actors of the time, including Carrie Moore. Written by Bert Royle and J.C.Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and with strong Australian themes, the show was hugely popular and according to Ian Dicker, the audience refused to leave on the final night of the Melbourne season. Via the State Library of Victoria.

Unfortunately, at the same time her career was taking off, Australia and particularly the otherwise booming city of Melbourne had slumped into a severe depression. A number of Australian banks closed between 1890 and 1893, numerous businesses shut down and scores of land speculators were ruined. Unemployment surged while the only public works to continue was the building of Melbourne’s much needed sewerage system. It has been suggested that John I Saqui lost all his money at this time, and indeed, given his business interests, it would have been unusual if he did not take a hit of some sort. But there was another even more serious reason why his business closed.

Truth on saqui attackSome time in 1890, John I was assaulted as he arrived home to Drummond Street. (The illustration at right is from the “Truth” newspaper account some thirty years later) He was found unconscious at his front door – he had been struck on the head. It was thought this was part of an organised campaign to rob wealthy bookmakers. Although he recovered and returned to work, his mental health failed over the next six years. In August 1896 Stella took the heart-wrenching decision to have John I admitted to the Yarra Bend Asylum. He had become seriously delusional. Stella blamed his state on the old injury to his head, and a note from a doctor she consulted (still in the asylum records) seems to concur. We can imagine the anguish the tight-knit family must have felt and one wonders just how bad John had become before Stella was forced to have him hospitalised.

In May 1897, at the end of the run of Trilby, it was announced that Maie was heading to England. She travelled as a “23 year old” on the RMS Orizba.  By giving that age, there were fewer questions to answer than if acknowledging she had yet to turn 18. Good fortune and good connections were with her. Within weeks of her arrival in London she was performing, and soon had a contract with George Edwardes of the Gaiety Theatre. It was claimed Grace Wixon helped mentor her. In July 1898 Stella and her three other children set sail for England on the RMS Ormuz, while John I’s mother Julia took up residence for a time at 27 Drummond Street. (This also suggests the family had weathered the 1890s crash.)


Left: “The Messenger Boy” cast, half way through its 1900 run, from “The Standard,” June 14, 1900. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Maie – about the time she arrived in London and began work for Edwardes. From “The Black & White Illustrated Budget”,1899.Via the Internet Archive.

She proved to be spectacularly successful in Edwardes’ musicals. She notably performed in The Geisha (1897), The Messenger Boy (1900) with Maud Hobson, The Toreador (1901) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (1902). Melbourne newspapers enthusiastically reported on her London performances, she was after all, a local girl. For example, on October 13 1899, “Table Talk” reported that “Miss Saqui’s… dainty dancing so delighted the patrons of ‘A Gaiety Girl’ at the Gaiety Theatre…  Some two years ago… she submitted her credentials to that excellent judge, Mr. George Edwardes, who being more than satisfied with them, secured her services for three years, and she at once stepped, or bounded, into public favour….”

Both Maie’s sisters Gladys and Hazel performed on stage for Edwardes, appearing in musicals at the Gaiety between 1902 and 1910. Gladys in particular gained publicity, partly because she was thought to closely resemble Maie.

Left: 13 year old Gladys Saqui performing on a local tour in Victoria, with Elsie Golding (Alf Goulding’s half sister). “The Bendigo Independent,” Oct 5, 1897. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: 18 year old Gladys Saqui – a new performer at the Gaiety Theatre, introduced to the public by “The Sketch,” December 3, 1902. Author’s collection. Copyright held by Illustrated London News Group.

In 1904 Maie married Arthur Hope Travers, a Captain in the Grenadier Guards who had seen service in the Boer War. She chose to retire from the stage. A daughter was born of the union in 1905. Sadly Maie’s health began to fade soon after. She was reported to be very ill in early 1907, and she died of cancer in March 1907, aged only 27. Travers eventually remarried and served with distinction again in the First World War. Maie’s English stage career had lasted just six years. Gladys too, had a short career on stage – less than ten years.

Maie’s only child, Inez Hope Travers (later Pringle) lived a long life and was acknowledged in 1982 with the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and then an MBE in 1986, for services to ex-servicemen in Dublin. It is safe to assume Maie would have been very proud.


When their mother Stella died in England in 1946, she left an estate of £9345 to her surviving daughter, Hazel. Hazel had married British actor Nelson Keys in 1908, after her own brief experience on stage. Hazel and Nelson raised a family of five boys, most of whom entered the British film industry with great success. Hazel died in 1975.

John I Saqui died in the Yarra Bend Asylum in October 1916. He had been there for twenty years.

Special Thanks

To John Shrimski, a second cousin of Maie Saqui, for his assistance and encouragement.

Nick Murphy
May 2019, updated January 2020.


Notes:

  1. Her name?
    May or Mary? Her 1879 birth certificate is quite clear. She was born May and she appears as May in the birth certificates of her siblings. She chose “Maie” as a stage name.
    Similarly, Barnett was the family name of Esther (Stella) Saqui, not Barrett. Esther’s father, owner of a well known Russell Street grocery was named Barnett Barnett. He can be found in numerous mid C19th Melbourne newspaper accounts. When Barnett died in 1887, he left the bulk of his estate, including a significant property portfolio, to daughter Esther (Stella).
  2. Sarah Saqui, The Psyche
    Sarah Saqui, a sister of Maie’s grandfather, was the courtesan who entertained Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh on the first royal visit to Australia in 1867. Writer Steve Harris specifically names Saqui as the Duke’s main Australian consort – she was also known as “the Psyche,” which was apparently a play on the name Saqui. Contemporary papers like “The Truth” also identified her. The Duke’s detective John Christie alluded to the Duke’s many amorous pursuits in Melbourne’s red light district in his notes, although he did not identify Saqui by name. Sarah Saqui was apparently also a bartender and a well known singer, who married three times and may have lived out her days in the United States. We have no way of knowing whether Maie had ever met or even knew about her notorious relative.

Further Reading

  • John Paddy Carstairs (1941) Bunch, a Biography of Nelson Keys. Hurst and Blackett
    In his biography of his father (nicknamed “Bunch”), Carstairs states that his mother’s name was Hazel Eileen nee Fuller and that she was of Irish stock. This is such a significant “error” one must assume it was done deliberately to disguise Hazel’s Jewish roots. 
  • Ian Dicker (1974) J.C.W. A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson.  The Elizabeth Tudor Press
  • Black & White Illustrated Budget Magazine (1899). London, Black and White Pub. Co. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.
  • Steve Harris (2018) The Prince and the Assassin: Australia’s First Royal Tour and Portent of World Terror. Melbourne Books.
  • John Lahey (1993) Damn you, John Christie! State Library of Victoria.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • Victorian Heritage Register 122 NICHOLSON STREET FITZROY, Yarra City WORLD HERITAGE ENVIRONS AREA
  • Footlights Notes 1994+ wordpress – Gladys Saqui
  • Winners of the Melbourne Cup at Races.com.au
  • Public Record Office Victoria. Mental Health Records

National Library of Australia- Trove
In addition to the newspapers hotlinked in the text, the following may be of interest: