Vera White (1893-1956) Life in Hollywood’s golden age


The Call and WA Sportsman 1919
The Five Second version
Born in Melbourne Australia in 1893, Vera White had a career in vaudeville “low comedy” and then in Hollywood. Like her Australian-born contemporaries Nina Speight and Mae Dahlberg, Vera arrived in the US with a theatrical husband. Joe Everett was an acrobat comedian with whom she developed and refined an act, touring the US, Australia and New Zealand. She was picked up by the Hal Roach studio in late 1920. She appeared in numerous films in the silent era, mostly uncredited roles in comedies. She married three times and died in California in 1956.
Above: Vera White in a glamour shot during the return tour of Australia in 1919. The Weekly Judge, (Perth WA) 4 July 1919, P2. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In early August 1928, Australian – born film extra Vera White was injured in a car crash when she drove into a truck after an arduous day’s filming near Palm Springs, California. She explained to the press that she and the two other occupants of the car, Fred Howell and Charles Berger, also extras, were tired after a long day’s work and didn’t see the truck until they struck it. The car was a write-off and Vera spent time in Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital. (San Pedro News Pilot, 2 August 1928)

Vera’s 1928 car accident is a reminder of the lot of under-paid and over-looked extras in the golden age of Hollywood. When the accident happened Vera had been working in Hollywood for eight long years.The most thorough analysis of her filmwork suggests she probably had made more than 40 film appearances by 1928. But she was still an unknown to the public and remained so for her entire career – another of the huge group of former vaudevillians now struggling to be noticed on the screen.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, on 20 August 1893, Harriet Vera Gertrude White was not from a theatrical family and her four sisters and brother did not join her on stage. Her father Hubert (sometimes Herbert but usually known as “Bert”) Fairchild White was a railway engineer, her mother was Amelia nee Williams. Perhaps tenacity runs in families – Bert made numerous attempts to join the Australian Army in World War One, and was rejected each time because of his age. In January 1913, Vera, by then working as a cinema cashier in Sydney, had married Joseph Thomas Everett (professional name Joe Vincetti), a US-based but English-born acrobat-comedian, who was touring Australia.

Above: Vera White at about the time of the car accident – with Oliver Hardy in We Faw Down (1928). Screen grab from a copy mounted on youtube.

Building a stage career 1913+

The Bud Atkinson circus collapsed in 1913. Here it is advertising several months earlier in The Theatre Magazine (Sydney) on 2 December, 1912. Via State Library of Victoria

In December 1913, Joe and Vera appeared on stage together in Australia as “eccentric” and “popular” comedians, even though Vera had no prior experience. Joe had been performing in an acrobat comedy troupe – Henchy, Vincetti and Bush, part of the ill-fated Bud Atkinson touring circus which collapsed financially in April 1913. Now, working with Vera, the couple appeared under their real names – Joe Everett and Vera White. A few months later however, they had adopted the title “The Two Vincettis”, apparently refining their act before boarding the SS Niagara in April 1914. They travelled to the US under their stage names – Joe and Vera Vincetti – a practice which appears to have been not uncommon before World War One.

Above: The Two Vincettis while touring the US, San Bernardino News (California), 30 Sep 1915, P14. Joe is wearing clown makeup – see also below. Via Newspapers.com

We are fortunate in that evidence of their act survives. After several years touring as the Two Vincettis, acrobatic comedians, in April 1917 they re-presented themselves as Joe and Vera White and their act was now called Vaudeville Chop Suey. In October 1917, the trade paper Variety reviewed this new act with its characteristic frankness: “When confining their efforts to their style, Joe and Vera White present an enjoyable acrobatic specialty, but through striving continually for comedy with considerable kidding and using numerous aged gags, they hinder themselves. The girl has a comedy vein she employs to advantage, but suffers from lack of material. She also does well a Chaplin impersonation around the opening. While it is passe, she accomplishes it so well its retention should prove beneficial. The man occasionally tries to handle some comedy, but is a much better ground tumbler, and should confine himself to that alone. They work fast, and when rearranged should find sufficient bookings.

The act was about 15 minutes of fast action and with patter that today might sound very lame ;
“Suppose you take a bath in the bath tub?”
“Where do you take yours – in the sink?”
“You’ve been looking in my window”
(Variety, 26 October 1917)

Above: This crude illustration of the Two Vincettis act appeared for the forthcoming Carter County Free Fair, in The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma) 1 Sep 1918, P6. But by 1918 they almost always appeared simply as Joe and Vera White. Via newspapers.com

In early 1919, Joe and Vera were engaged to play their Vaudeville Chop Suey act for the Fuller circuit in Australia – which meant they toured extensively across Australia and New Zealand, now with Texas, a “prarie dog” as part of the act. (Whether Texas really was a prairie dog imported into Australia is not recorded, and most Australians were unlikely to know, of course. The poor creature was accidentally killed in February 1920, just before Joe and Vera’s return to the US). It was also while they were in Australia that Joe claimed he had played “the big ape” in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) while Vera said she had appeared in the ballroom scene in its sequel The Romance of Tarzan (1918). It is easy to dismiss these stories, as one does with the fanicful claims that Vera’s uncle was Field Marshal Allenby (Long Beach Telegram 27 June 1921) or her grandfather was “the first white man to settle in Australia.“(Long Beach Telegram 7 Oct 1921). However, an earlier Variety report indicates Joe and Vera had indeed started in films for First National in 1918 (Variety 18 Oct 1918). Unfortunately, of the two films, only Tarzan of the Apes has survived, and naturally whoever is dressed as an ape is unrecognisable.

Above: Vera and Joe, while performing Vaudeville Chop Suey in Australia in 1919. It is only one photo, but Joe’s idiosyncratic attire may show the influence of contemporary Hollywood film comedians, like Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard. The Theatre Magazine, 1 April 1919, P28, via State Library of Victoria.

Starting a Hollywood career 1920

Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas, a comprehensive survey of women in slapstick films, aptly describes Vera as “the woman of a thousand faces”. Her stock in trade performance seems to have been the outraged bystander or shocked innocent party, although she sometimes played the key comic protagonist’s wife or a poo-faced society lady. In every case, her exaggerated facial expression became part of the comedy. While touring in 1919, a New Zealand paper had described her “grotesque facial contortions” as particularly amusing. (The Sun, Christchurch, 19 Nov 1919)

Above: Another scene from The Cobbler (1923) showing Vera with one of her characteristic poses. The cobbler was played by Welsh-born actor Richard Daniels, the father of Our Gang member Mickey Daniels.

Vera’s first identifiable appearances in Hal Roach comedies seem to have occurred in late 1920, soon after she and Joe returned to the US on the SS Sonoma in August. Newspaper reports show the couple still sometimes performed on stage, but their efforts had largely turned to cinema. Vera can be found in the cast of Cash Customers (1920), featuring fellow Melbourne vaudevillian Snub Pollard, and directed by another – Alf Goulding.

Above: Joe and Vera with Snub Pollard and in the foreground, child actor Ernest Morrison or “Sunshine Sammy.” The photo appeared with a report from Joe, in Sydney’s Theatre Magazine, Jan 1, 1921, P25. Via State Library of Victoria.

It is extremely likely she also appeared in other films that are no longer recorded – after all, this was the era of uncredited supporting players working on films that were churned out by studios at rapid speed. Park Your Car (1920) – another Goulding directed, Snub Pollard comedy from the Hal Roach studio was made at almost the same time as Cash Customers, and it also appears to briefly feature Vera White as an outraged homemaker.

Above: Outraged homeowner in Alf Goulding’s Park Your Car (1920), likely to be Vera White. Snub Pollard has just driven through her house. Via the Eye Film Museum, Netherlands.

One must wonder whether Vera got her start with Hal Roach through some connection or an appeal for a break to the two fellow Australian vaudevillians. Even if that is wistful speculation by this writer, as Massa points out, Hal Roach and leading players like Stan Laurel were quite aware of Vera’s abilities, and used her repeatedly despite her lack of public profile.

Above: Screen grabs of Vera White in two of her early films, demonstrating her skills in facial expressions. These are currently widely available. Left – Now Or Never (1921), Right – (at rear) in Among Those Present (1921).

In early 1922, Vera and Joe’s marriage came to an end. They stopped touring together, and in April, Vera took Joe to court seeking a divorce and alleging cruelty – and The Los Angeles Times outlined her allegations of serious physical violence in some detail. (4 Aug 1922) However, in June 1922 Joe told Everyone’s Magazine that the action was a result of Vera’s “swelled head”, a result of meeting with “a little success in pictures.” Joe had also appeared in several Hal Roach comedies in 1921.

Above: Joe White in The Pickaninny (1921) one of his few credited roles. The film is now in the public domain and can be see here at the Internet Archive.

Finding Vera’s later career

Vera did indeed have success in pictures. She had written to Everyone’s Magazine only a few months before the divorce, encouraging Australian readers to watch “all Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard pictures [as] I play in every one of them”. (24 August 1921). To date, David Lord Heath’s Another Nice Mess website has identified about forty films Vera White appeared in for the Hal Roach studio, by methodically going through the process of watching each film to confirm the cast. Steve Massa has identified several more. But despite this sterling effort, a definitive list of her appearances may still ellude us.

Unfortunately a number of other freely-editable websites (including wikipedia) still muddle up Clara Guiol with Vera White, and these errors tend to be replicated across the internet. Guiol was born in 1906 or 1908 and thus was at least 13 years Vera’s junior, and her career took off later than Vera White’s. Although the two did slightly resemble each other, cursory observation shows they were two different people. An example of this is Stage Fright (1923), another of the Our Gang series, where the role played by Vera White is often incorrectly attributed to Guiol.

Above: Vera as Miss Ochletree, the director of the disastrous play, in Stage Fright 1923. The film is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

Reporting of the Weiss brothers 1928 comedy The Cockeyed Family, highlights another problem. It featured Ben Turpin as Amos Gillig and Vera White as his wife. However, the IMDB entry for the film currently does not acknowledge a character called Mrs Gillig at all, although it is a leading role opposite Turpin. Of course, the challenge of identifying actors of this era is made all the more difficult because some films are now lost, titles of cast and crew on surviving films were at best brief and sometimes non-existant, and other supporting records are sparse.

Above: Vera White as Mrs Gillig in The Cockeyed Family (1928). The joke, very much of its time, is that both Amos and his wife are cross-eyed, and the children are predictably continually getting into trouble.

The sound era saw numerous actors fall by the wayside and Vera White appears to have been another one of them. Of her later career, we know little. Jack Gavin, an Australian actor resident for much of the 1920s in Hollywood and a friend of Vera and Joe’s, regularly included them in his reports for Everyone’s magazine until about 1924, when he lost contact.

Vera remarried in 1924 – to Nicholas Richard Block, who was a studio property manager. A year after Block’s death in September 1936, she married Raymond F McCarthy, who like Vera listed his occupation on the marriage certificate as motion picture actor, persumably also an extra.

Vera died aged 63 in 1956, by now living very modestly in a bungalow at 6624 Ajax Avenue, Bell Gardens, Los Angeles. Her death certificate lists her usual occupation as an actress in motion pictures, but how much work she was doing by then we do not know. Intriguingly, an Australian born woman by the name of Vera McCarthy was reported as being in Lincoln Heights Jail during the 1940 US census, which, if her, may suggest a much less happy experience in later life.

Joe White stayed on in the US. Although there were reports he became a driver, he can still be found in live performances as a comedy acrobat – with his second wife Irma Button in 1923, and as late as 1929 in touring circus groups.


Nick Murphy
5 November 2021


References

Acknowledgement

  • Special thanks to Jean Ritsema in Jackson, Michigan, USA, who assisted with many of Vera’s US documents, including her US marriage and death certificates.

Films online

NSW Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Marriage Certificate Joseph Thomas Everett & Harriet Vera Gertrude White Jan 19, 1913

Vic Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Birth Certificate Harriet Vera Gertrude White 20 August 1893

Ancestry.com and Familysearch

  • US census returns, US shipping manifests

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

Websites

Text

  • Steve Massa (2017) Slapstick Divas. The Women of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
  • Steve Massa (2013) Lame Brains and Lunatics. The Good, The Bad and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
  • Brent Walker (2010) Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. McFarland & Co.

National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past

  • New Zealand Herald 3 Sept 1919, P14
  • The Sun (Christchurch) 19 Nov 1919, P9

State Library of Victoria

  • The Theatre Magazine (Sydney) 2 Dec 1912.
  • The Theatre Magazine (Sydney) 1 April 1919.
  • The Theatre Magazine (Sydney) 1 Jan 1921.

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • The Herald (Vic) 6 Dec 1913, P8
  • The Sun (NSW) 16 March 1919, P18
  • Table Talk 17 April 1919, P19
  • The Weekly Judge, (Perth WA) 4 July 1919, P2.
  • Newcastle Sun (NSW), 1 March 1920, P3
  • The Mail (SA) 24 Jan 1920 P6
  • Everyones Magazine 25 May 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 24 Aug 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 21 Dec 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 14 June 1922
  • Everyones Magazine 7 Oct, 1925
  • Everyones Magazine 30 June 1937

Lantern, The Digital Media Project

  • Variety, 26 Oct 1917
  • Variety 18 Oct 1918
  • New York Clipper 7 Jan 1920
  • The Billboard 15 April 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Austin American-Statesman (TX) 16 Jul 1915, P8
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News (CA) 28 Sep 1915, P9
  • San Bernardino News (CA) 30 Sept 1915, P14
  • The Deming Headlight (NM) 23 June 1916, P9
  • Springfield Leader and Press (MI) 22 May 1917, P8
  • The Daily Ardmoreite (OK) 1 Sept 1918, P6
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News 27 June 1921
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News 7 Oct 1921
  • Los Angeles Times 4 Aug 1922
  • Los Angeles Evening Post-Record 20 July 1923, P8
  • The Californian 18 Mar 1925, P 5
  • Los Angeles Times 1 Aug 1926, P12
  • The Ventura County Star and the Ventura Daily Post 16 Feb 1929, P10
  • The Hanford Sentinel (CA) 29 May 1939, P1

California Digital Newspaper Collection

  • Los Angeles Herald 10 Aug 1918
  • Los Angeles Herald 13 Aug 1918
  • San Diego Union & Daily Bee 19 Nov 1918
  • San Pedro News 2 August 1928

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

Anona Winn (1904-1994) Who did it all without trying.

Anona Winn on an Ardath cigarette card c 1932. The postcard in the background shows the Sydney Post Office in Pitt Street, about the time she was born. Author’s collection.

The five second version
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 5 January 1904, Anona Winn moved to the UK in 1926 after establishing herself on the stage in Australia. In her long British career she appeared on stage, wrote and recorded popular songs, and enjoyed a very successful career on British radio, until aged well into her 70s. Scottish comedian Renée Houston once said Anona “does it all without trying.” Clever, creative, popular with her colleagues and loyal to her many supporters, she was awarded an MBE for charity work in 1954. She died in Bournemouth in February 1994.

What was it like to be a young woman fronting up for an audition in the 1920s, grappling with parental expectations and the pressure to perform? We know Anona Winn’s view, because she left a short humorous account in April 1925, about a year before she departed Australia for England. While it is a fictional account, it is safe to assume the short story “The Voice Trial” is at least partly based on her own experiences as an emerging singer. “Jennie develops a few high notes, and the family a still higher opinion of Jennie’s vocal abilities. Jennie shall go on the stage! She shall become one of the galaxy of gleaming stars whose manner of living has been so severely censured by father every Sunday after dinner…” Of course, Jennie does not succeed at her audition. (See Note 1 regarding her short stories)

Born in 1904 in Sydney, New South Wales, Anona was the only child of Lillian Barron nee Woodgate. Lillian endured an unhappy marriage to book keeper Andrew Balfour Barron, that ended in divorce in San Francisco in late 1907. Anona took Wilkins as a surname after her mother remarried in 1909. (See Note 2 below)

Despite claims the name Anona is a native American one, it actually has Latin origins – it was the name of a Roman divinity. As an adult, we know Anona was short and slight. She stood 155 centimetres (5 foot, 1 inch). She had fair hair and brown eyes – we know all this thanks to the very thorough details collected by US customs when she went to New York in 1939.

19 years old but looking even younger, Anona Wilkins posing with a baby from St Margaret’s Maternity Hospital, for The Sun (Sydney) 17 August 1923, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Wilkins family had located themselves in Young Street, Cremorne on Sydney’s north shore by 1915, and Anona attended nearby Redlands School, then under the inspired Principalship of Mrs G.A. Roseby. It appears Anona thrived in this creative school environment and quickly made a name for herself as a capable academic student, a gifted pianist and singer. She joined the school’s debating team, won academic prizes and gave solo singing performances. Years later it was claimed she could sight-read music from the age of about 8, which in the light of events, may well have been true.

Anona Wilkins (Winn) at Redlands. She is seated far left in the white dress, with her hands in her lap, kneeling between the first and second rows. Redlands Senior School, 1916, Cecily Tyson Collection. Reproduced with permission by Redlands School Archive

Having also won a number of public music competitions through her teenage years, on leaving school she was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1920. Her teachers included Madam Goosens-Viceroy and Nathalie Rosenwax, with her developing ability demonstrated at Sydney concerts in late 1921. We can also see evidence she was in Melbourne and performing there in 1922. Did she sing for Nellie Melba, as is claimed? It is quite possible, and Melba was famous for encouraging talented young singers. But not every singer was attracted to a classical career or won over by the encouragement. Nellie McNamara (or Nellie Mond in 1910-12) explained to Everyone’s magazine that she also had been taken to meet Madame Melba, who had advised her to “get rid of that accent” and in doing so “nearly scared me out of my wits.” By early 1923, Anona Wilkins also seems to have decided against a purely classical singing career, although the training was of immense value. In February 1923 she was in the chorus of the new Jerome Kern musical Sally and by July 1923, a featured player in visiting US performer Lee White‘s new show Back Again, at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.

Anona Wilkins in The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1923. She had just placed second in a “stage and society” contest and had a role in Sally. Via State Library of Victoria.

Touring Western Australia in 1925, Anona now chose Wynne as a new surname. She also appeared on Western Australian radio 6WF, then in its infancy. And after three years of performances in musicals, reviews and pantomimes around Australia with the likes of George Storey and Ada Reeve, she finally decided it was time to try her luck overseas. There were friends who had already done this and undoubtedly plenty of encouraging words from experienced performers like Clay Smith and Lee White. “London needs the fresh youth and talent which Australia can give,” said Smith before departing with Anona’s contemporary Billy Lockwood.

On her way to London in 1926, Anona stopped off in India, with a touring company performing some well known musical comedies, including Maid of the Mountains and Rose-Marie. The details of this tour are scant, but Australian papers reported her performances as a “personal triumph.” By December 1926 she was in England, appearing as “a charming Iris” in the musical comedy A Greek Slave, touring the United Kingdom for twelve weeks with José Collins. She then toured the UK with a Daly’s Theatre company production of The Blue Mazurka.

Anona Winn with José  Collins in A Greek Slave. Nottingham Evening Post 12 Feb 1927. Copyright of this image is held by Reach Plc, via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Despite stories that she struggled to be noticed at first in London’s competitive theatre scene (it was claimed she threw her book of press cuttings into the Thames in frustration), Anona was later to confirm that being able to sight-read music and sing well was a great advantage in auditions. Her first credited part in a London show was as “Looloo Martin” in the US musical Hit the Deck at the Hippodrome in late 1927, after another player took ill. Her career never looked back.

As with much of Anona’s life, the precise timing of her achievements have become a little hazy over time and in some cases, details have changed in the telling. However, it is clear that in addition to continuing to appear on stage, Anona also appeared on British radio from about 1928 – her first performance being in a program called Fancy Meeting You! She was heard as a regular radio performer from early 1930, presenting You Ought to Go on the Wireless for the BBC followed by a string of other radio shows. The Bungalow Club of 1938 was Anona’s own concept – a mock riverside club, with cabaret turns, comedy and Anona as hostess. At the same time, as well as recording popular works (at one stage with her own dance band –Anona Winn and her Winners), she also wrote original songs – her records being well received in the UK and Australia. Her repertoire was broad; Theatre Historian Peter Pinne notes that in the early 1930s Anona performed works by composer and fellow Australian Dudley Glass, inspired by several children’s books, for the BBC Children’s Hour. In 1935 “The Guardian” commented that she never seemed content with just one style of broadcast. There was always some attractive variety, frequently a novelty- perhaps an impression of a “popular type” or someone else. At the same time, “her pleasantly informed microphone manner (was) a distinct asset in…light…entertainment”.

Anona Winn on the cover of the Radio Times Television Supplement (UK), April 16, 1937, via http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc.

In 1933, in the early days of experimental TV broadcasting, she was in at least one TV show called Looking In, that apparently still survives. And six months after the BBC began regular TV broadcasting in 1936 she was there again, performing in another revue. In 1934 she had her first and only part in a feature film – a supporting role in British Lion’s On the Air. “Variety” magazine found little to say about it, other than describing it as essentially a revue of “acts of well known and popular artists… surrounded by a modicum of story,” a not uncommon plot device in sound films of this time.

Anona Winn 1938 anona-1940-

Above – Left: Anona continued to appear on stage well into the 1940s. Left; The Radio Pictorial 23 September 1938, via Lantern Digital Media Project. Right: on stage with fellow Australian Florrie Forde in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940 via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

In January 1947 the BBC announced their new quiz Twenty Questions, based on an old parlour game with a radio format purchased from the US. It was a runaway success and Anona was on the panel for most of its 29 year run, demonstrating an uncanny ability to regularly guess the show’s “mystery object.” In 1965 she hosted another radio program of her own devising, entitled Petticoat Lane. A chat show featuring a panel of well-known women discussing issues raised by listeners, it was also very successful and despite appealing to an older and declining radio demographic, lasted until the late 1970s.

Her creative contributions beyond stage and radio were many, and unfortunately not all seem to be accurately recorded. In the mid 1930s she worked on a film script with Australian Marjorie Jacobson Strelitz, and it is also claimed she “voiced” actors who couldn’t sing for film, and to have composed for film. In an obituary, Peter Cotes noted that in later life she also had an interest in the dress-design firm Bernice and Partners. And she counted the likes of pioneer British producer-director Wendy Toye amongst her friends.

Above: Anona – fan photo c 1950. Author’s collection.

The early 1950s were an exciting time to be an Australian actor in London, and there were plenty working there to benefit from being part of the greater British Commonwealth – close enough to the home country to be part of it, but also confident and at enough of a remove to be able to stand back and gently send it all up, from time to time. Australians could celebrate this period (a final coming of age perhaps) not just through the shared confidence brought about by victory in the recent war, but also with the excitement of the 1956 Olympics, and the many benefits brought on by a booming economy at home. A seasoned performer like Anona shared in the enthusiasm and was often invited to speak publicly of her perspective of Britain, as an Australian. “Be proud of Britain,” she urged one audience. But like many, she worried about some of the changes she saw in 1960s Britain – the increasingly poor use of language, and dramatic changes in fashion – “what with our kinky boots and tights, and such short, short, skirts…”

She returned to Australia at least once, in March 1957, where she appeared on Australia’s fledgling ABC TV, in a quiz show called Find the Link, did other things that went unreported, then flew home to Britain on QANTAS, a true child of the Commonwealth.

Anona married Fred Lamport, a theatrical agent, at the Marylebone Registry office in July 1933. Sadly, the marriage was very short-lived. Both Fred and Anona were suffering pneumonia in early 1935. Anona recovered, but Fred did not – he died on 1 February 1935. She never remarried. Anona’s mother Lillian had joined her in London in the late 1920s, and lived with her and acted as her secretary and dresser for many years. Having lived much of her adult London life in a mock-Tudor apartment in Maida Vale, in the late 1980s she moved to Bournemouth where she died in 1994.

Her British obituaries were heartfelt, a voice that had been with Britain for so long, had gone.


Note 1 – Her Writing.
Between late 1924 and mid 1925 Anona Wilkins wrote a few very witty short stories for Australian newspapers, including the Sydney Evening News. These can be read online at Trove. Only two deal directly with the stage – The Voice Trial and 25 Years After. They are worth reading as a testimony to her sophisticated skills as a writer. These seem to have given rise to the idea she was a journalist, but there is no doubt she stayed on stage at the same time.

Note 2 – The enigma of her Birth.
English-born Lillian May Woodgate had married Scottish-born bookkeeper Andrew Balfour Barron in Sydney on 5 April 1902. Soon after this, Andrew Barron travelled to the United States to become head book keeper for Buckingham and Hecht, a large San Francisco shoe-manufacturer. In August 1907 he was charged with embezzling and his affair with a typist was uncovered during court proceedings. By this time Lillian was also in the US and she stood by him until his infidelity was revealed. The San Francisco Call of 22 August 1907 noted that she was accompanied in court by “2 year old daughter Anona.” Barron was sentenced to three years in San Quentin Prison and Lillian sued for divorce, returning to Australia soon after.

Anona’s original Australian birth certificate for January 1904 does not list any father, nor refer to Lillian and Andrew’s marriage. Did Lillian return to Australia to have the child? Did she have Anona by someone else? In 1919, Anona’s step-father William Wilkins made a declaration listing himself as Anona’s foster-father. The document also incorrectly suggested Lillian May Woodgate/Barron/Wilkins was Anona’s foster-mother. The ambiguities of these documents hint at turmoil and great personal unhappiness across two continents, and help explain why Anona was characteristically vague about her birth.

Fortunately, Lily and William’s marriage (1909) appears to have been a happy one, until his sudden death in October 1924.

Relevant Birth, Deaths and Marriages NSW – certificates

  • Lillian Woodgate and Andrew Barron, NSW Marriage Certificate, 5 April 1902, #2732/1902
  • Anona Barron, NSW birth certificate, 5 January 1904, #153/1904
  • Lillian Barron and William Wilkins Marriage Certificate, 21 April 1909 #3392/1909
  • Registered declaration regarding Anona Wilkins birth, 5 May 1919, #1687/1919

Nick Murphy
September 2020


References

Thanks

Special thanks to Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Redlands school for her assistance.

Websites

Film clips

Radio clips

Music clips
There are a number of Winn’s songs to be found on social media. Here are a few:

Text

  • Simon Elmes (2009) And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World’s Best Radio …Arrow Books.
  • John Hetherington (1967) Melba. F.W.Cheshire
  • David Hendy (2008) Life on Air. A History of Radio 4. Oxford University Press
  • Barbara MacKenzie & Findlay MacKenzie (1967) Singers of Australia, From Melba to Sutherland. Lansdowne Press
  • Seán Street (2009) The A to Z of British Radio. The Scarecrow Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

The Independent (UK) Obituaries

  • June Averill, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 18 Feb 1994
  • Peter Cotes, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 14 March 1994

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

Lantern – Digital Media Project

  • Variety, Tues 13 Feb 1934

State Library of Victoria

  • The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1923.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Mail (SA) 4 August, 1923.
  • The Sun (Sydney) Sat 1 Sept, 1923
  • The Daily News (WA) 18 Sep 1925
  • Everyones. Vol. 5 No.330, 30 June 1926
  • The Bulletin.Vol. 57 No. 2920, 29 Jan 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, 29 May 1938
  • ABC Weekly Vol. 2 No. 42, 19 October 1940
  • ABC Weekly, 6 April, 1957

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 22 Aug 1907.
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 7 Nov 1907
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 June 1935.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, (Syd) 28 July 1938.
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 Feb 1994.

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 25 Nov 1926
  • Nottingham Evening Post, 12 Feb 1927
  • The Stage, 31 March 1927
  • Daily Herald (London), 2 Feb 1935
  • Sheffield Independent, 22 April 1938
  • North Wales Weekly, 28 Jan 1960
  • Liverpool Echo 1 Nov 1962
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 17 Mar 1966
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 18 Mar 1966
  • The Stage, 24 Feb 1994

 

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

Snub Pollard (1889 – 1962) of North Melbourne

Above: Harold Fraser, aka “Snub Pollard” photographed without makeup about the time he returned to Australia to see his parents, c 1922. Press photographer unknown. Damaged photo in the author’s collection.

The 5 second version
He was born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 9 November 1889 and died Los Angeles, California, USA, 19 January, 1962. He joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1904 and went on two long tours of  the “far east” and North America in 1905-7 and 1907-9. After 1910 he worked on stage in the US, then appeared in many Hollywood films 1917-1924, sometimes with Alf Goulding, another Pollard’s alumni. He continued in often un-credited roles in film and on TV until his death. The origin of his stage name “Snub” is unknown.

“Snub Pollard” was born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne on November 9, 1889. According to the Internet Movie Database he has a staggering 600 US movie and TV credits to his name, although his most active years were the 1910s and 1920s when he appeared in numerous comedy “shorts”. Even if his later roles were little more than walk-ons, it is an impressive record for a working class boy from the inner suburb of North Melbourne. (Also see Note 3 below)

Snub_Pollard_-_Jan_1923_ETR

Above: “Snub Pollard” in the mid 1920s, in his usual Hollywood make-up, including characteristic “walrus” moustache. This persona was developed in Hollywood but may have some origins in his on-stage experiences. Source – unidentified film from an advertisement for Pathé Exchange films , January 6, 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review. Photo via Internet archive and wikipedia commons.

Harold’s father, George Gunn Fraser, was a horse-drawn (hansom) cab driver. Museum Victoria reminds us there were over 200 registered hansom cabs in Melbourne in 1899. His mother, Isabella (nee Elliot) had already had three children when Harold was born in their modest terrace home at 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne. Another daughter, May Evelyn Fraser, was born in 1892.

59 courtney 1

Above: Snub Pollard’s birthplace – 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne in 2019. The house (centre left) was almost certainly too small for the family. Author’s collection.

71 leveson 2 

Above: By 1905, the Fraser family lived at 71 Leveson Street, North Melbourne. The cobbled lane (Jones Lane) beside the house may have provided better access for a cab driver. George’s horse and cab would have been kept nearby – perhaps in stables off the lane. In the distance is the North Melbourne Town Hall spire. Author’s collection.

Of his childhood and schooling we know little. In March 1903 Harold and May joined Harry Hall’s Juvenile Australian Company in South Africa, in company with other young Australian and New Zealand children like May Dahlberg and Nellie Finlay – a performance tour that appears to have lasted at least 8 months, cut short by Hall’s death in October. One South African memoir recalls perhaps a shy young man. “When spoken to, he (Harold) would hesitate for a few seconds before he answered, rather vaguely.”(Powell in M. Fraser, 1985) In mid 1904, now aged about fifteen, Harold and May joined Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester’s Lilliputian Opera Company in time for another of their marathon performance tours – first testing out shows in Queensland, then to the “far east” (performance stops in Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan) and finally North America. Years later, he was to suggest he had been picked out of a church choir by one of the Pollards.

a gaiety girl

Above: The Pollard’s program for performance of the popular musical “A Gaiety Girl” in Montreal, 29 November 1905. It features May and Harold Fraser in addition to Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and other well known Pollard performers. The ages of performers were deliberately under-stated. Program in the author’s collection.

Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester had already managed several previous tours of the “Far East” and North America. It is hard to believe, but this writer can find no evidence that this troupe returned home before February 1907 – apparently a performance tour outside Australia of over two years. Even if the performers were not as young as claimed (Harold was 16, not 12, while Daphne Pollard was 14, not 10), it was an extraordinary undertaking for children at the time. Their tour of North America took them up and down the US East coast several times, and across most of Canada. The SS Moana brought most of them home in late February 1907.

By July 1907, the company, featuring Harold Fraser and many of the familiar Pollard performers, were back in Queensland performing and testing the usual favourite shows. Then the company departed again for the “far east,” Canada and the west coast of the USA. In early 1909, at the end of another very long tour, Charles Pollard announced his retirement and some of the older performers, including Harold Fraser and Alf Goulding, decided to form their own “adult” Pollard’s group. After a quick return home, Snub – accompanied by former Pollard troupe members Fred Bindloss (aka Fred Pollard), John Cherry (aka Jack Pollard), Eva Moore and Emily Davis sailed on the SS Aorangi for the US. They seem to have performed together for a year or so, then drifted apart – although the evidence suggests they remained on good terms.

pollards in 1910Snub_Pollard_&_Ernie_Morrison_-_Rolin_Comedies_Ad_1920.jpg
Above left: In 1910, Harold Fraser performed with some of the former Pollard’s Lilliputians, now adults, and now just calling themselves “the Pollards” in the US. Alfred Pollard may be Alf Goulding. Source; The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910. Via Newspapers.com. 
Above right: Ten years later. An ad for Rolin Comedies with Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison (“Pickaninny Sammy”). The ad from the Exhibitors Herald (Aug 7, 1920) shows a still from “Insulting the Sultan” (1920) which starred Pollard, Ernie Morrison, and Marie Mosquini, and was directed by old friend Alf Goulding. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The accounts of his entry into Hollywood’s emerging film industry vary considerably. Known in his early years as “Harry Pollard” (an unfortunate choice because actor-director Harry A. Pollard was already well established), film fans today delight in identifying him as an extra in some of the early films of Ben Turpin and Charlie Chaplin. However, the most plausible account of his entry into film-making was also the most simple, an explanation he gave to Table Talk in 1923, on a return visit to Melbourne rings true; “I just naturally drifted into them…I don’t exactly know how.” Harold’s background in vaudeville and his friendships with emerging filmmakers like Alf Goulding almost certainly helped. But the Lonesome Luke films made for Hal Roach between 1915 and 1917, where he played second fiddle to Harold Lloyd, helped establish him as a bankable and recognizable star. Although he had used the stage name “Snub” as early as 1915, it is from about 1917 that he adopted it consistently. This also coincides with his most prolific years – 1917 to 1924. The classic short It’s A Gift (watch it here) was made in 1923. His work output had already declined by the time talkies arrived, but he was still able to find supporting character and extra parts, generally of increasing insignificance. He remained busy almost until his death in 1962.

Above: Snub Pollard  with fellow Australians Joe and Vera White, and in the foreground, child actor Ernest Morrison or “Sunshine Sammy.” The photo appeared in Sydney’s Theatre Magazine, Jan 1, 1921, P25. Via State Library of Victoria.

During this final phase of his career – Harold displayed the skills of an unusually effective self-promoter, clearly intending to maintain his personal profile no matter what. However, its difficult to see his later film roles as professionally very rewarding. Even his cameo performance made no difference to the underwhelming 1934 Bushranger musical, Stingaree, (also featuring fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Robert Greig).

Left: Snub complains about Hollywood humour. Corsicana Daily Sun 14 May, 1957. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Snub with others discusses plans to combat communism. Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950. Via Newspapers.com

Harold Fraser remains much of an enigma to the student of cinema today. As an adult and without makeup he was average in every way – he weighed about 150 pounds, stood an average height of 167 centimeters (5 foot 6 inches), had receding brown hair and brown eyes. Interestingly, he had a tattoo on his right upper arm – although what it was or said is now unknown. It was noticeable enough to be listed on his citizenship documents. In his public commentary he did not assist any real understanding of himself, his comments were designed to promote “Snub Pollard” the star rather than reveal much about the man behind.

Above: Snub Pollard’s voice. From Just My Luck (1935). Here, Mr Smith (Snub Pollard/Harold Fraser) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers.  Snub appears to be channelling Stan Laurel. Video in the author’s collection.

Yet unlike many Australian performers of the time, Harold Fraser undertook the long sea voyage home to see his family, and he did it at the height of his popularity. In March and April 1923 he visited Melbourne, whilst on his honeymoon with Elizabeth, his second wife. He visited his parents – his father still driving a cab. He travelled to Portarlington to see his older brother George, a blacksmith. In the early 1920s, Harold also paid for his mother to travel to California to see him.

palmerston street       snub pollard wout makeup

Above left: About the time of Harold’s return visit in 1923, his parents moved into this house at 83 Palmerston Street, Carlton. It is interesting to speculate whether Harold purchased it for them. The ornamental parapet on this 1880s cottage is highly unusual and appears to be a later addition – perhaps dating to a renovation in the 1920s. This writer cannot think of another inner Melbourne terrace decorated this way. Is it the “Spanish style” more often found in Hollywood? Author’s Collection.
Above right: Harold Fraser aka “Snub” Pollard, at the time of his visit home to Melbourne. Author’s Collection.

Harold married three times – each ended unhappily. He married 17-year-old Myrtle Webb in April 1917 – he claimed to be 23 – but he was in fact 28. Within a matter of months the relationship had ended. He married Elizabeth Bowen in March 1922, claiming to be 30 – when he was now 33. This marriage also broke down and ended in divorce in 1927. In 1935 he married again, this time to Ruth Bridges aka Gibson. He was 46 by this time, but registered his age as 38. This relationship was also over by 1940. One error in age on a marriage certificate seems understandable. But the same error existing in all three marriage certificates perhaps points to other problems of identity and sense of self. Or, is it just a case of “everyone does it”?

snub and marie

Above: Snub Pollard on set with Hal Roach Studio co-star Marie Mosquini. In March 1922 it was reported they were engaged. They weren’t.

Perhaps the most famous late-life interview with Harold Fraser is the one syndicated in Australian papers in May 1951 under the headline – “Snub Pollard, Melbourne born silent day star looks back” Now consigned to extra and mostly non-speaking roles, he made the rather wistful statement; “The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.”

THe earl of Chicago Allen and Pollard

Above: screen grab showing Snub Pollard (right) as an extra in the background of “The Earl of Chicago” (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Harry Allen . Allen had a small speaking scene and fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

The stories about Snub became more inaccurate after his death from cancer in 1962. Brother of Daphne? An original Keystone Kop? No. But some newspapers reported so.

Harold’s mother died in Carlton in 1930, his father (a cabman to the end of his days) died ten years later. Harold’s sister May did not stay on stage. She returned to the family home in Leveson Street and became a dressmaker. In 1920 she married Claude Hill and moved to a comfortable house in Merton Street, South Melbourne. She died there in 1966.


Notes:

1. An original Keystone Kop?
Mack Sennett repeated the gag of 6 or 7 incompetent policemen in numerous short comedies, through to the early 1920s. We know the names of these performers, and Harold Fraser wasn’t one of them. The confusion almost certainly came about because in 1939’s “Hollywood Cavalcade”  C20th Fox’s film about silent film-making, Harold did act as a Keystone Kop. He also appeared as a policeman in several early comedies. On his death, several of the real surviving Kops gently attempted to correct the record and pointed out that in the early days, Harold had worked for Hal Roach, not Mack Sennett. (see Los Angeles Times, 24 Jan 1962). But the story has persisted anyway.

2. Origins of the stage name Snub?
While we know why he chose Pollard as a stage name, the significance of Snub and the later, lesser used “Peewee,” as stage names is unclear.

3. Birth certificate, showing his father’s profession
Snub Pollard was inclined to suggest his father was a racehorse owner. (See for example Pantomime Magazine Jan 7, 1922 “…father owns racehorses that have won many cups”)

When George and Isabella married in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1881, they gave their professions as jockey and barmaid respectively. Eight years later, George Gunn Fraser’s occupation is listed on young Harold’s 1889 birth certificate as a cab driver. Australian electoral rolls to the late 1920s also list him variously as a cab driver, cab proprietor and wagonette proprietor. Of course, he may still have been a racehorse owner as well.

Snub's birth cert

Above: Harold Fraser’s birth certificate, 1889.Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria
Transcription of Birth Certificate;
Columns
2 –  November 9th 1889. Courtney St. Town Hotham, County of Bourke
3 – Harold Hopetown. Not present
4 – Male
5 – George Gunn Fraser. Cab Driver. 34 years. Victoria [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – June 10, 1880, New Zealand [Date of marriage].  – Violet 8, George 5, Ralph 2, Georgina dead [Names and ages of other children]
7 – Isabella Fraser formerly Elliot, 30 years. Richmond Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]
8 – Isabella Fraser, mother, 59 Courtney St, Hotham. [informant]

 

Nick Murphy
February 2019

 

Further Reading

  • 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” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
    [This excellent book gives some idea of how the Pollard companies worked, but is concerned with the New Zealand wing of the family]
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Maryna Fraser (Ed), Edmund Bright, Thomas Richard Adlam (1985) Johannesburg Pioneer Journals, 1888-1909. (Excerpts from the memoirs of William T Powell) Van Riebeeck Society

Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

Newspapers.com

  • The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910.
  • Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950.
  • Corsicana Daily Sun, 14 May, 1957. 

Lantern Digital Media Project

Original documents sourced from