Nina Speight (1890-1965) of Hollywood, catarrh and colds

Above: 27 year old Melbourne girl Nina Speight on the cover of Lone Hand in October 1917. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina Speight arrived in California with her husband Rhodes Speight in April 1916. Within a year she was appearing in the supporting cast of Hal Roach comedies, especially those featuring Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels and usually in company with Snub Pollard, and sometimes at the direction of Alf Goulding.

Accurately tracing her films for the Roach studio is difficult, and the list provided by the IMDB today seems strangely incomplete and difficult to verify. In several of the films attributed to her, this writer was unable to identify anyone who resembled her. Several photos currently circulating on the net claiming to show Nina with Harold Lloyd may match known images of her, but by far the most reliable list of her work has been produced here by Jesse Brisson, on the very comprehensive website run by Dave Lord Heath. It seems her most active years at the Roach studio were 1917 and 1918.

When Clubs are trump 19172 When Clubs are trump 1917

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight with unidentified actors in Hal Roach’s When Clubs are Trump, 1917. Both these are from low res Youtube versions of the film.

The flirt 1917 Hey There! 1918

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight  – a fleeting appearance in The Flirt (1917) and at right in a longer part as Bebe Daniel’s maid, poking out her tongue at her mistress, in Hey There (1918), both taken from Youtube versions of the films.

Growing up in Australia

Below: Nina Speight on the cover of The Lone Hand, March 1916. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. The photo is attributed to Kenelm Stump. Readers interested in the challenge of identifying her in the Roach films are recommended to follow the link to the full scale photo.

Nina 1916Nina was born Simelia Präger in Fergie Street, North Fitzroy, Melbourne on 18 January, 1890. Her father, 39 year old Henry Präger, was a maker of waterproof clothing, describing himself on her birth certificate as a “mackintosh manufacturer.” Born in Prague in what was then part of the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, he had migrated to Australia and in 1889 married 19 year old Isabella Nathan of Melbourne. In view of her age, Isabella’s father Samuel had to give permission for the marriage.

Although two other children were born of the union (Leslie in 1894 and Ruth in 1898), the marriage was not a happy one. In 1898 and now in Sydney, Isabella instituted proceedings against Henry because she feared he might abandon her and the children, and flee the colony. She had already been dragged from “colony to colony” at his whim – Victoria, South Australia, New Zealand and New South Wales. Her brother Isidore Nathan supported the family after finding Isabella and the three children destitute. None of this indicates a very happy or stable childhood for “Minnie” as Simelia now called herself (Minnie was also her grandmother’s name).


On to stage and screen

In 1910 in Sydney, New South Wales, Minnie married Reginald Rhodes Speight. Exactly how she drifted onto the stage we do not know, but from a young age she had been an artist’s model (Datillo Rubbio, Evelyn Chapman and Julian Ashton were mentioned as using her) and a vaudeville performer. The decorator for Brisbane’s Daniel Hotel reportedly based some of their murals on her. It is also likely that Minnie appeared in at least one early Australian film, Gaston Mervale‘s The Wreck of the Dunbar” with Louise Lovely (then Louise Carbasse) in 1912, but little is known of this lost film and the claim is impossible to verify.

Rhodes Speight was also an aspiring actor and elocutionist, with a high opinion of himself and dreams of establishing his own actors school. He was also an investor, and involved with films made by the Australian Life Biograph company in 1911-12. He apparently produced and starred in another lost Australian film entitled “Saved by a Snake,” which he took on tour to provincial theatres in 1913, providing a narration with each screening. In 1915 he took the bushranger film Thunderbolt” through northern Queensland, again providing audiences with an accompanying lecture. The concept of a live narration to a movie may boggle the mind today, but it was not uncommon practice in the early years of silent film.

Equally active in the partnership, Minnie Rhodes, as Nina then called herself, appeared in vaudeville troupes travelling through regional New South Wales, singing, dancing and acting as a foil for male comedians. By 1915 she had become Nina Speight and was performing on stage in Brisbane, Queensland. Both Rhodes and Nina were firm believers in the concept of re-inventing oneself, including by change of name, whenever necessary.

Nina in 1915

Above: Nina Speight appearing in Brisbane in July 1915. The Brisbane Courier, 3 Jul 1915.  Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina and colds 1915

Above: Well before arriving in the US, Nina had a high enough Australian profile to advertise a cold cure in the Brisbane Daily Standard Fri 24 September 1915 . Her achievements as a model were also listed. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

There is no conclusive evidence that Nina Speight was close to Louise Lovely , although they must have known each other through the Australian Life Biograph company. In December 1914 Louise Lovely and her husband Wilton Welch had sailed to the US and by early 1916 she was established in Hollywood, and her first film Stronger than Death, had been released. It was the start of a very successful career for Louise. It is very likely that this success, and that of other Australians working in the US like Enid Bennett and Arthur Shirley, played a part in what happened next. Nina and Rhodes packed up and left Australia for good in 1916.

The Vampire Dance

Above: Nina’s “Vampire Dance” as reported in The Lone Hand. Vol. 5 No. 6 (1 May 1916),  Yet there is no evidence she performed this popular dance anywhere on stage in Australia before she departed for the US. It is likely this was a posed photo-shoot for publicity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina wrote home soon after, with all the good news from the US. She was modelling for artists again, and working with San Francisco’s Sarsi Studio. She expected work with a Movie studio soon. A further report on her career appeared in the June 1917 edition of “The Moving Picture World,” alongside profiles of five other aspiring stars. By this time, she had been signed to work with the Hal Roach studio, being possessed of much “beauty and charm” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Moving Picture World June 1917
Above: Nina introduces herself to fans via The Moving Picture World. June 1917. Here, she claimed to have been born in Austria, while the typsetter had misspelled her name. Via Lantern, the Digital Media Project.

Trying something else

In mid-1918, after appearing in, perhaps, 18 films for Roach, where she generally took secondary soubrette roles, Nina joined Arthur Morse Moon‘s company onstage in The Wrong Bird, commencing a tour that started in Salt Lake City. Sadly Moon died of pneumonia only a few months later, and the tour was suddenly over. Returning to acting for the screen under yet another name – Nina Rhodes, she appeared in two films starring Eddie Boland. And then, no more. Her marriage to Rhodes Speight founded soon after, although she may have found some solace in the fact her mother had moved to the US, as had her sister Ruth, who married a US sailor. Her brother Leslie also briefly lived with her in Los Angeles, before moving to Europe and raising a large family in Belgium, a country he had seen when in Australian army service during the war. Rhodes Speight changed his name again, and pursued other interests.

We know little of Nina’s later life. Sometime in the 1920s she partnered with Louis Wagner, a studio carpenter, and bore him two children, both of whom died prematurely. Strangely, she was not completely forgotten in her native country. For almost twenty years she was one of the many celebrity faces advertising medicinal products in Australian newspapers. The last of these advertisments – for Hean’s Tonic Nerve Nuts, appeared in 1934, more than ten years after she appeared in her last Hollywood film, and long after she had left it all behind.

The Bulletin 1917 Nina in The Sun 1932

Above – Nina endorsing Hean’s “Tonic Nerve Nuts” in Australia. Left: The Bulletin. 18 Oct 1917.
Right: The Sun 21 December 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. You can read more about Hean’s products in an extensive article at the Australian Variety Theatre Archive.

She died in California in March 1965, as Nina Wagner.


Nick Murphy

May 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web

Lantern, the Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • San Francisco Chronicle, · Thu, Mar 29, 1917 · Page 6
  • Los Angeles Times, APril 1, 1917 Page 31
  • Los Angeles Times, Dec 20, 1917 Page 15
  • The Salt Lake Tribune, · 12 Jun 1918, Wed · Page 9

US National Archives

  • Passenger arrival lists, applications for citizenship and US census returns via Family Search and Ancestry.com.

Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria.

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, but this is partly because in mid 1904, at the age of about fifteen, he and his younger sister May joined Pollard’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.

The Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour Harold and May joined was organised by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, who had managed several previous tours of 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.

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. John 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.

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

Stars of Old Fitzroy

The inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, looking north from St. Vincent’s hospital. Gertrude Street can be seen in the foreground. Author’s Collection.

Fitzroy stars 4

Although much of the suburb of Fitzroy has been redeveloped, many of the homes of the actors featured on this site still exist. The Melbourne online encyclopedia reminds us that Fitzroy was amongst the city’s first suburbs, land being auctioned in the area as early as 1839. So this concentration of creative personalities is not all that surprising. It was a small area with great contrasts in wealth, education and opportunity.


A: Mary Maguire (1919-1974)

Born Ellen Theresa Maguire in 1919 in South Melbourne, “Peggy” later “Mary” Maguire was the daughter of well-known Melbourne publicans. The Academy of Mary Immaculate educated all the five Maguire girls until the family moved to Brisbane c 1932. Her overly ambitious parents ended up taking her on to Hollywood and then England in pursuit of a film career.

Her aunts and uncles ran numerous Melbourne hotels while her grandparents lived in the inner east of the city – Richmond and Hawthorn.

Maguire-enrolment-1

A school enrolment from another era! Peggy Maguire’s (spelled McGuire) enrolment record at the Academy of Mary Immaculate in 1923. Her pet name was good enough apparently, plus father’s name and his hotel in Bourke Street! How different to the 21st Century. Courtesy Academy of Mary Immaculate.

B: Maie Saqui (1879-1907)

May Saqui was born at 120 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy (a building that still stands) in 1879. She was the daughter of well known Melbourne bookmaker and property developer John I Saqui. After some success in Australia, in 1897 she travelled alone to London where she developed a successful career, appearing as a very young “Gaiety Girl” in the George Edwards company in London. Maie’s sisters Gladys and Hazel also had careers on stage.

120 and 122 Nicholson St

Both buildings at 120 and 122 Nicholson street, still private residences, were owned at various times by the Saqui family.


C: Saharet (1878-1964)

Paulina Clarissa Molony was born in Rowena Parade, Richmond in 1878 and grew up in a number of inner Melbourne locations, including the notorious Little Lon area of central Melbourne. In 1881, her mother gave birth to her sister Julia (Millicent) at 168 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy. A building in Nicholson Street still stands at that address. Performing in the US and Europe as Saharet, Paulina Clarissa became one of the most celebrated dancers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Boarding House Nicholson St Fitzroy

168 Nicholson street, Fitzroy was possibly a boarding house in 1881. The current building, in the centre of the photo may also have been built after Saharet’s sister’s birth. However, the site is one of few surviving links to Saharet in Melbourne.


D: Harry Allen (1877-1951)

Born at 2 Barkly St, Carlton, Melbourne, in 1877. Henry “Harry” Radford Allen worked hard to establish himself in Australia. He moved to New York and after performing there with some success, found himself in film. In the later part of his career he was working in Hollywood, taking on minor supporting and often un-credited roles, generally as a cockney cabman, a doorman, a butler or similar. Harry had at least 100 film credits of this type.

Possibly No 2 Barkley St Carlton

Although many of the small cottages in this area have been demolished, it is possible his birthplace was similar to this one, a cottage surviving as part of a tyre business on the corner of Barkly St and Johnston St in Carlton.


E: Daphne Pollard (Daphne Trott)(1891-1978)

Born at 56 Kerr St, Fitzroy, Victoria, in 1891 (in a building that survives).
The Trott family (father Walter was a French Polisher) also lived at 96 King William St, Fitzroy c1903-5 (The 5 room dwelling was demolished by 1960)

Daphne was active with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company from 1898-1907, then on stage in the US and UK, then in Hollywood 1927-1935, appearing in about 60 films. Her sister Ivy Trott (1887-1984 ) also joined several Pollard performance tours.

54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy

Above: The former Trott home at 56 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, where Daphne was born, is the left of the single story pair of cottages, and is still a private residence.


F: Alf Goulding (1885-1972) & Irene Goulding (1888-1987)

Alf Goulding was born in Richmond on 26 January 1885, while Irene was born in Collingwood in 1888, (both houses have been demolished)

Alf’s family, with sibling Frank (junior)(1883-1897) lived at 431 George St Fitzroy at the time of mother Maggie’s sudden death in 1895.
Alf’s father Frank Goulding, an actor and part time bootmaker, then lived in a number of modest houses in Fitzroy in the early C20th – at 49 King William Street in 1914 (building survives), at 235 Fitzroy St in 1919 (demolished) and at 25 Hanover Street by 1931 (also demolished).

431-george-st

Above: The white terrace was the Goulding home at 432 George St, Fitzroy, when Maggie died in 1895.

All three Goulding children joined Pollards Lilliputian Opera tours in the late 1890s. Alf did 6 tours between 1896 and 1909, increasingly taking on stage management. Irene did 3 tours while Frank only 1- he died of Smallpox while touring in India in 1897. Alf went on to a long career as a director in Hollywood.


G: Oscar (1891-1939) Freddie (1895-1949) & Johnnie (1895-1945) Heintz

All three Heintz boys joined tours of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company.

Oscar Heintz was born when the family lived at 183 George St, Fitzroy on 17 March 1891
(The building survives). Twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz were born when the family lived at 101 Argyle St, Fitzroy, on 3 December 1895. (This building also survives)

For many years the Heintz family lived at 84 Kerr St, Fitzroy. John Heintz, a baker, died in 1900. A few years later, his three boys joined the lengthy Pollard tour of Asia and North America, that departed Melbourne in July 1904 and returned home in February 1907. Although aged only 16, Oscar stayed on in the US. Freddie and Johnnie Heintz travelled again with another Pollard tour that departed later in 1907, and also another ill-fated Pollard Indian tour in 1909.

IMG_6740

Above – the former Heintz home at 84 Kerr St, Fitzroy is the cottage with the red door. It is still a private residence.


H: Florrie Forde (1876-1940)

Born 16 August 1875, in Gertrude St, Fitzroy (the exact address is not listed on her birth certificate).
The likely location is the former United Service Club Hotel on the corner of Young Street and Gertrude St, run by her father Lott Flannagan. (This building survives)
Florrie first appeared on stage in Sydney in early 1892. In 1897 she appeared in London for the first time. She became a popular favourite in British music hall, also appearing as herself in a few British films.

IMG_0229

Above: The former United Service Club Hotel.


Nick Murphy
Updated April 2021

Willie Thomas’ great adventure with Pollard’s Lilliputians

Above: Enlargement of a group photo of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in Manila, 1903. Willie Thomas is at right. Also shown – from left Teddie McNamara, Oscar Heintz, Fred Bindlass. Willie was the only one of these boys not to move to the US. Photo courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

The 5 second version
Born William (Willie) Thomas in Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, 1 January 1889,
died Boulder, Western Australia, 1969. Willie Thomas was in some respects the typical performer in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Born in working class inner Melbourne, he was picked to join at least four extended Pollard company tours of the Far East and North America, between 1901 and 1907. His sister Emma, (born Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, 12 January 1885) also performed for Pollard’s and later accompanied as a supervisor.
On leaving the company, Willie became a butcher in Sunshine, Melbourne, and later in Western Australia.

“Willie” Thomas was a child performer in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, as it toured cities in South East Asia and North America, several times, between 1901 and 1907. He is shown below with his older sister Emma Thomas, while the company was in Vancouver.

willie and may
Willie was perhaps 14 and Emma 17 when this photo was taken c1902-4. Behind him in the peaked cap is Charles Pollard, company manager. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Used with their permission.

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

Much of the history of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company is lost to us today and confusingly, there was more than one troupe of performers using this or a similar name in the early twentieth century.  Managed by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, we know that they ran several extended and highly acclaimed tours to the Philippines, Japan, China and North America between 1901 and 1909 – each lasting a year or more, punctuated by a short break of a few months at home in Melbourne. This troupe is also of interest historically, because so many of its performers were from working-class inner Melbourne. And a number of its performers also went on to stay on in the US and work in Hollywood – including Alf Goulding, Harry Fraser or “Snub Pollard“, Daphne Pollard, Teddy McNamara, Fred Pollard (Fred Bindlass) and Jack Pollard (John Cherry). And the talented Willie Thomas from Collingwood worked amongst them on the three performance trips – September 1901-October 1902, January 1903-April 1904, and July 1904- February 1907.

Pollards in San Francisco Nov 16 1901 at the Tivoli Opera House,
Above: Part of the program for Pollard’s performing at the Tivoli Opera House, San Francisco on November 16, 1901. Both Willie (12) and Emma (16) have leading roles in The Belle of New York. Author’s Collection.

Historian Gillian Arrighi points out that several Australian companies employed child actors for prolonged offshore tours at this time. This practice enabled the producers to avoid contravening child labour and education laws in newly federated Australia. And apparently it was lucrative – for families and the organisers. Child performers made pocket-money selling postcards of themselves, while parents back in Australia were paid sometimes in advance or via a trust fund.

Pollards c 1903

Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in costume, taken in the US about 1905. It appears to show Willie Thomas, second from right at the front, next to Daphne Pollard. The two little boys fourth and fifth from the left in the front row are Freddie and Johnnie Heintz. In the  postwar world Johnnie became a pastry cook in Adelaide. Freddie tried his luck acting again in the US. Copy of postcard courtesy Robert Maynard

The Thomas’ names are also found amongst other Pollard performers on the shipping manifests of the time. More interesting are the accounts that appeared in US and Australian papers as they travelled, that documented some of their experiences. By 1905, Willie was amongst the Company’s leading performers.

Sioux_City_Journal_Wed__May_28__1902_     San Francisco Chronicle 6 Sept 1903 cropped

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

willie Thomas4

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

Willie and Emma’s final North American tour with Pollard’s seems to have ended in early 1907, when he was 17 and she was 21 – both now too old to convincingly be presented as child actors. (Emma appears to have travelled as a non performing adult on this tour). Perhaps also, this marathon Pollard tour of 1905-1907 convinced Willie that performing on stage was not what he wanted to do.

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

Above: Willie Thomas’ makeup box. Map – The Pollard Company’s “Grand Tour” of North America (March 1905- Jan 1907) avoided much time in the eastern USA, where child labour law made performances impossible. The troupe was in Sacramento during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The map is based on Midas Martyn‘s diary. Thanks to Catherine Crocker for sharing this information. Courtesy Google Maps. Click to go to the google map – the author’s attempt to illustrate this extraordinary tour.

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

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


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

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


Above: William and Albert (enlargement)  in France c1918. Photos courtesy of Robert Maynard

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

William Thomas’s Butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine. William Thomas is proudly holding his daughter Emma, with brother Albert (second from left) and nephew William (at right) and another butcher. Before widespread refrigeration, the horse and gig was a quick and convenient way to sell and deliver meat. Photo Courtesy Robert Maynard.
Advert at right from the Sunshine Advocate, 9 June 1928, Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

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

A few years after Willie Thomas’ final tour, the era of the travelling troupes of Australian children came to an end. In 1909, another Pollard family member, Arthur Hayden Pollard, who had been on some of the North American trips, raised a mostly new troupe to perform in South East Asia and India. It was a disaster and amid the claims of impropriety, cruelty and underpayment, the troupe broke up in February 1910, with the children forced to find local support to make their own way home. New Federal legislation in 1910 banned Australian children travelling overseas to perform.

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

Emma Thomas 1950s

Above: Emma Thomas (left) in the 1950s, welcoming Mr and Mrs Pettit on a visit to Melbourne. The Pettits employed William as a butcher in Western Australia by this time. The days of Pollards Lilliputians were far behind. Photo courtesy Robert Maynard.

Note:

Emma and Willie travelled with the following Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tours of South East Asia and North America under the leadership of Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester:

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

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

3. Departing on a Queensland tour July – Sept 1904, then to “the far east” late September 1904, then SS Empress of India arriving Vancouver BC, March 1 1905.
Apparently returning home on the SS Moana in February 1907, an extraordinary tour of 32 months.

Another Pollards trip departed sometime in June 1907, arriving in the US on the SS Hong Kong Maru from Yokohama, Japan on Mar 3, 1908. They arrived home in Australia on RMS Makura on April 17, 1909. Emma and Willie were not on this final trip or its disastrous follow-up to India organised and led by Arthur Haydon Pollard.


Nick Murphy, Updated March 2020

Special Thanks

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


Further Reading

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.


Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daphne Pollard (1891-1978) – I had to know 36 operas!

Daphne Pollard, c 1920. Author’s Collection

Daphne Pollard UK003
The 5 second version
Born Daphne Trott in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 19 October 1891, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA on 22 February 1978. A child performer with the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from 1897 to 1907, she travelled through South East Asia, Canada and the United States on at least four extended tours before becoming a very popular comedy performer on stage in the US and Britain in her own right. She was busy appearing in films in Hollywood, late in her career – 1927-36. Most of her family moved to the US with her in 1908.

The talented actress Daphne Pollard was born Daphne Trott at 56 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, in October 1891 to Walter Trott and Annie nee Daniels. She was one of those rare gifts to the stage – she could sing and dance and became an expert in slapstick – the physical comedy so popular at the start of the twentieth century. Standing less than 1.40 metres tall (or 4 foot eight inches as she claimed) as an adult, she was on stage from the age of six. She was a good-looking child performer, with great confidence for her age. She was to become the star attraction of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, an Australian troupe (or more accurately – series of troupes) featuring talented children usually from the inner Melbourne suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood, who took on the adult roles in musical comedies. However, Gillian Arrighi has reminded us that the musical comedies performed by Pollard’s, such as their perennial favourite, A Gaiety Girl, were suggestive, with plots preoccupied with sexual relationships – or “playful gambolling on the verge of indecency” as Edwardian theatre critic William Archer wrote (see Arrighi p.154).

Daphne photographed in Shanghai Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)

Two photos attributed to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai,
Left – Daphne Pollard Source -National library of Australia.
Right –
Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. Courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Used with permission.

As an example, consider the lyrics of the song “Baby Baby” from The Lady Slavey:
“Lovers are silly young things you know and I am as silly as any.
I’ve worn two engagement rings you know, but two, you’ll agree are not many”

It is interesting to reflect on the impact of a childhood spent growing up “on stage” – as Daphne and some of the Pollard’s children experienced. There is little evidence to help us – although Willie Thomas’ and Leah Leichner’s stories may contain some clues. Daphne spoke briefly about the experience shortly after she married in 1911, when she told the Los Angeles Herald  “I’m off for good now; no more acting for me. I’ve had enough. Twelve years on the stage is really long enough, and It’s not my fault that I had all that twelve years before I was 20 years of age. I used to like it, of course, and when I was a kiddie and we traveled about a lot and had nice times with the other children. It was lots of fun, but for two years now I have known that this glamour was gone and I have wanted to leave.” But in spite of these sentiments, she did not leave the stage.

In time, Daphne Trott was to become an outstanding vaudevillian in her own right. The headline photo on the top of this page shows her in 1920, at the height of her popularity on the London stage. Like Harry Fraser (Snub Pollard), she took the stage name Pollard, partly as convenience but also because many of the company performers liked to maintain the pretence of belonging to a family troupe. Later in careers it was a familiar and easy remembrance of times past.

In Melbourne, Daphne Trott’s father Walter and an uncle ran a large furniture upholstery and French polishing business, although the Melbourne depression of the 1890s hit the family’s fortunes hard. We don’t know what attracted Daphne to the stage – perhaps as a child she saw that other well-known Fitzroy girl, Florrie Forde perform at the Melbourne Opera House or the Theatre Royal. Daphne joined Pollard’s troupe in about 1897, with older sisters Ivy and Myrtle. The family lived in nearby Young Street, later moving to a larger 5 room dwelling at 96 King William Street, Fitzroy.

King William St and Brunswick St
About the time of Daphne’s departure for the US, the Trott family business operated on the corner of King William St and Brunswick St, Fitzroy (site now occupied by the orange and white supermarket in the distance). Their shop and probably a home behind may have looked like the building on the right. Author’s Collection. 

54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy

56 Kerr St, Fitzroy, was listed as Daphne Trott’s October 1891 birthplace and the family home for most of the 1890s. It is hard to believe this very modest single story terrace house had room for a baby and five older siblings! Only 10 houses away in this street lived the Heintz family, whose twin boys Freddie and Johnnie also travelled on tour with Daphne.

In early September 1901 the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company sailed for an extended tour of South East Asia, Canada and the United States, under the management of Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester.

Daphne and Ivy Trott Nov 1901

Above: Pollard’s Lilliputians performing at the San Francisco Tivoli in November 1901. Daphne (Pollard), Myrtle Trott (Pollard) and Ivy Trott all performed. Nine years later, some of this cast would be performing on Pollard’s ill fated tour of India, but not Daphne and her sisters. Author’s Collection.

Only a few days before Daphne’s departure, the Trott’s much loved youngest child, four year old Wally, died as a result of typhoid fever. He had lingered in the Children’s Hospital for several weeks. (The story that he broke his neck doing somersaults on the bed on the eve of Daphne’s departure seems to be just that, another showbiz story). Although Wally’s headstone lies broken and forgotten at Kew cemetery, the surviving inscription reveals the depth of the family’s grief. It must have taken great strength for Daphne and her sisters to leave Australia. Twelve months later, in October 1902, the company arrived home, having won positive reviews up and down the North American west coast.

Wally Trott

“So dearly loved, so deeply mourned.”  Wally Trott’s headstone at Kew Cemetery. Author’s Collection.

Performing for the Pollard opera companies was not for the faint-hearted. Their Australasian and overseas tours involved rigorous preparatory training and took child performers away from home for months, sometimes a year or more. The company were on a second tour between January 1903 and April 1904.

In May 1904, before departing on a third extended tour, an effort by Ernest Wolffe, the Pollard’s ex-musical director, to entice the child performers away to form a new breakaway group, led to a messy court case in Melbourne’s Supreme Court. It also revealed some of the Company’s workings – that the parents of Pollard’s child performers would be paid via a trust fund – generally 10 shillings a month in the first 6 months, followed by £1 per month thereafter. Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester provided a tutor and paid for all the travel costs and accommodation. The child performers made pocket money by selling autographed souvenir photos after each show. Operating outside Australia, laws regarding education did not apply.

Not withstanding his offers of higher pay, Wolffe’s efforts failed. The court apparently found the children’s existing contracts with Pollard’s were still valid. Daphne and Ivy Trott resumed their arrangements with the company. Following a short season in July – September 1904, testing and refining their repertoire for Queensland audiences, the Pollard Lilliputians arrived in North America in March 1905. Their stops along the way had included 5 months performing for enthusiastic colonial audiences in the “Far East”, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan.

Pollards advertised Calgary Herald 3 Jan 1906
Pollard’s advertising-already picking out its most popular stars during its third tour of North America. The Calgary Herald, 3 January 1906 via Newspapers.com

One surviving photo from this tour shows some of the performers and supervising adults sitting on the steps of the Badminton hotel in Vancouver. At the front, sitting slightly apart and wearing a large hat, is young Daphne, her poise and confidence unmistakable. Her 17 year old sister Ivy, an accomplished performer who also performed on this tour, stands on the left at the back. Also in the back row stand Alf Goulding and Harry Fraser – both of whom, like Daphne, would eventually find their way to Hollywood.

Ivy and Daphne c 1905

Above:  Ivy Trott (14) and Daphne Trott or Pollard (11) in Vancouver in c1901-2. Enlarged from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey and used with their kind permission.

Program notes from performances in Montreal, Canada in 1905 reveal a typical Pollard’s schedule, which included six different popular musical comedies delivered across a week of performances – A Runaway Girl; The Belle of New York; A Gaiety Girl; The Geisha; HMS Pinafore and The Lady Slavey. It was no leisurely tour. Years later Daphne told a reporter;
“As a child actress in the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company… I had to know thirty six operas by heart. (In) one I played the part of an old sheriff with side-whiskers, although I was only twelve at the time. One of the side-whiskers came off before the audience, but that, of course, made it all the funnier. We were all children, but we included grand opera in our repertoire.”

filmstars041
Part of a Pollard program from Montreal during their marathon 1904-07 North American tour. The ages are obviously wrong. Author’s Collection.

In February 1907, the Pollard marathon two + year tour finally ended, and most of the Company returned home on the SS Moana. It must have become obvious by this time that Daphne’s future was not just performing with Pollard’s. By mid-1907, Daphne and Ivy had accepted contracts with Frank W. Healy’s San Francisco Opera Company and they began performances later that year. For the next nine years Daphne performed in vaudeville throughout the United States, more or less continuously, developing her skills and attracting widespread acclaim. (Ivy married and left the stage in 1908.)

In 1908, the Trott parents and all but one of Daphne’s siblings followed her to North America, settling permanently in Seattle. It was a dramatic move, one that must have taken some deliberation by the whole family. And now, aged 19, Daphne felt more confident than ever to express her views. In April 1910 she announced that she supported a woman’s right to vote – a right enjoyed by most women in her native Australia but not yet granted to women in the United States. “Votes for Women. I’m going to march in the streets and carry a banner” she told a Seattle Star journalist. Her renown and popularity was such that she was chosen as Seattle’s first ever Queen of the Golden Potlatch Festival (now known as the Seafair Festival) the following year. Soon after, in a joyful and rather theatrical elopement, she married journalist Ellington Strother Bunch.

Daphe Pollard cropped

Above: Daphne in about 1907, at the time she joined Frank Healey’s San Francisco Opera. Author’s collection.

If Daphne really did intend to retire after her 1911 marriage, she changed her mind soon after. By mid – 1916, Daphne was a seasoned enough performer to know the ways audiences in different US cities responded. She was also deeply immersed in her stagecraft and most unusually for the time, she was prepared to pause and publicly reflect on it. In a lengthy expose of the art of a typical review performance, for The Green Book Magazine, she wrote;

“The principal first out does her scene, usually not an important one so early in the evening, and exits after a song or dance number, marking the time for applause. The audience speaks then, and—believe me—there is not one of us who has not learned to judge its tone…If the applause is liberal and pretty much from all parts of the house, hopes soar high…

Next out may be the second comedian. He notches up the pace, sets the whole show a pitch higher and works like a fiend, all the time trying to gauge results and get bearings… By the time the first act is on its feet, we’ve got that audience so well sized up that each of us knows to a nicety the impression he or she will make.”


Pollard                Zig Zag France023

Above left: Program for Albert De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” 1917. Author’s Collection.
Right: Program for De Courville’s 1917 Folies Bergere production, showing Shirley Kellogg on the cover. It also starred Daphne. The Australian war memorial holds an identical program, except with Daphne Pollard on the cover. (You can read it online) Author’s collection.

Following the success of another review The Passing Show of 1915 and at the height of the Great War, she traveled to London. There she appeared in a string of very popular revues at the Hippodrome for Albert De Courville. Zig-Zag! opened in January 1917 and was followed by Box o’ Tricks in 1918. (De Courville’s company also performed at the Folies-Bergere in Paris.) In 1919 she appeared in Joy Bells with another experienced Australian-born, US-based comedian, Leon Errol in the cast. In all, she spent almost ten years in London, taking a break for the birth of her only child – Ellington Walter Bunch in 1922 and a short return to New York to appear in the Greenwich Village Follies in late 1923. Daphne Pollard is jointly credited as composer of several of the pieces performed in these shows. Reviews of her work continued to be enthusiastic and she easily managed both US and British cultural contexts. Friend Stan Laurel recalled one of her stage acts, as a “Cockney dame” (‘Arriet ‘Emmingway from Huntershire County “Hingland”), who struggled to manage the transition to living in the US. This character was later recycled as the theme of the short films America or Bust (1930) and Help wanted, Female (1931).

Filmstars002

Above: London Sunday Pictorial. 25 February 1917. Daphne Pollard is in the centre. Author’s collection
Above: Daphne Pollard sings “The Ragtime Germ” for De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” in 1917. She is credited with composing this with Cass Downing and John T. Murray. (Not to be confused with a 1911 song with the same name). Her voice seems typical of British musical hall performers of the time. Author’s Collection.

Below: Daphne in costume for  the song “The Ragtime Germ”. Source – “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,” March 24, 1917. Via British Library Newspaper Archive Project

Rag time germ

By 1927 Daphne Pollard had been active on stage for thirty years, almost continuously, when Mack Sennett finally convinced her to appear in Hollywood films. Sennett had apparently made a few approaches to her earlier in her career. It’s quite likely that the astute Daphne Pollard also saw vaudeville and music theatre as under siege from the booming cinema industry, and decided to jump ship for purely practical reasons. Her surviving movies often mislead the casual reader today to think these were the sum of her working life. In fact, her 60 Hollywood films, made for Sennett and later RKO and then Universal were merely a footnote – most of them made in a period of just five years.

Sennett was a prolific producer, director and actor, who churned out over 1400 titles during his career. His fondness for slapstick and physical comedy was firmly rooted in vaudeville and of course, for him, Daphne Pollard was another actress trained in this tradition. One of Sennett’s former editors, William Hornbeck, interviewed by writer Kevin Brownlow years later, commented on how unsophisticated Sennett’s films often were, even for the time. Many of the films Daphne appeared in were made during the transition of silent to sound films, and as filmmakers like Sennett struggled to adapt to what worked in this new dimension, the humour often fell flat. And seen today, audiences may find the humour tasteless and some of the story-lines weak. The blackface ending to Two Smoked Hams (1934) and the burning building rescue in His First Flame (1935) are two obvious examples of seriously outdated humour.

DP1916Daphne Pollard’s first film for Sennett was The Girl from Everywhere (1927), a 20 minute comedy with Carole Lombard. She appeared in several more with Lombard, including Run Girl, Run and The Campus Carmen, both made in 1928. Several of these were directed by her friend and one time neighbour from inner Melbourne, and an old Pollard Lilliputian Opera associate, Alf Goulding.

Above- Daphne Pollard as an everyday adult, on a passport application, in about 1916. Via Ancestry, via US National Archives 

As a consequence of Sennett’s prolific approach, her roles over the next few years were varied and while she sometimes appeared as one of the leading players, character roles, especially the fussy mother or the English servant, had become her stock in trade. In the otherwise dull 1930 sound musical Bright Lights, Daphne and Tom Dugan provide the comic relief playing a feuding married couple. In 1931’s The Lady Refuses she plays the eccentric maid.

Only occasionally in her films do we see flashes of her skills as an extraordinarily energetic and highly experienced vaudeville performer– as when she demonstrates her admirable comic timing by snapping her teeth at Oliver Hardy in Thicker Than Water in 1935, or when she dances for the leading juveniles with such confidence and ease in Kid Dynamite made in 1943. But we can see her skills at their best when she takes the coquette role, one she had performed so often on the stage, wooing fireman “Smokey Mo” (Shemp Howard) in His First Flame, made in 1935. When she throws her handkerchief in front of him to gain his attention, and then wrestles him onto a park bench, it is a sequence straight from the vaudeville tradition. “I love you, I love you, I love you” she says aggressively, with her foot in Howard’s face.

his first flame

Above: Screen grab of Daphne Pollard and Shemp Howard in His First Flame (1935). Author’s collection. Howard’s pre-3 Stooges films are currently available to collectors on DVD.

Her well known straight role, as Oliver Hardy’s shrewish wife in the Hal Roach studio films Our Relations and Thicker than Water marked the end of her intensive Hollywood career. When she appeared in her last brief and un-credited role in Laurel and Hardy’s very silly The Dancing Masters, in 1943, she had been performing for 46 years.

She died in Los Angeles in 1978, her passing reported in the US but completely unnoticed in Australia. In time, the usual nonsense was written about her by eager fans – that she was sister of “Snub Pollard” or that her “Australian accent” got in the way of a career in sound films. Even the most perfunctory research shows neither proposition to be true.

Back home in Australia, Daphne’s older sister Hilda, having married Percy Wood, a Melbourne plumber, enjoyed a happy but childless marriage. She spent her last years living a few hundred metres from the Hoyts Merri Theatre in North Fitzroy, where presumably, she went to watch her sister’s movies. The descendants of Daphne Trott and her family now all live in the US.

Daphne Pollard the Passing ShowWhat sort of person was she? Unfortunately we only have sketchy evidence to make a conclusion. Historian Bill Egan has pointed out to this writer that Daphne led a threatened walkout when African-American performer Florence Mills shared the stage and the advertising for the Greenwich Village Follies in New York in late 1923. It is difficult to see this as anything other than professional jealousy and race prejudice, a point that was made even at the time. 

Stan Laurel’s correspondence seems to suggest she was a feisty and forceful personality. Yet we also know that she maintained an affection for all her old friends into later life. When Teddy McNamara died of pneumonia in Hollywood in 1928, she attended his funeral with all the old Pollard Company performers. Willie Thomas, another performer from Pollard’s caught up with her in London in 1918, while he was on leave from the Australian forces on the Western Front. Meeting her backstage at the London Hippodrome was, Willie always said, a joyful reunion.

Above: Daphne with George Munroe in “The Passing Show.” The Pittsburg Press, 27 June 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

Nick Murphy,
Updated June 2021


Note 1: The origin of the story that the “Emperor of China” wanted to buy her apparently has its origins in the following story. Zhang Zhidong was a high ranking Chinese official in the Qing Dynasty. The offensive comment attributed to Daphne may be true but as the contemporary journalist noted, the entire story is likely an exaggeration.

hong kong daily press daphne pollard story 1905 05 27

Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. Via Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

References:

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
  • Public Record Office, Melbourne. Supreme Court Civil cases 1904/329 Pollard and Chester v Wolffe.

Publications

  • 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.
  • Bill Egan (2004) Florence Mills : Harlem jazz queen. Scarecrow Press.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) “India Dark.” Allen & Unwin Australia.
    See also https://insideadog.com.au/blog/incredible-india (India Dark is a fictional retelling of the disastrous Pollard tour of India in 1909 – but none of the Trott children performed in this)
  • 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
  • Various (1888) “Victoria and its Metropolis, Past and Present. The Colony and its people in 1888.” Volume 11B. McCarron Bird and Co, Melbourne. P. 621. (See Trott family)
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Daphne Pollard 1916.Rehearsing the Audience”, The Green Book magazine, Pages 737-740
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her Fortune in London. Oxford University Press.

Websites

Original US archival documents sourced from

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

  • The Age, 13 July 1901, P2 Advertising.
  • The Register, 4 July 1908, “Dramatic Notes”. Page 10
  • The World’s News, 4 Dec 1920, “Daphne Pollard”. Page 5

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 4 March 1906, P23. “Australian children…”
  • Los Angeles Herald, 30 March 1906, P9 “Little actress has ambition…”
  • Calgary Herald (Canada) 5 Aug 1907, P5 “Daphne and Ivy back”
  • Los Angeles Herald, 2 Sept 1907. P3 “Quintette of Principals from San Francisco Opera Co…”
  • The Winnipeg Tribune (Canada) 17 Dec 1906, P8 “Music and Drama”
  • The Seattle Star, 29 April, 1910. P14 “Marion Lowe has a… talk with tiny Daphne Pollard”.
  • The Lincoln Sunday Star, 11 July 1915. P7. “In the New York Theatres”
  • The Seattle Star, 6 June 1916, P.1
  • Pittsburg Courier, 3 Nov 1923. “White actress jealous of success of Florence Mills…”

Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

  • Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. “Chang Chi-Tung and Daphne Pollard”

California Digital Newspaper Collection

  • Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXXVII, Number 310, 7 August 1911

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Bystander, 31 January 1917. P203, “Hands across the sea”.
  • The Graphic, 10 March, 1917. P292 “Zig Zag”
  • The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 24 March 1917, P90. “Round The theatres”
  • The Sketch, 17 April 1918. P64-65. “Lost to the Grenadiers…”
  • The Era, 20 April 1921. P13. “Why I like to look ugly”
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