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.
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.
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.
Nina 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A pensive Alf Goulding with other members of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company on the steps of the Badminton Hotel in Vancouver in 1904. He is flanked by Nellie Chester, one of the company managers, with Jack Cherry and Fred Bindloss. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Photo used with their permission.
The 5 second version
Born Alfred John Goulding in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, 26 January 1885. Died Hollywood, California, USA, 25 April, 1972. He began his career as a comedian with brother Frank, then joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1896. He took part in a number of extended Pollard’s tours, increasingly acting as stage manager. After the last tour wrapped up in 1909 he and some other performers stayed in the US. He was directing films in Hollywood by 1917, sometimes with comedians like Laurel and Hardy and some of the old Pollard players. He spent most of 1940-45 in Australia, and directed his last film in 1959.
The adult working life of prolific Hollywood based filmmaker, Alf Goulding (born 26 January 1885 as Alfred John Goulding), is well documented. He had an impressive output as a director – working first with Hal Roach and later Mack Sennett. By the time he made A Chump at Oxford (1939) with Laurel and Hardy, he had directed over 200 films, and had written and appeared in many others. There were of course, a few duds later in life – including his only Australian feature film, A Yank in Australia(1942) and his final films in Britain.
It’s less commonly known that Goulding owed much to his long experience with the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, and that he was a Melbourne neighbour and long-time friend of Daphne Pollard (Trott) and Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser).
Alf Goulding can be traced through at least six Pollard’s overseas tours (which all ran for more than 12 months) – something of a record – this writer can only find one other Pollard’s performer who matches it – Irene Finlay. It’s hard to know if many people have ever really run away “to join the circus”, but Alf Goulding is indeed a variation on this. Between the age of eleven, when he went on his first Pollard’s tour, and twenty-four, when he left to settle in the US, he could not have spent more than 24 months living in Melbourne.
Goulding’s place of birth was busy Hoddle Street in the suburb of Richmond, but he lived most of his brief Australian life in Fitzroy. His father Frank, a bootmaker, and mother Maggie (stage name Maggie Walsh) were both involved in local Melbourne theatre, with moderate success. Alf’s half-sister from his mother’s first marriage, Elsa Goulding (sometimes known as Elsie Golding), had gained some reputation as a singer by 1893 and, determined to maintain the family tradition, Frank encouraged his oldest son Frank junior, Alf and later his daughter Irene to go on stage. By the time of Maggie’s death in April 1895, Frank junior and Alf had developed a popular act together. Reports from papers in 1894 and 1895 stated that the brothers had the Melbourne audiences in “roars of laughter”.
Left: The white terrace house at 431 George Street, Fitzroy photographed in 2019. The Goulding family lived here in 1895. Photo – Author’s collection.
Triumphs, Tragedies and child labour
In 1896, Frank junior and Alf joined a troupe of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Under the management of Charles Pollard, this group of under-age performers departed in September for a tour of colonial audiences in South East Asia (Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore etc) and India, where they were received with great enthusiasm. Their father Frank was paid a monthly wage for both children performing, while their travel, food and accommodation costs were covered by Pollard’s.
Above: All three Goulding children performed for Pollard’s. Left- Alf made up in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896. Centre – Irene (left) with Ivy Trott. Right Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896. Photos -courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
According to a contemporary Singapore paper, whilst touring, the child performers with Pollard’s had the following program;
9.00 am breakfast,
10 am until 1.30 pm rehearsal, then had
1.30 “Tiffin” (an Indian term for a meal),
two hours of siesta, then
two hours of lessons with the teacher (who doubled as the cornet player) ,
then play and rest before a light dinner and
the evening performance.
Unfortunately a terrible tragedy occurred when Frank junior died and was buried in Calcutta, in January 1897. We can only imagine how hard this was for Alf, still on tour, let alone his father and sister back in Melbourne. His Indian burial certificate clearly lists the cause of death as smallpox, an even greater tragedy given that a vaccine existed at the time. One wonders if Frank’s father ever knew the truth, as his death was described as being due to pneumonia in most reports.
Above: Frank Junior’s death from “pneumonia” is reported by “The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser”, 23 Feb 1897, via Newspapers SG – digitized newspaper collection.
Frank Goulding’s death in January 1897 from smallpox while in Calcutta. “Confluent smallpox” generally meant the pustules ran so thickly on the skin they often formed a massive sore.
Above: This 19th century medical sign advertising public vaccinations is still visible on the side of a Fitzroy building, in 2021. Ironically, it is only a few hundred metres from Frank Goulding’s Fitzroy homes and the Brunswick Street hall the Pollard’s used for rehearsals. Author’s collection.
Yet it was all back to work for the Pollard’s children. Two months later, on April 20, 1897, the same Singapore newspaper reported; “Master Alfred Goulding scored the principal success again, this clever boy keeping the house in fits of laughter… In the part of Lurcher, the bailiff…his acting could not easily have been beaten by a professional comedian.” Of course, Alf was a professional comedian – even if he was only 13 years old at the time.
In August 1898, a second Pollard’s troupe, including Alf and now with his sister Irene, arrived in South Africa. Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Sydney Referee , the children were probably all instructed to put a positive spin on their work, the endless travel and to not mention their homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the correspondent wrote of Alf Goulding, as “the clever young comedian of the company, aged 12 years” and Irene Goulding, “a bonny girl of 8 years.. who hadn’t been very well lately.” Pollard practice was very typically never to accurately give the ages of the child performers. Alf was in fact 14, and Irene 10.
With the outbreak of the Boer War, Manager Charles Pollard apparently rushed the company to safety. In July 1900 the children were all back in Western Australia, and then they spent time in colonial outposts in the “far east” – including Hong Kong and Singapore. Meantime, Charles Pollard had exciting war stories to tell. How seriously at risk the children were in South Africa is impossible to tell now.
Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performer tours, and the later impact of the disastrous 1910 Pollard tour of India; which saw new Australian laws restricting children leaving Australia to be performers. It’s also worth pausing and looking past the modern nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, to wonder whether this was really just another form of child exploitation, even by the standards of the time.
Above: Alf Goulding now listed as the Pollard’s stage manager by the “China Mail,” December 26, 1900. He was almost 16 and the troupe were perhaps on their way home from South Africa. Image via Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems.
On the Pollards
There is some good reason for thinking this. By leaving Australia, not only did Pollard’s avoid Australian education laws, they were also able to essentially not pay their performers. Instead. parents were paid via a trust fund. And was a life on stage a healthy upbringing for a child? Even at the time, many didn’t think so. The influence of 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, as is obvious from the tour map below. 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.” It was repugnant to some influential Australians too. The Pollard Lilliputians never performed in their home city of Melbourne, or Sydney.
We should also remember that the Pollard’s performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that some commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” (in reference to a leading character in The Belle of New York). Yet at the end of their review, the writer felt the need to abandon their concerns and recommended all readers should see it. The Pollard’s performance was “beyond praise” the writer concluded.
We have little insight into the Pollard business model. However, it was lucrative – in 1900 one Australian paper reported that Charles Pollard had netted over £3,000 in two years – the equivalent of about $AU450,000 in 2020 currency.
A life of touring
Alf’s tours with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, managed by Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester – as identified so far by this writer include
I. Sept 1896 – c. Sept 1897, Tour to India and the “Far East” (meaning Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong)
II. August 1898 – c. April 1901, Tour to South Africa and the Far East. (However, details of this are still sketchy. It is quite likely there were two tours)
III. September 1901 – October 1902, Tour to North America
Manifests show SS Sierra departed Sydney 3 Sept 1901, SS Aorangi arrived back in Australia on 17 Oct 1902. Then, three months later…
IV.January 1903 – April 1904, Tour to North America.
Manifests show SS Changsa departed Sydney 18 Jan 1903, SS Miowera arrived back in Australia on 2 April 1904.
V. July 1904 – February 1907, Tour to the Far East and North America. Departed July 1904 for Queensland and then 27 September 1904 for Hong Kong. Arrived July 8 1905 in Vancouver. Arrived back in Australia 26 February 1907 on the SS Moana.
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 company member Midas Martyn’s diary. Thanks to Catherine Crocker for sharing this information. Courtesy Google Maps. Click to go to the google map
VI. July 1907 – February 1909, to the Far East and North America
Another trip departed in late July 1907, again testing out shows in Queensland before departing for the Far East. The Company arrived in the US on the SS Nippon Maru from Yokohama, Japan on 3 March, 1908. It appears most of the company from this tour arrived home in Australia on SS Moama in March, 1909.
Meanwhile in Australia…
None of this travel seems to have bothered Alf Goulding, indeed he may well have had his own reasons for not wanting to live at home. Back in Melbourne, Frank Senior found the new century and the life without wife, children and oldest son increasingly hard to deal with. Now a bootmaker, he blamed the Pollard company management for the death of Frank Junior and began to send abusive letters to the Melbourne managers, even while they engaged Alf and Irene. He complained that the money promised to him by Pollard’s was not being paid. Frank had already been publicly embarrassed the year before, when details of his passionate letters to a sometime servant/petty thief were plastered about the Melbourne papers. Now in 1903, his stream of abusive letters saw him end up in court again, a lonely father, perhaps also disconnected from his two children. When he failed to pay the £20 fine, he went to gaol for a month.
Returning to Australia on SS Miowera on 2 April 1904, Irene, now aged 15, apparently decided she had had enough of performing and touring. Fortunately for us, in 1985 Irene was interviewed by Sally Dawes for The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Although aged in her late 90s, her memories of some events – Frank’s death, the songs she sang for Pollard’s and her two trips to the US remained clear to the end of her days.
Alf’s final tour to the US, 1909+
Charles Pollard announced his retirement in early 1909, while the company was in Honolulu, heading home. At this point, many of the older company members, including Alf, decided to branch out with their own performance company (dropping Lilliputians from the title). With about 12 others, including Eva Moore, Emily Davis, Ada Hind, Freddie Bindloss, Jack Cherry, Harold Fraser and Teddy McNamara, this smaller group set off again in late March 1909 to the US, then touring back across the US and Canada, with Alf as Actor – Director-Stage Manager. But instead of storming the US east coast as they planned, they again specialised in visiting all the familiar Pollard’s locations where their popularity was assured. This arrangement lasted for a year or so, until the group went their separate ways.
In 1912, Nellie Chester resurrected a young adult troupe or Australian performers to work in North America, called Pollards Juveniles. But Alf was not involved with this – he now pursued a stage career of his own design.
Alf in makeup as Ko-Ko for The Mikado. The Province, British Columbia, 11 April, 1911. Via Newspapers.com
Alf and Daphne Pollard performing together in A Knight for a Day, Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914. Via Newspapers.com
Alf Goulding appears to have maintained a personal and professional friendship with former Pollard Company performers for much of his life. In 1911, Alf was married to Gladys Watson, with Daphne (Mrs Ellington Bunch) and her husband as witnesses. They were married in Seattle by the same official as Daphne and her husband had used, exactly three months before.
Above: Marriage certificates for Daphne Trott and Alf Goulding weddings. US national archives via Family search.org.
It is hardly a coincidence therefore that Goulding is reputed to have been instrumental in convincing Daphne to work for Mack Sennett in 1927, and he was apparently on hand when she arrived at Sennett studios. He also directed a number of her first films – including Run Girl Run, The Swim Princess and The Campus Carmen. He also worked closely with Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser) in his early years in Hollywood. His first appearance as a director in Hollywood seems to date to 1917. Snub Pollard once explained that he had just “drifted into films,” and it seems likely it was the same for Alf.
Snub Pollard Harold Lloyd & Alf Goulding on set 1918 “Somewhere in Turkey”. Source unknown.
Left: This is the only photo I have seen of Goulding at work. It shows Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser), Harold Lloyd, and Alf Goulding at right, on the set of Somewhere in Turkey (1918) Source: Unknown – via Pinterest.
Right: Advertisement for Rolin Comedies – Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison, directed by Alf Goulding. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
There was perhaps a real camaraderie amongst the old Pollard players. For Alf, the performers he knew had probably been the closest he had to family. When former Pollard alumni Teddy McNamara died of pneumonia in early February 1928, on the eve of great success, all the Hollywood based former Pollard players attended his funeral – Goulding, Daphne Pollard, Snub Pollard and Billy Bevan.
An Australian sojourn
Alf lived in Australia again in 1940-45. He had been busy in Hollywood and England through the 1930s, and then, after making A Chump at Oxfordfor Hal Roach, he travelled to England to make one more film – Olympic Honeymoon. By the end of 1940, he was back in Australia. This movement in the first year of war relates to his lack of visa status back in the US. At least several Australian newspapers – from 1939 and late in 1940 reported on this. While in Australia, he not only directed the feature A Yank Down Under in May 1942 (which was not immediately released) but also a number of documentaries, wartime propaganda pieces for the Ministry of Information. According to the National Film and Sound Archive, these include;
Australia Marches On No 1; Canberra The Federal Capital (1941),
Australia Marches On No 2; Cavalcade of Transport(1940),
Australia Marches On No 3; Boystown (c.1940) and
Marjorie Lawrence – The Voice of a Nation (1945).
It was probably not very fulfilling work. He returned to England in May 1945 on the MV Stirling Castle, and directed a few more quota quickies. He returned to the United States in about 1950.
Alf Goulding died in Hollywood in 1972. Irene died in Melbourne in 1987.
Alf’s date of birth is regularly and incorrectly given as 1896. However, the Victorian BDM, which can be searched for free, is quite clear. It’s possible that Goulding himself may have contributed to this confusion – it was not uncommon in Hollywood’s golden age to “drop a few years”
Nick Murphy, May 2018, August 2020, April 2021
To Claudia Funder at The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, for introducing me to the Pollard Collection.
To Catherine Crocker for sharing the information from Midas Martyn’s diary of the 1904-7 Pollard’s tour and Jamie L Bird, one of Alf’s grandchildren, for her comments.
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.
(This can be purchased at https://www.press.jhu.edu )
Brent E. Walker (2010) “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 and Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-3610-1
From National Library of Australia, Trove, Digitised Newspaper Collection
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)
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.
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.
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’sLilliputian 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.
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.
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. Pollardwas already well established – see photo of him here), 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.
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”?
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
The inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, looking north from St. Vincent’s hospital. Gertrude Street can be seen in the foreground. Author’s Collection.
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.
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.
Both buildings at 120 and 122 Nicholson street, still private residences, were owned at various times by the Saqui family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 StFitzroy 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).
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.
Above – the former Heintz home at 84 Kerr St, Fitzroy is the cottage with the red door. It is still a private residence.
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.
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 PerformingArts 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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
To Robert Maynard, William Thomas’ grandson, for so generously sharing his family history – much more than I could fit in this article.
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 about 1900 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. She never performed in Melbourne, Australia – her place of birth.
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 a little over 1.40 metres tall (or 4 foot eight and a half inches) as an adult, she was on stage from the age from an early age. 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).
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 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 other well-known Fitzroy girls, like Florrie Forde, perform at the Melbourne Opera House or the Theatre Royal. Daphne joined Pollard’s troupe in about 1900, with older sisters Ivy and Myrtle. The family lived in nearby, later moving to a similarly modest dwelling at 96 King William Street, Fitzroy and finally to another cottage at 45 Westbank Terrace in Richmond.
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). Author’s Collection.
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 a few houses away in this street lived the Heintz family, whose twin boys Freddie and Johnnie also travelled on tour with Daphne.
In June 1900 Daphne and two older sisters Hilda and Ivy joined a Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour through South East Asia – Singapore, Penang, Rangoon and Calcutta. They followed this with another tour, departing in early September 1901 – this time to include Canada and the United States.
Only a few days before Daphne’s departure on her second tour, 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.
“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 yet another tour between January 1903 and April 1904.
In May 1904, before departing yet again, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Above: Daphne Pollard c1915, at the time she appeared in The Passing Show of 1915. 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.”
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 several returns to New York, including one 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).
Above: London Sunday Pictorial. 25 February 1917. Daphne Pollard is in the centre. Author’s collection
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.
Daphne 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, includingRun 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.
This is Daphne singing a comic song about being “in the market” (meaning the stock market) in Mack Sennett’s Bulls and Bears (1930).
Here she is the drunken Aunt Agnes in Sennett’s Honeymoon Zeppelin(1930).
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 Waterin 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.
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.
What 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 of 1915. 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, May 27, 1905. Via Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Public Record Office, Melbourne. Supreme Court Civil cases 1904/329 Pollard and Chester v Wolffe.
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.