On the road with Pollards Opera – Irene Goulding remembers.

Above: Alice Pollard (1885-1943) and Irene Goulding (1888-1987) photographed in Shanghai, China c 1901, dressed for the comic opera Dorothy. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Sometime in 1985, Sally Dawes, a researcher with the Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne Australia, recorded an interview with 97 year old Irene Smith nee Goulding (1888-1987). Irene was the younger sibling of Alf Goulding (1885-1972) and Frank Goulding (c1882-1897) and is apparently the only member of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company to be interviewed for posterity. Listening to this precious recording held by the Australian Performing Arts Collection, the listener cannot help but admire how much Irene recalled, 85 years on. I am grateful to Claudia Funder, APAC Research Centre and Acquisitions Coordinator, for drawing this interview to my attention – it tells us so much. But the interpretation of Irene’s words and meaning, as she leafed through many of the photos shown here, is my own.

Above: Left – Alf Goulding in the role of Lurcher for the opera Dorothy in 1896, long before his success as a Hollywood director. Right – Irene Goulding (left) with Ivy Trott in The Gaiety Girl;  Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Irene’s first remark when Sally Dawes turned on her tape recorder in 1985 was to exclaim that her older brother Frank had died (from smallpox while on the 1897 Pollard tour of India), and that she herself had been so sick (on a later tour of South Africa) that she became delirious. She recalled that at one stage she imagined the Prince of Wales was attending to her.

Above left – Frank Goulding as the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, 1896, shortly before his death from smallpox in India. Above right – Many of the photos in this collection were acquired from the Goulding family. This inscription on the reverse of another photo was written by Alf, addressed to his father, a bootmaker in Fitzroy, and contains the words “rest Frank’s soul.” Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Despite the awful death of Frank, Irene had also signed up with the Nellie Chester – Charles Pollard troupe in about 1899. Her father had asked her if she also wanted to join, and although her favourite teacher at the Bell St State School (Fitzroy) strongly disapproved, she did. Later in life she apparently regretted her limited education, a consequence of a childhood spent on performance tours, but her comments when interviewed also reveal a strong sense of loyalty to “Aunty Chester” in particular, as the children called Nellie Chester. Irene’s first touring experience was in South Africa, probably departing Melbourne in early 1899. Learning parts for the company’s repertoire of musical comedies such as The Belle of New York and The Geisha, was very hard work, Irene recalled. Payment for her work was sent to her widowed father in Melbourne. She recalled being given pocket money while on tour, to buy sweets.

Occasionally one or other of the Pollard adults let slip how much money they made from their enterprise. In one unguarded moment in 1901, Charles Pollard revealed that he had netted £30,000 from the previous few years touring. This is the equivalent of about $AU 2,270,000 today. Another report on the operations of Tom Pollard in 1900 suggests similar success with his troupes travelling through Australia and New Zealand.

Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Referee , the child performers were probably all instructed to not mention the downside of endless travel such as the inevitable homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the Sydney Referee correspondent wrote approvingly of the Pollard’s operation, and described 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.” The Pollards had learned, years before, during their 1884 tour, that bad publicity could be fatal. This report from South Africa was all very positive.

A distant memory of Irene’s when interviewed in 1985 was of the South African tour being cut short, as the “Boer War” broke out in October 1899. The children were hurried back to Western Australia and then resumed a touring schedule in South East Asia.

Above: The Pollard troupe in Manila, posing with US soldiers. The presence of Teddie McNamara, sitting front left, dates this photo to mid 1903, not long after the Philippine-American War. Irene Goulding stands behind and to the left of the tall white-uniformed officer, and is flanked by Jack Cherry and Ivy Trott. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne .

The performance stops made by the Charles Pollard-Nellie Chester troupes might surprise readers today. On the way to North America, the tours usually included colonial outposts – Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities which all provided enthusiastic expatriate audiences. The fact that these performance tours went to places that had been or would soon be risky colonial war zones (such as South Africa, China and the Philippines) also reminds us that the Pollards were running a business, not a school or a charity, and their decisions were always commercial ones. Fighting had only just ended in the Philippines when the photo above was taken. (An extraordinary photo taken on the next tour in 1904 seems to show many of the same child performers posing with Filipino prisoners at a Manila gaol. See University of Washington Special Collections image here).

Irene’s memory was of a wonderful time as a child on the Pollard tours – and of the young men who were so attentive, of the unusual buildings in the tropics with their wide verandas, of being served dinner in hotels. America was “so big” she recalled, and not surprisingly, many of the Pollard performers returned and made their homes in the US – there was so much more work there.

Above: Some of the female Pollard performers in Manila, c1901-3. Front row left to right: Florrie Sharpe, Ivy Trott, Mrs Nellie Chester (nee Pollard), Alice Bennetto and unidentified. Back row, left to right: May Topping, Nellie McNamara and Irene Goulding. Irene disliked this photo – she said she felt her parted hair made her look like a grandmother. Photo – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Overwhelmingly comprised of girls, who usually also took on many of the male rolls, the members of Pollards troupes were drawn mostly from inner Melbourne suburbs. Indeed, of the children in the photo above, the Topping, Trott, Goulding and Bennetto families all lived in close proximity to each other in Fitzroy, suggesting they knew each other before joining up.

Irene was the daughter of Frank Goulding, a bootmaker and sometime performer, and Margaret nee Walsh, a performer. She was born in a house in Greenwood Street, Collingwood that no longer stands. As well as her older brothers, she had a step-sister Elsie, from her mother’s side, who later performed under the name Elsa Golding (sic). At the time of Margaret’s sudden death in April 1895, the Goulding family lived at 431 George Street, Fitzroy.

Interviewed by “Curious” for the Calcutta Englishman in mid 1901, Charles Pollard admitted that most of the children lived in a five mile radius of Melbourne. However, he insisted they came from “all classes”, and “selection, together with training” was the secret of Pollard’s success. He also pointed out that the child performers willingly learned from each other – he said Irene had taught Madge Woodson the role of Molly Seymour for The Geisha.

Above left: Some of the cast of The Geisha c 1901-2. Officers – Emma Thomas, Irene Goulding, Lily Thompson and Daphne Trott (aka Daphne Pollard); Girls – May Topping, unidentified, unidentified and possibly Merle Ferguson (aka Merle Pollard). Above right: Madge Woodson, (aka Madge Williams), born Margaret Banks in Richmond. Date of photo unknown. Photos – courtesy The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Caring they may have been, but the Pollard company played fast and loose reporting the children’s age, no doubt adjusting these as it suited their preferred public profile. On the shipping manifest for SS Sierra, bringing the troupe to the US in September 1901, Alf Goulding, now the Stage Manager, was represented as 19. Irene’s age was listed as 11. Their real ages on this trip were sixteen and thirteen. On the same trip, Daphne Trott (usually Daphne Pollard) was really ten, not 6 years old as reported.

Possibly unbeknownst to Irene and other children, Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard were quite prepared to use force to make some of their parents fulfil their contracts. In 1900 the Pollards issued a writ against Frank Goulding (amongst others) to discourage him from letting Irene perform with Harry Hall’s proposed juvenile company. They won, or Frank backed down, but Frank remained aggrieved with the company, even while they employed Alf and Irene. In 1904, when the company’s former conductor Ernest Wolffe attempted to start his own new juvenile troupe using many of the Pollard’s most popular players – including Alice and Teddie McNamara, Oscar Heintz, Daphne and Ivy Trott, the matter ended up in court again. Wolffe lost and the children stayed with Pollards, for the mammoth 32 month tour of 1904-1907.

Above: A Pollard program flyer (here the company is titled Pollard Juvenile Opera Company) from November 1, 1901, when they performed in San Francisco. No ages are given here, and there is a long list of real and stage names, mixed in with joke names. Fred Pollard was really Freddie Bindlass from Collingwood, but Irene remembered this boy with the sweet voice by an alternative stage name – Freddie Stewart. Irene Goulding herself used the stage name Irene Loftus. Author’s Collection.

There is compelling evidence a child’s size and physical development were critical to being a Pollard’s performer, rather than simply just their age. Children who were physically undersized – like Willie Thomas and Daphne Trott, enjoyed longer careers with Pollards than most. Irene said she was always “little” too – but she finished up with Pollards when the SS Miowera brought her home in early April 1904. She was 16.

After her time with the Pollards, Irene Goulding performed in some smaller roles on stage, apparently in pantomimes and perhaps in the chorus for shows on the Tivoli circuit – and she was able to recall some of these details for Sally Dawes in 1985. Irene married Albert Smith, a driver, in 1931. Of her famous brother Alf, she seems to have last seen him during World War 2, when he lived in Australia again. He was “a clever boy” Irene recalled, but foolish with money. She said “he went through three fortunes” during his lifetime, perhaps in saying so she was a little regretful of her own opportunities missed. Of the other children in Pollards, Irene Goulding could recall gossiping with them about their parents’ Fitzroy businesses. Her contemporary in age and Fitzroy neighbour Ivy Trott she remembered clearly, but as Ivy and her family had left Australia in 1907, she had apparently lost contact.

Irene died in Melbourne, Australia in 1987.


Special thanks
to Claudia Funder at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, and Dr Kate Rice, the collection’s inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow.

Nick Murphy
June 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Irene Goulding 28436/1888
    • Alfred John Goulding 5583/1885
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/195
        1900/199
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/199
        1901/562
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Frank Goulding Irene Goulding
      • VPRS 267/ P7 unit 1280, item 1900/200
        1900/187
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Harry Hall Alice Landershute Marie Sheddon Neillie Sheddon May Victoria Topping Nellie Finlay
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1307,  item 1901/562
        1900/188
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Alexander Sheddon M E Sheddon Marie Sheddon Nellie Sheddon
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1280,  item 1900/188
        1904/329
        Charles Albert Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lillipution Opera Company v Ernest Augustus Wolf
        fe
      • VPRS 267/ P7  unit 1360,  item 1904/329
        1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • Text:
    • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Peter Downes ( 2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Dagmar Kift (1996) The Victorian Music Hall. Culture, Class and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.
    • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
      [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful novel is closely based on the events of the Arthur Pollard troupe in India and is highly recommended]
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Argus (Melb) 19 June 1884, P6
    • The Age (Melb) 6 April 1895, P3
    • Referee (Sydney) 5 July 1899, P10
    • The British Australasian, 17 May 1900
    • The Ballarat Star, 14 July 1900, P2
    • The Ballarat Star, 7 Feb 1901, P4
    • The Age (Melb) 7 May 1903, P9
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept 1901, P10

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

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 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).

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 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.

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). 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.”


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 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).

Filmstars002

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.

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.

Daphne sings!

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 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 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 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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