Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) actor and Hollywood director

Above and below; Sydney-born actor and director Elsie Jane Wilson in a spread in Photoplay magazine in late 1917. She had been working in the US for 6 years. [1]Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library

How could a successful Australian actress, who directed her first film in Hollywood in 1917, at the age of about 32, be so quickly forgotten? Unfortunately, even in her lifetime, press accounts tended to assume Elsie Jane Wilson was, like her husband Rupert Julian, New Zealand born, or perhaps English, and since then, even homegrown accounts have overlooked her. It is only in the last few decades that Elsie has finally attracted some of the interest she deserves. Recent writers include Mark Garrett Cooper at the Women Film Pioneers Project (here), Karen Ward Mahar and Robert Catto at his specialist website devoted to Rupert Julian (here).

Directing was “man’s work” Elsie suggested to interviewer Frances Denton in the Photoplay interview. But the posed photograph used in the article presents Elsie as a woman of ability and authority.[2]Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library

One of a group of women who directed at Universal Studios in the 1910s, Elsie had enjoyed a successful Australian stage career before appearing on stage in the US and acting in 40 films. She is known to have directed at least 10 films and also wrote several screenplays – all this before 1920. Her working life after 1920 remains obscure, although there is evidence suggesting she kept working in partnership with Rupert.

The Wilson family

Elsie Jane Wilson was born in Sydney on November 7, 1885[3]NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 3700/1885 to James Wilson, a 51 year old Scottish immigrant and his 37 year old English wife Jane nee Jordan. By the time of her marriage to New Zealand actor, Percival Hayes (stage name Rupert Julian) in 1906,[4]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 6213/1906 Elsie was able to describe her father as “a gentleman”, which – in the language of the time – suggested a person of independent means. Records show however, that most of his life he was a bootmaker[5]or “clicker” – a skilled tradesperson who cut boot leather and the family lived for many years in Riley Street, in the inner eastern Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo.[6]A City of Sydney Archive photo of nineteenth century houses in Riley Street can be seen here

The Wilson family and their neighbours in the 1889 Sands Sydney directory.[7]Sands 1889 Directory, City of Sydney Archives & History Resources

James and Jane Wilson were typical of immigrant couples who had arrived in Australia in the mid 19th century, attracted by the goldrushes, or by the government bounties designed to address skilled labour shortages. The couple had married in Adelaide, South Australia in 1866, but ten years later they were living in Sydney. In addition to Elsie, two other daughters – Nellie (born Catherine Eleanor Wilson in 1877) and Marie (born Marion Wilson in 1889) had stage careers. Undoubtedly encouraged by James and Jane to see the stage as a pathway to success and financial freedom (secondary schooling and university education was not usually an option for working class families), the three girls all appeared on the stage from an early age.

Success of sister Nellie Wilson

Nellie Wilson was born Catherine Eleanor (or sometimes Helen) Wilson in Sydney in 1877.[8]NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 2389/1877 She is important in this story because she enjoyed great success on the stage – and Elsie would have grown up as an observer to that success. Elsie was just seven years old when Nellie was touring Australia and New Zealand, notably with Tom Pollard’s Lilliputians, and in company with the likes of Wilmot Karkeek, Harry Quealy, Will Percy and Maud and Mae Beatty – all of whom Elsie is likely to have met, and – significantly, all of whom ended up pursuing careers overseas.[9]See Auckland Star, 28 Nov 1901, P2 Via National Library of New Zealand Papers Past

Elsie’s older sister Nellie Wilson in 1910 [10]Sunday Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1910, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Nellie continued on stage in Australia and New Zealand through the 1900s, taking only a little time off for a marriage in 1902 to George Irish, a flamboyant Melbourne motor salesman.[11]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage certificate 3786/1902 The marriage did not stop her performing however, and she toured South Africa in 1904 and 1905. The theatrical firm of JC Williamson’s made use of her repeatedly in their Royal Comic Opera Company touring Australasia – which included consistently popular musicals like Florodora, The Belle of New York and The Mikado.

Elsie Wilson – the “promising Australian actress”

Elsie Wilson[12]not yet using her middle name appeared on the Australian stage – with the John F Sheridan touring company in 1904 – performing in the familiar repertoire of musical comedies that Australians liked – Naughty Nancy, The Lady Slavey, The Earl and the Girl and The Mikado, [13]The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People (Syd) 21 Jan 1905, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove later joining Julius Knight’s company. It was while performing in Melbourne in 1906 that she married fellow company member Rupert Julian.

Elsie Wilson, in costume, “one of the most promising of Australian actresses” on the cover of Adelaide’s Gadfly, in October 1907.[14]The Gadfly, 30 October 1907, Cover, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

For the next five years, the couple worked in the same company and developed their stagecraft. A glance at contemporary newspaper advertisements suggests an exhausting schedule of touring regional and sometimes remote Australia and New Zealand. But the reviews of Elsie’s work became increasingly enthusiastic – by late 1907, Adelaide’s The Gadfly could profile Elsie on their front page and express great confidence in her future as an up and coming actor. The paper reported that it had “arrived at the opinion that the lady is a much finer artist than people think she is, for the obvious reason that most critics have ignored her.”[15]The Gadfly (Adel) 9 Oct 1907, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove In early 1909, her excellent voice and spirited dancing were being celebrated in Sydney[16]Sunday Times (Syd) 21 Mar 1909, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove while only a few months later, on the other side of Australia, Kalgoorlie’s Sun predicted she had all the makings of “a star emotional actress.”[17]The Sun(WA) 6 June 1909, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1908, JC Williamson’s offered her a salary of £8 per week,[18]about $AU 1,100 today. Her contract survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection a modest salary when compared to Julius Knight’s £50 per week, but acceptable for a 23 year old whose husband was also earning. The very successful Julius Knight tours included a repertoire of costume dramas such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Royal Divorce, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Sign of the Cross, and plays by George Bernard Shaw.[19]See Veronica Kelly (2003) “Julius Knight, Australian Matinee Idol: Costume Drama as Historical Re-presentation” in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, Vol 9, No 1, 2003

Above Left: Elsie’s husband Rupert Julian in costume, c1917.[20]Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917, P18 via Lantern Digital Library Right: One of Elsie’s mentors, Julius Knight, in costume as Napoleon, c1900 [21]Enlarged from a Talma Photo, State Library of Victoria collections

Elsie Jane Wilson appears in the US

Elsie in Everywoman in 1913.[22]Marysville Appeal(CA), 22 Jul 1913, P3 via Newspapers.com

There was no publicity accompanying Elsie and Rupert’s decision to leave Australia or their departure – rather, it was all done on the quiet – a not uncommon strategy by Australian actors in case things did not go to plan and they had to come home. The couple arrived in Vancouver on 26 July 1911, on the SS Zealandia. Officials recorded her height as 5’7″ (170 cms), almost the same as her husband. Elsie now launched herself in the US using her full and more distinctive name, although at various times she also called herself Elsie Hayes or Elsie Julian. The couple made their way to New York, and they both found work – but not together. Elsie was on stage touring in A Fool There Was in 1912, followed by Everywoman in California. She progressed to Little Theatre performances, but by the end of 1913 had joined Rupert Julian and immersed herself in the booming film industry. Attracted by Elsie’s success in the US, older sister Nellie joined them in California in mid 1913. See Note 1 below.

Elsie’s pathway from the stage to film was likely identical to her husband’s. In a 1916 interview, Rupert Julian claimed he had been “induced… against his will to try… the screen… (and) contrary to his expectation… found it fascinating.”[23]Moving Picture Weekly, 11 Nov 1916 via Lantern Digital Library The IMDB lists Elsie’s first film acting role in The Imp Abroad released in January 1914, followed by The Triumph of Mind, directed by pioneer female film director Lois Weber (1879-1939). The film also featured Rupert.

Elsie in 1914 [24]Motion Picture News, July-Oct 1914, P85. Via Lantern Digital Library

We do not know whether Elsie and Rupert became friends with Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley (1875-1939) – or whether the newly arrived antipodeans were simply another of the professionals Weber famously mentored.[25]Perhaps the couple intrigued Lois Weber. Elsie and Rupert hailed from budding democracies – Australia and New Zealand – where Caucasian women could vote, in fact Elsie would already have … Continue reading Rupert Julian appeared in all of Lois Weber’s films in 1913 and it seems likely his “fascination” extended to developing his own skills as a director. Elsie also acted in several Lois Weber films in 1914, but throughout 1915 and 1916 she became a regular in films directed by Rupert – many of these being “shorts,” part of Universal’s policy of producing a “balanced program” of shorts and occasional features – Westerns, comedies and dramas.[26]Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. … Continue reading Unfortunately, most of these films are lost.

Creative partnerships between husband and wife, collaborating together in actor-writer/director/producer roles, were a feature of filmmaking in the 1910s. Apart from Elsie Jane Wilson & Rupert Julian and Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley, other collaborative partnerships included JP McGowan & Helen Holmes, Ida May Park & Joseph de Grasse, and Ruth Stonehouse & Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. These partnerships sometimes saw scripts and scenarios formulated that the couple then performed in or directed. Elsie contributed to at least two scripts that were filmed, one – The Human Cactus(1915) – being directed by Rupert. In this case, the couple also acted together in it.

A Pygmalian-type story by Elsie Jane Wilson formed the basis of The Human Cactus. Elsie played Evangeline, the slum girl who is “cultivated”. [27]The Moving Picture Weekly, June 24, 1915, P31 via Lantern Digital Library

Elsie Jane Wilson acting. Left: Elsie with Rupert Julian in The Evil Women Do (1916) also directed by Julian.[28]Motion Picture News, Sept 23, 1916, via Lantern Digital Library Right: As Nancy in the Jesse Lasky version of Oliver Twist (1916), directed by James Young.[29]Photoplay, February 1917, via Lantern Digital Library

Elsie as a Director

Elsie’s first directing experience was as an uncredited assistant to Rupert Julian on The Circus of Life, another film she also starred in, released in mid 1917.[30]The Moving Picture Weekly Nov 3, 1917, P28 Via Lantern Digital Library Her first credited solo directing assignments were on four feature films featuring child star Zoe Rae (1910-2006), released in later 1917.

Advertisements for two of Elsie’s films featuring Zoe Rae.[31]Motion Picture News Aug 25, 1917, P1297 and The Moving Picture World Dec 8, 1917 P1410 via Lantern Digital Library

Regrettably, only one of her films has survived and is freely available today, making analysis of her work extremely difficult. The Dream Lady (1918) has been beautifully restored by the French Centre National de la Cinématographie – it can be seen (here). For an understanding of her other films, we are dependent on synopsises in trade journals and a few reviews – not enough for this writer to attempt any commentary. She acted in several serials in 1917-18, but again unfortunately these have not survived. Her last acting role is reported to have been in an Eddie Lyons comedy short, in 1920.

We know that many of Elsie and Rupert’s films were made under the Bluebird photoplay brand, one of Universal’s subsidiaries with an association for quality, as Jeannette Delamoir has explained.[32]For more on Universal Studio’s production strategy see Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association … Continue reading However, Universal’s head Carl Laemmle made decisions entirely based on commercial principles – rather than any feminist sympathies. By the early 1920s, the studio system had become increasingly dominant. Anthony Slide and Karen Ward Mahar have both written of the post war changes in Hollywood and the consequences for the ten women directing for Universal, including Elsie.[33]See Karen Ward Mahar (2006) Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Johns Hopkins University Press and Anthony Slide (1996) Lois Weber: the director who lost her way in history. Greenwood Press

What happened to Elsie’s career?

Elsie (at right) directing action, in a 1919 Photoplay article entitled “The Women Lend a hand” by Grace Kingsley.[34]Photoplay Magazine, March 1919, P78. Via Lantern Digital Media Library

Elsie’s last credit as a director was in early 1919, on The Game’s Up. But as Mark Garrett Cooper has noted, there is a problem of attribution for female directors of the era, including Elsie Jane Wilson. For example, Cooper notes actor Ruth Clifford (1900-1998) recalled that it was Elsie Jane Wilson who directed her on The Savage (1917), yet the film is traditionally credited to Rupert Julian.[35]See Mark Garrett Cooper (2013) “Elsie Jane Wilson.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University … Continue reading Contemporary reports also suggested Elsie helped Rupert direct Mother O’Mine (1917) although again, the film’s credits attribute it to Rupert Julian alone.[36]Motion Picture News, August 25, 1917 via Lantern Digital Library However, it is clear that Elsie continued working after her last credited directing assignment. While formal film credits do not exist, there is a body of evidence in the contemporary press indicating that she was regularly assisting her husband in film production – and keen to seek further work as a director.

The cast of Rupert Julian’s The Honey Bee (1920) on set. Elsie Jane Wilson is in the second row. There is no information regarding why Elsie was there.[37]Motion Picture News, Feb 28 1920, P2127 via Lantern Digital Library

On several occasions after 1919, Elsie was publicly announced in trade magazines and newspapers as the director for a forthcoming production. In February 1920 she was announced as director for Opened Shutters, an upcoming Edith Roberts film.[38]The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1920, P23, via Newspapers.com However, in the end it was directed by William Worthington. In late 1922 The Los Angeles Times announced she was planning to direct again,[39]The Los Angeles Times 29 Nov 1922, P15, via Newspapers.com and in March 1923, she was announced as the director of a new series of Baby Peggy films for Universal, with Rupert Julian writing scripts.[40]Baby Peggy, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery (1918-2020) was a popular Hollywood child star Elsie said she was “elated” over her return to pictures and felt certain she had some new ideas to offer. But it was not to be, although Universal did make a Baby Peggy film in 1923, directed by King Baggot.[41]See Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 7, 1923, P947 via Lantern, Digital Library. Also see The Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar 1923, P22 via Newspapers.com

However most telling, in June 1924, Universal Weekly, the studio’s own magazine, reported that on account of her work on Rupert Julian’s Love and Glory (1924), Elsie had been given “a letter of thanks and a substantial check” by Julius Bernheim, Universal Studio’s General Manager.[42]Universal Weekly, 14 June 1924, P26, via Lantern, Digital Library The article went on to explain that “although not employed by Universal” she was an active aide to her husband as director, handling his working script and assisting him in directing. It was an unusually fulsome public acknowledgement for someone who was not on the payroll. Some months later, several reports credited her with managing Mary Philbin’s makeup and costumes for Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925).[43]See for example Oakland Tribune (CA)19 Oct 1924, P64 via Newspapers.com

Whether or not Elsie’s last contribution to film was really in 1925, or perhaps after that date, we know that Rupert Julian’s final films were only 5 years later, in 1930, at the beginning of the sound era.[44]See Robert Catto’s website on Rupert Julian for a synopsis of his career He died suddenly in 1943 as a result of a stroke. Elsie lived on in Los Angeles until her death, aged about 80, in early 1965.[45]The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 1965, P40 via Newspapers.com Both had become US citizens and there appear to have been no trips home to see extended family in Australia or New Zealand. Elsie and Rupert had no children. I can find no evidence Elsie was ever interviewed about her screen or stage work and sadly, she was completely forgotten in her country of birth until relatively recently.


Note 1 – Nellie Wilson in the USA

Nellie Wilson joined Elsie in the US between 1913 and 1918. Left: Nellie as Nella in So Long Letty (1915).[46]Los Angeles Evening Express,19 Jul 1915, P7, via Newspapers.com Right: Nellie, arrived home in Australia in 1918.[47]Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria

Nellie Wilson arrived in the US in mid 1913.[48]Variety, 25 July 1913, P25, Via Lantern Digital Library (Her marriage to George Irish had come to an unhappy end when he was admitted to Kew Asylum in May 1912.) But despite her enviable reputation on the Australian and New Zealand stage, Nellie appears to have struggled to establish herself in the US. It was not until 1915 that she found an ongoing role on the stage – in the musical So Long Letty, having renamed herself “Nella” Wilson in the meantime.[49]The San Francisco Examiner 19 Jul 1913,P3 and The Los Angeles Times 24 Jun 1915, P26 via Newspapers.com She returned to Australia in late 1918.[50]Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria Nellie visited Elsie in the US again in 1931.

Nellie Wilson’s later fate is unknown. One newspaper report suggested she ran a millinery shop in Sydney.[51]Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934, P9, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Marie Wilson married bank officer Phillip John Madden in Melbourne in 1914 and also retired from the stage.


Note 2: Other Elsies and different Nellies

The English Nellie Wilson in 1895.[52]Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 via British Library Newspaper Archive

There were several performers called Nellie Wilson – it was not an uncommon name. English performer Nellie Wilson visited Australia in the 1890s, and she can be found on the cover of the British paper Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 (at left). In addition, a long interview with her after her Australian tour can be found in the same paper, May 26 1899, P331. She resembles our Nellie Wilson in appearance and the two are sometimes confused in collections.

This photo in the collection of the State Library of Victoria appears to show our Nellie Wilson (Click here), see also Peter Downes, The Pollards, P110. Confusingly, an additional photo in the collections of the State Library of Victoria appears to show the English Nellie Wilson.

Another Elsie Wilson was active in Australia in the late 1910s. Her JC Williamson’s contract from 1917 survives in the collections of the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Elsie Wilson was also the name of the long time companion of Gladys Moncrieff.


Nick Murphy
September 2022


References

  • Newspaper & Magazine Sources
    • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Newspapers.com
    • State Library of Victoria
    • Hathitrust digital library
    • National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past
    • Internet Archive Library via Lantern Digital Library
  • Primary Sources
    • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1, 2 Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library
3 NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 3700/1885
4 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 6213/1906
5 or “clicker” – a skilled tradesperson who cut boot leather
6 A City of Sydney Archive photo of nineteenth century houses in Riley Street can be seen here
7 Sands 1889 Directory, City of Sydney Archives & History Resources
8 NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 2389/1877
9 See Auckland Star, 28 Nov 1901, P2 Via National Library of New Zealand Papers Past
10 Sunday Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1910, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
11 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage certificate 3786/1902
12 not yet using her middle name
13 The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People (Syd) 21 Jan 1905, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 The Gadfly, 30 October 1907, Cover, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 The Gadfly (Adel) 9 Oct 1907, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 Sunday Times (Syd) 21 Mar 1909, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Sun(WA) 6 June 1909, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 about $AU 1,100 today. Her contract survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection
19 See Veronica Kelly (2003) “Julius Knight, Australian Matinee Idol: Costume Drama as Historical Re-presentation” in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, Vol 9, No 1, 2003
20 Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917, P18 via Lantern Digital Library
21 Enlarged from a Talma Photo, State Library of Victoria collections
22 Marysville Appeal(CA), 22 Jul 1913, P3 via Newspapers.com
23 Moving Picture Weekly, 11 Nov 1916 via Lantern Digital Library
24 Motion Picture News, July-Oct 1914, P85. Via Lantern Digital Library
25 Perhaps the couple intrigued Lois Weber. Elsie and Rupert hailed from budding democracies – Australia and New Zealand – where Caucasian women could vote, in fact Elsie would already have done so, in the 1910 Australian Federal elections. In the US, women’s suffrage was still 6 years away
26 Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 64-85. University of Minnesota Press
27 The Moving Picture Weekly, June 24, 1915, P31 via Lantern Digital Library
28 Motion Picture News, Sept 23, 1916, via Lantern Digital Library
29 Photoplay, February 1917, via Lantern Digital Library
30 The Moving Picture Weekly Nov 3, 1917, P28 Via Lantern Digital Library
31 Motion Picture News Aug 25, 1917, P1297 and The Moving Picture World Dec 8, 1917 P1410 via Lantern Digital Library
32 For more on Universal Studio’s production strategy see Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 64-85. University of Minnesota Press
33 See Karen Ward Mahar (2006) Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Johns Hopkins University Press and Anthony Slide (1996) Lois Weber: the director who lost her way in history. Greenwood Press
34 Photoplay Magazine, March 1919, P78. Via Lantern Digital Media Library
35 See Mark Garrett Cooper (2013) “Elsie Jane Wilson.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries.
36 Motion Picture News, August 25, 1917 via Lantern Digital Library
37 Motion Picture News, Feb 28 1920, P2127 via Lantern Digital Library
38 The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1920, P23, via Newspapers.com
39 The Los Angeles Times 29 Nov 1922, P15, via Newspapers.com
40 Baby Peggy, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery (1918-2020) was a popular Hollywood child star
41 See Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 7, 1923, P947 via Lantern, Digital Library. Also see The Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar 1923, P22 via Newspapers.com
42 Universal Weekly, 14 June 1924, P26, via Lantern, Digital Library
43 See for example Oakland Tribune (CA)19 Oct 1924, P64 via Newspapers.com
44 See Robert Catto’s website on Rupert Julian for a synopsis of his career
45 The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 1965, P40 via Newspapers.com
46 Los Angeles Evening Express,19 Jul 1915, P7, via Newspapers.com
47, 50 Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria
48 Variety, 25 July 1913, P25, Via Lantern Digital Library
49 The San Francisco Examiner 19 Jul 1913,P3 and The Los Angeles Times 24 Jun 1915, P26 via Newspapers.com
51 Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934, P9, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
52 Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 via British Library Newspaper Archive

Harry and Nellie Quealy ~ Life and death in variety

Above: Nellie and Harry Quealy in 1910, at the height of their popularity on the Australian stage.[1]The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P6, via State Library of Victoria
The Five Second version
Harry Quealy
was another Australian variety performer who had started his career on the stage at a very young age. He worked for Tom Pollard for a decade, developed a reputation for clever comedy and was much liked by audiences. When he met an early death in Australia in 1927, there was widespread and genuine regret. He worked in the US for six years and had a leading role in the US film Madame Sherry in 1917. But he maintained that he always preferred the stage.
Nellie Quealy, nee Finlay, was his partner on stage – the couple working together with great success in Australia. She had also begun her career as a child performer in the early 1890s, appearing overseas with Pollards in 1898. She married Harry in 1904, and as well as pursuing her own career, took on the role of parenting her three performing siblings – Nattlie, Myra and Irene Finlay. She died in the US in 1936, after a long battle with TB.
A stage turn like Fun in the Kitchen (above and below) was only intended to last 15 minutes being part of a mixed variety program.There is nothing in the sketch itself… it is all in the acting, swing and drollery of the situations.”[2]The Northern Miner (Qld) 25 April 1911, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

It is rare to have photos based on scenes from a variety turn. These are from the boxing scene in Fun in the Kitchen – taken for The Theatre magazine in 1910. [3]The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P5, via State Library of Victoria

Harry Quealy, born 1876

Harry was born Henry Joseph Quealy in Brisbane in July 1876 to Thomas, a shoemaker, and sometime mechanic at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal – and who was, according to Harry, also “the best dancer in Queensland”[4]The Theatre (Syd) on 1 December 1910, via the State Library of Victoria and his Irish born wife Margaret nee Byrne.[5]See State of Queensland, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Birth certificate Henry Joseph Quealy, 25 July 1876 Harry’s stories about being encouraged onto the stage at a young age are true. He recalled that he was on stage in a benefit concert as early as 1882, when he danced to much acclaim.[6]The Brisbane Courier (Qld) 21 Feb 1882, P1,via National Library of Australia’s Trove By 1891, 15 year old Harry was a part of Tom Pollard’s new juvenile troupe touring Australia. He continued to be associated with Tom Pollard’s troupes of players as they matured, until they finally broke up, about 1908.[7]See Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, P80-81 Harry’s associates are not well remembered now but were very well known at the time and included – Maud Beatty(1878-1959) and May Beatty(1880-1945), William S Percy (1872-1946), Nellie Wilson(1877-) and Jack Ralston (1882-1933). See Note 1 below regarding various Pollard tours.

Harry Quealy in Tom Pollard’s The Gondoliers, the King of Barataria, The Princess Theatre, Melbourne Australia, October 15, 1892 [8]Program via State Library of Victoria

Harry developed to become a popular comedian for Tom Pollard’s comic operas, taking on numerous character roles –“a list too long for me to give it to you right off” he told The Theatre in 1910. In 1903 he joined Pollard’s “Royal Australian Comic Opera Company” for an extended tour of South Africa.[9]So named because the performers were now too old to be called Lilliputians It was here that Harry met Nellie Finlay, who was touring with Harry Hall’s Juvenile Australian Company at the same time.[10]It is hard to believe Tom Pollard and Harry Hall had not reached some type of agreement regarding itinerary and performances in South Africa

Both Harry and Nellie were short and slight – a physical profile famously preferred by juvenile companies. Harry was inclined to claim he was even shorter than his 162 cms (5’4″) inches while Nellie stood just 152 cms (5′) in height. But it was their skills as dancers, singers and comedians that made them so popular, even before they teamed up on stage. “We both revel in sketch work” Harry assured Theatre magazine.[11]The Theatre (Syd) December 1, 1910, P1-4. Via State Library of Victoria

Nellie Finlay, born c1885

Nellie Finlay was born c1885 in New Zealand.[12]The US census of 1920 lists Nellie’s birthplace as Port Chalmers, New Zealand Details of her childhood are obscure, almost certainly because her mother Millie Robins was unmarried.[13]While her birth certificate has yet to be found, Nellie is listed, aged 6, with sister Nattlie aged 4, on the Queensland birth certificate of her youngest sister Irene. See State of Queensland, … Continue reading Nellie and her sisters Nattlie and Irene adopted the surname Finlay when her mother married George Charles Finlay in 1893.

A photo of Nellie, presumably taken well before its publication in 1916.[14]The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

According to Harry Quealy, Nellie’s performance career began when she was aged only 4 and a half – or in about 1890. She was documented onstage in 1892, dancing a sailor’s hornpipe in a program at the Exhibition Hall at 232-234 Brunswick Street Fitzroy and the Finlay family moved permanently to this area soon after.[15]Fitzroy City Press (Vic) 2 Dec 1892 P2, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove A few years later, this part of inner city Melbourne had become the main recruiting ground for Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company troupes and it is not surprising that Nellie and her sisters would end up being associated with them.

By 1897, Nellie had a reputation for her dancing – which included a version of Bessie Clayton’s “back kick dance” – meaning she was flexible enough to kick backwards and touch her head. In late 1898, Nellie and Nattlie joined a Charles Pollard tour of South Africa – performing the usual repertoire of musical comedies – The Geisha, The Gaiety Girl and the like. A report written for Sydney’s Referee included interviews with Nellie and Nattlie: “Nellie Finlay, aged 12 years, who is a bright and clever girl, said: ‘I like South Africa, and travelling. I came to Cape Town from Australia on November 17, 1898. I like playing parts and dancing. My best part is Mamie Clancy in The Belle of New York.[16]The Referee (Syd) 5 Jul 1899, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Era reports on the success of Charles Pollard’s troupe in South Africa in August 1899.[17]The Era, London, 26 Aug 1899, P15, via British Library Newspaper Archive

In 1900, Nellie and Nattlie joined Harry Hall’s own troupe to perform in South Africa. [18]Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard attempted to stop Hall’s tour in the Victorian Supreme court but failed. Hall’s group was also made up of other adult members of the … Continue reading However, even by the permissive employment standards of the time, the choice of South Africa as a destination for a children’s troupe was unusual – the country was then in the midst of the Second Anglo-Boer war. See Note 2 below regarding Irene Finlay joining the Pollards.

Nellie Finlay remained connected with Hall’s company in South Africa for several years [19]Referee (Syd) 27 Feb 1901, P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove – she travelled there again in early 1903, with other up and coming juveniles like Harold Fraser (later Snub Pollard) and Mae Dahlberg (later Mae Laurel). Hall died suddenly in South Africa in late October 1903,[20]Otago Daily Times (NZ) 2 Dec 1903 P6 Via Papers Past and his Australian Juveniles mostly returned to Australia. However, Nellie returned to Australia on the same ship as Harry Quealy, and the couple married in Western Australia in 1904.[21]See State of Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Marriage certificate 1336/1904

Working together

Fun in the Kitchen included Nellie dancing on a table, humorous songs and concluded with the boxing match ~ shown here ~ between Cook (Nellie) and Buttons (Harry). Australian audiences loved it.

Following their marriage in Western Australia, Nellie and Harry both appeared on the Australian and New Zealand stages for Tom Pollard, with Nellie increasingly choreographing for productions.[22]Daily Post (Hob), 13 Jun 1908, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Fun in the Kitchen was first performed in September 1908.[23]Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 21 Sep 1908, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove It met with great approval and appeared in Australia on and off for six years, being entirely devised and regularly refreshed by Nellie and Harry.[24]The Sun (Syd) 27 Apr 1913, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In April 1909 Arthur Pollard asked Nellie and Harry to accompany his new Lilliputian tour of the “Far East,” India and North America – Nellie as Ballet Mistress and Harry as Stage Manager.(Charles Pollard had announced he was retiring from running his North American tours) [25]Truth (Bris)18 Apr 1909, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove About thirty young performers departed in July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore as first performance stops. However, as this writer has noted elsewhere, the tour of India was a disaster. Pollard was inexperienced as a manager and temperamentally quite unsuited to be a supervisor of children. The tour fell apart and the child performers returned home in early 1910, with considerable press attention. Harry went out of his way to protect the name of his mentor and friend Tom Pollard, but it didn’t help – the Pollard family reputation was ruined and new Federal legislation followed soon after to restrict the employment of children overseas. Harry also studiously avoided saying anything about his sister in law, Nellie’s youngest sister, Irene, who had disappeared with Arthur Pollard after the troupe broke up in Madras. This writer can find no evidence Nellie and Irene saw each other again. Perhaps the early death of their mother Millie Finlay in Melbourne in 1907 saw the family relationships fracture for good.

Above: Harry Quealy is one of the few who can be identified in this photo of the disastrous 1909 Pollard tour of India. He is standing, sixth from right, behind two seated girls in black. [26]The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Back home, Harry and Nellie resumed their career in vaudeville. For six years, they toured far flung towns and cities in Australia and New Zealand, as part of varied variety lineups, almost without a break. Fun in the Kitchen made a regular return, but they also had new acts – Ragtime Musical Stores, On the Stage and Only a Dream unfortunately only the titles survive. Fun in the Kitchen continued to tickle Australia audiences, in late 1912 the Kalgoorlie Miner reported that the huge audience “screamed with laughter, and wanted more.” [27]Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 15 Nov 1912, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove At the conclusion of a final, very long run on the Fuller circuit and shortly before they left Australia in September 1916, the Sunday Times of Sydney reported that Nellie “possesses all the accomplishments necessary for success in vaudeville, with a good voice, a good presence, and shapely figure she has all the essentials for success in the rapid-fire sketches she and her husband present.[28]Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Apr 1916, P19,via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Harry, Nellie and their first daughter Maize in 1915.[29]The Theatre (Syd) 1 Feb 1915. Via State Library of Victoria

Working in the US

It was wartime, but the Quealys were able to catch a ship to South Africa, and in January 1917 they arrived in Boston – the shipping manifest for SS City of Lahore suggests they had work already arranged. Harry’s first few years in the US saw his enthusiastic self promotion at work again – but many of the claims he made at this time to boost his profile now appear to be without foundation.[30]For example – that he tried to enlist in the Australian Army 4 times, that he was Scottish singer Harry Lauder’s cousin, and that he had performed on every continent

In 1917 Nellie was pregnant with their second child, Aileen, born in that year in New York. Harry found work in a film in mid 1917 – just one – a version (silent of course) of the musical comedy Madame Sherry. Clear photos of Harry, credited as H J Quealy, can be seen at Kay Shakleton’s Silent Hollywood website.[31]Why just the one film? Perhaps the experience of friend and former Pollard colleague William S Percy, who had also dabbled in film in Australia and then on his arrival in the US, had some influence He then found work in Oh Boy, a successful New York musical comedy that had opened in August at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre.

Harry Quealy (as H J Quealy) at right, in Madame Sherry, released in September 1917 [32]Exhibitors Herald (Jun-Dec 1917 Reviews, via Lantern Media History Library

There is also evidence the Quealys were working together on tour at the end of 1920, in the “novelty” vehicle On Manilla Bay, but after this the couple did not work together again.[33]These so called “mechanical electrical” novelty shows were an effort by vaudeville to respond to the growing power of the moving picture. Married by Wireless, also produced by former … Continue reading

Harry and Nellie touring the US together, (and using their connections in a Pollard designed show), in late 1920.[34]Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 Dec 1920, P9 via Newspapers.com

Nellie was busy – without Harry – in the early 1920s, on tour performing with Frank Roberts in Time – a sequence of episodes in the night life of a large city, and later in partnership with Jack Girard, who was sometimes listed as “Jack Quealy” in Shoe Echoes.

In 1920 Harry toured the US in the musical SeeSaw, followed by a run in Canada with fellow Australian Alma Gray in The Royal Perriots in 1921. And in 1922 he took a role in Rain, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York – a Somerset Maugham story,[35]Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20 via Newspapers.com later filmed several times, as Sadie Thompson.

It is not clear whether Nellie and Harry had separated by this time, or whether their careers just took them in different directions, by some sort of mutual agreement.

Early and tragic deaths

Fate did not treat Nellie or Harry well.

Harry Quealy (centre) as Quartermaster Bates in Rain, 1923.[36]Hearst’s International, Vol 43, 1923, P93, Via Internet Archive

In October 1923, during the long run of Rain in New York, Harry suffered a debilitating stroke, bad enough to keep him off stage and in hospital for some months.[37]Variety, 11 October 1923, P9 via the Internet Archive Library With financial support from friends, he returned to Australia in March 1925, and lived with his sister Mary at her home in Lyon Street, Randwick, Sydney.[38]The Telegraph (Bris) 12 Mar 1925, P5 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Despite the positive spin he tried to put on his circumstances – he claimed he was much improved by the sea voyage home – he required nursing and died in 1927, aged 51.[39]See State of New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Death certificate Henry Joseph Quealey(sic), 2 July 1927

Still working in the US, Nellie was diagnosed with tuberculosis in late 1929.[40]Variety Oct 9, 1929, P84. via the Internet Archive Library Before the era of antibiotics, bed rest, fresh air and diet were all that could be done to treat the disease. Nellie went into a specialist sanitorium at New York state’s Saranac Lake, run by the National Vaudeville Association.[41]See Saranac Lake Historic Wiki – Gonzalez Cottage And there she stayed, her progress regularly reported for the benefit of other performers, in the pages of Variety – in a public fashion we would find unthinkable today. In December 1935 Variety reported she was “doing nicely after a slight setback,” but she succumbed to the disease in 1936.[42]Variety Dec 11 1935, P70, via the Internet Archive Library She was aged about 50.

Harry and Nellie’s two daughters lived out their lives in the United States.

Nellie’s youngest sister Irene eloped with Arthur Pollard after the disastrous 1909 tour, went to England with him and finally married him in New Zealand, in 1925. Nattlie Finlay and step sister Myra Finlay both left the stage. A step brother Nigel Finlay, pursued other interests.


Note 1 – the Pollard tours

Based on Peter Downes work, we might define the Pollard troupes this way:

  • James Pollard‘s (Original) Lilliputians (mostly comprising his own children, 1880-1886),
  • Tom Pollard‘s Lilliputians aka the Pollard Opera Company (Australasia, the Far East and South Africa, 1891-1905)
  • Tom Pollard‘s Juvenile Opera Company (mostly Australasia 1907-c1908)
  • Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Companies (one to South Africa, then generally to the Far East and North America 1896-1910 )
  • Arthur Pollard‘s Company (to the Far East and India 1909-1910)
  • Nellie Chester nee Pollard’s “Pollard Company” (only active in North America 1909-1914 but mostly comprising Australians)

Tom Pollard’s troupes are the subject of Peter Downes book The Pollards (2002) – and their members came from across New Zealand and Australia. Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollards companies were mostly enlisted from inner Melbourne. Most child actors did not swap companies.

Note 2 – The Finlays and the courts

There were at least 7 civil cases brought by Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard against members of their troupes, between 1898 and 1904, including several against the Finlay family. Despite the legal wrangling in 1900, Nellie’s youngest sister Irene Finlay joined a Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard troupe to North America. She ended up travelling on five overseas tours with them, reminding us again that the Pollards were running a business and parents of child performers were entering into transactions with them – there was no altruism involved.


Nick Murphy
August 2022


References

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow (2014) Entertaining Children: The participation of youth in the entertainment industry. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) “The Controversial ‘Case of the Opera Children in the East’: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernising cultural policy on the child.” Theatre Journal No 69, 2017, Johns Hopkins University Press via Jstore.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
  • Maryna Fraser (Ed), Edmund Bright, Thomas Richard Adlam (1985) Johannesburg Pioneer Journals, 1888-1909. (Excerpts from the memoirs of William T Powell) Van Riebeeck Society
  • Camille Hardy (1978) “Bessie Clayton: An American Genée” Dance Chronicle, 1978 – 1979, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 251-278. Taylor and Francis via Jstore.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]

Web

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
  • Newspapers.com
  • State Library of Victoria
  • Hathitrust digital library
  • National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past
  • Internet Archive Library

Primary Sources

  • Ancestry.com
  • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P6, via State Library of Victoria
2 The Northern Miner (Qld) 25 April 1911, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
3 The Theatre (Syd) 1 December 1910, P5, via State Library of Victoria
4 The Theatre (Syd) on 1 December 1910, via the State Library of Victoria
5 See State of Queensland, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Birth certificate Henry Joseph Quealy, 25 July 1876
6 The Brisbane Courier (Qld) 21 Feb 1882, P1,via National Library of Australia’s Trove
7 See Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, P80-81
8 Program via State Library of Victoria
9 So named because the performers were now too old to be called Lilliputians
10 It is hard to believe Tom Pollard and Harry Hall had not reached some type of agreement regarding itinerary and performances in South Africa
11 The Theatre (Syd) December 1, 1910, P1-4. Via State Library of Victoria
12 The US census of 1920 lists Nellie’s birthplace as Port Chalmers, New Zealand
13 While her birth certificate has yet to be found, Nellie is listed, aged 6, with sister Nattlie aged 4, on the Queensland birth certificate of her youngest sister Irene. See State of Queensland, Births, Deaths and Marriages, 16 August 1891 – Birth Certificate, Irene Robins
14 The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 Fitzroy City Press (Vic) 2 Dec 1892 P2, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 The Referee (Syd) 5 Jul 1899, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Era, London, 26 Aug 1899, P15, via British Library Newspaper Archive
18 Charles Pollard & Nellie Chester nee Pollard attempted to stop Hall’s tour in the Victorian Supreme court but failed. Hall’s group was also made up of other adult members of the Pollard family – Alice Landeshut nee Pollard, Will Pollard and May Pollard were all supervising adults – and thus, these actions suggest a tradition of tension and mistrust within the Pollard family itself.
19 Referee (Syd) 27 Feb 1901, P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 Otago Daily Times (NZ) 2 Dec 1903 P6 Via Papers Past
21 See State of Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Marriage certificate 1336/1904
22 Daily Post (Hob), 13 Jun 1908, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
23 Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 21 Sep 1908, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
24 The Sun (Syd) 27 Apr 1913, P10, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
25 Truth (Bris)18 Apr 1909, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove
27 Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 15 Nov 1912, P7, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Apr 1916, P19,via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29 The Theatre (Syd) 1 Feb 1915. Via State Library of Victoria
30 For example – that he tried to enlist in the Australian Army 4 times, that he was Scottish singer Harry Lauder’s cousin, and that he had performed on every continent
31 Why just the one film? Perhaps the experience of friend and former Pollard colleague William S Percy, who had also dabbled in film in Australia and then on his arrival in the US, had some influence
32 Exhibitors Herald (Jun-Dec 1917 Reviews, via Lantern Media History Library
33 These so called “mechanical electrical” novelty shows were an effort by vaudeville to respond to the growing power of the moving picture. Married by Wireless, also produced by former Pollard members and toured in the US, was another
34 Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 Dec 1920, P9 via Newspapers.com
35 Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20 via Newspapers.com
36 Hearst’s International, Vol 43, 1923, P93, Via Internet Archive
37 Variety, 11 October 1923, P9 via the Internet Archive Library
38 The Telegraph (Bris) 12 Mar 1925, P5 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
39 See State of New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Death certificate Henry Joseph Quealey(sic), 2 July 1927
40 Variety Oct 9, 1929, P84. via the Internet Archive Library
41 See Saranac Lake Historic Wiki – Gonzalez Cottage
42 Variety Dec 11 1935, P70, via the Internet Archive Library

Charles Bennett (1891-1943) – From Pollards to ‘Citizen Kane’

Above: Charles Bennett in his uncredited role as the song and dance man, in Citizen Kane (1941). An RKO Radio Pictures, publicity still, photographer Alexander Kahle. Via Wikimedia Commons. [The scene in question is about 40 minutes into the film]

Charles as a tenor 1916
The 5 second version
There are few actors whose lives and careers are as muddled up in online accounts as Charles Bennett (1891-1943). He is regularly confused with others of the same name (see Note 1 below).
Charles Bennett was born in New Zealand, his wife Dottie Brown (1890-1981) in Australia and their son Mickey Bennett (1915-1950) in Canada. This thoroughly imperial family owed their presence in North America to Pollard’s Opera Company, an Australian theatrical institution of young touring actors. Like many of the Pollards performers, Charles and Dottie had stayed on in the US. Dottie retired from the stage in the 1920s. Charles Bennett continued to appear in light opera, vaudeville and then early sound films, although in the latter he was usually consigned to minor and uncredited roles. Dottie and Charles’ son Mickey became a child star of note in the 1920s and 30s. Charles’s brother Norman Bennett (1903-1984) also worked in the US film industry. 
At left: 25 year old Charles Bennett while performing with “The Bostonians” at the Saskatoon Empire Theatre, The Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan, Canada) 22 Nov 1916, P5, via newspapers.com

Above: The USA was one of the first nations to introduce detailed recordkeeping and the use of photographs for entry and naturalisation. These photos are taken from separate US naturalisation applications for Charles Bennett (1933), his brother Norman (1939), and son Mickey Bennett (1937- by then an adult) The corresponding photo for Dottie Brown seems to be missing. Via US National Archives, via ancestry.com and Family Search.

Charles Joseph Bennett was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1891, to Charles Bennett a jeweller- watchmaker, and his wife Louisa nee Potter. In 1892, the Bennetts and their three children relocated to Melbourne. A few years later they settled down at 69 Elm Street Northcote, then a suburb on Melbourne’s northern fringe. The family lived there for thirty years and three more children were born in Melbourne. There is evidence that the Bennett family fostered musical interests amongst their children, and in time, Charles came to prominence as a singer, elocutionist and comic while touring with several concert companies in eastern Australia in 1911-12. In the 1920s, Charles’ youngest brother Norman also developed a reputation as a singer.

With the Pollards

In mid 1912, Charles signed up with Nellie Chester for what would be the final Pollards Juvenile Opera performance tour of North America. Following the Pollards disastrous tour of India in 1909, Australian labour laws now restricted children from performing overseas and thus most of the performers were in their late teens or early twenties (and therefore could no longer called “Lilliputians”). Some in the company were well established Pollard performers who had travelled to North America before – including Ted and Nellie McNamara, Ethel Naylor and “Dottie” Brown.

Dottie Brown had been born Ellen (or Eileen) Brown in Melbourne in 1890, and had performed with Pollards and other juvenile groups for almost ten years, first travelling with the company on one of their lengthy tours in 1903. Compared to Charles, her profile is more typical of the young people from working class inner Melbourne who joined the company. Parents of Pollard performers were usually in unskilled jobs, and were apparently more accepting of their child’s lengthy absence on extended overseas tours. Dottie’s father was a cab driver, but in later years a painter and decorator.

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Some of the performers in Nellie Chester’s final Pollard’s troupe. . Via Newspapers.com.

In the grainy photo above, Nellie Chester, dressed in black, stands at the centre rear, while standing beside her is the troupe’s leading comic performer Ted McNamara. Charles Bennett may be the hatted man, at rear on the right. Unfortunately Dottie cannot be identified with confidence. She was sometimes credited as the troupe’s “Dance Mistress” although records show she also performed. Following Pollards established practices, the troupe travelling across towns and cities in Canada and the US, their repertoire including popular musicals – The MikadoThe Belle of New York, Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly. Welcomed by local press who already knew the Pollards as a “first class road company”, they were a success everywhere they went.

A number of the Pollard performers on this tour married – including Dottie and Charles in late 1914. At about the same time, the couple left Pollards. This was not unusual, and the Pollards Juvenile troupe continually changed composition as it toured North America through to its eventual demise in 1919. However in February 1915 Charles took Pollards to court over two weeks wages – reported to be $40, and the cost of the fare back to Australia – $105.00, as allowed in his original Australian contract. The matter was settled, and Charles was forced to admit he didn’t want to return to Australia.

Above; While Charles and Dottie were performing in North America during World War One, these were the family homes in Australia – left: The Brown home at No 96 Carlton Street, Carlton, overlooking Carlton Gardens and right, the Bennett family home at No 69 Elm Street, Northcote – where the Bennetts lived for about thirty years.

Charles and Dottie after Pollards

It was while living in Victoria, British Columbia in 1915 that a son, Charles John Berkley (Mickey) Bennett was born. Charles had joined Victoria’s Allen Players at the time. In late 1916, Charles, Dottie and Ethel Naylor, another ex-Pollard performer, joined The Bostonians, another well established touring company specialising in musical comedies, like The Rose of Honolulu. Their move was again greeted with enthusiastic publicity – doubtless generated by the company itself. Newspapers reported that Charles was the only leading male in the company and “a tenor of rare ability”. Dottie had once been the “premier danseuse” of Australia it was (incorrectly) claimed.

Above: Charles Bennett with Iva Mitchell appearing for the Bostonians. Independent-Observer (Montana) 24 May 1917, P8. Via newspapers.com

On and off between 1918 and 1923 – Charles Bennett featured with Earl Christie in the vaudeville turn Two Boys from Virginia, also known as Two Southern Gentlemen in some US states. He can be found performing in vaudeville, with less and less frequency, through to the late 1920s. Of note also, was his reputation as a singer on radio. Unfortunately Dottie Brown’s later career is much more difficult to trace. She may have performed on tour in the US as late as the mid 1920s, although there were more than a few dancers called Dottie Brown or Dottie Bennett at work in variety at the time. (See Note 2 regarding Charles Bennett on Broadway)

Above: Charles Bennett working with Earl Christie in Two Boys from Virginia in a Decatur, Illinois vaudeville lineup in 1918. Herald and Review (Illinois) 21 Jan 1918, P10 via Newspapers.com

Mickey the child star

We know that Charles and Dottie decided to include their young son in their theatre life at a young age, as “Mickey” (as he was already nicknamed), was included in a stage performance of Chu Chin Chow in Victoria BC, in late 1920. He was 5 years old at the time. It has also been suggested that he appeared soon after in a small role in the film Cappy Ricks (1921), but as only part of this has survived, it is impossible to verify.

The great critical and financial success of Charlie Chaplin‘s The Kid (1921), which also featured 7 year old Jackie Coogan, inspired other studios to make films featuring real child actors, as opposed to adults (like Mary Pickford) pretending to be children. Mickey was one of a number of child stars who emerged in the 1920s, in films that featured them as scamps, vagabonds and members of cheeky children’s gangs. The following puff-piece illustrates the efforts studios were going to in the wake of Chaplin’s success with The Kid. Here, a Photoplay article inferred that Mickey, a featured player in Paramount’s Big Brother (1923), really was a tough street kid, who wouldn’t “work with them sissies.” Readers were also assured he was “entirely different from Jackie Coogan”. Allan Dwan was reported to have said Mickey was the “most remarkably quick and responsive child actor he has ever worked with.”


Above: Screen grabs of Mickey Bennett in two comedies; left – No Father to Guide Him, with Charley Chase (1925), right – It’s the Old Army Game with WC Fields (1926). Via copies on youtube.

The problem for child stars, even for the very successful Jackie Coogan, is that they soon ceased to be children. Mickey Bennett featured in several memorable roles as he grew into his early teens, appearing in the musical Swing High (1930) and the James Cagney reform-school drama The Mayor of Hell (1933), his last role of substance. He was 18 years old by this time.

However, by 1935 he was usually consigned to very minor roles and as his IMDB credit list shows, there were an increasing number of uncredited “bellhop” parts. He had well and truly lost his currency.

In 1936 he turned to directing, working successfully for Universal as a Second Unit and Assistant Director – on films including Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1947) and the Audie Murphy western Sierra (1950), directed by Alfred E Green. Unfortunately, only some of this work is documented.

Charles’ screen career

There is also difficulty in documenting accurately the film parts played by Charles Bennett, except in his case, this is also because his name was shared with several other people in the entertainment industry. (See note 1 below).

The only solution to this today is to watch all of the available films credited to actors called Charles Bennett and to compare their appearance, an inexact activity at best. Doing this suggests Charles’ first noticeable roles in film were in the early 1930s, although it is likely that there are other films we do not know of. Overwhelmingly, his appearances were passing roles – sometimes as a featured extra, often playing a cockney type, as so many Australians found themselves doing during Hollywood’s golden age. By far the clearest footage of Charles Bennett in any of his films found thus far, is his appearance as the telegraph officer in Gunga Din (1939). Charles appears in closeup, and his expression freezes as he realises why the morse code message has stopped.

Above: Screen grab of Charles Bennett as the shocked telegraph operator in Gunga Din (1939). Author’s collection. The film is widely available on DVD.
Above: Screen grab of Charles Bennett as a singer in the pub, in Mysterious Mr Moto (1938). In addition to leading actor Mary Maguire, a number of other Australian-born extras appeared in this film – Billy Bevan, Frank Hagney, Harry Allen, Jack Deery, Sam Harris, Dick Rush and Clyde Cook, and New Zealand-born actor May Beatty, all of them playing cockneys. Via copy on youtube.

This audio clip from the scene above in Mysterious Mr Moto (1938) is the only example the author could find of Charles Bennett singing, on this occasion in his best cockney accent. Via copy on youtube

There appear to have been at least two dozen films in which Charles Bennett was an extra. Sadly, another reason for the poor documentation of the careers of Charles Bennett and his son Mickey is that they both died unexpectedly in mid-career. Charles Bennett died suddenly in early 1943, as a result of a stroke, working almost to the very end. Mickey also died very suddenly as a result of a heart attack – in September 1950. He left a wife and young daughter – he was only 35 years old.

Norman Bennett goes to Hollywood

In October 1928, 25 year old Norman Bennett – the youngest of the Bennett family, decided to leave the comfort of the home at 69 Elm Street, Northcote, to pursue his musical interests in the United States. A well known tenor in Australia, his departure was publicly acknowledged by farewell concerts. Percy Grainger had apparently agreed to watch over his career and Norman’s stated intention was to study in Chicago. Within a few years he was appearing regularly on radio in the US. But Norman soon ended up in California and by 1938 Australian newspapers reported that he was music director at RKO, and he is credited with arranging and composing music for films well into the 1950s. Norman also appears to have had a small part in RKOs Flying Down to Rio (1933). A online commercial image archive holds a photo that shows Norman, credited as a music advisor, with Orson Wells on the set of Citizen Kane.

Above: Mickey Bennett meeting his Australian uncle Norman. The Herald (Melb) 6 June 1929, P35. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After a long career in California, Norman returned to Australia, retiring to Sandringham, a southern suburb of Melbourne, where he died in 1984. Dottie had stayed on in California, and died there in March 1981.


Note 1 – All those other actors called Charles Bennett

Many online accounts of Charles Bennett merrily jumble up the careers of the following individuals.

  • Charles Bennett (1899-1995), a British actor, director and screenwriter, well remembered for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Charles R Bennett, a New York musician or agent and possibly actor, who allegedly married US actress Patricia “Boots” Mallory in New York on 15 August 1928. The couple divorced in 1933 – Boots insisted they had never legally married.
  • And there was another Charles Bennett, very active on the stage in the late C19th and in the early years of US film. In his 2010 book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, Brent E Walker warns against confusing this actor, whose date and details of birth remain elusive, with the Charles Bennett born in New Zealand. (See Walker, P488). Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened, as the current page on the IMBD shows.
Above left: Screen grab of Charles Bennett the stage actor (at right) as the returned Uncle in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), with Charlie Chaplin (foreground) and Marie Dressler. Above Right: Screen grab of Charles Bennett the stage actor (at right) as a sailor at the bar in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914) also with Charlie Chaplin.

Note 2 -Charles Bennett and Of Thee I Sing on Broadway

The George S Kaufman, George and Ira Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing ran on Broadway from late 1931 to Jan 1933 – some 441 performances according to the IBDB. A Charles Bennett is listed as a performer, but to date, this writer has not been able to confirm it is the same person.


Nick Murphy
November 2021


References

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By... University of California Press
  • Lucy Fisher (Ed) (2009) American Cinema of the 1920s; Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press
  • Clifford McCarty (2000) Film Composers in America: A Filmography, 1911-1970. Oxford University Press
  • Brent E. Walker (2013) Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies. McFarland Incorporated

Victoria (Aust) Births Deaths and Marriages

  • Ellen Brown birth certificate. 4 May 1890
  • Charles Bennett (father) death certificate, 13 Aug 1937
  • Norman Wills Bennett death certificate, 14 Sept 1984

New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages

  • Charles Joseph Bennett birth certificate, 13 April 1891

Websites

Ancestry.com and family search

  • US census, Shipping manifests and naturalisation applications
  • Charles Joseph Bennett death certificate, California, 15 Feb 1943
  • Charles Joseph Bennett and Eileen Brown marriage certificate, British Columbia 9 Oct 1914
  • Victoria, Australia, voting rolls.

State Library of Victoria

  • Sands and McDougall Directories, Melbourne, 1900 and 1910

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, May 4, 1908 P16
  • The Province (Vancouver, BC) 10 Aug 1912, P17
  • The Alaska Daily Empire, 8 Oct 1913, Wed · P3
  • Spokane Chronicle, 23 Dec 1913, P1
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC) 13 Feb 1915, P13
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, BC) 15 Feb 1915, P10
  • Saskatoon Daily Star (Saskatchewan) 18 Nov 1916, P21
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan) 21 Nov 1916, P5
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan) 22 Nov 1916, P5
  • The Billings Gazette (Montana), 4 Apr 1917, P5
  • Independent-Observer (Montana) 24 May 1917, P8
  • Herald and Review (Illinois) 21 Jan 1918, P10
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, BC), 10 Nov 1920
  • Palladium Item (Ind) 17 May 1924. P17
  • Anaconda Standard (Mont) 25 Nov 1926, P16
  • Chicago Tribune, 27 March 1927, P44
  • The Pasadena Post (Cal) 19 Jun 1929, P20
  • Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 17 Feb 1943, P2
  • The Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep 1950, P48

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Townsville Daily Bulletin 14 Aug 1907, P7
  • Advertiser (Adel) 3 Feb 1911, P11
  • Referee (Syd) 8 Jan 1913, P15
  • Herald (Melb) 12 June 1924, P22
  • Herald (Melb) 27 Aug 1925, P23
  • Herald (Melb) 23 Aug 1928, P6
  • Herald (Melb) 6 June 1929, P35
  • Herald (Melb), 3 February 1938, P30

Papers Past (New Zealand)

  • Evening Post, 13 June 1924, P5

Lantern, Digital Media Project

  • Moving Picture World, 3 July 1915
  • Photoplay, Jan-June 1924

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

Billy Williams and the lost story of his little sister Madge

Above: Billy Williams – enlarged from a Song Book cover, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Madge Williams, while performing for Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company. Photographed while in Hong Kong and on tour, c1901 – courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Five Second Version
Melbourne born Madge Williams (sometimes also Madge Woodson, but born Banks)(1893-1977) was a star performer with two Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company tours in 1900-1902. Still aged under 10, she left the company while in the US, subsequently performing there and in Britain with her older sister Lily before marrying vaudevillian Bert Coleman. Her older brother Billy Williams (1878-1915) became a very popular music hall performer and an early recording artist in the UK, achieving great fame before his death in England at the height of his career, in 1915. After a final return tour of Australia in 1920-21, Madge retired from the stage. She died in Texas in 1977. 

The Banks Family

Above: Madge in Pollards production of The Belle of New York c1901. Madge’s brother Billy Williams was establishing himself in Britain at the same time. Photo courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Madge Williams, sometimes Little Madge Woodson – real name Margaret Hilda Banks, was born in Melbourne on August 15, 1893, to Richard Shaw Banks, a draper, and Mary nee McIntosh. Unfortunately a certificate verifying her birth never seems to have been issued – nor one for her older sister Lillian, born in 1875. Based on public death notices for parents Mary and Richard, birth certificates for the family’s boys and on later US documents for Madge, we can see there were six Banks children who survived infancy, four of whom went on stage:

  • Lillian (Lily) born 1875,
  • Richard (Dick) born 1876,
  • William, Will or later Billy (but confusingly also named Richard Isaac on his birth certificate) born 1878, (See below and Note 1 below regarding his name)
  • Reginald (Reg) born 1880,
  • Rowland (Rowley) born 1885 and
  • Margaret (Madge) born 1893

There is no doubt the Banks family had an unorthodox approach to formalising the births of their children, even by standards of the time. All the births for the family’s male children were registered. However, births for the two surviving girls – Lily (b 1875) and Madge (b 1893) appear not to have been registered at all. The birth for another daughter – Margery Valentine (b 1888 – d 1888) wasn’t registered for 10 months, until about the time of the child’s death, and in that case it was reported by 13 year old Lily rather than one of the parents, which appears to be most unusual. Two other daughters’ births were registered, but both had died after only a few weeks. These unusual circumstances suggest a seriously dysfunctional dimension to family life.

Richard Shaw Banks and Mary McIntosh were married on October 23, 1877, at their home – May Cottage on Reilly Street, North Carlton, now called Princes Street, a major Melbourne thoroughfare. Richard Shaw Banks was illiterate and he signed the marriage papers with a mark. The two oldest children of the family – Lily and Richard, were thus born before their parents marriage.

The family rented and moved about, as was common for Melbourne’s urban poor. Jeff Brownrigg has traced some of their movements through inner Melbourne and suggests that the family progressed to more affluent suburbs over time. Electoral rolls show by 1910 Richard and Mary Banks lived at 15 Moffatt Street in South Yarra, further from the industrial inner suburbs but still in a very modest cottage.


“A doll-like child.” Madge on stage 1899

Above, Left: “Little Madge Woodson” featured in Pollard’s advertising in the Salt Lake Telegram, 15 Feb 1902. Right: Madge Woodson having left Pollards, in the San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902. Via Newspapers.com

While Madge’s exact pathway onto the stage is now lost to us, we know that amongst her earliest appearances was one when she was aged only about 6, in a performance in Fitzroy in May 1899, where she attracted attention for singing Maude Nugent‘s new song Sweet Rosie O’Grady. In September 1899 she appeared on stage with her brother Will Williams (later to become Billy Williams), who was then part of the Ettie Williams’ troupe. Also appearing with her was another performing brother, Reg. This is the only time members of the Banks family performed together, as far as this writer can determine.

Soon after this appearance, Madge joined Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, to take a long overseas performance tour through the Far East – and then on to North America from September 1901- October 1902. Will meantime, left for England in late 1899.

As Madge Woodson, she became a popular Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company performer, often vying with Daphne Pollard for pride of place in newspaper reports. That contemporary audiences were so taken with juvenile performers in adult roles seems clear from reviews. The “cute,” “petite” Madge was an “unusual talent” who had a “wonderful French accent”, and was also a “graceful dancer”, while Daphne Pollard was the “sweetest thing that ever happened.” The Great Falls Tribune described Madge as “a doll like child.” (27 Jan 1902)

Above: Madge Woodson with Pollards – and other Australian child performers listed here, with a mix of real and stage names. This is the cast list for the week commencing November 11, 1901, for The Belle of New York, in San Francisco. Author’s collection

In July 1902, while in the US, Madge left the Pollard troupe. They had been performing away from home for 11 months on this tour, and were due to return to Australia. But Madge Woodson did not return, instead, she began a stage career in the US – although still not yet ten years old. Who looked after her interests at this time we do not know for certain, but the likely choice was her older sister Lily, with whom she would later collaborate. Perhaps anticipating the criticism of child stage performance then gaining ground in the US, a long article in the San Francisco Call of 3 August 1902, soon after her break from Pollards, extolled her virtues as an animal lover and an award she had reportedly been given by the Melbourne branch of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

1903 saw Madge as part of mixed variety lineups in California with a “Lily Boyd”, perhaps her sister Lily, performing in the sketches or “character comedies” The Cook Lady and The Big and the Little of It. Her footsteps in the US for the remainder of this decade are harder to trace, although her sister Lily’s marriage to performer Ed Daly was recorded in Iowa in 1907. In the same year, Madge performed with Australian vaudevillian Leon Errol and his wife Stella Chatelaine as part of Jimmy Cooper’s Jersey Lilies in New York, with good reviews. As Frank Cullen et al note, “Errol was manager, director, sketch writer and chief comic” for the troupe. We can only speculate whether this association with Leon Errol sharpened Madge’s performance skills.

Madge and Lily 1910 -1922

Above: A very grainy photo of Madge and Lily performing as part of the variety lineup at The Lyric Theatre at Muskogee in Oklahoma. Muskogee Times Democrat, 21 March 1910. Via Newspapers.com

The period 1910 – 1922 saw Lily and Madge performing together in the US, South Africa, England and finally Australia again. In 1910, their older brother Billy was at the height of his popularity as a music hall entertainer and recording artist, and at times, they used his songs. Williams was now settled as a stage surname and occasionally their familial connection to Billy was noted, although the sisters appear never to have performed with him. Always a part of a variety lineup, the sisters act consisted of comedy patter and songs, not unlike the one Billy was developing, before his sudden death in 1915.


Above: Madge and Lillian in England, The Sunday Post, 13 August 1916, Via the British Newspaper Archive.

In May 1917, while in South Africa, Madge married Bert Coleman (Jacob Cohen), a fellow vaudevillian – who had a reputation as an amusing “impersonator” and “comic whistler“. Bert was often presented to audiences as English, but in reality he had been born in Savanah, Georgia and made his home in Texas. Following the marriage, Bert often appeared on the same vaudeville bill as Madge and Lily. Two children, Billy and Barney, were born of the union while they performed in England.

Above: Bert Coleman and Madge Williams on a 1917 US passport application. Source US National Archives via Family Search.

In early 1920, Bert, with Madge and Lily, who were now billed as the “Williams Sisters,” came to Australia to appear around the country with Fuller’s theatres. Their vaudeville turn again appears to have been some clever humorous patter between popular songs. Adelaide’s Register reported “Bert Coleman again told humorous stories, sang funny songs, and whistled so musically that it was difficult to judge which section of his turn one admired the most. The Williams sisters continue to be great favourites with their audience, [with] their reputation for producing ‘miles of smiles…”

In April 1921, Adelaide’s The Advertiser commented on their touching rendition of one of Billy’s last songs (he had died in England suddenly in 1915) – Our Little Kiddie Sings the Best Song of All. You can hear an original recording of Billy singing it here.

Above: Bert, Lily and Madge in the Fullers lineup at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre – appearing alongside Roy Rene and Nat Phillips as “Stiffy and Mo”. The Age (Melbourne) 26 July, 1920.

Madge and Bert returned to the US in November 1922 and moved back to Bert’s home state of Texas, where they lived in Waco, Forth Worth and finally Dallas. Already under siege from cinema, the days of mixed vaudeville programs was well and truly coming to an end by the 1920s and although there is some evidence Bert occasionally performed, Madge did not. Bert turned to running some small businesses.

Madge died in Dallas, on 9 July 1977. By then, she was listed as Margaret Hildegard Cole, daughter of “Jack” and “Maggie” Banks of “New Castle”, Australia, reminding us how wildly inaccurate death certificates can be. Only her date of birth and shared address with Bert, who had died in 1971, remain to confirm her identity. Unfortunately her sister Lily’s later fate remains unknown.


Billy Williams on the Stage c1897 – 1915

As Jeff Brownrigg has noted in his very detailed 1989 account, little is known with certainty of the early days of William Banks or “Billy Williams” (confusingly named Richard Isaac Banks on his 7 Feb 1878 birth certificate)(See Note 1). There were plenty of anecdotes about him given in later years, including stories of his early experiences as a strapper or groom for jockey Tommy Corrigan and his nickname being “Curly Banks.” There was also a tale that the name Billy Williams was borrowed from a successful Australian boxer of the time. Frank Van Straten‘s 1968 interview with Billy Williams’ widow Amy Jennings provides confirmation of his work as a strapper, but not much else of use as regards what happened in his early years. Amy was clearly wanting to protect Billy’s image with some of her answers – she claimed that he was born in Collins Street Melbourne (the most prestigious street in the city’s main business district) and that his father was secretary of the Albert Park Golf Club. But perhaps she just didn’t know. Her memories of Billy as a performer in England seem much more considered and were probably more reliable – the couple had met and married in London in September 1901. Billy had had limited schooling Amy said, and he had no formal musical training. But he had a beautiful voice.

Billy’s first publicly reported appearance as a comedian and singer was as “Will Williams” in late 1897, in Melbourne. He was soon touring regional Australian provincial venues as an “English vocalist” in vaudeville programs, when he was picked up by the Harry Cogill Musical Comedy Company.

Above: Billy Williams, The Edison Phonograph Monthly Jan-Dec 1912, P3. Via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library.

According to Amy Jennings, Melbourne entrepreneur George Adams saw him and sponsored him to try his luck in England. Possibly, or perhaps he just saved up. He is known to have departed Australia aboard the SS Afric in late 1899.

Will was fortunate and appeared at the London Hippodrome soon after arriving, billed as an “Australian comedian.” His memory of the early days was that it was a struggle, according to Amy’s 1968 interview. Early newspapers do not give a very clear idea of exactly what his act entailed, but humorous songs on sentimental, contemporary and popular topics (like The Taximeter Car in 1908 – then a relatively new phenomenon in London) were always a major part of the act. Frank Van Straten has described his style as “fresh, breezy” with a “rollicking repertoire.”

Above: Billy, still appearing as Will Williams, in early 1901. The Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901. A few weeks later, he was listed as Billy. Via British Library Newspaper Archive

In early 1901 Will re-named himself Billy Williams for the stage. In September that year he married London actress Amy Robinson, but on the wedding certificate he now used the name William Holt Williams, and his father was listed as a draper called Richard Holt.

Billy’s songs – sometimes of his own composition – such as John, John, Put your Trousers on (1906), lent themselves well to gramophone recordings and there were soon plenty in circulation. Jeff Brownrigg suggests it was fellow Australian Florrie Forde who encouraged him to begin recording songs. Some of these remained popular for many years – such as When Father Papered the Parlour (1909). Indeed, Williams is rightly identified as “Australia’s first popular recording star” by Brownrigg. As early as 1907 he sang songs written by Fred Godfrey (born Llewellyn Williams), but after 1911 nearly all of the songs he sang were jointly credited with Godfrey, like The Kangaroo Hop (1912). From late 1906 he was billed on stage as “The man in the velvet suit”, and Amy Jennings confirmed that he usually wore one on stage. He would come offstage wringing wet with perspiration, she recalled.

On 4 March 1910, Billy, accompanied by Amy and his son Reg, returned to Australia for entrepreneur Harry Rickards, on the RMS Omrah. He shared the program with psychics, comedy sketch artists and acrobats but it was a very successful tour, especially when Australian audiences were reminded he was one of them. Valerie Abbey from the National Film and Sound Archive has given a summary of Billy’s 1910 tour, which appears as an appendix to Jeff Brownrigg’s 1989 article, here.

Above – left: Billy appears in Australia again “after an absence of 12 years”, part of Rickards Vaudeville lineup. The Age, 16 April 1910. Right: Billy Williams Song Book cover, National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By Christmas time 1910, he was back in England again, performing for enthusiastic audiences and making more gramophone records. In 1912 he performed at the first Royal Variety performance.

Following the death of his mother Mary in South Yarra in 1912, his father Richard joined him in England, but he also underwent a change of name, becoming “Richard Holt Williams”. He died at Billy’s home in 1914.

Billy Williams died only a few months later, on 15 March, 1915. There had been newspaper reports of his indisposition in October 1914, but by November he had returned to giving concerts in Scotland. On 24 November, The Edinburgh Evening News noted a large group of enthusiastic soldiers in the house, ” who welcomed Williams as an old favourite. They proclaimed their choice of songs, and he responded with a bright and breezy rendering of several popular numbers…” He was ill again by February 1915 and his death certificate clearly lists septic prostatitis, which must have been an exhausting condition for a performer where boundless good humour and energy was essential. His death occurred following an operation, but there is no evidence supporting the suggestion of syphilis – as appears in the current manifestation of Wikipedia’s page on Billy. (He had several children with Amy and she lived another 65 years, which renders this unlikely)


Note 1 – Billy Williams’ birth name

Billy Williams name is the source of understandable confusion among his biographers – partly because his 1878 birth certificate gives his name as Richard Isaac Banks. However, every other document attributable to the family (such as public memorial notices for the deaths of parents Mary and Richard, the birth and death certificates for his siblings), give his name as William Isaac Banks, or Billy. Most importantly, when the child who would become Billy Williams was born on 7 Feb 1878, as already noted the family already had a child named Richard, born on 2 August 1876, in addition to Richard being the father’s name.

The most obvious explanation was that this was human error made when William Isaac Banks’ birth was being registered – but perhaps there are other explanations. At any rate, there is no evidence of him being called anything other than William, Will or Billy during his lifetime, or “Curly” as a nickname. (William was also a grandfather’s name.)


Note 2 – Other family members

Richard Shaw “Dick” Banks (1876-1930) The oldest of the Banks boys, he became a professional golfer in Australia. He died at the young age of 53. A National Library photo is here.

Rowland “Rowley” Banks (1885-1928) was also a professional golfer. Suffering ongoing ill health, he died in Newcastle, NSW whilst seeking a warmer climate.

Reginald Banks (1880 – ?) Reg also adopted the surname Williams and performed on stage with some success. However his later fate is unknown.

Above: Reg Williams performing in comedy in Adelaide, The Gadfly, 21 Aug 1907, via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nick Murphy July 2021


References

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
    • Irene Smith (Goulding) interview by Sally Dawes.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Richard Banks Birth Certificate 9 August 1876 . 14675/1876 (This is Richard “Dick” Banks)
    • Banks Marriage. 4144/1877
    • Richard Isaac Banks Birth Certificate, 7 February 1878. 9017/1878 (This is Billy Williams)
    • Margery Valentine Banks Birth Certificate, 15 February 1888. 32706/1888
      (This sister died 10 months later)
    • Mary Banks Death Certificate, 5 November 1912. 15487/1912.
  • HM Passport Office, General Register Office.
    • William Holt Williams. Death Certificate. Died Hove, England, 13 March 1915
  • Texas Death Certificates
    • Barney Cohen, 16 June 1930. #31546
    • Jacob Bert Cole, 8 August 1971. # 55022
    • Margaret Hildegard Cole, 9 July 1977. #48767
  • US National Archives via Ancestry and Family Search
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen (Stage Name Bert Coleman). 2 May 1917
    • Passport Application for Jacob Cohen. 28 Feb 1918
    • Passport Application for Margaret H Cohen. 1 May 1920.
  • National Film and Sound Archive (Australia)
    A large collection of material relating to Billy Williams, including photos, audios and Peter Burgis’ 1972 with Amy Jennings (not read for this article)
  • Clay Djubal – The Australian Variety Theatre Archive
  • Music Hall MastersBilly Williams series All the songs Album 2 (CD) 2001
    • Frank Van Straten (Dec 1968) Interview with Amy Jennings (Billy’s former wife)
  • Text:
    • Jeff Brownrigg (1989) [Notes to accompany recording] Australia’s Billy Williams, A Selection from the Brownrigg-Williams Collection at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.
      Downloadable at Move Classic Music Label here.
    • Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly (2007) Vaudeville, Old & New, An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol 1. Routledge.
    • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 24 Sept 1897 P9
    • North Melbourne Courier & West Melbourne Advertiser, (Vic). 8 Jan 1898 P10
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 Aug 1898, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 4 May 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 21 Sept 1899, P3
    • Fitzroy City Press, (Vic). 5 Oct 1899, P2
    • Fitzroy City Press,(Vic). 28 Sept 1900, P3
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P6
    • Brisbane Courier, (Qld). 13 Oct 1902, P6
    • The Argus, (Vic). 26 March 1903, P4
    • Sunday Times, (WA). 19 June 1910, P1
    • The Age, (Vic). 9 Nov 1912. P5
    • The Age, (Vic). 2 Oct 1914. P1
    • The Argus (Vic). 1 May 1915, P11
    • The Daily News, (WA). 18 June 1920, P6
    • Daily Herald (SA). 8 April 1921. P1
    • The Advertiser, (SA). 11 April 1921, P8
    • The Journal, (SA). 16 Ap 1921, P4
    • The Sun (NSW). 8 Aug 1928, P13
    • The Age, (Vic). 15 Oct 1938, P35
  • Newspapers.com
    • San Francisco Call. 30 June 1901, P18
    • The Honolulu Republican (Hawaii). 19 Sept 1901, P4
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 10 Nov 1901, P9
    • San Francisco Chronicle. 3 Aug 1902.
    • Vancouver Daily World (BC, Can). 19 Aug 1902, P2
    • The Honolulu Advertiser (Hawaii). 29 Sept, 1902, P10
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 12 October 1902, P40
    • Standard Union, (New York). 8 Oct 1907 P3
  • The British Newspaper Archive
    • The Era, 20 Oct, 1900
    • Surrey Comet 2 Jan, 1901, P3
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 11 Jan 1901, P4
    • Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 March 1901, P4
    • Preston Herald, 17 March 1915, P2

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

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

Of Elsie Morris, ‘Male impersonator’ & Jolly John Larkins

Above: Elsie Levine Morris in male attire, c1915. Photo courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

Elsie Lavinia (or Levine) Morris was born in South Melbourne in June 1896, to Charles Morris, a bootmaker, and Mary nee Howard. Two years later, Mary then aged 44, had another daughter – her sixteenth, making hers a very large family, even for the time.

Above: Elsie Morris and her mother Mary Morris nee Howard. Photo undated but probably taken about the time she appeared on stage in male attire. Courtesy Elsie’s great grand-niece Brenda Young.

In the early twentieth century, the life and career options for the children of Australian working class families living in cities were limited. Even if they found some work in their teens, girls were expected to end up working in the home, boys to take an apprenticeship or work in a factory. With only private schools offering a pathway to university, a career on the stage could be an attractive and possibly lucrative option for a working class girl or boy who showed some performance skills. Elsie Morris was therefore typical of the children who were signed up with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company in the period 1898-1909. 

Pollards advertises for new children to audition at Ford’s Hall, Brunswick St, in the heart of working class Fitzroy. Elsie or her family probably saw a similar advert sometime in 1909. The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie goes to India with Pollards

Elsie departed Australia as a member of the Pollard troupe of about 30 children, on the SS Gracchus in July 1909, bound for South East Asia and India, to be followed by a long tour through North America.

Above: Elsie Morris as a child performer, as shown in Table Talk, 7 December 1916, P8. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Gillian Arrighi’s article on the Pollard 1909 tour of India cites one newspaper account where manager Arthur Hayden Pollard described the parents of his child actors as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep [their children].” Overwhelmingly girls, the child performers were indentured to the supervising Pollard adults in a way we would find unthinkable today, and were away on overseas tours for lengthy periods – up to 24 months in several cases. The Pollard repertoire included popular musicals – The Belle of New York, A Gaiety Girl and HMS Pinafore and the child performers took multiple roles, girls often playing male roles. It was a format that had been refined over the previous twenty years.

Despite the company’s successful track record, Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s 1909 tour of India was a disaster. Pollard was inexperienced as a manager and temperamentally quite unsuited to be a supervisor of children. The tour fell apart and the child performers returned home in early 1910, with considerable press attention. The Pollard reputation was ruined and new Federal legislation followed soon after that restricted the employment of children overseas.

Above: Elsie is in this photo of the Pollard 1909 tour of India, but where? She is possibly in black in the second row, seated, fourth from left. The Leader 2 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove,

Finding her place on stage in Australia

Three years after the Pollard tour, Elsie appeared on stage at Melbourne’s Temperance Hall, singing and performing comedy sketches using skills she had learned, in part, with the Pollard troupe. She took the soubrette role in her choice of song – the voice of a sometimes wistful and slightly flirtatious young female. Although only 17 she was popular enough to be one of the headline acts wherever she went. But in addition to this, by mid 1915 she had also perfected a male impersonation act and was performing it on the Fuller’s circuit. In March 1916 she took the act to Sydney.

Above left: Photo of Elsie Morris courtesy Brenda Young. Above right: Other former Pollard players – like May Martyn (as Maie Vine) also performed as male impersonators – Source Prompt Scrapbook of the performance career of John Martyn Young. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Elsie had experience as a male impersonator from the Pollard troupe, where many male parts were played by young women, for comic effect. The male impersonator was also an established comic routine in variety, and popular characters presented included the pretentious upper class “swell” or “toff”. This send-up of men and masculinity sometimes bordered on the scandalous, but audiences loved it. Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), Hetty King (1883-1972) and Ella Shields (1879-1952) were amongst the best known British male impersonators, the latter two visiting Australia to perform. Another English actress, Nellie Kolle (1892-1971) moved to Australia and became the most famous of local male impersonators.

Above: Vesta Tilley, popular English male impersonator. Undated post card in the author’s collection.
Above: Nellie Kolle, with The Bunyip Panto Company. Critic (Adelaide), 30 May 1917 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In December 1916, Adelaide’s The Mail, left this report on Elsie’s act;Elsie Morris, who appears at the Majestic Theatre, is a male impersonator of excellent appearance and fine wardrobe. She looks sufficiently a boy without carrying the deception to extremes. As a matter of fact, Miss Morris makes a charming boy because she is so essentially a charming girl. She has a variety of songs sung in a voice of some power. Among her best numbers are— Never a Girl Inside, You Were the First One to Teach Me to Love, and A Little Loving Every Day.”

The first verse of Elsie’s song Never a Girl Inside gives us a taste of the stage “swell” character:

Now Algenon Brown was a Clerk in the town,
And when he was through for the day,
He’d wander up west, where the windows are dressed,
And make himself dizzy where drapers are busy.
He’d gaze at the wonderful fashions
And marvels of feminine wear…

Above: Source of Lyrics – Maurice Scott, and Clifford Grey. Never a Girl Inside. Star Music Pub. Co., London, 1915. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A good example of how close male impersonators came to overstepping the bounds of acceptability can be heard here. This is a link to a clip of Nellie Kolle singing In the Woodshed in December 1929. (Click here), with its suggestive refrain “In the woodshed she said she would.”

Elsie seems to have offered a more innocent version of the male impersonation act. In September 1916, New Zealand’s Observer reported Elsie Morris was “too sweet a boy to deceive a recruiting sergeant.”


Enter “Jolly” John Larkins

In September 1920, Elsie married John Larkins (also known as “Jolly” John Larkins and John Larkin Smith), an African-American comedian and singer who had been performing in Australia and New Zealand since his arrival from the US in May 1917. Larkins and Elsie were both appearing together for Harry Clay at the time of the marriage in Sydney but may have known each other since 1917.

Above: Larkins on the cover of sheet music. Authors: James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. A Royal Coon. Will Rossiter, Chicago, 1907. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Historian Bill Egan‘s recent study of African American performers in Australia provides a precis of Larkin’s successful career in the US before he arrived. Egan has described Larkins’ act as singing and dancing “interspersed with humorous anecdotes known as ‘patter’. This was delivered in the continuous laughing style that had earned him the title ‘Jolly’ .” The content of his shows regularly changed; in 1918 the Sydney Sun commented on the “ludicrous sight” of the 16 stone Larkins playing a messenger boy in his act. Despite the deeply entrenched racial prejudice in Australia at the time, Larkins was very popular with Australian and New Zealand audiences and the reviews were enthusiastic, although patronising and still racist by the standards of today.

Above: Elsie and Jolly John Larkins performing for Harry Clay in Sydney in September 1920, ten days after their marriage. The Sun (Sydney) 27 Sept 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Contrary to some claims, it was not illegal for Larkins to enter Australia or to marry Elsie. The discriminatory Immigration Restriction Act that existed was designed to exclude non-europeans (particularly Chinese, Indians and Japanese) from entry to Australia as migrants. The shameful “dictation test” that was sometimes used as a tool to do this, would not have been applied to Larkins, who was travelling on a US passport with a contract to perform as an entertainer on the Fuller circuit. Similarly, the state laws that restricted marriages between European Australians and Indigenous Australians would not have applied to Larkins, as he was neither.

The couple were married at St Peter’s Church Darlinghurst on Wednesday 15 September, 1920 by Reverend F W Tugwell with Elsie’s mother Mary as one of the witnesses.

Above: “John Larkin Smith” on his 1917 passport application. Despite claims he was born in 1883, his three available passport applications and the 1880 US Census make it clear he was born in 1877. (US) National Archives via Family Search.

Unfortunately, Larkins was a poor choice of husband. Perhaps unbeknown to Elsie he had already fathered two children by two different women in Australia – a daughter to Rachel “Ray” Anderson, born in Sydney in February 1919 and a son to another woman in Melbourne born in November 1920. (See note 1 below)

Well intended or not, the marriage didn’t last very long and neither did their appearances in the same shows on stage. By February 1921, Nellie Kolle had replaced Elsie as the Fuller’s male impersonator, appearing on the same bill as Larkins. Elsie’s last featured performance on stage in Sydney was in April 1921. Larkins moved on to Queensland and later that year, to perform in New Zealand again. It appears he abandoned Elsie as readily as he did his other Australian female companions. Larkins spent much of the next four years performing in small town venues in New Zealand, although he returned to Australia for short tours several times and to father another child with Ray Anderson in 1924. In July 1925, after eight years in Australia and New Zealand, he left for the US, and never returned.

Elsie’s later life

Why Elsie left the stage is unclear. Her 1928 divorce papers from Larkins suggest that he had abandoned her after three years. Gambling and money troubles were mentioned, but there was no mention of Larkin’s Australian children. However, Elsie herself was named in a different divorce action between Marguerite and Leo Trew in 1922. She was living with Leo Trew in Fitzroy in Melbourne by this time, demonstrating that Larkins had ceased to be a part of her life quite soon after their marriage.

Elsie married Leo Trew in Melbourne in 1929, with her loyal mother Mary again a witness at the ceremony. She later lived and worked with Leo in regional New South Wales and finally in Bondi, where she died in 1966. Of her life on stage she left no commentary at all – a reminder that while for some, a start with the Pollard troupe led to great things on stage and sometimes in film, for most it was, at best an interlude in life.

Above: Elsie later in life. Courtesy Brenda Young.

Note 1
“Jolly” John Larkins

John Larkins is rightly regarded as something of a pioneer amongst African-American performers – on the US and world stage and in Hollywood. The IMDB lists more than 40 film appearances made before his death in 1936, a remarkable success considering the circumstances of the time and the obstacles he would have faced. But there was another side to him that seems much harder to comprehend.

As both Bill Egan and US writer Steve Goldstein have noted, while in Australia, in February 1919 Larkins had fathered a child to a “Ray” Anderson, who is often described as a “dress maker” (but the child was not born in 1921 as the writers mistakenly claim). Ray (or Rae) Anderson was surely Rachael Anderson, a stage performer of the 1910s and a daughter of Laura Wiseman – one of the well known Wiseman sisters who had performed on the Australian stage in the late nineteenth century. Ray Anderson and Larkins had met by the end of 1917, when they were performing together on the same bill in New Zealand.

This writer finds it difficult to believe that in the hot-house world of Australian variety performers, where actors travelled and lived together, and regularly watched each other to “borrow ideas”, Elsie Morris and Rachael Anderson did not know each other. They had both appeared on the Fuller’s and Harry Clay circuits, lived in the same city and were of the same age. In Auckland New Zealand, their acts followed each other by only a few weeks – in late 1917. Their soubrette acts were similar – but in view of that, not surprisingly, they had never appeared on stage at the same time.

Of course, this is speculation, and it hardly explains for the modern reader why Larkins repeatedly took up with women only to leave them soon after. The 1924 divorce case Westbury v Westbury describes the rather sad state of affairs that ensued following Larkin’s five month relationship with a married woman in Melbourne in 1920 and the fate of their child. Just two months later Larkins married Elsie in Sydney. As noted, in 1924, he returned to Ray Anderson and fathered another child, a woman who only at the end of her life, finally discovered Larkins was her father.


Nick Murphy
May 2021


  • Special Thanks
    To Brenda Young, Elsie Morris’s great grand-niece, who wrote to me and encouraged me to return to Elsie’s story. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce several of her precious photos.

References

  • Library of Congress
    • Never a Girl Inside (1915) Scott, Maurice, and Clifford Grey. Star Music Pub. Co., London. Notated Music.
    • A Royal Coon. (1907) James Reese Europe, and Jolly John Larkins. Will Rossiter, Chicago, Notated Music.
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Elsie Lavinia Morris, Birth cert 1896. Doc 21723/1896
    • Alan Westbury, Birth cert 1920. Doc 29373/1920
    • Thomas Leopold Trew & Elsie Larkins, Marriage cert. Doc 8604/1929
  • State of New South Wales: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • John Larkins & Elsie Morris, Marriage cert 1920. Doc 14941/1920 
    • Olga Larkins, Birth cert 1919. Doc 1563/1919
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Frederick Lancelot Westbury, Divorce Case No. 1924/84
  • New South Wales Archives
    • Marguerite Brereton Trew & Thomas Leopold Trew, Divorce case 1922/74
    • Elsie Levine Larkins John Larkins, Divorce papers, 24-02-1928 to 28-06-1929. 272/1928
  • National Archives of Australia
    • John Larkins Smith. Alien Registration Certificate No 7349
  • Family Search (US National Archives)
    • John Larkins Smith, Passport applications 1917, 1919 & 1920
  • 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) John Hopkins University Press.
    • Bill Egan (2019) African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand. A History 1788-1941. McFarland.
    • 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]
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Daily News (WA) 9 March 1910, P7
    • Truth (WA) 2 April 1910, P8
    • Referee (Syd) 13 April 1910, P16
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910 P2
    • West Australian, 6 May 1910, P3
    • Herald (Melb) 17 May 1910, P5
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 2 Mar, 1913, P2
    • Riverina Herald (Echuca, Vic) 26 May 1913, P3
    • The Age (Melb Vic) 15 Sept 1913, P7
    • Truth (Qld) 8 March 1914, P6
    • Queensland Times 17 April 1914, P6
    • Sun (Syd) 14 Feb, 1915, P2
    • Labor Call (Melb) 25 Nov 1915, P8
    • Everyone’s 9 July 1924, P34
    • Sun (Syd) 17 Ap 1928. P18
    • Sydney Morning Herald 3 Nov 1918. P14
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Paper’s Past
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 6 Sept 1915, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 31 July 1916, P5
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 1 Aug, 1916, P3
    • The Observer (Auckland), 23 Sept 1916
    • The Observer (Auckland), 3 Nov 1916, P6
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 17 April 1917, P7
    • Evening Star (Dunedin), 21 Aug 1917, P5
    • The Observer (Auckland), 15 Dec 1917 P6
    • New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 3 May 1918, P8
    • New Zealand Police Gazette 8 Nov 1922, P654
    • Nelson Evening Mail (Nelson), 25 June 1925, P10

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

Sketches of Pollard’s Performers

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555. (Enlargement) Reproduced with permission. The Commonwealth of Australia was 4 years old when this photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines in late 1904 or early 1905. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. The children include front row, 1st from left: Leah Leichner, 2L Teddy McNamara, 6L Freddie Heintz, 1st from Right: Harry Fraser (later Snub Pollard), 2R Johnnie Heintz, 4R Daphne Pollard. Standing in the rear at left is Oscar Heintz.

On 30 June 1901, The San Francisco Call announced the impending arrival of an exciting troupe of young Australians, Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from Melbourne. While the paper assured readers they were all extremely talented, it explained they were “all children of the poorer classes”, one performer being “picked up on the streets,” it was claimed.

Over the period 1898-1909, Charles Pollard (1858-1942) and his sister Nellie Chester (1861-1944) took travelling troupes of children overseas, overwhelmingly girls and mostly residents of the inner suburbs of Melbourne, to perform musical comedies at colonial outposts in South East Asia and then through the cities of Canada and the USA. One tour was away for over two years. These troupes were always known as Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, although they had a continually changing mix of new and seasoned performers. The children were indentured to the Pollards in a way we would find unthinkable today – and even then, Pollard tours sometimes caused controversy, most notably in 1909-1910 when Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s (1873-1940) tour to India collapsed in scandal.


The Pollard’s performers were generally the children of unskilled and semiskilled workers; bakers, boot-makers, tailors, plumbers, ironmongers, carriers, cab-drivers and fruiterers. Several parents were bookmakers, the Trott girls (Ivy Trott and Daphne Pollard) were the children of a french polisher, Midas Martyn‘s father was a bookbinder. They were almost all children from families living in modest cottages built in close proximity to light industry – and they particularly hailed from Fitzroy, Collingwood and Abbotsford. Some lived in such close proximity to each other it is inconceivable they were not acquainted before they signed up.

Here are some short accounts of a few of the Pollard children.


Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

Johnnie and Freddie Heintz with their mother Annie, c 1907. Private Collection.

Oscar Heintz was born in 1891, twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz in 1895. Their father John Heintz was a baker, and he and his wife Annie nee Garland lived much of their life in a modest single storied terrace at 84 Kerr Street, just a few doors from the home of Daphne and Ivy Trott, in the heart of Fitzroy ( although the family lived around the corner at 101 Argyle St, when the twins were born). John Heintz died in 1900 aged only in his late 30s. In September 1901 Oscar joined a Pollard troupe tour of North America and then another in early 1903. In July 1904, the twins joined Oscar on a third lengthy Pollard’s tour of Asia and North America, that finally returned home in February 1907.

Above left: The Heintz family lived at 84 Kerr St Fitzroy, the house with the red door. On New Year’s Day 1913,Freddie was chased into his home by Police, after swearing in the street. He threw a chair at them before being arrested. Photo – Author’s collection. Above right: Freddie and Johnnie Heintz on the July 1904 – Feb 1907 Pollard’s tour of North America. Photo – courtesy Robert Maynard

Above: Freddie and Johnnie Heintz performing in the US, c1908. The San Bernardino County Sun (California), 19 Jun 1908, P4, via Newspapers.com

Remarkably, at the end of the tour in 1907, 16 year old Oscar Heintz stayed on in the US, settling in Portland, Oregon, where with the help of the YMCA, he studied, worked in a bank, married, raised a family and eventually became sales manager for Neon Manufacturing. His was the classic American immigrant made-good story. He returned to Australia to visit his family in 1929.

Freddie and Johnnie Heintz travelled again with a Pollard’s North American tour that departed later in 1907, and also on the ill-fated Indian tour in 1909. The twins then appeared on stage in Australia for several years, Freddie performing for a time with Tom Liddiard’s troupe. Freddie, probably the more boisterous of the twins, returned alone to the United States in 1914 – performing for a while with Queenie Williams and some of the other former Pollard’s players. He changed his stage name at least twice – to Freddie Garland and later to Freddie Steele, but struggled to build an ongoing stage career of his own. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918. He seems to have ended his days alone, working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer after 1911 and following in his father’s footsteps, became a pastry chef, based in Adelaide.

Above: Freddie visiting Oscar, as reported in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

Alice (1886 +) and her sister Ethel (1889+) were born at 36 Argyle Street, Fitzroy, to Arthur Martin Bennetto, a bricklayer and Sarah nee Montague They both travelled on the Pollard’s tour of North America in Sept 1901 – Oct 1902.

When US President William McKinley died in September 1901, the Pollard’s company, then travelling through Honolulu, joined a Jewish memorial service held in the assassinated President’s honour. 16 year old Alice Bennetto led a chorus of Pollard’s children singing during the service. Company treasurer Arthur Levy introduced the children’s music with the solemn words “We have come as Israelites…” suggesting that more than a few of the performers were from inner Melbourne’s large Jewish community.

In 1903 the Bennetto family had moved to 86 Kerr St Fitzroy, next door to the family of Oscar, Johnnie and Freddie Heintz. Both the Bennetto girls went on to stage careers in Australia and New Zealand, with some success. Ethel, famous for her dancing and singing, earned some notoriety in 1918 when the Melbourne Police took exception to some of the scanty “Egyptian” costumes she wore in the Tivoli theatre production Time Please. She also appeared in the (now lost) Australian comedy film Does the Jazz lead to Destruction? Soon after, while performing in New Zealand, she met and married a doctor and subsequently left the stage.

But Alice maintained her career. She was still singing for Australians thirty five years later, as a member of Stanley McKay’s Gaieties troupe.

Above: Ethel in Egyptian attire, reported by The Sun (Sydney) , 28 Jul 1918, Page 10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Above left: The very modest terrace at 36 Argyle St Fitzroy, the house with red painted verandah iron in the centre – the home of the Bennetto family when Alice and Ethel were born in the 1890s. Photo – Author’s collection. At right: Alice Bennetto in Table Talk (Melbourne), 6 January 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ethel Naylor

Born in Williamstown, Victoria in 1896, Ethel Naylor travelled on the July 1907- April 1909 Pollard’s tour to North America. In July 1909, she also departed on Pollard’s Indian tour, this time with her older sister Nellie. The girls were the daughters of bookmaker Joseph Naylor and Alice nee Kennedy.

Their family life had been very difficult – Joseph suffered such serious mental illness that he was hospitalised in the asylum at Kew in 1905. He died there in 1907. Of his seven children, only Ethel, Nellie and one other sibling survived childhood – an experience enough to test the sanity of anyone. His widow Alice found life hard, and she drifted between residences. The only contact Truth newspaper could find for her when the Pollard’s Indian tour returned in 1910 was Alice’s workplace address – which was the famous Lucas’ Town Hall Cafe, in Swanston Street, Melbourne, now where the Capital Theatre stands.

The 3 story Town Hall Cafe (centre) and the Talma Photographers building, Swanston Street, Melbourne, from the Town Hall corner, c.1899. State Library Victoria, Gwyn James Collection, H93.466/6. (The Talma Building still stands)

Ethel did perform on stage again, and with significant success. In July 1912 Nelly Chester raised another Pollard’s troupe for touring the US. This time the players were older, and no longer described as Lilliputians, or children, so as to comply with the 1910 Emigration Act. However, many were former Pollard’s players, including Ethel. She did well with the “Pollard’s Juvenile Troupe” that travelled through the United States and Canada. Like many of the performers on this final tour, Ethel stayed on in the US. By the late 1920s she had well and truly changed direction and was working as a registered nurse at the General Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington state. She married in 1932.


Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

Henry Topping was a plumber, and with his wife Mary Ann, nee Plant, they parented seven children. The family lived in and around the northern end of Fitzroy Street, a north-south street that runs the length of the suburb of Fitzroy. They lived a few hundred metres from the Trott and Heintz families in nearby Kerr Street. Minnie (born 1885), Nellie (born 1888) and May (born 1890) Topping all appeared with Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard’s troupes. All three children travelled together on the 1901-1902 tour to North America, and May and Minnie again in 1902-3.

May and Minnie Topping, photographed in 1909. The Gadfly (Adelaide), 20 January 1909, Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Photo of the northern end of Fitzroy St, looking south, from the footpath outside the Topping’s now demolished home. Author’s collection.

The Topping sisters moved across to the other Pollard’s Liliputian (consistently spelled with two rather than 3 “L”s) Company in 1907 – this company was run by Tom Pollard and performed exclusively throughout Australia and New Zealand. They are unusual in that respect – as most players did not do this. We can assume they found the extended North American travel with Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester too arduous.

Minnie Topping, who had proved to be a very popular performer, left the Australian stage in 1913, after marrying a Queensland pastoralist. May continued to perform with the Lionel Walsh – Phil Smith company until her marriage in 1923. By this time, the family home (the girls lived here until they married) was at 521 Canning Street Carlton North, a building that still stands. (Left- author’s collection)

We know a little more of the Topping family life because in 1899, a long suffering Mary Ann took Henry Topping to court to force him to support the family, and the Melbourne Herald reported the case. He was a drunken and violent husband and Mary Ann and the children had left him because of this. By way of a somewhat lame explanation, Henry explained that he was not a certified plumber, and had only made 2 shillings so far that week. The court found in favour of Mary Ann and ordered Henry to support his family. Of the black eyes he had inflicted on Mary Ann, the court had nothing to say.

George (born 1881), another of the Topping children, was an Australian Rules Footballer for Carlton, and later an AFL Umpire. The girls’ youngest brother, Albert, was killed soon after arriving on the Western front in August 1916.


Nick Murphy
December 2020


Special Thanks

  • University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use the photos of the troupe. Their collection of photos of the Pollard’s troupes while on tour in North America is invaluable.
  • To Jean Ritsema, in Michigan, for her research efforts in North America.

Fiction
In the absence of meaningful contemporary interviews with these performers, two works of fiction are highly recommended – that help give some sense of the context, motivation and everyday lives of young Australian performers.

  • Kaz Cooke (2017) Ada. Comedian, Dancer, Fighter. Viking /Penguin. A fictional account of Ada Delroy’s life.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin. A fictional work inspired by the Pollard Tour of India in 1909-1910.

The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, holds an interview with Irene Goulding, a former Pollard performer, made in 1985.

General Reading

  • Gillian Arrighi & Victor Emeljanow (Eds) (2014) Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry, Chapter 3, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) John Hopkins University Press.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin.
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]
  • Justine Hyde’s blog Hub and Spoke which includes an interview with Kirsty Murray about India Dark.
  • Leann Richards (2012) Theatrical Child Labour Scandal  Stage Whispers website.

Birth certificates, Ships manifests, Voting rolls, Census details etc sourced from

Regarding Oscar, Freddie and Johnnie Heintz

  • Via Newspapers.com
    Calgary Herald (Alberta, Can) 9 Oct, 1908 P7
    The Evening News (Penns) 13 Dec 1922, P12
    Oregonian (Oreg) 10 Oct, 1929
  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
    Herald (Vic) 3 Jan 1913, P 6

Regarding Alice and Ethel Bennetto

  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
    Advertiser (SA) 29 Nov 1923, P11
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film, 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Newspapers.com
    The Honolulu Republican 1 Oct 1901.

Regarding May, Nellie and Minnie Topping

  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
    The Herald (Vic) 16 Mar 1899, P1
    The Australian Star (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P7
    Table Talk (Vic) 16 Feb, 1905, P16
    The World’s News (NSW) 26 Oct 1907,
    Evening Telegraph (Qld) 31 Aug 1908, P4
    The Gadfly (SA) 20 Jan 1909, P8
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, A Family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, Aotearoa

Ted McNamara (1893-1928) What Price Glory!

34 year old Ted McNamara from Australia and 26 year old Sammy Cohen from the USA seemed to be a promising comedy team, who appeared together in Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory in 1925. 3 years later this title was used as a motto on Ted’s grave. Source PicturePlay Magazine, 1927, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Teddy enjoying success in the cinema. Motion Picture Magazine, July 8, 1927. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Born September 19, 1893, in a small cottage in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran, Teddy or later just Ted (Edward Joseph) McNamara was the fourth child born to Patrick, a baker, and his wife Eliza nee Butler. He spent a large part of his childhood and adolescence on long overseas tours with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, developing and refining a reputation as a skilled character comedian. Two older sisters – Alice, born in 1889 and Nellie (Ellen) born in 1891, also went on the stage with Pollards.

Following 22 years on stage, Teddy enjoyed a prominent but very short Hollywood career. Over the three years 1925-1928 he appeared in a dozen films, mostly made by the Fox studio, and some of which survive today. His sudden death in early 1928 robbed Hollywood of a future film comedy partnership, as Fox had teamed him several times with Sammy Cohen, another comedian also emerging in Hollywood. The two comedians first appeared together in supporting roles in Raoul Walsh‘s film version of the popular play, What Price Glory in 1925.


Growing up with Pollards

Above: Teddy while performing in Vancouver. Vancouver Daily World, 3 Jan 1914, P11. via newspapers.com

Teddy was barely 10 years old when he joined Alice and Nellie on the SS Changsa for his first extended Pollard company tour overseas, in January 1903. Performing through Asia and then onto and across North America, this Pollard troupe did not return to Australia until April 1904. And then, after only three months at home, Teddy joined another Pollard tour, departing Australia in July 1904, without his sisters – who stayed in Melbourne, possibly to care for their ailing mother. This tour was away until February 1907, almost 30 months. The rotating program of musical comedies included HMS Pinafore, A Gaiety Girl, The Lady Slavey and the like. And of Teddy we know that while outwardly shy, he was also a joker, popular with his fellow performers and a favourite with the public.

It is tempting to judge this form of apprenticed child employment by 21st century standards – but it has no equivalent today in the economies of Western democracies. More importantly, we might wonder about the impact of these extended performance tours on the development of a young person.

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections. JWS21402. Teddie stands at the rear, clutching the pole. Taken sometime in 1905 or 1906, not all of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company are in this shipboard photo. Used with permission

In the photograph of the 1904-7 troupe shown above, which can be enlarged at its University of Washington Library home (here), we can recognise Teddy and some of the other Pollard performers. Their experiences would end up being very mixed. A smiling 13 year old Teddy McNamara can be seen at the rear, right & holding the pole, behind Harold Fraser (later Hollywood’s Snub Pollard). Willie Thomas leans out to the left at rear. Within a few years Willie had left the stage and become a butcher. The Heintz twins, Johnny and Freddie sitting in the foreground, look bored and disengaged. Freddie later struggled to build a stage career, but Johnny gave it up and became a baker in Australia. Future Hollywood director Alf Goulding, looking very dapper in suit and cap, stands at right; Charles Pollard steadies Daphne Pollard at left. Both Alf and Daphne remained friends and would experience great success on stage and in film later in life. Leah Leichner beams with happiness in the centre front row. Three years later Arthur Pollard would send her home early from his Indian trip. After some more performances in Australia, she disappeared completely from the historical record.

Like many of the Pollards performers, Teddy saw his future in the United States and he returned again on a third Pollards North American tour departing Australia in July 1907. At the end of this tour, in early 1909, Charles Pollard announced his retirement as manager and came home with most of the company to Australia. But 16 year old Teddy joined a few of the older performers and stayed on in North America for a while. In July 1910, Teddy was performing with some of the old Pollards players in British Columbia. In 1912, Nellie Chester, Charles Pollards sister and one time partner, decided to establish a new company, now with adolescents (as required by the new Australian Emigration laws prohibiting children from travelling outside Australia to perform). Both Teddy and Nellie joined up again. Their mother had died in 1904. It seems sister Alice dutifully kept house for her father in Melbourne, and became a seamstress.

pollards-in-vancouver-1913  Teddie and Queenie Williams in 1916



Pattie (later Patsy) Hill back in Australia. The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1912 there was a new repertoire of musicals to take on tour across Canada and the western USA – including Sergeant Brue, The Toymaker and later the company’s own original, Married by Wireless. The company was active touring North American cities, on and off, until about 1919, by which time the remaining performers had gone their separate ways. Not surprisingly, in the hot-house environment of a touring company, romances between these young Australian actors had blossomed. Star performer Queenie Williams married Ernest, one of company manager Nellie Chester’s sons. And in November 1913, while in Edmonton, Canada, Teddy married fellow Melbourne performer Pattie Hill (Phyllis Esther Pattie Hill). In 1914, a daughter was born of the union. Sadly, neither marriage lasted very long. Pattie and her daughter returned to Melbourne in 1915 – a divorce was granted in Australia ten years later. Pattie insisted Teddy had promised to regularly send money and follow her home when he could finish his commitments, but never did.

In the US and Canada, Teddy’s reputation as a clever comedian grew with these performance tours. A lengthy interview in The San Francisco Call of 1906 revealed Teddy as a shy and reluctant interviewee, alongside Daphne Pollard, the skilled self-promoter. But reviews of his performances were universally enthusiastic and became more effusive over the years. 19 year old Teddy had “few peers as a character comedian” reported The Vancouver Daily World in September 1912. By July 1916, The Victoria Daily Times predicted that he would “soon have his name written among the few strikingly clever comedians.” Indeed, it might really have been so.

By the early 1920s Teddy was based in New York. He was now a headline act and he continued to gain roles in variety and a range of musical comedies across the US. In private life he had a new partner, also an actor, and in 1923, a new baby daughter.

Ted McNamara headlines in “Battling Butler” on the Keith circuit. Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

To Hollywood

kiper-gives-the-flagg-the-bird lipinsky-denies-all-knowledge

Screen grabs of Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen on the screen – in Fox’s What Price Glory, 1926. The film is still widely available on DVD. Author’s Collection.

Now known as Ted, he was cast as part of the comic relief in Raoul Walsh‘s filmed version of the popular play What Price Glory in early 1926. (His first film had been Shore Leave, a romance). What Price Glory, a First World War Army – buddy film and a vehicle for Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, was to be Ted’s breakthrough role. Using some easily recognised ethnic stereotypes, his was a supporting role as Irish-American soldier Private Kiper, alongside Sammy Cohen playing the Jewish-American Private Lipinski. The story goes that Walsh had seen Ted on stage in New York and offered him the part. That is likely, as Ted had completed a long run of Battling Butler at the Selwyn and later Times Square Theatre in New York.

Seen today, the male stereotypes in What Price Glory appear well-worn at best, but the film was well received at the time and Ted must have been pleased with his work and the change of direction it represented. In his survey of military comedy films, Hal Erickson notes that Fox promoted the two comedians based on the film’s success, and as a response to MGM’s comedy team of Karl Dane and George K Arthur. The partnership was repeated several times, including in 1927’s The Gay Retreat, another film set against World War One, where Sammy Nosenbloom (Cohan) and Ted McHiggins (Ted) join the army to look after their employer.

Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen in Upstream. Screen grabs from a copy on YouTube.

This writer’s favourite of the surviving Ted McNamara films is John Ford‘s 1927 film Upstream, a copy of which was found in New Zealand in 2009. Set in a theatrical boarding house, Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen play Callahan and Callahan, two tap dancers, secondary comedic characters. The plot is slight and John Ford purists are unlikely to find much to enjoy in it, but it is one of those silent films that has stood the test of time – with every scene containing some sort of industry in – joke and Ford’s skill as a director already evident. Ted’s skills as a comic are also well displayed here.

Ted McNamara’s final film, Why Sailors Go Wrong, was about two rival cabbies who end up on the tropical island of Pongo-Pongo, again with Sammy Cohen as a foil. The film is a reminder of the very ordinary standard of some film comedies of the day, with its slender plot and “low comedy” situations – including sea-sickness, arranged marriages to unattractive island women, implied nudity and jokes about bird droppings. Within a few years, the Hayes office had been established to rid Hollywood of this sort of unrefined fare.

Ted died in February 1928, before the film was released. The stated cause of death was pneumonia, but as film historian Thomas Reeder notes, film gossip was that alcohol also played a part. Reeder quotes Ted’s contemporary Jimmy Starr as saying “Ted was pretty much of a drunk. Success had merely provided him with more money for booze.” Starr recalled that on a rainy night a drunken Ted had fallen into a gutter. “He just lay there.” Ted’s fondness for drink was also noted by Pattie Hill, who repeatedly mentioned his excessive drinking in her divorce petition.

According to newspaper accounts, Ted McNamara was farewelled at his funeral by many of his old Pollard colleagues – including Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Billy Bevan, a testimony to his popularity with the company. What Price Glory was chosen as a motto for Ted’s monument at the Calvary Cemetery in California.

Sammy Cohen continued appearing in films, although he never established an effective comedy partnership again. Pattie Hill became Patsie Hill in Australia, married baritone Vernon Sellars and enjoyed a very long association with Australian theatre and radio.


Note 1
Nellie McNamara had a lengthy stage career of her own. In addition to travelling with Alice on Pollard tours in 1901-2 and 1903-4, Nellie also trained as a contralto and performed on the stage in Australia between 1909 and 1912, with significant acclaim, using the stage name Nellie Mond. The Victorian Premier Mr Murray heard her sing in April 1910, and declared he was quite sure that if given the chance, “she would distinguish herself and charm the public.” She did charm the public for several years, but in mid 1912 she threw it all away to join Teddy again, and Nellie Chester’s final Pollard tour of the US.

Years later Nellie explained to Everyone’s magazine that while a singer in Melbourne, her teacher had taken her to meet Madame Melba, who “nearly scared me out of my wits. She said ‘The voice is all right but for heaven’s sake, make her get rid of that awful Australian accent.’ ” As well as revealing a sharp wit, this anecdote appears to explain why she did not pursue a career as a classical singer. She married US vaudevillian Don Clinton and in 1920 returned to Australia to perform with him on Harry Clay’s circuit.

Unfortunately, the author has yet to find a clear photo of Nellie.


Nick Murphy
August 2020


Further Reading

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” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Patricia Erens (1984) The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press
  • Hal Erickson (2012) Military Comedy Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography of Hollywood Releases Since 1918. McFarland
  • Thomas Reeder (2017) Mr. Suicide: Henry Pathé Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media

Films

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

University of Washington, Special Collections.
Sayre (J. Willis) Collection of Theatrical Photographs.
This invaluable resource contains numerous photos of the Pollard’s Troupes.

The Australian Variety Theatre Archive: Popular Culture Archive, 1850-1930. Clay Djubal and others

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Fox Folks, 1926.
  • Picture Play, 1927
  • Motion Picture, July 8, 1927

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Age (Melb) 19 April 1910
  • The Prahran Telegraph (Melb) 26 Oct 1912
  • The Age (Melb) 10 Jan 1914
  • The Bulletin (Aust) Vol. 41 No. 2083 (15 Jan 1920)
  • Everyone’s (Aust) 10 March, 1920
  • The Journal (SA) 8 Jan 1921
  • The Telegraph (Qld) 11 May 1926
  • The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927
  • Saturday Journal (SA) 14 Jan, 1928
  • The Daily News (WA) 23 Mar 1928

Newspapers.com

  • The Oregon Daily Journal, 30 Jan 1904.
  • The San Francisco Call, Sun, Mar 4, 1906
  • The Vancouver Daily World, 21 September 1912.
  • Vancouver Daily World,  23 May 1913
  • The Evening Times Star and Alameda Daily Argus (CA), 10 Feb 1914
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 18 Sept 1914
  • Marysville Daily Appeal, (CA), 27 Jan, 1916.
  • The Victoria Daily Times, 27 July 1916
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 27 Sept 1917
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 21 May 1922
  • Daily News (New York) 15 Sept 1925
  • Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925.

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

Queenie Williams (1896-1962) & the last Pollard’s tour of America

Above: “Queenie” Ina Williams at the height of her success in the US with Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company, c 1917. Cover for the sheet music – Kind Treatment by Tom Pitts. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Alfreda Ina Williams was born in Footscray, a western suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 17 November 1896. Following several years on stage in Australia as a child actor, she went on to have a significant stage career in North America. She first arrived in the US in 1912 with the last Pollard’s troupe, but separated from them in 1919, when the Pollard activities came to an end. She then worked in vaudeville, mostly in cities of the US east coast. She retired in 1932 and died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

At the age of 10, “Queenie” Ina Williams was already a popular stage performer in Melbourne Australia. The oldest of four children, she was born Alfreda Ina Williams in 1896 to jockey Frank (Ferdinando) Williams and his wife Annie nee Armstrong. As she explained many years later, she was “puny” as a child, and a Melbourne specialist recommended “calisthenic” dancing as a means to building up her physical strength. She took to it readily, although as an adult was a little under 5 foot (152 cm) tall. A pupil of a well known dance school run by Mrs William Green and Miss Florrie Green in Melbourne, she gained a role in the melodrama The Fatal Wedding. In one scene she famously led a children’s “Tin Can Band,” with a kerosene tin drum. A cautious reviewer (presumably in view of her age) at Melbourne Punch”  wrote “combined with her very clever acting and singing, this child is an excellent dancer. She has been a pupil of Mrs. Green for four years, and she predicts a great future for this little artist.”  The play toured Australian cities – she was in Western Australia when her mother died in December 1906. Such were the expectations of the child performer of the time, she could not leave. She went on to appear in other touring productions, including The Little Breadwinner, with Beatrice Holloway.

Queenie Williams SLVTin Can Band022

Above Left: Queenie Ina Williams in The Fatal Wedding. State Library of Victoria Collection. At right, Queenie, centre with cast. Postcard in the Author’s Collection. She was 10 at the time, but short and and underweight as the photos show.

Sometime in mid 1912, Nellie Chester (formerly Pollard) decided it would be a good idea to take another group of young Australian performers to North America. She had worked the US-Canada route with several “lilliputian” (underage) troupes over the previous decade, in collaboration with her older brother Charles Pollard. A number of talented young Australians got their start this way and by 1912,  some were already at work in the US – Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Harold Fraser (“Snub Pollard”) amongst them.

Nellie Chester brought many familiar faces back for the 1912 US Canada tour, and some new ones. Old favourites Teddy McNamara, William and May Pollard were amongst the best known performers – while newcomers included “Queenie” Williams and Billy Bevan. But the new Australian legislation that followed Arthur Hayden Pollard’s disastrous tour of India in 1909-10 required all performers leaving Australia to be aged over 18 years of age for females or 16 for males. Six of the troupe’s girls were underage – Queenie (16), Ivy Moore (16), Patsie Hill (16), Ethel Naylor (16), Jessica Braydon (17) and Daisy Wilson (16). It is hard to believe Nellie Chester was not aware she was breaking the law.

The SS Makura arrived in Vancouver in late August 1912, and newspaper reviews show the company followed Pollard’s well-travelled performance route across Canada and up and down the US west coast. Performing familiar musicals – The Mikado and The Belle of New York, they also added Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly to their repertoire. Not surprisingly, the cities the troupe visited welcomed a return of the “Pollard Juvenile Opera Company”. Nellie Chester may have hoped that Queenie could take the place of Daphne Pollard, who had last performed with Pollard’s five years earlier. On the troupe’s arrival in Honolulu, Pollard’s publicity announced Queenie was their “rising star”. Daphne had been a major draw-card until her departure in 1907 and now had a significant profile of her own. Queenie was similarly charismatic onstage, and resembled Daphne – also being short and slight .

Queenie in 1914 while in Los Angeles  Pollards in VAncouver 1913  Queenie Hanford Journal (Daily) 3 December 1915

Left: “Queenie” Ina Williams in the “Los Angeles Herald”, 17 February 1914. She was 18 years old.
Centre: Pollard’s advertisement in the “Vancouver Daily World”  23 May 1913. Eva, Willie and Teddy had all previously travelled to the US before with a Pollard troupe. Note the variation in the troupe’s name – one of many.
Right: Top to bottom – Daisy Wilson, May Pollard and Queenie Williams. “The Hanford Sentinel” 3 December 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

Over the next eighteen months, as the troupe travelled the US and Canada, the members clearly changed, and the “brilliant chorus of 40” reduced to about 20. William “Billy” Bevan left sometime towards the end of 1913, and joined Alf Goulding and Daphne Pollard in their own stage show in California. But others joined up, including Pollard regular Freddie Heintz.

In October 1913 the troupe travelled to Alaska, a first for the company, and finally, in February 1915, they arrived in New York and performed there for a few months – 15 years after the city had first been mooted as a destination for a Pollard troupe. The “Gerry Society” had successfully kept previous Pollard under-age troupes away from the US east coast (See Note 1). And another event of significance occurred for Queenie. In November 1914 she married Ernest Chester, the son of Nellie Chester and one of the troupe’s managers.


Pollards Spokane Chronicle Dec 23 1913

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Nellie Chester is almost certainly the conservatively dressed woman in black at the centre of the rear row. Ina may be third from the right in the front row.

By 1916, the Pollard’s troupe were probably well aware that vaudeville was under siege from the booming film industry, although movie shorts were already being incorporated into vaudeville programs. Late in 1916, the company launched their own new spectacular musical “playlet” Married Via Wireless, that more than challenged available film fare, relied on a smaller cast and was apparently easily portable. For two years the production, with its impressive “behind the scenes maze of machinery… responsible for passing ships, a blinking lighthouse, (and) a murderous submarine at its work of destruction,”  toured the US and Canada. Ernest Chester was credited with the scenery design. The very slight plot related to “the romance of the wireless operator and the daughter of the ship”.

Wisconsin State Journal 30 Jan 1919

Above: The Orpheum circuit advertises Married by Wireless as a major feature of its program, in the “Wisconsin State Journal”, January 30, 1919. Note the other offerings – which included comedians, song and dance routines and short films. Via Newspapers.com.

By mid 1919, Married Via Wireless had run its course, and apparently so had Queenie and Ernest’s marriage. Queenie left Pollard’s altogether, indeed this production seems to have been the end of the troupe’s activities. Queenie now used her real name, Ina, a name more suited to a twenty-four year old. She also found new roles in vaudeville – particularly in cities of the US east coast, including Midnight Rounders with Eddie Cantor, which for a short time placed her as a supporting player alongside Madelon La Varre, the daughter of Melbourne-born dancer Saharet.

Ina made the long trip home to Australia to see her family in 1922, and expressed a desire at the time to enter the movies, but was back at work in US vaudeville by September. Now often specializing in routines with just one other comedian; Dick Keene, Hal Skelly, Johnny Dooley and Jere Delaney were amongst her vaudeville partners over the next ten years. She also appeared with fellow Australia Leon Errol. In reviewing her performance with Skelly in Vancouver, one paper described her as “the little dynamo of pep… Their droll remarks and eccentric dance steps keep (the laughter) running throughout their performance.”

Theatre magazine 1924 enlarged Daily News 1924 Leon Errol 1927 Yours Truly

Left: Ina and Johnny Dooley in Keep Kool, “Theatre Magazine” August 1924. Via Hathitrust.org. Centre: Ina explains her childhood start as a dancer. “Daily News” (New York) 28 June 1924. Via Newspapers.com. Right: Ina as a supporting actor to Leon Errol in Yours Truly “Pittsburgh Daily Post”, 9 January 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Interviewed in 1943, Ina acknowledged she knew that with the coming of sound film – the writing was on the wall for vaudeville. She retired in 1932, after twenty solid years of comedy, song and dance on the North American stage. In that year, the last of the US theatres that once hosted vaudeville programs were being converted to sound cinemas. The ever astute Daphne Pollard had made the leap across to film in 1927.

Ina in 1943

Above: Ina Williams being interviewed at home in 1943. Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Via Newspapers.com

In July 1923, Ina married Charles Stecher, a consulting engineer, who had nothing to do with the theatre. A daughter was born of the union in 1925. Ina died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

Note 1
In the late 1920s, Ina acknowledged the difficulty the “Gerry Society,” (the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), had created for Pollard’s. She stated that they had barred her from performing in New York because they discovered she was underage, although she did not give a date for this. (See the Cincinnatti Post, 30 November 1930)

Note 2
Freddie in 1922Not all of the performers in this final “adult” Pollard troupe enjoyed the success in the US that Ina did. Arriving in the US in 1914, Freddie Heintz struggled to find an ongoing career – renaming himself Freddie Garland (doubtless dropping his German surname because of the war) and then Freddie Steele. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918 and was briefly married in the 1920s. He ended his days working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer – he stayed at home and became a pastry chef in Adelaide. An older brother who had also once been a performer for Pollard’s, Oscar Heintz, moved to Portland, Oregan in about 1910 and became a manager for Neon Manufacturing.

Above: A report of Freddie visiting his brother Oscar in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
April 2020

Special Thanks
to Jean Ritsema, for sourcing so much from US archives. 


Further Reading

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” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Louis Botto (2002) Playbill. 100 Years of Broadway shows, stories and stars. Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
  • 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.
    [Note- Downes’ book only documents the Tom Pollard branch of the family business in Australia and New Zealand]

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

National Library of Australia Trove.

  • Table Talk (Melb)  26 Mar 1908
  • The Herald (Melb) 26 Aug 1922
  • The Daily Mail (Bris) 3 Sep 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Honolulu Star Bulletin 23 July 1912. Pollards bring a future star
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC), 20 Aug, 1912. Pollard Kiddies arrive from South
  • Spokane Chronicle, 11 Nov 1914. Queenie Williams marries Chester
  • Daily Arkansas Gazette, 29 March 1919.
  • Times Union (New York) 13 July 1919. Page 4. With Cantor and La Varre
  • Boston Post. Dec 29, 1920. Wears ring she bought herself.
  • Los Angeles Express. April 20, 1922. Modern Damon and Pythias role
  • Vancouver Daily World 27 March 1923. Long and Short of it coming to Orpheum
  • Daily News (New York) · 29 Jun 1924. He Ill Health to thank…
  • Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Ina Williams, Cast as Avon housewife – she loves it.

Leah Leichner (1890 – ? ) & Pollard’s last tour of India

Above: 13 year old Leah Leichner (centre) and unidentified girls, and a US soldier, while on the 1903-4 Pollard tour. This photo is enlarged from a group photo taken in Manila in 1903, held in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Leah Leichner was a performer with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. She is significant because in March 1910, reports of her – and others – being mistreated while on the Pollard tour of India formed part of a damning public commentary. This in turn led to legislation banning Australian children being taken out of the country to perform.

Australian newspapers reported that company manager Arthur Hayden Pollard had beaten Leah with a heavy stick, “inflicting a severe wound over the eye, because she went out with a man in a motor car, which was against the rules.” Other child performers had been similarly treated, or confined to bread and water, or had their hair cut, or were punished in other ways. As well as being beaten, Leah Leichner had been sent home to Australia in December 1909, because she was “unruly.” But the Pollard tour was already collapsing by that time, and within a matter of weeks almost all the performers announced they wanted to go home, and more dramatically still, members of the Madras Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had become involved and removed the children from Pollard’s care.

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555. The Commonwealth of Australia was 4 years old when this photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines sometime in mid 1904. Leah stands at the front, on the left, on her second tour. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. Reproduced with permission.

Institutionalized Children?

Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performance tours of the early 20th Century. It is worth pausing and looking past the nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, and recognizing that this was really a form of genteel child exploitation. Talented they may have been, but almost all of the Pollard’s child performers were underage and some were even under 10 when they travelled overseas for two years or more. Signing their child’s guardianship to Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester, or after 1909 to Arthur Pollard, meant parents received payment for their child’s performances.

Charles pollard 1906   Nellie Chester 1906   Arthur Hayden Pollard 1906

Above, left to right; Charles Pollard, Nellie Chester (nee Pollard) and Arthur Hayden Pollard in 1902. (See a 1910 image of Arthur here). These enlargements are from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) and is used with their kind permission. 

Excitement, a chance to travel, a possible career path and a mighty ego boost were the benefits for the children, but they did not directly receive any form of salary and at best a fitful education. With only a handful of exceptions all came from working class families in inner Melbourne (See Note 1 below). It seems likely the Pollards targeted these suburbs, presumably because they found parents and children more receptive to their plans. And as novelist Kirsty Murray has noted, without a state secondary education system, this form of apprenticeship was an attractive option for some parents – an alternative to dreary factory work or an apprenticeship.

Pollards call for kids

Pollard’s advertises for new child performers at Ford’s Hall, 150 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. The Age, 13 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Today we might wonder about the impact of this enterprise on a young person, so far from family and for so long, in these formative years. It should also be noted that the Pollards performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that even some contemporary commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” As Gillian Arrighi notes in her 2017 article on the case, “the authors of these musical comedies never intended them for performance by children.”

East coast US audiences never got to see Pollard’s perform. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the “Gerry Society”) appears to have kept Pollard’s Lilliputians away from the big cities on the US east coast, where the society was most active.


Leah’s birth and childhood in Melbourne

Born Leah Caroline Cohen on 9 July 1890 in Fitzroy, like many Pollard’s performers Leah was from working class inner Melbourne.  Her mother Minnie nee Grant had been born in Mount Gambier, South Australia, while her father Samuel Harris Cohen was an English-born tailor. Only a few years after her birth, Minnie and Leah had left Samuel. In 1900 Minnie married Isaac Leichner, a Rumanian-born fruiterer based at the Queen Victoria Market. Together they lived in nearby Little Lonsdale Street. Leah took her step-father’s surname for her own.


Leah and two Pollards tours of North America

At the age of 12, Leah auditioned for a Pollard’s tour in late 1902, managed by Nellie Chester and her brother Charles Pollard. Manifests show she joined the troupe on SS Changsa, departing in January 1903, bound for Hong Kong and then on to North America. She was in company with names familiar to us now – Daphne Pollard (Trott) and her sister Ivy Trott, Teddie McNamara and Alf Goulding and his sister Irene Loftus (Goulding), and others whose adventures are documented elsewhere including Midas Martin and Willie Thomas.

In 1904 she joined a second Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company tour, first travelling to Queensland, where they tested out their repertoire of musical comedies. In September 1904 the company departed Australia to give performances in the “far east” (Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai) before arriving in the USA in March 1905. This group of Australian child performers stayed away from home for an extraordinary 28 months – not returning until late February, 1907. Leah can be traced through some of the positive publicity given by the press, but Canadian and US audiences also had their particular favourites in the company, most notably Daphne Pollard.

Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)
Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. The photo is credited to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai. It was taken in either 1903 or 1904, on Leah’s first or second tours, before the company reached North America. Used with permission.

The repertoire performed by this troupe included the musicals “A Runaway Girl”, “The Belle of New York”, “The Lady Slavey” and “HMS Pinafore”.

The Geisha

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905

Above: This is the cast from The Geisha being performed in Montreal, Canada, in November 1905. The ages in this  program are all incorrect despite the Pollard company assurances. For example, Daphne Pollard was 14, Leah Leichner 15. Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.

Leah and her secret, 1907 – 1908

Leah did not join the next Pollard tour of North America, but in 1907 and 1908 she appeared with troupes in eastern Australia. Perhaps she decided it was time to try out on her own – or maybe she was thought to look too old. She spent much of her time performing at the Adelaide Tivoli Theatre. According to some reviewers she was “dainty”, “sang well”, and was “the brightest item on the bill.” But she did not appeal to all Australians – whose taste in theatre could still be conservative. According to Adelaide’s Gadfly, she made the mistake of appearing on stage in trousers as a “soldier boy”, as she had previously looked “much better in skirts”. 

SMH 17 OCT 1908

Above: Sydney Morning Herald advertisement, 17 October, 1908. for Harry Rickard’s Tivoli Theatre. Leah appears in company with May Dalberg (presumably the same Mae Dahlberg who was later associated with Stan Laurel) Soon after this, Leah disappeared from the stage. Via Newspapers.com

Then in October 1908 Leah received some news that must have been a shock. She discovered she was pregnant and soon after, she ceased appearing on stage. We know nothing of the context of her pregnancy and the birth certificate for her son, born in May 1909 is rather sad and stark. The baby was born at the family home in Little Lonsdale Street, with Leah’s mother Minnie assisting at the birth. No father is named, the responsibility for parenting an illegitimate child then rested entirely with the mother, who also faced extraordinary social stigma. Almost certainly the baby was adopted out, as he disappeared entirely from the historical record. And 6 weeks later, Leah, joined the next Pollard’s tour – that might take another two years. It would be extremely unusual if she were not in a fragile state following the birth.


Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard Tour of India

In April 1909 Charles Pollard announced he was retiring from running the North American tours. Arthur Pollard would take over as manager. (Nellie Chester chose not to join him). The next troupe was partly made up of new faces, but there were a good number of former Pollard players, including Leah Leichner, Irene Finlay, Willie Howard, the three McGorlick sisters, Leslie and Charlie Donaghey and John and Freddie Heintz. Perhaps Arthur Pollard wanted some experienced players in the group and approached seasoned performers such as these to join. (He knew all of these performers well – he had been on several previous Pollard tours). About thirty young people and various adults departed on 3 July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore. At 19 years of age, Leah was the oldest performer in the troupe.

Arthur Pollard’s assault on Leah apparently took place in Malaya, and she was sent home to Australia in mid December 1909 ( With several other performers – also see Note 1). Of the “motor car” incident we have very little information. But later reports confirm that the problems on the tour started very early on – and demonstrate that Arthur Pollard clearly had a temperament completely unsuited to working with children. Although legally guardian of the children, he had also started an intimate relationship with 18 year old Irene Finlay while on the trip, or possibly before. He attempted to defend himself in a letter to The Madras Times but this only seems to have made things worse, as he denied mistreating the children, but then admitted he had! Pollard also brought “charges” against one of the girls in the troupe, which papers refused to publicise – perhaps this was the story of Leah and her baby.  Pollard also complained “The three girls in question are telling falsehoods and so is Fred Heintz. I have boxed Fred’s ears, and I smacked him on the proper place several times, but never without good cause…Yes it has been a rule in this company to cut a girl’s hair off…” He also complained that he had done the right thing by paying salaries to some parents in advance and he had also paid for some of the children’s clothes.

By April 1910, Australian newspapers were regularly reporting all of the claims and counter claims that were being made in the Madras High Court. The Melbourne Herald  cited a letter from Alice Cartlege to her mother which gave a 12 year old’s simple but indignant perspective:

Madras Feb 17 1910
Dearest Mother,
A few lines to tell you everything at last. I would have told you before but feared you would fret. The company is broken up. Mr Pollard and — (a member of the company) are getting away to America. Pollard has been a pig to us and the way he has banged some of us about is awful. His talk was disgusting. He mocked at us and said we couldn’t get away for two years. In Bangalore he banged every boy except his favorite, and he knocked Violet Jones about. He hit Freddie Heintz about dreadfully, and the people interfered owing to his screams… Mrs Quealy and Miss Thorn the matron are now in charge of us, and they are good to us. Don’t worry, I shall be with you soon. Your loving daughter Alice Cartlege.

It seems Arthur Pollard, unwilling to face a court outcome, made a run for French Pondicherry with the proceeds of the performances to date, taking Irene Finlay with him but abandoning the rest of his charges in the process. A few months later, in May 1910, the child performers were returned home to Melbourne on the SS Scharnhorst and the French steamer SS Caledonian. The disastrous Pollard tour of 1909 was over.

The Leader 2 April 1910

Above: The company on Sunday 26 February 1910, two days after breaking up, photographed on the estate of Mr Scovell, near Bangalore. The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Outcomes

The Australian Emigration Act of 1910, written and passed by Federal parliament within 10 months of the tour, prohibited any child being taken out of Australia to perform “theatrical, operatic or other work.”(See Note 3)

The bad publicity brought the days of Pollard’s extended overseas tours for child actors to an end. But while the Pollard’s popular reputation had been damaged, it was not so badly that Nellie Chester could not run a final North American tour in 1912, with older children.

Leah Leichner appeared again on the Australian stage in early March 1910. She made one short public comment to correct details of events of the tour – the motor car incident, then nothing more. She continued performing until she married actor-turned electrician Frederick Johnstone, in 1914. Johnstone joined the Army in late 1915, in the great surge of enlistments following the Australian landings at Gallipoli. But Johnstone launched divorce proceedings against Leah in 1919. He said she had been living with another man, pretending he had been killed at Gallipoli. Sadly, Leah disappeared completely from the historical record after this and what became of her we do not know.

She left an intriguing footnote behind. Both Minnie and Isaac died within months of each other in 1916. Presumably, respecting their wishes, Leah buried her mother in the Anglican section of Boorondara Cemetery. However, Isaac was buried in the Jewish section of Fawkner cemetery, some 20 kilometres away. The headstones express similarly warm sentiments to both Isaac and Minnie.

   Belle Leichner c 1920

Above “Bella Lichner”, most likely to be Leah’s step sister Bella (born to Isaac and Minnie in 1900)  is known to have performed at the Tivoli in Adelaide in the early 1920s. Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook

Note 1
While making their way home in April 1910, Truth newspaper  listed some of the members of this company. It is reproduced here to give some idea of the group’s strong inner suburban Melbourne profile. However, the list appears to be missing some names, including Leah Leichner’s and Irene Finlay’s, and the author has corrected some spellings.

Alma Young, 12 years, 28 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy;
Ruby Ford, 17 years, 368 Cardigan Street. Carlton;
Florrie Allen, 8 years, 437 Cardigan Street, Carlton;
Rita Bennett, 12 years, 58 Osborne Street, South Yarra:
Dora Isaacs, 16 years, 280 Lygon Street, Carlton;
Millie 17 years, Rose 15 years, Clara 12 years, McGorlick, 81 Rokeby Street, Collingwood;
Lottie Parry, 9 years, 74 Rupert Street, Collingwood;
Violet Jones, 15 years, “Waratah,” 26 Moore Street, South Yarra;
Ella 13 years, Pat 12 years, Nugent, 95 Rowena Parade, Richmond;
Elsie Morris, 13 years, 5 Greeves Street, Fitzroy;
Ethel 14 years, Nellie 18 years, Naylor, c/o Lucas’s Cafe, Swanston Street, Melbourne;
Ivy Ferguson, 12 years, 104 Grey Street, East Melbourne;
Alice Cartlege, 15 years, 322 Lygon Street, Carlton;
Willie Howard, 11 years, 46 King Williams Street, Fitzroy;
Mary [Myra] Finlay, 16 years, Sydney;
Fred and John Heintz, 14 years, 84 Kerr Street Fitzroy
Charlie, 13 years, Leslie Donaghey, 14 years, Sydney,
Arthur Austin [no address]
Walter Byrne [no address]

The interested reader should note that the manifest for the SS Gracchus, arriving back in Sydney on 16 December 1909 from Calcutta, appears to contain the names of 9 other girls and two boys, in addition to 19 year old Miss Leah Leichner. If a third of the troupe had been sent home by December, it was already in serious trouble.

Gracchus enlargement 16 December 1909

Above: Part of the manifest of the SS Gracchus, arriving in Sydney, 16 December, 1909 from Calcutta, India.
Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (British Ports). Microfiche VPRS 7666, copy of VRPS 947. Public Record Office Victoria, North Melbourne, Victoria

Note 2
There are several newspaper reviews of the Pollards troupe in Hawaii in March 1908 that mention performances by Leah Leichner. It is not likely that she travelled for a short time to Hawaii to briefly join a Pollard tour, and she would not have been there on 11 March, as she was performing at Launceston’s Empire Theatre on 29 February. (See for example, The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908)


Note 3
Between 1912 and 1919 Nellie Chester organised yet another group of Australian performers to work in North America, using Pollard’s in their Company title. Some of these were adults, others older adolescents. The troupe changed as time went by but continued to trade off the company name. Some had been performers in the past. You can read more of this troupe in the page on Queenie Williams.

22 July 1912

Above: The Honolulu Advertiser 22 July 1912.Via Newspapers.com

Special Thanks

University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use the photo of Daphne and Leah.

Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Their collection – donated by Irene Goulding in the 1980s, is invaluable.

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

To Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne


References

Collections

  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
  • University of Washington Special Collections

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi & Victor Emeljanow (Eds) (2014) Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry, Chapter 3, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) John Hopkins University Press.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]
  • Justine Hyde’s blog Hub and Spoke which includes an interview with Kirsty Murray about India Dark.
  • Leann Richards (2012) Theatrical Child Labour Scandal  Stage Whispers website.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Telegraph, 17 Apr 1909.
  • The Herald , 23 March 1910, 17 May 1910
  • Truth, 2 April 1910.
  • The West Australian, 21 Apr 1910
  • The Age, 25 Apr 1910
  • Barrier Miner 29 Apr 1910
  • The Leader, 20 April, 1910, 21 May 1910
  • The Argus, 18 October 1910

Newspapers.com

  • The Honolulu Advertiser 11 March 1908, 22 July 1912

Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project – Newspaper SG

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

Nick Murphy
March 2021