Robert Greig and Beatrice Holloway go to Hollywood

Above: Years before he became well known as a Hollywood character actor, Robert Greig is shown here with fellow actor and wife Beatrice Holloway. They remained a devoted couple until his death in 1958, although the move to the US meant the end of her career. Photos from the cover of The Theatre Magazine, 1 Sept 1917. Via State Library of Victoria.

Robert Greig was the quintessential movie butler of Hollywood’s golden age. He first appeared in the Marx Brothers “Animal Crackers” in 1930, playing the role of Hives the butler, followed by another twenty years of related roles – more butlers, doormen, stuffy judges and remote English lords. Various online biographies generally make no reference to the first forty-five years of his life, or the place of Beatrice Denver Holloway, his wife and Australian on-stage collaborator for many years, who moved with him to the US in the mid 1920s. This writer is inclined to the view that while work in Hollywood was lucrative and life was easy, it was probably much less rewarding for a couple who had once been at the forefront of Australian theatre.

Beatrice Holloway at the height of her popularity on the Australian stage, c.1900-1910. The Royal Studios, Brisbane. State Library of Victoria, Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Beatrice Denver Holloway was born in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, on 12 October 1884. Her father was Charles Holloway, an actor and long time member of the Bland-Holt and the Holloway Dramatic companies, and actress Alice Deorwyn (Alice Hayward). A number of members of her extended family were involved in theatre – her uncle William J Holloway was very well known.

Beatrice first appeared in 1890, in a performance of the drama The World Against Her, with her parents. It was the beginning of a long career on stage with many accolades. She learnt her craft with the Holloway Dramatic Company, often on tour around Australia with her parents. Eight years on, the Melbourne Punch was typically complementary of her work in The Silver King – “Miss Beatrice Holloway, as Cissie Denver; an important part played by the little lady with childish naturalness.” By 1900, Beatrice was well enough known that Table Talk could simply describe the 16 year old as “the clever young daughter of Mr Charles Holloway.”

Above: Beatrice in Table Talk 1900. 7 June 1900, P10. Photo by Talma. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Beatrice soon had notable success in a popular, sentimental story of two homeless boys – Two Little Vagabonds by George R. Sim and Arthur Shirley. This production was toured throughout Australia and New Zealand in 1903, with Beatrice playing Dick and Sophie Lashmore as the consumptive Wally. While it is a style of production that audiences would now find very dated, it found enthusiastic audiences in 1903. The following typical lines are spoken by Dick; “I won’t be a thief never no more, lady, never so more so long as I live…” and by his chum Wally as he passes over;
“And I shall see my muvver, my real muvver in Heaven. Good-bye, my old pal Dick.”

Beatrice (right) in The Two Little Vagabonds. The Theatre, 1 Sept 1906, p6, Via State Library of Victoria.

Robert Greig was born in Toorak, Melbourne, Australia on 27 December 1879. At birth, he was named Arthur Alfred Bede Greig. However, Robert Greig was his stage name and in life he was generally known as Bob or Bobbie to all who knew him well. After an education at Xavier College and some mundane experience working at Dunlop Tyres and as a commercial traveller, he became increasingly interested in amateur theatricals, and nearing the age of 30, made the transition to professional performer. He was offered a contract with the Hugh Ward Comedy Company, in 1909. He toured with them for a season, performing comedy roles in The Man from Mexico and Mr Hopkins.

Bea and Bob in Table Talk (Melb) 29 June 1922. P25, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Beatrice and Bob met and first performed together in Beauty and the Barge in 1911. It was the start of a long and productive partnership. They married in December, 1912. It was a novelty wedding for the time – considerable press attention was given. Melbourne Punch ran full page photos of the wedding party which included Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan – who had arrived from the US only six months before. They had met while preparing for George M Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, which had its Australian premiere at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney, in August 1912. Niblo gave the bride away and was a witness. 

Beatrice and Bob’s wedding reception at the Oriental Hotel, Melbourne. Standing L-R; Tom Cochrane, Josephine Cohan, Fred Niblo. Seated L-R; Bertha Ballenger, Beatrice, Bob, Mrs Holloway. Source; Punch, 26 December, 1912  Via National Library of Australia, Trove.

During Niblo and Cohan’s three years in Australia, they often worked with Beatrice and Bob, although apparently not on Niblo’s two Australian filmed versions of Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and Officer 666  made for J. C. Williamson’s in 1916. Bob stated a great admiration for American plays. “They are all about natural people…there is always a big, good-natured man in anything American,” he told Adelaide’s Critic in November 1913. 

As Elisabeth Kumm has noted, Australian theatre was already undergoing change even before the outbreak of World War One. After a brief hiatus in 1914, Australians flocked back to the theatres for escapism, and US comedies and performers filled some of the headline acts once dominated by British stars, now difficult to engage. In early 1918, Bob became Associate Director for the Tivoli theatre circuit. It seems the disruption of the War and attractive local contracts continued to keep the couple busy. A trip to the United Kingdom (and the USA on the way home) in 1920 seems only to have wetted their appetite for more stage possibilities. On their return, Bob was involved in producing the Australian musical F F F : an Australian Mystery Musical Comedy, which AusStage describes as “probably the first professionally produced Australian musical.” Following this and often under the banner of the Greig- Holloway Comedy Company, the couple performed new plays like Baby Mine in combination with familiar favourites, including Officer 666.

Bob and Beatrice in 1918. Melbourne Punch, August 22, 1918. via National Library of Australia, Trove.

Above – Bob Greig and Beatrice Holloway – still performing ‘Officer 666’ in Adelaide in 1924, ten years after the play’s first run in Australia. The Adelaide Register, 12 July 1924. via National Library of Australia, Trove

With many friends and connections overseas, Bob and Beatrice often spoke of travelling to the United States, where both he and Beatrice felt sure they would find work. The demand in the US for Beatrice’s “style of work” was great, he once said. In fact, it was not until early 1925 that they finally sought work overseas. It was Bob who appeared onstage at Philadephia’s Garrick Theatre in A Night Out later that year, not Beatrice. Her career appears to have come to a full stop. Bob found more stage work, including 6 months with the Marx Brothers in the musical Animal Crackers, at New York’s 44th Street Theatre from October 1928. He played Hives the butler.

Bob’s first Hollywood role was reprising this role for the 1930 film version of Animal Crackers. But aged in his 50s and by now, very overweight, he was to find himself consigned to playing similar character roles in Hollywood films. Several Australian newspaper reports appeared in the mid 1930s, stating he was feeling typecast. He gained a role as Sir Charles Drake-Drake in the London musical Yes, Madam? for several months in late 1934, part of what must have been an effort to see if he could break the cycle. But in a career of more than 100 films, the movie butler became his signature role.

In 1935 dancer Madge Elliot described having “a regular Australian night of it” (meaning too much to drink) in Hollywood with partner and husband Cyril Ritchard and other Australians including Bob and Beatrice. Writing for Australian papers, she remarked “The thing that struck me most about Hollywood is that in spite of the amazing climate, nearly everybody you met wanted to get away from it all …, the incessant talk of films, the terrible strain of competition and the monotony of the work in studios bored them to tears… but they stayed on because their earnings were high.” Elliot did not say these were Bob and Beatrice’s opinions, but it seems likely they were.

Bob’s accent

A few years after settling in the US, Robert Greig had a refined transatlantic accent. In this short clip from Dorothy Arzner’s “Merrily We Go to Hell”(1932),  Jerry Corbett (Frederic March) complains he can’t find a baritone. Bartender Robert Greig explains that he is one. 

By the time of the 1940 US census, Bob and Beatrice lived comfortably in an apartment on Franklin Avenue Los Angeles, living on a steady income from his films. Robert died in on 27 June 1958 and Beatrice six years later on 22 November 1964. What became of Beatrice’s career aspirations we do not know. 

Above – Robert Greig’s memorial plaque at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. A sign of the couple’s enduring affection

The couple did not return to Australia and soon lost touch with their many Australian admirers. One hopes that the couple lived a happy life. But one can’t help feeling that the “fondest memories” Beatrice referred to on Robert’s memorial were of the years before Hollywood.

Nick Murphy
Rewritten November 2020

Further reading

  • Text
    • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
    • Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. The Taits and J C Williamson, a theatre History. Heinemann.
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas C Lothian
    • J P Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel.  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • On line
  • National Library of Australia, Trove
    • The Ballarat Star (Vic) 12 Nov 1894 Page 2
    • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 16 Jul 1903, Page 2
    • Punch (Melb) 26 Dec 1912.
    • Critic (Adelaide)19 Nov 1913, page 24
    • The Sunday Times (Syd) 7 Oct, 1917 page 17
    • Argus (Melb), 10 July 1920, page 20
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 27 Dec 1917, page 4
    • Evening News (Syd) 12 Feb 1918, page 4
    • Punch (Melb), August 22, 1918, page 6
    • The World’s News (Syd) 8 May 1920, Page 5
    • Table Talk (Melb) 29 Jun 1922, page 25
    • Examiner (Launceston), 19 December 1923, page 14
    • The Register (Adelaide), 12 Jul 1924, page 2
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Dec 1925, Page 10
    • The Mercury (Hobart), 31 Jul 1935 Page 3
    • Truth (Syd) 12 Jul 1936, page 31
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
  • National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past
    • Otago Witness, Issue 1851, 30 March 1904
    • The Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 Sep 1925, Page 86
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Era, 22 August 1934
    • The Era, 26 Sept, 1934
  • State Library of Victoria
    • The Theatre Magazine

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