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

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

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

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

When Clubs are trump 19172 When Clubs are trump 1917

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

The flirt 1917 Hey There! 1918

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

Growing up in Australia

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

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

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


On to stage and screen

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

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

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

Nina in 1915

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

Nina and colds 1915

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

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

The Vampire Dance

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

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

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

Trying something else

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

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

The Bulletin 1917 Nina in The Sun 1932

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

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


Nick Murphy

May 2020


Further Reading

Text

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

Web

Lantern, the Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

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

US National Archives

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

Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria.

Alf Goulding (1885-1972) – Triumphs & Tragedies with Pollard’s

A pensive Alf Goulding with other members of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company on the steps of the Badminton Hotel in Vancouver in 1905. He is flanked by Harold Fraser (Snub Pollard) and Nellie Chester, one of the company managers. The full photo of the Pollard Company is on the Vancouver As It Was website. Photo used with their permission.

The 5 second version
Born Alfred John Goulding in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, 26 January 1885. Died Hollywood, California, USA, 25 April, 1972. Began his career as a comedian with brother Frank, then joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1896. Took part in five extended Pollard’s tours, increasingly acting as stage manager. After the last tour wrapped up in 1909 he and some other performers stayed in the US. He was directing films by 1917, sometimes with comedians like Laurel and Hardy and some of the old Pollard players. He spent most of 1940-45 in Australia, and directed his last film in 1959.

The adult working life of prolific Hollywood based filmmaker, Alf Goulding (born 26 January 1885 as Alfred John Goulding), is well documented. He had an impressive output as a director – working first with Hal Roach and later Mack Sennett. By the time he made A Chump at Oxford (1939) with Laurel and Hardy, he had directed over 200 films, and had written and appeared in many others. There were of course, a few duds later in life – including his only Australian feature film, A Yank in Australia (1942) and his final films in Britain.

It’s less commonly known that Goulding owed much to his long experience with the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, and that he was a Melbourne neighbour and long-time friend of Daphne Pollard (Trott) and Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser).

Alf Goulding can be traced through at least six Pollard’s overseas tours (which all ran for more than 12 months) – something of a record – this writer can only find one other Pollard’s performer who matches it – Irene Finlay. It’s hard to know if many people have ever really run away “to join the circus”,  but Alf Goulding is indeed a variation on this. Between the age of eleven, when he went on his first Pollard’s tour, and twenty-four, when he left to settle in the US, he could not have spent more than 24 months living in Melbourne.

Goulding’s place of birth was busy Hoddle Street in the suburb of Richmond, but he lived most of his brief Australian life in Fitzroy. His father Frank, a bootmaker, and mother Maggie (stage name Maggie Walsh) were both involved in local Melbourne theatre, with moderate success. Alf’s half-sister from his mother’s first marriage, Elsa Goulding (sometimes known as Elsie Golding), had gained some reputation as a singer by 1893 and, determined to maintain the family tradition, Frank encouraged his oldest son Frank junior, Alf and later his youngest daughter Irene to go on stage. By the time of Maggie’s death in April 1895, Frank junior and Alf had developed a popular act together. Reports from papers in 1894 and 1895 stated that the brothers had the Melbourne audiences in “roars of laughter”.


Left: The white terrace house at 431 George Street, Fitzroy photographed in 2019. The Goulding family lived here in 1895. Photo – Author’s collection.
Right: Photos of Alf in his early days are hard to find. This photo, now in the public domain, is from c.1905-10 and its original source is unknown. Via wikimedia commons.

Triumphs, Tragedies and child labour

In 1896, Frank junior and Alf  joined a troupe of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Under the management of Charles Pollard, this group of under-age performers departed in September for a tour of colonial audiences in South East Asia (Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore etc) and India, where they were received with great enthusiasm. Their father Frank was paid a monthly wage for both children performing, while their travel, food and accommodation costs were covered by Pollard’s. According to a contemporary Singapore paper,  whilst touring, the child performers with Pollard’s had the following program;

  • 9.00 am breakfast,
  • 10 am until 1.30 pm rehearsal, then had
  • 1.30 “Tiffin” (an Indian term for a meal),
  • two hours of siesta, then
  • two hours of lessons with the teacher (who doubled as the cornet player) ,
  • then play and rest before a light dinner and
  • the evening performance.

Singapore Free Press 23 Feb 1897Unfortunately a terrible tragedy occurred when Frank junior died and was buried in Calcutta, in January 1897. We can only imagine how hard this was for Alf, still on tour, let alone his father and sister back in Melbourne. His Indian burial certificate clearly lists the cause of death as smallpox, an even greater tragedy given that a vaccine existed at the time. One wonders if Frank’s father ever knew the truth, as it was never acknowledged.

Above: Frank Junior’s death from “pneumonia” is reported by “The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser”, 23 Feb 1897, via Newspapers SG – digitized newspaper collection.
Frank Goulding death
Frank Goulding’s death from Smallpox in Calcutta. “Confluent smallpox” generally meant the pustules ran so thickly on the skin they often formed a massive sore. Via Ancestry.com

Yet it was all back to work for the Pollard’s children. Two months later, on April 20, 1897, the same Singapore newspaper reported;  “Master Alfred Goulding scored the principal success again, this clever boy keeping the house in fits of laughter… In the part of Lurcher, the bailiff…his acting could not easily have been beaten by a professional comedian.” Of course, Alf was a professional comedian – even if he was only 13 years old at the time.

In August 1898, a second Pollard’s troupe, including Alf and now with Irene, arrived in South Africa. Interviewed in July 1899 by a correspondent for the Sydney Referee , the children were probably all instructed to put a positive spin on their work, the endless travel and to not mention their homesickness. From Johannesburg, South Africa, the correspondent wrote of Alf Goulding, as “the clever young comedian of the company, aged 12 years” and Irene Goulding, “a bonny girl of 8 years.. who hadn’t been very well lately.”  Pollard practice was very typically never to accurately give the ages of the child performers. Alf was in fact 14, and Irene 10.

china mail dec 26 1900With the outbreak of the Boer War, Manager Charles Pollard apparently rushed the company to safety. But it seems he was in no hurry to bring them home – it was July 1900 before the children were all back in Australia, via Hong Kong and other stops in the “far east”, and Charles with exciting war stories to tell. How seriously at risk they were is impossible to tell now.

Gillian Arrighi and others have written of the phenomenon of the child performer tours, and the later impact of the disastrous 1910 Pollard tour of India; which saw new Australian laws restricting children leaving Australia to be performers. It’s also worth pausing and looking past the modern nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, to wonder whether this was really just another form of child exploitation, even by the standards of the time.

Above: Alf Goulding now listed as the Pollard’s stage manager by the “China Mail,” December 26, 1900. He was almost 16 and the troupe were perhaps on their way home from South Africa. Image via Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems.

There is some good reason for thinking this. By leaving Australia, not only did Pollard’s avoid Australian education laws, they were also able to essentially not pay their performers. Instead. parents were paid via a trust fund. And was a life on stage a healthy upbringing for a child? Even at the time, many didn’t think so. The influence of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the “Gerry Society” kept Pollard’s away from the east coast of the US, as is obvious from the tour map below. The society’s opposition to children performing on stage was well-known. The Chicago Tribune of 19 May 1902 touched on this issue in a long article about the company during their only visit to that city; “Although the idea of keeping children on the stage is repugnant to Americans, and although it is forbidden by law in some states, the Pollards claim that their children… suffer no evil effects from the experience.” It was repugnant to some influential Australians too. The Pollard Lilliputians never performed in their home city of Melbourne, or Sydney.

We should also remember that the Pollard’s performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that some commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” (in reference to a leading character in The Belle of New York). Yet at the end of their review, the writer felt the need to abandon their concerns and recommended all readers should see it. The Pollard’s performance was “beyond praise” the writer concluded.


A life of touring

Alf’s tours with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, managed by Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester – as identified so far by this writer are:

  • I. Sept 1896 – c. Sept 1897, Tour to India and the “Far East” (meaning Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong)
  • II. August 1898 – c. Dec 1900, Tour to South Africa and the Far East.
  • III. September 1901 – October 1902, Tour to North America
    Manifests show SS Sierra departed Sydney 3 Sept 1901, SS Aorangi arrived back in Australia on 17 Oct 1902. Then, three months later…
  •  IV. January 1903 – April 1904, Tour to North America.
    Manifests show SS Changsa departed Sydney 18 Jan 1903, SS Miowera arrived back in Australia on 2 April 1904.

None of this travel seems to have bothered Alf Goulding, indeed he may well have had his own reasons for not wanting to live at home. Back in Melbourne, Frank Senior found the new century and the life without wife, children and oldest son increasingly hard to deal with. Now a bootmaker, he blamed the Pollard company management for the death of Frank Junior and began to send abusive letters to the Melbourne managers, even while they engaged Alf and Irene. He complained that the money promised to him by Pollard’s was not being paid. Frank had already been publicly embarrassed the year before, when details of his passionate letters to a sometime servant/petty thief were plastered about the Melbourne papers. Now in 1903, his stream of abusive letters saw him end up in court again, a lonely father, perhaps also disconnected from his two children. When he failed to pay the £20 fine, he went to gaol for a month.

Returning to Australia on SS Miowera on 2 April 1904, Irene, now aged 15, apparently decided she had had enough of performing and touring.

  • V. July 1904 – February 1907, Tour to the Far East and North America. Departed July 1904 for Queensland and then 27 September 1904 for Hong Kong. Arrived July 8 1905 in Vancouver. Arrived back in Australia 26 February 1907 on the SS Moana.

Pollard's in Canada and the US 1905-1907

The Pollard Company’s “Grand Tour” of North America (March 1905- Jan 1907) avoided much time in the eastern USA, where child labour law made performances impossible. The troupe was in Sacramento during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The map is based on company member Midas Martyn’s diary. Thanks to Catherine Crocker for sharing this information. Courtesy Google Maps. Click to go to the google map
  • VI. July 1907 – April 1909, to the Far East and North America
    Another trip departed in late July 1907,  again testing out shows in Queensland before departing for the Far East. The Company arrived in the US on the SS Nippon Maru from Yokohama, Japan on 3 March, 1908. It appears most of the company from this tour arrived home in Australia on RMS Makura in April, 1909.

Ald 1911Charles Pollard announced his retirement in March 1909, while the company was in Honolulu, heading home. At this point, many of the older company members, including Alf, decided to branch out with their own performance company (dropping Lilliputians from the title and sometimes “Pollards”). With others, including Daphne Pollard, Harold Fraser and later Teddy McNamara, the group set off again back across the US and Canada, with Alf as Actor – Director-Stage Manager. But instead of storming the US east coast as they planned, they again specialised in visiting all the familiar Pollard’s locations where their popularity was assured.

In 1912, Nellie Chester resurrected a young adult troupe or Australian performers to work in North America, called Pollards Juveniles. But Alf was not involved with this – he continued to pursue a stage career of his own design.

Alf in makeup as Ko-Ko for The Mikado. The Province, British Columbia, 11 April, 1911. Via Newspapers.com

LA Times 28 May 1914

Alf and Daphne Pollard performing together in A Knight for a Day, Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914. Via Newspapers.com

All the same, Alf Goulding appears to have maintained a personal and professional friendship with former Pollard Company performers for much of his life. In 1911, Alf was married to Gladys Watson, with Daphne (Mrs Ellington Bunch) and her husband as witnesses. They were married in Seattle by the same official as Daphne and her husband had used, exactly three months before.

Above: Marriage certificates for Daphne Trott and Alf Goulding weddings. US national archives via Family search.org.

It is hardly a coincidence therefore that Goulding is reputed to have been instrumental in convincing Daphne to work for Mack Sennett in 1927, and he was apparently on hand when she arrived at Sennett studios. He also directed a number of her first films – including Run Girl Run, The Swim Princess and The Campus Carmen. He also worked closely with Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser) in his early years in Hollywood.


Left: This is the only photo I have seen of Goulding at work. It shows Snub Pollard (Harold Fraser), Harold Lloyd, and Alf Goulding at right, on the set of Somewhere in Turkey (1918) Source: Unknown – via Pinterest.
Right: Advertisment for Rolin Comedies – Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison, directed by Alf Goulding. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There was perhaps a real camaraderie amongst the old Pollard players. For Alf, the performers he knew had probably been the closest he had to family. When former Pollard alumni Teddy McNamara died of pneumonia in early February 1928, on the eve of great success, all the Hollywood based former Pollard players attended his funeral – Goulding, Daphne Pollard, Snub Pollard and Billy Bevan. 


An Australian sojourn

Alf lived in Australia again in 1940-45. He had been busy in Hollywood and England through the 1930s, and then, after making A Chump at Oxford for Hal Roach, he travelled to England to make one more film – Olympic Honeymoon. By the end of 1940, he was back in Australia. This movement in the first year of war relates to his lack of visa status back in the US. At least several Australian newspaper reports  – from 1939 and late in 1940 reported on this. While in Australia, he not only directed the feature A Yank Down Under in May 1942 (which was not immediately released) but also a number of documentaries, apparently propaganda pieces for the Ministry of Information. According to the National Film and Sound Archive, these include;
Australia Marches On No 1; Canberra The Federal Capital (1941),
Australia Marches On No 2; Cavalcade of Transport (1940),
Australia Marches On No 3; Boystown (c.1940) and
Marjorie Lawrence – The Voice of a Nation (1945). It was probably not very fulfilling work. He returned to England in May 1945 on the MV Stirling Castle, and directed a few more quota quickies. He returned to the United States in about 1950.

Alf Goulding died in Hollywood in 1972. The later career of the talented Irene Goulding is not clear, but it appears she may have worked in sales in Melbourne. She married Albert Smith in 1931, and lived most of her later life in a comfortable house in Riversdale Rd, Hawthorn.


Note 1
Alf’s date of birth is regularly and incorrectly given as 1896. However, the Victorian BDM, which can be searched for free, is quite clear. It’s possible that Goulding himself may have contributed to this confusion – it was not uncommon in Hollywood’s golden age to “drop a few years”

Nick Murphy, May 2018, August 2020


Special thanks

to Catherine Crocker for sharing the information from Midas Martyn’s diary of the 1904-7 Pollard’s tour and Jamie L Bird, one of Alf’s grandchildren, for her comments.

Further reading

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child.
    “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
    (This can be purchased at https://www.press.jhu.edu )
  • Amy Kitcherside: Turn The page; a review of Kirsty Murray’s “India Dark”
  • Stage Whispers; Theatrical Child Labour Scandal
  • Child Stars of the Stage; Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia.
  • Brent E. Walker (2010) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel.” McFarland and Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-3610-1

From National Library of Australia, Trove, Digitised Newspaper Collection

National Film and Sound Archive Collection

Hong Kong Public Libraries Multi Media Information Systems

  • China Mail, December 26, 1900
  • Hong Kong Daily Press, December 27, 1907
Singapore Government Digitised newspapers project Newspaper SG

Newspapers.com

  • The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1902
  • Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1914
  • The Province, (British Columbia), 11 April, 1911

Snub Pollard (1889 – 1962) of North Melbourne

Above: Harold Fraser, aka “Snub Pollard” photographed without makeup about the time he returned to Australia to see his parents, c 1922. Press photographer unknown. Damaged photo in the author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 9 November 1889. Died Los Angeles, California, USA, 19 January, 1962. Joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1904 and went on two long tours of northern Australia, the “far east” and North America in 1905-7 and 1907-9. After 1910 worked on stage in the US, then appeared in many Hollywood films 1917-1924, sometimes with Alf Goulding, another Pollard’s alumni. Continued in often un-credited roles in film and on TV until his death. The origin of his stage name “Snub” is unknown.

“Snub Pollard” was born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne on November 9, 1889. According to the Internet Movie Database he has a staggering 600 US movie and TV credits to his name, although his most active years were the 1910s and 1920s when he appeared in numerous comedy “shorts”. Even if his later roles were little more than walk-ons, it is an impressive record for a working class boy from the inner suburb of North Melbourne. (Also see Note 3 below)

Snub_Pollard_-_Jan_1923_ETR

Above: “Snub Pollard” in the mid 1920s, in his usual Hollywood make-up, including characteristic “walrus” moustache. This persona was developed in Hollywood but may have some origins in his on-stage experiences. Source – unidentified film from an advertisement for Pathé Exchange films , January 6, 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review. Photo via Internet archive and wikipedia commons.

Harold’s father, George Gunn Fraser, was a horse-drawn (hansom) cab driver. Museum Victoria reminds us there were over 200 registered hansom cabs in Melbourne in 1899. His mother, Isabella (nee Elliot) had already had three children when Harold was born in their modest terrace home at 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne. Another daughter, May Evelyn Fraser, was born in 1892.

59 courtney 1

Above: Snub Pollard’s birthplace – 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne in 2019. The house (centre left) was almost certainly too small for the family and may not have suited George’s cab driving needs. Author’s collection.

71 leveson 2 snub pollard c 1901-5

Above left: By 1905, the Fraser family lived at 71 Leveson Street, North Melbourne. The cobbled lane (Jones Lane) beside the house may have provided better access for a cab driver. George’s horse and cab would have been kept nearby – perhaps in stables off the lane. In the distance is the North Melbourne Town Hall spire. Author’s collection.
At right – Photographed around 1905, Harold Fraser, with Alf Goulding as part of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in Vancouver. A clear photo of the entire group can be found on the Vancouver As It Was website here. Photo used with their permission.

Of his childhood and schooling we know little, but this is partly because in mid 1904, at the age of about fifteen, he and his younger sister May joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in time for another of their marathon performance tours – first to Queensland, then the “far east” (performance stops in Hong Kong and Japan) and finally North America. Years later, he was to suggest he had been picked out of a church choir by one of the Pollards.

a gaiety girl

Above: The Pollard’s program for performance of the popular musical “A Gaiety Girl” in Montreal, 29 November 1905. It features May and Harold Fraser in addition to Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and other well known Pollard performers. The ages of performers were deliberately under-stated. Program in the author’s collection.

The Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour Harold and May joined was organised by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, who had managed several previous tours of North America. It is hard to believe, but this writer can find no evidence that this troupe returned home before February 1907 – apparently a performance tour outside Australia of two years. Even if the performers were not as young as claimed (Harold was 16, not 12, while Daphne Pollard was 14, not 10), it was an extraordinary undertaking for children at the time. Their tour of North America took them up and down the US East coast several times, and across most of Canada. The SS Moana brought most of them home in late February 1907.

By July 1907, the company, featuring Harold Fraser and many of the familiar Pollard performers, were back in Queensland performing and testing the usual favourite shows. Then the company departed again for the “far east,” Canada and the west coast of the USA. In early 1909, at the end of another very long tour, Charles Pollard announced his retirement and some of the older performers, including Harold Fraser and Alf Goulding, decided to form their own “adult” Pollard’s group. They seem to have stayed together for a year or so, then drifted apart – although the evidence suggests they remained on good terms.

pollards in 1910Snub_Pollard_&_Ernie_Morrison_-_Rolin_Comedies_Ad_1920.jpg
Above left: In 1910, Harold Fraser performed with some of the former Pollard’s Lilliputians, now adults, and now just calling themselves “the Pollards” in the US. Alfred Pollard may be Alf Goulding. Source; The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910. Via Newspapers.com. 
Above right: Ten years later. An ad for Rolin Comedies with Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison (“Pickaninny Sammy”). The ad from the Exhibitors Herald (Aug 7, 1920) shows a still from “Insulting the Sultan” (1920) which starred Pollard, Ernie Morrison, and Marie Mosquini, and was directed by old friend Alf Goulding. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The accounts of his entry into Hollywood’s emerging film industry vary considerably. Known in his early years as “Harry Pollard” (an unfortunate choice because actor-director Harry A. Pollard was already well established), film fans today delight in identifying him as an extra in some of the early films of Ben Turpin and Charlie Chaplin. However, the most plausible account of his entry into film-making was also the most simple, an explanation he gave to Table Talk in 1923, on a return visit to Melbourne rings true; “I just naturally drifted into them…I don’t exactly know how.” Harold’s background in vaudeville and his friendships with emerging filmmakers like Alf Goulding almost certainly helped. But the “Lonesome Luke” films made for Hal Roach between 1915 and 1917, where he played second fiddle to Harold Lloyd, helped establish him as a bankable and recognizable star. Although he had used the stage name “Snub” as early as 1915, it is from about 1917 that he adopted it consistently. This also coincides with his most prolific years – 1917 to 1924. The classic short “It’s A Gift” (watch it here) was made in 1923. His work output had already declined by the time talkies arrived, but he was still able to find supporting character and extra parts, generally of increasing insignificance. He remained busy almost until his death in 1962.

During this final phase of his career – Harold displayed the skills of an unusually effective self-promoter, clearly intending to maintain his personal profile no matter what. However, its difficult to see his later film roles as professionally very rewarding. Even his cameo performance made no difference to the underwhelming 1934 Bushranger musical, “Stingaree”, (also featuring fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Robert Greig).


Left: Snub complains about Hollywood humour. Corsicana Daily Sun 14 May, 1957. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Snub with others discusses plans to combat communism. Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950. Via Newspapers.com

Harold Fraser remains much of an enigma to the student of cinema today. As an adult and without makeup he was average in every way – he weighed about 150 pounds, stood an average height of 167 centimeters (5 foot 6 inches), had receding brown hair and brown eyes. Interestingly, he had a tattoo on his right upper arm – although what it was or said is now unknown. It was noticeable enough to be listed on his citizenship documents. In his public commentary he did not assist any real understanding of himself, his comments were designed to promote “Snub Pollard” the star rather than reveal much about the man behind.

Above: Snub Pollard’s voice. From “Just My Luck” (1935). Here Mr Smith (Snub Pollard/Harold Fraser) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers.  He appears to be channelling Stan Laurel. Video in the author’s collection.

Yet unlike many Australian performers of the time, Harold Fraser undertook the long sea voyage home to see his family, and he did it at the height of his popularity. In March and April 1923 he visited Melbourne, whilst on his honeymoon with Elizabeth, his second wife. He visited his parents – his father still driving a cab. He travelled to Portarlington to see his older brother George, a blacksmith. In the early 1920s, Harold also paid for his mother to travel to California to see him.

palmerston street       snub pollard wout makeup

Above left: About the time of Harold’s return visit in 1923, his parents moved into this house at 83 Palmerston Street, Carlton. It is interesting to speculate whether Harold purchased it for them. The ornamental parapet on this 1880s cottage is highly unusual and appears to be a later addition – perhaps dating to a renovation in the 1920s. This writer cannot think of another inner Melbourne terrace decorated this way. Is it the “Spanish style” more often found in Hollywood? Author’s Collection.
Above right: Harold Fraser aka “Snub” Pollard, at the time of his visit home to Melbourne. Author’s Collection.

Harold married three times – each ended unhappily. He married 17-year-old Myrtle Webb in April 1917 – he claimed to be 23 – but he was in fact 28. Within a matter of months the relationship had ended. He married Elizabeth Bowen in March 1922, claiming to be 30 – when he was now 33. This marriage also broke down and ended in divorce in 1927. In 1935 he married again, this time to Ruth Bridges aka Gibson. He was 46 by this time, but registered his age as 38. This relationship was also over by 1940. One error in age on a marriage certificate seems understandable. But the same error existing in all three marriage certificates perhaps points to other problems of identity and sense of self. Or, is it just a case of “everyone does it”?

snub and marie

Above: Snub Pollard on set with Hal Roach Studio co-star Marie Mosquini. In March 1922 it was reported they were engaged. They weren’t.

Perhaps the most famous late-life interview with Harold Fraser is the one syndicated in Australian papers in May 1951 under the headline – “Snub Pollard, Melbourne born silent day star looks back” Now consigned to extra and mostly non-speaking roles, he made the rather wistful statement;“The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.”

THe earl of Chicago Allen and Pollard

Above: screen grab showing Snub Pollard (right) as an extra in the background of “The Earl of Chicago” (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Harry Allen . Allen had a small speaking scene and fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

The stories about Snub became more inaccurate after his death from cancer in 1962. Brother of Daphne? An original Keystone Kop? No. But some newspapers reported so.

Harold’s mother died in Carlton in 1930, his father (a cabman to the end of his days) died ten years later. Harold’s sister May did not stay on stage. She returned to the family home in Leveson Street and became a dressmaker. In 1920 she married Claude Hill and moved to a comfortable house in Merton Street, South Melbourne. She died there in 1966.


 

Notes:

1. An original Keystone Kop?
Mack Sennett repeated the gag of 6 or 7 incompetent policemen in numerous short comedies, through to the early 1920s. We know the names of these performers, and Harold Fraser wasn’t one of them. The confusion almost certainly came about because in 1939’s “Hollywood Cavalcade”  C20th Fox’s film about silent film-making, Harold did act as a Keystone Kop. He also appeared as a policeman in several early comedies. On his death, several of the real surviving Kops gently attempted to correct the record and pointed out that in the early days, Harold had worked for Hal Roach, not Mack Sennett. (see Los Angeles Times, 24 Jan 1962). But the story has persisted anyway.

2. Origins of the stage name Snub?
While we know why he chose Pollard as a stage name, the significance of Snub and the later, lesser used “Peewee,” as stage names is unclear.

3. Birth certificate, showing his father’s profession
Snub Pollard was inclined to suggest his father was a racehorse owner. (See for example Pantomime Magazine Jan 7, 1922 “…father owns racehorses that have won many cups”)

When George and Isabella married in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1881, they gave their professions as jockey and barmaid respectively. Eight years later, George Gunn Fraser’s occupation is listed on young Harold’s 1889 birth certificate as a cab driver. Australian electoral rolls to the late 1920s also list him variously as a cab driver, cab proprietor and wagonette proprietor. Of course, he may still have been a racehorse owner as well.

Snub's birth cert

Above: Harold Fraser’s birth certificate, 1889.Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria
Transcription of Birth Certificate;
Columns
2 –  November 9th 1889. Courtney St. Town Hotham, County of Bourke
3 – Harold Hopetown. Not present
4 – Male
5 – George Gunn Fraser. Cab Driver. 34 years. Victoria [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – June 10, 1880, New Zealand [Date of marriage].  – Violet 8, George 5, Ralph 2, Georgina dead [Names and ages of other children]
7 – Isabella Fraser formerly Elliot, 30 years. Richmond Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]
8 – Isabella Fraser, mother, 59 Courtney St, Hotham. [informant]

 

Nick Murphy
February 2019

 

Further Reading

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child.
    “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
    [This excellent book gives some idea of how the Pollard companies worked, but is concerned with the New Zealand wing of the family]
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.

Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

Newspapers.com

 

  • The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910.
  • Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950.
  • Corsicana Daily Sun, 14 May, 1957. 

Lantern Digital Media Project

Original documents sourced from
Birth, Deaths and Marriages Victoria – Australian birth certificates
Familysearch.org – Shipping manifests
Ancestry.com – shipping manifests and citizenship applications