Ernest C Rolls

  • Flame of Desire

    Once again we dip into past issues of On Stage to revive old articles and present them to a new audience. With Frank Van Straten’s recent book Hanky Panky in mind, we republish PETER PINNE’s look at Jack O’Hagan’s musical Flame of Desire which was first staged in Melbourne by Ernest C. Rolls during the 1930s. 

    110. Flame Sheet MusicSheet music cover for Flame of Desire

    In 1935 at the age of 37, Jack O’Hagan was at the height of his success. Already the most successful Australian songwriter with sales of over two million copies of his music, he had written the scores to six lavish revues, two pantomimes, a play with music, contributed additional songs to an English musical, and written the score for Australia’s first musical film. He was also a successful radio broadcaster and recording artist. The next step in his prolific career was to write a musical comedy.

    Flame of Desireopened at the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne, on 19 October 1935, in a production by flamboyant showman, Ernest C. Rolls. (Rolls had taken over as lessee of the Palace Theatre, at the top end of Bourke Street in early 1934, and after extensive refurbishment, renamed it the Apollo. The show was billed as a ‘glorious musical romance’, with music and lyrics by Jack O’Hagan, book by Ernest C. Rolls and J.L.Gray, and a starry imported cast from the United States headed by Ethelind Terry, William O’Neal, Lester Allen, Nellie Breen, and Bert Mathews.

    All five performers had impressive Broadway credits: Ethelind Terry had played the title role in McCarthy and Tierney’s Rio Rita(1927) and Romberg’s Nina Rosa(1927), William O’Neal had been in Romberg’s The Desert Song(1926), and The New Moon(1928), George White’s Scandals of 1928, and Berlin’s Shoot The Works(1931), Lester Allen had appeared in six editions of George White’s Scandalsfrom 1919 to 1924, plus Friml’s The Three Musketeers(1928), and Kalmar and Ruby’s Top Speed(1929), Nellie Breen had been in Mercenary Mary(1925), and The Desert Song(1926), and Bert Mathews in a 1930 revival of Herbert’s Babes in Toyland.

    Prominent Australian performers in the cast of 60, included William Perryman (father of Jill and Diana), Nancye Cocking, Mabel Gibson, Les King, Les Woods, Harvey Adams, Reg Hood, Harold Meade, R. Barrett-Lennard, and Rosa Pinkerton. Musical direction was in the hands of Maurice Gutteridge, choreography by Jan Kowskey, Buddy Roberts and Nellie Breen, with direction by producer Rolls.

    The story was set in a Ruritanian kingdom. In the mythical country of Serovia, Captain Carl Liebenau (O’Neal) of the Royal Guards, is in love with Marietta (Terry), the Crown Princess. The country, in a financial crisis, is awaiting the arrival of foreign advisers to help them out of their predicament. Two adventurers, Adam Sweet (Mathews), and Oscar Low (Allen), descend upon the country by parachute and, mistaken for the advisers, immediately begin to promote a lottery. Later, in the palace ballroom with her maid Tina (Breen), Marietta is courted by a visiting foreign dignitary, Prince Frederick of Wittenbach (Perryman). When she accepts his hand in marriage, Carl is incensed, casts off his uniform, and leads a band of rebels in an uprising that sees him become president of the republic. Marietta and Frederick flee to Paris, but later, realising her true love is Carl, she returns to Serovia to marry him.

    The plot gave plenty of opportunity for set designers, Joan Scardon and Erica Huppert, to create a host of colourful scenes: the palace courtyard, rose garden and ballroom, the civic square, the Place Vendome, Glocken cabaret, and a spectacular transformation scene as the finale of Act 2, from the interior of a Gothic cathedral, to an outdoor wedding reception. Jack O’Hagan’s score, which was more operetta than musical comedy, contained rousing marches, up-tempo dance numbers, point numbers, and several ballads.

    Critical reaction was good: ‘Exquisite dance ensembles, marvellous frocking and tuneful and catchy music,’ said the Age(21.10.35), with the Argus(20.10.35) equally laudatory: ‘The Harry Grahams of the play world have not produced a more attractive ‘book’ than that contrived by Mr J.L.Gray and Mr Rolls, nor have the Irving Berlins of this amusing age composed music any sweeter than that invented by Mr Jack O’Hagan.’

    They liked Ethelind Terry but carped that her voice was ‘weak’ and not up to the demands of the score, but they loved William O’Neal and thought his singing of the title tune was a highlight of the show. Nellie Breen was noted as being ‘pert, vivacious, and clever on her feet’, while Bert Mathews and Lester Allen ‘speed the comedy on with an air of reckless abandon’.

    But all was not rosy. The major fault of the work was the second act. According to the Age: ‘Nearly all the musical comedy eggs have been placed in the first act basket, and Flame of Desiredevelops inevitably into free and easy revue. Failure to unify the story and link up the comic situations in a coherent script is apparent.’ This is easy to understand, as Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan had never written a ‘book’ musical before.

    Although the show played 57 performances, Ethelind Terry only appeared in 23 of them. On Saturday, 9 November, popular Australian soprano Strella Wilson replaced Ethelind Terry as Marietta and played the role until the show closed on 7 December. It was the end of the road for this ambitious undertaking which, unlike previous Ernest C. Rolls productions, did not tour. All of the American actors returned to the US except William O’Neal and Bert Mathews who stayed on and worked in revue and musical comedy for some years, Mathews doing a string of musicals: Jill Darling(1936), Balalaika(1937), revivals of The O’Brien Girl1936), Lady Be Good(1936) and Funny Face (1936), and O’Neal working in the revues Serenaders(1937), Coronation Revelries(1937), and the play Idiot’s Delight(1939), and both doing 1937 Variety Show(1937), the J.C. Williamson pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk(1938), and Ernest C. Rolls’ Folies d’Amour(1939). They later returned to the United States and picked up their Broadway careers, O’Neal memorably creating the character of Colonel Buffalo Bill in the original Broadway production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun(1946), and Mathews appearing in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon(1951).

    Allan’s Music (who had originally hired Jack O’Hagan as a song plugger in 1922 and had published all of his previous work) published a Vocal Gems Selectionwhich contained 12 of the songs from the score: ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘The Rebel Song’, ‘Someday Sweetheart’, ‘Kinky Kat’, ‘We’ll Start a Lottery’, ‘Calm is the Night’, ‘Two of the Bright Young Things’, ‘I Belong to You Dear’, ‘Tina’, ‘Song of Love’, ‘The Guard Song’, and the title tune. They also published four songs as single sheets, ‘Song of Love’, ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘The Rebel Song’, and ‘Flame of Desire’. All of them featured head shots of Ethelind Terry, William O’Neal and Lester Allen, the title of the show, with book, music, lyrics, and musical director credits. A fifth song, ‘Calm is the Night’, was also published as a single sheet, but with a non-show cover.

    No commercial recordings were released of the score, although Strella Wilson recorded the duet ‘Song of Love’ with William O’Neal with piano accompaniment, for Columbia (X 107–1) in 1936, but it was never issued. Several songs turned up on radio transcription discs. An Australian Compositions Program(3DB 16-inch radio transcription disc) featured ‘Flame of Desire’ sung by Webb Tilton with chorus, and ‘Calm is the Night’ sung by Patricia Howard, with orchestra and chorus conducted by William Flynn. A Library of Australian Compositions(AWA 16-inch radio transcription) included ‘Princess Marietta’ sung by George Burns. The same song was also featured in the Humphrey Bishop Bright Horizonradio series (AWA 16-inch transcription), sung by Edward Smith, and again in the Humphrey Bishop Australia Show(AWA 16-inch transcription), sung by George Brown. The Australia Showseries also featured original cast member William Perryman and male chorus singing ‘The Rebel Song,’ although Perryman did not sing it in the show.

    A publican’s son, Melbourne-born O’Hagan had his first songs published in 1917 when he was still a teenager, but it wasn’t until 1921, when he wrote ‘Down Carolina Way’, that he had his first hit. He followed with several songs to accompany popular silent screen movies: ‘Anatol’ for Gloria Swanson’s The Affairs of Anatol(1921), ‘Sheba’ (1922) for the film of the same name. ‘In Dreamy Araby’, for the Valentino classic The Sheik(1922), sold a phenomenal 50 000 copies.

    But he struck gold when, on the strength of the success of ‘Down Carolina Way’, Tivoli entrepreneur, Hugh D. McIntosh, suggested he write something local, and O’Hagan came up with the blatantly nostalgic ‘Along The Road to Gundagai’. It was a hit not only in Australia but overseas, and became his signature tune and calling card for the rest of his life.

    Immortality for ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was assured when it was chosen as the theme for Dad and Dave(1937), the George Edwards Players Production’s radio series based on the On Our Selectionstories by Steele Rudd. It ran for 16 years. During this time O’Hagan penned many more songs associated with Gundagai and the series: ‘Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox’ (1938), ‘Snake Gully Swagger’ (1939), ‘Snake Gully Home of Mine’ (1940) and ‘When a Boy From Alabama Meets a Girl From Gundagai’ (1942).

    1922 was also the year ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was interpolated into J. & N. Tait’s Christmas pantomime, The Forty Thieves(23.12.22), Kings Theatre, Melbourne, with a cast headed by Mona Magnet, Jack Cannot and Joe Brennan. It was the start of O’Hagan’s career in the theatre. Still working in pantomime, he later contributed songs to J.C. Williamson’s production of Aladdin(26.12.25), at His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, which featured Bruce Green, Jennie Benson, Gus Bluett, and June Elvidge. Please Get Married(9.6.28), a Broadway farce at the Palace Theatre, Melbourne followed—with a score by O’Hagan, and a cast headed by actor—producer Frank Neil, Mary Gannon, Field Fisher, Jefferson Tate, Betty Bright, and Lily Molloy. Neil had added songs for its Australian presentation. ‘The majority of the numbers were tuneful’ said the Age(10.6.28).

    FLAME Copy

    O’Hagan’s next theatrical compositions were additional songs for J.C. Williamson’s London musical comedy Turned Up(26.12.29), at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, with Gus Bluett, Leo Franklin, Cecil Kellaway and Mary Lawson.

    According to The Age(27.12.29) Lawson sang ‘one of the “successes” of the evening “Start the Day Off with a Smile”. Added interest was lent to the tuneful lyrics by the fact that an Australian, Mr. J. O’Hagan, had had a hand in their composition’. He followed a year later with a score for the pantomime The House That Jack Built(20.12.30) at the same theatre. The Argus(22.12.30) claimed, ‘The House That Jack Builtis essentially the house that Jack O’Hagan and his fellow song-writers built … The songs are excellent.’ The show starred Roy Rene (Mo), Sadie Gale, Arthur Stigant, and Dan Agar.

    Two years later saw O’Hagan’s first production with Ernest C. Rolls, when some of his material was interpolated into a short- lived (eight performances) revue, All Stars Revue(1.8.31) at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, with a cast that included Jennie Benson, Athol Tier and Stan Foley. The following year O’Hagan, Rolls, and J.L. Gray wrote book, music and lyrics for the pantomime, Dick Wittington and His Cat(24.12.32), at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Jennie Benson again headed the cast that also featured Stan Foley, Mabel Gibson, and Don Nicol.

    Honi Soit(11.2.33), a spectacular Ernest C. Rolls vaudeville revue, opened in February at the same theatre with Renie Riano, Charles Norman, Byrl Walkley, Colin Crane, and O’Hagan himself. Book and lyric credits went to Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan, with O’Hagan supplying all of the music.

    The show played a Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (3.6.33) before transferring to the Criterion Theatre, (3.7.33).

    Rolls followed with an even more spectacular revue, Tout Paris(17.6.33), which starred Clarkson Rose, Olive Fox, Ambrose Barker, and Jack and Sylvia Kellaway, and had an impressive first act finale, ‘Birth of a Melody’. Arranged and scored by Maurice Gutteridge, it was a pseudo-concerto, built around a song of the same name by Rolls and O’Hagan, which told the story of the growth of melody from the primitive drumming of a Red Indian through to the trumpeting of the archangels. Scored for five pianos, two harps, eight violins and a full orchestra, the finale had Liszt, Bach, Chopin and Beethoven each seated and playing elevated grand pianos, looking down on Gershwin, also on piano, with the ballet swirling frantically in the foreground. The Age(19.6.33) called it ‘astounding’.

    Around the World(22.12.34), was an Ernest C. Rolls Youth Revue (the cast was all boys between the ages of seven and 14), with a score by O’Hagan and Rolls, and some special material by J.C. Bancks (creator of Ginger Meggs). It opened at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, before transferring to the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne (12.1.35). The cast featured Billy [Bill] Kerr, George Nichols, Ian Burgis, Conway Searle, and Colin Croft who was noticed: ‘His Mae West impression brought the house down’ (Age13.1.35). Following the Melbourne season, the show did a world tour starting in South Africa.

    This was followed at the same theatre by Rhapsodies of 1935(2.2.35), and Vogues of 1935(1.6.35), both Ernest C. Rolls revues and both with scores by O’Hagan. Rhapsodiesfeatured Roy Rene (Mo), Strella Wilson, William Perryman, and Renie Riano, while Vogues’ cast was headed by Jennie Benson, Gus Bluett, Thea Phillips, Octave Dua and William Perryman. Rhapsodiesplayed an Adelaide season at Wests Theatre (16.8.35), followed by a season of Vogues(31.8.35), and Tout Paris(3.9.35). For the Adelaide season Voguesfeatured Roy Rene (Mo), Strella Wilson and Jennie Benson.

    In 1931 Jack O’Hagan penned the songs for Australia’s first musical film, Showgirl’s Luck. Directed by the legendary Norman Dawn, and starring Susan Denis, Arthur Tauchert, Arthur Clarke and Fred Bluett, it premièred at the Lawson Theatre, Redfern, Sydney, and followed with a week’s run at the Arcadia Theatre (later Esquire and Town) in Pitt Street, Sydney. Critical response was poor, which was mirrored when it was released in England in 1933 by Universal.

    Apart from Flame of Desire,O’Hagan wrote another four full-length musicals: Goodnight Ladies, Passion Flower, Night Night Mitzi, and The Romany Road. None was produced, but The Romany Roaddid turn up as a mini-musical, ‘A Romance of Romany’, as the first act closer of It's Foolish but It’s Fun(9.10.44) at the Tivoli Theatre Melbourne, and later at the Sydney Tivoli (26.12.44). The Melbourne season featured Dick Bentley, Rebla, Desmond Tanner, Clem Dawe and Eric Edgley, while Sydney starred Roy Rene (Mo), Mike Connors, Celestine Connors, Nick Morton and Bentley.

    Except for another Ernest C. Rolls revue in 1939, Folies d’Amour, which played seasons in Adelaide (Theatre Royal, 18.3.39) and Melbourne (King’s Theatre, 8.4.39) with a cast that included William O’Neal and Bert Mathews O’Hagan virtually turned his back on theatre after Flame of Desire.

    Royalties were pouring in from his series of Aussie heroes songs: ‘Kingsford Smith (Aussie’s Proud Of You)’ (1928), ‘A Lone Girl Flyer (Amy Johnson)’ (1930), and ‘Our Don Bradman’ (1930), and with the success of the Dad and Daveradio series, ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ had been embedded in the psyche of the nation.

    But Jack O’Hagan’s reign of popularity was coming to an end. Although he continued to write songs throughout the ’40s, they were lean times. ‘Red Cross Nurse’ (1942) and ‘Ginger Meggs’ (1948), made a brief impression—his biggest hit during this period was ‘When a Boy from Alabama Meets a Girl from Gundagai’ (1942)—but little else captured the public’s attention.

    He joined the Melbourne advertising agency O’Brien Publicity in 1951 where his gift for melody saw him create over the following 14 years some memorable radio and television jingles: Gilbey’s Gin, Lipton’s Tea, Tuckerbox Dog Food, Biddy Peas and Vynex upholstery fabric.

    Using ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ as his blueprint, O’Hagan, throughout his three-decades career, wrote many more place names and bush songs: ‘Blue Mountains’ (1921), ‘By the Great Big Billabong’ (1931), ‘Down By the Murray’ (1923), I Gotta See a Man About a Dog’ (1961), ‘I’m an Aussie Through and Through’ (1924), I’m Gonna Hump My Bluey’ (1926), I’m Off to Woop-Woop’ (1925), ‘Let’s Take a Trip to Melbourne’ (1934), ‘There’s a Part of My Heart in Wonthaggi’ (1934), ‘Things is Crook in Tallarook’ (1952), and ‘We’re All Cobbers Together’ (1940). He even had one last try at a hero song in 1952 with ‘Our Marjorie’ which was dedicated to Olympic sprinter Marjorie Jackson, but alongside the hits of the day, is sounded quaint and old-fashioned.

    O’Hagan, in the ’20s, slavishly followed the trends of the day. If Hawaiian songs were popular, then he wrote Hawaiian songs. Even ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ came after Neil McBeath had written the enormously popular ‘I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga’ (1919). But there’s no doubt for a time he had his finger on the pulse of what the public wanted.

    Like Irving Berlin, O’Hagan was first and foremost a songwriter. He could write catchy melodies, but frequently his lyrics were run-of-the-mill.

    As the Age(4.2.35) claimed in its review of Rhapsodies of 1935: ‘In lyrics it is weak and uncertain; in music it is light and entrancing—and for these Jack O’Hagan must be blamed and warmly praised’. It’s an indictment that could be levelled at most of his work. Flame of Desire’s score was a pleasantly surprising notch above his usual standard. It had rousing choruses (‘Princess Marietta’), melodic love songs (‘Song of Love’), and occasional flashes of wit (‘Two of the Bright Young Things’), the latter missing from most of his work.

    The strength of the score proves there was no doubt he could write good theatre music. It’s such a pity none of his other full-scale works were produced.

    Sixty-two years after its première, Flame of Desirehad one last hurrah. David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow used a condensed version of it as an operetta send-up in their Jack O’Hagan compilation show Here Comes Showtime(1997) at the Marian Street Theatre, Sydney.

    As Mitchell and Morrow could only find the script of the first act, their plot was mainly their own invention, but they did use four songs from the score: ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘We’ll Start a Lottery’, ‘Song of Love’, and the title tune.

    Sung with gusto by the six member cast, Georgie Parker, Derek Metzger, Robyn Arthur, Rod Dunbar, Jason Langley and Judith Wright, the songs came across as good examples of the genre.

    For later productions the show reverted to its original title, Jack O’Hagan’s Humdingers. A fuzzy video survives of the performance.

    It’s ironic that unlike his contemporaries who wrote musicals with Australian settings—among them Varney Monk (Collits’ Inn, The Cedar Tree) and Charles Zwar (Blue Mountain Melody)—O’Hagan, who was known for his jingoistic ditties, chose to set his one show in Ruritania.

    Of the 600 songs that Jack O’Hagan, wrote, 160 were published. He also used the pseudonyms Dean Flintoft, J. Francis Quinlan, Ferguson Noakes, Wilson Jeffries, Al Sparks, Ted Whiting and Pamela Therese, throughout his career.

    He retired in 1965, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1973, and died in 1987.

    Although Flame of Desirebarely made a blip on the theatrical landscape and has long been forgotten, Jack O’Hagan’s name never will be. In the annals of Australian popular music he will always be known as the man who wrote the quintessential Aussie ‘going back’ road song, almost a second national anthem: ‘Along The Road To Gundagai’.


    Special thanks to

    EMI Music, National Library of Australia, David Mitchell, Melvyn Morrow, Peter Burgis, Peter Wyllie Johnston, and Frank Van Straten. Books, articles and newspapers sourced for this article: Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia(Currency, 2005), The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, (Kurt Ganzl; Blackwell, 1994), American Musical Theatre (Richard C. Norton; Oxford, 2002), Tivoli(Frank Van Straten; Lothian, 2003), Australian Popular Music(Kenneth R. Snell; Quick Trick Press, 1991), Australian Film 1900–1977(Andrew Pike, Ross Cooper; Oxford, 1981), Australian Performers, Australian Performances(Peter Pinne; PAM, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987), The Age, The Argus, The Bulletin, The Sydney Morning Herald, Adelaide Advertiser, theatre programs, sheet music.

  • Frank Neil—‘He Lived Show Business’ (Part 3)

    FRANK VAN STRATEN continues his exploration of the life and tumultuous times of one of Australia’s near-forgotten entrepreneurs.

    Part 3: ‘It is my intention to produce only first-class laughing comedies. as I think the public want to be amused these days.’

    NeilFrankButtonholeThe theatrical world may have written off Frank Neil as nothing more than a purveyor of over-familiar but crowd-pleasing farces, but they were in for a shock. In June 1929 he created what Everyone’s called ‘The biggest sensation this year in show business.’ A few months earlier, George Marlow, from whom Neil was leasing the Sydney Grand Opera House, had gone into partnership with the flamboyant producer Ernest C. Rolls. Their company, Marlow-Rolls Theatres Ltd, leased the Empire Theatre near Railway Square as the venue for a series of lavish musicals. The 2500-seat Empire had opened in February 1927, with the musical comedy Sunny. The theatre’s vast fan-shaped auditorium, cramped stage and minimal facilities made it unpleasant for performers and audiences alike. The first Marlow-Rolls production, Clowns in Clover, was a failure, and the second, Whoopee!, closed after only two-and-a-half weeks. The planned follow-up, So This is Love, was shelved. Marlow-Rolls’ loss was said to be £50,000—around $4.2 million today.

    Neil knew that the shows were not bad, and he thought that there was potential for a revamped version of Clowns in Clover in other states. So This is Love was an attractive musical play by Stanley Lupino and Arthur Rigby; it had just closed at the Winter Garden in London after a run of 321 performances with the glamorous Australian couple Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in the leads. But it was Whoopee! that had the greatest appeal for Frank Neil: it was a musical adaptation of The Nervous Wreck, a wild west farce in which he had achieved one of his greatest successes. The upbeat, jazzy score by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn included ‘Love Me or Leave Me’, ‘My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now’ and, of course, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, which had provided the show’s Broadway star, Eddie Cantor, with one of his signature hits. Florenz Ziegfeld had opened the show at the New Amsterdam in New York in December 1928, and it was still playing there to packed houses.

    George Marlow and Ernest Rolls had little option but to agree to the crushing deal that Neil offered. They reluctantly surrendered the Australian rights to the three shows, plus the costumes and scenery for the two already produced, for a mere £7500 ($628,000). Neil negotiated separate deals over contracts with performers, many of whom eagerly transferred to Neil’s management, including the American Charley [Charlie] Sylber, who had the plum Eddie Cantor role.

    Sylber established several strong friendships during his visit. The two most notable were with legendary aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, co-owner of Australian National Airways, and with 20-year-old star in the making, May Daly. May was from Bondi and she had already appeared in small roles for Frank Neil and for other managements. She and Charley planned to marry in Sydney on 23 March 1931, but the wedding was cancelled when Williamson’s rushed her to Melbourne to replace the American star of Sons o’ Guns, Bertha Riccardo. Bertha’s husband, musical director Clyde Hook, was one of the passengers on the ill-fated Australian National Airways plane Southern Cloud which was reported missing on 21 March. Charley and May eventually tied the knot on stage at the St James Theatre in Sydney on 23 April 1931. They named their son, born in 1937, Charles Kingsford Sylber. Charley Snr went on to a long career in Hollywood as a film actor, special effects specialist, illusionist and proprietor of an intriguing emporium known as the Magic House of Charles.

    Neil closed his farce season at the Grand Opera House on Saturday 6 July 1929 and opened Whoopee! there the following Wednesday. After reasonable houses he decided to return to Melbourne, where he re-assembled his farce company for yet another season at the Palace. Simultaneously he leased the King’s Theatre in Russell Street from Bert Bailey and Julius Grant as a home for his musicals. He opened Whoopee! there on 31 August 1929. Charley Sylber continued ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, aided and abetted by Jessica Harcourt, Claude Holland, Forrest Yarnell, John Dobbie and Paul Plunket from the original Empire cast, supplemented by Harry Moreni and Mary Gannon.

    Whoopee! was still playing at the King’s when the stock market crashed. After a very profitable 12-week run, Neil closed Whoopee! on 3 November 1929, and disbanded the company.

    The King’s was dark for a week while it underwent a much-needed refurbishment, including the installation of new seating. On 30 November 1929 it was ready for the opening night of Neil’s new production of Clowns in Clover, a bright, punchy revue written by Ronald Jeans. The score by Noël Gay was topped up by a big Vivian Ellis hit, ‘Little Boy Blues’. The London production in 1927 had featured Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. For his localised version Neil starred a little-known young English impressionist, Ann Penn, plus Roy Rene and his recently acquired new wife, Sadie Gale.

    The show was a breakthrough for Roy because Frank Neil persuaded him to appear without his trademark ‘Jewish’ makeup. Rene reminisced: ‘He said to me, “Roy, people haven’t seen you as you really are. They think of you as dirty old Mo, and I want you to look the Beau Brummel, so that people can see you’re neither old nor dirty, and that you’re just as funny without your makeup.” He was right. He could take a comic apart and tell you what made him work. It was because of his understanding of my work that I proved a success.’ It was in Clowns in Clover that Roy Rene and Sadie Gale introduced their sketch ‘At the Stage Door’; it was destined to become one of the most popular in their repertoire.

    In supporting roles were Len Rich, Mary Gannon, John Dobbie, Claude Holland and Neva Carr Glyn. A highlight of the show was Jennie Brenan’s ‘Young Australia’ song and dance revue. Among the dozen clever juniors was Dot Rankin, later to be a star in J.C. Williamson musicals. An odd addition was a tribute to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, then still three years away from completion. To conclude this scena Len Rich and Neva Carr Glyn sang ‘My Troubles Are Over’.

    Clowns in Clover progCentre page from the Clowns in Clover program, 1929. Author’s collection.

    For the Christmas season Frank Neil conscripted the Clowns in Clover company to present matinees of yet another revival of his Mother Goose pantomime, while Clowns in Clover continued cavorting at night. It was during this stressful time that Roy Rene collapsed in his dressing room and nearly died. Sadie Gale lovingly nursed him through many months of recuperation.

    Whoopee!, meanwhile, had been bought by Williamson’s. They recast it with Don Nicol in the lead and sent it to New Zealand as the holiday attraction at His Majesty’s in Auckland.

    In late December 1929, Frank Neil wrote to Frank Tait of J.C. Williamson’s offering his farce company for a New Zealand tour ‘in about eight weeks’ time’. The repertoire Neil suggested was Up in Mabel’s Room, Getting Gertie’s Garter, Not Tonight, Dearie, Mary’s Other Husband and The Best People. There would be a company of twelve, plus a head mechanist, for a cost to Williamson’s of £260 ($23,000) per week. Williamson’s would supply transportation from Sydney to New Zealand and return and all other touring expenses.

    Neil went on to say, ‘These plays have taken wonderful figures wherever we have played them and played at cheap prices. They should do the same in New Zealand. The idea would be to play stock seasons in each centre, just as long as business is payable. I am sure it would be a very satisfactory tour. I can show you the figures and balance sheets which show the drawing power of these pieces. Charley’s Aunt and Are You a Mason? have also been great successes with our Company, and these are available at five per cent royalty. If you want to carry my jazz band it would mean six more fares and an extra £60 per week, but with long seasons in each town the jazz band is quite a feature. It is of course understood that I supply, for the mentioned sum, all scenery, wardrobe, props, etc, which I have complete in Sydney. A further suggestion is that you may care to try the idea out in Brisbane as we have never played there. It would give you an idea of the drawing power of these plays at cheap prices, although perhaps the date suggested would not be ideal for Brisbane on account of climatic conditions.’

    Frank Tait opted for Brisbane, and Neil’s farce company played at His Majesty’s there in February and March 1930, but the expected bonanza did not eventuate. Audiences for live theatre were dwindling and prospects for a quick end to the Depression were poor. As writer and theatre director Ngaio Marsh so succinctly put it: ‘All over Australasia one seemed to hear the desolate slam of stage doors.’

    The talkies destroyed the careers of the army of musicians who had made their living playing accompaniments for silent films. Actors and variety performers struggled to find work, often forming ‘co-operatives’, hiring an empty theatre and ‘putting on a show’ to try to keep going. On the pavement outside the Orient Hotel at the north-east corner of Bourke and Swanston streets in Melbourne, was ‘Poverty Point’ where out-of-work thespians would gather for mutual support and the remote possibility that an offer of a job would come along. As one old-timer recalled: ‘Sometimes there were more acrobats, conjurers, dog acts, seal acts, dancers, singers, comedians, actors and “straight men” to the yard than at any other spot in Australia.’ There was a similar ‘Poverty Point’ in Sydney, on the north-east corner of Pitt and Park streets.

    In desperation Frank Neil determined to leave Australia. He told the press that Arbitration Court awards and double taxation had made it impossible for him to continue production. ‘Arbitration Court awards have thrown upon theatre managements the whole burden of the losses which have followed the talkie boom. The wages of theatrical employees are fixed in a manner which shows a lack of knowledge of the industry and I for one cannot afford to pay them. Everybody connected with the theatrical business realises their position is very different now to a few years ago. In the talkies, the legitimate stage has a very serious and formidable competitor. People in comparatively poor circumstances can go to a picture theatre which is a veritable palace and sit in a luxurious seat for less money in some cases than they used to pay to see a stage show from the gods. The legitimate theatre will only be able to meet the competition by everybody connected with it making big sacrifices.’

    On 4 January 1930, in the Melbourne Herald, Frank Neil announced: ‘After we finish at the King's I have arranged to take an All-Australian farce company to tour South Africa, and then go on to England. I think I can organise an Australian band of players that will make good in London and the English provinces. Now don't try to dissuade me, please. I'm going to do it.’

    The familiar farce Nightie Nightclosed Neil’s King’s Theatre season on 31 January 1930. He followed this with a short spell in Brisbane. The Brisbane Daily Standard was most impressed: ‘Week by week now, audiences at His Majesty’s Theatre have been offered productions that for ripeness of humour and clever acting have been unsurpassed as sources of entertainment. Frank Neil’s comedians have scored a distinct success. The Brisbane season will be brought to a conclusion next Saturday night when for this gala farewell performance Mr. Neil will stage for the first time in Australia the reigning New York laughing success This Thing Called Love.’

    On 1 April 1930 Melbourne’s theatrical elite gathered at the Hotel Australia in Collins Street to honour Frank at a farewell luncheon with Thomas Hayes MLA in the chair. On the following day he and his company of twelve, including his leading lady, Neva Carr Glyn, together with hundreds of costumes and 238 tons of scenery, sailed for South Africa on the White Star liner SS Ceramic.

    South African newspapers called his company ‘a topping team’ and hailed them as ‘the best ambassadors that Australia has ever sent.’ When the tour finished most of the players returned to Australia, while Neva Carr Glyn, Frank Neil and his manager, Eddie McDonald, headed for London. Frank and Eddie spent a month there, and made quick trips to New York and the Continent, securing the Australian rights for several current successful farces, including Almost a Honeymoon, which was in its second year at the Garrick, Leslie Henson’s It’s a Boy and A Warm Corner, and My Wife’s Family, which was doing good business at the Apollo. They sailed home in a small, unpretentious P&O liner, SS Balranald, arriving at Fremantle on 2 March 1931.

    Neil’s observations were published in the program for Almost a Honeymoon under the heading ‘Laughing Old Man Depression Away’: ‘Everywhere one goes these times one hears the lament, “Times are bad.” It is the same in England, Germany, France and America. Even in South Africa, which has been a business paradise for many years, everybody was saying, “It’s not like it used to be”. However, travelling is a great education and in spite of the bad times we are experiencing in Australia there are plenty of places that are worse off and have been for years. Over a year ago I took a company of fourteen Australians for a tour of South Africa. I contracted to stay twelve weeks and finished up by staying nearly a year, one of the best records of any company that has toured that country. We played all the principal towns in the Union two or three times and were rather sorry when the tour was finished.

    ‘The audiences there are much like our own and, although the theatres are not as modern as they are in Australia, they are very good. The South Africans were rather tickled with our accent at first, but we soon discovered that they also have an accent, and we used to get many a laugh on this subject. It seems to be a peculiarity of every young country to develop a distinctive manner of speech, and when it’s all said and done with, what does it matter?

    ‘After my African tour finished, I made a quick trip to England and the Continent, on the hunt for new plays that might be popular in Australia, and I have obtained some of the best. These we intend to play in Sydney during the coming season. To see London and its theatrical conditions, no one would think there was any Depression at all. It is only when one goes into the provinces that you really see poor conditions everywhere. The prices for theatres in London are higher than ever—14 shillings ($65) for reserved stalls and dress circle for the straight type of play, and up to a pound ($96) for musical shows. When one compares the prices with Australia, it seems enormous.

    ‘I have always been a believer in low prices for my shows and during the current season I will only charge three, two and one shilling so that there should be very few people that should complain about not getting their money’s worth. It is my intention to produce only first-class laughing comedies, as I think the public want to be amused these days. The first production is Almost a Honeymoon, a very successful farce by Walter Ellis that has just finished a fifteen-month run in London.’

    In Melbourne Frank Neil swiftly assembled a new farce company featuring himself and Louise Lovely, a vivacious Australian actress who had achieved considerable success in Hollywood silent films. He also recruited Field Fisher, Arundel Nixon, Yvonne (Fifi) Banvard, Agnes Dobson and Hal Percy. They opened on 4 April 1931 at Fullers’ former Melbourne variety headquarters, the Bijou, a few doors up Bourke Street from the Tivoli, premiering Neil’s new acquisition, Almost a Honeymoon. Neil himself played the comedy lead, Basil Dibley, a lovable but accident-prone bachelor. The Arguswas shocked: ‘Unnecessary trouble seems to have been taken to engraft indelicate scenes and innuendoes onto the production. There is a bedroom incident in which Miss Lovely comes from the bathroom partially covered with what looked like a large bath towel. A heroine so imperfectly clad looks neither impressive nor edifying.’ But the public loved it, and other favourite farces followed.

    Eventually they transferred to the Criterion in Sydney, but audiences seemed to have tired of Frank Neil’s frantic farces. The Criterion season was a disappointment, as was a later one at the Grand Opera House. Noting the success of Mike Connors and Queenie Paul at the Haymarket and the Theatre Royal, Neil decided to try revue. Revue was replacing old style vaudeville, which was basically a succession of unrelated acts, a form known in Britain as music hall or variety. Revue frequently used traditional vaudeville acts, but presented them in a slick, fast-paced, glamourous show built around a particular theme, with a ballet, showgirls and a big headliner. Revues often included specially written musical numbers, a chorus and sometimes a compere. Revues always had a title; vaudeville shows did not.

    In November 1931 Neil leased the Roxy from the Fullers. The Roxy, in Castlereagh Street, was Fullers’ old National Theatre, revamped for movies. It was almost next door to the Embassy, the cinema that had opened in June 1931 on the site of Rickards’ Tivoli. It was at the Roxy that Neil first presented revue.

    Jim Hutchings remembers: ‘Frank was starting again! He called me and said, “You can do me a bathing house cloth with transparent doors to see the girls getting changed. It has to be done quickly, a one-day job.” My size and paint and brushes went down to the theatre on the back of a tram! Frank had a sword ballet with the swords sparking when they hit the anvils. I think he had an “angel”, a Mr. Blackshaw, who lost his money. But Frank was trying hard to revive his beloved show business. I went down to get my money. I settled for six quid and a few passes.’

    Frank Neil opened his Roxy season on 28 November 1931 with a twice-daily revue called Hello, Paris. His company included Maggie Buckley, Dot Brown, George Lloyd, Gwen Matthews, Claude Holland, and a brilliant acrobatic troupe formed by two boys and three girls, all siblings of the Morgan family from the Sydney suburb of Annandale. Calling themselves the Cleveres, they toured the world for years. Also on the bill was Fifi Adorée, a visiting French chanteuse presumably there to add some relevance to the show’s title. Top of the bill was English funnyman Hector St Clair. Imported by Williamson’s in 1920, he’d established a rewarding new career entertaining Australian vaudeville audiences. His act was built around a battered violin, which he would produce from the front of his baggy tattered trousers, while muttering his catchphrase ‘Isn’t it awful’. He suffered for many years with tuberculosis and died almost exactly a year after his season with Frank Neil. His violin and his baggy pants were buried with him.

    This piece, published in the magazine Everyone’s on 2 December 1931, makes interesting reading: ‘“All things change, and we change with them.” We simply point to an amazing juxtaposition involving the Theatre Royal and the Roxy in the hamlet of Sydney. A few years ago the Royal represented respectability, while the Roxy, then Fullers’ Theatre, was frowned upon by our best people as a place of ribald revelry. Behold the difference last Saturday night. At the Royal, Mo was continuing his purple performances to a point where even The Sunday Sun deemed it wise to rise up in wrath, while at the Roxy Frank Neil was presenting a show so clean that the customers thought they had invaded a cathedral. After a series of reverses Neil has tackled the Roxy with revue. The outcome of the venture cannot be judged by he first week’s results. Neil has to find his way in a house which has passed through many vicissitudes during two years of talkies.’

    Neil celebrated Christmas with a Cinderellapantomime which opened at the Roxy on 26 December 1931. Twenty youngsters frolicked as fairies. The scenes included ‘Underneath the Sea’, no doubt including Frank’s beloved baby pink roses. The production included real and imitation animals, with the latter including a dancing horse and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The real participants were provided by Abdy’s Animal Circus. Its creator, Henry Abdy, was a British-born animal trainer who also worked as a professional whistler under the name Monsieur Poincaire. He died during the run of Cinderella. His animal activities were continued by his son, Harry Abdy, while his daughter, billed as Marie La Varre, became a stalwart of musical comedy.

    The response to Hello, Paris encouraged Neil to persevere with revue. His first real headliner was the great American male impersonator Ella Shields. Ella had toured Australia twice before—in 1921 and 1925—and had proved immensely popular. Her gramophone recordings, most notably, of course, ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’, had kept her art before the public, though her career in Britain and the United States had waned. To be blunt, though Ella Shields was still a big name, she was no longer an expensive one. Frank Neil put her under a six-month contract. To support her he gathered a lively troupe of local performers including Don Nicol, Hector St Clair, Lily Molloy, Molly Byron, Maida Jones, Maggie Buckley, Angela Parselles and Keith Connolly. Neil leased the Melbourne Tivoli from Connors and Paul and opened his show there in March 1932 under the title Follies of 1932. A second edition featured Josie Melville, an Australian musical comedy favourite, especially remembered as the appealing star of Sally in 1923.

    From 3 September 1932 Frank Neil leased the Sydney Criterion to present Ella Shields in a new revue, Pleasure Bound. This time her co-star was the great Australian ‘ocker’ comic George Wallace, supported by Yvonne (Fifi) Banvard, Athol Tier, Billy Maloney, Arthur Clarke, Mascotte Powell and Miriam Lester. Neil transferred the show to Brisbane where it played a four-week season at the Regent from 22 October 1932.

    In association with Williamson’s, Neil took the show to New Zealand, opening in Auckland in December 1932. When Ella Shields departed the company was led by George Wallace, Josie Melville and lugubrious comic Syd Beck. They even managed a Cinderellain Wellington in May 1933 and Christchurch in July, with Wallace as Buttons, Beck as the Dame and Josie Melville as Cinders. Dance director Maurice Diamond was reduced to playing the Cat. The New Zealand tour lasted a record-breaking eight months and played to over a quarter of a million people.

    Cinderella Frank NeilProgram cover for Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, 1933. National Library of New Zealand.

    Back in Australia, Neil worked again with Connors and Paul when he took the ‘new’ Sydney Tivoli (the renamed Grand Opera House) for five weeks to present a series of revues teaming Ella Shields with Syd Beck. The company transferred to the Palace Theatre in Melbourne, where they opened Pleasure Bound on 23 September 1933. After three weeks George Wallace re-joined the company. Pleasure Bound was reborn as The Laugh Parade in October. In its program Neil announced that he intended to continue presenting ‘bright new singing and dancing shows. In addition to all the best available Australian talent, soon a stream of English stars will migrate to Australia to join a happy band of fun makers at the Palace. The first arrivals will be Fred Miller, noted English comedian, and Millie Deane, an eccentric comedienne of exceptional talent. This clever couple will sail from London in a couple of weeks on the Strathaird.’ With what was a direct swipe at the Tivoli, the program note concluded, ‘Make the Palace your regular theatre for good, bright, clean laughing shows. Frank Neil will cater for your wants, and give you value for money all the time.’

    To be continued

  • Jack O’Hagan’s Grand Passion

    As the granddaughter of Jack O’Hagan and someone who knew him intimately, JO GILBERT is well-placed to write about Australia’s most famous songwriter. To coincide with the publication of her biography, Along the Road to Gundagai, Biography of Jack O’Hagan and Birth of Australian Pop Culture, we are thrilled to be able to bring you an excerpt. See the bottom of page for details of how to order your copy of the book.

    Jack o’haganwas the most famous Australian popular songwriter of the early-to mid-twentieth century, responsible for many of our nation’s most beloved and enduring songs—‘Along the Road to Gundagai’, ‘Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox’ and ‘Our Don Bradman’ among them.

    Jack was also a pop singer, music publisher, actor, playwright, radio celebrity and advertising ‘mad man’—a chief influencer at the leading edge during a time of great technological change. His work was recorded by the greats of his era—Peter Dawson, Richard Tauber, Stéphane Grappelli, Liza Minnelli, Vienna Boys Choir, Slim Dusty, and many more—and recognised as a major cultural, historical and aesthetic contribution with an MBE in 1973, the National Film and Sound Archive’s online Jack O’Hagan gallery, and a hefty representation in the NFSA Sounds of Australia Collection.

    Jack published around 183 popular and dance songs and film themes in Australia and internationally more than 204 times, alongside around 260 theatrical songs, advertising jingles and a national anthem contender—a soundtrack for a nation between two World Wars, through the Jazz Age and Great Depression, from horses to Holdens.

    But it has been largely forgotten that the theatre was his ‘incubator’ and grand passion.


    Jack was born in 1898 and brought up in a hotel in Fitzroy. His father died when Jack was only four and his mother, Alice, took over as publican. As a single mother, where Alice went, Jack went. She was an avid theatregoer and took him to every musical comedy possible, following J.C. Williamson’s (JCW), the largest theatrical company in the world at the time, which owned and leased many theatres, toured well-known actors, singers and dancers, and Harry Rickards’ Tivoli, one of the largest individually owned music hall businesses in the world.

    As a young man Jack was immersed in Bourke Street entertainments, pantomime, musicals and vaudeville. He saw Melbourne’s finest shows, some many times over, collecting multiple copies of souvenir programs from pantomimes and musicals from the time he was five years old.

    Jack ‘used to shrivel up in the seat’ with fear when English actor Loring Fernie played Captain Hook appeared in Peter Pan. He was less terrified by JCW’s pantomime, Sinbad, and The Spring Chicken at Her Majesty’s, which he saw twice. At nine, he was enthralled as two Americans rescued a Dutch girl locked up by her father in The Red Mill at the Princess Theatre. That’s the tip of the iceberg—he saw The Merry Widow at least eight times. As Jack said, ‘There was a certain quality about the theatre then. No one could produce a show better than J.C. Williamson. I was a theatre man—we all were in those days’.1 John Hetherington wrote:

    ‘He did not know it, but he was studying then for his future career, laying the foundations of the craftsmanship which was to put him in the front line of Australian popular song-writers’.2

    Jack went home and played the songs he heard in these shows by ear, with extraordinary recall, and performed the hits of the day at the pub. At around 18, he dabbled as an actor in the light entertainment of St Kilda Beach shows in The Quaints and the English Pierrot’s and aspired to be on the stage, but songwriting was in his blood and songwriters were the rock stars of their day.

    Without the benefit of radio or recording, the only way to have new songs heard was to place them in theatrical productions or live performances. Most imported shows were localised by inserting songs and sketches that would appeal to the audience, who, with luck, would go home with an ‘ear worm’ and rush down to Allan’s Music in the morning to pick up the very latest sheet music to play at home.

    At twenty, Jack formed a songwriting partnership with musician Henri Penn (nom de plume Henry Carson) from the Belgian Concert Party. Like other songwriters, they imitated the Tin Pan Alley composers’ passion for exotica and published their first song ‘Oh! Those Honolulu Girls’ in 1918, which Jack performed at a St Kilda Beach show.

    Jack had a decided advantage in a competitive marketplace. In 1919 he was offered his dream job as a professional manager or song-plugger for Allan’s Music. His job was to promote Allan’s catalogue. Over the years he built a phenomenal network of local and touring actors, singers, performers and producers, including musical comedy star Gladys Moncrieff, comedian Roy Rene, visiting US Jazz Bands and famous American lyricist, librettist and theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein II. Author and arts historian Frank Van Straten recalled, ‘He seemed to have known everybody that I ever mentioned in the local entertainment industry. He knew them all personally and he had the most extraordinary memory—people like Ernest Rolls, the Taits, Tallis, all the radio personalities.’3

    The value of this network cannot be underestimated. The Tait Brothers and George Tallis formed the management team at JCW, Ernest C. Rolls provided Jack’s theatrical opportunities from the Great Depression to the late 1930s’ and, as Jack’s publisher, Allan’s Music were more than delighted if he placed his own songs in local productions.

    Jack was reputedly the first to write songs, as opposed to orchestral themes, for silent movies, which were presented as an overture or as a short sketch staged before the film commenced. He wrote several for Paramount’s big silent films, all overseas productions.

    ‘Anatol (Luckless Anatol)’ (1921), with words and music by O’Hagan and arrangements by Allan’s’ musical director, experienced pianist and composer Frederick Hall, was played as an overture for Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie The Affairs of Anatol at Melbourne Town Hall and then around Australia. It was sensational and was his first big hit.

    The evocative lyrics, quickstep rhythm and gorgeous, enchanting melody of ‘In Dreamy Araby’ (1921) became an international hit. It was written for The Sheik, an epic Paramount Super film directed by George Melford. The story, based on Edith Maude Hull’s best-selling romance novel, told of the handsome sheik and abductor of the beautiful British Lady Diana, who, despite his passion, kept her virtue and fled from the desert tent-palace, only to be captured by bandits. As the sheik rescued her, true love was assured, and so was Rudolph Valentino’s superstar status.

    The Sheik was presented at Melbourne Town Hall on 25 February 1922. An elaborate prologue, a hair-raising dramatic sketch with painted scenery replicating the interior of the Arabian chief’s desert home, launched Jack’s song, which was recorded in London by F.W. Ramsay around 1923 and reputedly by Jack Hylton’s Band. Jack sang it beautifully himself in the short film Jack O’Hagan Vocalist Composer in 1931.

    Jack wrote 11 songs for cinema from 1921-22 and performed his own popular songs on stage in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. At the same time, Jack’s songs were being placed in theatrical productions.

    Jack and Henry Carson appropriated the ‘going back home’ theme, popular after the destruction and terrible loss of life during the Great War. ‘I’m Gonna Hit the Trail to Maryland’ was their first song hitched to theatrical shows. Male impersonator and vaudeville star, Nellie Kolle, sang it at the Bijou and Jack, in his element, sang it himself in William Anderson’s Babes in the Wood, a panto staged at Her Majesty’s on Christmas Eve 1921.

    ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was released at the end of the year, so the obvious choice was to place it in Christmas and New Year holiday season shows. ‘Gundagai’ was first performed for a live audience on 23 December 1922 in J. & N. Tait’s comedy pantomime The Forty Thieves at King’s Theatre, Melbourne and in Sydney, in a score dominated by American tunes. It was sung by big star and ‘Principal Boy’, Mona Magnet. Jack knew that if a song took off in a pantomime it was halfway to being a hit. He explained how they managed the segue, ‘You could get away with anything in a panto. One moment Mona was in the heart of Arabia, then she simply stepped forward and said, “Perhaps I would rather be along the road to Gundagai”. She gave a marvellous rendition and kicked the song off.’4

    Jack found fame pre-radio and pre-recording in Australia by placing songs in theatrical performances such as J. & N. Tait and Bailey & Grant pantomime Sinbad the Sailorin 1922; Rockets revue and Pretty Peggy musical comedy in 1923; On Our Selection and Primrosecomedies in 1925; pantomime Aladdin and comedies Tell Me More and The Sentimental Bloke in 1926; and comedy Six Cylinder Love and the Patchwork Revue in 1927. Jack’s big break came when Frank Neil’s Comedians produced Tell Me More at the Palace Theatre in 1928, placing 10–11 of his songs, followed by 17–19 placed in the Fred Blackman/JCW comedy Turned Up in 1929.

    During the Depression years JCW focused on revivals of old shows using sets and costumes in storage in Little Bourke Street, which saved an enormous amount of money. They did, however, stage the new local pantomime The House That Jack Built at Theatre Royal in 1931, with matinees every day at 2 pm and evening performances at 8 pm. Jack and his mates, English actor and ‘dame’ Arthur Stigant, principal ‘boy’ Sadie Gale and comic genius Roy Rene harked back to earlier days of pantomime, with loose plot and dialogue held together by songs. The Argusreported:

    The songs are excellent; ‘Strolling Through the Tulips’ will probably cause more corns than any other fox-trot song introduced by way of the Melbourne stage … This was not by any means the only song to linger in the memory. When Melbourne people waltz O’Hagan’s ‘swinging’ will serve instead of the traditional one-two-three in dancing lessons until some other catch tickles the public ear.5

    Jack’s published contributions—‘Strolling Through the Tulips’, ‘The Swing Song’, ‘Rambling Down the Roadway’ and ‘Carry On’—were featured in the program. The big finale, foxtrot ‘Carry On’, was an international hit and a great morale-booster released at the height of the Depression. It was placed in almost every Christmas pantomime in London and became one of Jack’s most recorded compositions. It was Number One for six months in England, where 14 to 17 recordings6 were made by big bands. Sadly, Australian big bands passed it by.

    Jack’s greatest theatrical success was played out in Melbourne’s Princess and Apollo theatres, with colourful producer Ernest C. Rolls, who captured the imagination of the public with spectacular shows and extravagant stagecraft. Jack believed Rolls, born Josef Adolf Darewski in Austria in 1890, had a ‘touch of genius’.

    Jack composed songs for Rolls from 1932 to 1935 and appeared in his dazzling shows as a singer at the microphone and sometimes as an actor in bit roles. Despite difficulties—and there were many—the Rolls/O’Hagan collaboration was a highly successful musical partnership. However, it was common for producers to take ownership of most songs used in their shows, which meant very few were recorded.

    Their first venture, the extravagant pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat, premiered at Princess Theatre on Christmas Eve in 1932 and enjoyed an enormously successful season through to 30 January.

    Honi Soit, a co-production with JCW, premiered at the Princess Theatre on 11 February 1933 and was the first of four revues that Jack collaborated on with Rolls.

    Revues were typically built around a theme and included comedy, specialty acts, musical scenes with chorus and ballet, elaborate sets and extravagant costumes. Honi Soitwas breathtaking, with beautiful showgirls and a glorious ballet, along the lines of the famous Folies Bergère. The title, short for French ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, meaning ‘Shame upon him who thinks evil of it’. It is also motto of the British Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry founded in 1348, which added pizzazz.

    Honi Soit was one of the early semi-nude revues in Melbourne. Rolls followed the French music hall tradition of parading gorgeous girls in opulent scenes wearing fabulous headdresses and little else and, naturally, they were very successful. Beautiful blonde ‘Adagio Dancers’, L’Etoile and Laurence, performed in hip-hugging ballet shorts with bare chests, breasts titillatingly obscured by graceful poses. Don Nicol created the program cover illustration, a nude female artist’s model and neatly moustachioed artist, all terribly French. Book and lyrics were credited to Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan, with numbers by Berlin and Foucher/Helmer/Krier, a special ballet by Maurice Guttridge and additional lyrics and music by Jack. In fact, Jack wrote 12 to 14 songs for the show.

    Their next big ‘French’ revue was Tout Paris. Rehearsals ran for 16 hours a day over three weeks. It played at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne from 10 June to 19 August, Adelaide in September, Brisbane in October and Sydney’s Criterion in February 1934, to rave reviews.

    The book was by Rolls and Clarkson Rose, an English West End star comedian, composer, writer and female impersonator supplied by JCW, with music by Jack O’Hagan. Stars included Rose and his wife, singer Olive Fox; London comedians and revue artists Ambrose Barker, Jocelyn Yeo and Peggy Wynne; and Australian stars Jan Kowsky (the stage name for dancer Leon Kellaway), Jack Kellaway and his wife Sylvia,7 both fresh from roles in Cassanova at the London Coliseum. The Sunday Mail reported:

    The production is a remarkable tribute to the fecund brain of Mr. Ernest C. Rolls and his thorough mastery of stagecraft and to the dramatic ability of Mr. Clarkson Rose... Between them, it truthfully may be said they have assembled a collection of scenes of spectacular beauty strongly reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. The music and lyrics, which are the joint work of Mr. Rolls and Jack O’Hagan, are as delightfully exhilarating as the general presentation is colourful.8

    Jack insisted the music and lyrics were all his, but Rolls took possession and Jack was credited only for ‘additional music and lyrics’.Rolls claimed he was part composer of the song that closed Act 1, the magnificent and extraordinary ‘Birth of a Melody’, published by Allan’s. Rolls never wrote a bar but Jack reluctantly agreed to 25 per cent each for Rolls and O’Hagan and the usual 50 per cent to Allan’s. He desperately needed the money.

    Rolls’ next spectacular revue, Rhapsodies of 1935,a title provided by Jack, premiered on 2 February at the Apollo and enjoyed a tremendous four-month run, followed by a month at West’s Theatre, Adelaide, in August. Rolls took credit for the book but this time attributed all lyrics and music to Jack, with arrangements by Maurice Guttridge. Jack had a hand in writing some of the sketches. Nudes were shown with great subtlety—back lit, silhouetted, quick tantalizing flashes of girls, barely clad or in transparent costumes, before lights went dark—provocative without being offensive.

    The show was brimming with stars. Top billing went to Roy Rene, by then star of Cinesound’s Strike Me Lucky(1934).9 The enormously popular Austrlian soprano Austral Groves Wilson (stage name Strella Wilson), was a very well-known Australian lead actress in grand opera, light opera and musical comedy, and star of Whitehorse Inn and The Vagabond King.

    Hot on its heels, Vogues of 1935 premiered on 1 June at the Apollo to a full house with leads Jennie Benson (Rolls’ wife), Thea Phillips and Gus Bluett. It was a very ambitious production, with 24 stars leading a cast of 180 and employing hundreds of artists, musicians, stagehands, electricians and scene painters. Rolls commended himself in the program for giving so much work to Australian performers but, according to Jack O’Hagan and vaudeville star Charles Norman, often didn’t pay or seriously underpaid them.

    Rolls took credit for the book, O’Hagan full credit for music and lyrics and Guttridge for arrangements. Ballets were choreographed by Buddy Roberts, Sydney Montigue and Jan Kowsky, and scenery designed by Joan Scardon. Program notes written by Rolls were generous:

    There is a big demand in America and England for Jack O’Hagan’s song hits. It is a fact that a genius generally fails to receive the credit due to him in his own country. Overseas the name of O’Hagan ranks with Irving Berlin and other song writers of the popular variety … Ernest C. Rolls is considered in theatrical management throughout the world to be one of the keenest judges of a song hit. It is a tribute, therefore, to Jack O’Hagan, that he has been selected to write the lyrics and music of most of the numbers in the past three Rolls’ shows, and now in this production … His sales have, so far, reached the two million mark. Eighty songs have been published. Jack has written five hundred, all told!10

    Jack also wrote the entire score for a visually gorgeous musical comedy, the Ruritanian romance Flame of Desire, an extravagant operetta with five American stars—Ethelind Terry, Nellie Breen, William O’Neal, Lester Allen and Bert Matthews.

    Rolls’ opening speech planted the seed that Flame of Desire was as good as any overseas production. He swept the audience up in his enthusiasm.

    The story unfolds as two Americans, Adam Sweet and Oscar Low, played by comedians Bert Matthews and Lester Allen, descend by parachute, are mistaken for financial advisors and immediately begin to promote a lottery. Handsome Captain Carl scorns beautiful Princess Marietta of Serovia’s acceptance of foreign Prince Frederick’s hand to save her struggling country. He casts off his uniform to become rebel leader and President of the Republic, a political coup d’état in partnership with the princess, perhaps financed by the lottery. The first act held most of the musical comedy gags and high drama. The chorus, ballet and soldiers were brisk and breezy, Princess Marietta light and bright, the story full of glamour of romance with a conventional happy ending. The Herald wrote:

    Brilliant production of an Australian musical romance worthy of world presentation. An anti-depression tonic rich in colour, story, music, humour and dancing.

    When Mr. Ernest C. Rolls, replacing Maurice Guttridge for the one item, lifted the conductor’s baton at the Apollo on Saturday night, and led the orchestra into the swirling, haunting overture, an audience of first night, not easily impressed, settled more comfortably into their seats anticipating original entertainment. The curtain raised and ‘Flame of Desire’ unwound, as a stage production of great charm; rich in harmony and spectacle, it won an enthusiastic reception.

    This musical comedy, with its book, lyrics, music, orchestration, settings, costumes and ballets, all written or designed by Australians, makes stage history in Melbourne. It should win both a record season at the Apollo and success in London and New York.11

    Some critics felt it lacked a cohesive script and slid into a revue format in Act 2 but conceded the upsides were lack of vulgarity and brilliant staging, with 12 magnificent scenes from the opening in the courtyard of the royal palace to the elaborate ballroom finale, exaggerated by mirrors placed at the back of the stage. The Age reported:

    Once having recovered from colour-blindness, induced by the opening courtyard scene … the senses are quickened by the artistic beauty of the garden scene as the ballet dances in a gorgeous scheme of lighting which reveals ivory flesh tones, blue feet dancing in an atmosphere of diaphanous green. The effect is truly magnificent. Then, finally, the producer unfolds his surprise in the second act, the ethereal purple and green interior of a cathedral, changing swiftly to the lightness, colour and gaiety of wedding celebrations, beautiful in blending tones of apricot.12

    The show closed at midnight and flowers handed up were ‘so numerous and brilliant that they made a veritable garden of the stage’.13 Jack and librettist John Gray shared the final curtain, profoundly relieved as they bowed before the wildly appreciative audience. The Argus reported that there was ‘enough entertainment of high calorific value to roast the coldest critic to a cinder’ and wrote:

    If you have an appetite for red-hot romance, served up in a Ruritanian kingdom, where brave uniforms and royal intrigues count more than statesmanship, and if digestion is helped by copious draughts of music, by turn turbulent and honey sweet, this is the show that will gratify the heart’s desire. Mr. Ernest C. Rolls … pleaded with members of his audience to judge the piece, which was written and composed by Australians, by the same standards that they would apply to a musical comedy from London or New York. There was no call for apologies for its authorship. The Harry Grahams of the play world have not produced a more attractive ‘book’ than that contrived by Mr. J.L. Gray and Mr. Rolls, nor have the Irving Berlins of this amusing age composed music any sweeter than that invented by Mr. Jack O’Hagan.14

    On stage, Ethelind Terry struggled with vocal demands and by mid-November the role of Princess Marietta was handed over to Strella Wilson, who reinvigorated the show and inspired the cast to do better. Jack’s tuneful songs revealed the fine qualities of her rich voice and in turn she brought humour and glamour to the production, new warmth to ‘Song of Serovia’ and charm to melodious duets ‘Song of Love’ and ‘Some Day Sweetheart’ with William O’Neal. 3AW broadcast Act 1 of the show live from the Apollo’s stage on 25 November.

    After seven weeks of good houses, Rolls decided to end Flame of Desire on 7 December and take it to Sydney for Christmas, but the venue arrangement fell through and there was no chance to return to the Apollo. Frank Van Straten wrote, ‘It’s more likely that Flame of Desire was running at such a substantial loss that Rolls had no alternative but to summarily dump the show, its cast and its crew’.15

    The O’Hagan’s held a ‘wrap’ party at home. Strella sang the big songs from Flame of Desire as Jack played piano. The crowd of musicians and entertainers was raucous. Neighbours resigned themselves to another sleepless night.

    Jack wrote and placed songs for a few more revues with Rolls’ involvement—Around the World (1935), A Waltz Dream (1939) for Australia and New Zealand Theatres for JCW, supervised by Rolls; and London Casino Revue Folies D’Amour(1939) for JCW Jack also wrote Romany Road, his own potted musical comedy for the Tivoli in 1944.

    Records to date show Jack composed 58 published and 158 unpublished songs for theatrical productions throughout his career. Twenty-three were recorded on disc and 12 on piano rolls.

    Around 100 of those songs were written for Rolls between 1932 to 1935—at least seven for pantomime, around 70 across spectacular revues, and a huge score of 24 for a musical comedy Flame of Desire.16

    It must be remembered that Jack did all of this while working full time at Allan’s Music in the 1920s; while running his own publishing business in the early 1930s; and while working full time as a broadcast writer, announcer and performer at 3AW from 1934 onwards. He burnt the midnight oil.

    Jack’s phenomenal theatrical contribution is rarely remembered because most of these songs were never recorded or published, and some appeared under pseudonyms, but, regardless, it’s a significant legacy to Australian theatrical heritage.



    The limited 504-page hardback edition of Along the Road to Gundagai, Biography of Jack O’Hagan and Birth of Australian Pop Culture will be officially launched at Readings St Kilda 9 April, Gundagai Library 17 April and National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra 18 April 2024. Available now for $69.99 AUD, postage additional. Online sales at Buy direct from the author contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Also available at Readings, Avenue Bookstores and Mary Martin Bookshops in Melbourne.



    1. J. Hansen, ‘Few Regrets for Jack O’Hagan’, Southern Cross, 12 September 1984, cover & p.16

    2. J. Hetherington, ‘He’d never heard of The Road to Gundagai’, The Herald, 28 October 1950, p.13

    3. Author’s interview with Frank Van Straten, 2013

    4. ‘Out and About with Batman, Turn that old pianola’, The Bulletin, 8 January 1972, p.6; ‘Jack O’Hagan, The Australian Troubador’, Readers Digest, May 1974

    5. ‘Music and Drama’, The Argus, 27 December 1930, page unknown

    6. Jack at times mentioned 14 recordings and at other times 17 recordings. Not all have been traced to date.

    7. Sylvia Kellaway was incorrectly noted in the Tout Paris program as Jack Kellaway’s sister

    8. ‘Tout Paris’, Sunday Mail, 1 October 1933, p.13

    9. Roy Rene’s first and only film

    10. Vogues of 1935 program, author’s collection

    11. ‘Enthusiasm at Apollo First Night’, The Herald, 21 October 1935, p.18

    12. ‘Music Stage & Film, Premiere of Australian Musical Play. Mr. Rolls Conducts Overture’, The Age, 21 October 1935, p.10

    13. ‘The Woman’s World, “Flame of Desire”’, The Herald, 21 October 1935, p.13

    14. ‘The Apollo, New Musical Romance, “Flame of Desire”‘, The Argus, 21 October 1935, p.4

    15. Frank Van Straten, Hanky-Panky, the Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020, p.115

    16. It’s difficult to be absolutely accurate as attributions to composers are not always clear—producers often took ownership of copyright, and some songs were placed in more than one show.