To coincide with Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott’s Australian theatrical tour for J.C. Williamson’s in 1934-36 (having based themselves in London since 1925), Madge Elliott collaborated on a series of autobiographical articles with an unknown ‘ghost-writer’, which were first published in 15 parts in both the Melbourne Star (from 16 March) and the Sydney Daily Telegraph between 18 March to 3 April 1935, and subsequently republished by the Brisbane Telegraph from 2 to 13 April, the Adelaide Chronicle from 11 April to 16 May and the Hobart Mercury between 19 June to 7 August of the same year.
The following transcription adopts the format used by the Brisbane Telegraph and The Mercury which omitted a number of extraneous paragraph sub-headings provided by the sub-editor for its initial publication in Sydney and reduced the number of instalments to 8.
Twenty-three years. Once I thought this a very long period to spend in the theatre.
When I was a child I was told the story of a gentleman named Methuselah, who had worked even longer than this, although he was not an actor; but I never for a moment thought I should even remotely compete in his class. But lately I have not had that same impression.
Twenty-three years of hard work now seem to me to be very far removed. After all this moil and toil I still have vigour of mind and body, with knowledge and experience besides.
This year a very good friend of mine, and an actress known to all Australians—Marie Tempest—celebrates her 50th year on the stage. So who am I that I should claim 23 years behind the footlights as anything out of the ordinary?
After this long period in a very glamorous profession I still feel that I am in my noon-day prime. I have a wealth of experience behind me and a very gay, bright road to travel ahead. The theatre, in which I have played a part, is not all tinsel, coloured lights, and supper parties. It has been my life unaffected by outside impressions. At times it was heart breaking, but it was worth it, and if again I had to choose a career I would ask for nothing better than to be an actress.
I have no philosophic reaction to the glare of the footlights. In my time I have played many parts and met many people from the “stalls” to the “gods”: nice people all, friendly people, tolerant people. They have been a part of my life, and their appreciation of my work, yes, their applause leaves me only with a glowing satisfaction of pride and pleasure in my profession.
So the notes of the overture die away in the auditorium and the curtain glides upwards on “Thus Far”.
I know that people regard me as an Australian. So here is the first disillusionment. I was born in Kensington (London) on May 12, 1896.
Strangely enough, the world did not stand still on this occasion. In later years my father told me I was just an ordinary, healthy baby, who kept him awake at least for two hours every night. Being a doctor, he was used to broken rest, and my mother, being an average kind of mother, looked upon my squawking as part of the baby formula. Actually, I do not remember much about Kensington at this stage, nor can I recall anything of the voyage to Australia. That, of course, is excusable for I was still a baby in arms when my father bought a practice in Toowoomba, Queensland, the home of my adoption. Here it was I was brought up in the golden glory of the Australian sunshine with the rolling tablelands of the Darling Downs for a daily vista and a taste for the freedom which is inherent in the native-born of the country.
At three years of age I began to take a little notice of my surroundings, and, with the first glimmering of understanding, I felt I was destined to become an actress. Why this should be I do not know, for my parents knew nothing of greasepaint and the glare of the footlights. Although there had been no actors or actresses among my ancestors, mother always had one of those hidden desires which most women cherish for the stage. She was brought up in a very stern school, where Sunday was regarded in the strictly Biblical sense, and the theatre looked upon as anathema by all God-fearing people. But in my early childhood in that little Queensland town some of the desires of mother for the stage found fulfilment in me, for I showed an aptitude for dancing which was unusual in one so young.
Madge and brother Bert, c.1898, scan of 1935 Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper photo.
Courtesy of Frank Van Straten.
Minnie Hooper, c.1923: Madge’s dancing teacher and J.C. Williamson’s Sydney-based ballet mistress, who choreographed countless productions for The Firm between 1907 and 1934
Rob Morrison Collection.
My first appearance on the stage was not in a professional capacity. Father, who at this time was developing a flair for organising “charity concerts” in the district, suddenly decided that his daughter might be capable of doing a “turn” at one of these entertainments, and I still have vivid recollections of my dancing debut.
I remember the draughty stage and the flapping of the two painted wings, and the thrilling silence just before the curtain rose for little Madge to go on and do her dance. Down through the years I can still hear the applause as I tripped about the stage. When I say tripped, I mean it in a literal sense. Too young to feel “the thousands of eyes upon me,” my feet somehow or other were just a little stubborn.
When I felt like moving to the right they would persist in gliding to the left, and once when I curtsied they deserted me altogether, and left me a limp little bundle flat on the stage. It was not a very auspicious first appearance, but it served to whet my taste for more.
Mother was delighted with my performance, but dad, being a man, was less Inclined to be enthusiastic about his daughter's future as a dancer, judged solely on my one exhibition.
I remember him saying to me: “Madge, you did very well to-night, but my little girl has still a long way to go before she really can dance.”
Which sounded anything but encouraging. At odd times in my career I have recalled those words, and in gloomy moments I have thought to myself that they still apply, for in life I have found that there is always a long distance ahead.
For the next two years I danced early in the morning and through the long, sunshiny days.
There was no rhythm, of course, to my movements, nor did I have any real idea of sequence in my steps. To me those movements were just so much childish play and exercise, but all unconsciously I was building up physical strength which was to serve me well In the strenuous days of the theatre.
Occasionally visitors to our home would comment openly on my frolics, and say to mother: “Madge is full of life and she seems to have a natural aptitude for dancing.”
Honeyed words these, which set me tingling all over with pride. One old friend of the family, a Mrs. Green, so impressed mother with her persistence in forecasting a dancing career for me that mother ultimately was convinced that Madge had some natural talent in this direction.
With a kindly smile and the homely grace which had endeared her to the family, Mrs. Green one day whispered to mother: “Why, look at those legs (my legs). Perfect, my dear, for dancing. All she requires is some tuition. Let me try and teach her some simple steps.”
Next day I had my first dancing lesson. It was on the veranda of the old home, with a climbing rose for a “backcloth” and the feathery fronds of wattle trees for “wings.”
There was no audience, but the cool looking grass stretched away like a green carpet on an auditorium, and real, fleecy clouds floated overhead. It was an Ideal setting.
“One, two, three,” chanted Mrs. Green. “One, two, three, pirouette; one, two, three ...”
The old worn boards slipped from under my feet as the chant went on.
Then suddenly there came the sound of a hand-clap from behind a rose bush to me the first real appreciative applause of my dancing life.
“Bravo,” called my mother. “You're a darling. You look just like a little ray of summer sunshine.”
That may have been a purely maternal expression and flattering to me, but it made me feel that dancing was the one thing in life worth doing well. School and my girlfriends were nice enough, but here was something better.
And how I danced for Mrs. Green. She guided my childish footsteps and spoke to me of the beauty of describing things by a wave of a hand, the flick of a wrist, the pointing of a toe, or a “whirl”. That first dancing lesson was the beginning of a new day for me and the beginning of a new love so fine and steadfast that will endure between my mother and me so long as we live. Those happy days linger long in my memory. Although mother would not admit it directly to me, she was highly delighted with Mrs. Green's praise of her little Madge. These two doting women held many a secret confab with me as the subject of discussion. As an outcome permission was given me seriously to practise dancing. What joy!
The days flew by all too quickly. Sunshine or rain, I was assiduous in my “routine.” Soon I could twirl on my toes and pirouette with a perfection which pleased the meticulous Mrs. Green. And then we moved to Sydney.
Again a visitor to the home was the means of further encouraging mother in the belief of a dancing future for me, and eventually I was sent to study under Miss Minnie Hooper. Looking back across the years, it seems to me that this was a very important period in my life.
I was just at the age when every young girl has her day-dreams. Miss Hooper's school of dancing was redolent of the theatre. There were tiny tots in the classes and seasoned theatrical dancers came to her rooms to practise.
All talk was of the stage and the ballet, and new and strange words became part of my vocabulary. Unconsciously I absorbed the “atmosphere.”
Many a time Miss Hooper singled me out for praise and encouragement. She was tireless in her teaching. She coaxed, cajoled, and flattered in turn; and within me I felt a certain response—a latent call of the theatre.
My future now became the subject of many talks with mother. So thorough had been Miss Hooper's training that I felt I could be a success as a professional dancer, and, when it came to the point, Miss Hooper's voice in the discussion was the deciding factor. She it was who persuaded the family to allow me to become a professional.
Father was horrified, but mother was secretly fascinated by the suggestion. More debates and conferences followed until the position was reversed, when dad was all for my going on the stage and mother all against it.
At the final solemn interview with my parents, father said to mother, “Here are you raising the same objections as your parents advanced when you suggested a theatrical career for yourself. Tush, tush.”
Father won the day, and my dancing tuition went on, but now with my studies directed toward becoming a professional. About this time I played my first dramatic role, although it was not a public performance.
My father in his spare tune made a hobby of writing little plays and sketches.
He was particularly proud of one effort:—“My First Patient”—and he handed the script to my brother Bert (Dr. Herbert Elliott), of Sydney—for production. He rather fancied himself at this time as an actor, and he cast me for the heroine's role in the touching drama. lt was staged in the attic of our home. The scenery was some old wallpaper, and the “props” and stage fittings came from the lumber room. The “wardrobe" belonged to father and mother. The play had a domestic theme. There was a baby (my doll) in a wicker cradle—a very, very sick baby.
The doctor was called for professional advice, and Bert, entered wearing father's frock coat and belltopper. He took a stethoscope from his inside coat pocket, applied it to the “heart” of the sawdust baby, and nodded his head, wisely, “My good woman” (that was me), said the doctor, “this child is very ill.”
The dialogue, by the way, was quite unsophisticated. “It will require skilled nursing and a hot-water bottle every five minutes.”
“Ha,” said I, dubiously—in fact, I poked out my tongue, “I do not think you are a very good doctor. The child is quite well, I will have you know. All it requires is some castor oil.”
Whereat my brother, stepping out of his character, said: “Oh well, if you are going to argue the point about it we'll call the play off.”
Exit doctor; exit me.
That was my first speaking part on any stage, and it was many, many years before I had another.
My First Patient, c.1910: Madge Elliott and Bert Elliott.
Cyril Ritchard collection of theatrical performance and personal photographs, 1880-1946,
National Library of Australia, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-150756811/view
I wonder whether anyone not of the theatre knows what it means to try and get a start in it. I could write a story about that, too—but it would be a monotonous story, and so many people already know it.
I, however, had the friendship of Miss Minnie Hooper, and she smoothed the pathway to my first professional engagement in the children's ballet of the Melba Grand Opera Company in 1911. I never had to climb innumerable stairs or wait in line to see producers who generally took one glance at applicants for work and grumbled; “Nothing for you to-day.”
I look back now on those early days in the theatre with something of a smile. But it is a smile that is very near tears, for I saw many girls come and go, most of them with hopes of a stage career shattered.
In my own case I was fortunate. The ballet with the Melba opera company was hand-picked, and we were for ever rehearsing and practising. As the season went on I got to know Wayda, Zeni, Cisneros, Razenberg, Rossi, Scandiani, Kauffman, Drammarco, Ciccolini, Edmund Burke, John McCormack, and, best of all, Melba. Many a time I stood unseen in the wings listening to these great singers at practice. Somehow, young as I was, they inspired me.
(l. to r.) Italian tenor Francesco Zeni (Samson); Baritone Angelo Scandiani (Scarpia); Tenor Guido Ciccolini (Cavaradossi); Baritone Anafesto Rossi (Rigoletto); Canadian bass Edmund Burke (Mephistopheles)
(l. to r.) Austrian mezzo-soprano Maria Voluntas-Ratzenberg (Delilah); Polish soprano Janina Korolewicz-Wayda (Tosca); American mezzo-soprano Eleonora de Cisneros (Ortrud)
Nellie Melba as Juliette and Irish tenor John McCormack
Melba-Williamson Opera Company members reproduced in Opera For the Antipodes, Alison Gyger, Currency Press Pty Ltd, Paddington, NSW, 1990
Original sources include National Library of Australia
One of the operas in Melba's repertoire was Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah, and its glorious ballets always thrilled me. I have, however, memories of another kind in connection with one of these interludes.
At short notice I was ordered to take the principal ballerina's part, the leading dancer having become suddenly ill.
In physique I was not exactly suited to the role which called for an alluring and seductive dance. To overcome the difficulty the management insisted on bath towels being used for padding, and, effectively covered by the Eastern attire, I tripped on in all the glory of a principal ballerina.
The audience failed to note my lack of curves until one of the towels became dislodged. I was painfully aware of something having slipped, and as gracefully as possible, in the circumstances, I danced up-stage to exit with my hotel bath towel trailing its folds like a train in my wake.
I deserved all the applause which came my way on that occasion. In this company I formed a friendship with John McCormack, which has lasted through the years. He was the most encouraging man, not only to myself, but also to every other juvenile member.
Although he knew little of dancing his kindly praise of our work did much to lighten the tedium of those dancing days.
In the morning call for rehearsal he would often watch the ballet go through its paces; and always he had a cheerful word for the girls.
In the main those were happy days, forerunner of many more I have spent in the theatre … But I was only beginning to touch the fringe of the real glamour which lies behind the footlights in the world of make-believe, where our adored darlings move and have their being. With a single thought of recollection comes a parade of players and plays which you and I know so well.
To be continued...
Article republished in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld), Tuesday, 2 April 1935, p. 8, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article182044260, The Chronicle (Adelaide, SA), Thursday, 11 April 1935, p. 52, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article92363904 and The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), Wednesday, 19 June 1935, p. 7, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30091770
Theatre Royal, Sydney—March 18, '35.
Please Mr Editor (writes Madge Elliott), when I made the (to me) startling statement that I had been 23 years on the stage, I hoped that my collaborator or “putter-together” would leave it at that.
Instead of which he has jumped to horrible conclusions—the quaint little chap—and announced the date of what he considered my birth.
If we must get down to figures, then I must defend myself, and add that I was 11 years old when I went on the stage—so now you have it.
But that other horrible date! When I read it I felt quite decrepit.
Give the collaborator my love, and tell him I know he means well—bless him.
Letter published in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Tuesday, 19 March 1935, p. 9, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article246695135
Compiled by Robert Morrison, with additional information supplied by Andrew Lamb and Frank Van Straten
- Despite Madge Elliott’s protestations, her ghost-writer, in fact, calculated the correct year of her birth as 1896 (as confirmed by U.K. Birth Registration records, where her birth name is registered as Leah Madeleine Elliott in the June 1896 quarter). Possibly to her subsequent chagrin, however, the Sydney Daily Telegraph was the only newspaper to publish her letter of indignation, and the first instalment of her memoirs was subsequently re-published verbatim in the Brisbane Telegraph, Adelaide Chronicle and the Hobart Mercury with her correct birth-date as given. (In an advance promotion for the publication of the series in The Chronicle the previous week, it even highlighted the fact that she was born in 1896!)
Madge Elliott’s theatre programme biography published during the 1933 Melbourne season of the revival of Our Miss Gibbs included the additional details that: ‘Madge Elliott was born in England and came to Queensland with her parents when two years of age [hence in 1898]. Her father is Dr N.P. Elliott (retired), and a brother, Dr F. Curtis Elliott, was for some years Resident Medical Officer at the South Sydney Women’s Hospital [a maternity hospital mainly for the poor and unmarried mothers located in Stanley Street, Newtown until 1976].’
Further research has confirmed that Madge’s older brother was, in fact, her half-brother; the son of her mother’s first marriage to Albert Charles Curtis in 1890, born Frederick Clissold Curtis in 1891. Albert Curtis subsequently died in 1893 at the age of 26, and the widowed Frances Selina Curtis (née Heighton) married Nicholas Phillipps Elliott in early 1895. Frederick’s family nickname of ‘Bert’ was presumably in memory of his deceased father. He initially adopted his stepfather’s surname, but this was amended to the hyphenated Curtis-Elliott in later life. Dr Frederick Curtis-Elliott died in Sydney in 1973. His daughter, Madge Curtis-Elliott (named in honour of her aunt), made her professional stage debut as a 16 year-old dancer in the pantomime Aladdin at Sydney’s Theatre Royal in December 1940, and later served as a transport driver in the WAAAF for three and a half years during World War 2, before returning to her ballet studies post-war.
Madge’s father, Dr Nicholas P. Elliott died in Sydney on 29 October 1939 and her mother, Frances, on 8 May 1953 in her ‘100th year’ (according to a newspaper report at the time, however U.K. Birth Registration records disclose that she was actually born in the second quarter of 1856, so she was, at most, 97 years-old).
Madge Elliott pictured with her mother on her last visit to Australia in 1951
The Australian Women's Weekly, 24 August 1955, p. 24
- The Melba-Williamson Opera Company commenced its Australian tour at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney with a production of La Traviata on 2 September 1911. The company’s repertoire consisted of twelve operas in all, of which Melba sang in six: Verdi’s La Traviata, Rigoletto and Otello; Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette and Puccini’s La Bohème. The season included two Australian stage premieres, Tosca and Samson and Delilah (which commenced on 5 September under the title of Sansone e Dalila, being sung in Italian), with the remaining operas comprising Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Aida and Lohengrin.
The eight week Sydney season was followed by a truncated season of six weeks at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne commencing on 28 October and the company returned to Sydney for a final two weeks from 11 December.
Reference: Entertaining Australia – an illustrated history, Katharine Brisbane (editor), Currency Press Pty Ltd, Paddington, NSW, 1991; plus contemporaneous newspaper and periodical advertisements and reviews