header 1200Cover image: Programme cover for Rhapsodie of 1935 at Wests Theatre, Adelaide. State Library of South Australia. 

Scenic artist J. Alan Kenyon continues his account of his life working in Melbourne and Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s. In this chapter, he recounts his association with maverick theatre producer Ernest C. Rolls. Read Part 1»

The Importance of (being) Ernest C. Rolls


In the early 1930s before I went to Sydney and began my involvement with film-maker Ken Hall and Cinesound, Ernest C. Rolls made theatrical history in Australia with his revues and pantomimes. Ernest (Josef Adolph Darewski) Rolls emigrated from Warsaw to England in 1907 at the age of seventeen and in 1925, after several years as a theatre producer, travelled to Australia to stage his production of Aladdin for J.C. Williamson’s. His productions were most lavish in conception, and working eighty or one hundred hours a week in order to carry out his ideas was the rule rather than the exception. For the smallest black-out, there had to be a scene. There was one in particular that I really resented. It included a back-cloth and a cut-cloth, two wings aside and borders. As the lights faded in/up, a garden was revealed and an old lady sitting in an armchair with a handkerchief over her face. Her grand-daughter enters and asks solicitously “Grandmama, how are you today?” She repeats the question twice, whilst Grandmama slowly comes awake. She removes the handkerchief, regards her grand-daughter and snaps “Bloody awful!” Black-out.

Rolls was in the habit of handing me a list of perhaps twenty-five or thirty scenes. Knowing that all of them could not be used, I would whittle them down to the openings and finales of the first and second acts. Then I would concentrate on those I felt to be the most important and so on, leaving to the last those scenes which were most likely to be scrapped. These I never painted!

On one occasion, a chance remark of mine, to the effect that I was really concerned about the work which still remained to be finished, got round via the grapevine to Rolls. With his temper at boiling point, he came rushing up three flights of stairs to the paint room, at full gallop. Coleman’s stepson Jack, who also worked with us, chanced to be with me. Before Rolls could get started on his tirade of abuse, he solemnly warned him about the foolishness of rushing upstairs at his time of life. He spoke earnestly of the danger of a sudden heart attack. But Jack’s kindly consideration for his health was completely wasted on Rolls who threw himself into the attack. We were quite aware that his edged remarks were mainly due to his well-known early morning liverishness. It was 3 am—one attribute of Rolls was that he truly put in the hours—but Coleman and I began to get annoyed.

I was engaged in painting the Battle of Balaclava with masses of infantry and cavalry. Strewn about were the dead bodies of men and horses along with smashed guns—a lot of drawing and very realistic painting. At that exact moment I was painting life-size horses and was fully extended. Rolls finally decamped when I handed him the brush, with the suggestion that if he thought he could paint better and faster than I was already doing, he was more than welcome to try.

Another incident which happened just after breakfast (having worked all through the night): Coleman and I were on a scaffold working at painting an arch in black and gold. I was quite unaware that we had a spectator, until a startled yell from below broke the silence. Coleman had flicked his brush full of metallic gold paint and it had left a trail down Rolls’ waist-coat. It was an episode we were both very happy to remember. And another incident which centred around Coleman took place a bit later. While we were crossing the stage at the Princess one morning at 4 am we saw the property shells for one of the scenes I was working on belonging to Pearl of the Pacific lying about the stage. We had a good look at them and decided they were not good enough for the scene, so then and there we got busy with glue and glitter. We did endeavour to find something to cover the stage before we started—this we thought we had done satisfactorily.

We went off to a cafe in Bourke Street for breakfast, feeling righteously convinced we had done a good job. When we arrived back, a great commotion seemed to be going on around some glue spots on the stage. A lot of harsh words were being said about the thoughtless so-and-so’s who were giving the cleaners so much extra work. We said we were terribly sorry but we simply couldn’t find anything better to put beneath the shells. Nothing seemed to pacify anybody. In the theatre, temperament can spill over—even to the cleaners. Tired of the abuse, we exhorted them to get on with it and clean up, for heaven’s sake. Then Jack Coleman began a whistling rendition of Ramona. This so infuriated the head stage man that he threatened to commit mayhem if Coleman would not shut up.

Later Coleman went down on the stage with two buckets of colour, one of blue and one of green, to ‘lay in’ some rocks. He was still whistling Ramona, in spite of the warning given him, when this mechanist came up to Jack Coleman and landed a punch on his ear. Shaking his head, and glaring through his spectacles, Jack took careful aim and emptied the blue paint over the bloke. Taking his time, while his audience watched spellbound, he flung the green paint over the blue. The unfortunate mechanist was drowned in colour; but he got little sympathy from most of the hands who thoroughly enjoyed the somewhat different stage entertainment. It took a lot of time and solvent to clean up before the opening matinee.

There were mutterings about a stage strike, when Rolls intervened. He told the boys they could do as they damned well pleased. He reminded them that he could replace them immediately, but that he could not replace me and my staff. This cooled everybody down.

Quite a number of idiotic things happened in this period. I was standing in the middle of the stage, soon after midnight, going through intricate contortions trying to rid myself of a flea from around the waistline—which was driving me crazy. All of a sudden the midnight silence was abruptly shattered by gales of laughter from the fly-tower. The wardrobe women who had been watching, quite fascinated by my solitary acrobatics, had suddenly divined the reason for them. I was not, as they first thought, practising a native dance. I had a flea devouring me.

I had made it a condition that anyone who worked with me must first have their salary verified by the management, that they must negotiate that pay arrangement independent of me.  In that way I could not possibly be blamed for any discrimination. When Jack Coleman came to me and asserted he was worth more than he was getting, I said “All right, you speak to Rolls about it.” He came back from lunch one Wednesday with a smile from ear to ear, absolutely exuding joy and confidence. I regarded him sourly and grunted “What the hell have you got to grin about?” I added “This will wipe the smile off your face—we've got forty hours work to cram into ten!”

Then Jack related his story and the reason for his smiles. Turning the corner from Bourke Street into Spring Street, he had immediately been swallowed up by a tremendous crowd, absolutely swarming around the theatre. Pushing his way to the entrance of The Princess he saw the Full House sign going up. As he got closer, he spied ‘the great man himself’, Rolls, standing on the step with a smile of Federal Territory dimensions, and by his side, Joe Lyons, the Prime Minister. Never a one to emulate the angels when treading might become a fearful business, Jack Coleman pushed his way through to Rolls and tapped him on the arm. Rolls turned and, with what amounted for him a beatific smile, asked “What can I do for you, Coleman?” “I was just wondering if perhaps it had slipped your mind about the salary increase you promised me?” beamed Jack. “Absolutely not, Coleman,” replied Rolls, fairly radiating benevolence. “It will be there on Friday night.”

It was not long after that that Rolls was heard referring to Jack as that “bloody Coleman, asking for a rise when I was talking to the Prime Minister ...”

Ernest Rolls and I were quite good friends. He was an exceedingly shrewd man where his pocket was concerned and he was well aware that in employing me he really got his pound of flesh. He always knew that sort of thing, which probably had a great deal to do with his tremendous success as a producer.

During a lull between two productions, I had put a whole week into painting a garden cloth. When I arrived on stage one morning, I discovered the stage staff putting top and bottom battens in the pockets of my cloth. They were not taking the slightest amount of care and my cloth, a week's work, lay crushed and crumpled in a heap in the middle of the stage. I was so infuriated at the evidence of such stupidity that I outdid myself.

As I gazed at the ruined result, I really surprised myself with my powers of invective. I even went back a generation or two as I succinctly described these idiots. The result was they wrapped themselves in offended dignity and went on strike. When they put their grievances to E.C. Rolls he once again came in on my side, and reminded them that they were expendable, and I was not. A triumph maybe, but I still mourned my spoilt cloth.

Rolls had a name in the business as being extremely tough, but his worst detractors could not deny that he really knew his theatre. He could not be imposed upon. Once I overheard him say to a very brash imported artist who had foolishly disputed his ruling “As far as I'm concerned, you can catch the next boat back, old boy. I can easily do without you.”

On the only occasion when I had a week off with a bout of influenza I was accosted by Rolls “Where have you been? What's happening to the scenery and the new show?!” I did explain the reason and expressed concern that I had not been able to drag myself to the theatre, having a temperature and a few aches and pains associated with a dose of the ‘flu’... Maybe I was a little sarcastic! Perhaps it sank in through Rolls's rough hide—I felt a little put out and when he uttered what he thought would be the last word “Y’know, you're not an R.A.” I got in very smartly “No, and you're no bloody Cochran.” Rolls’s dead-pan suddenly broke into a smile. Irrespective of what people thought of him, I had proof of his stage genius and respected him as a showman.

One morning he told me that he had thought of a wonderful title for a presentation. This happened, he explained, in his bath. It was The Birth of Melody. Could I think about it and evolve something around the motif. I planned a fantasy and made a model. When I took this up to Rolls, I explained it was of course in conjunction with the story and presentation that I had come up with. “Okay, let’s have it.” So this is how I explained it should work.

Open up in a black-out, with just a glow from a small camp fire. Crouched over the fire a native beating a drum or tom-tom. Meanwhile the orchestra producing similar tones. To get away from the tom-tom, a roll of thunder, some lightning, etc. Fade in some ‘blue light’ which would show (on the model it did just this) clouds rolling by. The clouds revealed a nude—such as The Birth of Venus—and at the same time another cloud exposed a piano with an early composer getting an inspiration from the figure. The music by this time had taken up a melody. Another cloud showed The Three Graces and another pianist at a grand-piano following on with more music. Four groups of figures, four grand-pianos, until a large cloud in centre stage exposed a jazz band, playing jazz music. The lighting was full up and the stage full of the sounds of jazz.

Then from a flight of steps at the back of the stage came the chorus and the showgirls, dressed in silver lame and carrying silver trumpets. As they descended the steps the jazz music would fade out until complete black-out. Then bring back the camp fire and the tom-tom. Curtain.

“That’s fine, but not that end—the black-out would kill the applause!” Effect NOT got! That’s the commercial theatre for you.

At the rehearsal, it was very evident what would be a cause of great disappointment for me—not all the audience could see everything! That was to be understood with ten cut-cloths of mosquito-net cut like clouds. Some would interfere with the sight-line for some seats. Rolls pointed out the obvious, then called for a pair of scissors and started to cut away the offending parts of the netting so that the pianos were revealed to all parts of the auditorium. When he had finished, all semblance of clouds had disappeared, the set ruined, my sense of humour somewhat frayed, but I just sat and watched. Then Rolls handed the scissors to me saying “I seem to have mucked it up—I'll leave you to put it back.” Then he went home, whilst I repaired the damage.

Perhaps, along with me, only one man ever got the better of E.C. Rolls. I had told him I was the only one who knew how sets came together, because I painted them in bits and pieces—“So don't push too hard.” Although I never was sufficiently paid for the amount of work I did, Rolls never owed me a penny. I was paid ten to fifteen pounds during the Depression, according to the house takings, getting a reduction if they dropped. Many people and firms suffered.

One man who did get his pound of flesh was a tailor in Bourke Street, a little London East End Jew, by name Davis. He was my tailor and made me especially well-cut suits as an advertisement—sometimes not letting me have them out of the display window, where they were on show. The finale of one of Rolls’ Spectacular Revues was to the music from Tannhauser—the men were in green tail-coats, top-hats and canes.

It was opening at the Saturday matinee. Just before Davis the tailor closed on Saturday morning, Rolls sent someone down for the suits, promising to pay on the following Monday. That was not to be—Davis demanded payment before delivery. No argument was to alter this arrangement. Rolls hadn't got the money and a cheque was not acceptable. So it was only when the whole of the matinee takings were in that there was ready cash to pay for the suits—in time for the finale.

Possibly the most spectacular show Rolls produced was Flame of Desire (1935). I was told to make the scenery most elaborate, because if it failed here it would be shipped to New York and played there!

There were twelve full scenes with only one front set of flats, these representing a foyer and opening out into a ballroom. Each set touched the back wall and practically each side wall. This was Melbourne’s Apollo Theatre aka The Palace, later the Metro Nightclub … John Leigh Gray wrote the story and Maurice Gutteridge the music. I designed and painted the scenery and Joan Scardon and Erica Huppert were the costume designers.

The first scene was the Palace Courtyard. The flats were twenty-four feet high and there were one hundred and twenty people on the stage. The last scene—the Ballroom—had massive built columns in a circle around the stage. A platform surrounded the columns with ornate ornamental balustrades and steps down to the level of the stage. Mirrors hung at the back gave the set massive proportions. The rehearsals began at seven o'clock—they ended at three or four in the morning. This went on even to the very last rehearsal on the Friday night.

I cornered Rolls and explained to him that although it was none of my business setting up the stage and getting rid of the scenery, I thought we should concentrate on some practice doing just that. I suggested he come in on Saturday morning and run through the routine with the stage staff. He agreed. Rolls came in to the theatre in the morning with the announcement that he was going to the races! So, no rehearsal! I commiserated with Les King, the Stage Manager, who admitted that it would be chaos that night.

Anyway, I finished my last job at seven, painting a ten foot chandelier on three-ply, and I lowered it over the fly floor to the stage where the mechanist hung it on a pair of lines. Having a wash in the paint room sink, I changed into a dinner suit, pushed my way through near-naked ballet girls in their dressing-room to reach my seat in the stalls where I grabbed forty winks, waking to a roll of drums and seeing a spotlight on the stage pass-door, with Rolls coming through. He went into the orchestra pit where Maurice Gutteridge handed him the baton—Rolls conducted the orchestra. He was a musician, Herman Darewski his brother. The overture finished, Rolls took his bow, went back through the pass-door, back on stage, and in a few minutes the curtain went up—it was a quarter past eight—the miracle had happened. The show went rolling on with no hold-ups, and the final curtain came down at eleven twenty. Three hours: every rehearsal had taken six or eight hours. Rolls was the genius behind the stage—he directed the striking and setting of the scenery, which had to be carried out into Little Bourke Street in order to get rid of it and the next set brought in. How it was done I do not know, but I do know it happened.

The last time I saw ‘The Guv’nor’, Rolls, was on Bondi Beach. My wife and I chatted with him for some time. He died in London, in 1964, very much down at heel.