BOOK REVIEW: Hanky-Panky: The Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls by Frank Van Straten, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, Vic, 2020
Who was Ernest C. Rolls? Why write a book about him?
These are the questions that Frank Van Straten poses in the introduction to his biography of colourful theatrical producer Ernest Charles Roll: Hanky-Panky: The Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls.
For various reasons Rolls’ work and achievement, until now, has been overlooked by theatre historians. A couple of his revues are pictured in Mander and Mitchenson’s Revue: A Story in Pictures (1971), but Rolls is not given adequate acknowledgement. He is also included in Kurt Gänzl’s mighty The Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre (2001), albeit as part of a much larger entry on his more successful siblings Herman and Max Darewski; but that is it.
Even during his life time, his name was absent from theatre reference books such as Who’s Who in the Theatre, and his death in 1964 passed without the usual tributes.
Rolls was a man who devoted his life to the theatre, producing high quality and original revues and musicals in Britain and Australia from the 1910s to the 1950s. He was a larger than life personality who didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, and like all good showmen, he made and lost several fortunes, and experienced triumphs and disasters, both on stage and off. His turbulent private life saw him embroiled in bankruptcy, indecent exposure and even murder.
Rolls didn’t leave behind any letters or diaries. He contemplated writing an autobiography, but didn’t get around to it.
To piece together the story of Rolls’ life, Frank Van Straten has achieved the near impossible. He has managed to unearth all manner of sources including autobiographies of people who knew and worked with him, such as the scenic artist George Kenyon. These first-hand accounts show a man of great determination and conviction, a man of imagination and skill, and a hard task master when needed. A loner in many respects, he lost contact with his family after moving to Australia. He didn’t seem to have any close friends other than his loyal and long-suffering wife, Jennie, who remained by his side: ‘a lifetime of devotion that survived two world wars, the Great Depression and a daunting succession of personal crises’.
Frank has also manged to find some amazing illustrations—and no doubt there are many more that weren’t included. It is interesting that no glamorous studio portraits exist of either Rolls or Jennie.
So why did Rolls fall out of favour? He was clearly a very talented man. His fall from grace seems to have occurred in June 1922 when standing in the second floor window of his home in the London suburb of Maida Vale, he ‘flashed’ two passing ladies.
In the court case that followed, Rolls’ lawyer maintained (with a straight face), ‘although the accused had had about 10,000 chorus girls through his hands, there had never been the faintest suggestion of improper conduct’. The judge sentenced Rolls to three months jail, though this was reduced to six weeks following an appeal. This unfortunate incident earned Rolls the nickname ‘Flash’ Ernie.
With Rolls’ misdemeanour in mind, the title of Frank Van Straten’s book has added piquancy. Named after one of his most popular revues, Hanky-Panky, which ran for five months in London’s West End during 1917. When asked to define ‘hanky-panky’ Rolls said (with a smirk) he had no idea what it meant and offered a reward to the person who sent him the best definition.
Born Joseph Adolphe Darewski on 6 June 1890, possibly in Austria, Ernest C. Rolls, was one of five children. His parents Eduard and Irene Darewski were both European Jews who settled in England around 1893. The Darewskis were a very musical family. Rolls’ father was an opera singer of some notoriety and his bothers Herman Darewski (1884-1947) and Max Darewski (1894-1929) both achieved fame as composers. They collaborated on several of Rolls’ early productions, writing music and lyrics.
One of Rolls’ earliest theatre credits was for The Dawn of Love, a variety turn that he concocted with his brother Max. An ‘erotic’ retelling of the Garden of Eden story, danced by Nydia Nerigne and Ivan Petroff, it raised a few eyebrows when it opened at the London Palladium in 1911.
The following year, 1912, Rolls produced his first revue, a genre that would become his specialty. Based on a concept popular in Paris, revues in Britain comprised a series of sketches and musical scenas generally built around a slight plot or theme. Glamour was a key ingredient and lavish costumes and sets were de rigueur as were hordes of pretty chorus and ballet girls. Revue gradually split into two types, spectacular and intimate. Charles B. Cochran specialised in the first type, while André Charlot became the ‘the genius of intimate musical revue’. Rolls did both.
Oh! Molly, Rolls’ first revue, opened at the London Pavilion on 2 September 1912, forming half of a variety bill. It introduced Nelson Keys, who would go on to become a leading West End musical star.
Over the next decade Rolls produced some ten full-length revues in London and the provinces, including Ragmania (1913), Step This Way (1913), Full Inside (1914), Venus Ltd (1914), Hanky-Panky (1917), Topsy Turvey (1917), Any Old Thing (1917) and Laughing Eyes (1918).
When Full Inside transferred from the Oxford Theatre to the Palladium, Jennie Benson, a talented singer and comedienne, joined the cast as the new leading lady. In the revue Topsy Turvey (1917), she introduced the ‘haunting ballad’ ‘Smoke Clouds’, which featured lyrics by Davy Burnaby and Ernest C. Rolls with music by Herman Darewski. An image of the sheet music cover features Jennie dressed in khaki holding a cigarette.
The post war years proved somewhat challenging for Rolls. In 1919 he was forced to pay costs when his production of Aladdin (1916) went to court over unpaid royalties. In 1921 he was declared bankrupt for the first time, after losing £12,000 [$840,000 in today’s money] on the revue Laughing Eyes (1918) and £16,000 [$1,120,000] on the musical Oh! Julie (1920).
And in 1922, the ‘flashing’ episode put paid to Rolls’ theatrical ambitions in England. Through all of this, Jennie Benson stood by him, the two having finally married in November 1920.
When Jennie received an offer from J.C. Williamson Ltd in Australia to perform on their newly-acquired Tivoli vaudeville circuit, Rolls’ luck changed. Here was the opportunity to start afresh in a new market.
Almost as soon as he landed in Australia, Rolls began wheeling and dealing. He interested JCW in his production of Aladdin which became the 1924 Christmas attraction at His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne with Jennie in the title role.
Over the next decade Rolls’ name was regularly in the press. At one time or another, he worked with all the major theatre managers and companies in Australia. From JCW he moved to Fullers, by way of Rufe Naylor, travelling to New York (London was closed to Rolls) to acquire shows and stars for Naylor’s new Empire Theatre in Sydney.
The Empire duly opened on 28 February 1928 with the Jerome Kern musical Sunny. Despite some awkward comments in the press about Rolls’ ‘flashing’, Sunny proved a glorious triumph. Rolls’ Australian career as a producer of bright, lively and tuneful shows was off to a good start.
After Fullers (with whom he produced Sunny, Rio Rita and Good News in Melbourne), he joined forces with George Marlow and oversaw the productions of Clowns in Clover and Whoopee! in Sydney.
Once again storm clouds were gathering. Though artistically successful, box office receipts were down, and by July 1929 the Marlow-Rolls company was placed in voluntary liquidation with a total loss of £50,000 [$4m]. Talking pictures and then the Great Depression were cited as contributors.
After a hiatus of twelve months Rolls emerged with his own company. His first production was the pantomime Puss in Boots which opened at Sydney’s St James Theatre on 26 December 1930 with Jennie in the lead. In 1931, a whole series of revues followed, many reusing the names rather than the content of earlier revues: Topsy Turvey, Laughing Eyes, Step This Way and Follow a Star, as well as the Gershwin musical Funny Face.
In September 1931 he took over the lease of Melbourne’s Palace Theatre presenting Bright Side Up, League of Happiness, Venus Ltd, Hanky-Panky, Laughing Eyes and The Big Show; with a concurrent season at the Sydney Empire from early 1932.
At this time Rolls’ started to push the boundaries by introducing ‘nudes’ into his shows with daring programme covers to match. One of the most controversial was Tout Paris which opened at the Melbourne Princess in June 1933, prior to going on tour. But this and the revues that followed did not make money and once again Rolls was forced to liquidate his assets.
Over the next six years he experienced highs and lows. He enjoyed success at Melbourne’s Palace Theatre (renamed the Apollo in 1934) with the musical comedies The Merry Malones and Flame of Desire, and the revues Rhapsodies of 1935 and Vogues of 1935 which both featured stunning costumes by Joan Scardon (many of which are illustrated). Scardon also designed the jazzy programme covers.
In 1935, keen to turn Flame of Desire into a motion picture, he set about founding a film studio (based in Werribee), but this was not to be.
In 1938 he managed to inveigle his way onto the JCW Board. He was also appointed chief producer of the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Theatres Ltd (ANZT). In what proved to be one of the most challenging periods in the history of ‘the Firm’, Rolls set about spending money on lavish productions and trips abroad to secure shows and stars. Though ANZT proved to be a financial disaster for Williamson’s, some of the shows Rolls’ championed were sure-fire winners such as The Women by Clare Boothe Luce, which featured a female-only cast headed by Irene Purcell.
During the year and a half that he was at the helm of ANZT, he presented some of his most creative and artistic creations. The revue Folies d’Amour for example, featured costumes and settings of the highest standard.
Rolls’ extravagances had almost bankrupted ANZT. In June 1939 its accumulated losses were valued at £60,000 [$5,273,000]. Rolls too was being hounded by the Fullers’ for unpaid rent on the Palace and Princess theatres. So, rather than stick around face his creditors, Rolls and Jennie packed up their bags and returned to England.
Rolls arrived back in Britain just as war was declared. His first theatrical gambit, A Margin of Error by Clare Boothe Luce, proved a disaster, closing at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre after only 45 performances. Retreating to the provinces he returned to revues with Jennie as his leading lady. He also tried to revive old time music hall. Post war he acted as business manager and promotor for some ageing stars of stage and screen with little success. His final ‘hurrah’ was the stage spectacle ‘The Dancing Waters’, an illuminated fountain which ‘played’ British seaside resorts from 1956 to 1963.
Rolls’ died after a short illness on 20 January 1964, aged 74. Jennie died in 1979, aged 95.
A story worth telling? I think so! But, what about the murder? Well, you'll just have to read Frank’s book!