Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia (Part 1)

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SUE-ANNE WALLACE has been researching the life of her celebrated relative, the Shakespearean actor Walter Bentley, and has discovered that he was heavily involved in the founding of one of Australia’s first actors’ unions, the Actors’ Association of Australia.

Walter Bentley

WALTER BENTLEY (1849–1927), renowned Scottish tragedian, who toured Australia and New Zealand from 1891 through to 1900, returned definitively in 1909, aged 60, settling in Sydney. We learn from the newspaper archives and Bentley’s scrapbooks housed in the State Library of New South Wales, that he had a finger in everything going on in Sydney, both on and off the stage, from theatre to politics and campaigning, so it is no surprise to find he was instrumental in establishing the Actors Association of Australia in 1910. Memorabilia of Bentley’s acting career is in the collections of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, including a silver-topped ebony walking stick, inscribed ‘Presented by J.C. Williamson to Walter Bentley The Silver King Princess Theatre Melbourne August 20th 1892’.

When he returned to Australia in 1891 under George Coppin’s Australian Theatrical Management Company, Bentley opened in Melbourne in the Theatre Royal, taking the lead role in Rob Roy, with Laura Hansen as his leading lady. The season was brief and before year’s end the company headed to New Zealand, starting their tour in Invercargill and Dunedin.

Bentley was equally well-known in Australia and New Zealand, but particularly revered in Dunedin where his half-brother resided and where Bentley and his brother Ferdinand Faithfull Begg had lived in the 1870s. Dunedin took special pride that it was in their city where Bentley first went on the stage, in an amateur production of Still Waters Run Deep in 1873. When he returned to the city in 1892, the Mayor presented him with a leather-bound address, praising Bentley for his ‘histrionic genius … [remembering] the distinction gained by you in old times, as much in athletics as in art’.

On his return to Sydney, Bentley took the opportunity to have a series of portraits taken by the Falk Studios, which served him well in future publicity. During the 1890s, Bentley was to return to New Zealand twice for tours around both islands, but he spent most time in Australia, touring widely through NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland, where he resided from 1895 to 1900.

Known as a Shakespearean tragedian, Bentley also enjoyed many other roles, usually travelling with a repertoire of up to fourteen plays, including favourites Richelieu, Rob Roy and David Garrick.

A call back to the stage—after a second unsuccessful attempt to become a politician—saw Bentley depart Brisbane in a hurry, leaving instructions for his possessions to be sold. First Sydney, then Melbourne and a tour of Tasmania, Bentley reprised his popular roles in Crammond Brig, The Christian, Silver King, with permission from J.C. Williamson and George Musgrove, The Bells and Hamlet, among other plays. By the time the company arrived in Tasmania, they had accumulated over 60 tons of scenery which was to be taken to New Zealand for six months, before Bentley left to tour the west coast of America, arriving late 1900, culminating in a short season in New York, signalling the time to return to London and the British stage in 1901.

Early theatrical associations in Australia

The Actors Association of Australia (AAA) was not the first association to be established—and registered—for those engaged with the professional theatre, that honour going to the Sydney Stage Employees Association (1908–1950) and the Musicians Union of Australasia New South Wales (1908–1909), closely followed by the short-lived Australian Theatrical Choristers Association (1910) and the Australian Federated Stage Employees Association (1910 – 1912). The Australian Vaudeville Association was also active in 1910, although not registered until 1914.

The history of early theatrical associations omits the founding of the AAA in 1910, perhaps as it was not immediately registered. Nevertheless, although registered in 1912, the AAA is still absent from formal records. Some eight years later, in 1920, the announcement was made of its winding up, which seems to have been completed in 1921. At various times newspaper reports refer to the AAA as the Australian or Australasian Actors’ Association or the Actors’ Association of Australasia or Australia, perhaps causing more confusion.

This early history of the AAA is absent from the Australian Trade Union Archives (ATUA), which nevertheless capture the registration of another association, the Australian Actors Union, for one year in 1912, followed by the Actors Federation of Australasia in 1919 and a second registration with the same name a year later (1920–1936). It seems this route of the various associations led to Actors Equity of Australia in 1936, the Actors & Announcers Equity Association of Australia in 1945, reverting to Actors Equity of Australia in 1982 and finally folding into the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) in 1993, which, of course, continues today. [See https://www.atua.org.au/objects/D00000029.htm accessed 6/11/20] The Actors Benevolent Fund was separately established in 1944.

Given the absence of the AAA from the ATUA’s records, I hope this short paper will secure the early history of the efforts of actors and actresses to support and enhance their profession during the second decade of the twentieth century, and their long history of benevolence.

Against the background of active associations of theatrical people and the widely reported activities of international associations, it was a logical step for actors in Australia to establish their own association. Both Walter Bentley and George Titheradge are credited with founding the association, Titheradge taking on the role of president from its registration in 1912 and Bentley founding secretary from 1910.

Surprisingly, however, an earlier report [Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser, 22 December 1909], which predated the call to form the AAA, had noted ‘friendly, familiar notices’ were already in theatre foyers with appeals for the Actors’ Orphanage, and notices for the Actors’ Association and the Benevolent Fund. I think this points to the loose associations of actors which became formalised the following year, surely in response to the successes of similar associations in Britain, America and Germany around important issues such as salaries, contracts and conditions. There was a growing ground swell for action in theatre circles.

An application was lodged for registration of the Australian Theatrical Actors Association with the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in May 1910 which presumably lapsed, perhaps because of the counter move to form the AAA, which could also have been what prompted J C Williamson to apply for the annulment of the registration of the short-lived Australian Theatrical Choristers Association.

Mustering support and registering the Actors’ Association of Australia—and criticisms

1910 had opened with questions on the underpayment of actors and indeed what it took to be an actor. ‘At present an actor was anybody who said he could act and was paid for his work … a steady flood of incompetence and conceited incompetence from all ranks of life was appearing on the stage … the actor’s calling was a calling of paupers … impressing upon those concerned with the calling, the necessity for something approaching a trade union’ [Newsletter, 8 January 1910]. This idea of a trade union was to prevail even after the AAA was established.

The call went out for the formation of an actors’ association. Those willing to be part of the movement were advised to contact Mr Harold Mercer, who already had the names of a number of those willing to assist. The next mention of the fledgling association is in November 1910 when a meeting was held for the purpose of creating an Australian actors’ association, noting there were difficulties ahead but expressing confidence of success.

A short article in the Sydney Morning Herald [19 July 1911] suggested that an actors’ association would probably ally itself with theatrical employees and would in time be as solidly organised as the association in America, where no one could be employed in a theatre if not carrying a union ticket and the UK where the profession was pressing for payments for rehearsals. Mr Huckerby, of the Federated Theatrical Employees Association, en route to New Zealand to develop an industrial award for NZ members, highlighted a problem had arisen at the Princess Theatre Melbourne, which had brought in amateur musicians, leading to theatrical employees withdrawing their services.

While there was strong support for the new association, nevertheless there were strident criticisms in the press, right from the start, and particularly in Sydney’s Truth:

STAGELAND STUDIES

CLUBS THAT ARE NOT TRUMPS

Melbourne “IMPS” and Sydney “AVA”

WHERE THEATRICAL LUG-BITERS BITE AND TRAY-BIT SPARRERS SPAR

Decent Actors Turn Down the Hamfat, the Booby Boy, and the Gushing Vaudevillian Girleen

[Truth (Sydney), 8 January 1911]

Citing The Imps in Melbourne and Sydney’s AVA, Truth declared the first was a drinking venue for theatrical people, mainly ‘out-of-collar pros.’, as the ‘top-notchers’ of the profession were rarely seen in The Imps. Actors’ associations had petered out, continued the font of wisdom in the Truth, because engaged actors did not want to ‘brush shoulders or hob-nob’ with professional people who were out of work! The Green Room Club in Melbourne was written off as private enterprise, although praised for the good meals served there.  The first Australian Vaudeville Association had certainly launched successfully for a brief period, producing a theatrical paper, The Stageland, which had a short life. This first version of the association seems to have floundered.

A year later, Truth was still persisting in its damning commentary, the headline reading:

HAMFAT HACTORS

AN ARF-CASER ASSOCIATION

Grease Paint Giant’s Gonce-Grabbing Game

TERRIFIC THEATRES TO THESPIANS IN TOIL

“My lud, the Kerridge Vaits” at £5 per Vait

Redfern Romeos, Surry Hills Shylocks, Ultimo Hamlets and

Lears from the Loo

[Truth (Sydney), 14 January 1912]

The AAA is off and runninggetting governance going

In March 1912, the AAA was registered as a company limited by guarantee. Signatories to the document were C.R. Bantock, L. Holland, A. Hunter, B. Wright, A. Higginson, F. Greene and Miss Olive Godwin. The association’s purpose was to encourage and promote the art of acting, and to safeguard the status and interests of actors and actresses. At the following general meeting in July 1912, Walter Bentley was re-elected as permanent honorary secretary, a role he was to hold for nine years in total. Reg Roberts was in the chair at the time, and again in September, and George Rignold, Leslie Holland, W.S. Percy, Reginald Roberts (again!)and one other, whose name is no longer legible in the press clipping, were elected vice-presidents. Harry Hill was honorary secretary in Melbourne. The annual general meeting was set for March the following year.

By 1914, the Council of the AAA was meeting weekly, on Monday afternoons at their rooms at the new, modern skyscraper, Culwulla Chambers in Castlereagh Street, while general meetings of members were held each quarter.

Although there were several ladies on the Council of the AAA, their AAA roles were predominately hosting of events. Bentley even corralled a group of actresses into a committee to assist him with the entertainment to be given by the Walter Bentley Players in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Fund.

It would have been a sad day for the AAA with the death of their then-president George Titheradge in January 1916—‘a prince among actors’, said Bentley [Sydney Morning Herald 25 January 1916]. There were many representatives of the theatrical profession present at his funeral and among the wreaths were those from the AAA, J.C. Williamson Ltd and the Horticultural Society, as Titheradge had been on their council. Bentley spoke a few ‘graceful words’ of appreciation and regret at the graveside.

With Titheradge’s death, the position of president was vacant and Walter Bentley was elected to the role. When no-one was prepared to take on the role of secretary, he resigned as president a month later and reverted to his former position. Julius Knight stepped into the presidential role. Towards the end of the year, in recognition of his service, Bentley was awarded life membership, a fitting tribute.

Walter Bentley took on the role of president again in 1919, having worked tirelessly in the secretary’s role since the foundation of the association. The Argus Melbourne [22 May 1919] had nothing positive to say about his election, declaring he was ejected from the role previously because he was a theatre manager not an actor, completely false as he had been on the stage since 1873. Not unexpectedly, Bentley shot back a letter to the editor, outlining the reason he stepped down in 1916 and that his ‘sympathies have always been actors and actresses. … I do not desire antagonism to exist between actors and managers, as in my opinion they are interdependent’. How true! 

Annual dinners, at homes, social occasions and lobbying

Hospitality and the AAA went together, providing opportunities for socialising, networking, relaxing and, importantly, advocacy.

A dinner held in Sydney to celebrate the association’s registration in July 1912 was addressed by Mr W.S. Percy, comedian, who reminded guests that actors and actresses would be in ‘poor plight’ if not for the bountiful columns in newspapers, describing and reviewing their performances. He ‘called upon the Press to report the birth of the Actors’ Association of Australia, so that future researchers would find in the Mitchell Library [that] it was a mighty and powerful body with a roll of half a million … so that future historians did not have to search beyond the “feature” columns of today’s newspapers’ [Sun (Sydney), 29 July 1912]. How prescient!

The AAA was hitting its stride, holding a second annual dinner in July 1913, Madge Titheradge providing the entertainment. The dinner tradition was to endure, along with ‘at homes’, tea parties and other social occasions. The AAA would not, however, participate in everything on offer, declining to be engaged with the Shakespeare Memorial Festival, to celebrate in April 1916 the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Members, however, were free to do so individually.

Bentley certainly was involved. He was president of the Shakespeare Society and a member of the committee for the Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial, which began meeting in 1912. A lavish ball was held and other activities which raised £500 [equivalent to $62,000 based on RBA inflation figures in 2019]. Ideas for the memorial were put forward, including a statue—but who knew what Shakespeare’s face looked like?—and Bentley’s grand idea—a Shakespeare memorial building with a Corinthian front, with a statue of Will Shakespeare in the foreground, and a theatre, classrooms, offices—a conservatorium of acting, where young Australians could be educated for a stage career. Guess where the new offices of the AAA would be? Some of the committee remarked it would be a daring thing to say they would erect a Shakespearean theatre. Eventually the idea, although it attracted some attention, was said to be too expensive.

Finally, it was agreed to build a memorial library, which was delayed by the First World War, then years of depression through the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, by 1925 the committee had raised £1,400 [equivalent to more than $173,000] which was handed to the Trustees of the Public Library to build a Shakespeare Memorial Library. The little-known Shakespeare Room in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, a tantalising gem memorialising the Bard and works by and about him, was not realised until the 1940s. The bust of Shakespeare housed in the Shakespeare Room was originally donated to the Australian Museum in 1857, transferred to the National Gallery of NSW in 1912, and finally given a home at the Library in 1955. The original committee would likely have been long gone, denied the pleasure of seeing their dreams realised.

At the AAA’s third annual dinner in 1914, honouring Julius Knight, president George Titheradge advised members never to forget they belonged to an honourable profession and that ‘dignity was the backbone of their standing in the community’ [Referee Sydney 25 February 1914]. He reiterated the principles of the AAA, based on dignity, unity and equity.

The AAA always needed to be perceptive about political issues which affected their profession. They networked astutely with politicians at their various events, social occasions and performances. This work became more obvious in 1917 when the AAA approached the acting premier of NSW about bogus theatre managers, in particular to seek coverage for touring companies who could be left abandoned mid-tour—as indeed Bentley and his company were in the 1890s in Auckland, when George Coppin’s Australian Theatrical Management Company collapsed.

Unionism versus dignity, unity and equity?

Registration of the AAA seemed to portend the death knell to the proposed actors’ union, amid suspicions about unionism and the influence of Trades Hall. But it was not so and quite some antagonism arose around the principles of the two groups. A meeting in September 1910, presided over by Reg Roberts, resulted in condemnation of the proposed registration of the actors’ union as the Conciliation and Arbitration Act did not include art as an industry. Moreover, said the AAA, the members of the union were not representative of the profession and the union was a retrograde move. The motion was carried [Telegraph (Sydney), 2 September 1912]. Despite the earlier motion, the AAA’s members denied any personal animosity to members of the proposed union, their objections being primarily based on legal issues.

The actors’ union would not quietly die. A multi-lateral council, named the Theatrical Industries Association, representing the Theatrical Employees Association, the Musicians Union, the Vaudeville Artists Association [sic], the Actors Union, the Supernummaries Union and the Billposters Union met in Her Majesty’s Theatre, coincidently at the same time that actors from the AAA were giving a matinee performance, supporting the Actors’ Benefit Fund and a General Theatrical and Pension Fund.

It was the judges of the High Court of Australia who made the decision about the Actors’ Union’s application for registration, taking into consideration objections lodged on behalf of J.C. Williamson Ltd, George Marlow Ltd, Hugh D. McIntosh, Brennan’s Amphitheatres Ltd, William Anderson, Allan Hamilton, Julius Grant, and Walter Bentley on behalf of the AAA, which by that time had 105 members. ‘Actors’ said Bentley ‘were incapable of joining or being concerned in any industrial dispute … art should be divorced from industry … it is not possible to standardise acting’ [The Sun (Sydney), 1 April 1913]. Asked if he was aware that Labor legislation encouraged union membership, Bentley, a one-time Labor candidate in Queensland, said ‘I have been sorry I ever wasted my time on the hustings’, a passing thought as he was to stand twice more in Sydney elections.

On consideration, the Court dismissed the application of the Actors’ Union, with costs to the union, a decisive defeat.

But again the debate around an actors’ union was not disappearing. In December 1915 the AAA called an open meeting to discuss the question of the union and the vaudeville association. They advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald inviting the profession to attend, proposing it might be more appropriate to form an actors’ equity association. The Australian Vaudeville Association joined in suggesting it would amalgamate with the new union. The meeting must have failed to reach a decision to the AAA’s liking. Bentley called a further meeting the next day, more private this time, in his studio.

The question of unionism did strike a chord with journalists and their comments likely annoyed members of the AAA, for at their next AGM in March 1916, they determined to exclude journalists. ‘Actors Act Alone’ said the headline, ‘Press Excluded’ [Sun (Sydney), 13 March 1916]. ‘I espy a Stranger’ exclaimed Bentley as his eyes lit upon a journalist from the Sun. Members then voted to exclude the press, although they were usually delighted to welcome them. Then they ‘espied’ another journalist from the Daily Telegraph. ‘He is an associate member’ said Bentley, and the journalist assured the meeting he was there as a member not a journalist and would not communicate anything he might hear to his paper. Yet the report in the Sun stated ‘the discussion the majority of the meeting did not wish the public to know had reference to a motion that the theatrical profession should form a trades union’! While it wasn’t the Daily Telegraph which ran with the news, it made a mockery of the assurances of ‘off the record’.

Was the AAA capitulating on its attitude to unionism? While the association continued to step gingerly around the union issue, it remained a persistent thorn in their side. So they determined to bring together theatre managers and the profession generally to define mutual points of interest. These efforts were successful. J.C. Williamson Ltd, George Marlow Ltd, and Bert Bailey, Grant and Duggan struck an agreement with the AAA, revising existing conditions, so that written contracts would be obligatory, a week’s work would be six nights and two matinees, extra matinees would be paid at one sixth of the week’s salary. In a 12-month contract, J.C. Williamson would guarantee 45 weeks salary; other management 40 weeks. Expenses when travelling by train would be considered. And if disputes arose they would be adjudicated by the theatre management in concert with one, two or three members of the Council of the AAA. The AAA was having a decidedly positive impact for the profession—and starting to look a little like a union!

Publication of a letter in the Daily Telegraph in late January 1917, claiming a meeting had been held for the purpose of amalgamating into one big union with actors, stage employees and musicians immediately elicited a letter to the editor from Bentley, stating that the council of the AAA, ‘the only representative body of actors and actresses in Australia, comprising … nearly all the influential members of the theatrical profession’ had not received any communication about such a subject.

Nevertheless, a year later the AAA took an important decision, to form one big association with employers and employees alike, confusingly retaining the same name, the Actors’ Association of Australia. It seems the concept of unionism was starting to infiltrate the AAA.

 

To be concluded in the next issue

Read 177 times Last modified on Saturday, 19 December 2020 13:17
Sue-Anne Wallace AM

Sue-Anne is an art historian whose doctoral research considered the liturgical theatres of the rock-cut churches in Cappadocia, Turkey. She has extensive experience in arts development and museums, with the Australia Council, National Gallery of Australia, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney and Queensland University of Technology Cultural Precinct. In the latter position, she was also the director of the Gardens Theatre Brisbane. She is currently researching late nineteenth and early twentieth century theatre in Australia with a focus on renowned Scottish actor Walter Bentley who toured in UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand from 1873, settling in Australia in 1909. Memorabilia of Walter Bentley’s is housed in the State Library of NSW and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Sydney.