Thursday, 02 September 2021

Betty Pounder: The centenary of a remarkable life (Part 1)

Written by

Betty PunderThe No, No, Nanette chorus girls wearing their Jantzen bathing suits, 1947. Betty Pounder is sixth from the left. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Having set up the ‘Betty Pounder, Sparkle Darlings’ Facebook group in 2013, KEVIN COXHEAD has gone on to write a biography of the influential and much loved Australian choreographer. To mark Betty’s centenary on 8 August 1921, Kevin has granted THA permission to publish excerpts from his forthcoming book.

‘I’m mad about dance. I wish I could start all over again.’

As the curtain warmers lowered to half and the Overture drew nearer to its conclusion, the atmosphere in the auditorium was one of excitement and anticipation. The audience leaned forward in their seats as the curtain warmers completely dimmed and the curtain rose on a small single storey, semi-detached house. Place: Kent Street, Richmond, Victoria. Time: Winter 1921.

The Theatre Gods were certainly smiling when Betty Mildred Pounder was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Carlton to Ballarat couple Joseph and Mildred Pounder on 8 August 1921. (I can almost hear the Theatre Gods saying as they looked down, ‘Let’s shake things up a bit down there!’) Little did her loving parents know that their precious baby girl would one day be one of the powerhouses of Australian theatre and one of the most loved personalities in the theatre world. Her father Joseph was born in July 1883 and died on 4 September 1954 in Heidelberg aged 71. Mildred Sainsbury was born on 21 June 1888 and died on 5 October 1964, also in Heidelberg, aged 76. They married in Ballarat in 1919. They would have one other child, a boy, George Joseph, who was born on 4 November 1923. Lying about his age in order to get into the army at the start of World War II, George would tragically be killed in action on 11 September 1943 in Papua New Guinea. He is buried in a war grave at the Lae War Cemetery in New Guinea.

Young Betty would attend the North Fitzroy Primary School and the North Fitzroy Secondary School.

‘My parents had no idea I’d end up in the theatre and nor did I. I just loved to dance.’

Due to Betty’s shyness, one of the Pounder’s neighbours suggested they take her to dancing lessons in the hope that it might bring her out of her shell and give her the confidence she lacked. And so at the age of four, little Betty was taken along to her first dance classes with May Denerio, one of three sisters who had danced with J.C. Williamson at various times, at the St. Luke’s Hall in North Fitzroy. Within minutes of entering the classroom she was shown how to point her toes and a pair of pointe shoes were put on her tiny feet. Fortunately, she had strong feet and legs and took to dancing like the proverbial duck to water. ‘Yes, I know today that would be a mortal sin, but she really was a very good teacher and I never had any problems with my feet as a dancer’, Betty would later recall. In a few short years she was even choreographing little competition dances for some of the students who were just a few years younger than herself, while Miss Denerio concentrated on the older dancers. Already young Betty was showing strength in her choreographic abilities. ‘I never thought anything of it. I just thought that was something everyone could do.’

‘I was always getting into trouble with the Stage Managers.’

The Denerio dancing school was one of the best in Melbourne and gave strong theatrical training but it really wasn’t equipped to train students in very strong classical ballet technique, so at 12 years of age, at Miss Denerio’s strong recommendation, Betty would commence ballet lessons with Eunice Weston who would later have a great association with the Borovansky Ballet Company, the country’s leading ballet company before the Australian Ballet Company was formed in 1962. Originally from England, Miss Weston arrived in Australia in 1927 and was the first fully qualified teacher of ballet, teaching the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus. Miss Weston felt so strongly about the wonderful groundwork that the Denerio sisters had given to Betty that she placed an article in the magazine, Table Talk, when they ran a story on Betty and her training with the Weston Ballet School. ‘There is no mention of the excellent work which has been done by Miss Denerio, Elizabeth’s teacher for eight years. You can understand that my work would have been harder, and her dancing less brilliant, had it not been for Miss Denerio’s early training. I would be very pleased if you would publish this letter to correct the impression that I was Elizabeth’s sole teacher.’

The only records of her dancing competition days seem to exist from the Royal South Street Competition records in Ballarat, although she certainly did a lot of inner-city competitions as well. On 19 October 1933, 12 year old Betty received Second place in the over 12s and Under 16s ‘Character Dance’ section, possibly for ‘Nell Gwynne’, with 82 points and on the same day she was given Third Prize in the over 12s and under 16s ‘Operatic Dance’ section with 89 points. An Honourable Mention for her Operatic Solo, 12-16 years with 79 points on 18 October 1934 and on the same day, Second Prize with 83 points for her Tapping Solo. The 19 October 1934 would bring Second Prize with 83 points. The Character Duo section on 17 October 1935 brought an Honourable Mention to Betty and Norma Stanbury with 69 points. On Thursday, 15 October 1936, Betty would win First Prize for the Open Age Character Story and Dance at the age of 15. Second Prize in the Operatic Dancing section with 88 points on 22 October 1936.Betty and Joy Travers got 85 points and Third Place for their 12 years and over Character/Demi-Character Dance on 21 October 1937. She won First Prize on October 22 in the 16 years and over for  her Operatic Ballet Solo with 90 points and the next day, 23 October, Betty would again win First Prize with 89 points in the 16 and over Demi-Character Dance. The rules were somewhat more relaxed back then at the South Street Competitions than they are today. Dancers with one or two professional shows under their belts were permitted to compete if there was a break in between engagements and they went back to classes, which was the case with Betty. She was performing at His Majesty’s in Melbourne while competing in Ballarat.

Betty would go on to win the highly prestigious ‘Table Talk Cup’ for the Most Outstanding Operatic Ballet Solo. The Cup would later change its title to ‘The Sun Cup’ when Table Talk folded and the Cup was taken over by The Sun newspaper. ‘The Sun Cup’ was ballet’s equivalent to ‘The Sun Aria’ in the operatic world. It is not clear at which event Betty won the Cup. It could have been won on 25 October 1937 with First Prize at the Ballarat South Street Competitions or at the Brunswick Competitions on 25 November 1937 with First Prize for her Champion Operatic Dance.

‘I’d go to the movies and steal Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance routines and try and do what I’d seen them do.’

Her growing interest and love of dance afforded her mother to take her to see White Horse Inn at His Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne to introduce her to live theatre when she was 13 years of age. As she and her mother climbed the stairs to the Upper Circle of the theatre, neither could possibly have imagined that in the not-too-distant future this would become her second home, and that, in time, everyone who worked in the Australian theatre world would love and respect her. How could either of them have possibly imagined that in time, young Betty would call this theatre her ‘spiritual home’ and comment in an interview that she spent more time in that theatre than in any other home she lived in? How could they have imagined that SHE would become the very beating heart of this theatre that she had entered for the first time? Nine years later Betty would be wearing those very same costumes in the 1943 revival of White Horse Inn which also starred Australian theatre legend, Strella Wilson. Decades later she would recall ‘as a very small child, my mother took me to see White Horse Inn and I was right up there in the Gods and I remember climbing the steps and looking at the stage. I had not seen anything like that before and I couldn’t believe those people were real. I remember saying to my mother, “They're not real!”, and she said, “They are!”, and I'm getting a bit emotional thinking about it ... and that was it. I was hooked from then on!’

Betty’s first professional engagement, when she was 16, was in the J.C. Williamson production O-Kay for Sound in 1937, a show about a small group of people producing a movie musical. She then appeared in Rose Marie later the same year. In August of 1938, Betty was dancing at the State Theatre in Melbourne, now the Forum Theatre, as part of the pre-movie entertainment with Bert Howell and His Orchestra.

It was through her studies with Eunice Weston that in 1938, aged 17, she would be granted the British Ballet Organisation Scholarship to study in London with Maestro Eduardo Espinosa for four months. Espinosa and his wife Eve Louise Kelland, Madam Kay as she was known professionally, held auditions for the scholarship at His Majesty’s Theatre and Betty and  Sydney girl Bettine Brown were the two lucky auditionees selected. She received the exciting news that she had won the scholarship on her 17th birthday. Miss Weston recalled, ‘I remember I drove out to her little home in North Fitzroy to find a party in progress when I got there. When I told Betty, the revelation proved too much for her. She flung herself on my shoulder and burst into tears.’ One hundred pounds was needed to be raised to cover her voyage to England. She had won a prize of 25 pounds in the competition for the most beautiful legs in Melbourne, which would go towards raising the money for the trip. An article in the Argus newspaper listed the donations that had been made for the young dancer’s travel luggage. Suitcases and trunks, an umbrella, shoes and handbags, clothing and lingerie, practice clothes were all carefully listed. In an article in the Argus shortly before she left, young Betty would write, ‘I am thrilled and so excited that I do not know whether I am coming or going, but I am not a bit scared. It is almost impossible for me to convey to the readers of the Argus my thanks for the opportunity of accepting one of the two first Australian scholarships of this nature. Miss Brown and I will appear in ballets in England and Scotland with the British Ballet Company. The scholarship is for four months training in England and after that we may stay for further engagements.’ And so on Tuesday, 6 September 1938, Betty Pounder and Bettine Brown left on the S.S. Strathaird for London. During her time in England, she would live with Espinosa and his wife, along with four other young dancers according to the census lists at the time. It must have been a dream to have been surrounded by other dancers in this incredibly artistic environment. Maestro Espinosa was also the Maître de Ballet for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Empire and Alhambra Theatres as well as theatres in New York, Paris and Berlin and photographs of Betty and Espinosa together clearly show mutual affection and respect.

At the start of World War II she joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and was entertaining the troops on the French battlefields in a troupe called ‘The Four Jackson Girls’ who were a backing act for George Formby. ‘I was happily dancing away near the Maginot Line. My father fought there 25 years before, and brought back a small stone as a souvenir. The censor wouldn’t let us say where we were, so I wrote, “Dad, I'm where you picked up the stone!” He replied, “Come back at once!!” ’ And so, an abrupt end came to Betty’s part in the war effort in France and she returned to England.

During her two years away she performed in a number of musical revues and a ballet with the British Ballet in between taking daily classes. On her return to London following the ENSA tour, she was part of the George Formby concert party , but the war would interfere with her plans for a career in London and she returned home to Australia. During this trip the ship on which she was travelling was attacked by German bombers.

‘I was lucky. I loved to dance and that’s all I wanted to do. How lucky was I that I could earn a living doing it?’

After arriving home, Betty was once again engaged by J.C. Williamson at Melbourne’s His Majesty’s Theatre to dance in their 1941 musical, Funny Side Up with Clem Dawe, Edna Luscombe, Eric Edgley, Lily Moore, and Marie Bremmer, all to become lifelong friends. ‘I came back to Australia and that’s when I started working with Williamson’s in musical comedy. There was no ballet company to join in those days and I had learned all styles of dancing so I could do whatever was required. I just loved to dance. I didn’t care what type of dancing. I worked hard because I was also happy when I was dancing.’ Thumbs Up with Ormonde Douglas, Miriam Lester, Don Nichol, Bobby Mack and Lily Moore would follow.

By now the family had moved to their second Melbourne home, this time on Helen Street, Northcote.

‘We would sit there on the stage in Harem costumes looking as sexy as a stick of celery. Sex hadn’t been invented then. You either had personality, or you didn’t!’

Now firmly part of the JCW family, Betty would be put into the chorus of The Girl Friend, the return seasons of the shows Katinka, Viktoria and Her Hussar, Rio Rita, The Merry Widow, The Maid of The Mountains. Then The Student Prince, Rose Marie as well as No No Nanette, The Dancing Years, and Follow the Girls followed, making more life-long friendships with Bettina Welch, and Joyce ‘Tikki’ Taylor, Gloria Lynch, Kitty Greenwood and so many others.

As well as this period being such a joyous time in Betty’s life with show after show coming along for her, it was also a time touched with great sadness. Betty’s beloved brother George was killed in action, aged 20 on 11 September 1943 between her engagements with White Horse Inn and Let’s Face It.

‘I was a bit of a giggler and was always being admonished by a number of Stage Managers.’

‘Pounder’. Just ‘Pounder’. By now Betty was known simply by her surname. She would later recall that there were a number of Bettys in the JCW chorus at that time, so they were often called by a nickname. Betty Pounder was simply called ‘Pounder’ or ‘Slogger Pounder’, because she worked the hardest. The name would stick for the rest of her life, even being mentioned in theatre programs. ‘Affectionately known as Pounder ...’ was practically always seen in her programme bios.

Annie Get Your Gun in 1947 would be a turning point in Pounder’s career. As a member of the chorus, she was quickly spotted by JCW’s Ballet Mistress, Hazel Meldrum (who had also been a dancer for Williamson’s from the time she was a child herself), for having a quick eye and memory and strong technique and was promoted to the position of her assistant and when featured dancer Beth Dean’s contract ran out and she returned to America, Pounder was given her featured role as The Riding Mistress. She would later recreate the original choreography for the 1952 revival as well as performing the role of The Riding Mistress once again.

‘His Majesty’s with its in-house set building and costume building departments … there was no place quite like it.’

In 1948 Williamson’s staged the first of their Italian Grand Opera seasons, and Betty was asked by the Tait brothers, who were the managers of Williamson’s, to act as Ballet Mistress on the ballets for Carmen, Aida, Manon, and La Traviata. ‘Once the operas were produced in one city, I would go on to the next one and pick up the dancers and children and train them ready for the opera company as they followed.’

 

To be continued

Read 44 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 September 2021
Kevin Coxhead

Kevin divides his time between restoring JCW costumes and writing for social media groups on theatre history, mostly on Betty Pounder and her life and career and The Firm itself. 'Part of my life mission is to try and keep our theatre history alive for as long as I can.'  

A former dancer for Williamson's, he has also worked as an accompanist for various Melbourne ballet schools and Lead Set Decorator for the television series, Neighbours. Kevin has run his own interior design business business for the past twenty-five years.