Wednesday, 01 December 2021

Betty Pounder: The centenary of a remarkable life (Part 2)

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My Fair Lady Act 1, Scene 10, The Promenade of the Embassy, from My Fair Lady, 1960, with David Oxley as Henry Higgins, Patricia Moore as Eliza Doolittle and chorus. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

KEVIN COXHEAD continues his tribute to Australian choreographer Betty Pounder who would have turned 100 on 8 August 1921. Read Part 1»

I was lucky ... I have a husband who encourages me to do what I love.’

POUNDERJOHN2DARKBetty and John Baines. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.1949 was a very significant year in Betty Pounder’s life. On 20 June, she and JCW orchestra member, saxophonist and clarinettist, John Ellis Baines, would marry at the family home which was now on Murray Road, East Preston. Betty and John, who was born 4 September 1905 in Adelaide, remained together until the end, both incredibly loving and supportive of everything they did. Pounder would say in an interview in 1988, I have a very good married life because my husband has allowed me free rein to do what I want to do.’ Although they didn't have children of their own, their adopted’ family was considerable. Pounder always regarded her dancers as her children. She also had the great pleasure of being Godmother to life-long friends, Gloria Lynch and Ormonde Douglas’s daughter Christine, who would go on to have a highly successful operatic career herself; to Dawn Spry and Graeme Bent’s daughter Wendy; and to John and Tikki Taylor’s son, Paul Newman. The early part of their married life was spent living in the Pounder family home, which Betty would acquire following the death of her mother. They would later move to a post-war home on Hill Street, Hawthorn.

On the closing night of the musical Camelot in Melbourne in 1964, a farewell party was held in the Penthouse of the 1930s Art Deco apartment building, ‘Stratton Heights’ on Alexandra Avenue, South Yarra. Glamorous actress Bettina Welch, who was playing the role of Morgan Le Fey in the show, was friends with the owner and was staying there during the run. Betty and John were invited to the party and when they saw the apartment with its incredible views across the Yarra River to the city, its wonderful rooftop garden, heated floors AND its secret room which was entered through a door behind the bar in the living room, they fell in love with it. Betty told the owner if she ever wanted to sell, she had to get in touch with them as they would love to buy it. Several years went by and due to the ill health of the husband of the woman who threw the party on that fateful night, she got in touch with Betty to let her know she needed to sell the apartment. The parties held at the apartment are legendary, including get-togethers with Betty’s chorus members in the 60s and 70s where she would get everyone up and say, ‘Tonight we’re going to learn The Totem Dance from Rose Marie, or The Military Tap from The Desert Song’, and she would teach everyone the numbers she had done 20 years earlier. The rest, as they say ...

I had to work with the dancers as well as discipline them and share a dressing room with them when I was Ballet Mistress and that was difficult. You need to retain your friends but also still do your job.’

In 1951 Betty was offered the position of Ballet Mistress by Australian Musical Productions Pty. Ltd. on the new and successful Australian musical The Highwayman, at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne, one of seven all-Australian musicals that Pounder would be involved in. She was also performing the role of The Riding Mistress in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Kiss Me Kate with Hayes Gordon and Joy Turpin in 1952 would be the last show in which Pounder would appear as a dancer. Maggie Fitzgibbon, Graeme Bent, Alec Kellaway, Robert Healey were also in the cast along with Betty Gribble, Audrey Davis, Kitty Greenwood, Jeanette Liddell in the chorus and who Pounder would cast in future shows herself. More responsibilities as Ballet Mistress came along and in 1953 she was given the official title of Dance Director on Call Me Madam which starred her friend Evie Hayes in the star role, along with Alec Kellaway, Graeme Bent, Coral Deague, Bobby Mack, Jill Perryman, who had been given the position of Miss Hayes’ understudy as well, Betty Gribble, Billie Fowler, Clive Hearne, Shirley Sunners, Dawn Spry, Kevan Johnston, and Garth Welch who would later go on to a highly successful career as a Principal with the Australian Ballet Company. Betty was also the company Ballet Mistress for Call Me Madam.

Everything was going wrong and no one knew what to do so I yelled out, “Blackout! Blackout! I got fined for screaming “Blackout in the middle of a performance.’

In 1954 Betty was asked to choreograph a production of The Chocolate Soldier at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne and back at Her Majesty’s, South Pacific and Paint Your Wagon were presented with Pounder as Ballet Mistress once more. Sadly Betty’s father Joseph died at the age of 76 during the rehearsal period of South Pacific. A revival of Viktoria and Her Hussar would finish off the year.

In 1955 J.C. Williamson launched its second Italian Grand Opera season with Pounder overseeing the ballets once again. 1956 saw Williamson’s ‘New Look’ Gilbert and Sullivan company, again with Pounder in charge of the dances. Can-Can was The Firm’s major musical comedy that year with Betty as Ballet Mistress. Jill Perryman and Kevan Johnston, William Newman, Graeme Bent, Alton Harvey, Robert Healey, John Newman, Ron Folkard, Kevin Foote, Joyce ‘Tikki’ Taylor, all JCW favourites, were featured cast members while Adele Jarrett, Valrene Tweedie, Noel Hardres were among the chorus. Can-Can would also see young Robina Beard make her professional debut as one of the dancers. William Orr borrowed Pounder from The Firm in 1956 to choreograph his pantomime, Alice In Wonderland for the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney, with Borovansky ballerina Kathleen Gorham in the title role. It was revived once again in 1958 and yet again in 1961 at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne. It was such a successful production that it was revived at the Sydney Tivoli Theatre in 1966 and finally at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre the year after.

It’s very hard to keep a colour in your eye, which is something I learned to do.’

1957 would be what Pounder herself would describe as ‘the highlight of my professional career up to that point’. Although officially still only in the position of Ballet Mistress, Sir Frank Tait entrusted her to fly to New York to bring back the original Bob Fosse choreography for the new hit musical, The Pajama Game. ‘It was my dream to go to Broadway so you can imagine my excitement when I was asked to go over and bring the show back here.’ She watched the show 12 times from out front, taking careful notes on every aspect of the involved choreography, along with notes on lighting cues, colours and fabrics for the costumes, scenery, and direction notes. She had assumed that she would be welcomed by the Broadway company with open arms and that they would take her backstage where they would teach her the routines. This was not to be the case. They gave no help at all. It was up to her to sit out front, watch the show and make her notes and reproduce it exactly as it was on their stage. She always felt that she owed it to the original choreographer of any show to reproduce their work as closely as she possibly could. She also auditioned many, many people for the lead roles but felt we had performers back home who were equally suited to the roles, and after discussions with Sir Frank, he agreed. An all-Australian cast was engaged, among them lifelong friends Toni Lamond, John Newman, Frank Sheldon, Tikki Taylor, Jill Perryman, Kevan Johnston, Robert Healey, Ralphine Sprague. On Pounder’s recommendation, rising star Jill Perryman was given the featured role of Mabel, a role she was actually too young for, but pulled off brilliantly!

Tikki Taylor would later say, Betty Pounder was always the reliable girl when she was so young, as well as having the best legs of any of us, and had a wonderful memory, and that is why she became assistant ballet mistress. Right from the word go, she was the intelligent one in the group. But also, if anyone was down or had any problems, Pounder was always the one they would go to.’

I would sit there in the dark and make rough notes in a little book and then do the routines in my hotel room and go back the next night and catch what I had missed.’

The Independent Theatre in Sydney borrowed her talents for their 1957 Australian show, Nex’ Town, which was set in a sideshow. J.C. Williamson stalwarts Minnie Love and Victor Hough were in the cast, Vic having been in the chorus of shows like No, No, Nanette, Rose Marie, Follow the Girls and Annie Get Your Gun with Betty when she was also a chorus member.

Pounder would be taking regular trips to New York to select shows as possible JCW productions until they folded in 1976, and as well as notating the dance routines for the shows which The Firm finally settled on, on her recommendations, she would be making detailed notes on the costumes, colours and fabrics, the sets, the lighting designs and cues, publicity etc. As Nancye Hayes pointed out, ‘Not only was Pounder writing all the choreography down, she was reproducing what she saw back at The Maj ... the other way around to what she was looking at!!’ John Newman said, ‘She devised her own shorthand of dance. She would pay for her seat and sit up the back somewhere with her little notebook and write the steps down. She noted the lighting plot, the colours and details of the costumes and everything. She knew the whole show. Perhaps not officially, but practically, she produced the show.’

The Australian musical Lola Montez was premiered by the Union Theatre Repertory Company in association with the Australian Elizabethan Trust at the Union Theatre at Melbourne University, opening on 19 February 1958. Later in the year the Trust presented a reworked, rescored, redesigned, recast and re-choreographed version of Lola Montez at Her Majesty’s in Brisbane (1 October 1958) and at the Elizabethan Theatre in Sydney (25 October 1958). For this new production Pounder was appointed assistant choreographer to George Carden, ‘courtesy of J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd.’.

‘I'd like to see that show revived. It really didn’t get the chance it deserved the first time around. Unlike Broadway where shows have tryout seasons, everything here opens cold.’ Mary Preston (replacing Justine Rettick who created the role of Lola in Melbourne), Frank Wilson, Jane Martin, who would go on to play Eliza Doolittle in the second company of My Fair Lady, Bruce Barry, Fred Patterson were all in the cast. Sadly the reworked version was never staged in Melbourne.

Damn Yankees also had the Betty Pounder stamp with it played in Melbourne and Sydney during 1958.

Fred Astaire and the rest of them couldn’t get over the youth and beauty and energy that we have out here.’ (My Fair Lady)

My Fair Lady hit Australia in 1959 and was the biggest show to come to our shores since Annie Get Your Gun in 1947. The hype was huge and of course, Williamson’s wanted Pounder to reproduce the original Hanya Holm choreography, but the American producers would not have any of that. Pat Drylie, who was Dance Captain on the original 1956 Broadway production and Holm’s assistant, would be sent over to reproduce it here, along with Sam Liff who would reproduce Moss Hart’s direction, Liff having been Stage Director on the Broadway production. Typical of Pounder’s way, she happily stepped aside for the very serious and non-smiling Ms Drylie, but was always on hand to teach any of the dancers steps they were having trouble with. She was there in the background, but her presence was felt by all and the dancers knew they could go to her. Once the American team had gone back home, Pounder put her own stamp on the choreography, making small but improved changes. This would be something she would always do. Small changes but for the better of the overall look of the routines. She was listed in the program as ‘Ballet Mistress’. For the next seasons in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne’s return season and the New Zealand and South African runs, the program credits read, ‘Original Choreography and Musical Numbers staged by HANYA HOLM. Adapted by PAT DRYLIE. Choreography for the Brisbane Production Staged by BETTY POUNDER.’

A special treat came to Betty and the cast one night in Melbourne when Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Gregory Peck attended a performance and met everyone on the stage of Her Majesty’s at the end of the show during their time in town filming the movie, On The Beach. The original run of My Fair Lady was the biggest show in Australian Box Office history until the first season of The Phantom of The Opera in 1990.

Grab Me a Gondola also had Pounder as choreographer in the same year with favourites, Sheila Bradley, Tikki Taylor, John Newman, Robert Healey, Letty Craydon and Bill French. There was also a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was presented by Williamson’s in association with The Royal Shakespeare Company which Betty would work on.

ATN-Channel 7 borrowed Pounder for their televised 75 minute musical comedy presentation, Pardon Miss Westcott, with music, lyric and book team Peter Stannard, Peter Benjamin and Alan Burke, who also wrote the musical Lola Montez. The amount of work done in one year was proving just how incredibly hard working Betty was, not only for J.C. Williamson’s but also for other companies who they loaned her to.

The Union Theatre Repertory Company engaged Pounder to choreograph their review, Look Who’s Here in 1960. Anne Fraser did the sets and costumes, George Ogilvy directed while Wendy Pomroy was Musical Director. Fred Parslow, Joan Harris, Mary Hardy, Bob Hornery and Marion Edward were all in the cast.

 

To be continued

Read 733 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 June 2022
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.