Tuesday, 01 March 2022

Betty Pounder: The centenary of a remarkable life (Part 3)

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SUCCEEDparisLadies’ chorus in Act 1 of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1963. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Part 3 of KEVIN COXHEAD’s tribute to the legendary Betty Pounder focusses on the years 1961 to 1967, during which time she cemented her position as JCW’s offical choreographer. Read Part 1»Read Part 2»

‘I was very proud of The Sentimental Bloke because it was Australian.’

In 1961, J.C. Williamson staged four G&S operettas, The Mikado, The Gondoliers and the double bill of Trial by Jury and The Pirates of Penzance, in honour of the centenary of W.S. Gilbert’s death. Pounder would choreograph all four with her usual vigour and to critical acclaim. This season would also reopen the newly refurbished Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide, the opening operetta being The Mikado. Anne Fraser designed lavish new settings and costumes for the four productions.

1961 also saw Pounder choreograph Irma La Douce and the Australian musical The Sentimental Bloke, both starting their Australian seasons at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne. For The Bloke, Pounder had to learn how to play Two-Up for one of the dance numbers and it featured a stellar Australian cast which included Gloria Dawn, Frank Ward, Letty Craydon, Edwin Ride, Ron Shand, Maggi Gray, Alton Harvey, Jeanne Battye, Frank Cleary, Tom Fairlie, Judith Roberts and Robina Beard.

Pounder was now well and truly JCW’s official Choreographer and uncredited casting director. 1961 had Bye Bye Birdie, with young Geraldene Morrow in the role of Kim and Kevan Johnston as Conrad Birdie. Oliver!, also in 1961. Carnival, and a short revival of The Desert Song came along in 1962.

BLOKE4 2 Copy‘Sunday Arvo’ scene from The Sentimental Bloke, 1961. Her Majesty’s Theatre collection, Melbourne.

1963 brought Sail Away and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying with largely an American cast in the principal roles. This was a surprising step back in pushing for an all-Australian cast that Pajama Game succeeded so well with only a few years before. However, as the Americans contracts ran out and they returned home, they were replaced with Australians, most notably the replacement of Betty McGuire as Hedy La Rue with Nancye Hayes. Pounder had been watching Nancye closely and the role of Hedy would be a teaser of bigger things to come. A superb support cast of locals once again showcased our Australian talents. Reg Gorman, Ralphine Sprague, Robert Healey, Fred Paterson, Audrey Davis, Laurel Veitch, Judith Roberts, Anne Peterson, Patricia Roberts, Jeanette Delmodes, Danny Davey, Keith Little, Vlado Juras, Brent Verdon, Ron Engleton among them. Succeed also introduced Betty Pounder find Lesley Baker to the professional stage in her first principal role.

Williamson’s also mounted a new revival of The Student Prince in the same year which was designed by Anne Fraser.

CAMELOTBALLET‘The Insect Ballet’ from Camelot, 1963 Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

1963 continued to be a very important year in Pounder’s career. JCW staged the new, big musical Camelot, which would be designed by young Australian, and life friend, John Truscott. She would adapt Hanya Holm’s Broadway choreography and was also given the opportunity to create a new ballet for the show, not seen anywhere else in the world, ‘The Insect Ballet’ which was set on a huge spider’s web. The wardrobe department at the back of Her Majesty’s Theatre had a massive job ahead of them with Truscott’s lavish designs, as did the scenic department and props department headed by Eric Richards who was in charge of the Armoury plus bringing Trustcott’s design of four magnificent horses to life for the jousting scene. It would be more lavish and expensive than the Broadway production.

‘We choreographers work very hard to research anything that has meaning.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was Williamson’s big show for 1964, with Jack Collins, Bob Hornery, Will Mahoney and Jack Gardner in the leads along with Richard Walker who had made many visits to Australia with the D’Oyly Carte G&S Opera Company and who had played the role of Alfred P. Doolittle for the full five year run of My Fair Lady. Forum also made very good use of the talents of Geraldene Morrow, proving her to be a JCW favourite. Judith Roberts, Jillian Hough, Buster Skeggs, Rae Rondell and twins Janice and Lynette Field added glamour to the show as The Courtesans.

As well as working on Forum in ’64, Betty was asked by Peggy Van Praagh of The Australian Ballet Company to create a one act ballet for their Fonteyn-Nureyev Season. Pounder, along with her demanding work as choreographer for Williamson’s, was also The Australian Ballet School’s jazz teacher, with Robina Beard as her assistant. The ballet would be called Jazz Spectrum and had original music by Les Patching and costume and set designs by John Truscott. Betty’s concept for the ballet was to have the set design as a prism and the dancers would represent the colours of light that refracted through it. The bottom section of Truscott’s set had large panels of Perspex which would revolve as the dancers made their entrances and exits but this, unfortunately, proved to be quite difficult in practice and these panels had to be removed. It had its official opening at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide on 26 March 1964. ‘That was the first time the company had done anything really modern. And not only was it modern, but it was also in the jazz idiom. The dancers were great, and it was a very happy time for me because I loved working with those dancers. As you may have gathered, dancers are my special people. I just love them.’ said Pounder of her time working on the ballet. The evening was a Triple Bill with Jazz Spectrum being the opening ballet, the second part being a series of Divertissements, featuring guest dancers who included Nureyev, and Principals of The Australian Ballet Company. The final part of the evening was a new production of Aurora’s Wedding, Act 3 from The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky with Petipa’s choreography revised by Dame Peggy Van Praagh herself. The Sydney season opened at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown on 18 April 1964 and the Melbourne season at the Palais Theatre on 5 May of the same year with a return season to Sydney on 28 August. There was a return season to Adelaide, once again at Her Majesty’s, on 18 February 1965. The ballets performed along with Jazz Spectrum for the Sydney, Melbourne and return runs were This Display with music by Malcolm Williamson and choreography by Sir Robert Helpmann, and Giselle.

It was during preparations for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that Betty’s mother, Mildred, would pass away on 5 October, aged 76.

DOLLYNEW 2Carole Cook and chorus performing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ in Hello, Dolly! Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

‘We would rehearse into the night until the early hours of the morning but Actor’s Equity put a stop to all that. Mister E.J. [Tait] would come around with sandwiches and coffee.

In 1965, JCW produced their Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company season. This was the contemporary equivalent to the Melba-Williamson seasons. The operas which Sutherland sang in during this season were Lucia Di Lammermoor, La Traviata, Semiramide, La Sonnambula and Faust. The other two operas presented in the season were Eugene Onegin and L’Elisir d’Amore. Pounder did the choreography for all of the operas and assisted Norman Ayrton with the direction of five of the seven operas and Martin Scheepers who directed the other two. The eight week tour was an absolute triumph on every level. So enormous was the season that some of the scenery and costumes needed to be farmed out to the Elizabethan Trust’s costume and scenic department.

The same year had the big musical Hello, Dolly! with popular American star Carole Cook in the title role and Aussies Jill Perryman, Tikki Taylor, Brian Hannan, Bruce Barry in featured roles while Nancye Hayes, Mary Murphy, Laurel Veitch, Anne Peterson, Danny Davey, Audrey Davis, Gail Esler, Renalda Green, Colin Doyle, Wayne Godfrey, Brendan Tobin, Greg Radford and Jody Hall were among Pounder’s regular chorus members. She watched the Broadway production 22 consecutive times to notate and memorise Gower Champion’s original choreography and the details of the show’s costume and set designs, lighting plots and direction moves. Jill Perryman would be understudy to Carole Cook, as she had been for Evie Hayes in Call Me Madam.

This same year, 1965, Pounder would also choreograph the show, Is Australia Really Necessary? at the Tivoli Theatre. The cast included Mark McManus, Miriam Karlin, Sue Walker, Alton Harvey and Red Moore.

Another busy year, 1966, saw Jill Perryman step into a lead role for the first time in Funny Girl. Jill had worked her way up the ranks with Pounder putting her in support roles in Paint Your Wagon, Can-Can, understudying Evie Hayes in Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, and Hello, Dolly!. John McCallum, Pounder and director Fred Hebert had auditioned many, many girls in the States but kept coming back to their first choice, Jill. ‘And if anyone has star quality, Betty would say years later, ‘it’s Jill. That opening night in Sydney was one of the most exciting nights in the theatre. Funny Girl also had original choreography by Pounder, rather than routines reproduced from the Broadway original. It was her decision to put the chorus in gold lame army uniforms for the musical number Rat-A-Tat-Tatrather than the khaki ones that the Broadway company wore, as she felt Act 2 of the show lacked glamour. Pounder touches were generally seen in shows that originated in New York or London. Three of the numbers from Funny Girl also featured on the B.P. Super Show, featuring Jill Perryman, Bruce Barry, Neville Burns, Tessa Mallos and the Chorus. One of the very rare times a JCW musical was captured on film. While Funny Girl was playing at Her Majesty’s, over the road at the Comedy Theatre in the same year, Pounder’s work was represented in The Boys From Syracuse which starred Hazel Phillips and Alton Harvey and an array of Betty Pounder protégés including Nancye Hayes, Brian Hannan, and Buster Skeggs, Rod Dunbar, Bob Murphy, Laurel Veitch and Jeanette Delmodes.

Betty also acted as assistant to Director and Choreographer George Carden on The Great Waltz. Yet another highly busy year.

‘Talk about living in the theatre. There was no other world for me.

Aussie theatre lightning would strike again the following year with Sweet Charity in 1967. Again, Pounder insisted we had the perfect Charity Hope Valentine, right here in Australia and again, she was right. After featured roles in How To Succeed and Hello, Dolly!, Pounder and director Fred Hebert felt the 23 year old Nancye Hayes had all the qualities that were perfect for the role. History DOES repeat itself. ‘Nancye had auditioned for Bye Bye Birdie but they told her she was too old. She wasn’t too old, she was just too tall, Betty would recall. ‘But when Charity came along, I knew she was just right for the role. Pounder would recreate Bob Fosse’s sensational choreography, again making slight improvements. ‘One of the wonderful things about working continually with one management like Williamson’s, was that if you noticed someone with talent, you found something for them to do. That happened with Jill Perryman. When Funny Girl was seen in New York, there was no doubt that Jill was the one to play it here. And the same with Nancye Hayes, who had come up the ranks. Sweet Charity was certainly made for Nancye. And who could have been better than Gloria Dawn in Gypsy, which was one of my favourite shows? Half A Sixpence at the Comedy in the same year had Pounder creating her own original and highly energetic choreography once again. Another all Australian cast was headed by Mark McManus, stage veteran Max Oldaker, Patsy King, Gladys Anderson and Sylvia Kellaway and Howard Vernon were well supported by young Carole Walker, Brian Hannan, John Rickard, Geoffrey Veitch, Elaine Plumb, Alan Babbage with Mary Murphy, Carol Mains, Michael White, Chris Sheil and David Ravenswood among the ensemble.

Sweet Charity would come up again for Pounder in 1967, with the invitation to stage the Amsterdam production. Originally they were going to stage the London version but, ‘Someone had seen our production, which Fred Hebert directed and I did the choreography for and they said to the owners of the show, “The Australian one is much better, why don't you get their director and choreographer?” So I had a couple of months in Amsterdam, which was great.’

Pounder choreographed the first production of Man of La Mancha at the Comedy Theatre with Charles West, Suzanne Steele and Robert Healey heading the cast. General consensus is that the opening night was one of the most electric in living memory! The show would be repeated at the Comedy one year later with mostly the same cast.

‘There isn’t the continuity today that we had in the J.C. Williamson days.

As well as choreographing practically every musical for J.C. Williamson and being loaned out occasionally to other theatre companies, Betty was also giving her famous jazz classes and teaching the ‘Luigi Method’ of exercises in ‘The Sunroom’ which was above the scenery workshop at the back of Her Majesty’s in Melbourne across Cohan Place. The Sunroom is often compared with the lyrics of the song from A Chorus Line, ‘At the Ballet’, ‘Up the steep and very narrow stairway’, for it was, indeed, at the top of a very long and, what seemed, very rickety set of stairs. A rehearsal room that was freezing cold in Winter and stifling hot in Summer. Dancers, actors, and people in the business who simply wanted to do her classes to get in touch with their bodies held them in reverence. Luigi was a Hollywood dancer who was involved in a car accident and was told he would never dance or walk again. He proved the experts wrong and with determination devised his own style of warm up exercises as part of his therapy, later opening a dance studio in New York to teach this method to performers like Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, James Dean, Elliott Gould, Gwen Vernon and Bob Fosse, Shirley MacLaine. The list goes on and on and on. Pounder would do class with him every time she went to New York to view potential shows for The Firm, bringing his teachings back to Australia. These stunning photos were taken by Lawrence Winder in 1970 during the Promises, Promises season.

 

 

To be continued

Read 295 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.