Kevin Coxhead

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.

Promises bannerScene from Promises, Promises, which had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in August 1970

During the 1970s and beyond Betty Pounder moved successfully from choreography to administration, with stints in television and music hall. KEVIN COXHEAD concludes his personal tribute to a much loved woman of the theatre. Read Part 1»Read Part 2» |  Read Part 3»

‘I was a little daunted at the thought of having to teach Cyd Charisse anything, but I just had to do it. It really did set me back a couple of paces!’

From 1967 to 1976 Betty would reproduce the original choreography, adapt original choreography and devise her own choreography for an incredibly wide variety of musicals. 1967’s Fiddler on the Roof, starring Hayes Gordon as Tevye, Mame in 1968 with American Gaylea Byrne in the title role. It was Australians Sheila Bradley and Mary Hardy who absolutely stole the show as Vera Charles and Agnes Gooch, however. I Do, I Do with American Stephen Douglas and Jill Perryman proving yet again to be a favourite with Australian audiences. Although not directly involved with Canterbury Tales in 1969, Betty was certainly present to help out in any area of production as always. She would also work on the second season in 1970 and choreograph Promises, Promises, and stage revivals of My Fair Lady, and Man of La Mancha. 1776 proved unpopular with the Australian general public although it had a stellar cast which included Lewis Fiander, Bruce Barry, Rod McLennan, Jon Sydney, James Smilie, Gordon McDougall, Alwyn Leckie and Geraldene Morrow. Although not directly involved in the show Charlie Girl, Betty was certainly ‘present’ during the rehearsal and pre-production period, taking young Johnny Farnham, as he was then known, under her wing to teach him his dance routines.

No No Nanette in 1972 was a great success with its 1920s brilliantly colourful costumes and settings, flapper feel and innocence; a period that was sweeping the country at the time. Cyd Charisse was brought in to replace Betty Grable who became very ill before her contract started. Lacking strong vocal abilities, Musical Director Brian Buggy added two numbers just for her. ‘Cyd hated to tap. She felt it would ruin her ankles and would only tap for half an hour a day, and then off would come the tap shoes. She threw them at me on her final day and I have them to this day. We became good friends’, Pounder would later say. At the end of her contract she was replaced by Yvonne De Carlo. ‘Yvonne was more of a hoofer and she took to the Happy Tap like a duck to water. She was the exact opposite to Cyd, where Cyd was so elegant, Yvonne was a real belter but also a lovely lady.’ Paul Wallace, who originated the role of Tulsa in the Broadway production and movie adaptation of Gypsy was also in the show, later replaced by Kevan Johnston. Bobby Limb, Rosie Sturgess, Jill Perryman, who won an Eric Award for her performance, Jon Sidney, Rosalie Howard were perfectly cast as were Pamela Gibbons, Anne Grigg and Geraldine Turner whose performance launched her career.

A Little Night Music showed just how incredibly versatile Betty could be, reproducing and adapting Patricia Birch’s original choreography with its elegant waltzes and period charm. Night Music once again demonstrated Betty’s eye for the perfect cast. Glamorous Finnish actress Taina Elg and English comedienne Anna Russell were perfect in their roles as were the Australian members of the cast. JCW favourites Jill Perryman, Bruce Barry and David Gilchrist completed the main principals while new-comers Anne Grigg and Geraldine Turner returned to The Firm after the successes in No No Nanette proving Betty’s ability to store people in her mind for just the right role for them later on. Geraldine’s ‘The Miller’s Son’ being one of the show’s high points. The support cast and five Lieder singers completed what was surely a perfect night of theatre. Sadly the show proved too sophisticated for the Australian audience who weren’t quite used to Stephen Sondheim’s style yet.

Also in 1974 Channel 7 asked Betty to produce and choreograph the musical numbers for their Gershwin television special at their Tele-theatre in the old Fitzroy Regent Theatre. A number of JCW chorus favourites were dancers in this show including Laurel Veitch, Jill Hough, Jenny Tew, Carole Rogers, Barbara Warren-Smith, Greg Sims with Ian Turpie as the lead singer. Great friend Anne Fraser was the designer. 1973 also had Pounder directing as well as choreographing the shows Salad Days and Godspell and was assistant to Director and Choreographer, Sammy Bayes on Two Gentlemen of Verona and Pippin. Next came Irene in 1974, launching Julie Anthony to stardom as she had done with Jill Perryman and Nancye Hayes. Old friend Noel Ferrier, Robert Coleman, Doreen Warburton, Joan Brockenshire and Pamela Gibbons, later replaced by Nancye Hayes, and veteran performer Connie Hobbs proved Betty’s impeccable casting sense yet again.

Gypsy would follow in 1975 with Gloria Dawn being given the coveted role of Madam Rose, later sharing it with Toni Lamond due to Gloria's declining health. Graham Rouse as Herbie, Sue Walker as Louise/Gypsy, Pamela Stephenson completed the principal roles while Jack Webster was given the plum featured dancer role of Tulsa. 1975 would also see Betty choreographing a musical number for the Crawford Productions movie of the television series, The Box with Graham Kennedy in the centre spot in song and dance for an imaginary television variety show.

With 1976 came The Wiz, seeing Pounder again performing the dual role of Director and Choreographer. A revival of Man Of La Mancha came next with her also directing and choreographing. ‘I was to have done the choreography for the London production of Irene, and was all set to go when they decided to revive Man of La Mancha here, so I had to stay and do that. I was disappointed. I would have liked to have gone to London.’ This was to be the final production for J.C. Williamson in its original form after having been in operation for 102 years and having gained the reputation as the largest and greatest theatrical company in the world. With the closure of The Firm, so came the closure of the longest chapter in Pounder's working life. Kenn Brodziak would take over The Firm and rename it J.C. Williamson Productions and Pounder was hired on a contractual basis for their first venture, the much troubled More Canterbury Tales and also for 1978’s Annie for which she is credited as ‘Assistant to Director’, who was George Martin.

‘Even the people from New York and London agreed that the productions done here were as good as what was done overseas.’

As well as working as Ballet Mistress and later Choreographer on most of the musicals staged by Williamson’s from the mid-40s to the mid-70s, Pounder was also their official Casting Director for many, many years, the first mention of this in a theatre program being in 1967 for Sweet Charity. ‘I also did a lot of casting for plays and got them into rehearsals. I worked with two of the greatest British actors, Sir Michael Redgrave and Sir Ralph Richardson. I remember watching Michael Redgrave rehearse A Voyage Around My Father. I had to go to London to learn it; all the moves for the actors and come back and block in the Australians in the cast so when the English Director arrived, they knew exactly what to do. Both those great actors were wonderful people and so professional.’

With The Firm having sold its theatres in 1976, Pounder was basically out of a job. ‘I squatted in my office at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I was still giving classes in the rehearsal room. No one asked me to go or said I must go, and I just squatted there. I don’t know why I stayed—I was not being paid. The new management engaged me on a show-to-show basis to assist with some of their shows like Annie and More Canterbury Tales.

‘The realism of productions today has taken away a lot of that lovely magic that people come to see.’

1977 and 1978 saw the world of opera and Pounder join forces once again when she directed critically acclaimed productions of La Belle Helene and Orpheus in the Underworld for the Victoria State Opera at the Princess Theatre. Glowing reviews for both operas came thick and fast with one critic writing of La Belle Helene: ‘For all-round excellence the performance should take some beating. The whole presentation had snap and the sort of clock-work precision that producers dream about. Director Betty Pounder no doubt is resting comfortably on a bed of laurels.’ As well as working with the Victoria State Opera, Betty also staged The Gondoliers in a joint production for the West Australian Opera Company and Channel 7 in 1978 at the Perth Entertainment Centre.

Betty was also choreographing shows for The Naughty Nineties Music Hall in Hawthorn from around the time period of 1978 to 1981, occasionally reproducing her own routines from JCW shows.

‘I’ve really had a marvellous experience in the theatre and I doubt if anyone will have that opportunity again.’

The latest smash hit musical on Broadway was A Chorus Line and Pounder was sent to notate the show and bring it back in 1978. She was at all the auditions, taking the hopefuls through their paces with the choreography for the show. Very sadly that was about as far as things got. The Americans would continue the job without Pounder being on board. This was surely one of the hardest and toughest blows in her working life. ‘I helped with the auditions in Melbourne and Sydney and I really would love to have been more involved in it, because it was a show that was so close to my own life. I remember the day it opened in Sydney and I was in Melbourne, and I really felt that my career had come to an end, that there would not be anything for me because they had started bringing people here from overseas to stage the shows. That day I sat in the Botanic Gardens under a tree and watched the leaves fall and I thought, “That is like my life. The leaves are falling.” I think that was my lowest moment. It was a show that was so much a part of my life and it was not to be. But I eventually got over that and have had a very interesting life since.’

The Aussie farce, The Ripper Show in 1979 had Pounder act as choreographer at The Playbox Theatre. The cast included Evelyn Krape, John O’May, John Paramor and Deidre Rubenstein.

‘Now I’m with another group of people who are just as exciting and fun to be with and I think myself very fortunate.’

Crawford Productions was the next ‘adventure’ for Pounder as their Casting Director, and after that she would work for the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, arranging the summer concert series at the Myer Music Bowl. She would also arrange Dance Expo, Weekends of Dance and Let’s Dance ’84. In 1985 Betty was asked to act as ‘Advisor’ on the new musical/rock opera MacBeth, A Contemporary Rock Opera at The Victorian Art Centre.

Turning 65 in 1986 meant she could no longer be a full-time government employee. She was still, however, a consultant for the Ministry and one of the activities she arranged was what she called the ‘Theatre Walks’ for parties of school children. ‘I take them backstage at all the theatres and explain what theatre is all about. What the proscenium arch is, about the flies and counterweights.’ She would take the children to Her Majesty’s, the Comedy and Princess Theatres, to the Salvation Army headquarters which was a music hall, to Tikki and John’s where they would be shown the curtains and sets and lights and be given a rundown on what the venue was and how it all worked. From there they would all walk to the Athenaeum Theatre and end up at the Arts Centre where Pounder would show them the three theatres. Being able to educate and work with children, Betty was in her element.

The Morning Melodies series for the Victorian Arts Centre was something Pounder worked on part-time from the time of its inception in 1985. It was Pounder’s and Victorian Arts Centre producer Sandy Graham’s idea to start them to make use of the Melbourne Concert Hall that was sitting doing nothing on Mondays. ‘I oversee the productions in the way a producer would. Engaging the artists and seeing that everything is right—lighting, sound etc. The shows last for one hour, from 11.30am to 12.30pm. They are happy shows with good music and tunes that people like to hear. It’s not all nostalgia by any means, but it is good quality entertainment. Suzanne Steele and June Bronhill were favourites.’ The Melbourne Show Band, Jill Perryman, Julie Anthony, Simon Gallaher, Chelsea Brown, Dennis Walter, Barry Crocker and The Kevin Hocking Band were all regular Morning Melodies performers. Evening productions were also presented such as the one which was titled Puttin’ On The Ritz which featured The Ritz Company; Martin Croft, Jackie Rees and Gary Young,  Simon Gallaher and Jackie Love.

‘We were all so interested in the theatre and what had gone before us and the history of Australian theatre.’

October of 1980 brought a wonderful and much deserved surprise to Pounder. As she stepped out of a car to get to what she thought was a meeting, she was approached by a beaming Roger Climpson who was holding a large red leather covered book. To her surprise he spoke those famous words, ‘Betty Pounder, THIS Is Your Life!’ Fast forward to the Channel 9 Studios in Richmond where a fully sequined, floor-length dress designed and made for her by long-time friend and JCW chorus member and later wardrobe master, Robert ‘Bridie’ Murphy, was waiting for her. Gold, bronze, silver, and orange sequins glistened as she walked onto the This Is Your Life set where an audience of friends and associates met her with applause and a standing ovation. Among the surprise guests who came out to speak of their friendship with her were Jill Perryman, Edna Edgley, Toni Lamond, Nancye Hayes, John Newman and Tikki Taylor, Stuart Wagstaff and Bunty Turner, Hayes Gordon, Bill Newman, Lady Viola Tait, Danny Davey, Evie Hayes, Johnny Ladd, Queenie Ashton, Wendy Blacklock, Dame Peggy van Praagh, Kevin Miller, John Mascetti, Phyllis Kennedy and Tommy Tycho. A host of family and friends who were in the audience included her aunt, Dora Sainsbury and cousin Jean; Brian and Linden Buggy, Laurel Veitch, Kevan Johnston, Geraldine Turner, Barry Kitcher, Alton Harvey, Albert Arlen, and Peter Condon.

‘I come alive when I’m dancing. I love it. It’s my hobby as well as my job.’

Betty Pounder was honoured for her vast contribution to the Australian theatre world in a number of other ways as well.

On 30 March 1983, she was awarded the Order of Australia for services to the theatre. An afternoon tea to celebrate the award was held on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. Her second home! Lady Viola Tait, Tikki Taylor and John Newman, Nancye Hayes, Dawn Spry and Graeme Bent, Sue Nattrass and John Truscott were among those there that day, along with her beloved John, of course. A Footlighter Award from the Footlighters’ Club came next. She was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greenroom Awards Association in 1987, the award being presented to her by Lady Viola Tait at the Victorian Arts Centre. Both Pounder and Lady Tait were involved in the initial steering committee, foundation and executive committees. The GRAA also has the Betty Pounder Award for Best Original Choreography. ‘The Betty Pounder Studio’ was at the back of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Quay Street, Sydney, consisting of two large rehearsal studios and a large Green Room. It was demolished in 2001 along with Her Majesty’s to make way for an apartment block. In June 1991, an exhibition in Betty’s memory opened at the Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Museum, curated by Frank Van Straten titled ‘Pounder! A Great Lady of Australian Theatre’. Finally one of the function rooms in the Dress Circle Foyer at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne was named ‘The Betty Pounder Room’ in her honour, although it’s had a name change since its redecoration in 2019.

In 1985, Betty was appointed Associate Director to Lindy Hume on the return season of the combined Victoria State Opera/Victorian Arts Centre/Elizabethan Trust production of The Pirates of Penzance. It was presented at the Melbourne Concert Hall, as Hamer Hall was then known, and was a huge hit. Simon Gallaher and Jon English reprising their incredibly successful roles.

The last production Pounder worked on was My Fair Lady at the Victorian Arts Centre for the Victoria State Opera in 1988 with old friends June Bronhill, Lewis Fiander, Noel Ferrier, Madge Ryan and Warren Mitchell, Simon Gallagher, Faye Donaldson, in the leading roles. Pounder would recreate her original choreography from the 1959 production, although some changes were necessary to suit the new set and costume designs.

Just a few weeks before her death, Betty worked on the Morning Melodies Memorial for Suzanne Steele at the Victorian Arts Centre.

‘I didn’t really see myself as a star which, of course, I wasn’t. I just loved to dance.’

The Australian theatre world, and the lives of those who were close to her, were robbed of an extraordinary person on Friday 7 December 1990. The lights of theatres of Melbourne were dimmed to honour the passing of one of the true great souls of the Australian entertainment business. Theatre God, mentor and inspiration to so many; dear and beloved friend to those who were especially close as well. Admired by performers, theatre staff, and management alike throughout the country. Held in high regard by dancers and actors all over the world. Known by name to countless admiring theatre goers, Betty Mildred Pounder Baines lost her life after a short battle with breast cancer. She was survived by her husband and soulmate, John Ellis Baines, who would pass away on 5 March 1992 peacefully at home aged 87. Betty’s ashes were scattered on the sea at Queenscliff, Victoria, one of the places she loved to go to get away from the busy theatrical side of her life. Both Betty and John’s memorial plaques are at the Fawkner Memorial Cemetery in Melbourne.

Robina Beard wrote: ‘In December 1990, our industry lost one such individual. Miss Betty Pounder, alias Mrs John Baines, alias “Pounder”, left us here on earth to manage without her. In the history of Australian, nay I dare to say, world theatre there has never been anyone like Miss P. She was known and respected by many, many people in New York and London. She had a spirit, enthusiasm and a charm that enchanted everyone. She had no pretension, no big ego—she just knew her job, she loved it and she did it superbly.’

Those who worked under her direction will remember her words if they got a bit complacent about things, doubted their own abilities, or if things started to get a bit shabby on the stage ...’Smarten yourself up!’ she would say as she left a dressing room after giving some notes. And I bet it’s something everyone still uses to this day when things seem a little too much. ‘BE READY!’ was another phrase instilled in those who were in her charge. Always be ready for that phone call. For that audition. For that show! And of course her famous catch-phrase that she would say so very often after a visit to a dressing room pre-show or at interval, or as she would pass someone as they made their way to the stage. Her catchphrase that lives on thirty years after her passing, and each time it’s mentioned today her light flickers and her spirit returns to a theatre or a celebration: ‘Sparkle, Darlings!’

The Memorial Service for Betty Pounder was at St. Michael’s Uniting Church, Collins Street, Melbourne on Tuesday,11 December 1990 at 3.30pm. The introduction was given by Canon Albert McPherson. The Eulogy and readings were given by Sue Nattrass, John Trustcott, Paul Clarkson and the poem, ‘Who Am I?’, written by Pounder herself, was read by Nancye Hayes. ‘If You Believe’ from The Wiz was sung by Australian Opera Company principal and Betty’s God-daughter, Christine Douglas. A lovely ‘Full House’ with standing room only.

 

 

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

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

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 2021, 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 Pounders’ 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 Bremner, 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 Nicol, 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