On my return from South Africa I met with one of those disappointments which appear to be more or less inseparable from a theatrical career, at any rate in Australia. After I took over the production of the three musical comedies in South Africa, following the hurried return to London of George Slater, Harold Ashton told me that he had written to ‘The Firm’ in Australia telling them of my splendid work in preparing the whole repertoire, ballets and all, in six weeks. He assured me that my loyal service would be suitably recognised upon my return to Australia, and I took it for granted that it would be.
On my arrival in Melbourne, however, I was asked to accept 15 per cent. salary cut which the others had agreed to on account of the abnormal wartime conditions which prevailed. I am glad to say that the matter was satisfactorily adjusted.
After my return to Australia from South Africa I was soon busy getting ready the pantomime, and after the Melbourne season I travelled round with the company for a while, taking in the Sydney season, and then doing one or two other productions. It was that year, if I remember right, that The Girl in the Taxi, High Jinks, So Long Letty, and other musical comedies of the type were produced. Hugh J. Ward handled most of those productions, and I had nothing to do with them, but funny enough, it was High Jinks which first took me to London.
It was following the production of the 1915–16 pantomime that ‘The Firm’ decided to send me to America. I was in Sydney at the time, and the pantomime was being staged there as the Easter holiday attraction. The decision to send me to America came, so to speak, out of a clear sky, and before I knew where I was I was on board the Sonoma, bound for San Francisco.
I don't think I should ever have agreed to go by myself if I had realised what it meant. There can be no worse experience for a woman than to arrive all by herself in a strange country, and have to attend to all the hundred and one details of travel without any assistance.
On my arrival at San Francisco there was not a soul to meet me, and I gladly took advantage of the advice of the uniformed representatives of one of the American baggage firms who met the boat, and told me, if I would leave it to them, they would see that my luggage was sent ahead, and would be waiting for me on my arrival in New York. I thought this was all part of the wonderful American transport system, but on arrival in New York I found that the luggage was there all right, but it had cost me an extra £5 for the privilege of having it handled by my kind friends, the baggage agents. I discovered this mistake when I reached Stewart's Hotel, at which I was to spend the night, before taking the transcontinental express next morning. Stewart, by the way, was an Australian, and made a business of looking after any Australians who were passing through San Francisco, and who knew of his hotel. It was he who opened my eyes to the baggage agents' expensive joke at my expense.
Next day I took a train for New York. I had been fortunate enough to meet on the boat a lady acquaintance of mine from Sydney, who was a buyer for David Jones Ltd., and we journeyed across America together. But for her I should have been lonely indeed. I spent about six weeks in New York, but it was largely a waste of time, as I soon discovered that I had arrived in the midst of the ‘off season,’ and there were very few shows worth going to see.
I wondered a good deal why I should have been landed in New York at that particular time, but ‘The Firm's’ New York agent, Mr. Jordan, told me not to worry, and I understood things better when one day he told me that he had received a cable from ‘The Firm,’ asking me if I would be willing to go over to London. Nobody was too keen on making the crossing at that time, with so many ships being sent to the bottom by German submarines, but I was sick to death of New York, and London, even in war-time, sounded good to me.
There were two former members of the J.C. Williamson ballet living in New York at the time—Lila and Annie Carmichael—and when ‘The Firm’ notified me that I could take a travelling companion with me, I asked Annie Carmichael if she would like to go. She gladly accepted, and passages were booked for the two of us in the R.M.S. Baltic.
We had an uneventful voyage across, though the war-time conditions were not very pleasant. At night the huge liner was allowed to show no lights at all, and no passengers were permitted on deck after dark. It was a depressing trip, and we were all glad when we arrived at Southampton.
Annie Carmichael met a man on the ship whom she had previously known in San Francisco. He was travelling to Europe as a buyer for his firm. He shared a cabin with a Jewish-looking individual, who wore a life-belt, fashioned as a waist-coat, night and day. We had our first real taste of war-time conditions, when, on arriving at Southampton, the Jewish-looking traveller was arrested as a German spy, and Annie's unfortunate friend was also held as his accomplice. As a matter of fact, the two were complete strangers until they met on the boat, but the innocent traveller from San Francisco had a good deal of difficulty in convincing the military authorities of the fact.
I should have felt very lonely in London, too, but for dear old May Beatty and her husband, the late Edward Lauri, who had a flat in Southampton Row at that time, and more or less took me under their wing. Those were about the worst days of the air raids, and just before my arrival the Gaiety Theatre had been bombed, with the loss of many lives. My first experience of an air raid was being awakened by the warning sirens at 2 a.m. I was by myself at the time, Annie Carmichael having gone to stay with friends in the country, and May Beatty telephoned me up and told me if I was scared to go over to her flat which was nearby, and join them in their cellar. However, I preferred to stay where I was. It was very awe-inspiring, but I was sufficient of a fatalist not to worry over much. I felt a bit sick next morning, however, when I saw the great pits made in the streets by the bombs, and the windows of one of the big hospitals, adjoining, completely shattered.
I had only been a few weeks in London, and had seen most of the bigger shows, when Captain Malone, who was then representing ‘The Firm’ in London, asked me if I would like to assist him in the production of High Jinks, which the JCW management was about to stage at the Adelphi Theatre. I gladly agreed to do so, and I soon found out that, in this case, it was not so much assisting as producing.
Captain Malone spent most of his time in France, and only came over on weekend leave, with the result that practically the whole of the production devolved upon me. Needless to say, I had a pretty difficult time, and was exceedingly nervous, never having had anything to do with a London production. I was acutely conscious of the fact that the English producing methods might be quite at variance with anything I was accustomed to.
I shall never forget the first full chorus rehearsal. It was at the famous Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane, the Adelphi stage being otherwise engaged, and the call was for 10.30 a.m. I had previously had a musical rehearsal, at which I had been careful to explain that all the ladies of the chorus would be expected to wear the regulation practice dress. On my arrival at the theatre I found the genuine chorus girls who worked for their living, ready and waiting in their practice clothes, but the high and mighty show ladies began to wander in one by one, several of them arriving over an hour late.
When I asked one of them what had detained her, she remarked with a haughty air, ‘My dear, we simply couldn't get here before, as we've been spending the weekend up the river.’
I told the girls very forcibly that if they couldn’t come to rehearsal on time, they had better stay away altogether, and ordered them to hurry and get into their practice dresses.
The one who had acted as spokeswoman before replied, ‘My dear, we didn't bring them, but we can tie up our street dresses with ribbon—that will do, won't it?’
I explained more forcibly than ever that it wouldn’t do at all, and dismissed them for the day, adding that if they were not there punctually the next morning with their practice dresses, they needn’t come at all. I had no more trouble in that respect.
We went on with the rehearsal without the show girls, and I had not been long at work before I noticed that the dozen or so of chorus-men who were all we were able to rake up from amongst the ‘conchies’ [conscientious objectors] and such like specimens, were inclined to regard me as a huge joke. They had never had a woman producer over them before, and I suppose they thought that they could treat me with scant ceremony. Seeing how the land lay, I decided upon prompt measures.
I was feeling horribly nervous, but was determined not to show it. Presently I told the girls to sit down and called the chorus-men down stage. They came forward, and I addressed them something along these lines:
‘Well, gentlemen, you seem disposed to take me as rather a good joke. Now let me tell you that I have been used to having hundreds of people under my control, and I am quite accustomed to ruling the roost. Probably you would act differently if you had a man to deal with, but I know my work, and I can assure you I am as good as any two men. There's the stage door, gentlemen, and you have your choice of going out by it or doing your work in a proper manner.’
The men all went back to their places looking particularly sheepish, and after that I had their respect and co-operation all the way through. I never had to say another word to them.
All of the show girls eventually agreed to wear practice dress except one, who was particularly ‘up-stage,’ and appeared to expect that she was to be given a small part. She was rather a good type, and I told her I would give her a couple of lines to speak, but that she would still have to take her place in the chorus. She did so for a time, but finally sent in her resignation to Captain Malone. I was a little doubtful whether the latter would uphold me in the matter, and on going to see him I was greatly relieved when he threw his arms round me and said: ‘Thank goodness you’ve got rid of that one, Minnie. We’ve been trying to lose her for a long time, but didn’t dare do it ourselves.’
It transpired that the girl had the backing of a person of very considerable importance, financially, to the firm. Of course they put all the blame for her resignation on to me, explaining that it was entirely my responsibility, and that the matter was out of their hands.
Several members of the London company are well known in Australia. W.H. Berry, who played Field Fisher’s part, has never been out here, but W.H. Rawlins played the same part in London that he had already played in Australia. Tom Walls, now a leading actor-manager and one of London’s leading screen stars, had a comparatively minor role. He had also been in Australia playing the jockey in The Arcadians.
Then there was Maisie Gay, who was to come to Australia later in This Year of Grace, and to return to England sadly disgruntled about her reception here. Peter Gawthorne, also here later on, played Dick Mayne, and Leon M. Lion, now a noted character actor on both stage and screen, played the Maitre d’ Hotel.
Gwen Hughes, who was also here; Nellie Taylor, Marie Blanche. Violet Blythe and two French girls were among the other principals. In the chorus were two Australians making their stage debut. One was Cyril Whelan, a son of Albert Whelan, who had a small part, (he afterwards joined the Royal Flying Corps and was killed on active service), and the other was a daughter of Florence Esdaile, who later came out to Australia, and I believe is living in New Zealand.
One of the things which struck me most forcibly about the production of High Jinks in London was the attention to detail, particularly where the dressing was concerned. Accustomed as I was to the more or less haphazard method of handing out costumes to the chorus in Australia, I was amazed at the care and attention lavished on this phase of the production. All the costumes were designed by M. Comelli, a celebrated London theatrical designer, and they were made by a famous Bond Street firm. A leading Regent Street milliner supplied the hats.
All these people sat in the stalls at the first dress rehearsal, and each member of the chorus was brought forward individually and specially fitted. If the colour or the style of a frock or a hat did not suit a particular girl, she was not permitted to wear it. The same attention to detail applied even to shoes and stockings. In fact, no chorus girl was allowed to appear without every detail of her costume being individually attended to. The result was that each girl was dressed to suit her particular type, and looked her very best.
The principals, of course, ordered their own clothes, but these had to be passed by Comelli before being worn. If he decided that they were unsuitable they would be sent back and others substituted. It is notorious that many clever theatrical artists are quite devoid of taste where clothes are concerned, and in London many a famous star has had her reputation saved by the dress designer.
This thoroughness persists right through the theatrical world of London, and it is the principal reason why English musical comedy productions are ahead of ours. In many respects the Australian chorus and ballet are better than those of the London stage, but because of this attention to dress detail, the general effect of the ensemble here is far below the London standard.
In Australia little attempt is made to dress the girls according to type; the colour schemes are not properly thought out, and very often hats are worn which do not even match the frocks, and are definitely not suited to the wearer. It is no exaggeration to say that our Australian chorus and ballet would look fully fifty percent better if the same close attention to their appearance was given here as in London.
I had the production of High Jinks complete and ready to go on at the announced date, but owing to one of those terrific hot spells which occasionally occur in England, it was postponed for a fortnight, and to my intense disappointment, I had to leave for America on my return journey without seeing the show. Before I left, however, my chorus boys and girls gave me a jolly little send-off, and made me a handsome presentation, which I still treasure.
I met a great many interesting people on that first trip, though not of course as many as I should have done in normal times. Some of them were then quite obscure, but have since become famous. Others were then more or less famous, but have since become obscure. That’s the way of things in the theatrical world, as in other worlds.
Among the former category was Frederick Lonsdale, the brilliant playwright, who was at that time a literary ‘hack’ who divided his time between journalism and writing extra verses and couplets for the theatres. I remember him quite well standing by during rehearsals for High Jinks, and occasionally being called upon by W.H. Berry, the comedian, to supply a fresh verse for a number, or a few lines of comedy dialogue to smarten up a situation. Berry played the part Field Fisher appeared in here, and I remember that when Mr. Lonsdale remarked to him that he would no doubt prefer to arrange a certain number himself, Berry turned to me, and said, ‘Oh, no; I have seen this lady’s work, and it’s quite good enough for me.’
Some years later when I returned to London, and called to see Captain Malone, I found him engaged with a man I seemed to remember having met.
When I entered, Captain Malone said to me, ‘Come in, Minnie. Here’s someone you’ve met before, only now he has pots of money, and then he hadn’t a bean.’
It was Frederick Lonsdale, who, next to Noel Coward, must today draw more in royalties than any other English playwright. He is a charming man, and quite unspoilt by the success which has come his way.
Amongst the sad memories of that first London visit were the visits I received from batches of Diggers over in ‘Blighty’ on leave, who, seeing my name on the playbills and recognising it as something familiar from their homeland, would come along to the theatre during rehearsal and ask to see me. More than once I was called out to meet a crowd of these fine lads, who would give me a welcome with the real Australian coo-ees; which always brought a lump to my throat.
I remember, too, that my own brother, who had been away from Australia for years, and had enlisted with the ‘Tommies’ in London, asked for special leave to come across from France and see me. The War Office was evidently suspicious of the request—they probably got many bogus ones—and sent a special messenger down to the theatre to ask me if I had a brother serving with the British forces. We had dinner together on the last night of his leave—it was a Sunday night, and he had to leave for France early next morning.
My last words to him were: ‘Be sure and dodge the bullets, Albert.’ A few days later he was killed in action.
One of the things I love most about England is the twilight. Taxis were not only expensive, but difficult to procure in those war years, and often we would stroll down to the theatre in that lovely English twilight. Then when we came out after the show was over, what a contrast, with the black darkness of war-time London! I always found London more difficult to find my way about in than New York, and often we would lose our way completely after coming out of the theatre.
Once I remember, when I was living at a little hotel just off the Strand, we found ourselves right away up in New Oxford Street, when at last we summoned up sufficient courage to make inquiries. Curiously enough, the man we asked our direction from turned out to be, himself, an Australian and he very kindly escorted us all the way back to the hotel, refusing to leave us until he had seen us safe indoors.
Amongst happy memories of that first visit to London, there was a memorable visit to the fashionable Ciro’s, where I was guest at a luncheon given by Sir Peter McBride [the Agent-General for Victoria]. I also renewed acquaintance with Violet Lorraine, whom I had known well in Australia, when she was here as Principal Boy [in the pantomime Puss in Boots for JCW in 1912–13].
One of the show places which held a special interest for me was the Tower of London, owing to the fact that I had so often seen its stage replica in The Yeomen of the Guard. I visited the Beauchamp tower, from which the scene in that opera is taken, and saw the actual Block which figures in the opera. This is said to be hundreds of years old, and has the marks on it left by the axe used in beheading the unhappy political victims. It was interesting to me as an Australian, to compare the ancient charm of London, with the rather blatant newness of New York. At that time America was definitely anti-British, and I had plenty of evidence of this during my two brief sojourns there.
On my return to New York, after visiting London, for example, I met Mabel Webb, who had been working in England for the Red Cross. She did a lot of literary work in those days, and was visiting America in the hope of getting some special writing to do for the American papers. She told me that one day soon after her arrival from England, she was walking along Broadway wearing a little Union Jack pinned into the lapel of her coat, when a burly German accosted her, gazed venomously at the little flag badge, and smacked her across the face.
There was a policeman near by, and Mabel went up to him and said, ‘Did you see that?’
‘I sure did!’ said the policeman.
‘Well, aren't you going to do anything about it?’ asked Mabel.
‘Not on your sweet life, I’m not,’ said the constable. ‘It's your look-out if the “Stars and Stripes” aren't good enough for you.’
I remember attending a big revue production at Washington, one of the features of which was a Grand March of all Nations. Each European monarch was represented by a man made up as nearly as possible to represent the real king. The whole house rose and cheered when the man representing the Kaiser entered, but when the impersonator of the King of England came on, they kept their seats and hooted.
I was with Harold Ashton in a box, with a party, including some Americans, and when that happened I became simply furious and wanted to stand up and cheer. Mr. Ashton whispered to me to keep my seat, and take no notice, which I did, very much against my inclinations.
On another occasion I attended a public meeting held to deal with the question of America entering the war. That was in New York, and I attended merely out of curiosity to see what would happen. I didn’t remain long. Every time England was mentioned there would be an outburst of hoots and yells. Things were different later, of course, when America finally entered the war, but certainly at that time there was no friendly feeling for the Old Country in the USA, as I saw it, and even Australians were by no means popular. As a matter of fact, ninety-nine per cent. of Americans were totally ignorant of where Australia was and used to ask me the most ridiculous questions about it.
One of my greatest disappointments on that trip occurred on my return to America from London. After a few weeks in New York, I dropped in to Chicago, before going on to San Francisco to catch the boat back to Australia. While there I ran into Mr. and Mrs. Hugh J. Ward. He was then with ‘The Firm’, and insisted that I should return with him to New York, as the season was then only just beginning. I went back with them, and it was while in New York that time that the great Morosco asked me to arrange some special musical numbers in a dramatic show he was about to produce.
It was a great compliment, but to my intense chagrin ‘The Firm’ would not agree to release me for long enough to make that possible, as they declared that I was wanted back in Australia.
I should dearly have loved to have done it, as, apart from the valuable experience, I should like to have been able to say that I had produced shows both in London and New York. However, it was not to be.
On my return to Australia I had to commence rehearsals at once for the next pantomime and very soon that first trip began to seem like a dream to me. I have visited both London and New York since on many occasions for ‘The Firm,’ but never again by myself. By the time I got back to Australia I was, of course, a fairly experienced traveller, but I made up my mind that never again would I undertake an overseas journey without a companion.
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First published in Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic) on 7 July 1932, pp.24–25, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page17696361, with further extracts from the subsequent chapters published on 14 July 1932, p.22, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page17696410 and 21 July 1932, p.10, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page17696442
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By Rob Morrison
Although initially sent to South Africa to direct and choreograph the pantomime Puss in Boots for J.C. Williamson Ltd. in 1914, as part of The Firm’s first foray into establishing a South African touring circuit for its productions, Minnie Everett was subsequently tasked with taking on the direction of JCW’s season of the musical comedies The Girl on the Film, The Girl From Utah and The Dancing Mistress, in addition to her choreographic duties, when the English producer who had been hired for the job, George Slater, returned to England soon after his arrival in Durban due to illness. Having thus established her capabilities as a director-choreographer, JCW made full use of Minnie’s talents on her return to Australia at the conclusion of the tour by assigning her to direct and choreograph a series of revivals for its Royal Comic Opera Company, which included Ma Mie Rosette, Paul Jones and The Old Guard in 1915. Given her knowledge of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, Minnie was also tasked with directing and choreographing all of JCW’s G&S revivals between 1917 (when she staged a one-off revival of The Mikado in Melbourne starring C.H. Workman and Gladys Moncrieff) to 1942, for which Minnie took great pride in being the only professional woman producer of G&S in the world during that period.
While Minnie’s direction of the 1916 London production of High Jinks was not made public knowledge at the time (J.A.E. ‘Pat’ Malone receiving the official credit) the English Press (via the press agents employed to promote the show) nonetheless did acknowledge the singular novelty of a female ballet mistress being put in charge of creating the dances for a West End musical comedy (in a field dominated by men) as well as her status as a producer for JCW in Australasia.
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Rehearsals are in full swing at the Adelphi, and it is expected High Jinks will be ready for production in the course of a few weeks. Hitherto the teaching of the dances for both principals and chorus in a London musical comedy has been carried out by a man. The directors of the Adelphi Company, however, have entrusted this part of the production of High Jinks to a woman, Miss Minnie Everett, who is thus making a record in London, is an Australian paying her first visit to England. In Melbourne and Sydney she is known as the stage producer for J.C. Williamson and Co., who have numerous theatrical enterprises in the Antipodes. (Apollo)
The People (London, England), Sunday, 6 August 1916, p.4
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Referring to the production of High Jinks, a new musical play at the Adelphi Theatre, London one of the English papers comments on the fact that the directors of the company have brought for the first time into the production of a London musical comedy a woman to teach all the dances—for principals and chorus. ‘Miss Minnie Everett, who is in this department making a London record, is an Australian, and this is the first time she has been in England. She is well-known in Sydney and Melbourne as stage producer, and to get ideas for Christmas pantomimes she came to London, and is staying awhile to help with High Jinks. Towards the end of the month she goes to New York to watch the autumn productions there, and by November 1 she will have arrived in Melbourne,’ says the journal in question.
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), Saturday, 30 September 1916, p.6
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Meanwhile an item in the Bulletin’s weekly theatrical gossip column (named in honour of the sobriquet given to the strip of pavement in Park Street, between Castlereagh and Pitt Streets, near Sydney’s Criterion Theatre where out-of-work theatricals gathered in the hope of finding employment) revealed the true authorship of High Jinks to its readers.
‘C. Ockney’: High Jinks the musical-piece recently staged by the Williamson firm, has been put on at the London Adelphi. As in Australia no authors’ names appeared on the bill. This naturally caused comment—so much comment indeed that the Adelphi deemed it advisable to confess that it had kept the names from the public because, although not German, they ‘looked remarkably like it.’ They undoubtedly do. The author of the words is Otto Hauerbach; the musical composer is Rudolph Friml. The former is, so the management avers, a Dutch-American; the latter a Bohemian, naturalised in USA So now we know. But why not have said so at first?
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW) Vol. 37 No. 1915, 26 October 1916, p.9
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Indeed such was the sensitivity to the anti-German feeling prevalent amongst the British public during the Great War that the sheet music for the songs from the score of High Jinks by Friml and Hauerbach [Harbach] was published in Britain under the pseudonyms of ‘Roderick Freeman’ and ‘Ogden Hartley’, which did at least retain the initials of their respective names.
As JCW Managing Director, Hugh J. Ward had acquired the British performing rights to High Jinks at the same time as the Australasian performing rights, it was arranged that the musical comedy would be staged as J.C. Williamson Ltd.’s first London production in collaboration with West End impresario, Alfred Butt. But whereas the original Australian production by-and-large remained faithful to that originally staged in New York (albeit with additional songs and dance music interpolated into its score) the show was significantly adapted to suit London tastes, with the revision of the libretto undertaken by Frederick Lonsdale (who, amongst other changes, altered the nationality of the Frenchman, Monsieur Jacques Rabelais to the fiery Spaniard, Senor Rabelais, while Dr. Robert Thorne was re-christened Dr. Wilkie Thorne) and the interpolation of additional numbers specially written by Paul Rubens, Jerome Kern, James W. Tate and Howard Talbot, with additional lyrics by Percy Greenbank, Clifford Grey, Clifford Harris and “Valentine” (pseud. of Archibald Thomas Pechy) chiefly to showcase the talents of lead comedian, W.H. Berry in the expanded role of Dr. Thorne. This revised version, which premiered at the Adelphi Theatre on 24 August 1916 for a run of 383 performances, subsequently became the basis for all revivals of the musical staged in Australasia by JCW between 1917 up to its last professional outing in 1935 starring Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard.
Pepita Bobadilla (aka Nelly Louise Burton) who took over the role of ‘Mdlle. Chi-Chi’ during the run, would subsequently become the second wife of Australian-born playwright, Haddon Chambers in October 1920 (and his widow upon his death in March 1921.)
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1. Something seems Tingle-ingleing (Friml)—Peter Gawthorne & Chorus
Adelphi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Howard Talbot (HMV C-720 or 02682)
2. I could love a nice little Girl like you (Paul Rubens)—William H. Berry & Girls Chorus
Adelphi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Howard Talbot (HMV 4-2785)
3. Love's own Kiss (Friml)—Nellie Taylor & Peter Gawthorne
Adelphi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Howard Talbot (HMV C-737 or 04180)
4. I'm through with roaming Romeos (Friml)—Maisie Gay
Adelphi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Howard Talbot (HMV B-712 or 2-3191)
5. She says it with her Eyes (Friml)—Maisie Gay & W. H. Rawlins
Adelphi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Howard Talbot (HMV C-721 or 04177)
Original 1916 London cast recordings by His Master’s Voice (‘The Gramophone Company’) restored and reissued on Palaeophonics 142, courtesy of Dominic Combe.
Original 1916 London cast and scenic photos by Foulsham & Banfield published in The Play Pictorial (Vol. XXIX No. 174) courtesy of Dominic Combe.
The exhibition of j.c. williamson ltd. costumes at Beleura on the Mornington Peninsula almost didn’t go ahead. Only days before the opening, Melbourne and its surrounds experienced a severe storm that brought down trees and blew off roofs. The road to Beleura, nestled among parklands and golfing ranges, was blocked by debris from the storm, and power to the area was cut. And before that, the ravages of covid had meant that Beleura like so many other ‘unessential’ businesses was closed and shuttered.
But on Thursday, 11 November 2021, the sun was shining, power had been restored, and a small ‘covid safe’ crowd made its way to Beleura for the opening of ‘My Fair Ladies’.
‘My Fair Ladies’ showcases costumes from the collection of Kevin Coxhead. The amazing thing about the fifteen costumes on display is that when Kevin acquired them, they were all in a poor state of disrepair following decades of wear and tear, in need of Kevin’s careful care and attention.
Kevin was previously a dancer with J.C. Williamson’s in the mid-1970s, just before the ‘Firm’ ceased operation—having held the position of Australasia’s number one theatre producers for over 100 years. Kevin’s costume collection began when he decided to look for the costumes he had worn in Gypsy. His search took him to The Costume Factory in Kensington (originally J.C. Westend), where former JCW costumes were being hired out for fancy dress parties and amateur stage productions.
It was a great thrill for Kevin when he located ‘his’ costumes, and he soon struck up a friendship with Maureen McInerny who ran the costume hire shop. So when Maureen came across costumes from notable shows, rather than put them back into circulation in the shop, she placed them aside for Kevin’s consideration. Over the years, Kevin’s collection has grown. He taught himself sewing and other tailoring skills. Hours of patient research and repairs has seen a pile of tattered garments transformed to their original splendour.
It is wonderful to be able to inspect these garments up close, to marvel at the skill of the original designers and the skill of Kevin whose careful restoration has made it impossible for the untrained eye to know what is original fabric and what is restoration. There is an unexpected delicacy in the selection of fabrics, their design and construction that belies the practical nature of stage costumes, that are generally designed to be seen from a distance and to be able to withstand the rigors of continuous wear during the run of a show.
Some of the highlights of Kevin’s collection have been assembled for ‘My Fair Ladies’ exhibition. As might be expected from the title of the show, costumes from the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady (1959) figure prominently, along with original garments from No, No, Nanette (1972), Irene (1974) and Camelot (1963).
Nearly all the costumes are displayed within the Beleura House with one in an adjacent building. Kevin, with assistance from curator Ingrid Hoffmann, has carefully placed them around the house, selecting a particular room that will work as a backdrop against which to best display the colours of the fabrics and style of the dresses. For instance, in the Drawing Room, with its heavy drapes and shuttered windows are found two of Cecil Beaton’s costumes from the Ascot Scene in My Fair Lady: a gentleman’s frock coat complete with top hat and button hole, and a stunning dress of bold vertical black and white stripes topped off with a large Edwardian picture hat. When the Ascot dress came into Kevin’s possession it was in a very poor state having been ‘let out’ at the back to fit larger-framed customers at the costume hire shop.
In the Study is one of Kenneth Rowell’s designs for Act 2 of Irene. This costume was featured in the Fashion Parade scene and Kevin used stills from the production to help recreate the matching coat, hat and parasol. The coat, with its masses of hand-frayed ‘flower petals’ on the shoulders, was a particular challenge and success for Kevin.
Courtesy of Beleura House & Garden, Mornington
Another costume from My Fair Lady, holding pride of place in the Dame Nellie Melba Bedroom, is Eliza’s Embassy Ball gown. This particular dress took Kevin over a year to repair. The lace bodice needed to be completely recreated as did the belt. Another spectacular dress from the Embassy Ball scene (based on Cecil Beaton’s designs, but made for the 1970 revival) may be found in the dining room. A concoction of yellow and blue, this dress also took a year to repair with hundreds of tiny holes in the lace and sequined panels needing to be mended.
Courtesy of Beleura House & Garden, Mornington
Jill Perryman’s Act 1 dress from No, No, Nanette is found in the Wintergarden. Created by the costume department at JCW from original designs by New York-based designer Raoul Pene Du Bois, the striking deep orange crepe silk dress looks vibrant against the white walls and hanging plants. Another dress from No, No, Nanette is on display in the library. Fully beaded in grey and purple diagonal stripes with diamond-shaped chevrons of blue sequins, this stunning dress which beautifully evokes the flapper era, was worn by a member of the chorus in the Act 3 finale. Badly damaged from years of hiring, it took Kevin two years to re-thread and insert strengthening panels to stop the dress from sagging under the weight of the many thousands of sequins, beads and pearls.
Courtesy of Beleura House & Garden, Mornington
Another outstanding costume, located in the Vestibule, is one by Sydney society designer Beril Jents created especially for Bettina Welch, whose name is on the label. Decorated with large green vine leaves on a yellow base, this silk chiffon dress probably dates from the 1940s. Bettina Welch is noted for having all her costumes designed by Jents, even her period costumes!
I have not described all the costumes in the exhibition, but a final word should be said for one of John Truscott’s costumes from Camelot, to be found in the foyer of the Pavilion (an intimate recital space) adjacent to the House. Originally worn in the Act 1, Scene 1 Winter scene, amazingly little repair work was needed to restore the medieval splendour of this creation. In researching the production Kevin located a drawing of the original costume in a private collection which is also on display.
Located on the Mornington Peninsula, Beleura is an hour’s drive from Melbourne via the Peninsula Link Freeway. Once the home of Sir George Tallis, a director of J.C. Williamson’s in the 1920s, and his son John, the house is filled with memorabilia and antiques. Evoking a lost world of theatrical glamour and social ease, it is the perfect setting for Kevin’s JCW costumes. ‘My Fair Ladies’ runs until 11 March 2022, and if you haven’t yet visited Beleura, now is the time to arrange a visit. Further details may be found on the Beleura website, https://www.beleura.org.au/exhibition-my-fair-ladies
Thanks to Kevin Coxhead and Ingrid Hoffmann for their assistance in the preparation of this article.