‘A bachelor gay’ – Australia’s forgotten musical star
By Frank Van Straten
Who was Robert Chisholm?
A recent display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra included letters and other memorabilia relating to ‘a forgotten star’, Robert Chisholm.
The meagre 8-line entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia contains little more than a hint of the diversity of Robert Chisholm’s long career on stage and screen in Britain and the United States. Though he was never a really big star, Chisholm worked with legends like Jeanette MacDonald, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Ira Gershwin, Sigmund Romberg, Leonard Bernstein, Shirley Booth, Katharine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein, Burgess Meredith and Helen Morgan. And he was a boot maker’s son, born in Melbourne.
Up until now the exact circumstances of his birth have not been documented. Most references, including the Companion, say that Robert Chisholm was born on 18 April 1898. He was, in fact William Leslie Chisholm, and he was born on 18 April 1894. His father, Robert, was a boot maker from Northumberland, and his mother, Annie Chisholm, née Absolom/Absalom, was Melbourne-born. He was the Chisholms’ seventh child: the others were twins Annie and Lizzie, aged 13; Agnes, 12; George, 10; John, 4; and Harriet, 3. Their tiny two-storey single fronted house at 55 Neill Street, Carlton, still stands. How a family of nine could have squeezed into it defies imagination.
We know little of Robert’s childhood, except that he was educated in the State School system, and claimed to have studied at Melbourne University. By 1915 he had moved with his family to a house called Wondai at 55 Park Street, Moonee Ponds, and was working as a clerk. He was tall – a whisker less than 6 foot – blue eyed and handsome, and he loved to sing.
In an article in The Argus of 19 September 1929, well-known Melbourne singer Walter Kirby claimed that Chisholm had been one of his pupils, though no date is specified. Kirby also mentions that he taught Dorothy Brunton, Marie Burke and Hector Goldspink.
Chisholm was 21 years 7 months old when he enlisted in the Australian Imperil Force on 23 November 1915 – though he chose to state his age as 23 years 7 months. Later, in true theatrical tradition, he was to adjust his age down, rather than up! Private Chisholm served as a driver with the Australian Army Service Corps before sailing for France in HMAT Persic on 22 December 1916. In France he was attached, first, to the 2nd Australian Divisional Supply Column, and later, to the 4the Divisional Train.
In a letter to his mother in January 1918, Chisholm says he ‘had a few offers to join concert parties out here and tour France, but I’ve turned them down as I’m quite happy in this unit and get every facility for practice and concert work.’ He soon changed his mind. By March 1918 he had transferred to the 4th Divisional Concert Party, famously known as the ‘Smart Set Diggers’, performing on a portable, makeshift stage in any available hall, barn, shed or even in the open air. There Chisholm met tenor George Castles, whose celebrated soprano sister, Amy, had sung Cio-Cio-San in the Australian premiere season of Madame Butterfly in 1910. Chisholm enthusiastically contributed his robust baritone to the troupe’s presentations. He frequently played the juvenile lead in their versions of popular musical comedies, but he was equally adept as a female impersonator.
In a letter dated 7 October 1918, Chisholm told his mother that the concert party was in recess for five days, prior to the start of a season at Amiens, where they would share a newly reopened theatre with an American troupe. He also mentions that the Smart Set boys had entertained General John Monash. Shortly after the war ended on 11 November he sang at a Requiem Service conducted by the Bishop of Amiens in memory of the Australians who had died defending his diocese.
While awaiting demobilisation in London, Private Chisholm obtained a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone Square. In April 1919 he was granted leave to pursue his studies and to accept non-military employment as a junior member of the cast in Alfred Butt’s touring company of the operetta The Lilac Domino. He made his stage debut at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.
On 12 December 1919 The Times announced that William Chisholm had won the Royal Academy’s Rutson Memorial Prize for Basses and Baritones. The Rutson prize was intended to reward ‘clear enunciation of words and steadiness of intonation in singing’. He also won the Walker Prize for Tenors and Baritones. Chisholm supplemented his musical studies with stage training from Violet Vanbrugh and Rosina Filippi.
In April 1920 Chisholm requested a discharge from the AIF so he could undertake another engagement with Alfred Butt. ‘Unforeseen circumstances’ changed his plans. He headed back to Melbourne in the steamer Wahahe, arriving towards the end of 1920. He was discharged soon after.
Things now moved remarkably quickly. On 15 January 1921, with his first name changed from William to Robert, possibly in tribute to his father, he signed a contract with Australia’s leading theatrical entrepreneurs, J.C. Williamson Ltd. The original paperwork is preserved in the Williamson archives in the Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. He was guaranteed a weekly salary of £15 for the following twelve months. Less than a week later he was playing opposite Gladys Moncrieff in the Australian premiere of what would be her greatest success, The Maid of the Mountains, which opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 21 January 1921.
In its long review of the triumphant first night, The Australasian (29 January 1921) said, ‘Just as Miss Moncrieff has by earnest effort and study ripened her powers, so there was a suggestion of much better things ahead in Mr Robert Chisholm’s notable share in the evening’s success when playing the part of Beppo, one of the brigand lieutenants. The Song, ‘Live For Today,’ with a clever vein of cynicism, and the ever popular ‘A Bachelor Gay’ satisfied everyone as to his singing powers. While some of his work is stamped with the crudities of the beginner, one feels sure that Mr Clyde Meynell, in procuring Mr Chisholm’s services, had vision as well as judgment, and with this fine beginning, Mr Chisholm will “carry on”.’ ‘A Bachelor Gay’ became a permanent feature of Chisholm’s repertoire.
This was the start of a long, productive working partnership between Chisholm and Moncrieff. Over the next four years they appeared together around Australia and New Zealand in The Maid of the Mountains, Sybil, A Southern Maid, Katinka and a revival of The Merry Widow.
In Sybil, as Captain Paul Petroff, Chisholm’s principal vocal contribution was the Letter Duet, which he sang with Gladys. In A Southern Maid he was initially cast as Sebastian and sang the opening number, ‘Serenade’; later, when he took over the male lead, Sir Willoughby Rawdon, he sang ‘I Want the Sun And The moon’ with Gladys, plus two virile solos, ‘The Call Of The Sea’ and ‘Here’s To Those We Love’. In The Merry Widow he was a dashing Prince Danilo, singing ‘My Fatherland’ and two duets with Gladys, ‘The Cavalier’ and the lustrous Waltz Song.
At Christmas 1921 Chisholm appeared as the Caliph in the J. & N. Tait–Bailey & Grant co-production of the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at the Criterion in Sydney. He co-starred with Jennie Hartley (as Sinbad), Jack Cannot and Phil Smith (Mr and Mrs Tinbad), Gracie Lavers (the Princess) and Eric Edgley and Clem Dawe (Igo and Ugo – their first appearance in Sydney). Chisholm had some of the best songs: the rollicking ‘Jack Tar’, ‘In Dreamy Araby’, composed by Melbourne tunesmith Jack O’Hagan, and ‘Karavan’, which he sang with Gracie Lavers.
In January 1922 Williamson’s renewed Chisholm’s contract for a further six months, increasing his weekly salary to £20. Subsequent renewals eventually took his salary to £32.10 shillings. At Her Majesty’s in Melbourne in 1923 Williamson’s featured him in a revival of The Arcadians; as Jack Meadows he joined Nellie Payne in the ‘Charming Weather’ duet, and joined in the male quartet ‘Truth Is So Beautiful’. He was the opera singer Johann Michael Vogl in Lilac Time at Her Majesty’s in Sydney in May 1924 and later in Brisbane and Adelaide.
Amid the public triumphs came personal tragedy. Chisholm’s mother died in December 1921, and his father in September 1923.
At the end of 1924 Chisholm returned to Britain. On 5 February 1925 he played Dick Carter in a now-forgotten Rudolf Friml musical, Sometime, at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Lacklustre fare, it survived for only 28 performances.
Chisholm’s next engagement was with the great London Palladium. When the de Courville revue Sky High opened on 30 March 1925 Chisholm had second billing to the beloved comedian George Robey, in a cast that included droll Nellie Wallace and the popular Australian sister act Lorna and Toots Pounds. Sky High ran for 309 performances, and Chisholm was so impressive that the Palladium retained him for the next show, Folies Bérgère, which opened on 30 September. Again Chisholm had second billing, this time to Ernie Lotinga, in an extravaganza that, despite its name, was closer to Paddington than it was to Paris. In each of the 125 performances, Chisholm stopped the show with a dramatic song called ‘Le Rêve Passe’ (‘The Dream Passes’), later a best-selling record for Peter Dawson and Georges Thill.
In December Chisholm was in variety at the London Coliseum, sharing the crowded bill with Bert Ralton’s Havana Band, comedian Billy Bennett and the American ragtimers Sissle and Blake. In January 1926 he and Billy Bennett were featured at the Alhambra music hall on a bill with Little Tich, Vivian Foster, Burr and Hope, Will Hay, and the Hungarian dancer Ben Zoltana. In March Chisholm was singing on the stage of the huge Stoll Theatre in Kingsway, in a ‘live’ presentation before the screening of Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush. Then he rejoined comedian Billy Bennett at the Alhambra, sharing the bill with music hall great Vesta Victoria and the Jack Hylton Band.
On 28 March 1926 Chisholm lent his presence to the Coliseum’s ‘Evening Entirely of Stars’ – a Sunday gala in support of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. Others appearing included Thorpe Bates, Lupino Lane, Layton and Johnstone, G.H. Elliott, Will Fyffe, Gracie Fields and the great classical pianist Mark Hambourg. In April Chisholm was featured at the Coliseum in ‘a new musical entertainment’ called So This is Romance – a top-rate variety bill including Clarice Mayne, the clowns Noni and Horace, and the Australian juggler George Hurd.
In April Gladys Moncrieff made her London debut at the Gaiety Theatre in the title role of Riki-Tiki, a new musical with a score by Eduard Künneke. It lasted for only 18 performances, but while she was searching for another role, Moncrieff took the opportunity to make a number of recordings for the Vocalion Company. Most of them were solos, but in June she recorded two duets with her old friend, Robert Chisholm. Both numbers were from shows in which they had starred together in Australia, The Letter Song from Sybil and ‘A Paradise For Two’ from The Maid of the Mountains.
Chisholm undertook further engagements at the Alhambra, the Holborn Empire and the Coliseum, where he was a particular favourite. In September 1926 he was specially featured reprising ‘Le Rêve Passe’ on a bill including Billy Merson, Clara Kimball Young, Neil McKay and the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman.
A little before this, on 19 August, The New York Times announced that Edward V. Darling, chief talent booker for the vast US Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, had returned with a swag of top line engagements. Included was ‘Robert Chisholm, a baritone who has been singing at Covent Garden’.
Chisholm arrived in New York on board President Harding on 15 October 1926. He made his US debut in vaudeville at Keith’s Theatre, Washington DC, a few days later. On 18 October The Washington Post reported that: ‘Robert Chisholm, the Australian barytone [sic], does a dramatic turn which calls for unanimous applause, but which is not adequately answered. Mr Chisholm possesses a rare voice, and his offering forms a brief, yet pleasant interlude.’
In November Chisholm was at the prestigious Palace Theatre on Broadway in a bill intended celebrate the centenary of American vaudeville. Oddly, it was an all-British affair, with Ella Shields (‘Burlington Bertie’), Cecilia Loftus and ventriloquist Arthur Prince. The New York Times (2 November 1926) thought Chisholm was among the ‘better than average turns’ and possessed ‘a fine baritone voice’. Evidence suggests that immediately after his Palace season he featured in a revival of the Franz Schubert operetta Blossom Time at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles.
On 13 Jan 1927 Chisholm sailed in the San Lorenzo for San Juan, Puerto Rico, presumably for a holiday break. By the end of February he was featuring on a vaudeville bill at the Orpheum, Los Angeles (‘The Finest Theatre in the West’); in May he was at the Palace, Chicago. On 4 June 1927 he crossed the Atlantic on board the French liner Paris; intriguingly, a fellow passenger was composer Herbert P. Stothart. Stothart was a member of the creative team assembled by entrepreneur Arthur Hammerstein, the uncle of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, to create an operetta for his new theatre – Hammerstein’s – named for his famous entrepreneurial father, Oscar I. This splendid edifice, located at 1697 Broadway, survives today as a television facility, the Ed Sullivan Theatre, but Arthur built it as temple for operetta.
The opening show was Golden Dawn. Set in German-occupied equatorial Africa, it had a score by Emmerich Kálmán with additional numbers by Herbert Stothart and Robert Stolz, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, direction by Reginald Hammerstein, and a cast of 111. The typically improbable plot concerned a mysterious blonde maiden called Dawn, who is mistaken for a princess, and a villainous, sadistic overseer, Shep Keyes. We do not know if Stothart recommended him for the role, but Chisholm was cast as the black-skinned, black-hearted Keyes, and revelled in the show’s best number, ‘The Whip’.
After tryouts in Pittsburgh and Wilmington, Golden Dawn opened Hammerstein’s magnificent new theatre in appropriately grand style on 30 November. In the following day’s The New York Times Brooks Atkinson gave it a warm welcome, noting the contribution of ‘Robert Chisholm, who comes to the musical stage from the rigours of vaudeville. [He] sings with a trained, full voice of a quality rarely heard in musical entertainments.’ Reviewer ‘RS’ in The Wall Street Journal (2 December 1927) praised Chisholm’s portrayal of ‘a masterful black whose religion was his long whip; [he was] a striking figure singing his stirring songs with sweeping verve.’ In his American Musical Theatre chronicle, Gerald Boardman said Chisholm ‘electrified audiences’. In spite of Walter Winchell’s description of it as ‘The Golden Yawn’, Golden Dawn lit up Hammerstein’s for 200 performances.
In May Chisholm was back playing two-a-day at the Palace, billed as ‘the eminent Australian baritone’ and sharing top billing with George Sidney, later to be a notable Hollywood director. This time, The New York Times (15 May 1928) felt his act would have benefited from a little more showmanship, and he ‘did not receive a setting worthy of vaudeville’s outstanding theatre.’ A little while later, on 12 August, The Times’ Hartley Grattan mused that, ‘Paradoxically, you get to see the best of the Australian theatre right here on Broadway. First and foremost there is Judith Anderson, to whom Queensland is home [in reality, she was from Adelaide]. There is Leon Errol. There is Allan Prior. And there is Robert Chisholm, lately with Golden Dawn…’
On 8 June 1928 Chisholm sailed again for Europe on the Ile de France; he returned on the Cunarder Aquitania on 17 August. He joined the road company of Golden Dawn, which packed Cohan’s Opera House in Chicago over the 1928-29 Christmas–New Year season.
On 21 February 1929 The London Times announced that Robert Chisholm would star with Evelyn Laye in the new Sigmund Romberg musical The New Moon, which was scheduled to open at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in April. However, when the show opened, Ben Williams had the male lead, and Chisholm was nowhere to be seen. In June 1929 he was back in variety at the London Palladium, sharing the bill with Layton and Johnstone and his old friend Billy Bennett.
Later in 1929 Chisholm returned to the Arthur Hammerstein fold for the featured role of James Day in Sweet Adeline, a new but ‘splendidly old-fashioned’ Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II musical whose delightful score included such standards as ‘Why Was I Born?’ and ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’. Others in the cast were Helen Morgan, Irene Franklin and Charles Butterworth. After well-received tryouts in Atlantic City and Newark, Sweet Adeline opened at Hammerstein’s Theatre on 3 September 1929. The Times’ Brooks Atkinson loved it; in his review of 4 September he called it ‘exuberantly good-natured’ and he particularly praised Chisholm’s ‘dynamic’ singing.
If Chisholm was gone from Australia, he wasn’t forgotten. On 28 February 1928, under the heading ‘Australian’s success in New York’, The Canberra Times reported that, ‘The success of Robert Chisholm, the Australian baritone, in New York, considering that he was unknown to theatrical managers there two years ago, is phenomenal. After a short season in Boston, he was starred in The Golden Dawn, and afterwards Sweet Adeline, both, successful musical comedies, produced by the Hammersteins.
‘Asked if he desires to return to Australia, the young singer said: “Naturally, but I wouldn’t like to go with a show. I would like to go back on a holiday, and visit all those delightful places I played while I was down there, and perhaps sing at a few concerts. I don’t mean now. It’s a dream of mine. Perhaps it will never be realised; it depends so much on what I can accomplish here. But no matter how successful I may become here, my home is out there. I cannot forget my many friends there – and how I’d like to be amongst them.’
Sweet Adeline notched up 234 performances, a success that prompted Arthur Hammerstein to try his hand as a film producer. He headed for the United Artists studios in Hollywood to begin preparations for filming Bride 66, which was ‘based on a tone poem by Herbert Stothart’.
Hammerstein assembled an interesting cast. The gloriously-voiced Jeanette MacDonald was his leading lady, with John Garrick and Robert Chisholm in the principal male roles, and Joe E. Brown and Zasu Pitts in comic support. A British actor and singer, Garrick had spent some years in Australia working under the name Reginald Dandy. Rudolf Friml composed the songs and Paul Stein directed. The story unfolded in snow-bound Norway, amid William Cameron Menzies’ sets of ludicrous artificiality. Filming in the two-strip Technicolor process got under way in March 1930 and dragged on for several months. Along the way the title changed to The Lottery Bride. Chisholm had three songs: ‘You’re An Angel’, ‘I’ll Follow The Trail’ and ‘Shoulder To Shoulder’, the latter a duet with John Garrick.
Chisholm became a popular figure in Hollywood. He was feted as one of the Broadway stage stars lured west – a handsome single man-about-town, and a notable addition to the film capital’s ‘British colony’. The influential Los Angeles social columnist Grace Kingsley promoted him in her column, and took him with her to the lavish celebrity parties that crowded Hollywood’s social calendar. He was often asked to sing, usually obliging with ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life’ or ‘A Bachelor Gay’.
Kingsley kept her readers up to date with Chisholm chatter: in June he was in line for a leading role in a proposed Romberg–Hammerstein musical called Children of Dreams; next he was slated to star for Paramount in a remake of their silent comedy Honeymoon Hate. Then on 28 June Kingsley announced that the film had been postponed because ‘that very engaging young actor’ was heading back to New York for Arthur Hammerstein. On 24 August Chisholm made what was probably his first radio broadcast, when he was one of the two featured stars on Norman Brokenshire’s Schwartz Radio Follies.
By the end of 1930, when The Lottery Bride was finally released, the public’s interest in musical films had virtually disappeared. In his Los Angeles Times review, Edwin Schallert said, ‘In the songs Robert Chisholm stands out rather brilliantly because of an excellent voice… [He] is less convincing in acting than singing.’ ‘RG’ in The Wall Street Journal said, ‘The singing of Robert Chisholm… is a highlight in this otherwise dull affair. These musical numbers are thrust into the plot so haphazardly, however, that the excellence of Mr Friml’s music and Mr Chisholm’s rendition of it are almost lost in one’s inevitable tendency to laugh at the silliness of the proceedings.’ In The Motion Picture Guide (1986) a more recent critic, J. Robert Nash, described The Lottery Bride as ‘An awful hodge-podge that nearly ended the brief musical era before it started.’ Chisholm, he said, ‘does what he can with convoluted material denser than a glacier. A failure and an embarrassment.’
Well before the release of The Lottery Bride, Chisholm was safely back in New York, where Arthur Hammerstein was busy preparing his next musical extravaganza, Luana. Set in Hawaii, its plot was adapted from Howard Emmett Rogers’ play Bird of Paradise. Rudolf Friml again supplied the score. Luana ‘tried out’ in Atlantic City and Newark, before opening at Hammerstein’s Theatre on 17 September 1930. As Robert Dean, Chisholm was entrusted with three of the show’s better songs, ‘A Son Of The Sun’, ‘In The Clouds’ and ‘Where You Lead’, a duet with Diana Chase. Unfortunately Luana was an almost total disappointment: ‘The South Sea locale has not inspired Mr Friml’s natural gift for melody and romantic composing,’ said The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson on 18 September 1930, scathingly dismissing Luana as a ‘grass skirt’ musical. Nevertheless, in its issue of 29 September, Time magazine thought that Chisholm, ‘as a drunken beachcomber, does some powerful chanting with “Son Of The Sun”.’ Luana survived for a mere 21 performances, closing ignominiously on 4 October. Chisholm was buoyed by Hammerstein’s offer of a contract for the following year’s season, and even more when, on 5 November 1930, he was engaged by producer Lee Ephraim to play the second male lead – the villainous gaucho, Pablo – in the London premiere of a new Sigmund Romberg musical, Nina Rosa.
Nina Rosa was set in Peru, which, as The Times pointed out, ‘was extremely convenient to everyone involved. The scene painters can be lavishly mountainous; the dialogue, when English does not suffice to express the loves and perils of Nina and Jack, can splash in Spanish; the costumes can include everything from hats like archery targets to pyjamas of black lace; the singers, joyfully unfettered by Anglo-Saxon timidity, can let themselves go; and when jokes languish someone can always crack a whip.’
While the delights of Nina Rosa were materialising, Chisholm accepted engagements in British variety. In February 1931, for instance, he starred with saucy comedian Max Miller at the Holborn Empire.
Nina Rosa opened at the Lyceum on 7 July. The following morning’s newspapers were unanimous in their admiration, though they were at odds when it came to describing Chisholm’s voice. The Daily Telegraph: ‘The Pablo of Mr Robert Chisholm is, of course, irresistible – no Peruvian lady could hold out against such charms and such a baritone voice. He knows, too, how to put over the rough stuff.’ The Morning Post: ‘The making of the play is, however, the magnificent acting, singing and rollicking personality of the Australian tenor, Mr Robert Chisholm. With his high, ringing voice, his tall, handsome figure, and his blend of fire and genuine character, Mr Chisholm “walked off with” every scene he appeared in. It was a triumph for him from first to last.’ The Times: ‘Mr Robert Chisholm, who desires our hero’s life, the treasure of the Incas, and a reluctant heroine, pursues them with a spirited song.’ The Observer: ‘Mr Robert Chisholm, as the villain, has a tremendous outing with lash and larynx: he can do this sort of thing as to the bad man’s manor born, and his singing swept the first-night audience into clamorous applause.’
In August Nina Rosa transferred to the Gaiety, where its 110-performance run concluded on 10 October 1931. A month before, Chisholm and the other principals had visited the Decca studios to record four of the show’s most popular songs. They are now available on CD. Chisholm can be heard in his big number, ‘The Gaucho’s March’, a robust duet with Helen Gilliland, who had replaced the original leading lady, Ethelind Terry.
After Nina Rosa, Chisholm returned to New York. At the end of December 1931 he joined the cast of Hello, 1932!, a variety revue starring Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr at the Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn. In March 1932 he was at the Earle Theatre in Washington DC, singing ‘The Song Of Songs’ and ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born’ in the vaudeville bill that supported the Jeanette MacDonald movie One Hour with You.
Chisholm’s sturdy baritone was heard regularly on radio, and he appeared frequently in the many celebrity starry performances that were a sad feature of the Depression years. What was probably the most notable of these celebrity-laden entertainments was The Pageant of Stars at the Metropolitan Opera House on 1 May 1932. Robert Chisholm proudly took his place in a line up including (in alphabetical order) Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Irving Berlin, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway, Leon Errol, Ruth Etting, Jack Haley, Helen Kane, Bert Lahr, Guy Lombardo, Will Mahoney, Ethel Merman, the Mills Brothers, Pola Negri, Lillian Roth, Kate Smith, Sophie Tucker, plus an orchestra of 300 – and the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli.
On 10 June 1932 Chisholm sailed to Britain on the liner Paris. In July he was on a Palladium bill with Max Miller, Louis Armstrong and the suave Edwin Styles, later a great favourite in Australia. In August he recreated his role of Robert Dean for a British tour of Luana, with the American star Edith Day in the title role. The production did not reach the West End.
In 1933 Chisholm was back in New York to play Captain Macheath – Mack the Knife – in the American premiere of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The 3-Penny Opera (later revivals adopted the more traditional title The Threepenny Opera). Steffi Duna played Polly Peachum and Burgess Meredith had the small role of Crook-Finger Jack. The show opened at the Empire Theatre on 13 April 1933; the following day ‘LN’ in The New York Times called it a ‘gently mad evening in the theatre’ but said Chisholm ‘appeared just a shade well-bred’ for his role. In The Post Richard Lockridge described it as ‘sugar-coated communism’ while John Mason Brown told his Evening Post readers it was simply ‘appallingly stupid’. Perhaps predictably, Berlin lowlife was not what New Yorkers wanted to see in the Depression; The 3-Penny Opera was spent after only twelve performances.
Chisholm cut his losses and returned to London. His hearty voice and ebullient personality came over splendidly on radio, so soon he was heard regularly on the BBC. On 6 September 1933, for instance, he was featured in the popular weekly Music Hall program, along with Dickens interpreter Bransby Williams, Australian soubrette Toots Pounds, the jolly comedienne ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea, and Florrie Forde, the ebullient Melbourne-born ‘chorus singer’ famous for ‘Down At The Old Bull And Bush’. A couple of nights later Chisholm was heard in Waltz Time, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus, with Toots Pounds, Jay Laurier, Frank Titterton, George Baker and Hermione Gingold, with Louis Levy conducting.
Shortly after this, Chisholm packed his bags and, on 28 October, boarded the Orient liner Oronsay, bound for Melbourne. He was under contract to appear for entrepreneur Francis W. Thring, father of the famous Frank. Under the banner of Efftee Stage Productions, Thring had bought Melbourne’s Princess Theatre as a venue for a pioneering series of new Australian musical comedies.
The first was Collits’ Inn, with music and lyrics by Varney Monk and a by book T. Stuart Gurr. A prize winner in a competition promoted in 1932 by Nathalie Rosenwax, a Sydney singing teacher, it was based on historical characters: there really had been a Pierce Collits, and he had run an inn at Cox’s Pass, near the present day city of Lithgow; in fact, the inn is still in business.
Thring lavished money – and talent – on the production. Sumptuously mounted, it had the first revolving stage ever seen in this country. Chisholm was cast opposite the gloriously-voiced Gladys Moncrieff, with whom he had achieved such success in his first Australian engagements. ‘Our Glad’ had just had the sad honour of bringing down the final curtain of Melbourne’s beloved Theatre Royal with, appropriately enough, a gala performance of The Maid of the Mountains on 17 November. In Collits’ Inn Gladys played Mary Collits, while Chisholm was Captain John Lake, one of the two men vying for her affection. The other was the bushranger Robert Keane, played by Claude Flemming, who also directed. Marshall Crosby was Pierce Collits while, as Dandy Dick, the popular comedian George Wallace supplied most of the comedy.
The gala opening night was set for 23 December. As Chisholm did not arrive in Melbourne until 4 December, the rehearsal period was extremely short. Nevertheless, Thring found time to record a number of the show’s songs on film soundtracks. These recordings, which were located comparatively recently in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, were thought to be pre-recordings for a proposed Collits’ Inn film, but historian Chris Long suggests that they were rehearsal checks. This theory is supported by the fact that one of the recorded numbers, ‘My Desire’, was not included in the final version of the show, but was used in a later Thring–Varney Monk musical, The Cedar Tree.
Collits’ Inn was rapturously received by the public and the press. The Argus of 26 December said that the show ‘could not have been more happily cast. Miss Moncrieff lent to her native Australian setting all the lustre with which she has shone against more exotic backgrounds. Mr Chisholm, returning after six years to the Australian stage, slipped ideally into his military role. One of the best songs in the piece is the rollicking “A Laugh And A Kiss,” in which he and his company of redcoats were received with tremendous applause. In all probability, however, “Stay While The Stars Are Shining”, sung by Mr Chisholm and Miss Moncrieff, will find greatest public favour.’
Collits’ Inn played at the Princess for a creditable xx weeks. For his second Australian musical Thring used largely the same cast. It was The Beloved Vagabond, adapted by W.J. Locke from his 1908 novel, with music by the young Australian composer Dudley Glass and lyrics by Adrian Ross. The Beloved Vagabond was set in eighteenth-century France. Gladys Moncrieff was the beautiful Joanna, Comtesse de Vernet, with Robert Chisholm as the dashing vagabond of the show’s title, Gaston de Nerac, also known as Paragot.
The show opened at the Princess on 21 April 1934. The following day The Argus greeted it approvingly: ‘In a word, The Beloved Vagabond is first-rate entertainment… Robert Chisholm plays Gaston, picturesquely weary of passion, who wanders the French countryside, as artists in velvet trousers are thought to have done a long time ago.’ The paper went on to say, ‘Mr Chisholm makes a good Gaston. He has the air and the voice and some of his duets with Miss Moncrieff are worth hearing twice.’
Next it was Sydney’s turn. Thring leased the cavernous Tivoli Theatre there, opening on 22 June 1934 with Collits’ Inn. Next day, the Sydney Morning Herald called it ‘splendid’ and ‘a remarkably successful production’, and went on, ‘A feature of Collits’ Inn that will excite widespread enthusiasm is the excellent acting by a cast that brings back to Sydney two favourites of earlier days. Both Mr Claude Flemming and Mr Robert Chisholm have been associated with many popular productions here – the romantic The Maid of the Mountains among the number. Miss Moncrieff also appeared in that melodious play, and she shared with Mr Chisholm and Mr Flemming the excited applause last night. All three artists were in splendid form, Mr Chisholm handsome in his red coat of the colonial forces.’
The Beloved Vagabond followed Collits’ Inn into the Sydney Tivoli on 24 August. The following day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported that, ‘As the hero of this pleasant romance, Mr Robert Chisholm sang agreeably, but his acting fell well below that of the other players because it was so full of conventional musical comedy formulae.’
After this, Collits’ Inn returned to the Princess in Melbourne for a short farewell season that commenced on 13 October. When it closed, Chisholm sailed for Britain.
Back in London, Chisholm was heard with Cicely Courtneidge and Elsie and Doris Waters in the BBC’s popular Music Hall program on 13 April 1935.
In spite of his disastrous screen debut, Chisholm scored roles in two small-scale British films. The first, Cock o’ the North, was released in the United Kingdom in July 1935. The story concerns George Barton (George Carney), a fire engine driver forced to retire after a major crash. His son Danny (Ronnie Hepworth) tries to restore his father’s sagging spirits by recruiting the services of a number of variety performers. Australian-born Marie Lohr played Mrs Barton, with comedian Horace Kenney and Peggy Novak in supporting roles. Robert Chisholm, the black entertainer Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and the ‘Crazy Gang’ comedians Naughton and Gold were among several performers who appeared as themselves. Apparently the film was never released in the United States, and no copy is known to have survived. In 1938, however, Chisholm’s principal contribution, a spirited rendition of ‘Le Rêve Passe’, the song that he had introduced at the Palladium in 1925, was included in the eleventh edition of a series of musical compilations called Highlights of Variety. Again, no surviving copy has been located.
Chisholm followed Cock o’ the North with Father O’Flynn, shot in Ireland. The star was the tenor Thomas Burke, ‘The Lancashire Caruso’. The estranged husband of musical comedy star Marie Burke, Tom was unreliable and well past his prime. The plot concerned the lovely Macushla Westmacott (Jean Adrienne), who was raised by Father O’Flynn (Burke) after her father (Henry Oscar) had deserted her when she was a child. Recently released from prison, her father tries to illegally deprive her of an inheritance. Father O’Flynn and Macushla’s lover, the handsome Nigel Robertson (Chisholm), contrive to defeat the scheme. Father O’Flynn met a mixed reception in Britain when it was released in November 1935, and had to wait until December 1938 before it was released in the United States; there its 82 minute running time was judiciously trimmed to 67. On 26 December The New York Times’ ‘TMP’ lamented: ‘The Irish film-makers were in one of their less-than-beguiling moods. Alas, the luck of the Irish seems to have deserted them.’
Chisholm undertook a variety tour of Britain in the autumn of 1935, and continued to broadcast for the BBC. In A Variety of Music on 2 January 1936, in between comedy from the rumbustious Hylda Baker and the music hall veteran Marie Kendall, he sang duets with Angela Parselles. A Jerusalem-born soprano of Greek descent, Parselles had migrated to Australia as a child and had appeared here in musicals and in the 1934 Ken G. Hall film Cinesound Varieties. After some success in Britain, she returned to Australia in 1938, and was heard frequently on the ABC.
On 15 January 1936 The New York Times noted that Chisholm had arrived from Britain on board the Ile de France and was staying at the palatial Warwick Hotel. On 8 March he was back on American radio. His ‘official’ Who’s Who in the Theatre biography indicates he toured Australia in 1936. In all probability he returned to participate in the film version of Collits’ Inn that Francis W. Thring planned to shoot in Sydney.
Frustrated at the Victorian government’s lack of support, Thring had decided to abandon his studio at the Wattle Path dance palais in St Kilda, and transfer his film-making to Sydney, where Mastercraft Film Corporation, in which he had a financial interest, was building new studios at Lane Cove. The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1936 quotes Thring as saying that ‘the first production at Lane Cove will probably be Collits’ Inn’. On 4 March Thring sailed for Hollywood, where he planned to sign up directors and actors. When he arrived back in Sydney on 19 June he was so ill that he was taken straight to hospital. He died in Melbourne on 1 July 1936. Naturally, the Collits’ Inn film was abandoned, leaving Chisholm with nothing to do – surprisingly he does not appear to have undertaken any stage or concert work during this visit.
Later in 1936 Chisholm was back in Britain, again touring in variety. In January 1937 he was in Hollywood. On 6 January The Los Angeles Times’s Lee Shippey reported that ‘Robert Chisholm, recently back from a concert tour of Australia, got together at the Scotch Treat Club, organised eight famous singers into an octet under the direction of Gene Lockhart, and then appeared for nothing at the club. I doubt that any other male chorus ever heard here contained so many famous names.’
On 14 March 1937 The Los Angeles Times published a major piece by Bob Weekes on the all-male Scotch Treat Club singers, who had become a regular feature of the luncheons at the Hollywood Authors’ Club. By then their number had increased to ten; several were pictured, Chisholm included:
‘Robert Chisholm is either Australian or English and probably both; but his is a very great voice. I am not at all sure but what he is a greater actor than he is a singer because once, when he sang, someone remarked that at last “a million-dollar personality had gotten to Hollywood.”
‘He has known the infinite of success in London, New York and the capitals of the world. He’s known what it is to face a New York audience of Americans when he was a part of an all-English cast just making his first appearance in this coun¬try.
‘That was in 1928 in the Palace The¬atre and he still says it is “pretty excit¬ing” to reach a new country, “a hard country” and realize that a dream had come true.
‘He admits it hurt him when a thief stole $600 out of his dressing-room one night but later he took compensation – and consolation – from the fact that when he was playing in The 3-Penny Opera at the Empire in New York he was assigned the dressing-room formerly used by Ethel Barrymore.
‘The highlight of that experience was that when the doorman offered him – as a good luck omen – a cup and saucer once used by the greet Barrymore, he took it, used it with reverence – and the show promptly closed in three weeks!
‘Well, we could go on with Mr Robert Chisholm practically endlessly but he is the type who laughs so infectiously that if we’ve proved that point there is no reason to prove any other.’
Chisholm also participated in The Domino Revels, a privately-staged Sunday night revue organised by Gene and Kathleen Lockhart. According to the Times’ review of 30 April, the highlight was the first act finale which melded baseball with grand opera and featured Chisholm ‘delivering the home run to the exciting dramatics of Pagliacci.’
Charity work was all very well, but Chisholm found remunerative movie assignments hard to come by. He eventually settled for a minuscule rule as ‘an Englishman’ in It Happened in Hollywood, an unpretentious Columbia ‘B’ comedy starring Richard Dix and Fay Wray. Before the film’s release on 7 September, Chisholm scored a three-show engagement at the vast open-air Jones Beach Theatre – ‘over the water and under the stars’ – at Wantagh, New York. In July-August 1937 he played ‘a romantic Goethe’ opposite leading lady Diana Gaylen in Lehár’s Frederika, which premiered before an audience of 11,000; in Romberg’s Nina Rosa his co-star was Luba Malina; and in Kálmán’s The Circus Princess he was the dashing, disguised Prince Alexi Orloff, with Vivienne Segal in the title role.
In May 1938 Chisholm was again on Broadway, this time in The Two Bouquets, with book and lyrics by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon and music sourced by various uncredited Victorian composers. Time called it ‘a mannerly, mock-genteel operetta of Victorian days which delighted Londoners for almost nine months; it will not delight the US for so long.’ Unfortunately, Time was right.
The Two Bouquets opened at the Windsor Theatre on 31 May. The leading roles went to Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison. Chisholm, in the featured role as George, had one of the best songs, ‘Toddy’s The Drink For Me’. In his New York Times review of 1 June, Brooks Atkinson called the show ‘a decorous museum antic with a slight grimace of sentimental humour,’ noting that, ‘even Robert Chisholm, the bravura baritone, sings his drinking song with modest gusto.’ The Two Bouquets faded quickly, closing after 55 performances.
Chisholm spent part of the summer of 1938 in St Louis, performing for the St Louis Municipal Opera Company in operetta and musical comedy under the stars at ‘the Muny’, said to be the largest open air theatre in the United States. The repertoire included the old favourites The Chimes of Normandy, Rosalie, Show Boat and Roberta, the relatively new White Horse Inn, and a brand new Civil War musical from Jerome Kern, Gentlemen Unafraid.
Chisholm retuned to Broadway on 17 October 1938. At the Fifty-First Street Theatre he was featured as Oscar Wilde in a concoction by Glendon Allvine called Knights of Song, ‘a musical excursion into the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan’, staged by Oscar Hammerstein II. The huge cast was headed by Nigel Bruce and as John Moore as Gilbert and Sullivan; Monty Woolley played Prince Albert. Chisholm had two of the great Savoy patter songs: ‘I Was A Pale Young Curate Then’ from The Sorcerer and ‘Am I Alone?’ from Patience. In his 18 October review, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson used words like ‘cheap’ and heavy-handed’; nevertheless he found space to praise Nigel Bruce and Chisholm, ‘a singing actor of exceptional quality. Although he looks vaguely silly in Oscar Wilde’s dress, he sings something from Patience with great skill.’ Sadly, there was no patience for Knights of Song. It closed after only fifteen performances.
Next, Chisholm undertook a concert tour of South America, but he was back in New York in time to participate in a prestigious two-hour NBC national broadcast, Salute to 1939, on New Year’s Day, 1939. Chisholm was heard in scenes from Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals with Alison Skipworth and the legendary Eva La Gallienne. The program also featured Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester and the zany comedians Olsen and Johnson, as well as a line up of pundits commenting on the year’s prospects in broadcasting, the cinema and the theatre.
If Knights of Song was a disappointment, then Chisholm’s next Broadway show was a disaster. Susanna, Don’t You Cry was an elaborate attempt to do for American composer Stephen Foster what the earlier show had done for Gilbert and Sullivan. As Jonathan Lamphrey, Chisholm had some of the score’s most attractive songs: ‘Ring De Banjo’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, ‘Louisiana Belle’ and ‘Farewell, My Eulalie’. Susanna opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on 22 May 1939. In the following morning’s New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it ‘a lost cause… It would be hard to invent a more tedious and trying book than the one the American Lyric Theatre is now squandering on a full-size orchestra and a handsome production. It is not merely decorous; it is dull.’ Though Atkinson praised Chisholm’s contribution, he added, ‘surely it would be better if we all sang “My Old Kentucky Home” in unison. It is too glorious a song to entrust to an actor.’ Susanna, Don’t You Cry came to a teary conclusion after only five performances.
Chisholm returned to St Louis for the 1939 Municipal Opera open air season. The repertoire included Rose Marie, On Your Toes, Firefly, Babette, Song of the Flame and Viktoria and her Hussar.
Chisholm’s next ‘Broadway’ show never even made it to New York. The disaster of Susanna, Don’t You Cry was followed by a debacle called The White Plume. This unfortunate enterprise had started life as Cyrano de Bergerac, a musical produced by the Shubert organisation. Based on Edmond Rostand’s distinguished play, it had a score by an undistinguished Russian-American composer, Samuel D. Pokrass. In 1932, after the St Louis Municipal Opera gave it a tryout, it played a short season in Providence, Rhode Island. Retitled Roxanne, it moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where it closed in November 1932. Seven years later, with some additional music by Vernon Duke, it reappeared as The White Plume. With George Houston as Cyrano, Robert Chisholm as Carbon de Castel Jaloux and a 24-year-old unknown called Cornel Wilde as Vicomte de Valvert, it premiered at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, on 26 December 1939. The following day, The Washington Post’s Nelson B. Bell summed it up as an ‘indecisive, ineffectual and, too often, uninteresting musicalization of Rostand’s drama.’ After a further desperate name change – it became A Vagabond Hero – the show staggered into Pittsburgh. A further tryout in Philadelphia was cancelled, and the show disappeared forever.
Chisholm’s next engagement looked more promising. He scored a featured role as Byng in a new Rodgers and Hart musical, Higher and Higher, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway on 4 April 1940. This time he had no solos, though he did sing in some ensemble pieces, notably ‘Blue Monday’. Far from vintage Rodgers and Hart, Higher and Higher, survived for 84 performances.
Chisholm’s next Broadway role was as the incontinent Count Albert de Gronac in the Robert Stolz operetta Night of Love, which opened at the Hudson Theatre on 7 January 1941. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson was almost impressed: ‘There is something almost admirable about the exact proportioning of the tawdriness to the trite’. Chisholm, perhaps thankfully, had no solos in this old-fashioned mess, which closed after only seven performances.
Five months later, in June 1941, Chisholm was in Dallas in a locally-produced revival of the 1927 musical Rio Rita, a show in which Gladys Moncrieff had scored a major success in Australia.
Robert Chisholm’s next major engagement came early the following year: he was engaged by the Theatre Guild for a new comedy, Without Love, by Philip Barry, author of The Philadelphia Story. The stars were the luminous Katharine Hepburn and Elliott Nugent, who was more at home in Hollywood as an actor and director; Chisholm had to be content with the minor role of Richard Hood. Without Love started its tryout tour at the McCarter Theatre, Princetown, on 5 March 1942, then moved on to Wilmington and Baltimore. The play was set in Washington, DC, so it was especially appropriate that its next stop was the National Theatre, Washington, on 16 March 1942. In his Washington Post review the following day, Nelson B. Bell heaped praise on the stars and the play, but found space to mention Chisholm and several other supporting players who ‘all bear a full share of credit in the consummation of so satisfying a work.’ After increasingly well-received tryouts at Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Miss Hepburn’s home town, Hartford, Connecticut, Without Love went into hibernation while Miss Hepburn fulfilled film commitments and negotiated a new contract with the Guild, predicated on the undoubted hit they had on their hands.
It was not until 10 November that Without Love finally opened at the St James Theatre in New York. On 11 November Brooks Atkinson’ New York Times review was lukewarm. Nevertheless, the play did reasonable business, closing on 13 February 1943 after a run of 113 performances. Katharine Hepburn reprised her role when MGM filmed it two years later, with Spencer Tracy as her leading man.
As his contribution to the war effort, Chisholm joined the American Branch of the British Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), dedicated to provide entertainment for British troops. He was a member of ENSA’s first American company, a group of around a dozen variety artists. Guided by two experienced Broadway men, director John C. Wilson and production supervisor Forrest C. Haring, they got together a 90-minute show with which they headed for Canada on 12 March 1943. For four months they toured across Canada, earning ‘salaries commensurate with soldiers’ pay, with transportation and living quarters supplied by ENSA.’ It wasn’t Broadway, but it was the longest run Chisholm had enjoyed for some time.
Chisholm returned to New York for the Shubert management’s revival of the old musical Blossom Time, with music by Sigmund Romberg and Franz Schubert, a fanciful version of whose life provided the story line. Chisholm was cast as Scharntoff, a minor role with little to sing. Blossom Time opened at the Ambassador Theatre on 4 September 1943. In his New York Times review of 6 September, Lewis Nichols made a non-committal mention of Chisholm in a review that concluded that ‘operetta and Broadway are no longer marching side by side,’ and the revival had ‘neither sparkle nor lustre,’ was ‘heavy handed and dull’ and ‘far from perfection.’ Blossom Time wilted after only 47 performances.
Similarly forgettable was Down Melody Lane, a 60-minute musical film that purported to ‘tell the story of a variety theatre, illustrated by performers from its past’. This was achieved by recycling material from earlier films, including Chisholm’s signature song, ‘Le Rêve Passe’, from 1935’s Cock o’ the North.
Later in 1943 Chisholm found a place in the cast of the updated revival of Rodgers and Hart’s 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee, adapted from Mark Twain’s book. The stars were Vivienne Segal and Dick Foran, with a young Vera-Ellen as Mistress Evelyn. Chisholm played Admiral Arthur K. Arthur in the Hartford sequences and King Arthur when the show’s locale switched to Camelot. He can be heard on the Decca ‘cast album’, which has been re-released on CD. The production opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on 17 November 1943. Six days later, its lyricist, the mercurial Lorenz Hart, died; he was 48. The show played 135 performances in New York, and then went on the road. It was at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, for two weeks from 3 April 1944. In his Washington Post review of 5 April, Nelson B. Bell described Chisholm’s ‘stalwart performance’ as ‘immensely helpful’.
Chisholm was now fifty, though he had judiciously adjusted his birth date so he appeared to be four years younger. His days of playing principal roles were long gone, and even character parts were increasingly hard to find.
His next engagement was in The Merry Widow, one of a series of vintage musicals presented as summer attractions at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. This updated production had been seen on Broadway earlier in the year, with Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura as the Widow and Danilo; for the tour Marguerita Piazza and Arthur Maxwell took these roles. Robert Chisholm was assigned the minor part of M. Derval
Nothing could have been further from the Viennese schmaltz of The Merry Widow than the brash excitement of On the Town, which hit Broadway on 28 December 1944. The show was created by a team bursting with youthful creativity. Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, it had a score by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, choreography by Robbins and direction by George Abbott. Chisholm played Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, the long-suffering, ever-forgiving fiancé of Claire DeLoone (played by Betty Comden). Chisholm had one song, ‘I Understand’, presented as a solo in Act One and as a duet in Act Two. His contribution went unnoticed in the New York Times.
On the Town ran merrily until February 1946, but Chisholm stayed with it for just under a year. On 21 December he opened at the Alvin Theatre in Billion Dollar Baby, a new musical with a score by Morton Gould and book and lyrics by On the Town’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Again George Abbott directed and Jerome Robbins choreographed – according to Broadway legend, falling backwards into the orchestra pit during rehearsals. As M.M. Montague, Chisholm had two songs, both duets: ‘There I’d Be’ in Act One, sung with the female lead, Mitzi Green, and ‘Faithless’ in Act Two, sung with Joan McCracken. On the Toes was an extremely hard act to follow, and Billion Dollar Baby was an unworthy successor. Nevertheless, in spite of lukewarm reviews, it clocked up 220 Broadway performances; it is now all but forgotten.
A few months later, Chisholm found his way into another new musical, Park Avenue. After a tryout in Philadelphia it opened at the Shubert Theatre in New York on 7 October 1946. Park Avenue boasted a score by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Nunnally Johnson and George S. Kaufman, who also directed. But the show turned out to be a disappointment. In the next morning’s New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it ‘a finger-tips carnival – thin, disdainful and general.’ He criticised the principals’ lacklustre vocal efforts, which made ‘Mr Schwartz’s music sound more like orchestration than singing’. Indeed, ‘The cast is lacking in loud singers, except for barrel-chested Robert Chisholm.’ Unfortunately, Chisholm was heard only in two ensemble numbers. Park Avenue reached a dead end, closing early in January 1947 after 72 performances.
On 5 January 1947 Chisholm was heard in an episode of CBS’s prestigious Theatre Guild of the Air drama series, which was broadcast weekly live from New York. The play chosen was The Great Adventure, an adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive, and the stars were the legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt an Lynn Fontanne.
Chisholm’s next Broadway engagement was a short one – only two nights – but it was of some significance and, for him, a personal triumph. At City Centre on 24 and 25 November 1947 he was one of the five principal soloists – the others were Shirley Booth, Howard DaSilva, Muriel Smith (Broadway’s original Carmen Jones) and Will Geer – in a concert performance of Marc Blitzstein’s opera The Cradle will Rock, accompanied by the New York City Symphony conducted by 29-year-old Leonard Bernstein. This was the first time that Blitzstein’s seminal decade-old opera had been presented with a full orchestra. In his 25 November review, The New York Times’ Olin Downes described the night as ‘electrifying... the house was packed and the audience went wild.’ He lauded the ‘astonishing, gifted singing actors’, praising Shirley Booth’s ‘art of diction and her rhythm in song and movement’, while ‘Robert Chisholm’s “Reverend Salvation”, sonorous in song, and of an inimitable unction, was a feat of characterization.’ Despite the importance of the occasion, it appears to have gone unrecorded.
Next Chisholm was cast as the headmaster, Muche, in a New Opera Company revival of the vintage Marcel Pagnol comedy Topaze, presented at the Morosco Theatre from on 27 December 1947. In his New York Times review of 29 December, Brooks Atkinson found the production ‘diffuse and laboured… Where there is no spontaneity, there is very little entertainment.’ Atkinson did, however, single out Robert Chisholm: ‘Equipped with a fierce moustache, he makes the part of a venal headmaster seem funny by playing it aggressively.’ Topaze was withdrawn after only one performance, giving it the dubious honour of what The New York Times recorded as ‘the season’s shortest run.’
After the Topaze fiasco, Chisholm virtually disappeared from view for 2½ years, though in mid 1949 he was back in Australia. From 9.15 on the evening of 17 June he took the leading role in an ABC broadcast of the British musical Balalaika. ‘It will be the first time that he has sung in Balalaika,’ said The Listener In on 4 June, ‘although he has been associated with its composer, Eric Maschwitz, in many BBC productions, including Die Fledermaus with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.’ Balalaika was produced in the ABC’s Melbourne studios under the direction of Norman Shepherd, a light entertainment specialist who was normally based in Adelaide. Chisholm also broadcast a program of operetta and musical comedy excerpts.
Chisholm told Listener In that he planned to visit Sydney soon after the broadcast, and that he hoped that later in the year he could spend a month in London, returning to New York about October.
He re-emerged in the United States in mid-1950 as an actor in television drama. In what is now regarded as TV’s golden age, shows went out live, including elaborate drama and variety shows. Chisholm was a leading player in two hour-long live Kraft Television Theatre presentations from WNBT in New York: The Doctor in Spite of Himself, with Ullrich Haupt and Flora Campbell, on 7 June 1950, and The Great Big Doorstep, with Phillip Tonge and Florida Friebus, on 13 September 1950. On 25 June 1950 Chisholm appeared in Solo in Singapore, an episode of The Web, a popular WCBS half-hour drama series. His co-stars were Guy Spaull and Berry Kroeger. On 9 October 1950 he was the featured with Van Heflin in the Robert Montgomery Presents adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith. , telecast
Robert Chisholm’s last credited Broadway appearance came at the end of 1950. He was cast in a sumptuously-mounted new revue called Bless You All at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The music and lyrics were the work of Harold Rome, and stars were Pearl Bailey, Jules Munshin and Mary McCarty. Chisholm’s featured numbers included a Teddy Roosevelt skit and a send-up of Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. The show opened on 13 December 1950 to tepid revues. In The New York Times of 15 December, Brooks Atkinson lamented, ‘In Bless You All you have to count your blessings very frugally, for they are not as numerous as they ought to be, and seldom very bountiful.’ The show staggered through 84 performances… and that, it seems, was the end of Robert Chisholm’s Broadway career.
Chisholm’s last documented American engagement was in the road company of the Jule Styne–Leo Robin musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which toured the United States with Carol Channing in her original role and, for part of the tour, Shirl Conway as Dorothy Shaw (later, Miss Conway played Auntie Mame in Australia). Chisholm played Sir Francis Beekman; he and Channing romped their way through the duet ‘It’s Delightful Down In Chile’. Their first stop was at the Palace Theatre in Chicago from 20 September 1951. By the time they reached the National Theatre in Washington DC on 2 June 1952 the sets were looking decidedly scruffy, but Miss Channing and the rest of the cast were as effervescent as ever. A ‘live’ recording of one of the road performances is preserved in a private collection.
Chisholm’s next few years are a mystery. He does not resurface until 30 April 1958 when he had a small role in the London production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Billed as ‘Bob Chisholm’ he played ‘A Bystander’, ‘An Ambassador’ and Jamie, one of Alfred P. Doolittle’s cockney mates, a role co-incidentally created in New York by another Australian, Rod McLennan. Chisholm sang and danced in ‘With A Little Bit Of Luck’ and ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ – and he can be heard with Stanley Holloway and the company in the original London cast recording, still available on CD.
Chisholm did not stay with My Fair Lady for all its 2281-performance London run, but it was his last professional production. He returned to his homeland in March 1960 and took a flat in a large mansion at 100 Walsh Street, South Yarra, a stone’s throw from the Botanical Gardens.
He died there of a coronary occlusion on 5 November 1960. He was 66.
William Leslie ‘Robert’ Chisholm was survived by his sisters Harriet (Mrs Raw) and Ann (Mrs Beresford), his brothers George and John, and numerous nieces and nephews. He died intestate, leaving a little under £280 in a savings account and around £200 in ordinary shares in Reid Murray Holdings Ltd – a corporate giant that was to collapse spectacularly a few months later. His sister Harriet was declared the beneficiary. The existence of any personal memorabilia was not recorded.
Robert Chisholm was cremated at Springvale Crematorium on 8 November 1960, and his ashes were scattered.
The Australian War Memorial has digitised Robert Chisholm’s letters home as part of its Anzac Connections project. They can be accessed on the AWM website.
RC01 [main pic?]
Robert Chisholm in his persona as a Napoleonic soldier, singing ‘Le Rêve Passe’.
The house in Neill Street, Carlton, where Robert Chisholm was born. Photo by the author.
The Smart Set Diggers. George Castles is third from right in the back (standing) row; Robert Chisholm is the stately ‘lady’ seated right. Photographed at Bailleul, France, 13 March 1918. Australian War Memorial E01986.
Charles Holt (left) and Robert Chisholm in the Smart Set Diggers’ production of The Girl in the Taxi. From Aussie, issue 9, 1918.
Robert Chisholm and Helen Morgan in Sweet Adeline, Hammerstein’s Theatre, New York. Cartoon by Al Hirschfeld. New York Times, 1 September 1929.
Jeanette MacDonald as Jenny and Robert Chisholm as Olaf in the film The Lottery Bride, 1930.
George Wallace, Robert Chisholm, Gladys Moncrieff and producer Claude Fleemming, Collits’ Inn, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1933. National Library of Australia
Robert Chisholm as King Arthur and Vera-Ellen as Mistress Evelyn in A Connecticut Yankee, Martin Beck Theatre, New York, 1943.
Robert Chisholm as King Arthur in A Connecticut Yankee, Martin Beck Theatre, New York, 1943.
Adolph Green as Ozzie, Betty Comden as Claire DeLoone and Robert Chisholm as Pitkin in On the Town, 44th Street Theatre, New York, 1944. Photo by Eileen Darby.
Park Avenue, Shubert Theatre, New York. Leonora Corbett (centre) with Robert Chisholm (third gent from left, in the cap). New York Times, 27 October 1946.
The house in Walsh Street, South Yarra, where Robert Chisholm died in 1960. Photo by the author.