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Wednesday, 01 June 2022

Bert Levy: Australia's first global vaudeville star

Written by Jack Coyne
JACK COYNE, Founding Member of the Bert Levy Appreciation Society (BLAS), offers a tribute to Australian vaudevillian and illustrator, Bert Levy. Receiving wide international recognition in the entertainment industry for his original and innovative contribution, Levy’s work is mostly unfamiliar and underappreciated in his native Australia.

NYPL 1Bert Levy, c.1910. New York Public Library.

In 1871, Bert Levy was born in ballarat. He was the ninth of 16 children (surviving to adulthood) to Jewish parents, Simon and Mina Levy who had emigrated from Poland/Russia via London to Australia just five years earlier. At a young age his family moved to Melbourne and Bert received a brief formal education at the now defunct Hebrew School in Bourke Street, Melbourne. Economic circumstances impelled him to leave school at an early age, though his initial entry into the workforce was inauspicious. At first, he worked as an eyelet machinist in his father’s boot factory in West Melbourne, but quickly proved to be unsuited to that line of work. He was then decamped to his brother-in-law’s pawn shop in Bourke Street, but left after receiving managerial feedback that he would ‘never have the brains for pawn broking’.1

From an early age, Bert had developed an interest and skill in drawing. In desperation at his son’s underwhelming interest in manual labour or sales, his father negotiated an apprenticeship as an assistant screen artist to the renowned Scottish scenic artist George Gordon at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne. ‘Assistants were referred to as “splodgers” and the work involved long hours of hauling pots and mixing paints under close supervision. These young go-to blokes plunged brooms into “gallons of distemper” (aqueous paint bound with animal glue) and painted sections of scenery.’2 In spite of the tedious nature of this work, Bert was elated, describing his new circumstance as ‘Bohemia’. Concurrently, he commenced after-hours study at the National Gallery School in Melbourne with many of Australia’s budding artists.

His work in the theatre exposed him to many local and international artists. One of the more influential was the English sketch artist, Phil May who had been commissioned by the Bulletin and Punch magazines. May happened to be a frequent visitor to Gordon’s paint room, and his bold sketching style was to be later emulated by Bert.

In 1894, Bert moved to Sydney where he continued to work with Gordon painting stage scenery. The following year, he married Harriet Waxman, an accomplished pianist from a distinguished theatrical East Melbourne family. Harriet would follow Bert to Sydney where they lived in the suburb of Waverly. In 1898, their son Alwyn Gordon Levy was born.

In addition to the set work, Bert developed his sketching skills, and became a free-lance cartoonist to the nation’s notoriously satirical magazine, the Sydney Bulletin. At the time, the Bulletin was a proponent of the White Australia policy, and disparaging in its depictions of anyone who didn’t fit that profile. Caricatures of Jewish, Indigenous and Asian individuals were generally unflattering, affirming the stereotypical views of many Bulletin journos and editors.3 His affiliation with the Bulletin attracted opprobrium from some quarters of the Jewish community yet he persevered in order to earn a living for his young family. He also became manager of the Alba Photography studio in Sydney’s Strand Arcade and quickly established a reputation for his experimentation in the new visual medium of photography.4

During this time, he joined the Mossman Artist camp on weekends, forging friendships with Australia’s future art elite including Streeton, Roberts, Longstaff and McCubbin, and referred to himself as being ‘a brother of the brush’.5

In 1899, Bert and family moved from Sydney to Bendigo where he was appointed the Music and Drama critic at the Bendigo Advertiser. By the turn of the twentieth century, underground mining had made this Victorian city one of the wealthiest and most vibrant in the country. It possessed four well-established theatres, a stock exchange, and a grand hotel to rival any in the country. It also had a sizable Jewish community, an ornate Synagogue and energetic young entrepreneurs such as the Myer brothers whose first department store was opened in Bendigo in 1900.

Significantly, the city had three daily newspapers and an independent weekly publication (The Bendigonian) which enabled Bert to publish photographs and sketches. It was here that Bert commenced his career as an insightful, and sometimes acerbic, commentator and journalist.

Quickly, Bert became a prodigious chronicler of life in Bendigo. Although new to journalism, his talent was obvious, and he was encouraged by management to develop his own style, not only in relation to music and arts, but on general reporting as well. His razor-sharp humour and irreverence in opinion pieces and sketches made him immensely popular. A month after arriving in Bendigo, he depicted its most famous and wealthiest identity, ‘Quartz King’ Sir George Lansell in a cheeky and risible sketch for The Bendigonian Supplement.6 This impudent representation of one of the richest men in the British Empire as well of other local notables, imbued widespread affection among his readership.

As an art critic, Bert was similarly fearless. He did not hesitate in taking to task decisions by the trustees of the Bendigo Art Gallery in allocating large sums of money for English and European art pieces, when he believed local Australian artists should be preferentially supported instead. An example of his commitment to that cause, was his donation to the Gallery of Arthur Stretton’s ‘Manly Beach’, which he had acquired or was given by Streeton when in Sydney. To this time, this remains one of the most treasured pieces in the Gallery’s collection.7

During his time in Bendigo, Bert wrote extensive humorous pieces concerning the city’s history, institutions and characters. In possibly the first for any city in Australia, Bert wrote and illustrated A Souvenir of the Golden City of Bendigo, a privately funded venture that would quickly sell out.8

He would later reflect on these contributions to a Melbourne journalist in Table Talk, ‘I have made a financial success in the USA, but my best work was done in Australia.’ He continued and gave an example. ‘In 1900 I wrote a piece titled “A Seat in the Park”. I received 10 shillings for “the park bench” article when in Bendigo and later in America dusted it off again, had it syndicated and received $1,200 and was still getting paid for it, ten years after I originally wrote it.’9

In 1901, Bert’s unique style came to the attention of media magnate and proprietor of the Age, David Syme during a Commonwealth Conference in Sydney. Bert was at the celebrations working for the Bendigo Independent newspaper. Syme offered Bert to sketch across his stable of papers, an opportunity that was quickly accepted. The Levys left Bendigo for Melbourne, and Bert would spend the next two years with Syme’s Leader newspaper group. In the process, he produced many black and white portraits of some of Australia’s most famous people in the ‘People We Know’ series which can be viewed online in the State Library Victoria collection.10

By 1904, Bert had become restless. In May, he sailed for the United States, a decision he said came to him in an hour. Leaving Harriet and Alwyn in Melbourne, the plan was, Bert would make a start in the United States and then send for them. During the 17-day cruise between Sydney and San Francisco, he created a series of sketches and amusing stories that were posted on the bulletin board for the passengers. The owner of the shipping line John D. Spreckles boarded in Honolulu, saw and liked Bert’s work. Spreckles, who was reading Ezra Brudno’s, Hebrew novel of Russian, American immigration, The Fugitive, cabled San Francisco, purchased the rights to the book, and hired Bert to sketch key pieces for his newspaper, the San Francisco Call. Bert would have work and money in his pocket on his arrival to the United States.11

Once the assignment was complete at the San Francisco Call, Bert travelled overland to the east coast of the United States. Reaching New York his money had run out, and he was virtually destitute. After spending several rough nights on the streets, he eventually found work sketching women’s fashion at a local music hall. His work was noticed by the editor of New York Morning Telegraph who offered him work, a place where he continued to contribute for the next two decades.

In contrast to the Australian newspaper market, syndication of newspapers across America provided greater opportunities for Bert to tender work with other dailies to earn extra income. In April 1905, his opinion piece and sketches of Hebrew scholars living in the ghettos of New York was published in the New York Times. He forged close connections with the city’s Jewish community, who were often subjects of his writing and sketches.

It was in 1905 when Bert’s career really took off. He did so by assimilating the various skills and innovations he had developed by venturing on stage as a vaudeville entertainer. His big break would come by chance, described later, ‘he took the apparatus he had developed in Australia to America, and at times gave private exhibitions, and one evening happened to give one at a well-known club in New York. The next week the “top-liner,” as the “star turn” is called in America, disappointed the management of the leading music hall at the last moment, through illness, and the manager, who had been at the club, remembered Mr. Levy and his turn, and sent for him, asking him if he would fill the gap. He did so and scored a success’.12

In the final week of 1905, Bert debuted on stage at Keith’s Theatre on 14th Street, Broadway. In an act titled, ‘The Artist and the Model’, Bert sat on the stage, sketching model Dorothy (Lottie) Vernon in various poses using a novel apparatus that projected his drawings on a large screen behind him. He also added sketches of notable people, ‘Men of the Hour’ all the while, without dialogue just whistling while he worked. The New York Times review said, ‘the audience seemed to take to the novelty immediately and made Mr. Levy feel that his new step had been taken in the right directions’.13

The projection apparatus that Bert used for this purpose was of his own invention, first developed whilst working at the photography studio in Sydney during the late 1890s. Many attempts were undertaken to describe the apparatus, from a Magic Lantern, to a Cycloidotrope, in which a glass disc was darkened with soot or nitrate emulsion used in the photograph development process.14

Bert patented this projection apparatus and was acknowledged as its inventor. Entitled to legal recourse against anyone who attempted to copy it, theatre managers were forced to withdraw acts that tried to copy the projector, either out of respect for Bert or from anxiety of being taken to court. Although full details of the apparatus were never made public, it is reasonable to credit Bert Levy with inventing the fore runner to the overhead projector.

By the end of 1907, Bert Levy had become a rising star on the American vaudeville stage. He no longer required the services of Lottie Vernon as a co-performer, renamed his act and was on the road constantly. Five years later in 1911 when returning to Melbourne he claimed to have performed in over 120 US cities. He performed on the same bill as some of the biggest stars, including Houdini, Ole (Al) Jolson, Will Rogers and an earlier incarnation of the Marx Brothers act. He travelled across America by train with friend Mark Twain prior to the novelist’s death and was credited with being the highest paid performer on Vaudeville and at one point was booked for two years.15

Bert took his successful Broadway show to London in October 1908 without a booking agent or any theatre arrangement. He eventually was engaged at the Palace Theatre and again his performance was an instant success. Remarkedly, his tour ended up being a remarkable 13 weeks, only shortened by his need to be back in New York for contracted performances over the Christmas vaudeville season.16

Whilst in London, Bert’s reputation was further enhanced after he organised two charity events at the end of his tour in 1908. The first was a successful fundraiser to recoup earnings for a number of American performers in London who had been mis-treated and embezzled of their earnings by unscrupulous theatre managers leaving many without funds to return home. In turn, these actors reciprocated the favour to Bert by assisting him with a fund-raising concert free of charge. Bert’s All–American Vaudeville concert for East End children not only raised considerable funds but attracted the support and patronage of several extremely wealthy families including the Rothschilds of London. Bert was dismayed by the squalor of London’s East End where his parents and elder siblings had once lived before emigrating to Australia. During his 1908 tour, he was reported as standing on street corners encouraging the Jewish residents to migrate.17

Bert’s meteoric rise in the US and London had remained largely unnoticed in Australia. It was not until he had been invited to perform for the King and the Royal Family at Stafford House in London on 21 July 1909 that Australian newspapers started to report on Bert’s fame and success overseas. Soon after, he went on to perform at the famous Folies Bergère in Paris and Berlin, where his non-verbal show featured him whistling on stage as he magnified his images on a screen behind him. Interest in this innovative device and non-speaking act facilitated an entrée into European theatre that was generally not offered to other English-speaking performers. He broke off his planned Russian tour in 1910, because authorities there attempted to change the name on his passport to Monsieur Bert, an attempt to cloud his race which he resented.18

His stellar vaudeville career continued to flourish throughout the next decade, yet at the same time, he continued to work as a black and white sketch artist. In August of 1911 one of his sketches appeared in the prestigious Life magazine. The full-page sketch titled ‘Moths’, depicted insects transforming into the newly invented biplanes flying too close to a lit candle, symbolically ‘the flame’, crashing to earth.19 In 1911, this sketch had been intended to highlight the potential pitfalls of a life on the stage, those seeking fame, but was eerily prophetic of a tragic personal event to unfold seven years later.

Bert and family returned to Australia in late 1911 and he was contracted to the theatre owner and promoter Harry Rickards. He performed in the new Opera House in Melbourne and the Tivoli in Sydney, completing his engagement with a free performance for children at the Tivoli Theatre which was followed by a day out for all attendees.

In late 1914, he added a third string to his artistic bow. Bert signed with World Film Corporation to produce four photo plays titled ‘Bert Levyettes’, which were novel one-reel films depicting Bert’s rapid sketch artist work. These were described as totally unique and again may have been a forerunner in development of animation features made popular in the twenties and thirties. Whilst Bert’s movies were shown extensively across America, they were not considered box office hits and he and the producer later became the embroiled in successful legal proceedings when the original reels were lost by the Film company.

It was, however, his commitment to charity events for children across the United States and England that became his overriding passion. He would lock into any contract requiring the theatre owner to include a Saturday morning concert without charge for children to attend free of charge. His fundraising supported the American and British ‘Fresh Air Fund’ which was established for ‘street urchins’ from the poorest districts of the major cities to have a day in the country. This organisation became the forerunner to the American Summer Camp program.

Papers dubbed Bert the ‘Kids Pal’ and lauded his unwavering commitment to the cause. Other artists supported the campaign by providing their services free of charge. However, not all performers were pleased that Bert was attracting attention for his children concerts. Former co-star on many of the same vaudeville bills, Harry Houdini wrote to Broadway Magazine in 1916 complaining that it was unfair that Bert’s should receive so much acclamation for organising charitable events when he himself had done likewise.20

In addition to the Rothchilds in London, Bert enlisted the patronage of other wealthy American families to support his ‘Kid’s concerts’ and the ‘Fresh Air Society’ fund including Mrs Randolph Hearst. He embarked on raising money for children’s hospitals and was a frequent visitor /entertainer to wards of sick children. He did not limit his generosity to paediatric causes only and would entertain prisoners with his collection of photographic images of indigenous people from across the globe.

The war in Europe had embroiled the United States by 1916–1917. Bert actively campaigned on behalf of the British and Commonwealth forces and raised extensive amounts of money for wounded Canadian soldiers returning home. In January 1918, when his son Alwyn reached recruitment age, they crossed the border together from New York into Canada to voluntarily enlist. At the age of 46 with failing hearing, Bert’s application was rejected. However, the Canadian Government decided to officially recognise his recruiting work by assigning him the role an honorary Captain. Alywn aged 19 was accepted for service, and initially placed in the Signaller’s Corp. A few months later his talent and initiative saw him accepted in the Royal Canadian Flying Corp.21

Tragically, in August 1918, the 19-year-old Canadian RFC First Lieutenant Alwyn Levy was killed in a training exercise in the skies over London. The circumstances were even more distressing for the Levy / Waxman families when it became known that Alwyn and his 18-year-old first cousin Lieutenant Cyril Whelan (son of Albert Whelan, Harriet’s brother who had the stage name of Whelan) a stunt instructor from Melbourne had collided mid-air, both being killed on impact.22

hollywoodfilmogr91holl 0053 8 June 1929Charlie Chaplin.
From Hollywood Filmograph,
8 June 1929, p.11
Bert’s sketch of 1911 of the ‘Moths’ in Life magazine could have no more chilling portent and brought him, his wife and their families across three countries great sadness.

In 1921 Bert added ‘author’ to his repertoire of skills. His book was a compilation of short stories that he had published in newspapers during his time in the United States. Most of these stories reflected his long vaudeville career on stage and the various characters he had encountered. One story of a stay in Australia would be a light-hearted piece of spending a day sailing on Sydney Harbour with Dame Nellie Melba at the helm. The title and the lead story ‘For the good of the Race’ would convey a strong message to his fellow Jewish people to not deny their faith and customs and urged fellow Jews who had been swept up in modern America to not fall for the derogative stereotypical image of Jewish people.23

By the 1920s Bert was established as one of the most respected artist-entertainers in America. He was often sought to address or preside over some of America’s biggest events. His characteristic, dry sense of humour was very popular and in great demand. One emphatic speech in Washington delivered in front of ex-President Wilson had the audience on their feet as Bert called for Americans to support the new League of Nations and end of all wars. The former President wrote and personally thanked Bert for his sentiments.24

Bert continued his sketch artist work, vaudeville commitments and made movies with his closest friend, Charlie Chaplin. He no longer trusted Film Distribution Companies and produced his own movies predominantly for children’s concerts and other charities. One American newspaper reported in 1923 that Bert Levy had conducted over 190 free children’s concerts over a two-year period.

Bert returned to Australia in 1924 primarily to see his ageing mother who was 86 years old. She would die a year after his visit. Family commitments did not stop him from organising children’s concerts in both Melbourne and Sydney, and on the closing night of his season at the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney he was personally thanked with gifts from Sir George Tallis and J.C. Williamson Ltd.25

Bert joined MGM studios in Hollywood in 1927 as cartoonist and writer of scripts and made Los Angeles home. That year at the invitation of his good friend and director Cecil B. DeMille, he was given the honour of the role of courtroom artist in the original silent movie Chicago. In the 1930s he would join Paramount Pictures and would continue to work with some of biggest names in Hollywood.

Despite Bert’s fame in the United States he retained his strong connections with Australia and would entertain Australian artists and dignitaries whenever he could. Artist Will Dyson, Jim Bancks, creator of the Ginger Megs cartoon strip, and the wife of theatre entrepreneur Sir George Tallis are just some of the people photographed with Bert and his wife Harriet in the United States. In the early 1930s Bert was also actively involved in assisting some key Australian movie people (Frank Thring Senior of Efftee Films) in bringing the ‘talkies’ to Australia.26

Bert battled deafness and bouts of serious illness which restricted his vaudeville touring. He remained patron and Dean of the Los Angeles Cartoon Society and in one report was carried by fellow cartoonist on his chair onto the stage to address them.27 Still working, Bert died in Los Angeles in 1934 at the age of 63. Tributes in America were extensive as he was credited with 27 years on the vaudeville stage. Sadly, the time away from Australia meant Bert’s death passed with little acknowledgement, and his career to this day remains unrecognised and underappreciated.

 

Endnotes

1. The Lone Hand (Sydney), 1 February 1912

2. Simon Plant, ‘Enjoying the Scenery’, Part 1, 15 December 2020, Theatre Heritage Australia

3. The Bulletin (Sydney), 27 August 1898, p.20

4. The Bulletin (Sydney), 22 October 1898, p.10

5. Bendigo Advertiser, 19 September 1900, p.6

6. The Bendigonian, Supplement, 17 April 1900

7. Bendigo Art Gallery Collection

8. Bert A Levy, A Souvenir of the Golden City of Bendigo, Syd Day, Melbourne, [1901?], State Library Victoria

9. Table Talk (Melbourne), 9 November 1911, p.13

10. Bert A. Levy, ‘Sir Edmund Barton’, State Library Victoria

11. The Lone Hand (Sydney), 1 February 1912

12. Table Talk (Melbourne), 9 November 1911, p.13

13. ‘The Stage and its Players’, The New York Times, 31 December 1905, p.3

14. J.A. Marx, ‘A Stranger Among His People: The art, writing, and life of Bert Levy’, Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, XXXIII, 2020, pp.140–164

15. The Lone Hand (Sydney), 1 February 1912

16. Variety (New York), 14 November 1908, p.8

17. Jewish Herald (Vic.), 30 October 1908, p.381

18. The Newsletter (Sydney), 22 January 1910, p.3

19. ‘Moths’, Life (New York), 17 August 1911, p.273

20. Variety (New York), 21 April 1916, p.8

21. The Bulletin (Sydney), 31 January 1918, p.14

22. New York Tribune, 30 April 1918, p.4

23. Bert Levy, For the Good of the Race and Other Stories, Ad Press, New York, 1921

24. Morning Telegraph (New York), 8 July 1923

25. Everyones (Sydney), 28 May 1924, p.32

26. The Age (Melbourne), 20 January 1931, p.8

27. Hollywood Filmograph, 11 August 1934, p.2

References

Californian Digital Newspaper Collection, UCR Centre for Bibliographical Studies and Research

Chronicling America, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Digital Collections, New York Public Library

Hathi Trust Digital Library

Internet Archive

State Library Victoria, Melbourne

Trove, National Library of Australia, Canberra

Acknowledgments

Mr Jack Coyne, Founding Member ‘Bert Levy Appreciation Society’ (BLAS)

The Hon Howard Nathan, QC & Member of the Australia Council  

Founding Member BLAS & Number 1 Ticker Holder 

Mr Phil Lipshut, Founding Member BLAS & Great, Great Nephew of Bert Levy

Dr. Bill Connell, Founding Member BLAS, ‘Bert Levy Appreciation Society’

More information about Bert Levy and the Bert Levy Appeciation Society may be found at bertlevy.com

 

Read 362 times Last modified on Sunday, 26 June 2022