Harry rickards was an English comic singer who came to Australia first in 1871. He returned in 1884 and found success not only as an entertainer, but also as a music hall entrepreneur. Before long he was shunting popular vaudeville companies between the Tivoli in Sydney and the Opera House in Melbourne.
The turn of the nineteenth century was the peak of Rickards’ career. He was 58 years old, filling his bills with some of the world’s best vaudeville talent, and also providing opportunities for up-and-coming Australian talent. His imported acts for 1901 were a tantalizingly mixed bag. Among them were Celina Bobe, ‘Parisienne Violiniste’; Frank Latona, the musical tramp; Dan Le Mont and his dogs, one of whom could throw twenty-five consecutive somersaults; Herr Winschermann’s Educated Acrobatic Bears, led by Tony, the Sacred Bear of India; Professor De Wynne and his shadowgraphy (the art of throwing on a screen shadows of recognisable objects formed by manipulating the hands and fingers); Little Eric, a juvenile comedian and impersonator from England; the Dartos, a famous French dance team whose specialities were the Valse Tourbillon and the Swirl Twirl; and Rosie Aquinaldo, a lady contortionist from Cuba. There were Bioscope pictures of the funeral of Queen Victoria and of the great fire at the Anthony Hordern store.
But Harry Rickards’ biggest attraction for 1901 was undoubtedly Marie Lloyd. She was, simply, the queen of the Music Hall. A London devotee tried to encapsulate her magic: ‘Our Marie. The baggage, the saucy puss, with a wink and a husky voice and the energy of ten men. A wonderful vulgarity, a way of ploughing the audience with a wink, a sense of wild Bank Holiday spirits. How Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens would have laughed! How Rowlandson would have drawn her! No one could be more British. She’s London if you like, she’s beanos down to Epping Forest, horse char-à-banc, cornet and all, and she’s baked potatoes and barrel organs, and fish and chips. She is the height of vulgarity with a great heart.’1
T.S. Eliot also tried to explain her mystique: ‘Her superiority was in a way a moral superiority. It was her understanding of the people and sympathy with them, and the people’s recognition of the fact that she embodied the virtue which they genuinely most respected in private life, that raised her to the position she occupied at her death. I have called her the expressive figure of the lower classes; there is no such expressive figure for any other class. The middle classes have no such idol: the middle classes are morally corrupt.’2
Then approaching the peak of her enormous popularity, the magnetic Marie was at first reluctant to commit herself to the tour. Rickards told her, ‘Sign up with me for three months and, if you aren’t absolutely stuck on the Australians and their country, if you have just one home sickness pang, then I’ll release you on a moment’s notice and pay you for the full three months’.3 Marie signed up at £250 a week, an enormous salary. Part of the deal was that Coster comedian Alec Hurley, a star in his own right, should come with her. He was paid £100.
The couple travelled as Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd and were accepted as such, although they were not married until five years later.4 Perhaps this accounted for an incident that occurred on the trip out. The first-class passengers tended to snub them, but when the ship’s concert was being organised Marie was asked to sing. ‘Not on your life!’ she told them. ‘If I’m not good enough to pass the time of day with, I don’t see why I should burst myself to entertain you!’ Not surprisingly, when the steerage passengers’ concert came along, there was the little Cockney sparrow, singing song after song.5
Marie and Alec opened to standing room only at the Tivoli in Sydney on 6 April 1901. The house was enthusiastic, but the press wasn’t. The Daily Telegraph commented sourly that: ‘Marie skates rather close to the brink of what there is a steady determination on the part of theatregoers not to tolerate much of. The field of mirth and humour is certainly wide enough to make incursions into the realms of suggestiveness quite unnecessary.’6 The Sydney Morning Herald thought that ‘She had no claim to be considered a singer, but the vocal powers are pleasingly sufficient for the development of her character sketches.’7 Over fifty years later, Gayne Dexter was still able to recall vividly Marie Lloyd at the Sydney Tivoli: ‘The acrobats had finished. On the darkened stage one backcloth shot up into the flies, another was lowered. Call-boys whipped a new name into the program panels on each side of the proscenium. Orchestra and audience poised in a dim, vibrant suspense, cut suddenly by the spotlight. An urgent roll of drums, a roar from the gods, and Marie Lloyd was on. Petite yet plumpish, in short blue skirt and cartwheel hat adorned with a long white feather, she strutted down-stage. She sang harmless lyrics with scandalous innuendoes, or outrageous verses with wide-eyed innocence. The gesture meant everything.’8
The highlight of the tour came in Melbourne, where they topped the first bill at the New Opera House. It was a heady time in Melbourne, as the city welcomed the Duke and Duchess of York (later to be King George V and Queen Mary). They were there to open the first Federal Parliament at the Exhibition Buildings on 9 May. The streets were gaily decorated and the excitement of the royal visit was reflected in the handsome new theatre in Bourke Street, the focus of Melbourne’s night life. It was in an area that was ‘uninhibited and vulgar, perhaps, but decidedly picturesque. Bourke Street was a flaring gas-lit canyon awash with tragedians “resting”, punters, jockeys, scene-shifters, horse trainers, lads of the village and their “donahs”, hot gospellers, racecourse urgers, bookies, peanut sellers and mysterious turf commissioners.’9
Harry Rickards was justifiably proud of his new Melbourne home—so proud, in fact, that the opening night program effused into Latin: ‘“Quod facimus, valde facimus” [‘That which we do, we do well’]—Surely none could more reasonably and modestly claim the right to adopt the motto than Mr. Harry Rickards, after erecting such a handsome building as that of the New Opera House, which has sprung at his bidding from the old theatre in Bourke Street where most, if not all, of the classic successes on the lyric and dramatic stage of Melbourne were made.’10
William Pitt had done his job well. The New Opera House was Moorish or Mogul in style, recalling the extravagances of the Alhambra Music Hall in London, Flinders Street Station, the Cyclorama building in Little Collins Street and the lounges of Melbourne’s Menzies’ and Grand Hotels.11 The Bourke Street frontage was four stories high, of warm red brick embellished with coloured tiles and ornate cast iron work, and surmounted with a huge revolving illuminated globe, similar to the one that would adorn the London Coliseum. Two long corridors lavishly decorated with salmon pink and turquoise frescos led from Bourke Street to the main foyer, which boasted a rockery with ferns, palms and a fountain. On either side of the rockery, grand marble stairways led to the dress circle.12 The Australasian commented on the dress circle’s extreme slope, ‘designed apparently to minimise the inconvenience of the matinee hat. Building a theatre in order to beat the matinee hat is rather like burning down a house in order to boil an egg, but the seats are delightfully comfortable, and the innovation is not unpleasant.’
The auditorium was decorated in red, blue, old gold and cream, embellished with gold and silver leaf. It was brilliantly illuminated with electric light and ventilated by an ornamented sliding shutter in the roof. Two thousand patrons were accommodated on its three levels.13 Strangely, William Pitt failed to take advantage of recent British technical developments that would have permitted the dress circle and the gallery to be constructed without a forest of annoying supporting columns. Still, the new Melbourne Opera House was warm and intimate and welcoming. A Herald reporter likened it to Daly’s Theatre in London.14
Sheet music cover for ‘Everything in the Garden’s Lovely’ as sung by Marie Lloyd, written by J.P. Harrington and composed by George Le Brunn. Published in London by Francis Day & Hunter and in New York by T.B. Harms & Co., 1898.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The first item on the opening night, 18 May 1901, was, naturally enough, ‘God Save the King’. It was sung by Mary Lynne, an English contralto who had appeared with the Musgrove Opera Company. ‘At the conclusion of each verse,’ the Leader reported, ‘the audience, which crowded the building in every part, took up the refrain, and at the end gave three hearty cheers.’ Then came the traditional First Part but ‘there was a welcome change from the stereotyped arrangement of the opening scene. Instead of the customary half-circle of chairs on the old nigger minstrel style, with the funny men at the corners, the stage represented a fancy dress carnival and the special performers came out from among the crowd to do their turns. There was always life and movement to attract the eye.’
After interval came dainty Irene Franklin, a re-appearance by Mary Lynne and then Rickards’ daughters, Noni and Madge, in their ‘Grand Vocal Coon Ballet entitled “Mama’s Carolina Twins”, at present the rage of London and New York’. The Australasian thought this was ‘a task rather beyond their means at present.’
Then it was Marie Lloyd’s turn. She sang ‘Everything in the Garden’s Lovely’ and ‘Milly from Piccadilly’ and the audience loved her. She went on to sing ‘Folkestone for the Day’ and ‘The Barmaid—the Idol of the Rose and Crown’. The Argus noted her ‘dainty, although somewhat peculiar figure, a fascinating laugh, and some extraordinary creations in the way of dress. The songs were, for the most part, irredeemably vulgar and, sung by anyone else, would probably have been ill-received. Coarseness may at times be associated with wit, but these songs had not even the saving grace of humour. Apparently they pleased a number of those present, but the laughter and applause were often gained by double entendre.’
Noted British theatre historian W. MacQueen-Pope was present on that auspicious night. He wrote: ‘When Marie’s number went up in the frame, there was that same exciting hubbub from the people in the auditorium which it aroused in London. It was different in tone, maybe, for the feeling of personal friendship and real affection was not yet there. These people had never seen, although they had heard of her, and were on tiptoes with curiosity. But they had come to be critical; they scarcely believed that this fabulous woman could be as good as they had been told. They had heard stories about her; they had heard of her naughtiness and her “blue” songs; they were prepared to be shocked, but they were not prepared to take her at her—or England’s—valuation. She had to show them.
‘The orchestra blared forth her first song, and then, on the stage, full of vitality, full of personality, full of charm, was the small woman with the trim figure, the round face, the shining eyes and teeth, the warm, friendly smile, the perfect command of herself and the situation, and shedding upon them that radiance which was so peculiarly hers. They gave her a thunderous welcome; they could not help it. And she sang to them. The house was at once full of the electricity she always generated. Her genius for understatement, her genius for letting the audience fill in the blanks, while she just indicated with those hands, the winks, the little nods, coughs and pauses, was fully displayed. But what captured them completely and had them yelling with delight was the advice she gave them in the last of the songs which formed the act. It met a response in every heart, and they all knew and loved the essentially British, lively, homely, yet appealing, direct, yet unaggressive woman, a lady who was essentially a product of the place they regarded as ‘Home’, and who was therefore one of themselves. They liked what she had to tell them, which was that a little of what they fancied did them good.
‘Her success was instantaneous, complete and immense, and it was the same wherever they went—and they went all over Australia. They had long journeys, but they did not mind that. Both of them were nomads. They liked the Australians, Marie highly approving of their absence of ‘side’, their plain speech, and their habit of saying what they thought as they thought it. She was that way herself. She never minced matters, nor chose words; her profanity was pretty exhaustive, and in another woman might have shocked, but in her it seemed so naturally a part of her that it did not give offence, save to the terribly refined and genteelly squeamish. But Marie did not mix with them.
‘Australia was a triumph. She was there with her “husband”, under a sun which vied with her own radiance. She was the most popular woman on the continent.’15
The Australasian decided that the new theatre was ‘acoustically good—so much so that directors of Sunday schools might be led, indeed, to believe that the acoustic properties were a bit too good during some of Miss Lloyd’s songs, and that a measure of indistinctness would not be amiss. Marie Lloyd sails close to the wind, and her ditties about the bicycling girl, the barmaid and the bather were frankly of the smoking-room type.’ Valentine Day recalled Marie’s ‘full and expressive countenance, a fine and large set of teeth, a large torso, and a small waist, a neat ankle, and a pretty foot. She could put a depth of meaning into every word she sang or said, but her enunciation was sometimes faulty. I wrote of her at the time: Marie Lloyd is as hot as mustard, which is doubtless the reason she draws so well.’
The next item on the program was another ‘Rage of London, the Great Coster Scene, Entitled “The Lambeth Walk”.’ with Alec Hurley as a swaggering Flash Bill. The playlet was climaxed by the song ‘The Lambeth Walk’, with the stage filled with coster boys and girls in their sparkling ‘pearlies’. This particular ‘Lambeth Walk’, written and composed by E.W. Rogers, has been replaced in our memories by Noël Gay’s 1937 version; Hurley’s was a good-natured Cockney swipe at the cake-walk:
Talk about the cake-walk—Why, the Lambeth Walk ’ud knock it all to smithereens.
It ain’t a bloomin’ fake walk,
It’s the same as we use when we’re out a-selling greens.
And we don’t want no banjos, burnt cork or any fake:
The Lambeth Walk—there ain’t no talk—
That walk that takes the cake!16
For the sake of historical accuracy, we should record that ‘The Lambeth Walk’ had to be omitted from the opening night’s program as the music was mislaid on the journey from Sydney. Instead Hurley sang two of his coster songs. No doubt he was ‘knocking ’em all to smithereens’ by the Monday night.
After Hurley’s contribution came Celina Bobe with her violin and her xylophone. Then Harry Rickards took to the stage himself, delighting the packed audience with ‘By the Pale Moonlight’. The evening was brought to a close by Johnson, Riano and Bentley in their acrobatic speciality ‘The Man and the Monkeys’, and McKisson and Kearns in a knockabout sketch.
Marie Lloyd and Alec Hurley loved Melbourne. Rather than stay in an impersonal city hotel they rented a private home; they welcomed everybody and there was always plenty to drink. They spent their spare afternoons at the racecourses watching the horses that Alec had bought. One, named Marie, never won a race. Crowds cheered them wherever they went.17
Rickards was understandably thrilled with Marie Lloyd’s success, even though the Leader carpingly recalled that he had ‘once proudly boasted that his entertainment was one to which any lady might come without fear of having her sense of delicacy outraged. This assertion is very strongly challenged by some of Marie Lloyd’s songs.’ It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Marie Lloyd to come to Australia. Rickards was rewarded by enormous box office returns. He took more money in Marie’s first week at the Sydney Tivoli than in any prior week of his career. This prompted the following verse by one W. Evans in a 1901 Christmas theatrical souvenir:
‘O ’Arry!’ shout the gallery, ‘Wot cher?
Are you feeling pretty babbish-like and frivoly?’
And that’s the greeting Rickards likes to hear—
For he’s got a little gold mine at the Tivoli!18
1. Dion Clayton Calthrop, Music Hall Nights, pp.81-2
2. T.S. Eliot, quoted in Harold Scott, The Early Doors, p.184
3. Lloyd’s Sunday News, 1922
4. Richard Anthony Baker, Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music-halls, p.87
5. J.B. Booth, London Town, p.103
6. Daily Telegraph, 8 April 1901
7. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1901
8. Gayne Dexter in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1953
9. Hugh Buggy, The Real John Wren, p.3
10. Program, Mary Had a Little, TTM, 1951
11. The Grand Hotel is now known as the Windsor
12. Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, p.191
13. Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, pp.191-2
14. Herald, 26 April 1900
15. W. MacQueen-Pope, Queen of the Music Halls, pp.120-4
16. Music Hall, Issue 9
17. Dan Farson, Marie Lloyd and Music Hall, p.81
18. W. Evans in Splash, published in Adelaide, 1901. Copy in Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.
Marie Lloyd. Archive film c.1910s
Funeral Procession of Marie Lloyd, October 1922