FRANK VAN STRATEN explores the life and tumultuous times of Frank Neil, one of Australia’s near-forgotten entrepreneurs.

Frank NeilFrank Neil: A publicity portrait from the late 1920s. Author’s collection.Part 1: ‘I had the showman’s spirit born in me.’

In 1973 I read an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly profiling a retired scenic artist called Jim Hutchings. Jim was living in Sydney with his son and daughter-in-law. He had suffered a stroke two years before and was regaining his health and confidence by developing his talents as a painter of still lifes and landscapes. I rang and Jim graciously invited me to visit him.

He took a shine to me. Though the stroke impeded his speech, he allowed me to record his reminiscences. He had spent the most rewarding years of his life working as a scenic artist at the Sydney Tivoli. His memories were crystal clear, warm, ribald, rumbustious. We ran out of time and tape. A few days later I received in the mail some painstakingly written sheets of paper headed ‘Tivoli Days’. They were filled with more colourful reminiscences. I wrote to thank him. More followed. Then more. Jim kept up the supply, week after week, until he died in June 1974. For Jim Hutchings the Tivoli was Theatre—and Frank Neil was the Tivoli.

‘It was in 1928 at the Royal in Adelaide that I met Frank Neil,’ reminisced Jim. ‘I told him I remembered seeing him at the Majestic in Newtown in Sydney. I asked him if there was some scenery I could paint. He started me on the Monday morning, fixing up Charley’s Aunt. That’s how I got started. He came down to watch me paint. I was very nervous. I was painting a hedge with roses on it. “That’s the stuff I want, pink roses. And colourful roses around the college door.” I realised Frank had a weakness for roses and for bright emerald greens. I couldn’t do a thing wrong! We were friends for life. He said, “If you come to Sydney, I’ve got some shows coming up, and I’ll give you an introduction to George Marlow at the Grand Opera House”. I painted Babes in the Wood and Mother Goose, then, I think, Getting Gertie’s Garter for Frank.

‘I remember the time he wanted an underwater scene for the ballet. We used to all stand out in the stalls in case he should see something that needed improving or changing. Frank dusted the cigarette ash off his lapels and said, “Bring in the sea legs. Bring on the shell.” Then, suddenly, he said to Teddy Bolt, the props man, “Where are those strings of baby pink roses?” Eddie McDonald said, “Christ, Frank, you can’t have roses under the sea.” “Why can’t you? Have you ever been under the sea?” said Frank. “There’s everything down there! Get the pink roses, Teddy!” So roses we had, under the sea, at the Tivoli!

‘Frank was a force. Eyes on everything. He lived show business, slept show business, loved show business, was show business. No-one but Frank could have got the Tivolis back on the map. It was Frank who organised the best people he could get and inspired their love and loyalty. We worked ourselves to the bone for him. There were rumours that he was a bit homosexual. There was never any proof, but I never saw him with any females or heard of anyone who did. As one stagehand said to me, “After all, it’s his own arse. He can do what he likes with it”.’

Frank Neil’s birth certificate confirms that he was born in the Victorian town of Corindhap on 21 December 1886—not in 1890 as several sources state. Today Corindhap is a quiet, scattered hamlet on the highway between Ballarat and Colac that has obviously seen better days. Around 100 people still call it home, but in the 1850s it had a population of 5000. Back then it was a bustling gold mining town called Break o’ Day, after a nearby reef. When the gold petered out, the community turned to agriculture. By the 1880s Corindhap was a busy, if not particularly prosperous, country village with about 340 residents—an extremely unlikely starting point for a man who made a career presenting bright, frothy entertainment and who worked with some of the greatest names in world variety.  

Frank Neil’s father, John Isaac Neil, was a Geelong-born miner; his mother, the former Sarah Scott Thompson, had emigrated from Liverpool. Frank was the last of the Neils’ seven children.

In 1890 Frank was enrolled at the local State School. There he met a bright boy, Percy Laidler, two years his senior, who, too, had an interesting future ahead of him: he would become a prominent socialist propagandist, and find himself, depicted as ‘Percy Lambert’ in Frank Hardy’s explosive book Power Without Glory. Percy managed Will Andrade’s bookshop in Bourke Street, a few doors east of the Melbourne Tivoli Theatre. The shop specialised in magic paraphernalia, plays props and theatrical makeup, and in leftist literature.

Frank was an average student, but he was in his element when, occasionally, the family made the four-hour Cobb and Co coach trip to Ballarat where they’d see a show at Her Majesty’s Theatre in View Street or take in a circus or perhaps a concert at the 7000-seat wooden Alfred Hall or in the more intimate Mechanics’ Institute Hall. He revelled in the colour, the excitement, the music and the exotic costumes. Family members recalled his early love of ‘dress ups’ and Frank himself admitted, ‘I had the showman’s spirit born in me.’

Frank claimed to have toured South Africa ‘as a boy’ with a juvenile comic opera company, though there is no documentation of this. We do know that he was still in his teens when the family moved to Melbourne, where he luxuriated in the city’s theatrical riches. At the turn of the century, half a million people lived in Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs. They patronised the city’s five great theatres, the Royal, the New Opera House (later the Tivoli) and the Bijou in Bourke Street, the Princess in Spring Street and Her Majesty’s (formerly the Alexandra) in Exhibition Street. There were dozens of smaller theatres and halls scattered throughout the city and suburbs, as well as a waxworks, two imposing cyclorama buildings, one in Carlton and the other in Little Collins Street, and even a permanent circus building in St Kilda Road. The first moving pictures had been screened at the Opera House in 1896, but it would be some years before movies would compete with live theatre for audiences.

Personable, fresh-faced and bright, young Frank Neil haunted the city’s theatres, picking up occasional backstage jobs or working as an ‘extra’ in crowd scenes. He was also an aspiring actor, ready to play anything from young hero to comic servant or wicked villain. And he could sing and dance.

In those far off days entertainment was certainly not confined to the cities. Country folk were treated to drama, musical comedy, variety entertainment and even opera, presented by hard-working touring companies often headed by city stars. Mostly they travelled by coach, sometimes by rail. They played in any available venue, though larger provincial towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Newcastle had fine playhouses. Some shows carried their own ‘canvas theatres’. It was with one of these adventurous itinerant enterprises that Frank Neil got his real start in show business.

In December 1906 travelling showman Edward Irham (‘E.I.’) Cole brought his Bohemian Dramatic Company to Melbourne. He set up shop in the Hippodrome, a rough and ready open-air venue on the south-east corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale streets, where the Comedy Theatre now stands. Apparently, Cole sensed that 20-year-old Frank had potential, and he gave the eager young man a job. ‘I helped build our stage of solid earth,’ reminisced Frank in a piece published in the Melbourne Herald in January 1930.

Not only was Cole a superb showman, he was also a shameless ‘quack’. One of his most successful creations was a pill that could miraculously cure liver complaints and almost anything else. The pills were made by Cole family members from a mixture of Epsom salts and cascara and sold in little cardboard boxes. Before and after each show, and in the interval, Cole would stand on a makeshift platform in front of the tent and regale the crowd with stories of the efficacy of his medication. As soon as someone indicated interest, it was Frank’s duty to conduct the transaction. This was known in the show world as ‘running the planks’. The pills, thankfully, were harmless.

Frank stayed with Cole when the company went on tour, travelling by ‘special train’ and performing in their huge canvas theatre.  He reminisced: ‘I was for three years with old “Bohemian Cole”, who let his hair trail down his back, wore a yard-wide sombrero, and imagined he was an actor. I was his property man and second juvenile [juvenile lead]. He made his actors work. We had to unload the tent from the train, put it up, and build a stage. Then we had to dress and make up, and parade the town. As second “juve” I was usually a more or less dashing cowboy. At night we played, and rode on and off on our fiery steeds. Our favourite drama was Buffalo Bill. I learnt a lot of showmanship from Cole. He was not a great actor, but he was a Barnum of a showman.’

Occasionally Frank took time off to work with other managements, such as Lilian Meyers’ Dramatic Company. Miss Meyers was a stunningly beautiful young Melbourne actress who had been stricken, wrote a reporter, ‘with the fever of bellow-drama’. Financed by her father, who was ‘not without riches’, she assembled her own company and ‘portrayed the terrible heroines with cheerful abandon.’ Her costumes—some from Paris—were said to be ‘almost too extravagant for the dingy little theatres she sometimes appeared in.’ Camille was her favourite showpiece, and eminent Melbourne medico—and part-time drama critic—Dr James Edward Neild helped her perfect the consumptive cough that the star role called for.

We don’t know exactly when or under what circumstances Frank Neil joined her, but we do know that on 26 October 1907 he took to the stage of the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle in Miss Meyers’ production of a lurid melodrama called The Executioner’s Daughter. Two days later The Newcastle Herald reported that his part was ‘well enacted’. It was his first press notice.

It was after a performance of Camille at the Town Hall in Devonport, Tasmania, on 21 December 1907, that Miss Meyers and her cast and crew helped Frank celebrate his twenty-first birthday. Miss Meyers eventually went to the United States where she married a prosperous theatrical manager, Gerald Bacon, and retired from the stage. Not so Frank. Soon he was back on the road.

He joined a now forgotten stock company called Terence Goodwin’s Dramatic Players. Goodwin was actually William Thomas Goodwin Glancy, born in Melbourne in 1873. With his wife as his leading lady, he launched his peripatetic company in 1905. Years later he conducted a real estate business in Charters Towers, Queensland. He died there in 1938, aged 65.

Frank recalled: ‘I remember arriving at Pakenham one New Year’s Day as a member of Terence Goodwin’s company. We were a company of twenty metropolitan artists—on the daybills—but actually there were only seven of us. When we got off the goods train Terry had two shillings, and he was the only one of us who could jingle a penny. At the hotel the landlord looked us up and down and then shook his head. “No hope,” said he, “we’re full up.” So we went to the hall where we were to play, and the hall-keeper’s granite heart melted after a bit, and he let us camp inside. While Terry went out and bought two shillings’ worth of bread and butter, and some tea, one of our more adventurous spirits let his poverty but not his will consent and abducted a fowl from a nearby back yard. We had a poultry dinner that day and enjoyed it. There was enough “in” that night to get us on to the next town. A vagabond life, yes, but Terry was a good chap, and we were happy enough playing blood-and-thunder and dreaming dreams. Experiences of that sort are invaluable in the motley make-up of the theatrical manager.’

In March 1909 Neil was back with Bohemian Cole in Bendigo. They pitched their tent at Camp Hill, but eventually moved into the grand Royal Princess’s Theatre in View Street. Their first attraction there was the perennial favourite East Lynne. On 3 May The Bendigo Independent reported that, ‘The acting of Frank Neil as the wrongly accused and outcast Richard Hare appealed greatly to the audience.’ A few weeks later, when they presented Buffalo Bill at Echuca, The Riverine Herald told its readers that the acting was generally ‘splendid’, adding, ‘Mr. Frank Neil as Joe Blake, a bartender, is worthy of mention.’

In 1911 Neil joined Harry Craig’s Australian Players who were on tour in South Australia. The company had been founded by Kate Howarde, a talented actress, entrepreneur and playwright. It included her sister, Billie, and Harry Craig, Billie’s husband. A fine baritone as well as a popular actor, Harry had cut his theatrical teeth in everything from opera to minstrel shows. When Kate ventured overseas, he carried on the enterprise as Harry Craig’s Australian Players, creating a congenial kindergarten for several aspiring performers—Frank Neil included. His first role with Craig was in a patriotic piece called In the Heart of Australia at the Port Pirie Institute Hall. It impressed The Port Pirie Recorder: ‘It sparkles in reproducing the atmosphere of the great Australian bush life, and it has a powerful and beautiful love story that goes straight to the heart, and it throbs with soul-stirring episodes. Special mention should be made of the acting of Mr. Frank Neil as Jack Gordon, a young bushman, and Miss Ethel Chadwick as Merry Dalton, the bush flower. Mr. Neil’s acting was good, but Miss Chadwick’s was exceptionally fine.’ Their second offering was the sensational prison reform drama It’s Never Too Late to Mend. A season in Port Augusta followed.

In December 1911 Frank was at His Majesty’s Theatre in Geelong, Victoria, for a season with the W.H. Ayr Dramatic Company. This appears to have been an offshoot of Cole’s Bohemians. Bill Ayr had acted for Cole, managed the company and had married Cole’s daughter. Their main attraction was a Wild West American crowd-pleaser called The Indians’ Revenge. The Geelong Advertiser made special mention of ‘the reappearance of the popular young actor Frank Neil, who will play Lieutenant Jack Forrest, who has been a captive of hostile Indians for three years and returns just in time to witness the marriage of his betrothed to another man.’

On 23 December Neil was the star attraction at the regular People’s Concert presented at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Hall by the Geelong Harbour Trust Band. Supported by Ethel Chadwick and Cyril Iredale, he appeared in ‘a specially written scena, My Daddy, combining comedy, pathos and sensation.’ He also delivered a series of ‘illustrated monologues’. The evening was topped off with a screening of ‘The Great Gaumont Vitascope presentation The Rose of Kentucky, a Romance of the Fields of Tobacco.’ Seventeen minutes long, it was one of D.W. Griffith’s earliest films. Now regarded as something of a classic of silent cinema, it has been meticulously restored and made available on YouTube.

In January 1912 Neil and Chadwick restaged My Daddy at the Temperance Hall in Melbourne. Located at 170 Russell Street, the Hall offered inexpensive Sunday night concerts as an alternative to the boozy, bawdy fare provided by pubs and music halls, and it gave valuable exposure and experience to hundreds of aspiring entertainers. It became the Savoy Theatre in 1934, but was eventually replaced by Total House, which included the Lido nightclub in a basement space which today houses a popular live music venue, 170 Russell.

Next Neil returned to Harry Craig who had considerably expanded his range of plays and was set to visit Echuca, Kerang, Mildura, Narracoorte, Mount Gambier, Hamilton, Camperdown, Geelong and Wyalong. An interesting addition to the repertoire was Brandon Thomas’s warmly familiar farce Charley’s Aunt, with Frank as Lord Fancourt Babberley, the drag role that would become his ‘calling card’, with its memorable line, ‘I’m Charley’s aunt, from Brazil—where the nuts come from.’ Neil debuted in the role on tour in Mildura on 19 March 1912. ‘Mr. Frank Neil was particularly successful,’ said The Mildura Cultivator, ‘and kept the audience in roars of laughter.’

In 1911 London-born entrepreneur George Marlow (real name: Joseph Marks) had built the Adelphi Theatre in Sydney, at the Haymarket end of Castlereagh Street. It was the first theatre in Australia to use the cantilever system to support its circle and gallery, thus obviating obstructive columns, and it was huge: 2400 seats over its three levels. Marlow created it as a home for his busy melodrama players.

Neil made his Adelphi debut with Marlow’s company on 19 July 1913 in the tear-jerker No Mother to Guide Her. It was his first significant engagement in a major city theatre. Truth welcomed him as ‘A new comedian working on clean lines’. As he tackled small parts in juicy melodramas like The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning, Married to the Wrong Man, East Lynne and Driving a Girl to Destruction, how could he have imagined that one day he would be running the place as the Tivoli, the focus of Australian variety entertainment?

Neil’s Adelphi season was not without its uncomfortable moments. First, a stage ‘hanging’ went awry, nearly choking him; then a ‘research visit’ to a Sydney opium den turned into a fiasco when the place was raided by the police. Neil narrowly avoided arrest.

In October 1913 actor-manager George Willoughby and two partners bought out Marlow’s holdings. They renamed the company George Willoughby Ltd, but Marlow continued to ‘pull strings’ behind the scenes. George Willoughby’s Dramatic Company debuted at the Princess in Melbourne on 11 October. It was essentially the same ensemble that had been playing in Sydney, with Neil now promoted to principal comedian and character actor. Their first Melbourne offering was The Queen of the White Slaves, a sprawling new American melodrama that roved from San Francisco to China, with a rescue at sea, torture, drug dens, Japanese acrobats and, of course, white slavery. ‘Mr. Frank Neil ably delineated the moods of an opium victim,’ reported Punch, while the theatrical weekly The Hawklet said he was ‘a clever young Australian who has made rapid strides. He is a favourite with audiences at the Princess Theatre.’

The company’s attraction for Christmas 1913 was a familiar favourite, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, optimistically promoted as being ‘as funny as a pantomime, as sensational as a melodrama, and as full of music and dancing as a vaudeville show.’ ‘There is little exaggeration in the claim,’ agreed The Age. Frank portrayed ‘Mr. Augustine St Clare, a Southern Planter’.

In February 1914 the company moved back to the Adelphi in Sydney, introducing The Pride of the Prairie, ‘a powerful and emotional drama of Mexican life’. Next came Brisbane, where they opened at His Majesty’s on 13 July. The season was soured by the announcement on 28 July of the outbreak of war. The ominous title of the piece then in production was Brought to Ruin.

In November 1914 the Willoughby company was back at the Adelphi in Sydney with The Kelly Gang. The Referee commented: ‘We read so much about terrorism in the war news nowadays that from that point of view the play of The Kelly Gang seems almost topical,’ adding that Frank played a comic trooper ‘with much over-exaggeration’. Unrest about the war had started to erode audiences, so Willoughby drastically reduced admission to what he euphemistically called ‘war prices’.

When the company returned to the Princess in Melbourne early in the New Year, Neil’s contribution to Camille was particularly praised. In its review on 29 March 1915 The Argus purred, ‘Mr. Frank Neil, whose voice is remarkably sonorous, evinced considerable ability in his portrayal of the role of Gaston Rieux, and the cleverness of his work, particularly in the final scenes, indicates that he is well fitted for a more important part.’

Soon after this Frank was reported to be ‘contemplating a trip to the United States to join a well-known stock dramatic company.’ Indeed, many young Australian men—boxer Les Darcy included—were considering re-establishing themselves in the States, which at that point had not entered the war. Frank did not go, but it was later revealed that his application to join the Australian armed forces had been rejected.

In July 1915 The Hawklet announced that Frank was experimenting with vaudeville. He had formed a double act with petite Maudie Chetwynd, warmly remembered for her participation in the hit Williamson production of Florodora in 1900. Frank and Maudie developed some sketch ‘turns’ that they hoped might be suitable for the Tivoli or for Fullers’ theatres, but the expected bookings did not materialise. Instead, Frank teamed up with another member of the George Willoughby company, Herbert Linden, to establish a touring company to reproduce many of the melodramas that William Anderson had recently presented at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne. They debuted on 24 December 1915 with a seven-play seven-night season at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Hall. Their first offering was The Face at the Window. Inevitably there were comparisons with the big-city ‘originals’. When they presented The Face at the Window at the Town Hall in Queenscliff in January 1916, The Queenscliff Sentinel carped: ‘There was a good house, but the piece would have been better appreciated if aided with effective scenery, which the management had promised.’

In April 1916 A. (Albert) Brandon-Cremer recruited Frank for his eighty-strong dramatic company for a season at the recently opened Tivoli Theatre in Grote Street, Adelaide. The two men had met in George Willoughby’s company at the Princess in Melbourne.

Irish-born, Brandon-Cremer was a theatrical all-rounder, a producer of vaudeville, drama, musicals and comedy, a manager of theatres and, eventually, cinemas, and as at home on stage as a melodrama villain as he was as a light comedian. His leading lady was, invariably, his wife, Kathleen Arnold; their daughters, Gertrude (later known as Barbara) and Molly (initially promoted as ‘Baby Cremer’) also had stage careers. Brandon-Cremer’s repertoire included Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Two Orphans, The Coward, The Great Diamond Robbery, The Three Musketeers and A Working Girl’s Wrongs. In the latter Neil played Bates, the servant of Warton, the villain. An impressed reviewer wrote, ‘He appeared in a clever disguise as an old hag, the character of which he fulfils to perfection.’

Also in Brandon-Cremer’s company was a handsome young actor called Maurice Tuohy. A policeman’s son, Maurice Caulfield Tuohy was born in 1892 in Willunga, South Australia, and educated, first, at the little school in nearby Clare, and later at the Christian Brothers’ School in Wakefield Street, Adelaide. Like Neil, he was determined to make a career for himself in the theatre. He was in his teens when he made his stage debut at the Clare Town Hall in August 1911 with ‘The Gay Goblins’, an all-male team of youthful amateur entertainers. The review in The Blythe Agriculturalist mentioned that ‘Mr. M.C. Tuohy, as an illusionist, mystified the audience with several well-carried-out illusions, and his performance elicited merited applause. As a character vocalist he was also fairly successful.’ Tuohy subsequently ‘paid his dues’ playing ‘the smalls’ in tiny touring companies, and ‘pushed his way from a raw, gawky, country youth to a leading actor and a fine advertisement for Young Australia.’ The Weekly Judge in Perth described him as being of splendid physique, and a good all-round athlete, to say nothing of his acting abilities,’ and the Perth Mirror labelled him ‘one of the finest looking men on the Australian stage.’ Tuohy and Neil found an instant rapport. They formed a personal and professional partnership that survived until Tuohy’s death in 1926.

Frank Neil and Maurice Tuohy were still with Brandon-Cremer when he successfully toured New Zealand in 1917. The following year Tuohy was recruited by the Fullers for their New Dramatic Company at the Princess in Melbourne, but Frank was not so lucky. He was reduced to accepting a booking as a ‘descriptive vocalist’ for a couple of weeks of vaudeville at the Theatre Royal in Broken Hill.

To be continued