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

Part 2: ‘Everyone I knew told me I was all kinds of a variegated fool.’

NeilFrankCharlie2Frank Neil in Charley’s Aunt, 1925. Author’s collection.

Tthe fuller theatrical empire was vast and powerful. It owned and controlled theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand and presented a wide range of attractions, from grand opera to crowd-pleasing vaudeville, plus drama, melodrama, musicals, farce, comedy and pantomime. Family-owned and operated, it was headed by Benjamin Fuller. Born in squalor in London in 1875, Ben Fuller mastered theatrical management and was knighted in 1921. An astute, wily spotter of talent, he had seen Neil perform with Maurice Tuohy and admired his ability as an actor, but he also recognised his potential a producer.

On 2 June 1917 the Fullers had launched a new Sydney theatre, the 1642-seat Majestic, to cater for the entertainment needs of the bustling working-class inner-city suburb of Newtown. Initially the Majestic presented vaudeville, but in April 1918 the Fuller Dramatic Company wound up their Melbourne season and moved in. This time the personnel included not only Tuohy, who was cheekily promoted as a ‘new leading man from London’ but also Frank Neil, who played assorted character roles and, most importantly, was to be responsible for producing every one of the company’s weekly-change melodramas.

Their initial offering, As Midnight Chimes, on 12 April 1918, elicited the following welcome from The Sydney Sun: ‘The medium that introduced the new Fuller dramatic company at the Majestic could not be said to lack in either weirdness or sensation. A four-act play that provided a violent quarrel, a murder accusation, a smuggled child, an express train, an escape from custody, a lonely wharf, a limping Chinaman, a mysterious Hindoo girl, a drug scene, a vault in a church yard, with an accompanying vision, and a poisoned drunk, had all the elements that appeal to melodramatic fiends. As Midnight Chimes had all these and moreover was played with considerable vigor by a company of players well versed by long experience in the ways of sensational stagecraft. Maurice Tuohy, a leading man from England [!], made his first appearance here as Dave Stannard, a young fisherman, the hero of many adventures and of many persecutions instigated by Luke Dezzard, played in true stage villain style by Jefferson Tait. Frank Neil (the producer) had a comedy role as a railway porter that appealed strongly to the Newtown folk. These and the subsidiary parts were sustained in a way that evidently gave much satisfaction to the crowded audience.’

It also gave much satisfaction to Ben Fuller. His instinct for picking talent had proved right. He became a great friend and supporter of Neil, offering advice and encouragement as the young man’s career developed.

At the Majestic the success of Neil’s parade of weekly-change crowd-pleasers was phenomenal. Somehow he managed to churn out a new drama every seven days for more than two years: What Women Will Do for Love, Camille and The Luck of Roaring Camp were typical, and there were occasional interesting Australian offerings such as For the Term of His Natural Life and A Girl of the Bush. A turgid religiously tinged drama called The Confession was in residence when peace came on 11 November 1918.

Shows always opened on a Saturday evening and finished on the following Friday evening. The next week’s show was learnt and rehearsed during the day. The only relief came during the Christmas holidays, when melodrama made way for pantomime: Bluebeard and his Seven Wives, for Christmas 1918, ran twice a day for a record six weeks. Frank produced it and also wrote it. It included, appropriately, a ‘Hall of Peace’ tableau featuring ‘The Homecoming of the Aussies’ complete with a new song he wrote and composed called ‘Cheer Up Girls, Here Come the Aussies’. It was sung by the Principal Boy, Essie Jennings—and also by Lola Hunt, the Principal Boy in Fullers’ Sinbad the Sailor at the Grand Opera House (the former Adelphi in Castlereagh Street). Frank’s patriotic flag-waver was published by W.J. Deane and Son in Sydney.

The Dame in Bluebeard was Essie Jennings’ husband, popular comedian Jim Gerald, an engagement he’d accepted while still serving with the Australian forces in the Middle East. Regulars from Frank’s melodrama company included Maurice Tuohy as the heroic Jack Blunt, Jefferson Tait as Bluebeard, and Lily Molloy as the adorable Princess. Frank ‘blacked up’ to portray the comic Rastus, who confided to the kiddies, ‘I’m Bluebeard’s valet, and I love what’s right. Though my skin is black, my heart’s all white.’ Collet Dobson played the dastardly Demon Discord, made up to looked remarkably like the hated Kaiser. Bluebeard packed the Majestic for six merry weeks.

Neil also provided the script for Little Red Riding Hood, which he produced at the Majestic for Christmas 1919. Jim Gerald and Essie Jennings were back, this time as Dame Pimples and Fairy Rose Petal. The great male impersonator Nellie Kolle was Boy Blue, with Rita Starr as Red Riding Hood and Frank Neil as Simple Willie. The score included Frank’s latest composition, ‘Cooing Time in Loveland’, which was introduced by Essie Jennings. Simultaneously it was also being sung by Linda Dale in Fullers’ other Sydney pantomime, Cinderella, at the Grand Opera House. Frank’s lyrics were, well, quaint. Here’s the chorus:

When it’s cooing time in Loveland, in Loveland coo-coo,

I’m going to steal a little aeroplane and fly away

To where they never ever see a rainy day.

And we’ll float through life together

Where the skies are always blue,

And I’ll spend my time in Loveland

With my cooing doves and you.

For Christmas 1920 Fullers entrusted Neil with producing two pantomimes in Sydney—a revival of Bluebeard at the Grand Opera House and The Babes in the Wood at the Newtown Majestic. In Bluebeard Jim Gerald and Essie Jennings were the Dame and Fairy Queen, with Ray de Vere as Principal Girl and Flora Cromer, from Britain, as Principal Boy. Sydney Truth was impressed: ‘If Bluebeard were just a succession of scenes it would be a big attraction without any actors, but when you add to the magnificent scenery a host of pretty girls, delightful music, the comedy of the acrobatic Dame and others, the new songs, and the wonderful specialties of Ferry the Frog, then it becomes an entertainment of outstanding merit, and one that producer Frank Neil may well be proud of.’

In Babes in the Wood were Doff Dee as Principal Girl, Mattie Jansen as the Fairy Queen and Bert Desmond as the Dame. As Principal Boy, Robin Hood, Nellie Kolle made the most of a brand-new Frank Neil composition, ‘I Know You’ll be Wanting Me Someday’.

Frank’s next assignment was producing a short season of melodrama for Fullers at the Empire Theatre in Albert Street, Brisbane, with a company headed by Austin Milroy and the star American import Marie Ilka.

On 19 February 1921 The Brisbane Daily Mail told its readers: ‘Frank Neil, the producer and comedian of the Fuller Dramatic Company at the Empire Theatre, has had a long and varied theatrical career, playing from one end of Australia to the other. Starting at the bottom rung of the ladder, he graduated to the dizzy eminence from which he played three parts in East Lynne, played the piano between whiles, and was property-master as well. His salary for all this was 50 shillings per week, but he never got it. On one occasion, in Maffra, Victoria, he played the piano in the wings and, lowered the curtain on the death of little Eva, by holding the rope in his teeth till given the cue. But he has progressed, and this year produced two pantomimes simultaneously, both for the Fuller management, one at the Majestic Theatre, Newtown, and the other at the Grand Opera House, this latter being claimed to be the most brilliant and successful 1920 pantomime produced by any management in Australia.’

The Brisbane season opened sensationally on 26 February 1921 with The Unmarried Mother by Florence Edna May. It was promoted as ‘The terrific New York success’—which is odd, because there is no record of it ever being produced there. It was probably an unauthorised stage adaptation of one of May’s scandalous potboilers, which also included The Unwanted Child and The Unloved Wife. To add to its prurient attraction, the press advertisements carried this admonition: ‘The Management do not ask you to listen to a talky sermon, but they do ask you to give serious consideration to a problem that is late in the solving, and to render every assistance to players called upon to interpret the very real characters in this direct and forceful expression of the playwright's views.’ Later came Should a Mother Tell?, A Daughter of Mother Machree, A Flapper’s Married Life and Tommy’s French Wife. The latter depicted the experiences of a young French girl who marries a British soldier. It was one of the last works of noted Australian playwright George Darrell, author of The Sunny South. He had tragically committed suicide in January 1921.

Tommy’s French Wife was chosen to launch the company’s transfer to the Princess in Melbourne in April 1921. Austin Milroy was still leading man, but Nellie Bramley had taken over the principal female roles from Marie Ilka. In June they moved to the Grand Opera House in Sydney.

For Christmas 1921 Neil wrote and produced yet another edition of Bluebeard for Fullers’ at the Princess in Melbourne. Again, Neil played Rastus. Nellie Kolle was Selim, the Principal Boy, Essie Jennings was Queen Felicity and Jim Gerald was the Dame, Sister Mary (‘I’m a saucy little girl with a giddy little prance. I’m looking for a lover—so come boys, here’s a chance!’).

Much of the music for Bluebeard was written by Fullers’ senior musical director, Hamilton Webber, with lyrics by Frank Neil. There was, however, one song for which Neil wrote both music and lyrics. Called ‘Cuddle in Your Mammy’s Arms’, it was in the stereotypical ‘mammy’ tradition so popular at the time. Although at first the words seem trite, they have a deeper, wistful charm. The idiosyncratic capitalisation is Neil’s:

(First verse)

I can see my dear old Mammy,

In the Happy Days gone by.

How She used to tease me,

How She’d hug and squeeze me,

When I think of Her I sigh.

As the shades of Night were falling

And the Stars began to peep,

She would fold me in Her arms

And gently croon me off to sleep.


Rock a bye, Hush a bye,

Mammy’s Little Baby,

‘Cause I love but You, yes indeed I do,

I’d reach the Stars from Heaven down

And give them to you.

Rock a bye, Hush a bye,

My little bunch of charms,

For you’ll never find a pal like your Mammy,

So just cuddle in your Mammy’s arms.

(Second verse)

Now that I’m a child no longer,

And I have no Mammy dear,

How I love to treasure

All the priceless pleasure

That I felt when She was near.

For you only get one Mammy,

And I miss her now she’s gone.

How I wish I had Her here

To croon to her this little song.

‘Cuddle in Your Mammy’s Arms’ was published by E.W. Cole of Melbourne’s famous Book Arcade.

For the gala 100th performance of Bluebeard on 24 February 1922 Fullers published a handsome souvenir that named not only the twelve principals but, unusually, also the 17-member ballet and the ballet mistress, the 15 juvenile dancers, the eight-member chorus, the three speciality acts (including a Charlie Chaplin imitator and the aforementioned Black American contortionist known as  ‘Ferry the Frog’), the musical director and his nine musicians, the seven in the electrical department, the six mechanists, the three prop men, the five ladies in the wardrobe, the scenic artist, and the 18-strong front-of-house team.

After Bluebeard it was back to melodrama for the Fullers at the Majestic in Newtown and the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle. Neil produced the plays and he and Maurice Tuohy were in virtually all of them. Most of the repertoire was standard fare though there was the occasional locally written effort, most notably Clarence Lee’s A Daughter of Australia. Neil played Spiky McDonald, ‘a roustabout—he causes great amusement’; Tuohy was the hero, Tom Stanton, ‘a young Australian squatter’.

In 1922 Hugh J. Ward, the American-born managing director of J.C. Williamson’s, resigned and set up his own entrepreneurial organisation, Hugh J. Ward Theatres Pty Ltd, in partnership with the Fullers.

Frank Neil switched to the Hugh J. Ward management to produce their 1923 Christmas pantomime Mother Goose at the Palace Theatre in Melbourne. The Palace, at the Parliament House end of Bourke Street, had opened in 1912 as Fullers’ National Amphitheatre, but had been renamed the Palace in 1916. The starry cast included Joe Brennan in the title role, Joe’s wife, Ida Newton, as Truehart, ‘a likeable boy’, Amy Rochelle as Sailor Jack, and the great musical comedy star Dorothy Brunton as Silverbell, Squire Hardflint’s beautiful daughter. Renowned ‘animal delineator’ William Hassan played Anastasia, the goose that lays the golden eggs. Minnie Hooper looked after the ballets and Harry Jacobs conducted the orchestra. Also for Ward, Neil stage-managed a season of plays presented by a company headed by the great British actor-playwright Seymour Hicks.

During this time Maurice Tuohy had leading roles in the dramas Rain and The Wheel opposite British actress Barbara Hoffe and in The Garden of Allah, East of Suez, Madame X and The Pelican with Muriel Starr, a Canadian-born London-based actress who proved immensely popular with Australian audiences.

In June 1924, Neil sailed with Ward in the Sonoma to look for new shows and stars in the United States, London and Paris. Ward was widely travelled, respected, and had valuable theatrical contacts in every major city. He was an astute judge of shows and stars, and a shrewd and skilful negotiator. Neil could not have had a better mentor.

Neil was back in Australia in time to produce Cinderella for Hugh J. Ward at the Princess in Melbourne, where it opened on 20 December 1924. This was a transplant of a lavish production first staged at the London Hippodrome for Christmas 1922. Ward was reported to have imported 150 tons of scenery, wardrobe, costumes and props, including a fairy coach studded with 20,000 cubes of cut crystal and lit by 500 tiny electric light bulbs. He also brought out two members of the original London cast, Bert Escott (he played Baron Mumm) and Harry Angers (Buttons). The local players included Roma Phillips (Cinderella), Kitty Reidy (Prince Charming), Trixie Ireland (the Fairy Godmother), June Mills and Dinks Paterson (the Ugly Sisters), William Hassan (Cutie the Cat), Freddie Carpenter (Harlequin) and Hal Percy (the Clown). Carpenter went on to an international career as a dancer, choreographer and producer, especially of pantomimes, while Percy was a co-founder of the influential Melbourne Little Theatre. Dinks Paterson and Trixie Ireland were on a brief visit to their homeland. Back in 1919 tall, skinny Jack Paterson had teamed with short, stocky George Wallace to develop a knockabout comedy act. Calling themselves Dinks and Onkus—contemporary Australian slang for ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Their rough and tumble antics were enormously popular at Harry Clay’s Sydney suburban theatres. After Dinks and Onkus split in 1924, Paterson paired with his wife, Trixie Ireland, as Dinks and Trixie. They spent many years working in Britain, where they participated in an early experimental BBC television broadcast. They returned to Australia permanently in 1948 and retired from show business in 1957.

After Cinderella, Harry Angers and Bert Escott stayed on to co-star with Dorothy Brunton in Ward’s next production, the musical Little Jessie James, which opened at the Princess on 11 April 1925. Frank was co-producer with Harry Hall, who was mainly responsible for the show’s dance elements. Little Jessie James was not a musical ‘western’—it was mainly set in a smart New York apartment. Today it’s all but forgotten, but it was the biggest hit of Broadway’s 1923-1924 season. Much attention focussed on the music: the traditional pit band was replaced by an 11-piece ‘symphonic jazz orchestra’ led by local pianist James (‘Jimmy’) Elkins. His young percussionist, Jim Davidson would become prominent in Australian popular music and would head the Australian armed forces’ entertainment unit during the Second World War.

Neil stayed with Hugh J. Ward to work on two more now little-remembered musicals. He either produced, stage managed or had a role in The Honeymoon Girl and Tangerine, staged by Ward at the Grand Opera House in Sydney and the Princess in Melbourne.

Later in the year came a turning point in Frank Neil’s career. Encouraged by the experience he had gained working with Hugh J. Ward, he decided to venture into management, forming a partnership with Maurice Tuohy to produce a weekly-change repertoire of modern American melodramas.

Neil and Tuohy leased the Fullers’ Palace Theatre in Melbourne and there, on 29 August 1925, they launched Frank Neil’s Dramatic Company with an ‘American mystery play’ called The Revelations of a Wife. Strangely, it does not appear to have graced the Broadway stage. The plot involved ghosts, sliding panels, bizarrely disguised detectives, and a particularly dastardly villain. The reviews were kind, but somewhat tongue-in-cheek. This was followed on 5 September by the ‘rollicking comedy drama’ Queen of My Heart, whose plot took its characters from London to Japan and included a spectacular on-stage sea rescue.

Despite Neil’s claims, neither The Revelations of a Wife nor Queen of My Heart were in fact ‘modern American plays’. Although the author of Revelations was uncredited, both plays were by Royce Carleton, an English actor and prolific melodrama playwright. They had toured the British provincial circuits in 1915, with Revelations under its original title, The Confessions of a Wife. Both plays had been registered for Australian copyright by the Fullers in 1921. The reason for the name change is not known. The author, Royce Carleton, had an interesting connection with Australia. His father, an actor also known as Royce Carleton, had visited Australia with the Janet Achurch company in 1890, and his daughter, Moira Carleton, enjoyed a long career on Australian stage and radio.

Sadly, both shows were financial flops. Neil later disclosed that The Revelations of a Wife had lost £700 ($64,000 today), a figure more than doubled by Queen of My Heart. In two weeks they lost £2000 ($184,000). He said, ‘We were only prevented from losing more by the fact there was none left.’ He told a friend that he had only £20 ($1800) to spend on the next production. Charlie Vaude remembered: ‘He gave drama a good try-out, but he found it did not make box office receipts soar.’ Sir Ben Fuller agreed to defer rent payments ‘until the weather broke’. And break it did.

In desperation Frank Neil’s Dramatic Company was hastily rebadged Frank Neil’s Comedy Company, reappearing on 12 September 1925 with the Brandon Thomas favourite, Charley’s Aunt. Tuohy played Jack Chesney and Neil was Lord Fancourt Babberley, a role he had first tackled in 1912. His appearance in drag all but stopped the show and the season had to be extended. After Charley’s Aunt came a seemingly endless succession of frenzied farces that speedily attracted a new and eager audience. Among them were The Private Secretary, Are You a Mason?, Getting Gertie’s Garter, The Nervous Wreck, What Happened to Jones—and many more. Their triumph was repeated at the Grand Opera House in Sydney, in Perth, and in two return seasons at the Palace in Melbourne in 1926.

In July 1926 Maurice Tuohy became ill while he, Lily Molloy and her mother were driving from Melbourne to Sydney, where they were to board a steamer to take them to Perth, the next stop on the company’s itinerary. Tuohy became ill, and what was initially thought to be a cold worsened rapidly. Lily drove them to the hospital at Orbost, where doctors diagnosed pneumonia. Touhy could not be saved. He died there on 17 July 1926, aged only 34. News of his passing was widely reported and a memorial service in Adelaide was attended by many members of the theatrical community, including Adelaide comedian Roy Rene. Tuohy was interred in the cemetery at Willaston, South Australia. Lily Molloy told a reporter that she was ‘devastated’, as she and Tuohy had become engaged in March 1924—which must have surprised everybody, especially Frank Neil. He posted a heartfelt tribute in several Adelaide newspapers:

‘In loving memory of my dear comrade and associate for many years, Maurice Tuohy, who passed to his last home on the 17 July 1926.

“I long for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still.”

— Inserted by his sorrowing friend, Frank Neil, Sydney, NSW.’

The poignant quote is from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break.

Frank carried on alone. His company continued to draw happy crowds to the Palace through the Christmas season. He added the vintage farce Fun on the Bristol to his repertoire. Older theatregoers could still remember the diminutive American comedian John F. Sheridan as the feisty Widow O’Brien in the original Australian production. Frank Neil now made the drag role his own.

The years 1927, 1928 and the first half of 1929 were much the same, with Neil shunting his company between the Palace in Melbourne and the Grand Opera House in Sydney, a routine broken only by annual pantomimes in Sydney and seasons in Newcastle and at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide in the latter part of 1928.

In 1930 Neil reminisced: ‘With all modesty I would like to mention this: everyone I knew told me I was all kinds of a variegated fool for presuming to run a show of my own in Melbourne or Sydney, and to play “cheap farce”, as they were good enough to describe it, was plain suicide. Yet here is the cold truth. In our four-and-a-half years, playing only in Sydney and Melbourne, with the exception of one season of thirteen weeks in Perth and another of eight weeks in Adelaide, I cleared £47,000 ($4,374,000) net profit.’

In November 1927, buoyed by his healthy bank balance, Neil announced that he had purchased a prime block of real estate in Sydney’s Central Railway Square. The island site had been passed in at £42,000 ($3,820,000) at a recent uction, but Neil was thought to have outlaid £50,000 ($4,549,000) on its purchase. He engaged the architects of Sydney’s palatial Prince Edward Theatre, Robertson and Marks, to design his 1800-seat theatre. It was to be ‘the last word in comfort. Special steam heating apparatus will be installed for the winter months, whilst in the summer season the latest ventilation system will make it the coolest theatre in Sydney. It will also have a sliding roof. As well as the theatre proper there will be five stories of office buildings in the front, and over the tram loop at the back several stories of workrooms will be built.’ Later plans included ‘a hotel on the American plan, containing at least 300 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom.’

Early in 1928 Neil sent his general manager, Eddie McDonald, on an overseas trip ‘in search of world-class attractions for Frank Neil’s Comedians and some of the latest musical comedy successes’, and to ‘secure special furnishings and effects that are unprocurable in Australia for the new theatre that Mr. Neil is building. The venture will represent a huge outlay, but it is Mr. Neil’s intention to stick to his policy of cheap prices.’ Although Neil’s Liberty Theatre was never built, the name was adopted by David N. Martin for the stylish art deco cinema he erected in Pitt Street in 1934.

Frank Neil was riding the crest of a wave. He had hit on a uniquely successful formula: a small, hard-working and devoted company, and a perennially popular repertoire of tried-and-true farces whose initial production costs had been well and truly covered. If he tired of the treadmill, he didn’t show it. It was money for jam.

To be continued