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

Part 3: ‘It is my intention to produce only first-class laughing comedies. as I think the public want to be amused these days.’

NeilFrankButtonholeThe theatrical world may have written off Frank Neil as nothing more than a purveyor of over-familiar but crowd-pleasing farces, but they were in for a shock. In June 1929 he created what Everyone’s called ‘The biggest sensation this year in show business.’ A few months earlier, George Marlow, from whom Neil was leasing the Sydney Grand Opera House, had gone into partnership with the flamboyant producer Ernest C. Rolls. Their company, Marlow-Rolls Theatres Ltd, leased the Empire Theatre near Railway Square as the venue for a series of lavish musicals. The 2500-seat Empire had opened in February 1927, with the musical comedy Sunny. The theatre’s vast fan-shaped auditorium, cramped stage and minimal facilities made it unpleasant for performers and audiences alike. The first Marlow-Rolls production, Clowns in Clover, was a failure, and the second, Whoopee!, closed after only two-and-a-half weeks. The planned follow-up, So This is Love, was shelved. Marlow-Rolls’ loss was said to be £50,000—around $4.2 million today.

Neil knew that the shows were not bad, and he thought that there was potential for a revamped version of Clowns in Clover in other states. So This is Love was an attractive musical play by Stanley Lupino and Arthur Rigby; it had just closed at the Winter Garden in London after a run of 321 performances with the glamorous Australian couple Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in the leads. But it was Whoopee! that had the greatest appeal for Frank Neil: it was a musical adaptation of The Nervous Wreck, a wild west farce in which he had achieved one of his greatest successes. The upbeat, jazzy score by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn included ‘Love Me or Leave Me’, ‘My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now’ and, of course, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, which had provided the show’s Broadway star, Eddie Cantor, with one of his signature hits. Florenz Ziegfeld had opened the show at the New Amsterdam in New York in December 1928, and it was still playing there to packed houses.

George Marlow and Ernest Rolls had little option but to agree to the crushing deal that Neil offered. They reluctantly surrendered the Australian rights to the three shows, plus the costumes and scenery for the two already produced, for a mere £7500 ($628,000). Neil negotiated separate deals over contracts with performers, many of whom eagerly transferred to Neil’s management, including the American Charley [Charlie] Sylber, who had the plum Eddie Cantor role.

Sylber established several strong friendships during his visit. The two most notable were with legendary aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, co-owner of Australian National Airways, and with 20-year-old star in the making, May Daly. May was from Bondi and she had already appeared in small roles for Frank Neil and for other managements. She and Charley planned to marry in Sydney on 23 March 1931, but the wedding was cancelled when Williamson’s rushed her to Melbourne to replace the American star of Sons o’ Guns, Bertha Riccardo. Bertha’s husband, musical director Clyde Hook, was one of the passengers on the ill-fated Australian National Airways plane Southern Cloud which was reported missing on 21 March. Charley and May eventually tied the knot on stage at the St James Theatre in Sydney on 23 April 1931. They named their son, born in 1937, Charles Kingsford Sylber. Charley Snr went on to a long career in Hollywood as a film actor, special effects specialist, illusionist and proprietor of an intriguing emporium known as the Magic House of Charles.

Neil closed his farce season at the Grand Opera House on Saturday 6 July 1929 and opened Whoopee! there the following Wednesday. After reasonable houses he decided to return to Melbourne, where he re-assembled his farce company for yet another season at the Palace. Simultaneously he leased the King’s Theatre in Russell Street from Bert Bailey and Julius Grant as a home for his musicals. He opened Whoopee! there on 31 August 1929. Charley Sylber continued ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, aided and abetted by Jessica Harcourt, Claude Holland, Forrest Yarnell, John Dobbie and Paul Plunket from the original Empire cast, supplemented by Harry Moreni and Mary Gannon.

Whoopee! was still playing at the King’s when the stock market crashed. After a very profitable 12-week run, Neil closed Whoopee! on 3 November 1929, and disbanded the company.

The King’s was dark for a week while it underwent a much-needed refurbishment, including the installation of new seating. On 30 November 1929 it was ready for the opening night of Neil’s new production of Clowns in Clover, a bright, punchy revue written by Ronald Jeans. The score by Noël Gay was topped up by a big Vivian Ellis hit, ‘Little Boy Blues’. The London production in 1927 had featured Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. For his localised version Neil starred a little-known young English impressionist, Ann Penn, plus Roy Rene and his recently acquired new wife, Sadie Gale.

The show was a breakthrough for Roy because Frank Neil persuaded him to appear without his trademark ‘Jewish’ makeup. Rene reminisced: ‘He said to me, “Roy, people haven’t seen you as you really are. They think of you as dirty old Mo, and I want you to look the Beau Brummel, so that people can see you’re neither old nor dirty, and that you’re just as funny without your makeup.” He was right. He could take a comic apart and tell you what made him work. It was because of his understanding of my work that I proved a success.’ It was in Clowns in Clover that Roy Rene and Sadie Gale introduced their sketch ‘At the Stage Door’; it was destined to become one of the most popular in their repertoire.

In supporting roles were Len Rich, Mary Gannon, John Dobbie, Claude Holland and Neva Carr Glyn. A highlight of the show was Jennie Brenan’s ‘Young Australia’ song and dance revue. Among the dozen clever juniors was Dot Rankin, later to be a star in J.C. Williamson musicals. An odd addition was a tribute to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, then still three years away from completion. To conclude this scena Len Rich and Neva Carr Glyn sang ‘My Troubles Are Over’.

Clowns in Clover progCentre page from the Clowns in Clover program, 1929. Author’s collection.

For the Christmas season Frank Neil conscripted the Clowns in Clover company to present matinees of yet another revival of his Mother Goose pantomime, while Clowns in Clover continued cavorting at night. It was during this stressful time that Roy Rene collapsed in his dressing room and nearly died. Sadie Gale lovingly nursed him through many months of recuperation.

Whoopee!, meanwhile, had been bought by Williamson’s. They recast it with Don Nicol in the lead and sent it to New Zealand as the holiday attraction at His Majesty’s in Auckland.

In late December 1929, Frank Neil wrote to Frank Tait of J.C. Williamson’s offering his farce company for a New Zealand tour ‘in about eight weeks’ time’. The repertoire Neil suggested was Up in Mabel’s Room, Getting Gertie’s Garter, Not Tonight, Dearie, Mary’s Other Husband and The Best People. There would be a company of twelve, plus a head mechanist, for a cost to Williamson’s of £260 ($23,000) per week. Williamson’s would supply transportation from Sydney to New Zealand and return and all other touring expenses.

Neil went on to say, ‘These plays have taken wonderful figures wherever we have played them and played at cheap prices. They should do the same in New Zealand. The idea would be to play stock seasons in each centre, just as long as business is payable. I am sure it would be a very satisfactory tour. I can show you the figures and balance sheets which show the drawing power of these pieces. Charley’s Aunt and Are You a Mason? have also been great successes with our Company, and these are available at five per cent royalty. If you want to carry my jazz band it would mean six more fares and an extra £60 per week, but with long seasons in each town the jazz band is quite a feature. It is of course understood that I supply, for the mentioned sum, all scenery, wardrobe, props, etc, which I have complete in Sydney. A further suggestion is that you may care to try the idea out in Brisbane as we have never played there. It would give you an idea of the drawing power of these plays at cheap prices, although perhaps the date suggested would not be ideal for Brisbane on account of climatic conditions.’

Frank Tait opted for Brisbane, and Neil’s farce company played at His Majesty’s there in February and March 1930, but the expected bonanza did not eventuate. Audiences for live theatre were dwindling and prospects for a quick end to the Depression were poor. As writer and theatre director Ngaio Marsh so succinctly put it: ‘All over Australasia one seemed to hear the desolate slam of stage doors.’

The talkies destroyed the careers of the army of musicians who had made their living playing accompaniments for silent films. Actors and variety performers struggled to find work, often forming ‘co-operatives’, hiring an empty theatre and ‘putting on a show’ to try to keep going. On the pavement outside the Orient Hotel at the north-east corner of Bourke and Swanston streets in Melbourne, was ‘Poverty Point’ where out-of-work thespians would gather for mutual support and the remote possibility that an offer of a job would come along. As one old-timer recalled: ‘Sometimes there were more acrobats, conjurers, dog acts, seal acts, dancers, singers, comedians, actors and “straight men” to the yard than at any other spot in Australia.’ There was a similar ‘Poverty Point’ in Sydney, on the north-east corner of Pitt and Park streets.

In desperation Frank Neil determined to leave Australia. He told the press that Arbitration Court awards and double taxation had made it impossible for him to continue production. ‘Arbitration Court awards have thrown upon theatre managements the whole burden of the losses which have followed the talkie boom. The wages of theatrical employees are fixed in a manner which shows a lack of knowledge of the industry and I for one cannot afford to pay them. Everybody connected with the theatrical business realises their position is very different now to a few years ago. In the talkies, the legitimate stage has a very serious and formidable competitor. People in comparatively poor circumstances can go to a picture theatre which is a veritable palace and sit in a luxurious seat for less money in some cases than they used to pay to see a stage show from the gods. The legitimate theatre will only be able to meet the competition by everybody connected with it making big sacrifices.’

On 4 January 1930, in the Melbourne Herald, Frank Neil announced: ‘After we finish at the King's I have arranged to take an All-Australian farce company to tour South Africa, and then go on to England. I think I can organise an Australian band of players that will make good in London and the English provinces. Now don't try to dissuade me, please. I'm going to do it.’

The familiar farce Nightie Night closed Neil’s King’s Theatre season on 31 January 1930. He followed this with a short spell in Brisbane. The Brisbane Daily Standard was most impressed: ‘Week by week now, audiences at His Majesty’s Theatre have been offered productions that for ripeness of humour and clever acting have been unsurpassed as sources of entertainment. Frank Neil’s comedians have scored a distinct success. The Brisbane season will be brought to a conclusion next Saturday night when for this gala farewell performance Mr. Neil will stage for the first time in Australia the reigning New York laughing success This Thing Called Love.’

On 1 April 1930 Melbourne’s theatrical elite gathered at the Hotel Australia in Collins Street to honour Frank at a farewell luncheon with Thomas Hayes MLA in the chair. On the following day he and his company of twelve, including his leading lady, Neva Carr Glyn, together with hundreds of costumes and 238 tons of scenery, sailed for South Africa on the White Star liner SS Ceramic.

South African newspapers called his company ‘a topping team’ and hailed them as ‘the best ambassadors that Australia has ever sent.’ When the tour finished most of the players returned to Australia, while Neva Carr Glyn, Frank Neil and his manager, Eddie McDonald, headed for London. Frank and Eddie spent a month there, and made quick trips to New York and the Continent, securing the Australian rights for several current successful farces, including Almost a Honeymoon, which was in its second year at the Garrick, Leslie Henson’s It’s a Boy and A Warm Corner, and My Wife’s Family, which was doing good business at the Apollo. They sailed home in a small, unpretentious P&O liner, SS Balranald, arriving at Fremantle on 2 March 1931.

Neil’s observations were published in the program for Almost a Honeymoon under the heading ‘Laughing Old Man Depression Away’: ‘Everywhere one goes these times one hears the lament, “Times are bad.” It is the same in England, Germany, France and America. Even in South Africa, which has been a business paradise for many years, everybody was saying, “It’s not like it used to be”. However, travelling is a great education and in spite of the bad times we are experiencing in Australia there are plenty of places that are worse off and have been for years. Over a year ago I took a company of fourteen Australians for a tour of South Africa. I contracted to stay twelve weeks and finished up by staying nearly a year, one of the best records of any company that has toured that country. We played all the principal towns in the Union two or three times and were rather sorry when the tour was finished.

‘The audiences there are much like our own and, although the theatres are not as modern as they are in Australia, they are very good. The South Africans were rather tickled with our accent at first, but we soon discovered that they also have an accent, and we used to get many a laugh on this subject. It seems to be a peculiarity of every young country to develop a distinctive manner of speech, and when it’s all said and done with, what does it matter?

‘After my African tour finished, I made a quick trip to England and the Continent, on the hunt for new plays that might be popular in Australia, and I have obtained some of the best. These we intend to play in Sydney during the coming season. To see London and its theatrical conditions, no one would think there was any Depression at all. It is only when one goes into the provinces that you really see poor conditions everywhere. The prices for theatres in London are higher than ever—14 shillings ($65) for reserved stalls and dress circle for the straight type of play, and up to a pound ($96) for musical shows. When one compares the prices with Australia, it seems enormous.

‘I have always been a believer in low prices for my shows and during the current season I will only charge three, two and one shilling so that there should be very few people that should complain about not getting their money’s worth. It is my intention to produce only first-class laughing comedies, as I think the public want to be amused these days. The first production is Almost a Honeymoon, a very successful farce by Walter Ellis that has just finished a fifteen-month run in London.’

In Melbourne Frank Neil swiftly assembled a new farce company featuring himself and Louise Lovely, a vivacious Australian actress who had achieved considerable success in Hollywood silent films. He also recruited Field Fisher, Arundel Nixon, Yvonne (Fifi) Banvard, Agnes Dobson and Hal Percy. They opened on 4 April 1931 at Fullers’ former Melbourne variety headquarters, the Bijou, a few doors up Bourke Street from the Tivoli, premiering Neil’s new acquisition, Almost a Honeymoon. Neil himself played the comedy lead, Basil Dibley, a lovable but accident-prone bachelor. The Argus was shocked: ‘Unnecessary trouble seems to have been taken to engraft indelicate scenes and innuendoes onto the production. There is a bedroom incident in which Miss Lovely comes from the bathroom partially covered with what looked like a large bath towel. A heroine so imperfectly clad looks neither impressive nor edifying.’ But the public loved it, and other favourite farces followed.

Eventually they transferred to the Criterion in Sydney, but audiences seemed to have tired of Frank Neil’s frantic farces. The Criterion season was a disappointment, as was a later one at the Grand Opera House. Noting the success of Mike Connors and Queenie Paul at the Haymarket and the Theatre Royal, Neil decided to try revue. Revue was replacing old style vaudeville, which was basically a succession of unrelated acts, a form known in Britain as music hall or variety. Revue frequently used traditional vaudeville acts, but presented them in a slick, fast-paced, glamourous show built around a particular theme, with a ballet, showgirls and a big headliner. Revues often included specially written musical numbers, a chorus and sometimes a compere. Revues always had a title; vaudeville shows did not.

In November 1931 Neil leased the Roxy from the Fullers. The Roxy, in Castlereagh Street, was Fullers’ old National Theatre, revamped for movies. It was almost next door to the Embassy, the cinema that had opened in June 1931 on the site of Rickards’ Tivoli. It was at the Roxy that Neil first presented revue.

Jim Hutchings remembers: ‘Frank was starting again! He called me and said, “You can do me a bathing house cloth with transparent doors to see the girls getting changed. It has to be done quickly, a one-day job.” My size and paint and brushes went down to the theatre on the back of a tram! Frank had a sword ballet with the swords sparking when they hit the anvils. I think he had an “angel”, a Mr. Blackshaw, who lost his money. But Frank was trying hard to revive his beloved show business. I went down to get my money. I settled for six quid and a few passes.’

Frank Neil opened his Roxy season on 28 November 1931 with a twice-daily revue called Hello, Paris. His company included Maggie Buckley, Dot Brown, George Lloyd, Gwen Matthews, Claude Holland, and a brilliant acrobatic troupe formed by two boys and three girls, all siblings of the Morgan family from the Sydney suburb of Annandale. Calling themselves the Cleveres, they toured the world for years. Also on the bill was Fifi Adorée, a visiting French chanteuse presumably there to add some relevance to the show’s title. Top of the bill was English funnyman Hector St Clair. Imported by Williamson’s in 1920, he’d established a rewarding new career entertaining Australian vaudeville audiences. His act was built around a battered violin, which he would produce from the front of his baggy tattered trousers, while muttering his catchphrase ‘Isn’t it awful’. He suffered for many years with tuberculosis and died almost exactly a year after his season with Frank Neil. His violin and his baggy pants were buried with him.

This piece, published in the magazine Everyone’s on 2 December 1931, makes interesting reading: ‘“All things change, and we change with them.” We simply point to an amazing juxtaposition involving the Theatre Royal and the Roxy in the hamlet of Sydney. A few years ago the Royal represented respectability, while the Roxy, then Fullers’ Theatre, was frowned upon by our best people as a place of ribald revelry. Behold the difference last Saturday night. At the Royal, Mo was continuing his purple performances to a point where even The Sunday Sun deemed it wise to rise up in wrath, while at the Roxy Frank Neil was presenting a show so clean that the customers thought they had invaded a cathedral. After a series of reverses Neil has tackled the Roxy with revue. The outcome of the venture cannot be judged by he first week’s results. Neil has to find his way in a house which has passed through many vicissitudes during two years of talkies.’

Neil celebrated Christmas with a Cinderella pantomime which opened at the Roxy on 26 December 1931. Twenty youngsters frolicked as fairies. The scenes included ‘Underneath the Sea’, no doubt including Frank’s beloved baby pink roses. The production included real and imitation animals, with the latter including a dancing horse and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The real participants were provided by Abdy’s Animal Circus. Its creator, Henry Abdy, was a British-born animal trainer who also worked as a professional whistler under the name Monsieur Poincaire. He died during the run of Cinderella. His animal activities were continued by his son, Harry Abdy, while his daughter, billed as Marie La Varre, became a stalwart of musical comedy.

The response to Hello, Paris encouraged Neil to persevere with revue. His first real headliner was the great American male impersonator Ella Shields. Ella had toured Australia twice before—in 1921 and 1925—and had proved immensely popular. Her gramophone recordings, most notably, of course, ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’, had kept her art before the public, though her career in Britain and the United States had waned. To be blunt, though Ella Shields was still a big name, she was no longer an expensive one. Frank Neil put her under a six-month contract. To support her he gathered a lively troupe of local performers including Don Nicol, Hector St Clair, Lily Molloy, Molly Byron, Maida Jones, Maggie Buckley, Angela Parselles and Keith Connolly. Neil leased the Melbourne Tivoli from Connors and Paul and opened his show there in March 1932 under the title Follies of 1932. A second edition featured Josie Melville, an Australian musical comedy favourite, especially remembered as the appealing star of Sally in 1923.

From 3 September 1932 Frank Neil leased the Sydney Criterion to present Ella Shields in a new revue, Pleasure Bound. This time her co-star was the great Australian ‘ocker’ comic George Wallace, supported by Yvonne (Fifi) Banvard, Athol Tier, Billy Maloney, Arthur Clarke, Mascotte Powell and Miriam Lester. Neil transferred the show to Brisbane where it played a four-week season at the Regent from 22 October 1932.

In association with Williamson’s, Neil took the show to New Zealand, opening in Auckland in December 1932. When Ella Shields departed the company was led by George Wallace, Josie Melville and lugubrious comic Syd Beck. They even managed a Cinderella in Wellington in May 1933 and Christchurch in July, with Wallace as Buttons, Beck as the Dame and Josie Melville as Cinders. Dance director Maurice Diamond was reduced to playing the Cat. The New Zealand tour lasted a record-breaking eight months and played to over a quarter of a million people.

Cinderella Frank NeilProgram cover for Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, 1933. National Library of New Zealand.

Back in Australia, Neil worked again with Connors and Paul when he took the ‘new’ Sydney Tivoli (the renamed Grand Opera House) for five weeks to present a series of revues teaming Ella Shields with Syd Beck. The company transferred to the Palace Theatre in Melbourne, where they opened Pleasure Bound on 23 September 1933. After three weeks George Wallace re-joined the company. Pleasure Bound was reborn as The Laugh Parade in October. In its program Neil announced that he intended to continue presenting ‘bright new singing and dancing shows. In addition to all the best available Australian talent, soon a stream of English stars will migrate to Australia to join a happy band of fun makers at the Palace. The first arrivals will be Fred Miller, noted English comedian, and Millie Deane, an eccentric comedienne of exceptional talent. This clever couple will sail from London in a couple of weeks on the Strathaird.’ With what was a direct swipe at the Tivoli, the program note concluded, ‘Make the Palace your regular theatre for good, bright, clean laughing shows. Frank Neil will cater for your wants, and give you value for money all the time.’

To be continued