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

Part 4: In a 1933 program note, Frank Neil told Tivoli patrons ‘Like so many others, I belong to that happy band of “grown-up” children who build castles in the air and through the medium of showmanship turn these fantastic dreams into realities.’

neil wells cartoonCaricature of Frank Neil by Sam Wells. From The Herald (Melbourne), 16 November 1929, p.20.Neil dusted off Cinderella to give the Palace in Melbourne an attraction for Christmas 1933. Josie Melville was Cinders, with Miriam Lester as Prince Charming, Syd Beck and Bert Ray as the Ugly Sisters, Ernest Kilroy as Cutie the Cat, the five acrobatic Whirlwind Cleveres, and Cusko’s Dog and Monkey Circus. Cusko (real name: Bill Henderson) toured his carefully trained animals in circus and vaudeville for many years. The production transferred to the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, where it opened on 10 February 1934 under the J.C. Williamson banner.

Nevertheless, it was at the Tivolis in Melbourne and Sydney that Frank Neil presented comedian Fred Miller and Millie Deane, ‘The Lady with the Laughing Legs’. Backing them were Len Rich, Billy Maloney, Keith Connolly, the Weatherly Sisters, Morry Barling, a contortionist called Frogella, and Rahman Bey, ‘The Mystic Man of the East’. For his act, this gentleman permitted knives, daggers and long pins to be thrust into his body while he was in a state of ‘cataleptic anaesthesia’. He claimed that he could totally suspend his breathing and circulation, enabling him to be buried alive for up to six hours. Also on the bill were the Weatherly Sisters. They were descended from a lengthy line of circus performers and one of them, Zilla, a contortionist, frequently performed with her husband, Billy Andros, whose speciality was creating weird and wonderful things from torn newspapers. Their daughter, born in 1929, was often part of their act. Billed as ‘Baby Gloria’ she went on to become stage legend Gloria Dawn.

It was at this point, early 1934, that Mike Connors and Queenie Paul decided to sell what was left of their investment in Connors and Paul Theatres Pty Ltd. A new company was formed: Tivoli Circuit of Australia Pty Ltd. George Dickenson held the majority of shares. Initially he, W.H. Ince and Frank Neil were listed in the programs as directors; soon this was adjusted to a single credit: ‘Frank Neil, Managing Director’. The directors quickly determined a new direction for the Tivoli Circuit. The Tivoli would present lavish, glossy revues, each headed by a big overseas star. No more small-time acts like Stuart and Lash, Jack Russell or Joe Marks. And—unless there were no alternatives—no more companies headed by Australian comedians.

neil millie connors paul geraldMillie Deane (left), Connors & Paul (centre), and Jim Gerald (right). All author’s collection.

‘Frank Neil will leave for America, England and the Continent on the Monterey on 2 May 1934, in search of attractions for the Tivoli Circuit,’ said a program note. ‘Overseas stars will soon arrive in a constant stream to entertain and amuse you. They will be supported by the pick of Australia’s best talent and the policy at all times will be to foster and encourage the progress of the local stage aspirants. The whole world will be searched for your pleasure, so look forward to the big stars who will be brought to the Tivoli for your approval.’

Clearly, the new policy was dependent on the results of Frank Neil’s overseas foray. In the meantime, the Melbourne Tivoli hosted yet another season of Jim Gerald’s weekly-change programs combining revue and ‘tabloid’ or miniature musical comedies. In Jim’s company were Tom Dale, Edna Ralston, Lily Coburn, Lance Vane, Vilma Kaye, Bobbie Clifton, Max Reddy and Will Perryman (Jill’s father), supported, as ever, by the eight dancing ‘Twinklers’.

neil terror abroad 01Sydney program for May 1934. Author’s collection.

The first shows in the Sydney Tivoli under the new regime were a series of weekly-change revues under the general title of Jimmy Taylor’s Non-Stop Follies. Jimmy Taylor was English, another of the overseas nonentities foisted as headliners on local audiences. There is more interest—and talent—in the locally recruited supporting company: comics Syd Beck, Jay Morris, Keith Connolly and Len Rich, soubrette Stella Lamond and magician Will Alma. Alas, Jimmy Taylor proved so unattractive to Sydney audiences that after two weeks the management gave top billing to Syd Beck, shrank the Non-Stop Follies to fit one half of the program and showed films to fill up the rest. Apart from the Paramount British Sound News (‘The Eyes and Ears of the World’) and Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, Tivoli audiences were subjected to third-rate Paramount program-fillers: The Last Round-Up with Randolph Scott, Terror Abroad with Charles Ruggles and, in the third and final week, Four Frightened People with Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall. It was an inauspicious start.

When Non-Stop Follies opened at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane, Jimmy Taylor was still relegated to second billing behind Syd Beck. By the time the company reached Melbourne Beck himself was playing second fiddle to ‘The World’s Greatest Male Impersonator’, Hetty King. For once, the description was accurate. British born, the dapper Miss King’s acclaimed portrayals of soldiers and sailors were legendary, and by around 1930 she was reputed to be the world’s highest-paid music hall star. Her act always concluded with her 1908 hit, ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’. This was her third Tivoli engagement: she had played the Circuit in 1924 and 1927.

Meanwhile Frank Neil had been scouting for talent in the United States and Europe. What he was looking for were acts that were relatively inexpensive, but that could be promoted in Australia as international stars. Performers who had film credits were typical, also performers who still had a ‘name’ but whose careers were on the wane. And there were some who were attracted by the prospect of a fully paid trip ‘Down Under’ and the chance to experience what was then regarded as a totally foreign land.

Neil also had inherited Percy Crawford from Connors and Paul. Percy Crawford was probably the best theatrical publicity man in Australia. He’d started as a box office boy at the Sydney Tivoli in 1901, and he loved variety and knew the business backwards. If anyone could convince the public that the Tivoli was entering a new era, it was Percy.

Just before he left London Neil caught up with Fred Miller and Millie Deane. They had starred for him in Australia a few months before and were now in a controversial new revue called West End Scandals at the Garrick Theatre. Through them he met the show’s similarly controversial producer, Wallace R. Parnell. It was the start of an association that would have a profound effect on the evolution of Australian theatre.

Back in Australia the Tivoli management anxiously awaited Frank Neil’s return and the arrival of the artistes he was booking overseas. The Sydney Tivoli was their major concern. At first, they announced that film screenings would continue after the departure of the Jimmy Taylor company, but the reaction to them in Melbourne had been so bad that the idea was quickly shelved. Instead, one of this country’s great showmen, Francis W. Thring came to the rescue, transferring four big shows from his home base, the Princess in Melbourne. When they moved on, opera moved in: the Sydney Tivoli provided an unlikely venue for Sir Benjamin Fuller’s Royal Grand Opera Company.

Frank Neil returned to Australia in September 1934. With him to inaugurate the Tivoli Circuit’s new era were ‘twenty-five international stars’. The most notable were an American knockabout dance act, Nice, Florio and Lubow; French adagio dancers Les Diamondes; German comic Alec Halls; and chirpy Joey Porter, ‘England’s Youngest Funster’, whom The Age thought ‘had something of the Chaplin genius’. Appropriately titled New Faces, the show was put together at the Melbourne Tivoli where it opened on 10 October 1934. The settings were ‘sketched and painted by K.V. McGuinness’, the dances ‘invented and arranged by Maurice Diamond’ with ‘the specially augmented orchestra under the baton of Harry Lazarus’. Among the many highlights were ‘To Hell with War’, described as ‘A Song Scena to Make You Think’, and the Act One finale which re-created Bourke Street in 1860, ‘with the entire company in the correct costumes of the period’. When they eventually reached the Sydney Tivoli in March 1935, the Bourke Street scene had miraculously become ‘Circular Quay, 1860’.

With the Sydney Tivoli still occupied by the Fuller Grand Opera Company, the New Faces company played in New Zealand for the Christmas season. The tour was co-produced with J.C. Williamson’s. Surviving documentation shows that the star act, Nice, Florio and Lubow, were drawing £100 a week; Joey Porter was on £50, Alec Halls was on £30, and Maurice Diamond (the stage manager and dance director) was on £10. A musical act called the Three Ambassadors was on £45; Harry Lazarus, a member of this trio, also conducted the orchestra.

For Christmas 1934 Frank Neil directed Mother Goose at the King’s in Melbourne. Jim Gerald was Mother Goose and Hetty King was featured as Colin, the Principal Boy. William Hassan played the Golden Goose, as he had for Frank in 1923. This Mother Goose was a co-production with J.C. Williamson’s. After production costs and current expenditure were deducted from the takings, Williamson’s took £80 for rent, and the remaining profits or losses were divided equally between the Tivoli and Williamson’s. Neil persuaded Jennie Brenan to produce the ballets for nothing; in return he was to select sixteen of the ballet and all the twenty-four children from her dancing school. In addition, Miss Brenan would supply the children’s wardrobe. Neil’s rough run-down of the weekly running costs has survived: Jim Gerald was on £105, Hetty King was on £60, Hassan on £17, most of the other principals received around £8, the twenty-four members of the ballet got £3 each, the twenty-four children got £1 each, the ten members of the orchestra, including the conductor, got £85 between them, and the backstage crew got £60. The total weekly running cost was estimated at £786. There is a telling reflection of the times in a memo from Frank Tait to Neil regarding the well-known comedian Alfred Frith, whom Neil wanted to cast as the mayor: ‘Frith would, I think be quite a reasonably good engagement. It is some years since he worked for us. The last time I think his salary was £25, but that was in the prosperous days, and I would suggest that if you engage him, about half that salary would be sufficient.’ In the end the part went to Nick Morton.

Before this, though, Neil had opened his second big revue at the Melbourne Tivoli. Paris En Fête was touted as coming from the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. It didn’t. It was one of the revues put together by Geoffrey Hope and Vivian Palmer to tour the English provinces. Neil had seen it and had been particularly impressed by the leading comedian, a young man called Sid Field. Neil contracted with Hope and Palmer to take the whole show to Australia. Field, whose wife was expecting their first child, initially refused to go, putting the tour in jeopardy. Eventually it was agreed that his wife would accompany him—and his daughter was born in Melbourne. A second Geoffrey Hope revue, In Town Tonight, followed Paris En Fête into the Melbourne Tivoli early in the New Year.

Sid Field left the company early in 1935. He had not been the hit Frank Neil expected. Field felt that Australians wanted humour of a broader kind; he also complained that many of his best sketches had already been exploited by local comics. He returned to Britain but did not find stardom until his first West End appearance in 1943. He died a mere seven years later, aged only forty-three, one of the most popular and respected comedians in English variety.

Sid Field’s place at the top of the bill at the Tivoli was taken by Jim Gerald. In his honour the show was called London Calling: Jim was about to depart for Britain with his wife, Essie Jennings. Their trip was arranged by Frank Neil to inaugurate an arrangement with English producers Geoffrey Hope and Vivian Palmer to facilitate the interchange of artistes between Australia and England. Jim eventually made it to the West End in a revue called Don’t Spare the Horses which opened at the Garrick Theatre on 30 October 1935. It was the creation of Kenneth Duffield, an Australian who had produced Tivoli revues for Hugh D. McIntosh in 1930. Duffield also wrote the music. Don’t Spare the Horses was greeted by generally sympathetic notices—one reviewer thought it had ‘a certain not altogether unattractive air of improvisation’—but sadly it survived for only five performances. Legend has it that one critic cruelly ordered, ‘Home, James!’

After Jim Gerald’s departure for Britain the London Calling company stayed on to provide the first half of a program featuring the Great Dante. One of the world’s master illusionists, Dante—Harry Jansen—had previously visited Australia in 1933. Especially featured was his glamorous stage assistant, a young Geelong-born beauty, Mona Miller, though she had adopted the stage name Moi-Yo Miller, a pseudonym she used for the rest of her long career. She came to be internationally recognised as a master magician in her own right. She died in Melbourne in 2018, aged 104.

Following his Tivoli season, Dante presented his full show at the King’s in Russell Street, then switched to the Sydney Tivoli in June. The Dante show opened with ‘Ten tricks in ten seconds—nod to a friend and you miss a trick!’ Amongst the dozens of wonders that followed was ‘the most daring illusion ever attempted: Mutilation, Decapitation, Annihilation, Restoration.’ The program concluded with ‘Dante’s crowning achievement: passing a lady from the stage to within a nest of trunks hanging from the ceiling—the utmost in modern stagecraft.’

Neil’s next major Tivoli venture was a series of elaborate French-themed revues ‘adapted, anglicised and produced’ by Dublin-born London-based comedian and dancer Frank O’Brian. O’Brian shared top billing with his wife, Janice Hart, a Black singer, dancer and comedian, born in the London suburb of Camden. Miss Hart had visited Australia before, but then she had been billed as Cassie Walmer. The new stage name was designed to validate her adoption of the exotic persona and repertoire of Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris.

With a company of fifty and 500 costumes the cycle opened at the Melbourne Tivoli in April 1935 with Birds of the Night (Les Oiseaux de Nuit). The Herald praised its ‘rapid humour, rhythm, numerically outsize ballets, quick patter and welcome originality; in fact, three diverting hours of galloping entertainment that has the crowds cheering.’ Birds of the Night was followed by Women of the World (Les Femmes du Monde), Why Go To Paris?, Beauty on Parade and so on.

In April 1935 Frank Neil sailed for the United States in the liner Monterey. He also visited London. Not only did he book dozens of acts, he also contracted a producer. It had become obvious that he simply did not have the time to perform his duties as managing director, travel overseas to book acts, and produce shows in Sydney and Melbourne. What the Circuit needed was a competent resident revue producer, preferably with overseas experience and a good track record. The man Frank chose was Wallace R. Parnell, whom he had met in London the previous year. Though the job fitted him perfectly, Parnell was the very black sheep of one of Britain’s most celebrated theatrical families.

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the Tivoli inaugurated a series of revues starting with Hello America. Top billing was shared by English funny-man Joey Porter and the American comedic song-and-dance act Forsythe, Seamon and Farrell. Also on the bill were Ruth Craven, singing Cole Porter’s sassy ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, and a bright young local soubrette, Cath Esler. An interesting innovation was a compere  ̶  ‘the role is difficult and requires an artiste of rare versatility and quick wit’. The Tivoli’s first compere was Ted Leary, a wisecracking American comedian.

Wallace Parnell sailed for Australia in July 1935. With him was his 'companion', Miss Winifred Hopped, an aspiring 22-year-old actress, whom everyone politely assumed was his wife. Meanwhile Queenie May, the real Mrs Parnell, remained behind in England. Her marriage and her career had faltered, and she was said to have ‘turned to drink’. Another passenger was Phyllis Dixey, who had been romantically linked with Parnell and who had starred in several of his touring revues. Also on board were Tracy and Vinette—actually Jack Tracy and Sophie Levine—whose speciality was an act called ‘The Sap and the Swell Dame’. During the trip, Jack became romantically linked with Phyllis Dixey. They married in 1937. Acclaimed ‘The Queen of Striptease’, Phyllis ran spicy strip shows at London’s Whitehall Theatre for some years, and produced the long-running farce Worm’s Eye View.

Parnell’s first production for the Tivoli was The Laughter Express. With typical disregard for the truth, the program called him ‘The Peer of English Producers, from the London Palladium’. The Laughter Express opened in Melbourne on 11 September 1935. The Star judged it ‘the best variety revue and fun ever put on at the Tivoli.’

Wallace Parnell soon settled into the Tivoli’s routine. Frank Neil made all the important bookings and it was left to Parnell to meld the acts into cohesive shows. Although Neil and Parnell respected each other, their relationship was often stormy. Loud, acrimonious arguments were not uncommon. Parnell had to accept Neil’s policy of spending money on what he called ‘big name’ imports, even they were often fading stars who were relatively cheap. To pay their salaries and fares Neil saved money on production. He often re-vamped sets and costumes, much to Parnell’s frustration, and production staff had to devise cheap ways to make the shows look expensive.

‘The ballet costumes were scanty, nothing elaborate,’ recalled Jim Hutchings. ‘There was plenty of glitter and coloured lights, but everything was done on the cheap. Plenty of tap routines, good gags, Mo and Jim Gerald, Morry Barling, Syd Beck. Cheap local acts as fill-ins. Eight in the orchestra, two on the lines, three in electrics, two in props, a stage manager and an assistant. Eight in the ballet. All staff at an absolute minimum. We were all on small wages. This thrift built the Tivoli.’

Fred Parsons confirms this parsimony: ‘Frank Neil was a terrifically hard worker and could turn his hand to anything in the theatre. He once boasted that the sets for an entire Tivoli production had cost him 4s 6d, and that was for nails. And I have seen him backstage, early in the morning, painting some scenery—not because he thought he could do it better than his scenic artist, but because he enjoyed doing it.’

In those days shows played twice daily, at 2.30 and 8 pm. The productions were mounted in Melbourne, opening on the Monday matinee after an extensive band call in the morning. Seasons ran for five weeks in Melbourne, and five in Sydney. Often changes were incorporated in the seasons’ final two weeks for the benefit of patrons coming to see the show for the second time. After Sydney there were frequently short seasons in Brisbane and Adelaide and sometimes through New Zealand.

As managing director of the Tivoli, Frank Neil always ensured that his name was placed prominently in publicity and in the programs. All the shows were tagged ‘Frank Neil presents ...’ Wallace Parnell was named as producer, but always in a style that made it clear that Frank Neil was in charge. And although George Dickenson was by far the largest shareholder in the business, his name was never mentioned.

There were pantomimes in both Sydney and Melbourne for Christmas 1935. Wallace Parnell produced Cinderella at the Sydney Tivoli with The Laughter Express company. Phyllis Dixey was Dandini with local star Robert Nicholson as Demon Nightshade, terrifying the tots with his song about ‘The Green-Eyed Dragon with the Thirteen Tails’. In Melbourne, Frank Neil produced The Babes in the Wood at the King’s in a co-production arrangement with J.C. Williamson’s similar to that for Mother Goose the year before. This time, however, Neil was at pains to point out that as the pantomime would include a number of the Tivoli’s overseas stars, it was only fair that part of their fares should be charged against the panto’s production costs. In a letter to Frank Tait, he suggested that £70 a week should be allowed to cover these costs. ‘We are really getting an imported cast of stars for at a cost of just £12 15s more than the cast and specialities cost last year. P.S.: Don’t forget you are getting the use of the services of these people without sharing any of the costs of my world tour to secure them.’ When Frank Tait started to haggle, Neil shot back a terse note: ‘Dear Frank Tait, All right. Don’t let’s argue. We will charge £50 a week for the overseas fares. Kind regards, Frank Neil.’ Again, Neil’s draft budget has survived. The top salary, £100, went to Alfred Latell as Bonzo the Dog; Syd Beck was on £30 as the Dame, Nurse Anastasia, and the other principals’ salaries ranged from £25 down to £4. Juggler Jean Florian was on £35 and Alice Uren’s acrobats got a total of £10.

Frank Neil also worked with entrepreneurs Milton and Adams as producer for Sinbad the Sailor at the Garrick Theatre in what was then Aikman Street, South Melbourne. The 770-seat Garrick, formerly known as the Snowden Picture Theatre and the Playhouse, was the city’s favourite ‘fringe’ theatre, housing a motley assortment of repertory, semi-professional and small-scale touring productions. Rich Milton and Les Adams, both comedians, had presented a revue company for a long season at the Bijou in 1932. They were both in Sinbad, Adams as the earthy Dame Hinbad. The Age reported, ‘Les Adams and Zilla Weatherly are outstanding, and Billy Andros shows ability as a ventriloquist. One of the features is fine ballet work by a band of little girls who, without showing any signs of precociousness, perform their little pieces in a manner that would be creditable to older and more seasoned artists. Gloria Dawn, in particular, seems to possess that captivating personality so essential for a stage career.’ Gloria was six. It was one of her first press ‘notices’.

The first Tivoli production for 1936 opened in Melbourne on 30 January. It was called The Spice of Paris, a name used previously by Parnell for one of his most successful British touring revues. The Tivoli’s Spice of Paris starred the animal impersonator Alfred Latell, reprising his ‘Bonzo the Dog’ act. In the comedy sketches were Angus Watson, Phyllis Dixey, Keith Connolly, Chick Arnold, Keith Johns and Maurice Diamond. Diamond also looked after the dances and was, strangely, billed over producer Wallace Parnell. At the end of February, the company was joined by the droll American vaudeville comedienne Polly Moran for Hot from Hollywood. Miss Moran was a genuinely big star, familiar for her film partnership with Marie Dressler; her most recent screen appearance had been as the Dodo Bird in the celebrated 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland.

neil shout for joy branos onealAd for Shout for Joy from The Herald (Melbourne), 5 May 1936. Buster Shaver with Olive and George Brasno (centre) & William O’Neal (right). Author’s collection.

Next into the Melbourne Tivoli was Once in a Blue Moon, a revue built around an extraordinary act, American vaudevillian Buster Shaver with Olive and George. Olive Brasno and her brother, George, were ‘little people’. George was aged twenty-three, and 99 cm tall; Olive, twenty, was 96.5 cm tall. They had portrayed Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in the 1934 Wallace Beery film The Mighty Barnum.

Jim Gerald was back at the Melbourne Tivoli from 27 April 1936 heading Shout for Joy. The show took its title from the revue in which Jim had toured the British provinces, following the debacle of his London debut. With him were Tommy Dale, Max Reddy and Cath Esler. Among the imported acts was the young British monologue comic, Eric Barker. His cod cockney witticisms later won him a huge following on the BBC. Also in the company was the American tenor William O’Neal, billed as ‘The Famous Red Shadow of The Desert Song in New York’. Almost true! The role was in fact created by a Scot, Robert Halliday, while O’Neal played the Red Shadow’s lieutenant, Sid El Kar. Nevertheless, O’Neal did have a genuine Broadway pedigree. He’d come to this country in 1935 to star in the Australian musical Flame of Desire and worked here until 1939. Back in New York he was the original Colonel Buffalo Bill in the Broadway premiere of Annie Get Your Gun.

To be continued