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

neil frank neilFrank Neil. State Library of Western Australia, Perth.Part 5: In 1936 Frank Neil explained to an Argus reporter the magic of a Tivoli show: ‘It is a crazy quilt of dance numbers, interspersed with some satire from the comedian, and novelty “turns” by speciality artistes. It is very satisfying as entertainment.’

Frank neil set off on another overseas trip in June 1936. He had good contacts with leading booking agents—Charles H. Allen in New York, Sam Kramer in Los Angeles and Reeves and Lamport in London—and was widely liked and respected in the United States and Britain.

Stop Press and The Radio Parade were notable not for their overseas headliners, but for the number of talented young Australians who filled out their programs: Among them were Al Mack, Fifi Banvard, William Perryman and Mercia George. And making their Tivoli debut were the Bridges Musical Trio. Siblings Clifford, Babe and Nancye Bridges were clever multi-instrumentalists with a melodic repertoire of light classics and popular songs. After Clifford’s departure, the act continued as the Bridges Sisters. In the late 1970s Nancye produced a popular series of nostalgic ‘Old Fashioned Shows’ at the Sydney Opera House. She also published evocative books on show business and the early days of radio.

When Stop Press reached Sydney in September 1936 several new local personalities joined the company: showgirl Dolly Mack (the future Mrs. Bob Dyer); Harry Abdy with Chut, his boxing kangaroo (Harry and Chut had had starring roles in the recently released Cinesound film Orphan of the Wilderness); dancers Carden and Francis (George Carden was destined to be one of musical theatre’s great choreographers and directors); and the Fiddes Brothers, a ‘knockabout comedy dancing duo’. Buster Fiddes, later with an extra ‘s’, would become a favourite Australian television clown. Towards the end of the season in Sydney a special edition called Flying High was mounted ‘in honour of Jean Batten’s historic New Zealand flight’. The show opened with William Perryman, supported by the ballet and showgirls, in a spirited presentation of ‘Flying Down to Rio’.

In September 1936, Roy Rene returned to the Tivoli for two revues, Laugh, Town, Laugh and Carnival Time. Roy was billed as ‘Australia’s Most Original Comedian, a Personality That Stands Supreme in Theatreland Today’ and, significantly, ‘The New Mo—Clean as a New Pin, and Twice as Funny’. With Mo were Sadie Gale, Marie Doran, Grace Emerson, Alec Kellaway and Morry Barling. It was in this season that Roy Rene stopped the show as the Virgin Queen in the sketch ‘In the Days of Good Queen Bess’, written for him by Fred Parsons.

Naturally Mo tended to overshadow the overseas members of the company, particularly notable among whom were the celebrated British harpist Carlos Ames and the banjo-playing funsters Morgan and Hadley. Wally Hadley was a noted musician from Perth, Western Australia. While working in Britain he had formed a riotous double act with American Freddy (sometimes ‘Freddie’) Morgan. Morgan later found his niche as one of Spike Jones’ anarchic City Slickers. He revisited Australia in the early days of television.

When Mo and company switched to Sydney, his place was taken first by Frank O’Brian and then by Jim Gerald, who starred in Cinderella, the Melbourne pantomime for Christmas 1936. In Sydney Frank O’Brian took the title role in Mother Goose. Fifi Banvard was Principal Boy, Al Mack was Squire Skinflint, Chick Arnold was Demon Diehard and Freda Bohning played Fairy Truelove. Dan McLaughlin and Bill Sadler were, respectively, the front and rear portions of the panto horse.

Neil returned to Australia in December 1936 He told reporters he had booked 86 new acts, totalling 200 artists, which would entail an outlay of £75,000 for salaries and more than £8000 in travelling expenses.

Early in 1937 the Melbourne Tivoli welcomed little North Country comedian Joey Porter back for his second tour. In March Roy Rene and Sadie Gale starred in The Song and Dance Show of 1937. With them were Jandy, the French musical clown, Cecil Scott, Gracie Emmerson and Morry Barling. In an outrageous Fred Parsons sketch called ‘The Great Lover’ Morry played Casanova with Roy Rene as his latest female conquest.

In April 1937 Tivoli programs carried the following excited announcement: ‘Frank Neil makes Theatrical History! Flying Direct to London! Sleeps in Eight Different Countries in Eight Days! The popular managing director of the Tivoli Circuit, Mr. Frank Neil, will leave Brisbane and fly by Qantas Empire Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines direct to London in search of talent for the Tivoli. This will be the first occasion on which a theatrical manager has flown out of Australia in search of artistes. The route is via Cloncurry, Darwin, Surabaya (Java), Medan (Sumatra), Rangoon, Jodhpur (India), Baghdad (Iraq) and Athens. Mr Neil will do all his continental travelling by air, and also use the airlines in England on every possible occasion. Mr. Neil also intends to cross from England to America in the airship Hindenburg.’ Fortunately for Frank, Hindenburg made its fiery descent into history on 6 May 1937.

Frank Neil was in London for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 24 May 1937. In Melbourne the Tivoli celebrated with a coronation-themed revue, Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue. The first act finished with ‘The Fleet’s in Port Again’, ‘a tableau of Britain’s might at sea’, and the show concluded with ‘A Coronation tableau’ with the Tivoli Ballet in a patriotic ‘Dance of the Flags’.

Top of the bill was the world’s greatest wire walker Con Colleano. He was the first person to accomplish the forward somersault on the tightrope, a feat previously thought to be impossible. For the past fourteen years he had starred in the great circuses and variety theatres of Europe and the United States. Over the years he had considerably refined his act, adopting ballet-like movements and costuming himself in dazzling Spanish finery. This, his name, and his swarthy features, meant he was often presumed to be Spanish. In fact, he was Australian, and could trace his ancestry back to his great-grandparents, Lampet Saunders, a freed convict, and a Black woman apparently known as Julia.

Con Colleano shared top billing with Irene Vermillion and her four lady trumpeters, a glamorous and unusual act from New York. In the 1950s Irene and her husband, Kermit Dart, ran the elegant 85-room Vermillion Hotel, a landmark on Hollywood Boulevard. Another interesting import was Bob Parrish, a young Black singer who had been working as a lift attendant in Los Angeles when Frank Neil heard him humming a song, gave him an audition and booked him immediately. He became a headliner as a result of his Tivoli engagement, returned here several times, and became a favourite at the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York and the Bar of Music in Hollywood.

The featured comic in Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue was Charles Norman, in his Tivoli debut. Charles had worked for years with Fullers’, often in a double act with Chick Arnold. In 1934 he had played Leopold in the Australian premiere of White Horse Inn and two years later he was Billy Crocker in the Australian premiere of Anything Goes. Adding to the fun were Chick Arnold, Tommy Dale, Marie Doran and Sylvia Kellaway.

Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue went on to play in Brisbane and subsequently toured New Zealand. It was the first Tivoli show to carry the credit ‘Ballets and Ensembles by Ronnie Hay’. Ronnie Hay had been one of the hard-working ‘Con-Paul Boys’ in Mike Connors and Queenie Paul’s Haymarket days. He gradually replaced Maurice Diamond as the Tivoli’s resident choreographer. He remained in charge of the Tivoli’s ballets until 1960.

This allowed Maurice Diamond to concentrate his energies on his school of dancing which, at Frank Neil’s suggestion, he transferred to studios on the second floor of the Tivoli building in Sydney. Mercia George was his principal teacher. Diamond’s pupils appeared regularly in Tivoli pantomimes until well into the 1950s.

Another recruit at the Sydney Tivoli was scenic artist James C. Hutchings. Although K.V. McGuinness still designed and painted most of the Tivoli’s settings in the Melbourne workshops, Jim was based in Sydney. He was responsible for refurbishing the ever-more-elaborate sets when they arrived from Melbourne. He also supplied new sets when required: some acts, for instance, opened in Sydney, not Melbourne. Increasingly, too, shows were so big that the production load was spread between the two cities.

The Talk of the Town starred Cecil Lyle, ‘The Magical Milliner’. His act was documented by Charles Waller: ‘From nowhere he produces ladies’ hats and hat boxes. Plumes, miraculously travelling, attach themselves to other hats. I doubt whether Cecil could persuade even Mrs. Lyle to wear these magically made hats; still, it is a pretty and original performance.’ The company also included a great local double act, Dinks and Trixie. They had played featured roles in Neil’s production of Cinderella at Melbourne’s Princess in 1924, and had spent many years as bill-toppers in Britain.

A ten-member Canadian jazz band, the Americanadians, appeared at the Tivoli in Sydney around the middle of the year. They had been brought to Australia by Clarrie Gange, a Melbourne entrepreneur and musician. Their arrival displeased the Musicians’ Union which was anxious to protect its local members, many of whom were still suffering from the effects of the Depression and the introduction of talkies. The Americanadians had little success in Melbourne; they did better at the Sydney Tivoli and extremely well at the Top Hatters’ Club in Kings Cross—until there was a gunfight and murder there and the crowds evaporated. The Americanadians’ legacy to Australia was their percussionist, Sammy Lee, later to manage Australia’s first theatre restaurant, the Roosevelt, then the 47 Club and the Latin Quarter nightclubs in Sydney, the Storkclub in Melbourne and, of course, Les Girls.

Among the interesting Australians were comic Stan Foley; comedienne Neva Carr Glyn, just back from a successful stay in London; internationally acclaimed juggler George Hurd; and ventriloquist Clifford Guest. Born in Melbourne in 1911, Guest had gone to Britain in 1933 with a superb act combining ventriloquism and mimicry. Charles Waller commented: ‘In his imitation of an English fox hunt he is marvellous; and in his impersonation of an Australian sheep drover, complete with dog and sheep, one can almost smell the dust as it rises from the hot country paddock.’ During his 1937 Sydney season Guest married Mavis Kelly, a member of the Four Ks, an Australian musical act who were on the same bill. The couple returned to Australia in 1939 and Guest appeared frequently at the Tivoli during the war years.

neil americanadiansAmericanadians: Swing is King with Canada’s Famous Band—with Sammy Lee on percussions. Frank Van Straten collection.

Another local act making a bow in 1937 was Morton and Thompson—Tex and Harry—billed quaintly as ‘Australia’s Famous Hill Billys’. In fact, Harry Thompson, who was a singer and harmonica virtuoso, was Scottish, and yodelling singer and guitarist Tex Morton was a New Zealander, Bob Lane, born in Nelson in 1916. He came to Australia in 1932 and became a jack-of-all-trades with travelling shows. As Tex Morton he cut his first Regal Zonophone recordings in 1936; they swiftly established the popularity which continued throughout his lengthy career. Tex also excelled in verse reading, hypnotism, sharp shooting, feats of memory, acting and show promotion, but it was as a pioneer of country music that he made the greatest impact. Ralph Peer, the American country music guru, said, ‘Tex has single-handedly created and pioneered in Australia a country music industry which compared favourably with some of our best areas in America. He achieved in five years what took us in the States more than twenty. The people of Australia should be forever grateful to him. He is the Jimmie Rodgers of Australia.’ Thompson, too, had a long career, though it was not as varied and as unusual as Morton’s.

The next big show for 1937 was Hello Harlem, built around the considerable talents of the Black singer and actress Nina Mae McKinney. Miss McKinney had starred in the films Hallelujah! in 1929 and Sanders of the River in 1935, in the latter opposite Paul Robeson. She had also appeared on Broadway in the revue Ballyhoo of 1932 with an up-and-coming comic called Bob Hope. Her stay here was not a happy one. She suffered from homesickness, audiences failed to warm to her work, severe tonsilitis forced her early departure from the show, and she was sued for rent and damage to her Sydney flat.

Hello Harlem also featured Roy Rene and Sadie Gale. This was one of the few occasions when Roy did not get top billing. When he heard that he was relegated to Number Two dressing room, he raged, ‘I’ve been turned out of me room—for a Black sheila!’ Then, after Nina Mae McMcKinney fainted on stage, Roy was asked by the stage manager, Fred Parsons, to fill in. Dressed only in a striped dressing gown, Roy strode on and delivered a few arch impressions of Australian wildlife. ‘I went well, didn’t I?’ he asked Parsons, adding, ‘It’s a pity that Black sheila can’t faint at every performance. It’d improve the show.’

Parsons relates that shortly after this, Frank Neil told Roy that he did not intend to renew his contract. ‘This led to heated words and Roy told Frank what he could do with his theatre. Neil lost his temper and shouted, “You bloody comics are all the same! And you’ll finish up working in a shithouse!” With impeccable dignity, Roy replied, “When I do, Mr. Neil, you’ll be at the door, taking the tickets”.’ Later in the year Ella Shields was billed above Jim Gerald in Stars Are Here.

Hello Harlem opened and closed with a setting representing New York’s famous Cotton Club. It also included an incongruous, though exciting, Act One finale. The year 1937 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the loss of the Titanic so Frank Neil came up with ‘An Epic of the Sea’, a ‘romantically sensational and thrilling realistic dramatic spectacle’ in which the Titanic sank on the Tivoli stage—twice daily, at 2.30 and 8—thanks to the combined theatrical expertise of scenic artist K.V. McGuinness and mechanist Alex Muir.

The year closed with Cinderella in Sydney, with Jim Gerald as the Dame and Neva Carr Glyn as Dandini.

The Tivoli Circuit was riding high. It was said 15,000 patrons visited the Melbourne Tivoli every week. In Sydney £30,000 was spent on refurbishing and air conditioning. The work was done under the direction an expert theatre architect, Charles Bohringer; it was he who had designed the Embassy cinema which had replaced Rickards’ original Tivoli at the other end of Castlereagh Street. When Frank Neil flew in from his 1937 trip, The Argus ran the following story:

‘In 1934 Mr Frank Neil, on behalf of Tivoli Theatres of Australia, pioneered a new movement in variety. The old days used to see straight vaudeville shows of from eight to twelve “acts”. Today the physical presentation is a crazy quilt of dance numbers, wheezes about sex and politicians, acrobatics, pageants, and song numbers, interspersed with some satire from the comedian and novelty “turns” by speciality artistes. It is very satisfying as an entertainment.

‘The variety show of 1937 endeavours to give something to everybody and does not rest its appeal on a few specific principles. It aims to relieve the patron of the necessity for intense concentration on the stage, a boon which alone should earn dividends, and operates on the theory that an audience pays its money to be amused and entertained. In terms of accomplishment, modern variety presentation has outdistanced any other theatrical project in offsetting talking pictures; and talking pictures, you will agree, have displayed a remarkable resistance to everything and everybody—including censors.’

The variety stage also challenged the censors. In 1937 the Fullers imported The Marcus Show, a seedy American touring revue. Its chief attraction was its scantily dressed showgirls, several of whom appeared bare breasted. Surprisingly, this innovation seems to have raised few eyebrows. Wallace Parnell urged Neil to follow suit, but Neil was reluctant. ‘Tits aren’t entertainment,’ he said. Nevertheless, he eventually agreed, and statuesque bare breasted beauties became a ubiquitous element of Tivoli shows. To protect the country’s morals, the girls were forbidden to move while on stage, although they were frequently ‘tastefully’ displayed atop slowly revolving pedestals.

Frank Neil’s new policy caused little press comment, though Sydney’s satirical Smith’s Weekly magazine couldn’t resist gleefully reporting on the Tiv’s Wonder Show of World Stars in March 1938: ‘No intelligent person objects to sophisticated wit or sophisticated beauty. It is only crudity which is offensive. Up until now, the Tivoli shows have been mostly bright and clever. Mr. Frank Neil would do well to ponder over his present program. Not that the blueness is entirely in bad taste. One of the most daring song-scenes, “Waters of the World”, offers a charming spectacle, and, incidentally, a background considerably nakeder than anything attempted by the Marcus company. A fountain plays mid-stage. Two girls stand in the middle, with water tinkling round their toes. Smith’s Weekly’s critic forgot to bring his field-glasses but, as far as could be observed, these girls are entirely nude. On a pedestal above them, a third show girl poses. She, too, seems to be quite unclothed, except for a transparent brassiere. The two girls under the pedestal each hold up one arm, to support urns overhead. Their other arms are providentially situated. But we couldn’t help thinking that if a fly had lit on one of those girls, and she’d slapped it with her free hand, the audience would have got more than their money’s worth. Prior to this part of the scene, a procession of showgirls marches over the stage in the scantiest costumes we’ve seen for years. Their brassieres, too, are completely transparent. Perhaps Mr. Frank Neil will emulate the publicity achieved for The Marcus Show, and invite some policemen along to the next performance?’

Early in 1938 Frank Neil installed a new, larger orchestra at the Melbourne Tivoli, and welcomed a new musical director. Replacing Martin Kett, who went to try his luck in Britain, was Hal Moschetti. Originally from Perth, Western Australia, where he had conducted the orchestra at the Ambassadors Theatre, he’d become a familiar figure leading the orchestra at the Palais de Danse in St Kilda. He stayed at the Tivoli until 1962. Through most of the 1930s the Sydney Tivoli orchestra was led by Wally Reynolds and Hal Vincer.

The first of Frank Neil’s really big stars for 1938 did not arrive until May. Billy Costello, who provided the screen voice for the cartoon character ‘Popeye the Sailor’ topped an otherwise undistinguished bill in Hello, Popeye. E.C. Segar’s comic strip hero had been brought to the screen by Max Fleischer in 1933. Costello, then better known as ‘Red Pepper Sam’, was chosen as Popeye’s voice largely because of his experience as a talking gorilla on radio. Unfortunately, success went to Costello’s head. He became temperamental and was fired. Costello also missed out on the Popeye radio series, which started in 1935. Nevertheless, he spent the rest of his career trying to cash in on his one claim to fame.

Later in the year the Frank Neil contracted another cartoon personality, ‘The Voice of Snow White’, Adriana Caselotti. Adriana was the daughter of a well-known Los Angeles vocal coach. Roy Scott, Disney’s casting director, had telephoned him in the hope that he could suggest a young singer to record the voice for the part of Snow White. Adriana, then nineteen, was eavesdropping. She began singing and talking in a child’s voice—and won herself the role. She was paid US$970 for the forty-eight days it took to record her part. The film quickly became a box office bonanza. She made a few promotional appearances, signed up with Frank Neil to appear in a pantomime production of Snow White, and sued Disney for extra remuneration.

Adriana arrived in Australia to find that Disney had warned Neil that he would not allow him to use the original film songs unless Adriana withdrew her claim. Neil was furious. ‘Who do they think they are?’, he asked a Truth reporter. ‘They might run the Australian picture game, but they’re not telling me how to run my stage work, and I’m not doing any dirty work for them either.’ Instead, Neil told Parnell to come up with a short original stage adaptation of the Grimm story, and asked his young musical director Harold Moschetti to supply a swag of suitable new songs.

The Tivoli’s Snow White was a highlight of the show Christmas Extravaganza, which opened at in Melbourne on 5 December 1938. Albert Chappelle played the Prince and seven of the smaller ballet girls were the dwarfs. For Sydney, this presentation was developed into a miniature pantomime, with seven ‘genuine’ dwarfs imported from the United States. Surprisingly, this was Adriana Caselotti’s only stage work. She ‘voiced’ a couple more films—and then retired. Each of her four marriages ended in divorce, and she died in 1997.

Frank Neil’s next headliner was Will Mahoney. One of America’s genuinely great vaudeville stars, Will had perfected a show-stopping act combining clever humour with a unique dance routine in which he tapped out a tune on the keys of a 17-foot-wide xylophone. He had not been an overnight sensation. As a teenager he’d honed his skills on the small-time vaudeville circuits of the United States and Mexico in a knockabout comedy double act with his half-brother, Frank. They even played in Australia for the Fullers in 1914, billed as ‘The Mahoney Brothers and Daisy’—Daisy was their trained dog. Will got his break when he premiered his xylophone routine in George White’s Scandals of 1924. From then on, his rise was meteoric. The prestigious Palace in New York became his second home, and he commanded US$5500 a week—the highest paid variety artist in America. He and his musical director, Bob Geraghty, decided to put together a revue company to tour Britain. One of the supporting acts they recruited was a glamorous young Californian singer called Evie Hayes, ‘The Velvet Voice of the Air’. The British tour went wonderfully. Will appeared in the special Silver Jubilee Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1935. He and Evie were married in 1938. He was forty-three, she twenty-five. They jumped at Frank Neil’s offer of an Australian tour: it was a paid honeymoon!

Will, Evie and Bob Geraghty opened sensationally at the Melbourne Tivoli on 22 August 1938 in a show that took its title from Will’s catchphrase, Why Be Serious? Their success was repeated in Sydney, where they played to 143,207 people in their six-week season. Frank Neil renegotiated their contract, effectively guaranteeing them bookings for as long as they wished to remain in Australia. As well, Will was wooed by Ken Hall, chief of Cinesound Productions. Years later Hall recalled Will as ‘a talented, cheeky, very likeable little man, with a marvellous sense of fun. I was tremendously impressed with his skill in handling an audience, his communication with it, his great dancing and comedy talent. He used to climax his act by dancing on a xylophone—and getting fast tempo and completely understandable music out of the instrument by means of tap-hammers fixed to his dancing shoes. It was a showstopper.’ Will starred for Cinesound in Come Up Smiling, a genial comedy set in a touring carnival. It was later re-released as Ants in His Pants. Evie had a featured role as Kitty Katkin and Chips Rafferty made his movie debut as ‘man in crowd’.

Frank Neil dubbed Mahoney ‘The Imp Eternal’, while Evie became ‘The Velvet Voice of the Air’. They decided to settle in Australia and quickly became a popular part of the local show business scene. For a while Mahoney ran the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane, and Evie played the ‘Ethel Merman’ roles in the Australian productions of the musicals Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. She and Will appeared in Funny Girl in 1966. Will died the following year, but Evie continued, coaching young performers and appearing frequently on television. She died in 1988.

Larry Adler was another star of undoubted international standing. The New Grove Dictionary called him ‘the first harmonica player to achieve recognition and acceptance in classical musical circles and to have elevated the instrument to concert status’. Larry himself preferred the term ‘mouth organ’. Born in Baltimore in 1914, he had risen quickly to musical fame. He had starred in London for Charles Cochran and was already well-known in Australia from his film appearances and his many gramophone recordings. His reputation failed to impress the Sydney Tivoli’s colourfully spoken mechanist, Alex Muir. During a rehearsal Adler asked for complete quiet. Alec threw his hammer onto the stage and shouted, ‘Everybody stop. This c... wants quiet. He must think he’s the bloody show! So we’ll all sit down and listen to Mr Adler play his mouth organ. You’ll get no bloody production ready for tonight.’ According to a possibly apocryphal story, Adler’s art was also lost on Roy Rene. ‘Take away his bloody mouth organ,’ said Roy, ‘and then see what he can do!’

Roy Rene was featured in International Merry-Go-Round, but the headliner was Emile Boreo, a Polish-born star of French revues such as the Chauve-Souris and the Folies-Bergère. He had also acted on stage and screen. His speciality, his stunning Toy Soldier routine, can now be enjoyed on YouTube. Jim Hutchings remembered: ‘On his opening night in Melbourne they put Mo on before him with his drum act, which used to eat them alive. After that Emile Boreo meant nothing. No one knew he was there! Mo said to me, “How much is the mug getting?” I said, “Sixty quid, I think.” “Gawd, strike me lucky! I’m carrying him!” In Sydney they changed the running order, and he went much better with Mo in a spot safely away from him.’


To be continued