Over the years Frank has amassed a vast collection of Australian theatre memorabilia. He was director of the Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum from 1984 until 1993. For 15 years Frank researched and presented ABC Radio's popular Nostalgia feature over Melbourne's 774. He contributes historical articles to many theatre programs and journals. His books include National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre (1994), The Regent Theatre: Melbourne's Palace of Dreams (1996), Tivoli (2003), Huge Deal: The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh (2004), Florence Young and the Golden Years of Australian Musical Theatre (2009), Her Majesty's Pleasure (Her Majesty's, Adelaide. 2013), Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: The Shows, The Stars, The Stories (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2018), and Hanky-Panky: The Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls (2020).
Part 3: ‘It is my intention to produce only first-class laughing comedies. as I think the public want to be amused these days.’
The 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’.
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.
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
FRANK VAN STRATEN continues his exploration of the life and tumultuous times of Frank Neil, one of Australia’s near-forgotten entrepreneurs.
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:
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.
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.
In 1973 I read an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly profiling a retired scenic artist called Jim Hutchings. Jim was living in Sydney with his son and daughter-in-law. He had suffered a stroke two years before and was regaining his health and confidence by developing his talents as a painter of still lifes and landscapes. I rang and Jim graciously invited me to visit him.
He took a shine to me. Though the stroke impeded his speech, he allowed me to record his reminiscences. He had spent the most rewarding years of his life working as a scenic artist at the Sydney Tivoli. His memories were crystal clear, warm, ribald, rumbustious. We ran out of time and tape. A few days later I received in the mail some painstakingly written sheets of paper headed ‘Tivoli Days’. They were filled with more colourful reminiscences. I wrote to thank him. More followed. Then more. Jim kept up the supply, week after week, until he died in June 1974. For Jim Hutchings the Tivoli was Theatre—and Frank Neil was the Tivoli.
‘It was in 1928 at the Royal in Adelaide that I met Frank Neil,’ reminisced Jim. ‘I told him I remembered seeing him at the Majestic in Newtown in Sydney. I asked him if there was some scenery I could paint. He started me on the Monday morning, fixing up Charley’s Aunt. That’s how I got started. He came down to watch me paint. I was very nervous. I was painting a hedge with roses on it. “That’s the stuff I want, pink roses. And colourful roses around the college door.” I realised Frank had a weakness for roses and for bright emerald greens. I couldn’t do a thing wrong! We were friends for life. He said, “If you come to Sydney, I’ve got some shows coming up, and I’ll give you an introduction to George Marlow at the Grand Opera House”. I painted Babes in the Wood and Mother Goose, then, I think, Getting Gertie’s Garter for Frank.
‘I remember the time he wanted an underwater scene for the ballet. We used to all stand out in the stalls in case he should see something that needed improving or changing. Frank dusted the cigarette ash off his lapels and said, “Bring in the sea legs. Bring on the shell.” Then, suddenly, he said to Teddy Bolt, the props man, “Where are those strings of baby pink roses?” Eddie McDonald said, “Christ, Frank, you can’t have roses under the sea.” “Why can’t you? Have you ever been under the sea?” said Frank. “There’s everything down there! Get the pink roses, Teddy!” So roses we had, under the sea, at the Tivoli!
‘Frank was a force. Eyes on everything. He lived show business, slept show business, loved show business, was show business. No-one but Frank could have got the Tivolis back on the map. It was Frank who organised the best people he could get and inspired their love and loyalty. We worked ourselves to the bone for him. There were rumours that he was a bit homosexual. There was never any proof, but I never saw him with any females or heard of anyone who did. As one stagehand said to me, “After all, it’s his own arse. He can do what he likes with it”.’
Frank Neil’s birth certificate confirms that he was born in the Victorian town of Corindhap on 21 December 1886—not in 1890 as several sources state. Today Corindhap is a quiet, scattered hamlet on the highway between Ballarat and Colac that has obviously seen better days. Around 100 people still call it home, but in the 1850s it had a population of 5000. Back then it was a bustling gold mining town called Break o’ Day, after a nearby reef. When the gold petered out, the community turned to agriculture. By the 1880s Corindhap was a busy, if not particularly prosperous, country village with about 340 residents—an extremely unlikely starting point for a man who made a career presenting bright, frothy entertainment and who worked with some of the greatest names in world variety.
Frank Neil’s father, John Isaac Neil, was a Geelong-born miner; his mother, the former Sarah Scott Thompson, had emigrated from Liverpool. Frank was the last of the Neils’ seven children.
In 1890 Frank was enrolled at the local State School. There he met a bright boy, Percy Laidler, two years his senior, who, too, had an interesting future ahead of him: he would become a prominent socialist propagandist, and find himself, depicted as ‘Percy Lambert’ in Frank Hardy’s explosive book Power Without Glory. Percy managed Will Andrade’s bookshop in Bourke Street, a few doors east of the Melbourne Tivoli Theatre. The shop specialised in magic paraphernalia, plays props and theatrical makeup, and in leftist literature.
Frank was an average student, but he was in his element when, occasionally, the family made the four-hour Cobb and Co coach trip to Ballarat where they’d see a show at Her Majesty’s Theatre in View Street or take in a circus or perhaps a concert at the 7000-seat wooden Alfred Hall or in the more intimate Mechanics’ Institute Hall. He revelled in the colour, the excitement, the music and the exotic costumes. Family members recalled his early love of ‘dress ups’ and Frank himself admitted, ‘I had the showman’s spirit born in me.’
Frank claimed to have toured South Africa ‘as a boy’ with a juvenile comic opera company, though there is no documentation of this. We do know that he was still in his teens when the family moved to Melbourne, where he luxuriated in the city’s theatrical riches. At the turn of the century, half a million people lived in Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs. They patronised the city’s five great theatres, the Royal, the New Opera House (later the Tivoli) and the Bijou in Bourke Street, the Princess in Spring Street and Her Majesty’s (formerly the Alexandra) in Exhibition Street. There were dozens of smaller theatres and halls scattered throughout the city and suburbs, as well as a waxworks, two imposing cyclorama buildings, one in Carlton and the other in Little Collins Street, and even a permanent circus building in St Kilda Road. The first moving pictures had been screened at the Opera House in 1896, but it would be some years before movies would compete with live theatre for audiences.
Personable, fresh-faced and bright, young Frank Neil haunted the city’s theatres, picking up occasional backstage jobs or working as an ‘extra’ in crowd scenes. He was also an aspiring actor, ready to play anything from young hero to comic servant or wicked villain. And he could sing and dance.
In those far off days entertainment was certainly not confined to the cities. Country folk were treated to drama, musical comedy, variety entertainment and even opera, presented by hard-working touring companies often headed by city stars. Mostly they travelled by coach, sometimes by rail. They played in any available venue, though larger provincial towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Newcastle had fine playhouses. Some shows carried their own ‘canvas theatres’. It was with one of these adventurous itinerant enterprises that Frank Neil got his real start in show business.
In December 1906 travelling showman Edward Irham (‘E.I.’) Cole brought his Bohemian Dramatic Company to Melbourne. He set up shop in the Hippodrome, a rough and ready open-air venue on the south-east corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale streets, where the Comedy Theatre now stands. Apparently, Cole sensed that 20-year-old Frank had potential, and he gave the eager young man a job. ‘I helped build our stage of solid earth,’ reminisced Frank in a piece published in the Melbourne Herald in January 1930.
Not only was Cole a superb showman, he was also a shameless ‘quack’. One of his most successful creations was a pill that could miraculously cure liver complaints and almost anything else. The pills were made by Cole family members from a mixture of Epsom salts and cascara and sold in little cardboard boxes. Before and after each show, and in the interval, Cole would stand on a makeshift platform in front of the tent and regale the crowd with stories of the efficacy of his medication. As soon as someone indicated interest, it was Frank’s duty to conduct the transaction. This was known in the show world as ‘running the planks’. The pills, thankfully, were harmless.
Frank stayed with Cole when the company went on tour, travelling by ‘special train’ and performing in their huge canvas theatre. He reminisced: ‘I was for three years with old “Bohemian Cole”, who let his hair trail down his back, wore a yard-wide sombrero, and imagined he was an actor. I was his property man and second juvenile [juvenile lead]. He made his actors work. We had to unload the tent from the train, put it up, and build a stage. Then we had to dress and make up, and parade the town. As second “juve” I was usually a more or less dashing cowboy. At night we played, and rode on and off on our fiery steeds. Our favourite drama was Buffalo Bill. I learnt a lot of showmanship from Cole. He was not a great actor, but he was a Barnum of a showman.’
Occasionally Frank took time off to work with other managements, such as Lilian Meyers’ Dramatic Company. Miss Meyers was a stunningly beautiful young Melbourne actress who had been stricken, wrote a reporter, ‘with the fever of bellow-drama’. Financed by her father, who was ‘not without riches’, she assembled her own company and ‘portrayed the terrible heroines with cheerful abandon.’ Her costumes—some from Paris—were said to be ‘almost too extravagant for the dingy little theatres she sometimes appeared in.’ Camille was her favourite showpiece, and eminent Melbourne medico—and part-time drama critic—Dr James Edward Neild helped her perfect the consumptive cough that the star role called for.
We don’t know exactly when or under what circumstances Frank Neil joined her, but we do know that on 26 October 1907 he took to the stage of the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle in Miss Meyers’ production of a lurid melodrama called The Executioner’s Daughter. Two days later The Newcastle Herald reported that his part was ‘well enacted’. It was his first press notice.
It was after a performance of Camille at the Town Hall in Devonport, Tasmania, on 21 December 1907, that Miss Meyers and her cast and crew helped Frank celebrate his twenty-first birthday. Miss Meyers eventually went to the United States where she married a prosperous theatrical manager, Gerald Bacon, and retired from the stage. Not so Frank. Soon he was back on the road.
He joined a now forgotten stock company called Terence Goodwin’s Dramatic Players. Goodwin was actually William Thomas Goodwin Glancy, born in Melbourne in 1873. With his wife as his leading lady, he launched his peripatetic company in 1905. Years later he conducted a real estate business in Charters Towers, Queensland. He died there in 1938, aged 65.
Frank recalled: ‘I remember arriving at Pakenham one New Year’s Day as a member of Terence Goodwin’s company. We were a company of twenty metropolitan artists—on the daybills—but actually there were only seven of us. When we got off the goods train Terry had two shillings, and he was the only one of us who could jingle a penny. At the hotel the landlord looked us up and down and then shook his head. “No hope,” said he, “we’re full up.” So we went to the hall where we were to play, and the hall-keeper’s granite heart melted after a bit, and he let us camp inside. While Terry went out and bought two shillings’ worth of bread and butter, and some tea, one of our more adventurous spirits let his poverty but not his will consent and abducted a fowl from a nearby back yard. We had a poultry dinner that day and enjoyed it. There was enough “in” that night to get us on to the next town. A vagabond life, yes, but Terry was a good chap, and we were happy enough playing blood-and-thunder and dreaming dreams. Experiences of that sort are invaluable in the motley make-up of the theatrical manager.’
In March 1909 Neil was back with Bohemian Cole in Bendigo. They pitched their tent at Camp Hill, but eventually moved into the grand Royal Princess’s Theatre in View Street. Their first attraction there was the perennial favourite East Lynne. On 3 May The Bendigo Independent reported that, ‘The acting of Frank Neil as the wrongly accused and outcast Richard Hare appealed greatly to the audience.’ A few weeks later, when they presented Buffalo Bill at Echuca, The Riverine Herald told its readers that the acting was generally ‘splendid’, adding, ‘Mr Frank Neil as Joe Blake, a bartender, is worthy of mention.’
In 1911 Neil joined Harry Craig’s Australian Players who were on tour in South Australia. The company had been founded by Kate Howarde, a talented actress, entrepreneur and playwright. It included her sister, Billie, and Harry Craig, Billie’s husband. A fine baritone as well as a popular actor, Harry had cut his theatrical teeth in everything from opera to minstrel shows. When Kate ventured overseas, he carried on the enterprise as Harry Craig’s Australian Players, creating a congenial kindergarten for several aspiring performers—Frank Neil included. His first role with Craig was in a patriotic piece called In the Heart of Australia at the Port Pirie Institute Hall. It impressed The Port Pirie Recorder: ‘It sparkles in reproducing the atmosphere of the great Australian bush life, and it has a powerful and beautiful love story that goes straight to the heart, and it throbs with soul-stirring episodes. Special mention should be made of the acting of Mr Frank Neil as Jack Gordon, a young bushman, and Miss Ethel Chadwick as Merry Dalton, the bush flower. Mr Neil’s acting was good, but Miss Chadwick’s was exceptionally fine.’ Their second offering was the sensational prison reform drama It’s Never Too Late to Mend. A season in Port Augusta followed.
In December 1911 Frank was at His Majesty’s Theatre in Geelong, Victoria, for a season with the W.H. Ayr Dramatic Company. This appears to have been an offshoot of Cole’s Bohemians. Bill Ayr had acted for Cole, managed the company and had married Cole’s daughter. Their main attraction was a Wild West American crowd-pleaser called The Indians’ Revenge. The Geelong Advertiser made special mention of ‘the reappearance of the popular young actor Frank Neil, who will play Lieutenant Jack Forrest, who has been a captive of hostile Indians for three years and returns just in time to witness the marriage of his betrothed to another man.’
On 23 December Neil was the star attraction at the regular People’s Concert presented at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Hall by the Geelong Harbour Trust Band. Supported by Ethel Chadwick and Cyril Iredale, he appeared in ‘a specially written scena, My Daddy, combining comedy, pathos and sensation.’ He also delivered a series of ‘illustrated monologues’. The evening was topped off with a screening of ‘The Great Gaumont Vitascope presentation The Rose of Kentucky, a Romance of the Fields of Tobacco.’ Seventeen minutes long, it was one of D.W. Griffith’s earliest films. Now regarded as something of a classic of silent cinema, it has been meticulously restored and made available on YouTube.
In January 1912 Neil and Chadwick restaged My Daddy at the Temperance Hall in Melbourne. Located at 170 Russell Street, the Hall offered inexpensive Sunday night concerts as an alternative to the boozy, bawdy fare provided by pubs and music halls, and it gave valuable exposure and experience to hundreds of aspiring entertainers. It became the Savoy Theatre in 1934, but was eventually replaced by Total House, which included the Lido nightclub in a basement space which today houses a popular live music venue, 170 Russell.
Next Neil returned to Harry Craig who had considerably expanded his range of plays and was set to visit Echuca, Kerang, Mildura, Narracoorte, Mount Gambier, Hamilton, Camperdown, Geelong and Wyalong. An interesting addition to the repertoire was Brandon Thomas’s warmly familiar farce Charley’s Aunt, with Frank as Lord Fancourt Babberley, the drag role that would become his ‘calling card’, with its memorable line, ‘I’m Charley’s aunt, from Brazil—where the nuts come from.’ Neil debuted in the role on tour in Mildura on 19 March 1912. ‘Mr Frank Neil was particularly successful,’ said The Mildura Cultivator, ‘and kept the audience in roars of laughter.’
In 1911 London-born entrepreneur George Marlow (real name: Joseph Marks) had built the Adelphi Theatre in Sydney, at the Haymarket end of Castlereagh Street. It was the first theatre in Australia to use the cantilever system to support its circle and gallery, thus obviating obstructive columns, and it was huge: 2400 seats over its three levels. Marlow created it as a home for his busy melodrama players.
Neil made his Adelphi debut with Marlow’s company on 19 July 1913 in the tear-jerker No Mother to Guide Her. It was his first significant engagement in a major city theatre. Truth welcomed him as ‘A new comedian working on clean lines’. As he tackled small parts in juicy melodramas like The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning, Married to the Wrong Man, East Lynne and Driving a Girl to Destruction, how could he have imagined that one day he would be running the place as the Tivoli, the focus of Australian variety entertainment?
Neil’s Adelphi season was not without its uncomfortable moments. First, a stage ‘hanging’ went awry, nearly choking him; then a ‘research visit’ to a Sydney opium den turned into a fiasco when the place was raided by the police. Neil narrowly avoided arrest.
In October 1913 actor-manager George Willoughby and two partners bought out Marlow’s holdings. They renamed the company George Willoughby Ltd, but Marlow continued to ‘pull strings’ behind the scenes. George Willoughby’s Dramatic Company debuted at the Princess in Melbourne on 11 October. It was essentially the same ensemble that had been playing in Sydney, with Neil now promoted to principal comedian and character actor. Their first Melbourne offering was The Queen of the White Slaves, a sprawling new American melodrama that roved from San Francisco to China, with a rescue at sea, torture, drug dens, Japanese acrobats and, of course, white slavery. ‘Mr Frank Neil ably delineated the moods of an opium victim,’ reported Punch, while the theatrical weekly The Hawklet said he was ‘a clever young Australian who has made rapid strides. He is a favourite with audiences at the Princess Theatre.’
The company’s attraction for Christmas 1913 was a familiar favourite, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, optimistically promoted as being ‘as funny as a pantomime, as sensational as a melodrama, and as full of music and dancing as a vaudeville show.’ ‘There is little exaggeration in the claim,’ agreed The Age. Frank portrayed ‘Mr Augustine St Clare, a Southern Planter’.
In February 1914 the company moved back to the Adelphi in Sydney, introducing The Pride of the Prairie, ‘a powerful and emotional drama of Mexican life’. Next came Brisbane, where they opened at His Majesty’s on 13 July. The season was soured by the announcement on 28 July of the outbreak of war. The ominous title of the piece then in production was Brought to Ruin.
In November 1914 the Willoughby company was back at the Adelphi in Sydney with The Kelly Gang. The Referee commented: ‘We read so much about terrorism in the war news nowadays that from that point of view the play of The Kelly Gang seems almost topical,’ adding that Frank played a comic trooper ‘with much over-exaggeration’. Unrest about the war had started to erode audiences, so Willoughby drastically reduced admission to what he euphemistically called ‘war prices’.
When the company returned to the Princess in Melbourne early in the New Year, Neil’s contribution to Camille was particularly praised. In its review on 29 March 1915 The Argus purred, ‘Mr Frank Neil, whose voice is remarkably sonorous, evinced considerable ability in his portrayal of the role of Gaston Rieux, and the cleverness of his work, particularly in the final scenes, indicates that he is well fitted for a more important part.’
Soon after this Frank was reported to be ‘contemplating a trip to the United States to join a well-known stock dramatic company.’ Indeed, many young Australian men—boxer Les Darcy included—were considering re-establishing themselves in the States, which at that point had not entered the war. Frank did not go, but it was later revealed that his application to join the Australian armed forces had been rejected.
In July 1915 The Hawklet announced that Frank was experimenting with vaudeville. He had formed a double act with petite Maudie Chetwynd, warmly remembered for her participation in the hit Williamson production of Florodora in 1900. Frank and Maudie developed some sketch ‘turns’ that they hoped might be suitable for the Tivoli or for Fullers’ theatres, but the expected bookings did not materialise. Instead, Frank teamed up with another member of the George Willoughby company, Herbert Linden, to establish a touring company to reproduce many of the melodramas that William Anderson had recently presented at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne. They debuted on 24 December 1915 with a seven-play seven-night season at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Hall. Their first offering was The Face at the Window. Inevitably there were comparisons with the big-city ‘originals’. When they presented The Face at the Window at the Town Hall in Queenscliff in January 1916, The Queenscliff Sentinel carped: ‘There was a good house, but the piece would have been better appreciated if aided with effective scenery, which the management had promised.’
In April 1916 A. (Albert) Brandon-Cremer recruited Frank for his eighty-strong dramatic company for a season at the recently opened Tivoli Theatre in Grote Street, Adelaide. The two men had met in George Willoughby’s company at the Princess in Melbourne.
Irish-born, Brandon-Cremer was a theatrical all-rounder, a producer of vaudeville, drama, musicals and comedy, a manager of theatres and, eventually, cinemas, and as at home on stage as a melodrama villain as he was as a light comedian. His leading lady was, invariably, his wife, Kathleen Arnold; their daughters, Gertrude (later known as Barbara) and Molly (initially promoted as ‘Baby Cremer’) also had stage careers. Brandon-Cremer’s repertoire included Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Two Orphans, The Coward, The Great Diamond Robbery, The Three Musketeers and A Working Girl’s Wrongs. In the latter Neil played Bates, the servant of Warton, the villain. An impressed reviewer wrote, ‘He appeared in a clever disguise as an old hag, the character of which he fulfils to perfection.’
Also in Brandon-Cremer’s company was a handsome young actor called Maurice Tuohy. A policeman’s son, Maurice Caulfield Tuohy was born in 1892 in Willunga, South Australia, and educated, first, at the little school in nearby Clare, and later at the Christian Brothers’ School in Wakefield Street, Adelaide. Like Neil, he was determined to make a career for himself in the theatre. He was in his teens when he made his stage debut at the Clare Town Hall in August 1911 with ‘The Gay Goblins’, an all-male team of youthful amateur entertainers. The review in The Blythe Agriculturalist mentioned that ‘Mr M.C. Tuohy, as an illusionist, mystified the audience with several well-carried-out illusions, and his performance elicited merited applause. As a character vocalist he was also fairly successful.’ Tuohy subsequently ‘paid his dues’ playing ‘the smalls’ in tiny touring companies, and ‘pushed his way from a raw, gawky, country youth to a leading actor and a fine advertisement for Young Australia.’ The Weekly Judge in Perth described him as being of splendid physique, and a good all-round athlete, to say nothing of his acting abilities,’ and the Perth Mirror labelled him ‘one of the finest looking men on the Australian stage.’ Tuohy and Neil found an instant rapport. They formed a personal and professional partnership that survived until Tuohy’s death in 1926.
Frank Neil and Maurice Tuohy were still with Brandon-Cremer when he successfully toured New Zealand in 1917. The following year Tuohy was recruited by the Fullers for their New Dramatic Company at the Princess in Melbourne, but Frank was not so lucky. He was reduced to accepting a booking as a ‘descriptive vocalist’ for a couple of weeks of vaudeville at the Theatre Royal in Broken Hill.
The remarkable story of how Annie got her gun and ascended into musical comedy heaven had an unlikely beginning—when a drunken World War Two soldier proudly showed the bemused patrons of a New York bar the worthless prizes he’d won in the shooting booths at Coney Island.
Fortuitously, the story was relayed to the legendary lyricist Dorothy Fields. ‘As if out of the sky,’ she recalled, ‘comes this idea: Annie Oakley—the sharpshooter! With Ethel Merman to play her!’
Miss Fields’ timing was perfect. The real Annie Oakley was reasonably fresh in people’s minds. She had died in 1926 and her beloved Frank Butler had followed her nineteen days later, and in 1935 Barbara Stanwyck had portrayed her in a well-received film biography. And the portrayal of a strong woman—with or without a gun—had a special resonance during the war.
Dorothy, of course, imagined that she and her brother, Herbert, a librettist, would create the show; all they needed was a composer and, first, a producer. After Mike Todd scoffed at the idea (‘Who’s gonna care about a gal that knows nuthin’ but guns?’, he snorted), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II agreed to steer the production. Revelling in the success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, they were already at work on their third, Allegro, but they liked the prospect of producing a show created by someone else. They, in turn, approached Ethel Merman. La Merm was sceptical, but her doubts were dispelled by a salary of $4500 a week (this was really big money in 1946), plus 10 per cent of the gross. She also relished the chance to create a multi-dimensional character, in contrast to what she called the ‘invulnerable bimbos’ that she was usually asked to play.
To compose the score the team selected the celebrated Jerome Kern. He’d worked with Herbert and Dorothy Fields on the film Swing Time, and with Hammerstein on several hit musicals of the 1920s and 30s, including Show Boat. After the failure of his 1939 Broadway show Very Warm for May, Kern had kept busy in Hollywood, but his Broadway comeback was not to be—he died of a stroke before he had written a single note.
It was Rodgers who suggested Irving Berlin. He was not an obvious replacement for Kern, because he was known for revues, not ‘book’ musicals. Further, he always wrote the music and the words—and if he came on board, Dorothy Fields would have to take a back seat, and a reduced financial interest.
Miss Fields graciously agreed and, almost reluctantly, Berlin signed on. He soon came to regard the project as a personal challenge: it would allow him to demonstrate that his genius for creating popular songs still had relevance in the new world of modern musicals that Rodgers and Hammerstein had pioneered. He was saying, in effect, ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’. Within a week he came up with half a dozen brilliant songs, and he also gave the show its title. Annie Get Your Gun was a neat reminder of the first line of George M. Cohan’s still-familiar World War One hit ‘Over There’: ‘Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun …’
Joshua Logan, who had worked on Berlin’s This Is the Army, joined the team as director. Rehearsals went well. The show ‘tried out’ successfully in New Haven and Boston, but the New York opening was delayed for several weeks after part of the Imperial Theatre’s stage flying system collapsed. Annie eventually hit Broadway on 16 May 1946.
Audiences were ecstatic. The reviewers were generally pleased, though some complained that the score was a world away from the quasi-operatic offerings of Rodgers and Hammerstein and ‘merely an assorted succession of hits’. Berlin agreed: ‘Yes,’ he smiled, ‘Nothing but hits, good old-fashioned hits.’ And he was right. No other show, before or since, has contained as many hits. Mr Berlin had every reason to be happy. His share of the gross netted him $2500 a week, while his publishing company sold $500,000 worth of sheet music and the cast album returned him $100,000. And there was more to come from tours, international productions and revivals, plus the film rights, which eventually went to MGM for a record $650,000.
Annie Get Your Gun was the first musical after Oklahoma! to achieve more than 1000 performances and it became one of the four longest running musicals of Broadway’s golden era. It was Merman’s greatest triumph. Seemingly indestructible, she had two brief holidays and missed only two performances through the 1147-performance run. To stand in for Merman during one of her breaks, the producers hired Judy Garland, hoping she could use the experience to ‘warm-up’ for the movie version and create some publicity for it but, ominously, she withdrew at the last minute. Merman’s regular understudy, Mary Jane Walsh, stepped in, but disappointed patrons demanded refunds and business dropped by $10,000 a week. The cast took a wage cut to keep the show going until La Merm returned.
Harry rickards was an English comic singer who came to Australia first in 1871. He returned in 1884 and found success not only as an entertainer, but also as a music hall entrepreneur. Before long he was shunting popular vaudeville companies between the Tivoli in Sydney and the Opera House in Melbourne.
The turn of the nineteenth century was the peak of Rickards’ career. He was 58 years old, filling his bills with some of the world’s best vaudeville talent, and also providing opportunities for up-and-coming Australian talent. His imported acts for 1901 were a tantalizingly mixed bag. Among them were Celina Bobe, ‘Parisienne Violiniste’; Frank Latona, the musical tramp; Dan Le Mont and his dogs, one of whom could throw twenty-five consecutive somersaults; Herr Winschermann’s Educated Acrobatic Bears, led by Tony, the Sacred Bear of India; Professor De Wynne and his shadowgraphy (the art of throwing on a screen shadows of recognisable objects formed by manipulating the hands and fingers); Little Eric, a juvenile comedian and impersonator from England; the Dartos, a famous French dance team whose specialities were the Valse Tourbillon and the Swirl Twirl; and Rosie Aquinaldo, a lady contortionist from Cuba. There were Bioscope pictures of the funeral of Queen Victoria and of the great fire at the Anthony Hordern store.
But Harry Rickards’ biggest attraction for 1901 was undoubtedly Marie Lloyd. She was, simply, the queen of the Music Hall. A London devotee tried to encapsulate her magic: ‘Our Marie. The baggage, the saucy puss, with a wink and a husky voice and the energy of ten men. A wonderful vulgarity, a way of ploughing the audience with a wink, a sense of wild Bank Holiday spirits. How Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens would have laughed! How Rowlandson would have drawn her! No one could be more British. She’s London if you like, she’s beanos down to Epping Forest, horse char-à-banc, cornet and all, and she’s baked potatoes and barrel organs, and fish and chips. She is the height of vulgarity with a great heart.’1
T.S. Eliot also tried to explain her mystique: ‘Her superiority was in a way a moral superiority. It was her understanding of the people and sympathy with them, and the people’s recognition of the fact that she embodied the virtue which they genuinely most respected in private life, that raised her to the position she occupied at her death. I have called her the expressive figure of the lower classes; there is no such expressive figure for any other class. The middle classes have no such idol: the middle classes are morally corrupt.’2
Then approaching the peak of her enormous popularity, the magnetic Marie was at first reluctant to commit herself to the tour. Rickards told her, ‘Sign up with me for three months and, if you aren’t absolutely stuck on the Australians and their country, if you have just one home sickness pang, then I’ll release you on a moment’s notice and pay you for the full three months’.3 Marie signed up at £250 a week, an enormous salary. Part of the deal was that Coster comedian Alec Hurley, a star in his own right, should come with her. He was paid £100.
The couple travelled as Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd and were accepted as such, although they were not married until five years later.4 Perhaps this accounted for an incident that occurred on the trip out. The first-class passengers tended to snub them, but when the ship’s concert was being organised Marie was asked to sing. ‘Not on your life!’ she told them. ‘If I’m not good enough to pass the time of day with, I don’t see why I should burst myself to entertain you!’ Not surprisingly, when the steerage passengers’ concert came along, there was the little Cockney sparrow, singing song after song.5
Marie and Alec opened to standing room only at the Tivoli in Sydney on 6 April 1901. The house was enthusiastic, but the press wasn’t. The Daily Telegraph commented sourly that: ‘Marie skates rather close to the brink of what there is a steady determination on the part of theatregoers not to tolerate much of. The field of mirth and humour is certainly wide enough to make incursions into the realms of suggestiveness quite unnecessary.’6 The Sydney Morning Herald thought that ‘She had no claim to be considered a singer, but the vocal powers are pleasingly sufficient for the development of her character sketches.’7 Over fifty years later, Gayne Dexter was still able to recall vividly Marie Lloyd at the Sydney Tivoli: ‘The acrobats had finished. On the darkened stage one backcloth shot up into the flies, another was lowered. Call-boys whipped a new name into the program panels on each side of the proscenium. Orchestra and audience poised in a dim, vibrant suspense, cut suddenly by the spotlight. An urgent roll of drums, a roar from the gods, and Marie Lloyd was on. Petite yet plumpish, in short blue skirt and cartwheel hat adorned with a long white feather, she strutted down-stage. She sang harmless lyrics with scandalous innuendoes, or outrageous verses with wide-eyed innocence. The gesture meant everything.’8
The highlight of the tour came in Melbourne, where they topped the first bill at the New Opera House. It was a heady time in Melbourne, as the city welcomed the Duke and Duchess of York (later to be King George V and Queen Mary). They were there to open the first Federal Parliament at the Exhibition Buildings on 9 May. The streets were gaily decorated and the excitement of the royal visit was reflected in the handsome new theatre in Bourke Street, the focus of Melbourne’s night life. It was in an area that was ‘uninhibited and vulgar, perhaps, but decidedly picturesque. Bourke Street was a flaring gas-lit canyon awash with tragedians “resting”, punters, jockeys, scene-shifters, horse trainers, lads of the village and their “donahs”, hot gospellers, racecourse urgers, bookies, peanut sellers and mysterious turf commissioners.’9
Harry Rickards was justifiably proud of his new Melbourne home—so proud, in fact, that the opening night program effused into Latin: ‘“Quod facimus, valde facimus” [‘That which we do, we do well’]—Surely none could more reasonably and modestly claim the right to adopt the motto than Mr. Harry Rickards, after erecting such a handsome building as that of the New Opera House, which has sprung at his bidding from the old theatre in Bourke Street where most, if not all, of the classic successes on the lyric and dramatic stage of Melbourne were made.’10
William Pitt had done his job well. The New Opera House was Moorish or Mogul in style, recalling the extravagances of the Alhambra Music Hall in London, Flinders Street Station, the Cyclorama building in Little Collins Street and the lounges of Melbourne’s Menzies’ and Grand Hotels.11 The Bourke Street frontage was four stories high, of warm red brick embellished with coloured tiles and ornate cast iron work, and surmounted with a huge revolving illuminated globe, similar to the one that would adorn the London Coliseum. Two long corridors lavishly decorated with salmon pink and turquoise frescos led from Bourke Street to the main foyer, which boasted a rockery with ferns, palms and a fountain. On either side of the rockery, grand marble stairways led to the dress circle.12 The Australasian commented on the dress circle’s extreme slope, ‘designed apparently to minimise the inconvenience of the matinee hat. Building a theatre in order to beat the matinee hat is rather like burning down a house in order to boil an egg, but the seats are delightfully comfortable, and the innovation is not unpleasant.’
The auditorium was decorated in red, blue, old gold and cream, embellished with gold and silver leaf. It was brilliantly illuminated with electric light and ventilated by an ornamented sliding shutter in the roof. Two thousand patrons were accommodated on its three levels.13 Strangely, William Pitt failed to take advantage of recent British technical developments that would have permitted the dress circle and the gallery to be constructed without a forest of annoying supporting columns. Still, the new Melbourne Opera House was warm and intimate and welcoming. A Herald reporter likened it to Daly’s Theatre in London.14
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The first item on the opening night, 18 May 1901, was, naturally enough, ‘God Save the King’. It was sung by Mary Lynne, an English contralto who had appeared with the Musgrove Opera Company. ‘At the conclusion of each verse,’ the Leader reported, ‘the audience, which crowded the building in every part, took up the refrain, and at the end gave three hearty cheers.’ Then came the traditional First Part but ‘there was a welcome change from the stereotyped arrangement of the opening scene. Instead of the customary half-circle of chairs on the old nigger minstrel style, with the funny men at the corners, the stage represented a fancy dress carnival and the special performers came out from among the crowd to do their turns. There was always life and movement to attract the eye.’
After interval came dainty Irene Franklin, a re-appearance by Mary Lynne and then Rickards’ daughters, Noni and Madge, in their ‘Grand Vocal Coon Ballet entitled “Mama’s Carolina Twins”, at present the rage of London and New York’. The Australasian thought this was ‘a task rather beyond their means at present.’
Then it was Marie Lloyd’s turn. She sang ‘Everything in the Garden’s Lovely’ and ‘Milly from Piccadilly’ and the audience loved her. She went on to sing ‘Folkestone for the Day’ and ‘The Barmaid—the Idol of the Rose and Crown’. The Argus noted her ‘dainty, although somewhat peculiar figure, a fascinating laugh, and some extraordinary creations in the way of dress. The songs were, for the most part, irredeemably vulgar and, sung by anyone else, would probably have been ill-received. Coarseness may at times be associated with wit, but these songs had not even the saving grace of humour. Apparently they pleased a number of those present, but the laughter and applause were often gained by double entendre.’
Noted British theatre historian W. MacQueen-Pope was present on that auspicious night. He wrote: ‘When Marie’s number went up in the frame, there was that same exciting hubbub from the people in the auditorium which it aroused in London. It was different in tone, maybe, for the feeling of personal friendship and real affection was not yet there. These people had never seen, although they had heard of her, and were on tiptoes with curiosity. But they had come to be critical; they scarcely believed that this fabulous woman could be as good as they had been told. They had heard stories about her; they had heard of her naughtiness and her “blue” songs; they were prepared to be shocked, but they were not prepared to take her at her—or England’s—valuation. She had to show them.
‘The orchestra blared forth her first song, and then, on the stage, full of vitality, full of personality, full of charm, was the small woman with the trim figure, the round face, the shining eyes and teeth, the warm, friendly smile, the perfect command of herself and the situation, and shedding upon them that radiance which was so peculiarly hers. They gave her a thunderous welcome; they could not help it. And she sang to them. The house was at once full of the electricity she always generated. Her genius for understatement, her genius for letting the audience fill in the blanks, while she just indicated with those hands, the winks, the little nods, coughs and pauses, was fully displayed. But what captured them completely and had them yelling with delight was the advice she gave them in the last of the songs which formed the act. It met a response in every heart, and they all knew and loved the essentially British, lively, homely, yet appealing, direct, yet unaggressive woman, a lady who was essentially a product of the place they regarded as ‘Home’, and who was therefore one of themselves. They liked what she had to tell them, which was that a little of what they fancied did them good.
‘Her success was instantaneous, complete and immense, and it was the same wherever they went—and they went all over Australia. They had long journeys, but they did not mind that. Both of them were nomads. They liked the Australians, Marie highly approving of their absence of ‘side’, their plain speech, and their habit of saying what they thought as they thought it. She was that way herself. She never minced matters, nor chose words; her profanity was pretty exhaustive, and in another woman might have shocked, but in her it seemed so naturally a part of her that it did not give offence, save to the terribly refined and genteelly squeamish. But Marie did not mix with them.
‘Australia was a triumph. She was there with her “husband”, under a sun which vied with her own radiance. She was the most popular woman on the continent.’15
The Australasian decided that the new theatre was ‘acoustically good—so much so that directors of Sunday schools might be led, indeed, to believe that the acoustic properties were a bit too good during some of Miss Lloyd’s songs, and that a measure of indistinctness would not be amiss. Marie Lloyd sails close to the wind, and her ditties about the bicycling girl, the barmaid and the bather were frankly of the smoking-room type.’ Valentine Day recalled Marie’s ‘full and expressive countenance, a fine and large set of teeth, a large torso, and a small waist, a neat ankle, and a pretty foot. She could put a depth of meaning into every word she sang or said, but her enunciation was sometimes faulty. I wrote of her at the time: Marie Lloyd is as hot as mustard, which is doubtless the reason she draws so well.’
The next item on the program was another ‘Rage of London, the Great Coster Scene, Entitled “The Lambeth Walk”.’ with Alec Hurley as a swaggering Flash Bill. The playlet was climaxed by the song ‘The Lambeth Walk’, with the stage filled with coster boys and girls in their sparkling ‘pearlies’. This particular ‘Lambeth Walk’, written and composed by E.W. Rogers, has been replaced in our memories by Noël Gay’s 1937 version; Hurley’s was a good-natured Cockney swipe at the cake-walk:
Talk about the cake-walk—Why, the Lambeth Walk ’ud knock it all to smithereens.
It ain’t a bloomin’ fake walk,
It’s the same as we use when we’re out a-selling greens.
And we don’t want no banjos, burnt cork or any fake:
The Lambeth Walk—there ain’t no talk—
That walk that takes the cake!16
For the sake of historical accuracy, we should record that ‘The Lambeth Walk’ had to be omitted from the opening night’s program as the music was mislaid on the journey from Sydney. Instead Hurley sang two of his coster songs. No doubt he was ‘knocking ’em all to smithereens’ by the Monday night.
After Hurley’s contribution came Celina Bobe with her violin and her xylophone. Then Harry Rickards took to the stage himself, delighting the packed audience with ‘By the Pale Moonlight’. The evening was brought to a close by Johnson, Riano and Bentley in their acrobatic speciality ‘The Man and the Monkeys’, and McKisson and Kearns in a knockabout sketch.
Marie Lloyd and Alec Hurley loved Melbourne. Rather than stay in an impersonal city hotel they rented a private home; they welcomed everybody and there was always plenty to drink. They spent their spare afternoons at the racecourses watching the horses that Alec had bought. One, named Marie, never won a race. Crowds cheered them wherever they went.17
Rickards was understandably thrilled with Marie Lloyd’s success, even though the Leader carpingly recalled that he had ‘once proudly boasted that his entertainment was one to which any lady might come without fear of having her sense of delicacy outraged. This assertion is very strongly challenged by some of Marie Lloyd’s songs.’ It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Marie Lloyd to come to Australia. Rickards was rewarded by enormous box office returns. He took more money in Marie’s first week at the Sydney Tivoli than in any prior week of his career. This prompted the following verse by one W. Evans in a 1901 Christmas theatrical souvenir:
‘O ’Arry!’ shout the gallery, ‘Wot cher?
Are you feeling pretty babbish-like and frivoly?’
And that’s the greeting Rickards likes to hear—
For he’s got a little gold mine at the Tivoli!18
1. Dion Clayton Calthrop, Music Hall Nights, pp.81-2
2. T.S. Eliot, quoted in Harold Scott, The Early Doors, p.184
3. Lloyd’s Sunday News, 1922
4. Richard Anthony Baker, Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music-halls, p.87
5. J.B. Booth, London Town, p.103
6. Daily Telegraph, 8 April 1901
7. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1901
8. Gayne Dexter in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1953
9. Hugh Buggy, The Real John Wren, p.3
10. Program, Mary Had a Little, TTM, 1951
11. The Grand Hotel is now known as the Windsor
12. Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, p.191
13. Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, pp.191-2
14. Herald, 26 April 1900
15. W. MacQueen-Pope, Queen of the Music Halls, pp.120-4
16. Music Hall, Issue 9
17. Dan Farson, Marie Lloyd and Music Hall, p.81
18. W. Evans in Splash, published in Adelaide, 1901. Copy in Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.
Marie Lloyd. Archive film c.1910s
Funeral Procession of Marie Lloyd, October 1922
During the afternoon of 3 September 1931 Walter Kirby was arrested in the men’s toilet at Victoria Station, and charged with indecency in a public convenience, specifically ‘importuning males’. The incident and its aftermath were widely reported in Australia, but again it was the New Zealand press that gave more details, even though Kirby was always referred to as an Australian, not a New Zealander, and his age was given as 48, though he was 57.
Walter appeared in Westminster Police Court on 8 October. The police prosecutor, Vernon Gattle, said that Walter had been under surveillance for an hour. The arresting inspector testified that when the charge was read to him Walter had said, ‘I am sorry. I did not think I had been here an hour.’ He had spoken ‘in a very peculiar, husky voice, and was constantly making grimaces,’ and he had vehemently denied the charge. Walter listened to the police evidence ‘with his head buried in his hands’.
Walter described the throat operation that he had undergone earlier that day as ‘shockingly painful’. He said he had haemorrhaged in the bus on his way home, and had gone to the toilet ‘to attend to himself’. He claimed to have thought he had suffered a stroke and lost his memory, and that he felt that he had twenty heads. Sir James Dundas-Grant testified that the cocaine may have affected Walter ‘more than it would an ordinary person’ and that ‘his ordinary moral controls might have been temporarily suspended’. Walter’s counsel, the distinguished Edward Marjoribanks (thankfully pronounced ‘Marchbanks’), said that he would be able to ‘bring most distinguished evidence of good character’. Representatives of the Australian government were present during the hearing. Bail was refused, and Walter was remanded for a week in custody under medical supervision in Brixton Prison Hospital.
Walter was back in court on 15 October. Edward Marjoribanks was in fine form. He told the court that the alleged offence was ‘a sordid incident, so eccentric and extraordinary that I ask you to believe that, at the time, his moral control was suspended. People have been inspired and comforted by the beauty of his voice, and he still has a long career in front of him if it is not impeded by a term of imprisonment. Already his appearance in court has interfered with contracts, and it would be a real pity and a real shame if a man gifted in this way should have his career destroyed by a single incident of this nature. This was a sordid and unfortunate incident in a distinguished career. His ordinary moral controls were suspended, as Sir James Dundas-Grant had said in the earlier proceedings. Kirby was subject to the extreme apprehensions of men of his age—he was over 50—and was sometimes led into these actions through purely physical causes. He had already paid very dearly for his lapse. He had a long and artistic career before, him, if not given terms of imprisonment. Contracts already made would be affected. l feel sure that if you take a merciful course events will justify it. It would be a pity if a man of his artistic calibre had his career destroyed by one single instance of this nature which can be attributed to a temporary physical aberration, due to a physical cause.’
The Victorian Agent-General, Sir Walter Leitch, said that he had known the defendant for thirty years, and that he enjoyed a great reputation in Australia. He had never heard of him ‘being nasty or sordid in his ways’.
It was no use. In delivering his sentence, magistrate Harold McKenna said that he had considered the defendant’s previous good character and the fact that he had already spent a week in custody. Nevertheless, he sentenced him 21 days’ imprisonment in ‘the second division’, a system designed to handle first-time and short-term offenders.
Walter was said to have left the dock without uttering a word.
Most of the subsequent Australian press coverage was factual and non-judgmental but, given Water’s colourful reputation, it could have been expected that the country’s popular papers would have pilloried him. The fact that they did the opposite sheds a different light on what we have assumed were the times’ stern attitudes to ‘difference’. Two widely read weeklies, Hugh D. McIntosh’s Sydney broadsheet The Arrow and the Melbourne-based tabloid Smith’s Weekly, published moving stories in the weeks and months after his release.
The first to come to Water’s defence was The Arrow. An illustrated feature story in its 23 October 1931 edition was headed ‘Anti-Climax of Eventful Career’. It’s worth quoting at length:
‘It needs a sympathetic hand to write “Poor Walter” to the epilogue of the career of Australia’s most remarkable native-born [sic] tenor. For no-one knowing Walter’s sensitive complex, forever dreading, like a blow, the imminence of publicity attacking him on the moral side, would expect him to emerge from the ordeal through which he is passing, 21 days’ imprisonment for an act of indecency, except as a broken man.
‘The curtain that had seemed to lift for a moment on a new and pleasant career for Kirby in England in the autumn of his life, has come down upon a black-out. And with it go his dreams of dignified retirement at Hendon, where he had pictured himself passing the rest of his days upon the earnings of investments which lean years have since cut down to the merest fraction.
‘Kirby’s is not the nature to recover from such a blow. Most of his life has been a recoil from infamous suggestions which, in the judgment of those who knew him, or thought they knew him best, contained no germ of truth. To be a tenor, in the time of Walter Kirby’s youth, was to be set apart from one’s fellow men, in a sense, and given a special classification if, as was Kirby’s misfortune, he exhibited none of the expected vices of a successful singer, but displayed the inconsistencies and vanities of a prima donna. Constantly in the society of women, he was never a lover. They flattered him in droves, and he accepted their homage. He accompanied them to afternoon teas and was their guest. But the very fact that Walter’s relations with the fair sex seem never to have contained a trace of sex interest reacted to his detriment, and a legend grew about him that caused his name to be bandied about in music hall jests, and himself to be lampooned in terms suggesting moral perversion. All this Kirby accepted in silence, but he felt himself a marked man, shunned old acquaintances in the street, and expressed tearful gratitude on occasions when friends of better understanding sought him out in public places to demonstrate their faith in him.
‘The worst of these attacks was that they were all by innuendo. Nothing definite, in all the years that Kirby sang in Australia, was alleged against him concerning his moral behaviour. Mainly the curiosity of the vulgar expressed itself in relation to his sex, and it was reported some years ago that certain bold young ladies engaged in charity work at the Melbourne Town Hall, in connection with a Button Day Appeal, unbuttoned Walter in a spirit of mischief, and left him thus, but it was an episode that left no sting, and was never investigated. He probably gave his services to charity more freely than any other singer who has performed in Australia.
‘It must always be remembered to Walter Kirby’s credit that though he pursued the path of bachelorhood through life, and cherished no liaisons, he was a father to numerous nephews, whom he had educated at his expense, and was good to his relatives in other ways besides. His friends here knew him for a pampered tenor, whose only faults were his eccentricities—strange outbursts that were the expression of a high-strung temperament. His friends will refuse to believe that this escapade that drew upon him stern retribution at the hands of a London magistrate was a self-revelation of a moral pervert. Far more likely that a sinister reputation, unfortunately and unjustly acquired, has followed him to London, where an unsympathetic magistrate, with an Australian before him, has waved aside the accused man’s story of an utterly irrational act, committed in a state of irresponsibility following upon an operation performed that morning. Those who know Kirby feel that something wrong has occurred—they do not accept this as a final brand of his degradation. He deserved too well of his country for that.’
Then, on 20 November 1931, Smith’s Weekly published this piece from its London correspondent: ‘Australia has recently heard of the terrible plight that has overcome its great songster, Walter Kirby. Looking drawn and haggard, he told Smith’s that his imprisonment had plunged him into the deepest depths of despair. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, “nor where to turn. My career has been wrecked.” In disheartened tones, Kirby spoke of the bright prospects that had been his before his arrest. “I think it’s ruined my life,” he exclaimed passionately. “No more exclusive clientele was ever given to a human being than mine. There were three Royal command performances to be given, and contracts with the BBC and a leading gramophone company. What my future will be I cannot say. I don’t know whether I am not contemplating the river. Why should I be treated thus?” Kirby added in a burst of despairing passion, “I have devoted my whole life to charity. I have donated to every hospital in London, and I have helped every charity, here and in Australia”.’
Nevertheless, new research in the BBC archives has revealed that on 20 October 1931 Walter broadcast a song recital with contralto Mary Ogden, and that on 2 April 1932 he was soloist in a concert by the Wireless Military Band.
Smith’s kept its eye on Walter. On 16 April 1932, it announced that he had been given a ‘fresh start’ and was singing again in London, but under an assumed name: ‘Ever since the cabled report of Walter Kirby’s enforced three weeks’ holiday at His Majesty’s pleasure, speculation as to his whereabouts and doings has been rife in Australia. From time to time all kinds of rumors have been in circulation. One persistent story was that Kirby had entered a monastery in Italy. Another was that he had married a countess, who was an ardent supporter of artistic aims. All, however, are without the slightest foundation. Kirby is continuing the even tenor of his ways under the name of Keating. Recently, at the Albert Hall, Kirby was one of the artists on an important program that included other Australian musicians. The daily newspapers spoke favorably of the other artists, but did not even mention Kirby, although he was singing under his new appellation. It is extremely unlikely that Walter will ever return to Australia. In conversation recently with another Australian, he said: “My deepest regret is that I shall never return to Australia and all my dear friends there.” His future plans are indefinite, but he has expressed an intention of conducting a concert tour of the Continent.’ Instead, he went to Ireland.
On 2 July 1932 the Irish Independent reported that Walter had been among the vast crowd—said to be approximately 25% of the country’s population—at Phoenix Park in Dublin for the final public Pontifical Mass of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress. Walter had warm praise for the choir and for its conductor, the distinguished Irish composer and musician Vincent O’Brien, and for the singing of the great Count John McCormack. McCormack had begun his career with tuition from O’Brien, and he and Walter had become friends when Walter had visited Ireland in 1903.
On 12 July, according to a piece in The Cork Examiner: ‘A number of ladies made their vows at the Good Shepherd Convent in Limerick, and among them was Sister Mary of Our Lady of Lourdes, daughter of an Irish divine and cousin of Walter Kirby, the renowned Australian tenor. Mr. Kirby sang most delightfully some of his own compositions at the Mass.’ The Melbourne Herald reported that: ‘Mr. Kirby gave a song recital recently in the ballroom of Flesk Castle, Killarney, before a large and fashionable audience,’ and he sang at the Irish Industrial and Agricultural Fair in Cork and at Tipperary’s historic Rock of Cashel. He also spent time with his cousin, Rev. John Wallace PP, in the tiny village of Cratloe near Limerick.
On 2 September 1932 The Arrow brought welcome news of Walter’s ‘rehabilitation’. It was headed ‘A Cloud Lifted’ and concluded: ‘All who have heard his golden voice will read with pleasure the news that he has been accepted in the land of his ancestors.’
Back in London, Walter quietly resumed teaching, only to find that music hall star Randolph Sutton had introduced a saucy little number called ‘When Are You Going to Lead Me to the Altar, Walter?’ It’s been credited to several different composers and lyricists, but its sentiment is remarkably similar to Jack O’Hagan’s 1923 hit, ‘Walter’:
Walter and me, we’ve been courtin’ for years,
But he’s never asked me to wed.
When Leap Year comes ’round I give three hearty cheers,
As I do the askin’ instead.
I don’t want to die an old maid,
So I sing him this serenade:
Walter-er, Walter, lead me to the altar,
I'll make a better man of you.
Walter, Walter, buy the bricks and mortar,
And we’ll build a love nest for two.
My bottom drawer’s all packed and ready,
My bridal gown’s as good as new.
Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar.
And make all me nightmares come true!
Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,
I don’t cost much to keep in food.
Walter-er, Walter, mother says you oughta,
So take me while she’s in the mood.
You know I’m very fond of chickens.
We'll raise a lovely little brood.
Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,
And I'll show you where I'm tattooed.
Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,
Don’t say I’ve met me Waterloo.
Walter, Walter, tears are tasting salter,
And I’ve lost me handkerchief too.
Don’t muck the goods about no longer,
My old age pension’s nearly due.
Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar,
It’s either the workhouse or you.
Sutton’s interpretation of the song was released on the budget Panachord label in November 1932, but it did not truly become popular until Gracie Fields sang it in the 1938 film We’re Going to be Rich. Her studio recording of it remains a classic. While the song’s creation may have had nothing to do with Walter’s reputation, it remains an intriguing possibility.
On 6 November 1934 Walter led a party of Australian singers in an entertainment for nearly 100 blind ex-servicemen at St. Dunstan’s, the Regents Park headquarters of the Blinded Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Care Committee. It was to form a fitting finale to his long, illustrious career.
Smith’s Weekly had confided to its readers that Walter was living in grand style in a flat in Bedford Square—an elegant Georgian garden enclave that housed many of the city’s artistic elite—and that he had found ‘an ultimate haven of calm in the retirement of English hostesses on a backwater of the Thames.’ Sadly, it was not to last.
Towards the end of November he suffered a heart seizure at his flat. Four doctors were called, nurses were in constant attendance, but pneumonia ensued. He died in St. Dunstan’s Nursing Home on 5 December 1934. He was 61. Smith’s Weekly told its readers: ‘The patient, resigned to the inevitable, met the end calmly. So died untimely one who, in the opinion of his staunchest friends, had been dealt with by fate not according to his deserts.’
After a Requiem Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Notting Hill, Walter Joseph Regis Kirby was buried at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green.
On 9 February 1935 Smith’s Weekly published a follow-up piece:
‘Two months have passed since the death of Walter Kirby in London, yet the mails have brought letters that tell of the enduring devotion of his friends in Britain to the greatest of Australia’s lyric tenors.
‘Walter Kirby, most discussed of Australian singers, left the world guessing of how much money he possessed when he died. Some people, taking too literally his jocular remarks about ‘the poor artist’, were inclined to believe that he was perpetually on his uppers and were disposed either to patronise or to ignore him. Others went to the other extreme and credited him with miserliness and almost fabulous wealth. The truth probably lay between the two extremes.
‘Unappreciated, if not misunderstood, he responded to friendly gestures almost gratefully, and held his own as an entertainer. The key of his sideboard was outside the door of his three-guinea flat at the top of Collins Street—a signal to callers to go in and help themselves—and no tightwad ever took such a risk.
‘It was no secret that Walter had paid for the education of several young relatives who had not been favoured with the same opportunities as he had. He was ‘discovered’ by two ladies of quality in London—Lady Wantage and her aunt—who provided him with a sound training. When ultimately he returned to Australia in 1912 his reputation was made, and he was able to command good tuition fees and to refuse a performance at less than 25 guineas [$2600], except when he organised one of his numerous concerts for charity. It is denied that when he visited Australia on a concert trip from England many years ago, it was necessary for anyone to finance the tour; but he used to complain that in this profit-sharing venture the usher who showed patrons to their seats did better than he, his share amounting to only 18 shillings [$90] for four concerts. When the then Chief Justice of Victoria (the late Sir John Madden) heard of this he arranged another concert for Kirby, and the prestige attached to the sponsor resulted in a financial success, Walter of the golden voice receiving £200 [$20,000] this time.
‘Kirby, who had known poverty, having once worked in a country post office and later sold articles from door to door, put his later earnings into investments, some of which he used to say turned out badly. On the stage it was computed that his invested money totalled about £15,000 [$1,500,000] but it has been explained that this figure, which might have been his total during the depression, increased subsequently. Among his investments was money in tobacco, and in Kandos Cement.
‘The rumour that he allowed lady friends to pay for his afternoon tea parties is hotly denied by one of his closest friends, who used to meet him daily, while his hotel acquaintances could not complain that Walter’s throat dried up when it was his turn to “shout”. At any rate, he kept an eye on the future, and in conversations with the writer about three years ago, he had apparently acquired a modest competence, for he spoke of his desire to return to England and live quietly in retirement at Croydon. Instead of which the brighter lights of London lured him.
‘Idle curiosity is speculating on the terms of his will. It Is believed that he made one will 12 years ago, by which certain charities of his former benefactresses will derive advantage. But if these provisions existed, they may be discounted by one or more subsequent dispositions.
‘A woman who, by the rule of long association, might reasonably have expectations, declined to offer any surmise, and deprecated discussion with the remark, “Very soon we will all know.” But until that moment arrives there will be many who will continue to assess the worth of this remarkable man in strictly cash terms, and remain unsatisfied until Walter “cuts up” for probate purposes in cold, hard figures.’
The cold, hard figures, when they came, revealed a substantial personal estate totalling more than £19,000 [$1,896,000]—£15,893 [$1,586,000] in Victoria and £3138 [$313,123] in New South Wales. And they raised many questions.
In March 1935 the Union Trustee Company of Australia Ltd applied for probate on his will, which he had made in Melbourne on 8 November 1923. There were many carefully thought through bequests. Mount St. Evins Private Hospital in East Melbourne, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Northcote, and the St. Vincent de Paul’s Girls' Orphanage in South Melbourne were each to receive £100 [$10,000]; the Sisters of Mercy, Fitzroy, and the reverend mother of the Faithful Companions of Jesus Convent in Richmond were each to receive £150 [$15,000]; while Auckland’s Sacred Heart College and the Auckland Marist Brothers College would each receive £100 [$10,000] to establish an annual ‘Walter Kirby Prize for Singing’. Walter’s two treasured pictures of King Edward’s visit to Chatsworth were bequeathed to Xavier College in Melbourne and to the ‘Melbourne Art Gallery’, and his books to Xavier and the Marist Brothers College in Sydney. He stipulated that ‘my diamond rings, together with my silver cigar and cigarette case presented to me by Princess Christian and the fob presented to me by the King of Sweden to go to Miss E.J. Sheehan.’ It is believed that this refers to Estelle Sheehan, a Melbourne pianist who had accompanied Walter on several occasions. The rest of his personal effects were to go to his niece, Madge Kirby, in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. This was the only provision for his family. The will’s most notable provisions were amounts of £1000 [$100,000] each to the Universities of Melbourne and Auckland to establish annual singing scholarships to be known as ‘The Walter Kirby Singing Scholarships’, and a stipulation that the residue of the estate—estimated to be around £14,000 [$1,398,000]—was to be divided equally among certain public hospitals and charities in Wantage a little Berkshire village which, at the time, was home to 4000 people. Its pride and joy was a statue commemorating the birth there of England’s first king, Alfred the Great, in 849 AD.
It appears that on refection Walter had decided that his much-loved nieces and nephews should be provided for. His plans were confirmed for Smith’s Weekly by several of his ‘most intimate Victorian friends’: ‘He told them he was very dissatisfied with his first will and intended to alter it in favour of his relations. He hated having anything to do with wills—considering them to be the “death warrant” of the testator—and so he continually kept putting off the task of altering the terms of his original testament.’
Eventually, in London in November 1932, Walter had drafted a codicil virtually negating the original will and, instead, stipulating that his nephews and nieces should have ‘an equal share each in the values of the estate, to be paid to them every half year from the profits of the said estate.’ The codicil was witnessed by two friends and sent to his solicitors in Melbourne.
Early in May 1933, on letterhead from the Pierpont Hotel, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, Walter wrote to his Melbourne niece, Madge: ‘I have been ill for many months, and I am afraid I will never be strong again. But don’t worry, I am leaving you and your sisters and [a cousin in Sydney] all I have left during your lifetime, and to go to charity at death.’ It was signed: ‘Your affectionate uncle, Walter’.
The codicil was sent to Melbourne, but because it was signed ‘Walter Kirby’ rather than ‘Walter Joseph Regis Kirby’, it was disallowed, and the original 1923 will was granted probate.
This was challenged by Walter’s brother, John Thomas Kirby, a volatile Melbourne jack-of-all-trades. He called for an investigation into the circumstances under which the original will was made. He claimed that the town of Wantage had only two small hospitals housing seven patients between them, and that the New Zealand university to which Walter had bequeathed money for a singing scholarship did not exist. He was partly right: Auckland University did not teach singing, but the donation prompted it to hastily establish a school of music. Melbourne University was said to be mystified about its bequest. A spokesperson for the University’s Conservatorium of Music said that as Kirby was a friend of the former director, Professor William Laver, he might have remembered the school for that reason.
There was similar uncertainty in London. On 2 May 1935 the Christchurch Star reported that the Matron of Wantage Hospital had said: ‘We should like to share in the money left by Walter Kirby, but I am afraid there has been some mistake. I cannot trace any Kirby treated here in the last thirty-two years except Walter Kirby, an aged farmer, who dislocated his shoulder in 1905. He had no connection with Australia.’
In London, a gentleman described as ‘a close friend’ told The Evening News, ‘I am surprised that Walter was so wealthy. He earned big money but spent it readily. It was a bigger surprise that he left the money to Wantage, which, so far as I know, he has never seen. And it is even more astonishing that Walter left the money to England, which he did not love. He considered that England had not appreciated him as well as Australia.’
On 29 April 1935 Brisbane’s Courier Mail brought news from London that Walter’s cousin, Mrs. McCourt, had said that he had left his money to Wantage, ‘because he repeatedly visited the town, and sang in the Roman Catholic Church there. Tragically enough, he caught the fatal chill there.’
Of course, it was not quite so simple. Eventually Walter’s connection with Wantage was explained by two of his Melbourne friends, Esmond Lawrence Kiernan, a Member of the Victorian Legislative Council, and Thorold Waters, his former housemate in London, and now music critic for the city’s Sun News Pictorial. They revealed that this was Walter’s way of showing his appreciation for the help and encouragement of his benefactress, Lady Wantage, who had died in 1920.
Thanks to the recordings that he had made in Sydney in 1927, Walter was heard occasionally on radio in the years following his death. After the Second World War many old traditions of music making—and of life itself—were swept away. As new generations of Australian singers came to the fore, Walter was all but forgotten. Though John Hetherington included snide references to him in his 1967 biography of Dame Nellie Melba, there was no mention of him in Barbara and Findlay’s seminal work Singers of Australia (1967), nor in Adrienne Simpson’s two books on New Zealand singers, Southern Voices (with Peter Downes, 1992) and Opera’s Farthest Frontier (1996). He is also missing from James Glennon’s Australian Music and Musicians (1968) and The Oxford Companion to Australian Music (1997).
In recent years his four surviving recordings have been digitized, and they can now be heard via the internet and, as noted earlier, his recording of ‘Ben Bolt’ is included in the important 4-CD set From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record.
Perhaps most significantly, Walter’s name lives on in the musical awards he provided for in his will. His old Auckland school, Sacred Heart College, still awards Walter Kirby prizes, but now they cover instrumental and group work as well as voice. Future rock icons Tim and Neil Finn were winners in 1971.
Over the years the prestigious Walter Kirby Singing Scholarships in Auckland and Melbourne have helped start the careers of innumerable aspiring young singers. ‘Receiving the Walter Kirby Singing Scholarship in 1951 gave me confidence and a sense of the continuity of musical training and, of course, access to the best teachers and vocal coaches,’ says distinguished Melbourne soprano Loris Synan OAM. Her subsequent career in Australia and Great Britain has included grand opera on stage and on television, oratorio, concerts, radio and recordings, culminating in a seven-year tenure as Head of the Voice Department at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University.
A later recipient, soprano Miranda Rountree, has performed in concert, opera, operetta and musicals in Australia and overseas. She also studied piano, stagecraft and the role of modern technology in vocal performance. She is passing on her knowledge—and her enthusiasm—to new generations of aspiring youngsters through her Queensland-based chain of Rising Stars music studios.
An early pupil of Miranda’s was soprano Margaret Jarvis. Although her subsequent professional career was limited, she represents a unique link to Walter Kirby: her great-great-grandfather, Daniel David Kirby was Walter’s brother. She and a now vast network of Kirby family members respect and admire their forebear’s artistry and treasure his significant contribution to fine music in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland.
Walter Joseph Regis Kirby would have been delighted!
‘He the sweetest of musicians
Sang his songs of love and longing …
That the feast may be more joyous,
That the time may pass more gaily…
… Sang in accents sweet and tender,
Sang in tones of deep emotion,
Songs of love and songs of longing …’
—Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Walter Kirby’s Melbourne relatives have recently identified his unmarked grave, and are hoping to arrange for an appropriate maker to be installed.
Listen to Walter Kirby singing ‘A Hundred Moonlit Miles’ (Columbia 0605)
Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family
Brian Castles-Onion AM
Dr Mimi Colligan AM
Loris Synan OAM
Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Xavier College, Melbourne
National Library of Australia
State Library of Victoria
Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006
Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002
Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976
Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990
John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967
Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016
Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001
John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999
Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951
One sunny summer afternoon in 1949 Broadway producer Howard Lindsay stumbled on a magazine article about Perle Mesta and her appointment by President Harry S. Truman to the unlikely position of United States ambassador to the tiny European Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Miss Mesta was the daughter of one millionaire and the widow of another. She was indeed a Washington monument—a slightly out-of-place socialite and a thrower of legendary parties. She was in fact the city’s ‘Hostess with the Mostes’. She was, figured Lindsay, the ideal subject on whom to base a cheeky, up-to-date, all-American Broadway musical extravaganza.
‘Who’s Perle Mesta?’ grunted Ethel Merman when Lindsay suggested she would be perfect in the leading role. She had worked with Lindsay in Anything Goes and Red, Hot and Blue! and she was soon persuaded. So was Irving Berlin. The legendary songsmith was still smarting from the failure of his most recent show, Miss Liberty. At sixty-two he was worried that people thought he was out of touch with modern audiences. He wanted to do one last show, a show with a contemporary setting that would prove that he could still deliver the goods. Not only would the proposed production let him leave Broadway in style, it would also re-unite him with Merman, who had starred so meteorically in his Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.
New York Public Library, New York
With Miss Mesta’s bemused blessing, Lindsay and Russel Crouse set to work on the book, leaving the music and lyrics to Berlin. There was even a memorable dinner party for Miss Mesta to meet Miss Merman. Lindsay, Crouse and Berlin were there, with Margaret Truman, Ray Bolger and Ezio Pinza for good measure. As Berlin sat at the piano accompanying Perle’s singing of his old hit ‘Remember’, Merman stage-whispered to Margaret Truman, ‘If this dame's going into my racket, I'm going to ask your dad for a job in the diplomatic service.’
To finance the show, producer Leland Hayward negotiated an extraordinary deal with RCA. The recording giant agreed to underwrite the entire production cost, $250,000; in return, the producers and principals agreed to take a 20% reduction in royalties until RCA had recouped its investment from sales of the show’s cast album. The arrangement was all the more bizarre because Miss Merman was firmly contracted to Decca, who refused to ‘lend’ her to RCA. Eventually there were two albums: Dinah Shore—a strange choice—substituted for Merman on RCA, while Merman was joined by Dick Haymes and a studio cast on the Decca release. To RCA’s chagrin the Decca disc stayed on Billboard’s ‘Best Selling Popular Album’ chart for thirty-six weeks and reached number two position, while RCA had to be content with a thirteen-week run and a peak at number six.
Call Me Madam was Ethel Merman’s eleventh Broadway musical. As a major star she could demand ten per cent of a show’s box office gross, but for Call Me Madam she sagely settled for eight percent—plus a ten percent stake in the property itself. This meant that she had a financial interest in this and every subsequent production.
Co-starring with Merman were Paul Lukas as Cosmo Constantine, Lichtenburg’s Prime Minister; newcomer Russell Nype as Sally Adams’ egghead aide, Kenneth Gibson; and Galina Talva as Princess Maria of Lichtenburg. Raoul Péne du Bois designed the sets and costumes—for everyone except Miss Merman. Her wardrobe was sensationally extravagant. ‘Under those wonderful gowns,’ she quipped, ‘I was a kind of sexy Tugboat Annie gussied up by Mainbocher’. Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher), the legendary French-born society couturier, excelled himself with a series of stunning creations that were almost capable of stopping the show by themselves.
Under the experienced guidance of director George Abbott and choreographer Jerome Robbins, rehearsals began in New York in August 1950. All went well until the first try-out in New Haven. The second act was slow and dull. Two songs created the problem. One was an anthem to democracy called ‘Free’; the other was ‘Mr. Monotony’, an old Berlin song that had already been dropped from two previous shows. Out it went again, along with ‘Free’. To replace them Berlin speedily created a bright number called ‘Something to Dance About’ and one of his famous counterpoint duets for Merman and Nype, it was ‘You're Just In Love’. When she heard it, Merman predicted, ‘We’ll never get off stage.’ Ever the thrifty recycler, Berlin later rewrote ‘Free’ as ‘Snow’ for the 1954 film White Christmas.
There were more changes and refinements—then refinements of refinements. Eventually Merman rebelled. ‘Boys,’ she said, ‘as of right now, I am Miss Birdseye of 1950. I am frozen. Not even a new comma.’
Despite public concern about the progress of the war raging in Korea, interest in the new show was enormous. The Imperial Theatre announced a Broadway record box office advance sale of approximately $1 million, and tickets for the gala first night—12 October 1950—changed hands for $200—instead of the official $7.20! Call Me Madam’s premiere was the most glittering of the season. Autograph hunters jammed West Forty-fifth Street to see the celebrities arrive. Among them was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, reportedly there to check out the show’s ‘They Like Ike’ production number. He must have approved; later, retitled ‘I Like Ike’, it became his presidential campaign song.
The first night patrons chuckled at two tongue-in-cheek disclaimers in the program: ‘The play is laid in two mythical countries. One is called Lichtenburg, the other the United States of America’ and ‘Neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams, nor Miss Ethel Merman, resembles any other person alive or dead.’ Seconds before Jay Blackton led the orchestra into the overture, Russel Crouse asked Merman if she were nervous. ‘Nervous?’ she drawled. ‘No. The audience has paid their money. They’re the ones that should be nervous.’
If they were nervous, there was no need. Call Me Madam was an instant hit. ‘You're Just In Love’ was encored seven times. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said, ‘It throws a little Stardust around the theatre and sets the audience to roaring.’ Atkinson commended the show as ‘genuine comedy because the leading character grows and develops in the course of the play, and because Merman puts into it good will as well as swaggering self-confidence.’ Newsweek called it ‘A rowdy delight’. The Herald Tribune was succinct: ‘The Berlin songs and a superb production make Call Me Madam the gala it promised to be.’ Even Perle Mesta enjoyed herself. She told reporters, ‘l only hope that someday I become as great a diplomat as Ethel Merman is an actress.’ Now, that’s diplomatic!
After just nineteen weeks, Call Me Madam chalked up its first million dollars at the box office. It went on to garner two Tony Awards—Best Actress in a Musical for Miss Merman (her only Tony) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Mr. Nype. Guys and Dolls, which opened a few weeks later, won Best Musical and several other Tonys. It was probably the competition provided by Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and, later, The King and I, that limited the Broadway tenure of Call Me Madam to 644 performances—not in the same league as Annie Get Your Gun’s 1147, but very a satisfactory run just the same.
On 20 january 1928, at the Columbia Graphophone Company’s recently opened factory and studio in the Sydney suburb of Homebush, Walter Kirby cut his first recordings. These are among the earliest Australian recordings made by the recently introduced electrical process, and some of the first to be made by a serious vocalist. He recorded four of his most popular ballads: ‘From the Land of the Sky Blue Water’, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’, ‘A Hundred Moonlit Miles Away’ and ‘Ben Bolt’. The later had been featured in a recent Sydney production of the play Trilby. Walter’s accompanist was Columbia’s musical director Gil Dech (real name Gilbert Pinfield, and formally known as Gilbert Dechelette). Probably for technical reasons, the first two sides were discarded, but the latter two were released in May 1927 on a 10-inch Columbia shellac disc, price 4 shillings [$16.60]. Though it is now exceedingly rare, it must have sold sufficiently well for Walter to be invited back in September to cut 17 more sides. These included re-recordings of the discarded titles, which were duly released in February 1928. The other 15 were never issued, and test pressings are not known to exist. Both published discs were deleted by the end of 1931 but now, nearly a century after they were recorded, you can hear Walter’s recordings via the National Film and Sound Archive’s website, and ‘Ben Bolt’ is included in Decca’s 4-CD set From Melba to Sutherland.
In contrast, Columbia recordings by two other Australian tenors, Walter Kingsley and Alfred O’Shea, remained on sale for much longer. O’Shea, whose repertoire of Irish ballads and operatic arias was similar to Walter’s, had sung with the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company in 1924. He spent his later years in the United States and Canada.
After his debut as a recording artist, Walter returned to Melbourne to participate in a strange event at the Theatre Royal. It was not reviewed in the press, so we must rely on newspaper advertisements to give us some idea of what was involved. It was to be an ‘Educational Lecture on the New Science of Analysing Character’ on Sunday 23 January 1927 at 8 o’clock, ‘after Church Services’. The presenter was a well-known local character, Walter S. Binks, who described himself as an ‘Author, Lecturer, Vocational Counsellor, and Employers’ Adviser’. Attendees would see ‘Numerous types of character powerfully portrayed by Lightning Sketching, Lantern Slides and Moving Pictures. Mr. Binks will teach you how to know yourself and know others, and then profit by your knowledge. Two persons will be publicly analysed at the conclusion of the lecture. Musical items by Walter Kirby. Admission Free. Collection at doors.’
After this, Walter reverted to more conventional appearances. The concerts for charity continued, and he made what had become his traditional annual visit to Tasmania. He sang in country centres and in April 1927 he was engaged by Renmark-based entrepreneur M.C. Symonds to give concerts in the Sunraysia district: at Renmark in South Australia and at Merbein, Red Cliffs and Mildura in Victoria. Attendances were disappointing and Walter, asked to comment, blamed ‘the age of jazz and listening in’.
On 11 June 1927 Walter celebrated his birthday with another ‘At Home’. The venue was the grand Toorak mansion ‘Illawarra’, which was lent by its owner, Mrs. Norman Churton. ‘The guests were welcomed by Mr. Kirby in the ballroom,’ reported Table Talk, and here most enjoyable musical items were given. Mr. Kirby himself contributed to the program.’ Proceeds from the event benefitted the Melbourne Hospital.
The year brought two important civic engagements: On 18 May he sang ‘for 2000 ratepayers’ at the official opening of the new Williamstown Town Hall, and on 15 December he participated in a concert launching the new Melbourne Town Hall, rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1925. He was complimented by Table Talk: ‘His art was proved not only in his rendering of his items, but in the way he at once gauged the acoustics of the hall.’
Early in 1928 Walter made his usual trip to Tasmania. In Launceston, on 12 March, he was part of what was touted as a ‘milestone’ in the history of the city and the state: the laying of the foundation stone of the British Rapson Tyre and Rubber Company’s a huge new tyre factory. There were interminable speeches, the Railway Band, a luncheon, tree plantings, afternoon tea, and songs from Walter and Cecily Kelly, a ‘promising’ young local contralto. The proceedings were filmed by Paramount Pictures and described on radio. The enterprise was sadly short-lived. Rapson folded in 1932.
While Walter continued to teach and to support innumerable charitable causes, his paid singing engagements were dwindling and invitations to first nights were fewer. He was certainly not a ‘presence’ at the 1928 Melba–Williamson opera season. He was 54, portly, ubiquitously flamboyant, and increasingly the subject of public mockery. Songwriter Jack O’Hagan, whose ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ had thrust him to fame in 1922, recalled: ‘In Melbourne the colloquial expression around town when talking about bi-sexual or gay men became “did you hear the latest about Walter?”’ This had inspired Jack to write his 1923 ‘comedy one-step’ ‘Walter’. It was introduced at the Bijou Theatre by Jim Gerald, published by Allan’s, and sold well:
Walter was an operatic singer—a real humdinger.
He loved the girls and the boys.
But one day he met a honey with lots of money
To share his cares and joys.
He courted her a little while, but then, it’s sad to tell,
One day he disappeared and then his love began to yell:
Walter, where have you gone?
What have I done?
Where have you gone?
You took all my money to purchase a ring,
You’ve kept the wedding waiting now and everything.
Walter, I’m so forlorn—I can’t afford to let you go.
You’re the only man that’s ever loved me in my life.
You’re the only chance I’ve ever had to be a wife.
Walter, where have you gone—that’s what I want to know
Walter’s honey said that she would get him, and maybe pet him,
And get him tied up for life.
But he was a regular heart-breaker, a trouble-maker
Who caused her lots of strife.
To find this Valentino she searched everywhere about,
And as she went from place to place, now this is what she’d shout:
Walter, where have you gone?
What have I done?
Where have you gone?
You’re just like a cave man, you never get meek,
And when you roll your eyes at me, you’re like The Sheik.
Walter, where have you gone; I can’t afford to let you go.
For once we get married, you’ll have family ties,
And you won’t be singing op’ra, you’ll sing lullabies.
Walter, where have you gone—that’s what I want to know.
O’Hagan’s song was featured at the Tivoli by rotund funnyman Oliver Peacock. In fact, Walter had long been the butt of music hall jokes. Jack Cannot had impersonated him in the 1916 Tivoli Follies, and in 1928 Smith’s Weekly complimented comic George Wallace: ‘A Wallace revue is always clean, and he never has to refer to Walter Kirby or Killarney Kate [another Melbourne ‘character’] to drag a laugh.’
And it wasn’t only the performers; sometimes it was the audience. In a letter published in the November 1970 issue of People magazine, a reader remembered: ‘His greatest triumph was his appearance at one of the many bushfire relief fund entertainments at the old Tivoli in Bourke Street [in 1926]. Rather effeminate, he was undeterred by the catcalls and ribald remarks of some of the audience. He opened with “I Hear You Calling Me”, and the clamour for “more” was terrific. After five numbers, he approached the footlights and said, “Thank you so much, but I cannot sing again. There are other artists to follow.” He had to take more bows than Nellie Melba.’
In its issue of 29 December 1928, Smith’s Weekly published an extraordinary full-page article based on an interview with Walter. It was headed: ‘The Lifelong Tragedy of Walter Kirby’. After covering Walter’s career, it concluded: ‘With his undoubted gifts it has always seemed a matter for regret that by his return to Australia Kirby got out of the stream of world singers. Others, no better endowed, have stayed in England and won reputations—Horace Stevens, Malcolm McEachern, and the rest of them. The local market for Kirby’s talents has been limited. Now touching fifty [he was 54], he talks of retiring. There is a note of bitterness when he recalls his services to charity that have earned him life governorships all over Australia. During the war, and after, as he points out, he worked night and day collecting up to £1000 [$83,000] in a week for patriotic funds, and realising in all about £30,000 [$2,490,000]. “Then,” he adds, “I suddenly awoke to find myself the most maligned man in Australia—a byword for every ribald comedian on the comic opera stage—for what reason I know not. The only one I can suggest is professional jealousy”.’
In 1929 Walter temporarily lifted his ban on broadcasting. On 22 July he was booked as one of the featured artists in the inaugural program on the ‘new’ 3LO, relaunched as part of the national Australian Broadcasting Company network. His participation was somewhat misleadingly promoted as his ‘first appearance in broadcasting’. A sudden cold was given as the reason for his last-minute withdrawal, however, said a press release, ‘He assured listeners he would appear as soon as possible’. He made good his promise, becoming a ‘surprise guest’ in the program that relaunched 3AR on 7 August.
In August 1929 Walter visited Canberra for the first time. His well-attended concert at the recently opened Albert Hall on 8 October raised funds for Manuka’s St Christopher’s Church and Convent.
Just four days after Walter’s concert, Canberra was thrown into uproar. After 13 years in opposition, the Labor Party, led by James Scullin, soundly defeated Stanley Bruce’s Nationalist/Country Party coalition. In Melbourne, the ALP revelled in its win with a ‘Monster Labor Victory Celebration’ in the Town Hall on 4 November. Amidst the barrage of speeches were musical items by the Labor Choral Society, Walter, and several other soloists, accompanied, it was noted, on a Wertheim piano manufactured in the new Prime Minister’s own electorate, Yarra.
Walter sang at three interesting concerts early in 1930. The first, in the Melbourne Town Hall on 18 March, was a Farewell to the brilliant 15-year-old pianist Nancy Weir, who was heading to Europe for further study and, eventually, fame, and on Good Friday he featured in two programs of sacred songs at the Plaza, the luxurious Spanish-themed cinema nestled beneath the grand Regent Theatre in Collins Street. These served to introduce Melbourne audiences to contralto Cecily Kelly, who had sung with him at the launch of the ill-fated Rapson factory in Launceston. She went on to a busy career embracing concerts, broadcasting, teaching and composing.
By mid-1930 the Great Depression had started to erode the Australian economy. Unemployment soared and businesses struggled. The live entertainment industry suffered, too, reeling from the recent introduction of radio, technically improved ‘electrical’ recordings and the ‘talkies’. Walter was scathing. On 5 June 1931 he told The Herald: ‘Reproduced music from the talkies seems to have obviated the necessity of engaged artists, and the result is that the people have lost their taste. A talkie orchestra is lacking in timbre. The colour is all wrong, thin and streaky. Vocal renderings from the screen are mechanical, and left a void. The elevating quality from the human voice was lacking.’
On 12 August 1930 Walter announced that he intended to head to London, and that he would give a Farewell concert in the Auditorium on 11 September. It was packed. Said The Argus: ‘Mr. Walter Kirby, who has so frequently helped all manner of good causes, gave last night in the Auditorium what was announced as a Farewell recital. A large and friendly audience received with every sign of approval and delight Mr. Kirby’s renderings of a large number of items. These ranged from a ballad by Easthope Martin to such things as the “Dream” from Massenet’s Manon. The sympathetic accompaniments of Miss Edith Harrhy (who also figures as a composer of taking ballads) were a particularly attractive feature of the proceedings.’ Miss Harrhy, British born but of Welsh heritage, made a valuable contribution to Melbourne musical life; her operettas Alaya and The Jolly Friar were frequently staged, she directed innumerable amateur musicals and published countless songs.
After his Farewell concert, Walter continued much as before: the charity concerts, the teaching, and the occasional ‘At Home’. He was back at the Tivoli on 20 November 1930 to participate in the unveiling of William Beckwith McIness’s portrait of the beloved actress Nellie Stewart. Miss Stewart made a gracious speech and Walter sang ‘I Was Dreaming’, the song that he had introduced at the Bijou in 1894. It had been a huge hit for Nellie when she included it in the operetta Ma Mie Rosette, one of her many great successes. The portrait is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Sometimes things got out of hand. In a piece published in 1931, a writer in The Arrow reminisced: ‘An episode that occurred not long before he left this country finally, indicates that the method direct had no appeal to Walter. He was present at a gathering at the Oriental Hotel in Collins Street in aid of a charitable appeal for the Alfred Hospital. There was a long musical program, but Kirby did not sing. He was asked to sing but declined. Pressed to sing, he refused. Pressed still harder, he became firmer and dignified in his refusals. At last, towards four in the morning, one of those interested in the program, advancing towards the recalcitrant songster, said: “I'll make you sing!” and punched him on the nose Walter burst into tears, and cried for some time. There was some talk of subsequent proceedings, but nothing came of the matter.’
On 23 February 1931 Melba died in Sydney. Her remains were taken to Melbourne for a memorial service on 26 February in Scots’ Church, which had been built by her father. She was buried in the cemetery at Lilydale, near her home, Coombe Cottage. It was the largest funeral the city had seen, and Walter was among the vast assembly of official mourners. One of Melba’s biographers, John Hetherington, claims that Walter, ‘Told Blanche Marchesi a fantastic story which she apparently believed: that he went to Melba’s grave, stamped his foot on the ground as though to catch attention, and cried, “Well, Nellie, now you’ve got to listen to me! Even you can’t stop me now”, and to a passive audience of one and to the heavens, he sang his loveliest songs, his topmost notes, his trills, his melodies … the songs she had forbidden him to sing. At last he stopped and asked triumphantly, “Well, Nellie, what do you think of that?”’ Hetherington adds: ‘The story is interesting, if implausible.’ Nevertheless, it has been repeated as fact by several subsequent authors.
On 5 June 1931 Walter told a Herald interviewer that he would be leaving for London in the P. & O. liner Mongolia on 16 June, and that he intended to resume his professional career abroad: ‘If my health will let me, I will remain indefinitely—the matter is in the lap of the gods. Melbourne is famished artistically, and conditions for concert artists are worse than in the days that followed the bursting of the boom. Even then there were municipal and suburban concerts for the relief of artists who now were supposed to give their services free. The late Lady Madden organised a committee of Toorak hostesses, who held a series of “At Homes” in various mansions, and at those local artists were paid to entertain. The idea caught on, and the scheme was continued for several winters. Today the desire for it does not seem to exist, for one encounters nothing but bridge parties every night in the larger homes.’ The report concluded: ‘The tenor intends to make phonograph records on his arrival in London, and give recitals in England and Paris, besides accepting concert engagements.’
The night before he was due to sail, 200 of his friends gave him a great ‘goodbye’ party at the Hotel Windsor. There were tributes from several prominent Melburnians, including Arthur H. Hassell, a businessman active in musical circles. He spoke of his early discovery of ‘a new tenor in town’, recalling that he had arranged a musical function when the principal tenor fell sick. ‘Luckily, a youth named Walter Kirby, then 18 years of age with a reputation as a singer gained in Ballarat or elsewhere, was recommended to me, and on the evening of the performance Walter received a great ovation. The young singer was lauded by the critics, and his feet were thus placed firmly on the artistic ladder.’
Finally, on the foggy morning of 16 June, many of Walter’s friends gathered on Station Pier. Clutching streamers, they sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and gave him three cheers. ‘Then,’ said The Herald, ‘his voice came back like the distant echo of the refrain, and the big crowd was temporarily hushed as the tenor repeated the song with a significant gesture at its finish. When the song was ended the listeners applauded, and there were loud cries for another song, but it was in silence that the streamers broke one by one until the ship was out on her way.’
Walter arrived in London on 24 July. He took rooms at fashionable St George’s Square in Pimlico, and was accorded a welcoming tea party at Australia House on 4 August with ‘many musical people among the guests’.
He was soon back in the best society. His first foray was to sing at a house party in aid of the International Council of Women at Cromar Hall, the country seat of Lord and Lady Aberdeen in Tarland, Scotland. The press reported that he was vociferously applauded, and afterwards presented to Her Majesty the Queen (Queen Mary) and the Duchess of York (the future Queen, later known as the Queen Mother) who were in residence at nearby Balmoral Castle. A few days later he was the guest of the former Governor-General of Australia, Lord Stonehaven, and Lady Stonehaven at their Scottish mansion, Rickarton House in Kincardineshire.
A cousin, a Mrs. McCourt, recalled his generosity: ‘During his Bohemian life in London he made macaroni his staple diet, and hardly spent a penny on himself in order to pay for the training of potential singers and assist the families of improvident friends.’
But all was not well with his throat. He sought advice from one of the country’s most eminent ear, nose and throat specialists, Sir James Dundas-Grant. An ardent music lover, Dundas-Grant was surgeon to the Royal Academy of Music, consulting laryngologist to the Royal College of Music and aural surgeon to the Royal Society of Musicians, and in his spare time he delighted in conducting his own private orchestra. He decided that surgery was needed. On the morning of 3 September Walter arrived for the operation in a highly nervous state, so nervous that Dundas-Grant had to calm him with a dose of cocaine.
And then it all went horribly wrong.
To be continued
Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove
Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006
Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002
Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976
Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990
John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967
Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016
Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001
John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999
Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951
BOOK REVIEW: Sorry! House Full: An A to Z retrospective review of the cinemas of Sydney by Ian Hanson and Les Tod OAM; Foreword by Anthony Buckley AM
This book is an extraordinary achievement. Its 220 pages represent the triumphant culmination of seven years ‘hard labour’ by two of this country’s most knowledgeable—and resourceful—theatre historians, Ian Hanson and Les Tod OAM.
The authoritative text and more than 400 illustrations—many in colour—document around 70 cinemas in the Sydney CBD and inner suburbs. Many of these cinemas also served as live venues. Among the most notable were the Palace, the three Tivolis, the Capitol, the State, the various iterations of the Theatre Royal, the Empire/Her Majesty’s and the elegant Minerva in Kings Cross, presently the subject of a major preservation struggle. Indeed, the book is a sad reminder of how much entertainment history has been lost with the comparatively recent destruction of so many important cinemas and theatres.
A notable Sydney survivor is the Capitol, the only fully intact ‘atmospheric’ cinema left in this country. Its extraordinary evolution began in 1892 when the council built the New Belmore Markets on the site. In 1916 the building was repurposed as a circus venue, then in 1928 came its transformation into the spectacular ‘atmospheric’ Capitol cinema. After movies waned, the theatre hosted live shows but soon fell into disrepair. In 1992 a massive restoration project restored its glory, so today the Capitol is one of Sydney’s busiest live theatres. It’s currently hosting Moulin Rouge! The Musical. The Capitol’s surprising history, profusely and colorfully illustrated, is just one of the many delights to de discovered in this book.
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney
We pay warm tribute to David Cullinane who passed away peacefully on 12 August 2022, aged 87.
David was an enthusiastic supporter of Theatre Heritage Australia (previously the Victoria Theatres Trust). For 13 years he edited every one of the 52 printed editions of our quarterly journal, On Stage, from its inception in mid-1999 until it transferred online in mid-2012.
David’s first love was film. A keen amateur movie maker and a regular attendee at Melbourne’s film festivals, he established a popular film appreciation group at his first employer, ICI Australia, where he worked on the company’s in-house magazine. He founded the Society of Business Communicators, a professional writers’ association, and was a member of the Melbourne Press Club.
After working for some months in London, he returned to Melbourne and re-joined the team at ICI. Stints at Alcoa Australia and The Body Shop followed, again producing their in-house magazines.
David fully embraced emerging printing technologies, and his computer-based design work for On Stage was in many ways ground-breaking for its time. All his hard-copy editions are now fully accessible on our website.
Thank you, David.