Tuesday, 01 March 2022

Little Wunder: The story of the Palace Theatre, Sydney (Part 4)

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During 1901–1902, George Adams’ Pitt Street theatre continued to florish as ELISABETH KUMM discovers in Part 4 of the Palace Theatre story, notably with a return to vaudeville with the highly successful World’s Entertainers. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» 

Following the final performance by the Hawtrey Comedy Company on 13 July 1901, actor-manager Robert Brough (of the Brough Comedy Company) took on a short lease of the Palace Theatre. Rather than producing a season of plays, he introduced British magician Charles Bertram to Sydney audiences.

Known as the ‘Court Magician’ or the ‘Royal Conjurer’, Bertram was a master of sleight of hand, appearing before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 23 occasions.1 Bertram’s Australian visit was part of a world tour that also took him through India, China, Japan, New Zealand and America. Robert Brough, who had had been performing with his dramatic company in India and China, had seen one of Bertram’s shows and agreed to manage his Australian visit.

Following a short season in Melbourne (8 June 1901), Bertram visited Bendigo and Wagga Wagga en route for Sydney, opening at the Palace Theatre on 20 July 1901. Announced initially for ‘twelve nights only’, he stayed on for an extra week, during which time he introduced some new illusions including ‘The Vanishing Lady’. Yet despite his cordial welcome in Sydney, his overall Australian tour was not deemed a success. His skilful manipulation of cards, flags, rings and flower pots was better suited to a drawing room and too small for audiences accustomed to watching much larger shows.2

The author of several books, Bertram wrote a comprehensive account of this tour which he called A Magician in Many Lands.3

Following Bertram’s departure, Henry Lee and J.G. Rial took over the Palace with a season of ‘polite vaudeville’, opening on 10 August 1901. Their company, known as the World’s Entertainers, had been formed in America and comprised a number of clever and accomplished variety turns. Key among them was Henry Lee (seen at Palace in 1896 with Phil Goatcher’s Stars of All Nations company), who impersonated ‘Great Men, Past and Present’. Through the use of lighting and changes in costume, he morphed from Shakespeare to Bismarck, to Tennyson, to King Edward VII and Pope Leo XIII. Other artists included the acrobatic comedians Kelly and Ashby who stunned audiences with their billiard table act; Josephine Gassman from Louisiana who sang songs supported by two ‘quaint and diminutive’ piccaninnies; and Charles R. Sweet, the ‘musical burglar’ who amused with humorous ditties and anecdotes. Edison’s latest movie camera, the Projectoscope also made an appearance. All in all it was deemed a ‘capital’ bill of entertainment.4

On the final night of the season, 30 October 1901, photographer Talma took a flashlight photo of the audience.5

With the vaudeville season over, the theatre was made available to amateur groups and others pending the return of Charles Arnold and his company on 26 December 1901.

Arnold, who had played two previous seasons at the Palace opened with a revival of Hans the Boatman, a sentimental play with songs that he had first performed in Australia in the 1880s. Hans was followed by a reprisal of plays from his current repertoire: What Happened to Jones and Why Smith Left Home. Mid-way through the season, on 18 January 1902, he presented a new play, The Professor’s Love Story by J.M. Barrie.

The Professor’s Love Story first saw the light of day in New York in 1892 when it was produced at the Star Theatre, with E.S. Willard in the lead. It seems it had originally been written for Henry Irving who turned it down. Believing the play to be worthless, Barrie subsequently sold the American rights to Willard for £50. After touring the play successfully for two years, Willard eventually brought it to London (opening at the Comedy Theatre in June 1894), by which time Barrie had acquired an agent who secured a flat-rate royalty for the play that also covered any future American (and presumably Australian) performances.6

Charles Arnold obtained the colonial rights from E.S. Willard and The Professor’s Love Story was performed for the first time in Australia at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in June 1900.

Like so much of Barrie’s work, The Professor’s Love Story is a quixotic piece. Its central character is a Scots physicist, Professor Goodwillie, who falls in love with his secretary, but unaware of why he feels the way he does, he consults a physician. Critics and audiences were delighted by Arnold’s performance. The Sydney Morning Herald for instance observed:

Mr Charles Arnold showed himself a light comedian who could touch the pathetic stop with a sure hand, and his portrait of the old-young professor was true to the picture drawn by the author … [He] played throughout with extreme quiet and refinement, showing with much simplicity of manner the professor’s entire unconsciousness of his love for Lucy. His professor was, indeed a man of many winning and endearing qualities.7

Arnold was supported by Dot Frederic as Lucy, with other roles filled by Inez Bensusan, Hope Mayne, Agnes Knights and George Willoughby.

The close of the Sydney season on 12 February 1902 brought Arnold’s 96 week Australian tour to an end. During that time it was estimated he had played before 750,000 people. He was also said to have netted £24,000 from the tour, £4000 of which went to George Broadhurst, the author of What Happened to Jones, in royalties.8

In a sad footnote to the tour, November 1901 also saw the beginning of the second wave of bubonic plague in Sydney, with cases peaking in February/March 1902.9 Two members of Arnold’s company succumbed, Sallie Booth on 27 February and Ada Lee (a younger sister of Jennie Lee) on 1 March. Miss Booth had played Alvina in What Happened to Jones and Lavinia Daly in Why Smith Left Home, and Ada Lee had been seen as Helma in What Happened to Jones and Effie in The Professor’s Love Story.

On 15 February 1902 the World’s Entertainers returned for an extended season, with new artists having arrived from America on 8 February. They were now under the management of J.C. Williamson, Lee and Rial. In addition to Henry Lee, Charles R. Sweet, Josephine Gassman and Arthur Nelstone, new acts included Bunth and Rudd (eccentric comedians); The Marvellous Lottos (novelty cyclists); Carl Nilsson’s Troupe (in their Original Flying Ballet); George Lyding (American tenor); Mdlle Ilma De Monza (Parisian singer); and Mdlle Adele (‘The Lady with the Wonderful Fingers’).

Over the next four months the line-up changed with artist swapping between the Palace in Sydney and Bijou in Melbourne, or going on tour. Some local artists also joined the company including Violet Elliott, often referred to as the ‘Lady bass’. The World’s Entertainers filled the theatre for four months, closing on 28 May 1902.10

Frank Thornton was one of the most popular comedians to ever visit Australia, making his fifth trip ‘down under’ in 1902. During previous visits he had introduced some well-known farces including The Private Secretary, Charley’s Aunt, The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown and The Bookmaker. On this visit, he had two new plays: Facing the Music by J.H. Darnley and A Little Ray of Sunshine by Mark Ambient and Wilton Heriot.

He also brought with him his London Comedy Company of eight players: Vera Fordyce (leading lady), Phoebe Mercer (aristocratic old ladies), Leonie Norbury (ingenue), Katie Lee (character), Joseph Wilson (comedian), Alex Bradley (principal juvenile), Galway Herbert (juvenile), J.H. Denton (character), and Frank Wilson (stage manager). Katie Lee was perhaps the best known of these players being a sister of Jennie Lee and the late Ada Lee.

Thornton commenced his tour in Melbourne on 3 May 1902 with the Australian premiere of Facing the Music, relocating to the Sydney Palace on 31 May.11

Like so many farces, Facing the Music has an absurd plot. It involves two ‘John Smiths’, one a curate and the other the owner of racehorses, two ‘Mrs John Smiths’, a Colonel Duncan Smith, and two housekeepers.

First performed in the English provinces during 1900 with Thornton as Mr John Smith, Thornton also produced the first London production at the Strand Theatre (10 February 1900) with James Welch as the star.

Facing the Music proved something of a hit with Sydneysiders, playing for six weeks at the Palace, but it was withdrawn prematurely to make way for the first Australian production of A Little Ray of Sunshine on 19 July 1902. This comedy was in a different vein to Facing the Music. Rather than relying on broad humour for laughs, it was more of a character piece, and closer in sentiment to a morality tale than a knock-about farce. It had been a success in London, with W.S. Penley as Lord Markham, an eccentric millionaire who having deserted his family as a youth returns to the family seat and through various acts of benevolence helps them into become better people.

A Little Ray of Sunshine played until the close of the season on 7 August. Although not as engaging as its predecessor, it seemed to please much of the audience.

In August, J.C. Williamson Ltd. sub-leased the theatre from Messrs Lee and Rial for a four months period . Once again the Pitt Street venue was coming to the rescue of a company that had lost its usual theatre due to fire. In 1899 with the destruction of the Tivoli, Harry Rickards turned to the Palace. Now JCW was in need of a new venue following the burning of Her Majesty’s Theatre in March. Williamson’s maintained two Sydney theatres, Her Majesty’s in Pitt Street, and the Theatre Royal in Castlereagh Street. With one theatre out of action they needed somewhere to present their new raft of musical comedy attractions.

JCW’s first offering was San Toy, an original musical play by Edward Morton, with music by Sydney Jones. San Toy had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s in Melbourne in December 1901 and since that time it had toured throughout Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. When it arrived in Sydney, only one of the original twenty-seven principals remained, namely Ernest Mozar, who played Lieutenant Harvey Tucker.

The key roles were now performed by Rose Musgrove as San Toy (replacing Carrie Moore); Lillian Digges as Dudley (in place of Grace Palotta); Fred H. Graham as Li (rather than George Lauri); Arthur Crane as Captain Bobby Preston (for Charles Kenningham); Charles Trood as the Emperor of China (instead of Hugh J. Ward); and Lulu Evans as Poppy (succeeding Florence Young). Fred H. Graham had also taken over from Spencer Barry as stage director.

Messenger Boy SLVLillian Digges and Arthur Crane in The Messenger Boy, 1902. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

San Toy had its initial performance at George Edwardes’ Daly’s Theatre in London in October 1899, with Marie Tempest in the title role. It held the stage for over two years during which time the lead was also played by Florence Collingbourne. The musical’s oriental setting provided the opportunity for superb costumes (designed by Percy Anderson) and settings (painted by Hawes Craven and Joseph Harker), the latter being copied from London models by JCW resident scenic artists John Gordon and George Dixon.

The next production was a revival of The Belle of New York, a musical comedy that had first been seen in Australia during 1899 with a largely American cast headed by Louise Hepner. At the Palace, it played from 13 September 1902 to 7 October 1902, with Lillian Digges as the Belle.

On 3 October a potentially fatal accident occurred when a member of the audience fell from the gallery balcony into the stalls. Miraculously no-one was below and he survived the fall suffering only from shock and a fractured knee.12

 The final offering for the present season was The Messenger Boy, which was being performed in Australia for the first time. Due to the elaborate preparations necessary for the production, the opening night was postponed from the Saturday to the following Wednesday, 8 October 1902.13

Featuring a book by James T. Tanner and Alfred Murray, lyrics by Adrian Ross and Percy Greenbank, and music by Ivan Caryll and Lionel Monckton, The Messenger Boy had first been performed at the Gaiety Theatre in London during February 1900 following a try-out in Plymouth. With principal roles played by Edmund Payne, Harry Nicolls, Violet Lloyd, Maud Hobson and Connie Ediss, the musical was a ‘runaway success’, playing for 429 performance.

The Australian production featured artists from JCW’s comic opera company: Fred H. Graham as Tommy Bang (the Messenger Boy), Arthur Crane as Clive Radnor, Arthur Lissant as Hooker Pasha, Lillian Digges as Nora, Blanche Wallace as Lady Punchestown, Rose Musgrove as Rosa, and Fred H. Graham as the stage director.

The exotic locales in which the musical was set gave JCW scenic designer John Gordon the opportunity to impress with scenes of London, Brindisi, Cairo and Paris.

With the departure of the JCW company, William Anderson took over as sub-lessee and manager. He launched his season with Cyrano de Bergerac on 1 November 1902, with American Henry Lee (formerly seen with the World’s Entertainers) in the title role, and Eugenie Duggan as Roxane. This was the debut of Edmund Rostand’s play in Sydney. First performed in Paris in 1897, the play was adapted for the English-speaking stage in 1900 by Stuart Ogilvie and Louis N. Parker, with Richard Mansfield creating the title role in America and Charles Wyndham in the UK.

Anderson’s company had premiered the play at the Melbourne Bijou in August 1902, with Lee as Cyrano and Janet Waldorf as Roxane. It featured elaborate costumes designed and executed by Messrs Lincoln, Stuart & Co., and scenery by John Little and Alfred Tischbauer (Alta).

It seems Henry Lee prepared the text himself. ‘Lee’s is a bad translation, in which much of the point and relish of the comedy was lost’, wrote one critic, ‘Probably the Sydney gallery would have been just as uneasy had the play been well done, but I must claim for them that the Cyrano of the performance leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.’14

In fact the behaviour of the gallery so incensed Lee that on opening night he stopped the play during the last act to address the audience, declaring: ‘This is my first appearance in Sydney in drama, and were it not that I am under engagement to Mr Anderson, and am in honour bound to fulfil my contract, it would be my last appearance.’15 The following Monday, Lee called in sick with gout and Edmund Duggan took over. Despite suggestions that Lee would be back, he was not, and the planned four-week season came to an abrupt close at the end of the week. As a result, William Anderson had to rush in a new show: Walter Melville’s melodrama The Worst Woman in London. As the titular character, Frances Vere, Eugenie Duggan was at her evil best, and with a plot brimming with dastardly acts of blackmail, murder, arson and robbery, audiences were kept on the edge of their seats. With Anderson’s lease ending on 28 November 1902, The Worst Woman in London was withdrawn at the height of its success.

 

To be continued

 

Endnotes

1. Advertisement, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1901, p.2

2. Charles Waller, Magical Nights at the Theatre, p.112

3. Charles Bertram, A Magician in Many Lands, G. Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1911. Bertram died in 1907 (aged only 53) and the book was finished by his wife.

4. The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August 1901, p.3

5. The Evening News (Sydney), 30 October 1901, p.1. Unfortunately the photo does not seem to be extant.

6. Denis Mackail, The Story of JMB, p.203

7. The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1902, p.5

8. The Critic (Adelaide), 22 February 1902, p.13; Brisbane Courier, 22 February 1902, p.9

9. The first wave of plague occurred in Sydney between January and August 1900, with 103 deaths. The second wave, which lasted six weeks, claimed 39 lives. See The History of Plague in Australia, 19001925.

10. For more information on the World’s Entertainers, see Australian Variety Theatre Archive, https://ozvta.com/international-tourists/

11. The Princess Theatre was required by George Musgrove’s company.

12. The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1902, p.11

13. The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 October 1902, p.4

14.The Critic (Adelaide), 29 November 1902, p.13

15. Punch (Melbourne), 13 November 1902, p.31

References

Charles Bertram, A Magician in Many Lands, G. Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1911

Gerald Bordman, American Theatre: A chronicle of comedy and drama, 18691914, Oxford University Press, 1994

JHL Clumpston & F. McCallum, The History of Plague in Australia, 1900-1925, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Health, 1926

Denis Mackail, The Story of JMB, Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1941

Charles Waller, Magical Nights at the Theatre, edited and published by Gerald Taylor, 1980

J.P. Wearing, The London Stage: A Calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 18901899, 2nd edn, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

J.P. Wearing, The London Stage: A Calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 1900-1909, 2nd edn, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

Newspapers

The Critic (Adelaide, SA); Brisbane Courier (QLD); The Evening News (NSW); Punch (Melbourne); The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW)

With thanks to

John S. Clark, Mimi Colligan, Judy Leech, Les Tod

Read 302 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2022
Elisabeth Kumm

Elisabeth is a founding member of the Victoria Theatres Trust. Her series Pets of the Public was a regular feature of On Stage from 1999 to 2005, looking at “forgotten” nineteenth century performers. She continues to contribute articles for the THA website, and from 2018 has been editor of the THA Newsletter. As a theatrical historian and biographer she assisted Viola Tait with her book on pantomime – Dames, Principal Boys…and All That (published by Macmillan in 2001) and also worked with her on her memoirs I Have a Song to Sing (published by THA in 2018). Elisabeth has also undertaken research for the Riley/Hailes Scrapbook and JCW Scene Books projects. Most recently she has been working on the Falk Studios album project including acting as editor of The Falk Studios book (published by THA in 2021).