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Thursday, 01 September 2022

Little Wunder: The story of the Palace Theatre, Sydney (Part 6)

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Having enjoyed great prosperity throughout much of 1903, the Palace entered a period of mixed success, including long periods of darkness, as ELISABETH KUMM discovers in Part 6 of the Palace Theatre story.

Following the departure of Daniel Frawley’s company on Friday, 11 September 1903, The Players commenced a six night season from 12 September, performing the A.W. Pinero comedy Dandy Dick for their first three nights and concluding with Sydney Grundy’s drama Sowing the Wind for their final three nights.

On Thursday, 17 September, the Musical and Dramatic Profession tendered a Testimonial Matinee Performance to Mr. W.J. Wilson (1833–1909). The seventy year old scenic artist, who was recovering from a long illness, had experienced a long career in Australia, having arrived in Melbourne from England in 1855. A mixed program was presented with members of the various Williamson, Anderson, Holloway, and Rickards’ companies participating.

Saturday, 19 September saw the return of George Willoughby and Edwin Geach’s company with a new farce Mistakes Will Happen by Grant Stewart. Presented by special arrangement with Charles Arnold, the farce had first seen the light of day in June 1898 when it was given a trial run by the stock company at the Grand Opera House, St Paul, Minneapolis. By August it had been taken up by producer Jacob Litt and toured successfully for several years with Charles Dickson in the lead. It finally reached New York on 3 March 1902 where it was performed by the stock company of Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. Jacob Litt’s production didn’t reach New York until 14 May 1906 when it played a week’s season at the Garrick Theatre with Charles Dickson as Tom Genowin.

The play concerns an impoverished actor (Tom Genowin) who is seeking a backer for a play he has written; Dorothy Mayland, an actress, whom Tom has secretly married; Mr. And Mrs. Hunter-Chase who both have their own reasons for wanting to see the play produced—the former is in love with Dorothy and the latter is an aspiring actress. A key scene in the play is one where two rooms—a carriage-house (below) and a hayloft (above)—are both represented on the stage so the audience can see the action in the two rooms simultaneously; with Tom meeting Mrs. Hunter Chase in the hayloft for acting lessons, and the Dorothy meeting with Mr. Hunter Chase in the carriage-house for a play reading; at the same time the Chase’s coachman has a rendezvous with the maid.

This piece had its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Bijou at Easter 1903 with seasons in Adelaide and Brisbane to follow. The play proved something of a riot, especially the shenanigans of the carriage-house scene. The cast for the first Sydney production included George Willoughby as Tom Genowin, Roxy Barton as Dorothy Mayland, Tom Cannam as Mr. Hunter-Chase, Miss Roland Watts-Phillips as Mrs. Hunter-Chase, Edwin Lester as William Hawley (the coachman) and Mabel Hardinge-Maltby as Linda Kurtz (the maid). In their review, the Sydney Morning Herald echoed the newspapers in the other capitals when it said: ‘Mistakes Will Happen proved to be marked success. [The] authors have certainly introduced almost the maximum of hilarity into the play, and have furnished a strong tonic for elevating depressed spirits and overcoming the most pronounced fit of the blues. The dialogue is racy, the incidents developed in the course of the plot are beyond even the suspicion of coarseness, and the funny situations follow so rapidly that the audience presents a fine illustration of “laughter holding both its sides”.’1 It played util the end of Willoughby and Geach’s all-too-short season on 9 October.

The theatre remained dark for the next few nights pending Mary Fitzmaurice Gill’s season. A young Australian actress who had played leading roles with the companies of Bland Holt and William Anderson was returning to Sydney following an extended New Zealand tour to perform with her own company. Her initial offering, Man to Man on 17 October, was being presented by arrangement with George Rignold. A drama of convict life, the play included numerous sensational scenic effects including a railway collision, the Portland Prison, and an escape during a fog. Miss Fitzmaurice Gill’s leading man was Albert Gran, who had made his Australian debut as Lord Jeffreys in Nellie Stewart’s production of Sweet Nell of Old Drury the previous year.

Plays that followed included The French Spy (24 October), The Bank of England (7 November), The Prodigal Parson (21 November), finishing with East Lynne, for one night only on 27 November.

The next attraction, which opened on 28 November, was Miss Cleopatra, a farce in three acts, adapted from the French by Arthur Shirley, with Australian-born actress-vocalist Maud Lita, in the title role. This play had first been performed in London in 1891 under the title Cleopatra, when a single performance was given at the Shaftesbury Theatre at a benefit matinee for W.H. Griffiths, with Maud Milton as Cleopatra. As the leading character is a prima donna, Maud Lita (an operatic contralto) introduced a number of songs which were performed with great verve, but unfortunately, despite her many accomplishments, houses were poor, and the season ended on 11 December.

Another period of closure followed.

At Christmas, Albert Gran returned, this time supported by members of The Conservatoire. Two double bills were presented: Pygmalion and Galatea and Comedy and Tragedy (23 December) and The Moth and the Candle and Comedy and Tragedy (24 December). Pygmalion and Galatea and Comedy and Tragedy were both early non-musical plays by W.S. Gilbert, while The Moth and the Candle was Gran’s own adaptation of Ouida’s novel Moths.

New Zealand theatrical manager George Stephenson’s American Musical Comedy Company opened on Boxing Night, Saturday, 26 December 1903, with American vaudevillians Charles J. Stine and Olive Evans making their first appearances in Sydney.

The opening gambit, Mama’s New Husband, a three-act farce by Edwin Barber, revolved around the newly re-married Mrs. Pearly Brood (Margaret Marshall), who has concealed from her much younger husband, Henry Brood (Charles J. Stine), that she has a 17-year-old daughter—and when that daughter Maimie Dimler (Olive Evans) arrives home unexpectedly from boarding school, her mother persuades her to dress as a young girl in spite of numerous suitors hovering about—a premise reminiscent of Pinero’s 1886 farce The Magistrate, but the similarity ended there. During the action of the play twenty musical numbers were introduced, along with ballets and dancing. This piece had its first performance in America in September 1901 and shortly after Stine and Evans acquired the rights to the play and took it on tour. Having commenced their current tour in New Zealand and Tasmania, this piece had been given its Australasian premiere at His Majesty’s Theatre, Auckland, on 6 August 1903.

A month later, Saturday, 30 January 1904, the same company performed Brown’s in Town, a three-act comedy by Mark E. Swan. Resembling a Broadhurst farce (What Happened to Jones, etc.), this play dealt with a mismanaged elopement whereby a young couple lead their parents on a merry chase—and like The Wrong Mr. Wright, the title character does not exist. Similar to Mama’s New Husband, songs and dances were dotted throughout, including a burlesque on the Florodora Sextette (‘Tell Me, Dusky Maiden’)—and what the play lacked in plot, it made up for in movement. According to the publicity it was toured by ten companies in America during 1902—and one run by Frank Hennessy, cleared over £30,000.2 It seems this play was first performed in December 1898 in Minnesota, with Edward S. Abeles as Dick Preston, Kathryn Osterman as Letty, and James O. Barrows as the father-in-law Abel Preston. It reached New York in February 1899 and played at the Bijou Theatre for a fortnight with the same cast. According to the reviews J.J. Rosenthal, the manager of the Bijou, didn’t think much of the play and pulled the plug after a fortnight.3 It fared much better in the provinces.

Brown’s in Town had it Australasian premiere at His Majesty’s Theatre, Auckland, 12 August 1903, with Charles Stine as Abel Preston and Olive Evans as Letty Leonard, the same roles they played in the Sydney production. The farce seemed to please Sydneysiders and held the stage at the Palace for four weeks. The season closed with a short revival of Mama’s New Husband from 24 to 26 February 1904.

On 27 and 29 February, The Players presented Captain Swift by Charles Haddon Chambers; returning on 30 and 31 March with Tom, Dick and Harry. And on 28 March, for one night only, Albert Gran, supported by Linda Raymond, presented Mary Queen of Scots.

Pending the re-appearance of the Willoughby and Geach combination for the Easter season, the Palace was given a lick of paint and refreshed. The company’s latest offering was the American farce A Stranger in a Strange Land by Sydney Wilmer and Walter Vincent. According to the publicity this piece had enjoyed huge success in London, New York and on the Continent. It had its Australian premiere on 5 March at the Melbourne Princess where it played to packed houses for three weeks. With George Willoughby as Jack Thorndyke, the fun of the piece lay in the hero’s claims to his sweetheart that he is an adventurous backwoodsman. During the play’s two week run, hundreds of people were reportedly turned from the doors. Postcards featuring scenes from the play were available for purchase. The final few nights of the season saw a revival of What Happened to Jones.

On Saturday, 23 April 1904, the Perman troupe arrived with the pantomime Little Red Riding Hood. Written by W.J. Lincoln, with original music by C.G. McIntosh, it was an entirely Australian creation, with an Australian setting and a finale featuring a patriotic tableau with each of the Australian states attired in glittering costumes. First performed in Melbourne at Christmas 1903, it had toured to Adelaide, Ballarat, Geelong and Brisbane prior to its Sydney opening. The principal characters were played by Harry Shine (Dame Trot), Bella Perman (Red Riding Hood), Maud B. Perman (Boy Blue) and Edith Maitland (Marjorie Daw). Two editions of the pantomime were given prior to its closing three weeks later on 13 May.

Tom Nawn’s Polite Vaudeville Company made their first appearance in Australia on 14 May 1904 under the direction of J.G. Rial (previously associated with the World’s Entertainers). This was Tom Nawn’s second visit to Australia. In 1902 he and his wife, Hettie Nawn, had been on the bill at Rickards’ Tivoli, when their playlet One Touch of Nature was performed in Australia for the first time. This same piece was included on the bill at the Palace, along with a line-up of American vaudeville acts including Pete Baker (America’s premier monologue entertainer and German dialect comedian), The Musical Johnstons (for years the Xylophone novelty with Sousa’s band), Dorothy Drew (singing comedienne in a repertoire of Negro melodies), The Tossing Austens (comedy juggling and eccentric pantomime specialty), Katherine Dahl (the brilliant lyric artiste in a repertoire of ballads), Hiawatha Troubadours (introducing original American Indians songs and legends) and Mirrored Melody (producing effects which greatly enhance the enjoyment of descriptive songs). Also on the program was Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope showing one of his most recent films, the $12,000 The American Train Robbery. Running 11 minutes, this film was directed by Edwin S. Porter and starred Justus D. Barnes as the head bandit. Today it is considered one of the earliest American narrative films, introducing many new cinematic techniques including double exposure, cross cutting, tracking shots and location shooting.4

During the season the bill changed to include some new performers and sketches. On 28 May, for example, the sketch Shipmates was performed for the first time; on 6 June Pat and the Genii, a comedietta seen during Tom Nawn’s 1902 visit was revived; and on 18 June, the new three-act feature play The Mishaps of Mr. Dooley, written by American journalist Finley Peter Dunne and based on his ‘Mr Dooley’ newspaper columns was performed for the first time. Dooley was a fictional Irish bartender whose voice Dunne used to comment on national affairs.5

Sadly for Nawn, audience numbers at the Palace declined due to the ‘plethora of entertainment’ elsewhere, and the season came to an abrupt end on 30 June. By the following Monday, Tom Nawn was ‘ploughing his way to the land of Stars and Stripes’.6 Fortunately for many members of his company, they were offered positions at Harry Rickards’ Tivoli Theatre.

The Palace was once again dark, but only for a short time. Another company of Americans was on its way.

Meanwhile, The Players returned with the double bill of My Little Girl and Charley’s Aunt on the 7 and 8 July; and on the 13 and 14th of the month Frau Elsa Buhlow presented A.W. Pinero’s The Ironmaster in aid of the Kindergarten Union & German Benevolent Society.

The next big attraction was the American Travesty Stars, a company of 38 performers, with Harry James as musical director and W.S. Combs as general manager. This company was modelled on the Weber and Fields company in New York. Joseph M. Weber and Lew M. Fields were a highly successful pair of ‘Dutch comics’, so successful that in 1896 they opened their own theatre on Broadway, the Weber and Fields Music Hall. There they produced a series of vaudeville burlesques: The Geezer (1896), Pousse Café (1897), Hurley Burley (1898), Whirl-I-Gig (1901), Fiddle-Dee-Dee (1900), Hoity Toity (1901), Twirly Whirly (1902) and Whoop-Dee-Doo (1903); each show crafted to showcase their particular brand of knock-about comedy.

The company in Australia, headed by Clarence Kolb and Max Dill, had been granted permission to present the Weber and Fields’ repertoire, and had been doing so on the West Coast of America since 1901. The other principals in the company were Barney Bernard, a Jewish dialect comedian, who played the roles created by David Warfield on Broadway; Maude Amber and Winfield Blake, the leading lady and leading man, who doubled for Lillian Russell and DeWolf Hopper; and Lillie Sutherland, the soubrette, who performed Fay Templeton’s roles.

The company’s first offering in Australia was Fiddle-Dee-Dee which opened on Saturday, 16 July 1904. Written by Edgar Smith, with music by John Stromberg, it had originally been performed on Broadway in September 1900, with Joe Weber as Michael Krautknuckle, Lew Fields as Rudolf Bungstarter, DeWolf Hopper as Hoffman Barr, David Warfield as Shadrach Leschinski, and Lillian Russell as Mrs. Walford Meadowbrook.

Described as ‘A Potpourri of Dramatic “fol de roll” in Three Exhibits’, Fiddle-Dee-Dee was greeted by an overflowing house. With no plot to speak of, audiences were promised an entertainment abounding with original musical numbers, a large chorus of shapely girls, witty dialogue delivered with kaleidoscopic rapidity, all presented with the dash and vim of a first-rate American company ‘The scenery, costumes and the paraphernalia have never been excelled for originality, and such a large company of superb comedians who tear the English language into shreds and reconstruct it in a manner that is extremely funny. They keep their audiences in a continual paroxysm of laughter during the time given up to their quaint sayings, happy repartee and dialogue work.’7

The piece lived up to the hype and audiences were not disappointed. It even included a travesty of the Florodora Sextette.

Fiddle-Dee-Dee played until 12 August. The next offering was Hoity Toity, described on the bills as ‘A Giddy Little Skit on Things Dramatic and Otherwise in Two Selections’, it was another mirth-filled burlesque extravaganza by Smith and Stromberg. First performed in New York in September 1901, this piece had a slight plot to tie together its ‘olio portion’. It involved a man who takes his daughters to Monte Carlo to find rich husbands for them. Instead they meet ‘sauerkraut’ millionaires and decide to start a bank, swapping the delicatessen counter for a teller’s bench. ‘Raising the money’ became one of Weber and Fields’ most famous sketches. When a customer arrives at the bank, Weber (Kolb) asks ‘Put in or take out?’ Of course everyone takes out until the bank is hopelessly broke.

The company’s final offering was the double-bill of Whirl-I-Gig and Pousse Café which opened on 17 September 1904. Described respectively as a ‘dramatic impossibility’ and a ‘conundrum’. In the first piece Dill played the inventor of a machine for ‘throwing living pictures on the naked air’, while Kolb was an  architect who had designed a gaol ‘with all the comforts of home’. In the second piece, Barney Bernard is the inventor of a mechanical doll, La Pooh Pooh (an obvious parody of La Poupee, the comic opera by Audran), with Kolb and Dill as his two backers. These two short works provided a fitting end to a highly popular season which closed on 6 October 1904.

With the departure of the Travesty Company, things quietened down a bit. The Players returned for two nights with J.M. Barrie’s The Professor’s Love Story on 7 and 8 October. On the 11th and 12th of the month, Frau Elsa Buhrow made her re-appearance in Cyprienne (a translation of Sardou’s Divorcons) in aid of the Ashfield Infants’ Home. (Frau Buhrow had presented the same piece at the Palace back in September 1901.) And on 13th and 14th, The Players presented Haddon Chambers’ The Idler. Another long period of darkness descended on the theatre, punctuated by a production of the comic opera Giroffle-Giroffla on 14 November, performed by the Railway and Tramway Musical Society.

Finally, on Saturday, 10 December 1904, the American Travesty Company made a welcome return, bringing with them a weekly change program. The line-up remained the same with the exception of the Maude Amber and Winfield James who had been replaced by Celia Mavis and Edwin Lester. Hoity Toity was the first of the revivals, followed by Fiddle-Dee-Dee on 17 December, and Whirl-I-Gig and Pousse Café on 24 December.

The season ended on 30 December—and the little theatre fell dark once more—pending the arrival of William Anderson’s Dramatic Company on 22 April 1905.

In a curious footnote, it seems that despite the full house and patrons being turned away from the door, the tour was not a financial success for the American Travesty Company. In February 1905, an article appeared in Sydney’s Sunday Sun headed: AMERICAN TRAVESTY STARS: Back in ’Frisco. “THICK-HEADED AUDITORS IN THE ANTIPODES!”. According to the report members of the company felt that much of their material was lost on Australian audiences who didn’t understand American humour and syntax. And as for any financial reward, it seems the manager, Henry James, was the only one who profited from the tour. He was said to have returned to the US sporting a diamond pin. The article also mentioned the conspicuous absence of Maude Amber and Winfield Blake during the return season at the Palace. She had a falling out with James and he was suing her for breach of contract.8 Another article that appeared in The Critic around the same time confirmed that the company had been asked to play the final three weeks at the Palace without pay—and that Miss Amber and Mr. Blake had refused to act and had sued James for damages.9

 

To be continued

 

Endnotes

1. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1903, p.4

2. Auckland Star, 11 August 1903, p.3

3. New York Times, 28 February 1899, p.7

4. See https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/edwin-s-porter-the-great-train-robbery-1903/

5. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Dooley

6. Truth, 3 July 1904, p.1

7. Sydney Star, 13 July 1904, p.7

8. Sunday Sun, 26 February 1905, p.5

9. The Critic, 22 February 1905, p.23

References

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

Felix Isman, Weber and Fields, their tribulations, triumphs and their associates, Boni and Liveright, 1924

Anthony Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, University of Mississippi, 2012

Newspapers

Auckland Star, The Australian Star (Sydney), The Critic (Adelaide), The New York Clipper, The New York Times, The New Zealand Mail, Punch (Melbourne), The Sydney Morning Herald, Truth (Sydney)

Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, https://idnc.library.illinois.edu/

Papers Past, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/

Pictures

J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington Libraries, https://content.lib.washington.edu/sayreweb/index.html

Library of Congress, Washington, DC., https://www.loc.gov/

New York Public Library, New York, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/

With thanks to

John S. Clark, Judy Leech, Rob Morrison, Les Tod

Read 176 times Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 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).