Stage by Stage

IMG 0761 palce theatre no 3

In Part 10 of her history of Sydney’s Palace Theatre, ELISABETH KUMM focusses on the year 1909, which saw the return of several favourite drama companies, numerous premieres, and a ‘mixed bag’ of melodramas, comedies, films, songs, sketches and concerts.

With the pantomime season over, Edwin Geach’s Premiere Dramatic Organisation continued their season at the Palace on Saturday, 16 January 1909 with the drama The Broken Home by Lingford Carson, for the first time in Australia. Though advertisements called it ‘the very latest London and American success’, this seems to be something of an exaggeration. The only noteworthy performance of the play was at the Pavilion Theatre in London’s East End in 1902 where it played under the title The Drama of Life and with different character names.1

With a somewhat conventional storyline, the plot sees the heroine, Myrtle Denton, tricked into believing that her former husband (a bad lot) is alive. As a result, she forsakes her husband and child. Though it all works out in the end, her son ends up in the hands of slavers and her second husband seeks solace in drink.

Over the past five months Edwin Geach had experienced a run of personal misfortune. In September 1908, his manager Adam Cowan died following a short illness, and in December 1908 his business partner J.F. Sheridan also died. Now it seems he had ‘lost’ his leading man. On opening night Jefferson Taite, who was to go on as the hero of the drama, was injured in a traffic accident. Although he was not badly hurt, he was not fit enough to perform. By chance, Geach met W.J. Montgomery in the street and persuaded him to go on in Taite’s place.

Mr. W.J. Montgomery had not seen it [the script] until half an hour before he came on the stage. And yet he managed to throw so much vigour into the parts that called for it—so much anger into the quarrels, so much fight into the struggles—that the piece hardly suffered. Once in the throes of some awkward passage, with his eyes on the book, he shook his wife’s hand politely when he left her for a minute. But the audience understood. It cheered him again and again during the piece; and called up the curtain for him and the heroine at the end. To read at sight a long part on a first night was a plucky thing to do; and it succeeded.2

Montgomery was on his way to Tasmania with Harry Robert’s company, so he was unable to remain in the role, and on the Monday night, the part of Harry Denton was assumed by Harry Diver ‘with much ability’. Other roles were played by Nellie Fergusson (Myrtle Denton), with Kenneth Hunter, Thomas Curren and J.P. O’Neill as the chief villains, and Helen Fergus as Mother Flanagan, the child-stealer. The Broken Home played to capacity audiences until the 29 January.

The final week of the season saw a revival, ‘by special request’, of A Modern Adventuress, for four nights, and East Lynne for the last two nights.

On Friday, 5 February, a Grand Complimentary Matinee was tendered to Harry Diver by Messrs Geach and Marlow, with principal artists from all the Sydney theatres participating. Harry Diver performed a ‘powerful dramatic sketch’ with his wife, Helen Burdette.

Saturday, 6 February saw a performance of Flotow’s opera Martha by the Mosman Musical Society, under the baton of A.H. Norman.

The Sydney Muffs returned on 11 and 12 February with Romeo and Juliet. Romeo was played by Mr. Cam Marina. Juliet was performed by Sara Collins on the first night and Elsie Prince on the second night. The cast included the special engagement of Clara Stephenson (Mrs. Henry Bracy) as the Nurse. The Muffs would return, on Friday, 12 March, with As You Like It, with Elsie Prince as Rosalind. As You Like It was repeated on the Saturday matinee, and Romeo and Juliet was performed in the evening with Sara Collins again as Juliet.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, 13 February, Clyde Meynell and John Gunn took over the lease of the theatre. They opened their season with the first Sydney production of The Old Folks at Home by J.A. Campbell, first performed in England in 1907. Campbell was also the author of The Little Breadwinner, performed by the M&G company in Perth and Melbourne during 1908, but yet to reach Sydney.

The cast for The Old Folks at Home was headed by Beatrice Holloway and Conway Wingfield. In a title suggestive of the 1851 Stephen Foster song, the play, a story of the ‘old South’, featured a special musical number performed by the children of the ‘Tin Can Band’ (originally featured in The Fatal Wedding), including Little Queenie Williams with a ‘coon melody’ and Maggie Dickinson with a ‘banjo song’. This play had first been performed by the Meynell and Gunn company during their New Zealand tour (September 1908) and had been given its Australian premiere in Hobart (November 1908).

The Old Folks at Home proved popular with Sydneysiders and held the stage until Tuesday, 9 March.

In the months that followed, Meynell and Gunn made final arrangements for what was publicised as ‘the most important theatrical event in the history of Australia’: the tour of Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton and their entire London company. Sadly, two and a half weeks into the opening season, on 20 October 1909, Oscar Asche announced from the stage of the Criterion Theatre, the cancellation of the performance due to the unexpected death of John Gunn. He was only 39 years of age. A nephew of the celebrated Dublin-based theatre manager Michael Gunn, he had first visited Australia with comedian J.L. Toole’s company in 1890. Returning to England, he worked for Richard D’Oyly Carte in London, and during 1894/95, managed the London and New York stagings of W.S. Gilbert’s His Excellency. Thereafter he worked as stage manager for George Edwardes, and in 1904 he returned to Australia as General Manager on behalf of Herbert Beerbohm Tree, with The Darling of the Gods and other plays starring Julius Knight and Maud Jeffries. In Australia, in 1905, he partnered with Clyde Meynell to produce The J.P. with J.J. Dallas and Florence Lloyd. The following year, they presented the highly successful drama The Fatal Wedding. Since March 1908, Sir Rupert Clarke and John Wren had joined Meynell and Gunn as joint directors.

The following week, on Wednesday, 17 March, for five nights only, Charles MacMahon and E.J. Carroll presented a short return season of their latest attraction, the film-version of For the Term of His Natural Life. This was the first of many motion pictures based on the Marcus Clarke novel. Filmed over four months in early 1908, it comprised a collection of highlights from the novel, beginning in England with the wrongful conviction of Rufus Dawe of murder, his transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, his escape, his reunion with his long-lost sweetheart, and their deaths when the boat they are in sinks during a storm. Following a private viewing at the Standard Theatre in Sydney on 18 June 1908, the film toured throughout the states, beginning at the Adelaide Town Hall on 4 July 1908 (under the direction of J. & N. Tait). It reached Sydney in August 1908 where it enjoyed an eight-week season at the Queen’s Hall. The bill at the Palace was augmented by the addition of other short films being screened for the first time.

nlnzimage 21908 tour program. National Library of New Zealand.

On Wednesday, 24 March, Leo, Jan and Mischel Cherniavski commenced a short farewell season as part of their British Empire Tour, under the direction of Edward Branscombe. Described as the ‘Russian Wonder-Children’, the brothers played violin, piano and ‘cello respectively. They performed works from the classical repertoire, including Bach, Liszt, Grieg and Schubert, with a complete change of program each evening. In addition, the contralto Madame Marie Hooton and the baritone Mr. Percival Driver, also appeared.

The theatre remained dark for a few nights pending the appearance of The Dudley Dramatic Club on 1 and 2 April. The company performed a new four act comedy-drama, A Secret Wedding by Joseph L. Goodman, for the first time on any stage. Joseph Goodman was a manager for Spencer at the Sydney Lyceum and brother of George L. Goodman, business manager at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney. The piece was well received, notably Harry Whaite’s fourth act set which depicted the Thames at Maidenhead. Reviewing the play, the Sydney Morning Herald (2 April 1909, p.8) noted:

The new piece, though evidently the work of a clever man, suffers from a want of homogeneity, the first half of it taking the form of a drawing-room melodrama, and the second half of sentimental comedy. The latter portion was the better written, containing more than one pretty love-scene.

Included among the cast of players were two interesting names: Nellie Wilson and Harald Bowden. The first performed with Pollard Juvenile company as a youngster, and the second would become a senior director of J.C. Williamson Ltd.

From Saturday, 3 April, Allan Hamilton took up the lease of the Palace launching his new dramatic company in a seven-week season. The leads included George Cross, G.P. Carey, Ada Guildford and Maud Chetwynd. George Cross and Ada Guildford, formerly with William Anderson’s company, were husband and wife. They married in 1905 following a sensational divorce, when Ada’s former husband, William Mount, sued her for ‘misconduct’ with Cross. Sensation on stage and off!

The company opened with the first Australian production of Queen of the Night. Described as a ‘Romantic Sensational Drama of Exceptional Power and Interest’ by F. Thorpe Tracy and Ivan Berlin, the play, first performed in England in 1897, told the story of a bigamous adventuress.

The cast included Ada Guildford as Pauline, the adventuress; George Cross as Ralph Featherstone, a man of ‘sterling qualities’ who falls into the clutches of the ‘Queen of the Night’; and Wilton Power as the villainous first husband. During the second act, Maud Chetwynd sang a ‘couple of catchy songs’, including, for the first time in Australia, ‘Who’s for England’ composed by Frank Eugarde, with words by W.T. Goodge. The play featured elaborate scenery by Harry Whaite, and spectacular mechanical effects including a storm and a train at full speed.

Queen of the Night was performed until 23 April. It was replaced by a revival of In the Ranks. A stirring military drama by G.R. Sims and Henry Pettitt, first performed in the UK in 1883 (and in Australia in 1884), it was anticipated that it would ‘come out as almost a new work to the present generation of playgoers’. Presented by arrangement with George Rignold, who produced and starred in the first Australian production, the lead roles of Ned Drayton and Ruth Herrick were played by George Cross and Ada Guildford. Harry Whaite’s scenery was praised for its beauty, particularly his tableau of Dingley Wood by moonlight, and although the stage resources at the Palace ‘could not quite furnish one of the great productions which George Rignold used to provide in the palmy period of his rule at Her Majesty’s … the whole thing was surprisingly well done on the smaller stage’.3

In the Ranks was played until 11 May. A Message from Mars was revived for the final two nights, with George Cross as Horace Parker, Wilton Power as The Messenger from Mars, and Rosemary Rees as Minnie Templar.

On Saturday, 1 May 1909, at the matinee, a performance of Out on the Castlereagh was performed by J. Clarence Lee’s Australian Company. Written by Lee, this new play, ‘a story of Australian country life’ was well received, with the Sunday Times (2 May 1909, p.2) observing that ‘the varying types and scenes and incidents of the bush are well worked out, and were very creditably acted by the artists engaged’. The cast was made up of members of the Playgoers Dramatic Club, including Reginald Goode, Lilian Booth and Sidney Buckleton. An enthusiastic audience packed the theatre, and in response to demands, it was restaged at the Royal Standard Theatre for a further five performances from 31 May. It seems the Playgoers Club had been founded by Lee in 1908 and in an interesting aside, the secretary was Agnes Chambers, sister of the playwright Haddon Chambers, and she also conducted the orchestra. Lee would return on 18 September with his play The Marrying of Ma, which he also directed, first performed at the Palace back in 1906. The cast included Lilian Booth, Reginald Goode, and Elsie Prince of the Sydney Muffs.

From Saturday, 15 May 1909, West’s Pictures returned for the winter season, with new films screened every week.

After four months of films, melodrama returned to the stage of the Palace when George Marlow’s dramatic company commenced their season on 25 September 1909. They opened with the sensational Married to the Wrong Man by Frederick Melville.

Edwin Geach had recently sold his interests to Marlow, and as such the company now bore his name, making him, at 33 years of age, the youngest theatrical manager in Australia. He had re-launched the company in Adelaide during August/September 1909 when Married to the Wrong Man was given its Australian premiere.

The company included many old favourites and some new faces. Nellie Fergusson and Kenneth Hunter played the lead roles of Ruth and Captain Gladwin, while J.P. O’Neill appeared as Jasper Skinner, with Hilliard Vox, making his first appearance in Sydney, as Captain Deering. The plot revolves around Ruth, the heroine, who, forced to marry a man she does not love, is eventually sold to another man, and finally accused of murder. The play ends with a dramatic trial scene at the Old Bailey.

Married to the Wrong Man played proved a crowd-pleaser and played until 29 October. Notching up five weeks, it set a record for any one piece of melodrama at the Palace, auguring well for Marlow’s venture into management.

East Lynne was revived for the final week of the season, from 30 October to 5 November.

Marlow’s company then left for a short tour to Mugee and Newcastle. During their absence, Edward Branscombe’s Scarlet Troubadours began a two-week farewell season prior to their return to England. The ‘merry costume entertainers’ opened on 6 November 1909 with ‘new music scenas, travesties, and humorous sketches’. Since they last appeared at the Palace, the line-up had been reinforced by the addition of Gertrude Parker (soubrette) and Claude Leplastrier (art humourist), while Maude Fane and Edgar Warwick were warmly welcome back.

The 20 November saw George Marlow’s company back in residence, having returned from a brief tour of country NSW, bringing with them another new melodrama, The Heart of a Hero by Lingford Carson. Advertised as the ‘Story of a Woman’s Sorrow and a Man’s Devotion’, this piece contained the usual ingredients of melodrama: abduction, murder, arrest of an innocent girl, the self-accusation of the hero, and a dramatic prison escape. Edwin Geach’s company had been performing it throughout New Zealand and Australia since May 1908, and this was the first Sydney production. The principal roles were performed by Kenneth Hunter (Jem Resdale), Nellie Fergusson (Nell Resdale), Hilliard Vox (Wilfred Marle), and Ethel Buckley (Susie Slack).

The Heart of a Hero was performed until 3 December.

This was followed on 4 December, for the first time in Australia, The Wedding Ring, a ‘great military and domestic play’ by Ben Landeck, presented in sixteen tableaux painted by scenic artist Ray Phillips (brother of vaudevillian Nat Phillips). With a story of love, conspiracy and revenge, The Wedding Ring proved popular, particularly the railway smash ‘in which the collision is vividly shown, with the wreckage and subsequent sufferings’.4 The cast included Nellie Fergusson as the heroine, Kenneth Hunter as the hero, and Hilliard Vox as the chief villain. To promote the show, Marlow distributed ‘ten thousand gilt wedding rings (packed in little boxes)’. As indicated by a notice in the daily papers, the gold ring sent to him as a memento of the original London production was mistakenly given away among the souvenirs. A £5 reward was offered. A reward was still being offered when the play reached Adelaide in February 1910, but the finder’s fee had been reduced to £2.

Wedding Ring DT 4 Dec 1909

From The Daily Telegraph, 4 December 1909, p.2

The Wedding Ring played until 17 December. Married to the Wrong Man was revived, 18–21 December. And East Lynne saw out the season, being playing for two nights on 22 and 23 December.

Marlow’s first season as manager of a company was a huge success, with suggestions in the press that he would need ‘a specially armoured train’ to cart away all the gold he had made. And to ensure his continued success, Marlow had purchased new dramas from England, and ‘is building up a fine repertoire for his Sydney and Melbourne audiences’.5


The year ended with the first appearance of Hugh J. Ward’s company (under the auspices of Allan Hamilton), bringing with them the much-anticipated comedy A Bachelor’s Honeymoon. The piece had its Australian premiere in Perth in May 1909, the troupe having toured India and China with much success. Thereafter, the play had been seen in Melbourne and New Zealand, prior to reaching Sydney at Christmas time. It had first been performed in New York in 1897 at Hoyt’s Theatre, with Max Figman, M.A. Kennedy, W.J. Ferguson, Isabel Waldron, Berenice Wheeler and Eleanora Allen as the key mirth makers.

At the Palace, A Bachelor’s Honeymoon opened at the matinee on 27 December to a packed holiday audience. The story involved the misadventures of much married widower, Benjamin Bachelor, who wishes not only to keep his former marriage from his new wife, an actress, Juno Joyce, but also keep his family, including his two grown-up daughters, ignorant of his betrothal. The company boasted a ‘brilliant’ line-up, with Hugh J. Ward as Benjamin Bachelor, Grace Palotta as his new wife, Celia Ghiloni as his sister, Ruby Baxter and Florence Redfern as his twin daughters, and Rose Musgrove as Marianne, the maid. Other characters were filled by Robert Greig, Arthur Eldred, H.H. Wallace and Reginald Wykeham. A Bachelor’s Honeymoon played until 11 February 1910.


To be continued



1. According to Allardyce Nicoll, The Drama of Life by Lingford Carson was given a copyright performance at the Colosseum, Oldham on 21 March 1901; it was first performed at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre, Mexborough, 27 July 1901; and given its first London production at the Pavilion Theatre, 4 August 1902. It was later called Undamaged Goods. I have not been able to find reference to it being performed in the USA under any of these titles. Interestingly, when the Geach company performed the play in Adelaide in August 1909, it was under the title: The Drama of Life; or, The Broken Home.

2. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1909, p.3

3. Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 1909, p.3

4. Sunday Times, 12 December 1909, p. 2

5. Sydney Sportsman, 15 December 1909, pp.2 & 3


T.D.M. de Warre, Through the Opera Glasses: Chats with Australian stage favourites, Sydney, [1909]

Allardyce Nicoll, English Drama 1900–1930: The beginnings of the modern period, Cambridge University Press, 1973

J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 19001909: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014


The Bulletin (Sydney), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), The Sunday Times, Sydney Mail, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Sportsman



Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

National Library of Australia, Canberra

National Library of New Zealand, Wellington

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

State Library Victoria, Melbourne

With thanks to

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