Transcript of ‘Fellowship Presentation: Pinafores, Prodigies and Precocities with Dr Gillian Arrighi’
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (RH), Dr Gillian Arrighi (GA)
Location: National Library of Australia
RH: The sign of a great theatrical moment is when you have to bring in more chairs to the performance so welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the very first of our National Library Fellowship presentations for 2017, an event with a superbly enticing title, Pinafores, Prodigies and Precocities – only a theatrical creative could come up with such a title, Gillian – to be presented of course by Dr Gillian Arrighi who is senior lecturer and head of Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Newcastle. It’s a great joy to welcome so many faces from the performing arts scene in Canberra, from the research bodies in Canberra and from our friends and supporters and some new faces and please welcome, everybody. And especially tonight I want to say that we have a kind of full house of fellows and scholars because we have a couple of new fellows here at the Library and we have as well our summer scholars in residence and also members here – hooray, yes – they’re looking forward to a presentation in a couple of weeks of their research so they’re getting very good guidance from a senior researcher tonight. And also of course welcome to members of the Fellowships Advisory Committee and to probably the last Fellowships official event of our retiring Director General, Anne-Marie, who has been such a supporter of fellowships and scholarships the whole way through her tenure so thank you very much, Anne-Marie
RH: I should welcome of course officially Dr Marie-Louise Ayres who will be the new Director General and who was once managing the Fellowships and Scholarships Program as I am doing right now so that will be a great thing for the future as well, thank you, Marie-Louise. I’m Robyn Holmes and in case you don’t know me I’m the Senior Curator at the National Library responsible for the Fellowships Program. And as we begin of course I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and to recognise the continuing culture and contribution that they make to our region and our city. We thank their elders past and present and extend this respect to other indigenous people here present.
Gillian’s broad area of research is popular entertainments in Australia during the period 1880 to 1920 and of course this draws on her firsthand knowledge of the theatrical profession because Gillian initially trained for the professional stage and worked in theatre for more than a decade. She also then worked in the music business for seven years before returning to academic study so it’s quite a comprehensive background – professional background to turning back to doing research on this kind of topic. At the University of Newcastle her teaching portfolio spans acting, theatre histories, devising new performances and recent Australian theatre history. Her research on circus, on actor training and child performers has been published in international scholarly journals and in edited collections. She’s the Co-Founder and Co-Editor of the international journal, Popular Entertainment Studies and author of the recent book, The Fitzgerald Brothers Circus, Spectacle, Identity and Nationhood at the Australian Circus. I think circus studies might be quite the thing at the moment and Anna-Sophie Jurgens, our new National Library Fellow may well tell us something about that in the future.
Gillian’s enthusiasm for her research is completely infectious and she has intoxicated us and those of us that care for these collections during her fellowship stay. It’s a great way to spend all of your summer semester break, isn’t it? Hard at work at the National Library. And Gillian returns to the University teaching and administration next week but with no letup in her research schedule. She’ll be editing two special issues of the Journal of Early Visual Popular Culture, focusing on the circus prior to 1930 and writing an essay about the legacy of the American Wild West shows that first visited Australia in 1890s. Wow.
2017 promises to be another really exciting year for the Library’s Fellowships Program which has been so impressively reinvigorated through philanthropy. A consortium of Library patrons and supporters has supported Gillian’s fellowship and I know some of you are quietly sitting there tonight or indeed listening to the podcast. Please accept our thanks for your generosity. I’m sure Gillian’s presentation will assure you just how much your support means to researchers as well as exposing the value of the Library’s rich collections in such new and imaginative directions. So please welcome Gillian to share with us the finding of her fellowship research on child performers in Australia’s theatrical history. Welcome, Gillian.
GA: Thank you very much for coming out this evening, to Robyn for that lovely introduction. I must say I’m always delighted to share my research. Since early November I’ve been enjoying the rare privilege of daily access to the Library’s performing arts collections and to the generous support of Library staff who possess deep knowledge about the intricacies of the prompt, manuscripts, music and pictures collection as well as the mysterious arts of family history searches. The stories I’ll tell you this evening and the insights I’ll share with you arise – and this is important to say – they arise from the intersections of all of these collections and that will become clear in what I show you this evening.
My research as Robyn introduced concerns the contribution of child actors to the Australian entertainment industry - and I call it an industry and that’s important - during the years 1880 to 1920. Now child actors have been nurtured through several centuries of western theatre production to portray age-specific roles and audiences have at different times been utterly enamoured of a particularly precocious infant phenomenon, one or two but from the early 1880s onwards child performers proliferated as a social class of labourer across all genres and all styles of theatre production in Australia so variety or vaudeville as it is also called, pantomime, comic opera, musical comedy, drama and circus. Yet we know surprisingly little about the extent of their participation in Australia’s vibrant theatre industry or the social impact of their performances.
Now here I use the term actors very loosely since child performers of this era spoke their lines and somehow managed to be heard at the back of very large Victorian theatres, they sang, they danced and they played instruments with high levels of skill and they were comedians, holding their own whilst working alongside prominent adult actors of the era. My research has revealed that the significant rise in the number of child performers during this period was supported by formal performance training opportunities for children, particularly in our two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne. Individual teachers of elocution, singing and dancing emerged during this period, teachers who were themselves professional performers with close links to the major producers of the era such as J C Williamson and Harry Rickards.
I sometimes encounter the assumption that child actors of this era were either from impoverished backgrounds or born into theatrical families and now this was certainly the case for some child actors of the era, leaders of the Pollard’s Juvenile Troops for example who were active for three decades from 1880 to 1910, explained at different times that some of the children they took on were from really poor backgrounds, sometimes two or three children from a single family travelled with the Pollards. And they did – a few of them came from very, very poor backgrounds. But this evening, I’ll also tell you about some child actors, who were born into the industry as it were. But what I’ve also found is that many child actors did not come from theatrical families nor were they impoverished, rather they were from middle class environments, their parents paid for their tuition in singing, dancing and elocution from a very young age sometimes with several teachers simultaneously and so behind some of these child stars I’m sensing very clearly parents who regarded the theatre business as a potential and desirable career path for their children. And overwhelmingly the children were female. So we have to put our minds back to 1880 and I think these things are surprising.
The rise of child actors during this period coincides with industrial and education reforms that were purposefully reshaping society’s attitudes to children and purposely determining that children ought to enjoy that special time of life that we now so confidently identify as childhood. This wasn’t always the case for children.
Now paradoxically the proliferation of child entertainers during these years directly contradicted the new labour and education laws that required children to either be at school or to be at home. Now I believe there’s a correlation between these two occurrences. On the one hand the significant rise of professional child actors on the popular stage and on the other laws that were purposefully constructing childhood by preventing children from labouring until they were 14 or so and insisting that they attend school. So I sense you know my underlying thesis in this longer-range project is that representations of children by highly skilled child actors, that is, highly skilled children representing children, influence social ideas about childhood. And the changing repertoire children were required to perform that I have been uncovering here in the Library’s collections also supports this proposition.
So that’s really the introduction. Let’s get to the real stuff, let’s see these kids. What sorts of professional activity did child actors of this period get up to? How did they find their way into professional performance when they were so young? Who trained them and what were the conditions of their professional labour? I’ll introduce you to just a few cases that I think are representative of the sorts of professional activities of child performers during my period.
So to begin properly there’s essentially nothing surprising about the fact that in Australia during the 19th century, as in the United Kingdom and the United States, children born into theatrical families were nurtured into the same career as their parents. Rose and Lily Dampier were the daughters of the well-known actor-manager Alfred Dampier whose years were 1848 to 1908 and this 1877 photo of the Dampier sisters comes from a piece of sheet music in the collection. It’s the Lily and Rose Waltzes but somewhat surprisingly it’s composed – and we see this in the inscription which I’ve put up here ‘cause it’s kind of hard to read in this resolution but the inscription tells us that it was composed by Master Reginald Holroyd Patten who was only 13 years of age. And dedicated to the wondrous children, Misses Lily and Rose Dampier so I suggest that this dedication reveals a sort of fandom, perhaps even the creative expression of a crush on the young actresses, Lily and Rose Dampier, who were publicly visible through stage performances with their father in 1877.
Just a month before these waltzes were composed, dedicated and published Rose and Lily appeared in a one-act play with music titled Helen’s Babies. The show was based on a contemporary popular American story and adapted for the two Dampier girls by theatre manager, Garnett Welch, in Melbourne. After seeing the show at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal a review for The Argus newspaper thought the two girls quote performed their parts with great cleverness and with all the appearance of keenly enjoying the fun. Well they were performing fun. And demonstrating – this is where it gets really interesting – demonstrating that merchandising from popular entertainments is not a particularly recent marketing innovation, here is a piece of sheet music published in tandem with a theatre adaptation of Helen’s Babies. So this music for piano and voice would have enabled people to play and sing the song presented at the Theatre Royal by Lily Dampier - She’s Every Inch a Queen - around the piano, in their parlour at home and so extend the memory and experience of the live performance long after it was over.
And if you for example and your children enjoyed the production so much you needed to read the original story you could buy a copy of the book the show was based on published around the same time by the Australian publishing firm of E J Cole. And so these various artefacts sourced from the Library’s collections, I get very excited at the way they speak to one another and they point to a set of industries intersecting with Australia’s theatre industry including music publishing and book publishing. And all of this was promoted through the daily newspapers so here we have several excerpts which I’ve sourced in Trove. July 1877 there’s multiple hits for the term Helen’s Babies including notices of the dramatisation of the popular book, reviews of the Dampier’s stage show, a notice about new publications by the author of Helen’s Babies, John Habberton, advertisements about the sheet music from the show and curiously letters to the editor about the storyline of the book. So there’s an awful lot going on in the popular press about the popular theatre.
So Rose and Lily Dampier, both of whom established successful careers into adulthood, they exemplify a very traditional pathway into the theatrical profession. But several years after Helen’s Babies a trend emerged for troupes comprised wholly or principally of child actors and this trend flourished during the following three decades. Now theatrical and operatic troupes that included child performers already existed as part of Australia's theatrical ecosystem prior to 1879, whether it was drama, acrobatics or opera that was the speciality. These earlier troupes primarily involved family groups that may sometimes have drawn in a few stray but nevertheless talented and perhaps poor children who were passed off as family members of an extended family group.
Now 1879, 1880 some things shift substantially, quite substantially around the practice of children performing professionally and with that shift we see a lot more children on the professional stage who were not there because they were part of a family-based troupe or because theatre was the family business. It’s like a shift from traditional forms of family-based apprenticeship to a modern industrial form of apprenticeship and I mean there are records – they’re scant but there are records of contracts from this period as well.
McLean’s Juveniles, I have to confess it’s the only image tonight that I’m using that isn’t from the National Library collection but I simply had to put it up there because we see the faces of the children. The manager and sole proprietor, they’re adults but the child performers, Sammy McLane, Salvadore Parletto who was called Sonny, Emily Fox, Nina Tulloch, Willy Perman who was himself from an extended family troupe of performers and C.J. Matthews and a number of these children went on to have really significant careers both in Australia and overseas.
McLean’s Juveniles appeared at the newly built Victoria Theatre in Newcastle in 1879 and subsequently toured a repertoire – and this is important, it was popular adult plays including Struck Oil. The play was first introduced to Australian audiences the very same year - so there was a bit of plagiarism going on here, I think – by J C Williamson and his wife, Maggie Moore, recently arrived in Australia after a very successful world tour with their smash hit, this show, Struck Oil. But also in McLane’s repertoire was a patchwork of comic interludes, songs, dances and imitations of popular and well-known actors and actresses. In 1880 just a few months after the Juveniles, the McLane’s Juveniles, that is, the popular Melbourne-based actress and theatre manager, Rose Lewis, produced a juvenile HMS Pinafore, the operetta recently written by Gilbert and Sullivan that was enjoying immense success in London and in Australia where it was proving to be another star vehicle for the newly-arrived Williamsons.
Mrs Lewis mobilised – and I think she really did mobilise – a cast of 65, all but one of whom was drawn from her weekly theatre skills classes. I believe she organised the first institutionalised approach to training for the stage in this country. Parents had to pay for their children’s extracurricular learning just as they do now, after school, for classes comprised of dancing, singing, elocution and some acrobatics. So here we have a newspaper quote about what was going on at the Bijou. The children are to be seen at their lessons in the saloon or on the stage of Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre on four days every week, the girls on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the boys on Tuesdays and Fridays and you’ll see my note here that within Victorian colonial law requisite attendance at school at this time was on half days so they weren’t contravening any of the education laws.
So just four months after the very first children’s Pinafore was produced by Richard D’Oyly Carte at London’s Opera Comique Theatre Rose Lewis’s production proved Sydney and Adelaide with the children travelling vast distances during a 12-month period. We can only imagine how these 65 kids and Mrs Lewis and her team of adult producers moved up the coast because it would have been by steamer from Melbourne to Sydney and back down the coast and then overland to Adelaide and back to Melbourne. It’s remarkable. And the popular success of Mrs Lewis’ children’s Pinafore also garnered financial gain for J C Williamson who owned the rights. And eventually of course he owned as many of you will know, he owned the rights to all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works in our region.
The prominent actor-manager whom some of you may have heard of, George Coppin, who was based in Melbourne revealed in one of his many letters that the children were paid at the rate of two shillings and sixpence a night (so they were working professionally) and up to £4 a week for the principals. In May that year just a few months after they got going on their tour Coppin wrote in one of his letters, and you almost hear his jealousy in this letter, here’s this newly arrived American, Williamson with his wife who’s beautiful and suddenly they’re making a lot of money. What does he write? He wrote Williamson’s luck continues (as if he was just ‘lucky’). He will make five or £6,000 and that is a lot of money in these days. HMS Pinafore, he’s playing it in Adelaide and the Juvenile troupe is playing to excellent business. Children at two and six a night, up to £4 a week for the principals, Williamson’s share after expenses which cannot be more than £200 per week so it’s not sort of structured very well, the sentences but the gist is of course his overheads are only 200 pound a week.
So in the case of Rose Lewis at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre, her initiative to train young people for her productions, although it was short-lived, is evidence I think of the theatrical profession in Australia opening up to the middle classes, to children whose parents harboured aspirations or were at least open to the idea of their children following a theatrical career.
Middle class interest and theatre training for young people also reflected I think the influence of the cult of celebrity and I suggest a growing fascination with the idea of the actress supported by the circulation of images of successful and beautiful actresses in newspapers, illustrated journals, postcards and sheet music. And just a side note that numerous child actors who were trained on the job in some of these touring juvenile troupes did in fact go on to have stellar adult careers nationally and internationally so by the next decade, by the 1890s there was now a generation of Australian-born actors of both genders who were as it were making it and they were making it in quite good style in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Look, this next one I think is a real gem, well for me it’s a real g – a small gem in the National Library’s collection. It’s the words and songs and dialogue of Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein that was performed by Stanley and Derbyshire’s Juvenile Opera Bouffe Company. They toured New Zealand for 12 months in 1882-83 so you can see the trend is catching on with a 40-member company of children that included the original members of Mrs Lewis’ troupe. Throughout their year in New Zealand their repertoire also included - now get this – Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, HMS Pinafore and the Pirates of Penzance as well as several comic operas and pantomimes so this was a large, complex and sophisticated repertoire for children. It was challenging both vocally and instrumentally and it was never intended for child performers.
So I think what we’re seeing here is very talented and skilled children who are being trained on the job but they’re essentially copying adults. They’re being positioned and framed as miniature adults and valued certainly for their precocity. And you know they’re Australian children, they’re not imported.
An inscription on the inside of this piece is quite interesting, I can’t give you all of it but I’ll give you just a little bit. I’ll just go back because on the front it tells us it’s a high-class performance introducing a company of young artistes acknowledged as chaste, refined and elegant. Well they’re kids. But inside we get this lovely sort of quote from the newspaper. Visitors to the Opera House – this was the Opera House in Auckland – must be struck with the wonderful intelligence and aptitude shown by the youngsters attached to this company now playing there. It is not only that they are letter-perfect but they give an intelligent expression to their parts, very often sadly wanting in persons of longer experience. If this sort of thing goes on it appears certain that in a few years the dramatic profession will be closed to adult performance and confined entirely to boys and girls.
Okay so American-born actor turned Australasian theatre impresario, James Cassius Williamson, established the foundations of what would eventually become the largest theatrical empire in the world for a period of time. Williamson was one of the key agents of change in the commercialisation of theatre in our region and by that I include New Zealand, Australia and he certainly worked beyond there. And his organisation was the Asia-Pacific linchpin in what was an increasingly networked global theatre business. Williamson created a significant space in his firm’s productions for child actors stating on several occasions that Australian children were the best theatrical performers in the world. By 1889 there were 71 children employed at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal then under the management of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove.
Williamson complained that in the mid-‘80s, not long after he got here, quote the average ballet girl in Australia has round – had a round-shouldered stooping figure end quote but in 1899 he thought that the girls and young women trained by his theatrical organisation quote compare favourably in physique with girls in any part of the world and most of them have been in the class from childhood and he’s talking about the ballet classes that occurred at his theatres from the late 1880s onwards. His strategy was to develop performers from childhood who matched his aesthetic taste and the technical demands of the shows his company produced. In his autobiography, and I know some of you will enjoy this, he also complained about quote the twang that so many Australian children are growing up with. I have to read this out to you from his autobiography which is – I’m so glad it’s in the collection, I’d not seen it before.
He writes I hear this twang of course very frequently in the girls that come to me and offer to sing or act. So many of them have charming voices and excellent qualifications otherwise if they would only speak correctly. Many I am sorry to say have no qualifications at all and I think that girls who are aiming at a stage career should at the very outset of their training see somebody who would tell them this, somebody who would be able to say decisively that their voice or their age or their appearance disqualifies them from wasting years at work which they ought never to have undertaken. And I will remind you that Noel Coward wrote a song about this that some of you will know. Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. So before Noel Coward got there J C W had already verbalised it.
So many, many, many children appeared in the J C Williamson productions. It’s been really difficult for me to choose for tonight’s presentation so I’m just going to focus on a couple because I also want to talk about Harry Rickards who also created a significant professional space for child actors on his Tivoli variety circuit. In 1889 a child actor known as Baby Nichols featured in the Christmas pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, produced by Williamson, Garner and Musgrove. During the year preceding her engagement in Sinbad five-year-old Baby Nichols had been described as a child prodigy and an infant wonder by Melbourne’s Press. In the extravagant production of Sinbad Baby Nicholls appeared as the old man of the sea. So we’re getting a sense of burlesque here, I think. She had a subsequently hectic performing career into her late teens engaged by several of Australia’s leading theatrical producers and touring with her own company, the Baby Nicholls Troupe. When she was 18 years old a benefit was held for Baby Nicholls, as she was still called Baby Nicholls at the age of 18, at which her mother – here comes Mum – explained that her daughter’s stage career was cut short because quote she was fast losing her voice. Well probably through overwork, I would say. She did in fact continue performing for a few years more until she married and then you know she actually had eight children and disappeared off the radar.
So far – and this is anywhere in Australia – this is the only image I have been able to find. It’s a little bit surprising given the prominence of the child but here we have a drawing, a six-year-old Baby Nicholls riding on the shoulders of the character of Tinbad – Tinbad was the companion of Sinbad – and here we see her in the character of the old man of the sea. And of course here we do see a strong element of burlesque in the staging and I’ll unpack that for you. This young child is in fact made up to look like Henry Parkes, the Prime Minister. And that obvious theatricalised likeness was recognised by audiences and reviewers and it was written into the script. Also appearing in this pantomime were a corps of ballerinas and over 300 trained auxiliaries, many of whom would have been children. I actually found another example of it last week on microform about 10 years earlier so it was obviously a sort of cultural trend in Sinbad the pantomime at this time to sort of have this burlesque element.
Baby Nicholls’ parents strongly supported her performing career. Her father made it known through Melbourne’s press outlets quite defensively that he had no need to make money out of his daughter’s ability because he was a tailor and dyer who owned two businesses that employed five people. His profession as tailor and dyer raises the question of whether he was in fact a supplier to the major theatres of materials of costumes in pantomimes with over 300 people on stage and multiple costume changes. I mean the sort of lists of how much material was required for a single production is extraordinary.
I have to say thanks to some remarkable sleuthing by Ralph Sanderson here at the Library, I learned just a few days ago that Baby Nicholls’ name was in fact Violet. She may have been three years older than what anyone owned up to and of course I can’t help remembering the Crummles, Vincent Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby you know Vincent Crummles who ran a theatrical troupe and his daughter was the infant phenomenon whom he fed on gin so she did not grow large. Also Baby Nicholls’ mother travelled everywhere with her so this eventually became a source of ruction in the family. The parents divorced in the early ‘90s. One – there were two reasons given, one was Dad, Dad had a wandering eye and quite liked young actresses but Mum was always away from home with the daughter. And there’s also another interesting thing that turned up about this family, was that he ceased to be a tailor and dyer and he set up a theatrical troupe of his own and went out into business which makes sense of some lampooning I found in newspapers about the father of Baby Nicholls which I never really understood so now I understand that you know the roles were reversed. Usually we all think of parents passing on a profession to their children but the reverse was the case and perhaps some of the cartooning and the lampooning was because he wasn’t very good, I’m not sure. I’ve only very recently become aware of these details about Baby Nicholls.
So in the process of my time here I’ve also been looking at changes in the repertoire performed by children across the period of my study from the sophisticated and complex adult repertoire of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan in the early 1880s to more vernacular songs written for the natural range of a child’s voice as well as robustly comic roles that engendered both the sincerity and the playfulness that are natural to children and we’ll see this in my next examples.
Another child performer featured by J C Williamson was Ivy Scott. Appearing in her first professional production at the age of four with Bland Holt, the producer, Bland Holt she appeared in a Williamson pantomime when she was eight, the spectacular Australian-written pantomime called Djin Djin. Reflecting end of the century fascination with Japonisme, Djin Djin is nominally set in Japan with the Australian Prince Eucalyptus and his wing man, Tom Wallaby (both of course played by women because this is pantomime), find themselves shipwrecked in Japan in the early scenes. With much of the plot set at the court of the Japanese Daimyo Australia’s Prince Eucalyptus is destined of course to fall in love with the Daimyo’s eldest daughter. Eight-year-old Ivy Scott played the role of the Daimyo’s younger daughter, Princess Cheeky, a tomboy role judging by her name, the script and production photos. So here, and I was so delighted to find this in the bowels of the music stack, Cheekee’s song – I’ll just read you out some of the words so we get a sense of – oh it’s not showing up – sense of the vernacular.
Oh here we go, they call me Cheekee, so I am, the vizier gets so cross. He puts on such a lot of jam and tries to be the boss but when he orders me about I let him know who’s who, I get a safe way off and shout you’re not Lord Brassy pooh and the refrain is pooh, pooh, who are you? Run away and play, I’m going to do it if I like no matter what you say. I’m sorry if you’ve got the spike, you look so queer, you do, I’ll have my fun so take a run, pooh, who’s afraid of you? So Cheeky was cheeky. Also down in the music collection, what a delight to find this. I think it might be a handwritten manuscript of her song. What’s really important, it shows the vocal range. For those of you that know the keyboard it’s just an octave from E above middle C going up one octave and what I found is sheet music of songs sung by child actors, particularly from the 1890s onwards either in pantomime or variety sit within the octave range either from the D that’s next to middle C or the E that’s a third above middle C and only within the range of one octave and the songs are quite devoid of significant vocal leaps or vocal gymnastics of any kind. So this is really different to the sort of vocal demands put on these children with the troupes with Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach earlier.
But back to Djin Djin, the pantomime. In the story the son of the Shogun has been turned into an ape by the evil sorcerer, Djin Djin and only Cheekee is able to understand the ape’s speech and translate for the adults. And I think this troupe of children understanding animals is present in a number of other scripts I’ve looked at from this period but I think if we can consider Skippy [makes Skippy sound]. What’s that, Skip? [makes Skippy sound]. Robbers? [makes Skippy sound]. What, down among the gum trees? [makes Skippy sound]. Let’s get after them, Skip. And of course Lassie and you know this trope has stayed with us through the 20th century.
Let’s look at some more slides from Djin Djin so the children’s fan ballet dressed you know with their parasols and their fans and their little caps. I like this one because we get to see the tiny children next to the giant ballerinas. The Banvardes, a family of gymnasts and acrobats so really sort of living that much older style of the family troupe which was still very prevalent, particularly in acrobatic or circus acts. The Ridgway family was also a circus family that worked between Australia and New Zealand. One of these people is definitely you know the boy on the left is definitely a child.
This – you won’t see this very well, I’ll explain what this is. It’s a set of drawings of backstage scenes from the back cover of the program for the 1894, 95 Williamson and Musgrove pantomime, Beauty and the Beast. The front cover of the program’s terrific, it shows the public side of the theatre and the back cover shows what occurs backstage in the production of a pantomime so I’ve drawn a red circle and I’ve blown that up, the resolution’s not great but I was so thrilled when I found this. It’s masses of little ballet girls lined up on the Theatre Royal stage with - the pianist is down in the right-hand corner and we – it should be a ballet mistress. The dress looks a bit short for 1894 but you know the ballet mistress rehearsing them. And this – they would have been there certainly in rehearsal for the pantomime but the ballet classes occurred throughout the year.
So Ivy Scott. Two to three years after this photo was taken Ivy Scott was appearing at Harry Rickard’s Tivoli Variety Theatre in Sydney so when she was about 11 years old. At 23 she moved to the United States permanently where she established a really considerable career as an opera singer. Also in the United States she had her own long-running radio show there and from 1939 she starts sort of reappearing on Broadway so clearly at a time when her voice was off the boil as an operatic singer but still she knew her stagecraft and her voice was still good enough to be working in musical comedy.
Earlier I mentioned that Williamson’s organisation created a significant space in the firm’s production for child actors, much bigger than I imagined before I started my Fellowship. The other Australian producer who also nurtured child performers was Harry Rickards and I’ve been discovering that some child stars of this era moved easily between these two leading organisations whilst also taking work with other actor-managers and producers of the era such as Bland Holt, Alan Hamilton who moved between Australia and New Zealand and the partnership of Meynell and Gunn around the period 1906, that mob.
But what I want to introduce you to – oh I want to introduce you to several of the child stars featured by Rickards and this line of enquiry has also revealed some of the teachers of elocution, of dancing and of singing that were preparing children for the professional variety stage. So I’m going to tell you first about little Alma Grey. I don’t have a young image of her, I’ve got an older image which I’ll get to shortly. Little Alma Gray was the daughter of actors. Her father was Alfred Boothman, a well-known actor and her mother, Ruth Gray was a singer and dancer. Little Alma was the first of Rickards’ child stars appearing at the Tivoli in 1894 when she was six years old.
Then followed a lengthy pantomime season with Williamson and Musgrove. She was only six years old, she had quite a sort of significant variety turn towards the end of Beauty and the Beast. If you know the story around the time when beast gets kissed and he has a metamorphosis into the prince. Of course this is an opportunity for a great sort of transformation scene in pantomime and that’s when a fairy waved a wand and little Alma came on and had about six lines of rhyming verse, sang a song, danced a dance and exited. I don’t know from the program what song she sang, it’s very likely that it changed throughout the run.
1897 she was back at the Tivoli, 1989 to ’99 she worked in England at many high-profile variety theatres appearing on the same programs as very famous variety performers such as Vesta Tilley. She did pantomime in Edinburgh and she travelled with her mother. Because she was a minor English licensing laws required Alma to gain a licence at every different town or city where she appeared. Unfortunately Alma’s mother passed away while she was in England during this trip and Alma returned to Australia reappearing at Rickards’ Tivoli Theatre soon after her voyage back to Australia. In late 1902 she was back in England where she returned to the variety circuits and here we have a photograph of her. I might blow that up actually so it’s Take Me Back to Bendigo, Alma Gray’s phenomenally successful Australian song written and composed by Alan Rattray and Bert Rache.
Reminiscences of the Tivoli published in The Sydney Referee in 1917 recorded this. Quote the Tivoli was always noted for its clever child performers, usually girls. Earliest was Alma Gray who always danced neatly and sang with discretion in a tiny voice. She returned here in 1908, a woman in years but little bigger than when she left. When her principal act was as the bush girl in which she rode a spirited pony, was dressed in a red blouse and a brown skirt with tanned boots and carried a rifle at her saddle. Her dancing then was perfect, every beat was as clear as a drum tap and every move was a picture. So Alma Gray was likely tutored in her early years by her parents but this is an era when professional teachers such as Clara Spencer, Harry Leston and Tom Donnelly in Sydney, Chrissie Royal in Sydney and Mrs William Green and Miss Florrie Green in Melbourne saw just a few of their many juvenile pupils achieve professional status at very early ages. She is one of my favourites and this actually comes from a surprising run of postcards which I’m actually going to talk to the staff a little bit more about tomorrow.
Baby Watson was a pupil of Clara Spencer who ran classes for children in Darlinghurst Road, Sydney teaching song, dance, actions and quote the complete variety turn. Clara Spencer was the daughter of the proprietor of Spencer’s variety exhibition in Pitt Street and she herself had a career as a singer, a comedian, a seriocomic performing character songs, male impersonation and comedy turns with her husband, Alf Lawton who himself was a performer with minstrel troupes in the 1880s. Clara Spencer taught numerous children who performed at the Tivoli Theatre and it’s advertisements such as these, and I’ll read some of them out to you, that provide us with insight into the network of professional teachers with links to leading producers, teachers who as a result of their own career achievements and their success with putting children on the stage held a strong attraction for parents who harboured ambitions for their offspring. So let’s just read some of these.
Clara Spencer, teacher of complete variety turn, song, dance, actions. Sole instructress of Baby Watson, doubly encored, Tivoli nightly acknowledged by press and public as the best juvenile turn yet seen. So the child does really well on the stage and that of course boosts the sort of social cachet of the teacher. The next one, Clara Spencer teaches song, dance, actions, sole instructress, child wonder Baby Watson at the Tivoli, also of Baby Owens, Little Doris, Lily Grimshaw at the Opera House in Melbourne, which was also run by Rickards, Baby Cooper and Les Hallinan. Children’s class, Saturday, 2:30, 109 Darlinghurst Road so you too could put your child on the stage.
So this is intergenerational tuition but it’s outside of the family sphere, it’s in the public sphere, serving an entertainment industry that was now just too big to be serviced by the children of actors. Australia's commercial entertainment industry was a hungry beast, it needed a new stream of talent and Williamson in an interview in 1899 stated more or less the same thing. I don’t have much more to go so sort of another five minutes and we’ll be done.
Little Fanny Powers was a pupil of Harry Leston. Never a star Leston had been an all-purpose actor for nearly 40 years and by the 1900s was well-known in the industry as an effective teacher, particularly of elocution. Fanny Powers was six yeas old when first engaged at the Tivoli performing songs and dances. Reminiscences of the Tivoli published in 1939 recalled Fanny Powers won her audience with a smile, simple frocks, clever dancing and a sweet personality. While some went better in the capital than another Fanny went over big everywhere. So multiple reviews also recorded that she was very skilled and an accurate mime of well-known actresses and in the PRIMPT and Music collections different items carry photos of Fanny at different times in her short career. In 1913 at the age of 23 she married and withdrew entirely from the entertainment industry.
Harry Leston, the old-time actor and elocution teacher, appears to have collaborated with Tom Donnelly. We don’t know these names anymore, they don’t mean anything to us but Tom Donnelly was renowned at the time as a teacher of step dancing and ballet in Sydney. They both taught the vaudeville stars. Rosie Fitzgerald and Doris Joyce were both pupils of Leston and Donnelly and both girls had leading roles in major touring productions with Williamson and with the partnership of Meynell and Gunn in the years 1905 to 1909. Just to give you an idea of the intensity of the professional work that some of these children did Rosie toured with the Nellie Stewart Dramatic Company in 1905, she appeared with Minnie Tittel Brune, an important visiting actress, she appeared with Meynell and Gunn in 1906 and 1907 in productions of The Fatal Wedding that this is taken from, also another show called The Grey Kimono and also The Little Breadwinner. She was also the star of Williamson’s all child productions of Alice in Wonderland and Bluebell in Fairyland. This is a really busy young actress. And in 1909 she was recruited for a South Asia tour of the Merry Little Maids Company produced by the international impresario, Maurice Bandmann, who had a base in India but also in South Africa.
I’ve got another interesting excerpt. Doris Joyce who also starred in a number of the Meynell and Gunn productions alongside Rosie gave an interview in 1907. She was 11 years old but it’s interesting, she speaks about how she got into the business, about touring and how she managed her characters so this next excerpt comes from that interview.
I learnt dancing from Tom Donnelly and elocution from Harry Leston but I was singing at concerts ever since I can remember. Of course I did not know anything then, I had a lot to learn. When I was nine years old I was with Bland Holt and played with him in Sydney and he liked me so much that he took me to Melbourne and Miss Cogden said I was not to study elocution anymore just then as I would lose my individual naturalness. Then I got an engagement with Messrs Meynell and Gunn to sing Ma Zu Zu in The Fatal Wedding and to understudy Kitty Howard. I played the part of Jessie for the first time in Goulbourn and I made such a success of it that I was engaged as a star for the following season. Kitty Howard grew out of the part and I took her place. I love it. I just try to do what I think I would do if I were the real Jessie and Jessie were Doris Joyce. I am passionately fond of acting and I do not mind being away from home a bit for Mother is with me. I would not go anywhere without Mother.
That’s the end of that excerpt. There’s a couple of things I want to highlight here. Today in theatrical production in New York and Broadway, the Disney Theatrical Group, the same thing happens. When children are trained into a part, if they reach a height that is beyond the designated height they are moved on very, very quickly and the understudy moves up and there are examples of children not eating properly. I know this, I have a colleague who’s a dramaturge with Disney Theatrical. Also if a young boy, his voice starts to break, they’re out of the production immediately so I mean these same sorts of processes have been in place for over a century in Australia. Of course no need to highlight again mothers touring with their children but also – and I think some of you picked up on you know this advice about the naturalness. Children are now being required to represent quintessential childness rather than representing adult roles, rather than pretending to be like adults in the repertoire.
So you’ve probably noticed that a lot of the images that I’m using tonight come from sheet music and this is the only source of high-quality photographic images that I have found for some of the children I’m investigating. Sheet music served to promote, popularise and I think democratise popular performance culture in this era prior to broadcast media. People who did not necessarily go to pantomimes or the variety theatre nevertheless had access to popular songs and the images of the stars who sang the songs through the circulation of sheet music and detailed newspaper coverage of entertainments, performers and the stories and gossip that circulated about the entertainment industry.
So tonight I have primarily introduced you to child actors working in pantomime and variety but I also need to just acknowledge in passing that within the genre of dramatic plays, that is dramas without any singing or dancing, child actors were regularly in demand, everything from Shakespeare to melodrama to domestic dramas. In his autobiography J C Williamson described the prime requisites for a good play. He said it must have heart interest, it must hit the audience below the collar button. And it must have head, it must have a good plot and not be intellectually below contempt. In the third place it must admit of an appeal to the eye and he thought the child interest always appeals to an audience.
I think I’m nearly done. I think you know there are other things I could tell you, I’m conscious of time. Clearly it’s a topic that I’m you know there’s a lot I could say but what I’ve briefly introduced you to this evening is a tiny sample of the many, many child actors whose fascinating careers I have the great privilege to be discovering in the Library’s collections so thank you for your attentiveness and I’m very happy to take questions if you have any. Thank you.
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