Child Stars of the Stage

Child Stars of the Stage

Gillian Arrighi explores the lives and careers of child actors and their trainers in early twentieth-century Australia

Australian child actors fascinated and amazed audiences at home and abroad at the turn of the twentieth century. Before robust education and labour laws insisted children should be at school or at home, many children, predominantly girls, found their way into Australia’s vibrant commercial entertainment industry, appearing in variety/vaudeville entertainments, pantomime, comic opera, musical comedy, drama and circus. Doris Joyce, Rosie Fitzgerald and Queenie Williams were three young actors employed by the production team of Clyde Meynell and John Gunn. Examining their careers during the years 1906–1908 reveals the genuinely surprising tenacity, agency and sophisticated talents of child actors of the period.

In 1906, entrepreneurs Meynell and Gunn diversified their theatrical production interests. Recognising popular enthusiasm for child actors who could sing, dance and act with precocious ability, they produced and toured The Fatal Wedding, a popular American melodrama that proved equally popular with Australian audiences. In this show, 30 children under the age of 12 portrayed bright-faced New York slum children who, in the play's lengthiest and most popular scene, performed a lively Tin Can Band.

Left: Frederick Wynne-Jones, The Tin Can Band, Sydney: 1906, nla.cat-vn1843931; Right: The Fatal Wedding: Little Queenie Williams as 'Leader of the Tin Can Band', 1890, nla.cat-vn2604947

Meynell and Gunn followed this success with another touring show, The Grey Kimono (1907), a one-act musical drama of 70 minutes’ duration that South Australia’s Evening Journal described as ‘a pretty little tale of Japanese life in which quaint dances and ballets, bright musical numbers, and pretty lyrics are introduced’. Written for a company of children by D.H. Souter, with music by F. Wynne Jones (composer of the songs interpolated into The Fatal Wedding) and dances by resident J.C. Williamson choreographer Minnie Everett, The Grey Kimono filled the first part of the evening’s entertainment. The second part of the evening comprised an extended version of the ever-popular The Kids from the Alley.

Many of the children employed in The Fatal Wedding company were re-employed in The Grey Kimono. Continuing their popular successes with child actors, Meynell and Gunn produced The Little Breadwinner a year later, a play that New Zealand’s Evening Post thought had ‘been written for the express purpose of giving a chance to clever juveniles’.

Meynell and Gunn did not invent the commercial model for travelling troupes of child actors so much as they reinvigorated what was an entrenched industrial practice. A trend for theatrical children’s troupes had emerged in Australia almost 30 years before. In the early 1880s, McLean’s Juvenile Troubadours, Lyon’s Tourists, Stanley and Darbyshire’s Juvenile Troupe and Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company entertained audiences across Australia and New Zealand. Itinerancy was a commercial necessity for these companies, irrespective of the age of the performers.

Left: Little Baby Watson, 'You Call Me Your Lady Oh!', 1890, nla.cat-vn2655345; Centre: Little Baby Watson, 'A Little Bit o’ Blarney!', 1907, nla.cat-vn1132004; Right: Little Baby Watson, 'Everybody's Awfully Good to Me, Don'cher Know!', 1890, nla.cat-vn1133597

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Australian child actors were being employed to work offshore across the South Asia region on contracts of up to two years, in companies such as Hall’s Juveniles, Liddiard’s Juveniles, Bandmann’s Merry Little Maids and Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company. These commercial theatre concerns capitalised on the ready availability of skilled child actors in Australia, a result of the growth in the number of professional stage teachers operating in Sydney and Melbourne at the turn of the twentieth century. The offshore touring routes undertaken by these companies suggest that the producers were not prepared to test their business model within Australia, where contracting children for two years at a time would have contravened the imperatives of post-Federation education and labour laws. Meynell and Gunn on the other hand engaged children for shorter periods, parents were permitted to travel with their children and the tours remained within the familiar trans-Tasman region.

Doris Joyce played the child lead of Jessie ‘The Little Mother’ in The Fatal Wedding and also appeared in The Grey Kimono. As she mentions in a 1907 interview published in The Evening Telegraph, she played Jessie only after another actor grew out of the role. In professional productions, then as now, children could quickly grow too tall for a role, bodies could suddenly betray pubescent development and young boys’ voices could break. And then as now, there were other, younger actors ready to move up in the ranks. Although only 11 years old at the time of the interview, Doris revealed remarkable perspicacity:

I learned 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 [the actor-manager] Bland Holt and played with him in Sydney and he liked me so much that he took me to Melbourne, and Miss Cobden said I was not to study elocution any more 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 Goulburn, 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.

While the historical identity of ‘Miss Cobden’ is lost, her professional function was to safeguard the young actor’s ‘individual naturalness’. This suggests that child actors were valued for their professional expertise in singing, dancing and acting, as well as for their ability to portray quintessential qualities of childhood, such as spontaneity, playfulness, sincerity and naturalness. Sheet music of songs from The Fatal Wedding and The Grey Kimono demonstrates that between 1880 (when children’s troupes appear en masse in Australia) and the turn of the century, the singing demands placed on child actors changed. They morphed from the sophisticated and complex adult repertoire of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan—performed by troupes in the early 1880s—to more vernacular songs from the pen of popular Australian composers such as F. Wynne Jones. Sympathetically written for the natural range of a child’s voice, these songs span no more than an octave from either D or E above middle C and are devoid of significant leaps or vocal gymnastics of any kind.

Doris Joyce mentions her Sydney-based teachers Tom Donnelly, renowned as a teacher of step dancing and ballet, and Harry Leston, an old-time actor and elocution teacher. Donnelly and Leston collaborated as teachers and were responsible for training many young people who worked professionally in variety and pantomime.

Left: Frederick Wynne-Jones, Rosie Fitzgerald in The Kids From the Alley (detail), Sydney: 1906, nla.cat-vn2857359; Right: Our Dance I Believe, Little Baby Watson, 1907, nla.cat-vn1133620

In 1905, in newspaper advertisements for prospective pupils, Tom Donnelly proudly claimed Rosie Fitzgerald as his pupil. The same year, aged 11, Rosie toured New Zealand with the luminary actress Nellie Stewart. Over the next few years, Rosie was in constant demand by Australia’s leading theatrical producers. She spent much of 1906 touring The Fatal Wedding and was then engaged by J.C. Williamson to star as Alice in an all-child production of Alice in Wonderland for the Christmas pantomime season of 1906–1907. Meynell and Gunn cast her as the lead in The Grey Kimono in 1907, followed by another starring role with J.C. Williamson as Blue Bell, in Blue Bell in Fairyland (1907–1908). She toured with Minnie Tittel Brune’s production of Peter Pan in 1908, playing the role of 9-year-old Michael Darling, and in 1909 was recruited for a tour of South Asia by the international impresario Maurice Bandmann for his Merry Little Maids company. The professional success of child actors such as Doris Joyce and Rosie Fitzgerald must have been beneficial for their teachers’ businesses.

Melbourne also had its professional stage trainers. Mrs William Green and Miss Florrie Green were responsible for teaching hundreds of children from the early 1890s. Among their pupils was Queenie Williams, the seven-year-old who became the popular face of The Fatal Wedding in her role as the leader of the Tin Can Band. Queenie also appeared in The Grey Kimono and was subsequently cast by Meynell and Gunn as Meg, the principal child character in their 1908 production of The Little Bread Winner. By 1915, at the age of 16, Queenie Williams was in the United States starring with a Pollards’ juvenile company.

Left: Frederick Wynne-Jones, The Kids from the Alley, Sydney: 1906, nla.cat-vn2857359; Right: Frederick Wynne-Jones, Japloo Baby, Sydney: 1907, nla.cat-vn2215469

The parents of Doris, Rosie and Queenie had the money to pay teachers, the leisure time to take their children to classes and the financial freedom for one parent to accompany them on tour. This acceptance by middle-class families in Australia’s major cities of the theatre as a viable career path for their children led to the rise of professional teachers of singing, dancing and elocution in the first decade of the twentieth century. I suggest we can attribute this to the influence of the cult of celebrity and popular fascination with the idea of the female actor—a fascination that since the late nineteenth century had been supported by the circulation of images of successful and beautiful female actors in newspapers, illustrated journals, postcards and sheet music.

Dr Gillian Arrighi is a cultural historian and Senior Lecturer, Creative and Performing Arts, at the University of Newcastle. She was a 2017 National Library of Australia Fellow.