Saturday, January 19, 2013

Is this J C Williamson?

Is the man in the middle of this photo J C Williamson?

I'm just not sure. JCW was the most famous theatrical entrepreneur in Australian history. He was born in the US and came to Australian the first time in 1874. He made his fortune by acquiring the Australasian rights to Gilbert and Sullivan.

JC Williamson theatres were a household name in Australia until the 1960s.

The photo above has the right provenance to be of JCW and his company. I think the man in the white hat looks like him.  Try comparing it to this photo from the National Library of Australia website.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Henrietta Watson

The Referee was a Sydney newspaper that covered sport and had a small theatrical section. It also included lots of gossip and occasionally brief biographical notes, like the one below about Henrietta Watson. It is an invaluable source for Australian theatrical doings during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

Miss  Henrietta Watson -Referee August 9 1899
Miss Henrietta Watson one of the most popular and finest of the many actresses who have visited us, is making her reappearance as Miladi in 'The Kings Musketeers" at Her Majesty's. it is close on six years since the talented lady completed her last engagement here, after having been with us for over two years.
In the course of a chat , Miss Watson gave an account of her doings during her absence.
"Immediately upon my arrival in London," she said, "I was engaged to play the chief part in the farcical comedy "Thoroughbred" at Terry's Theatre, after which I accepted a merry part in "Her Advocate", produced by Mr Charles Cartwright, at the Duke of York's. Next I did six months at the Lyceum Theatre as understudy to Mrs Patrick Campbell.
"At the beginning of 1896 I replaced Miss Milward at the Adelphi Theatre as Esther Coventry, the heroine of 'One of the East', with Wm Terriss, who you will remember met with such a sad fate as the hero. The followed a tour of 12 months in second parts with Miss Olga Nethersole in the United States, and on again returning to London I played long engagements in "This Happy Life' at the Duke of York's and "A Brace of Partridge" at the Strand. My final appearance before leaving for Australia was in "The Mayflower" a very fine play.
Miss Watson's engagement with "the Firm' is only for six months and will conclude in November. Local theatregoers would like to see it extended , but that, unfortunately, is hardly likely owing to engagements awaiting the lady in England.

Henrietta had a sister, Elizabeth, who was also an actor. She married Walter Thornton Radcliffe in 1900 in Sydney.

The Referee is available from the State Library of NSW on microfilm. It is worth a look if you are interested in theatrical history.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Genesian Theatre/Kursaal Theatre

The Genesian Theatre in Kent Street Sydney is a lovely slice of the past in the middle of modern Sydney.

The building was completed in 1868 and was originally a church and school.

You can see traces of its original function by looking at the exterior of the building.

Around 1932, as the Kursaal Theatre, it became the home of the Sydney Repertory Company led by Scott Alexander. As an independent theatre it showcased a wide range of plays and writers including Shakespeare, Ibsen and local Australian talent. Alexander also held acting and speech classes in the building.

Alexander died in November 1938 but by that time The Company had moved to North Sydney.

The theatre became a refuge for homeless people, until 1954 when it was returned to use as a theatre for the Genesian Theatre Company.

According to the Genesian's own history, the company was formed by a group of Catholic youth who adopted the name of  the patron saint of actors, Saint Genesius.

I was lucky enough to attend a performance at the Genesian last night, and it is a really delightful little place that retains a lot of old world charm.

The staff were kind enough to let a mad historian take some photos...

I have no idea how much it would cost to maintain the building, but it must be a lot. So if you are interested in Sydney theatre pop along and watch a performance. I saw Charley's Aunt last night, and it was high quality and very entertaining. Here is my review.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Matheson Lang in Sydney.

I found this yesterday.

1910 was a busy year for Australian Theatre. Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton played to packed houses, Houdini thrilled audiences  with daring feats and in May Matheson Lang toured.

The signs of mourning for Edward VII were being removed from Sydney's public buildings when and and his wife, Nellie Hutin Britton arrived. Australia had been talking about them since January. The couple had big reputations gained in London and New York and Sydneysiders were eager to see them.

Lang planned to perform in Sydney and Melbourne and the first of many plays on his agenda was 'Pete' an adaptation of Hall Craine's play, 'The Manxman.'.

The preparation for the play was meticulous. Before his departure from London, Lang had relayed a request to  Australia for a baby to appear in the second act. In response, a Sydney man had volunteered his unborn child for the part.The child was born before Lang's arrival and christened 'Pete'.

Lang played the eponymous role of Pete the Manx fisherman. He had prepared for it like a modern method actor, visiting with Manx fishermen on the Isle of Wright, so he could immerse himself in the accent and culture.

Pete opened at Sydney's intimate Criterion Theatre on May 21st 1910. It was melodramatic fare, one critic wrote that  ' it's character are almost without exception steeped in pain and misery throughout its telling.'

They had every reason for their angst. The play revolved around adultery, sibling jealousy, questioned paternity, power and greed. It was material that thrilled the public but would, in most circumstances, affronted the moral guardians of Sydney society.

However, this case was different, despite the salubrious plot, the conservative elements of Sydney society were silent and this was due to Matheson Lang. He had the good fortune to be related to the Archbishop of York, a fact emphasised in most interviews. This high ranking relative protected him from the usual condemnation of the nation's prudes.
Matheson had the extra advantage of being six foot tall and handsome, qualities that also prevented criticism of his performance.

Due to these facts and the skill of the actors, 'Pete' was a huge success in Sydney. It played to standing room only audiences through its run.

Sydney critics agreed with audiences and through Lang's performance was outstanding. They praised his realistic portrayal of a fisherman and applauded his restrained display of emotion.

Miss Britton was also praised for her performance in a relentlessly dour role. Her physical beauty was also noted, especially her fine figure and 'interesting' face.

Lang and Nellie performed in Sydney for 9 weeks and were feted and applauded the entire stay.  They represented the best of international theatre to audiences who were developing a keen appreciation of quality drama and spectacle.
Lang and Nellie were one of many international artists who travelled to Australia. The long trip was well paid and the audiences less critical than those in the northern hemisphere. Competition for quality international theatre was fierce in the country and theatre managers were rewarded with crowded houses and financial success when that quality was delivered. In return, audiences  and local talent obtained a taste of European theatrical tradition that otherwise would have been denied to them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Child Labour in the Australian Theatre 1890-1911

I wrote this some time ago and found a copy today.

Between 1890 and the early 20th Century, the employment of children on the stage was controversial. Regulations regarding employment gradually became stricter as the idea of childhood was developed and the importance of education increased.

Famous Child Performers

Many great Australian performers began their stage careers as children. Carrie Moore began as a 13 year old in pantomime, the Beatty sisters began with Pollard's Lilliputians and William Percy also started his long comedic career with that company. Child acts were also popular in vaudeville theatres, Fanny Powers was a huge hit with Tivoli patrons as a 7 year old.

Child stars played small but important roles in plays in pantomimes, however, the rights of the child as a worker were often ignored.

This changed as the 20th Century progressed and adult advocates began to question the use of children in theatrical entertainment.

Child Labour Laws.

However, by 1890, the law had tightened in many states. In Victoria, the law prohibited any child under the age of 10 working after 7 O Clock in winter and 9 O Clock in winter. This limited the use of children in theatrical entertainment. Two prominent entrepreneurs, J C Williamson and Alfred Dampier were fined for breaking this law.

Arguments about child labour.

The fines levied against the managers led to arguments abotu the practice of employing children in theatres. Proponents argued that theatre training improved diction, provided enjoyment and also provided more discipline that many children received at home.

Opponents, including the representatives of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty for Children argued that the theatre exposed children to undesirable elements of society and exploited their precociousness for the benefit of greedy managers.

The Pollard Scandal

The laws regarding child employment continued to develop after Federation and in line with community perceptions of childhood and education. In 1910 an event occurred which focussed the spotlight back onto the theatrical community.

A scandal erupted when a troupe of children, touring under the Pollard name, were stranded in India. The newspapers exploded with accusations of child abuse, the intervention of the Indian authorities in the matter was embarrassing  and the difficulty in returning the children to their parents  and the subsequent pitiful scenes of reunion, brought the matter of child employment in the theatres to the headlines.

More on the Lilliputian Scandal

Child Labour Legislation by 1911.

By 1911 the government of NSW had legislated to disallow any child under the age of 14 being employed on the stage. The premier of Victoria agreed in principle with this idea, stating that all children of that age should be in school.

Education was seen as more important as the century progressed and subsequent legislation gradually increased the school leaving age to reflect this.

The changing view of childhood and the increasing importance of education to a new society led to the development of harsher strictures for theatrical managers, but did not finish the exploitation of children on stage and screen. However it limited the opportunities for conniving managers and complemented the changing social attitude of the time.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fanny Powers of the Tivoli

Fanny Powers was a popular child performer at the Tivoli Theatre in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

She was born in 1890 near Leichhardt in Sydney to Maria and George Powers. Her parents must have been involved in the theatre because she was performing by the time she was 7.

Here she is as a child.

Fanny was an accomplished mimic and dancer and was well known for imitating the great stars who visited Australia. She was also very popular with Harry Rickards and his family, which included two daughters. 

In 1903 Rickards took her to England where she replaced Vesta Tilley at the Oxford Music Hall. She was too young to be paid because of child labour laws, so was given a 'present' every pay day.

Fanny was a popular favourite in Australia until 1912 when she gave up the stage to get married. An enormous benefit was performed for her farewell, and she never returned to the boards.

Above is Fanny as a young adult.

She married Mr William Foote, a South Australian businessman in 1913. He owned several racehorses and was some years older than Fanny.

The pair settled for a time in Manly NSW. During the early 1920s they lived in a beautiful sea side house with their three children, George, Arthur and Nancy.

In the mid 20s they moved to Adelaide.

William died aged 63 in 1937, and Fanny died the next year, around June 1938. There was little fanfare when she died but she was fondly remembered for decades as one of the fixtures of the Tivoli Circuit.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Stars of Efftee films

A wonderful reader kindly sent me some cigarette cards of Australian born actors. The cards are beautiful and date from the 1930s. Thanks Sarah!

They represent stars from Efftee films. Efftee film studios were apparently created in Melbourne in the early 1930s by Frank Thring. The name comes from his initials, FT.

A list of their films is here

Firstly we have  George Wallace. George was a stage comedian and film actor. His bio on the back of the card states;
Australian comedian, born Brisbane (q) aged 33 years. Comes of a theatrical family. Has toured his own revue companies. First film, 'His Royal Highness." (Efftee Films)

Cicely Coutneidge. Born Sydney NSW; age 39. Daughter of Robert Courtneidge famous actor-producer. Married Jack Hulbert. First film 'Elstree Calling'. Talking pictures, "The Ghost Train" , "Jack's the Boy", and "Happy Ever After".

Cicely, of course spent most of her life in England, she was born during one of her father's tours of Australia in 1893. She was an accomplished stage actor.

Cecil Scott. Born Bathurst NSW, 25 years old. Has appeared in Australia in musical comedy and revue. Specially selected to play the title role in Efftee Films 'The Sentimental Bloke."
Pat Hanna. Born Mercury Bay (NZ) Height 6ft 1 in. age 42. Lieut NZ Forces during the Great War. Formed 'Famous Diggers' company and toured world. Appeared at Royal command performances. First talking picture, 'Diggers' (efftee) and "Diggers in Blighty."

Ray Fisher. Aged 19. Born Melbourne. Began stage career a dancer. Specially selected by Mr F W Thring to play Doreen in Efftee' "The Sentimental Bloke."

Betty Stockfeld. Born Sydney (NSW) age 25. Was educated at Carisbrooke College Canterbury (Vic). First film "City of Song."Recreations; swimming and flying. Plays piano and ukelele. Clever linguist and has appeared in French films. Hobbies; gardening, travelling and reading.

Many stage actors turned to film during the early years of the talkies. In Sydney, the Prince Edward Theatre had a stage show as part of the film experience. The early 1930s were the era of the huge film palaces such as the Prince Edward and the State Theatre in Sydney. Unfortunately it was also the depression era and economic circumstances combined with  competition from the talkies, destroyed live theatre. In 1933 the great Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney, which was located on the Centrepoint corner, closed down. The Criterion also closed in this period.

These cards, however, show no sign of terrible economic times and are a beautiful reminder of the elegance of the era. Thanks again to Sarah for her kindness.