Francis W Thring

  • Collits' Inn Revisited

    We celebrate another milestone with the republication of PETER PINNE’s 2007 On Stage article looking at the history of Varney Monk’s musical COLLITS’ INN, which was given its first professional production at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in 1933 under the management of F.W. Thring. We are delighted to be able to include some evocative play scenes courtesy of the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

    When Collits’ Inn opened at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre two days before Christmas on 23 December 1933, it became the first home-grown hit musical theatre success running for a record-breaking 15 weeks. Billed as Australia’s first musical romance, it was produced by Frank Thring Snr, under his Efftee Players production company, and starred Australia’s reigning Queen of Operetta, Gladys Moncrieff. In those days 15 weeks was an incredible run for any musical let alone one of local origin. So how did that happen? Let’s go back to the beginning.

    Composer Varney Monk and her husband Cyril had spent part of their honeymoon in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, at an Inn near Mt. Victoria, dating back to 1837. On a subsequent visit they met a German-born naturalized Australian, named W.J. Berghofer who related the colourful story of Collits’ Inn, and Irishman and convict, Pierce Collits and his daughter Amelia. The Inn had originally been built in 1823 by Colitts, after he had earned his ticket-of-leave. It became a stop where coach horses were changed, when the road was being pushed through from Penrith to the Western Plains by convicts, who worked under military supervision.

    “Amelia Collits had fallen in love with a young Ensign in charge of a road gang building a new road through the mountains. Pierce, hating the Redcoats with all the vengeance of an ex-convict, forbids their marriage and drives the Ensign away. Amelia is so distraught she vows to marry the first man who enters the Inn and she does. Skene, a foreman on the new road, is the first man to enter and Amelia fulfils her vow. Later the Ensign, now a widower, returned to the valley and asks Amelia to redeem their love of the past in marriage, but she refuses, claiming it is too late for change.” This became the story on which Collits’ Inn was based.

    In 1932 Nathalie Rosenwax, a well-known Sydney singing teacher, announced a Light Opera and Revue Competition, for the Opportune Club. Monk wanted to enter and approached her journalist neighbour, Tom Stuart Gurr to write the book which he agreed to do.

    Although Collits’ Inn came second in the competition, it was the show picked up for production by Rosenwax. The wining entry The Island of Palms, by Arnold R. Mote and Margery Browne, appears to have remained on the shelf never seeing the light of day.

    Rosenwax later in the year organized a five-night pro-am season at the Savoy Theatre, Sydney, (5/12/32), with her star pupil, professional, Rene Maxwell as Mary Collits, Donald McNiven as Robert Keane, Ambrose Bourke as John Lake, Ann Stuart Gurr as Mistress Dale, and radio personality Jack Win as Dandy Dick. It was produced by E. Elliott Lloyd. Choreography was by Evelyn Parrett.

    The Sydney Morning Herald carried a review on 6 December 1932, which called it, “An Australian Opera”, and said that the show had “beautiful music” which “lifted the story to a height of romantic interest”. Maxwell was praised for her voice, and they liked her harmonized love duets with Ambrose Bourke, who played Captain John Lake. Monk’s husband, Cyril, a violinist, was the Leader of the Conservatorium Orchestra, which was conducted by Howard Carr who had also written the orchestrations.

    Gurr had adapted Monk’s story which now told the tale of Mary, torn between the love of Captain John Lake and a notorious bushranger, Robert Keene, who had helped her father change the route of the road to pass his Inn. Mary declares her love for Lake, but after a fight between him and Keane, in which Keane is killed, Lake is posted back to England. Mary suffers a memory loss but recovers in time for a happy ending when Lake returns.

    Songs to make an impression were, “This Year”, (reprised as “Last Year”), sung by Mary and Lake, and Keane’s “Some Distant Day”. The latter was a trunk song by Monk and had been published by Palings in 1929. “Aboriginal Chant” was written in the time signature of 7/8 and had been notated by Monk as it was sung and danced to her by Queen Rosie, one of the last remaining full-blooded Aboriginal members of the Illawarra Tribe, in a tea-shop in Kiama.

    The score at this time included: “Collits’ Inn”, “The Road”, “Drinking Song”, “Some Distant Day”, “Making Memories”, “Stay While the Stars Are Shining”, “Aboriginal Dance”, Outlaw’s Song”, “Duddawarra River”, “See What Love’s Done To Me”. “Sally at the Sliprails”, “My Desire”, “Sweet William”, “The Chaperone”, and “This Year”.

    The following year ABC radio decided to produce a radio version of the musical which went to air on 2FC, 2NC, 3LO, 2CO, 4QG and 4BK, on Wednesday 21 June 1933. It featured many performers who were in the Savoy Theatre premiere production, headed by Rene Maxwell (Mary), Norman Barnes (John Lake), Ann Stuart Gurr (Mistress Dale), with Eric Masters playing Robert Keane, and Dan Agar as Dandy Dick. Musical Direction was again by Howard Carr, with Production by George D. Parker.

    On 2 July 1933, ABC radio broadcast the musical again with one major cast change, Carlton Stuart played the bushranger, Robert Keene. All other credits remained the same.

    During this time Monk tried to interest J.C. Williamson’s, in mounting a production of the work but they declined, saying it was “no good”. Undaunted Monk travelled to Melbourne and did a backers audition with soprano, Phyllis Baker, baritone Alan Eddy, and orchestra for film producer, F.W. Thring, who had stated he was interested in theatrical production. Thring liked what he heard and agreed to produce the show and set about engaging a top flight cast for a premiere that would take place at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 23 December 1933.

    He immediately signed Australia’s top box-office draw, Gladys Moncrieff to a twelve-month contract, brought her frequent leading man, Robert Chisholm, back from London, and also signed audience favorite Claude Flemming, and comic George Wallace. It was to be Moncrieff’s first performance in an Australian Musical, and Wallace’s first legitimate theatre role after appearing in vaudeville and movies for Thring’s Efftee Productions (including His Royal Highness, Harmony Rowand A Ticket In Tatts). The production also featured a revolving stage (unique for its time), and the “Aboriginal Chant” was expanded and became a Corroboree.

    The show underwent numerous changes between the Savoy Theatre tryout season and the version that appeared on the Princess stage. Some songs had been repositioned, “My Desire”, and “See What Love’s Done To Me”, had been dropped, and three new songs had been added, but only one composed by Monk titled, “Australia”. Charles Zwar, who the following year would see his own musical Blue Mountain Melody, produced by J.C. Williamson’s, composed the music and lyrics to “They’re In Love”, and George Wallace did likewise with his comedy number “Dangerous Dandy Dick”. Additional music was provided by Harry Jacobs, who also did the orchestrations, and additional lyric credits went to book writer Tom Stuart Gurr and Jock McLeod. Monk was not happy with the changes and thought “the order of the songs as used in the tryout worked better”.

    As well as Moncrieff, Chisholm, Flemming and Wallace, the original cast included: Marshall Crosby, Phyllis Baker, Frank Bradley, Campbell Copelin, Edward O. Davis, John Dobbie, Ashton Jarry, D’Arcy Kelway, Garthe Meade, Phillip Peake, Ron Riley, Russell Scott, Norman Shepherd, Jock Thompson, and Byrl Walkley.

    Collits’ Inn opened with a fanfare of publicity and became an instant success. 3KZ gave a descriptive broadcast, (relayed to other states) of the audience and dignitaries arriving at the theatre, which was followed by a complete broadcast of Act One of the musical.

    The critics’ reviews were glowing. The Age (26/12/33) called it a “a splendid success” and said it should “enjoy a long run”. They liked Moncrieff and Chisholm, called “Stay While then Stars Are Shining”, the theme song, and thought “Australia” could be adopted as a national anthem.

    After playing for 15 weeks the show transferred to the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney (22/6/34) where it ran for a further nine. The Sydney Morning Herald (23/6/34) was equally as laudatory, calling it a “splendid production”. George Wallace in his first outing in legit on a Sydney stage, came in for his share of plaudits when they said he was an “extremely diverting and original comedian”, although qualified it with the thought that “he overstayed his welcome as times”. It’s also interesting to note they commented on the difference in the dramatic material between the tryout season and the commercial production, and “how important it is for Australian authors and composers to have their works produced on a professional stage if they are to develop and learn”.

    Following the Sydney run, the show returned to Melbourne where it played a further four weeks at the Princess (13/10/34). The Age this time said the show was a “musical romance of power and excellent atmosphere”, and that the audience “will carry away many lilting and tuneful refrains”. The Argus (26/10/34) called it a “success” and said it “satisfies as no ‘Rose Marie’ or ‘Lilac Time’ can”. They said one of the best songs was the rollicking “A Laugh and a Kiss”, and thought “Stay While the Stars are Shining” would be a hit. But the praise was qualified with, “The words of the song, “Australia”, which, unfortunately closes the show, are commonplace to the point of banality”. The same cast played in both seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, but on the return Melbourne engagement Robert Chisholm left after 26 October to fulfil commitments abroad.

    The following year F.W. Thring under his Efftee Attractions umbrella produced another Varney Monk historical romance musical, The Cedar Tree. Gladys Moncrieff was back to star, and this time her co-stars were Alfred Frith, Russell Scott, and Claude Flemming, who also handled direction. The behind-the-scenes team, were the same as Collits’ Inn, Jennie Brenan was choreographer, helped by Mollie Radcliffe, with Fred Quintrell as musical director.

    collits inn 21(left) The Cedar Tree broadcast - 29 December 1934. From Wireless Weekly, 28 December 1934. (right) Alfred Frith in The Cedar Tree - as seen by cartoonist Stanley Parker. From Table Talk, 31 January 1935, p.16

    This time Monk worked with Helen Barclay who wrote the lyrics, and Barclay’s husband, Edmund, a well-known ABC scriptwriter, who worked on the book. The story was set in Colonial days in the timber country around Parramatta and the Hawkesbury river. Once again the heroine, Daniella Weston (Moncrieff), is loved by two men, Lieutenant Verners (Russell Scott), a Captain of the Queen’s Regiments, and Roger Carstairs (Claude Flemming), a rich Sydney merchant. Drama was provided by Weston’s dissolute brother and comedy by the Flying Pieman (Frith), a role based on a real-life character at the time in the Hawskbury district.

    The Age (24/12/34) called it “delightful”, and The Argus (24/12/34), “pleasant entertainment” with praise for the score going to “Coo-ee” an echo song, “How I Love You”, a ballad, and the title tune. Although critical reaction was good, audiences were not. The show played a seven-week season at the Princess Theatre, before transferring to the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, where it opened at a matinee. Even with The Sydney Morning Herald (17/3/35) claiming it was a “fine Australian play” with “beautiful music and singing”, it could only manage a dismal two-week run.

    A “live” performance of The Cedar Tree was broadcast by the ABC direct from the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, seven days after the opening.

    In February 1936 Thring announced plans to film Collits’ Inn with production supposed to start in Sydney in early April 1936. Thring by that stage had become disillusioned with film production in Melbourne and was moving his headquarters to Sydney, joining forces with Mastercraft Film Corporation. He left Sydney on 4 March for Hollywood to engage a director and actors. He returned on 19 June and was immediately hospitalized in Melbourne where he died two weeks later on 1 July 1936.

    Thring’s death was a big blow for the Australian stage industry and film production. Although Varney Monk continued to compose and was published, she never again had a professional staging of either of these musicals.

    On Saturday 16 October 1943, ABC Radio, Sydney, produced Collits’ Inn with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by J. Farnsworth Hall, in a production by Lawrence H. Cecil, and on 29 April 1948, ABC Radio, Adelaide, produced a truncated version of the musical with the Adelaide Light Orchestra and Adelaide Singers conducted by William Cade. Mary Collitts was played by soprano, Kathleen Glasonbury, Captain Lake by Fred Williamson, Pierce Collits by bass-baritone, Boyd Dawkins, Robert Keane by baritone Ian McMutrie, and Dandy Dick was Alec Reagan. Norman Shephard , who was in the original Princess Theatre cast playing one of Keane’s followers, was the director.

    In 1951 there was a flurry of activity again for the Commonwealth Jubilee Celebration. ABC Radio produced Collits’ Inn as one of a series of musical comedies played by the ABC Melbourne Augmented Dance Band and Wireless Singers, conducted by MacDuff Williams. Grace Penman was Mary Collits, Eric Michelson was Captain Lake, John [AKA Jon] Weaving was Robert Keane, Syd Hollister was Dandy Dick, with Margaret Mouchemore as Mistress Dale. Others in the cast included; William Laird, Douglas Kelly, Lorna Forbes, Herbert Browne, Cyril Gardiner, George Randall, and Stewart Ginn.

    This production generated many Letters to the Editor in The ABC Weekly, regarding Australian composition on radio, (the Government had recently decreed all Australian stations were compelled to broadcast Australian compositions amounting to 2 ½ per cent of their programming time. The ABC broadcasts about 3 ½ per cent), and Monk’s authorship of Collits’ Inn. Tom Stuart Gurr came to his co-author’s defence: “Only Pierce Collits was historical. Every other character in the play lived only in my imagination, although there are people in the Valley who still point to the cave where outlaw Robert Keane had his hideout.”

    Later on 20 July 1951, the Mosman Musical Society presented the show for 10 performances, with Rhonnda Baker, John Young, Lenn Leslie, Cec Mackensie and Gaynor Mitchell. Len Gotting was the producer, musical director was Herbert Wyall, and Desmonde Downey did the sets. The Sydney Morning Herald said it was “a remarkable lively and elaborate revival of Varney Monk’s Australian musical play… John Young, using his strong baritone to advantage is the best of the singers…Rhondda Baker is an attractive heroine…Cec. Mackenzie and Gaynor Mitchell handle the comedy with plenty of verve”.

    Monk added a new song to the score for Dandy Dick and Sally, “The Man With the Cabbage Tree Hat”, which replaced the George Wallace written “Dangerous Dandy Dick”, and “How I Love You”, the hit song from The Cedar Tree, replaced Charles Zwar’s “They’re In Love”. The production generated a radio commercial which contained a vocal version of “How I Love You”.

    There was another amateur production in 1951 at Sydney Boys’ High School, two in 1963 at St. Mary’s Memorial Hall, Epping, NSW, and two in 1970, one at Canowinda Community Centre, and Campbelltown High School.

    On 23 March 1957, the musical was produced at the original Collits’ Inn, at Hartley Vale, near Lithgow, NSW.

    The most recent production of the musical was on 25 March 2007, at the Army Drill Hall, Melbourne, Victoria, when Jonathan Harvey produced “Scenes from Collits’ Inn in a Concert Performance”. Jane O’Toole, stepped into the shoes of Gladys Moncrieff as Mary Collits, Matthew Davine became Captain John Lake, Ian Cousins was Robert Keane, and Sue Braatveldt was Mistress Dale. A selection of nine scenes skillfully told the story with linking material handled by veteran actor, Charles “Bud” Tingwell. Script was by Peter Wyllie Johnston, accompaniment by the Victorian Concert Orchestra, conducted by Joannes Roose.

    Collits’ Inn wasn’t the first Australian book musical, that honor goes to Ella Airlie’s, The Bunyip which was originally written in 1908 but not performed as a musical until 1916, but it was the first bonafide hit. It paved the way for a flurry of Australian musical theatre activity in the thirties, (Blue Mountain Melody, The Cedar Tree, The Beloved Vagabondand Flame of Desire), not matched until the end of the century when The Boy From Oz, Priscilla Queen of the Desertand Muriel’s Wedding, started the ball rolling again.

    Chappell & Co Ltd became publishers of both shows and published two songs from each, “Last Year” (1943) and “Australia” (1946), from Collits’ Inn, “Coo-ee” (1946) and the title song from The Cedar Tree (1946). W.H. Paling & Co. Ltd, had published Varney Monk’s original version of “Some Distant Day” in 1929.

    The first commercial recording from Collits’ Inn was a version of “Last Year” by The Melody Men with piano, (78rpm) recorded 14 May 1943 (RZ G-24752) and then later in 1988,a 2-LP record compilation set called, “Gladys Moncrieff Sings Musical Comedy and Operetta” (EMI EMC430062), was released with Moncrieff and Chisholm singing their duet, “Stay While the Stars Are Shining”. This was taken from an optical film recording of songs from the show made with the original cast. For years it was thought this recording was made for the film version, but as it contains the song, “My Desire” which never made it into the professional production, it was most likely recorded during rehearsals for the original professional production before the song was cut.

    The complete optical film recording included:

    1. “Collits’ Inn” – Claude Fleming & Gladys Moncrieff

    2. “Road Song” – Claude Flemming & Gladys Moncreiff & Unknown Bass

    3. “Drinking Song” – Unknown Bass

    4. “Making Memories” – Gladys Moncreiff

    5. “Next Year” – Gladys Moncrieff & Robert Chisholm

    6. “Outlaw’s Song” – Claude Flemming

    7. “Duddawarra River” – Gladys Moncrieff

    8. “Stay While the Stars Are Shining” – Gladys Moncrieff & Robert Chisholm

    9. “Sweet William” – Bryl Walkley

    10. “Australia” – Robert Chisholm & Gladys Moncreff

    11. “Some Distant Day”– Robert Chisholm (a song reassigned to Mary Collits – Gladys Moncrieff – in Act 3)

    12. “Last Year” – Gladys Moncrieff

    13. “Stay While the Stars Are Shining” (Reprise) – Robert Chisholm & Gladys Monfrieff

    14. “Collits’ Inn Orchestral Finale” (final cymbal crash)

    15. “Collits’ Inn Orchestra Finale” (final drum beat)

    Dance music

    My Desire - Robert Chisholm


    “Some Distant Day” (78rpm) Columbia DO 2946 (1929)

    “Scenes from Collits’ Inn” DVD Concert Cast (2007)


    In 1990 Currency Press published the playscript of the show with leadlines of all of the music that had been located at the time. Missing were the songs, “A Laugh and a Kiss”, “Dangerous Dandy Dick”, and “They’re In Love”, which have since been found in Monk’s papers at the National Library, Canberra. No music has been found for, “Some Distant Day.”

    In the 1970s Peter Burgis NFSA, conducted an oral history interview with Rene Maxwell, who played Mary Collits in Natalie Rosenwax’s 1932 production. The interview is held in the National Library in Canberra. No commercial recordings are known of this artist, but she was a guest artist on the radio program, The Show of Shows, Episode 11, recorded November 1941, published by AWA (16 inch disc). She sings “Lilac Domino” and Make Believe”. She starred in Australia in the original production of The Lilac Domino.

    “Last Year” was sung by Monda Lenz, in The Australia Show No. 4 (a Humphrey Bishop production, 16-inch AWA disc). Monda was a singer with an army entertainment unit. An oral history with her is held by the Australian War Memorial. It is available on the internet.

    Also available on the internet is a radio program called “Four Australian Musicals” produced in Perth in 1966, narrated by Glen Menzies. It discusses Collits’ Inn and includes the voice and piano playing of Varney Monk.



    Collits’ Inn: a romantic Australian operetta by T. Stuart Gurr; with lyrics and music by Varney Monk; edited with an intoduction by John West, Currency Press in association with Australasian Drama Studies, 1990

    Jean Devanny, Bird of Paradise, Frank Johnson, 1945

    Philip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press/Cambridge University Press, 1995

    Peter Pinne & Peter Whyllie Johnston, The Australian Musical from the Beginning, Allen & Unwin, 2019

    Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987

    Eric Read, History and Heartburn, Harper & Row, 1979

    John Thomson, “It’s Australian – and It’s Good”, National Library Australia Magazine, December 2003


    John West, Theatre In Australia, Cassell Australia Limited, 1978

    Original Theatre Programs, The Age, The Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald



    Special thanks to Peter Burgis and Rob Morrison for their help in this revision


    Further resources

    View programs on the THA Digital website


  • Frank Neil - 'He Lived Show Business' (Part 4)

    FRANK VAN STRATEN continues his exploration of the life and tumultuous times of one of Australia’s near-forgotten entrepreneurs.

    Part 4: In a 1933 program note, Frank Neil told Tivoli patrons ‘Like so many others, I belong to that happy band of “grown-up” children who build castles in the air and through the medium of showmanship turn these fantastic dreams into realities.’

    neil wells cartoonCaricature of Frank Neil by Sam Wells. From The Herald (Melbourne), 16 November 1929, p.20.Neil dusted off Cinderellato give the Palace in Melbourne an attraction for Christmas 1933. Josie Melville was Cinders, with Miriam Lester as Prince Charming, Syd Beck and Bert Ray as the Ugly Sisters, Ernest Kilroy as Cutie the Cat, the five acrobatic Whirlwind Cleveres, and Cusko’s Dog and Monkey Circus. Cusko (real name: Bill Henderson) toured his carefully trained animals in circus and vaudeville for many years. The production transferred to the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, where it opened on 10 February 1934 under the J.C. Williamson banner.

    Nevertheless, it was at the Tivolis in Melbourne and Sydney that Frank Neil presented comedian Fred Miller and Millie Deane, ‘The Lady with the Laughing Legs’. Backing them were Len Rich, Billy Maloney, Keith Connolly, the Weatherly Sisters, Morry Barling, a contortionist called Frogella, and Rahman Bey, ‘The Mystic Man of the East’. For his act, this gentleman permitted knives, daggers and long pins to be thrust into his body while he was in a state of ‘cataleptic anaesthesia’. He claimed that he could totally suspend his breathing and circulation, enabling him to be buried alive for up to six hours. Also on the bill were the Weatherly Sisters. They were descended from a lengthy line of circus performers and one of them, Zilla, a contortionist, frequently performed with her husband, Billy Andros, whose speciality was creating weird and wonderful things from torn newspapers. Their daughter, born in 1929, was often part of their act. Billed as ‘Baby Gloria’ she went on to become stage legend Gloria Dawn.

    It was at this point, early 1934, that Mike Connors and Queenie Paul decided to sell what was left of their investment in Connors and Paul Theatres Pty Ltd. A new company was formed: Tivoli Circuit of Australia Pty Ltd. George Dickenson held the majority of shares. Initially he, W.H. Ince and Frank Neil were listed in the programs as directors; soon this was adjusted to a single credit: ‘Frank Neil, Managing Director’. The directors quickly determined a new direction for the Tivoli Circuit. The Tivoli would present lavish, glossy revues, each headed by a big overseas star. No more small-time acts like Stuart and Lash, Jack Russell or Joe Marks. And—unless there were no alternatives—no more companies headed by Australian comedians.

    neil millie connors paul geraldMillie Deane (left), Connors & Paul (centre), and Jim Gerald (right). All author’s collection.

    ‘Frank Neil will leave for America, England and the Continent on the Monterey on 2 May 1934, in search of attractions for the Tivoli Circuit,’ said a program note. ‘Overseas stars will soon arrive in a constant stream to entertain and amuse you. They will be supported by the pick of Australia’s best talent and the policy at all times will be to foster and encourage the progress of the local stage aspirants. The whole world will be searched for your pleasure, so look forward to the big stars who will be brought to the Tivoli for your approval.’

    Clearly, the new policy was dependent on the results of Frank Neil’s overseas foray. In the meantime, the Melbourne Tivoli hosted yet another season of Jim Gerald’s weekly-change programs combining revue and ‘tabloid’ or miniature musical comedies. In Jim’s company were Tom Dale, Edna Ralston, Lily Coburn, Lance Vane, Vilma Kaye, Bobbie Clifton, Max Reddy and Will Perryman (Jill’s father), supported, as ever, by the eight dancing ‘Twinklers’.

    neil terror abroad 01Sydney program for May 1934. Author’s collection.

    The first shows in the Sydney Tivoli under the new regime were a series of weekly-change revues under the general title of Jimmy Taylor’s Non-Stop Follies. Jimmy Taylor was English, another of the overseas nonentities foisted as headliners on local audiences. There is more interest—and talent—in the locally recruited supporting company: comics Syd Beck, Jay Morris, Keith Connolly and Len Rich, soubrette Stella Lamond and magician Will Alma. Alas, Jimmy Taylor proved so unattractive to Sydney audiences that after two weeks the management gave top billing to Syd Beck, shrank the Non-Stop Folliesto fit one half of the program and showed films to fill up the rest. Apart from the Paramount British Sound News (‘The Eyes and Ears of the World’) and Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, Tivoli audiences were subjected to third-rate Paramount program-fillers: The Last Round-Up with Randolph Scott, Terror Abroad with Charles Ruggles and, in the third and final week, Four Frightened People with Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall. It was an inauspicious start.

    When Non-Stop Follies opened at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane, Jimmy Taylor was still relegated to second billing behind Syd Beck. By the time the company reached Melbourne Beck himself was playing second fiddle to ‘The World’s Greatest Male Impersonator’, Hetty King. For once, the description was accurate. British born, the dapper Miss King’s acclaimed portrayals of soldiers and sailors were legendary, and by around 1930 she was reputed to be the world’s highest-paid music hall star. Her act always concluded with her 1908 hit, ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’. This was her third Tivoli engagement: she had played the Circuit in 1924 and 1927.

    Meanwhile Frank Neil had been scouting for talent in the United States and Europe. What he was looking for were acts that were relatively inexpensive, but that could be promoted in Australia as international stars. Performers who had film credits were typical, also performers who still had a ‘name’ but whose careers were on the wane. And there were some who were attracted by the prospect of a fully paid trip ‘Down Under’ and the chance to experience what was then regarded as a totally foreign land.

    Neil also had inherited Percy Crawford from Connors and Paul. Percy Crawford was probably the best theatrical publicity man in Australia. He’d started as a box office boy at the Sydney Tivoli in 1901, and he loved variety and knew the business backwards. If anyone could convince the public that the Tivoli was entering a new era, it was Percy.

    Just before he left London Neil caught up with Fred Miller and Millie Deane. They had starred for him in Australia a few months before and were now in a controversial new revue called West End Scandals at the Garrick Theatre. Through them he met the show’s similarly controversial producer, Wallace R. Parnell. It was the start of an association that would have a profound effect on the evolution of Australian theatre.

    Back in Australia the Tivoli management anxiously awaited Frank Neil’s return and the arrival of the artistes he was booking overseas. The Sydney Tivoli was their major concern. At first, they announced that film screenings would continue after the departure of the Jimmy Taylor company, but the reaction to them in Melbourne had been so bad that the idea was quickly shelved. Instead, one of this country’s great showmen, Francis W. Thring came to the rescue, transferring four big shows from his home base, the Princess in Melbourne. When they moved on, opera moved in: the Sydney Tivoli provided an unlikely venue for Sir Benjamin Fuller’s Royal Grand Opera Company.

    Frank Neil returned to Australia in September 1934. With him to inaugurate the Tivoli Circuit’s new era were ‘twenty-five international stars’. The most notable were an American knockabout dance act, Nice, Florio and Lubow; French adagio dancers Les Diamondes; German comic Alec Halls; and chirpy Joey Porter, ‘England’s Youngest Funster’, whom The Age thought ‘had something of the Chaplin genius’. Appropriately titled New Faces, the show was put together at the Melbourne Tivoli where it opened on 10 October 1934. The settings were ‘sketched and painted by K.V. McGuinness’, the dances ‘invented and arranged by Maurice Diamond’ with ‘the specially augmented orchestra under the baton of Harry Lazarus’. Among the many highlights were ‘To Hell with War’, described as ‘A Song Scena to Make You Think’, and the Act One finale which re-created Bourke Street in 1860, ‘with the entire company in the correct costumes of the period’. When they eventually reached the Sydney Tivoli in March 1935, the Bourke Street scene had miraculously become ‘Circular Quay, 1860’.

    With the Sydney Tivoli still occupied by the Fuller Grand Opera Company, the New Faces company played in New Zealand for the Christmas season. The tour was co-produced with J.C. Williamson’s. Surviving documentation shows that the star act, Nice, Florio and Lubow, were drawing £100 a week; Joey Porter was on £50, Alec Halls was on £30, and Maurice Diamond (the stage manager and dance director) was on £10. A musical act called the Three Ambassadors was on £45; Harry Lazarus, a member of this trio, also conducted the orchestra.

    For Christmas 1934 Frank Neil directed Mother Goose at the King’s in Melbourne. Jim Gerald was Mother Goose and Hetty King was featured as Colin, the Principal Boy. William Hassan played the Golden Goose, as he had for Frank in 1923. This Mother Goose was a co-production with J.C. Williamson’s. After production costs and current expenditure were deducted from the takings, Williamson’s took £80 for rent, and the remaining profits or losses were divided equally between the Tivoli and Williamson’s. Neil persuaded Jennie Brenan to produce the ballets for nothing; in return he was to select sixteen of the ballet and all the twenty-four children from her dancing school. In addition, Miss Brenan would supply the children’s wardrobe. Neil’s rough run-down of the weekly running costs has survived: Jim Gerald was on £105, Hetty King was on £60, Hassan on £17, most of the other principals received around £8, the twenty-four members of the ballet got £3 each, the twenty-four children got £1 each, the ten members of the orchestra, including the conductor, got £85 between them, and the backstage crew got £60. The total weekly running cost was estimated at £786. There is a telling reflection of the times in a memo from Frank Tait to Neil regarding the well-known comedian Alfred Frith, whom Neil wanted to cast as the mayor: ‘Frith would, I think be quite a reasonably good engagement. It is some years since he worked for us. The last time I think his salary was £25, but that was in the prosperous days, and I would suggest that if you engage him, about half that salary would be sufficient.’ In the end the part went to Nick Morton.

    Before this, though, Neil had opened his second big revue at the Melbourne Tivoli. Paris En Fête was touted as coming from the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. It didn’t. It was one of the revues put together by Geoffrey Hope and Vivian Palmer to tour the English provinces. Neil had seen it and had been particularly impressed by the leading comedian, a young man called Sid Field. Neil contracted with Hope and Palmer to take the whole show to Australia. Field, whose wife was expecting their first child, initially refused to go, putting the tour in jeopardy. Eventually it was agreed that his wife would accompany him—and his daughter was born in Melbourne. A second Geoffrey Hope revue, In Town Tonight, followed Paris En Fête into the Melbourne Tivoli early in the New Year.

    Sid Field left the company early in 1935. He had not been the hit Frank Neil expected. Field felt that Australians wanted humour of a broader kind; he also complained that many of his best sketches had already been exploited by local comics. He returned to Britain but did not find stardom until his first West End appearance in 1943. He died a mere seven years later, aged only forty-three, one of the most popular and respected comedians in English variety.

    Sid Field’s place at the top of the bill at the Tivoli was taken by Jim Gerald. In his honour the show was called London Calling: Jim was about to depart for Britain with his wife, Essie Jennings. Their trip was arranged by Frank Neil to inaugurate an arrangement with English producers Geoffrey Hope and Vivian Palmer to facilitate the interchange of artistes between Australia and England. Jim eventually made it to the West End in a revue called Don’t Spare the Horseswhich opened at the Garrick Theatre on 30 October 1935. It was the creation of Kenneth Duffield, an Australian who had produced Tivoli revues for Hugh D. McIntosh in 1930. Duffield also wrote the music. Don’t Spare the Horses was greeted by generally sympathetic notices—one reviewer thought it had ‘a certain not altogether unattractive air of improvisation’—but sadly it survived for only five performances. Legend has it that one critic cruelly ordered, ‘Home, James!’

    After Jim Gerald’s departure for Britain the London Calling company stayed on to provide the first half of a program featuring the Great Dante. One of the world’s master illusionists, Dante—Harry Jansen—had previously visited Australia in 1933. Especially featured was his glamorous stage assistant, a young Geelong-born beauty, Mona Miller, though she had adopted the stage name Moi-Yo Miller, a pseudonym she used for the rest of her long career. She came to be internationally recognised as a master magician in her own right. She died in Melbourne in 2018, aged 104.

    Following his Tivoli season, Dante presented his full show at the King’s in Russell Street, then switched to the Sydney Tivoli in June. The Dante show opened with ‘Ten tricks in ten seconds—nod to a friend and you miss a trick!’ Amongst the dozens of wonders that followed was ‘the most daring illusion ever attempted: Mutilation, Decapitation, Annihilation, Restoration.’ The program concluded with ‘Dante’s crowning achievement: passing a lady from the stage to within a nest of trunks hanging from the ceiling—the utmost in modern stagecraft.’

    Neil’s next major Tivoli venture was a series of elaborate French-themed revues ‘adapted, anglicised and produced’ by Dublin-born London-based comedian and dancer Frank O’Brian. O’Brian shared top billing with his wife, Janice Hart, a Black singer, dancer and comedian, born in the London suburb of Camden. Miss Hart had visited Australia before, but then she had been billed as Cassie Walmer. The new stage name was designed to validate her adoption of the exotic persona and repertoire of Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris.

    With a company of fifty and 500 costumes the cycle opened at the Melbourne Tivoli in April 1935 with Birds of the Night (Les Oiseaux de Nuit). The Herald praised its ‘rapid humour, rhythm, numerically outsize ballets, quick patter and welcome originality; in fact, three diverting hours of galloping entertainment that has the crowds cheering.’ Birds of the Night was followed by Women of the World (Les Femmes du Monde), Why Go To Paris?, Beauty on Parade and so on.

    In April 1935 Frank Neil sailed for the United States in the liner Monterey. He also visited London. Not only did he book dozens of acts, he also contracted a producer. It had become obvious that he simply did not have the time to perform his duties as managing director, travel overseas to book acts, and produce shows in Sydney and Melbourne. What the Circuit needed was a competent resident revue producer, preferably with overseas experience and a good track record. The man Frank chose was Wallace R. Parnell, whom he had met in London the previous year. Though the job fitted him perfectly, Parnell was the very black sheep of one of Britain’s most celebrated theatrical families.

    Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the Tivoli inaugurated a series of revues starting with Hello America. Top billing was shared by English funny-man Joey Porter and the American comedic song-and-dance act Forsythe, Seamon and Farrell. Also on the bill were Ruth Craven, singing Cole Porter’s sassy ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, and a bright young local soubrette, Cath Esler. An interesting innovation was a compere  ̶  ‘the role is difficult and requires an artiste of rare versatility and quick wit’. The Tivoli’s first compere was Ted Leary, a wisecracking American comedian.

    Wallace Parnell sailed for Australia in July 1935. With him was his 'companion', Miss Winifred Hopped, an aspiring 22-year-old actress, whom everyone politely assumed was his wife. Meanwhile Queenie May, the real Mrs Parnell, remained behind in England. Her marriage and her career had faltered, and she was said to have ‘turned to drink’. Another passenger was Phyllis Dixey, who had been romantically linked with Parnell and who had starred in several of his touring revues. Also on board were Tracy and Vinette—actually Jack Tracy and Sophie Levine—whose speciality was an act called ‘The Sap and the Swell Dame’. During the trip, Jack became romantically linked with Phyllis Dixey. They married in 1937. Acclaimed ‘The Queen of Striptease’, Phyllis ran spicy strip shows at London’s Whitehall Theatre for some years, and produced the long-running farce Worm’s Eye View.

    Parnell’s first production for the Tivoli was The Laughter Express. With typical disregard for the truth, the program called him ‘The Peer of English Producers, from the London Palladium’. The Laughter Expressopened in Melbourne on 11 September 1935. The Star judged it ‘the best variety revue and fun ever put on at the Tivoli.’

    Wallace Parnell soon settled into the Tivoli’s routine. Frank Neil made all the important bookings and it was left to Parnell to meld the acts into cohesive shows. Although Neil and Parnell respected each other, their relationship was often stormy. Loud, acrimonious arguments were not uncommon. Parnell had to accept Neil’s policy of spending money on what he called ‘big name’ imports, even they were often fading stars who were relatively cheap. To pay their salaries and fares Neil saved money on production. He often re-vamped sets and costumes, much to Parnell’s frustration, and production staff had to devise cheap ways to make the shows look expensive.

    ‘The ballet costumes were scanty, nothing elaborate,’ recalled Jim Hutchings. ‘There was plenty of glitter and coloured lights, but everything was done on the cheap. Plenty of tap routines, good gags, Mo and Jim Gerald, Morry Barling, Syd Beck. Cheap local acts as fill-ins. Eight in the orchestra, two on the lines, three in electrics, two in props, a stage manager and an assistant. Eight in the ballet. All staff at an absolute minimum. We were all on small wages. This thrift built the Tivoli.’

    Fred Parsons confirms this parsimony: ‘Frank Neil was a terrifically hard worker and could turn his hand to anything in the theatre. He once boasted that the sets for an entire Tivoli production had cost him 4s 6d, and that was for nails. And I have seen him backstage, early in the morning, painting some scenery—not because he thought he could do it better than his scenic artist, but because he enjoyed doing it.’

    In those days shows played twice daily, at 2.30 and 8 pm. The productions were mounted in Melbourne, opening on the Monday matinee after an extensive band call in the morning. Seasons ran for five weeks in Melbourne, and five in Sydney. Often changes were incorporated in the seasons’ final two weeks for the benefit of patrons coming to see the show for the second time. After Sydney there were frequently short seasons in Brisbane and Adelaide and sometimes through New Zealand.

    As managing director of the Tivoli, Frank Neil always ensured that his name was placed prominently in publicity and in the programs. All the shows were tagged ‘Frank Neil presents...’ Wallace Parnell was named as producer, but always in a style that made it clear that Frank Neil was in charge. And although George Dickenson was by far the largest shareholder in the business, his name was never mentioned.

    There were pantomimes in both Sydney and Melbourne for Christmas 1935. Wallace Parnell produced Cinderellaat the Sydney Tivoli with The Laughter Express company. Phyllis Dixey was Dandini with local star Robert Nicholson as Demon Nightshade, terrifying the tots with his song about ‘The Green-Eyed Dragon with the Thirteen Tails’. In Melbourne, Frank Neil produced The Babes in the Wood at the King’s in a co-production arrangement with J.C. Williamson’s similar to that for Mother Goose the year before. This time, however, Neil was at pains to point out that as the pantomime would include a number of the Tivoli’s overseas stars, it was only fair that part of their fares should be charged against the panto’s production costs. In a letter to Frank Tait, he suggested that £70 a week should be allowed to cover these costs. ‘We are really getting an imported cast of stars for at a cost of just £12 15s more than the cast and specialities cost last year. P.S.: Don’t forget you are getting the use of the services of these people without sharing any of the costs of my world tour to secure them.’ When Frank Tait started to haggle, Neil shot back a terse note: ‘Dear Frank Tait, All right. Don’t let’s argue. We will charge £50 a week for the overseas fares. Kind regards, Frank Neil.’ Again, Neil’s draft budget has survived. The top salary, £100, went to Alfred Latell as Bonzo the Dog; Syd Beck was on £30 as the Dame, Nurse Anastasia, and the other principals’ salaries ranged from £25 down to £4. Juggler Jean Florian was on £35 and Alice Uren’s acrobats got a total of £10.

    Frank Neil also worked with entrepreneurs Milton and Adams as producer for Sinbad the Sailor at the Garrick Theatre in what was then Aikman Street, South Melbourne. The 770-seat Garrick, formerly known as the Snowden Picture Theatre and the Playhouse, was the city’s favourite ‘fringe’ theatre, housing a motley assortment of repertory, semi-professional and small-scale touring productions. Rich Milton and Les Adams, both comedians, had presented a revue company for a long season at the Bijou in 1932. They were both in Sinbad, Adams as the earthy Dame Hinbad. The Age reported, ‘Les Adams and Zilla Weatherly are outstanding, and Billy Andros shows ability as a ventriloquist. One of the features is fine ballet work by a band of little girls who, without showing any signs of precociousness, perform their little pieces in a manner that would be creditable to older and more seasoned artists. Gloria Dawn, in particular, seems to possess that captivating personality so essential for a stage career.’ Gloria was six. It was one of her first press ‘notices’.

    The first Tivoli production for 1936 opened in Melbourne on 30 January. It was called The Spice of Paris, a name used previously by Parnell for one of his most successful British touring revues. The Tivoli’s Spice of Paris starred the animal impersonator Alfred Latell, reprising his ‘Bonzo the Dog’ act. In the comedy sketches were Angus Watson, Phyllis Dixey, Keith Connolly, Chick Arnold, Keith Johns and Maurice Diamond. Diamond also looked after the dances and was, strangely, billed over producer Wallace Parnell. At the end of February, the company was joined by the droll American vaudeville comedienne Polly Moran for Hot from Hollywood. Miss Moran was a genuinely big star, familiar for her film partnership with Marie Dressler; her most recent screen appearance had been as the Dodo Bird in the celebrated 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland.

    neil shout for joy branos onealAd for Shout for Joy from The Herald (Melbourne), 5 May 1936. Buster Shaver with Olive and George Brasno (centre) & William O’Neal (right). Author’s collection.

    Next into the Melbourne Tivoli was Once in a Blue Moon, a revue built around an extraordinary act, American vaudevillian Buster Shaver with Olive and George. Olive Brasno and her brother, George, were ‘little people’. George was aged twenty-three, and 99 cm tall; Olive, twenty, was 96.5 cm tall. They had portrayed Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in the 1934 Wallace Beery film The Mighty Barnum.

    Jim Gerald was back at the Melbourne Tivoli from 27 April 1936 heading Shout for Joy. The show took its title from the revue in which Jim had toured the British provinces, following the debacle of his London debut. With him were Tommy Dale, Max Reddy and Cath Esler. Among the imported acts was the young British monologue comic, Eric Barker. His cod cockney witticisms later won him a huge following on the BBC. Also in the company was the American tenor William O’Neal, billed as ‘The Famous Red Shadow of The Desert Song in New York’. Almost true! The role was in fact created by a Scot, Robert Halliday, while O’Neal played the Red Shadow’s lieutenant, Sid El Kar. Nevertheless, O’Neal did have a genuine Broadway pedigree. He’d come to this country in 1935 to star in the Australian musical Flame of Desire and worked here until 1939. Back in New York he was the original Colonel Buffalo Bill in the Broadway premiere of Annie Get Your Gun.

    To be continued