Nellie Melba

  • C.H. Workman in Australia (Part 6)

    1 bannerMonte Luke’s promotional photos included scenic artist, Leslie Board and the show’s 28 year-old stage manager, Rege Carey. Punch (Melbourne), 8 April 1915, p.18

    Following the conclusion of the Sydney premiere season of High Jinks (to make way for J.C. Williamson’s pantomime season, which traditionally commenced in the harbourside city at Easter time) JCW’s New English Musical Comedy Company travelled Southwards to open at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on Easter Saturday, 27 March 1915. With Victor Champion taking the conductor’s chair as its local Musical Director, the cast remained much the same as it had in Sydney, with only a few minor alterations, which included the return of English actress, Gwen Hughes, who took over the role of Dr. Thorne’s nurse, ‘Florence’ from Eileen Cottey, and the addition of speciality dancer, Jack Hooker, who was given a solo spot in the Act 3 cabaret scene.

    Melbourne audiences took to the new musical with the same enthusiasm as the Sydneysiders had, which was reflected in the newspaper critiques published on the following Monday.

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     “HIGH JINKS.”

    The new musical jollity at Her Majesty’s Theatre is infinitely brighter, more cheery and melodious than any half dozen of the same class that have preceded it. It has also the advantage of improving through its three acts, the last one being a climax of irresponsible absurdity that sent the huge audience home in the best of spirits. It comes from American sources and the author is unannounced, but there are ample signs that it has been doctored a good deal in its passage from the States, and after. The music is mostly of the sparkling comedy, with a charming valse theme introduced in the beginning by Miss Dorothy Brunton, a song principally with harp and reed accompaniment, the melody also appearing in the score continually affording opportunities for admirable chorus singing. The second attraction was Miss Brunton’s and Mr. Plunket’s graceful duet and dance, “Not now, but later;” the third the trio, “Faust in ragtime,” with a serious travesty on grand opera by Mr. Workman, Miss Marie Eaton and Mr. F. Maguire, and the fourth Miss Eaton’s rousing ballad, “Sammy sang the Marseillaise,” the soul-stirring strain of the great French war song dominating the number. An additional treat was the exquisite dancing of Mdlle. Vlasta Novotna and Mr. Victor Lauschmann.

    Of course there is a plot, but it has all its work to do to carry the three acts on its back, and there is no strain necessary to follow it. The “High Jinks perfume,” if only smelt for a moment, has the power of turning the staid into jolly dogs, the dour towards roses and raptures and wine, and the cold-blooded to seek dare-devilry and Adventure. Of course it is all hilarious nonsense taken—after the first act—in the very highest of animal spirits, and finishing with a banquet full of surprises, the chief delight being the throwing of joyous handsprings by the lost, heavy father—of course after supper—to the joy of his newly-discovered wife, who has been dancing with all the energy worthy of a certificated pupil of St. Vitus.

    Mr. Field Fisher—who may be remembered as the stolid waiter in The Girl in the Taxi—takes the part of Dr. Thorne, an American specialist, the first victim of the perfume expressing, his new found mercurial vitality in attractive dancing, and fresh affection for his wife and for the wives of others, only avoiding a duel by urgent business at a bathing resort on the French coast, whither all the other characters come, the result being higher jinks than ever. Miss Florence Vie appears to every advantage as a woman of the world who has lost her husband, an American lumber king, for years, but manages, for all that, to live on and enjoy life to its full, which Miss Vie makes it very plain she does, throwing herself heart and soul into a performance that kept the stage lively all the time she was on it, especially in her duet with Mr. Rawlins, “Come Hither,“ and “The Dixiana Rise,” with the full company backing her as chorus. Miss Dorothy Brunton’s is chiefly a singing role, and as the adopted daughter of Miss Vie she was rather overshadowed in the dialogue but she gave her songs archly and brightly, making the hit of the evening with the valse number, “Is This Love at Last?” and subsequently in a ballad “By the Sea,” but in the last act she is almost obliterated, and is an onlooker only at the revels. As the stolid American lumber man, J.J. Jeffreys, transformed by the “High Jinks perfume” into a jovial and even dangerous man, Mr. W.H. Rawlins had a character rich in that class of humour in which he is an adept at portraying, and, with Miss Vie, kept the fun always at the topmost notch. A cleverly dealt with character was that of Jacques Rabelais by Mr. Paul Plunket, and departing from stage tradition rightly made him a gentleman—all Frenchmen are gentlemen. His graceful dance and song, “Not Now but Later,” with Miss Brunton, charmed by its verve and refinement. Of the explorer and inventor of the famous perfume, Mr. Workman had not much opening for his undoubted capabilities, but he made a telling hit with his first number, “High Jinks,” and in the duet “Chi Chi,” with Miss Glyn. Miss Marie Eaton was also—as Dr. Thorne’s real wife—assigned a singing part which she dealt with in fine style, and Miss Glynn was heard in a tender song, “The Bubble,” the effect being further illustrated by coloured air balloons that rose and fell, and even made their way to the roof of the theatre, where they found a home amongst the ornate mouldings. Mr. Frith’s Colonel Slaughter, who was also given and did smell of the perfume, was a neat comedy character, and Mr. F. Maguire, who does not appear till late, lent worthy aid by his singing to “Faust in Ragtime”. Miss Gwen Hughes created a pretty Red Cross figure—as nurse at Dr. Thorne’s; Mr. Chris Wren was a satisfactory garcon; Miss Nellie Hobson a rather sedate Madame Rabelais; and Miss Cecil Bradley a spruce Boy in Buttons, alias a page; and Mr. J. Hooker did a rattling double rag-step dance. The scenery by Messrs Board and Little, was captivating, and Mr. Victor Champion conducted skilfully, while a word of praise must be awarded Miss Minnie Hooper for the many pretty dances she has arranged. The piece, which had a very hearty reception by a packed house, will be repeated nightly with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

    The Argus (Melbourne), Monday, 29 March 1915, p. 6,

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    For the packed house at Her Majesty’s theatre on Saturday night three hours seemed to pass as so many minutes. The J.C. Williamson New English Comedy Company made a decided hit with “High Jinks,” truly described by Harry B. Burcher, the producer, as a musical jollity.

    The scenes are laid in France, first at the sanatorium of Dr. Thorne, an American, afterwards at Beauvllle, a coastal bathing resort. That the doctor, under the influence of the perfume, secretly administered by his chum, Dr. Wayne, permitted himself to be kissed by the wife of M. Jacques Rabelais, was the cause of a maze of misunderstandings, and most of the jollity. Wives became inextricably mixed with sweethearts, husbands dodged duels with the utmost difficulty, yet in spite of all, they sang and danced with a verve that delighted the audience. To sketch the plot would be to presume that it mattered, whereas it was submerged under an avalanche of mirth and mischief, lilting refrains, gay repartee and twinkling feet.

    Mr. C.H. Workman (Dr. Wayne, an explorer), the exploiter of the magic perfume, linked it, at the beginning of the first act, with the haunting melody of a song, “High Jinks." The song, the perfume, and Mr. Workman were then essential to the continuance of the piece.

    Miss Dorothy Brunton (Sylvia Dale, in love with Dr. Wayne), received an ovation for her most important number, “Is This Love at Last?" Her duet with Mr. Paul Plunket (M. Rabelais) was another success. Miss Marion Eaton (Mrs. Thorne) did justice to her numbers, particularly “Sammy Sang the Marseillaise.” Miss Florence Vie (Mrs. Jeffreys, a runaway wife), was responsible for much of the frivolity, and her song “Jim,” was especially well rendered. Miss Gertrude Glyn (Mile. Chi Chi, a dancer), was warmly encored for her tuneful “Bubbles.”

    Excellent work was done, with little respite, by Messrs W.H. Rawlins (Mr. J.J. Jeffreys, American lumber king), Field Fisher (Dr. Thorne), Paul Plunket (M. Rabelais), Alfred Frith (Colonel Slaughter), and Fred Maguire (Johnnie Doe). Others who pleased were Misses Gwen Hughes (a nurse), Cecil Bradley (a page), and Nellie Hobson (Madame Rabelals), and Mr. Chris Wren (garcon).

    In the third act Miss Vlasta Novotna and Mr. Victor Lauschmann were seen in a spirited dance. Mr. Jack Hooker contributed an eccentric step dance.

    The jollity will continue till further notice.

    The Herald (Melbourne), Monday, 29 March 1915, p.7,

    4 Fisher Workman Vie   Hal Gye caricatures for The Bulletin (Sydney), 8 April 1915, p.9

    The J.C. Williamson Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company having just concluded its final return Melbourne season at Her Majesty’s prior to the advent of High Jinks prompted the Age critic to draw comparisons with the evergreen comic operas. 

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    The medley of mirth and song staged at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday well represents the trend of advance—or the line of retreat—in matters musical since the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were written 30 years ago. In actual fact the world has probably become more serious since then. In its plays, and particularly in its musical comedies, it has become more flippant. Compared with Iolanthe or The Yeomen of the Guard, a production like High Jinksis an iridescent bubble on the surface of events. It is a chanson to an epic poem, or, if one prefers it, a souffle to a pancake. But whatever it is or is not, it is capable in the hands of a clever company of being made a very agreeable and light-hearted form of entertainment. And this is what happens to it in the present instance. The crowded audience on Saturday night gave the new production a cordial reception, and left the theatre feeling thoroughly satisfied. The three acts do what they profess to do; they furnish scenes of musical frivolity and light-hearted good humor; they provide some genuinely mirthful situations; and they carry the house along with them at a rapid, almost a breathless, pace. If anyone expects to hear improving moral sentiments or find a serious plot in High Jinks he will be disappointed. If he wants to have his fancy amused and his eyesight captivated he will be thoroughly satisfied. One is reminded at times of the lines in Mrs. Browning’s Wine of Cyprus, which may be applied to this extravaganza. It is:

    Bright as Paphia’s eyes e’er met us,

    Light as ever trod her feet.

    The name of the author of High Jinks does not appear on the program, but it is manifestly a composite work, built up by the collaboration of stage mechanist, dresser, librettist and musical composer—perhaps several of each. The result is really a harmony of its kind; a harmony made out of a number of sparkling and irresponsible materials, but none the less a harmony. The first scene is laid outside a doctor’s house in Paris. An accredited doctor, whether French or American, is not as a rule the kind of man who makes love to his patients, or takes unknown ladies on frivolous missions to the seaside. But there is a reason why the eminent American specialist, Dr. Robert Thorne, should do so in this case. A fellow practitioner has presented him with a wonderful specific; it is a perfume the merit of which is that it will galvanise into sudden life and “flirtatiousness” anyone who takes so much as a breath of it. Even the most serious-minded suffragette, it is claimed, could not resist this perfume; on a second or a third application she would forgive the British Prime Minister, and possibly dance a can-can with him in Trafalgar Square. At any rate, the effect on Dr. Thorne and the members of the High Jinks company is enlivening and exhilarating. There is no need to follow all the complications of the story. The doctor becomes an apostle of cheerfulness. He prescribes seaside resorts and young, good-looking nurses for all of his male patients. As for the women, he conceives it to be his mission to cheer them up by making love to them. A husband of one of them, who is unreasonable enough to object to this form of treatment, is completely pacified when given the opportunity of himself making love to the doctor's wife—or rather of a lady whom the doctor has thoughtfully passed of as his wife. It is all very impossible and very amusing. The second and third act, thrown against the background of a French watering place, introduce pretty dresses, pretty faces and comic situations in bewildering variety. The third act is perhaps the most handsomely staged and decorative of any. It is lit with lamps and adorned with shimmering evening dresses; and it is interspersed with music and very clever dancing, in which Mlle. Vlasta Novotna. Mr. Victor Lauschmann and Mr. Jack Hooker carry off the honors.

    The company that interprets this musical medley, and keeps it moving briskly from start to finish, is the one that appeared here last season in The Girl in the Taxi. The individual members, with scarcely an exception, appear to more advantage in this production than in the last, though Miss Jarvis, the leading lady, has in the interim deserted the stage for matrimony and domestic life. The leading part of Sylvia Dale, the young lady who has to pose both as assumed wife and assumed daughter falls to Miss Dorothy Brunton, who quite comes up to expectations. Miss Brunton seems to he improving with each new part. Her useful soprano voice, which she manages very pleasingly, is heard to great advantage in the song ‘Is This Love at Last’ in the first act, and also in the number ‘By the Sea’ in the second act. She shows, too, that she has stage sense and histrionic ability. Miss Gertrude Glynn, who will be remembered as Lady Babby in Gipsy Love, has a congenial part in this production as Mlle. Chi Chi, a dancer. Her clever dancing and good stage presence make her duet with Mr. Workman in the second act both graceful and effective; she is also heard to advantage in a pretty song, The Bubble, in which the effect is heightened by the sending up of large bright-colored bubbles to the ceiling. Miss Florence Vie is a large, cheerful and altogether successful runaway wife—so much so that the audience can hardly agree with the husband who congratulates himself on having a wife who is so considerate as to run away. Miss Marie Eaton performs creditably as the wife of Dr. Thorne, but the effect of her good singing voice would be enhanced if she gave the audience the benefit of the words. Of the others, Mr. Field Fisher does exceptionally well as Dr. Thorne, his dancing agility standing him in good stead. His conception of the part is legitimately humorous. The imposing personality of Mr. W.H. Rawlins fits admirably into the character of Mr. J.J. Jeffreys, the “lumber king,” and Mr. C.H. Workman, though not the ideal lover of romance, is sufficiently well cast as the comparatively serious hero—if anything in the play can be called serious. Mr. Paul Plunket as the would-be duellist husband, Mr. Alfred Frith as a very lively patient, Mr. Maguire as a young man about town, and Mr. Chris Wren as a droll and small sized waiter are others in the cast.

    The Age (Melbourne), Monday, 29 March 1915, p.7,

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    In addition to noting the absence of an author’s credit for the libretto, The Age critic correctly concluded that the score was a composite work, as Rudolf Friml’s original musical score had been bolstered by the addition of various interpolations, which was standard practise for musical comedies staged in Australia by JCW at this period, with Andrew MacCunn serving as chief musical adviser on such matters. In addition to the “Faust in Ragtime” trio showcasing the combined vocal talents of Charles Workman, Marie Eaton and Fred Maguire, the show also sported two popular American songs from 1914 to highlight the talents of its two leading ladies, “By the Beautiful Sea” (by Harold R. Atteridge and Harry Carroll) for Dorothy Brunton, and “Dancing the Blues Away”(by Joe McCarthy, Howard Johnson and Fred Fisher) for Marie Eaton.

    While the most likely source of the interpolated Act III opening chorus “Beauville” was the Act II opening chorus “Friville” (with amended lyrics) from the 1911 British musical comedy Peggy, featuring the music of Leslie Stuart and lyrics of C.H. Bovill, for which JCW held the Australasian performing rights (under a long-standing agreement with London impresario, George Edwardes to acquire the rights to all musicals and operettas staged at his London Gaiety and Daly’s Theatres, which had been instituted by J.C. Williamson himself) since the musical was never professionally staged by The Firm in Australia (although the original orchestra parts remain extant in the “J.C. Williamson collection of performance materials” archived at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.)

    The theatre critics for the weekly Melbourne newspapers and periodicals were no less stinting in their praise of the new musical than their colleagues of the daily press.

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    The Playgoer

    By “Peter Quince”


    There were no signs of war or world-troubles upon the playgoing face which, loomed large, shining and smiling at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday evening. The house was densely crowded, and the welcome which was accorded to the members of “The Girl in the Taxi” Company as they made their reappearance was warm to the point of enthusiasm. The new production is entitled “High Jinks,” and is a musical farce, the name of the composer being modestly withheld, probably because it is that of a German. The piece has achieved a great success in America, and will probably do the same here, if one may judge by the favour with which it was received on the first production. “High Jinks” is an hilarious nightmare, as amusing a story as it is wildly improbable, inconsequent and utterly irresponsible. The music is varied, bright and enjoyable, the fact that it is reminiscent of much that we have had before detracting but little from its attractiveness. The name “High Jinks” serves the double purpose of describing the action of everybody concerned, whilst under the influence of the perfume, “High Jinks.” This magical scent has the effect of making any person who sniffs it amorously happy and deliriously demonstrative. The doctor who has tested it becomes at once oblivious to the troubles of his patients, except when they are young and pretty, and require soothing kisses to be administered; rheumatic patients under the influence of the smell shake off their stiffness in a remarkable way, and develop at once amativeness and Terpsichorean energy, whilst its potency is so all-powerful as to send everybody to a charming seaside resort, where the hours are spent in singing, dancing, love-making and strolling on the sands in the most fetching of costumes, full, scant and intermediate. In fact, the spell of the High Jinks perfume is irresistible.

    * * * *

    Hazily seen, through the piece is woven the love story of a Manila lumber king, who has married an actress. They, after a brief honeymoon, had agreed to separate, and at the time the opera commences this separation has endured for twenty-three years. The actress after separation, sent her husband a cable notifying the birth of their little girl. The story of the birth was a “frame-up,” which the pseudo-mother covers up afterwards by adopting an attractive young singer. The lonely lumber king comes to France for the good of his health, and under the influence of “High Jinks” is condemned to a course of treatment at the hands of a fascinating nurse. The actress-wife and the supposed daughter visit the same watering place, and at once find themselves entangled in the web of intrigue and misunderstanding which “High Jinks” weaves everywhere it is permitted to mingle with the atmosphere. An excitable French gentleman and his wife are prominent in the action, as also are many dancers. The final result is that the subtle perfume gets into the nostrils of the audience, and the piece leaves them in a state of “High Jinks,” merriment and an atmosphere of “dunno-where-they-are.”

    * * * *

    In this piece Miss Dorothy Brunton plays perhaps her most important part—that off the adopted daughter Sylvia, and in the character sings in a much improved and effective manner, giving altogether a most creditable rendering of the young, proper and affectionate girl. Miss Brunton has the song of the piece, “Is This Love at Last,” a waltz number of haunting quality. She also scored in “By the Sea” with an effective chorus, and running through the refrain at times is heard the “swish” of the far resounding sea, as the rollers lazily chase each other upon the sands of Beauville. Miss Brunton, of course, looks a delightful picture, and acts with spirit and charm. Miss Gertrude Glyn as Chi-Chi, a dancer, is in this piece a character of minor importance, but Miss Glyn made her as bright and convincing as possible, and scored successes in “The Bubbles,” and in her duet with Mr. C.H. Workman. Miss Florence Vie as the separated wife of the lumber king was quite in her element, and in her quaint appearance, costumes and sayings must be held responsible for a large proportion of the laughter of the evening. As the doctor’s wife Miss Marie Eaton achieved a distinct musical success; the two adjectives must be taken as bracketed together, for her singing of the music was as distinctly successful as the words of the songs were indistinct and unintelligible. Perhaps now that Germany is under a cloud, operatic artists will reconsider the true value of “lieder ahne worte,” and give the author, as well as the composer, an opportunity of being heard and understood. Miss Nellie Hobson as Madame Rabelais, and Miss Gwen Hughes as a nurse, were respectively “bits of all-right,” and Miss Cecil Bradley filled the role of a page with marked success. The gentlemen in the cast may be briefly summarised as “all there” in dialogue, music, dancing, action and the provocation of merriment. They were Messrs. Field Fisher, W.H. Rawlins, C.H. Workman, Paul Plunket, Alfred Frith and Fred Maguire. More of them next week. During the third act a dance by Mr. Victor Lauschmann and Mdlle. Vlasta Novotna was warmly appreciated. The piece was enthusiastically received, and will prove a shining Easter attraction.

    Punch (Melbourne), Thursday, 1 April 1915, p.32,

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    7 By the Beautiful SeaDorothy Brunton and the girls’ chorus sing “By the Beautiful Sea”. Photo by Monte Luke. Punch (Melbourne), 25 March 1915, p.27.


    The complaint as to a slump in matters theatrical can scarcely be well-founded considering the capital attendances at the regular theatres, notwithstanding the counter attractions of picture-shows innumerable. Her Majesty’s Theatre is packed nightly. On Saturday night hundreds were turned away from the doors. “High Jinks” went as befits its name—merrily and boisterously. The piece is strong in comedians, who keep the ball rolling briskly. Mr. W.H. Rawlins is a great favourite as Mr. J.J. Jeffreys, who curses his fate, in being called after the former champion of the prize ring. Poor Jeffreys has come to Paris for the cure, which seems to consist of pleasant treatment by a comely nurse who has no serious objection to playing up high-jinks when required. Mr. Rawlins and Miss Florence Vie are very successful in their humorous duet. “Come Hither,” Mr. C.H. Workman is bright, brisk and lively throughout, and is heard to great advantage in the scene, “Faust in Ragtime,” in which he shares the honours with Miss Marie Eaton and Mr. Fred Maguire. Mr. Field Fisher carries the important burden of Dr. Thorne lightly, Mr. Paul Plunket, gives characteristic tone and action to the impressionable and fire-eating French husband, Mr. Alfred Frith does splendidly as Colonel Slaughter, especially in the banquet scene. The dancing introduced into “High Jinks” forms an important and attractive feature. The pas de deux by Miss Vlasta Novotna and Mr. Victor Lauschmann is a brilliant and graceful measure, and is loudly applauded, whilst the eccentric double-rag dancing of Mr. Jack Hooker is something in the way of a revolution in step-dancing. The graceful movements and dances incidental to the action of the piece are highly creditable to their arranger, Miss Minnie Hooper. “High Jinks” will be produced every evening until further notice.

    Punch (Melbourne), Thursday, 8 April 1915, p.32,

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     “High Jinks.”

    Packed in every part, there was quite a gala spirit rife at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday night. From the opening of the overture there was a breath of espiegle and gaiety about the new production, “High Jinks,” that set everyone in a good humor. There is plenty of dash and “ginger” in it from start to finish, and never a dull moment. Events are hurried at the breathless speed and with all the hustle which characterises American productions. The music is bright and sparkling, with catchy airs and a pretty waltz refrain, which, however, is not intruded too much. It has also that rare thing in musical comedy—a plot which is followed almost without a break to the very end. It is thin, but it serves to keep up a strong interest right to the close of the third act.

    The story opens outside Dr. Robert Thorne’s surgery, a busy specialist, who is brusque in manner. Patients arrive to consult him, and Dick Wayne, a friend, drops in. He is the inventor of a wonderful perfume, “High Jinks,” with magical qualities, so that a mere whiff makes one genial and ready to frivol. The doctor receives him snappily, then, to make some amends, says he will take his perfume and have a look at it. He does so, with the effect that it makes him skittish, and he scandalises several persons by being caught dancing most energetically. Finally, in the very act of kissing Madame Rabelais, he is detected by her husband, who challenges the doctor and gives him the choice of being killed or allowing Monsieur to kiss Mrs. Thorne. The latter alternative is chosen. The lady is to be at Beauvllle, but a little plot is arranged to have a pseudo wife represent her; and an actress, the adopted daughter of an ex-stage favorite, is chosen to play the role. But Wayne is a devoted admirer of her, and has watched her night after night from a box, and he begins to suspect and to be furiously jealous when he sees her in a compromising situation. There is another patient, who is sent off to recruit with a nurse, J.J. Jeffreys, who tells how he has not seen his wife, whom he married from the stage, for over 20 years.

    They all arrive at Beauville, even the stately, real wife of the doctor, and there are many muddles and explanations before it is all straightened out.

    To do justice to the production, a specially-picked company is necessary, especially on the masculine side, for each role has to be sustained by a comedian with a sense of character, and at the same time a dancer and more or less a singer. Such a company the management has been lucky enough to find, and consequently “High Jinks,” which is beautifully staged and mounted, has a dash and breeziness which are quite irresistible. All the parts fit the performers as though made for them. C.H. Workman is excellent as Dick Wayne, a role in which he displays acting ability of no mean quality, real vocal talent, and proves himself a dancer who is wonderfully light on his feet. Of Field Fisher, as Dr. Thorne, much the same may be said, except that he is not quite so well endowed as a singer. But right through he keeps to the spirit of the part in an effective way.

    Paul Plunket is admirable as the excitable, volatile Frenchman, Mons. Jacques Rabelais. Alfred Frith, as Colonel Slaughter, an elderly military dandy and fire-eater, is another well-worked-out role which provokes humor, and W.H. Rawlins is first-rate as J.J. Jeffreys, who has mislaid a wife and daughter and acquired a too pronounced figure and some digestive ills.

    Marie Eaton makes one of the most striking successes on the feminine side. Like Mr. Workman, she comes out strong as quite a dramatic actress, a singer of high merit, and a dancer. The trio in the third act, in which she, C.H. Workman, and Fred Maguire give the “Faust” burlesque in ragtime, represents something very fine vocally, such as is rarely heard in musical comedy; it approaches very nearly grand opera, and arouses the audience to a regular salvo of applause.

    Florence Vie, in the comedy part of Adelaide Fontaine, the mislaid wife, is next in prominence and scores a big popular success, for she bubbles over with humor and good spirits.

    Dorothy Brunton is sweet and dainty as Sylvia Dale, her adopted daughter, with just the right dash of assertive spirit to prevent Sylvia being too cloyingly sweet. Gertrude Glyn has not much opportunity as Mdlle. Chi Chi, but manages to make the part stand out, and does well in her one song and dance.

    Gwen Hughes as the nurse at Doctor Thorne’s, Nellie Hobson as Madame Rabelais, Cecil Bradley as a page, Fred Maguire as Johnnie Doe, and Chris. Wren as Garcon, are well placed in the minor roles. Mdlle. Novotna and Victor Lauschmann give a graceful dance number in the third act.

    There are many new ideas in stage effects and movements, and the whole production reflects the greatest credit upon Harry B. Burcher, who supervised the whole. The orchestra, under Victor Champion, does excellent work.

    Table Talk (Melbourne), Thursday, 1 April 1915, p.25,

    8 Scenes 1(l to r) Florence Vie & W.H. Rawlins—Gertrude Glynn, W.H. Rawlins & Cecil Bradley (as the page)—Alice Bennetto & Field Fisher.
    Photos by Monte Luke. Punch (Melbourne, Vic.), 25 March 1915, p.27.

    THEATRES, &c.

    Coming on the heels of the Gilbert and Sullivan season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, musical comedy has its differences, its defects, thrown into sharper contrast, but “High Jinks” is as well fitted to stand the strain as anything in the line produced of recent years. That this kind of entertainment maintains its popularity there can be no doubt. The air and attitude of the large audience which welcomed it back on Saturday evening offered convincing proof upon that point. The gaiety of the house was infectious—it increased with the progress of the frolic, which is admirably arranged to create expectation at the outset and carry one on from that pleasant state to the feeling of unbounded, irresponsible gaiety reached in the climax. “High Jinks,” if not consecutive, is sparkling, melodious, and graceful all through. No author has put his name to it, but possibly a dozen have contributed to what is, after all, the least important part of an entertainment, brought to perfection chiefly by stage art and experience. As “The Mikado” has a fresh musical surprise for us in each melodious moment, so “High Jinks,” in other ways and by wholly different charms, keeps one simmering always, sometimes shouting impulsive and unstinted approval. As with “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” [the George M. Cohan play starring Fred Niblo then playing at the Theatre Royal] it is better to leave a good deal for revelation on the stage. Mention of the idea is almost sufficient—a magical perfume, the secret of which is possessed by an American doctor resident in Paris, and the effect of which even at a single sniff is to make moody people bright and bright people intensely gay. It is an elixir calculated to do much good in some communities, maybe harm in others, though no moral that anyone can discover is hinged on or even suggested at Her Majesty’s. The doctor who administers it, and who at the outset is impelled only by scientific zeal, the glamour of a great discovery, is not immune to his own medicine. So he is infected, and his remedy for all ailments—not discoverable in the pharmacopoeia—is to make love to his patients, serious or frivolous, maiden or married alike. If husbands find fault with the method and seek interviews, a whiff of the magic perfume removes all jealousy, all gloom, and thence on—to use imagery suitable to the situation—they are “in it up to their eyebrows.” Two of the acts are set at a charming French seaside resort, with all that the atmosphere and the situation offer or suggest. For the rest of the story—the detail that completes it, the bits in parentheses that have nothing to do with it—but are not less welcome on that account—the curious, as in the case of “Baldpate,” are best referred to the theatre. To those who fail to find full enjoyment, either the magic perfume itself or an everyday tonic is prescribed. In curt analysis, “High Jinks” may be defined as a hybrid between the lighter, brighter side of musical comedy and the just-deceased revue. It is produced—and better played and sung—by the company which appeared in “The Girl in the Taxi,” with whom Miss Dorothy Brunton, now in the lead, has been winning fresh distinction. Miss Brunton has in this instance chiefly a singing part, and fate in the allotment of its favours is unkind to her only in the last act, where she is mainly a picturesque looker-on. In the earlier scenes, however, Miss Brunton does more than enough for her reputation—and chiefly in the song “Is This Love at Last?” In such a production as this the chief comedian is of vital importance. As the doctor driven to gaiety by the diablerie of his own medicine, Mr. Field Fisher has altogether a different kind of character to the waiter of the Jeunesse Doree restaurant, and fresh opportunity reveals in him new and highly entertaining qualities as a comedian. Mr. Fisher is no specialty artist. He grasps and reveals the humorous and the ridiculous on the broadest lines. The doctor has two wives, the one taken before, the other after the perfume. Miss Florence Vie, the after effect, has run away from one husband, a rough and ready lumberman of the back woods, who, getting within range of the joy-bringer, is transformed in the usual way. Miss Vie is decorative, musical, and, like the Waverley pen, “a boon and a blessing to men,” while Miss Marie Eaton, as the wife of the scientific era, sings supremely well, though always with more regard to the value of musical notes than song words, which are, however, of lesser importance. The comedy is sprinkled with good songs and bright situations, and some distinct, if not vital, characters. The frivolous Frenchman of the English stage is very often a grotesque caricature. As a concession to the Entente, Mr. Plunket in this instance corrects such errors without losing anything in effect upon the light side. His Jacques Rabelais is not very Rabelaisian—just Rabelaisian enough. Miss Gertrude Glynn, Miss Gwen Hughes, Mr. Frith, Mr. W.H. Rawlins—who is very happy indeed as the transformed and rejuvenated man of the pine woods—and other artists equip this comedy in a way that offers little chance for betterment. All that stage art can do in colour design and effect to give it suitable setting is accomplished; the dancing of Vlasta Novotna and Victor Lauschmann wins unbounded admiration. Nothing better in fun, frivolity, light-hearted and graceful entertainments—with just sufficient of the spice of wickedness—has recently been staged at Her Majesty’s than “High Jinks.”

    The Australasian (Melbourne), Saturday, 3 April 1915, p.24,

    9 Scenes 2(l to r) C.H. Workman & Dorothy Brunton—Field Fisher caught kissing Nellie Hobson by Paul Plunket—Gertrude Glynn & C.H. Workman—Field Fisher & C.H. Workman.
    Photos by Monte Luke. Punch (Melbourne), 25 March 1915, p.27.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The critic for The Leader, however, was far more grudging in his praise and seemed to regard the whole enterprise as unworthy of his serious appraisal, and of possessing only a few redeeming features.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    DRAMA, &c.


    High Jinks, produced at Her Majesty’s by The Girl in the Taxi Company, is described as “a musical jollity,” and is certainly entitled to no higher commendation. It has been devised for the amusement of those who are content with rollicking farce and desire no more intellectual form of entertainment. There is no deception practised, for the title is quite sufficient to indicate the nature of the show. Those of the audience who are not satisfied with the broad effects which evoke laughter, with the inspiring music, and the dancing which seems to be the outcome of irrepressible influence, have no business to give their patronage. High Jinks may be taken to represent the lowest phase to which musical comedy has descended, though we should not like to say that there may not be in the lowest deep a lower deep. It is redeemed from its worst aspects by the tuneful quality of some of the musical accompaniment, and by the kind of tarantelle dancing which furnishes its principal attraction.

    The idea, if it can be called an idea, which is contained in the story, is found in the mysterious virtues attaching to a certain perfume. A whiff of this is sufficient to overturn the mental balance of the most staid and correct of individuals, and to send him capering with a nimbleness which defies any sense of restraint. A doctor of irritable temperament and sober demeanor, who was induced to try it by his friend the explorer becomes a new being, eager for amatory converse with his patients and ready to seize on any opening for intrigue. He is discovered by a jealous Frenchman kissing his wife, and to avoid a duel prefers to face the threatened alternative of a retaliation in kind. His own wife he sends off on a wild goose chase, while he arranges for temporarily filling her place with an accommodating dancer, who is quite ready to be kissed by the indignant Frenchman on a basis of substantial pecuniary reward, but as her terms are exorbitant, the doctor thinks he can make more economical arrangements by engaging the services of a grass widow and her adopted daughter. Then follow an inextricable series of complications which are supposed to be irresistibly amusing. Whenever there is danger of a hitch, the intoxicating perfume is brought into action and sets everybody's legs wildly gyrating. Those who are willing to succumb to the suggestion that there is something exhilarating in this form of humor will find ample excuse for riotous laughter, but it is a kind of fooling which may well make the judicious grieve.

    The only reasonable occasion for satisfaction in High Jinks will be discoverable in the music, the dancing, and the setting. There are some catchy songs interspersed throughout the performance, and all the principal characters are given an opportunity. The main theme, repeated again and again, has a tuneful quality, and the parody of Faust, given by Marie Eaton, C.H. Workman and Fred Maguire, is of quite ambitious character, though the conversion of Gounod’s magic tone into ragtime may be condemned as a desecration. The dancing is a distinctive feature of the performance, and apart altogether from the funny capers which are an adjunct of the perfume, there are ballets of an attractive kind, and a specially delightful illustration of the poetry of motion supplied by Vlasta Novotna and Victor Lauschmann. The costuming and setting of the play are other merits to be acknowledged.

    The company does the most it can with the material at its service, though the conditions are not as favorable as those under which the original reputation was obtained.  Mr. C.H. Workman is most to be pitied, for his part of the explorer who has to whisk about with the scent bottle is an impossible one. As some compensation, he is given more chances of displaying his vocal ability. He has a song, a duet and the Faust trio, but we miss his humor. Miss Marie Eaton is in greater prominence than usual, and when she has singing to do acquits herself well. Miss Dorothy Brunton bids fair to become a great favorite with the public, and though now lacking in certainty, has qualities which should enable her to achieve success. A pleasant appearance, a charm of manner, and a voice which enables her to sing prettily, are good assurances of recommendation. Miss Florence Vie seems to experience a joy in living which she communicates to the audience, and her style of humor finds a convenient environment in High Jinks. Miss Gertrude Glynn as Chi-Chi, the dancer, combines vocal and pedal gymnastics. Her song, The Bubble, with its quaint accompaniment of colored air balloons, was distinctly novel. The doctor was played by Mr. Field Fisher with a thorough appreciation of its spirit. Mr. Alfred Frith as a volatile Colonel, and Mr. Paul Plunket as the indignant Frenchman, made the most they could of their parts. Mr. W.H. Rawlins as an American lumber king, who was not averse to amorous adventure while in search of his long lost wife, was appropriately ponderous, with an occasional outburst into amazing agility. Aid was rendered also in minor measure by Miss Gwen Hughes as a nurse, by Miss Nellie Hobson as the kissed wife of the Frenchman, by Miss Cecil Bradley as a page, and by a young male member of the company who contributed a lively step dance.

    The Leader (Melbourne), Saturday, 3 April 1915, p.34,

    10 castPunch (Melbourne) 8 April 1915, p.18

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The theatrical gossip columns in the daily press and weekly periodicals continued to promote public interest in the entertainment world by reporting items of interest.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *


    Mr. Harry Burcher, “producer” of “High Jinks,” is the latest to sing the praises of the Australian chorus girl. “Her versatility is simply remarkable,” says Mr. Burcher. “In London a chorus girl generally remains a chorus girl, or, at any rate, is seldom able to distinguish herself in an emergency such as the Australian girl is capable of. We have in the chorus of the ‘High Jinks’ company, at the present time, at least six girls who could step out of the ranks and play parts if called upon. The same applies, to some extent, to the male members of the chorus, who are far above the average type of chorus man we have in London. The ranks of the Australian chorus provide a remarkable amount of material for turning into highly accomplished artists.”

    The Herald (Melbourne), Wednesday, 28 April 1915, p.1

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Harry Burcher was as good as his word and during his tenure as a producer (or stage director in modern parlance) with JCW, he helped to promote the careers of many Australian performers in his productions, including Madge Elliott, who he brought out of the ballet and cast in her first acting and singing roles, culminating with the titular Cabaret Girl in 1923.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    On and Off the Stage

    11 Chocolate Soldier 1910“I’ve just had quite an interesting experience,” said C.H. Workman, the famous comedian in “High Jinks,” at Melbourne Her Majesty’s. He had just emerged from a book-seller’s shop, and displayed a copy of an English souvenir of “The Chocolate Soldier,” in which he created the part of Bumerli. “I was buying a magazine,” he explained, “when the man behind the counter looked at me sharply for a moment, and then remarked, ‘I think I have got something here that will interest you.’ He handed me a copy of the ‘Chocolate Soldier’ souvenir. ‘You're Mr. Workman, I think?’ I admitted that I was. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘would you care to accept this? I have often thought I would like to meet the original of that picture of Bumerli on the cover. I saw you in the piece in England, and it does seem strange that I should meet you in Melbourne.’ It was quite a strange sensation to me to see my own picture on a periodical thousands of miles from England, and so unexpectedly.”

    Table Talk (Melbourne), Thursday, 29 Apr 1915, p.20

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Widespread public sympathy for Belgian refugees displaced from their homeland by the German invasion, which had precipitated Britain’s declaration of war against the aggressors (with Australia following suit in support of the Empire) resulted in many charitable appeals to support the Belgian Relief Fund to provide food and clothing for the beleaguered nation. One such appeal was Belgian Rose Day held on 8 April (to mark the birthday of King Albert of Belgium) which saw Charles Workman and his fellow cast members rubbing shoulders with the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, and Melbourne’s own hometown operatic diva, Nellie Melba, who was just then embarking on the patriotic fund-raising work that would earn her the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in early 1918. (As a world famous exponent of the role of ‘Marguerite’ in Gounod’s Faust, Melba’s reaction to the interpolated “Faust in Ragtime” trio in High Jinks went, sadly, unrecorded. A curiously comical juxtaposition was provided by a charity matinee staged at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in aid of the Actors Association of Australia Benevolent Fund and the Royal Comic Opera Company's Sick Fund, on the afternoon of Friday, 8 September 1916, in which Melba sang the prison scene from Faust to end the first part and the New English Musical Comedy Company concluded the entertainment with a performance of the complete second act from High Jinks, which included the musical “travesty” performed therein wherein Faust comes to bail Marguerite out of prison, and Mephistopheles, who has a taxi waiting outside, bewails the fact that it is ticking off dollars while the trio are singing.)

    * * * * * * * * * * * *


    Decorated motor cars paraded the streets, bands of pierrots, and masked, mysterious ladies sang patriotic songs. The streets were gay with red, yellow and black banners and flags. Several of the shop windows were dressed in the national colours of Belgium, and through the crowded streets went on busily the clinking of coins into tin boxes. Each affair of this kind seems to bring out more girls to collect—there were nearly 700 yesterday in the city alone. Most of the collecting activity seemed to be displayed in the forenoon. The 100,000 artificial roses were sold out by midday, but there still remained the postcards, ribbons, and the real roses. At luncheon time the principal cafes were decorated with roses and Belgian colours, and a number of politicians and leading citizens took advantage of the occasion to say pleasantly true things about King Albert and in praise of the people who stood for a fortnight against the brutal might of Germany.

    In the afternoon there was a parade through the city of the decorated motor cars. The motor car is not a thing which lends itself much to decoration, but indubitably the best effect was that obtained by the car which headed the procession—a chariot in blue and white, with two white swans perched over the bonnet, and giving an effect of Lohengrin. The second car, in autumn colours, was also well designed and a good effect was gained by the one which came later in the procession—the body being massed around with blue and white flowers with a Union Jack design at the back, and a pole in the centre to which gaily-coloured streamers led.

    His Excellency the Governor and Lady Stanley came in during the afternoon, and halted for a while at Lady Allen’s kiosk opposite the Town Hall; moving on to see the return of the motor procession at the Federal Parliament House. The weather throughout was pleasant and sunny, though rather warm …



    At quarter past 2 o’clock the decorated cars, some of which had been acting as kiosks during the forenoon, drove up opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral, under the eye of the Lady Mayoress, who judged them, and awarded the prize to Madame Melba. The car for which the first prize was given was that mentioned above as reminiscent of Lohengrin. It was a perfect bower of blue and white, most elaborately and tastefully handled. It was the only thing in the procession which did not look like a motor car, and the prize could only have gone elsewhere by a shocking error of taste. Half a dozen banners were given to half a dozen other cars, and the procession left for the city, via Collins street to William street, and thence through Bourke street to Parliament House. Madame Melba’s car went first, Madame herself distributing the flowers to the crowds which lined the route …


    The official luncheon in [the dining-room of the Oriental Hotel] was given by Mesdames Percy Russell, R. Hallenstein, V. Wisher, and Arthur Woolcott, who had the use of the lounge as a depot. The principal guest was the Prime Minister (Mr. Fisher). The table at which they sat was ornamented by an immense canopy of roses amid foliage, and from the centre rose a fountain of rose-scented water. At the given time the Prime Minister rose and proposed the toast “His Majesty the King,” and then in a few words gave the toast of the day. Early in the afternoon preparations were made for the cafe chantant, for so many tables had been booked that, in addition to the Winter Garden, accommodation in the lounge and dining-room had to be requisitioned. A capital programme was rendered from the musicians gallery, the contributors being Miss Dorothy Brunton and Miss Florence Vie (of the “High Jinks” company), Mr. Lawrence Leonard, Mr. Fred Collier, Miss Elsie Treweek, Miss Anne Williams, Mr. H. Hamilton, Miss Rosa Walton and Miss Florence Finn. Programs were sold for silver coins, and a few which Madame Melba autographed realised fancy prices, as much as £1 being given for one.

    At the conclusion of the procession of decorated cars, Madame Melba took tea at the Oriental, her arrival being announced by Mr. F.A. McCarty, who said he had just received from her funds amounting to close on £30, which she had collected during her tour through the city. Madame Melba had intended putting up several articles for sale by auction, but she felt too fatigued to conduct the sale, so Mr. Workman of the “High Jinks” company, and Mr. P. Bush, of the Theatre Royal company, acted as auctioneers with the result that £13/12/6 was raised from two Belgian flags (£8/15/), a prize rose (£1/10/), and two bottles of “High Jinks” scent (£3/7/0). The proceeds from the tea tickets amount to close on £30.

    The Argus (Melbourne), Friday, 9 April 1915, p.6 [extracts],

    * * * * * * * * * * * *


    The members of the High Jinks company gathered at the Savoy Cafe on Saturday night with the object of helping the Belgian fund. Mr. C.H. Workman, with the co-operation of Mr. H.B. Burcher, directed the proceedings, a feature of which was an auction sale by Mr. Workman. A £1 note was purchased by Mr. Falkiner for £110, and he also secured a pair of poplin curtains for £24. A collection by Miss Marie Eaton realised £17 8/, the total amount received being £131 18/. During the evening an entertainment was given by Mr. Workman, Mr. [Victor] Lauschmann, Mr. Alexander Yakovleuko, Mme. Clere and Miss Eaton.

    The Leader (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday, 3 April 1915, p.50

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Having established his home-base in Melbourne with his wife, “Tottie” and son, Roy, Charles Workman also helped to organise further charitable events with the co-operation of fellow citizens of his adopted city and the active participation of Mrs. Workman.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Mr. Workman’s Garden Fete

    Mr. C.H. Workman, of the “High Jinks” company, with Miss Dorothy Brunton, has organised a garden fete and café chantant, in aid of the Belgian Fund, to be given at Ascog, Southey street, St. Kilda, next Saturday, May 8. There will be numerous attractions, including the attendance of a large theatrical party, who will appear by permission of J.C. Williamson, Ltd. Those taking part in the program will include Mr. Workman, Miss Dorothy Brunton, Mr. Hector Goldspink, Mr. Willie Conway, Miss Elsie Warman, and members of the “High Jinks” company.

    The Argus (Melbourne), Saturday, 1 May 1915, p.18,

    * * * * * * * * * * * *



    The residents of Ascog and Whinbank, St. Kilda, were the successful organisers of a garden fete combined with a café chantant and tennis tournament, which was held in the spacious grounds of Ascog, lent by Mrs. J. Grace, on Saturday, May 8, in order to raise funds for the Belgians. Flags and streamers in the Belgian colours decorated the stalls which had been erected on the front lawns, and the gay scene was enhanced by all the young girls assisting wearing white frocks, with aprons and caps in our national and Belgian colours. The opening Ceremony was performed by Mr. C.F. Beauchamp early in the afternoon, but, though the sale of gifts only then commenced, the tennis tournament had been in progress from 10 o’clock a.m.

    The arrangements for this were supervised by Miss Mamie Marks, who had been assisted in the preliminary work by Mr. E. Trend. There were between thirty and forty entries, and some exciting matches were witnessed in the concluding rounds. When the final contest took place the daylight was rapidly departing, consequently it was difficult for the players to distinguish the ball. The successful pair, Mr. A Whyte and Miss Jones, just managed to win from Mr. K. Trend and Miss Essie Price. The trophies for this tournament had been donated by W. Drummond and Co. and the balls by the Dunlop Rubber Co. The café chantant was in the billiard lounge, and throughout the afternoon it proved a great attraction, as a large number of well-known artists gave their services on the program, including Mr. C.H. Workman, Mr. Fred Maguire, Mr. C. Wren, Miss Dorothy Brunton, Miss Queenie Paul (all of the “High Jinks” Company), the Misses Elsa Warman, Mansell Kirby, Master and Miss Scurrah, and Messrs. Hector Goldspink, E.H. Leahy, G. Chant, and W. Conway.

    The various side-shows included Aunt Sally (in charge of Mr. Trend), bran pies, fortune telling, spinning jennies, motor and pony rides (the car and ponies having been lent by Miss Simmonds and Miss Joseph respectively.) Tables for afternoon tea out on the broad verandah, and those who directed the arrangements there were Mesdames Workman, James, and Richardson. A well-stocked stall for sweets was in charge of Mesdames C.F. Beauchamp, J.B. Macglashan, and Miss Beauchamp; and another which displayed an attractive show of cut flowers and pot plants was managed by Mrs. Raphael. Among those who sold sprays for coats or dresses was Miss Gwen Hughes, of the “High Jinks” Co. In the evening Mrs. J. Grace arranged a palais de danse, which was attended by some hundreds of visitors, and was a great success. The committee of direction for the fete, &c., was formed by Messrs. C.H. Workman, E. Trend, D.O. Reeson, T. Grace, and J.B. Macglashan. It is estimated that the proceeds will result in about £100 being handed to the Belgian Relief Funds.

    The Australasian (Melbourne), Sat, 15 May 1915, p.40,

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    N.B. £1 in 1915 would be equivalent to approximately $108.50 in today’s currency; thus £10 = $1,085 and £100 = $10,850, etc. (ref: )

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Other wartime charities were also the beneficiaries of the theatrical profession’s largesse in supporting worthy causes by donating their talents gratis, which also extended to the management providing the performance venues without cost, especially on Sundays when the staging of regular theatrical entertainments was prohibited in accordance with the Lord’s Day Observance Act. Such extra-curricular activities that took place on the Sabbath day were generally given the billing of “Sacred Concerts” in order to circumvent the law. The “Grand Entertainment” organised by the tenor, Walter Kirby, in aid of the Australian and British Red Cross Funds staged at the Theatre Royal on Sunday, 16 May was thus advertised in the local press with the stated proviso that the artists taking part “Will Sing or Talk, as the Spirit moves, in Sacred or Sunday Mood.”

    * * * * * * * * * * * *


    An attractive program is being arranged for the entertainment to be given at the Theatre Royal next Sunday night in aid of the Red Cross funds. The whole of the “High Jinks” company have volunteered their services. The entertainment will commence at a quarter to 8 o’clock. In view of the urgent need of funds for the Red Cross a big success is hoped for.

    The Argus (Melbourne), Friday, 14 May 1915, p.12

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The Melbourne season of High Jinks finally wound up after a highly successful 8 weeks, with the closing performance on Friday, 21 May ending in particularly high spirits (including those of the bottled variety!)

    * * * * * * * * * * * *


    Animated scenes and humorous happenings marked the last night of the Highs Jinks company at Her Majesty's Theatre. The members of the company had made themselves very popular during their stay in Melbourne, and “in front” amongst the crowded audience were many friends of the artists, who helped to keep the proceedings throughout thoroughly lively—from first to last. The artists themselves entered into the spirit of the evening. The big ragtime scene was one of the hits of the evening, being embellished with many incidents that were not set down in the “script” of the stage manager. It had to be repeated thrice in response to insistent demands, and each time it was gone through with variations. The climax was reached when Mr. Paul Plunket seized a lady member of the wardrobe staff who had been watching interestedly from the “wings” and waltzed her across the stage into the melee of frenziedly-working ragtimers. The final fall of the curtain was the signal for a prolonged demonstration of applause, and a lavish presentation of flowers to the lady members of the company, as well as mysterious looking parcels—the contents of which could be guessed at—to the gentlemen of the cast.

    The Leader (Melbourne), Saturday, 22 May 1915, p.49,

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The New English Musical Comedy Company then made their way Westwards in preparation for their first appearance in the South Australian capital of Adelaide.

    [To be continued.]


    The Interviewer.


    A man of varied talents and varied interest, Mr. Field Fisher—who is Dr. Robert Thorne in “High Jinks,” around whom all the story circles—is a very interesting man to meet in private life. He is by no means wrapped up in his theatrical work alone, although he is keenly interested in it, but at the same time he has a little attention to spare for the questions of the day, and so can talk about other things than the theatre. In fact, he does not talk “shop” much at all, although if that subject crops up he follows it without any marked reluctance, for there is no affected pose about him.

    He is caught at Her Majesty’s Theatre one morning, and then ensues a search for a quiet corner in which to talk. This involves a regular journey of discovery over a dark stage and round corners, upstairs and downstairs, until we settle in the Lounge, as every other place seems to be in the hands of energetic cleaners. There, in the only two unshrouded chairs, we make ourselves comfortable, and Mr. Fisher almost immediately begins to talk of newspaper work, and says—

    “I know something of press-work, for I used to do some of it, or, rather, drawing for the papers—for the Harmsworth publications. Yes, humorous sketches and that kind of thing. The first sketching I ever did was costume designing. This was when I was with Laurence Irving (I was with him for a long time) when he was going to put on the play ‘Margaret Catchpole,’ which, by the way, is Australian, isn't it? At least, she ended her life out here or something of the sort; he was in some difficulty about the costumes, and l undertook to design them, which I did. Then the next thing I attempted was posters and little sketches. One day a member of the staff of one of the papers, ‘The Sketch,’ saw one and asked to be allowed to show it to the editor. He sent for me, and so I was launched on my newspaper work, and did it for some time, finally working for several of the Harmsworth papers and for ‘Comic Cuts,’ ‘Ally Sloper’ and such publications.

    “No, I do not do it now. I found it meant that I needed to be in the city, and was too much of a tie; I used to have to be at the offices to see the editor and talk things over.”

    Mr. Fisher then launches off into talk about the war, suggested by a sudden recollection of the first actor to lose his life there, whom he knew personally. “It was sad about Mackinder, wasn’t it—one of our best all-round actors. He was offered a commission, but refused, and said he preferred to serve as a private with the men he knew and had always been with. He had been in a position to earn a handsome salary—about seventy pounds a week the year round—and he gave it all up. Did you hear how he died? They received an order one night to change trenches, eight of them; he was the last. When they reached the new trench they found they were only seven, so went back to look for him and found him on his back. They asked him if he were hurt,’ and he answered, ‘I don't know,’ and died immediately. [1]

    “There are so many who have given up so much, and gone to the front. It is fine, isn’t it?”

    Then Laurence Irving’s sad death in the “Empress of Ireland” wreck is mentioned, and Mr. Fisher says:

    “I was to have been with him then. Even to the Sunday before he left for America it was all arranged, and we had dinner with him to talk things over. Then this offer for Australia came and I decided to accept it, and in consequence was not with them on the wreck. Yes, he could have been saved had he not gone back for his wife, but that was just what he would do; it was just like him. [2]He was a most absent-minded man; but good natured and a genius. It was only just beginning to be realised in England too. H.B. was the elder son, and inherited the bulk of the money, and at Sir Henry's death the father's mantle fell upon his shoulders, and Laurence had no such help, and had to fight his own way.

    “One incident I recall about his absent-mindedness. When I went to America with him on a previous visit, he said the day after we arrived: ‘Come on, and I'll give you a real American dinner!’ This was about four o’clock in the afternoon, after rehearsal. We went to a fashionable restaurant and had a splendid dinner; then the bill came and Laurence put his hand in his pocket, and said, ‘I haven't any money; but it doesn’t matter, you pay.’ He never did have any money. Well, I had about a dollar, so I said: I have no money, either.’ He said: ‘Never mind,’ and explained to the waiter, who he was and that he would send and settle the bill. But the waiter would have none of it, and said: ‘It’s all very well, but that won’'t go with me; we have had that before.’ So after some argument it ended by us going off to Irving’s hotel, accompanied by the waiter, for he would not trust us.”

    “You have had command performances at Sandringham?”

    “Yes, several times. That was when we had our own little company—my brother and my two sisters. It was known as the Field Fisher Quartette Company, and we used to appear at ‘at homes’ and private entertainments, giving a musical show of a refined nature. [3]

    “It was rather funny how we came to have our first Royal command. We were appearing at the pier pavilion at Ryde—that is near Cowes, Isle of Wight, you know. One of my sisters came off the stage and said: ‘There are two men in front who seem to be trying to be free. I wish you would go and give them a look.' You see, the girls had been rather strictly brought up, and my mother always travelled with us, so they were well looked after. They were fine girls, I must say, though they are my sisters.

    “So I went on, and had a look at two men in yachting costume in the front row, and I gave them a look. We continued giving them looks during the rest of the performance.

    “Then as we were walking down the pier on our way home, my sisters being on in front, we saw the two men stop them and speak to them—one being very tall, the other short. My brother and I naturally hurried up, and the tall one turned to us—

    “I was just saying to your sisters I think they must have forgotten me. I am Abercrombie, and I had the pleasure of meeting you at Lady So-and-So’s.'

    “It was quite right, we had been engaged by the Countess and had met the Earl of Abercrombie, and he turned to his companion and said: ‘May I introduce the Prince of Wales?’ That was the present King. He complimented us upon our performance, and said, ‘You must come on board the yacht and do it for us, will you? Of course we were delighted, and they asked could we go the next day. We had to explain we could not manage that, as all our things were packed ready to leave, as that was our last night there, and we were to go to Southampton. But we said we could go on the Monday, and it was arranged. They told us they had been on ‘the yacht’; it was the Cowes Regatta week, you know; but had run short of matches, so had landed at Ryde to get some, and seen our posters, and Lord Abercrombie remembered us and said we must see this—they are good. After telling them how we had come near to throwing them out, we parted.

    “We went to the yacht on the Monday, and found one deck all arranged with a nice little stage all fixed up with red at one end. My brother and I were on this fixing things and having a bit of an argument, because he wanted the piano at one side and I thought it ought to be more up the stage, and he was telling me not to be a blithering idiot, and that kind of thing, when I caught a whiff of a cigar and turned to find King Edward standing just inside the curtain watching us. Goodness knows how long he had been there.

    “When we started the performance before the King and Queen and Prince and Princess of Wales, and the German Emperor, by the way, who was there on his yacht, the ‘Hohenzollern,’ for the regatta week, we were deadly nervous, you can guess, and feeling pretty anxious as we opened, as we always did, with an instrumental quartette, for they were all good performers. My instrument was the banjo, because I was always the unmusical one. The King—King Edward—was sitting just a yard or two away from us, and when we were about half-way through he settled himself back contentedly and said ‘Delightful, delightful.’  So, you can guess that bucked us up a bit and things went better after that. We had supper with them before we left and found them all charming—so unaffected and natural. Why, another time when we were appearing at Sandringham, the present King came along the passage to the stage himself and said to me: ‘I want you to do that little thing of yours—about the Frenchman attempting an after-dinner speech—because the French Envoy is here and I want to watch his face.’ I did not much like doing it under the circumstances, because I did not know how the Envoy would take it in the absurd broken English. But it was a Royal command, and I had to. I gave it, and they all watched him and laughed delightedly at his expression. They are absolutely unaffected and natural in this way.

    “In fact, we appeared at many country houses for the leading people, and always found them most considerate and charming. Only on two occasions were people not nice to us. Once was in Hertfordshire. We were engaged to appear at a country house there. We were driven to the servants' entrance, and given our dinner by the butler in a kind of pantry. Afterwards I said I would like to see the hostess, Mrs.—eh, well, I forget her name for the moment—I have a dreadful memory for names—but say Jones. He told me ‘Mrs. Jones will send for you when she is ready.’ You see, the butler was putting on airs with us, too. 

    “We were sent for, and I saw the hostess, and went towards her, saying 'Good evening,’ when she put her hands behind her back as though she was afraid I was going to shake hands with her.

    “They had rented the place, and were giving this big affair, had sent out invitations everywhere. And Hertfordshire is probably the greatest county for country houses; there are ever so many well-known people [who] have homes there. By this time we had come to know most people who were anybody, for we had appeared so frequently at house parties. The guests had arrived and we found we knew nearly everyone. Suddenly the people of the neighbourhood—the Gowers—came rustling in; they are conservative people, keep up great style at their home, drive about with a coach and four- etc. Well, they came straight up to us, shook hands, said how pleased they were to meet us again, and chatted to my sisters. When the hostess saw this she nearly fell upon our necks—wanted us to stay all night, in fact, would have kept us a week or two if we would have stayed.

    “We had our little company for eight years. Then one sister married, and later the other. My brother and I tried to fix things up and engaged two girls who had had musical comedy experience and were clever, but somehow we could not make things go the same. We had always worked very hard, we were up at nine every morning practising and trying things over. But with the other girls it was not the same. They did not take the same interest and would not work. When we were on tour they used to go off and have a good time. People began to say the Field Fisher quartette was not the same—had gone off. So we disbanded. My brother gave up the profession, and is now a barrister, and I am the only vagabond left.

    “Since then I have been on the stage. I had some experience before—I had appeared with the [Henry] Irving company as a boy.”

    Mr. Fisher talks of his work and how he enjoys it when he has a congenial part to play. Asked about his pastimes he says:

    "Well I still keep up drawing, though not for publication. It is confined mostly to albums now. I am fond of tennis, but otherwise do not go in for any sport.”

    One thing very pleasant for Australians to hear is Mr. Fisher's admiration for the all-round cleverness of the Australian girl and the chorus girl in particular. He generously implies that the grade of cleverness and versatility among the ladies of an Australian company compare favorably, not with English choristers, but English principals.

    Mr. Fisher in manner and speech is very English, and has a slight suggestion in his way of speaking of what we deem the dude, but his travels have made him cosmopolitan, so that there is not the English reserve with it, which is often so difficult to pierce.

    Table Talk (Melbourne), 22 April 1915, p.26,

    * * * * * * * * * * * *


    1. Former London Gaiety Theatre actor and singer, Lionel Mackinder was killed in action while serving as a Lance Corporal with the Royal Berkshire Regiment in France on 9 January 1915 at age 46.
    1. On the homeward bound voyage following a tour of North America in 1913–14, British actor, Laurence Irving (the youngest son of Sir Henry Irving and brother to H.B. Irving) and his actress wife, Mabel Hackney, perished aboard the RMS Empress of Ireland when it founded off the Canadian coast following a collision with the Norwegian collier Storstad in the early hours of 29 May 1914, with the subsequent loss of 1,012 lives.
    1. A typical evening’s entertainment given by the Field-Fisher Quartette (and the regard in which they were held) is provided by the following review of one of their performances:


    The opening entertainment of the season at the Athenæum in Bury St. Edmund’s, on Thursday evening, was extremely successful, considering that the weather was unfavourable, and that the season is early, and for this result the fame of the Field-Fisher Quartette is responsible. The local associations of the talented visitors doubtless had something to do with the satisfactory attendance, but apart from this fact, their reputation as first-class artistes would have been sufficient to attract an audience. The quartette comprises the Misses Marjorie and Evelyn Field-Fisher, and Masters Alfred and Eric Field-Fisher. The first-named young lady has an excellent voice, and is a clever performer on the guitar, while her sister is a remarkably graceful dancer, and also manipulates with skill the mandoline. Master Alfred Field-Fisher is a banjoist and recites with wonderful expression, and his charming little brother dances and plays the mandoline with the grace and feeling of a born artiste. Indeed, to attempt to define the capabilities of any one of the quartette would be futile, and the qualifications which we have mentioned are simply those in which they excel. For variety the program could not have been improved upon, its items ranging from selections from the latest comic operas to plantation melodies, and from a pathetic ballad to Spanish and other dances. But the entertainment was something more than merely clever and pleasing. It was essentially refined. Nothing was lacking to make it popular, and yet upon no single item could the finger of a reproving censor be laid. The performance was of an undeniably high-class order, and its originality, and the cleverness of the artistes, were all the more appreciated by the select and large audience assembled. This was the first visit of the quartette to Bury, and the cordiality of their reception clearly demonstrated that they had more than fulfilled the favourable anticipations formed of them. At no time did the performance fall flat. The program scintillated with items at once tuneful and artistic, several of which were enthusiastically encored. The mandoline, guitar, and banjo quartettes were highly appreciated, the variety of the selections meeting all tastes. “The Mountebanks,” and “La Cigale,” were drawn upon in this respect, and a “selection of popular airs,” in which was introduced “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” was loudly re-demanded. Miss Marjorie’s songs met with marked favour, notably the Spanish and Italian songs, “Sara Zetta” and “Nuna Palona,” and “One day Margot." The graceful dancing of Miss Evelyn was a feature of the entertainment, emphatic marks of approval rewarding her execution of the “Pas seul.” “How Grandmama danced,” was admirably recited and acted, and was followed by a minuet and tableaux by Miss Evelyn and her younger brother. She also went prettily through a Spanish dance; Master Eric, an exceedingly clever child, played the mandoline with considerable expression and wonderful correctness, and he was loudly re-called for the solo “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The recitations of Master Alfred Field-Fisher were commendable expositions of the recitative art, and he gives much promise in this respect. For each recitation he was loudly encored, and responded with humorous little selections. The dumb show recitation, “The Village Blacksmith,” which was clearly given, met with an especially enthusiastic reception. The same performer, as a banjoist, and with the bones, also lent considerable assistance to the musical portion of the program. The performance was an excellent one throughout, and the Council of the Athenæum are to be congratulated upon their first entertainment of the season.

    The following was the program:

    Quartette, “La Cigale,” mandolines, guitar, and banjo (introducing the songs “Doubt not” and “Our dear old home.”) The Quartette; quartette, “Sweet Innisfail,” mandolines, guitar, and banjo. The Quartette; dance (Spanish), “Toreador,” piano and castanets, Evelyn and Eric Field-Fisher: quartette, “Hock Hamburg March,” mandolines, guitar, and banjo, The Quartette; song (Spanish), a “Sara Yetta,” and (Italian) b “Nuna Palona,” guitar. Miss Field-Fisher; recitation, “Man with one hair,” Alfred Field-Fisher; song, “Rory Darling” (Hope Temple), Miss Marjorie Field-Fisher; duet, “Little Johnny Jones,” piano, Evelyn and Alfred; solo, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” mandoline, Eric Field-Fisher; dance, “Scarf dance,” piano, Evelyn; song, “Aloha” (Sandwich Island National Song), mandolines, &c., Miss Marjorie Field-Fisher; quartette, selection from “The Mountebanks,” mandolines, &c., The Quartette; quartette, “Selections of Popular Airs,” mandolines, &c. The Quartette; recitation, a “How Grandmama Danced,” Evelyn; dance, b “Minuet, with Tableaux,” piano, Evelyn and Eric; song, “One Day Margot,” piano. Miss Marjorie Field-Fisher; trio, “Cup of Tea,” piano, Evelyn, Alfred, and Eric; trio, a “Daffodil,” b “Christmas” (Lindsay Kearne) Mandolines, &c., Marjorie, Evelyn, and Eric; recitation (silent), “The Village Blacksmith,” piano, Alfred Field-Fisher; dance, “Pas Seul,” piano, Evelyn; quartette, “Plantation Melody,” mandolines, &c., The Quartette; quartette, “Good night,” mandolines, &c., The Quartette.

    During the interval the performers were introduced to the Mayor and Mayoress, by whom they were warmly congratulated on their success. Mr. Field-Fisher was so much gratified by the enthusiastic reception given to his family at the Athenæum, and so pleased to renew his own acquaintancewith the good old town of Bury after a lapse of many years, that he has kindly concerned to arrange for a return visit by the quartette at the earliest possible opportunity.

    The Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Standard (Bury St. Edmunds, England), 27 September 1892, p.7

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    British character comedian and singer, Alfred Field Fisher was born Thomas Alfred A. Fisher in Cambridge in the county of Cambridgeshire, England in 1876, the eldest son of brewer, Thomas Field Fisher and his wife, Louisa Fanny Fisher (nee Hanson). His siblings included an older sister, Margaret (Marjorie) Lowther Fisher (b. 1873), younger sister, Evelyn Isabel Fisher (b. 1878) and two younger brothers, Thomas Eric Field Fisher (b. 1881) and Caryl Hillyard Barclay Fisher (b. 1887). The four older children began performing together as a quartette in the late-1880s in aid of local charities at their local theatre in the London suburb of Bedford Park and their act proved to be so successful that they were urged by the press; actor, Harry Nicholls; playwright, Alfred Calmour, and others to join the ranks of professional entertainers. Impresario Sir Augustus Harris subsequently engaged them to play leading parts in a juvenile fairy play, which was produced at Covent Garden in 1889. In addition to public and private performances of their family act, the talented siblings were also individually cast in a variety of juvenile roles in plays in London and the provinces, with older sister, Marjorie also venturing into comic opera in the early 1890s. Amongst the early stage roles enacted by Alfred was doubling as both The Prince and the Pauper for Mrs. Oscar Beringer’s 1890 stage adaptation of the Mark Twain tale at London’s Gaiety Theatre, when both characters (principally played by the playwright’s daughter, Miss Vera Beringer) were required to share the same scene, and playing a prince in Sir Henry Irving’s production of Charles I at the Lyceum.

    Alfred Field Fisher arrived in Australia in May 1914 to reprise the role of the Romanian nobleman ‘Dragotin’ (which he had played for over a year in the British provinces) in J.C. Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company production of the Franz Lehár operetta, Gipsy Love which premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 13 June. He then transferred to JCW’s New English Musical Comedy Company for The Girl in the Taxi in July 1914 and remained a stalwart of the latter company throughout the 1910s and early ‘20s. In 1926 he joined Frank Neil’s Comedy Company to tour in such farces as Are You a Mason?, Charley’s Aunt, The Nervous Wreck and Getting Gertie’s Garter, and performed in the pantomimes Mother Goose and Little Red Riding Hood. A fellow member of Neil’s Company, Vera Fisher (nee Wallace) had married Alfred in the West London district of Kensington in April 1905. In 1930 they toured South Africa with Frank Neil’s Comedy Company, which was so well received that the visit, originally planned to last three months, was extended to ten months and made three complete tours of the South African theatre circuit. Returning to Australia (following a return visit to England at the conclusion of the tour) Fisher rejoined Frank Neil’s Company for Almost a Honeymoon at the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne in April 1931 and other productions. In 1932 he made his feature film debut in Melbourne in the George Wallace comedy His Royal Highness for F.W. Thring’s Efftee Film Productions, followed by Diggers in Blighty and Waltzing Matilda for Pat Hanna Productions in 1933. (Further film roles ensued in Charles Chauvel’s Heritagein 1935 and the Cinesound productions Mr. Chedworth Steps Out, starring Cecil Kellaway, in 1939 and Dad Rudd, M.P., starring Bert Bailey and Fred MacDonald, in 1940, both directed by Ken G. Hall.) Fisher also performed in the Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott revivals of The Quaker Girl and Our Miss Gibbs for JCW in 1933 and reprised his original role of ‘Dr. Robert Thorne’ for their revival of High Jinks in 1935. After a brief sojourn for F.W. Thring in the stage production Mother of Pearl starring Alice Delysia in 1934, Fisher returned to the JCW fold to appear in a succession of musical comedies, plays and pantomimes throughout the remainder of the 1930s, including Yes, Madam, Anything Goes and Under Your Hatand played the title role in Sinbad

    Concurrent with Fisher’s stage appearances, were his performances on radio in comedy sketches and plays (including those that he had written himself) and musical comedies (starring Gladys Moncrieff) for the ABC. He was first heard over the airwaves as a cast member of the JCW production of the musical Kid Boots (starring George Gee and Josie Melville) which was broadcast from the stage of His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne by 3LO during the Gala performance given on the evening of Saturday, 25 July 1925 in honour of the visiting American Fleet (followed by a further broadcast from the theatre of Act 2 on Saturday, 15 August 1925) however his first studio performances of his self-penned comedy sketches and duologues with his wife, Vera, were broadcast from 2BL in Sydney in January 1930. In June 1933 Fisher reprised the role of ‘Dr. Thorne’ in two separate studio broadcasts of High Jinks relayed by the ABC National network from 3LO and he also performed in two radio serials that he had scripted: The Adder from 2BL in 1933 and The Old Folks Abroad (with Vera) in 1937, broadcast from 3AR, Melbourne. At the time of his death in Sydney on 8 September 1940 (at age 63) he had been due to rehearse for a radio production of the musical comedy Good News for the ABC national network, for which his role was subsequently recast.

    Fisher’s last stage appearance was as the valet ‘Brassett’ in Charley’s Aunt at the Minerva Theatre, Sydney in July 1940—a play in which he had performed a variety of roles since its original London premiere in 1892. An acknowledged master in the art of stage make-up, which was often commented upon in reviews, Fisher boasted in a 1926 newspaper interview that he had a collection of over 100 wigs with which he could transform himself at a moment’s notice into the many and varied character roles that he portrayed on stage. A comprehensive list of Field Fisher’s Australian stage credits is given on the AusStage website at

    Additional Sources

    • “A Guitariste—Miss Marjorie Field-Fisher”, Hearth and Home (London), vol. 1, no. 23, 22 October 1891, p.128
    • J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890–1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, 2nd ed.; Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland, 2014
    • “About People”, The Age (Melbourne), Tuesday, 19 May 1914, p.7
    • Program listings for 3LO (Melbourne), Wireless Weekly, 24 July 1925, p.39
    • Program listings for 3LO (Melbourne), Wireless Weekly, 14 August 1925, p.39
    • “Field Fisher Over the Air”, Sunday Times (Sydney), 2 January 1930, p.13
    • Program listings for 2BL (Sydney), Wireless Weekly, 10 January 1930, p.30
    • Program listings for 3LO (Melbourne), Wireless Weekly, 22 June 1933, p.47
    • “13 Musical Comedies”, Wireless Weekly, 31 July 1936, p.7
    • “Appearing with Gladys Moncrieff in the ABC Musical Comedy Broadcasts from Melbourne”, Wireless Weekly, 28 August 1936, p.12
  • Haddon Chambers and the Long Arm of Neglect (Revisited) (Part 2)

    ROGER NEILL concludes his two-part article on the life and works of Australian-born Charles Haddon Chambers, commemorating 100 years since the death of a playwright who deserves better recognition in the country of his birth.

    High point: The Tyranny of Tears

    Although Haddon Chambers’ next full-length play,The Tyranny of Tears of 1899, was substantially his most successful and critically applauded play, re-staged over several decades, it presents us today with some real difficulty. At the heart of it is the relentless patronising of his wife by the leading man. As Elizabeth Schafer puts it:

    The Tyranny of Tears featured a married couple renegotiating their marriage as the wife is pressured into behaving more acceptably. Initially she exerts ‘tyranny’ by crying prettily and using emotional blackmail to alienate her husband from his friends and keep his focus relentlessly on her, to the detriment of his writing … I would want to ask, more stringently than the play allows, what precisely would make a woman employ such ‘tyranny’ in the first place?

    My own assumption is that the Hampstead writer-husband, Clement Parbury, is substantially based on Chambers himself. Indeed, it may be that this tightly composed domestic comedy is based on his own marriage, the wife Mabel on his own wife. While her manipulative tears might indeed drive a man to distraction, it never seems to occur to Parbury that he might be part of the problem. Being constantly positioned by him as an inferior being, a ‘dear little woman’, might well promote in a wife feelings of anger, even revenge. His self-perception (always being, by right, in the right) would be irksome, to say the least. Any modern staging would be bound to re-balance the roles—as happens so often with contemporary productions of, for example, The Taming of the Shrew.

    One wonders whether Chambers’ relationship with such a powerful woman as Melba—so much more direct and self-confident than the Mabel character—might not have sharpened his sense of the problems in his own marriage. Another side of Chambers is embodied in a second male character, George Dunning, the unmarried outsider who disturbs the ‘harmony’ of the marriage. Mabel Parbury says to him that she thinks his alarming influence over her husband is ‘the ridicule of the untamed for the tamed.’ ‘Say of the disreputable for the respectable,’ responds Gunning.

    The Tyranny of Tears opened at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus on 6 April 1899, presented by Charles Wyndham’s company, with Wyndham as the husband and his wife, the ‘adored’ Mary Moore, as Mrs Parbury. ‘I did not expect that he would ever take this keen interest in ordinary human character,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review, ‘nor that he would ever write dialogues so pointed and witty.’ It ran for 115 performances and Chambers drew a ten per cent royalty from the play, which gave him £160 a week, equivalent to around $A30,000 a week in current money, supplemented by the royalties he was earning from the revival under Beerbohm Tree of Captain Swift, running at the same time at Her Majesty’s in London. Tyranny was revived in January 1902 at Wyndham’s and in February 1914 at the Comedy (52 performances).

    Chambers’ friend Charles Frohman presented The Tyranny of Tears in New York in September at the Empire. It became a star vehicle for John Drew as Parbury. Drew was to become a ‘close pal’ of Chambers. In Australia it was toured by Robert Brough’s company in 1900 (and later 1902) with Mr and Mrs Brough in leading roles, first opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 12 May. After Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, the company went on to Calcutta.

    Tyrannywas followed in 1901 by The Awakening, which did well and aroused much comment. A guru of turn-of-the-century theatre (and first translator of Ibsen), William Archer, paraphrased it as follows in Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship of 1912:

    [It] turned on a sudden conversion—the ‘awakening’, in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer [Jim Trower], a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he ‘awakens’ to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the audience to be assured of the fact?

    The Awakening seems to me to be the most autobiographical of all Chambers’ work, and the ambivalence that Archer senses in the ‘lady-killer’ may well reflect ambivalence in the playwright himself. In a letter to a friend Chambers admits that he was ‘weak enough to be persuaded into making [an] alteration’, going on to say that ‘when the play is done in America it will be exactly as written, as the balance was disturbed by a regretted attempt to whitewash Jim Trower.’

    Initially postponed following the death of Queen Victoria, it opened at the St James’s Theatre in London on 6 February 1901 (running for 59 performances) with George Alexander as the philanderer James St John Trower, A.E. Matthews as Cecil Bird, H.B. Irving as Lord Reginald Dugdale and Fay Davis as the ‘country maiden’ Olive Lawrence. ‘He uses his innate sense of the theatre, not for striking out unscrupulously theatrical effects, but for creating effects of real life across footlights,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review. The following month Chambers directed H.V. Esmond’s The Wilderness at the same theatre. Although Frohman purchased the American rights for The Awakening, I have yet to discover any performance there. It was given a decade later by an amateur company at the Palace Theatre in Sydney (December 1912).

    In the early years of the new century, Haddon Chambers followed up the success of The Tyranny of Tears and The Awakening (1901) with a series of adaptations from European originals—A Modern Magdalen (1902), The Younger Mrs Parling (1904), The Thief (1907), Suzanne (1910) and Tante (1913). Did he turn to adaptation because he felt his own creative powers waning?

    Chambers’ next three productions all had their premières in New York. A Modern Magdalen was refashioned by Chambers from a Danish play, Familie Jensen by Edgar Hoyen. Here Chambers returns to an earlier theme—the woman with a past and her subsequent rejection by society. It opened in New York in March 1902 at the Bijou Theatre with Amelia Bingham in the lead role, playing for 73 performances.

    An apparently different play, specifically written (it was claimed by George Musgrove) by Haddon Chambers for the Australian musical comedy star Nellie Stewart, called Dolores, made its première at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in July 1903. Not lasting long there, it was toured throughout Australia. In reality, Dolores was A Modern Magdalen.Clearly, Nellie Stewart was not enamoured of Mr Chambers, complaining in her memoirs that an agreement was made with the playwright for a series of new plays for Nellie, none of which was forthcoming. She described him as a ‘casual Australian’. Perhaps Haddon was not amused. Around the same time, there were reports that A Modern Magdalenhad been translated into French for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, but this does not seem to have come to anything. A Modern Magdalenwas made into a movie in Hollywood in 1915 starring Lionel Barrymore and Cathrine Countiss.

    His next adaptation, The Younger Mrs Parling opened at the Park Theater in Boston in November 1903 with Annie Russell in the lead role, and then ran for 36 performances at the Garrick in New York. It was from Le Détour by Henri Bernstein, and again took up the cause of the ‘fallen woman’—‘a mixture of Ibsen and Dumas fils,’ said the New York Times. Mauled by the American critics, it never reached the stage in London.

    The Thief was adapted by Chambers, again from the French of Henri Bernstein, and opened in September 1907 again at the Lyceum in New York (a major hit, running for 281 performances), with the English actor, Kyrle Bellew, as Richard Voysin and Margaret Illington as his wife. Bellew had toured Australia twice with the radiant Mrs Brown Potter in the 1890s and had prospected (and acted) on the goldfields of Victoria twenty years earlier.

    The version of The Thief which ran at the St James’s Theatre in London (opening 12 November 1907 with George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh) was by Cosmo Gordon Lennox. Haddon Chambers’ adaptation was not performed in England until June 1927, when it was given by the repertory company at the Playhouse in Broadstairs, Kent.

    Chambers adapted Suzanne from a Belgian comedy, Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, by Frantz Fonson and Ferdinand Wicheler. It was produced at the Lyceum in New York by Charles Frohman, opening in December 1910, with Billie Burke (Suzanne), Julian L’Estrange and George W. Anson in leading roles. It ran for 64 performances.

    The last of these adaptations, Tante, was from a best-selling novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Another Frohman production, it was tried out at the Apollo in Atlantic City in October 1913 before opening at the Empire in New York, where it ran for 79 performances with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role of the artist, Madame Okraska. The New York Times described it as a work of ‘exceptional adroitness’ with ‘splendid characterisation’. It opened at the Haymarket in London as The Impossible Womanin September 1914 with Lillah McCarthy (running for 89 performances) and under that title was made into a British film with Constance Collier in 1919.

    Breaking with Melba

    It seems that Haddon Chambers’ relationship with Nellie Melba came to a halt at some time during the period around 1906-08. Some saw it as an abrupt break. In his memoirs, Henry Russell says: ‘For reasons that I never understood and which he never explained, he suddenly ceased to be persona grata to her.’ He goes on to speculate that Haddon ‘found her a trifle too exigent from time to time’, seeming to imply that he dropped her, which I doubt. Exigent had been a word he had used in The Tyranny of Tears to describe the manipulative wife. ‘His infatuation lasted longer than hers, and she had a lot of trouble in getting rid of him,’ wrote Melba’s early biographer, Percy Colson.

    One possibility is that the breach stemmed from difficulties surrounding the royalties committed to Chambers by Melba from her early recordings (one shilling per record sold in America). Melba’s first recordings, made at her home in Great Cumberland Place in March and April of 1904, came after long periods of separation from Haddon and this may be a second issue. He was at the carriage door at Euston Station as she left in July 1902 for her first tour of Australia after sixteen years in Europe and she toured frequently in the succeeding years.

    A third possible contributing factor is that Haddon’s estranged wife, Marie, died in November 1904, so ironically he was at last legally free. And, of course, his reputed philandering ways may have had something to do with the breakdown. Ann Blainey suggests that Melba’s affections switched to the Australian flautist, John Lemmoné. In March 1904 Haddon copied out in his own hand a triolet (eight-line verse) that rehearses whimsically the heroic absences of men and the inconstancy of women:

    ‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

       Said the lover to his lady:

    Noble words were those, I trow.

       ‘Glory calls me – I must go.’

    Back he came: another beau

       Toying with her tresses shady:

    ‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

       Said the lover to his lady.

    In fact, the verse was not by Chambers, but had been first published in the 24 November 1883 issue of The Bulletin in Sydney as the work of VJD (Irish-Australian poet, Victor Daley). Clearly, it had some enduring meaning for Haddon.

    Sadly, Haddon Chambers is not mentioned either in the first biography of the diva (Melba: A Biographyof 1909 by Agnes G Murphy), which was virtually dictated to the writer by Melba, or in her ‘official’ autobiography, Melodies and Memoriesof 1925, which was ghost-written by Beverley Nichols.

    Between 1903 and 1906 Haddon wrote two original new plays, The Golden Silence and Sir Anthony, neither of them enjoying any great success. A third, The Head of the Family, seemingly not produced, perhaps unfinished, was written in partnership with the American, Paul Kester, who had a major hit on his hands at that time in England, America and Australia, Sweet Nell of Old Drury.

    The Golden Silence opened at the Garrick Theatre in London on 22 September 1903, running for 78 performances. The lead roles were taken by Violet Vanbrugh (Countess of Arlington) and Arthur Bourchier (Augustus Mapes), who also directed. At the première, Bourchier had a cool reception from the audience and at the close Haddon Chambers came forward, bowed, and was received with a chorus of groans.

    Sir Anthony, opened at the Savoy Theatre in New York on 19 November 1906, produced this time not by Frohman, but by Liebler & Co. It ran for only 16 performances, transferring to the Park Theatre in Boston. It opened successfully in London at Wyndham’s Theatre two years later (28 November 1908, 48 performances), and Max Beerbohm commented on ‘the extreme fidelity with which Mr Chambers has painted the class of people who are his theme … the lower-middle and middle-middle classes’. Perhaps Chambers’ satirising of British snobbery found a more ready response in London than it had in New York. Among the London cast were Weedon Grossmith and Nina Boucicault, and the Wyndham’s staging was co-produced by Frank Curzon and Chambers’ long-time associate in New York, Charles Frohman.

    Another Chambers project from 1905-06 that seems not to have reached the stage was a musical comedy, Mr Flame, created with the composer Bernard Rolt. Young and handsome, Rolt was primarily a composer of drawing-room ballads. He had become a close friend of Nellie and Haddon Chambers. The three of them had vacationed together with others in Italy in July 1904—first at a house party at Henry Russell’s villa at Stresa on Lake Maggiore, moving on to Venice, where Melba studied Madama Butterfly with Puccini, a role she never sang. In 1906, Haddon was living in ‘my new little house in Waverton Street’ in Mayfair.

    On 19 September 1908 Haddon Chambers participated in a ‘copyright’ performance of a new American operetta by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, The Prima Donna.Haddon read the lead male role. This happened at the Knickerbocker Theater in New York on 30 November with Fritzi Scheff as the prima donna.

    In 1910 Chambers was reportedly writing another musical comedy, The Best Girl, with music by John L. Golden, but this too does not seem to have come to anything.

    Late works

    Two of his last three plays, written immediately before and during the First World War, were admired and also successful at the box office.

    The basic idea for Passers-By of 1911 came to Chambers when he and a friend, the Gaiety actor, Paul Arthur, were walking home on a foggy night from the theatre in London. Chambers collided with a tramp, who apologised gracefully, so Chambers invited him home for supper. Dedicated to his own daughter, Margery, the play opened, well received, at Wyndham’s Theatre on 29 March with Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier in the lead roles. It was to be one of the most successful new plays of the season with 163 performances.

    When a young gentleman of leisure, Peter Waverton, invites a tramp, Samuel Burns, out of the fog into his Piccadilly apartment for supper, his butler, Pine, complains at the upsetting of social hierarchy. Also out of the fog comes a distressed young mother, Margaret, the father of whose child, unbeknown to him, is Waverton.  Haddon Chambers’ proto-feminist attitudes can be gauged from the unmarried mother, Margaret: ‘You needn’t be embarrassed for me, Peter. I’m not ashamed and I’ve no remorse. He’s my child. I’ve won him and he’s mine only.’

    Irene Vanbrugh wrote in her memoirs: ‘I was to be Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady, an experience I had always wanted. This was in Passers-By by Haddon Chambers, a play with true sentiment, and Gerald’s special, very flexible, sensitive approach to his art delighted me … and kept the scenes between us alive.’ The theatre critic of The Times had a different view on the proceedings: ‘Mr Peter Waverton is not a real person, but the “sympathetic” personage in a sentimental play.’

    Passers-By opened on 14 September 1911 at the Criterion in New York, produced by Frohman, running for 124 performances. ‘Richard Bennett need not fear comparison with Gerald du Maurier,’ wrote the New York Times critic, ‘he has the variety, charm, naturalness, ease.’ It was twice made into silent movies in Hollywood (in 1916 and 1920), the earlier version with Chambers’ close friend, Charles Cherry. Cherry was also in the American stage productions of Tanteand The Great Pursuit.

    The rights for Australasia having been signed by J.C. Williamson, Passers-Bytoured extensively there from January to September 1912. The production opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Hilda Spong as Margaret. Spong had previously appeared in Haddon Chambers’ The Fatal Cardin Sydney seventeen years earlier in 1895. This was her first return to the Antipodes since that time, having established her reputation as a fine actor in Britain and America.

    After Melbourne, the Passers-Bycompany went to New Zealand (Auckland, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington), returning to His Majesty’s in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, the Town Hall in Kalgoorlie, His Majesty’s in Perth, the Princess in Bendigo, Her Majesty’s in Ballarat and finally the Theatre Royal in Sydney. In Melbourne and Sydney, Waverton was played by Harcourt Beatty, but on tour the part was taken by the American William Desmond.

    Less successful, The Great Pursuit of 1916 was put on at the Shubert Theatre in New York as a vehicle for the English actor, W. Graham Browne, with his starrier wife Marie Tempest taking a small role. It ran for 29 performances.

    Haddon Chambers’ last finished play, The Saving Grace of 1917, was a hit in London, running for 200 performances at the Garrick Theatre with Sir Charles Hawtrey in the lead role and the young Noel Coward as the juvenile lead (his first ‘grown-up part’). Haddon was at this time living (with valet Hogg) at 4 Aldford Street, off Park Lane, Mayfair—‘tiny but charmingly furnished … every room differently and delightfully decorated,’ according to John D. Williams. In New York (at the Empire again), The Saving Gracewas played to ecstatic reviews (‘amazing subtlety and distinction’) by the English actor, Cyril Maude. Chambers himself directed and the play ran on Broadway for 96 performances.

    It was brought to Sydney by Robert Courtneidge’s company, opening at the Tivoli in October 1920. Brisbane followed, where on 21 November, according to the Northern Herald: ‘A serious panic at His Majesty’s Theatre was narrowly averted … when about 150 university students raided the building and startled the audience … Many people thought there was a fire.’

    The central figure is Blinn Corbett, a penniless English army officer, who has run off with his commanding officer’s wife. Written past the mid-point of the war, millions of casualties having been sustained, but set at its outbreak, it seems astonishing that the enthusiasm to join up was still uppermost in men’s thinking. Nevertheless, The Saving Grace is tautly plotted with crackling, witty dialogue. ‘Haddon Chambers’ best,’ said the New York Times of its American première. Reviewing his long career, the piece continued:

    He has to his credit one of the small number of perfect comedies of manners in the language. The Tyranny of Tears, and a character romance of distinguished charm, Passers-By. The present play blends the acute actuality of the one with the kindly feeling of the other.

    And assessing the whole Haddon Chambers oevre, Michael R. Booth (in his English Plays of the Nineteenth Century) wrote:

    From the French they [English dramatists] absorbed the planned management of plot structure, the elimination of irrelevant material, and the careful subordination of means to ends. In Pinero and Jones French skills are generally applied to plays with many characters, a substantial plot, and an elaborate social setting. The Tyranny of Tears [and The Saving Grace] goes further: the characters are remarkably few in number; the plot is slight; and the setting is many miles, both literally and figuratively, from Mayfair.

    In his memoirs-article of 13 October 1918, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, the fifty-six-year-old playwright described his sadness at losing over recent times so many of his closest friends, naming particularly Charles Frohman (who had drowned in the sinking of the Lusitaniaby a German submarine in May 1915), Herbert Beerbohm Tree (in 1917) and George Alexander (in 1918). He also mentioned in passing ‘certain war activities that I had been engaged upon.’ What these were remains unclear.

    If Nellie Melba had been Haddon Chambers’ closest woman friend, his closest male intimate in New York and London over a quarter of a century had been Charles Frohman. Around 1900 Chambers introduced Frohman to Marlow, which the producer fell in love with, regularly staying at the Compleat Angler inn by the river. Following the sinking of the Lusitaniain May 1915 in which Frohman was one of the 1,198 who died, Haddon said to the New York Times:

    Up and down [the High Street] Mr Frohman used to love to walk, dodging in and out of the stores, where he would purchase unconsidered trifles as an excuse for chatting with the shopkeepers.

    Chambers made the journey to the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork, Ireland, in order to identify and retrieve the body, writing to his sister Agnes in Sydney:

    I went over to Queenstown with Lestocq, his London manager, to get Frohman’s body. We crossed the Irish Channel at night with all lights out on account of the German submarines … It was the saddest quest I was ever upon … We bore him to Liverpool and sent him to New York … Just before the ship went down he said to a girl friend of mine, who was fortunately saved, that ‘after all, death was only a beautiful adventure.’


    The Saving Grace is dedicated to his new love, Pepita. On 29 October 1920 he married the musical comedy star, Pepita Bobadilla. Haddon was 59, she 28. Although she was advertised as having been born in Ecuador, her real name was Nelly Louise Burton, born in Hamburg, the illegitimate daughter of an English mother and a German officer father.

    Haddon’s health declined and she took care of him until his death, apparently from stroke and heart disease, at 61 in London on 28 March 1921. There was a funeral service at St George’s Hanover Square in London—among the congregation Sir Arthur Pinero, Charles Hawtrey, Lady Wyndham and Lady Tree. He was buried at Marlow, where he had had some of his happiest times with another Nellie and with Charles Frohman.

    There is no evidence that he ever embraced the ministry of his Baptist parents or of the ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, after whom he had been named. The British playwright-actor Seymour Hicks (performing in Melbourne in 1924) discussed the death of Haddon Chambers with Melba at her house, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream:

    For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man … Long after I had finished telling her all I could about her mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies.

    Pepita had his final play, unfinished at his death, completed in 1922, acting in it herself at the Savoy Theatre in London. He had written The Card Players for her, but it was not a success. It opened on 26 April, running for 29 performances with Pepita (as Eileen Ashfield), produced by Dot Boucicault. The following year, she was to marry Sidney Reilly, the celebrated ‘Ace of Spies’—on his part bigamously (or even trigamously).

    Haddon had died intestate, effectively leaving everything to Pepita, although how much remained is unclear. In his biography of Reilly, Richard B Spence asserts that she inherited ‘an income of at least £2,000 a year’. This may have been true initially, but if it was based on ticket and book royalties, that amount would have declined rather precipitously as the years went by. Without any substantial supporting evidence, Spence also speculates that Pepita may have met Reilly earlier than she disclosed and that there may have been foul play involved in the sudden death of Haddon Chambers.

    Haddon’s friend, the American theatre director John D. Williams, in an appreciation of Chambers’ life in Century Magazine (December 1921), wrote that Haddon

    … publicly entertained two generations and privately fascinated hundreds of men and women of two worlds. He was irresistible as a companion, the chairman of the committee on fun, wherever he was, a fascinating magician in epigrams … a citizen of the world, at home wherever he found himself, but especially at his best as the play-boy of England and America.

    The younger writer Somerset Maugham wrote a less glamorous, somewhat bitchy remembrance in his A Writer’s Notebook following Haddon Chambers’ death:

    At the first glance he looked a youngish man, but presently you saw that in reality he was old, old … He had the reputation of a Don Juan, and this he valued much more than any that his plays had brought him … The only art in which he seemed at all interested was music … It exasperated him to have his best play, The Tyranny of Tears, ascribed to Oscar Wilde … I see him lounging at a bar, a dapper little man, chatting good-humouredly with a casual acquaintance of women, horses and Covent Garden opera, but with an air as though he were looking for someone who might at any moment come in at that door.

    Why have Haddon Chambers’ plays not (thus far) survived in performance, particularly in his home country? I think there are a number of reasons. Even in his own lifetime, his work was more successful in Britain and America than in Australia. Australian audiences have in modern times found it hard to take English high-society plays—though it must be said that Robert Brough ‘the greatest actor-manager Australia had known’, had made a career of just this in the late nineteenth century, introducing Australian audiences to Pinero, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome … and Haddon Chambers. Although he often talked about it, he never returned to Australia. This is a poor long-term career move if an artist wishes to be remembered there.

    It is clear that, with the exception of Wilde and Shaw, late Victorian and Edwardian plays were finally swept from British stages with the arrival of ‘kitchen sink’ in the 1950s. It took several decades before managements would risk them again. Gradually there has been a return, with actors and directors finding ways to make these plays speak to us now, prominent amongst them Pinero’s Trelawny of the ‘Wells’and The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House.

    It remains ironic that, while eight of Haddon Chambers’ plays are now in print (2021),1 his work remains unexplored and unperformed. What of the remainder of the scripts? Most, if not all, reside in typescript form in the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship archive at the British Library.


    1. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace


    Appendix: Plays by C. Haddon Chambers

    One of Them 1886 (one act); The Open Gate 1887 (one act); Captain Swift 1888; Devil Caresfoot1889 (adapted from Rider Haggard’s Dawn); The Idler 1890; Love and War 1891 (adapted from the French); The Honourable Herbert 1891; The Collaborators1892; The Queen of Manoa 1892 (with WO Tristram); The Old Lady 1892; The Pipe of Peace 1892; The Fatal Card (with RC Stephenson) 1894; John-a-Dreams 1894; Boys Together (with J Comyns Carr) 1896; In the Days of the Duke (with J Comyns Carr) 1897; The Tyranny of Tears 1899; Blue Roses 1901 (staged privately); The Awakening 1902 (adapted from the French); The Golden Silence 1903; The Head of the Family (with Paul Kester) 1903 (incomplete? not staged); A Modern Magdalen (adaptation) / Dolores 1902; The Younger Mrs Parling 1903; Sir Anthony 1906; The Thief 1907 (adapted from the French of Henri Bernstein); Suzanne 1910; The Best Girl 1910 (musical comedy with music by John L Golden) (incomplete? not staged); Passers-By 1911; Tante1913 (adapted from novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick) / The Impossible Woman; The Great Pursuit 1916 (revision of The Idler?); The Saving Grace 1917; The Card Players 1922



    Stephen Alomes, When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

    Ann Blainey, I am Melba: A biography, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2008

    Elleke Boehmer (ed), Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

    Michael R. Booth (ed), English Plays of the Nineteenth Century: III Comedies, Oxford University Press, London, 1973

    Katharine Brisbane (ed), Entertaining Australia: The Performing Arts as Cultural History,Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

    Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies,Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1967

    Kate Carew, ‘Charles Frohman opens his heart at Kate Carew’s private confessional’, New York Tribune, 25 August 1912

    C. Haddon Chambers, ‘The American Producer who Lived at Marlow’, New York Times, 17 October 1915

    C. Haddon Chambers, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, New York Times, 13 October 1918

    Percy Colson, Melba: An Unconventional Biography, Grayson & Grayson, London, 1932

    Noel Coward, Present Indicative, William Heinemann, London & Toronto, 1937

    Maisie Dubosarsky, ‘”Interesting, and unlike other people”: 19th-century popular Australian writers Haddon Chambers and Rosa Praed abroad’, BA honours thesis, University of Sydney, 2009

    Sarah Engledow, ‘Suave’, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2010

    John Hetherington, Melba: A Biography,Faber and Faber, London, 1967

    Seymour Hicks, Night Lights: Two Men Talk of Love and Ladies, Cassell, London, 1938

    Eric Irwin, Dictionary of Australian Theatre 1788-1914, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1985

    Isaac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man,John Lane / The Bodley Head, 1915

    W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook,Heinemann, London, 1949

    Nellie Melba, Melodies and Memories,Thornton Butterworth, London, 1925

    Moran, William R (ed), Nellie Melba: A Contemporary Review, Greenwood, Westport CT, 1985

    Agnes G. Murphy, Melba: A Biography,Doubleday Page, New York, 1909

    Roger Neill, Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000

    Roger Neill, ‘Bertram Mackennal, patronage and the performing arts’, Bertram Mackennal, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007

    Roger Neill, ‘Melba: Melba’s First Recordings’, Historic Masters, London, 2008  

    Hesketh Pearson, Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter, Methuen, London, 1956

    Margot Peters, Mrs Pat: The Life of Mrs Patrick Campbell,Hamish Hamilton, London, 1984

    Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama: A Historical and Critical Survey from the 1830s to the 1970s,Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973

    George Rowell, The Victorian Theatre: A Survey, Oxford University Press, London, 1956

    Russell, Henry, The Passing Show,Thornton Butterworth, London, 1926

    Elizabeth Schafer, ‘A tale of two Australians: Haddon Chambers, Gilbert Murray and the imperial London stage’ in Playing Australia: Australian theatre and the international stage (Vol 9 Australian playwights),Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York, 2003

    Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly,Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002

    Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands, Sydney, 1923

    J.C. Trewin, The Edwardian Theatre,Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976

    Irene Vanbrugh, To Tell My Story, Hutchinson, London, 1948

    Pamela Vestey, Melba: A Family Memoir, Phoebe, Melbourne, 1996

    J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890-1899, 1900-1909, 1910-1919, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland, 2014

    Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography, Methuen, London, 1993

    John D. Williams, ‘A Play-Boy of Two Worlds’, Century Magazine, New York, December 1921

    A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre, Arthur Barker, London, 1951 



    With grateful thanks for help of all kinds:

    Elisabeth Kumm of Theatre Heritage Australia; Pamela Botha, Melbourne; Christine Chambers, great-niece of Haddon Chambers, Little River, California; Maisie Dubosarsky Fieschi, Paris; Christine Egan, Fort Street School Archives, Petersham; Kathryn Johnson, the British Library; Tony Locantro, Barking; John Wilson, Cheltenham; Sophie Wilson, King’s Sutton; Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant, Sydney; Theatre Museum, University of Bristol

    © Roger Neill 2021


    This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission),

  • Malcolm McEachern: Master of Song

    Albury-born bass Malcolm McEachern (1883–1945) was a prolific recording artist and sang in some of the world’s greatest concert venues, but little is known of his early career struggles in Australia. HOWARD C. JONES, who has published the first full-length biography of McEachern, explains.

    mceachern book cover 01

    MalcolmMcEachern, a goldminer’s son from Albury, was one of the British Empire’s best-known basses of the 20th century. He recorded almost 180 songs, performed in London’s greatest concert halls and had a parallel career in a musical comedy double act, Flotsam and Jetsam, with the witty songwriter Bert Hilliam. He broadcast on the BBC from 1923 to 1945, and often his deep voice was relayed to Australia. But he never returned there.

    Little has been written about his early struggles in Australia that laid the foundations for his ultimate success. It has been unjustly claimed he missed opportunities. “His leisure allegedly embracing sport, gambling, social outings and good time.(Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, 1986)

    Closer study of his life from 1908 to 1918, when he left Australia for South Africa, the US and England, reflects a tough apprenticeship on stage. He toured some 130 towns and cities, notably with the sopranos Nellie Melba and Marie Narelle and Albury-born contralto Ella Caspers. When unable to secure enough “serious” concert dates, he briefly ventured into Tivoli circuit vaudeville in four State capitals with his pianist wife, Hazel Doyle, for six months in 1917.

    McEachern was born in 1883 into a Scottish-Irish family that settled in Albury in 1854, though was often billed as “the Scotch bass”. He sang first in his Presbyterian church, a boy treble coached by an older sister, Blanche. As a grocer’s lad, he drove a horse-drawn cart around Albury but dreamt of going to London to sing professionally. At 21, he competed in singing festivals at Beechworth and Ballarat as a baritone or bass, a favourite song being Jude’s ‘The Mighty Deep’. A church organist, Howard Tracy, coached him in serious music. Together they started the Albury Choral Society in 1904.

    McEachern sang several times in Albury with Ella Caspers, forming an enduring friendship with her. In 1906 he moved to Sydney, where she was studying at the Garcia music school. He earned a living by selling Arnotts Biscuits. In 1908 Caspers invited him to join a country tour including Cootamundra, Tumut and Adelong. Five months later, she organised his debut at Sydney Town Hall before 2000 people, earning fulsome praise for singing J.W. Elliott’s ‘Hybrias the Cretan’. A second tour of the Clarence River region followed, but ended abruptly when Caspers fell ill.

    McEachern returned to Sydney and met Marie Narelle, “the Queen of Irish Song”, fresh from success in New York. She was finalising a divorce case with her drunkard husband and needed money to educate her three children. She knew from experience country town shows paid well. She engaged McEachern, pianist Hilda Thorndyke, and a London magician, “Alberto”. Their first tour on the Western railway stretched from Katoomba to Cobar, 760km from Sydney.

    An astonishing program of 40 concerts took place in November and December, 1908. If a train was not available, the party hired a motor car or horse-drawn vehicle, McEachern taking the reins! Narelle’s luggage included sparkling jewels given her by American admirers and gorgeous gowns. McEachern, of course, had his top hat, white tie and tails.

    Few county towns then had electric lighting, instead using kerosene or gas lamps. Clear moonlit nights were the most popular times for concerts.

    Typically, McEachern/Narelle program would list nine or 10 songs, including a duet, but there were always encores. McEachern’s offering ranged from ‘The Bedouin Love Song’ and ‘The Bandolero’ to traditional Scottish favourites that complemented Narelle’s Irish songs. A favourite of McEachern was ‘A Hundred Pipers’. Often concerts were held on six consecutive nights. The poor condition of pianos in country towns was a worry for Thorndyke. She must have struggled sometimes to read her music from flickering lamps. Microphones were still years away but McEachern’s robust, resonant voice always reached every corner.

    In the Riverina, Narelle proudly performed in her birthplace, Temora. In a very hot December the party survived a severe dust storm at Coolamon. After eight weeks of touring, Christmas brought little rest: a Christmas Eve concert at Berrigan, Christmas Day on a dusty road to Narrandera for a Boxing Day concert, and two concerts to finish at Hay and Whitton.

    The Riverina Grazier on 11 December commented: “Miss Marie Narelle has been reaping a golden harvest in the West”. Theatre seats cost only one, two or three shillings but occasionally 500 people would attend.

    McEachern, Narelle and Thorndyke were back in Sydney for Town Hall concert on 9 January 1909. Their manager, Norrie Hendricks, had mapped out a second NSW country tour of about 35 concerts as far north as Moree and then through Albury to Victorian towns such as Alexandra, Yea and Echuca. This was completed by Easter, but not without drama. At Beechworth, a tremendous thunderstorm broke, startling the hundreds assembled in the Federal Hall. A witness wrote: “Even the powerful voice of Mr. Malcolm McEachern failed before the diapason of heaven’s artillery”.

    A Queensland tour presented another challenging schedule, this time without Alberto. Trains took the Marie Narelle party to Toowoomba, Pittsworth, Oakley and Roma and on to Charleville and Cunnamulla, and then back to Brisbane. A second leg went to Rockhampton and across the Great Dividing Range to Balcardine and Longreach. Balcardine’s stage was bare and the piano badly out of tune, but the shire president gave the party a champagne supper after the show!

    At Jericho Narelle and Thorndyke fell ill with influenza or dengue fever (accounts vary). McEachern rushed them more than 450km to Rockhampton hospital. On their recovery, the party sailed for Mackay for two concerts and went on westwards to Winton, Charters Towers, Hughenden and Cloncurry. From remote Cloncurry the party “rested” on a 1000km, 24-hour train journey to Townsville. A sea journey to Cairns started a third leg, taking in the Atherton Tableland towns.

    The trio reunited in Sydney in September to prepare for Western Australia. Meanwhile, McEachern gave a solo performance on September 18 to the British Empire Chambers of Commerce Congress, attended by the former Australian Prime Minister, Sir George Reid, and international businessmen. An 11-day steamship voyage to the West in October 1909 must have seemed like a holiday for the Marie Narelle party, taking 11 days in fine weather.

    Narelle chose to open the tour on 25 October in Kalgoorlie, after an overnight train journey from Perth 653km away. They found the splendid new Town Hall was one of the few outside capital cities with electric lighting. This was the first of 28 concerts in 18 different towns, plus Perth and Fremantle, over six weeks.

    At Laverton, on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, Hendricks did not hesitate to charge five shillings for the best of 700 seats. The tour continued at York, Beverley and Northam. In Perth, hundreds saw the party at the Theatre Royal on November 23 and 24, and at the King’s Theatre, Fremantle. The tour wrapped up with visits to Bunbury, Bridgetown, Busselton, Greenbushes and Collie.

    Marie Narelle sailed out of Fremantle, heading for Europe and the US. McEachern stayed on in Perth, joining goldfields soprano Lulu Benstead for four concerts over Christmas and touring the southern districts with her.  In January they sang at a charity concert McEachern himself had organised for the Perth Children’s Hospital. Among his guest artists was Lionel Logue, the elocutionist famous for coaching King George VI.

    McEachern’s unexplained failure to show at some of Benstead’s concerts led to them parting company. They were to perform together again in London in a 1943 stage revival of Showboat.

    By April 1910, McEachern was a commercial traveller again and playing football in Perth. He paid for “finishing lessons” from a music master in Perth, Percy Marchant.

    By July, National Mutual Life Assurance had appointed him an agent at Caernarvon, 1000km north of Perth. Selling insurance was no pushover. McEachern and another agent, H. Emmanuel, hired a horse and trap to drive to remote centres where they could not access railways or coastal ships. They organised several concerts at Carnarvon, starring McEachern and local amateur singers. At a convivial Burns Night in 1911, admiring Scots presented him with a case of pipes (he was a pipe smoker until his death from throat cancer).

    The same year, he sailed 1100km north to sell insurance to Port Hedland and Roebourne, again organising concerts. He sang at Marble Bar in the Miners Institute, a galvanised iron hall lit by “new” acetylene gas lighting. He found Australia’s hottest town had music lovers with phonographs and records. Later he toured the Murchison goldfields and Gascoyne River district until National Mutual gave him a promotion in Perth. In March 1912 it sent him to Kalgoorlie and Boulder. Being half Irish, he agreed to join a St Patrick’s Day concert, starting with ‘Father O’Flynn’ and ending with leading everyone in ‘God Save Ireland’. At another concert he sang new popular songs, such as ‘Kashmiri Love Song’ (Pale Hands I Loved) and ‘My Old Shako’.

    By early 1913 he had left insurance, but singing opportunities dwindled until he was reduced to serenading shoppers at Boan’s department store in Perth on odd afternoons. A concert at Boan’s on April 30 with tenor Peter Roxby was his last recorded appearance in Western Australia before he returned there in 1914.

    Back in Sydney in August, he found concert engagements with his pianist friend Hilda Thorndyke, including a vice-regal charity concert and an appearance at Orange with soprano Ruby Tucker and tenor Sid McDonald. Thorndyke’s circle of musical friends included the pianist Hazel Doyle, then aged 21. It was at Wollongong on 1 October 1913, that Doyle was first listed in a concert with McEachern. Her friend Daisy Sweet, a contralto who was to marry McEachern’s brother Frank, was also there. From then on Doyle accompanied McEachern in several concerts.

    Nellie Melba’s Australian manager, the flautist John Lemmone, came into McEachern’s life at a Scottish concert in Sydney in January 1914. Lemmone was seeking a male singer to join Melba on her upcoming Australian tour, starting in the West. He hired McEachern, knowing he had already sung with distinction in Perth and Kalgoorlie.

    McEachern, a Freemason, made more social contacts when he entertained the NSW Masonic Club at a “farewell” function for Sir George Reid, by then Australian High Commissioner in London. The Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Cook, was also present and was to support McEachern in London nine years later.

    Melba had sung in England with Enrico Caruso and John McCormack in 1914, but chose to return early to Melbourne, where her father, David Mitchell, was ailing. Breaking her journey in Perth and the goldfields would fulfil a promise she made after she had cancelled a Kalgoorlie visit in 1902.

    The Melba concert party would include Lemmone; Doris Madden, solo pianist, and Harold Whittle, a pianist who had accompanied Melba before. Lemmone organised concerts in Perth for 9 and 11 July, Kalgoorlie on 14 July and Boulder on 15 July.

    Such was Melba’s fame that when she disembarked at Fremantle on 6 July, the State Governor lent his vice-regal rail carriage to take Melba to Perth. McEachern was present when 6000 admirers gathered outside the Esplanade Hotel to hear the Metropolitan Liedertafel serenade Melba. It was no surprise to regal Melba that the Governor and the Federal Treasurer, Sir John Forrest, and their wives would be at the two Perth concerts at His Majesty’s Theatre. Lemmone placed 200 extra seats on the stage to enable 2500 people attended each concert. Both concerts were sell-outs, as was a third organised belatedly for 18 July.

    On her last day in Perth, 19 July, Melba presented Malcolm with probably the most valuable gift in his career: a scarf pin with “Melba” traced in diamonds. The diva publicly endorsed him as “the most beautiful bass I have ever heard”.

    Melba planned to tour Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide with McEachern from September or October, before returning to England in 1915.

    Outbreak of war in Europe on 4 August changed everything. Melba declared she would focus only on big charity fundraising concerts. She first organised a concert for the Australian Red Cross at the Sydney Town Hall on 20 September, with McEachern, Lemmone and Whittle.  McEachern’s first song was apt: Handel’s ‘Arm, Arm Ye Brave’.

    As the war dragged on, he appeared in other “patriotic” concerts, sometimes with Doyle on piano, and sang newly-written pro-British songs as well as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save The King’. By February 1915 the McEacherns had joined the “McEachern-Castles” concert party for a tour of Wollongong, Lismore, Grafton and Murwillumbah. They supported tenor George Castles (brother of singer Amy Castles) and Daisy Sweet.

    In April 1915, McEachern and Ella Caspers were reunited at the Sydney Town Hall. Caspers had returned from London before the war, having endured a bigamy scandal in 1911 but had triumphed in British and Irish concert halls. The pair sang in the Royal Philharmonic Society’s presentation of Edward Elgar’s ‘The Music Makers’.

    For the King’s Birthday on June 3, 1915, Melba invited Malcolm to join her and Lemmone for a Town Hall concert in aid of the “starving Poles” driven from their homes by war. After the Anzac landings, McEachern regularly sang patriotic songs such as ‘Heroes of the Dardanelles’ by Reginald Stoneham, and ‘For God and St George’.

    McEachern and Doyle were married at Willoughby, Sydney, on 2 February, 1916. A son was born in December but died after one day due to a heart defect.

    The couple’s fortunes improved in January 1917 when entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh signed up McEachern for the Harry Rickards Tivoli chain in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide as “Melba’s favourite basso”. This meant six months of singing in old-time vaudeville shows, initially with Fred Bluett, a popular comedian. McEachern was soon mingling on programs with magicians, acrobats, jugglers, assorted musicians and even a “clever dog”. One fellow artist in Melbourne was Elsie Peerless, a soprano from St Kilda.

    A theatre critic wrote: “Malcolm McEachern has achieved a success very much to be envied. To step from the concert platform in association with Melba, straight to the vaudeville stage, is an undertaking of some hazard. McEachern has made the trial, and come through with flying colours. He owes this chiefly to his magnificent bass voice, but here again we have a strong personality, and a pleasing one at that. On the stage the basso gets through his work in the his friendliest manner imaginable.” (The Globe, 12 February 1917).

    Hazel Doyle was soon accompanying him on the Tivoli stage, apparently able to play any song from memory. McEachern tailored his program away from opera and oratorio favoured by the social elite, but retained other classical songs as well as popular ballads that he thought a less sophisticated audience would like. He told a Sydney newspaper in 1917 he thought the two greatest songs ever written were ‘The Lute Player’ and ‘Myself When Young’.

    With his long-term career in mind, he took Italian language lessons from Father William Hayden, of Dulwich Hill, later Catholic Archbishop of Hobart (McEachern’s first commercial recording in 1921 was a Verdi aria sung in Italian).

    After the Tivoli period, the McEacherns accepted, other theatrical enterpreneurs, the Fuller Brothers, offered them a vaudeville season in New Zealand, followed by South African tour. They sailed from Sydney for Auckland on 5 September 1917. Coincidentally Melba and English actress Ada Reeve were also on board and organised a concert to raise funds for a war charity, with the McEacherns joining in.

    Their first appearance in New Zealand was in the Auckland Opera House on 10 September. The tour went on to Wellington and Christchurch and ended on 8 December. Full houses were reported everywhere.

    Fuller Brothers had already booked Malcolm and Hazel for Christmas vaudeville at their Majestic Theatre in Adelaide, running twice daily from 22 to 28 December, including Christmas night.  

    Malcolm’s performance at the Majestic on 28 December 1917 was his final one in Australia. They couple left Melbourne for South Africa on 8 January 1918, following in the footsteps of Melba, Dawson and other Australian artists.

    Ever with London the goal, McEachern performed in New York’s theatres and cinemas for 18 months in 1918–20, arriving in Liverpool with his wife in September 1920 already holding a contract to appear in London’s prestigious Queen’s Hall in January with Sir Henry Wood.

    McEachern spent the rest of his career entirely in the British Isles, but always identified as an Australian. He often performed at the Australian High Commission in The Strand when it was headed by former Prime Ministers Sir Joseph Cook and Stanley Bruce and the soldier Sir Granville Ryrie. At Cook’s invitation, he took part in the first BBC broadcast to Australia in 1923 and several others after that, including one specifically for Albury.

    Vocalion and Columbia exported so many Australian singers’ records to Australia that they opened factories in Richmond (Melbourne) and Homebush (Sydney) respectively to press thousands of copies locally. McEachern was being one of the principal artists in the interwar years.

    One of his last records, made with Hilliam in 1939 for Australian diggers, was ‘Is He An Aussie, Is He, Lizzie?’ The BBC banned it in 1944, apparently because it was too saucy and contained the phrase “fuzzy wuzzy”. Typically, he laughed off the incident by joking: “Do they expect me to sing Is He A Cissie, Lizzie?”

    McEachern died in London in January 1945, aged 61.

    • Based on a biography, Malcolm McEachern, Master of Song, by Howard C. Jones, published by Albury & District Historical Society, 2023.


    Malcolm McEachern: Master of Song is published by the Albury & District Historical Society, PO Box 822 Albury, 2640. Enquiries to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


    A selection of Malcom McEachern recordings on John Hanna’s Vintage Sounds

    See also

    Malcolm McEachern on film

    ‘In a Cellar Cool’, filmed in 1931, with Ivor Newton at the piano


    ‘The Changing of the Guard’, recorded in 1937, with Bert Hilliam at the piano


  • MARCHESI, Mathilde (1821-1913)

    German operatic vocalist (mezzo soprano) & teacher. Née Mathilde Graumann. Born 24 March 1821, Frankfurt, Germany. Married Salvatore Marchesi (vocalist), 1852. Died 17 November 1913, London, England.

    Best remembered for tutoring Nellie Melba in Paris, prior to Melba’s debut at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1887.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 243.

  • Melba and the Rise of La bohème

    Melba aficionado ROGER NEILL takes a close look at La bohème and discovers that Dame Nellie was instrumental in making it one of the most popular and well-loved of Puccini’s operas.

    How was it that La bohème became one of the world’s favourite operas? For more than a century it has been a permanent fixture in the repertoires of opera theatres large and small all around the world.

    To be honest, you are not going to discover the answer to this question in any of the several fine biographies of its composer, Giacomo Puccini. Most of these appear to assume that the work achieved its preeminent position simply as a result of the inherent excellence of the story, the characters and the music.

    But is that really the answer? After all, its world première at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1896 was hardly what might be called a triumph. ‘La bohème, since it makes no great impression on the soul of its audience, will leave no large imprint on the history of our lyric stage,’ wrote the critic of the main Turin newspaper, the Gazzetta Piemontese.

    What’s more, La bohème, Puccini’s fourth opera, followed three others that scarcely marked him out for any great success.

    The first, the one-act Le Villi of 1884, had its première at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, when the composer was twenty-seven. It received only four performances that season and has scarcely held the stage since. Revived at Naples in 1888, one critic described it as ‘simply an imitation of Wagner’. Le Villi was followed in 1889 by Edgar, which had its world première at La Scala in Milan. It was panned by the critics and disappeared from the stage after only two performances.

    Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, although the libretto had five different writers, showed more promise. Puccini and his publisher Ricordi were able to assemble a first-rate cast with a leading soprano of the day, Cesira Ferrani, as Manon. The première at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1893 mustered thirty curtain calls from an enthusiastic audience, together with favourable reviews from the critics. But while it certainly made its mark in Italy, Manon Lescaut was slow to find its place elsewhere.

    All in all, then, a promising composer, but no world-beater at this stage.

    There was much riding on Puccini’s next, his fourth. Would La bohème provide him with the success he sought? Would it even compete successfully with the other new work of the same name by his contemporary, Ruggero Leoncavallo? As with Manon Lescaut, Puccini and Ricordi attempted to bring together an outstanding cast. His leading lady as Mimì was, again, Cesira Ferrani. And this time, Puccini had as his conductor the brilliant young Arturo Toscanini. But Puccini was in the event not at all happy with the rest of the ensemble.

    La bohème was composed by Puccini between 1893 and 1895 to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is based on Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851) by Henri Murger.

    So why did it not hit the mark, particularly with the critics? Toscanini himself summed up the rather lukewarm reception it received: ‘Not one of those critics had understood that La bohème was a completely new opera, as much in the orchestra as on stage. They were not aware that they had heard a masterpiece and demolished it without thinking about it.’

    The public’s response was sufficiently positive for the work to be given in other leading Italian houses—in Rome, Naples, Palermo, Bologna and elsewhere—before landing at La Scala in Milan in March 1897. It fared reasonably well in some cities, less well in others, but then, during the remainder of Puccini’s lifetime, it was to drop out of the repertoire in Italy.

    And yet, in the years following its première, it was to rise internationally to the very top. How did this happen, given its unpromising start?

    Its extraordinary ascent was in the main thanks to the efforts of one woman. Somehow or other, the great Australian diva, Nellie Melba, had decided that Puccini was ‘the coming man’ and that La bohème was a masterwork. Quite what was the stimulus for this admiration is still rather hard to pin down.

    She had not seen La bohème in Italy. It is most likely that she had first seen the production of the work (received in lukewarm fashion) given three performances by the Carl Rosa Company in English at Covent Garden in London in October 1897. It had toured major cities in England and Scotland before arriving in London. The Mimì in that production was American soprano Alice Esty, the Rodolfo Umberto Salvi.1 Did Melba send for a score from Ricordi in order to study it?  

    Postcard Puccini study 2Puccini’s study at Torre del Lago near Lucca

    Whatever the mechanism, Melba decided that she should be Mimì, and in August of 1898 she took herself off to Lucca, Puccini’s home town in Tuscany, in order to study with the composer. Aged thirty-seven and at the peak of her career, Melba may well have realised that her pre-eminence in bel canto roles—in Donizetti, Rossini, Gounod, Verdi and others—must become more and more difficult to maintain as the years went by. This new verismo school of operas, with Puccini at its heart, would be so much easier on the voice and might enable her both to make a transition from the old to the new, and at the same time to stretch out her career at the top.

    She studied for two hours every day with Puccini while she was in Lucca:

    He thoroughly explained his ideas of the music; we rehearsed it bit by bit, and my score is full of his pencil markings and annotations … I have great faith in Puccini’s gifts. I delight in singing his music.

    Melba told the ghost-writer of her memoirs, Beverley Nichols, that Puccini had said to her: ‘You sing my music. You don’t sing Melba-Puccini.’

    Instead of returning immediately with her newly-mastered role to her main artistic homes—Covent Garden in London and the Metropolitan Opera in New York—Melba decided instead to tour the work with a specially assembled company, performing in cities across the United States. The company was formally named the Ellis Opera Company, after the manager of the tour, Charles Ellis, but it was clear to all that this was in reality Melba’s show. 

    The tour opened in Philadelphia on 17 December 1898, but as Melba was a victim of a flu epidemic in the city, the first night of La bohème had to be postponed until 30 December. Neither audiences nor critics were expecting a new opera which lacked brilliant sets and costumes, had ‘no gorgeous, concerted movements’ and ‘practically no chorus and no arias’. But gradually, as the tour progressed through the eastern cities and the mid-west, Americans responded more and more warmly to the work. And by the time the company reached San Francisco, expectations were running high. On 15 May 1899, La bohème opened there at the Grand Opera House. Melba wrote: ‘They responded from the very first.’ And a local critic noted approvingly that the opera was ‘simple to the last degree, without trill or cadenza.’

    So, having been personally coached by the composer, and having performed Mimì throughout a lengthy American tour, Melba felt ready to present the work with the resident company at Covent Garden. This she did, opening on 1 July 1899 to tremendous acclaim. Punch magazine declared it ‘the hit of the season’. Her Rodolfo for these performances at Covent Garden was the great Italian tenor, Fernando De Lucia, the first of a regal procession of partners for Melba in the role.

    10 Royal Opera House Covent Garden 2Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

    In perhaps the most purple of purple passages ever committed to paper about a performance in opera, the Scottish prima donna (and Director of Chicago Opera), Mary Garden, wrote in her memoirs:

    I have no hesitation in declaring that Melba had the most phenomenal effect on me of any singer I have ever heard. I once went to Covent Garden to hear her do Mimì in La bohème… You know, the last note of the first act of La bohème is the last note that comes out of Mimì’s throat. It is a high C, and Mimì sings it when she walks out of the door with Rodolfo … The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden: it left Melba’s throat, it left Melba’s body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever.

    Melba’s biographer, John Hetherington, summarised the Mimì-Melba-Covent Garden connection in 1967:

    The love affair between Covent Garden audiences and Bohème began then and has never ended. The love affair between Melba and Mimì was nearly as lasting; she continued to sing it until her retirement. Nothing else in grand opera seems to have so pleased her as did Mimì’s scintillating and tuneful music. It fitted her voice and temperament and spirit …

    From Covent Garden, Melba then took La bohème for a second coast-to-coast tour across America, this time with the Metropolitan Opera Company, now starting on the west coast in Los Angeles and eventually arriving at New York. It opened there triumphantly on 26 December 1900 but even now, the piece had its detractors. A leading New York critic, Henry Krehbiel, wrote: ‘La bohème is foul in subject, and fulminant but futile in its music.’ As usual, audiences had the last word. The work has now, 123 years later, had over 1,350 performances by the Metropolitan Opera company, having overtaken Aida as the most performed in their repertoire.

    From time to time, if she felt that La bohème was too brief, having offered an audience short measure for their money, Melba would re-appear and give them one of her party-pieces, usually the dazzling (and extremely demanding) ‘Mad Scene’ from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. And if they still refused to depart, the piano would be pushed on, centre-stage, and the diva would accompany herself in ‘Home Sweet Home’.

    In 1902, at Monte Carlo, under the supervision of the composer, she gave her first performance with a new partner as Rodolfo – the dazzling young Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. Melba-Caruso nights in La bohèmewere to become the hottest of hot tickets over the coming years.

    Melba had laid firm claim to Mimì. And she was not to relinquish her grip on the role at Covent Garden until her grand Farewell there on 8 June 1926. In New York, having signed up for Oscar Hammerstein’s rival Manhattan Opera Company in 1907, Melba had to give way to others as Mimì at the Met—among the new pretenders being Marcella Sembrich, Geraldine Farrar, Frances Alda and Amelita Galli-Curci.

    At her own London home in Great Cumberland Place, near Marble Arch, in March 1904 Melba was to make the first of several best-selling gramophone recordings of Mimì’s Act 3 ‘Addio’. It is no accident that Melba’s tombstone at Lilydale in her native Australia, bears the simple and affecting last line from that aria: ‘Addio senza rancor’—farewell, no hard feelings.   

    Other important opera houses around Europe were slower to take up La bohème. In Vienna, the Theater an der Wien had introduced it in October 1897 with Frances Saville as Mimì, prompting a famously scathing review of the work from Eduard Hanslick, but the Court Opera only admitted the work in November 1903. The house’s director, Gustav Mahler, was an admirer. Comparing Puccini’s work with its contemporary namesake from Leoncavallo, Mahler wrote: ‘One bar of Puccini is worth more than the whole of Leoncavallo.’

    It was Paris that bucked the trend. La bohème’s arrival there—at the Opéra-Comique in June 1898—was supervised by the composer. The production was an immediate success and remained consistently popular with French audiences. By 1951 La bohème had already received its thousandth performance at that house.

    MM 18827.800x800Bohème in Melbourne by Spencer Shier, 1924. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

    Mimì was a role that Melba was to sing with the Melba-Williamson Opera Company in their three Australian tours—in 1911, 1924 and 1928. In 1911 there were performances at Her Majesty’s Theatres in Sydney and Melbourne with New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman as Musetta and Irish tenor John McCormack as Rodolfo. In 1924, Melba by now 63, she opened the Melbourne season as Mimì with Italian tenor Nino Piccaluga her Rodolfo, then in Sydney another Italian took that role, Dino Borgioli.

    Melba was 67 when she returned for the last time to Australia with her full company in 1928. She did not sing in Melbourne but returned to the stage in the last three acts of La bohème on 27 August with the two Australians who had sung with her at her Covent Garden Farewell the previous year—Browning Mummery as Rodolfo and John Brownlee as Marcello. She sang the same programme at a matinée in Melbourne, then again on 2 October at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide—her last appearance as Mimì. 

    In a letter written to his confidante, Sybil Seligman, in February 1921, Puccini heaved a sigh of relief that another singer will get the chance to sing the role at Monte Carlo: ‘I’m sorry that Melba is ill, but I think that Mimì will be pleased to be unsung by her!’

    Although the opera is still regularly treated with some disdain by high-minded critics, it remains to this day the mainstay of opera houses around the world, beloved of audiences everywhere, whether played by run-of-the-mill ensembles or by great stars like Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso.

    © Roger Neill, 2023

    A first version of this essay appeared in the 2012 program of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Revised, it appears here by permission.


    1. Umberto Salvi came to Australia (and New Zealand) with Musgrove’s English Opera Company in 1900-01; he was one of the soloists at a reception celebrating the opening of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia in Melbourne, 9 May 1901.


    Listen to Melba

    Puccini: La Bohème / Act 3—Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina (Quartet). With Nellie Melba, Browning Mummery, John Brownlee, Aurora Rettore. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza. Recorded live at Melba’s Farewell from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8 June 1926.



  • MELBA, Nellie (1861-1931)

    Australian operatic vocalist (soprano). Née Helen Porter Mitchell. Born 19 May 1861, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Daughter of David Mitchell (builder) and Isabella Ann Dow. Married Charles Nesbitt Frederick Armstrong, 22 December 1882, Brisbane, QLD, Australia (div.). Died 23 February 1931, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

    Australia's most famous opera singer, studied under Pietro Cecchi and Mathilde Marchesi. Created a DBE in 1918 for 'services in organising patriotic work'.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, pages 190, 196.

  • Memories of Melba

     1 BannerMelba portrait by Sir John Longstaff (1923), National Gallery of Victoria & Grand Opera Season programme, Yarra Ranges Museum, reg. no. 6104.

    In 1924 British actor-manager-playwright-author Sir Seymour Hicks (1871–1949) toured Australia and New Zealand with his wife, actress Ellaline Terriss (1871–1971) and daughter, Betty (who subsequently made her stage début in Melbourne), under the management of Sir Benjamin and John Fuller in partnership with Hugh J. Ward. The tour commenced at the “New” Palace Theatre, Melbourne on 23 February of that year with Hicks’ adaptation of the French farce The Man in Dress Clothes.

    Concurrent with the Hickses’ tour (which included Sydney, Newcastle and Adelaide), was that of Dame Nellie Melba making the first of her “Farewell” tours of Australia under the management of J.C. Williamson Ltd., which launched at the newly re-christened ‘His’ Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 29 March. In later years Seymour Hicks wrote of his friendship with Melba in the chapter “Famous Ladies of the Stage” published in his part-novel Night Lights in 1938.

    2 Seymour Hicks 1924Seymour Hicks, 1924. Private collection.A wag of a scribe once replied to his editor on being asked by him to write a set of Tabloid Biographies, giving intimate glimpses of well-known people, that he would rather not do so, as to tell the real truth about the famous would be either to make them delightfully infamous or duller than ditch-water, before he had spoiled a single page of his precious paper. I, however, do not share this merry fellow's opinion. This may be, of course, because on glancing at the list of ladies I have been bidden to remember, no single one could possibly be anything but "Pretty Thoughts" from the borders of Lavender, which trim the paths they have trodden in a garden which has “Rosemary” written across its lichen-covered gate.

    As I sit wondering with whom and how to begin this series of reminiscences of famous ladies, my eye lights upon a treasured picture on which is written “With love from Nellie Melba”; so, as this is surely the voice of an old  friend calling, why should I not commence with one who linked with Adelina Patti as Patti linked with Jenny Lind—a century of song.

    Singers? I have met very few. I was almost going to say: “Thank the Lord,” for the ladies who imagine that they presented the Almighty with the vocal chords which have earned them fame and also are sure they explained to the Deity exactly where they wished them placed, are, as a rule, a pest, possessed of nothing but airs and anything but graces. However, one superlative artist I did know very well, over a period of some five and thirty years. This was Melba! and mighty singer though she was, never in private life was she other than a very direct and down-to-earth lady. She was possessed of a dominant personality, one which I fancy inspired admiration and respect, but seldom spontaneous affection, from those with whom she came in contact. Indeed, I think she rather made those about her fearful of her displeasure, for she was intolerant of ordinary people, and was the last person to brook opposition, even over the most trivial matters.

    In speaking of her like this I must not be accused of condemning her in private life; on the contrary, considering that she for many years had the world at her feet and was fawned upon, not only by the public, but by kings and princes, it is very wonderful that she should not have become absolutely intolerably; but, though difficult, she was to be forgiven and in a sense applauded, for she was not only crowned by the world “Queen of Song,” but had crowned herself the legitimate Queen over everyone who challenged her supremacy on the operatic stage.

    Her acting was poor, but her technique as a singer beyond words marvellous, for even as an old woman, when the Voice had waned with the years, she could hold vast audiences spellbound with the magic of her knowledge of the art in which she had been pre-eminent.

    I heard her in Bohème at her farewell performance in Melbourne, [1] a ghost of her great self, but still a giant. Her series of farewells was considered a thing to jest about. But why? She was clever enough to know that with her technique alone she still held all comers at bay, and although Shakespeare himself wrote that farewell was easily said, I beg to differ, for “Farewell!” is, I think, the saddest word in our beautiful language.

    Operatic artists are known to be the most jealous people in the world, and Melba was no exception, for I well remember her undisguised annoyance at the advent on her horizon of Tetrazzini. It was at a supper party she gave, while singing in the Isle of Man, that on some one mentioning Tetrazzini's recent triumph in London, not only did she explode verbally, but even went to the length of rising from the table and prancing about, saying, “This is what Tetrazzini will do, no doubt, if she sings on horseback, and this” (making snorting noises) “is what I suppose the poor horse will do which is obliged to carry her.”

    For an artist in her zenith—I speak of forty years ago—such a performance seemed to me incredibly petty, and yet, might she not have thought that her citadel was being stormed and suddenly have developed an inferiority complex? If this were so she was to be forgiven, for surely greatness must always be looked upon with a kindly and forgiving eye.

    In thinking of the difficult times managers have with the majority of people in opera, I remember once Sir Augustus Harris (known to the London of his day as Druriolanus) saying that the only way he was able to conciliate various stars when travelling together, if he was obliged to place one great singer over the other in the sleeping berths, was to have a placard with “and” placed between them, so that the lady in the lower bunk would feel that she was on perfectly equal terms artistically with her sister who slumbered overhead.

    As a business woman, Melba had the brain of a business man and saw life through the spectacles of her Scottish ancestors. Of gentleness she had little, of humour none. Her fun was the obvious, and commanding as she did the applause courtiers are trained to give to Royalty for the most futile of sallies, she was mercifully unaware that had she not been Melba, a yawn would have replaced the ever-ready guffaw.

    To me she was always extraordinarily kind and, although I can say I was never easy in her presence, I was fond of her, though frightened of her moods, which found birth in a quick mentality always just ahead of the moment.

    I have said there was little gentleness about her, but there I was wrong, for the face which was hard and by no means beautiful, softened beyond measure as she played with her little grand-daughter (now grown into a charming young lady), for whom, I remember, she took delight in watching as the child played with a lamb she had bought for her in Melbourne, and which she had brought back in triumph to her lovely home, called “Coombe Cottage” at Lilydale, some five and twenty miles from that entrancing city.

    Her jewels were marvellous and her cabinets were filled with wonders of the goldsmith's art, all of them presentations from the most noble and the most famous of every land she had enthralled with her God-given voice. The one story she loved to tell against herself was that of a gentleman on board a P. & O. liner bound for Australia.

    This worthy, quite unaware that the one and only Melba was on board, was splashing about in his bath the first day out at sea, and, hearing some one singing in the next cabin, shouted out: “Oh, for heaven's sake shut up!” His consternation may well be imagined when later in the afternoon it was made known to him that the voice belonged to a lady who would have probably charged him a thousand guineas had he engaged her to sing at his private house, and that only ifshe could have been persuaded to do so.

    Melba was often very pleased with simple things, although accustomed to the best the world could offer, and I remember once she seemed more than delighted with a dedication I wrote to her in a little book called “Hullo, Australians!” We were sitting at a restaurant in Sydney, when she suddenly said, “I hear you are writing a book about my country. Is that so?” When I replied that it was true and that I was dedicating it to her, she became greatly interested, and asked what form the dedication was to take. Frankly, I had not thought of it, but I scribbled on the back of the luncheon menu a line which I think gave her pleasure. It was: “The voice of a nightingale was hushed when Melba sang.”

    In his early days Landon (now Sir Landon) Ronald was invariably her accompanist at the piano, and while he always addressed her as “Queen,” she took a delight in teasing him about his nose, which is, as he himself often remarks, an outside size in noses. She would chaff him unmercifully, a thing which this great musician and charming gentleman always took in very good part. It was while at Douglas, Isle of Man, that on my asking Landon to come out with me for the afternoon, he replied: “Well, yes, I will, I have nothing particular to do here, except to look after Melba.” His reply called forth a yell of laughter from the assembled company, all of whom knew the diva and were well aware that to look after her and obey her commands was very nearly a three-man job.

    It was Melba, who discovered the genius of that great throat specialist, Sir Milsom Rees, and I think she was never happy unless he was within call, for he understood her delicate and sensitive vocal organs as no other man ever did. Never shall I forget going with her to a throat doctor in a great northern city, for she made the poor man, metaphorically, sink through the floor. She had caught a slight cold and after this good gentleman had examined her carefully, she inquired of him what he proposed to do. “Paint your throat with nitrate of silver,” he replied. “What?” she almost screamed, “paint my beautiful vocal chords with stuff of that kind? You must be mad,” and paying him his fee, she flounced out of the house like a whirlwind.

    On her singing nights she whispered all day and, indeed, seldom spoke at all, so careful was she of the gifts she treasured. Why she was never waylaid at night-time on her motor ride from Melbourne to her country house was a thing at which I have often marvelled, for unattended she would often carry with her the thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of jewellery she had worn at the theatre.

    For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man. She was not in London when this witty man of the world died, and when she inquired of me the details of his death and as to how he had succeeded in his later years, long after I had finished telling her all I could about our mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies, so far removed from the drab streets of our great metropolis which surrounded an opera house in Covent Garden to which Haddon, in company with many another of her devoted friends, had so often accompanied her.

    Not the least of Melba's many great qualities was the staunch way, come good or ill, she stood by those of whom she was fond. Socially, of course, she was big enough to do this, but there are many who would have hesitated to stand by some unfortunate, whom the world refused to pardon.  The great singer was a big-hearted human being, who felt that a sin atoned for should not be made punishable for ever.

    Talking of punishment, it was Charles Brookfield; one of the most acid of Victorian wits, who meeting, in the Haymarket, a friend who had just served a sentence of five years' penal servitude, greeted him with great cordiality.

    The sinner, taken aback, expecting no doubt to be deliberately cut, said to Brookfield, “Thank you very much, my dear fellow; I thought you would pass me by.”

    “On the contrary,” said Brookfield, “I thought you would pass me by. You see you've done your time, I haven't done mine.”

    It is sad to think I shall never meet Melba again, and on returning to Australia, as I hope to some day, it will be, I fear, like wandering through a beautiful garden, straining my ears in vain to hear an echo of the lovely voice the angels have welcomed to their choir.

    Originally published in Night Lights, Seymour Hicks, Cassell & Co., London: 1938; in the chapter “Famous Ladies Of The Stage”—Madame Melba (pp. 107–113)


    [1] Melba’s farewell performance of La Bohème was given at His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne on 13 October, 1924. Ellaline Terriss and Betty Hicks assisted with selling souvenir programmes in the theatre’s foyer prior to the performance. La Bohème was also broadcast live from the theatre by radio station 3LO as its inaugural broadcast in Melbourne, which prompted a ‘run’ on the sale of radio receivers prior to the event, and was consequently heard by an estimated listening audience of 150,000.

    11 Broadway JonesSeymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss in the 1914 London production of Broadway JonesThe Hickses had befriended British journalist and novelist Beverley Nichols on the voyage out from Britain aboard the Orient liner Ormuz.Nichols had come to Australia as Private Secretary to Melba during her tour and also as ‘ghost-writer’ of her autobiography Melodies and Memories first published in 1925.

    Although Ellaline Terriss had originally accompanied her husband and daughter on the Australasian tour to convalesce from a recent illness, she stepped into the breach at some 30 hours’ notice when Hicks’s leading lady Barbara Hoffe was suddenly stricken with typhoid fever (apparently contracted during the Ormuz’s stopover in Ceylon), a day prior to the opening night of The Man in Dress Clothes.Despite not having played the role before, Terriss learnt her lines and stage ‘blocking’ under her husband's direction and acted the female lead with such success that she earned an ovation from the first night audience and was acclaimed in the subsequent Melbourne Press reviews. At the request of the management, Terriss retained her role in The Man in Dress Clothes right through the tour and played opposite her husband in Sleeping Partners and Broadway Jones as well. Nineteen year old Betty Hicks made her stage début under the name of ‘Elizabeth Seymour’ playing small parts in The Man in Dress Clothes and Scrooge (which preceded Sleeping Partners as a curtain raiser at the Palace Theatre from 5 April), and played a supporting role in Old Bill, MP staged during the Hicks' return season at the Palace from 20 September 1924.

    Ellaline Terriss's memories of Melba during their Australian tour were included in her autobiography Just A Little Bit Of Stringpublished in 1955.

    Of all the people who did so much to make us welcome and at home, nobody did more than that uncrowned Queen of Australia, Dame Nellie Melba. Her kindness was as unceasing as it was delightful. From the moment we set foot on shore she told us that her home was our home, and her door would be always open to us. She was present at our opening night. Nothing was too much trouble for her where we were concerned, and this magnificent singer went out of her way to take care of Betty and me, as if we had been placed in her special charge. She had a lovely home, twenty-five miles or so outside Melbourne. She called it a Cottage—but it was like an Arabian Nights Palace set in the bush. It was a treasure house of marvellous things which she had collected during her career, and all around it were dream gardens. She insisted that I called her Nellie—she would not allow the more formal Dame Nellie—so Nellie she became to me. She was giving her Farewell Season in Opera, so far as Australia was concerned, whilst we were there and we were privileged to hear her. Even then one could realise the perfection of voice that had been hers, for she had matchless technique. It was also our very great privilege to be present at her last performance. That was something which I shall never forget. It seemed as though the audience would never let her go, and it was an occasion to live in the memory as long as life lasts. She did not surround herself with just ordinary opera singers – she knew better than that. She had, as support, the best that Italy could send.

    Unlike most opera singers, she cared very much about the setting of the scenes in which she was to sing. Everything must be quite correct. She would go into the smallest detail and see that each was absolutely right. I remember watching her once at rehearsal. She was dissatisfied with the way in which a tree had been ‘set’. With deference, the stage director told her that the tree was in its usual place. That meant nothing to her. It was not set her way. So she just took hold of the tree—it  was a large one—and carried it without effort from the side of the stage to dead centre. That was the way she wanted it and that was the way she had it too. She saw to that by doing it herself. It was the same with dresses and properties, just 'anything' would not do, and Opera was not very particular about such details in those days. But when Nellie Melba was to sing—well, Nellie Melba saw it was done her way—which meant with perfection.

    It was with Melba that we met a young man who was to become a lifelong friend... That is Beverley Nichols, who was then writing Dame Nellie's Life Story. He was already showing that brilliance which everybody now recognises. We became friends at once, and we all used to play Mah Jongg and laugh a good deal, which is perhaps better than any game. Once, in Dame Nellie's Sydney flat, Toti dal Monte and Borgioli were there, too, and a game of Mah Jongg was in progress, with considerable hilarity. Suddenly a young lady was announced who was an understudy in La Bohème and whom Melba had asked to call, so that she could give her a lesson. She had forgotten. But this was serious, this was Opera, this was music and above all this was singing. So the game was at once abandoned and we all sat very quietly whilst Melba herself gave that girl a lesson in the big song they had to tackle—for the girl had to sing the part that night. Melba played the piano herself—and I have to admit she played it badly—but what she taught the girl in the way of singing, breathing, voice production, tone and above all technique was simply marvellous. Where Melba was concerned, music came first. I have never forgotten that lesson.

    She was absolutely devoted to her little grand-daughter, the child of her son George Armstrong and his charming wife, Evie. The little girl could do what she liked with her. Melba might have made great impresarii and notabilities quail and tremble, but Pamela ruled her. Pamela had also a pet lamb which she adored; decorated with little bells and blue bows it was allowed the complete run of the house.

    Before bidding good-bye to Melba, I must recall how she ‘ticked off’ Seymour about his voice. It was when we were playing in The Man in Dress Clothes. He was complaining that he always had trouble with his throat. “Of course you have trouble with your voice,” said Melba. “You ought to do vocal exercises, but you don't. Your voice is invaluable to you, isn't it? Very well, then! Singers do vocal exercises and what is good enough for them is good enough for actors.” She gave him a lesson right away and Seymour had to promise to obey her instructions. It took it out of him a bit, but he swore he would always do as she commanded. Needless to say he never did those exercises again in his life. I don't quite know what Nellie expected, for she told him he must do them all the time. Perhaps she thought that when the curtain rose on The Man in Dress Clothes and showed him waking up in bed, he ought to commence with “Ah, ah, ah” up the scale and down again. I can't imagine Seymour thinking of such a thing—or anything but his part at such a time.

    Originally published in Just A Little Bit Of String by Ellaline Terriss, Hutchinson, London, 1955—A Chapter of Happy Accidents, pp. 232–239.

    • Biographical notes by Robert Morrison



    Recordings made by HMV (the Gramophone Company) during Nellie Melba’s farewell performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 8 June 1926

    1. ‘Donde lieta uscì’ (Mimi’s farewell), Act 3, La Bohème by Puccini—sung by Nellie Melba [Matrix. CR 412; cat. no. HMV DB 943]
    2. Dame Nellie Melba’s farewell speech [Matrix. CR 421; cat. no. HMV DB 943]


  • Nellie: The life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba: Book Review

  • The Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company of 1924: 100 years on (Part 1)

    melba banner

    2024 marks one hundred years since the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1924, the most ambitious display of operatic talent to be seen in Australia. ROGER NEILL explores the events surrounding this mighty undertaking.

    Building a Grand Opera Company

    melba 04Melba, photographed by Ionides, London. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
    The 1924 opera season in Australia organised by Dame Nellie Melba and J.C. Williamson Ltd. was not the first. That had been in 1911. And it was not the last, which was in 1928. But it was substantially bigger, more ambitious than 1911. Overall, eighteen operas were performed (compared to twelve in 1911). Critics and audiences in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide revelled in the overall quality of the company, although there was criticism that the only work new to Australia was Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, which was already twenty-eight years old.

    The deal between Nellie Melba and ‘The Firm’, J.C. Williamson’s, to form a Grand Opera Company to perform in Australia in 1924 was announced to the world on 29 January 1923. And, on behalf of The Firm, their London rep Nevin Tait travelled to Europe with the putative artistic director of the new company, Henry Russell, and Dame Nellie in search of the principal singers for the projected twenty-plus operas that the company planned to give. It was expected that the little gang would search in Milan, Naples, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Vienna.

    The Firm had dominated the performing arts in Australia since it opened in 1882, employing shoals of talented Australians and bringing in important actors, singers and musicians from overseas. Five Tait brothers1 merged their business with The Firm in 1920.

    Henry Russell first met Nellie Melba at a dinner party he organised in London in 1896—over a quarter of a century earlier—the other guests including the novelist George Moore and Melba’s future partner, the Australian playwright Haddon Chambers. At that time, Russell was principally a singing teacher in London (Melba sent him pupils). Later he was an impresario, managing the Boston Opera Company for many years. His half-brother, Landon Ronald, was a regular conductor and accompanist for Melba. Henry had had a distinctly on-off relationship with Melba.

    In the event, according to Russell’s memoirs, Melba, Russell and Nevin Tait went first to Paris, then Naples, the ‘capital of the world’s music’ in the eighteenth century according to Count Charles de Brosses, and home of the famous San Carlo opera house. In Naples, aside from the young soprano Lina Scavizzi, they drew a blank, so they went next to Milan, home of the prestigious Teatro alla Scala, where, Russell wrote, ‘practically the entire company were engaged’.

    Melba left the two men in Naples, sailing on the Orsova, having been taken ill. She returned via Plymouth to London, where she had a ‘serious operation’.2  It appears therefore that Melba herself had little role in auditioning and choosing the majority of the selected singers. However, she made a good recovery and on 1 June appeared at Covent Garden as Mimì in La bohèmewith the British National Opera Company, the king and queen in attendance (George V and Mary). She and her Rodolfo, Joseph Hislop, sang in Italian, while the rest of the company and the chorus sang in English. That midsummer season at Covent Garden, the BNOC was well-stacked with Australasians, including Florence Austral, Rosina Buckman, Beatrice Miranda, Leah Russel-Myre, Elsy Treweek, Fred Collier, Browning Mummery, Horace Stevens, conductor Aylmer Buesst and Melba—very much the cream of their generation.3

    Initially, it had made sense for the scouting team to have discussions with the BNOC’s management about the possibility that the BNOC might be hired lock, stock and barrel for the forthcoming Melba-Williamson Australian season in 1924. In the end, this proved impossible, resulting in the European recruitment tour. Aside from recruiting many of the leading singers for the company in Milan, Russell and Tait also approached the musical director of La Scala, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, to lead the new company. Toscanini declined their offer and instead they hired two other highly regarded conductors, the Argentinian Franco Paolantonio and the Italian Arnaldo Schiavoni.

    Clearly, their time in Milan was well-spent, and by early May they were able to announce that they had secured many of the leading singers (most of whom were Italian):

    • Up-and-coming twenty-five-year-old soprano Lina Scavizzi, who had made her name in the title role of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and was currently singing Tosca at the San Carlo in Naples, where she was heard and chosen by Melba (before the diva retired hurt)
    • Soprano Augusta Concato from Verona, who had been engaged by Toscanini at La Scala in 1921
    • Concato’s husband, tenor Nino Piccaluga, a favourite at La Scala from 1922
    • Dramatic tenor Antonio Marques from Barcelona, who was singing Otello at the Teatro Dal Terme in Milan when Russell and Tait first heard him
    • Baritone Apollo Granforte was an established top-flight star—at La Scala and in Rome, Naples (where he became a close friend of Pietro Mascagni), Paris, Buenos Aires, Malta and Switzerland; he turned thirty-eight during the tour
    • Another baritone, Mario Basiola, was announced as booked, but in the event did not travel
    • Lyric tenor Dino Borgioli—twenty-six at the start of the tour—came to La Scala (and Toscanini) soon after the end of the First World War, building over time an international career; married to the Australian soprano, Patricia Mort4
    • Polish mezzo-soprano Aga Lahoska, whose real name, simplified for Australian readers, was Aga Lachowska de Romanska; she had built a strong reputation at the Teatro Reale in Madrid and the Liceu in Barcelona
    • Basso Gaetano Azzolini, who was famous for his comedic buffo roles at La Scala
    • Umberto Di Lelio, another basso, who sang at La Scala from 1921, his repertoire there including Klingsor in Parsifal, Sparafucile in Rigoletto and Valaam in Boris Godunov

    Lastly, but most importantly, Russell and Tait signed up the rising-star lyric soprano, Toti Dal Monte. It had become clear to the two men that, although Melba had been promised to the Australian public as singing in every production, in 1924 she would be sixty-three-years-old and in unreliable health—and they had to find adequate cover for her, not just another soprano, but a star name. Toti had made her debut at La Scala (no less) in 1916 in the first performance of Zandonai’s Francesca di Rimini and in 1922 under Toscanini she was sensational there as Gilda in Rigoletto and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. She was going to sing at the Colon in Buenos Aires before coming on to Australia. She would be thirty-years-old by the time she arrived in Australia. But how would the two divas get on?

    Early reports in Australia of the recruitment drive in Milan referred to the ‘courtesy and cooperation’ of Toscanini. ‘It is one of the finest companies organised in any part of the world,’ wrote Toscanini to Sir George Tallis at Williamson’s, ‘for every artist is superb, and has won fame in their respective roles.’ However, later reports suggested that Toscanini was concerned that his company at La Scala had been seriously depleted.

    Aside from the lead singers, Russell and Tait announced that they had signed up the other roles that an opera company would need in Australia in 1924. However, several of the names they announced were not in the final roster—these being the chorus master, ballet mistress and stage director—but two who did come were the prompter, Amleto Tornari and his mezzo-soprano wife Carmen Tornari, who would also provide leadership for the chorus. In the event, the chorus master was Roberto Zucchi, the ballet mistress Ines Arari Farinetti, and the stage director, her husband Carlo Farinetti.  

    Over the coming months, other singers were hired, filling particular roles in the envisioned program of operas:  

    • Contralto Phyllis Archibald, the only British principal in the company; a pupil of Blanche Marchesi, she had first sung at Covent Garden in 1908, then again in the early 1920s with the BNOC and was now performing in Monte Carlo
    • Soprano Aurora Rettore, hired to sing Musetta in La bohème, Micaela in Carmen and other roles
    • Baritone Luigi Ceresol, who was to sing Scarpia in Tosca and other roles
    • French baritone Alfred Maguenat, who had sung with Melba in La bohème as Marcello at the reopening of Covent Garden in 1919, and
    • Another Frenchman, bass Gustave Huberdeau, who had been Benoit in the same production at Covent Garden
    • Baritone Antonio Laffi, who sang mostly secondary roles
    • Edmondo Grandini, another baritone, who had sung principally at Rome and Parma (where he was born)
    • Tenor Bettino Capelli, who joined the company in Sydney; he had sung leading roles with the Gonzalez Opera Company in Australia in 1916
    • Tenor Luigi Cilla, who had specialised in comprimario roles in Italian houses
    • Tenor Alfred O’Shea, an Australian with Irish parents, who had been supported in Britain by impresario Nevin Tait
    • Another Australian, soprano Stella Power, the ‘Little Melba’; she was spotted by Melba in 1917, who arranged her debut and took her to America.

    A third conductor was added to the company roster in the form of Frank St Leger, who was billed by the local press as an Australian but was in reality born in India to British parents and who later became an American citizen. Before the war he had toured Australia as pianist with the Cherniavsky Trio, after which he served for two years in the Australian army, then was accompanist-conductor for Melba, mainly in America.

    A curious addition to the company in Australia was the Russian Prince Alexis Obolensky, a bass who had been taught by Henry Russell. He had been a captain in the Imperial Russian Army in the First World War, but after the revolution had fled, penniless with his family, first to France, then to New York. He was to sing minor roles with the company and was frequently noted among the celebrities in the audience.

    In all, the company claimed to have brought seventy singers to Australia from Europe, among them the twenty-three principals detailed above. But it was clear from the outset that, aside from Melba, there were three that stood out above the rest—soprano Toti Dal Monte, tenor Dino Borgioli and baritone Apollo Granforte.

    A final significant figure to join the party was Nellie Melba’s new friend, the English novelist Beverley Nichols. They first met when Nichols was covering a shock-horror adultery case for his newspaper in London. He sought out Melba to get a comment and they developed an immediate rapport. The consequence was that he accompanied her to social events. She talked extensively with him about her life—an autobiography ghosted by Nichols was discussed—and he accompanied her in Australia for the 1924 tour. Their relationship prompted speculation, one anonymous letter describing Nichols as a ‘Pommie gigolo’, although he was in reality gay.

    In the months running up to the opening of the season in Melbourne, the Australian press was fed relentlessly with puff stories on a daily basis about the operas to be performed and the singers who would sing them. These stories were provided to the press by the company’s publicity manager, in Sydney, Claude Kingston, who later wrote: ‘I thought I knew something about theatrical publicity but alongside Melba I was a tyro.’5 

    But this was not all smooth sailing: the prices of tickets were to be far in advance of what the Australian public was used to. Of course they were, responded Russell and Tait. This had been a much more expensive enterprise. Secondly, the press stirred up much antipathy and trade-union wrath when it realised that not only the principal singers, but also many of the chorus were to be imported from Italy. We need seasoned professionals in the chorus, not Australian amateurs, responded Russell. In fact, while most of the male chorus came from Milan, most of the women came from Melba’s Albert Street Conservatorium in Melbourne.

    Lastly, in the days immediately before the opening, Henry Russell made a speech at a Rotary Club luncheon in Melbourne which lambasted musical comedy as a grossly inferior form and talked about scantily-clad girls with their naked legs running around the stage. Even for Australia in 1924, this was all seen as unnecessarily patronising and sexist and Melba will have realised immediately that the resulting publicity took the public’s attention away from the little matter of the opening of her company—with Melba as Mimì. It was the beginning of the end for Russell.6

    The majority of the company, including most of the Italians—both principals and chorus—arrived in Melbourne on the Mongolia from Naples on 24 March 1924, just five days before Melba and La bohème opened.

    Opening week in Melbourne

    The Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company’s season finally opened with Puccini’s La bohème at Her Majesty’s Theatre (renamed His Majesty’s for the duration) on Saturday 29 March 1924. La bohème was first performed at the Teatro Reggio in Turin in 1896 with a star cast conducted by Toscanini. Initially, it was a failure. It came first to Australia in 1901, brought by Williamson’s Italian Opera Company with Dalia Bassich (from Trieste) as Mimì and Carlo Dani as Rodolfo.

    The opening was billed as a ‘Gala’ and the glitterati of Melbourne and beyond were there in force, including the Governor-General of Australia and Lady Forster, the Governor of Victoria with the Countess of Stradbroke, the Governor of Queensland (Sir Matthew Nathan) and several other VIPs.

    More widely, the audience (especially in the galleries above the stalls) exhibited ‘great enthusiasm’ for the performance. Melbourne’s The Age gave it a lengthy review,7 Melba noted particularly for the freshness of her singing (allowances being made for her advanced age) and for the vigour of her Mimì—no fragility there. In the early part of her career, Melba had been trained as, and become famed for, her extraordinary brilliance and flexibility in so-called bel canto roles, in operas by Rossini, Donizetti and others, but as the years passed, this repertoire became more difficult to maintain at the level of excellence that her public had come to expect of her, while, fortuitously, the newly arrived composers wrote music less demanding technically, the new style becoming known as verismo.

    And Melba seized on to these new operas—by Mascagni, Leoncavallo and especially Puccini’s La bohème. She was to learn the role of Mimì with the composer and personally built its popularity internationally.8 She had previously sung the role in Australia in 1911 with the first Melba-Williamson Company. It became so strongly associated with Melba that by 1924 it was natural that she should open the season of her new opera company in it and take the lead role.

    However, The Age’s reviewer was far less effusive about the other principals: as Rodolfo, Nino Piccaluga was not Caruso nor Bonci (Caruso’s current major international competitor), and he was replaced from 19 April by the Sydney tenor Alfred O’Shea; as Musetta, Aurora Rettore was not Rosina Buckman; the conductor Franco Paolantonio was not ‘Julius Knoch’, who had conducted the Quinlan Company from Britain in 1912. Knoch seems to have been misremembered by the critic—he doubtless meant Ernst Knoch.

    The remainder of the principal roles were dismissed summarily by The Age: Di Lelio’s Colline was ‘capable’ (replaced by Gustave Huberdeau from 19 April); Ceresol’s Marcello was ‘interesting’ (and was replaced by Alfred Maguenat from 8 April); Laffi’s Schaunard ‘bright’; and Azzolini’s Benoit and Alcindoro ‘could have got more humour’ out of the roles. Altogether, not a ringing first endorsement of Russell and Tait’s recruitment drive. However, the chorus was ‘first class’.

    Two evenings later, on the Monday 31st (Sundays being still closed to theatrical entertainments in Australia), saw the introduction of two of the major stars recruited in Italy—Toti Dal Monte and Dino Borgioli—both taking the lead roles in Donizetti’s tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor, Toti in the title role and Dino as her lover Edgardo. Based on a Walter Scott novel, Lucia di Lammermoor was first produced at the San Carlo theatre in Naples in 1838 and swiftly established itself as one of Donizetti’s finest and a great testsof bel canto singing for the lead soprano. It became a favoured vehicle for the greatest sopranos, including Melba, and had been introduced to Australia in 1855 at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney with Theodosia Guerin as Lucia.9

    According to The Argus, Toti received ‘tumultuous applause’ for her performance, which supported well that of co-star Borgioli:

    Her musicianship is well-nigh perfect... Apt acting and expressive gesture were aids to the understanding of Signor Dino Borgioli’s well-graced Edgar, who sang with untiring energy and buoyancy in an expressive voice of ringing quality.

    Russell and the Taits must have been delighted, not to mention Nellie Melba, who appeared on stage at the end next to the young pretender, announcing: ‘I am a proud woman tonight, because it is in a little measure through me that this great artist has come here.’ Lucia had been one of her signature roles earlier in her career, a great test of vocal prowess, and both Toti and Dino had come through that test triumphantly.

    Others of the imported principals also did well enough said The Argus: Grandini’s Enrico was ‘a conscientious piece of work’, and Di Lelio’s Raimondo ‘brought weight of voice and presence’. The chorus ‘did very effective work’, especially the women, ‘their freshness and purity being delightful’. It must have been a great relief to the whole management team that a Melba company without Melba could do so well.

    The following night (Tuesday 1 April) brought the third opera and the third of the star imports, baritone Apollo Granforte as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, together with the young soprano Lina Scavizzi, who was specifically hired to sing this title role. It was first performed at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1900 with Hariclea Darclée in the title role.

    It is not clear why Melba never sang the role of Tosca on stage, but she did record the most famous aria, ‘Vissi d’arte’, four times (all of which survive). Melba had planned to sing Tosca during her first Melba-Williamson tour in 1911 but was unwell. She was replaced by the Polish soprano Janina Wayda (with John McCormack as Cavaradossi), who successfully led the first performance of the opera in Australia. The play La Tosca (by Victorien Sardou) had previously been given in Australia in 1891, in French by the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.10

    While Apollo Granforte’s Scarpia was very well received, it was Scavizzi’s Tosca that stirred up the greatest enthusiasm. The unnamed but perceptive critic for The Argus reported:

    Tosca is so much more an acting than a singing role that it was a real appreciation that the audience found so satisfying a personality allied to the exposition of the exacting part as that of Signorina Lina Scavizzi … She captured the house immediately by the charm of her superb vocal art and her abundant histrionic resources.

    Apollo Granforte as Scarpia was greeted by The Argus more modestly but with sincere admiration:

    There may be insinuating treachery, sardonic humour, naked cruelty and even bestial triumph in the delineation of this repellent character … Signor Granforte, a strikingly powerful actor, evidently conscious of this pitfall, presented his Scarpia with reticence, yet without losing the requisite note of authority.

    In tenor Piccaluga’s return to His Majesty’s stage after his success at the opening on Saturday, the third major role, Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi, was also well received:

    Signor Nino Piccaluga was in the fullest sense of the word a dramatic tenor. At times, his vocalisation illustrated, to an extreme degree, the fundamental principle that song is, as a matter of fact, glorified speech.

    And Arnaldo Schiavoni was well appreciated for his conducting, his debut for the company. Piccaluga was to return the following night (Wednesday 2nd) for a repeat performance of Rodolfo in La bohème, again with Melba as Mimì.

    On the Thursday (3rd) was the first outing in the tour for Verdi’s Rigoletto with Toti Dal Monte as Gilda, Dino Borgioli as the Duke of Mantua and Apollo Granforte as the jester in the title role. This was another of what had been Melba’s signature roles, the one in which she had made her glorious debut at La Monnaie in Brussels in 1887. So this was a second perceived mountain for Toti to climb.

    However, during the rehearsal period on the day before Rigoletto, an ’unhinged’ man burst into Toti’s dressing room at His Majesty’s. She screamed. Nevin Tait and a gaggle of singers rushed to her rescue, but the man had gone before they arrived. He was later apprehended, surrounded by chorus members. It all made good newspaper copy.

    Toti’s performance reinforced the impression that here was a singer of special gifts. The Arguswrote:

    Innocent Gilda must be, and innocent, even when in a way she has lost her innocence … But there was no insipidity in her portrayal. The beautiful love she has for her father gave the figure strength … ‘Caro nome’ probably proved an astonishment to many who have heard it sung in galloping fashion … Last night it came out quietly and mostly softly.  

    ‘As Rigoletto Apollo Granforte was highly impressive,’ The Argus continued: ‘He made the jester by no means a buffoon. He was a jester … apparently sick to death of playing the fool, and when expected to be amusing, merely cynical.’

    And it seems that, as the Duke, Dino Borgioli followed Granforte’s lead by being ‘more serious and cynical than usual. Umberto Di Lelio was ‘grimly impressive’ as Sparafucile (replaced by Prince Obolensky on 26 April) and Antonio Laffi ‘cursed well’ as Monterone. Some minor roles were taken by Australians: Doris McInnes, Ruby Dixson, Ruby Miller and Victor Baxter.

    The seventh night of the first week, Friday 4th, saw the presentation of the third opera by Puccini, Madama Butterfly. Like Tosca, Butterfly was another Puccini role that Melba never sang on stage, although she did maintain that he composed it with her in mind. Generally, the view has been that it did not suit her voice, although it may also have stretched her acting skills beyond their limits, and doubtless she knew this.

    It had first been performed in Australia in March 1910, given by JC Williamson’s Opera Company at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Butterfly/Cio-Cio-San was sung by Bel Sorel, Susuki by Rosina Buckman, Pinkerton by John Zerga and Sharpless by Antonio Zanelli. Initially, at La Scala in Milan in March 1904, it had been a fiasco, but it was revised and re-presented, conducted by Toscanini, at Brescia three months later, where it was hugely successful.

    It is significant that the critic for The Argus leads off his/her review with a positive assessment of the production and design—‘a dream of loveliness’—not of the singing. Butterfly saw the debut of another Italian soprano, Augusta Concato, and The Argus was distinctly ambivalent:

    Signorina Concato’s was an original and faintly fanciful reading of the character. She was more at home in the dramatic situations which develop as the story progresses than in those bright passages in which the impersonation of the carefree Butterfly’s enraptured ecstasy calls for a light touch... Her vocalisation was at its best in comparatively quiet passages.

    And Concato’s real-life husband, Nino Piccaluga, who was Pinkerton, was also greeted somewhat equivocally: ‘… an ungrateful part, which the tenor played on straightforward lines.’ Luigi Ceresol ‘sang admirably and with unfailing sympathy’ as Sharpless, while Carmen Tornari’s Susuki was ‘a most telling piece of work’. Victoria’s Ruby Dixson ‘was completely successful on all counts in the by no means easy part of Kate Pinkerton.’

    The great and the good of Victoria and Australia more widely were there again, as they had been throughout the first week. There had been five operas in six nights, only La bohème being repeated. Box office takings had been excellent in spite of the high price of tickets. Audiences were thrilled by the performances and critics generally positive, especially towards the star imports—Toti Dal Monte, Dino Borgioli and Apollo Granforte—and the home hero, Nellie Melba.

    Would this momentum be sustained through a long season with many more operas to come?


    To be continued


    Note on Spencer Shier

    Many of the photographs included here were taken by the Melbourne-based portraitist Spencer Shier. He was born in 1884 and died at his home at Toorak in 1946. At his studio in Collins Street, he specialised in sittings with politicians, actors, singers, dancers and other society figures. During the Melba-Williamson Company’s season in Australia in 1924, he appears to have had special access to the artists and the productions. He also took movie film of Nellie Melba at home at Coombe Cottage in 1927. A portrait of Melba by Shier is on permanent display in her ‘artistic home’, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.



    1. The Tait brothers were Charles, John Henry, Nevin, Edward, Frank

    2. ‘Intestinal’ says John Hetherington  

    3. Especially if one adds two other Australians who performed with the BNOC at Covent Garden around that time: Eda Bennie and Gertrude Johnson

    4. Borgioli toured Australia again in 1938

    5. Kingston went on to outline the story of Melba arriving in Sydney and telling the assembled press that she was covered in fleabites from the train—a ruse in order to stoke up publicity; however, the event had actually happened two years earlier

    6. Russell also forbade Melba from singing Margérite in Fausta serious mistake—and Melba ‘let him go’

    7. Each opening in the Melba-Williamson season of 1924 was reviewed by half a dozen and more newspapers, principally in Melbourne and Sydney; the two leading Melbourne papers, The Age and The Argus, routinely gave most space; overall I judged The Argus’s critic there to have most insight and best judgement

    8. See Theatre Heritage Australia - Melba and the Rise of La bohème

    9. She was born Theodosia Yates in 1815, then was successively Mrs Stirling, Mrs Guerin and Mrs Stewart

    10. And the La Tosca play was repeated in Australia after Sarah Bernhardt’s tour by Mrs Brown Potter (1890), Nance O'Neil (1900) and Tittell Brune (1906)


  • The Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company of 1924: 100 years on (Part 2)

    Photo by Spencer Shier, from Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne (2018) by Frank Van Straten. Photo of Melba used as intro image by Baron Adolph de Meyer, National Portrait Gallery, London.

    2024 marks one hundred years since the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1924, the most ambitious display of operatic talent to be seen in Australia. In Part 2, ROGER NEILL continues his exploration of the events surrounding this mighty undertaking.

    Ten and a half more weeks in Melbourne

    melba otelloMelba as Desdemona. Photo by Spencer Shier. State Library Victoria, Melbourne
    The second week (commencing Saturday, 5 April) in Melbourne started with repeats of Lucia di Lammermoor, Tosca, Rigoletto and La bohème (with Melba), including a first matinée on the Saturday. During the week, Nellie Melba announced her support for a permanent opera company in Australia with its own permanent orchestra, a wish that was not fully to come to fruition for half a century. At the same time, The Idler in Table Talk revealed for the first time: ‘I hear that Melba is writing a book about her life, with some assistance from Mr. Beverley Nichols.’

    The opera being rehearsed at the time was Verdi’s Otello with Melba in her second role with the company, Desdemona. It opened on Saturday evening (12 April). In the run-up to the opening, Melba gave an interview to The Herald in Melbourne, where she reminisced about meeting Verdi in Milan after her performance of Gilda in Rigoletto at La Scala. He came backstage, she said, and they arranged that the composer would come the following morning to hear her Desdemona. This he did. ‘My child,’ he said (according to Melba), ‘you have made me very happy. You give it beautifully. It is perfect.’

    She told Verdi that she had studied his music with the famous Neapolitan songwriter, Tosti, which Verdi thoroughly approved. There has never been any corroboration of this oft-told story, but it has the ring of at least some truth.

    Otello had been first performed in Australia (in Sydney) in September 1901 by J.C. Williamson’s Italian Opera Company with Dalia Bassich as Desdemona, Vincenzo Larizza in the title role and Ferdinando Cattadori as Iago. Melba had previously sung the role in Australia with her Melba-Williamson Company of 1911. It had been first produced in February 1887 at La Scala in Milan with Romilda Pantaleoni as Desdemona and Francesco Tamagno as the Moor. It is widely seen as a radical development in Verdi’s art and a fine setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

    Of Melba’s opening performance, The Argus reported:

    What one wants most of all in a Desdemona is a clear purity of tone, a purity which never loses character even in moments of emotion; and Melba, above all others, represents that ideal of pure singing. At the magic of her touch the tragic last act is transformed into a thing of infinite pathos.

    However, of the Spanish tenor Antonio Marques, in his first outing with the company, ‘one could not help wishing for a more responsive Otello … The fine voice with which nature has endowed the tenor is hardly heard to full advantage.’ The critic also did not enjoy his vibrato. Nevertheless, Apollo Granforte’s Iago ‘approaches the ideal of drama through music.’ The Argus continued:

    His is a very satanic Iago, crafty and plausible—a finely conceived character study full of graphic touches. Signor Granforte is a very powerful actor, who never forgets that he is a singer.

    All the minor roles were appreciated, as were the chorus and the orchestra under conductor Arnaldo Schiavoni, and, at the curtain, Melba paid tribute to chorus master Zucchi and stage director Farinetti.

    There were to be two other first performances following the opening of Otello: The Barber of Sevilleon Wednesday (16 April) and Carmen on Saturday 19th. Both of these new productions had lead female roles—Rosina and Carmen respectively—composed for mezzo-sopranos, but frequently taken over by ladies with higher vocal ranges.

    From time to time the company gave Gala Concerts, one such being at His Majesty’s on Good Friday Night, 18 April. It included Toti Dal Monte (who sang the ‘Carnival de Venise’ Variations of Benedict), an aria from La forza del destino sung by Lina Scavizzi, Antonio Marques singing ‘O paradiso’ from L’Africana by Meyerbeer, and a somewhat premature ‘Christ is Risen’ by Rachmaninov sung by Prince Alexis Obolensky.

    The Barber of Seville was introduced on 16 April. It was the company’s first comic opera, providing another sparkling bel canto role for Toti Dal Monte. Rosina was a part that Melba had sung for years, as now did Toti, although, as discussed, Rossini had composed the lead role for a mezzo, not a soprano.

    The introduction of Rossini’s Barber to Australia in June 1843 is more complicated than it might appear, principally because the music seems to have been a mixture of Rossini and the English composer, Henry Bishop. Opening in Sydney, the Rosina was mezzo Louise Gibbs. It had originally been premiered (‘a scandalous failure’, with tenor Manuel Garcia as Count Almaviva) at the Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1816 before rapidly gaining popularity worldwide.

    While many of the bel canto operas staged by Melba’s company were treated as unnecessarily old-fashioned by Australian opera critics of 1924, The Barber of Seville was welcomed as a old friend, still worthy of respect as a result of its ingenious libretto (by Sterbini, based on Beaumarchais) and ‘fresh and piquant’ music. Of course, Toti Dal Monte had been specifically hired to sing the lead roles in the bel canto operas (now vacated by Melba), and she was greeted as Rosina most warmly, ‘reaching a level of great beauty and charm’. The Argus continued:

    Dal Monte is truly a coloratura singer of the most accomplished kind, but she is much more than that. Her florid passages become, strange as it may seem, the medium for the vivid expression of moods and wayward fancies, and all the time her artistry is undeniable and irresistible.

    On top of that:

    Signor Dino Borgioli has done nothing more distinguished in conception and execution than his debonair impersonation of the amorous Count. His singing had clearness and precision that cannot be estimated too highly.

    Luigi Ceresol’s Figaro was rated more highly than had been his previous Marcello and Sharpless performances, and Gaetano Azzolini was a gratifying comic Bartolo. ‘Among the best things of the evening’ was the ‘La calumnia’ of Umberto Di Lelio’s Basilio.

    In the case of Carmen, Melba never stole the title role from the mezzos, being content to sing the secondary (soprano) part of Micaela. It was an opera first performed in Australia in May 1879, given in Melbourne by W.S. Lyster’s company (with soprano Rose Hersée as Carmen and Annie Stone as Micaela). This was just four years after its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where the title role was taken by a genuine mezzo—Célestine Galli-Marié. It was to be Bizet’s last and most successful opera.

    In 1924 The Argus referred to Carmen as ‘that old favourite’ and greeted the Melba company’s production as ‘an immense popular success.’ And, in her Australian debut in the title role, Aga Lahoska, a true mezzo, was a triumph:

    Mdlle Lahoska’s treatment of the title role was upon lines which threw it into high relief, making it picturesque, vivid and alive.

    However, the Micaela, Augusta Concato, ‘could not achieve the naturalness, perhaps because her singing was not sufficiently easy, to conform to the mood of the music.’ (Stella Power took over the role from 31 May.) Apollo Granforte was ‘a gay and reckless Escamillo’, while Nino Piccaluga was a ‘gallant, passionate’ Don José.

    A full week after the introduction of Carmen, on Saturday 26 April came the premiere of Verdi’s Il trovatore. It had first been performed in Australia at the Princess’s in Melbourne in October 1858, five years after its premiere in 1853 at the Teatro Apollo in Rome. The first Australian cast included Maria Carandini as Leonora, Julia Harland as the gypsy Azucena. Leonora was not a role that Melba ever attempted. Perhaps she thought it too heavy for her voice, along with the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Aida and other roles.1

    The Argus’s critic noted that the opera had survived in the repertoire despite its ‘incoherency’, an observation quite as apposite to this day. The Argus was most taken by Phyllis Archibald’s Azucena, Archibald’s debut with the company, ‘a great artistic and popular success.’ It seems most likely that Melba had first become familiar with Archibald’s work when the latter sang major roles with the BNOC at Covent Garden in 1922, Melba herself joining the company the year later.

    With regard to Lina Scavizzi’s Leonora, The Argus was less enthused: ‘She hovers over her high notes at times, fluttering this way and that, instead of remaining serenely poised.’ Singing the troubadour Manrico, Antonio Marques was also given an ambivalent report: ‘Some of his singing was quite effective; some of it, on the other hand, was marred by extreme laziness of definition.’ As usual, Apollo Granforte was greeted with critical applause, and Umberto Di Lelio’s Ferrando was ‘eloquent’.

    There was eager anticipation in the press for the third (and final) role that Nellie Melba would sing in the season—Marguérite in Gounod’s Faust, which opened on the following Friday (2 May). It had first been performed in Australia in Sydney in 1864 with Lucy Escott as Marguérite, Henry Squires as Faust and Henry Wharton as Mephistopheles. It was toured through Australia and New Zealand by Fanny Simonsen and her daughters from 1872. Premiered in 1859 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, it swiftly became an international success.

    Melba first saw Faust aged twenty-three, when it was given by the Montague-Turner Company at Mackay in Queensland in 1884. She was later coached in Paris in the Marguérite role—the singing by the composer and the acting by her friend Sarah Bernhardt. The consequence was that she became fêted for her performance of the role at the Paris Opéra in the 1880s before going on to sing it at Covent Garden, St Petersburg, Stockholm and elsewhere. It was a role that Melba sang to great acclaim in Australia in 1911.

    She returned to the opera in Melbourne on 2 May 1924, greeted as ‘a Marguérite who can sing, not merely a singer trying to be Marguérite.’ The Argus went on:

    Last night … Melba sang wonderfully, sang, indeed, nobly, after nature’s own method. One could not but be amazed at the spirit of sheer youthful joyousness that animated the whole interpretation in its earlier stages.

    However, ‘the Mephistopheles of M. Huberdeau is not, as a matter of fact, a very debonair or persuasive individual’, while Dino Borgioli’s Faust was ‘rather conventional’. The Queensland mezzo Vera Bedford was ‘in character as the foolish old Martha.’ For the first time on the tour, Melba’s friend and accompanist Frank St Leger conducted.

    The opening of Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah took place on the following evening (3 May). It had first been staged in Australia during the Melba-Williamson Company’s previous tour in 1911 with Eleanor de Cisneros as Delilah and Franco Zeni as Samson. It had had its premiere in 1877 in Weimar. It was not an opera that The Argus’s 1924 critic warmed to greatly: ‘Saint-Saëns music says little and rarely goes below the surface of things.’

    Phyllis Archibald had been specifically chosen by Melba to sing Delilah—and she was a great success in the role at His Majesty’s:

    Miss Archibald gave the full flavour of sensuous tone to all the favourite songs of ‘that accomplished snare’, Delilah,2 and was able to assert her best form very effectively in music which suits the warmth and richness of her tones.

    Meanwhile, ‘Senor Marques’ large voice, with its open tone, is just right for the innocent strong man, and he looks the part too.’

    Five days later (8 May) came the opening of another bel canto favourite of yesteryear, Bellini’s La sonnambula. Its premiere in Australia had been one of the earliest—at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Hobart in October 1842, where Amina was Theodosia Stirling (mother of Nellie Stewart), Elvino was tenor John Howson and Rodolpho was the impresario Frank Howson. From 1866, Amina was a favourite role of Fanny Simonsen and her daughter Martina. La sonnambula had been premiered in 1831 at the Teatro Carcano in Milan with two of the greats—Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Rubini.

    Curiously, Melba never seems to have sung (or recorded) anything of Bellini’s, but Toti Dal Monte was already famous in Italy and South America for her Amina. The opera itself was at its greatest depth of unfashionableness in 1924. ‘For sheer vapidity and inaneness La sonnambula is hard to beat,’ pronounced The Argus. Nevertheless,

    Signorina Dal Monte has given us ample evidence this season that fioritura is not the lost art many imagine it to be. In a role made famous by such brilliant exponents as Jenny Lind, Patti and Tetrazzini, she gave us still more evidence last night. Her every phrase has a meaning of its own …

    And ‘Signor Borgioli’s delightfully fluent and easy singing helped invest [Elvino] with a great deal more humanity than naturally belongs to it.’ Rodolpho was ‘very capably suggested by Umberto Do Lelio. Soprano Doris McInnes from Narrandera in New South Wales ‘did very well in the small part of Teresa.’  

    As it entered its seventh week in Melbourne, the management of the Melba-Williamson Company proudly announced that the twelve operas so far given had attracted 100,000 audience members. No prediction was made on the ultimate financial outcome.

    As previously noted, Melba had sung and abandoned the title role in Verdi’s Aida. It needed a singer with a larger voice, a dramatic soprano, and for the new production in Melbourne, which opened on Thursday 15 May.

    Its first (rather lacklustre) outing in Australia had been in September 1877 at the Opera House in Melbourne with Augusta Guadagnini as Aida, Margherita Venosta as Amneris and Eduardo Camero as Radames. It had been famously premiered in Cairo to open the new Opera House on 24 December 1871, having been commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt.

    It opened at His Majesty’s on Thursday 15 May with Augusta Concato, specially recruited for the part, in the title role, with Phyllis Archibald as Amneris and Nino Piccaluga as Radames. The Age led off with its admiration for the ‘sumptuous’ production and design, followed by its surprise that Concato was so good, following her disappointing Butterfly and Micaela:

    Many possibly looked to get an Aida of an unsatisfactory kind. But they were agreeably disappointed. The Concato conception of Aida was no masterpiece of operatic art, but it was certainly effective, sometimes in a high degree.

    Phyllis Archibald’s Amneris was expected to be first-rate, and it was: ‘[Her] treatment was in quasi-Wagnerian style, and aside from her un-royal uneasiness in the first part of her scene with Radames, all finely done,’ while unsurprisingly Nino Piccaluga’s Radames was ‘on heroic lines’.

    The next opening in the Melba-Williamson Company’s Melbourne season, on Wednesday 21 May, was the double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci—‘Cav and Pag’. Although they had first appeared two years apart in 1890 and 1892, it was not long before the two works were harnessed together as a double bill. Effectively, together they came to represent a doorway from bel canto to verismo.

    Cavalleria rusticana opened at the Teatro Costanzi with Gemma Bellincioni as Santuzza, while Pagliacci was premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan with Adelina Stehle as Nedda. Nellie Melba was an early adopter of Leoncavallo’s opera, singing Nedda in the Covent Garden premiere of Pagliacci in 1893 (with Fernando De Lucia as Canio). But she never sang Santuzza. The two operas were first presented in Australia at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in September 1893 by the Williamson and Musgrove Italian Opera Company—although performed on separate nights. Italia Del Torre sang both Nedda and Santuzza. The Canio (to Del Torre’s Nedda) was Fiorello Giraud, original creator of the role.

    On the opening night at His Majesty’s (21 May): in Cavalleria rusticana, Santuzza was Lina Scavizzi, Turiddu was Nino Piccaluga, Edmondo Grandini was Alfio, and Doris McInnes was Lola; and in Pagliacci: Aurora Rettore was Nedda, Antonio Marques was Canio, Apollo Granforte was Tonio, and Antonio Laffi was Silvio.

    After thirty years, they had become ‘inseparable twins,’ said The Argus. ‘[They] may be occasionally crude and coarse in their mode of musical expression, but one cannot deny the vitality they owe to the vigour of their treatment and the directness and dramatic intensity of their plots.’

    In ‘Cav’, the Santuzza of Scavizzi was ‘full of distinction … deeply moving’, while Piccaluga’s Turiddu was sung ‘with zest and energy’, and ‘excellent work’ was done by Grandini’s ‘bluff’ Alfio, also by Doris McInnes and Vida Sutton, who was Mamma Lucia.

    In ‘Pag’, Granforte’s prologue ‘deservedly won for him a tremendous ovation,’ and Marques’s Canio had ‘intensity without falling into the pit of exaggeration.’ As Nedda, Rettore ‘sang with great warmth and a good deal of charm.’ But perhaps the greatest plaudits of the evening were awarded by The Argus to the conductor, Franco Paolantonio. While the orchestra was ‘forcible, even violent, it was always controlled and exact and regardful of the singers.’

    The penultimate work produced in Melbourne by Melba-Williamson (opened 24 May) was Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Its premiere had been in February 1881 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris with Adèle Isaac, who sang all three principal soprano roles—Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia. It was not produced in Australia until 1912, brought by the Quinlan Opera Company with Lalla Miranda as Olympia, Edna Thornton as Giulietta and Enrichetta Onelli as Antonia.3 It was never part of Melba’s repertoire.4

    The new production had three different sopranos in the leading roles: Toti Dal Monte as Olympia, Aga Lahoska as Giulietta and Lina Scavizzi as Antonia. Dino Borgioli was ‘an ardent and very gullible’ Hoffmann. ‘Signorina Dal Monte … deserves thanks not only because she sang so brilliantly,’ wrote The Argus, ‘but also because she kept the comic business within bounds.’ Meanwhile, Mdlle Lahoska’s Giulietta ‘vividly suggested the voluptuous personality of a thoroughly heartless courtesan’, and ‘Signorina Scavizzi has ample stamina for the hectic death scene of Antonia.’

    An unusual occurrence on 2 June was the baptism at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne of the infant daughter of mezzo Carmen Tornari and her husband, prompter Amleto Tornari. The girl was christened Nellie Melba Tornari and Dame Nellie was an intended godmother. However, as she was delayed, Toti Dal Monte stood in for her. As a four-year-old, the daughter returned as the child in Madama Butterfly in 1928.

    The final offering from the Melba-Williamson Company in their first Melbourne season, opening on 14 June, was Donizetti’s comic opera, Don Pasquale. With it, the company returned to the heartland of bel canto opera, a work which again showcased the special gifts of the company’s A-team, with Toti Dal Monte as the young widow Norina, Dino Borgioli as Ernesto, Apollo Granforte as Dr Malatesta and Gaetano Azzolini in the title role.

    It had been premiered at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in 1843 with an all-star cast including Giulietta Grisi, Giovanni Mario, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. It came first to Australia (as a whole) in January 1856 at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Maria Carandini as Norina and Paolo Borsotti as Pasquale.5 Again, it was never sung by Melba.

    The treatment of this opera by The Argus reflected strongly the opinion of all the Australian music critics of the day, that along with the previously given bel canto works—Lucia di Lammermoor, The Barber of Seville, La sonnambula—could at best be regarded as museum pieces, disconnected from current tastes. They could not foresee the revival of interest in them by later artists, led by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

    Nevertheless, The Argus critic fully appreciated the vocal skills of Dal Monte, Borgioli, Granforte and Azzolini. Toti was ‘delightful … as flippant a little flirt as ever induced an aged bachelor to demonstrate that there is no fool like an old fool.’ As Pasquale, Azzolini ‘proved to have reserved the best of his capital comedy studies till last.’

    The Melbourne season at His Majesty’s finished on Thursday 19 June. They had given eight performances a week for eleven and a half weeks, eighty-six in all, including sixteen operas, seventeen if one counts both works in the double bill. The oldest opera was The Barber of Seville from 1816 and the newest Madama Butterfly from 1904, although that was already twenty years old.

    As reported by the Australian Musical News, total audiences at His Majesty’s numbered 211,200 with nearly every performance sold out. And the critics had been generally highly supportive. How would the company do next – in Sydney?


    To be continued


    Note on Spencer Shier

    Many of the photographs included here were taken by the Melbourne-based portraitist Spencer Shier. He was born in 1884 and died at his home at Toorak in 1946. At his studio in Collins Street, he specialised in sittings with politicians, actors, singers, dancers and other society figures. During the Melba-Williamson Company’s season in Australia in 1924, he appears to have had special access to the artists and the productions. He also took movie film of Nellie Melba at home at Coombe Cottage in 1927. A portrait of Melba by Shier is on permanent display in her ‘artistic home’, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.



    1. Melba sang Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro just once – at La Monnaie in 1921; and she sang Aida at Covent Garden in 1892 abandoning the role a few years later; she famously attempted Brünnhilde in Siegfried at the Met in 1896, but only once

    2. Milton, Samson Agonistes, line 230

    3. Variously said to be from Milan and Ireland, Miss Onelli was presumably born Henrietta O’Neill

    4. Melba’s Australian contemporary, Frances Saville, sang all three soprano roles in a production of The Tales of Hoffmann with Mahler’s Court Opera in Vienna in 1901

    5. Catherine Hayes gave a truncated version of Don Pasquale in Melbourne and Sydney in 1854


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 10)


    Continuing his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls further adventures at the New State Theatre in Melbourne and working as Art Director on the 1944 feature film Smithy, about the life of airman Charles Kingsford-Smith, and his role in recruiting former Prime Minister Billie Hughes to appear in the bio-pic.

    Out on a Limb

    My wife is always delighted to tell the story of the last night of my stint at the New State Theatre (now the Forum). She said if she had not actually seen it happen, she would never have believed it. She insisted that my head was permanently turned by the spectacle of all those charming and beautiful girls, who had been hand-picked for their personalities—as well as their good looks—standing in line with tears on their cheeks waiting to kiss me goodbye. I was soggy with sentiment, and altogether it was an exceedingly pleasant experience for an old married man.

    One of these girls expressed her appreciation in a similar way to my dentist.  I had sent any girl having teeth trouble to this dentist and one of these was a very pretty girl who had one drawback—her front teeth were badly discoloured. Eventually I persuaded her to go along and have her teeth examined.

    My wife had had work done by this dentist, whose mechanic was an absolute artist. His work had been particularly admired by this girl who was adamant in declaring that her teeth ‘must look exactly like Mrs. Kenyon’s, or there was nothing doing!’ At last her big day arrived and I got a call from the dentist to send Mademoiselle up. His comment, following the procedure—'What a girl!’ he said. ‘Are they really as nice as Mrs. Kenyon’s?’ she demanded. When she did see the result in the mirror she exclaimed ‘They are beautiful!’—jumped out of the chair, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was the first time his work had ever brought him that reaction.

    In the early 1940s and before I had left the State Theatre, the General Manager, Bill Tinkler, had been recalled to Sydney, and I had the theatre and all the work involved to myself. Many nights I missed getting home and on one of these evenings I still had the publicity to organize. I even had to forgo my dinner. What was worse, I had no razor in the theatre and my beard was showing. Fearful of appearing to need a shave, I asked many of the staff if they could notice anything. All said ‘no’. Then on this particular evening—it had to happen!

    While on duty in the foyer, with seething masses of people either purchasing tickets or pushing their way into the auditorium, I was approached by some character. I waited politely to hear what had had to say. He then withdrew from under his coat a piece of cardboard covered in black velvet, on which were pasted some letters. Somewhat mystified, I read them aloud ‘Union Representative’.

    ‘Well?’ I inquired.

    ‘I want to talk to your staff,’ confided this nut.

    ‘Very sorry, old boy,’ I shook my head. ‘We are much too busy for any interruption right now.’

    ‘But,’ he persisted. ‘I’m Dr. Huckerby’s representative.’

    ‘I don’t care if you represent the Prime Minister or the Chairman of the Board, you do not go any further unless you have a ticket.’ I was certain that that was something he did not possess.

    Suddenly realization came to him that the stunt had failed. Putting his visiting card back under his coat, he stared hard at me and said cryptically “Eight-and-six a night, and a shilling for laundry.”

    I said ‘What are you talking about?’

    He continued to regard me coldly, repeating his strange incantation. He was trying to convey to me that he thought I was one of the ushers, and much too big for my boots. To put him right, I said ‘I’m not an usher, old boy. I’m the Manager.’

    ‘Oh yeah!’ he came back swiftly. ‘Then you are the only manager in Melbourne who hasn’t had a shave.’ With what he obviously considered was a crushing rejoinder he vanished.

    I had started a savings bank account with most of the girls, so that they would have a few pounds upon which to draw when their need of money was urgent. On my last day at the theatre, I cleaned and tidied up and transferred the account with the bank to the theatre’s Chief of Staff. I also found three pounds in the vault of which I had no recollection. I bought three pounds worth of tickets, tore them up and put them in the box at the entrance. Thirty minutes later the accountant rang me. Enquiring if I had three pounds floating around. I said ‘Why do you ask?’

    She answered ‘The auditors have just informed me that you are three pounds under-banked for the year.’

    That was the three pounds I had found in the strong-room and, consequently, I had to put in three of my own money.  When I thought of the small salary of the managers, the amount of work I had put in, especially with the stage shows, compared with what I had previously earned elsewhere, that little three pounds incident really annoyed me!

    But before moving on, a little anecdote I feel I should add.

    One of the electricians at the State Theatre had left his job to become a male nurse. He told me the story of a derelict who had been brought into the hospital in a perfectly frightful state of personal neglect. In his heyday he was credited with being the best dressed stage-hand in the business. He was quite definitely the Beau Brummel of the theatre boys. When he left his companions had presented him with an illuminated address which they had created, particularly stressing his smart appearance. There was a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek about it, of course, and here he was—in the last stages of neglect—brought to the hospital in rags, and reeking of filth.

    Of this same man, I recall an incident, in the late 1920s, which concerned Dame Nellie Melba. I had been told by Mr. Coleman to go on stage and watch the setting up of Pinafore. Standing at the prompt corner, I became aware of someone standing immediately behind me. Then the unknown asked ‘What is being set up?’ Before I had time to answer, a most belligerent and sarcastic voice forestalled me, barking ‘Pinafore, Dame!’ This was that same stage-hand, and the lady making the enquiry was the great Diva herself.

    As mentioned earlier, I moved back to Sydney to act as Art Director for the Columbia Pictures’ 1944 film Smithy.At its preliminary casting Mr. William Hughes was asked if he would consider playing his original part as Prime Minister. When Charles Kingsford Smith was planning his last flight from England, he was told by his doctor that it would be most unwise of him to attempt such a flight with his state of health. Mr. Hughes added his request, a warning verging on an order to abandon the venture. The interview was to take place in a set of the Hotel Savoy in London, which I had built and dressed, and it was all ready for the shot.

    In an ill-advised moment, the American producer had sent Billy Hughes an actor’s contract to sign—which was promptly torn up and returned. From then on, nothing or nobody could move Mr. Hughes from his determination to have nothing to do with the Company, the film or its people. Anyone referring to Columbia Pictures, Smithy, or Cinesound was quickly snubbed.  All telephone calls were simply cut off with a loud bang if any mention of the film was made.

    The production was nearing completion, time was running out, but nothing—no pleas or blandishments – could move Mr. Hughes. Then one morning the producer sent for me saying he wanted me to go out to see William Hughes. ‘Just persuade him to come to the studio and play his part.’ Just like that—quite simple. ‘Why pick me?’ I asked. No-one knew, except it was my set that had to be shot and it was taking up valuable space in the studio.

    So full of trepidation, apprehension and imagination, I procured a car and drove myself out to Roseville where Mr. Hughes lived. I rang the bell and when the door was opened—by a man in a green baize apron—I enquired for Mr. William Hughes. Going in, as I crossed the hall, Dame Mary came down the stairs. Wishing her a ‘Good morning,’ I introduced myself—who I was and why I was there.

    Dame Mary undoubtedly had some intuition of what had previously transpired. ‘Oh dear!’ she said, ‘I do wish you the best of luck. Mr. Hughes will be down shortly.’ I waited in the library, not having a clue of what to say, when Billy Hughes came in, which he did very soon after with a ‘Good morning Brother, and what can I do for you?’

    My ‘Good morning Sir,’ was, I’m afraid, a bit shaky—but what next? The appalling consequence of responsibility—failure or success. I fell into a state of self-pity; my set standing in the studio being pushed around, taken down, re-erected etc., but Billy Hughes did not seem concerned in the slightest. He had received a slight, a trampling of his dignity, by some damned impertinent American fellow who had the temerity to send him a contract—as if his word was not his bond!

    I listened attentively, wondering what I could say, when and how. But I was spared a little longer, Billy going over his parliamentary career. ‘Do you know that I have never by my own desire missed a session of Parliament in all the years of my service! I am a Privy Councillor—I have been the Prime Minister of this country …. ‘ Then some little bird gave me my entrée. With arrogant disregard to such pomposity I put in my first word ‘And what a wonderful achievement for dear old Wales!’

    ‘What, Brother? Wales! Do you know Wales?’

    ‘I had a Welsh grandmother. I know Flint, Aberystwyth, Llandrindod Wells …’ and we exchanged reminiscences happily. Any moment I would start a spirited rendering of Land of my Fathers. Eventually we got back to the reason of my visit and I happily heard Mr. Hughes saying ‘Not for you, or Columbia Pictures, or that impertinent American—if I even consider doing this part, it will be out of my mighty esteem and regard for a great Australian, Kingsford Smith.’

    ‘Sir, that is most generous of you. I shan’t have to move the set again.’

    ‘Mind you, it all depends on my parliamentary commitments—if I find time.’

    Then I made a mistake which sent the balloon up again—I suggested that if he was too busy during the weekdays, perhaps he would consider doing the shot on a Sunday. For my trouble, I got a blast about the day of rest—when all normal living was suspended. I mentally called myself names for being such a congenital idiot not to leave well alone, and tried to excuse myself with an apology that ‘I should have known better’.

    With ‘Well, Brother, I’ll think about it,’ and the interview ended and I was shown out by the green baize apron.

    Arriving back at the studio I reported to the producer and director that I had a promise ‘I’ll think about it.’ Anyway, the ice had been broken. I don’t suppose I had been back in the studio more than twenty minutes when I received a telephone call. The voice at the other end said ‘Send a car for Mr. Hughes at two o’clock.’

    There is not much to add except that I collected Billy Hughes, along with a secretary, and brought him to the studio where two of our charming girls served him with afternoon tea, and another made his face up for filming. He loved every minute of it and, incidentally, made a wonderful job of his role.

    The flight of the Southern Cross over the Tasman, when one engine cut out, and the epic effort of Patrick Gordon Taylor, was an exploit that made him famous right around the world. Kingsford Smith and Taylor, in May 1935, were flying from Sydney to New Zealand and the plane developed engine trouble about 600 miles from the Australian coast. Taylor had made the oil change from one dead engine to another by the incredible feat of climbing out onto the engine strut. This took place hundreds of feet above the sea and must have required a very particular branch of cool courage. It was on this adventure over the Tasman that rear projection, for the film Smithy, was to be used very effectively.

    Some footage was taken beforehand by a camera fixed to the cockpit of a plane. The plane repeated Kingsford Smith’s performance with the Southern Cross while Taylor was on the strut. With one dead engine, it was first necessary to gain height before making a slow descent. This was to allow him the maximum of freedom to extract oil from one of the engines. The masterly handling of the plane by Smithy in the difficult job of keeping the plane airborne throughout, and taking the utmost care not to dislodge Taylor from his perilous position on the spar, as he clung to the engine whilst making the change, had to be reproduced.  This was done—and it was a recreation of what actually happened—but in the studio.

    The model of the Southern Cross was set before the rear projection scene and on the screen was thrown the footage that the camera had taken. It was simply the rising and falling horizon which gave the stationary plane the required illusion of diving and climbing. Out of the cockpit climber Taylor to reproduce his epic feat and although the cockpit was only six feet above the stage, it was not as easy as it may sound because in order to simulate reality, we had an aeroplane engine going full blast on him out there on the spar. So it was not altogether ‘an act’ when he hung on grimly. The result—the real thing.

    For this superb act of heroism Captain P.G. Taylor was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal—the civilian Victoria Cross.

    All kind of pictures are possible with rear projection—these can range from the passing landscape, as viewed from a train or a car, to that of a man hanging by one hand from a window-sill ten storeys from the ground. Glass shots became out of date but they were of great economic value at the time when they were used. A sheet of plate optic glass was anchored in front of the camera and placed in the right position to take the scene. For example, just imagine a ballroom which, when seen on the theatre screen, clearly gives the impression of much elaborate detail and ornamentation. 

    The technique involved is as follows: the set is built to wall height with all its architectural features, columns, panels, openings, etc. The next step is both very exacting and extremely difficult. All perpendicular lines are projected from the actual built set onto the glass by means of the finest silk thread, held on the glass to match up with the lines on the set. The difficulty is because this is done by looking through the actual aperture of the camera, remembering that the whole ballroom and glass is reproduced in a 35mm opening. The slightest fault, of course, would mean much magnification when shown on the cinema screen.

    When one’s eye was completely astigmatic and the job finished, the next task was to paint the top part of the set on the glass. It was such a great help that I had had considerable experience painting very detailed scenery. This method naturally saved a considerable sum of money, as otherwise the set had to be built full-size and complete.

    Perhaps it was the necessity for such exactitude in painting that caused this particular method to be scrapped. For example, I have been able to transform a summer landscape into a winter scene by using this glass shot method. Today, a matt shot is nearly always used and this method will add to, or transform, an interior or an exterior, as the occasion demands. The cameraman matts off the top half of his lens with a piece of black fabric. It must necessarily have a ragged edge, so that it vignettes very softly. The scene is taken, but of course the top half of the film is not exposed.

    When taking the film from the camera into the darkroom, a frame or two is cut off the film. This is processed and an enlargement is made. Only the bottom half of the film shows on the print as the top half is blank. Then the artist gets it onto his drawing board and paints in whatever is needed, taking the greatest care to blend his painting style with the photographic picture. This technique was used in the filming of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross, shown landing in different countries, a suitable background appropriate to each country being matted into a local foreground.

    I was out at Essendon Aerodrome where the engines of the Southern Cross were being overhauled, prior to its flying again for the production. Photographs were being taken so that we could create engines for the mock-up. At the ‘drome I met a newsreel cameraman who showed me five enlargements which he had made from a film he had taken at Essendon. He had been waiting for a plane to arrive on which were travelling some VIPs he had been assigned to photograph. The plane was overdue and, in the meantime, a DC3 was making its approach on the runway. To break the monotony, he pressed the trigger and photographed its arrival. It never quite arrived—disaster overtook the plane just as it was about to land. He subsequently made enlargements of some frames from the film.

    The first shot showed the DC3 flattened out, the second one showed a wing slightly out of alignment. In the next photo it was possible to see that the wing had broken away from the fuselage. In the next one, the wing was actually floating away, and the plane was about to crash. The cameraman was dedicated: he kept his finger on the trigger as the crashed plane skidded to within a few feet of him and his camera. His act was simply that of a good newsreel cameraman.

    When he was fully in control again, he noticed that there was a hole in the main spar, or rather half a hole. Having the instinct of a first-class newsreel man, he wandered over to the detached wing and there exposed the heinous crime of some maintenance man. He actually removed a plug of chewing gum from the other half of the corresponding hole in the stub of the main spar of the wing, which was the total effort of covering up a defect that eventually had caused the plane to crash.

    The American Authorities heard about the photographs that had been taken before the crash and immediately they commandeered the film—but not before the cameraman had made his very telling enlargements.


    To be continued