Robert Chisholm

  • Collits' Inn Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The complete optical film recording included:

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

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

    3. “Drinking Song” – Unknown Bass

    4. “Making Memories” – Gladys Moncreiff

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

    6. “Outlaw’s Song” – Claude Flemming

    7. “Duddawarra River” – Gladys Moncrieff

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

    9. “Sweet William” – Bryl Walkley

    10. “Australia” – Robert Chisholm & Gladys Moncreff

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

    12. “Last Year” – Gladys Moncrieff

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

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

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

    Dance music

    My Desire - Robert Chisholm


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

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


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

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

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

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



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

    Jean Devanny, Bird of Paradise, Frank Johnson, 1945

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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


    Further resources

    View programs on the THA Digital website


  • Robert Chisholm

    Park Avenue, Shubert Theatre, New York. Leonora Corbett (centre) with Robert Chisholm (third gent from left, in the cap).

    ‘A bachelor gay’ – Australia’s forgotten musical star

    By Frank Van Straten

    Who was Robert Chisholm?

    A recent display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra included letters and other memorabilia relating to ‘a forgotten star’, Robert Chisholm.

    The meagre 8-line entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia contains little more than a hint of the diversity of Robert Chisholm’s long career on stage and screen in Britain and the United States. Though he was never a really big star, Chisholm worked with legends like Jeanette MacDonald, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Ira Gershwin, Sigmund Romberg, Leonard Bernstein, Shirley Booth, Katharine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein, Burgess Meredith and Helen Morgan. And he was a boot maker’s son, born in Melbourne.

    RC02 300wUp until now the exact circumstances of his birth have not been documented. Most references, including the Companion, say that Robert Chisholm was born on 18 April 1898. He was, in fact William Leslie Chisholm, and he was born on 18 April 1894. His father, Robert, was a boot maker from Northumberland, and his mother, Annie Chisholm, née Absolom/Absalom, was Melbourne-born. He was the Chisholms’ seventh child: the others were twins Annie and Lizzie, aged 13; Agnes, 12; George, 10; John, 4; and Harriet, 3. Their tiny two-storey single fronted house at 55 Neill Street, Carlton, still stands. How a family of nine could have squeezed into it defies imagination.

    We know little of Robert’s childhood, except that he was educated in the State School system, and claimed to have studied at Melbourne University. By 1915 he had moved with his family to a house called Wondai at 55 Park Street, Moonee Ponds, and was working as a clerk. He was tall – a whisker less than 6 foot – blue eyed and handsome, and he loved to sing.

    In an article in The Argus of 19 September 1929, well-known Melbourne singer Walter Kirby claimed that Chisholm had been one of his pupils, though no date is specified. Kirby also mentions that he taught Dorothy Brunton, Marie Burke and Hector Goldspink.

    Chisholm was 21 years 7 months old when he enlisted in the Australian Imperil Force on 23 November 1915 – though he chose to state his age as 23 years 7 months. Later, in true theatrical tradition, he was to adjust his age down, rather than up! Private Chisholm served as a driver with the Australian Army Service Corps before sailing for France in HMAT Persic on 22 December 1916. In France he was attached, first, to the 2nd Australian Divisional Supply Column, and later, to the 4the Divisional Train.

    In a letter to his mother in January 1918, Chisholm says he ‘had a few offers to join concert parties out here and tour France, but I’ve turned them down as I’m quite happy in this unit and get every facility for practice and concert work.’ He soon changed his mind. By March 1918 he had transferred to the 4th Divisional Concert Party, famously known as the ‘Smart Set Diggers’, performing on a portable, makeshift stage in any available hall, barn, shed or even in the open air. There Chisholm met tenor George Castles, whose celebrated soprano sister, Amy, had sung Cio-Cio-San in the Australian premiere season of Madame Butterfly in 1910. Chisholm enthusiastically contributed his robust baritone to the troupe’s presentations. He frequently played the juvenile lead in their versions of popular musical comedies, but he was equally adept as a female impersonator.

    RC03 627wIn a letter dated 7 October 1918, Chisholm told his mother that the concert party was in recess for five days, prior to the start of a season at Amiens, where they would share a newly reopened theatre with an American troupe. He also mentions that the Smart Set boys had entertained General John Monash. Shortly after the war ended on 11 November he sang at a Requiem Service conducted by the Bishop of Amiens in memory of the Australians who had died defending his diocese.

    While awaiting demobilisation in London, Private Chisholm obtained a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone Square. In April 1919 he was granted leave to pursue his studies and to accept non-military employment as a junior member of the cast in Alfred Butt’s touring company of the operetta The Lilac Domino. He made his stage debut at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.

    RC04 300wOn 12 December 1919 The Times announced that William Chisholm had won the Royal Academy’s Rutson Memorial Prize for Basses and Baritones. The Rutson prize was intended to reward ‘clear enunciation of words and steadiness of intonation in singing’. He also won the Walker Prize for Tenors and Baritones. Chisholm supplemented his musical studies with stage training from Violet Vanbrugh and Rosina Filippi.

    In April 1920 Chisholm requested a discharge from the AIF so he could undertake another engagement with Alfred Butt. ‘Unforeseen circumstances’ changed his plans. He headed back to Melbourne in the steamer Wahahe, arriving towards the end of 1920. He was discharged soon after.

    Things now moved remarkably quickly. On 15 January 1921, with his first name changed from William to Robert, possibly in tribute to his father, he signed a contract with Australia’s leading theatrical entrepreneurs, J.C. Williamson Ltd. The original paperwork is preserved in the Williamson archives in the Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. He was guaranteed a weekly salary of £15 for the following twelve months. Less than a week later he was playing opposite Gladys Moncrieff in the Australian premiere of what would be her greatest success, The Maid of the Mountains, which opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 21 January 1921.

    In its long review of the triumphant first night, The Australasian (29 January 1921) said, ‘Just as Miss Moncrieff has by earnest effort and study ripened her powers, so there was a suggestion of much better things ahead in Mr Robert Chisholm’s notable share in the evening’s success when playing the part of Beppo, one of the brigand lieutenants. The Song, ‘Live For Today,’ with a clever vein of cynicism, and the ever popular ‘A Bachelor Gay’ satisfied everyone as to his singing powers. While some of his work is stamped with the crudities of the beginner, one feels sure that Mr Clyde Meynell, in procuring Mr Chisholm’s services, had vision as well as judgment, and with this fine beginning, Mr Chisholm will “carry on”.’ ‘A Bachelor Gay’ became a permanent feature of Chisholm’s repertoire.

    This was the start of a long, productive working partnership between Chisholm and Moncrieff. Over the next four years they appeared together around Australia and New Zealand in The Maid of the Mountains, Sybil, A Southern Maid, Katinka and a revival of The Merry Widow.

    In Sybil, as Captain Paul Petroff, Chisholm’s principal vocal contribution was the Letter Duet, which he sang with Gladys. In A Southern Maid he was initially cast as Sebastian and sang the opening number, ‘Serenade’; later, when he took over the male lead, Sir Willoughby Rawdon, he sang ‘I Want the Sun And The moon’ with Gladys, plus two virile solos, ‘The Call Of The Sea’ and ‘Here’s To Those We Love’. In The Merry Widow he was a dashing Prince Danilo, singing ‘My Fatherland’ and two duets with Gladys, ‘The Cavalier’ and the lustrous Waltz Song.

    At Christmas 1921 Chisholm appeared as the Caliph in the J. & N. Tait–Bailey & Grant co-production of the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at the Criterion in Sydney. He co-starred with Jennie Hartley (as Sinbad), Jack Cannot and Phil Smith (Mr and Mrs Tinbad), Gracie Lavers (the Princess) and Eric Edgley and Clem Dawe (Igo and Ugo – their first appearance in Sydney). Chisholm had some of the best songs: the rollicking ‘Jack Tar’, ‘In Dreamy Araby’, composed by Melbourne tunesmith Jack O’Hagan, and ‘Karavan’, which he sang with Gracie Lavers.

    In January 1922 Williamson’s renewed Chisholm’s contract for a further six months, increasing his weekly salary to £20. Subsequent renewals eventually took his salary to £32.10 shillings. At Her Majesty’s in Melbourne in 1923 Williamson’s featured him in a revival of The Arcadians; as Jack Meadows he joined Nellie Payne in the ‘Charming Weather’ duet, and joined in the male quartet ‘Truth Is So Beautiful’. He was the opera singer Johann Michael Vogl in Lilac Time at Her Majesty’s in Sydney in May 1924 and later in Brisbane and Adelaide.

    Amid the public triumphs came personal tragedy. Chisholm’s mother died in December 1921, and his father in September 1923.

    At the end of 1924 Chisholm returned to Britain. On 5 February 1925 he played Dick Carter in a now-forgotten Rudolf Friml musical, Sometime, at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Lacklustre fare, it survived for only 28 performances.

    RC01 300wChisholm’s next engagement was with the great London Palladium. When the de Courville revue Sky High opened on 30 March 1925 Chisholm had second billing to the beloved comedian George Robey, in a cast that included droll Nellie Wallace and the popular Australian sister act Lorna and Toots Pounds. Sky High ran for 309 performances, and Chisholm was so impressive that the Palladium retained him for the next show, Folies Bérgère, which opened on 30 September. Again Chisholm had second billing, this time to Ernie Lotinga, in an extravaganza that, despite its name, was closer to Paddington than it was to Paris. In each of the 125 performances, Chisholm stopped the show with a dramatic song called ‘Le Rêve Passe’ (‘The Dream Passes’), later a best-selling record for Peter Dawson and Georges Thill.

    In December Chisholm was in variety at the London Coliseum, sharing the crowded bill with Bert Ralton’s Havana Band, comedian Billy Bennett and the American ragtimers Sissle and Blake. In January 1926 he and Billy Bennett were featured at the Alhambra music hall on a bill with Little Tich, Vivian Foster, Burr and Hope, Will Hay, and the Hungarian dancer Ben Zoltana. In March Chisholm was singing on the stage of the huge Stoll Theatre in Kingsway, in a ‘live’ presentation before the screening of Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush. Then he rejoined comedian Billy Bennett at the Alhambra, sharing the bill with music hall great Vesta Victoria and the Jack Hylton Band.

    On 28 March 1926 Chisholm lent his presence to the Coliseum’s ‘Evening Entirely of Stars’ – a Sunday gala in support of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. Others appearing included Thorpe Bates, Lupino Lane, Layton and Johnstone, G.H. Elliott, Will Fyffe, Gracie Fields and the great classical pianist Mark Hambourg. In April Chisholm was featured at the Coliseum in ‘a new musical entertainment’ called So This is Romance – a top-rate variety bill including Clarice Mayne, the clowns Noni and Horace, and the Australian juggler George Hurd.

    In April Gladys Moncrieff made her London debut at the Gaiety Theatre in the title role of Riki-Tiki, a new musical with a score by Eduard Künneke. It lasted for only 18 performances, but while she was searching for another role, Moncrieff took the opportunity to make a number of recordings for the Vocalion Company. Most of them were solos, but in June she recorded two duets with her old friend, Robert Chisholm. Both numbers were from shows in which they had starred together in Australia, The Letter Song from Sybil and ‘A Paradise For Two’ from The Maid of the Mountains.

    Chisholm undertook further engagements at the Alhambra, the Holborn Empire and the Coliseum, where he was a particular favourite. In September 1926 he was specially featured reprising ‘Le Rêve Passe’ on a bill including Billy Merson, Clara Kimball Young, Neil McKay and the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman.

    A little before this, on 19 August, The New York Times announced that Edward V. Darling, chief talent booker for the vast US Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, had returned with a swag of top line engagements. Included was ‘Robert Chisholm, a baritone who has been singing at Covent Garden’.

    Chisholm arrived in New York on board President Harding on 15 October 1926. He made his US debut in vaudeville at Keith’s Theatre, Washington DC, a few days later. On 18 October The Washington Post reported that: ‘Robert Chisholm, the Australian barytone [sic], does a dramatic turn which calls for unanimous applause, but which is not adequately answered. Mr Chisholm possesses a rare voice, and his offering forms a brief, yet pleasant interlude.’

    In November Chisholm was at the prestigious Palace Theatre on Broadway in a bill intended celebrate the centenary of American vaudeville. Oddly, it was an all-British affair, with Ella Shields (‘Burlington Bertie’), Cecilia Loftus and ventriloquist Arthur Prince. The New York Times (2 November 1926) thought Chisholm was among the ‘better than average turns’ and possessed ‘a fine baritone voice’. Evidence suggests that immediately after his Palace season he featured in a revival of the Franz Schubert operetta Blossom Time at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles.

    On 13 Jan 1927 Chisholm sailed in the San Lorenzo for San Juan, Puerto Rico, presumably for a holiday break. By the end of February he was featuring on a vaudeville bill at the Orpheum, Los Angeles (‘The Finest Theatre in the West’); in May he was at the Palace, Chicago. On 4 June 1927 he crossed the Atlantic on board the French liner Paris; intriguingly, a fellow passenger was composer Herbert P. Stothart. Stothart was a member of the creative team assembled by entrepreneur Arthur Hammerstein, the uncle of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, to create an operetta for his new theatre – Hammerstein’s – named for his famous entrepreneurial father, Oscar I. This splendid edifice, located at 1697 Broadway, survives today as a television facility, the Ed Sullivan Theatre, but Arthur built it as temple for operetta.

    The opening show was Golden Dawn. Set in German-occupied equatorial Africa, it had a score by Emmerich Kálmán with additional numbers by Herbert Stothart and Robert Stolz, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, direction by Reginald Hammerstein, and a cast of 111. The typically improbable plot concerned a mysterious blonde maiden called Dawn, who is mistaken for a princess, and a villainous, sadistic overseer, Shep Keyes. We do not know if Stothart recommended him for the role, but Chisholm was cast as the black-skinned, black-hearted Keyes, and revelled in the show’s best number, ‘The Whip’.

    After tryouts in Pittsburgh and Wilmington, Golden Dawn opened Hammerstein’s magnificent new theatre in appropriately grand style on 30 November. In the following day’s The New York Times Brooks Atkinson gave it a warm welcome, noting the contribution of ‘Robert Chisholm, who comes to the musical stage from the rigours of vaudeville. [He] sings with a trained, full voice of a quality rarely heard in musical entertainments.’ Reviewer ‘RS’ in The Wall Street Journal (2 December 1927) praised Chisholm’s portrayal of ‘a masterful black whose religion was his long whip; [he was] a striking figure singing his stirring songs with sweeping verve.’ In his American Musical Theatre chronicle, Gerald Boardman said Chisholm ‘electrified audiences’. In spite of Walter Winchell’s description of it as ‘The Golden Yawn’, Golden Dawn lit up Hammerstein’s for 200 performances.

    In May Chisholm was back playing two-a-day at the Palace, billed as ‘the eminent Australian baritone’ and sharing top billing with George Sidney, later to be a notable Hollywood director. This time, The New York Times (15 May 1928) felt his act would have benefited from a little more showmanship, and he ‘did not receive a setting worthy of vaudeville’s outstanding theatre.’ A little while later, on 12 August, The Times’ Hartley Grattan mused that, ‘Paradoxically, you get to see the best of the Australian theatre right here on Broadway. First and foremost there is Judith Anderson, to whom Queensland is home [in reality, she was from Adelaide]. There is Leon Errol. There is Allan Prior. And there is Robert Chisholm, lately with Golden Dawn…’

    On 8 June 1928 Chisholm sailed again for Europe on the Ile de France; he returned on the Cunarder Aquitania on 17 August. He joined the road company of Golden Dawn, which packed Cohan’s Opera House in Chicago over the 1928-29 Christmas–New Year season.

    On 21 February 1929 The London Times announced that Robert Chisholm would star with Evelyn Laye in the new Sigmund Romberg musical The New Moon, which was scheduled to open at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in April. However, when the show opened, Ben Williams had the male lead, and Chisholm was nowhere to be seen. In June 1929 he was back in variety at the London Palladium, sharing the bill with Layton and Johnstone and his old friend Billy Bennett.

    RC05 300wLater in 1929 Chisholm returned to the Arthur Hammerstein fold for the featured role of James Day in Sweet Adeline, a new but ‘splendidly old-fashioned’ Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II musical whose delightful score included such standards as ‘Why Was I Born?’ and ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’. Others in the cast were Helen Morgan, Irene Franklin and Charles Butterworth. After well-received tryouts in Atlantic City and Newark, Sweet Adeline opened at Hammerstein’s Theatre on 3 September 1929. The Times’ Brooks Atkinson loved it; in his review of 4 September he called it ‘exuberantly good-natured’ and he particularly praised Chisholm’s ‘dynamic’ singing.

    If Chisholm was gone from Australia, he wasn’t forgotten. On 28 February 1928, under the heading ‘Australian’s success in New York’, The Canberra Times reported that, ‘The success of Robert Chisholm, the Australian baritone, in New York, considering that he was unknown to theatrical managers there two years ago, is phenomenal. After a short season in Boston, he was starred in The Golden Dawn, and afterwards Sweet Adeline, both, successful musical comedies, produced by the Hammersteins.

    ‘Asked if he desires to return to Australia, the young singer said: “Naturally, but I wouldn’t like to go with a show. I would like to go back on a holiday, and visit all those delightful places I played while I was down there, and perhaps sing at a few concerts. I don’t mean now. It’s a dream of mine. Perhaps it will never be realised; it depends so much on what I can accomplish here. But no matter how successful I may become here, my home is out there. I cannot forget my many friends there – and how I’d like to be amongst them.’

    Sweet Adeline notched up 234 performances, a success that prompted Arthur Hammerstein to try his hand as a film producer. He headed for the United Artists studios in Hollywood to begin preparations for filming Bride 66, which was ‘based on a tone poem by Herbert Stothart’.

    RC06 300wHammerstein assembled an interesting cast. The gloriously-voiced Jeanette MacDonald was his leading lady, with John Garrick and Robert Chisholm in the principal male roles, and Joe E. Brown and Zasu Pitts in comic support. A British actor and singer, Garrick had spent some years in Australia working under the name Reginald Dandy. Rudolf Friml composed the songs and Paul Stein directed. The story unfolded in snow-bound Norway, amid William Cameron Menzies’ sets of ludicrous artificiality. Filming in the two-strip Technicolor process got under way in March 1930 and dragged on for several months. Along the way the title changed to The Lottery Bride. Chisholm had three songs: ‘You’re An Angel’, ‘I’ll Follow The Trail’ and ‘Shoulder To Shoulder’, the latter a duet with John Garrick.

    Chisholm became a popular figure in Hollywood. He was feted as one of the Broadway stage stars lured west – a handsome single man-about-town, and a notable addition to the film capital’s ‘British colony’. The influential Los Angeles social columnist Grace Kingsley promoted him in her column, and took him with her to the lavish celebrity parties that crowded Hollywood’s social calendar. He was often asked to sing, usually obliging with ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life’ or ‘A Bachelor Gay’.

    Kingsley kept her readers up to date with Chisholm chatter: in June he was in line for a leading role in a proposed Romberg–Hammerstein musical called Children of Dreams; next he was slated to star for Paramount in a remake of their silent comedy Honeymoon Hate. Then on 28 June Kingsley announced that the film had been postponed because ‘that very engaging young actor’ was heading back to New York for Arthur Hammerstein. On 24 August Chisholm made what was probably his first radio broadcast, when he was one of the two featured stars on Norman Brokenshire’s Schwartz Radio Follies.

    By the end of 1930, when The Lottery Bride was finally released, the public’s interest in musical films had virtually disappeared. In his Los Angeles Times review, Edwin Schallert said, ‘In the songs Robert Chisholm stands out rather brilliantly because of an excellent voice… [He] is less convincing in acting than singing.’ ‘RG’ in The Wall Street Journal said, ‘The singing of Robert Chisholm… is a highlight in this otherwise dull affair. These musical numbers are thrust into the plot so haphazardly, however, that the excellence of Mr Friml’s music and Mr Chisholm’s rendition of it are almost lost in one’s inevitable tendency to laugh at the silliness of the proceedings.’ In The Motion Picture Guide (1986) a more recent critic, J. Robert Nash, described The Lottery Bride as ‘An awful hodge-podge that nearly ended the brief musical era before it started.’ Chisholm, he said, ‘does what he can with convoluted material denser than a glacier. A failure and an embarrassment.’

    Well before the release of The Lottery Bride, Chisholm was safely back in New York, where Arthur Hammerstein was busy preparing his next musical extravaganza, Luana. Set in Hawaii, its plot was adapted from Howard Emmett Rogers’ play Bird of Paradise. Rudolf Friml again supplied the score. Luana ‘tried out’ in Atlantic City and Newark, before opening at Hammerstein’s Theatre on 17 September 1930. As Robert Dean, Chisholm was entrusted with three of the show’s better songs, ‘A Son Of The Sun’, ‘In The Clouds’ and ‘Where You Lead’, a duet with Diana Chase. Unfortunately Luana was an almost total disappointment: ‘The South Sea locale has not inspired Mr Friml’s natural gift for melody and romantic composing,’ said The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson on 18 September 1930, scathingly dismissing Luana as a ‘grass skirt’ musical. Nevertheless, in its issue of 29 September, Time magazine thought that Chisholm, ‘as a drunken beachcomber, does some powerful chanting with “Son Of The Sun”.’ Luana survived for a mere 21 performances, closing ignominiously on 4 October. Chisholm was buoyed by Hammerstein’s offer of a contract for the following year’s season, and even more when, on 5 November 1930, he was engaged by producer Lee Ephraim to play the second male lead – the villainous gaucho, Pablo – in the London premiere of a new Sigmund Romberg musical, Nina Rosa.

    Nina Rosa was set in Peru, which, as The Times pointed out, ‘was extremely convenient to everyone involved. The scene painters can be lavishly mountainous; the dialogue, when English does not suffice to express the loves and perils of Nina and Jack, can splash in Spanish; the costumes can include everything from hats like archery targets to pyjamas of black lace; the singers, joyfully unfettered by Anglo-Saxon timidity, can let themselves go; and when jokes languish someone can always crack a whip.’

    While the delights of Nina Rosa were materialising, Chisholm accepted engagements in British variety. In February 1931, for instance, he starred with saucy comedian Max Miller at the Holborn Empire.

    Nina Rosa opened at the Lyceum on 7 July. The following morning’s newspapers were unanimous in their admiration, though they were at odds when it came to describing Chisholm’s voice. The Daily Telegraph: ‘The Pablo of Mr Robert Chisholm is, of course, irresistible – no Peruvian lady could hold out against such charms and such a baritone voice. He knows, too, how to put over the rough stuff.’ The Morning Post: ‘The making of the play is, however, the magnificent acting, singing and rollicking personality of the Australian tenor, Mr Robert Chisholm. With his high, ringing voice, his tall, handsome figure, and his blend of fire and genuine character, Mr Chisholm “walked off with” every scene he appeared in. It was a triumph for him from first to last.’ The Times: ‘Mr Robert Chisholm, who desires our hero’s life, the treasure of the Incas, and a reluctant heroine, pursues them with a spirited song.’ The Observer: ‘Mr Robert Chisholm, as the villain, has a tremendous outing with lash and larynx: he can do this sort of thing as to the bad man’s manor born, and his singing swept the first-night audience into clamorous applause.’

    In August Nina Rosa transferred to the Gaiety, where its 110-performance run concluded on 10 October 1931. A month before, Chisholm and the other principals had visited the Decca studios to record four of the show’s most popular songs. They are now available on CD. Chisholm can be heard in his big number, ‘The Gaucho’s March’, a robust duet with Helen Gilliland, who had replaced the original leading lady, Ethelind Terry.

    After Nina Rosa, Chisholm returned to New York. At the end of December 1931 he joined the cast of Hello, 1932!, a variety revue starring Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr at the Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn. In March 1932 he was at the Earle Theatre in Washington DC, singing ‘The Song Of Songs’ and ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born’ in the vaudeville bill that supported the Jeanette MacDonald movie One Hour with You.

    Chisholm’s sturdy baritone was heard regularly on radio, and he appeared frequently in the many celebrity starry performances that were a sad feature of the Depression years. What was probably the most notable of these celebrity-laden entertainments was The Pageant of Stars at the Metropolitan Opera House on 1 May 1932. Robert Chisholm proudly took his place in a line up including (in alphabetical order) Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Irving Berlin, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway, Leon Errol, Ruth Etting, Jack Haley, Helen Kane, Bert Lahr, Guy Lombardo, Will Mahoney, Ethel Merman, the Mills Brothers, Pola Negri, Lillian Roth, Kate Smith, Sophie Tucker, plus an orchestra of 300 – and the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli.

    On 10 June 1932 Chisholm sailed to Britain on the liner Paris. In July he was on a Palladium bill with Max Miller, Louis Armstrong and the suave Edwin Styles, later a great favourite in Australia. In August he recreated his role of Robert Dean for a British tour of Luana, with the American star Edith Day in the title role. The production did not reach the West End.

    In 1933 Chisholm was back in New York to play Captain Macheath – Mack the Knife – in the American premiere of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The 3-Penny Opera (later revivals adopted the more traditional title The Threepenny Opera). Steffi Duna played Polly Peachum and Burgess Meredith had the small role of Crook-Finger Jack. The show opened at the Empire Theatre on 13 April 1933; the following day ‘LN’ in The New York Times called it a ‘gently mad evening in the theatre’ but said Chisholm ‘appeared just a shade well-bred’ for his role. In The Post Richard Lockridge described it as ‘sugar-coated communism’ while John Mason Brown told his Evening Post readers it was simply ‘appallingly stupid’. Perhaps predictably, Berlin lowlife was not what New Yorkers wanted to see in the Depression; The 3-Penny Opera was spent after only twelve performances.

    Chisholm cut his losses and returned to London. His hearty voice and ebullient personality came over splendidly on radio, so soon he was heard regularly on the BBC. On 6 September 1933, for instance, he was featured in the popular weekly Music Hall program, along with Dickens interpreter Bransby Williams, Australian soubrette Toots Pounds, the jolly comedienne ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea, and Florrie Forde, the ebullient Melbourne-born ‘chorus singer’ famous for ‘Down At The Old Bull And Bush’. A couple of nights later Chisholm was heard in Waltz Time, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus, with Toots Pounds, Jay Laurier, Frank Titterton, George Baker and Hermione Gingold, with Louis Levy conducting.

    Shortly after this, Chisholm packed his bags and, on 28 October, boarded the Orient liner Oronsay, bound for Melbourne. He was under contract to appear for entrepreneur Francis W. Thring, father of the famous Frank. Under the banner of Efftee Stage Productions, Thring had bought Melbourne’s Princess Theatre as a venue for a pioneering series of new Australian musical comedies.

    Collits’ InnThe first was Collits’ Inn, with music and lyrics by Varney Monk and a by book T. Stuart Gurr. A prize winner in a competition promoted in 1932 by Nathalie Rosenwax, a Sydney singing teacher, it was based on historical characters: there really had been a Pierce Collits, and he had run an inn at Cox’s Pass, near the present day city of Lithgow; in fact, the inn is still in business.

    Thring lavished money – and talent – on the production. Sumptuously mounted, it had the first revolving stage ever seen in this country. Chisholm was cast opposite the gloriously-voiced Gladys Moncrieff, with whom he had achieved such success in his first Australian engagements. ‘Our Glad’ had just had the sad honour of bringing down the final curtain of Melbourne’s beloved Theatre Royal with, appropriately enough, a gala performance of The Maid of the Mountains on 17 November. In Collits’ Inn Gladys played Mary Collits, while Chisholm was Captain John Lake, one of the two men vying for her affection. The other was the bushranger Robert Keane, played by Claude Flemming, who also directed. Marshall Crosby was Pierce Collits while, as Dandy Dick, the popular comedian George Wallace supplied most of the comedy.

    The gala opening night was set for 23 December. As Chisholm did not arrive in Melbourne until 4 December, the rehearsal period was extremely short. Nevertheless, Thring found time to record a number of the show’s songs on film soundtracks. These recordings, which were located comparatively recently in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, were thought to be pre-recordings for a proposed Collits’ Inn film, but historian Chris Long suggests that they were rehearsal checks. This theory is supported by the fact that one of the recorded numbers, ‘My Desire’, was not included in the final version of the show, but was used in a later Thring–Varney Monk musical, The Cedar Tree.

    Collits’ Inn was rapturously received by the public and the press. The Argus of 26 December said that the show ‘could not have been more happily cast. Miss Moncrieff lent to her native Australian setting all the lustre with which she has shone against more exotic backgrounds. Mr Chisholm, returning after six years to the Australian stage, slipped ideally into his military role. One of the best songs in the piece is the rollicking “A Laugh And A Kiss,” in which he and his company of redcoats were received with tremendous applause. In all probability, however, “Stay While The Stars Are Shining”, sung by Mr Chisholm and Miss Moncrieff, will find greatest public favour.’

    Collits’ Inn played at the Princess for a creditable xx weeks. For his second Australian musical Thring used largely the same cast. It was The Beloved Vagabond, adapted by W.J. Locke from his 1908 novel, with music by the young Australian composer Dudley Glass and lyrics by Adrian Ross. The Beloved Vagabond was set in eighteenth-century France. Gladys Moncrieff was the beautiful Joanna, Comtesse de Vernet, with Robert Chisholm as the dashing vagabond of the show’s title, Gaston de Nerac, also known as Paragot.

    The show opened at the Princess on 21 April 1934. The following day The Argus greeted it approvingly: ‘In a word, The Beloved Vagabond is first-rate entertainment… Robert Chisholm plays Gaston, picturesquely weary of passion, who wanders the French countryside, as artists in velvet trousers are thought to have done a long time ago.’ The paper went on to say, ‘Mr Chisholm makes a good Gaston. He has the air and the voice and some of his duets with Miss Moncrieff are worth hearing twice.’

    Next it was Sydney’s turn. Thring leased the cavernous Tivoli Theatre there, opening on 22 June 1934 with Collits’ Inn. Next day, the Sydney Morning Herald called it ‘splendid’ and ‘a remarkably successful production’, and went on, ‘A feature of Collits’ Inn that will excite widespread enthusiasm is the excellent acting by a cast that brings back to Sydney two favourites of earlier days. Both Mr Claude Flemming and Mr Robert Chisholm have been associated with many popular productions here – the romantic The Maid of the Mountains among the number. Miss Moncrieff also appeared in that melodious play, and she shared with Mr Chisholm and Mr Flemming the excited applause last night. All three artists were in splendid form, Mr Chisholm handsome in his red coat of the colonial forces.’

    The Beloved Vagabond followed Collits’ Inn into the Sydney Tivoli on 24 August. The following day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported that, ‘As the hero of this pleasant romance, Mr Robert Chisholm sang agreeably, but his acting fell well below that of the other players because it was so full of conventional musical comedy formulae.’

    After this, Collits’ Inn returned to the Princess in Melbourne for a short farewell season that commenced on 13 October. When it closed, Chisholm sailed for Britain.

    Back in London, Chisholm was heard with Cicely Courtneidge and Elsie and Doris Waters in the BBC’s popular Music Hall program on 13 April 1935.

    In spite of his disastrous screen debut, Chisholm scored roles in two small-scale British films. The first, Cock o’ the North, was released in the United Kingdom in July 1935. The story concerns George Barton (George Carney), a fire engine driver forced to retire after a major crash. His son Danny (Ronnie Hepworth) tries to restore his father’s sagging spirits by recruiting the services of a number of variety performers. Australian-born Marie Lohr played Mrs Barton, with comedian Horace Kenney and Peggy Novak in supporting roles. Robert Chisholm, the black entertainer Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and the ‘Crazy Gang’ comedians Naughton and Gold were among several performers who appeared as themselves. Apparently the film was never released in the United States, and no copy is known to have survived. In 1938, however, Chisholm’s principal contribution, a spirited rendition of ‘Le Rêve Passe’, the song that he had introduced at the Palladium in 1925, was included in the eleventh edition of a series of musical compilations called Highlights of Variety. Again, no surviving copy has been located.

    Chisholm followed Cock o’ the North with Father O’Flynn, shot in Ireland. The star was the tenor Thomas Burke, ‘The Lancashire Caruso’. The estranged husband of musical comedy star Marie Burke, Tom was unreliable and well past his prime. The plot concerned the lovely Macushla Westmacott (Jean Adrienne), who was raised by Father O’Flynn (Burke) after her father (Henry Oscar) had deserted her when she was a child. Recently released from prison, her father tries to illegally deprive her of an inheritance. Father O’Flynn and Macushla’s lover, the handsome Nigel Robertson (Chisholm), contrive to defeat the scheme. Father O’Flynn met a mixed reception in Britain when it was released in November 1935, and had to wait until December 1938 before it was released in the United States; there its 82 minute running time was judiciously trimmed to 67. On 26 December The New York Times’ ‘TMP’ lamented: ‘The Irish film-makers were in one of their less-than-beguiling moods. Alas, the luck of the Irish seems to have deserted them.’

    Chisholm undertook a variety tour of Britain in the autumn of 1935, and continued to broadcast for the BBC. In A Variety of Music on 2 January 1936, in between comedy from the rumbustious Hylda Baker and the music hall veteran Marie Kendall, he sang duets with Angela Parselles. A Jerusalem-born soprano of Greek descent, Parselles had migrated to Australia as a child and had appeared here in musicals and in the 1934 Ken G. Hall film Cinesound Varieties. After some success in Britain, she returned to Australia in 1938, and was heard frequently on the ABC.

    On 15 January 1936 The New York Times noted that Chisholm had arrived from Britain on board the Ile de France and was staying at the palatial Warwick Hotel. On 8 March he was back on American radio. His ‘official’ Who’s Who in the Theatre biography indicates he toured Australia in 1936. In all probability he returned to participate in the film version of Collits’ Inn that Francis W. Thring planned to shoot in Sydney.

    Frustrated at the Victorian government’s lack of support, Thring had decided to abandon his studio at the Wattle Path dance palais in St Kilda, and transfer his film-making to Sydney, where Mastercraft Film Corporation, in which he had a financial interest, was building new studios at Lane Cove. The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1936 quotes Thring as saying that ‘the first production at Lane Cove will probably be Collits’ Inn’. On 4 March Thring sailed for Hollywood, where he planned to sign up directors and actors. When he arrived back in Sydney on 19 June he was so ill that he was taken straight to hospital. He died in Melbourne on 1 July 1936. Naturally, the Collits’ Inn film was abandoned, leaving Chisholm with nothing to do – surprisingly he does not appear to have undertaken any stage or concert work during this visit.

    Later in 1936 Chisholm was back in Britain, again touring in variety. In January 1937 he was in Hollywood. On 6 January The Los Angeles Times’s Lee Shippey reported that ‘Robert Chisholm, recently back from a concert tour of Australia, got together at the Scotch Treat Club, organised eight famous singers into an octet under the direction of Gene Lockhart, and then appeared for nothing at the club. I doubt that any other male chorus ever heard here contained so many famous names.’

    On 14 March 1937 The Los Angeles Times published a major piece by Bob Weekes on the all-male Scotch Treat Club singers, who had become a regular feature of the luncheons at the Hollywood Authors’ Club. By then their number had increased to ten; several were pictured, Chisholm included:

    ‘Robert Chisholm is either Australian or English and probably both; but his is a very great voice. I am not at all sure but what he is a greater actor than he is a singer because once, when he sang, someone remarked that at last “a million-dollar personality had gotten to Hollywood.”

    ‘He has known the infinite of success in London, New York and the capitals of the world. He’s known what it is to face a New York audience of Americans when he was a part of an all-English cast just making his first appearance in this coun¬try.

    ‘That was in 1928 in the Palace The¬atre and he still says it is “pretty excit¬ing” to reach a new country, “a hard country” and realize that a dream had come true.

    ‘He admits it hurt him when a thief stole $600 out of his dressing-room one night but later he took compensation – and consolation – from the fact that when he was playing in The 3-Penny Opera at the Empire in New York he was assigned the dressing-room formerly used by Ethel Barrymore.

    ‘The highlight of that experience was that when the doorman offered him – as a good luck omen – a cup and saucer once used by the greet Barrymore, he took it, used it with reverence – and the show promptly closed in three weeks!

    ‘Well, we could go on with Mr Robert Chisholm practically endlessly but he is the type who laughs so infectiously that if we’ve proved that point there is no reason to prove any other.’

    Chisholm also participated in The Domino Revels, a privately-staged Sunday night revue organised by Gene and Kathleen Lockhart. According to the Times’ review of 30 April, the highlight was the first act finale which melded baseball with grand opera and featured Chisholm ‘delivering the home run to the exciting dramatics of Pagliacci.’

    Charity work was all very well, but Chisholm found remunerative movie assignments hard to come by. He eventually settled for a minuscule rule as ‘an Englishman’ in It Happened in Hollywood, an unpretentious Columbia ‘B’ comedy starring Richard Dix and Fay Wray. Before the film’s release on 7 September, Chisholm scored a three-show engagement at the vast open-air Jones Beach Theatre – ‘over the water and under the stars’ – at Wantagh, New York. In July-August 1937 he played ‘a romantic Goethe’ opposite leading lady Diana Gaylen in Lehár’s Frederika, which premiered before an audience of 11,000; in Romberg’s Nina Rosa his co-star was Luba Malina; and in Kálmán’s The Circus Princess he was the dashing, disguised Prince Alexi Orloff, with Vivienne Segal in the title role.

    In May 1938 Chisholm was again on Broadway, this time in The Two Bouquets, with book and lyrics by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon and music sourced by various uncredited Victorian composers. Time called it ‘a mannerly, mock-genteel operetta of Victorian days which delighted Londoners for almost nine months; it will not delight the US for so long.’ Unfortunately, Time was right.

    The Two Bouquets opened at the Windsor Theatre on 31 May. The leading roles went to Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison. Chisholm, in the featured role as George, had one of the best songs, ‘Toddy’s The Drink For Me’. In his New York Times review of 1 June, Brooks Atkinson called the show ‘a decorous museum antic with a slight grimace of sentimental humour,’ noting that, ‘even Robert Chisholm, the bravura baritone, sings his drinking song with modest gusto.’ The Two Bouquets faded quickly, closing after 55 performances.

    Chisholm spent part of the summer of 1938 in St Louis, performing for the St Louis Municipal Opera Company in operetta and musical comedy under the stars at ‘the Muny’, said to be the largest open air theatre in the United States. The repertoire included the old favourites The Chimes of Normandy, Rosalie, Show Boat and Roberta, the relatively new White Horse Inn, and a brand new Civil War musical from Jerome Kern, Gentlemen Unafraid.

    Chisholm retuned to Broadway on 17 October 1938. At the Fifty-First Street Theatre he was featured as Oscar Wilde in a concoction by Glendon Allvine called Knights of Song, ‘a musical excursion into the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan’, staged by Oscar Hammerstein II. The huge cast was headed by Nigel Bruce and as John Moore as Gilbert and Sullivan; Monty Woolley played Prince Albert. Chisholm had two of the great Savoy patter songs: ‘I Was A Pale Young Curate Then’ from The Sorcerer and ‘Am I Alone?’ from Patience. In his 18 October review, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson used words like ‘cheap’ and heavy-handed’; nevertheless he found space to praise Nigel Bruce and Chisholm, ‘a singing actor of exceptional quality. Although he looks vaguely silly in Oscar Wilde’s dress, he sings something from Patience with great skill.’ Sadly, there was no patience for Knights of Song. It closed after only fifteen performances.

    Next, Chisholm undertook a concert tour of South America, but he was back in New York in time to participate in a prestigious two-hour NBC national broadcast, Salute to 1939, on New Year’s Day, 1939. Chisholm was heard in scenes from Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals with Alison Skipworth and the legendary Eva La Gallienne. The program also featured Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester and the zany comedians Olsen and Johnson, as well as a line up of pundits commenting on the year’s prospects in broadcasting, the cinema and the theatre.

    If Knights of Song was a disappointment, then Chisholm’s next Broadway show was a disaster. Susanna, Don’t You Cry was an elaborate attempt to do for American composer Stephen Foster what the earlier show had done for Gilbert and Sullivan. As Jonathan Lamphrey, Chisholm had some of the score’s most attractive songs: ‘Ring De Banjo’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, ‘Louisiana Belle’ and ‘Farewell, My Eulalie’. Susanna opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on 22 May 1939. In the following morning’s New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it ‘a lost cause… It would be hard to invent a more tedious and trying book than the one the American Lyric Theatre is now squandering on a full-size orchestra and a handsome production. It is not merely decorous; it is dull.’ Though Atkinson praised Chisholm’s contribution, he added, ‘surely it would be better if we all sang “My Old Kentucky Home” in unison. It is too glorious a song to entrust to an actor.’ Susanna, Don’t You Cry came to a teary conclusion after only five performances.

    Chisholm returned to St Louis for the 1939 Municipal Opera open air season. The repertoire included Rose Marie, On Your Toes, Firefly, Babette, Song of the Flame and Viktoria and her Hussar.

    Chisholm’s next ‘Broadway’ show never even made it to New York. The disaster of Susanna, Don’t You Cry was followed by a debacle called The White Plume. This unfortunate enterprise had started life as Cyrano de Bergerac, a musical produced by the Shubert organisation. Based on Edmond Rostand’s distinguished play, it had a score by an undistinguished Russian-American composer, Samuel D. Pokrass. In 1932, after the St Louis Municipal Opera gave it a tryout, it played a short season in Providence, Rhode Island. Retitled Roxanne, it moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where it closed in November 1932. Seven years later, with some additional music by Vernon Duke, it reappeared as The White Plume. With George Houston as Cyrano, Robert Chisholm as Carbon de Castel Jaloux and a 24-year-old unknown called Cornel Wilde as Vicomte de Valvert, it premiered at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, on 26 December 1939. The following day, The Washington Post’s Nelson B. Bell summed it up as an ‘indecisive, ineffectual and, too often, uninteresting musicalization of Rostand’s drama.’ After a further desperate name change – it became A Vagabond Hero – the show staggered into Pittsburgh. A further tryout in Philadelphia was cancelled, and the show disappeared forever.

    Chisholm’s next engagement looked more promising. He scored a featured role as Byng in a new Rodgers and Hart musical, Higher and Higher, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway on 4 April 1940. This time he had no solos, though he did sing in some ensemble pieces, notably ‘Blue Monday’. Far from vintage Rodgers and Hart, Higher and Higher, survived for 84 performances.

    Chisholm’s next Broadway role was as the incontinent Count Albert de Gronac in the Robert Stolz operetta Night of Love, which opened at the Hudson Theatre on 7 January 1941. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson was almost impressed: ‘There is something almost admirable about the exact proportioning of the tawdriness to the trite’. Chisholm, perhaps thankfully, had no solos in this old-fashioned mess, which closed after only seven performances.

    Five months later, in June 1941, Chisholm was in Dallas in a locally-produced revival of the 1927 musical Rio Rita, a show in which Gladys Moncrieff had scored a major success in Australia.

    Robert Chisholm’s next major engagement came early the following year: he was engaged by the Theatre Guild for a new comedy, Without Love, by Philip Barry, author of The Philadelphia Story. The stars were the luminous Katharine Hepburn and Elliott Nugent, who was more at home in Hollywood as an actor and director; Chisholm had to be content with the minor role of Richard Hood. Without Love started its tryout tour at the McCarter Theatre, Princetown, on 5 March 1942, then moved on to Wilmington and Baltimore. The play was set in Washington, DC, so it was especially appropriate that its next stop was the National Theatre, Washington, on 16 March 1942. In his Washington Post review the following day, Nelson B. Bell heaped praise on the stars and the play, but found space to mention Chisholm and several other supporting players who ‘all bear a full share of credit in the consummation of so satisfying a work.’ After increasingly well-received tryouts at Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Miss Hepburn’s home town, Hartford, Connecticut, Without Love went into hibernation while Miss Hepburn fulfilled film commitments and negotiated a new contract with the Guild, predicated on the undoubted hit they had on their hands.

    RC09It was not until 10 November that Without Love finally opened at the St James Theatre in New York. On 11 November Brooks Atkinson’ New York Times review was lukewarm. Nevertheless, the play did reasonable business, closing on 13 February 1943 after a run of 113 performances. Katharine Hepburn reprised her role when MGM filmed it two years later, with Spencer Tracy as her leading man.

    As his contribution to the war effort, Chisholm joined the American Branch of the British Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), dedicated to provide entertainment for British troops. He was a member of ENSA’s first American company, a group of around a dozen variety artists. Guided by two experienced Broadway men, director John C. Wilson and production supervisor Forrest C. Haring, they got together a 90-minute show with which they headed for Canada on 12 March 1943. For four months they toured across Canada, earning ‘salaries commensurate with soldiers’ pay, with transportation and living quarters supplied by ENSA.’ It wasn’t Broadway, but it was the longest run Chisholm had enjoyed for some time.

    Chisholm returned to New York for the Shubert management’s revival of the old musical Blossom Time, with music by Sigmund Romberg and Franz Schubert, a fanciful version of whose life provided the story line. Chisholm was cast as Scharntoff, a minor role with little to sing. Blossom Time opened at the Ambassador Theatre on 4 September 1943. In his New York Times review of 6 September, Lewis Nichols made a non-committal mention of Chisholm in a review that concluded that ‘operetta and Broadway are no longer marching side by side,’ and the revival had ‘neither sparkle nor lustre,’ was ‘heavy handed and dull’ and ‘far from perfection.’ Blossom Time wilted after only 47 performances.

    RC08 300wSimilarly forgettable was Down Melody Lane, a 60-minute musical film that purported to ‘tell the story of a variety theatre, illustrated by performers from its past’. This was achieved by recycling material from earlier films, including Chisholm’s signature song, ‘Le Rêve Passe’, from 1935’s Cock o’ the North.

    Later in 1943 Chisholm found a place in the cast of the updated revival of Rodgers and Hart’s 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee, adapted from Mark Twain’s book. The stars were Vivienne Segal and Dick Foran, with a young Vera-Ellen as Mistress Evelyn. Chisholm played Admiral Arthur K. Arthur in the Hartford sequences and King Arthur when the show’s locale switched to Camelot. He can be heard on the Decca ‘cast album’, which has been re-released on CD. The production opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on 17 November 1943. Six days later, its lyricist, the mercurial Lorenz Hart, died; he was 48. The show played 135 performances in New York, and then went on the road. It was at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, for two weeks from 3 April 1944. In his Washington Post review of 5 April, Nelson B. Bell described Chisholm’s ‘stalwart performance’ as ‘immensely helpful’.

    Chisholm was now fifty, though he had judiciously adjusted his birth date so he appeared to be four years younger. His days of playing principal roles were long gone, and even character parts were increasingly hard to find.

    His next engagement was in The Merry Widow, one of a series of vintage musicals presented as summer attractions at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. This updated production had been seen on Broadway earlier in the year, with Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura as the Widow and Danilo; for the tour Marguerita Piazza and Arthur Maxwell took these roles. Robert Chisholm was assigned the minor part of M. Derval

    On the TownNothing could have been further from the Viennese schmaltz of The Merry Widow than the brash excitement of On the Town, which hit Broadway on 28 December 1944. The show was created by a team bursting with youthful creativity. Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, it had a score by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, choreography by Robbins and direction by George Abbott. Chisholm played Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, the long-suffering, ever-forgiving fiancé of Claire DeLoone (played by Betty Comden). Chisholm had one song, ‘I Understand’, presented as a solo in Act One and as a duet in Act Two. His contribution went unnoticed in the New York Times.

    On the Town ran merrily until February 1946, but Chisholm stayed with it for just under a year. On 21 December he opened at the Alvin Theatre in Billion Dollar Baby, a new musical with a score by Morton Gould and book and lyrics by On the Town’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Again George Abbott directed and Jerome Robbins choreographed – according to Broadway legend, falling backwards into the orchestra pit during rehearsals. As M.M. Montague, Chisholm had two songs, both duets: ‘There I’d Be’ in Act One, sung with the female lead, Mitzi Green, and ‘Faithless’ in Act Two, sung with Joan McCracken. On the Toes was an extremely hard act to follow, and Billion Dollar Baby was an unworthy successor. Nevertheless, in spite of lukewarm reviews, it clocked up 220 Broadway performances; it is now all but forgotten.

    A few months later, Chisholm found his way into another new musical, Park Avenue. After a tryout in Philadelphia it opened at the Shubert Theatre in New York on 7 October 1946. Park Avenue boasted a score by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Nunnally Johnson and George S. Kaufman, who also directed. But the show turned out to be a disappointment. In the next morning’s New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it ‘a finger-tips carnival – thin, disdainful and general.’ He criticised the principals’ lacklustre vocal efforts, which made ‘Mr Schwartz’s music sound more like orchestration than singing’. Indeed, ‘The cast is lacking in loud singers, except for barrel-chested Robert Chisholm.’ Unfortunately, Chisholm was heard only in two ensemble numbers. Park Avenue reached a dead end, closing early in January 1947 after 72 performances.

    On 5 January 1947 Chisholm was heard in an episode of CBS’s prestigious Theatre Guild of the Air drama series, which was broadcast weekly live from New York. The play chosen was The Great Adventure, an adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive, and the stars were the legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt an Lynn Fontanne.

    Chisholm’s next Broadway engagement was a short one – only two nights – but it was of some significance and, for him, a personal triumph. At City Centre on 24 and 25 November 1947 he was one of the five principal soloists – the others were Shirley Booth, Howard DaSilva, Muriel Smith (Broadway’s original Carmen Jones) and Will Geer – in a concert performance of Marc Blitzstein’s opera The Cradle will Rock, accompanied by the New York City Symphony conducted by 29-year-old Leonard Bernstein. This was the first time that Blitzstein’s seminal decade-old opera had been presented with a full orchestra. In his 25 November review, The New York Times’ Olin Downes described the night as ‘electrifying... the house was packed and the audience went wild.’ He lauded the ‘astonishing, gifted singing actors’, praising Shirley Booth’s ‘art of diction and her rhythm in song and movement’, while ‘Robert Chisholm’s “Reverend Salvation”, sonorous in song, and of an inimitable unction, was a feat of characterization.’ Despite the importance of the occasion, it appears to have gone unrecorded.

    Next Chisholm was cast as the headmaster, Muche, in a New Opera Company revival of the vintage Marcel Pagnol comedy Topaze, presented at the Morosco Theatre from on 27 December 1947. In his New York Times review of 29 December, Brooks Atkinson found the production ‘diffuse and laboured… Where there is no spontaneity, there is very little entertainment.’ Atkinson did, however, single out Robert Chisholm: ‘Equipped with a fierce moustache, he makes the part of a venal headmaster seem funny by playing it aggressively.’ Topaze was withdrawn after only one performance, giving it the dubious honour of what The New York Times recorded as ‘the season’s shortest run.’

    After the Topaze fiasco, Chisholm virtually disappeared from view for 2½ years, though in mid 1949 he was back in Australia. From 9.15 on the evening of 17 June he took the leading role in an ABC broadcast of the British musical Balalaika. ‘It will be the first time that he has sung in Balalaika,’ said The Listener In on 4 June, ‘although he has been associated with its composer, Eric Maschwitz, in many BBC productions, including Die Fledermaus with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.’ Balalaika was produced in the ABC’s Melbourne studios under the direction of Norman Shepherd, a light entertainment specialist who was normally based in Adelaide. Chisholm also broadcast a program of operetta and musical comedy excerpts.

    Chisholm told Listener In that he planned to visit Sydney soon after the broadcast, and that he hoped that later in the year he could spend a month in London, returning to New York about October.

    He re-emerged in the United States in mid-1950 as an actor in television drama. In what is now regarded as TV’s golden age, shows went out live, including elaborate drama and variety shows. Chisholm was a leading player in two hour-long live Kraft Television Theatre presentations from WNBT in New York: The Doctor in Spite of Himself, with Ullrich Haupt and Flora Campbell, on 7 June 1950, and The Great Big Doorstep, with Phillip Tonge and Florida Friebus, on 13 September 1950. On 25 June 1950 Chisholm appeared in Solo in Singapore, an episode of The Web, a popular WCBS half-hour drama series. His co-stars were Guy Spaull and Berry Kroeger. On 9 October 1950 he was the featured with Van Heflin in the Robert Montgomery Presents adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith. , telecast

    Robert Chisholm’s last credited Broadway appearance came at the end of 1950. He was cast in a sumptuously-mounted new revue called Bless You All at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The music and lyrics were the work of Harold Rome, and stars were Pearl Bailey, Jules Munshin and Mary McCarty. Chisholm’s featured numbers included a Teddy Roosevelt skit and a send-up of Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. The show opened on 13 December 1950 to tepid revues. In The New York Times of 15 December, Brooks Atkinson lamented, ‘In Bless You All you have to count your blessings very frugally, for they are not as numerous as they ought to be, and seldom very bountiful.’ The show staggered through 84 performances… and that, it seems, was the end of Robert Chisholm’s Broadway career.

    Chisholm’s last documented American engagement was in the road company of the Jule Styne–Leo Robin musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which toured the United States with Carol Channing in her original role and, for part of the tour, Shirl Conway as Dorothy Shaw (later, Miss Conway played Auntie Mame in Australia). Chisholm played Sir Francis Beekman; he and Channing romped their way through the duet ‘It’s Delightful Down In Chile’. Their first stop was at the Palace Theatre in Chicago from 20 September 1951. By the time they reached the National Theatre in Washington DC on 2 June 1952 the sets were looking decidedly scruffy, but Miss Channing and the rest of the cast were as effervescent as ever. A ‘live’ recording of one of the road performances is preserved in a private collection.

    RC12 300wChisholm’s next few years are a mystery. He does not resurface until 30 April 1958 when he had a small role in the London production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Billed as ‘Bob Chisholm’ he played ‘A Bystander’, ‘An Ambassador’ and Jamie, one of Alfred P. Doolittle’s cockney mates, a role co-incidentally created in New York by another Australian, Rod McLennan. Chisholm sang and danced in ‘With A Little Bit Of Luck’ and ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ – and he can be heard with Stanley Holloway and the company in the original London cast recording, still available on CD.

    Chisholm did not stay with My Fair Lady for all its 2281-performance London run, but it was his last professional production. He returned to his homeland in March 1960 and took a flat in a large mansion at 100 Walsh Street, South Yarra, a stone’s throw from the Botanical Gardens.

    He died there of a coronary occlusion on 5 November 1960. He was 66.

    William Leslie ‘Robert’ Chisholm was survived by his sisters Harriet (Mrs Raw) and Ann (Mrs Beresford), his brothers George and John, and numerous nieces and nephews. He died intestate, leaving a little under £280 in a savings account and around £200 in ordinary shares in Reid Murray Holdings Ltd – a corporate giant that was to collapse spectacularly a few months later. His sister Harriet was declared the beneficiary. The existence of any personal memorabilia was not recorded.

    Robert Chisholm was cremated at Springvale Crematorium on 8 November 1960, and his ashes were scattered.

    The Australian War Memorial has digitised Robert Chisholm’s letters home as part of its Anzac Connections project. They can be accessed on the AWM website.

    Image captions:

    RC01 [main pic?]
    Robert Chisholm in his persona as a Napoleonic soldier, singing ‘Le Rêve Passe’.

    The house in Neill Street, Carlton, where Robert Chisholm was born. Photo by the author.

    The Smart Set Diggers. George Castles is third from right in the back (standing) row; Robert Chisholm is the stately ‘lady’ seated right. Photographed at Bailleul, France, 13 March 1918. Australian War Memorial E01986.

    Charles Holt (left) and Robert Chisholm in the Smart Set Diggers’ production of The Girl in the Taxi. From Aussie, issue 9, 1918.

    Robert Chisholm and Helen Morgan in Sweet Adeline, Hammerstein’s Theatre, New York. Cartoon by Al Hirschfeld. New York Times, 1 September 1929.

    Jeanette MacDonald as Jenny and Robert Chisholm as Olaf in the film The Lottery Bride, 1930.

    George Wallace, Robert Chisholm, Gladys Moncrieff and producer Claude Fleemming, Collits’ Inn, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1933. National Library of Australia

    Robert Chisholm as King Arthur and Vera-Ellen as Mistress Evelyn in A Connecticut Yankee, Martin Beck Theatre, New York, 1943.

    Robert Chisholm as King Arthur in A Connecticut Yankee, Martin Beck Theatre, New York, 1943.

    Adolph Green as Ozzie, Betty Comden as Claire DeLoone and Robert Chisholm as Pitkin in On the Town, 44th Street Theatre, New York, 1944. Photo by Eileen Darby.

    Park Avenue, Shubert Theatre, New York. Leonora Corbett (centre) with Robert Chisholm (third gent from left, in the cap). New York Times, 27 October 1946.

    The house in Walsh Street, South Yarra, where Robert Chisholm died in 1960. Photo by the author.

  • Varney Monk—Ours for Us

    varney monk 01

    The following profile and interview with Varney Monk was first published in Jean Devanny’s book Bird of Paradise in 1945.

    “I COULD have such a pleasant happy life with my husband and family if I did not possess this urge to fight for justice for Australian compositions.”

    varney monk 02Varney Monk in 1951. Photo by Eric Francis. National Library of Australia, Canberra.So spoke Varney Monk as she threw open a window encasement at her delightful home at Mosman, and gestured towards the dusky harbour view. I, however, found the interiors behind me much more interesting than the conventional forested slopes of the low foreground, the steel shield of the bay, the jewel-studded bow of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs beyond it. So, with a perfunctory glance downwards over the red-tipped gums climbing down to Little Sirius Cove, I turned back into the lounge rooms behind me.

    The house seemed to be nearly all lounge. And indubitably Varney Monk’s home. The home of a composer, with its soft richness of colour, its dimness, and quiet in which the vibrations of the music she had been playing when I interrupted her, still lingered.

    The red wood panelling of the walls was hung with paintings and etchings and old prints, framed in mahogany and bird’s-eye maple. Nothing anywhere was new. The long, fabric-covered sofa, with its sinuous, flowery, curved supports, cried shame on modern “divans.” The chairs, the occasional tables, the built-in and cupboard-like bookcases, all were old-Australia farmhouse or were brought out to Australia by the first pioneering families. 

    One corner was filled with a long, lovely, red mahogany harpsichord. “I’ve always had an instinct for real Australian things about me,” said Varney, as she lifted the lid of the instrument to show me its dusty inside. “This came from the South Coast, from Jamberoo. It was brought out from Scotland by the Waugh family, Scottish pioneers, who were among the first settlers. I’ve got old Miss Waugh's bed, too.

    “The harpsichord must be at least 150 years old. I dug up some old documents about the Waugh family in Edinburgh and the time of their departure for the colony.”

    The soul of the instrument had departed. It had died of old age, its tinkling treble gone to join the spirits of the frail old ladies whose fingers had danced modestly upon its keys. Varney’s piano was old, too. A Lipp. She would like a Bechstein, now. A piano was something a pianist and composer could not afford to be sentimental about.

    “For years I have been collecting,” she continued. “See. This is a gentleman's piece, as they call it.” She pulled out a drop table and opened it out. “But most of the things are old farmhouse. If Cyril had been as interested as I we could have got a fine collection together. He calls it junk.” She laughed.

    Yes, she was part of it herself. Part of the Australian tradition; homely, practical, unspectacular and persistent. Quietly building around herself a frame-work of Australia-made, Australia-worn, as a background for the music of Australia she spun from the mystery of her mind.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    I was not surprised to hear that Varney Monk was born in Victoria, at Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne.1 She looks much more “Melbourne” than “Sydney” even now, though most of her life has been spent in the N.S.W. metropolis.2 Her heritage of talent for music she got from both her parents.

    At twelve years of age she composed her first song. A dreadful bit of work, she confided. Paling’s published it under the name When Roses Fall.A glorified little girl took home a bundle of the printed sheets clasped to her breast, her mind filled with ecstatic dreams of a future apotheosised. Varney clasped her hands.

    “I seem to have spent all my life bounding along to Paling’s in the hope of achieving fame, but nothing ever happened. From time to time I had things published with the publishers hoping for success, but not until I did Collits’ Innand The Cedar Treewas I well known to the ordinary public.

    “Twenty years ago I won a competition prize of a hundred pounds with The Old Bush Track.But in the end I had to publish it myself. It was recorded only the other day.3 I won the Broken Hill Jubilee song competition with the song Broken Hill,which is not printed yet. I won the first radio Eisteddfod song competition, also writing my own lyric.

    “My volume called Songs of the Southwas rejected by the publishers on the ground that Australia lacked romance. No one would buy it, they thought. My book of Baby Ballads,however, is used in the State schools.”

    In her teens she had been filled with radiant enthusiasm and did a lot of work. One or two things she did then just missed out on being a real success. After her marriage, at twenty-one years of age, to Cyril Monk, the violinist,4 she set music to some of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poems. These were first sung in public as an accompaniment to a lecture on Gordon delivered by the late A.G. Stephens.

    “I first heard the name of Adam Lindsay Gordon,” she told me, “when as a child of eight I was taken by my godfather, Dr. Wisewold, and my mother to the spot where Gordon shot himself. My elders were quite unaware of the deep impression that visit made upon me.5 My mother’s wedding gift to my father was a copy of Gordon’s poems. I treasure it most of all my first edition copies of the Australian poets. ‘To my beloved’ is inscribed upon the flyleaf.”

    Later, Varney set music to many Kendall and Lawson lyrics, among them being Kendall’s Rose Lorraine, Bell Birds, September in Australia, The Muse of Australia, Names Upon a Stoneand The Song of the Cattle Hunters.

    From Lawson's lyrics she selected The Sliprails and the Spur, On the Night Train, Kiss in the Ringand When the World is Wide.In 1943, the first-named of the Lawson group was broadcast by the B.B.C.6

    “Lawson,” said Varney, “was a great admirer of Henry Kendall. Once, when visiting Kendall’s Rock, he told a friend not to mention him in the same breath as Kendall for he was not fitted to tie his shoelaces. Lawson also expressed a wish to be buried near Kendall.”

    Varney lists her Kendall songs among her best work. “I feel that no one could have under-lined Kendall better than I did,” she said simply. “I made no attempt to gild the lily. The melodies I wrote to his lyrics but widened the poet’s horizons. My favourite Kendall song is Names Upon a Stone.On the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the poet when a pilgrimage was made to his grave and the children laid wattle upon it, Roderick Quinn read that lyric to the company. He also considers it to be Kendall’s finest poem.

    “I don’t suppose many Australians are aware of the impulse that stirred Kendall to write it. It was the outcome of an excursion with George Fagan, one of the family that befriended him so conspicuously.

    varney monk 05George Fagan’s home “Cooranbeen” where Kendall stayed, now known as Henry Kendall Cottage. National Trust.

    “In 1870, Kendall walked from Sydney to Newcastle, arriving there destitute and ill. George Fagan met him in an hotel and took him to his home and cared for him. For many years thereafter Kendall lived with the Fagans. On Christmas Day, 1874, George Fagan and Kendall walked out from Gosford and upon the rock now known as Kendall’s Rock, the poet carved their initials. There followed the poem, which was dedicated to George Fagan.

    “It was George Fagan that Kendall sent for when he was dying. George brought him in from the country to Sydney and arranged to have him admitted to the St. Vincent’s Hospital. Kendall was unhappy there, however, so George took him to Redfern, where the Fagan family then resided. Kendall died there on August 1st, 1882.

    “When I heard that John Joseph Fagan, the last of the family, was on his death-bed at Gosford I went up to see him. On the Pacific Highway I passed the Rock and the obelisk that was subsequently erected nearby and saw that the verses carved upon the latter were the very ones from the poem Names Upon a Stonewhich I had selected for my song.

    “When I introduced myself to Joseph Fagan and told him I had come to take the hand of a man who had known Kendall he was terribly pleased. He told me he had loved Kendall like a brother and spoke at length about his fine character and sweet disposition.”

    In that period Varney conceived the idea of writing an operetta around the life of Kendall and to that end she visited the Mitchell Library to gather any available material about him. Maybe, she thought, some of his contemporaries were still living. She found two books on Kendall, both written by Mrs. Hamilton-Grey.7 One was inscribed with the author’s address. Circumstances decided her to relinquish the idea of the play, but there remained with her an indeterminate desire to contact Mrs. Hamilton-Grey, should she be still alive. Then it happened that she received a letter from a former acquaintance, a Miss Black, and the address upon the letter was that written in the biography of Kendall, care of Mrs. Hamilton-Grey.

    Varney immediately called upon Mrs. Hamilton-Grey and made herself known to her. The old lady received her with pleasure, told her a great deal about herself and her interest in Kendall and gave her copies of her books. Varney placed the books beside her bed and at intervals, before going to sleep, would dip into them.

    One night she read Mrs. Hamilton-Grey's account of how Sir Henry Parkes had followed “the remains” of Kendall's mother to the grave. “One of the few.” The following morning, while breakfasting, she read in the paper the notice of Mrs. Hamilton-Grey’s death and of her interment that very morning, within an hour or two.8

    It was a dreadful day. The rain poured down. Varney hurriedly slipped into a mackintosh, pulled an armful of purple flowers from the garden, hurried to the mortuary and asked to see a relative. Mrs. Hamilton-Grey’s agent came forward and informed her that there were no relatives present. He himself and the clergyman were the only people in attendance. Varney followed the hearse with them in their car, one solitary car. It drew up close beside the grave. The agent held an umbrella over the clergyman's head while he read the burial service. Varney’s were the only flowers and she dropped them upon the coffin as it was lowered, a tribute to the lonely forgotten woman who had given such loving service to the recording of Kendall’s life.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Most of Varney Monk’s Kendall, Lawson and Gordon songs remain unpublished.

    “We Australian composers and musicians cannot be entirely absolved from responsibility for the general indifference on the part of the public to our compositions,” she stated.

    “We have lacked the dynamic to organise competition with overseas productions.

    “At the same time we have received little encouragement from the theatrical producers and broadcasting stations. And this despite that there has never been a failure with an Australia-written production! Possum Paddock, On Our Selection,and others, have all been successful, yet the producers will not put on our shows. I know there are several good musicals in existence to-day, written by Australians, and they cannot get the chance to make good.

    “The whole outlook of our commercial producers has been wrong in the past. They have under-rated Australia, they have under-estimated the patriotism of the people, they have failed to understand the needs of the great mass of the common people, who in the long run are the life-blood of the theatre. They complain of having lost money on their shows and so long as they persist in thrusting upon us entertainment that appeals only to a section they should expect to continue to lose money. They catered for the small minority whose roots are not embedded in the land and the fundamental life of the people, and then grumbled because they were let down. Taken as a whole, I think the judgement of the mass of our people is very good. Australians have always been ready to acclaim anything really good.

    “The Australian audience are descendants of the old pioneers. They are interested in the life of their ancestors and the present events that sprung from it. If they are not consciously interested they are potentially so. We need entrepreneurs and producers out of the people, men who will combine education with national pride and culture with entertainment. And they in their turn should have Government support.

    “Our present playwrights of importance are awake to the needs of our people; just as our present novelists are. They are producing plays with their roots in the soil. All that is required is a chance of good presentation in well-equipped theatres, the kind of production that would bring in an income to the playwrights and composers and enable them to devote their full time to their art.

    “And if ever there was an opportunity to boost our productions it is now! The theatres are over-crowded. The towns are full of Americans anxious to realise Australia. I say it is a crime to neglect such a chance.

    “The Labor Government gave our producers a lead when they decreed, in 1941, that two and a half per cent of all music that goes over the air must be written by Australians. My musical plays Collits’ Innand The Cedar Treewere broadcast at the time of their production but nothing more of mine was accepted by the broadcasting stations till after that measure was passed. The result of the Government’s action proved that all we need is a chance, for immediately there came a steady outflow of work from our composers. The music that had lain by for so long is now being played. I find now a continuous demand for my songs from our singers. The Australian Broadcasting Commission has recently performed my Kendall, Lawson and Gordon songs. They have also done Collits’ Innagain.9

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Both Varney and Cyril Monk spoke feelingly and appreciatively of their country’s most distinguished composer, Alfred Hill. “Hill is not only high-brow,” said Cyril. “His chamber music gives him a distinction far beyond and above all other Australian composers, but in addition his output includes work that makes him one with the people.”

    Carefully and thoughtfully Cyril essayed an estimate of his wife's distinctive place in the register of Australia-created music.

    “No other composer,” he said, "expressed so clearly and so long ago, the crying need for a peculiarly national musical expression. Varney’s music has been unswervingly and successfully Australian. She may claim to be the most Australian composer, though others may be more gifted. Just as Moussorgsky is more truly Russian than Tschaikowsky, whose appeal is more universal. Varney may define herself as an amateur, perhaps, but she is an amateur with something to say of significance and importance in the life of the people. She has given wholesale attention to our poets, as against the slightness of her colleagues’ contribution in that field.... At any rate, in the past.”

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Varney Monk believes that she was inspired to the production of Collits’ Innby some subtle spiritual imperative. She regards it, as one might say, as her star of the southern cross. The seeds of the idea were dropped into her mind during her honeymoon days, though years went by before they broke ground, flourished and bore fruit. The seeds were the play of her mind around a story she heard from the lips of a venerable old man, a story that links with old colonial days.

    varney monk 10J.W. Berghofer (1843–1927)—Mt. York obelisk. Blue Mountains Library.

    The old man, a unique, a wonderful old man, to Varney’s way of it, was a German-born, naturalised Australian named J.W. Berghofer, featured in early twentieth-century literature as the Father of the Centenary Movement. Berghofer organised the centenary of the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth. His was the initiative in raising the obelisk at Mt. York, commemorating the work of the explorers. His own spirited contributions to community-welfare are perpetuated in the giving of his name to the pass running from Mt. Victoria to Little Hartley.

    To allow pioneers like Berghofer to fade into oblivion would be, in Varney’s opinion, unforgivable. She feels terribly ashamed to think that during World War I, the old man, who had arrived in Australia at the age of sixteen, was persecuted for the accident of his birth. Few native-born Australians are as interested in Australian history as he was. He came to love the land of his adoption.

    Berghofer was for fifty years manager of the Kinimbla Station in the Hartley Valley. In 1905 he retired from that position and established himself and his wife in an inn near Mt Victoria, an inn dating back to 1837. Its name, Vittoria Inn, he changed to Rosenthal, in later years to be modified to Rosedale.

    To that inn went Varney and Cyril Monk to spend a part of their honeymoon, which was concluded at Norfolk Island. And so enamoured did they become of the splendid old couple who kept it and the gracious and lovely surroundings that they returned there to holiday again and again. It was during one of those trips, seated one night round the fire, that Berghofer told them the story of Collits’ Inn. 

    “He was full of tales of early Australian history,” Varney told me. “He had a wealth of local colour stories. He made Hartley Valley come alive before one.”

    On this particular night he led up to the Collits from reminiscing about the original road made over the mountains, the road made by William Cox with convict labour in six months. That road ran past Collits’ Inn. But its steepness had decided Sir William Thomas Mitchell, in 1832, to build another road, one that deviated from Collits’. Pierce Collits had been a convict. Varney believes that probably he was one of the four convicts who accompanied Blaxland and his companions on their original Crossing. The names of those four were never recorded. But a Mrs. George Nash, at the time of writing still living with her husband at the back of Collits’ Inn, told Varney that during the Centenary of the Crossing she had seen a bracelet inscribed with a legend linking the name Collits with Blaxland.

    However that may be, Collits was assigned to his wife on her farm on the Nepean River. Later he received a grant of land west of the mountains, at the foot of Mt. York, and there he built his inn.

    In a shack on the Kinimbla property, Berghofer’s story ran, a widowed, aged woman named Mrs. Skene had lived. One day she had visited the Berghofer home and asked for the loan of some foodstuffs to make provision for an unexpected visitor. Knowing her for a recluse Berghofer had expressed surprise and in explanation the old lady had told him her story.

    She was Amelia, daughter of Pierce Collits, and had grown from childhood to womanhood at Collits’ Inn. She had fallen in love with a young Ensign in charge of a road gang and Pierce, hating the Redcoats with all the vehemence of an ex-convict, had forbidden their marriage and driven the Ensign away. In the fury of frustration Amelia had sworn to marry the first man who entered the inn after that. One Skene, a foreman on Mitchell’s new road, had been the first man to enter and Amelia had fulfilled her vow.

    Her visitor was the one-time Ensign, now a widower. He had returned to the valley to ask Amelia to redeem their love of the past by marriage in their old age. She refused to marry him, however. She told Berghofer that she felt it was now too late for her to change her mode of living.

    That story stuck in Varney Monk’s mind.

    varney monk 11Vittoria Inn, Hartley (1887) later known as Rosenthal and then Rosedale. Blue Mountains Library.

    Berghofer eventually disposed of Rosedale and went to live at Mt. Victoria, so the Monks had to seek some other place in which to holiday. And the place they decided upon was the old Collits’ Inn, for many years past known as Mt. York Farm, but still a guesthouse and wayside teashop.

    There in the old inn, Varney’s mind was filled anew with the young Amelia’s tragedy. She felt as though a wind blew up from the valley to stir the strings of the harp of her talent. Roaming about the valley she got the feel of it. She felt as though she were linked with the pines, beneath which, in a tiny graveyard, lay the crumbling headstone of Amelia Collits’ grave. She became hyper-sensitive to the pathos of the sighing and the rustling of the pines, to the drifting down of their needles. She felt herself part of the symbolism of the place, of the hush of the valley, the pathos and the sighing and the drifting. The valley became for her like a voice from the past urging her to do something about it, to bring the past before the present, the love and the sorrow and the beauty of her country’s colonial days.

    * * * * * * * * * * 

    Some years later, Nathalie Rosenwax, a teacher of singing who conducted a Music Club at Post Office Chambers, George St., Sydney, instituted a competition for an Australian musical play and Varney saw in it the invitation to bring her dream to life. Stuart Gurr, her neighbour, agreed to write the play. Varney herself wrote most of the lyrics. Howard Carr, judge of the competition, awarded it second prize. He saw its possibilities and offered himself to orchestrate the music and conduct it when presented. A cast and orchestra were assembled from volunteers who gave their services freely. It was performed in the Savoy Theatre in Bligh Street and so deep was the impression made on the public that Carr went down to Melbourne for the purpose of interesting the entrepreneur, F.W. Thring, in the possibilities of professional production. Thring, a wealthy man who was devoting himself to furthering Australian talent, gave the music an audition and decided to produce the play.

    “My friend Phillipa Alston sang the numbers,” said Varney. “She sang them gloriously. She really sold the play to Thring. When she had finished he walked over to me with his face all smiles, took both my hands and said he would do the show at all costs.

    “I felt absolutely sure of success, but the cast themselves were at first pessimistic. Then one day I interviewed a certain paper and revealed that the play was based on Australian history. It was something right out of the manure heap at home.

    “That changed the whole outlook, stimulated the interest of players, press and public. Stuart Gurr had written an original play but he had been as interested as I was in the historical colour, and that could not help but orientate it.

    Collits’ Innplayed to packed houses for seven months, the longest run of any musical show in Australia since the advent of the Talkies. With White Horse Innit holds the record. Gladys Moncrieff, George Wallace and the rest of the cast gave it their best. One of the numbers, Australia,sung by Robert Chisholm, was put forward by the press as fitting for a national anthem.10

    “As a tribute to the success of the operetta the name of the inn, Mt. York Farm, was discarded in favour of the old name, Collits’.

    “If things had gone well from that time on, the play’s success would have meant the beginning of a new era in Australian theatrical enterprise,” continued Varney.

    “Our musical composers were roused to an immediate response. But Thring died and after that nothing was done to help Australian composers and playwrights till the Labor Government moved in the matter.

    “We went through ten years in the doldrums.

    “Thring’s loss to Australian music was inestimable. He recognised that we Australians only need encouragement and opportunity to produce original plays and operas equal to the best the world has to offer. He believed in the national integrity of our people.

    “He spared no expense in the presentation of Collits’ Inn....A revolving stage was used, especially constructed for the operetta. He intended to film the play but his death disposed of that project. And also of the dreams of the Australian composers who had seen in his enterprise the fulfilment of their theatrical aspirations.”

    However, as I write, a request has come from Howard Carr, now in England, for a copy of the script to be forwarded to him with a view to presentation there.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    A whole chain of coincidences has linked Varney Monk’s life with Collits’ Inn. As a girl, en route to Kelso, near Bathurst, her grandmother stayed at Rosedale, then Vittoria Inn. She sang in the choir of the little church at Kelso, the church in which Amelia Collits was married to Skene, the first marriage to be solemnised there.

    Governor Darling once stayed at Collits’. The Darlings were friends of Varney’s great-great aunt, Mrs. Richard Jones, who named her home at the top of William Street, Sydney, “Darlinghurst,” after them. Later the name was bestowed upon that whole area.

    Varney’s life-long friend, Mrs. Henderson, on whose advice she and Cyril Monk had first chosen to visit Rosedale, when residing at Manly found that she had as neighbour a man named Skene, who proved to be one of Amelia Collits’ ten children.

    Again, Nathalie Rosenwax’s Music Club, in which she had made her decision to hold the competition, had been part of the old Sydney Barracks, from which the young Ensign must have gone to take charge of the road gang and thus meet Amelia Collits.

    Nathalie told Varney that she pondered long on the advisability of running that competition. Again and again she thrust it out of her mind, to have it continually recur. She said the idea was like a gong note struck here, then another struck there, till finally one note sounded so loudly that she felt impelled to take the plunge, though at the time she had no idea where the prize money would come from.

    Even yet Varney feels that she has not seen the last of her work for Collits’ Inn.The late George Reeve sent her a sheaf of letters bearing upon the history of the Collits. She envisages a book around the family, a book that would follow the links in the chain connecting them with Blaxland and his fellow explorers.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    varney monk 18“Stay While the Stars Are Shining”—Robert Chisholm and Gladys Moncrieff in mid-song—John Frith caricature for The Bulletin,4 July 1934, p.18.

    Collits’ Inndid well for everybody concerned with its production. It gave Varney new I hope and enthusiasm. She felt full of ideas, her mind was prolific. But then came a setback. 

    In collaboration with Edmund Barclay and Helene Barclay she got to work on another operetta, The Cedar Tree.F.W. Thring produced it. It did not go so well as Collits’ Innin Melbourne, but in Sydney it was even more popular and was playing to crowded houses when some personal circumstance compelled Thring to disband his company.11

    The Cedar Tree,” said Varney, “has yet to come into its own.”

    Both Collits’ Innand The Cedar Treeremained unpublished. In 1943 Chapell and Co. printed some of the numbers of the first-named. In 1942 Columbia recorded a song from Collits’. 12 The songs Varney wrote during the year succeeding the production of the plays also lie unpublished.

    Then came the war! Her strong patriotic desire to link her work with her country inspired her to write When the War is Over,both words and music. It was published on completion and did very well.13 When the enemy were coming very close to Australian shores and people were looking anxious and “blue,” Varney wrote music to the words: There's Going to be Good News,which was also a success, and collaborated in We’re So Glad to be Homeand Homeward. 

    * * * * * * * * * *

    “Of course I can only speak authoritatively from the angle of good light music,” she told me finally. “I am only competent to speak about that. But, no matter how it came about, or whether it should be, good light music is closest of all music to the heart of my people; it is woven most closely into our traditions.

    “In the post-war period I think it should be the duty of our leaders to educate the people in the appreciation of ever better music. Particularly by means of the radio. Not to dodge their responsibilities behind the shibboleth: ‘the people get what they want.’ The task of leadership is to guide the people ever upwards, in all spheres.

    “I think a lot of fine poetry will come out of this war, which will doubtless inspire our song-writers and composers to do better work. Most music is invoked by the stirring of the emotions by great deeds, by sorrows and tribulations. The horrors and sorrows of this war should stimulate all our creative work, to their weaving into music and song.

    “In relation to music we should not argue from the angle: Is Australian music as good or better than the music we get from overseas? The point is: Our country must produce its own fair and just proportion of the world's music. The value of our music lies in its difference to that of other countries.

    “I frankly admit that I desire personal success. Why not? Personal success is a weapon that gives one authority to further one's ideals for the good of humanity. 

    “I was born a fighter. I have never laid down my arms. I never will lay them down. I will fight for Australian compositions till I die and I look to the post-war era to give them a break in a national way.

    “Collective effort is what we composers and musicians have neglected in the past. That is the dynamic we have lacked. It is the group that gives power and strength to advance, that is able to compel recognition of just claims. I feel that the new era for which our boys are dying in this war will enable collective effort in music as in every other sphere. Not ‘me for mine’ but ‘ours for us!’ That is the slogan, I feel sure, that we musicians and composers must inscribe upon our banners.”

    Published in BIRD OF PARADISEby Jean Devanny [Frank Johnson; Sydney & Melbourne: 1945] as Chapter XXVIII(pp.256-267)



    Compiled by Robert Morrison

    1. The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages notes that Isabel Varney Desmond Peterson was born to parents Miriam Jane and Ernest Jonathon Peterson in 1892, and that her place of birth was recorded as the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. (Registration no. 373/1892)

    However Varney Monk’s belief that she had been born in Bacchus Marsh is evident from the following letter giving details of her life published in the Bacchus Marsh Expresson Saturday, 10 March 1934, p.3:


    Writing to “The Express” from her home, 37 Raglan street, Mosman, Sydney, Mrs. Varney Monk, composer of the musical score for the successful all-Australian play, “Collits’ Inn,” states:

    varney monk 19Varney Monk in 1934. Photo by Broothorn.“My name was Peterson before my marriage, and my father was a solicitor in Bacchus Marsh. The doctor who attended my mother at my birth was Dr. Wisewold, who was my Godfather. We left in 1892 when I was 10 days old and went to Tasmania. My mother died when I was 11 years old; and my father, five years ago. My mother was a woman of character and sweet disposition. What I remember of her and all my childhood memories are ones of her being very unhappy. I have not thought much about her (as children forget so quickly) until the past few years, and, strangely, she has been constantly in my thoughts. If I have accomplished anything it is to her I owe most, as she left me (under great sacrifice) sufficient money, for my musical education, and if I have justified in part all she went through, that is the greatest happiness that the success of ‘Collit's Inn’ has brought to me.”

    “If there is anyone in Bacchus Marsh who remembers my mother I should love to get in touch with them. When I was in Melbourne I was so busy, and then when my family arrived they always seemed to have some outing planned, and although many times we intended going to Bacchus Marsh, it never eventuated.”

    “The poem by ‘Den’ in ‘The Express’ has made me long to see it all for myself. As I expect to be in Melbourne again before long I shall never leave without a visit to Bacchus Marsh.”

    “My husband Is Mr, Cyril Monk, violinist, of the N.S.W. Conservatorium. We have a son 18 years old, and a daughter, 16 years. The former commences his medical course this month. He has a strong literary and musical gift, and has written several plays.”

    “I hope I may accomplish next time something better than what I’ve done, and the interest Bacchus Marsh people have taken is most stimulating and creates the desire to do something in gratitude for ‘Bacchus Marsh Concentrated Milk’—for saving my life, I’m told. I am sure Bacchus Marsh has the spirit and atmosphere to produce much talent and ability.”

    “I am asked for details of my career. I won the £100 competition some years ago for an Australian song, ‘Down The Old Bush Track;’ and later the best song in the Australian Radio Competition; and last year the Broken Hill Jubilee Song Competition. With Lady Bavin I collaborated in a book of children’s songs, ‘Baby Ballads,’ now used in New South Wales schools.  ‘Collits’ Inn’ was also a prize-winner in a competition.

    2. A profile of Varney Monk published in Smith’s Weekly on Saturday, 22 December 1945 (p.13) noted that: Owing to the death of her mother while she was still only a girl. she lived with Mrs. Violet Henderson, of Manly, becoming in fact a member of the Henderson family, an association of pleasant memories and musical result, since it was Mrs. Henderson who first introduced her to the beautiful valley of Hartley, on the Western side of the Blue Mountains. (Ref.:

    3.Having performed the song in his concert repertoire for a number of years, the Australian bass-baritone Raymond Beatty recorded Varney Monk’s The Old Bush Track for Columbia at the Sydney studios at Homebush on 3 June 1943, with piano accompaniment by Idwal Jenkins. It was issued with catalogue number: Columbia DO-2591

    4.Isabel Varney Peterson (who had been a piano-accompanist to her husband-to-be on the concert platform for a number of years previously) married Cyril Monk at St. Phillip’s Anglican Church, Sydney on Monday, 22 December 1913. (Ref: )

    5.Poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon (who was born in the small English village of Charlton Kings near Cheltenham in 1833) committed suicide with a rifle shot to the head on Brighton Beach, Victoria on 24 June 1870 at age 38; an action motivated by his depression resulting from mounting debts. He was buried in Brighton General Cemetery (see

    6.Australian baritone, Harold Williams sang Varney Monk’s musical settings of The Sliprails and the Spur, On the Night Trainand Kiss in the Ringas part of a program marking the 75th anniversary of Henry Lawson’s birth broadcast by the ABC on Wednesday, 17 June 1942 from 8 p.m.

    7.Mrs. A.M. Hamilton-Grey’s books on the life of Kendall included: Facts and fancies about our “son of the woods” Henry Clarence Kendall and his poetry[John Sands, Sydney:1920], Poet Kendall, his romantic history (from the cradle to the Hymeneal altar) [John Sands, Sydney:1926], and Kendall, our “God-made chief”, “a singer of the dawn”: a continuation of Poet Kendall, making a complete history from cradle to grave[John Sands, Sydney:1929].

    These became the subject of a court case in March of 1938 wherein the Chief Judge in Equity was asked to determine whether a direction contained in the will of Mrs. Hamilton-Grey, in which she left the sum of £2,490 for the republication and distribution of her books on Henry Kendall following her death, constituted a valid charitable trust. Various parties (including the poet’s surviving son, librarians and a biographer) testified that her books were full of inaccuracies, both biographical and topographical, and in parts gave purely inferential narratives of Kendall’s life and work. It was further claimed that errors and unwarranted assertions were numerous and, from a purely literary point of view, the books were practically negligible, and as criticism were of no value. The judge, during argument, said that he was inclined to think that Mrs. Hamilton-Grey’s will was intended to gratify her own vanity rather than to do service to literature. (Ref: In the event, only her first book was republished by the Sydney firm of Publicity Press in 1940.

    8.The Funeral Notices on page 9 of the Sydney Morning Herald for Friday, 12 February 1937 noted that:HAMILTON-GREY.—The Remains of the late Mrs. AGNES MARIA HAMILTON-GREY will leave our Funeral Home, corner Miller and Falcon streets, North Sydney. THIS (Friday) MORNING. at 10 o'clock for the Presbyterian Cemetery. Northern Suburbs. WOOD COFFILL LIMITED.”

    9.The ABC broadcast a 45 minute radio adaptation of Collits’ Inn on Saturday, 16 October 1943 via the National Network on relay from 2FC Sydney with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by J. Farnsworth Hall, in a production by Lawrence H. Cecil. No cast details for the performance were listed in radio guides and newspaper program listings of the period.

    10. The professional premiere of Collits’ Innwas staged at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on 23 December 1933, where it played for a 15 week season, concluding on Saturday, 7 April 1934. Its subsequent Sydney season opened at the Tivoli Theatre on 22 June 1934, where it ran for a further 9 weeks (see Collits’ Inn Revisited by Peter Pinne at )

    11.The Australian premiere of The Cedar Tree was given at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on Saturday, 22 December 1934, where it had a run of 8 weeks concluding on Saturday, 16 February 1935. F.W. Thring then leased the Criterion Theatre in Sydney from J.C. Williamson Ltd. for six weeks and opened his season of productions there with the English comic opera Jolly Roger (by V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, with music by Walter Leigh) on 23 February 1935, starring Gladys Moncrieff, Scott Russell, Alan Priora, Alfred Frith, Bryl Walkley and Claude Flemming (who also directed the show). This was followed by The Cedar Tree with the same principal cast (and director), which opened at the Criterion with the matinee on Saturday, 16 March for a two week season concluding on Saturday, 30 March 1935. Despite a favourable reception by the newspaper critics and “crowded houses” during its run, its brief season was attributed in newspaper adverts at the time to Gladys Moncrieff’s “early departure for London.”

    12. “Last Year” from the score of Collits’ Inn was recorded by The Melody Men at the Homebush, Sydney studios of Columbia on 14 May 1943 and was issued on the Regal-Zonophone label with catalogue number: G24752.

    13. “When the War is Over” was recorded by Harold Williams (with piano accompaniment by Horace Keats) at the Homebush studios of Columbia on 20 April 1942 and was issued with catalogue number: Columbia DO-2414. It may be heard on YouTube at 



    varney monk 20a

    The Cedar Tree

     Forthcoming Australian Musical Romance

    MR. F.W. THRING’S forthcoming production 'The Cedar Tree' (an Australian musical romance by Edmund Barclay, for which Helene Barclay has written the lyrics and Varney Monk has composed the music), takes one back to the Windsor of 1840. This setting was chosen for the play as being richer in early historical association than almost any other part of the colony.

    In 1789 Governor Phillip sailed up the Hawkesbury as far as Green Hills (Windsor), and the first settlers in the district arrived in 1794. As the ‘Granary of Young Australia’ the Hawkesbury furnished for years the raw material needed for the main settlement, and on the banks of the river shipbuilding was extensively carried out, and trading done with places as far away as New Zealand and Tasmania. In those days the cedar forests flourished and the sawyers felled and floated the timber down the numerous creeks. The onslaughts made on the cedar may be gauged by the fact that Macquarie in 1814 issued a proclamation forbidding its destruction without permission.

    Now only a few isolated trees are to be found, and the accompanying photograph was taken in the grounds of Claremont when the writer had the pleasure of calling there. Claremont is the oldest house in Windsor, and is now the home of J.M. Macnally, the well-known artist. Beneath these trees many famous personages of early history may have had confidential chats, for among the occupiers of Claremont one finds such well known personages as Andrew Thompson (the so-called ‘Founder of Windsor’), Governor Bligh, and William Cox. Governor Macquarie (who had a partiality for Windsor) often visited his friend Cox to discuss his great project, the building of the road to the west.

    varney monk 21

    IN ‘The Cedar Tree’ the character of ‘the Flying Pieman’ has been drawn from life. He was a well-known figure in and around Sydney, and was famous for his remarkable pedestrian feats, Carrying a boy. sheep, or goat on his back he would undertake to beat the coach from Windsor to Sydney—and win his wager! This eccentric of the eccentrics came of a respectable family, his father being Francis King, paymaster at the Treasury, Whitehall. As a youth his absorbing love of field sports unfitted him for any sedate occupation. In 1839 King sailed for New South Wales, bringing excellent testimonials which obtained for him a schoolmastership at Sutton Forest, and afterwards a tutorship in a private family; but his restless spirit finding this monotonous, he hired himself as a barman at the Hope and Anchor, at the corner of Pitt and King streets. Finally he threw up this job, too, to follow the ‘profession’ of a hot pieman. With his tall hat decorated with ribbons, streamers, and business signs, and wheeling his bright tin cans and glowing furnace of charcoal, he was a well-known sight on the streets of Sydney, Parramatta, and Windsor. He died in the Liverpool asylum for the destitute in 1874.

    IT was Archibald Bell of Windsor who found an alternative route over the Blue Mountains, known as Bell’s Line. The first two Australian-born poets came from Windsor, and Barrington, the famous pick-pocket, died at his farm here. Another link with the play is the Royal Hotel of to-day, once the home of the Fitzgeralds and later used as mess-rooms for the military officers. Windsor, as a garrison town, must have presented a lively and a very social air in those days.

    —Varney Monk.

    The Sydney Mail (NSW), Wednesday 13 March 1935, p.28,

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

    varney monk 22

    He Wrote the Cedar Tree

    A New Australian Music-Comedy

    CEDAR TREE, the new Australian musical comedy, began at the Melbourne Princess Theatre on Saturday, December 22, and is to be broadcast next Saturday, December 29. The stars are Gladys Moncrieff, Alan Priora, Claude Flemming, and Alfred Frith. The comedy part was written for George Wallace, but he is making films, so they got Mr. Frith to make a come-back.

    The author of the book-of-words is Mr. Edmund Barclay, well known to all listeners for his innumerable radio sketches and revues broadcast from the Sydney stations and Mr. Barclay said: “Following the success of ‘Colitts’ Inn,’ Mrs. Varney Monk asked if I would collaborate with her in writing a second show. Mrs. Monk had a melody which for some inexplicable reason suggested to her an old and friendly cedar tree.  From this melody, now the theme of the production, we conceived the idea of a cedar tree playing a benevolent part in the lives of a family of pioneers. The first step was to change this melody into a song. My wife and Varney Monk got at the piano together, and while Varney Monk played Mrs. Barclay took down the melody on the typewriter in a musical shorthand of her own invention. Once the musical balance had been attained the actual lyric was written. Then we looked around for a background. I considered the bare outlines, and finally decided on Windsor, because it had been the centre of the cedar-cutting industry in the old days.

    “So up we went to Windsor. We saw the oldest inhabitant, Mr. J. Masters, aged 92; a son of Sir William Cox’s butler. We found him sitting on the back verandah of his son’s house, and went boldly forward to question him. At the first word of greeting we discovered he was practically stone deaf.

    “I retired to the background, and Mrs. Monk did the shouting.


    “He told us that the only voice he had heard distinctly for some years was Charles Moses describing the Test cricket. Then he gave us very many amusing stories of the early days at Windsor. Most were about convicts. Also he told some very good anecdotes concerning ‘The Flying Pieman,’ whom he remembered only dimly, but whose reputation for eccentricity lingered in the district for many years.

    “Having by this time got the feel of the thing, we set to work. My task was comparatively simple. I went right ahead with the play, and when a certain situation called for a certain type of song the composer and lyric writer went to work and got them written. I found the experience I had gained in pulling about ten musical comedies to pieces and reassembling them for the [Australian Broadcasting] Commission to broadcast very useful when it came to writing a book of my own.

    “As to the story: It is set in Windsor, about 1830, and deals with the cedar and shipbuilding industry. Gladys Moncrieff’s part is of a woman carrying on her deceased father’s belief in ships built of Australian cedar. The story is not historical, but original, and worked out against a historical background. The ‘Australian atmosphere’ is not thrust at the audience in large chunks, and there are no kangaroos hopping across the stage, and, unless the producer decides otherwise, there will not be one single solitary pair of whiskers. The comedy part is of ‘The Flying Pieman’, a well-known identity of the Hawkesbury Road, who caused a great deal of comment. He used to think nothing of carrying a live goat on his shoulders frorn Parramatta to Windsor for a trifling wager. We have endeavored to make the comedy an integral part of the plot, and not just put in as an afterthought. The ‘Flying Pieman’ is woven into the general pattern of the play, and Mr. Frith should do very well with it.

    “The action concerns two men and a girl. The only novelty is that there is no villain. The young brother of the heroine is spoiled and dissipated. He bails up one of his sister’s lovers on the highway to get money to pay debts. The young lover seeks to save him from prison, and returns the money while disguised as a notorious bushranger. But just at the wrong moment the ‘Flying Pieman’ arrives, thinks him a real bushranger, and there is a scuffle, during which he is unmasked. He has to get out of the district in a hurry to avoid being drummed out of his regiment and executed. The young brother, in a fit of remorse, writes a confession of his part in the business, and puts it in a hole in the old cedar tree, where he and his sister used to play when they were children. But the confession remains there undiscovered, and the discovery, years later, forms the climax of the piece.”

    Wireless Weekly (Sydney), 28 December 1934, p.11

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

    Helene and Edmund Barclay with their son, Peter and dog, Dah

    Varney Monk Discography

    (10”, 78 rpm)

    Night ‘Neath The Stars—Gil Dech and His Syncopators (5 June 1930)

    Columbia DO-110

    Bridge Of Our Dreams Come True—Len Maurice (25 August 1930)

    Columbia DO-166

    The Old Bush Track—Newton Goodson (Late 1937)

    Macquarie 588

    When The War Is Over—Harold Williams (20 April 1942)

    Columbia DO-2414

    There’s Going To Be Good News—Eileen Boyd (21 May 1942)

    Regal Zonophone—G-24598

    Last Year—The Melody Men (from Collits’ Inn) (14 May 1943)

    Regal Zonophone—G-24752

    The Old Bush Track—Raymond Beatty (3 June 1943)

    Columbia – DO-2591

    Some Distant Day—Clement Q. Williams (8 November 1946)

    Columbia DO-2946    

    Homeward—Barbara & Reg: (Barbara James, vocal; Reg Lewis, piano) (25 September 1945)

    Regal Zonophone—G24975

    Macquarie Place / The Man In The Cabbage Tree Hat—Norman Barnes, with Varney Monk at the piano (1952)

    Columbia Process Recording PR-1570 [custom pressing by EMI (Australia) Pty. Ltd.]

    Stay While The Stars Are Shining (from Collits’ Inn)

    Gladys Moncrieff—Sings Musical Comedy and Operetta

    (2×LP, Compilation, Mono, Gatefold)—issued 1987

    EMI—EME 430062


    Radio discs

    During the second world war (and into the 1950s) Humphrey Bishop produced many musical shows for radio. These were recorded in the Sydney studios of AWA on 16-inch transcription discs. The following Varney Monk compositions were included in these musical broadcasts:

    There’s Going To Be Good News—Walter Kingsley

    We Are Glad To Be Home—Joyce West & Varney Monk

    Last Year (from Collits’ Inn)—Monda Lenz

    I’d Like To Be A Statue In The Park (from The Cedar Tree)—George Brown

    The Cedar Cutter (from The Cedar Tree)—Male chorus

    There’s Going To Be Good News—Noel Easton

    When The World Was Wide—Walter Kingsley

    The ABC also recorded a number of Varney Monk’s compositions on 78 rpm discs for use in its broadcasts of Australian composers. These included:

    In Martin Place—Rosina Raisbeck (1946)

    “Australian Composition” record reference number: AC 6

    The Sliprails And The Spur—Frank Lisle (1952)

    AC 148

    When The World Was Wide—Frank Lisle (1953)

    Kiss In The Ring – Frank Lisle (1953)

    AC 160

    What Look Hath She—Clement Q. Williams (1955)

    AC 231

    12-inch LP disc, ABC catalogue number PRX-4197, described as “An Australian Song Cycle” includes three songs by Varney Monk:

    Coo-Ee; Names Upon A Stone; and The Cedar Tree. The singers are Stewart Harvey, Joyce Simmons, and Noel Melvin

    The National Film and Sound Archive collection also includes the following Varney Monk recordings:

    Prestophone (16-inch acetate) Australian Singers At Home With Australian Composers—3 November 1944

    Side 1 Varney Monk Compositions interpreted by Eric and Marion Gormley, with the composer at the piano.

    one track, Cedar Tree. Drinking

    Side 2  No 2  Henry Lawson’s Lyrics, Set to music by Varney Monk.

    Blank label (7-inch 78rpm acetate) All I Ask (both sides)  written and composed by Varney Monk. No artist credit.

    Prestophone (12-inch 78rpm acetate) I Had A Dream  (words & music Varney Monk) — Newton Goodson, with Strings (dubbed from disc made in 1938)

    Prestophone (12-inch 78rpm acetate) Coo-Ee (Varney Monk) from The Cedar Tree / Australia  (How I Love You) (Varney Monk) No artist credit either side.  Both sides  “Dub from 16-inch disc”.

    Prestophone (7-inch  33rpm  acetate) He’s Here  / The Bells of Bathurst (words & music by Varney Monk )—Eric Gormley, with piano

    (Additional Discographical information provided by Peter Burgis)


    Picture Sources

    • Les Dixon caricature from Smith's Weekly, Saturday, 22 December 1945, p.13 
    • Cyril Monk and Alfred Hill photos by Harold Cazneaux included in a 1920s advertisement for the Beale “Maestro” Player Piano digitised by the State Library of New South Wales 
    • Nathalie Rosenwax photo from The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, 7 June 1934, p.9 
    • Stuart Gurr photo from the Melbourne Princess Theatre Collits’ Inn souvenir theatre program. 
    • Gladys Moncrieff, George Wallace, Claude Flemming and Robert Chisholm portraits from the Princess Theatre Collits’ Inn 100th Performance souvenir folder (presented to “every lady in the audience” on Tuesday, 20 March 1934), courtesy of Marriner Theatre Archive. 
    • Robert Chisholm and Gladys Moncrieff performance photo reproduced in Collits’ Inn playscript [Currency Press in association with Australasian Drama Studies, Sydney: 1990] 
    • Varney Monk 1934 portrait by Broothorn published in The Bulletin for 10 January 1934, p.37 
    •  TheCedar Tree photos (by Dickinson-Monteath) published in The Australasian on 19 January 1935 p. iii from State Library Victoria, Melbourne