Thus Far: The Story of My Life (Part 5)

Written by Madge Elliott

Thus Far banner 1200pxFront page image: Nellie Melba, 1910. Dover Street Studios, London, State Library Victoria, H29081. 

Thus far Madge Elliott has brought us from the early dancing schools of Sydney to her position as leading lady in Australian stage productions, and then on to London. We have read how she and Cyril Ritchard, forming a dancing partnership, were the featured dancers of the revue-cum-musical-comedy production, Midnight Follies, one of London's successes. We have read how Lady Luck came their way when they were seen performing by Laddie Cliff, the entrepreneur, who engaged them to co-star in a series of successful London musicals that included So This is Love, Love Lies, The Love Race and The Millionaire Kid. The popular dancer now writes of her first meeting with Dame Nellie Melba, and the subsequent friendship between them.  Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4»

Imy 23 years’ association with the stage I have met “all sorts and conditions” of players, from vaudeville performers to grand opera stars; from Maori haka dancers in New Zealand to native divers in Pago-Pago, and premiere ballerinas in Paris.

Drifting in Memory’s pathway as I write the phantasmagoria of people passes by; in the mists go Andrew McCunn, [1] the man who first showed me “A” on a piano, John Tait, [2] who very occasionally called me “darling,” just as I would prefix the “Mister” to his name; Lady Bridges, [3] who used to “mother” me when I visited Adelaide; the old doorkeeper at the Carlton Theatre, London, who every time he handed me a letter, would ask: “An' how's every body in Orstralia, Miss Elliott?” Sybil Thorndike, Leslie Henson, Gladys Moncrieff, Connie Ediss, John McCormack, John Brownlee, Galli Curci, Marie Ney, Clara Butt ... they all go marching past, leaving in their wake at the end of the procession, Nellie Melba, who all my life I have called “friend.”

The leaves of memory rustle, rustle, rustle, and a page turns back to a day many, many years ago, when, with 15 other children of the Melba Grand Opera Ballet, [4] I was asked to Coombe Cottage, at Lilydale. We were guests at dinner. But it is not a vision of cut glass and silver, white napery and finger bowls that I conjure up, but of a station homestead overlooking undulating country, green with luscious grass. Through the cool glades of its grounds I recall the glimpse of arum lilies, and the sunlight making great golden shafts among the eucalypts. Yellow banksia roses tumbled over the walls and curtained the low verandahs; a memory of an orchard with cherry trees in blossom, and the only thing on earth whiter than snow, with the moonlight resting upon it.

Floppy-eared cocker spaniels, most sociable and funny of all dogdom, barked their greeting to we children; down by the lily ponds sparrows chirped. Inside the big cool rooms with their soft carpetings and walls hung with oils and water-colours radiated such charm and grace that it was like an indwelling spirit in this old house.

From somewhere there was a sound of music, colour-tones in keeping with the mood of the young guests and softer tones of hospitality. Somehow, to me, this visit was like the sudden lighting up of a darkened stage in pantomime. All the figures seemed to move in a light that was warmth as well as illumination. But they were real, not of the theatre and its painted backcloths, and musty smells ... At first sight I fell in love with this old home, haloed by the graciousness of its mistress.

This party at Coombe Cottage was a delight. Melba fussed; she patted all our heads, praised our frocks; told us what nice little girls we were, showed us the horses in the stables, and introduced us to all the dogs. We were thrilled. She marshalled us to our seats at the table, and sat at the head herself, beaming.

Nellie Melba in Coombe CottageNellie Melba in Coombe Cottage. Private collection.In after years I recall Melba in many moods, but never one quite like this. As the meal progressed I was singled out for special attention. 

Without any warning, she suddenly stood up, smoothed her dress, and called for silence.

“Who is the child whose father is a doctor?” she asked, and looked at the faces around the table.

There was nothing friendly in her tone of voice and I trembled. The quick change of manner rather terrified me, and I tried to think of some childish prank in the theatre of which I had been guilty.

“Come, come,” she demanded, testily. “Will the little girl stand up, please?”

A companion in the next chair kicked my shins, and with a start I was on my feet. Melba glared at me.

“So,” she said, “you are a doctor's daughter. Tell me, what right have you to be on the stage.”

Somehow or other I managed to stutter out all my hopes and ambitions and my desire to become a great dancer.

“Very good, little girl,” she replied. “I will do all I can to help you. And now, come and kiss me.”

Perhaps no child ever had better reason to believe that it was one of the chosen of the gods than I had at that moment. It was a real kiss of friendship we exchanged, and although I tried desperately to appear indifferent, the sincerity of the greeting, young as I was, impressed me. As I look back on it now that kiss sounded around the world. Certainly it set in motion forces that were to do many things for me. After a fashion it helped to mould my career.

Here was I quite a child being favoured by the greatest opera singer of the period, a gracious lady, a fine, splendid artist. Is it any wonder that I look back on that revel at Coombe Cottage as a time when treasure was sown in the fields of the future.

I recall another meeting with Melba, this time in London in the sunset of her years. It was while we were playing in So This Is Love at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1928, and the diva had engaged a box for the evening performance.

During the first interval she came to my dressing-room profuse in her congratulations to Cyril and myself. We had so many things in common to talk about on this occasion—Australia, opera, fashions, “the Firm,” and the social life of London—and such was the charm and graciousness of her manner that I nearly missed my “call.”

As she was leaving she noticed a huge bouquet outside my door, and as London theatrical custom decrees that gift flowers must not be handed over the footlights or taken on stage, Melba had “no offering to cast at my feet.” As I slipped away for my entrance I heard her ask the dresser for the bouquet.

The diva returned to her box, and during my performance kept plucking the flowers and throwing them one by one in my direction, but her aim, like the average woman's, was bad, and they all fell short, most of them striking the drummer in the orchestra pit. He told me later that in his time he had stopped many missiles intended for actresses and actors, but this was the first occasion on which he had been pelted with flowers. The dear man took it as a personal compliment from Melba. From which it will be gathered that even theatrical drummers have their moments.

The next time I saw Melba was at Covent Garden during a performance of Pelleas and Melisande. In company with my brother and Mr. Harry Wootton, Cyril and myself were having one of our rare nights out. We were rehearsing a new show, and the stage hands and scenic artists had so cluttered the stage that work was impossible. Hence our little flutter at the opera. We had a box, and chocolates and flowers, and were very happy about things in general. 

The surprise of the night was the appearance of Melba in the audience. She received a wonderful welcome, but as she stood and bowed her acknowledgements I could not help noticing that she was more frail than when last I had seen her. She visited our box, the same charming Melba, and gossiped with us about our future. Cyril was one of her favourites, and he used to frequently see her in London. He still cherishes the memory of one night in particular when he shared her box at Covent Garden during a performance of Rosenkavalier, and of many “smart” dinners she gave in his honour when first he visited London.

This night, however, she was less inclined to confine her conversation to the future of the people present, and was persistent in her inquiries about my mother and father, who, incidentally, were very fit and well.  

Once I asked her how she had enjoyed a recent visit to Egypt. “I do not know, my dear,” she replied. “Sometimes I feel as if that country had done something to me.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Three months later, Melba returned to Australia, and when news of her death was cabled to London, I had some very sad moments. It seemed that suddenly the lights had gone out, and the theatre was dark ... [5]

About this time in London someone coined the phrase “The Good Companions” [6] and applied it to Cyril and myself. For many years we had been just that, and our association is still quoted in the theatre to-day as a fine example of stage comradeship. We understand each other perfectly as grown-up playmates, as pals in the very best sense of that word, and now as interested parties in a far deeper romance.

With a long professional association as a background for affection we have drawn closer together down through the years, and many a time in foggy old London we had much to say of a purely private nature and many dreams to dream. The years abroad had been kind to us, and as we sat alone in our own little corner there would come to us memories of far-off Australia and a longing to be back in the golden sun shine again. Sydney ... Melbourne ... Brisbane. Old friends, these ... Then one day Cyril burst in on me all excited, with the glad tidings of an offer from “the Firm” for an Australian tour. And “The Good Companions” tarried not in the order of their acceptance.

One drizzly night we took a last look at the Strand, and we both felt a little thrill as the lights twinkled back at us. We walked along, adoring every inch of it, loving every minute; but all the time there was a singing in our hearts and a joy in the thought, “To-morrow we are going home.”

As we neared Australia in a few weeks' time, try as we would to fight against the mood, little misgivings began to intrude. Over and over again we asked ourselves, “Would Australia remember Madge and Cyril?” It seemed to us we had been away such a long long time, and absence in the theatre sense is fatal. The public is fickle, and while It has a long memory for its old favourites, it is sometimes shy and coy of renewing friendships in a literal sense.

Even during my morning exercise on deck, doubts would arise, and although Cyril was true to his philosophy of letting things decide themselves, I knew that he, too, had his moments of doubt. For want of a better term I called it “stage-fright.” Perhaps by the time the “curtain was due to rise” everything would be all right, with the orchestra playing and our old public waiting to greet us.

And when we landed in Sydney the mists of doubt rolled away before the golden warmth of our welcome. Look where you will, you will not find any thing in all the world more lovely than the rekindling of an old flame, or the ghostly memory of one that for an instant, long ago, flickering in the dark chasms of the heart, is relighted. Looking up at the coloured globes in front of the theatre on our opening night ... “Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard in ‘Blue Roses’” [7] and seeing the crowded vestibule, and the long queue at the gallery-box, that is how we felt about our homecoming to Australia.

 

To be continued ...

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Published in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.), 8 April 1935, p. 15, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article182037928; The Chronicle (Adelaide, SA), 9 May 1935, p. 55, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/92325182; and The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), 17 July 1935, p. 14, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30096085

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Endnotes

Compiled by Robert Morrison

  1. Scots-born composer, conductor and arranger, Andrew McCunn (1881–1966) commenced his professional musical career in Britain at the age of 19 as assistant conductor with the Moody-Manners Opera Company and subsequently with George Edwardes’ various Musical Comedy touring companies (which included a 12 months’ tour of South Africa) before coming to Australia in 1904 to take on the duties of Musical Director for the Firm of J.C. Williamson for a period of 3 years. Following a further tenure in Britain working for George Edwardes in the provinces and in London, McCunn returned to Australia as JCW’s Sydney-based M.D. from 1910 until his initial retirement in 1938. Rejoining Williamson’s in 1940 as the Musical Director for the JCW Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, he remained in the conductor’s chair for The Firm until his final retirement in 1960 having conducted over 200 stage productions.
  2. John Tait (1871–1955) co-founded with his younger brother, Nevin the concert agency J. and N. Tait Ltd. in 1908, which amalgamated with J.C. Williamson Ltd. in 1920. He subsequently became a Managing Director of J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd. from 1939 until his death in September 1955.
  3. The Scots-born Lady Bridges (nee Janet Florence Menzies) was the wife of Lieut.-General Sir Tom Bridges, who was the Governor of South Australia from 1922 to 1927. The Bridges’ principal residence was in London.
  4. The Melba-Williamson Opera Company commenced its Melbourne repertory season of six weeks at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 28 October 1911.
  5. Dame Nellie Melba died of septicaemia at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, Sydney on 23 February 1931 at the age of 69. She had visited Egypt in late 1929, where she contracted a fever that she never entirely shook off, however her septicaemia had developed after facial surgery in Europe some time before (as an early recipient of a “face-lift”).
  6. The Good Companions was the title of British author J.B. Priestley’s third novel, which achieved great success on its initial publication in 1929 and was subsequently dramatised by Priestley in collaboration with Edward Knoblock. Following a provincial tour, the stage play opened at His Majesty’s Theatre, London on 14 May 1931 for a nine month run, thus launching Priestley’s concurrent career as a successful playwright. A Gaumont- British Picture Corporation Ltd. film version directed by Victor Saville followed in 1933 starring Jessie Matthews, John Gielgud (reprising his original stage role of ‘Inigo Jollifant’), Edmund Gwenn and Mary Glynne. The plot concerned the adventures of a touring concert party, initially called the Dinky-Doos, but re-named The Good Companions after three new members from differing social backgrounds join the company and help to revitalise it.
  7. The British musical Blue Roses was given its Australian premiere by J.C. Williamson Ltd. at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 13 February 1932.

Postscript

Some five months prior to her first professional engagement as a member of the ballet for the Melba-Williamson Opera Company in late 1911, Madge Elliott had made her stage debut at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on Tuesday, 7 March 1911 in a benefit matinee staged in aid of the J.C. Williamson Comic Opera Fund. Billed as a “Pupil of Miss Minnie Hooper”, Madge danced a Pas Seul as one of the featured solo acts in the second part of the entertainment. However amongst a packed programme, which included a performance of the complete second act of the then-current JCW musical success Our Miss Gibbs performed by the Royal Comic Opera Company, a dramatic scene starring Hugh J. Ward, Grace Palotta and Reginald Wykeham and a burlesque of the famous Florodora double-sextet “Tell Me Pretty Maiden” in which well-known actors appeared in drag as “The Maidens” and equally well-known actresses cross-dressed as “The Men”, the then-unknown Madge’s contribution to the afternoon’s entertainment passed without comment in the respective reviews published the following day in the Sydney Daily Telegraph (ref: https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article238703933) and The Sydney Morning Herald (ref: https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15227454).

Dame Nellie Melba’s return to Australia to head the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company tour of 1924 coincided with the Melbourne season of The Cabaret Girl starring Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard, which had commenced at Her Majesty’s Theatre on the 8 March 1924 before transferring to the Theatre Royal on 25 March to make way for Melba’s premiere season of Grand Opera at the subsequently re-named His Majesty’s Theatre from 29 March.

In addition to Melba attending a performance of The Cabaret Girl as a guest of honour, both Madge and Cyril (together with Alfred Frith, Jack Hooker and Reita Nugent of The Cabaret Girl company) shared the bill with members of Melba’s opera company (who performed a programme of songs arranged by Melba) for a combined Charity matinee in aid of the District Nursing Society staged at the Palace Theatre, Bourke Street on Thursday 8 May 1924, headed by visiting British actor-playwright Seymour Hicks (who was then appearing at the Palace in a season of his plays under the auspices of Hugh J. Ward and Sir Benjamin and John Fuller.)

The Australasian reviewed the event as follows:

DISTRICT NURSING MATINEE

Charity matineeThrough the personal interest of the Countess of Stradbroke in the appeal for the District Nursing Society, and through the generous co-operation of the Hon. Mrs. Pitt-Rivers and Dame Nellie Melba, the grand charity matinee held at the New Palace Theatre on Thursday afternoon proved an overwhelming success, and the office-bearers (Mrs. S.M. Bruce, chair-woman; Mrs. J. P. W. Payne, convener; Mrs. J. H. Hewison, hon. secretary; Mrs. Gilruth, hon. ticket secretary; and Mrs. E.P. Dowdell, hon. treasurer) must have been most gratified by the result, which exceeded £1,000.  Through the courtesy of Mr. Hugh Ward, the committee were able to hold the matinee at the pretty New Palace Theatre, and, in addition, Mr. Ward arranged the entire programme, with the exception of the musical interval, which was given by members of the Melba Opera Company, and also donated all printing expenses. Beautiful sweet and flower stalls stood in the theatre foyer, and a brisk trade was done in autumn blossoms and gay boxes of sweets.

… The principal event on the varied programme was the short comedy, “The Bridal Suite,” in which the chief parts were taken by the Honourable Mrs. Pitt-Rivers and Mr. Seymour Hicks. Mrs. Pitt-Rivers looked very graceful in a sheath gown of pearl white marocain, with soft cape and side draperies of the material, relieved by strands of twisted pearl embroidery. At the close of the comedy she was given an ovation and presented with many lovely flowers. Much applause also greeted the musical interval arranged by Dame Nellie Melba, and Miss Stella Power, Signorina Lahoska, and Monsieur Maguenat were recalled again and again. It was much regretted that Prince Obolenski was unable to appear owing to illness. Other artists who assisted in the programme included Mr. Willy Redstone, Mr. Mel Ward, Miss Reita Nugent, Mr. Jack Hooker, Mr. George Jennings, Mr. Les Pearce, Miss Madge Elliott, and Mr. Cyril Ritchard, Mr. Mark Daly and Mr. Lou Vernon, Miss May Beatty. and Mr. Wesley Pierce, and Miss Ruth Astor. In one interval Miss May Beatty conducted several auctions, which realised over 40 guineas. At the end of the performance, Lady Stradbroke made a charming little speech, in which she thanked the theatre management, the generous artists who had given their services, the energetic matinee committee, and the kind-hearted public, and asked her audience to give a special vote of thanks to the Hon. Mrs Pitt-Rivers for her wonderful help. Lady Stradbroke also announced that the proceeds had already exceeded £1,000, and that she had just received a cheque for £100 from an anonymous donor. The theatre boxes were occupied by His Excellency the Governor and Lady Stradbroke who were accompanied by Lady Helena Rous and Miss Hesta Phillamore, the Prime Minister and Mrs. S.M. Bruce, with whom were Mrs. Bell and Mr. Dubbs; Mrs. Robert Hunter, who had a large party of friends with her; while Mr. and Mrs. George Armstrong and a party occupied Dame Nellie Melba's box. Through the kindness of Miss Brenan. the members of her staff sold programmes; and sweets were also sold by several nurses belonging to the society …

The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.), 10 May 1924, p. 49 [extract], https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article140753070

While additional details of the entertainment were noted in Table Talk:

SUCCESSFUL CHARITY MATINEE

… The programme, contributed by actors and actresses from the Melbourne Theatres, was much appreciated by the audience, and many floral tributes were thrown or handed over the footlights. Lord Stradbroke set the fashion when he threw a beautiful bouquet of white chrysanthemums at the feet of Mrs. Pitt-Rivers, after her charming portrayal of the bride in the comedy sketch, “The Bridal Suite.” It was written by Seymour Hicks, who played the bridegroom, the roles of the maid and valet being played by Mione Stewart and Austen Milroy. The amusing trifle was excellently acted and Mrs. Pitt-Rivers looked a typical bride in her gown of chalk white marocain, gracefully draped in Grecian fashion, and relieved with bands of silver leaves.

The lengthy programme featured noted singers in Aga Lahoska, Stella Power and Alfred Maguenat; graceful dancers in Reita Nugent, Jack Hooker, Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott; May Beatty, Wesley Pierce, Mark Daly, Lou Vernon, Mel Ward, Alfred Frith, Bessie Clifford and Bert Coote were the comedians, while Ruth Astor (with impersonations) and Les Pearce (with baritone songs) and the orchestra, also gave pleasure ...

Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic.), 22 May 1924, p. 40 [extract], https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146459614

 

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