Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Stan Kavanagh- Australian Juggler

Juggling is one of the most democratic activities imaginable, anybody who can throw a ball in the air and catch it, can juggle. It appeals to the most basic of human instincts and when mastered can provide hours of enjoyment and relaxation.

However, juggling has not always been considered in such a positive way. In the early years of the Australian colony, the term 'juggler' was a metaphor for cheat, liar and swindler. The juggler was associated with corruption, even moreso than the usual theatrical, and even worse, it was associated with the 'east', Asia, the heart of licentiousness. Or at least that's how our ignorant ancestors saw it.

It wasn't until the advent of Cinquevalli, the greatest exponent of the art, that juggling became fashionable. After Cinquevalli, jugglers made regular appearances in the popular theatres, even at the Tiv. (My article for stage whispers on Cinquevalli)

So it was interesting to follow the career of a native Australian juggler, Stan Kavanagh, a Victorian boy whose juggling skills took him around the world.

Stan ( Arthur Stanislaus Kavanagh) was born in Wangaratta  in 1889 the son of a bank manager. As a boy he saw a juggler perform in a travelling circus troupe. Stan was intrigued and from that day juggling became his passion. By 1907, Stan and his older brother Frank were performing on the variety circuit in the major cities, firstly the  Brennan circuit and then the Tiv.  They formed a good team and as the Kavanagh brothers, specialised in juggling clubs and racquets... their racquet juggling was highly praised in the press.

They travelled to England and during World War 1 were stuck there. Frank had married in 1911 and he was growing tired of the juggling trade. In 1916, after Stan married Henrietta Richards, Frank left the act.

Stan however maintained his obsession.

In 1922 he scored a spot supporting the legendary Harry Lauder. He performed with Lauder in England and in Australia the following year. In 1924 Stan, probably following Lauder, went to the US. Eventually he became an American citizen.

Stan continued to build a reputation as a fine exponent of club juggling and his career reached a high point in the 1930s when he appeared in a film, and in the Ziegfeld follies. As the magistrate in the follies of 1936, Stan shared the stage with Fanny Brice, Bobby Clarke and most amazing of all, Gypsy Rose Lee. Stan had come a long way from Wangaratta.

In the 1940s, Stan enlisted with the US army, and then toured Australia as part of a USO group. It seems he had started to juggle light objects- constant club juggling would have been tough on older muscles- he was best known as a comedy juggler, and was very well liked in the US juggling community. He even had a nickname- 'Kavvy.'

Information about Stan becomes sparse in the 1950s, but it seems he visited Australia again and continued to juggle. I think he died around 1956-57, but I'm hoping to confirm this.

Stan was an amazing man who showed how far the fine art of juggling combined with steely determination can take you. Stan said that if it wasn't for that circus troupe, he would have been a bank teller......he must have thanked them every day of his life.....

(Both pix from US newspapers- first from the NY Times at the time of his appearance in the Follies. Info about Stan and Frank's life events comes from newspaper articles and relevant Bdm websites.  The clubs in the first pic look like wooden one piece clubs- nowadays clubs are synthetic, lighter and more aerodynamic)

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Tango in Australia

1913 and 1914 were years of scandal, freedom, rising prosperity, change and the suffragettes. The change of the years saw the rise of a fashion which divided the nation- The Tango.
In October 1913, the primate of the Anglican church in Sydney preached a fiery sermon at St Andrew's Cathedral against the dance and its associated fashions. He denounced it as a symptom of a decadent civilisation. But his denunciations didn't prevent the arrival of the tango and its split to the knee dresses to Sydney.

In January 1914, Sydney Carlton, performed the dance as part of a revue called 'The Dandies' in the not so decent playhouse, Eden Gardens in Manly. The show was so popular that it led to the development of the famous Tivoli tango teas, which featured American import Josephine Davis.

Miss Davis was a respectable young lady, and although a tango lover and dancer made it very clear that she was in no way supportive of the suffragettes. She took pains to tell the press of all the highly regarded people in the US who were dancing the tango. These included­­­ several Vanderbilts and a couple of Astors.  She also ensured that she was in no way associated with Mrs Pankhurst and her unwomanly pursuits.

The women of Melbourne were scandalised by the arrival of the tango in Australia. Mrs Shiel of the Australasian women's conference, told her audience that the fashions were indecorous. She was appalled at the number of women in Melbourne wearing skirts split to the knee and the 'disgraceful sights ' being seen in St Kilda.

All this controversy fuelled the imaginations of astute theatrical  entrepreneurs who hastened to capitalise upon it. The Tivoli tango teas were part fashion parade and part dance. William Anderson soon followed suit and incorporated the tango into his Easter pantomime Aladdin, which featured the lovely and also somewhat scandalous Carrie Moore. Aladdin toured New Zealand shortly afterwards and the company brought the tango with them to that country.

Despite the hype, it seems that many young gentlemen who attended the tango teas were disappointed. They were quite tame affairs, and a brief glimpse of a feminine ankle was the most salacious sight they saw at the show.

Of course the arrival of war put a stop to all the tango nonsense, but for one brief moment the wowsers of Australia were forced to confront the idea that their day might soon be over.

* Tango postcard from my collection- Check it out on flickr...

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Myra Kemble

Originally published in Stage Whispers Magazine- another long article

In 1873, outside the Melbourne Theatre Royal, a fair young girl, with a face surrounded by reddish gold hair, approached manager Mr Harwood.  In a sweet voice, tinged with a slight Irish brogue she asked, ‘Please sir, can I be an actress?’
The young girl was Myra Kemble. In three decades she reached the heights of colonial fame and the lows of a lonely death.
Myra was born Maria Teresa Gill in Sligo Ireland around 1857. Her parents, Pat and Teresa, brought her to Australia when she was seven years old and she was immediately enrolled in a Geelong convent. She was scheduled for a music lesson when she approached Mr Harwood on that fateful day in 1873.
He gave her a part, a small part in a pantomime, and she made a very attractive Venus. She continued in small roles but her youth led to many mistakes, which included nervously lapsing into an Irish brogue at inappropriate moments. The habit amused many audiences, but did not impress managers.
Myra persisted and she eventually arrived in Sydney. At Xmas 1875 she appeared in a pantomime at the Theatre Royal.  She was part of that Theatre’s company for almost a year and mostly played decorative roles.
In 1876, she moved to the rival Victoria Theatre and was part of the Centennial Burlesque Company with a young Bland Holt and his future wife, Leni Edwin.  Australian actors of this era were extremely versatile and Myra was no exception. During her stint with the Victoria, she performed in burlesque, pantomime, comedy, drama and Shakespeare. The company supported many leading players who came to Sydney, including Alfred Dampier. In February 1877 she played Osric to Dampier’s Hamlet.
By March 1878, Myra’s slight figure was a fixture of the Sydney theatrical scene. When she returned to the Theatre Royal that year the audience greeted her with long and loud applause. It was at the Royal that she began to take leading roles, such as Lady Teazle with Wybert Reeve in A School for Scandal.
These were great years for Myra professionally and personally. In December 1878 she married James Whitehead, also known as James White. James was known as ‘diamond Jim’ the straightest bookmaker in Sydney.  She had her first benefit performance in 1879 and was proclaimed an ‘actress of the first rank.’
In Melbourne she starred in New Babylon with Bland Holt and toured South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. A highlight at this time was a request to perform at George Coppin’s farewell performance in 1881. In October 1882 Myra gave birth to a baby girl. She was well loved by the public and her family was growing, she was successful in love and life. However things changed very rapidly.
In March 1883, Myra committed herself to the Northcote asylum for inebriates. The home was a private sanatorium for alcohol dependency and Myra had signed for six months. It was run by Dr McCarthy, who was one of the first people to treat alcohol dependency as a medical rather than as a moral issue.  In June 1883, James applied to a court to have his wife removed from the home, he was unsuccessful because McCarthy refused consent.
Myra was eventually released but announced she had retired from acting.  She and James travelled to New Zealand and she volunteered, through the newspapers, to act for local amateur theatres. Nobody accepted this offer, but the reporter commented favourably on her ‘prepossessing physique and ladylike demeanour.’ Soon it was reported that she had ‘relapsed.’
It was not until late 1884 that she returned to the boards and her talent and name ensured continuing fame. She played with Dampier at the Gaiety and as Lady Teazle at the Criterion. She was a fixture of the Sydney social scene, and in 1887 one newspaper commented favourably upon her ‘perfect fitting and beautifully draped dress of plain green cloth without a particle of trimming.’ Later that year, the Melbourne press commented ironically on the large size of her parasol, which, as was the latest fashion, reached her eye line when closed.
 Her notoriety was greatest in Sydney and in 1888 the art gallery prominently exhibited her portrait. The same year a short and complimentary biography appeared in the Illustrated Sydney News which described her as a ‘lovable, warm hearted woman.’
In 1889, having conquered Sydney, Myra travelled to England to try her luck.
A large benefit performance was held to farewell her. Sydney’s leading players, George Rignold, the Boucicaults, Charles Holloway, Mrs Bland Holt, and Mr Titheradge performed. It was an indication of the esteem in which Myra was held that such a distinguished list volunteered their time for Sydney’s greatest actress. They also gave her a gold bracelet as a memento of the occasion.
 In London, the Queen of the Australian Stage, was greeted warmly and feted heartily by expat Australians, but the English critics were lukewarm. They were too sophisticated for a colonial Irish actress and disheartened and dispirited, Myra returned to Sydney.
Before leaving London, Myra proved herself an astute businesswoman. She purchased the Australasian rights to a farcical comedy called Dr Bill.  When she returned to Australia she joined with the Brough and Boucicault Company and toured the play around the country. It was a phenomenal success.
In 1890, Myra was one of the first people in Australia to have their voice recorded on a phonograph and the recording was played to an appreciative audience at the School of Arts. In 1893 she was voted the most popular actress on the Australian stage in a newspaper poll.
The depression of the 1890s hit the White family hard and in 1894, despite a popular tour of New Zealand, Myra was in some financial distress. She again decided to perform in England. The trip was a disaster. Myra was ill and hospitalised at Guys in London for 17 weeks. According to New Zealand papers, she had ‘internal cancer’. She returned to Australia as an invalid.
However, she still gave interviews. She was happy to trade gossip with one Sydney journalist, who described her as being cheery, despite being unable to stand and in constant pain.
The theatrical community rallied to her side and organised a major benefit concert. On May 7 1896 at the Lyceum Theatre, all the major theatre managers and owners joined to raise money for the star. The show featured JC Williamson’s company, Brough and Boucicault performing their latest play, Bland Holt and his company and the Tivoli Orchestra. Every famous name in Sydney attended and the performance was immensely popular. The benefit proved that Myra was an actress held in the highest esteem by her peers.
 The programme stated that Myra was ‘debarred from ever again appearing on the stage.’ But Myra did not agree with this assessment. She made a miraculous recovery and toured Australia with her own company in 1897 and 1898. The resurgence was short and from 1899 her appearances were sporadic.  In 1900 she disappeared from the stage and by 1902 she was living in a private hospital in Melbourne.
Myra died in 1906 at Melbourne Hospital. Her death certificate recorded no next of kin. A New Zealand theatrical critic noted that her death had been caused by alcohol dependency, a vice that had ruined her health and her career.
Myra was one of Australia’s earliest and most popular actresses. She was an entrepreneur, a star and a warm hearted Irish woman, once the toast of Sydney, her lonely death proved the inconstancy of fame.

Friday, December 6, 2013

HAT Update

Just updated the website, with some material about theatre entrepreneur William Anderson.

Added links to the information on the main page and other entry pages.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Maggie Moore- the woman who bested JC Williamson

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine- this is quite a long article

In 1894 theatre impresario J C Williamson was a very unhappy man. His estranged wife, the popular Maggie Moore, was touring Australia with the melodrama Struck Oil. Williamson considered the play his property and resented his former wife profiting from it. In addition, she had cast her lover in the role Williamson had made famous. It was enough to make any man furious.
Struck Oil had catapulted J C Williamson into the highest echelons of fame. Before Struck Oil, Williamson was one of many actors struggling to make a living in the United States.  After Struck Oil, he was a successful businessman and entrepreneur, respected around the world.
It had all started in 1872. 27 year old James Cassius Williamson, a leading player at the California Theatre in San Francisco had seen a performance by Maggie Sullivan, a star at the nearby Metropolitan. Maggie was a vibrant Irish – American 20 year old who had started her career as a child.  She was a talented and versatile actress and singer and James soon proposed marriage. After initial reluctance, reinforced by her mother’s disapproval, Maggie agreed and Mr and Mrs Williamson became a partnership, on stage and off.
JC was ambitious and soon persuaded a part time playwright to sell him a script. After much tinkering and tailoring of the main characters to suit the personalities of both the Williamsons, the script became Struck Oil.
It was a melodrama and featured two major roles, John Stofel, the kind and sacrificing father, played by JC and Lizzie, his vivacious and tempestuous daughter, performed by Maggie. The play was a hit in the US and the Williamsons were invited by George Coppin to take it to Australia
They arrived in 1874 and caused a sensation. Struck Oil was enthusiastically acclaimed during a slow period in theatrical production. It became a legend in Australian theatre history. After a tour that was extended from 3 months to 6, the Williamsons returned to the United States thousands of dollars richer.
Obviously Australia liked JC Williamson and Maggie. They also enjoyed Australia. 5 years later they returned with the rights to HMS Pinafore. It was the launch pad for the development of a theatrical empire. Williamson vigorously defended his rights to the Gilbert and Sullivan piece and was rewarded with the Australasian rights to the rest of the G and S catalogue. This was the foundation of the JC Williamson Company.

By the 1890s, Williamson was the most famous theatrical manager in Australia. He leased venues across the country, ran the most prestigious theatrical companies on the continent and produced the most popular pieces in the biggest cities. In 1891 he triumphantly brought Sarah Bernhardt to Australia. He was one of the most well known figures in the colony, a man of wealth and high social standing.
So it must have been a shock that just as the divine Sarah was leaving after her earth shaking tour, another woman was also leaving, his wife, Maggie.
A small woman of uneven temperament, Maggie enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. She was good at spending money and JC had provided for her generously. He gave her an allowance of 10 pounds a week and her weekly income grew to 50 pounds a week when she was working.  This was an enormous amount of money at the time.
In 1891, JC started complaining about some promissory notes that Maggie and her brother Jim had signed. The notes were worth 1000s of pounds. It was the first indication that the marriage was in trouble.  Later that year it became clear that the pair had separated, although there was no public acknowledgement of the break.
What led to the situation was never fully explained. Perhaps Maggie’s character, which had caused some problems in the early years of the marriage, had finally become unmanageable. Perhaps JC exploited his power over the chorus girls too often. It was clear however, that the marriage was permanently over by late 1891. Especially after Maggie ran off with a younger man, New Zealander, Harry, (H R) Roberts.
Roberts was, of course, an actor. He was a tall man with a very impressive voice. He was also young and handsome and 15 years Maggie’s junior. In the early 1890s Harry worked in Sydney and in the city’s close knit theatrical community it was inevitable that he would meet the wife of the biggest name in the industry.  Somehow the meeting turned into a love affair, an affair that was probably well known in the theatre world, but never revealed to the press.
In the late Victorian era, social status was very important, and Williamson was very conscious of his standing as a leading figure in Australian society. It was this desire for respectability that made him reluctant to publicise Maggie’s behaviour. His profits and business relied on a good reputation; he could not risk it by charging Maggie with adultery.
In 1892 Maggie toured country areas of Australia with her own company. The next year she took Struck Oil to New Zealand. In this version. John Forde played John Stofel and Maggie played Lizzie. However, by the end of 1893, Maggie’s company openly billed H R Roberts as its leading man, and in 1894, Maggie twisted the knife and gave Harry the leading role of John Stofel, in Struck Oil.
Williamson was incensed. He wrote to his lawyers demanding that they stop Maggie from presenting the play in Melbourne. He was sentimentally attached to the piece and seemed to consider the role of John Stofel as his acting legacy. He condemned Maggie’s conduct as legally and morally inappropriate but was reluctant to expose her desertion publically.
Williamson later decided against pursuing the matter legally. But it was too late, his lawyers were committed.  When the matter came to court, the magistrate expressed surprise that Williamson could not control his wife. Under Australian law at the time, all marital property belonged to the husband, so it was impossible for Williamson to win a case against Maggie based on property rights.
The play went ahead and Maggie ensured that advertising included the fact that she had won the case.
Maggie and Harry played to packed houses and continued to perform Struck Oil for many years. The couple travelled to the US and the UK and had moderate success.
In 1899 during a tour of New Zealand, Maggie finally sued Williamson for divorce. Her suit was based on the fact that he was living with a former member of the ballet chorus, Mary Weir.
Williamson, ever mindful of public opinion, did not contest the action and Maggie was awarded a decree. Maggie and Harry returned to the US and married in 1902. Williamson and Mary also married and had two daughters.
Maggie outlived both Williamson and Harry. She continued appearing on stage well into her 70s. In 1925, a huge benefit performance was held to celebrate her 50 years on the Australian stage. Shortly afterwards she returned to San Francisco where she lived with her sister. In 1926, Maggie died in San Francisco.
Maggie, the small fiery Irish woman was perhaps the only person in history to exploit J C Williamson. In an era where women had little power, she astutely used her husband’s desire for social respectability against him. Whilst Williamson is acknowledged as a leading figure in Australian theatrical history, few people acknowledge Maggie’s role. Her outstanding stage partnership with him helped lay the foundation for the Australian theatrical industry. She deserves a place in that history as illustrious as that of her former husband

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

More notes on scenic design by Jack Ricketts.

All question marks are mine- some of the handwriting is worn and illegible.

Fifty years of scenic painting in Australia.

Now that Australia is about to celebrate the hundred and fifty years of its existence I think that the last half century of one of its minor industries the art of scene painting may be of interest to the many readers of the Sydney Morning Herald. Theatrical scene painting has two uses first as a background to plays operas and theatre presentations and secondly as an art education to the masses who nightly gather together in the various theatres. The art of scene painting in Australia is as high and has a standard equal to any part of the world. The reason for this is that the early nineties had a combination of actor managers who in their endeavours  to equal each other in merit had to import their scene artists. Fortunately they selected England and from there brought a brilliant coterie of painters Harry Lynid? W J Wilson, George C Gordon, then in succession came W B Spong, Hedley Churchward, Fred Kneebone, John Brunton Phil W Goatcher, George Dixon and W B Coleman. All these great painters are dead with the exception of Mr George Dixon who is now painting at the Theatre Royal Sydney.

 Fifty years ago when I joined the theatre on the scenic staff and before the imported painters mentioned above had arrived, Australia had competent resident scenic men. In Melbourne, Mr John Henning, Mr John Fille, Mr Habbe, Her Von Vennenmark? Fred Edmunds W Massey, Geo Kelly, W Pitt. In Sydney W J Wilson, William Kinchella, G W Perriman, Alfred Louis Tischbauer who painted under the name of ALTA, Mr Richard Seligill? Mr Alfred Clint, Mr Geo Campbell, Mr Feda? Williams and Mr Edward Vaughan,  It was wonderful in the gas lit crudely filled theatres as those drops, what wonderful artistic illusions these painters could create. The history of the theatre in Australia for the last fifty years is really the life story of the various actor managers, the deaths of JC  Williamson, Arthur Garner, Brough and Boccicault , Charles Holloway, Dan barry Graham... Wybert Reeve, D ogden? B N Jones, 

Some notes on Scenic Design by Jack Ricketts

Jack Ricketts trained as a scenic designer and artist in Sydney. He knew many of Australia's scenic designers. Below are some notes his made on the history of his profession.

Before I write of the last fifty years let the late W Wiseman tells us something of its earlier history he says;

Notes on early Scenic Design in Australia
W J Wilson scenic artist landed in Melbourne March 6th 1855. His grandfather J Wilson , his father W G Wilson was scenic artist for Drury Lane Covent Garden and other London Theatres. In an interview with him he said in Melbourne at the time of arrival 1855, there was only one theatre, (the Queens) under management of George Coppin, Charles Young and J P Hydes. This theatre had an act drop painted by Mr William Pitt, The father of William Pitt the architect who in later years designed and built the Kings Theatre Melbourne and many theatres in New Zealand.

The Theatre Royal and Coppin's Olympic were in the course of construction. The Royal opened on the 16th July 1858, the play being the School for Scandal The Olympic 31st of July 1855, the plays being The Lady of Lyons and ( To oblige Benson, the other scene painters in Melbourne were William Pitt, John Hemmings Mr Opie, mr Tannant? Mr ar...? and Herr Habbe). I came to Sydney in 1861 and painted for Ralph Tolano then lessee of The Lyceum Theatre York Street, This theatre was afterwards known as the Queens, being rechristened by ...F Hardying? Habbe and WJ Wilson. In 1863 the old Prince of Wales Theatre (now the Theatre Royal) was rebuilt after the fire in October 1860. On Monday August the 20th 1870, Habbe and W J Wilson opened the Victoria Theatre, Pitt Street with the Gregory? Troupe. That was before John Bennets leeseeship. the Victoria Theatre was burnt down in... and no theatre erected on its site. For this season, Habbe and Wilson painted a new act drop the centre piece depicted Circular Quay.