Showing posts with label Dan Thomas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dan Thomas. Show all posts

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Autograph book of Esmee Minetti.

 Esmee Minetti was a bright-eyed 10-year-old tap dancer from Melbourne, when she received a brown-covered autograph book as a gift. It contains autographs from several well-known performers of the 1940s and is a brief glimpse into the small theatrical world of the time.

The book is dated 1942 and the cover bears the inscription To Esmee Minetti from Marie 10-8-42. It is browning and aged as expected from an 80-year-old item and some pages have been torn. This may have been to extract autographs that appeared more valuable to the former owner.

By the 1940s vaudeville was usurped by the motion picture, but variety acts still appeared in the bigger theatres such as the Tivoli, and in the annual pantomimes. The needs of wartime had thinned the ranks of performers, and acts that had been popular in the 1920s had a brief resurgence. Men who were too old to join up also filled the stages with their old-fashioned gags and timeless stories.

Esmee Minetti, the owner of the autograph book, was a child performer who appeared for the Tivoli and Williamson companies during the Second World War. Esmee was a tap dancer but left the stage shortly after her 18th birthday.

Born Esmee Minetti in Melbourne in 1932, she was the daughter of Iris Minetti (nee Bedford) and Keith Minetti, a plumber from Melbourne. She was named after her grandmother, Esmee Robinson and her brother Colin, was named after his grandfather, Colin Bedford.

 Esmee may have been a pupil of legendary Victorian dance teacher, Ivy Emms. Ivy had a dance school in Melbourne and provided juvenile dancers for the lavish productions at the Tivoli in the 1940s. Ivy’s daughter, Nita, took over the school after her mother’s sudden death in 1949. Nita’s autograph is in Esmee’s book, so the two certainly met.

The first autographs in the book are from Valerie Meecham and Pat Keating, dated 8-8-42, strangely before the date on the first page. In December 1941 Valerie and Pat played the Babes in the Babes in the Wood Pantomime at His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. It is possible that Esmee was part of the child chorus in the show. In September 1942 Pat appeared in a benefit show and this could have been where Esmee got her autograph.

The inscription, in pencil, says in a scrawled script, ' To Esmee , Wishing you all the best of love and luck in the future from Pat Keating.'

 Pat was about four years older than Esmee and later stated that she started performing at the age of six. In the late 1940s she became a starring performer for Williamsons. When she was twenty-one, she left the stage to marry an American called Glenn Weible. The two toured the world setting up Max Factor factories. Weible divorced his first wife to marry the lovely blonde Australian ingenue.

Pat Keating 1948

The next set of autographs in Esmee’s book date from 1943. They refer to the ‘Hoyt’s pantomime’ and include the signature of legendary performer Nellie Kolle, who encourages Esmee to continue her career.

Nellie writes To Esmee Wishing you a brilliant stage career. Hoping to meet you one day in same show again yours merrily Nellie Kolle

Nellie was a famous male impersonator who reached the height of her fame in the 1920s. She had a brief revival of her career during the 1940s due to a lack of war time talent.

Her autograph in Esmee’s book is interesting. Nellie was a well-known star, and her appearance in the Hoyt’s Pantomime, a relatively minor show, was unusual. Hoyt’s cinema in St Kilda in Melbourne held a pantomime performance between movie showings that year. The panto chosen was Sinbad the Sailor. It could be here that Esmee tap danced and shared a stage with the legendary Nellie Kolle.

Nellie Kolle 1920s

Nita Emms also signed the book at that time. Nita as previously mentioned, was the daughter of Ivy Emms, the dance teacher who provided children to the Tivoli theatre pantomimes. The Tivoli connection here is strong as Nellie appeared at the Tivoli in February 1943.

The next group of autographs tells a tale of a travelling troupe of performers. 16-year-old Esmee was adventuring around the countryside with experienced players who probably filled her head with big dreams and big stories. The company included well-known pantomime dame Dan Thomas.

Dan inscribes to Esmee; With every good wish from Dan Thomas, Cinderella Pantomime 1947.

Originally from England, Thomas came to Australia with great fanfare in the early years of the 20th Century. Dan performed with all the big-name companies in Australia and was extremely popular during the 1920s. By the 1940s his dame specialty was outdated, so he continued his on-stage career with minor shows and circuses.

In September 1947, this troupe, led by Dan, appeared in Albury with the pantomime Mother Goose. Dan played Mother Goose whilst Esmee danced. Juggler Tex Glanville was a special treat.

By November, they were in South Australia presenting Cinderella. Esmee and Maureen Trickey played fairies and danced, whilst Dan was an ugly stepsister. Neil O Brien played Buttons and the show was enjoyed by all, especially the children.

Dan as a young man

This was old fashioned, bare boned pantomime with audience participation encouraged. The children screamed in indignation as the stepsisters taunted Cinderella, and they cheered when they received their comeuppance.

But it was old fashioned. By the time they arrived in Lismore in New South Wales in January 1948 local critics were comparing the pantomime to movies saying that ‘the motion pictures create too sharp a contrast for the flesh and blood artists in threadbare pantomime’ adding that the show was ‘fighting a losing battle for popularity.’  

The critics in Grafton NSW the next month were less harsh praising the pantomime for its clean humour. Dante the magician had joined the tour and demonstrated his famous trunk trick.

They returned to Melbourne in April with Dante as headliner. Freda Barton and Neil O Brien remained with the group, but it seems that Dan Thomas had left. They performed at a suburban town hall, far from the bright lights of the Tivoli or Princess Theatres in Melbourne.

Esmee was 16 years old and despite notes of encouragement from Nellie Kolle and Dan Thomas, it seems that shortly after her 18th birthday she decided to leave the wandering stage life.

She joined the Australian Air Force as a receptionist. However, she remained in the spotlight for a fleeting time, appearing in the newspaper in 1951 as an enthusiastic recruit and a former tap dancer.

Esmee second from right with friends in a newspaper spread 1951

Esmee remained in Melbourne working as a receptionist. She may have danced for friends or family or occasionally as part of a chorus line, but her main work was in the office.

Her autograph book is a memento of a brief career as an entertainer during the 1940s. She died in 2002 in Melbourne aged 70 years old.