Sunday, July 2, 2023

Celia Ghiloni


The Western Australian Soprano- Celia Ghiloni

Born Victoria 1879 Died Perth 1955

Celia Ghiloni was a star for J C Williamson for over a decade. She was born in Victoria in 1879, the daughter of an Italian immigrant from Tuscany, Rafallo Ghiloni and his Australian born wife Isabelle. Celia was born Rosabelle Ethel Celia Ghiloni but was known throughout her life as Celia.

She grew up in Western Australia and as a girl was a singing student of Herr Dvorak. When she was 16 she began singing in public at recitals around Fremantle and Perth and one of her early appearances was at the Western Australian Agricultural show.

She continued performing as an amateur until 1898 when she started a regular concert series at the Fremantle Town Hall on Sundays. Celia was soon the manager of a small group of performers who regularly appeared at the Town Hall and she quickly gained a reputation as a singer in the area.

Soon she was making odd appearances in professional companies in Perth. Then she did a short tour of Australia with a company called the Elite Vaudeville Company.

Also in 1898, Celia married. Her husband was Barnett Breslau who was a tailor’s cutter from Western Australia. Barnett was not thrilled with Celia’s profession, but he was happy to move with her to Melbourne when J C Williamson offered her a contract.

She was working in vaudeville at the Cremorne Theatre in Perth when Wiliamson recruited her. Soon she was performing for his number 2 company and touring Australia. Williamson capitalized on her local renown by having her play prominent supporting roles when the company toured Western Australia. For example, in 1901 she performed in Florodora at the Cremorne Theatre and was well received by a local crowd. Later that year she was in Adelaide with the company.

By 1902 Celia had joined Williamson’s premier company, the Royal Comic Opera Company. As a member of this elite group Celia toured Australia and New Zealand incessantly, performing in musical comedies and operas such as The Runaway Girl, Robin Hood and Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Celia had a wonderful soprano voice and was well trained, but she was always a supporting player to the Williamson divas such as Florence Young who was the most popular performer in the country. However, Celia was happy and loved theatrical life, she coped well with the frantic schedule that often stressed other performers and thrived on the demands placed upon her.

However, her home life was not as happy. Her husband, Barnett, lived at Albert Park in Melbourne during her early touring years and he rarely saw his wife due to her hectic schedule. This led to arguments between the couple when he begged her to leave the stage to spend more time at home.  In 1903 he moved to Sydney to be closer to his wife but after a few months of cohabitation marked by further arguments, she left for Melbourne with the company. Around this time she wrote a letter to him saying, ‘Apart from our incompatibility of temper, my professional demands quite preclude the idea of my living with you again.’It was clear that Celia was committed to the stage to the detriment of her marriage.

Perhaps her most important achievement with Williamson was her participation in a Gilbert and Sullivan season in 1905-1906. This season included such stars as Howard Vernon, Charles Kenningham and Vinia De Liotte. Gilbert and Sullivan suited Celia’s talents perfectly and she was praised by critics and loved by audiences in roles such as Iolanthe and Ruth in Pirates of Penzance. So popular was she in this season that Williamson renewed her contract in 1905 so she could continue in the Gilbert and Sullivan roles.

By 1908 Celia had been working for Williamson continuously for six years and had reached the pinnacle of her profession. That year she joined a Hugh Ward company to perform in London.  She was so popular with her peers that before she left she was presented with a memento and a farewell tea was organized in her honour.

Whilst she was in London, her husband finally sued for divorce. He cited her constant travelling and was granted a decree nisi based on desertion. Celia was finally free to persue her theatrical career.

But she was not free for long. She stayed in London for short season and the company stopped in India on the way home. Whilst there she remarried a man named Rowan McPherson. He was a military man who had fought with Baden Powell. He was also described as an adventurer and it was perhaps his adventurous spirit which appealed to Celia. He returned with her to Australia.

Marriage did not prevent her from continuing her theatrical career and she commenced a long tour with the Hugh Ward company. This lasted for about a year and then she returned to the firm.By 1911 she was under contract to Williamson after a three year break. However she was confined to roles which suited her now plump figure. She had always been described as ‘voluputous’ or imposing, but changing fashions now favoured a skinnier frame and her weight was posing a significant handicap to her career.

She could not fit into modern dress and this caused distress especially the problem of typecasting. She wrote to Williamson protesting her lot and quoted Gilbert and Sullivan.

“ As I have not renounced mankind and don’t intend to renounce mankind I won’t have it, so there.’ Williamson responded in kind quoting Patience.“The coming by and by has visited you early in life and you must have it, so there.’Celia soon grew philosophical about her fate, at least publically,“When my corsetiere says I am a little too plump for the present modes I answer that I am paid for being plump.”

However her weight remained an issue and in 1913 she took steps to control it. She started a diet which omitted all her favorite foods. She was so popular with the company that many of her fellow performers joined her in dieting with the result that the newspapers reported ‘a marked falling off in the principals.’

Celia remained with Williamson for most of the war years. She was supporting a new generation of stars such as Dorothy Brunton, Jack Cannot and later Gladys Moncrieff. She performed in drama with Julius Knight, musical comedy and light opera and participated in patriotic displays being a very imposing Britannia in one tableau.

In 1916 her husband enlisted and went to the front, Celia continued performing and in 1918 broke with Williamson to sign with vaudeville entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh. She began performing in Tivoli revues that year and was a popular addition to the circuit.

Around this time she also became publically supportive of the actors union, possibly because of her association with Jack Cannot who was an active unionist. In 1917 she was elected as a councilor for the actors association and in 1919 she signed an application for Commonwealth registration of the union. Ceilia was devoted to her profession both on and off stage.

After the war her husband wrote saying it was impossible for him to live with her again. In 1920 she divorced him and was once again a free woman.

Her career was slowing down and it seemed she was preparing to give up the stage. Her single life was short and later in 1920 she married for the third time. The groom was Alfred James Mellor and the couple moved to Perth, Celia’s home town.

She spent the rest of her life there as a devoted wife travelling overseas on occasion and supporting her husband’s endeavours. Alfred died in 1950 and in 1955 Celia followed him.

Celia was one of the most famous Edwardian actresses to originate in Western Australia and she had an incredible career which encompassed musical comedy, drama, light opera and vaudeville. A talented, loyal and adventurous woman her smile still glows with warmth in faded postcards of her theatrical triumphs.

William Anderson



In the early 20th century, most Australian theatrical entrepreneurs were foreign born. There was one exception, William Anderson. For over thirty years Anderson dominated Australian melodrama and actively supported native writers, actors and producers.

 William Anderson was born in Bendigo on January 14th 1868. He began working as a young boy to support his family and his first job was as a bill poster for the local Princess Theatre. He was a charismatic youngster who quickly became popular with the lessees of the theatre, so much so that they allowed him to book all their shows.


Through his work as a booker, Anderson met English actor/manager Charles Holloway. By 1895 he had become Holloway's business manager. However, it was more than business that attracted him to Holloway's company. Its leading lady, Eugenie Duggan was a talented, attractive and increasingly popular young actress. In 1898, she became Mrs William Anderson and thus began one of Australia’s most popular melodramatic companies, the William Anderson Company.


It was a family affair that featured Eugenie, her brother Edmund and a host of Australian actors. It was one of the few companies that did not rely on overseas talent as a draw. Anderson believed in Australian drama and also supported local writers and set designers, an unusual action for the time. His plays featured realistic sets, Australian themes and Australian accents. Typical of his melodramas was Thunderbolt, a play about the notorious bushranger, Frank Ward. The scenery consisted of gum trees, koalas and an authentic Cobb and Co coach driven on stage. 


Anderson was a man of grand ambitions and grandiose plans. By 1905 his company was one of the most popular in Australia but William wanted more than a company, he wanted an empire. By the end of that year he was presenting several different productions across Australia and New Zealand. They included Sinbad the Sailor at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, a season of melodrama at The Royal in Hobart, another series of melodrama featuring George Darrell and a tour of New Zealand by Czerny a magician.


  Anderson was a gambler who owned several racehorses.  According to his long time friend  Jack Ricketts ' he was modest in his successes and a sport in his losses'. William’s business decisions combined a gambler’s recklessness with gambler’s luck.


In 1906 he paid 3650 pounds for land at Bondi in Sydney to build Wonderland City, an open air amusement park.  The park included a circus, flying machines, aquarium, a maze, a Merry Go Round skating rink and a miniature railway. There was also a vaudeville act and several novelty features, including Alice the elephant. It was designed as a pleasure palace and beautifully situated next to the sea. By the time it opened in 1907, Anderson had spent 15000 pounds on this folly.


His ambitions were endless, in 1907 he hired architect William Pitt to build a grand theatre on Russell Street in Melbourne. The theatre was called the Kings Theatre and Anderson paid a 1000 pound deposit and committed to a 7 year lease of the building at a grand rate of 4420 pounds per annum. These were enormous sums for the time.


Yet his grandiosity did not stop there. In addition to his playground and theatre, in 1906, Anderson toured Wonderland Circus across Queensland. The endless delays and logistical nightmare of transporting a circus which featured exotic animals cost a fortune. But William persisted despite the obvious difficulties.


The Kings Theatre in Melbourne was speedily finished and opened in 1908 with Man to Man .The first season featured a series of bush dramas written by Albert Edmunds ( Edmund Duggan and Bert Bailey). Edmund was Eugenie's brother and Bert was a long time member of Anderson's company. Their plays had realistic settings and in one case included shearing a sheep on stage.


In 1909 Anderson was featured in The Referee newspaper as one of the preeminent theatrical managers in the country. His picture stood side by side with JC Williamson, Harry Rickards and James Brennan, a situation which proved his importance to the Australian theatrical industry.


However by 1910, it was clear that Anderson had been too ambitious. The Sydney manager of Wonderland City was being hounded by creditors and desperately asking his boss for funds. Anderson, ensconced at the Kings Theatre studiously avoided the pleas and his secretary was responding to letters with


' So far I cannot get the boss to fix up these outstanding accounts of Sydney. The boss is only here a few minutes every day.’


He was probably spending a great deal of time at the famous Melbourne races.


By 1911 a combination of bad debts and local opposition to the park forced Wonderland City to close. For months afterwards, Jack Ricketts, the manager, dodged and weaved his way through bills and demands with little help from his boss who had many other problems on his mind. 


Anderson was in severe financial difficulty and never recovered his former glory. In 1912 he sub leased the Kings Theatre to Duggan and Bailey who had a magnificent success with their version of Steele Rudd's On Our Selection. This was another wholly Australian production which would never have been produced without Anderson's financial and logistical support. The play became a staple of Australian theatre for decades.


Anderson continued in theatrical production; however he never reproduced his former successes. He settled for a time in Adelaide, and often staged an annual pantomime. However it was clear by World War 1 that the public had outgrown his traditional melodramatic fare.


In the 1920s he and Eugenie moved to Melbourne, and the couple separated later in the decade. She died in 1936 and William died shortly afterwards in 1940.


William Anderson was a proud and extravagant Australian entrepreneur who embodied the reckless abandon and creativity of his time. He was a man who thought that Australian product was as good as or better than foreign productions and backed his theory with practical support of Australian actors, writers and artisans. In many ways he was the forefather of the native theatrical movement.

Theatre Royal Sydney


The first Theatre Royal in Sydney was built by Barnett Levey. Levey was the brother of a convict and thought that the citizens of Sydney deserved their own entertainment venue. It was located where Dymocks bookshop now stands at 428 George Street.

It was 1827 and Sydney was primarily a town of convicts, emancipists, soldiers, and some free settlers. Governor Darling, a conservative man was in charge of the colony. Darling did not approve of theatricals and after Levey built his theatre, refused permission for performances.

Levey had built the theatre behind his hotel, the Royal Hotel, and in order to circumvent the prohibition presented concerts and one man acts in the space.

Darling left Sydney in 1831 and a new Governor, Bourke, took his place. Bourke was more lenient than his predecessor and gave permission for theatre performances. In 1832 Levey hired several actors and the first officially sanctioned professional plays took place in Sydney.

Levey, by all accounts was somewhat of a drunkard and a terrible organiser. It was inevitable that the demands of theatre management were beyond him. He leased the theatre to a consortium headed by a man named Wyatt. Wyatt ran the theatre until 1837 when his lease expired. Wyatt was however still interested in management and built a new theatre in Pitt Street Sydney. Most of the actors from the Royal moved there. The new theatre, called the Royal Victoria, opened in 1838. It was here that George Coppin, the ‘father of Australian theatre’ first appeared in Australia.

Barnett Levey died in 1837 in mysterious circumstances and his theatre, the Royal, burnt to the ground in 1840. The name ‘Theatre Royal’ fell into disuse for some decades after 1840. It wasn’t until 1875 that the name was once again used in Sydney

Wyatt ran the Royal Victoria for many years. In 1855 he had to sell, He opened a new theatre on unfashionable Castlereagh Street. It was called the Prince of Wales and located on the site of the current Theatre Royal.

At the Prince of Wales, Wyatt attempted to produce Opera to compete with the more profitable Royal Victoria. Disaster struck in 1860 when Wyatt’s theatre was burnt to the ground. A common occurrence for theatres at that time. Their wooden structure and reliance on candlelight made them prime candidates for such disasters.


By 1861 the theatre had been rebuilt and rechristened. It was now the Prince of Wales Opera House and leased to William Saurin Lyster. Lyster is generally held to be responsible for the first quality opera productions in Australia.

Just over ten years later fire again struck the theatre and the Prince of Wales was no more. A new theatre was built and given the name Theatre Royal. A theatre of that name has stood on that spot in Sydney ever since.

The first night of the Royal was December 11th 1875. It opened under the management of Samuel Lazer. It had red velvet chairs and was decorated in white, gold, and grey with a large glass chandelier as a centrepiece.

In this guise the theatre presented such famous names as Mrs Scott Siddons , George Rignold and the Soldene Opera company. The latter was well known for it’s beautiful and scantily clad girls. Perhaps the most significant event at this time was the arrival of the man who was to become one of Australia’s foremost theatrical entrepreneurs. James Cassius Williamson.

Williamson and his wife Maggie Moore, arrived in Sydney in 1874. They presented the play, Struck Oil. Both were American. Williamson had started his career in New York at Wallacks Theatre. He had subsequently moved to San Francisco where he had met Maggie. The two, like many before them decided to try their luck in Sydney. It was to be the start of a lifelong relationship between Williamson and the city.

In 1878, the Williamson and Moore pairing returned to Australia. Williamson had secured the rights to HMS Pinafore from Gilbert. This was the beginning of a profitable relationship for both men. In 1879 he produced the authorised HMS Pinafore at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.

Williamson’s vigorous defence of his rights and Gilbert and Sullivan’s rights, led to him being given the rights to all Gilbert and Sullivan productions in Australia. It was this stroke of good fortune which led to Williamson’s management career. He found that good and popular material such as Gilbert and Sullivan productions did not need the presence of himself or Maggie to attract audiences. This lead to him producing one show and performing in others at the same time.

In 1882 Williamson formed a partnership, known as the firm or the triumvirate, with two other men ,George Musgrove and Arthur Garner. Musgrove had the advantage of being in a relationship with the popular Australian musical comedy star, Nellie Stewart. The three men soon controlled the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, the Royal in Adelaide and the Theatre Royal in Sydney.

During the 1880s under the auspices of these three men several important international artists appeared in Australia. The firm believed strongly in using imported acts to attract local audiences. Amongst the acts in the 1880s were, American actress, Genevieve Ward, Irish actor/playwright Dion Boucicault, and Fred Leslie, English actor. Amongst the local artists was Johann Krause, Australian violinist. In 1885, the Royal also saw the first appearance of Mrs Armstrong, who was later better known, as Nellie Melba.

The depression of the 1890s effected the theatre industry just as it did other Australian industries. The firm however held a trump card. In 1891 the world’s most famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt performed at The Royal . Bernhardt performed in French. The audience followed the performance by using printed booklets in English. The reaction from the public was overwhelming.

By this time Musgrove and Williamson were having business differences and this eventually lead to the dissolution of the partnership between the two in 1901.

In the early 20th century, control of the Theatre Royal fluctuated between the two men. Musgrove presented Nellie Stewart in the very successful Sweet Nell of Ol Drury. Williamson on the other hand continued to present a variety of imported acts. For example in 1905 Williamson presented Scottish actor, Julius Knight, with Maud Jeffries in a season of plays. Maud , an American, eventually settled in Australia and retired from the stage.

Williamson was looking to reduce his responsibilities. He sold shares in the company to business manager George Tallis and Gustave Ramaciotti. Ramaciotti was the firms financial manager. In 1908, Ramaciotti bought the freehold title of the Theatre Royal in Sydney and it remained in his family’s hands until they sold it in 1970. Williamson had been offered the freehold but believed that management and ownership did not mix.

In 1911, Dame Nellie Melba played a season at the royal and was supported by young Irish Tenor John McCormack. In 1912 Australian born Oscar Asche and his wife Lily Brayton played. Later that year English born Hilda Spong graced the stage. Hilda liked Australia so much that she stayed for 14 years.

Williamson was ailing. He made his last Australian stage appearance at a benefit performance in Sydney in 1913. On 6th July that year he died in France. He was buried in his home country, the United States.

Williamson the man may have passed, but his legacy and name dominated the Australian legitimate theatre scene for decades afterwards


Sally- the Musical 1923

 Sally- The musical

The early 1920s were the time of the big theatre musical. Hoping to compete with the encroaching movie craze, J C Williamson Ltd (JCW) spent a great deal of time and money creating sumptuous shows. Amongst these were Maid of the Mountains and Sally.

Sally, an American musical, first appeared on Broadway in 1920. Produced by Florenz Zeigfeld it was designed to promote his mistress, Marilyn Miller. Marilyn was primarily a dancer so the production focussed on show casing her ballet skills.

Guy Bolton wrote Sally and Jerome Kern penned the music. It had a very simple plot but catchy tunes. The story revolved around Sally, a waif, who was a dishwasher at the Alley Inn. Sally rose to fame and found love through joining the Zeigfeld follies and becoming a star. The play ran for 570 performances on Broadway and was an enormous success

Williamsons decided to open their 1923 Australian season with Sally. They were hoping to reproduce the popularity of the Broadway run. The firm  gathered its most experienced local producers, scenery designers and choreographers to recreate the spectacle on the Australian stage.

George Highland was the producer. George had produced several musicals for JCW. These included the spectacular Maid of the Mountains in 1922. Maid of the Mountains created a star in Gladys Moncrieff, and public and critics acclaimed both her and the musical. Highland was a capable and steady producer who could handle large casts and actor egos.

Minnie Everett, long time ballet mistress of JCW, was the choreographer. Minnie had almost two decades of experience and was the best ballet arranger in Australia. She had trained stars such as Maggie Dickenson and Madge Elliott. Minnie was inventive and could create unique ballets that amazed audiences.

Scenery designer Leslie Board, and stage manager, George Kensington, joined Minnie and George. The group were the best in their field and had worked together on many musicals for the company.

An equally experienced and impressive cast was gathered. George Gee who had arrived in Australia four years before, played Otis Hooper, a theatrical agent. It was a comedy part. George was a specialist at musical comedy roles and was well liked by the Australian public. He was ‘A virile athletic man, and the possessor of a radically happy disposition.’ A man with big eyes above a short moustache, George’s expressive features could reduce an audience to merry laughter. He was a character actor who could be trusted with major parts.

Hugh Steyne was another comedian..  Steyne had started his career in vaudeville. He had been a regular with the Tivoli Famous Players and had crossed to the legitimate theatre. This transition was a common phenomenon of the early 1920s. Steyne played Admiral Travers in Sally.

The cast also included Gracie Lavers. Gracie was a regular performer for JCW. She had appeared as a supporting player in many musicals and was popular with the public. Her most important roles had been in the memorable 1920-21 season that launched Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott. She had joined them in several shows including the popular "Theodore and Co" Gracie played the second female lead in Sally, the role of Rosalind Rafferty.

To play Sally, the foundling turned lead dancer, a relative unknown was cast. Her name was Josie Melville and she was a protege of Minnie Everett. Josie had begun as a child in JCW pantomimes including a role in the ballet of Goody Two Shoes in 1919. She became a principal dancer. and was perfect for a role designed for a ballerina. Josie was 19 years old with a sweet face surrounded by reddish brown curls. She had a naive charm which made her perfect for Sally.

Sally opened on Saturday January 6th 1923 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney. It consisted of three acts of five scenes. The scenes were, the Alley Inn, the garden, the Zeigfeld Follies, Sally’s dressing room and the church around the corner. Sally had everything , a rag to riches story, an exquisite ballet as a centrepiece and a wedding as a happy finale.

The first scene at the Alley Inn was designed to introduce the main characters. It included a duet by George Gee and Gracie Lavers, a dance lead by Josie Melville and the songs, "You can’t keep a good girl down,’ "Looking for the Silver Lining ‘ and ‘Sally’. In this act Josie had to sing two songs and perform three dances.

The second act opened with a transparent gauze curtain dimly veiling the actors and sets on stage. When lifted, it revealed a wondrous garden, This act included a song and dance number, "The Wild Rose’ a song "The Schnitza Komisski’ a schtza dance, a trio, a duet and finally Josie Melville in a Slavic dance.

Act three was the Land of the Butterflies at the Ziegfeld Follies. In this act, Josie danced on a lavish set with almost thirty other dancers. Twelve ballerinas performed as butterflies, twelve as moths and Pixie Herbert danced as the bat. It was a magnificent scene. The ballerinas, choreographed by Minnie Everett, danced beautifully and Josie had the opportunity to show her skills as a principal dancer.

The final scene was the wedding scene. Sally and her hero were wed in a romantic setting which completed the fairytale of Sally of the Alley.

Sally was a huge hit in Sydney audiences loved it. The Referee simply said

‘Everybody is unanimous about Sally. It is a great success.’

The combination of lyrical songs, toe tapping tunes, and eye catching girls was a formula that appealed to the public. The most popular scene was the butterfly ballet at the Zeigfeld follies. This scene represented another triumph for ballet mistress Minnie Everett.

Josie Melville was a popular part of the show. Audience and critics acclaimed her as Sally. At the end of the first show,

‘Applause was deafening and at the conclusion of the show, the little Australian girl smiled and bowed a thousand times and clung in gratitude to Minnie Everett, her teacher."

Josie’s performance as Sally was a surprise to critics and audiences. Few realised that the young Australian could act ,although her dancing skill was well known.. In fact Josie’s overnight success echoed the theme of the play making it even more satisfying for the demanding Sydney audiences.

Many critics noticed that Josie’s singing ability was slight. The Sydney Mail stated that,

‘There is nothing at all remarkable about the quality of Miss Melville’s voice, which though sweet , is rather thin’

However, her youth and charm made up for deficiencies in this area. The Mail added that

‘ Her youthfulness has in itself an appeal, and her innate charm and refinement find expression in natural acting, while her exquisite dancing is indeed the very ‘poetry in motion’.


Sally ran in Sydney for over 19 weeks. A longer run than the Gladys Moncrieff vehicle, Maid of the Mountains. The Referee suggested that its popularity was due to Josie Melville and George Gee, plus "plenty of bright catchy music and a bevy of beautiful girls sumptuously gowned.’ The paper added that "Sally is an exacting part needing versatility and Josie Melville fills every requirement."

Josie was the belle of Sydney. Her movements were reported, including a visit to a sick Minnie Everett, and she had songs dedicated to her. One of these was ‘Have you seen Sally (the talk of the town)’ published by Chapell and Co . The music had a picture of a smiling Josie on the cover..

Josie’s fame meant that she had to be diplomatic. During the annual boat regatta, she had to wear the colours of all teams on her ‘pinny’ during the show. The performance on boatrace night was interrupted repeatedly by excitable schoolboys.

The boys from Shore, Grammar and the other schools who had been shouting all the afternoon

were in excellent mood and longing to do some more. Hence every lull in the performance was

an excuse for fresh pandemonium…Members of the company were assailed with streamers and throw downs and had

to get through the show the best way they could.

It was clear through all this noise that Josie Melville was the schoolboy’s favourite.

Sally moved to Melbourne in September and continued playing until June the following year. It was a huge success and was generally thought to be the beginning of a stellar career for Josie Melville. It was not to be. Josie pursued her career for a short time, but never repeated the success of Sally. She married a South Australian businessman in 1934 and devoted herself to family life.

In Sally, JCW combined all the features of a typical 1920s musical. It had extravagant sets,  huge ballets, and a stereotypical plot line. The addition of a relatively unknown girl to play Sally ensured the success of the production in Australia. The onset of the depression made the repeat of such sumptuous productions impossible. Sally was one of the last gasps of the spectacular era of theatre musicals

R G Knowles


In the early part of the nineteenth century the variety stage was considered a poor cousin to the legitimate theatre. By the late 1890s, variety was encroaching upon the dominance of traditional theatre. The arrival of Harry Rickards in Australia and the establishment of the Tivoli circuit increased the accessibility of variety theatre. Supporters of the legitimate theatre began to feel concern about the appeal of this form of entertainment.

In 1896, the threat became more apparent when a group of English music hall artists, billed as the ‘Stars of All Nations’, appeared in the pride of Melbourne’s theatrical establishment, The Princess Theatre.


The Age newspaper railed against the intrusion,

The serious drama would seem to be in a parlous state when we find the leading

Theatres in Australia invaded by music hall artists. The battle between the dramatic

and variety stage has, temporarily at all events, resulted in the rout of the former.

Melbourne’s other major daily, The Argus, agreed,

"Now that the Stars of All Nations Company have taken possession of the Princess Theatre and unfurled their standard- in which there is a suspicion of strips as well as stars-the invasion may be considered complete. To pretend that this development is a matter of anything but regret to lovers of the stage would be to pay a poor compliment to their taste"

One of the leaders of this invasion was the famous music hall performer, RG (Richard George) Knowles. Knowles was born in Canada in 1858. He began his career in variety in Colorado around 1875. From 1891 he appeared regularly in London. He was amazingly successful there, spending 68 weeks at the Trocadero and 47 weeks at the Empire. During his Empire run he appeared with Cinquevalli. In 1896 when he came to Australia, he was at the top of his profession. He was a neat man with a high forehead, slicked back hair and wide eyes. He also had a natural exuberance that appealed to an Australian audience.

The Sydney press noted his arrival in Melbourne with a short sentence on November 4th 1896,

R.G. Knowles, the music hall comedian artist has arrived in Melbourne

Knowles made his first appearance in Melbourne on Saturday, November 21st 1896. He was one of the headliners of ‘The Stars of all Nations’ company, sharing that responsibility with Henry Lee. The show was unapologetically vaudeville. It consisted of a series of turns by a group of artists with varying abilities. Joining Knowles and Lee were artists such as Al Bellman and Lottie Moore in a comedy sketch called ‘Mistaken Identity’, the sisters Winterton, mandolin players, and Clotilde Antonio, a contortionist and hand dancer.

RG Knowles was billed as ‘The very peculiar comedian’. On stage he invariably wore the same costume. ‘A battered hat, a pair of big flapping boots, duck trousers of the Indiana hoosier farmer, and a black frock coat worn by Americans a century ago.’

Although much of Knowles’ routine had been seen in Australia before, his presentation was unique. Speaking in a ‘stentorian voice’, his style was described as a ‘whirlwind’ of words, ‘a gush of dialogue’ at ‘hurricane speed.’

He doesn’t give the audience time to catch up with him. It has no sooner

seen the point of one joke and begun to laugh boisterously than another

is hurled at it, with the result that when the curtain comes down, the comedian

leaves both himself and his auditors breathless.

R G Knowles was evidently a man of great humour and charisma, a man who could carry an audience for a breathless ride on a roller coaster of words.


‘The Stars of All Nations’ appeared at the Princess Theatre for almost four weeks. RG Knowles’ wife, Winifred Johnson, a banjoist, was a popular member of the company. The rest of the cast were also applauded by big crowds. Henry Lee gained much attention for his impersonations of famous men such as Dickens, Tennyson and Kipling. One sour note however, was The Argus description of Clotilde Antonio’s turn.

Her performance was disfigured by one act in such execrably bad taste that it must

have been unwelcome to a large section of the audience.

On December 16 1896, The Referee newspaper announced that The Stars of All Nations company had arrived in Sydney. They were scheduled to open the new Palace Theatre in the city. In another affront to the traditionalists, the Palace was designed specifically for variety theatre.

The Palace was a sumptuous building inside and out. It was located on the current site of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. The Referee described it as,

‘A gorgeous and silk plush everywhere and plenty of room in the luxuriously appointed chairs, either for the man of flesh or the attenuated person. Everywhere the eye is dazzled with the beauty of the place, and absolutely nothing Has been omitted to secure the comfort of the patrons of the house.

On Thursday, December 17, at 1.30pm, an auction was held outside this sumptuous edifice. The auction was for opening night seats at the theatre. It was not a great success Stall seats sold from four shillings to eight shillings, whilst dress circle seats fetched up to twelve.

The theatre opened on Saturday, 19th December. The Referee thought that Henry Lee was the outstanding performer of the night. However the audience voted for R G Knowles. The newspaper rationalised this lack of taste by stating that ‘an audience seems to prefer effervescent humor to intellectual nourishment.’

That night Knowles entertained the large crowd with ‘quick and lively’ patter that delighted the audience. His act was almost the same as it had been in Melbourne. It included the ‘alphabetical speech’ and several songs. Knowles was not considered a great singer but the Referee said that

The quaintness with which he sings..together with a peculiarity in the songs themselves account for the success.

RG Knowles soon became the major draw to the Stars of All Nations show at the Palace.

Large audiences visited the new theatre to see the patter comedian.

His eccentricities and quick patter suit the public exactly and it seems as if

RG Knowles would have to stay here a long time before he will become tiresome

Knowles appealed to all sections of the theatre going public.

The array of carriages and cabs nightly lined up outside the Palace Theatre indicates that Potts Point is beginning to appreciate the fact that the decorations of this handsome house suit its complexities and that the entertainment is one which is eminently an agreeable one.

There was no mention of the vulgarity of vaudeville in the Referee’s reports. Soon the paper was referring to Knowles familiarly as ‘RGK’.

Despite Knowles’ popularity some members of the theatre going public did not recognise him. The Referee cited the following exchange;

Lady to another coming out of the Palace; "what a pity Knowles didn’t appear;

I’m so disappointed’. And Knowles had done fully half an hours turn.’

However, this lady was a minority. Most spectators were well aware of Knowles. Others had also taken notice of his high standing with the public. JC Williamson was quick to seize on his popularity and hired him for the annual pantomime, Matsa. By January 27 1897, Knowles had left the Palace and travelled to Melbourne. He returned to the Princess Theatre to appear in the pantomime. In February he appeared in Matsa in Sydney. He supported such luminaries of the Australian stage as George Lauri and Florence Young.

RG Knowles returned to London in mid 1897 and continued his stellar career as a patter comedian. According to the London Times, ‘His quaint electrical gait; his individual makeup; his quick fire of patter, interspersed with occasional songs; his ready repartee made his turn an unusually attractive one.’ His act remained popular with audiences until his death in January 1919.

In the late nineteenth century The Stars of All Nations company proved that vaudeville was a growing threat to the legitimate theatre tradition. For many years thereafter the two traditions lived side by side, although vaudeville and variety were always regarded as less authentic and acceptable than legitimate enterprises. The fact that vaudeville was eventually replaced by moving pictures and television would have surprised the critics of 1896. Even more surprising was the fact that despite their fears, the legitimate theatrical tradition continues to thrive in Australia long after the demise of its former riva

Oscar Wilde's plays in Australia

  Oscar Wilde’s Plays in Australia

In the late 19th century, Australians were proud of their connections to England and the United States. The Australian theatre was greatly influenced by these two cultures.. However, in many ways the Australian theatrical tradition was unique. One example of its independence of spirit was in the treatment of Oscar Wilde’s plays.

In April 1895, English and Australian newspapers avidly reported the scandal of Oscar Wilde. Wilde had accused the Marquis of Queensbury of libel. The Marquis had left a note at Wilde’s club suggesting the author was immoral. The note read, "Oscar Wilde posing sodomite", and Oscar decided to sue.

The libel trial began on April 3 1895. Queensbury’s defence was justification and his counsel argued that he had acted in the public interest. Oscar was summoned to the stand to testify with that testimony he effectively destroyed his case. Wilde admitted that he had spent some time and money on several young men, including paying blackmail of 21 pounds to retrieve his love letters to Alfred Douglas, (the Marquis’ son) Oscar called these letters prose poems and defended them on artistic grounds. Finally and it seemed most shockingly to The Sydney Mail, Oscar had ‘admitted to having been on terms of intimacy with two lads not his social equals" and in addition he had ignored " the social inferiority of his guests if they were amusing.".

By April 5th, Wilde’s case had collapsed. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, on the same day Oscar was arrested for gross indecency.

In the London theatres, where both An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were playing, Wilde’s name was removed from advertising and playbills. By April 9th, libraries in the United States were destroying his published works.

On April 13thThe Sydney Mail breathlessly summarised these events for its readers. That same night, the Brough and Boucicault ( B and B) Theatre Company was presenting the Australian debut of Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband.

The prestigious Brough and Boucicault company was well known for its superb acting and presentation of modern plays. The company was regarded as one of the most skilled, professional and respectable theatre companies in the country. The choice of An Ideal Husband at such a time was either an opportunistic act or a great risk. However, the association of the premier acting company in Australia with the play, lent it an air of respectability that may have dimmed the scandalous aspects.

The company followed the London example and the name Oscar Wilde was omitted from all advertising. The April 13th advertisements called An Ideal Husband ‘ A new and original play of modern life’.

That night a large crowd gathered at Sydney’s Lyceum theatre. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘the house was crowded’ and there was ‘ready laughter’throughout the performance.’ The Referee newspaper agreed that the audience was ‘immense and cordial’.

The original review of the play in the London Times had been warm, but it suggested that the plot of the play was conventional. However, the Times added that the ‘primitive story’ was not the prime interest of the play. It was the ability of the author ’to adorn the commonplace by force of epigram’ and his verbal ingenuity which carried the play. The Times review implied that the verbal witticisms compensated for a trite plot.

The Times review was written two months before Wilde’s disgrace. The Sydney Morning Herald had its first view of the play after Wilde’s arrest. The tone of The Herald’s review seemed influenced by the scandal.

The paper refused to name the playwright. The reviewer pointed out that the plot of An Ideal Husband was weak and that ‘more than once a situation was sacrificed for the sake of a witticism’. The Herald reviewer was not impressed with the dialogue either.

"the use of paradox has been pushed to the edge of tedium….the fact is that if perpetrated too often, the paradox reveals itself as a cheap thing only too easily made."

Nonetheless the reviewer admitted that " An Ideal Husband abounds in brilliant epigram which really hits the mark" It is highly probable that the Herald’s critical analysis of Wilde’s dialogue was influenced by the authors situation.

The review in general concentrated on the presentation of the play and cast’s acting ability. Mr Titheradge was praised for his portrayal of Sir Robert Chiltern, although it was described as a ‘not very convincing role.’

The other cast members were also commended. However the Herald reserved its highest accolades for Dion Boucicault.

Mr Boucicault as the Earl of Caversham KG furnished one of the finished sketches of extreme old age, in which refinement and distinction of manner are combined with fretful ill humour to which he has happily accustomed us.

The costumes were one of the main selling points of the play.. They were advertised as being made by ‘Madame Clarice and Madame Brown of London’. Perhaps the London sanctioned clothes compensated for the scandalous author

The Referee’s review was different to the Herald’s. The Referee specialised in sport and theatre and this was reflected in a more liberal approach to the Wilde situation. The difference between the two papers was evident immediately.

The Referee’s review began with appropriate crediting of the author by name. An Ideal Husband was clearly labelled ‘Oscar Wilde’s play" It was a brave break with the conventions established by the Herald and the London newspapers. The Referee praised the dialogue whilst admitting that the plot was weak. The paper stated that they play was

"Not absorbingly interesting as far as plot is concerned"


"compels attention throughout whilst its dialogue sparkles with witticisms."

In general this review echoed the sentiments of the original London Times review.

Much of The Referee’s review concentrated on the fine presentation of the play by the famous B and B Company.

the mounting and dressing are alike superb. Mr Phil Goatcher’s interiors are admirable illustrations of this clever scenic artist’s best handiwork and the acting is, taking it all round, very fine.

It also commended the fine acting by the cast, in particular, the famous actor/manager Dion Boucicault who ‘gave a really capital sketch of the old Earl’.

It was as if by concentrating on the acting, scenic design and costumes that the stigma of Wilde’s association with the work could be forgotten. Both reviews, in short, trod delicately around the issue of Wilde’s disgrace. An Ideal Husband played only for a week in Sydney that year. Oscar’s increasingly desperate situation probably convinced the B and B company to avoid a long run.

By May 1895, Oscar had suffered through two trials for indecency. On May 25TH he was sentenced to two years hard labour for sodomy.

A year later the Brough and Boucicault company returned to Sydney with another Wilde play. This time it was his masterpiece "The Importance of Being Earnest.’ Attitudes towards Wilde in Sydney had liberalised. The author was still imprisoned but his name was no longer taboo in Australian theatrical circles.

Earnest had debuted in London on February 14th 1895. It had taken over a year for the play to be performed in Sydney. An Ideal Husband on the other hand was produced within three months of its London stage debut. The delay with Earnest was no doubt due to the author’s infamous reputation.

On 4th April 1896, The Sydney Morning Herald carried advertisements for The Importance of Being Earnest"- A comedy in Three Acts by Oscar Wilde". Oscar’s name had been restored to its rightful place. Unlike the previous year when An Ideal Husband had been uncredited.

On April 11th, almost exactly a year to the day that An Ideal Husband had been introduced to Sydney, Earnest had its debut.

"The Criterion was crowded to the doors by an amused and interested audience."

The Referee said that

"Everyone from those in the stalls up to those in the gallery appeared to greatly enjoy the skit."

The Sydney Morning Herald critic refused to name Wilde in the review, stating that the play was written by ‘the same author who wrote Lady Windemere’s Fan." Yet the review’s tone was far warmer than its review of An Ideal Husband.

The paper enjoyed the dialogue saying that

The spectators are pelted with witticisms as with comfits at a Roman Carnival"

It added that

"the brilliancy of the display of verbal pyrotechnics is amazing.’

The reviewer had an unusually kind word for the imprisoned author stating that

The whole play may be viewed as the tour de force of an author who has done brilliant things.’

Despite this, the reviewer refused to name the brilliant author.

The Referee’s review called the author ‘Mr Wilde’, an open statement of respect. It called the play ‘an exceptionally brilliant production.’ Most of the review concerned the actors. Cecil Ward played Earnest and was described as being ‘entertaining and in every way admirable’. Yet it was Dion Bocicault who stole the show as Algernon.

"Mr Boucicault carried off the chief honours of the evening"

Boucicault was very highly regarded in Sydney and his association with the Wilde plays helped make them acceptable to Sydney audiences

By this time it seemed that the Sydney theatrical establishment was recognising Oscar’s brilliance as an artist despite his disgrace.

In January 1897, with Wilde still in gaol, the B and B company presented A Woman of No the Criterion. The Referee bluntly referred to Oscar in its review saying that in this play

Oscar Wilde seems to have collected together all the brilliant things that he had to crowd out of his other pieces.’

Meanwhile, in England, Oscar continued to be a pariah. After being released from prison in May 1897 he spent the last years of his life in France. Oscar was a broken spirit, his most notable work in his final years being The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

The first London production of Earnest after its original run in 1895 was in 1902. Two years after his death, the billboards refused to carry Oscar’s name. This was not remedied until 1909. It was a stark contrast to the Australian productions of his works which were well received and beautifully produced by B and B. In addition Oscar was credited with the authorship of these plays and prominently mentioned in Australian reviews of the productions. In the matter of Oscar Wilde, the Australian press, public and theatrical establishment showed a unique identity independent of the great cultural powers of the US and England

Oh Lady Lady- Sydney 1921

 Oh, Lady! Lady! in Sydney 1921 .

1921 was a year of reconstruction and re-evaluation. The war was over but change was continuing. Ireland was in turmoil and Russia was recovering from seven years of strife. In Australia the population was concerned with the Chinese, the Catholics and the plight of returned soldiers.

Archbishop Mannix was in hot water over his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the crown. The Protestant federation condemned the attitude of the Federal government in allowing Mannix an exemption from the oath. It stated  that the government was;

‘Repudiating the strong convictions of the majority of the people of the Commonwealth’

The majority of the population generally accepted this pro British attitude, although division between Protestants and Catholics, particularly in light of events in Ireland, was growing.

The Chinese gardeners were being reprimanded by anglo competitors for their long working hours. The secretary of the Sydney Market Gardeners association, Mr Tasker, wrote a long letter to the Herald chastising the Chinese for their destructive work habits. Mr Tasker’s views represented a body of opinion that mixed racism and labour politics in a skein not to be unravelled until the Whitlam government of the 1970s.

In post war Australia, the plight of returned soldiers garnered much attention. Most had been repatriated by 1919, yet they were not yet deified by the annual ANZAC day memorial services. The process was in it’s early stages however. War memorials were being built, soldiers benefit concerts being held and money for soldier’s farms was being solicited. The concern for the employment of returned soldiers was evident in the formation of the Returned Soldiers League ( RSL). The RSL had been established in 1921 and was beginning to make itself heard as a lobby group.

The effects of the war were social and economic. Women had taken jobs during the war and many were loath to resign them. The euphoria of peace infected all walks of life. Hemlines were up,  and hair was short. It was the roaring 20s and a general atmosphere of licentiousness was coursing through the land.

Moving pictures, still not completely acceptable, and still silent, were beginning to become popular. Vaudeville and live theatre, however were still prominent. Nellie Melba’s concerts were selling heavily in advance, Gladys Moncrieff was wowing them in The Maid of The Mountains, Fullers and the Tiv were showing the best of overseas performers.

It was the time of the Criterion, The Palace, The Tivoli, The Royal, the Grand Opera House and St James Hall. The era of grand theatres and grand melodramas.

One of the grandest theatres was Her Majesty’s. It was one of JC Williamson’s flagship theatres in Sydney. Located on the corner of Pitt and Market streets, it’s three level auditorium and large capacity, made it one of the most spectacular theatres in Sydney. It hosted opera, drama, divas and legends. It was at this venue that a series of musical comedies caused a sensation in the 1920s. One of these was called ‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ and starred popular Australian comedienne, Dorothy Brunton.

‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ reflected some of the values of the day. The heroine, played by Brunton was Fainting Fanny. A pickpocket who plied her trade by fainting into men’s arms and then robbing them as they looked for medical help. The fact that the heroine was ‘crook’, was considered rather daring at the time. In fact this was a reflection of the changing values of female independence and rebelliousness, which were sweeping the world. Other characters in the comedy included Spike Hodgins, a valet, played by Alfred Frith,  Finch, his employer, (Cyril Ritchard) and Underwood (William Greene) as a man about town.

The plot was a convoluted one. Hodgins was in love with Fanny . His boss, Finch, was scheduled to marry, but the wedding was threatened by the appearance of a predatory woman called Marjorie Barber, played by Madge Elliott. In order to prevent disaster, Hodgins asked Fanny to impersonate one of Finch’s ex girlfriends in order to chase the evil Marjorie away. Fortunately, Marjorie and Underwood fell in love and everybody finished happily ever after

The play thus involved those common elements of farce, a wedding, an impersonation, a mix up, and several love affairs. The comedy was followed by a series of specialty acts, which filled the remainder of the evening.

Dorothy Brunton was a hit in the role of Fanny. She made her first appearance on stage popping up from a trunk. Her costume consisted of a ‘dead leaf green sports coat, short check skirt, and German students black velvet cap.’ Her soprano voice and nimble pas de deux were greatly admired. The latter was encored twice. The Sydney Mail described her performance as the finest of her career.

Albert Firth was also complimented in his role as the valet. His humour, especially the way he touched wood after lisping in a cockney accent that ‘he hasn’t taken anything yet’ was well received by audience and critics. Albert and Dorothy brought down the house when they sang the duet, "Our little Nest’, a song about domestic bliss.

Frith was a veteran comedian and knew how to engage an audience. When he joined with Cyril Ritchard and William Greene for the trio, ‘Do it now’ their comic timing and wonderful dancing were warmly applauded.

The ballet, which was performed in the wedding scene, was equally well received and ballet mistress Minnie Hooper was warmly called on stage at the conclusion of the evening.

Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott had prominent roles in the farce. Ritchard played Finch, and Madge played Marjorie Barber. The acting of these two was described as showing promise, but it was their dancing that almost stole the show. Their specialty turn, La Veeda was particularly admired.

La Veeda contained the simple lyrics, ‘La Veeda, life of Spain, eyes that shine, like stars in the sky.’ Yet it was the dancing to this simple song that electrified the spectators. Madge dressed in very short skirt, low cut dress and broad brimmed hat was the very essence of a 1920s woman when she and Cyril danced the fox trot to the melody.

‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ was one of many musicals presented by JC Williamson and Company in the early 1920s. It’s bright and breezy numbers, daring costumes and vibrant ethos embodied the spirit of the Jazz age. It played at Her Majestys for a short period before being transferred to the newly refurbished Royal. The season lasted for several months and continually played to large audiences. It was followed by another musical, 'Theodore and Co' performed by most of the same company. Dorothy Brunton however was not in 'Theodore and Co'. She left Australia to pursue a career in films. For Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard, ‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ was the beginning of a highly successful dance partnership which would take them overseas and last for almost 20 years