George Lauri part one

George Lauri was one of Australia’s most popular and prolific comedians. His specialty was musical comedy. He was a nimble dancer and possessed a strong baritone voice. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Lauri played almost sixty roles and was applauded for all of them. However behind the laughing stage performer was a troubled man

George John Lowe Lauri was born around 1861 in London. He was the son of John Lowe Lauri. In later reports John was described as either a pantomimist or the ballet master of the Alhambra theatre in London. What is certain is that John was a theatrical and worked extensively in Europe and America. John changed the family name from Lowe to Lauri in order to stand out in the theatrical world.

George Lauri’s early life has not been fully documented. He apparently made his stage debut aged nine, playing a monkey in a production of King Carat in the United States. George travelled extensively through England and America in his early years and probably made several appearances. At one time his parents apprenticed him to an architect but the theatre was in his blood. During his years with the architect he used to sneak off in the evenings and play small parts in local theatre productions. He used an assumed name and developed skills that would later enthral Australian audiences.

By the age of 21, George had left architecture and was working at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton England. Whilst working there he met a lovely young soubrette named Marietta Nash. The two married in London in 1882. Around 1884 they had a son, George M Lauri.

Marietta and George appeared in a variety show called A Bunch of Keys which was quite successful. George also worked in the United States and reputedly appeared in Dorothy on Broadway with Marie Tempest. George played the role of Lurcher, the sheriff, a baritone part.

While appearing in the United States in the late 1880s George was approached by Australian theatre impresario JC Williamson. Williamson was looking for a replacement for William Elton. Elton was the comedian for the Royal Comic Opera Company in Australia. The company had a high reputation and specialised in Gilbert and Sullivan and other light operas. Williamson saw Lauri and invited him to Australia to take Elton’s place. George agreed. He, Marietta, and their young son made the journey to Australia and thus began a legendary career.

George made his first appearance on Australian soil in December 1891. The show was The Merry Monarch at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. The cast included William Elton, Howard Vernon and Florence Young. George Lauri was immediately surrounded by the best comic opera talent in Australia. He was also listed as producer for The Merry Monarch. This was possibly an indication of future ambitions.

During that summer in Melbourne, George also appeared for the Australian Dramatic and Musical Association. The association was formed for the relief of distress of dramatic and musical performers. George performed at a benefit for this organisation in January 1892.

In June 1892, George made his first appearance in Sydney. It was with the Royal Comic Opera Company in a three act opera called Marjorie. He was described as ‘a comedian with high credentials from England and America.’

After the conclusion of Marjorie the company staged The Gondoliers. This was the first real test of Lauri’s abilities. The part of the Duke of Plaza Toro was one that had belonged to William Elton. Again George was surrounded by high class talent including Florence Young and Howard Vernon.

It would have been simple for George to imitate Elton and not take the risk of a unique characterisation. He had, after all, worked with Elton early in the year. Yet George decided to recreate the role in his own way. The Referee reviewed the result favourably.

Mr Lauri as the Duke of Plaza Toro created a favourable impression.

Admirably made up he made a hit in the song ‘In enterprise of Martial Kind’

which he sang well , although after Elton’s robust and droll style, the newcomer

seems quite serious. Mr Lauri was seen to advantage as a dancer in the

famous gavotte at the end of the second act and altogether acquitted himself

in a satisfactory manner.

By July 27th the paper was reporting that George was equally as successful as Elton and had won many friends in Sydney. Iolanthe and The Old Guard followed the Gondoliers. By September the Royal Comic Opera Company was taking the show to New Zealand.

The company continued to tour .They returned to Melbourne and Sydney the next year. In September 1893, the company played The Mountebanks at the Lyceum Theatre in Sydney. The production starred Flora Graupner as Nita whilst George played Bartolo the clown. The pair sang a duet called "Put a Penny in the Slot."

They appeared as a waxwork Hamlet and Ophelia changed by

a magic elixir into clockwork figures wearing a placard saying

"Put a Penny in the Slot."

George was not only a capable singer but he proved a surprisingly good dancer.

Mr Lauri also does some excellent dancing being remarkably light on his feet.

In October George appeared in La Mascotte with Australia’s premier comic opera artist, Nellie Stewart.

George’s role with the comic opera company followed a set pattern of appearances and tours of Australia and New Zealand for several years.

In August 1897, Williamson presented the Gay Parisienne. George starred as the parson, Ebenezer Honeycomb. Honeycomb was a married man who gets involved with a Parisienne whilst on holiday. The girl follows him home to England, where he fakes his own death to avoid a breach of promise suit. He then proceeds to have a wonderful time at a resort, posing as a Scotsman. His wife, daughter, the Parisienne and her lover come to the resort and chaos ensues.. This was not a Royal Comic Opera production and starred several imported faces. George’s duet with Ada Willoughby, ‘First and Third class’ was encored twice. His was the strongest voice in a company that included Ada, Alice Leamar, Pat Bathurst and George De Lara.

After this Williamson production, George left them temporarily. He joined with Harry Rickards, the Tivoli circuit owner,and presented A Bunch of Keys This was the same production which he and Marietta had staged in London. The new company was called ‘The Harry Rickards Comedy Company. A Bunch of Keys was ‘produced under the directorship of Mr George Lauri.’

The show was not well received by critics, primarily due to it’s content rather than the cast. Like many shows of the time, the plot was negligible and an excuse to present a series of variety turns. The cast included Lottie Moore, and featured the debut of Willie Freear, an English comedian.

Marietta Nash, Mrs George Lauri, featured as a wildflower, ‘and a very pretty one too.’ She and George sang a duet, "Top Floor Flat" which was ‘rapturously redemanded’ by an enthusiastic audience. Although the critics were luke warm, the show had a good run of six weeks. It was followed by Dreams or Binks the Photographer directed by George Lauri and starring the same cast.

That December, George made a rare foray into pantomime. The Harry Rickards Comedy Company staged Jack the Giant Killer. It was Rickards’ first pantomime in Australia and was staged at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. George’s performance as the old maid was regarded as ‘highly amusing’. The production was notable for the ‘Tiller Troupe of Dancers’. ‘They danced with the greatest vivacity and devil but without the slightest degree of vulgarity.’ The lack of vulgarity being a sign of Rickards’ early attempts to gentrify variety entertainment.

By 1898, George had abandoned his brief flirtation with production and was back working for JC Williamson. He rejoined the Royal Comic Opera Company for a Gilbert and Sullivan season that year. The Company included Carrie Moore, Howard Vernon and Dorothy Vane. The season in Sydney included The Gondoliers with George playing The Duke of Plaza Toro. This was later considered one of his signature roles. George’s characterisation was notable for it’s ‘high bred, stately pomposity’. The Gondoliers was followed by Yeoman of the Guard.

One of Lauri’s favourite roles was Jack Point in Yeoman of the Guard. The character was one that suffered a sad fate. Disappointed in love, at the end of the opera he falls senseless at the feet of a happy couple. It was a role that allowed George to show a darker aspect to his acting. According to the Referee, ‘the pathos of Jack Point, the jester in The Yeoman of the Guard revealed another and deeper aspect of his art.’

1899 saw George create two roles, one of which was regarded as his best work. In February he appeared in the first Sydney production of The Geisha. It co starred Florence Perry and Howard Vernon. George’s performance garnered rave reviews.

George Lauri scored the greatest hit as the Chinaman

and his excruciatingly funny business and malaprop

pigeon- English kept the house in convulsions.

A song and dance with Miss Rose Musgrove fairly brought down

the house and on the whole his performance

should be classed in the front rank of his many successes.

At the end of that year, George created the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the first Australian production of Robin Hood. It was a Royal Comic Opera Company production which included Carrie Moore and starred Charles Kenningham as Robin.

The next year, George recreated another of his famous roles, Polydore Poupart in The Old Guard. The production was staged at Her Majesty’s in Sydney and The Referee was enthusiastic.

Mr George Lauri as Polydore Poupart monopolises the greatest

part of the fun and needless to say there was not a dull moment when

he was on.

At the turn of the 20th century George Lauri had been working constantly on the Australian stage for almost nine years. He had created several comic characters for Australian audiences. He had played comedic parts in Gilbert and Sullivan, the dame in pantomime and played numerous other roles in musical comedy. He had also branched into production and direction. By 1901 George Lauri was a legend to Australian theatre audiences and a fixture with the Royal Comic Opera Company. He had a steady job in an unstable industry, a loving wife and a healthy son. George Lauri was an Australian success story.

Part Two

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