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 place..gold 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 rival.