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.
Celia was working in vaudeville at the Cremorne Theatre in Perth when Wiliamson recruited her. Soon she was working 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. 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 the theatrical life, she coped well with the frantic schedule that often stressed other performers, she seemed to thrive 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 with him. 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 her husband 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 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 upon returning to Australia 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 on her career.
She could not fit into modern dress and this caused her some distress especially with 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 wont 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 publicly,
“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 preformed 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, possiibily 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 to her 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.
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