It was a JC Williamson tradition to stage Christmas pantomimes. At Christmas 1914, the company produced Cinderella at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. The show was mounted under circumstances of hardship with personnel shortages and import restrictions. Despite these disadvantages, JC Williamson produced a sumptuous and lavish pantomime that continued the annual tradition. It mixed messages of good cheer with patriotic themes
Pantomime in 1914 was a strange amalgam of burlesque, music hall and fairy tales. Australian pantomimes were elaborate affairs with large casts and gigantic artistic backdrops. They owed much to the English Victorian tradition. They included all the elements expected of pantomime. A plot line focussed on good versus evil, a principal boy played by an actress, and a dame played by a man. They also included audience participation and topical allusions.
Cinderella opened at Her Majesty's in Melbourne on December 19th 1914. It boasted two acts of eighteen scenes crowded with features and novelties. Amongst the scenes were, the astonishing fishing scene, the comic kitchen utensils ballet, and the animated music sheet. In the latter, Mr. Leslie Gaze sang, "I’ll never miss a girl like you". The sheet music and words were his backdrop with the vocalist’s heads appearing as holes in the notes. Another scene, much commented upon by critics, was the fascinating beauty pageant. In this scene, famous beauties from history were represented. Amongst them were Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and Josephine. This ensured that beautiful and scantily clad women were included as one of the show’s attractions. The production also featured the first appearance of an escalade, a moving platform, on which the March of the Allies was presented. Thus was patriotism mingled with the pageantry, glamour and lavish spectacle of pantomime. The performance lasted three and half-hours and began at 7.30pm. It was designed as entertainment for the Christmas holidays in Melbourne and for the Easter season in Sydney.
The JC Williamson company painstakingly assembled the large sets and casts of Cinderella. Pantomime not only gave actors, dancers and singers holiday employment, it also employed hundreds of stage staff. The backdrops were so well designed that they were works of art in their own right. For Cinderella, scenery designer, J H Coleman painted a backcloth forty feet long by thirty-six feet high. The audience saw it for four seconds. Another backcloth, which revolved behind the horses drawing Cinderella’s carriage, was an immense panorama. According to the Referee newspaper, the canvas used in the scenery if placed end to end would have stretched from the Melbourne post office to St. Kilda Junction. A mile and a half of timber was used to construct the sets. Four hundred and twenty costumes and over seven hundred properties were used. These figures give some idea of the scale of the production. An expensive display in the middle of wartime.
Over three hundred people appeared in this display. Most were chorus singers, ballet dancers, and extras. The major characters were the ones who attracted the audiences and maintained the box office receipts. The war however, had deprived Williamsons of many of their top stars. Therefore new stars had to replace those lost to wartime commitments.
All the traditional pantomime characters appeared in Cinderella. Minnie Love played the principal boy. This character was often chosen on the basis of good looks and trim figure rather than for talent. It was rare for a woman to be seen in breeches and the role gave the world an opportunity to see a well-turned female leg. Minnie Love was ‘tall and shapely’ and understood how to dress to the best advantage. As a bonus she was also a talented singer and dancer.
Another essential element of pantomime was the dame. A part traditionally played by a man. This tradition could be traced back to the era when women were not permitted on stage. The dame was the comic relief of the programme. In Cinderella this part was played by Arthur Stigant. Arthur was forty three at the time and a newcomer to the Australian theatre. He was a popular and critical success in the role. The audience greeted his droll witticisms and rubbery facial expressions with laughter. In addition he had an ability to tell a good story which had been honed in the pantomimes of England.
Barry Lupino was the other comedic element. Lupino played various roles throughout the pantomime. He was a singer, a dancer and an acrobat. In the kitchen scene he shot into the air through a trap, grabbed a triangle eight feet above the stage, and flew over the heads of the audience. It was an acrobatic and exciting display.
Cinderella could not be complete without the ugly stepsisters. Gertie Latchford and Dollie Harmer played these two roles. Often men played the ugly stepsisters. However the man power shortage that first Christmas of the war probably prevented this. Dolly Castles, who was described as being nervous on the first night, played Cinderella. Jack McCardle, another newcomer to the Australian stage played the baron.
Pantomime as an artform was topical and Cinderella was no exception. War inspired patriotism pervaded the production. The elaborate "March of the Allies" was an example of this. The March represented the nations of Russia, France, Britain, Belgium, Australia and other allies. The audience roared in appreciation when the yellow and dark blue colours of Belguim walked onto the escalade. At that time the little country was defending itself grimly against Germany.
Cinderella also included patriotic songs, such as the Fairy Godmother’s rendition of "Fighting for the motherland’ and "Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers.’ These songs were modern interpolations into the traditional pantomime. Even the dame contributed to the war time references with a riddle. The dame proposed changing the name of Berlin to Ber-in because the Russians were going to knock the ‘ ‘ell out of the name’. Pantomime’s structure was such that it could include such interpolations. In another period these songs and sketches would not have had a place in Cinderella.
Another feature of the Australian pantomime was the Australianisation of the form. Cinderella included at least one song, "As we stroll down Swanston Street’ that contained a Melbourne reference. Many more would have referred to Australian issues or places. The songs changed according to locality.
All good pantomimes included large amounts of audience participation. The audience hissed the villain, and applauded the heroes. They laughed at the riddles of the dame and cursed the machinations of the stepsisters. In Cinderella, the audience had special involvement. The management instituted a contest. The aim of the contest was to create an alliterative chorus to ‘Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers.’ One smart theatregoer submitted
Brother Bob’s become a blooming bugler
Bob’s battalion bets Bob’s bugle blows the biggest blares
Big Brigadiers berate him
Bombardiers begin to hate him
But the brass band boasts because of that bright bugle Bobby bears
The matinee performances of Cinderella also included a harlequinade. The harlequinade included Jack McArdle as Pantaloon, Charles Albert as Harlequin, Barry Lupino as clown, Arthur Stigant as butcher and Maggie Dickinson as Columbine. The basic plot was that everybody loved Columbine, and that there were various situations that prevented each man from possessing her, until the hero, Harlequin won the fight. The harlequinade involved chases and slapstick scenes. It delighted children and adults and was a prime attraction for the Cinderella matinee. The fact that the harlequinade was relegated to a matinee feature illustrated how the traditions of pantomime were fast disappearing from the theatre.
It was the first Christmas of the First World War and life was grim for many people. Australians were giving their lives in Europe and the public was clamouring for cheer amidst the depression. Pantomime responded to that call with comedy, patriotism and a fairy tale in the form of Cinderella.