Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard
The crowds began to gather at 9am. It was a fine day with clear skies and gusty winds. The early morning sunshine glistened softly on the golden sandstone of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, as the crowd began to gather.
They were mostly women. Older women, younger women, women with children in tow. They congregated in College Street, Cathedral Street and Hyde Park. The wind blew dust and the water of the Archibald fountain over them.
By noon several thousand people had massed. Some explained to the police that they only wanted to get a good view. They were disappointed when the authorities moved them, and barriers were erected to keep them from the cathedral steps.
The trams moved carefully through the narrow lanes constructed by the barriers. There were fears that the trams could injure the spectators. As the day lengthened and 3pm drew near, over fifty police were on duty and the crowd had swelled to five thousand.
A special event had attracted the crowd this Monday morning, September 16th 1935.The wedding of two theatrical favorites, Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott.
Cyril Ritchard was born Cyril J Ritchard in Sydney in 1897. He was the eldest son of Herbert P Trimnell Ritchard and his wife Margueritte, Cyril had a younger brother Gregory and the family lived at Double Bay. Cyril, against the wishes of his family had quit a medical degree at Sydney University to take up professional dancing when he was a young man.
The bride, Madge Elliott, had been born, Leah Elliott in London in 1896. She was the only daughter of Dr NP Elliott and his wife. They had moved to Queensland when Madge was a young girl. When she was a teenager the family moved to Randwick in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Once there, Madge had begun to learn ballet and dance with Minnie Hooper. Hooper was one of Australia’s foremost dance instructors. She was well known for providing dancers for JC Williamson and Company. By the time Madge was fifteen she was dancing professionally on the Sydney stage. One of her first appearances was on the same bill as Nellie Melba.
Minnie had suggested the tall and handsome Cyril as a dancing partner for Madge. Madge had resisted at first, but the two soon became a successful professional dancing duo.
They began their rise to the top in JC Williamson productions. In the early 1920s they gained fame by appearing in a succession of musicals. In ‘Oh Lady! Lady!" they played prominent roles and danced a sizzling fox trot as a specialty turn. This performance was succeeded by a series of prominent roles in shows such as ‘Theodore and Co’, ‘Going up’ , ‘You’re in Love’, ‘A Night Out’ and ‘Kissing Time’. In ‘Kissing Time’ Madge shared top billing with veteran Alfred Frith, whilst Cyril was billed just below the title.
Although Madge was headlining in Australia she had larger ambitions. She was not interested in being one of a pair. She decided to try her luck overseas as a solo dancer. She left her partner, her family, her country and local stardom and travelled to London to try her luck.
Cyril, now partnerless also decided to try the international circuit .He chose the United States as the place to further his ambitions.
Neither one was successful as a solo artist. They gained work but not stardom. Cyril, hearing Madge was having little luck, travelled to London and the two were reunited.
The magical partnership worked again. Cyril gained the lead role in ‘Lady Luck’ and Madge was cast as his partner. They were cast in a series of musicals on London’s West End. They performed in ‘So this is Love’, ‘Love Lies’, ‘The Love Revue’ and became bona fides stars after appearing in ‘The Millionaire Kid’. The latter ran for many years. Madge and Cyril had become international dance sensations.
They returned to Australia in 1932 after five years abroad. They were a smash hit and warmly welcomed by theatre goers around Australia.
The relationship between the two was professional. Yet newspapers and gossips of the time insisted that romance was in the air. This was not the case. The two were definitely close companions. It was inevitable that their close working relationship would lead to an equally close friendship. However Cyril was homosexual, and this fact was well known amongst the theatrical community of the day. It was therefore a matter of some surprise when the couple announced their engagement a few years after returning to Australia.
Perhaps it was the continual gossip or the social pressure which caused them to marry. The pressures on a single woman would have been intense in the 1930s. Not to mention the pressure on a gay man. There could also have been a simpler reason. They were fond of each other and were professional partners. Marriage did not have to change their relationship and it would please their families.
So they decided to marry and the date was set for September 16th 1935. Controversy however was not far behind. Madge was Protestant whilst Cyril was catholic. A match that caused raised eyebrows and sectarian bickering. The naysayers said that such a mismatch was doomed to failure.
The day dawned and Madge donned her London designed wedding gown. The dress was made of deep ivory stiffened lace. It was closely fitted around the bodice and billowed out at the knees with a deep frill for a hem. Madge held a bouquet of lilies and was attended by bridesmaids dressed in china blue. The female attendants wore the first sari scarves ever seen in Sydney. They were held to their heads by coronets of blue pearls.
Cyril and Madge arrived at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney around 3pm. The crowds outside surged forward anxious to catch a glimpse of the bride. As she made her way down the aisle, the invited guests stood on the pews craning their necks to get a better view.
They were married in the sacristy, not at the altar. This was due to their different faiths. As they came out of the small room and faced the guests, some burst into applause. The priest had to remind them that they were in a house of God.
The whole ceremony had been broadcast via loudspeakers to those within and outside the cathedral. As the couple exited the building hand in hand, a gust of wind blew Madge’s veil around her head and messed her hair. Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Ritchard however, were not bothered. They waved to the fans outside and ran to their car.
The reception was held at Elizabeth Bay House. Three hundred guests were invited and hundreds of spectators gathered outside. Madge and Cyril stood in front of a tall mirror that reflected great banks of azaleas as they greeted their family and friends.
The day passed and the bride changed into a lightweight woollen suit of green, trimmed with ermine. The two sailed to New Zealand for their honeymoon. After two weeks they were joined by their company and began a tour of the country. They were after all, professional performers.
The marriage was very successful and they were, by all reports, quite happy together. They returned to England and continued their careers; During World War Two they entertained the troops with a revival of 'The Merry Widow' and continued to appear on the London stage.
Their professional partnership had lasted for twenty years and it continued after the war. Cyril became a household name in the United States and eventually became more famous internationally than Madge. Madge kept in touch with her family through all their travels and they visited Australia one final time before she became ill with leukemia.
Madge died of the disease in New York in 1955. Cyril was playing Hook in ‘Peter Pan’ at the time. He lived on for another twenty two years and became a well known director and actor in America. He died in Chicago in 1977.
Madge and Cyril had created a legend. They were lauded during their lifetimes and had a rewarding professional and private relationship. In many ways it was their ability to maintain a friendship despite their differences which remains the most touching part of their story.