Minnie Tittell Brune
Minnie Tittell Brune was the most popular actress on the Australian stage between the years 1904 and 1909. Whilst in the country she performed in drama, pantomime and Shakespeare, and she became a household name in Australia and in New Zealand.
She was born Minnie Tittle in San Francisco California in 1875. In the United States census of 1880 she was listed as living with her two elder sisters, Esther and Charlotte. Her mother, Minna, or Minnie, kept a lodging house. The house was located across the road from a San Francisco theatre.
By the time the census was taken Minnie had already appeared on stage. Her first appearance was when she was four and a half. She played Little Jim in Lights of London at the Californian theatre.
Her family was very conservative. Two great aunts were nuns in Montreal. The Tittle family did not approve of theatrical ambitions, so it was ironic that all three daughters pursued a theatrical career.
After her childhood appearances on stage, Minnie went to school at a convent for about a year. However the theatre was calling, and she went on tour with Charles Frohman. She appeared in New York in ‘The Girl I left Behind’ and toured the United States with actors such as Frederick Ward and Junius Brutus Booth.
JC Williamson spotted Minnie whilst she was holidaying in Europe in the early 1900s. It is possible that she was on her honeymoon. What is certain is that Williamson engaged her for a long tour of Australia to commence in 1904. By that time she had married Clarence Brune and was billing herself as Minnie Tittell Brune.
Minnie’s arrival in Australia was not auspicious. The ship on which she and her husband travelled, The Australia, ran aground in Port Phillip Bay in June 1904. Minnie was unhurt, but she took a philosophical view of such incidents. She later told an interviewer that;
‘I was not alarmed about the wreck, though I fully realised the danger of it. If it was to have been that I should be drowned-well, that’s all about it. I t would have happened so. As it was ordained otherwise, here I am.
Minnie’s first appearance in Sydney was on Saturday September 21st 1904. The play was Sunday, ‘a story of western life’ and the place was Her Majesty’s Theatre. Minnie played Sunday, ‘the whole hearted lovable girl at a miners camp.’ She was supported by Roy Redgrave and Gaston Mervale. The performance was an astounding critical success.
It is seldom we have been favored with an actress of the ability of Miss Tittell Brune
the new leading lady Though young, Miss Brune is an artiste to her fingertips and her
characterisation of Sunday a triumphal achievement
Sunday continued until October when the same cast presented the play L’Aiglon, the eaglet. It concerned the trials of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt who was played by Minnie Tittell Brune. The role was a strenuous one. She had to memorise over one hundred and thirty type written pages of script and sustain an intense emotional pitch throughout the five act play. The Referee said
Miss Brune’s triumph was so remarkable that all the other performances
sank into comparative insignificance…her dramatic intensity fairly astounded the audience
her success was little short of sensational.
The performance was enthusiastically acknowledged by an appreciative crowd which included leaders of Sydney’s social set. She was cheered loudly and long and had to respond to several curtain calls.
L’Aiglon was followed in November by Romeo and Juliet. Minnie played Juliet and A E Greenaway played Romeo. The first night was witnessed by another fashionable crowd, which included former leading lady, Essie Jenyns. Minnie’s work as Juliet was praised by all.
Miss Brune looks the part and as for her acting- well it is on the same plane as
her previous work, which in other words means it was excellent.
At this time, Minnie was twenty nine years old. She had long dark hair and huge dark eyes. A long patrician nose graced her oblong face. She liked a quiet domestic life and was particularly fond of animals. In fact she had a bird and a dog with her on the Australia when it was shipwrecked. She was a non smoker and non drinker and was quite religious. She often quoted the bible in interviews and was not afraid to admit to religious feelings.
By May 1905 she was being called a ‘genius’. That month she performed Sunday at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. The programme notes reinforced her reputation as one of the greatest actresses to visit Australia.
She holds the audience tightly in the hollow of a diminutive palm and hers is the
conquest over tears and laughter…That is the power and that is why TITTELL BRUNE
The Age newspaper considered that her performance as Sunday had improved from the one the previous year. The paper lauded her as
One of those actresses who is always seeking to better their work
and by the exercise of their intelligence to get more and more
effect from their parts.
After this Melbourne season Minnie took a short holiday in Queensland. She commented favourably on the weather and the atmosphere in a letter to a friend
I do so want every moment I can spend in this glorious place. It is such a beautiful
world up here. I have long rides over the country in the sun glow and great
restful hours of perfect quiet, sometimes swinging under a dear old tree
with only the note of a wee bird to break the silence
The contents of the letter were leaked to the press and further enhanced Minnie’s popular appeal.
In October 1905 Minnie played Camille for the first time in Sydney. The Referee compared her favourably with Sarah Bernhardt. It concluded that her portrayal was not ‘likely to be excelled for some time.’ Unlike her contemporaries, Minnie refused to smoke in Camille. She did not blame other actresses for smoking in the part , but acted on her own feelings in the matter
It is just as one feels on these points and I feel it is not necessary.
I do not like to see women smoking in private life.
In this case Minnie’s private opinions effected her work. It did not detract from her performance but showed how strongly she held her beliefs.
The season was a long one and lasted until the end of the year. She revived Sunday , and was now calling it, her favourite play. L’Aiglon was also repeated for Sydney audiences that year.
Minnie’s love of sunshine and animals was well known to theatregoers and often they gave her pets as tokens of appreciation. Minnie had three dogs and they became the bane of hotel managers around Australia and New Zealand. She insisted on their having the best of everything and the canines were very spoilt. This caused much angst wherever she lodged.
In 1906 Minnie added La Tosca to her repertoire. La Tosca was not one of her most successful roles. Critics however, blamed the play rather than the actress for the lack of success. Minnie played La Tosca in Melbourne in February and followed it with Leah Kleschna. The latter play caused great interest amongst Melbourne theatre lovers. Full houses met every performance . Minnie’s excellence was an established fact by this time and reviewers took her talent as a given.
Regarding the Leah of Miss Tittell Brune there can only be one opinion. It is of course a very fine performance.
Leah Kleschna was followed by L’Aiglon, Romeo and Juliet, Camille and Dorothy Vernon. Minnie mixed the old established favourites with new material and scored success with each role.
In October, Minnie travelled to New Zealand where she was rapturously welcomed. Theatre managers in that country were eager to capitalise on her reputation. One enthusiastic manager was persecuted by the municipal authorities for overcrowding during Minnie’s appearance at his theatre.
Enthusiastic crowds followed her all over New Zealand. At the Wanganui Opera House the company was ‘vociferously applauded and cheered.’ At the Palmerston North Opera House, ‘Miss Brune and her colleagues gazed upon the biggest audience that has assembled in the country town.’ A striking feature of the crowds was the preponderance of women. This tour of New Zealand broke box office records in each place she visited, she was as famous there as she was in Australia.
Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney was heavily booked in advance for Minnie’s 1906 Christmas season. A packed house witnessed every play in which she performed.
In January 1907 Minnie with Thomas Kingston played in Parsifal. Minnie played Kundry, the woman who attempted to seduce the guileless Parsifal and after being rejected became a penitent. The season lasted until March 1907. That month she was voted by readers of Theatre Magazine as the most popular actress on the Australian stage.
She travelled to Hobart for a brief season after the conclusion of the Sydney run. Amongst the plays performed in Tasmania were Leah Kleschna, Dorothy Vernon, Merely Mary Ann and Sunday. The company then travelled to Melbourne.
Minnie’s reappearance in Melbourne was an occasion for ‘enthusiastic demonstrations of personal friendship and professional admiration.’ She opened in Parsifal at His Majestys in Melbourne. It was witnessed by an overcrowded house and received with standing ovations, loud cheers and several floral tributes. The reviewers suspended all criticism, assuming correctly that the season would be a critical and popular success.
Parsifal’s religious themes probably appealed to Minnie’s religious upbringing. She took her Roman Catholic faith seriously and was often conflicted about her roles as Catholic and actress. The role of Kundry, a fallen woman who sought redemption probably found some resonance in her own character. Minnie spelt out her conflict in an interview conducted around this time.
I’m an actress…but I’m also religious; I can’t help it. I can justify my actress self
to my religious self: but I can’t justify the things that you can’t separate from the
actress, the publicity, the feeling of being considered public property even off the stage.
I hate that. I don’t like when I walk down the street, to have men looking at me and
speculating about me. I hate to hear them say, "That’s Tittell Brune" and I feel
their eyes boring into my back when I’m past. It makes me feel common and I
loathe it. If I can’t disguise myself I’ve got to put up with it. But that kind of
publicity revolts me. It really does, because I am religious-I’m half a nun."
An actress as popular as Minnie would always suffer the vicissitudes of fame. Yet she appreciated the Australian audiences. She found them more responsive than those in London. They had an ability to laugh and cry in the theatre that stimulated the actress
Minnie stayed in Melbourne until May 1907. In June she appeared in Parsifal in Adelaide, and she proceeded to Brisbane in July. In Brisbane the company performed revivals of Sunday and Leah Kleschna and played Dorothy Vernon.
Minnie continued her triumphs through the year and into 1908. In September that year she gave a major interview to Sydney’s Theatre Magazine. In it she was portrayed as a conservative, sensitive, religious and spiritual woman. She admitted to writing several poems, and having a love of Tennyson, Shelley and Byron. Her hobby was fresh air, and as she was staying in Sydney at the time, she was indulging that hobby with a morning swim.
She was playing in Peter Pan that month. It was a piece that mixed drama, comedy and pantomime and was produced with the usual lavish care and attention of JC Williamson. As Peter, Minnie acted with ‘a vivaciousness that was necessary to the piece and her mischievous though human childish pranks were charming.’
The production was greeted with the ‘greatest fervour’ and plans were made for a benefit. The benefit went ahead a week after opening night on a Saturday afternoon. The poor children of Sydney were invited and enjoyed an amazing experience with Australia’s pre-eminent actress.
Minnie enjoyed the role of Pan. Like many actresses she liked the freedom of performing in breeches. She said that the main advantage of being a ‘boy’ on stage was the fact that she did not have to trouble with dresses. Many actresses of the day preferred the ‘boy’ roles because of the convenience of the clothing.
After Peter Pan, Minnie played Diana, in Diana of Dobsons. The story concerned a spirited shopgirl who inherited three hundred pounds. The romantic interest was an ex army captain who the girl condemned for his wastrel life. Diana and the Captain lived happily ever after and Minnie Tittell Brune had another hit . As Diana, Minnie had found a part that allowed her to show rebelliousness and pathos. It was a fine addition to her repertoire.
Diana of Dobsons was quickly followed by another revival of Sunday and in November by The Girl of the Golden West.
By March 1909 Minnie had returned to Melbourne and was preparing for her final months in Australia. In May she returned to Sydney for her last performances.
Her last show was Sunday at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. At the fall of the curtain a young girl from the stalls stood up and gave a five minute speech. Speaking on behalf of Minnie’s fans in Australia, the girl wished the actress the best of luck in London. The young woman was one of many female admirers of the actress. Her name was Miss Eagleheart and she asked the theatre manager for an introduction to her idol. The manager obliged and the young admirer spoke to Minnie in her dressing room for a considerable time. It was a gracious gesture from an actress who no longer needed the good will of the Australian press.
Minnie Tittell Brune’s five year sojourn in Australia was over. She left the colony to try her luck in London. She met with limited success in that competitive environment.
In April 1910 she played in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with HB Irving at the Queens Theatre in London. She also played Shakespeare that year, playing the chorus in Henry V. She continued to be steadily employed with a role as the female lead in a play called The Eternal Question at the Garrick Theatre.
Minnie had few London appearances in 1911. Her major role being in a play called The Woman on the Case at the Coronet theatre. The next year she returned to New York and made a brief appearance at the Manhattan Opera House in An Aztec Romance. She probably played other cities in the United States in that year. By 1913 she was back in London and in 1917 she was singing at the Coliseum in that city.
There are very few records of Minnie after this date. Her fame had peaked in Australia. She lived a very long life and experienced success. As she grew older the ‘nun half’ of her became more prominent.
Minnie lived to the age of 99 and died in Los Angeles in her home state of California in September 1974. She was living as a member of the Order of St Francis and was laid to rest with a Catholic service.
Minnie had the good fortune to indulge the two sides of her character She enjoyed immense success as an actress and appeared to have found peace in a convent. Although little known in her own country, she was a major figure in the history of the Australian stage.