Harry Rickards was born Henry Benjamin Leete in London, the son of an engineer who worked in Egypt. His date of birth has been recorded as 1841, 1843 or 1847. The exact date is unknown. Harry's father, the engineer Benjamin Leete, was a puritan who reportedly disapproved of his son's profession. Harry was the eldest of a family of three sons and six daughters.
As the eldest Harry was expected to follow his father into the engineering trade. To this end he was apprenticed to an engineer in England. Harry, even as a young man, had other plans. He ran away to the stage, but was hauled back and thrashed by his father. Somehow, at age 16 Harry got the nerve to try again. There were reports that an accident, where he lost the tips of his fingers, motivated him. Regardless of motivation, Harry auditioned for Wilton of Wilton's music Halls. His fine voice and gift for imitation, secured him a job in the 1860s, paying two pounds a week.
By 1868 his original two pounds per week had become twenty. Henry Leete was now calling himself Harry Rickards,after a prominent music hall actor, Henry Rickards, and he had embarked upon a career as a comic singer in music halls.
Rickards arrived in Australia for his first tour in November 1871. He was well received by the press of the time. It was a long tour , and Harry sang such songs as "Piccadilly", ' I know My Way About', and the character song "General Jinks". A purported lyric for the latter from the Original Rickards songbook of 1872 was;
I'm General Jinks of the fallbacks blue,
looked up to, and respected too
Tho I know that General Hullaboloo
Is my nickname in the army.
The song was a popular one which was whistled and sung in the streets where Rickards played.
The Harry Rickards company played in Australia until 1874, when they travelled to San Francisco. Whilst there, Harry met the woman who was to become his second wife. Her name was Katie Angel, a native Australian, who was a member of a family gymnast troupe. By 1878, Harry had divorced his first wife Carrie, and married Katie Angel, who was henceforth known as, Katie Leete, or Katie Rickards. She joined the company.
The whole crew returned to England in 1887 when the death of a daughter and the 'threatened loss of two others', led to a return to the warmer climate of Australia the following year.
By the end of 1892, the Rickards family had returned to Australia to stay. In addition Harry's brother John C Leete had joined the family business. Rickards had sole right to Albert Chevalier's songs in Australia at the time, and his renditions of " Mrs 'Enry Awkins" and " Ta-ra-ra boom-di-ay" ensured his popularity.
Originally the company performed at the Old Opera House on the corner of King and York Streets, Sydney. However, in April 1893, Harry leased the Garrick Theatre in Castlereagh Street Sydney. The Theatre later became the Tivoli under his ownership. Perhaps his worst moment in theatrical management came shortly after he became owner of the theatre, when it was completely destroyed by fire in 1899.
At the turn of the century, Rickards had a virtual monopoly on variety theatre in Australia. He had driven out his smaller rivals and had a chain of theatres around the country. They included the Tivoli in Sydney, the New Opera House in Melbourne, The Adelaide Tivoli, and the Palace Gardens in Perth. He also had theatre interests in New Zealand.
Rickards was by all accounts a liberal and generous man. He was also a shrewd businessman, who made a great deal of money through his theatrical enterprises. He was known as the "governor" Guv'nor" or "guv" by his employees. He was well liked by those who performed for him and many big names, such as Cinquevalli, returned to Australia for repeat performances for the Tivoli. His rates of pay for overseas acts, matched or excelled those offered in Europe or the United States.
Harry was also a beneficent man who gave a charity performance for the poor every Christmas. Often he would appear personally at these performances. He had a keen sense of humour, which must have helped him in both his career as an artist and as a manager. A story was told of how Harry and a friend got into a 'rough up' with two cabbies who took them to court over the incident.
Were you the worse for liquor?" asked the magistrate
" your worship " answered Harry Rickards "throughout
a long, and if I may say it, successful career, I have never let
drink interfere with business. We had a drink after we had finished
with these men.
Harry was also a very superstitious man. He would not engage a performer or sign a cheque on either a Friday or the 13th of the month. He would not produce play bills with black letters on a yellow background, and Tosti's "Goodbye" was a forbidden song. It had apparently been sung on the night " The Tiv" burnt down. Another anecdote had Harry tearing down and replacing green wallpaper with blue, after being told that green wallpaper was bad luck.
Rickards lived at Canonbury, Darling Point, surrounded by theatrical memorabilia.
During his annual overseas trip in October 1911, Harry became ill. Five specialists were called in to attend Harry, but the situation was hopeless. On Friday the 13th October 1911, this superstitious legend of the stage, passed away in England. He had suffered a heart attack.
He was described in obituaries as "one of the most generous of men." His son in law Edward Maas referred to him as "an affectionate husband, kind father, and sterling friend in private life." His last performance had been at the Tivoli Christmas benefit for the poor in 1910.
Harry's body was brought back to Sydney for burial. The Englishman who went back to the mother country every year, found a final resting place in his adopted city. The Tivoli chain of theatres closed their doors for a week to honour his memory. The advertisement for the Tivoli in Sydney simply read, "This theatre will be closed for one week owing to the death of Mr Harry Rickards."
By Leann Richards
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