In Greek mythology, Proteus was a sea god who could tell the future, but he had to be caught first. He avoided that by swiftly changing shape to escape his persuers.
The idea of changing character in the blink of an eye has always fascinated and during the 1890s the protean or quick change artist became a popular figure on the London variety stage. Australian theatre managers were quick to spot the trend and when Harry Rickards saw the Italian exponent of the art, Ugo Biondi, at the Tivoli in London he was quick to engage him for an Australian tour.
Biondi was born in Florence Italy, and was the son of a Customs Officer in that city. Up to the age of 19 he intended to follow a career in law. To that end he became a clerk in a municipal department. Freed from his parent's supervision, the young man began to visit cafes and theatres, and experienced an unhappy love affair. After that he decided to enroll in drama school and follow a career in the theatre.
According to Biondi,he began in Rome, singing a couple of songs and doing a monologue. He was paid a mere 15 shillings a week for a fortnight's work. It was not until he went to Milan that he started to do a quick change act
' First I gave duets all by myself and then I increased them to three, four and five. They were such a success that I decided to stick to that branch of the business.'
Biondi had timed this decision well. It was the height of the quick change rage, and he swiftly capitalised. He went to Spain for ten months and was paid the enormous amount of 150 pounds a month. He was then engaged for a South American tour at 250 pounds per month. Unfortunately, the manager of the tour refused to pay Biondi and it turned into a disaster.
He later called it ' the milk and water days', referring to how he had to steal milk from various doorsteps and beg water from friendly locals in order to survive.
However, shortly afterwards he received an offer from American managers Koster and Bial for 100 pounds a week and followed this with the engagement at the London Tivoli. In London, Biondi was a sensation, although he was hounded by statements that he was an inferior version of the greatest Italian protean artist of all time, Fregoli. Biondi arrived in London before Fregoli and his youth, (he was said to be 25), and quirky charm, quickly captured hearts. One infatuated young lady gave the handsome young Italian diamond and turquoise studs, sleeve links and a scarf pin.
It was during this successful and romantic engagement at the Tivoli that Biondi met Harry Rickards, owner of the Australian Tivoli circuit.
Rickards offered him 150 pounds a week plus expenses to tour Australia, This was three times the wage of the premier of NSW. As the Referee said, ' It was sufficient to make any ordinary person wish he could be born again in order that he might become a quick change artist.'
Biondi debuted at the Melbourne Opera House on July 9 1898 in front of a packed house. That Saturday night he performed two sketches, The Music Lesson and Discovered, he also conducted the orchestra.
In the Music Lesson, Biondi impersonated both the music master and the lady pupil, by using a ventriloquist doll he gave the impression that both personages were on stage at the one time.
In Discovered, he played up to five characters, it was a longer sketch in which he changed so quickly that it was difficult for the audience to believe that one man was playing all five personages. Finally he conducted the orchestra by impersonating 13 different composers in 10 minutes. He stooped behind a curtain and within seconds was transformed from one to the next.
His performance in Melbourne was rapturously received with generous applause and a warm ovation at its conclusion. The Age called him ' a good singer, a clever ventriloquist and a lightning change artist of surpassing ability.'
His turn at the Opera House attracted big crowds for the entirety of the run. He did not leave the city until August.
Biondi spoke little English and his success depended on an ability to overcome this limitation with acting and comedic skills. He was a short man with curly hair and a plump face which registered every emotion he felt. Its expressiveness and the expansiveness of his personality combined to produce a performer whose charisma breached language barriers and cultural differences.
Biondi reached Sydney in August and was booked at the Tivoli theatre. The most notable feature of his arrival was the press discussion of his wages which were said to be more than that of the NSW Premier. The Sydney press found this an admirable source of gossip.
Biondi opened his Sydney season with The Music Lesson, Discovered and conducting the orchestra. Sydney audiences were thrilled with his performance. In Discovered , Biondi impersonated a woman, her husband, her lover and a servant. The swiftness of his changes astounded the critics who said that they were 'so rapid as to be almost incredible.'
Some weeks into his Sydney run, Biondi changed his act to include his greatest sketch, Scandal in a Restaurant. This sketch was greeted with incredulity in Melbourne and it caused the same sensation in Sydney.
In Scandal in a Restaurant Biondi first appeared as an Italian waiter in a cafe. He welcomed several patrons, all played by himself. The first was, an elderly man who was having an illicit rendezvous with another mans wife. The waiter showed him to a table behind a screen placed far up stage.
Immediately afterwards a woman appeared who was also conducted behind the screen. Next came a monkey grinder who set up and played music just outside the screen, much to the annoyance of the people within. Then with his hat held out he disappeared behind the screen.
Finally the angry husband appeared, he dashed behind the screen and suddenly the organ grinder, the lady and the man were tossed from behind the screen to land on stage. Each stood up in turn and ran away. Finally the husband reappeared to chase after them. Then the waiter reappeared to conclude the sketch.
This wondrous feat of protean acting was performed in a manner which made onlookers believe that more than one person was on stage at a time, yet all characters were performed by Biondi. He was a master of the art of quick change and his popularity was due to his skill and artistry.
To conclude his second programme, Biondi impersonated several celebrities by ducking behind a screen and reappearing seconds later. Critics were amazed that not only did he change his clothes, he also changed his makeup, which was a necessity when portraying characters of different genders.
The art of quick change was said to be due to practice and experience. In fact Biondi had two loyal assistants who probably acted as dressers. The stage was also set up in a way that helped maintain the illusion of quick change.
Biondi brought a continental sensibility to his performances. The subjects of his sketches were somewhat risque, but were thoroughly enjoyed by Australian audiences, who in the late 19th century still enjoyed earthy comedy.
After Sydney, Biondi went to the Brisbane Tivoli and then to New Zealand to tour the Rickards circuit. He returned to Australia for a short time, and then went back to England. He continued to make appearances in London and the provinces and toured Ireland and South Africa.
Ugo Biondi was a performer who represented the best in protean skills. His performances in Australia were enthusiastically received by audiences and critics. Few lightning change artists could match him and he was the best exponent of the art to tour Australia to that time.
The protean act is one which was lost with the loss of vaudeville and variety. Although some rare performers appear from time to time, it is a skill that has effectively disappeared, although it is sometimes used as part of magic acts. Like many skills and acts, the protean artist was a product of a more innocent less technological age. Unlike magic which has incorporated and evolved with technology, the protean art has not been able to survive the changing times.