Chapter VII. — Footlights
To get a seat—or even, if you want technical exactitude, part of a seat—meant waiting for hours and hours. Nobody minded: the early comers to the queue in the little alley outside Wellington's alleged Opera House (never within my memory used for opera, and now converted into a cinema) kept cheerful because of their pre-eminent position—squashed flat against the closed doors. Late arrivals still had the bloom of optimism and the sociability of a cup of tea upon them. It was when the doors actually opened, and having climbed up a few hundred twisted stone steps, you realized you'd have to climb at least twice that number again before getting to the security of the Gods, realized too that the fat woman just behind you was showing the unexpected agility with which fat people so often do startle their competitors, that you felt a second's hatred of the man who planned that stairway.
Only for a moment… . then you were aloft, looking down over row and row of semi-circular wooden benches. A portion on one of these was your fate for the evening. Not anything so majestic as a seat. When the rows began to fill, a white-haired man used to wander along the aisles, shouting, “Hey, there, Cocky, move along, move along,” to your blushing cavalier. Usually “Cocky” had no objection. And while downstairs in the blue-plushed stalls solemn people purchased programmes and scorned the youthful vendors of “Swee-ee-eets,” upstairs peanuts and horrible home-made toffees were page 80 produced, and faces flushed rosy with the carmine de félicité.… . You can't buy that in pots.
At first, of course, it was only pantomime. Why only, when the pantomimes were in their fashion both wonderful and beautiful, which is more, Lord knows, than one can possibly say about musical comedies of to-day? There was a dazzling moment, brown and sunflower-gold, when girls who were all metamorphosed into butterflies of those shades came swinging out right over the stalls, on invisible wires.… That was surely magic, the opening brown and gold wings and the cheeky flowers pelted down, some of them falling right into the Gods. Then there was the smiling man with the snow-white poodles, eight of them, and after that a scene of weird magnificence and murk in Aladdin's cave, green and ruby-coloured demons arising in self-coloured puffs of smoke from the ground.
A solemn little girl came on and sang “When You Wore a Tulip.” Everybody admired her and her small partner very much, and the song, it was the first time Wellington had heard it, we thought very pretty. Many people whistled it.… But the little girl didn't sing it for the whole of the tour; her ballet skirts caught fire in the wings one night, and she was rushed away, to die in Wellington Hospital. Poor child of the yellow tulips—I don't suppose many have been so overwhelmed with flowers as she was in her sudden, lonely death.
The old Opera House was great, anyhow, in its way: all old Opera Houses throughout New Zealand are much the same. Blue or crimson plush, much-worn gilding, fat disconsolate plaster cupids which are invariably in dreadful need of washing. But here on the stage now empty, and watched only by the strange meaningless faces that flicker up from the cinema screen, Pavlova danced the Swan Dance, wonderful despite the fact that every alleged dancing teacher had taught a mimicry of it to the stolid page 81 bodies and fat little legs of her pupils: and here one entered the fairy-tale of the Toy Ballet, where Pavlova was the Fairy Doll. Impossible not to remember a little of that witchery, when the lights are turned down and people file quietly out of the theatre. Pavlova, never a vain woman in herself, was very jealous that the legend of her dancing should not be spoiled in any detail. An Auckland photographer, whose gallery of celebrities is the most complete in New Zealand, told me that of all his stars, she was the most exacting. No studio portraits, with a few vamped-up effects in the background, for the Fairy Doll, over whom, I remember, one customarily reserved paper went into a sort of poetic trance, and produced the phrase, “arms like the swaying stems of water-lilies.” Pavlova, and any other members of her company who were to appear in the photographs taken, always went down to the theatre, and had the picture taken so that it was correct and artistic in every touch. She was no poseuse for every chance camera: result… the Fairy Doll, dead after a long life under her dancing star, is never libelled by photographs which travesty her art.
Although not comparable to Pavlova, Maud Allen was the first classical dancer of any note to appear on the New Zealand stage. She had a court case over in Sydney.… According to Maud, her ankle was badly damaged. According to the general public, the real trouble was that her houses weren't particularly full.
Lovely Adeline Genee eclipsed her, and is well remembered here. In her company travelled Volinine, the astonishing Russian dancer, who followed a rather expensive old custom of cavalier days, always smashing his wine-glasses that none other should drink from them. However, Volinine paid up for his shattered glasses. One night in the Wellington Opera House he performed a wild gipsy dance with so much vigour that the Gods, not content with page 82 mere applause, rained coppers down on him. Volinine was simply furious: no hurdy-gurdy man was he, and he didn't like his compliments paid in copper. His partner was Viasta Novotna, a very beautiful Bohemian girl.
Those early days of the New Zealand stage were in some ways more adventurous than any we can brag of in the 'thirties, though nowadays any tiny hamlet which hasn't its own cinema must indeed be “last, loneliest, loveliest.” Although, in the very beginning of things, not so many companies thought it worth while to tour New Zealand, local societies whose ambitions, compared to the mild amateur theatrical aspirations of to-day, were as whisky and soda beside a particularly gentle cup of tea, had some great times. Down South started Pollard's Lilliputian Operas, from which numerous little New Zealanders eventually graduated to “the boards.” Mrs. Pollard, whose husband started this famous company, I met once in Christchurch — a quiet, gentle lady whose memory of the funny side of their great theatrical adventure was astonishing, and who possessed a huge pile of photographs of the “baby stars.” Gilbert and Sullivan operas were the company's chef d'oeuvre, and to doubt that the performances were really good would be to go against the judgment of every theatrical man and every newspaper critic of those high and far-off times.
May Beatty, who has since come back to New Zealand with more than one stage company, and is now a stoutish but highly diverting comedienne, was the Pollard Opera Company's black sheep and darling combined… always in mischief, but always bringing laughter into the most difficult situations.
Melodrama meant, of course, Bland Holt, who is still living in Melbourne. Bland Holt it was who, during one of his “thrillers,” “Lady Godiva,” brought on to the stage the first real, live horse ever page 83 to appear on New Zealand boards. I regret to say that in sedate Christchurch the horse disgraced itself, providing a moment of stupefied embarrassment for both company and audience. All the frantic efforts of scene-shifters failed to get the horse off the stage.
With one of the earliest companies to play Shakespeare in New Zealand was a woman who has since become mildly celebrated in quite another walk of life… . Louise Jordan Miln, whose novels of Chinese life, “Mr. Wu,” “Rice,” “The Feast of Lanterns,” and so forth, started on the road to popularity about fifteen years ago, and are steady “best-sellers.” Her husband was a principal in the company, which did not (in New Zealand), enjoy a great deal of financial success. One is glad to think of the East, to which Mrs. Miln turned after her departure from this part of the world, opening its lacquered doors on an unexpected happiness and prosperity.
Of course, Allan Wilkie and his slender Burne-Jones wife are inevitably associated with Shakespeare in New Zealand. For a long time (after seeing the Wilkie performance in “Twelfth Night,” when the only really memorable little cameo of acting was provided by a long-legged jester who sat before a fire, singing “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?”) I thought that as far as New Zealand is concerned, the greatest of all Shakespearean tragedies is Mr. Wilkie himself. After seeing “Macbeth” played two years ago by the Sybil Thorndike company, I have modified that opinion. The enormous difficulties of putting on Shakespeare—turning the clock of centuries back for an indifferent audience—became obvious in the complete failure of Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson to make “Macbeth” convincing. Sitting through that play — with many of the audience sniggering over the succession of violent deaths, they don't mind buckets of blood in the page 84 Edgar Wallace manner, but there has to be a six-shooter and a phoney detective in the picture somewhere—was a nightmare experience. And it made me think with retrospective sympathy of the second-rate little company who year after year persevered in presenting Shakespearean plays throughout New Zealand, too.
There were some desperately funny little crises in plays of the old days. Gaston Mervale, villain of Sherlock Holmes melodramas and considered somewhat spectacular as the nightmare doctor of “The Speckled Band,” absolutely refused to play unless he could have a real snake. As New Zealand laws prohibit the importation of such (though Australian hardwood poles sometimes bring in a wriggling contribution, thus proving once again that God disposes though the Government proposes) this proved something of a strain on the nerves of all. The difficulty was overcome by the use of a carefully-smuggled but very harmless grass snake. It came to a bad end, being assaulted and fatally damaged by a rat. After that, the rubber article had to do Mr. Mervale, who came over to New Zealand to produce plays for the ambitious Auckland Little Theatre Society some few years ago, was unable to get on with the committee of that body, and changed over to the Catholic Repertory Society.
In Christchurch, amateur actors were not to be daunted by trifles. On one occasion, a hero was bidding a fond farewell to his sweetheart in her tiny attic room. Setting — said attic, an upstairs window, a door. Rushing to the door, and waving a last goodbye, he discovered to his horror that it had stuck. There was no other apparent exit, but this was a young man of “infinite resource and sagacity.” Crying “Goodbye” yet again, he made a dive for the window and stepped through it—regardless of the fact that to the best knowledge of the audience, he had to descend three storeys through empty air before reaching Mother Earth.page 85
Once and once only, also in Christchurch, I have seen Grand Guignol stuff attempted, by the Christchurch Little Theatre Society. It was a dreadful experience. One playette, christened “The Nut-cracker Suite,” depicted the terrible vengeance of a cuckolded husband on his faithless wife and her paramour. He inveigles them to a house in the mountains carefully fitted with a moving ceiling, crushes them flat between ceiling and floor, whilst the strains of “The Nutcracker Suite” tinkle merrily in the distance. To watch the canvas ceiling descend in jerks, showing the empty space of the theatre beyond, was a gruesome ordeal for the most carefully repressed sense of humour.
Marie Ney's blonde charm has served one of the biggest overseas stage successes any New Zealander can boast. The lights of London have twinkled approvingly on many a hit in which she has appeared—ranging from works of “The Bard” to a rattling good version of “The Three Musketeers.” Nor must one overlook the fair Isobel Wilford, who made a hit in one of Tallulah Bankhead's negligeé parts.
Once within memory every seat at the Auckland Town Hall has been booked right out on the day the box plans opened. This was for Galli Curci's first New Zealand tour. Amelita Galli Curci is one of the very few singers who could win a success of personality, apart altogether from the quality of her voice. I heard her sing during the several concerts of her second tour: her youth and her gift were both so far on the wane that the Galli Curci legend would have been utterly defeated—had she not remained Galli Curci. I have never seen any other artist so completely and easily change the mind of an audience which came prepared for the worst. Her voice was thistledown — yet its tenuous, gleaming, floating little by little took the imagination, its delicate notes were as lovely as ever was the famous nightingale page 86 trill of her early days. She was almost hidden in flowers… . . huge masses of native clematis and shining kowhai: and always, in the moments of her triumph, she dragged her quiet, red-haired husband, Homer Samuels, into the limelight, and the goblinesque flautist whose music so skilfully enhanced the delicacy of her own singing. The concerts of the second tour were notable as a work of art, if not as a really outstanding musical performance.
The little Spanish singer, alive to her finger-tips, became a figure of note in the city during her stay there. She was not one of those deplorably uninteresting and stodgy concert artists who, on arrival at a strange place, instantly go to bed and continue just to grow fatter and fatter. On board ship she joined in all the deck games. A little Auckland dress designer of real originality—the first, I think, to introduce quaint “longs” and braces, coupled with bright-hued shirts, for women's wear — was enchanted to have Amelita come in and buy half a dozen outfits of this kind, for her voyage home. The Galli Curci press photographs, mostly open-air ones, taken on her wonderful dahlia farm or by the swimming pool where she and her husband spend the summers, were the desire of the informal sort of paper's heart, but Galli Curci, on her second tour, left behind her just one photograph inscribed with a special personal message. And this was not given to a friend, but to a girl who worked in a music shop, and who had made a speciality of introducing Galli Curci records to all-comers. “If you play my records,” said the little singer, “it is for you to have this.” And she handed over the portrait. At another store, she came in late one evening, kept the assistants some minutes after their usual time for departure. Every girl in that department received a gift of chocolates. Small things… . . yet, in a crowd of artists who deliberately cultivate an unpleasant manner with those not in a position to page 87 help them, I think Galli Curci's natural and spontaneous charm stands out like a ruby among French paste diamonds. She wore vivid colours always… . . perhaps she will not come back again, the “Nightingale,” but at least, as few singers on the wane of their powers can claim, she was more warmly welcomed in New Zealand in her sunset than in the earlier years.
The most comic incident of Dame Clara Butt's New Zealand tour was her appearance in Wellington in a glittering silver frock. From the Gods rang out the voice of one who evidently liked them massive: “Luvly tart!” Dame Clara joined in the roar of mirth.
Peter Dawson, stubby but cheerful little Australian of lyric song fame, was distinctly unhappy in the circumstances of his New Zealand tour with Mark Hambourg. Hambourg, whose reputation rested on classical performance, supplied the “popular” items, whilst Dawson, whom an enormous gramophone audience had adored because he could give them rousing sea chanteys and songs about Somerset's apples, for some reason known only to God concentrated on interpretations of Tennyson's “Maud,” with operatic items clustered about this dubious masterpiece. The results were what might have been expected… . even had Dawson not been hopelessly out of voice, owing to a severe cold, when he arrived in Auckland. But I saw the Australian do one of the pluckiest things that any famous, or once famous, singer has ever attempted, during a performance at the very unpleasant and draughty Auckland Concert Chamber. In a star item, he broke down hopelessly—no mere matter of a cracked note, he was simply unable to finish his song. Instead of leaving the stage in confusion or temper, as most people would have done, he came forward, smiled, made an apologetic and humorous little speech about his cold. He was more loudly page 88 applauded for that speech than for any of his earlier items, and when (Hambourg having gallantly filled the breach), Peter was able to take his place on the stage again, the crowd cheered him to the echo. The Australian singer has had his ups and downs—the “downs” including singing in Sydney cinemas—but if that has taught him to “meet with triumph and disaster” as coolly as he did on this occasion, he has some reason to be grateful for his stiff training.
Mark Hambourg was amusing: and, during Dawson's incarceration with his cold, he gave his fellow artist all the limelight that he possibly could. Interview Mark Hambourg, and you got a first-rate story—about Peter Dawson. Hambourg was a fat little man who wore elastic-sided boots (I lie not!) and hand-knitted black woollen gloves. I had never seen anything quite like them before. He was completely enamoured of a French bulldog, which as a matter of fact had a sort of ghost of his own kindly expression: he is a connoisseur of tobacco and wines, and chooses all the cigar and vintage selections of one of the most exclusive clubs in London.
And needless to say, I met the very antithesis of such pleasantly informal people. I think the most unbending singer I ever had the pleasure of interviewing (well, it was a pleasure, in a morbid sort of way), was Joseph Hislop. Mr. Hislop had some excuse. He had not recovered from Australia, where, to judge from his comments, he was far from properly appreciated. Dame Melba's “Sing 'em muck,” was absolutely nothing to Joseph Hislop's vitriolic comment on Australia and Australians. “The fools,” he told me, with some feeling, “they lie about in the sun all day, thinking of nothing but burning their bodies black or pushing a bit of leather around. If they're not careful, they'll lose their country some day. And serve them right, too. They all look like pigs.” Being of semi-demi- page 89 Australian lineage myself, I was a little puzzled and anxious about the porcine appearance of Australians, but constructive criticism always comes in handy soon or late, so herewith Mr. Hislop's, just as he handed it out in his suite at Hotel Cargen.
Hislop's assumption of the abysmal ignorance of all colonials was funny. A friend came in: he discoursed in French concerning the woefulness of having to see reporters.…… Quite good French, if not so expressive as his English had been when he was on the topic of Australians.
The first musician of any note whom I can clearly remember was Jean Gerardy, the 'cellist. Mellow, soft, gleaming, the notes of that perfect instrument, though it was said that Gerardy as an artist had been ruined by wealth. The most hard-hearted were sorry about the tragedy of Michel Cherniavsky's £1,000 'cello…… dropped and smashed on a New Zealand railway station. Its owner was in tears, and could not even bear to examine the ruin of his beloved instrument. Jan, Michel and Leo (pianist, 'cellist and violinist of one of the most harmonious trios New Zealand has ever known)… . were first here, by the way, in company with Maud Allen.
Melba's name was bestowed on a series of creams and perfumes displayed in New Zealand after her tour here. They were christened “Love Me” and “Ador' Me”—rather characteristic of the diva's vanity.
A picturesque personality was Balokovic, the Slav violinist who a few years ago arrived in New Zealand in his wife's gleaming white yacht, Northern Light. Northern Light was about the most perfect little craft that had ever glided into Auckland harbour, and sensation-hunters were much disappointed and annoyed when all access to the wharf where she lay moored was cut off, and sentries posted at the gate. This was natural, for page 90 Balokovic and his wife lived on board the yacht, and he put in hours of practice every day. Though not at all a nervous or “temperamental” person, the violinist could hardly have practised among a gaping crowd. He was far from being unsociable or inhospitable — indeed, I found him one of the most charming men I have ever interviewed, and his wife, whose maiden name is Joyce Borden and who is a sister of Mary Borden, the celebrated novelist, one of the most helpful women. A slim, graceful little figure in a cream tam-o-shanter and spotless yachting costume, she made interviewers at home “below decks,” where her husband was to be discovered in a gorgeously florid dressing-gown, and eating enormous slices of chocolate cake with a gusto that made one feel here, at least, was one violinist not irretrievably “grown up.” Balokovic caused much interest, in Auckland, among his fellow-Slavs, Dalmatians and wanderers from tiny European states, who came down in full force from the far North to welcome their kinsman. Nor was he ungrateful. I have seen letters that drifted back to them months later, when the Northern Light was cruising in sunny waters again—letters unreadable to me, for they were in the unforgotten tongue of his own homeland. His young wife was obviously proud of him—and one couldn't wonder. His artistry was real, though naturally a handsome face and an excellent platform manner did nothing to detract from it.
Joyce Borden (or Madame Balokovic) was something of a feather in my own journalistic cap. I persuaded her to write for the New Zealand Observer the exclusive story of her own wanderings with the violinist throughout the South Seas, where the Northern Light had lazed along “where the parrot islands lie.” Busy though she must have been — for where's the city that won't lionise a wealthy and charming young American and a gifted page 91 musician? — those scribbled sheets, a story written in a fluent and interesting style, came in on time. And though Madame Balokovic confessed that she found our New Zealand rates of pay (a mere two guineas for the tale) disconcertingly small, she had a twinkle in her eye when she said so: I think it really amused her to earn something herself on her husband's concert tour.
One of the first actresses from whom I had to extract an interview was tall, blonde Margaret Bannerman. Her plays were a success, which may explain in part why she was so pleasant to a very young and nervous journalist in her suite at the Midland Hotel in Wellington. The paper for which I was interviewing her was Truth—not at any time exactly a social journal, but its then editor, “Te Pana” Burns, had a brief spurt of enthusiasm about the importance of the “women's side”: I was the innocent victim thereof. Margaret Bannerman unloaded Turkish cigarettes and chocolates, showed me every item in the most gorgeous trousseau I have ever seen any actress unfold, talked about books.… Her clothes were real, too, no stage wardrobe, but filmy things bought in Paris, little hats made out of human hair (the first brought to New Zealand), ensembles green and fantastically light as flower-petals. She wore these for her stage appearance, prided herself on never donning a shabby costume which owed any glitter it might possess to the footlights. I have never met another actress who didn't look much better when on stage…… unless, perhaps, it was Margaret Rawlings, who played “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and “Happy and Glorious” throughout New Zealand. I'm afraid that as an actress she was a very good elocutionary teacher (indeed, John Masefield had singled her out as a remarkable elocutionist, in her Oxford days), but she was a most lovable and interesting girl. I interviewed her page 92 when she was seated in state in a barber's chair— and she managed to keep both the barber and the interviewer comfortable, which is more than most actresses could boast. She was born and brought up in Japan, loves Japanese manners and customs.… We found that we both liked the same book, “The Needle Watcher,” perhaps the best study of Japanese life that has ever been written by a white man.
The really adorable lady of the “Barretts of Wimpole Street” company was, of course, Flush, the blue roan cocker spaniel, doomed by the irate Mr. Barrett to a watery grave on his daughter's elopement. I'm glad that the play permitted Flush to escape, even a stage death for a blue roan cocker of such impeccable manners and such a humorous little face would be too much altogether for this scribe.
“Happy and Glorious” was the only war play, with the exception of Sheriff's “Journey's End,” that has been shown in New Zealand. “Journey's End” — all whizz-bangs, no women, much shouting— went over with a bang, literally as well as figuratively. “Happy and Glorious,” which was a real play, enjoyed houses half-full, and restless, laugh-at-the-wrong-moment houses at that. It was queer, and anything not perfectly plain or simple is passing comprehension in New Zealand. “Macbeth,” poor martyr, suffered similarly. Had Macduff, in the closing scene, simply pulled out a revolver, banged it off and shouted, “You're dead,” all would have been well. But when the severed and covered head was brought in, the company not feeling game to introduce revolver practice into the Dark Ages, wild mirth was the result. “Happy and Glorious” evoked the same sort of reaction. Perhaps it was too much in earnest to be a good play…… and perhaps, yes, the public is always right, and living doggerel is better than your dead Shakespeare.
When Sybil Thorndike's company played Euripides' “Medea,” and played it splendidly, at page 93 His Majesty's, the Auckland morning paper had not one line of comment or criticism, though any cheap-jack film can command yards of newspaper “dope.”
Ships that pass…… I remember how dreadfully disappointing Gladys Moncrieff seemed, when in the dressing-room of Wanganui's rather depressing theatre I interviewed her. She was “Rio Rita” —and such an enormous quantity of “Rio Rita,” at that! Everyone had loved the “Maid of the Mountains,” the soaring youthful voice that Gladys Moncrieff gave to those lyrics: everyone had sung “A Bachelor Gay Am I,” or “A Paradise for Two”: and there was Gladys, very large, very weary, very much painted, very floridly arrayed… . . yet kindly still. I'm told that her voice and charm have come back in Australia. (“Beer and frankfurts,” sadly murmured one man, asked for reasons for the Moncrieff increase in avoirdupois, decrease in charm).
The first “Italian Grand Opera Company,” brought around by Fuller's and in Wellington staged in the house which was then famous (except among strict parents, who called it vulgar), for its vaudeville turns, was responsible for a novelty. You could “book” for the Gods. But the unscrupulous and wily bought blocks of seats, retailed 'em at a profit. There was something thrilling about the operas, yes: but I thought it amazing and also amusing that the second company's tour, also dubbed “Italian Grand Opera” (and all the stars were, of course, straight out from the Milan galaxy!) proved in Auckland not merely a popular success, but a social event. Not to attend each opera was, quite definitely, to leave undone those social things which you ought to have done. The operas were belarded with the most enormous sopranos, tenors more overwhelming still, and, to make things happier, almost interminably long intervals.
It was during a performance of “Rigoletto” that page 94 the corpse of the beauteous soprano maiden (and her voice was exquisite, one could have listened with shut eyes for any length of time), was dropped: all seventeen stone of it. I believe she was badly bruised, but gamely appeared before the curtains at the end of the performance.
The whole company lived in Shortland Street at a block of flats, indulged in Italian cooking. The singers were dears, rather. I met a mirthful little brown-faced baritone, laden with brown paper bags and parcels, heading up Shortland Street. He could speak but little English, but when I asked him what the shopping was all about, a wistful smile over-spread his face.
“Ah… Spaghetti… Macaroni… tomato, .… . ah, good…” he cried, in a crescendo of ecstasy. I think the company's Italian meals must have been delightfully entertaining.
Wandering through the flats in quest of an elusive prima donna, I found Molly de Gunst, the Queensland soprano whom the company had taken to its bosom, and who was taking the leading part in more than one opera. Big, black-eyed, black-haired, and with all the warm and amusing Australian friendliness, Molly led me away to view her flat. It was literally lined with bottles of beer. Everybody who called in the evenings seemed convinced that the girls wanted a party. Everybody brought the wherewithal. None of it was ever quaffed, for beer-drinking was regarded as a sin against the Holy Ghost. I've often, in thirsty moments, wondered what happened to all that beer. If it kept on coming in at such a rate, long before the company left Auckland they must have had quite enough to start a German cafe in style.
Szigeti, whose wizard violin was accompanied by the piano-playing of the little Russian Prince Nikita Magaloff, an exile from Reddest Russia since his baby days, was a musician of a shy and retiring page 95 nature…… “And his brow was wet with honest sweat” in that horrible little Death Cell behind the Auckland Concert Chamber, where the autograph fiends always mob celebrities after a concert is over, if not before. There were hundreds, and the position was complicated by the number who also wanted to shake hands with a “Russian Prince.” I'm sure Stalin would feel horribly unhappy about the progress of Communism, did he realise how many people still like shaking hands with Russian princes. Szigeti wasn't easy to interview… . he started off as a child prodigy, was paid in gold for his first appearance and thought he earned it, since they made him wear white satin trousers and blue shirt at this event. He warmed up a little on the subject of jewels. It sounds a little unorthodox when I say that at midnight, up in the lounge of the Grand Hotel, Szigeti was crying with real despair, “I've lost my blonde!” This is true, but not so romantic as it might seem. The blonde was merely an opal. Szigeti had bought a whole collection of them, blonde and black, gorgeous with blue and peacock-green fires, to take back to his wife. I am happy to say that the “blonde” was recovered. In New Zealand, he wandered about in funny little shops, bought kauri gum and was quite proud of it. The young Prince seemed desperately shy but extremely amiable… . . and evidently the sunshine of Australia had at least partly annihilated the shyness; there were many photographs of Prince Nikita, plus tennis racket, also plus what I believe one calls “a bevy of belles.” By the way, the slimming craze doesn't go at all well in Continental eyes. I know one Auckland girl who seemed to get along rather cheerily with a handsome young Dane who toured with Sozigeti. A couple of years later he returned with another company, was greeted by the lass in question, who as result of an illness and a lettuce-leaf diet now boasted the correct lamp-post silhouette. The Great Dane gazed page 96 upon her: then with a despairing cry of “Ah! But where is my little Ploom Pudding?” he swung on his heel and disappeared for ever from her sight— vanishing in the direction of the Grand Hotel bar.
Probably the most dramatic concert artist whom New Zealand has seen as yet is Frances Alda, whose interview with one reporter (I was not that unfortunate), was brief indeed. It consisted of the words, “My God, this is the limit.… Get out of it, get out of it!” of a slammed door, and of a hastier exit than the most athletic journalist would willingly take when travelling down a flight of stairs. I heard Alda sing in Christchurch, and was impressed not so much by her voice, as by the startling rudeness to which she subjected her pianist. There was all but a battle on the stage. She insisted on loading the piano with baskets and bouquets of flowers… . . and these were many, evidently Alda had no dearth of admirers. The pianist moved a few—probably feeling like the musician called upon to perform on a parlour piano littered with books and china ornaments. Alda's glance of sheer venom, as she pushed forward and replaced the floral trophies, would have been good merchantable stuff in the dramatic sort of film.
I wrote a verse called “Chopin Ballade,” posted it, without further comment, to the Russian musician, Pouishnoff. A letter of thanks and appreciation arrived at a newspaper office, addressed to “Robin Hyde, Esq.”
I'm afraid women aren't really on equal terms with men yet. The compilation of “Who's Who” is a delicate matter undertaken by Dr. Guy Scholefield, the venerable Parliamentary librarian. A few years ago, I published a book of poems, “The Desolate Star” yclept. Mr. R. Hyde promptly received a letter from Mr. Scholefield, desiring particulars of his career for use in connection with said volume. I think Mr. Scholefield was hurt about his mistake page 97 over the sexes, for he received an explanatory note in deathlike and unbroken silence.
A classic stage example of the fuss made over the (sometimes) sterner sex was provided when the youthful Don Cossacks came to New Zealand. The manager had a full-time job preserving the morality of his charges from too sympathetic ladies.
The very nicest young performers whom I ever met were Auckland girls… . . Betty and Joan Rayner. For many years they had lived in Australia, then had made their way to England and America, giving interpretations of folk-songs and folk-dances which had an absolutely phenomenal success in New York, London and Paris.
The New Zealand lasses (both in their twenties) started in a Sydney warehouse the little “Theatre of Youth.” Folk-songs caught on. They designed their own scenery, what little of it they ever used, and their own costumes into the bargain. Their music was the silvery tinkle of a spinet… . ideal accompaniment for the quaint musical fables that they brought to the stage. Here in Auckland, they were received as prophets—without honour in their own country, but their show was good.
Fragrance of steaming coffee… . ridiculous little blue and bright green scenery bits labelled “This is the Sea,” or “This is a Field,” the two troubadours in peaked hats and smocks, and an old harmonium (they couldn't find a spinet here) tinkling under the hands of a woman with coiled long hair.… Those two girls could do the most absurd things, and lo, they weren't absurd at all, but laughable, natural, refreshing.
One of these days, the Union Steamship Company will do the right thing and present Johnnie Farrell, manager of His Majesty's Theatre in Auckland, and the right hand of the J. C. Williamson company here in New Zealand, with the freedom of the seas. page 98 He has lately sprung a surprise on his numerous friends by marrying again. Over 900 times has “Johnnie,” who is a cheery little man with an eternal cigar, and who alone in all the world of men really chews his cigars, as millionaires are supposed to but don't, crossed the Tasman in the interests of the theatre business. The legitimate stage has been his lifework, and he has fathered practically every company that has come to New Zealand. Perhaps the position as regards his frequent sea-voyages could be satisfactorily met, could the Union Steamship folk simply appoint him official Neptune of the Tasman Sea. I am sure “Johnnie” would prove a draw.
Long may it be before we ring down the curtain for ever on the old theatres of blue plush and begrimed plaster. No, I'm against renovating 'em. Once tidy up Eden, and in will slip your progressive “talkie” serpent. He has enough of earth to deal with as he list, let the trail of him be absent from some few chosen spots. Until they fall to pieces, let there be kept for those who still like it a ghostly haven where music is real, even the tiny undertones lost when you mechanise a melody: where the shadow of Pavlova sways in the wings, and the faces on the other side of the footlights are still flushed with a very human triumph as the curtain falls.