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Larry Foley, predecessor of ‘The Rock’

30 May

Australian bare knuckle-champion-turned-boxer, Larry Foley, was the late Victorian-era equivalent of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, he had a stellar profile as a sporting star. And from time to time, he used this to put in cameo appearances in big theatrical productions in Sydney.

Foley first came to fame in Australia when he fought a gruelling bare knuckle prize match against Sandy Ross on 18 March 1871. He also won the Australian bare knuckle championship against Abe Hicken at Echuca in 1878 – a match he said was brazenly attended by the Ned Kelly while the bushranger was still at large. Soon afterwards, Foley became a key figure in Australia’s transition from bare-knuckle fights to gloved boxing matches, following the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules.

Foley loved the stage as well as the prize-ring. Just as the innate theatricality of professional wrestling and the WWF made it easy for The Rock to segue into bit film-parts today, Foley found it a cinch to appear in big theatrical productions in the late nineteenth century.

In 1880, for example, he appeared as Charles the Wrestler in a production of As You Like It at Queen’s Theatre in Sydney. The production starred a touring American actress, Louise Pomeroy, as Rosalind. The audience who turned up for the opening night were more interested in Foley’s performance, however – or at least it seems so from the review that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the next day. ‘The majority of those present were very noisy’, the Herald reported. ‘Besides interfering with the comfort of the remainder, their boisterousness seriously militated against the success of the entertainment’. The paper added that Foley was much to be commended on his appearance, especially for his ‘well-considered fall in the wrestling scene’.

Larry Foley evidently enjoyed playing Charles the Wrestler, because he ended up reprising it in several later Sydney productions of As You Like It, including one starring Ada Ward as Rosalind in 1882 and others starring Lily Dampier in 1886-87. He also made attempts to become a theatre manager for a time, but went back to managing exhibition boxing matches when it proved financially unviable.

Foley is a perfect example of the interconnections between sport and theatre that I have talked about in a previous post. This overlap between theatre and sport was apparent all over the English-speaking Western world, including Australia. It was at its most acute pre-1930 – but of course, it still lives on in the tradition of sporting dramas on the screen and in the person of sporting celebrities-cum-actors such as Dwayne Johnson.


Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1880, 6; 8 March 1882, 2; 29 October 1886, 2; 29 July 1887, 6.

W. M. Horton, ‘Foley, Laurence (Larry) (1849 – 1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, p. 193.

Image of Laurence (‘Larry’) Foley from

See my other post on Larry Foley here.

Trained on rashers & ice-pudding: The Victorian skirt dance

27 Mar

In the two decades before 1892, when Lottie Collins danced ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in London, the skirt dance was à la mode. With its ‘swift rushes and billowy undulations’, its romantic use of drapery and rapid swerves across the stage, it struck a balance between the classical ballet and the athletic step-dances beloved of the music-hall crowds.

The skirt dance was first performed by the dark-haired Kate Vaughan in a performance of The Ballet of the Furies at the Holborn Ampitheatre in 1873. She played the part of the Spirit of Darkness, swathed in a long black skirt much embellished in gold and palely lit from the front, as if by moonlight.

Shortly afterwards, she was performing other versions of this dance in gauzy skirts at John Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre on the West End. The popularity of her sweeping skirts there attracted hordes of imitators, the best-known being Alice Lethbridge and Letty Lind (another Gaiety performer).

Letty Lind

In spite of its popularity, not everyone was enamoured of the skirt dance. According to George Bernard Shaw, the long dress worn by skirt dancers covered a multitude of sins. Due to the vogue for this terpsechorean mode, he wrote, ‘we soon had young ladies carefully trained on an athletic diet of tea, soda-water, rashers, brandy, ice-pudding, champagne, and sponge-cake, laboriously hopping and flopping, twirling and staggering, as a nuclei for a sort of bouquet of petticoats of many colours’. How could one appreciate the dancer’s training and willowy thighs while wrapped in half the haberdashery from Marshall & Snelgroves?


Where would we be without the images available on Wikipedia Commons, the source of that photograph of Letty Lind above? A gorgeous carte de visite of Alice Lethbridge performing the skirt dance is held by the National Portrait Gallery, London, and can be viewed here. I can’t show it to you, though, because correspondence with the Gallery staff revealed that it would cost me £135.


J. E. Crawford Flitch, Modern Dancing and Dancers (London: Grant Richards, 1911), 72-8.

All the world’s a sporting field

17 Mar

Australians are forever being told that sport reigns supreme in their country, that the footie and cricket suck up so much energy that little is left for anything else. Theatre directors no doubt feel this acutely, aware that a  football match can pack out a stadium when their production is struggling to put bums on seats.

Back in the days when live performance was the thing, however – the whole 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th – this seemingly yawning distinction between theatre and sport didn’t exist.

As historian Richard Fotheringham puts it, until 1930 it makes sense to think of a single mass entertainment industry, embracing sporting, theatrical (later film) and catering interests. ‘Professional sport and professional theatre were characterised by a similar entrepreneurial instinct as to what would draw a crowd’, he says.

These days, when theatre audiences are full of Mercedes drivers and designer labels, it is hard to imagine the omnium-gatherum of humanity to be found in pre-1930 venues: factory workers, shop-girls, middling families, street-sellers, and the sorts of blokes who today would watch The Footy Show while downing XXXX beer.

In addition to these heterogeneous theatre crowds, there were also entrepreneurs by the baker’s dozen who invested in theatre and sport simultaneously. Take Hugh McIntosh, for example. He was the man who built the Rushcutter’s Bay stadium in Sydney (pictured above) in which he staged the 1908 world heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns. After that fight, McIntosh made a killing selling the film rights, which he promoted by having the fighters make cameo appearances on the vaudeville stage. From 1912, too, he ran the Tivoli vaudeville circuit and staged musical shows in legitimate theatres.

This seamless combo draws attention to the obviously theatrical elements in sport as we know it today. And it also alerts us in turn to the significance of theatre in the history of Western popular culture, whether in the land of The Footy Show or elsewhere.


Richard Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama (Cambridge & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

See also Richard Waterhouse, Private Pleasures, Public Leisure: A History of Australian Popular Culture Since 1788 (Sth Melbourne: Longman, 1995).

For more on Hugh McIntosh, see his online entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Image of the Johnson – Burns fight from State Library of NSW via Wikipedia Commons.

The Aussie ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

14 Mar

The first Australian performance of the song-and-dance act, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’, was in a burlesque at the Melbourne Opera House  (a venue in Bourke Street which later became the Tivoli) in mid-May 1892.

The artiste who performed it was the London ingénue, Alice Leamar, later to become famous for her racy music-hall number, ‘And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back’. Since Lottie Collins was planning to set off to America, Leamar had come to Oz in her stead with a company from George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Theatre.

The lyrics given for Leamar’s Australian performances of ‘Ta ra ra’ include a sixth verse which I have not come across elsewhere. They were published in the Australian Melodist, a songbook series containing the words of the latest theatrical songs. I include these lyrics in full below for the ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ fans out there.

The lyrics for ‘Ta-ra-ra’ give a vivid sense of how the verses set up the exultant gibberish of the chorus, allowing the song to jump happily between a knowing parody of demureness and a dervish of petticoats and limbs. In its characteristically cheeky prose, the Sydney Bulletin described Leamar’s performance of the chorus thus: ‘partly that of a spider getting enthusiastically off a hot stove and partly that of the native kangaroo… trying to break a record over a series of fences, and singing as she goes’.

A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
Never forward, never bold,
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing, I’m told,
That in your arms you’d like to hold!


I’m not extravagantly shy,
And when a nice young man is nigh
For his heart I have a try,
And faint away with tearful cry!
When the good young man, in haste,
Will support me round the waist;
I don’t come to, while thus embraced,
Till of my lips he steals a taste!

I’m a timid flower of innocence,
Pa says that I have no sense,
I’m one eternal big expense,
But men say that I’m just immense!
Ere my verses I conclude,
I’d like it known and understood,
Though free as air, I’m never rude –
I’m not bad, and not too good!

You should see me out with pa,
Prim, and most particular;
The young men say, ‘Ah, there you are!’
And pa says ‘That’s peculiar!’
‘It’s like their cheek!’, I say, and
Off again with pa I go-
He’s quite satisfied – although,
When his back’s turned – well, you know –

I’m a quiet girl, although
To skating rinks I sometimes go –
There is no harm in that, you know,
It gives a modest girl a show;
For when with giddiness you reel,
You hardly have the time to squeal,
When round your waist an arm will steal –
I say, girls, don’t it make you feel –

When in a train I chance to be,
It’s odd how men will sit next to me;
It cannot be my fault, you see,
If they presume to make too free.
I cannot tell the reason why,
I never make the least reply
But, ‘Oh, you should not!’, and ‘Oh, fie!’
Yet when the tunnels come – oh, my!

I feel I am so prim and staid
That on the shelf I may be laid;
It’s very hard, for I’m afraid
I’m not cut out for an old maid.
Still mother tells me not to fret,
I’ve heaps of time to marry yet,
And when I’m someone’s little pet
I won’t be bashful then – you bet!


Argus (Melbourne), 16 May 1892, 6.

Australian Melodist, no. 20 (Melbourne: n.d.), 6-8.

Bulletin (Sydney), 17 September 1892, 8

On Alice Leamar: Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London, 1976), 100.

‘London is the place for Miss Collins’: More on ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

11 Mar

Lottie Collins’ song and dance act ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ is often remembered in Britain today as the act which ushered in the Naughty Nineties. There are many accounts which speak of it as a Bacchanalian frenzy in which apparently nude legs and Liberty silk knickers were revealed.

Back when it appeared in 1891-2, however, opinions differed about its raunchiness. True, some of the men who saw Collins perform it at the music halls or the Gaiety Theatre on the West End were mesmerised by her high kicks on the boom in the chorus’ ‘boom-de-ay’.

There were others, however, who denied that there was anything sexually edgy about it. ‘Lottie Collins had the invaluable instinct of knowing how far to go without ever once over-stepping the border-line of propriety’, J. E. Crawford Flitch later claimed. George Bernard Shaw similarly emphasised her self-discipline in the act,  making her version less outre than others he’d seen.

Flitch and Shaw were right. There was nothing in fact very risque about Collins’ ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’. It was not even as if she spent most of the famous chorus kicking up her legs Can-Can style. For much of it, she twirled or ran or even jumped about the stage in deliberate disregard of the beat. It was her frenetic repudiation of feminine demureness in this chorus, her energetic abandon of any attempt to appear composed, that made audiences so exult in ‘Ta-ra-ra’.

New York audiences appear to have been expecting something less amusingly frenetic and rather more Moulin Rouge when Collins arrived there in September 1892. ‘Ta-ra-ra’ had been frequently performed in the Big Apple by then – most notably, in a revival of the titillating burlesque, The Black Crook, at the Academy Theatre. Perhaps the dancers in this theatre had performed it in a more come-hither style. They had certainly led the reviewer for the New York Times, at any rate, to anticipate something different to what he encountered from Collins at the Standard Theatre on 17 September.

This so-called ‘ornament of the London music halls’, the Times reviewer sneered, was ‘a mature woman, who is not beautiful or graceful, [and] whose singing voice is not pleasing. … Her dancing is simply jumping, and very poor jumping at that’. The Black Crook version was infinitely to be preferred. In the absence of anything especially naughty or cutting-edge it appeared that New York was beyond this performer, he concluded tartly: ‘London is the place for Miss Collins’.


On Collins in New York: ‘More London Gayety’, New York Times, 20 September 1892, 4.

Flitch, J. E. Crawford, Modern Dancing and Dancers (London: 1911), 96-7.

For examples of accounts emphasising the risque character of Collins’ act, see: Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (London, 1913), 31; W. Macqueen-Pope, The Melodies Linger On: The Story of Music Hall (London, n.d.), pp. 337–8.

On Shaw: see Amy Koritz, ‘Moving Violations: Dance in the London Music Hall, 1890–1910’, Theatre Journal, 42.4 (1990), pp. 421–23.

Bailey, Peter, ‘Musical Comedy and the Rhetoric of the Girl’, in his Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge, 1998), 187.

Above image taken from this resource on music hall.

The anti-erotic Venus

25 Feb

Some time ago now I referred to someone else’s post about Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, in a History Carnival. Since then, I have been surprised at how many people have come mistakenly to The Vapour Trail in search of information about her.

The numbers of people desperately seeking Sara suggests the extent to which the Hottentot Venus has become a poster-girl for black sexuality and its exploitation in Western society.

This is a point made by American art historian,  Z. S. Strother, in a brilliant essay called ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, the first part of which I paraphrase here.

Sara (or Saartjie) Baartman was a Khoikoi woman from South Africa who was exhibited in London and Paris in 1810 under the sobriquet ‘the Hottentot Venus’. She suffered from steatopygia, or enlargement of the buttocks, and came from the tribe then known  in Europe as the Hottentots. Gawping multitudes came to see her in London: so many, in fact, that she was later made the subject of a Parisian vaudeville play and examined by Georges Cuvier at the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle.

Interest in Baartman has been re-ignited in recent decades. This is largely on account of  her appearance in 1980s discussions of the construction of sexuality in science and medicine: most notably, those of Stephen Jay Gould (1982) and Sander Gilman (1985). She was also made the star character in a play debuting in New York in 1996: Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks.

In Parks’ Venus, Baartman was described as the obsessive love-object of Georges Cuvier. She was also depicted in more-or-less lubricious fashion, with a padded rear and breasts emphasising her curves. It was largely as a result of these works that Baartman was placed back into the glare of public curiosity, becoming all-but-inseparable from discussions of black women’s sexuality.

Ironically, however, Baartman’s contemporaries in London and Paris classed her as neither black nor sexy. Her success at the time was a result of ‘her status as a figure of the anti-erotic, which allowed her to cross from the “freak show” to the pseudo-educational ethnographic shows’.

It was chiefly as a creature thought to be without language, culture, memory or consciousness, Strother tells us, that Baartman was interesting to a European audience. As such a figure she could never ‘threaten the viewer with the sexual power of a “Venus'”‘. There was thus supposed to be a snide humour about giving her this label, on a par with white colonists’ sniggering references to their black servants as dukes or kings.

Perhaps, then, the Hottentot Venus’ revival in popular consciousness tells us far more about the obsession with black sexuality in our own age than that in Europe in the early nineteenth century.


S. L. Gilman, ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late 19th-C Art, Medicine & Literature’, Critical Inqurity, 12.1 (1985): 204-42.

S. J. Gould, ‘The Hottentot Venus’, Natural History, 91.9 (1983): 20-27.

Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors, ed., Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.

This holocaust of ballet girls

20 Feb

In March 1845, the English dancer Clara Webster was playing the role of Zelika, the Royal Slave, in the ballet, Revolt of the Harem. As she gambolled about in a titillating bath-scene, splashing water on the other sylph-like slave-girls, her filmy costume brushed against a gas-lamp and caught fire. As the audience, her mother and colleagues looked on, Webster sustained such terrible burns that she died two days later.

Until electricity replaced gas lamps and burning torches on the stage, Victorian ballet girls died as Clara Webster did with a horrible frequency. Julia McEwen, Fanny Smith, Emma Livry (star of the Paris Opera Ballet) and others from Marseilles, New York, Liverpool, Trieste, Rio de Janeiro and Naples all contributed to this ‘holocaust of ballet girls’. The muslin skirts they wore were highly flammable, and they were surrounded by fire on stage as they danced – little wonder that accidents occurred.

As historian John Elsom points out, however, those accidents could have been easily avoided. Managers of the day knew how to fireproof materials. The gas lamps could have been protected by wire, and prompters could have been given fire blankets to hand out in an emergency. Instead, dancers were simply given the choice to soak their costumes in a solution of alum – a move which made the dresses uncomfortable and unattractive – and then blamed if they chose against it. Knowing this, ‘it is hard to resist the conclusion that burning ballet-dancers were good for trade’, Elsom says.

Whether or not the possibility of a burning dancer added to the piquant suspense of the Victorian ballet, it was certainly the case that their deaths were discussed with a lugubrious relish in the press. Note this melancholy luxuriance in Clara Webster’s death, for instance, and shiver at its romantic flippancy:

‘Lovely butterfly of the passing hour, she attracted the gaze of the gay votaries of fashion and pleasure, and like the doomed moth, fluttering in the flame, consumed her ephemeral existence!’

Picture of Russian ballerine, Pierina Legnani, in Le Corsaire (St Petersburg, 1899), a ballet with  similar themes and costumes to Revolt of the Harem. The vogue for these ballets in the 1840s was an obvious precursor to the one for Circassian slave-girls in late-Victorian freak shows.


Aloff, Mindy, Dance Anecdotes: Stories From the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom and Modern Dance (Oxford & NY:  2006), 155.

Elson, John, Erotic Theatre (London: 1973).

Guest, Ivor, Victorian Ballet-Girl: The Tragic Story of Clara Webster (London: 1957), ch called ‘The Holocaust of Ballet Girls’.

‘Shocking Death of Miss Clara Webster’, The Public Ledger, 18 March 1845, available here.

Image of Le Corsaire from Wikipedia Commons.

The black origins of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

17 Feb

In 1897, a local band in Athens offered to play the British national anthem to a party of English volunteers in the Greco-Turkish war. Standing to attention with their caps doffed, ready to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, the volunteers were surprised when the band played ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.

Whether this story is true or not, it underlines the extent to which ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ became synonymous with British culture after it was first performed in London in late 1891.

Lottie Collins (from Wikipedia Commons)

The performer who made ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ famous was the music-hall and burlesque artiste, Lottie Collins. With an East End accent and a childhood performing in the ‘alls (she first made her name at eleven in a skipping-rope act with her sisters), she too was as British as they come. It is almost hard to believe, given this, that ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ began its days across the Atlantic as an African-American song. It was one of the innumerable numbers created by black Americans which were poached by whites and then made into a commercial success.

At the start of the 1890s, Henry Sayers, the white manager of a blackface minstrel company, was drinking at a nightclub-cum-brothel run by Babe Connors in St Louis, Missouri. According to one commentator, Babe Connors’ “resort” ‘anticipated by three decades the elegant Harlem clubs of the Jazz Age’. It offered the sight of ‘Creole’ showgirls sans their knickers, and extraordinary music to boot. Its real star was Mama Lou, a big dark-skinned singer who dressed in a comic maid’s costume (calico dress, gingham apron, red bandana) and belted out memorable songs. Among her repertoire were ‘Frankie & Johnny’, the ‘Bully Song’, ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’, and (you guessed it):  ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.

Henry Sayers was just one of many white composers and showmen who hung about Babe Connors’ at the start of the 1890s to watch the girls and rip off the songs. Soon after he attended that night, a female performer in his George Thatcher Minstrels company gave a version of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a blackface farce called Tuxedo. This farce played first in Boston and then in New York at the Park Theatre, opening on 5 October 1891. While showing in New York, the song was heard by Stephen Cooney, Lottie Collins’ American husband. He quickly acquired her the English rights to the song – paying Sayers rather than Mama Lou, of course. Collins then worked up the can can-like dance which made her name on the international stage, asking a London lyricist to tailor the words to her needs. Once any whiff of blackface performance was removed, she debuted the act at the Tivoli in the Strand.

Before long,  Collins was dancing ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a pantomime at the Grand Theatre in Islington and also on the stages of other London music halls. Each time, audiences cheered and whistled to the song, earning her a rapturous applause. She went on to tour America with the act and at the turn of the century came to Australasia, by which time ‘Ta-ra-&c’ was only remembered as a British music-hall song.


On the Greek performance of the British ‘national anthem’:

Ernest Short & Arthur Compton-Rickett, Ring Up the Curtain, Being A Pageant of English Entertainment… (London: 1938), 201.

On Lottie Collins & Stephen Cooney:

‘A chat with Lottie Collins’, The Era, 10 August 1895, 14

Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London: 1976), 39.

On Babe Connors & Mama Lou:

David A. Jasen & Gordon Gene Jones, Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime & Early Jazz (New York: 2002), 2-3.

David E. Chinitz, T. S. Eliot & the Cultural Divide (Chicago: 2003), 39-40.

On the George Thatcher Minstrels’ Tuxedo:

New York Times, 5 October 1891, 4.

Eugene Tompkins & Quincy Kilby, The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901 (Boston: 1908), 387.

More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’

21 Apr


Last year I wrote a post about Dan Leno’s act ‘Queen of My Heart’, in which he played a bashed wife in a parody of romantic song. Really, the post was about the whole genre of songs concerning domestic violence and masculine anger towards women which I had encountered in acts performed on the 1880-90s Australian variety stage.

The post, perhaps provocatively entitled ‘Clownish Misogyny’, attracted a number of comments by Leno aficionados. They objected to his act being singled out in this way. It was wrong, they said, to make Leno the poster-boy for music-hall songs about misogyny. Most of his repertoire was about men making fun of themselves, and when he played women it was with a pathos and a knowingness underlying the comic shtick which gave them an emotional complexity of their own.

I was amazed, given this exchange, to find Tony Lidington performing ‘Queen of My Heart’ in his performance, Dan Leno: The King’s Jester (reviewed in my last post). Having seen it, I can see that in many ways those commenting on the post were right. That song, at least, is more a painfully matter-of-fact commentary on the reality lived by battered women than a humorous attack upon them. And yes, it portrays the ‘heroine’ getting ready to give back as good as she got later in the night.

The joke, then, is on romantic sentimentality far more than the woman herself in the song. But still, there is something highly uncomfortable about it from this retrospective vantage. The notion that a woman being bashed about might be presented in comic mode in any sense is uncomfortable, however much of a pathetic undercurrent the performance possessed.

As Lidington presents it in Dan Leno, songs about the underside of lower working-class married life were a feature of Leno’s early routines in the London halls, as indeed they were of others’ routines at the time. Leno was steered away from this subject matter by the managers of the halls once he went big towards the end of the 1880s, however, when the business was aiming aggressively at a wider-than-working-class clientele.

‘Queen of My Heart’ may not have been representative of Leno’s entire oeuvre, then, but it was characteristic of a certain genre among his performances early in his music-hall career. The recordings he later made did not cover this period of his performing life,  and so do not capture the tenor of those early songs.

Note: The above image is a picture of Leno as a panto dame by Stanley Cock, and was sourced from the About Postcards blog.

Irving Sayles: The black American who became an Australasian vaudeville star

9 Feb

With his walking cane, fat cigar, muscular frame, and suave extroversion, the African-American ex-pat and vaudeville star, Irving Sayles, was often to be seen in the streets of turn-of-the-century Australasia’s largest cities and towns. Born in Quincy, Illinois, he first came to the Antipodes in 1888 as an end-man with the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels, the rest of whom were also African American. He was just sixteen at the time. And like most black American performers who toured these southern lands in the 1870-80s, he stayed for good once his tour was done.

On stage with his other accomplished colleagues in Australia and New Zealand, Irving Sayles immediately made a splash. He was fine singer, and his dancing was something to behold. ‘Irving Sayles was also an acrobat’, as one of his colleagues would later remember: his back somersaults were a speciality. Such was his athleticism that Sayles would also work up a reputation as a sprint runner during the 1890s, entering in well-publicised Australian competitions every now and then. And on top of that, he was hilarious. As New Zealand’s Evening Post put it in 1888: ‘Funny is not the word to adequately describe what Sayles is. If he looks at the audience they roar at him’.


Sayles and his fellow end-man, Charles Pope, introduced coon songs to the Antipodes during their season with the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels. When Sayles sang syncopated numbers like ‘The Coon Dat Had De Razor’, performing it with the sassy exuberance that this number required, Australasian audiences sat up directly and started to tap their toes. By 1900, however, coon songs had lost their early edginess: they were no longer about swaggering black men wielding razors with a hectic facility. By this time, Sayles’ songs on the Australian Tivoli circuit, the Dix Gaiety circuit in New Zealand, and for other sundry performing companies, were more often about ‘the silber moon [sic], the stolen chicken, and the girl with the goo goo eyes’ , harking back to older minstrel fare.

It is a striking circumstance that the few African American companies who came to Australasia in the late-nineteenth century decided not to go back to the US. According to Richard Waterhouse, the overwhelming majority of the performers for the McAdoo Fisk Jubilee Singers, the  Corbyn Georgia Minstrels, the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels and the Georgia Minstrels made Australia their home. Many of these performers became fixtures on Australasian stages, spending time in New Zealand cities as well as Australian ones.

It is not that Australasians weren’t racist, of course: there are plenty of patronising references to Sayles in the press on account of his blackness. The Evening Post’s declaration that the ‘smile on his genuine dark face resembles the entrance to a coal-pit, it is so extensive’, captures the tone of this commentary. So does the Sydney Theatre’s description of his ‘natural animal spirits’, and its breezy assurance that white cornerman ‘can never fill the bill like the full-blooded coon’.

Sayles seems to have worked hard to joke about his colour on stage. He even made implied slurs on Aboriginal Australians in order to forge a rapport with his overwhelmingly white audiences. On at least one occasion, he told Sydney audiences that he had a wife at a camp out La Perouse way (a Sydney site where large numbers of Indigenous Australians lived) so that they might laugh with him about how funny that idea was, hahahha. But still, the fact that he mixed with Tivoli performers socially and lived it up with fellow gamblers at race-tracks makes it clear that  black American stars enjoyed a certain exceptional status in Australasia that they could not have enjoyed in the country of their birth. Sayles himself modelled a swank street-cred around these colonial cities, ‘walk[ing] the earth with the air of a coon who has a mortgage on the Universe’ – and he made a good living from the stage. He married Edith Carter at the age of 25 in Melbourne, a white English-born woman.

Irving Sayles is said to have ‘dropped dead’ in Christchurch on 8 February 1914, aged 42, while in Gloucester-Street ‘joking with some friends’. Witnesses watched him reel and fall suddenly in the street outside the Dominion Hotel where he was staying. Afterwards, his death was confirmed as an embolism of the coronary artery. Sayles had been in New Zealand, as he often was at that time, performing for the Brennan-Fuller vaudeville company. Following his death, the Australasian papers carried plenty of obituaries to this popular ‘coloured comedian’.


Evening Post (NZ), 27 October 1888.

Theatre (Sydney), 1 July 1909, p 15.

Charles Norman, When Vaudeville Was King: A Soft Shoe Stroll Down Forget-Me-Not Lane (Sydney: Spectrum, 1984), 9-10.

Richard Waterhouse, From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville: The Australian Popular Stage, 1788-1914 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1990).

On Sayles’ sprinting escapades, see: West Australian, 29 November 1897 and 18 March 1898, available via the National Library of Australia’s beta database.

On Sayles’ death, see: Evening Post (New Zealand), 9 February 1914; Grey River Argus (also NZ), 10 February 1914; a copy of his death certificate at the Nugrape Records website

A biography of Sayles (with rather gushing references about the extent that he felt accepted in Australia, is available here at the hat theatre archive.

The above image is from a fabulous post on coon songs and ragtime on the community blog Meta Filter.