Mr. Burlesque Himself: William B. Gill

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
18 August, 2014

Australia’s most successful ever international manufacturer of musical plays was born Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, Canada 10 May 1842. The grandson of Sir William and Lady Isabella Bain of Granton, Edinburgh, Scotland and the son of a apparently peripatetic London surgeon, author-comedian Willie Gill was (under circumstances not yet explained) actually born in a remote area of what was to become a part of Canada. He was, however, apparently brought up in Melbourne, Australia. It was there, in any case, that he began — paragraphed as “an Australian comedian” – what was to be a variegated and highly successful career in the theatre.

William B. Gill in an official portrait taken during his Austrlian years. (Photo: Kurt Gänzl Archive)

William B. Gill in an official portrait taken during his Australian years. (Photo: Kurt Gänzl Archive)

He related in later life that he had supported Charles Kean during the actor’s 1863/64 tour of Australia, that he had appeared at the Melbourne Princess’s with Fawcett Rowe, and that he had spent some time playing at the goldfields theatre in Ballarat, but the first occasion on which I have actually spotted his name in active print, alongside that of what appears to be a wife, but may very well be his mother, is in a list of a company made up largely of the Edouin family which went to play in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the winter of 1864.

He turns up in 1866 cast alongside his wife or mother for the part of Mercury in Australia’s original production of the burlesque “Ixion” at Melbourne’s Princess’s Theatre.

And again, in 1867, as stage director for Messrs Coker and Nish at the Melbourne Theatre of Varieties, where he directed and starred in such pieces as his personalised adaptation of the London burlesque Grin Bushes (`Madame Celeste Gill as Miami’), and in a version of Byron’s burlesque Lucy de Lammermoor. Later that year he is billed at the Haymarket in the same city playing Captain Crosstree in the burlesque Black-Eyed Susan, and early the next as Bermudas in Under the Gaslight at the re-named Duke of Edinburgh’s Theatre (‘a gentleman who although only on the stage a few years now ranks amongst the foremost in his profession’ ’Mr Gill’s serio-comic characters often awake in me recollections of the past when Robson was in his prime at the Olympic.’)

The Theatre Royal in Melbourne was opened in 1855 and demolished by fire in 1872.

The Theatre Royal in Melbourne was opened in 1855 and demolished by fire in 1872.

In 1868 he is seen at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal, starring in the title-rôle of Rip van Winkle, and in mid-1869 he turns up again in India, now principal comedian with the former Rose Edouin (Mrs G B Lewis). The following year he returned to India to take over the management of Mr Sultana’s Theatre Royal, Calcutta, bringing a company and a repertoire of comedies, dramas and burlesques from Australia.

Newspaper announcement of Gill's marriage to Eleanor Smith in Calcutta, India.

Newspaper announcement of Gill’s marriage to Eleanor Smith in Calcutta, India.

He didn’t stay in Asia too long, however, for he resurfaces, in 1871, at the Sydney School of Arts in an `original musical entertainment’ called Laughing Faces (`rapid changes – marvellous transformations – witty songs – grotesque dances – and faithful representation of eccentric characters’) in tandem with his recently acquired wife, the former Eleanor Smith [née Wardock SHINTON] (b Adelaide 3 April 1848), daughter of the well-known actor Henry S DEERING [Henry William SHINTON] (b England c 1816, d Ballarat 21 April 1856), and then again as manager, stage director, sometime author and star at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney in 1872-3. His appearances there included another Captain Crosstree in a remade version of Burnand’s famous burlesque Black-Eyed Susan (here subtitled `or All-in-the-Breakdowns’), and the title-rôle of a `localized and adapted’ (by him w S H Banks) version of the London pantomime of The Yellow Dwarf, for which he supplied songs (`What Will it Go the Ton?’ etc) for his own use.

F. C. Burnand as Mr Punch.

Caricature of F. C. Burnand as Mr Punch – painting himself as Shakespeare. Burnand was the author of the famous “Black-Eyed Susan.”

Gill then took over the city’s Queen’s Theatre, starring himself and his wife in a series of dramatic and comic rôles from Rip van Winkle to Shallabullah (Belphegor) and Jack Gong (The Green Bushes), the dramas supported by smaller comic and musical pieces, some of his own making. The season’s programme also included his pantomime The Man in the Moon (1873, Prince of Larrikins), burlesques such as The Orange Tree and the Humble Bee (1873) and his own Mephistophiles DDD, and his comedy-drama Ups and Downs.

Soon after this, Gill crossed the ocean to the American west coast and in 1874 he can be spotted managing John Piper’s stock theatre in Virginia City, Nevada. In 1875 he spent some time ‘playing comedy’ in Salt Lake City, and in 1876 he shows up purveying journalism to the Clipper theatrical newspaper. In 1877 he was, for a while, stage manager at MacDaniels Variety Theatre in Cheyenne, and “Rose and Willie Gill, the English and Australian dramatic, musical and burlesque sketch artists” advertising “all their specialities are original. The largest repertoire of any artists travelling” were seen purveying “musical burlettas” in variety houses around the American goldfields circuits. However, after some three years slogging around minor houses, things finally looked up for them. In late 1877 the pair were playing their act at Newark, NJ, at the time when ‘Uncle’ Samuel Colville was setting up his new Folly Company, a company featuring many of the members of Lydia Thompson’s famous and recently disbanded troupe, notably old friend Willie Edouin. Thanks to Edouin, Gill was engaged as stage manager for, and an actor in the new company, playing along with his wife (now billed as ‘Eleanor Deering’) in the kind of burlesque, extravaganza and farce comedy which had been Lydia’s speciality.

Lydia Thompson as Ixion.

Lydia Thompson as Ixion.

His name first appeared under a title in America when he adapted H J Byron’s English burlesque Babes in the Wood, in which he appeared as the super-melodramatic `The Very Bad Man’ and Pantaloon in a seasonally affixed harlequinade, as a burlesque extravaganza for the Colville company’s maiden season. It was to gain him many years of endlessly touring royalties. He rearranged Lydia Thompson’s Oxygen for the same company and thereafter continued a career as an author of farce-comedies, extravaganzas, melodramatic musical comedies, star-vehicles and other parti-coloured entertainments which, although roughly written and often little more than a basis on which artists and producers could embroider at will, proved to have a singular place in the less sophisticated theatres of the time.

He moved from the Colville company to rejoin Edouin in E E Rice’s Surprise Party for whom he supplied the extravaganza Horrors (1879) an ‘ingenious combination of bad puns, popular music and a trite nursery tale from the Orient’ which proved enormously to the taste of the company’s provincial audiences and remained, along with this company’s reproduction of Gill’s Babes in the Wood, long a feature of Rice’s repertoire. Colville added to his productions of Babes, Robinson Crusoe and Oxygen Gill’s re-readaptation of H J Byron’s Cinderella, played eventually under the title The Magic Slipper.

Later the same year he wrote, directed and played in (as Benjamin Franklin Cobb to his wife’s Mrs Cobb) the five-handed ‘nightmare’ extravaganza Our Goblins which he toured under the banner of W C Mitchell’s Pleasure Party.

Our Goblins proved as popular as his earlier pieces. A one-week summer stop on Broadway stretched to a full month as “the greatest hit of the season” and it was played for several years on the American touring circuits as well as getting a showing in the British provinces (Circus Pavilion, Leamington 18 September 1882). He subsequently provided Mitchell with musical comedy A Gay Time at Whymple’s in which he appeared as the pageboy, Geranium, and his wife as Mrs Arabella Whymple, and appeared on Broadway in support of Henry Dixey in a 1-act burlesque of Henry Irving entitled Distnguished Foreigners (25 January 1884) .

Henry Dixey as the marbel statue of Adonis.

Henry Dixey as the marbel statue of Adonis.

His vast list of long-travelling pieces did him and his purse proud, but Gill also managed to hit the jackpot with a success of much more substantial proportions not just once, but twice during his career. The first was in America, where he collaborated with Rice on the writing of the burlesque Adonis (1884), a Broadway record-breaker and one of the most popular home-made musical pieces of its era, and the other very largely in Britain where the American actress Minnie Palmer became an institution as she trouped his Dutch-accented variety-musical-weepie My Sweetheart around the provinces, into London, back into the provinces and at considerable length through the colonies.Whilst continuing to work as an actor (alongside Paul Arthur in his own Two Bad Men 1884-5, as Flute in Bottom’s Dream 1885 with Nat Goodwin, &c), he turned out a regular run of more-or-less musical plays (often in collaboration with George H Jessop) including In Paradise for John T Raymond (Albany, NY, 9 January 1883), An Old Stager (Baltimore, 1 March 1883), Fact, or His Little Hatchet for Mr and Mrs W J Florence (Walnut Theater, Philadelphia 24 September 1883, and toured in duplicate in Britain for a number of years as Muddles), Stolen Money (1884) – in which Gill, himself played – Mam’selle for opéra-bouffe star Marie Aimée (it outlived its star on the touring circuits by twenty years), the hugely successful Old Jed Prouty for Richard Golden and Chestnuts (1885) for Richard Golden and his wife Dora Wiley, as well as contributing a musical piece based on the nursery rhyme ‘Tom the Piper’s Son’ and called Arcadia (1886, The Piper), which was damned by the critics and still being toured, by Corinne, through good dates seven years later, and Hendrik Hudson for Fay Templeton, to the extravaganza circuits. He provided Tony Hart with a pair of farce-comedy vehicles (Buttons, A Toy Pistol) following the comedian’s split with his author-partner Harrigan, turned out another of the kind for the comedy duo of George Richards and Eugene Canfield (My Boys 1897), a colourful ‘pantomime-burlesque-vaudeville’ called (The) Spider and (the) Fly which held the road for half a dozen seasons, a musequel to their highly successful The Nabobs (Norristown, Pa 30 August 1890) for May Ten Broeck and John E Henshaw, a musical comedy that “fits her perfectly” for Annie Pixley as Miss Blythe of Duluth (1892), a ‘rollicklingly funny Irish play of considerable merit’ in The Rising Generation (1893) toured for several seasons by Billy Barry, and – for ready money – he even took on the thankless task of remaking Jeff Leerburger’s book to the hopeless Penny Ante, or the Last of the Fairies (14th Street Theater 9 June 1884) for composer Fred Eustis.

Willie Gill’s name was, in these years, to be found on bills from one end of America to the other and, if the critics frequently execrated his writing (whilst always praising his comic acting), his frequent success proved that his stage plays were if nothing else deftly made to suit their stars and American small-town taste, and many of them, like his early extravaganzas, spent years and years on the touring circuits.

Gill kept on compiling his loose-limbed combinations of musical pot-pourri, low comedy and ingenuous and/or melodramatic sentiment and even bringing them to the cities, when their time was long since past, and some of his later works got short shrift.

However, he kept going, and well into the 1890s he was still around to supply the text for, and – in a still-continuing parallel career as a performer – take to the stage in, another vehicle for Minnie Palmer, The School Girl (1895, Professor Gainsbury), to supply Odell Williams with the slightly musical play The Alderman (14th Street Theater 24 May 1897) and the vaudeville sketch The Judge (1897) and more in the same mould.

Cover of the book "William B. Gill: From the Goldfields to Broadway" by Kurt Gänzl.

Cover of the book “William B. Gill: From the Goldfields to Broadway” by Kurt Gänzl.

Willie was still churning out plays, from his home in West Farms, NY., after the turn of the century – The King’s Highway for Roland Reed and a romantic comedy The Loves of David Garrick in 1900, a little operetta for the vaudeville houses, and the play The Honest Blacksmith for boxer Fitzsimmons and his contortionist wife in 1901. In 1902 Frank L Perley announced that he would produce Willie’s The Merry Marquis (mus: David Dorée), in 1903 he was paragraphed as the co-author (w Fitzhugh) of a piece called The Little Outcast and the writer of Estella, the Outcast for Millie Blanchard, and in 1904 his name appeared as author of the ‘comedy melodrama’ with songs Mrs Mac, the Mayor a vehicle for vast old-timer George W Monroe (‘a much better play than he has had recently’) — but these apparently did not make ends meet, for in these later years he was obliged to take employment an ‘Inspector of Highways’ in the Bronx.

However, he apparently kept his pen active into his grey age if, that is. he was the William Gill who supplied book and lyrics to the music of one James H Stauring for an amateur production called P.G.F. (Pretty Good Fun) at Schenectady’s van Curler Opera House as late as 16 February 1912.

He died in West Farms, NY, the date is unknown.

1867 The Grin Bushes (pasticcio) readapted version of Byron’s burlesque Varieties, Melbourne 11 May

1873 Mephistophiles DDD, or Faust and His Fair Marguerite (pasticcio) Queen’s Theatre, Sydney 6 April

1877 The Babes in the Wood, or Who Killed Cock Robin? (later Blooming Babes of Macassar Hall) (comp & arr Henry Sator/ad from Byron’s Babes in the Wood w Willie Edouin) Eagle Theater 24 December

1878 Oxygen, or Gas in a Burlesque metre re-arranged version of H B Farnie and Robert Reece’s burlesque Boston Theater 8 June

1878 Our New Cinderella (pasticcio arr William Withers/adaptation of H J Byron’s Cinderella) Hooley’s Theater, Chicago 17 August

1878 Horrors, or the Maharajah of Zogobad (pasticcio/w Willie Edouin) Opera House, Milwaukee 10 October; Haverley’s Theater, Chicago 14 October; Union Square Theater, New York 28 May 1879

1879 Ramblers Bush Street Theatre, San Francisco 3 March  ???

1879 The Magic Slipper revised version of Our New Cinderella Haverley’s Theater 25 August

1879 Our Goblins, or Fun on the Rhine [in Germany] 1 act (comp & arr George Loesch) Olympic Theater, Chicago 16 November; enlarged version Beloit, Wis 24 November, Haverley’s Theater, New York, 14 June 1880

1881 Our Goblins at Home, or Society in a Nutshell (pasticcio) Academy of Music, Reading, Pa 14 February, Park Theater, Boston 14 March

1881 Billy Taylor American version (Gaiety Theatre, Boston)

1881 My Sweetheart (various) Shattuck’s Opera House, Hornellsville, NY 27 August; Gaiety Theater, Boston 12 September, Haverly’s 14th Street Theater 14 September 1882

1882 A Gay Time at Whymple’s Leland Opera House, Albany 7 January

1884 Adonis (E E Rice) Hooley’s Theater, Chicago 6 July; Bijou Theater, New York 4 September

1884 Mam’zelle, or the Little Milliner (various/w George H Jessop) Sampson’s Opera House, Kingston, NY 11 September, Fifth Avenue Theater, New York 15 December

1884 A Bottle of Ink (Rice et al/w Jessop) Bijou Theater, Boston 3 November, Comedy Theater, New York 6 January 1885

1884 Two Bad Men (pasticcio) Yonkers, NY 9 December

1885 A Modern Venus (revised Penny Ante, or the Last of the Fairies) (Fred J Eustis) Bigelow’s Garden, Worcester, Mass 22 June, Oakland Gardsen, Boston 6 July

1885 Buttons (pasticcio) Howard Opera House, Burlington, Vt, 17 August

1885 Bluff (pasticcio/w Jessop) McVicker’s Theater, Chicago, 23 August

1885 Mugwumps (ex-Chestnuts, revised A Bottle of Ink) (pasticcio) New Britain, Conn 2 November

1885 Capers (revised Fun in a Boarding School) Standard Theatre, London 23 November

1886 Aphrodite Still in the Ring (uncredited/w Jessop) Library Hall, Pittsburgh 25 January

1886 Oxygen new version with mus arr John J Braham, Gustave Kerker (Bijou Theater, Boston)

1886 A Toy Pistol (revised A Bottle of Ink) Comedy Theater 20 February

1886 Arcadia (pasticcio arr John J Braham) Bijou Theater, Boston, 5 April; Bijou Theater 26 April

1889 A Royal Tramp (Charles Puerner) Allbaugh’s Lyceum, Baltimore 22 January

1889 Old Jed Prouty (w Richard Golden) Opera House, Bangor, Maine 22 April, Union Square Theater 13 May

1889 The Seven Ages (Rice, Braham/w Rice) Standard Theater 7 October

1889 Spider and Fly (Fred W Zaulig/w Fraser) Taylor Opera House, Trenton, NJ 20 September, Theatre Comique, Harlem 7 October

1890 Rip, or Many a Slip Twixt the Cup and the Lip (William Furst) Columbia Theater, Chicago 23 July

1890 Hendrik Hudson, or the Discovery of Columbus (arr Watty Hydes, Fred Perkins/w Robert Fraser) 14th Street Theater 18 August

1892 Miss Blythe of Duluth (Harry Braham) Lyceum Theater, New London, Conn 26 September, Tremont Theater, Boston 3 October, Grand Opera House 26 December

1893 The Rising Generation (Emil O Wolff) Schenectady 23 August; Park Theater 11 September

1893 The Nabobs ‘fin de siècle’(various) Dover, NH 3 October

1895 A Fatted Calf (various) H R Jacobs Theater, Newark 15 April; Amphion Theater, Brooklyn 31 August

1895 The School Girl (Albert Maurice et al/ George Manchester Cohen ad) Grand Theatre, Cardiff 21 September, Bijou Theater, New York 30 December

1897 My Boys (revised The Fatted Calf) (various) Lyceum Theater, Elizabeth, NJ 21 August, Manhattan Theater, New York 6 December

1901 In a Japanese Garden (A Baldwin Sloane) 1 act Casino Theater 3 May

1904 Mrs Mac, the Mayor (Albert von Tilzer) Metropolis Theater 14 November