In the new book Hanky-Panky, masterly arts historian Frank Van Straten shines the spotlight on prolific arts impresario Ernest C. Rolls, whose extravagant stage productions entertained Australia in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hanky-Panky: The Theatricals Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls reads as a labour of love from Van Straten, providing a detailed and lavishly illustrated journey through the theatrical exploits of a man whose achievements have undeservedly fallen from the public eye.
A devoted arts archivist, historian and author, Van Straten has sourced many of the fascinating images used in Hanky-Panky from his own collection of memorabilia. Publications of this book follows the magnificent 2018 publication Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: the shows, the stars, the stories. An author’s note in Hanky-Panky indicates that the inspiration to tell Rolls’ story actually came at the launch for the coffee table book on The Maj, when current Her Majesty’s owner Mike Walsh expressed his intrigue over the little-known producer and one-time owner of the theatre.
Rolls was born Joseph Adolphe Darewski in 1890, producing London stage entertainment as early as 1910. At the time, to be a producer meant also being the director, with the multi-faceted Rolls also taking on the additional task of conductor for many of his productions. Entertainment du jour was the revue, and Rolls thrived in producing these lavish spectacles, which were collections of song, dance and comedy linked tenuously by titular themes such as Venus Ltd and Hanky-Panky.
Inseparable from Rolls’ story is that of his devoted wife Jennie Benson, songbird star of many a Rolls revue. A rising performer when she first appeared in a Rolls production, Benson went on to achieve great success under the loving influence of Rolls.
Rolls’ thriving career in London was halted when his reputation was tainted by a charge of indecent exposure, which led to a short jail term. His career began anew in 1925 when he and Benson travelled to Australia. Beginning with a successful season of the pantomime Aladdin, Rolls was soon flourishing once more. Intertwined with dealings with famed production company J.C. Williamson’s, Rolls’ years of success in Australia are a key feature and attraction of this book.
While many of his productions enjoyed local success, Rolls’ style as a presenter is characterised by his tendency to oversell grand plans, readily telling the press about imminent movie productions, new theatres and even ice rinks, the majority of which never eventuated.
Rolls also had a lifelong tendency towards money problems, frequently charged with not paying salaries or taxes. Interestingly, there is no suggestion that such money woes were due to skimming profits or lifestyle extravagances; it is just that Rolls’ productions tended grander than the box office would allow. Van Straten aids the reader in appreciating the economics at play by listing each original amount in pounds along with the present value in dollars.
Those with an interest in Australian theatrical history will appreciate the insight into the theatres of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, several of which, sadly, no longer exist. There is also an extensive focus upon the stars of yesterday, with luminaries such as Gladys Moncrieff (pictured below), Peter Finch and Ninette de Valois (founder of the Royal Ballet) mixed in amongst a great many names that are less frequently remembered.
While the text of Hanky-Panky reads somewhat like a novel, the generously illustrated format sees numerous images adorning every page of the book. This makes the reading experience more like taking a highly detailed guide through a visual historical exhibit.
A key attraction of the book in their own right, the varied range of images includes headshots, production phots, program covers, advertisements, costume sketches and more. While it is somewhat disappointing that a small number of images appear somewhat pixelated, the majority are of pristine quality.
Rolls’ absolute dedication to producing entertainment is the ultimate inspiration to be taken from Hanky-Panky. Surviving the Great Depression, the advent of talking pictures and personal financial challenges, Rolls persevered undeterred, always seeking that next great show and star. To quote Van Straten’s final words in Hanky-Panky, “Bravo, Mr Rolls! Bravo!”
Hanky Panky: The Theatricals Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls is available for purchase from Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Images: #2 National Library of Australia; #3 courtesy of Jason Thomson; #4 Charles Norman Collection, Princess Theatre Archives; #5 Frank Van Straten Collection; #6 Leslie Piastro Askwith Collection