Saturday, January 26, 2013

The elusive Harry Phydora

Update 27 August 2019.

I purchased the postcard above because the image intrigued me -- promoting the pantomime Aladdin here in New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th Century. I did wonder about Harry Phydora, an actor with an uncommon name, but who was a huge hit during his time with Australasian audiences. Apart from his stage career from the 1880s through to the eve of World War I, however, not a lot seems to be known about him.

According to census returns available on Ancestry's site, he was born c.1868. His earliest theatrical appearances were with family: Joseph, Charles and Harry Phydora were in Follies of the Day in London in 1886, when he'd be around 22 years old (The Era, 15 May 1886) At the Theatre Royal, Stratford, Harry Phydora played “Augustus” in a four act drama, Stolen from Home in 1888 (The Era, 25 August 1888, and at a Christmas Panto at the Stratford, Harry Phydora played Captain O’Scuttle in Sinbad the Sailor.

“Mr Harry Phydora as Captain O’Scuttle was another personage to excite the risibility of the public, and he sang a song of a decidedly vulgar type, “She had to go without it after all”, in a manner far superior to its merits. It would be well if this gentleman substituted another comic song which is not vulgar, and there are plenty of them, instead of this suggestive production … In the Palace scene, Mr Harry Phydora gave his “leg mania” evolutions; and, assisted by Mr Bolton, he performed several feats of the contortionistic kind, which greatly pleased the assembly.”
The Era, 29 December 1888 

He married Lily in 1891.

Dominion, 3 September 1910

He started appearing in New Zealand from around 1906.

The comedian Mr J C Williamson has engaged to play the dame in his pantomime is Harry Phydora, a player of all-round excellence, dancer, singer, and humourist.
Evening Post 22 September 1906

The Pantomime Company, which is to produce "Mother Goose "in Sydney, is now rapidly filling the ranks of its principals. Miss Olive Morrell, Queen and Le Brun, and Harry Phydora will be the chief representatives of the London stage …
Auckland Star 8 December 1906

For "Aladdin" at Christmas, Williamson has engaged Harry Phydora, of earlier pantomime popularity, as Widow Twankey, and [James] Campbell for a comedy character.
Auckland Star 18 September 1909

In Australia during 1910, Phydora provided quite a bit of information about himself in an interview. Probably with a fair bit of dramatic licence ...

Mr H Phydora, “Widow Twankey” of Aladdin, to open for a short season at the Theatre Royal to-night, was found at his hotel last night in characteristically good humour.

"My birthplace?” he said. "Well, I was born at Camden Town, London, historical for severa1 reasons, including of course my birth, and I have been in the theatrical business ever since I reached double figures. No, I am not going to say now long ago that was. Before I was well in my teens musical comedy attracted me, and my chance for the better class of work came in 1897 as One Eye of 'The Geisha' at Daly's. I was understudying Huntley Wright, who originated the part; and at the same time I was also understudying Edmund Payne at the Gaiety. Huntley Wright was off, and I had to go on at painfully short notice, but I came through successfully. The management were satisfied, and I have had a good time ever since. In 1897 we played the principal towns in South Africa, returned home, and then I toured as Li in "San Toy” again with George Edwards for 18 months. We were back in South Africa in 1902, and after a few months at Johannesburg played a 'vacation' season in all the towns, even as far as Bulawayo. Altogether we had a most interesting time, notwithstanding that the country had been in the grip of war for a couple of years.”

You have made a speciality of dame parts of recent years?

"Yes, I have. When one gets into that business it’s awfully hard to get out of it. I have every reason to feel satisfied with the reception in Australia of 'Mother Goose,' and my Martha is Humpty Dumpty. Now I am playing the old woman for the third time in Australia. You'll excuse my blushes when I say I scored a success with dear old “Mother Goose” and again with Humpty Dumpty though, by the way, Adelaide audiences did not see me in the latter pantomime as I left for London after the Sydney season. In the old country I played in pantomime for a few months and then had a stroll round Europe and America after information and hints. Do you know I was made a member of the Lambs Club of New York? Well, that was because I distinguished myself there - lost a £40 diamond ring and a wallet with another £40. It was a one act comedy, principal unknown. I was back in London when the offer of an Australian season came again, and after my former experiences I had no hesitation in accepting the engagement. I felt that on the former occasion I had touched the pulse of the people as a dame; and thought a third engagement offered many difficulties. I feel that they have been overcome. This petticoat business is not so easy as it looks, I can tell you, and just you tell audiences to remember that.”
Adelaide Advertiser 16 July 1910 

The last record of Harry Phydora appears to have been a 1938 electoral roll for Clapham, Pudney and Streatham, back in England. He may not have survived World War II. [Update: he appears to have died in 1939. Alfred Denville of Denville Hall reported in August 1940 that Phydora was one of a number of actors that had passed on the year before -- The Stage, 29 August 1940, p. 5]

 So far, I haven't been able to find out any more about him, but I did see an article from 1952, in which he was not quite yet forgotten.

New Zealand Free Lance, 27 August 1910

Bert Gilbeil as the wicked uncle taking tea with Harry Phydora, the dame, would gossip, on fruity bits of scandal. Bert every few minutes exclaiming. "I will have another cup of tea!" The comic effect came from Bert's manner of varying the inflection of his voice' each time he besought Harry to ply the teapot.

This simple homely gossip was irresistibly funny, as convulsed, audiences affirmed. They likewise rolled in their seats when Bert Gilbert shouted, "How dare you, you blackguard!" at anyone, however harmless, who offended his dignity.

Wherever the dame was transported she never got away from her housekeeping worries. Up in a balloon, Harry Phydora and Harry Shine looked alternately through a telescope at the sights of Sydney. Suddenly the dame (Phydora) paused as she gazed. "There's our 'ouse," she cried excitedly. Then, wiping both ends of the telescope she looked again to remark, "And there's our lodger. I can see his references!"
Sunday Herald (Sydney) 21 December 1952

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