Voluptuous Songbird Forced to Ration Sweeties and Ditch Husbands.

Voluptuous Songbird Forced to Ration Sweeties and Ditch Husbands.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Celia Ghiloni was a star in the JC Williamson Company, touring musical comedy and Gilbert and Sullivan across Australia and New Zealand. But jibes over her weight led to some serious belt tightening, as Leann Richards reports.

Born Rosabelle Ethel Celia Ghiloni in Victoria in 1879, the daughter of an Italian immigrant from Tuscany, she was known throughout her life as Celia.

She grew up in Western Australia and at 16 began singing in public at recitals.

Celia performed as an amateur until 1898 when she started a regular Sunday concert series at the Fremantle Town Hall. Odd appearances in professional companies in Perth soon followed, before a short tour of Australia with the Elite Vaudeville Company.

Celia married Barnett Breslau, a tailor’s cutter. Though not thrilled with Celia’s profession, he was happy to move with her to Melbourne when J C Williamson offered a contract.

Soon she was touring Australia with his number two company. Williamson capitalized on her local renown by having her play prominent supporting roles when the company toured Western Australia. In 1901 she was well received by a local crowd inFlorodora at the Cremorne Theatre.

By 1902 Celia had joined Williamson’s premier company, the Royal Comic Opera Company, touring Australia and New Zealand in musical comedies and operas such as The Runaway Girl, Robin Hood and Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

Celia had a wonderful soprano voice and was well trained, but she was always a supporting player to the Williamson divas. She loved the theatrical life, coping well with the frantic schedule that often stressed other performers.

However, her home life was not as happy. Celia’s husband rarely saw her due to her hectic schedule. This led to arguments, when he begged her to leave the stage to spend more time at home with him.  In 1903 he moved to Sydney to be closer to his wife but after a few months of cohabitation, marked by further arguments, she left for Melbourne with the company. She wrote a letter to her husband saying, ‘Apart from our incompatibility of temper, my professional demands quite preclude the idea of my living with you again.’

The ‘voluptuous’ figure which would eventually limit Celia’s casting options, drew the attention of the Bulletin’s reviewer in My Lady Molly (1903). “Celia Ghiloni causes some persons considerable anxiety, when she comes on as Lord Tomnoddy, and these same persons do hope that the material in his lordship's tubulars is strong. Celia ought to forego cream, potatoes, chocolates, and the like, for if she grows better nourished she will cease to adorn a Virginia-creepered landscape, and be only fitted for the rolling hills of the dairy farm.”

An imposing presence on stage was no problem when she played Katisha in The Mikado in 1905. The Argus reviewer said, “Miss Celia Gilhoni's Katisha was an artistic piece of work, chiefly due to the humorously solemn and impressive tragic quality of her acting, and the meaning she threw into her singing, and to her clever make-up.”

By 1908 Celia had had reached the pinnacle of her profession. That year she joined a Hugh Ward company to perform in London.  She was so popular with her peers that before she left they presented her with a memento and a farewell tea was organized in her honour.

Whilst she was in London, her husband finally sued for divorce. He cited her constant travelling and was granted a decree based on desertion.

Celia was finally free to pursue her theatrical career. But she was not free for long. The company stopped in India on the way home, and whilst there she married Rowan McPherson, a military man, also described as an adventurer. He returned with her to Australia.

By 1911 Celia was under contract to Williamson after a three-year break. However she was confined to roles which suited her now plump figure. She had always been described as ‘voluputous’ or imposing, but changing fashions now favoured a skinnier frame and her weight was imposing a significant handicap on her career.

She could not fit into modern dress and this caused her some distress, especially with typecasting. She wrote to Williamson protesting her lot and quoted Gilbert and Sullivan.

“As I have not renounced mankind and don’t intend to renounce mankind I won’t have it, so there.’

Williamson responded in kind quoting Patience.

“The coming by and by has visited you early in life and you must have it, so there.’

Celia soon grew philosophical about her fate.

“When my corsetiere says I am a little too plump for the present modes, I answer that I am paid for being plump.’

However her weight remained an issue and in 1913 she started a diet which omitted all her favorite foods. Many fellow performers joined her in dieting, with the result that the newspapers reported ‘a marked falling off in the principals.’

Celia remained with Williamson for most of the war years, supporting a new generation of stars including Gladys Moncrieff. She performed in drama with Julius Knight, musical comedy and light opera and participated in patriotic displays, being a very imposing Britannia in one tableau.

In 1916 her husband enlisted and went to the front. Celia continued performing and in 1918 broke with Williamson to sign with vaudeville entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh, proving a popular addition to the Tivoli revues.

Around this time she also became publicly supportive of the actors union, possibly because of her association with Jack Cannot, who was an active unionist. In 1917 she was elected as a councilor for the actors association and in 1919 she signed an application for Commonwealth registration of the union.

After the war her husband wrote to her saying it was impossible for him to live with her again. In 1920 she divorced him and was once again a free woman.

Her career was slowing down and it seemed she was preparing to give up the stage. Her single life was short and later in 1920 she married for the third time. The groom was Alfred James Mellor and the couple moved back to Perth.

She spent the rest of her life there as a devoted wife. Alfred died in 1950 and in 1955 Celia followed him.

Celia was one of the most famous Edwardian actresses to originate in Western Australia, with an incredible career, which encompassed musical comedy, drama, light opera and vaudeville. A talented, loyal and adventurous woman, her smile still glows with warmth in faded postcards of her theatrical triumphs.

See more articles by Leann Richards at www.hat-archive.com

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Originally published in the November / December 2011 print edition of Stage Whispers.