Australia’s Fred and Ginger

Australia’s Fred and Ginger

Selected from collection of autographed theatrical photographs, Susan Mills tells the story behind these delightful images of a glamorous early 20th century star of the Australian stage. 

Treasured archival ephemera underlies numerous stories. In a carefully kept collection of autographed theatrical photographs, once the pride and joy of an avid theatre-goer, and now held in the Seaborn, Broughton & Walford Foundation, are glamourous images of the leading stars of Australian theatre in the 1910s and 1920s. Among them is Madge Elliott – dancer, singer and actress - and Australia’s Ginger Rogers to Cyril Ritchard’s Fred Astaire. 

Born Leah Madeleine Elliott in London in 1896, an infant Madge moved to Toowoomba in Queensland where her doctor father found employment, and where young Madge started dancing lessons. Her family’s move to Sydney resulted in her dancing tuition continuing at the Minnie Hooper Dancing School, under the famed ballet choreographer for J.C. Williamson Ltd.

At the age of 15 (although Madge claims 13 and even 11) Madge Elliott was signed in 1911 by J.C. Williamson Ltd to join the children’s ballet of the Melba-Williamson Opera Company.

Following years of hard work on the stage, Madge’s first taste of dancing solo was in 1915’s High Jinks at Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney, and she moved to musical comedy as part of J.C. Williamson’s ‘Exquisite Eight’ ensemble.

Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard first danced on the same stage in Going Up, an aviation themed musical comedy featuring a real airplane on stage, which had its Australian premiere on the 2nd of November, 1918 at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal.

According to Madge’s serialised memoirs, published in 1935, although she had initially brushed him off on being introduced to the dancing novice and medical school dropout, Cyril won her over with sheer enthusiasm when he was “continually inventing new steps and dance numbers and asking me to join him. We practiced in odd corners…”

By the time Going Up returned from a New Zealand tour at the start of 1919, the pair had devised a new waltz number, which they promptly and excitedly had approved by J.C. Williamson’s Managing Director Hugh J. Ward.

Madge and Cyril debuted their new dance at Melbourne performances of Going Up in in April of that year, and a partnership was born. Madge Elliot and Cyril Ritchard determinedly shook hands and agreed on their own ‘firm’ of Madge and Cyril. Table Talk magazine’s review reveals that the pair ‘created something of a furore in their dance “Memories” in the second act’.

A dancing star, Madge was intent on singing as well, despite a ‘thread of a voice’. A part in the musical comedy Yes, Uncle! presented such an opportunity, as well as establishing Madge and Cyril as ‘something new in the dancing world’. Yes, Uncle! had its Australian premiere at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal on the 3rd of April, 1920.

Critic’s review noted, ‘On this occasion Miss Elliott also appears successfully as a vocalist, and with Mr. Cyril Ritchard sings "I Like Any Girl" and "Think of Me".’ Madge Elliott followed this success with the role of Chi Chi in the revival of High Jinks in 1920, after which, “People began to pursue me for my autograph, for my endorsement of soap and face creams…”

It was in 1923 that Madge Elliott secured her first principal role, the lead of The Cabaret Girl, with a long run quickly followed by a star turn in 1924’s Whirled Into Happiness. The result of many years of hard work and non-stop dancing meant that Madge was exhausted, and she announced to the press her intention to take a holiday to do absolutely nothing but rest. She would travel to America, where Cyril had voyaged that year to try his luck on Broadway, before heading to London.

Such was the demand for photographs once Madge Elliott announced she would be leaving at the end of Whirled Into Happiness, that J.C. Williamson Ltd announced the last night of the production on 22 August 1924 would be a ‘souvenir night’ - everyone in the audience would receive an autographed photograph. On that final night she was showered with streamers and gifts, and farewelled with Auld Lang Syne. A few days later, Madge was aboard the SS Niagara on her way to United States.

Madge Elliott would move to London after a few weeks of holidaying in America, where Cyril Ritchard eventually joined her. A revived ‘firm’ of Madge and Cyril continued their partnership on the stage of London’s Gaiety Theatre. On their return to Australia in 1932 to star in the Williamson production of the musical comedy Blue Roses, their popularity continued, helped by a spectacular public wedding in 1935. Although their careers eventually diverged, they were always affectionately known by the Australian public simply as ‘Madge and Cyril’, our home-grown glamourous dancing pair.