THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
|Signed photo, Rotary 4822a, c. 1905|
|Click to enlarge photo|
Phyllis Dare was born Phyllis Constance Haddie Dones, on August 15, 1890. The second daughter of Arthur Dones, she was three and a half years younger than her sister, Zena. Both adopted the stage name 'Dare' when they were contracted to appear in an 1899 Christmas pantomime, Babes in the Wood. At the time, Phyllis was nine years old.
A few months later, shortly before her tenth birthday, Phyllis Dare played Little Christina in Ib and Little Christina (May 15-July 13, 1900). The following Christmas, she was given the title role in Red Riding Hood at Manchester's Theatre Royal. A few months later, she was cast as one of the two children in Haddon Chambers' The Wilderness. For the 1901 Christmas season, Seymour Hicks cast her as Mab in his production of Bluebell in Fairyland that starred him and his wife, Ellaline Terriss. The following Christmas, she played Sesame in The Forty Thieves.
For the next few years, she concentrated on her studies until, in the Autumn of 1905, just after her fifteenth birthday, she took over the lead part of Angela in Seymour Hicks's long-running hit The Catch of the Season. It was a part that had previously been played, first by her sister, Zena, and then by Ellaline Terriss. Phyllis left the show to fulfil a pre-signed contact to star in the pantomime Cinderella in Newcastle.
When the pantomime closed, she was sent to Belgium, it was said, to complete her studies. The sudden departure from the country of the young teenager who had become an enormously popular star gave rise to wide-spread rumours that she had fled abroad in order to end an unwanted pregnancy. This seemed to be confirmed when, as unexpectedly as she had departed, she returned, collected from the convent where she had been staying by her father, who drove her back to London. There she took over from Edna May, who had walked out on the show, the lead in The Belle of Mayfair at the Vaudeville. Phyllis was still not sixteen years old. Later, in her autobiography, she described
The night before I took up Miss May's part I scarcely slept a wink through thinking of the coming ordeal, and as the hour approached for me to start for the theatre I became more and more "funky," as I had heard that every seat in the house had been booked up for days. But I determined to take things as philosophically as I could, and so when I drove along the Strand and saw long lines of people stretching from the doors of the Vaudeville Theatre right down to almost as far as the eye could see, I just clenched my teeth and said nothing - though, like the sailor's parrot, I have a strong notion that I thought quite a lot.
I dressed almost as one in a dream, but all the members of the company were so extremely sympathetic and thoughtful that I felt that, at any rate, I carried the good wishes of the theatre with me.
At last my call arrived. For a second I stood in the wings feeling that wild horses could not induce me to go on the stage. Then, all of a sudden, the thought flashed across my brain that few actresses, so early in life, had ever had so tremendous a chance of making a name for themselves as was mine at that very moment. "So here goes," I thought, as I mentally shook hands with myself.
I stepped on to the stage. Phyllis Dare was no more: she had suddenly changed into the Belle of Mayfair.
But the cheering! As I write in the summer-house of a shady garden at Herne Bay I still seem to hear it ringing in my ears. The crowded house seemed to be applauding as if by machinery which transformed a thousand clapping hands into one great volume of welcome. For at least three minutes I stood there waiting for the applause to subside, and during that time I learnt a lesson which I hope as long as I live I shall never forget - it was that the public will always stand by those who have been wronged. To an actress, surely, no possible thought could be more consoling.
At last, after what seemed to me half a lifetime condensed into a space of five minutes, silence was restored and, curiously enough, for the rest of the evening I never felt a trace of nervousness; although during the interval crowds of interviewers called to see me, hosts of telegrams from friends arrived every two minutes, and messages of congratulation were showered upon me by many kind well-wishers.
Phyllis Dare, From School to Stage, Collier & Co, London, 1907,
She was an enormous success in the popular show. In December 1906, she had to leave the cast, once again to star in another Christmas pantomime. Her part in The Belle of Mayfair was taken by Billie Burke. In 1907, she starred in a provincial tour of The Dairymaids and published her autobiography, From School to Stage.
Let me, for example, just sketch out an account of what I did during the last two days before I set out on a recent tour with The Dairymaids. The following are some of the more urgent duties I had to attend to:-
Three visits to my theatrical dressmaker; two visits to my own dressmaker; measured for theatrical shoes; measured for private footgear; six hours at Messrs. Foulsham & Banfield's, my theatrical photographers; four hours at rehearsals; business connected with my appearance in pantomime at Birmingham at Christmas; two visits to theatrical milliners; visit to a well-known song-writer to try over some new songs he was writing for me; an hour's practice at two new dances; singed over three hundred picture postcards, and replied personally to thirty-four letters.
Phyllis Dare, From School to Stage, Collier & Co, London, 1907
At Christmas in 1907, she again played Cinderella in a pantomime. This time it was at Birmingham's Theatre Royal.
From May to June 1908, she again starred in The Dairymaids - this time in the London production at the Adelphi. Later that year, she starred at the same theatre in the title role of Cinderella. Two months after the pantomime closed, she created the part of Eileen Cavanagh in what was to be her first long-running musical. Opening on April 28, 1909, at the Shaftesbury Theatre, The Arcadians ran for 809 performances. She stayed throughout the run and delighted the packed audiences with her girlish charm, natural singing voice and delicate movements.
|Click photo to enlarge|
The Arcadians was presented by George Edwardes, the producer acknowledged as the creator of musical comedy. She was to star in another three of his productions over the next three years: she created the role of Gonda van der Loo in The Girl in the Train that opened at the Vaudeville on June 4, 1910; took the title role in Peggy that opened at the Gaiety on March 4, 1911; went to the Châtalet Theatre in Paris later that year to play Prudence in The Quaker Girl; and created the role of Delia Dale in The Sunshine Girl at the Gaiety, opening on February 24, 1912. The music for The Sunshine Girl was written by Paul A Rubens, a significant song-writer who had also been responsible, amongst his many shows, for The Dairymaids, in which she had already starred.
In May 1912, she left The Sunshine Girl to replace Gertie Millar as Nancy Joyce in the touring production of The Dancing Mistress. In October 1913, she returned to London to play Dora Manners in The Girl from Utah which ran until May 2, 1914. Rubens had written the music for the show, as he had done for her next two shows: Miss Hook of Holland, in which she played Sally in the revival staged from October to December, 1914; and Tina that opened in November 1915.
During the run of Tina, in which she played the title role, she and Rubens became engaged. She was 25 and he was 38. Before the marriage took place, however, Rubens became seriously ill with consumption and called of the engagement. He died towards the end of 1917.
Apart from an appearance in short-lived revue, Phyllis Dare did not return to the stage until May 1919, when, to an enthusiastic reception, she played Lucienne Touguet at the opening at the Winter Gardens of Kissing Time. Throughout the 1920s she continued to star in successful musicals including The Lady of the Rose (1922) and her own production of The Street Singer (1924). At the beginning of the 1930s, she realised that, as she entered her forties, her musical career was coming to and that her career had to be continued in the straight theatre. She spent much of the 1930s and 1940s in touring productions with occasionally forays into the West End.
On September 15, 1949, she opened at the Strand Theatre in Ivor Novello's King's Rhapsody. Both she and her elder sister, Zena Dare played major roles. It was the first time the two sisters had appeared together on stage since the 1899 pantomime. The show ran for two years. After it had closed, Phyllis Dare retired from the stage and went to live in Brighton. She never married.
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