Born: Established: 4 Dec 1843 London ; Died: 13 Oct 1911
Entrepreneur, comedian, singer.
A comedian and singer who established himself in London's prestigious music halls during the late 1860s, Harry Rickards went on to carve out such a significant a career in variety theatre that he was invariably referred to as the 'Napoleon' or 'king' of Australian vaudeville. His name is also largely associated with the Tivoli theatre circuit that he established in the 1890s. After first touring the Antipodes in the early 1870s, he returned in the mid 1880s and again in the late 1880s, before establishing a permanent base in the country. When Australia was severely hit by the economic depression in the early 1890s, Rickards was able to ride out the difficult years by concentrating on a more small but lucrative high-class market. In later years, he frequently travelled to England and America in search of the best international acts. While many of these performers have dominated accounts of Rickards's theatrical operations, he nevertheless employed many local performers, some of the more notable being Will Whitburn, Charlie Fanning, Jack Kearns, Maud Fanning, and Harry Clay. Two of his most popular and regular performers around the turn of the century were African-American minstrel comedians Charles Pope and Irving Sayles. Rickards built a substantial fortune during his lifetime, but was also renowned for his support of local charities. After his death in 1911 while on an act-finding tour in England, his circuit was taken over by Hugh D. McIntosh. The new company was subsequently named Harry Rickards' Tivoli Theatres Ltd, in recognition of its founder.
[For account that offer in-depth biographical details on Harry Rickards' life and career, see 'Works About' and the Further Reference section of this biography]
1843-1889: The son of a printer, Harry Rickards was born Benjamin Harry Leete in the slum area of East London and, as a youth, was apprenticed to an engineer. He supplemented his meagre income by singing in local pubs, and eventually turned to the theatre as a career. After he made his professional debut in a production of Rob Roy at the Runcorn Theatre Royal, he began appearing on the stages of numerous London music ahlls, eventually changing his name to Rickards. His first big break came about in 1863, through his rendition of the song 'Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.' This success led to him finding engagements in the more upmarket London music halls as a lion comique, a comedian who affected a toff persona, complete with moustache, cane, and champagne. After a failed attempt at management, a venture that bankrupted him, he decided to tour outside the United Kingdom, initially choosing the Commonwealth countries over America.
Rickards first toured the colonies in partnership with Enderby Jackson (1871-1874). Following several years in America (1874-1875) and almost a decade back in the United Kingdom, he returned to the Antipodes between 1885 and 1887 and again in 1888-1891. Although Rickards had by then become the manager and producer of his own minstrel and musical comedy troupes, he continued to appear on the stage, often in partnership with his second wife, Kate, whom he met while touring America. The 1888-1891 tour was also undertaken with his brother Jack Leete as business manager. On several occasions, too, Rickards also temporarily joined forces with other companies, notably the Cogill Brothers, with whom he staged double-company programmes, and American entrepreneur Dan Tracey. Although always branded with the Rickards's name, his troupes were variously billed: The Rickards-Leete Combination, Harry Rickards' New Comedy Company, Harry Rickards' New English and Irish Company, and Harry Rickards' New Musical Comedy Company.
1890-1911: In December 1892, Rickards took the first step towards basing himself permanently in Australia by taking up the lease of the Opera House in Sydney. A little over two months later, he moved his New Tivoli Minstrel and Grand Specialty Company to the nearby Garrick Theatre, which he renamed the Tivoli Theatre, effectively founding a theatrical institution that continued for more than seventy years. Buoyed by the success of his Sydney venture, Rickards established a permanent presence in Melbourne at the Prince of Wales Opera House, beginning in 1885. That same year, he undertook the first of a number of overseas trips to the United Kingdom to book new acts and shows. When fire destroyed the Sydney Tivoli in 1899, he built a new theatre in its place within six months, and soon afterwards began expanding his base of operations to other capital cities. During the first decade of the twentieth century, he owned, managed, or leased five theatres in Australia. In addition to his major operations in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, and Kalgoorlie, Rickards also sent troupes on tour through regional Australia and New Zealand.
Rickards's great achievement was to bring many of the world's greatest variety stars of the day to Australia, among them Little Tich (comic), Marie Lloyd (comic), Julian Rose (Hebrew comedian), Harry Houdini (escapologist), Eugen Sandow (strongman), W. C. Fields (comic juggler), and George Fuller Golden (singer). While his reputation as a theatrical importer tends to be the focus of most historical insights into his career, it should not be forgotten that he made a significant contribution to the employment of many high-profile Australian performers: Will Whitburn, Charlie Fanning and Georgie Devoe, Jack Kearns and Ida Tauchert (including McKisson and Kearns), Harry Clay, Billy Williams, Vaude and Verne, Art Slavin and Lily Thompson, and (arguably two of his most popular comedians) Charlie Pope and Irving Sayles. Most of these artists are also known to have continued working for Rickards on a regular basis for many years.
Harry Rickards died in England in 1911 while on talent-buying trip, leaving behind his wife, two daughters, and a fortune estimated at £135,000. (He and his first wife, Carrie Rickards, nee Tudor, had divorced in 1878). An astute businessman, who effectively reigned as Australia's 'king of vaudeville' for sixteen years, Rickards was also a benevolent man, regularly contributing to both industry and community welfare needs. One of his charitable institutions, for example, was a free Christmas lunch for disadvantaged people. He also regularly provided his artists and venues free of charge for benefit events. In 1912, following negotiations with Rickards's widow, the company was taken over by Hugh D. McIntosh. The new general manager subsequently re-named the organisation 'Harry Rickards Tivoli Theatres', in honour of its founder.
While Harry Rickards was undoubtedly the most successful and most high-profile Australian variety entrepreneur of his era, it should be noted that his influence and impact on the overall Australian variety industry and popular culture audience has been inflated by historians. Recent research into Australian variety industry (ca. 1870-1930) demonstrates that the current literature has neglected the extensive suburban and regional variety markets that offered alternative entertainment opportunities to the massive audience base that Rickards was unable and unwilling to cater for (Djubal 2005). Thus, with no sustained historical research conducted into the overall Australian industry of that era, the industry appears oligopolistic, and Rickards's role is exaggerated by association. What has now become clear is that Rickards succeeded only in dominating the specific upper-level market. Although his audiences still comprised patrons from both the lower socio-economic demographic and from regional Australia (through his touring companies), the numbers were only a small percentage of the overall variety market.
The Theatre Magazine records in April 1909 that Rickards operated five permanent theatres the previous year, employing 115 foreign artists and 117 local performers (232 total). Considering the population of Australia at that time (a little over 4.3 million), it is clear that Rickards neither dominated nor controlled the vast Australian variety market. He was simply the most successful in his particular market (ctd. Djubal 'What Oh Tonight,' p.26). Taking Sydney as a particular example, it is possible to ascertain that during the 1890s, the combined nightly attendance for theatres and music halls situated within the central business and inner suburban districts would have exceeded 10,000. This does not take into account the many other non-theatrical entertainment opportunities or outer suburban shows on offer. Given that Rickards's Tivoli Theatre seated only 1,200 patrons, it is evident that his operations were but a minor part of the overall Sydney entertainment industry. While his interstate touring troupes provided additional patronage for his company, these tours still only accounted for a small percentage of the entertainment on offer at any particular time around the country (ctd. Djubal 'What Oh Tonight,' p.43, using data supplied by Eric Irvin in the Dictionary of Australian Theatre).
3. FURTHER REFERENCE:
Several substantial research projects and publications have focused on Harry Rickards, and these provide a great deal more information than can be presented here. The most notable are:
Crouch, Monica. 'Harry Rickards, Actor-Manager and Entrepreneur: Analysis of His Work in Australia: 1971-1904.' Diss. U of Queensland, 1987.
Van Straten, Frank. Tivoli.