Born: Established: 1872 Waterloo, South Sydney area, Sydney Southern Suburbs, Sydney, New South Wales, ; Died: Ceased: Dec 1929 Mentone, Mentone - Seaford area, Melbourne South East, Melbourne, Victoria,
Comedian, acrobat, dancer, singer, revusical writer, producer and director, vaudeville manager, pantomime dame.
Jack Kearns, whose career on the Australian variety stage spanned almost forty years (ca. 1890-1929) became one of the key links between the great Australian minstrel comics of the 1880s and 1890s – notably W. Horace Bent, Charles Pope, and Irving Sayles – and the 'new' tradition of Australian acrobatic ('knockabout') comedians to emerge in the immediate post-World War I years, the best known today being Arthur Taucherto), Jim Gerald, and George Wallace.
Best known in his later career as simply 'Porky' and often referred to as the 'John Bunny of Australia' (Bunny was the first comic star of the early American silent-film era), Jack Kearns's first professional stage appearance is believed to have been in Sydney in 1890 with the Anglo-American Frolics Company. During the early 1890s, he established his reputation in partnership with acrobat/comedian Albert McKisson (as McKisson and Kearns). The two met in Melbourne while engaged by Alfred Dampier for his Jack the Giant Killer pantomime, and for more than a decade were regarded as the leading Australian-based act to work this line of entertainment. McKisson and Kearns were associated with J. C. Williamson, George Coppin, Bland Holt, John Fuller Snr, and Harry Rickards during their career together. When the partnership ended sometime around 1902, Kearns and his wife Ida Tauchert (aka Ida Rosslyn) worked the Australian and international vaudeville circuits in a sketch act. Following Tauchert's death in 1913, Kearns formed a new comedy sketch act with his daughter Vera, and also found much success playing the dame role in pantomime.
In 1916, Kearns and another veteran vaudeville performer/manager, Harry Sadler, took over the management of the Princess Theatre, Sydney, for Fullers' Theatres Ltd. The partnership found some popularity presenting a series of one-act musical comedies (revusicals), which were also co-written and/or adapted by Sadler and Kearns. Their greatest success, however, was not with their own company but with a new troupe put together by the Fullers, starring Nat Phillips and Roy Rene. Initially known as Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company and later as Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company, the extended season broke all records at the theatre to that date and established Phillips and Rene as one of Australia's greatest-ever comic duos.
Although his career as a writer of revusicals was brief, Kearns nevertheless played a role in the genre's early stages of development by stimulating ideas and production opportunities. His greatest contribution in later years was his work in musical comedy, pantomime, and straight vaudeville. A prominent member of the Chasers social group (affiliated with Australian Variety), Kearns was viewed very much in his later years as one of Australia's elder statesmen of variety, and in this respect helped play a key role in advancing the skills and performance techniques of many emerging local artists.
Rarely ever out of work during his entire career, Jack Kearns's career was aligned with all the leading variety organisations that operated in Australia between the 1890s and the late 1920s, including Harry Rickards/Tivoli circuit, Tommy Hudson, James Brennan, J. C. Bain, Dix-Baker, Harry Clay, Holland and St John, and Fullers' Theatres Ltd.
1872-1891: Although John 'Jack' Kearns once described himself as a 'Sydney native', he in fact spent much of his youth growing up in the mid-west New South Wales township of Bathurst, and later near Port Macquarie. Kearns was the second child of Thomas and Elizabeth Catherine (nee Pollard) Kearns. His father, Thomas Kearns, had been born in the inner-city locality of St James in 1847 to Michael and Honora Kearns, but had similarly been raised in the Bathurst area. He and his wife married in the nearby township of Hartley in 1870, the same year in which they had their first child, Catherine. Two years later, their second child, John, was born, possibly while they were visiting Sydney. His next three siblings, Rebecca (1874), Francis John (1876), and Anne (1879), were all born in Bathurst, while the last two Kearns children, daughters Maria (1883) and Emily (1885), were born at East Macquarie. Little else is known about Kearns's early life but, according to an interview published in the April 1913 issue of the Theatre Magazine, he spent some five years in the boot-making trade as an apprentice/employee of John Hunter and Sons (Redfern, Sydney) before making his professional debut on the stage in 1890 (p.33). This would seem to indicate that he returned to Sydney either with his family or on his own sometime around 1885.
Kearns's debut professional stage engagement is believed to have been in 1890 at Sydney's Academy of the Arts with the American Frolics Company. He made his first pantomime appearance the following Christmas in Alfred Dampier's Jack the Giant Killer (Alexandra Theatre, Melbourne). Also among the cast was Albert McKisson, an American acrobatic song and dance man, routinely described as the 'Wondrous McKisson.' He had previously been working a double act known as Crawford and McKisson (little is known of this pairing apart from engagements with the American Frolics in 1890 and with Frank M. Clark at the Melbourne Gaiety Theatre in early 1891). Kearns and McKisson were both cast by Dampier as Spirits, with McKisson (having at that stage a more established reputation) also taking on the additional and more prominent role of Tarantula, the Spider King. An Age review of the production, which includes glowing praise of McKisson's performance, gives some idea of at least one aspect of the possibilities on offer in later McKisson and Kearns stage shows: 'Gifted with incredible agility, whenever he clung by an eyebrow from the wings or supported himself in mid-air by his teeth, or leapt at one bound across the stage the wondrous McKisson... evoked thunders of applause, and when he rested in difficult places or impossible attitudes by means apparently, of a facial expression only, the applause was tremendous and well deserved' (26 December 1891, p.10).
Within a year of ending their Dampier engagement, McKisson and Kearns had teamed up and established themselves almost immediately as a top-line vaudeville act. They maintained this position over the next ten to twelve years and, as a consequence, were viewed by their contemporary Australian public as the most popular knockabout minstrel and vaudeville comedy act to have emerged on the local stage, accepting engagements with all the leading Sydney and Melbourne-based minstrel and vaudeville managements as well as making frequent regional and interstate tours.
1892-1899: McKisson and Kearns's first known engagement following the Dampier pantomime was on 23 February 1892 with the U.S. Minstrels, then based at Melbourne's Victoria Hall. Advertisements (which sometimes saw them billed as McKisson and Krans or McKisson and Kraus) describe the pair as 'premiere acrobatiques and song and dance artists' (Age 13 February 1892, p.10) The US Minstrel engagement lasted through to late May, after which they undertook a tour of regional NSW (and possibly Victoria) with a company formed by Charles Fanning. While in Wagga Wagga (NSW), Kearns married Ida Tauchert, a variety performer who was often billed around this period as 'Australia's champion lady dancer and singer,' and who later woked under the stage name Ida Rosslyn [see note field below for further details on Tauchert].
By September 1892, McKisson and Kearns (along with Tauchert) were in Melbourne appearing with Dan Tracey at the Gaiety Theatre. The two 'knockabout comedians' remained a feature act on the American entrepreneur's billing until they left in late November/early December. The first year of their partnership saw them also cast as 'acrobatic fiends' in George Coppin and Bland Holt's Christmas pantomime Babes in the Wood (Theatre Royal, Melb). The Age theatre critic wrote of their contribution that 'McKisson and Kearns were perfectly at home in an exhibition of horse play, falling about the stage and tumbling over each other as much as the most exacting gallery boy could desire (24 December 1892, p.10). The following year, they appeared in the J. C. Williamson pantomime Little Red Riding Hood (Princess Theatre, Melbourne), with Kearns playing the dual roles of Ah Dude and Johnny Stout and McKisson similarly cast as Pantaloon and Johnny Green.
Throughout the remainder of the 1890s, McKisson and Kearns were offered engagements with all the leading minstrel and vaudeville managements, playing regular seasons in Sydney and Melbourne as well as making appearances on the established regional, interstate and New Zealand circuits. Chief among those eager to engage their services was Harry Rickards, who is known to have featured their act on his Australian circuit frequently during the mid-to-late 1890s. In most instances, too, the engagements in each city lasted several months at a time, indicating that the pair were a popular act with his patrons. A Tivoli advertisement published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 September 1895 indicates that McKisson and Kerans were making their reappearance at the Sydney theatre after 12 months absence (p.2). A review of their peformance two days later reports that the pair had been on tour through India and other parts (23 September 1895, p.1). How long they were in the East is not known. The pair later toured for a period with Tommy Hudson's Surprise Party (ca. 1897), with this engagement also possibly including time on the Far East circuit. The company that played Charters Towers in June of 1897 reportedly arrived there direct from Japan (Northern Miner 11 June 1897, p.1). Also in the troupe was Ida Tauchert (as Ida Rosslyn).
It was during the latter part of the decade, too, that Jack Kearns's natural comedic ability also saw him carve out a reputation as a top-line 'tambo' endman. Isadore Brodsky records in later years that Kearns set himself apart from all others who played this important minstrel role, at least in Australia. According to Brodsky, Kearns 'made blackface history' through his unique use of the tambourine as a means of punctuating the comic delivery (Sydney Looks Back, p.40).
1900-1912: It is not yet clear when McKisson and Kearns parted ways. While several references to the pair in later years indicate that this occurred between 1901 and 1904, weekly advertisements in the Referee in January 1906 show the McKisson and Kearns Surprise Party was appearing around the Sydney suburbs at that time. The company included such artists as Ada Kingsley, Professor Bartlett, Amy Blackie, Bob Bell, and Olga Montey. The partnership likely ended gradually after this, as both men's career opportunities diversified. Kearns's physique, which was becaming more portly, would have eventually forced him to abandon the physically demanding aspects of acrobatic comedy, while the partnership with his wife offered greater scope for him. Kearns was also being sought more and more for pantomime engagements, initially as a straight comedian roles, such 'Friday' in the John Fuller Snr production of Robinson Crusoe (Empire Theatre, Sydney; beginning Boxing Day 1901), and later as a dame.
It appears that while Kearns and Tauchert were engaged by a number of variety organisations during the first decade of the twentieth century, their most consistent employment was with Harry Rickards. Research to date indicates that they appeared quite frequently on his programmes in Sydney and Melbourne up until ca. June 1905. For some three and a half years leading up to 1909, Kearns and Tauchert were engaged by Tommy Hudson to headline his Surprise Party company. Although the troupe's whereabouts in Australia during that period have not yet been established, it is recorded that it made at least one and possibly two tours of China and India. In this respect, Kearns records in a 1913 interview with the Theatre Magazine that 'Mr Hudson [was] the only man who ever did any good with vaudeville in the East. At Calcutta [we] used to play for five months at a time' (April 1913, p.33). It is likely that Vera Kearns, who was by then about to enter her early teens, would have also been engaged by Hudson as a child soubrette/solo performer.
The family is believed to have returned to Australia in late 1909, at which time Kearns and Tauchert went on the Rickards circuit. Early the next year, however, Kearns took up a two-year contract with James Brennan, a record for an Australian comic up until that time (Theatre Magazine April 1913, p.33). Reviews during his time with James Brennan describe Kearns as clever if somewhat 'down-market.' 'Why does Jack Kearns wear such broken-down clothes as an endman singer,' complained the Theatre in May 1909 (p.18). The following year, it noted, 'Kearns, the audience's prime favourite, is really hopeless as to appearance... What pleasure he can get out of soiled and ragged garments the Theatre is at a loss to know' (January 1910, p.23). Although heavily criticised for his stage attire, Kearns rarely failed to garner praise for his performances, and indeed he frequently attracted much of the attention whenever he appeared on a bill. The Theatre Magazine records, for example, 'The greatest favourite at the National, and one of whom the huge audiences never seem to tire, is clever Jack Kearns. When he comes on as a mother's dumpling and coquettishly shouts 'saw yer first' or 'tig' to the people. They are immensely tickled, and applaud him frantically. Three or four recalls are every night occurrences, and his last song is generally as funny as his first, which is saying a good deal' (September 1909, p.18). In early 1911, Kearns moved from Brennan's operations to work under J. C. Bain as the Sydney-based showman's first headline attraction at the Princess Theatre (Sydney). Although it is not yet known how long his first season at the Princess lasted, their association is known to have continued on and off for a least a decade.
1913-1915: Early in 1913, Kearns organised a circuit of venues in Sydney that he toured with his own troupe, the Jack Kearns' Surprise Party. While the Theatre Magazine indicates that this wasn't by any means the first time he that he had been in management on his own account (April 1913, p.33), no previous entrepreneurial ventures have yet been identified with Kearns. The troupe comprised his daughter as a regular member, with a changing line-up of friends and well-known local artists. Ida Tauchert, who by this stage had semi-retired from the stage, is believed to have appeared with the troupe only on the odd occasion. In 1913, Kearns's circuit comprised the Marrickville Picture Palace (Saturdays and Wednesdays), Bennington's Parramatta (Mondays), Auburn Town Hall (Wednesdays), South Sydney Amusement Hall, Waterloo tram terminus (Thursdays), and Redfern Picture Palace (Fridays). Some of the higher-profile artists known to have been engaged by Kearns in 1913 were Carlton and Sutton, Wal C. Cottier, and Lulu Eugene (Sydney Morning Herald 7 June 1913, p.2).
In November 1913, Kearns was forced to close down his circuit when his wife became seriously ill. Australian Variety reported in its 26 November issue that while Ida had been in a precarious state for some weeks, it was hoped that that her strong constitution would help her get over the apparent painful illness (p.7). A few weeks later, however, she died at their home in Oxford Street, Paddington, leaving behind her husband, daughter, and eight-year-old Edward. Tauchert was thirty-eight.
Following the death of his wife, Kearns returned to the Princess Theatre for a six-month season under J. C. Bain. He then moved on to the Dix-Baker Hunter Valley circuit (which included the Victoria Theatre, Newcastle) and later that year appeared at Harry Clay's Bridge Theatre.
By 1914, Kearns's girth had grown to such a stage that his friends began to call him 'Porky.' The nickname was soon taken up by the audiences and critics alike, and although he was always billed in advertising and in programs as Jack Kearns, he was invariably referred to in reviews and articles as 'Porky' Kearns. Jack and Vera appeared together on the same bills (individually and as comedy partners) throughout 1914 and 1915, alternating for the most part between Dix-Baker, J. C. Bain and Harry Clay. Australian Variety, noted at the time that 'Jack Kearns, whose name is a household word, is just as big a favourite at Clay's as when he was the riot at Bain's Princess Theatre, which explains for itself' (25 November 1914, n. pag.). By 1914, Kearns was firmly entrenched among the upper echelon of Australian variety stars, evidenced not only by his prominent association with the exclusive vaudeville social club known as the Chasers, but also by his selection for the front cover of Australian Variety's 11 March issue (he later appeared on the front cover for the 8 November 1916, 24 January 1919, and 25 July 1919 issues). Photographs of the comedian also appear in the magazine regularly throughout the same period.
While engaged by Harry Clay over December 1914 and January 1915, Kearns also reportedly made frequent trips to Newcastle in order to take part the filming of a short comedy fight picture called The Unknown. His association with boxing was not new, having by then established himself as a promoter and participant in celebrity boxing matches. One of the first of such entertainments identified to date was reported in 1913 by Australian Variety: 'Porky Kearns and Harry Stone are presenting the funniest boxing bout ever known within the history of the Princess. Stone... concludes his entertainment with a one-round spar in which he has the porky one as an opponent... all lovers of good, clean boxing should see this humorous burlesque' (17 December 1914, n. pag.). A year later, the magazine quoted some more of Porky's pugilist repartee regarding the power of his left hook: To a fellow comic - 'If I hit you on the jaw with it, then it's the cemetery for you; and if I miss, the draught as it flies past your chin will give you pneumonia, so that you are up against it which ever way you go (8 December 1915, p.8). The Unknown, directed by American film maker John E. Matthews for the Fraser Film Release and Photographic Company, premiered at Waddington's Globe Theatre (Sydney) on 1 February 1915.
May 1915 saw Kearns contracted as the headline act in Brisbane for Walter Morris' Merry Minstrel Company. The Theatre Magazine's June issue notes in relation to this engagement that vaudeville would 'have to be in a very bad way before Porky finds it impossible to get something to do. There isn't a more popular black-faced Australian in the Australian show-business today' (June 1915, p.49). In August, Kearns took up an offer from Beaumont Smith and Leslie Hoskins to appear Bill Guff in the Sydney season of their musical comedy Stop Your Nonsense (Theatre Royal, 14 Aug.). Australian Variety said of his role in the show that 'Porky Kearns doesn't need to act. His work is too natural. But the big fellow goes one better; he just hops on in Stop Your Nonsense, and would appear to do just as he likes. As a result, he gets any amount of laughs' (18 August 1915, p.12). Typical of his line of work in both this production and his vaudeville act is his line 'I'm a scene-shifter by trade and a beer-sinker by birth' (Theatre Magazine September 1915, p.11).
On his return to straight vaudeville around mid-September, Australian Variety wrote of his performance that 'Porky Kearns is the power behind the throne in the farcical work at the Princess [Sydney]. He works in a most unorthodox fashion, and never fails to pull down a laugh with his improvisations' (22 September 1915, p.2). Within a few weeks, however, he was back in Brisbane playing the Tivoli Roof Garden under for Hugh D. McIntosh's management. Headlining his own company, which included his daughter Vera, Joe Rox, Harry Little, Bert Warne, and James Bell, Kearns presented a first-part minstrel revival entitled Cloudland (16-19 Oct.). The week before Christmas 1915 saw Jack and Vera back in Melbourne to reprise their roles in Smith and Hoskins's Stop Your Nonsense at Kings Theatre.
1916-1920: At the conclusion of his contract with Harry Clay in early 1916, Jack Kearns teamed up with Harry Sadler to form the most successful and arguably the most important management partnership of his career. The enigmatic Sadler, who had just returned to Sydney following the closure of his Tasmanian and Victorian operations, was a long-time associate of the Fullers, and put forward a proposition to form a musical comedy troupe centred around Kearns. Although the Sadler/Kearns partnership only lasted around a year or so, the pair nevertheless came to play a significant part in the development of not only the revusical genre, but also the debut of arguably Australia's greatest-ever comic partnership: Stiffy and Mo.
The Jack Kearns' Revue Company opened its account at the Fullers' Princess Theatre with The Brook (5-11 Feb.), a second-part revusical staged by a troupe billed as the Jack Kearns Revue Company. This was followed by several more one-act musical comedies: On Your Nut, On the River, A Dress Rehearsal, Monte Carlo, and Sunny Spain. The most prominent members of the troupe were Peter Brooks (later with Stiffy and Mo), Billy Maloney, Violet Elliott (daughter of Maud Fanning) and her father Arthur Elliott, George Dean, Louie Duggan (daughter of Edmund Duggan), Beattie Macdonald, and Ruby Wallace. While the authorship of these revusicals has not yet been fully established, it would seem likely that Kearns and Sadler put them together in collaboration with other members of the troupe. Despite drawing good audiences, the Kearns/Sadler productions did not always garner positive reviews, although troupe members, and notably Kearns, generally drew praise for their individual performances. A survey of reviews published in both the Theatre Magazine and Australian Variety indicates that the main issue of contention was the inconsistent quality of the storylines, a matter that the Theatre Magazine made reference to in its April issue's review of On the River.
Kearns wasn't always the recipient of favourable reviews, however, as can be seen by the criticism that followed his portrayal of the Irish JP in Jurisprudence, a sketch that owed much to the well-known comedy Irish Justice:
In mid May, Kearns and Sadler announced that they had made arrangements with the Fullers to manage the Princess Theatre in their own right (ctd. Australian Variety 10 May 1916, n. pag. and 17 May 1916, n. pag.). Although the theatre was being leased by the pair and they could engage whomever they wished, the Fullers still retained overall control as producers, and subsequently most of the artists engaged came through them. One of the partnership's first decisions was to disband Kearns's revue company and return the entertainment back to a traditional two-part vaudeville bill. Two months after taking control of the theatre and at the request of the Fullers, Sadler and Kearns engaged Nat Phillips Tabloid Musical Comedy Company for a six-week season of one-act musical comedies. Starring Nat Phillips and Stiffy and Roy Rene as Mo, the troupe's season was to become the most successful ever staged at the theatre to that date and forced Sadler and Kearns to extend Phillips's contract for a further six weeks. The Stiffy and Mo season of one-act musical comedies was not the first in Australia: the genre had been developed for almost a year by Bert Le Blanc's Travesty Stars, the Paul Stanhope Revue Company, Arthur Morley, and Sadler and Kearns amongst other, But its overall success with audiences and the critics forced the Fullers into not only expanding their roster to accommodate demand for revusical entertainment but to also take back control of the Princess Theatre in order to capitalise on the groundswell of public support for Stiffy and Mo.
Following the end of the Nat Phillips season in late October, Harry Sadler stayed on at the Princess Theatre as the Fullers' house manager, helping to oversee the company's preparations for its first Christmas pantomime extravaganza, The Bunyip. Kearns meanwhile returned to the stage, taking up an offer for him and his daughter to appear in Melbourne with the Walter Johnson Musical Vaudeville and Revue Company at the Fullers' Palace Theatre, beginning 8 November. Early in 1917, Johnson's troupe travelled to New Zealand to tour the Fullers' Dominion circuit. Despite being one of the company's principal attractions, Kearns appears to have been used sparingly, at least in one production. According to Australian Variety, his part in A Railway Tangle, one of Johnson's more popular revusicals, was minor. The magazine found it difficult to understand why, suggesting that his considerable ability deserved a much bigger part (4 July 1917, n. pag.). In October that year, Vera Kearns announced her engagement to New Zealand jockey Ashley Reed. (Australian Variety 26 October 1917, n. pag.). Although she also planned to return to Australia to collect her younger brother, a report in Australian Variety's 22 February 1918 issue (n. pag.) indicates that she and Reed were already married and that young Edward was travelling to New Zealand in the care of Charles Vaude and Les Bates.
Following the end of the Walter Johnson company's New Zealand tour in December 1917, Jack Kearns returned to Sydney, where he reacquainted himself with both the Princess Theatre's patrons and its manager, Harry Sadler. 1918 was to be an unhappy year for both Kearns and his former partner, however. It was difficult enough for Kearns at the start, being the first year that he had been alone in more than two decades, but a situation that occurred in Perth later in the year caused him significant embarrassment, tarnished his high reputation, and eventuated in both a sensational court case and Sadler's eventual breakdown and suicide.
Kearns's return season at the Princess Theatre under his former partner's management ended on 22 March, following the Fullers' decision to lease the theatre to Harry Clay. The Fullers had meanwhile offered Sadler the opportunity to take over the running of their newly acquired Melrose Theatre in Perth (as well as undertake occasional tours of the Western Australian goldfields). He subsequently put together a troupe that included Kearns, Arthur Morley, Harry Little, and Phyllis Faye and opened at the Melrose in early April. As Perth had been starved of quality variety entertainment for some time prior, the company had no difficulty attracting full houses. Indeed, a number of reports published in Australian Variety over the next few months indicate that Sadler and the Fullers were very pleased with the way in which the venture had unfolded. In June, Sadler began operating a venue in Fremantle, and the following month expanded the circuit to include regular shows in Kalgoorlie. By the end of July, however, things began to unravel as word seeped out that 'a big law case was coming off [later] this month.' As Australian Variety put it, 'The evidence will make even the ears of corn men open up wide. Artists throughout Australia will feel interested in the revelations, according to some of the know-alls' (19 July 1918, n, pag.). In early August, the same magazine also reported that the case is 'chockfull of undesirable evidence and spicy allegations' (2 August 1918, p.3).
The libel case centred around Sadler's allegation that Faye (whose husband Bruce Drysdale was on active duty in the war) and Arthur Morley were having an affair. Morley's wife Elsie Bates was in Perth with her husband at the time, but Sadler had indicated to several people that the pair 'were carrying on' and that Jack Kearns had seen Morley coming out of Faye's adjoining room. During cross examination, Faye said that she had first met Sadler shortly after she made her debut at Wallsend (NSW) in 1908 [aged 14], and that he 'had frequently since then made improper overtures to her.' According to her testimony, she was in one instance forced to defend herself by struggling with him. Sadler denied the allegations and produced witnesses to verify the fact that Morley was seen in Faye's bed. In addition, he claimed that well-known Perth bookmaker Percy Dennis was party to inflaming the situation in revenge after they had ended their association in acrimony. Sadler supported his claim by drawing attention to the fact that Dennis (who had recently begun operating his own variety shows in opposition to the Fullers) engaged Morley and Faye almost immediately after the initial allegation was made. Jack Kearns was further implicated in the scandal when the prosecution described him as a 'drunken scoundrel' (ctd. Theatre Magazine September 1918, p.30).
A decision was eventually found in favour of Phyllis Faye and she was awarded £25. The legal expenses incurred by Sadler are said to have been quite high. While Faye's reputation seems to have been largely unaffected, considerable damage to the reputations of Morley and Sadler (and, to a lesser degree, Kearns) occurred. Although Arthur Morley suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919 and went missing for some time, he managed to put his career back on track in the early 1920s, and is known to have continued in the industry up until at least the early 1930s. Harry Sadler's attempt to resurrect his career in Sydney as manager of Andy Kerr's Gaiety Theatre was short-lived. In 1919, his increasing depression and financial debt led him to commit suicide.
Jack Kearns returned to Sydney following the collapse of Sadler's management in Perth and the termination of his contract by the Fullers. Although Kearns's involvement was a great embarrassment to him, it does not appear to have affected his relationship with the Fullers, who engaged him in November to take over the position of Mr Bones (from Ernest Lasbrooke) in a minstrelsy revival at the Grand Opera House in Sydney. The double endman team comprised veteran performers Les Warton (Bones) and Al Johnson and Gus Franks (Tambos). The Theatre Magazine's critic suggested that 'Mr Kearns has a lot in his favour besides weight. For a man of his bulk he is wonderfully light and quick on his feet. Further, there is no end of comedy in him of the crude, elemental order. But if he doesn't at times become gross then I don't know the meaning of the word' (December 1918, p.32). In December, Kearns travelled to Brisbane to appear on the first-half bill during Bert Le Blanc's Travesty Stars season at the Empire. A Brisbane Courier review of one of the 'heavyweight comedian's solo performances records, 'His impersonation of different people reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was clever and humorous and probably was his best effort in an amusing repertoire' (23 December 1918, p.4). During this engagement, he often teamed up with African-American comic Charlie Pope (ex-Rickards' company).
In 1919, Harry Sadler brought Kearns to the Gaiety Theatre, and it is that venue that Kearns was mostly associated during the year. Indeed, his image was used to promote the venue's programmes on the front cover of Australian Variety three times between January and July. Following Sadler's death, Kearns found it too difficult to work at the theatre, and it is possible that Vera Kearns's return to Australia in late October may have been undertaken in an attempt to help him overcome his grief. The extent of Kearns's friendship with Sadler can be seen in Sadler's suicide note to Australian Variety manager Martin Brennan, in which he wishes his old mate Porky a farewell (ctd. Australian Variety 25 July 1919, p.3). Kearns returned to the stage in December that year, playing the dame in Bert Linden's original pantomime, A Trip to the Moon (Alhambra Music Hall, Sydney). Also in the company were principal girl Vera Walton, veteran song and dance comedians Harry Carlton and Ted Sutton (aka Carlton and Sutton), and Harry Abdy and his Cats and Dogs. Although a second edition of the production was staged from 17 January 1920 onwards, no closing date has yet been established.
1920-1929: Following the closure of A Trip to the Moon in January 1920, Kearns accepted another engagement at the Alhambra, this time as one of the cast members in George Edwards's adaptation of John F. Sheridan's musical comedy The New Barmaid. Kearns played the head waiter William White (it is has not yet been established if Kearns also appeared in Edwards's second production at the Alhambra, The Gumleaf Girls). Although Kearns's movements during the remainder of 1920 are yet to be fully established, he was reportedly engaged by Frank Reis (Sydney) and Harry Clay (ca. November-December). In late December that year, he again left for New Zealand, this time for a six-month tour under the management of Nat Farnum.
In 1922, Kearns formed a vaudeville act with soubrette Lola Hunt, which they toured under the Fullers' management. In reporting on the second week of their one-month season at the Empire Theatre over January and February 1923, the Brisbane Courier notes, 'Porky Kearns and Miss Lola Hunt kept the audience in continuous merriment in a sketch in which Mr Kearns burlesqued a female role. It was an item without a single dull moment, and was immensely enjoyed, but it one or two places could very well be toned down' (29 January 1923, p.11). Although it is not known how long this partnership lasted, the fact that both performers were engaged by Charles Vaude to appear in his Fullers' Fantastics company in 1924 suggests that it may have continued up until at least that engagement. Also in the Fantastics were Nat Hanley and Evelyn Dudley.
Among Jack Kearns's last-known engagements are a season with J. C. Bain at the Hippodrome (Sydney) around August/September 1924. In November 1924, he travelled to New Zealand with the intention of living near his daughter in retirement (ctd. Everyone's 26 November 1924, p.36) , but within five months was back in Australia. A unidentified clipping from May 1925 (possibly published in Everyone's) indicates that Kearns's intention was to rehearse 'a company of well-known entertainers with a view to presenting costume comedy and tabloids around the Melbourne suburbs'. The magazine commented at the time that 'a performer with such a long and enviable reputation behind him should have no difficulty in presenting programmes that please' (n. pag.). Kearns's decision not to remain in New Zealand may have precipitated Vera Kearns's (aka Reid) eventual decision to return to Australia. She and her husband are known to have moved to the Mentone area of Victoria near Melbourne sometime during the late 1920s. It was at their residence that Jack Kearns passed away in December 1929.
Kearns appeared in at least three pantomimes during the late 1920s: Robinson Crusoe (Fullers' Theatre, Sydney, beginning 26 December 1925), Mother Goose (produced over the summer of 1927/1928), and Beauty and the Beast (Palace Theatre, Melbourne, beginning December 1928). The last two productions were produced by O'Connell and Ray. The Theatre, Society and Home's critic wrote of Kearns appearance in the 1925/1926 Robinson Crusoe production that 'Jack Kearns, who in his earlier years was a famous exponent of burnt cork minstrelsy, was quite in his element, and had the audience in roars of laughter. He is one of the few men now who knows the art of being funny without being vulgar, and his rich, ripe humour based on the old-time Christy Minstrels tradition, delighted the old hands and won fresh admirers among the newer members of the audience' (March 1926, p.41).
In reporting on Kearns' death, Everyone's notes, '[It] removes another of the identities of the old show world and rekindles memories of the brave days when McKisson and Kearns were names to conjure with... It is doubtful if there has ever been a vaudeville management for who he has not worked, and few families have been so closely associated with vaudeville as his' (18 December 1929, p.37).
1. JACK KEARNS'S PERFORMANCE STYLE:
1.1. McKISSON AND KEARNS: During the early part of their career, McKisson and Kearns's act involved a burlesque aerial trapeze act in addition to knock-about (tumbling) comedy and singing. A favourite theme appears to have been Irish knock-about comedy. Among their early specialties were 'Indian Life' (1893), 'The Floor Gave Way' (1895-1898), 'Silence and Fun' (1895), 'Sunny Southern County' (1897), and 'In Darkest Africa' (1897/1898 - possibly aka 'Wildest Africa' and/or 'African Revels').
Although McKisson and Kearns were frequently described as either a 'song and dance team' or simply 'the two knockabouts' during their career, Kearns recalls in 1913 that it took him some seven or eight years before he began to include singing into his performances [see Historical Notes section below for further clarification]. While Kearns's account suggests that Albert McKisson must have sung the musical numbers during their act, it is equally feasible that Kearns contributed to the songs with lines of spoken patter or retorts.
The following quotations comprise a selection of comments published on McKisson and Kearns during their career together:
1.2. SOLO CAREER:
Jack Kearns's lack of ability as a singer (in direct contrast to his brilliance as a comedian) may have endeared him to audiences during his solo career. By the early 1900s, his stage act certainly revolved around a combination of comedy and singing. One of his most frequently performed numbers around this period is said to have been the comic song 'For the Rent.' The right of performance to this number had apparently been given to him by Fred Curren, and Kearns later passed it on to Tom Dawson (ca. 1908), with the latter also scoring much success with it over a period of some five years or more.
By 1914, Kearns was writing much of his own comic material, including songs. One of his more popular numbers from that period was reportedly 'One Knocker to Another' (a collaboration with Jimmy Craydon ). Its first known performance was at the Princess Theatre in late September/early October. Another popular success was 'I Think I'd Better Shift this Scene,' also first performed at the Princess Theatre in 1914. One of his lines from this song (which Beaumont Smith later included in the musical comedy Stop Your Nonsense) was 'I'm a scene-shifter by trade and a beer-sinker by birth' (Theatre Magazine September 1915, p.11).
The following quotations comprise a selection of comments published throughout Jack Kearns' career:
2. HISTORICAL NOTES AND CORRECTIONS:
2.1. In recalling his early career, Kearns indicates that he had been in the 'business' some seven or eight years [before] he began to include singing into his performances. This had apparently been forced upon him the first time he appeared on stage in an endman role: 'One night I went on the corner through an endman being away. I had to try a song. Others encouraged me, with the result that I followed up singing from that time. Singing is much easier than acrobatic-work; and there is more money in it.' The interviewer makes a light-hearted response to this insight, however, proposing that there are some who 'have known Mr Kearns for seventeen or eighteen years, and have not yet made the discovery that he can sing' (Theatre Magazine April 1913, p.33).
When singing became a part of the McKisson and Kearns act is unclear, as several sources contradict Kearns's recall. A review published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1895 records, for example, that they performed an 'acrobatic duet, '"You'll have to Guess"' (4 November 1895, p.3), while a review in the same paper two years earlier indicates that the pair were taking on endman duties during a season with Delohery, Craydon and Holland at the Alhambra Theatre, Sydney (24 July 1893, n. pag.). Their billing in 1892 also records the pair as performing 'songs and dances' (Age 9 April 1892, p.10). While it is possible that Kearns's non-singing career occurred during his time as an amateur (pre-1890), this would suggest that he began appearing on stage around 1883-1884 (aged approximately 12).
2.2. It has not yet been established when McKisson and Kearns actually parted ways, although several sources indicate that this must have occurred between 1901 and 1904. In a column titled 'Twenty Years Ago' (published in Everyone's in 1921), the act is described as 'the greatest comedy knockabout artists in Australia - and elsewhere for that matter.' Some three years later, Everyone's further claims that McKisson and Kearns's partnership - 'the greatest knockabout turn of the last century' - had lasted 'nearly a score of years' (24 November 1924, p.36). This last record suggests that 1901 may be closer to the mark.
2.3. Seemingly contradicting Isadore Brodsky's memory of Jack Kearns as Mr Tambo (see above) is an advertisement published in the Brisbane Courier in 1897, which indicates that Kearns was one half of a double Bones team (with Mr F. Harley). Albert McKisson and Tommy Hudson played the Mr Tambo roles (ctd. 17 July 1897, p.2). A Theatre Magazine review from 1918 also indicates that Kearns was engaged as the 'Bones' endman for a minstrel revival at the Sydney Opera House (December 1918, p.32). Although endmen tended to specialise as either Tambo or Bones throughout their career, it is possible that Kearns may have switched roles later in his career.
2.4. In 1915, 'The Month in Vaudeville' editor X-Ray included Kearns among a select group of Australian performers who, X-Ray claimed, were the equal of, if not better than, any overseas act. 'Imported artists are not in it with Australians in long runs. For example, where is there an American or English act that could like Tommy Armstrong, Vaude and Verne, the Driscolls, Jack Kearns and Ernest Pitcher - to name only a few - go on playing in Australia from year's end to year's end? It is nothing for some of these to play a fifteen, twenty or twenty-five weeks' engagement at the one house. Even at the end of such a season they more often than not are going as successfully as many an imported act that happens to be opening in their closing bill' (Theatre Magazine September 1915, p.49). Further evidence supporting this claim includes
3. IDA TAUCHERT (aka IDA ROSSLYN) and VERA KEARNS:
3.1. IDA TAUCHERT: The elder sister of Arthur Tauchert (the 'Sentimental Bloke'), Ida M. Tauchert was born in Sydney in 1875 to Frederick and Nora Tauchert. She made her first appearance with Cottier's Minstrels in June 1886 at age 11, as a 'the juvenile serio-comic artist' (Sydney Morning Herald 26 June 1886, p.2). By the end of the decade, she was being billed by Dan Tracey as 'Australia's champion lady dancer and singer.' Tauchert is believed to have been employed by Tracy between ca. 1888 and 1893. At one stage during this engagement (ca. 1892), she worked in partnership with fellow singer/dancer Anetta Bodin. An 1898 West Australian review of the Harry Rickards Tivoli season at Perth's Cremorne Theatre sums up a commonly held view of Tauchert's performance style when it records that 'Miss Ida Rosslyn, as the soubrette serio-comic artiste of the company, enforces a claim to the favours of the audience by her frequent presentations of new turns. The coon song "Whistling Gal" rendered by her on Saturday night is her latest success. The song, accompanied by whistling effects from the wings, was followed by a neat step dance, one of Miss Rosslyn's specialties, and the lady could not escape an encore' (25 July 1898, p.2).
In later years, Tauchert performed largely as a vaudeville soubrette, appeared in comedy sketches with her husband, and eventually undertook principal boy roles in a number of pantomimes. In addition to her five or more years with Harry Rickards and the Tommy Hudson Surprise Party tours, Tauchert also worked for Percy Dix's company in New Zealand and Australia. The Theatre Magazine reports, too, that she appeared in several dramatic roles, including that of Cissy Denver opposite George S. Titheidge (Wilfred Denver) in The Silver King (ctd. April 1913, p.33).
3.2. VERA KEARNS: Born in Sydney in 1894, Vera Kearns spent much of her childhood touring the variety circuits of Australia, New Zealand, and the East with her parents. She first appeared on the stage as an infant, and later progressed to song and dance specialties and eventually comedy.
In 1917, Kearns married New Zealand jockey Ashley Reed, and effectively retired from performing. Although they initially intended living in New Zealand, the pair soon returned to Australia and settled in Melbourne. They had at least one child, a son named Jack.
The following list comprises articles, pars, and reports relating to Jack Kearns, McKisson and Kearns, Ida Tauchert/Rosslyn, and Vera Kearns that are not given individual entries in this database. All entries are for Jack Kearns unless otherwise noted.