Born: Established: 1874 Newcastle, Newcastle - Hunter Valley area, New South Wales, ; Died: Ceased: 14 Feb 1945 Brisbane, Queensland,
Singer, blackface comedienne, actress.
The younger sister of comedian Charlie Fanning, Maud began her professional career began at the age of five. By the late 1880s, she was working with other members of her family, including a partnership with older sister Rosie as the Fanning Sisters. She later undertook engagements with all the major vaudeville organisations, building an Antipodian-wide reputation for performing minstrel songs in blackface. Among the firms she was associated with were Harry Rickards, the Fullers, James Brennan, Harry Clay, J. C. Bain, Bert Howard, Percy St John, Birch and Carroll, W. J. Wilson, Walter Bell, J. C. Williamson and J. C. Williamson's Ltd, William Cosgrove, William Anderson, and Ted Holland. Fanning is also known to have appeared with John F. Sheridan's company. Married to fellow vaudevillian Arthur Elliott, Fanning had three daughters and son, who were also performers. She continued performing in popular theatre in a professional capacity up until at least the early 1920s, and made possible her final stage appearance in 1940 at a Tivoli reunion.
As with her equally famous older brother, Maud Fanning's career in minstrelsy and vaudeville was extraordinarily long and successful, beginning sometime during the 1880s and stretching up until at least the late 1920s. Indeed, the Theatre Magazine said of her during a 1913 Tivoli engagement, 'There is not a vaudeville patron in Australia who has not seen her in one or other of Australia's vaudeville houses' (August 1913, p.33). In this respect, she become arguably the most popular and influential Australian blackface singer of her time and, in association with her husband Arthur Elliott, daughters Violet, Lulla, and Mercia, and son Arthur, made an extensive contribution to variety theatre in this country. In his autobiography, Roy Rene wrote of Fanning that 'the house used to rock when she came on. She would bring on her kids, she had a team of them and they used to pull the place down.' (Mo's Memoirs, p.79).
Maud Fanning's association with the stage began through the influence of her father Edward Charles Fanning, who led a successful band in Newcastle for many years. Two sisters, Bertha and Florence, were also involved in the industry. Bertha (who became Mrs McKnight) was a popular contralto who made many concert appearances, including some with Phillip Newbury at the Sydney Town Hall. She later became a teacher of music in Mosman (Sydney). Florence R. (also known as Rosie) worked for some time with both John F. Sheridan and William Anderson (as did Maud), while it is known that another brother, Edward (who died ca.1908), was with George Rignold for several years as his dresser and, in addition, played light character parts on the stage.
The first record of Fanning appearing on the professional stage is in 1890 at the Bondi Aquarium (Sydney), where her elder brother's Popular Concert Company was advertised to appear. The company also included sister Bertha, along with J. S. Whitworth, Lorrie St. George, and others. By 1894, both Maud and Rosie were appearing regularly at the Alhambra Music Hall (Sydney), a venue at which Maud continued to perform for a number of years (although under different managements). Around May 1895, she appeared with Cosgrove and Stuart's Musical Comedy Company in Sydney and, later that year, took up an engagement with Warren's Surprise Party during its season at the Gaiety Theatre in Brisbane. The company, which included Harry Clay, was taken over by veteran variety performer W. A. Ball (ex-Hiscocks' Federal Minstrels) in September of that year. Fanning's connection with Brisbane was furthered in 1897, when she appeared on the Bovis Brothers' bill at the Gaiety Theatre (ca. November). Engagements in 1898 included Henry's Dramatic Company (Royal Standard, Sydney, ca. May/June), with whom she appeared in Fun on the Bristol, and a season under Percy St John and W. J. Wilson's management at the Alhambra Theatre from around 1 October. Fanning's name also appeared on the programmes of entertainments put on by the management of the Coogee Palace Aquarium during the period.
In mid-1900, Fanning secured engagements with John Sheridan's company (Opera House, Sydney), which were presented by William Anderson, and later in the year appeared on the second leg of Walter Bell's Waxworks tour of Queensland, with the troupe including Harry Clay. Following that engagement, she once again performed for a Brisbane audience, this time under the auspices of Percy St John at the Theatre Royal (ca. October.). Fanning continued to perform around Australia and through New Zealand over the next decade, at some stage marrying Arthur Elliott (born Arthur Hargrave). Her daughter, variety performer and actress Violet Elliott, indicates in an 1968 interview with Keith Smith that hers was a 'dyed-in-the-wool theatrical family [with] parents and children travelling together. Every year,' she recalls, 'Mama seemed to have another child and we were put on stage and went to school wherever my parents played... Mama had seven children altogether while the family was travelling - two died - and the five of us went on the stage. One of my sisters, Lulla Fanning became very well-known' (The Time of Their Lives, p.141).
In a 1913 Theatre Magazine interview, Fanning records that she had been for some time one of J.C. Williamson's ballet-girls during her early career and that she played 'Bella' in Fun on the Bristol for William Cosgrove years before John Sheridan was seen in the same piece. She later joined the Anderson/Holloway theatrical company, and it was during this period that she first did her blackface act. This was apparently a pedestal dance and a song called 'The Alabama Coon.' Her act later caught the attention of Harry Rickards while he was in New Zealand. Her first appearance with Rickards is believed to have been sometime around 1903. In the same 1913 Theatre interview, Fanning recalls:
It was in New Zealand that I first came under the notice of Mr Rickards. I was appearing there with the Fullers. I was singing a song that belonged to one of Mr Rickards imported comedians. I think Mr Rickards and the comedian were at the show together. At any rate, Mr Rickards came round to my dressing room and asked me to let him know when I would be finished with the Fullers... Later... I was told to open [for the Tivoli circuit] in West Australia. I remained for eight years with Mr Rickards... From time to time [he] got special scenes for me. I very much admired Mr Rickards. He was goodness itself to me. He was so genuine (August 1913, p.33).
Rickards engaged Fanning on a frequent basis between 1903 and at least 1906. Although it is not known whether she found engagements with any other managements during that period, she was certainly in demand from other quarters of the industry by 1907. Harry Clay took her on tour of Queensland that year and Ted Holland secured her services in late 1908. She was on Clay time again in 1909 and 1910. By 1910, she and the rest of her family were enjoying much acclaim around Australia. As the Theatre Magazine notes in relation to an engagement at the National Amphitheatre: 'What a delightful act is that put on by the Three Elliotts! These dainty and clever children are Maud Fanning's, who has surely coached them with gentleness and love.... The trio are recalled again and again' (March 1910, p.18). Her known engagements in 1910 included at least one season with James Brennan (Gaiety Theatre, Melbourne) around March, the Birch and Carroll Queensland circuit (October), and Pat Fisher's Entertainers (Royal Standard, Sydney) in late November.
In 1912, Fanning, her husband, and four of the children again toured Queensland for Harry Clay, being with little doubt one of the company's leading attractions, before accepting another engagement on the Brennan-Fullers circuit. J. C. Bain gave Fanning top billing at the Princess Theatre in 1913 (ca. May), as did Harry Barrington at the Alhambra Music Hall (ca. June). By 1914, and with a newborn infant added to the family's on-stage act, the Fanning/Elliott 'troupe' were undoubtedly an Australian entertainment institution. They continued to find engagements in Australia and New Zealand throughout the remainder of the decade. The family spent much of this time on contract to the Fullers, but were occasionally leased out to other organisations affiliated with that company. Thus although they signed a twelve-month contract with Fullers' Theatres Ltd in July 1914, they were nevertheless leased to Holland and St John in October that year (Empire Theatre, Brisbane).
Fanning's 1917 tour of the Fullers' New Zealand circuit drew much praise from the critics. The Theatre's Dominion scribe wrote, for example, that
'Maud Fanning and her children are again proving a phenomenal draw... Of the many hundred acts on the circuit it is doubtful if any artist has so consistently retained her popularity as has Miss Fanning. One recalls the early days of the Fullers, when the late P. R. Dix was importing stars. During that period Miss Fanning played a record season of over seven months at the old Choral Hall, Wellington. Irene Franklin was on of the Dix stars. The dusky Maud, singing the same songs was easily the bigger favourite in the windy city' (May 1917, p.41).
When briefly off Fuller time, Fanning undertook engagements with other managements, including Harry Clay (1915 and 1919), Bert Howard (Sydney, ca. May 1918), and Dix-Baker (Newcastle, ca. May 1918). She was also tended a benefit in 1916, held at the Coronation Theatre (Leichhardt, Sydney). The family's long association with Harry Clay saw Lulla, Violet, and Huia employed on the manager's Sydney circuit throughout the 1920s.
Industry opinion of the Fanning family act in 1915 included an Australian Variety paragraph in its 24 February issue: 'Maud Fanning - well, if anybody ever earns a salary it's Maud. I have never seen a harder trier in the business. She was a riot, and her three cleanest girls in vaudeville cleaned up with their raggy singing. Daddy Arthur Elliott has some punch in his comicalities, and it's a sure four he has to do before he can retire' (p.13). The Theatre Magazine reported that same year, 'The volcanic Maud Fanning... got a rousing reception [at the National]. The point about this is that Miss Fanning is now being seen in Sydney for about the thousandth time. Has there ever been - or will there be - seen any other artist who could in such circumstances move an audience to the enthusiasm displayed in the case of Miss Fanning? Her record in this respect stands second to none' (May 1915, p.41).
It has not been established when Maud Fanning retired from the stage. In October 1929, she was invited on the bill of the final programme at the old Sydney Tivoli Theatre, and in 1932 appeared alongside fellow variety veteran Ward Lear in a 'Stars of Yesterday' troupe that supported Clem Dawe's musical revue company (see Wintergarden, Brisbane beginning 5 November). She also made a guest appearance at the new Tivoli Theatre (Sydney) in 1940. Roy Rene mentions that Lulla Fanning and Violet Elliott had become successful in radio and in London pantomime respectively in late years (Mo's Memoirs, p.79).
Maud Fanning died on 14 February 1945, in St Vincent's Hospital.