Part 1 - “Touring with her parents”: Birth and Early Childhood (1901-1911)
Source: Hamilton Spectator (Victoria) - 18 April 1885
Yvonne Horley was the daughter of show people. Her father was the British-born William Horley, also known as William Banvard, a second-generation trapeze artist, acrobat and comedian with the Banvard Variety Circus. Her mother was Melbourne native Margaret Ann Moore, known as Annie Moore, a former juvenile actress turned soubrette.
Though Yvonne maintained that her father and his family had first travelled to Australia for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880, it is not until 1883 that the Banvard circus can definitely be found in Australia. Their arrival came at the tail end of a great boom in circus touring, assisted by railroad expansion and the growth of international travel.
The Banvards would appear in many incarnations over the years, the most famous of which was the elite ‘Flying Banvards’ trapeze act, which itself took various different forms between the 1870s and 1940s. While Yvonne would always identify her father with this, the most famous branch of the Banvard enterprise, Will himself was never officially a ‘Flying Banvard’, though his company leader, Bert Banvard, anchored the act during Will’s youth. The first appearance of ‘Little Willie Banvard’ in the circus ring can be found in February 1884, when he was only seven years old.
The Victorian cult of the child had created a new appetite for precocious young performers, who were appearing onstage in record numbers. Such children often worked within a legal grey area, their touring programmes dictated by local legislation or the extent to which that legislation was enforced. It was not uncommon for advertisements trumpeting the virtues of ‘Baby’, ‘Little’ and ‘Master’ performers to appear alongside newspaper editorials decrying the physical and moral perils faced by the children of the theatrical world. The actions of American organisations such as the Gerry Society are well known, but many similar groups successfully advanced legislative measures in Britain in the 1870s and 1880s, particularly regarding acrobatic performance.
Such moves may well have played a part in the Banvards taking their show on tour, relying heavily as they did on the glamor of young females and the virtuosity of children.
Source: New York Clipper, 25 July 1903.
To an audience of the era, circus entertainment was exciting, dangerous, and distinctly adult, the close-fitting leotard showcasing the human body with a frankness that many Victorians would have found shocking. Indeed, morals campaigners proclaimed that “the law ought to forbid acrobat performances by women, on the ground that they are degrading, and all but obscene.” The trapeze itself carried more obvious dangers - safety measures were scant, and serious injury by no means uncommon.
Will at least had his family around him, which is more than can be said for many child performers. His father Edward, a company veteran, was now its stage manager - a role closer to the modern concept of director. His mother Emily is also likely to have performed in her earlier years. At least three of Will’s natural brothers were company members, all of whom had adopted the professional surname of ‘Banvard’. As we shall see, it was usual for performers to use a common company name, which can make establishing actual blood relationships difficult.
Travelling performers would take their work wherever there was most demand for it. In Australia of the 1880s, this meant the goldfields of South and Western Australia, where the Gold Rush had brought thousands of people from all walks of life. Conditions on the fields could be unforgiving - the miners drunken and belligerent, disease rife, clean water scarce, and the weather unbearably hot. When Will was nine years old, the company lost a baby child to heat exhaustion while touring the remote South Australian mining town of Teetulpa. Touring demands meant they could barely pause to mourn and bury the child before moving on to the next engagement.
By 1888, ‘Master Willie’ was in Bendigo, Victoria, being praised for his trapeze work and horseback riding, as well as his contortion double act with his brother Walter, known as Wally Banvard, with whom he would remain close throughout his life. The Banvard company continued working in Australia for a further decade, partnering with a number of Australian circuses including St Leons, Perry Bros and Wirths, before finding a permanent role with Perth’s ‘Ye Olde Englishe Fayre’, an intriguing intersection between sideshow, circus and cabaret, incorporating such acts as Leonie Clarke the Cat King; the Hindoo Necromancers, and Les Trois Diables trapeze act, featuring Ted, Albert and Will Banvard. For an evening’s entertainment, audiences could expect everything from wirework thrills, high-kicking contests, blackface ‘coon songs’ and comic skits packed with sly topical humor.
On the other side of the country, Will’s future bride was busy making a name for herself. ‘Little Annie Moore’ was the twelve-year-old star of Melbourne’s Alhambra Minstrel Company. Soon, she was scouted by Melbourne’s pre-eminent organisation for juvenile actors, Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, and was on her way to a tour of Asia.
Pollard's Lilliputian Opera Company
Pollard's Lilliputian Opera Company in Canada, circa 1905. Source: Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey.
The Pollard company was formed in the early 1880s, initially as a personal project of James Joseph Pollard, his wife Corunna, and their large family. The company soon began to accept outsiders, the most favoured of whom were given the prized company surname. Varying in size from twenty to sixty performers between the ages of six and sixteen, the group specialised in touring lavish, fully mounted miniature versions of popular operettas.
Local legislation looked increasingly unkindly on the idea of child performers - particularly so when, in 1883, James Pollard was sensationally accused of transporting a number of children overseas without the consent of their parents. Having been led to understand that their current tour would end in North Queensland, the confused and distressed children raised the alarm when their ship, and the tour, instead continued on to the Far East. Mr Pollard was never to answer the charges. A few months later he was dead, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Dauntless, the company continued under the management of a second generation, Charles A. Pollard and his sister, Mrs Nellie Chester, and focused its attentions even more fully on cracking the lucrative Far East market: Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, the Philippines, India, Japan and China. Here, governments were generally more lenient towards child performers, and expatriates and English-speaking colonists could be relied upon to give good audiences. By the time Annie joined the Pollards in the mid 1890s, such controversies were temporarily in abeyance, and the organisation had become something of an institution.
Were Annie and her child co-workers were well cared for? By the standards of their day, it appears that they were. After the earlier controversy, the Pollards were careful to emphasise the wellbeing of their young charges, pointing to the presence of a company teacher on all tours, provided and funded by the State Government of Victoria, which had made school education compulsory in 1872. Magazine profiles, which were often not uncritical, nevertheless presented the children as cheerful and genuinely interested in their work. This was significant; even Elbridge T. Gerry himself considered there was a large difference between a child who had been coerced into providing for their parents and one who was enthusiastically carrying out their duties, as well as between one who performed jigs in taverns for drunkards, and one who appeared in wholesome entertainment under reputable promoters. As such, even critics who admitted allegiance to the principles of the Gerry Society suggested that a clear absence of exploitation warranted lenient treatment in the case of the Pollards.
Still, jarring reminders can be found that their lifestyle was one no child of today would be expected to lead. ‘The [Pollard] children are all of the poorer classes,’ reported the San Francisco Call in 1901, adding that some had literally been picked up off the street. Even the most willing child faced hours of rehearsal, relentless travel, and late nights. Commentators were not oblivious to these contradictions. “It is pathetic, grotesque and practical,” observed one profile. “Pathetic because the little mites are often away from their parents seasons at a time - often have no parents at all. Grotesque because of the many grown-up airs they assume and their earnest discussion of subjects which ordinarily interest their elders. Practical because they are receiving a wonderful training to fit them for a future career, and because they are breadwinners at a tender age.”
Annie Moore was not rechristened a Pollard, but she nevertheless quickly rose to the top ranks of the company, leading casts alongside the current top male star, Alf Goulding. “As the fascinating and frivolous Serpolette [she] helped, as usual to win much of the applause throughout the evening,” reported the Singapore’s Straits Times of the Pollards production of Les Cloches de Corneville in September 1897.
By 1900, quickly approaching the company’s cut-off age of seventeen, Annie was the company's unofficial leader, appearing onstage as its interlocutor - vaudeville’s equivalent of a Master of Ceremonies - and offstage as its ballet mistress, preparing the company for its most important tour yet. For the first time, the Pollards would send a company beyond the Far East and towards Hawaii, thenceforward to San Francisco and the North American mainland. The Gerry Society ensured that the East Coast was off-limits; instead, the company would confine its movements to Canada, California, and the Pacific Northwest.
The ballet mistress was not simply a choreographer but a babysitter, nurse, disciplinarian, and general assistant to Mrs Chester. The role seems often to have fallen to Pollard company alumni, perhaps as a stopgap while they sought work in adult companies. By early 1901, Annie had indeed taken a job with the Australian Vaudeville and Specialty Company. Twenty three year old Will Banvard, currently styling himself as Will Horley, was a fellow member. The company used a popular song of the time, ‘The Belle of New York’, as its opening chorus. The ditty would have been very familiar to Annie, who always claimed that her favourite amongst her Pollard roles was that of Fifi Fricot, 'The Belle of New York’s frivolous Frenchwoman.
Annie and Will’s relationship progressed swiftly. When the company made its second visit to Singapore in August 1901, reviewers who welcomed the return of the popular soubrette politely omitted to mention that she was heavily pregnant. Though she is listed as Ballet Mistress for the inaugural Pollards tour of America that began the following month, she was in fact back at home in Melbourne. Shipping records suggest that Will arrived just in time for the birth of the girl who was registered as ‘Yyvonne Horley’, on Christmas Day, 1901.
The young couple spent much the following year in Melbourne, no doubt adjusting to the new realities of parenthood. When they travelled to Western Australia to resume their careers, there is no mention of an infant in the shipping records. Possibly, Will recalled all too vividly the tiny body that had been left behind in Teetulpa. Leaving Yvonne with family must have seemed an uneasy prospect for Annie, the new mother who was still only a teenager herself.
Banvard's Comic Sketch Team
Source: The West Australian - 23 September 1902
As ‘The Banvards Comic Sketch Team’, featuring Annie Moore, ‘French and Character Artiste’, the couple worked solidly for half a year, before Annie once again departed for Singapore to resume her role as the Pollard company’s ballet mistress. Will, meanwhile, left for Shanghai with former mentor Bert Banvard and brother Wally. Will and Annie would spend many months apart before reuniting in India. Perhaps Will hoped to introduce his new bride to his parents, who had settled in Bombay, where his father Edward now worked as a bookmaker.
Whether it was that the couple drifted apart during their long separation, or had already found themselves incompatible, Will and Annie’s marriage did not last much longer. Though they returned to Perth together in November 1904, by the following month, Will was working as a vaudeville cornerman in Tasmania, on the other side of the country. He was soon joined on the bill by one Ruby Franklin. Described as a ‘new arrival’ and ‘American Champion Buck and Wing Dancer, Coon Impersonator, etc,’ Franklin was in fact a native Tasmanian. In due course, she became the new Mrs Banvard.
Following her divorce, Annie and Yvonne disappear from the records for nearly three years. All that is known for certain about their movements is that they included a permanent move to America, the country Annie would call home for the next decade. It might be expected that she hoped to rejoin the Pollards, but if that was the case, her tenure was not long, fellow alumnus Alice Pollard having assumed the role of Ballet Mistress by late 1905.
According to Yvonne, it was some time during this period that she made her own theatrical debut. In some tellings, she was a four-year-old extra in a New York production of the opera La Boheme; in others, she was either six or seven and debuted with the Pollards, making her mother’s old role of Fifi Fricot her own. There was indeed a production of La Boheme in New York just prior to Yvonne’s fifth birthday, but a recent crackdown by the Gerry Society makes the participation of such a young performer seem unlikely.
In relation to the Pollards, the evidence is clearer. Exhaustive searches have turned up no mention of an Yvonne, a Fifi, a Horley or a Banvard in extant performance records from the relevant period, some of which are so comprehensive as to take in thirty named roles, right down to ‘Second Schoolgirl’. Nor can she be found amongst shipping records with the rest of the company.
Could Yvonne have been masquerading under the Pollard company name, or another nom-de-plume? No satisfactory candidate suggests itself. Merle Pollard was the six-year-old junior wunderkind of the company at the time, while the part of Fifi was the province of Olive Moore, and had also recently been essayed by both Daphne Pollard and her sister Ivy. Merle’s prior and subsequent movements prove she was not Yvonne, while Olive was one of several Moore siblings in the Pollard company at that time, related not to Annie but to Carrie Moore, a high-profile soubrette of the era. There is absolutely no evidence for Yvonne’s claim - on which she was by no means consistent - to be involved with the Pollards at this early stage.
Instead, Yvonne and her mother were undergoing a very different kind of theatrical apprenticeship.
'Pony' Moore, The Cowboy Maiden
Source: Billboard (USA) - 9 November 1907.
When Annie re-emerges in late 1907 on the Western States Vaudeville Association circuit, it is under a radically different persona. As ‘Miss Annie Moore, the Cowboy Maiden’, her new act was tailor-made for the ‘olio’, or novelty performance that took place prior to the second half of the vaudeville bill. Her act would go through many refinements over the years, without losing sight of the basic premise, as described by Variety: ‘This little lady knows a thing or two about the male character, offering a sort of novelty ... changing from male to female attire in view of the audience. In this she is assisted by a coloured maid.’
The number of costumes and characters evolved, as did the framing device, but this combination of ‘quick change’, male impersonation and renditions of Wild West ballads was the act on which Annie traded for the rest of her career. Appearing on the same bill as the ‘Cowboy Maiden’ at San Francisco’s Wigwam Theatre was another struggling vaudevillian, still so little known that his name, Al Jolson, was misreported as ‘Al Johnson’.
Source: San Francisco Call, 30 December 1912.
How did an Australian girl come to be the interpreter of such quintessentially American material? Advertisements claimed that her impersonations were based upon true-life observations made during a three-year stay at the Circle Diamond cattle ranch in Thatcher, Colorado. Located on the famous Santa Fe Trail, it had hosted its fair share of real-life Wild West intrigues. The ‘Wild Bunch’ had still been operating in the area less than a decade previously, as had Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the trend towards romanticised theatrical renditions of frontier times already well established.
Exactly why Annie was in Colorado can only be guessed at - a breakdown in health following her divorce is one possibility, the state being a popular destination for recuperative retreats - but her presence at the ranch is confirmed by that of another performer who worked there during the same period, David J. Jamieson. The two were soon appearing on the same bill. On Yvonne’s sixth birthday, Christmas Day 1907, they were married in Spokane, Washington.
It may well have been her new husband that gave Annie the nickname under which she would henceforth be known. “Miss Pony Moore, former star of the Pollard Opera Co. of Australia, is the most versatile woman in vaudeville, featuring her remarkable characterisations, namely, cowboy, Indian and college girl, three distinct characters,” proclaimed her advertisement in Variety. “The act is not copyrighted, because there is only one woman who can DO the characters with marvellous accuracy, and she is Miss Pony Moore.”
Enter Dancing Davey
Source: Billboard (US), December 1908.
Jamieson, known in vaudeville as ‘Dancing Davey’, emerges as an appealing, wiry-haired figure whose act was summed up by his by-line: ‘The Original Dance-Your-Head-Off-Kid.’ Beginning his career as a protege of George Primrose of the Primrose Minstrels, the rising star had received a profile and full-page photograph in Billboard magazine by 1908. Like Annie, Davey developed a signature act. Pretending to be an amateur substitute for a performer who never arrived, he would stage an impromptu performance of whichever dances the audience demanded, his virtuosity quickly becoming apparent.
Pony and Davey spent the next few years building a very durable double act. In order to accommodate Davey, Pony’s quick-change act was woven into ‘The Dancing Tenderheel’, a self-described ‘Western comedy playlet’, set in Roaring Gulch, Wyoming. ‘Davey is the college boy, just arrived in the west, having come out to the wilds after a disappointment in love. Here he is met by a cow puncher, who proves finally to be none other than the girl of the collegian in disguise.’ Histories of vaudeville pause only briefly on the likes of Pony and Davey, and yet it was the small-time acts such as theirs that provided the industry with its backbone. In their thousands, these acts beat a relentless loop around America and Canada, playing a week here, a week there. Only a few ever rose to the upper ranks. For everyone else, it could be an unglamorous, isolated existence, and one in which even close family members (and sometimes creditors) might only be able contact an itinerant performer by placing an advertisement in the showbusiness industry magazines that functioned as a primitive social network. ‘Davey and Pony Moore: Mother Died Feb. 1. Send address immediately,’ reads one such plaintive advertisement, placed by Davey’s older brother Billy, in a 1914 edition of Billboard.
It seems that Davey was delighted by the addition of a step-daughter to his family, and much evidence suggests that with Will Horley long gone, he would become the first true father figure Yvonne had ever known. Davey’s family soon took charge of the child’s upbringing while her parents were on tour, Yvonne’s step-grandfather, John. T. Jamieson, becoming her chief guardian.
The End of Pollard's Lilliputians
Source: Variety, 1909
As Pony and Davey’s prospects were on the rise, the current iteration of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was coming to a close. Nearly a decade of continuous touring had no doubt taken its toll on Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester; it was estimated that the company travelled 50,000 miles between 1904 and 1907 alone. The show’s format also conspired against the star system upon which the theatre was now so reliant. By the time a Pollards actor had built a profile, he or she was either too old to continue with the company, or too famous to be retained by them.
The 1909 season saw the debut of a new entity, the Pollard No. 1 Company, which removed the age restriction, allowing the Pollards to invite back some of its most popular players from previous seasons. This new incarnation lasted only a few months, and was brought to a definitive end by the departure of Pollard company manager Joseph A. Muller to take up a position as manager of the Orpheum Theatre in Spokane, Washington. Mr Pollard and Mrs Chester also decided to settle in the Pacific Northwest, and declared themselves retired.
Here, the Pollard story takes another sinister turn. Arthur H. Pollard, a brother of Charles and Nellie and previously the company's general factotum, decided that the Pollard cash cow was too lucrative to be put out to pasture just yet. When the unwillingness of his siblings became clear, he made a sweep of the remaining performers. Satisfied with the treatment they had received from the previous Pollard management, their parents would have had no reason to suspect any less from their brother.
Reviews remained mainly positive as the new Pollard company tour opened in Singapore in late 1909. Nobody yet suspected the Dickensian nightmare that was unfolding behind the scenes, much of the detail revealed in a subsequent court case. The young woman hired as the company teacher admitted she had no qualifications whatsoever. There were numerous allegations of physical and mental maltreatment. One child had been obliged to spend a long rail journey hiding beneath a train seat in order to save the cost of her fare. Another had been forced to go onstage whilst seriously ill, and collapsed during the performance. Most scandalously of all, the married Pollard had embarked on an open affair with a longtime company member, nineteen-year-old Irene Findlay. The relationship sparked a fierce power struggle amongst the older girls of the company, with Findlay herself accused of inciting Pollard to acts of abuse against her rivals.
Matters reached a head when the company arrived at Madras, India, where company veteran Freddie Heintz alerted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who quickly took the performers into their custody. After a brief attempt to countersue for kidnapping, Pollard and Findlay escaped into French-controlled Pondicherry to avoid prosecution. They would later marry and settle in New Zealand.
Left penniless and stranded, the company had no option but to continue their tour in order to fund their return passage. Eventually, the concerned townspeople of Bangalore took up a collection to make up the shortfall. The company’s arrival home to Western Australia drew international media coverage, with distraught children vowing that they would never step off Australian shores again. On its home soil, the Pollard organisation was finished.