Fifi de Tisne, the Peppy Redhead, circa 1921. Source: University of Queensland.
Will Banvard’s Australian plans quickly fell through, and it may have been in order to fulfil his contractual obligation to the Fuller’s Australian vaudeville circuit that a different act appeared in place of the Banvard Company. ‘Fifi de Tisne, the Peppy Redhead, and Her Excess Baggage’, premiered in Melbourne in December 1920, an act featuring ‘a lady and a gentleman, and of the lady, it must be said, that she is dainty, vivacious and a smart dresser, and has a way of singing and dancing that is captivating.’
Curiously, though the excellent violin playing of her male partner - the ‘Excess Baggage’ of the title - was constantly noted, his name did not appear in any of the initial reviews. Yvonne may have considered this brief return to burlesque a professional backstep, and it is possible that de Tisne also wished to keep his profile low. Still, the act was successful enough, and toured to New Zealand in mid 1921. When the couple returned to participate in the annual Fullers pantomime, Bluebeard, Yvonne was Principal Girl, and Eddie the Demon King.
It is possible to detect a biographical element to the series of light comedy sketches that followed, with titles such as ‘After the Honeymoon’, ‘Lovesick’, ‘The Right Key to the Wrong Flat’, and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, the ups and downs of young newlyweds being a recurring topic. ‘After The Honeymoon’ was described the comedy of a husband’s fruitless attempts put his outspoken wife in her place. Yvonne’s dominance in reviews gives every impression that this was a task with which Eddie himself was struggling. It cannot have helped that they would soon play host to the very person from whom Yvonne probably inherited her strong will. Pony Moore returned to her homeland some time after her daughter’s debut.
If Yvonne’s early life can indeed be considered a series of drafts, this short epoch was one last episode that did not quite make the final cut, though it was occasionally referred to by others over the years. Though ‘burlesque’ did not carry the specifically erotic overtones that it does today, it was still the less respectable cousin of vaudeville. Someone of Yvonne’s aspirations would not have wished to advertise her status as a former ‘Dancing Doll’. As time went on, it is unlikely that even close colleagues were aware of the existence of Seattle’s ‘Little Fifi’, whom they would have found a less credible character than the California-born, Broadway-bred teenage tragedienne of Madame X that replaced her in Yvonne’s personal mythology. Now, she set about fulfilling the final leg of the journey.
The Reynolds-De Tisne Players
A new name, a new persona. Source: The News (Adelaide) - 1 September 1923.
When the De Tisnes re-emerged, their new project would both reflect Eddie’s work in Canada and presage Fifi’s great attempt to form a National Theatre in the 1950s. The pair inaugurated the newly refurbished Theatre Royal in Brisbane with the establishment of a stock company which, when joined by veteran comedian Harrington Reynolds, was christened the Reynolds-De Tisne Players. One of the De Tisnes, however, was absent, having been replaced by a familiar redhead who would henceforth be known as Yvonne Banvard. The auspicious choice for their debut season was Peg O’ My Heart, with Yvonne at last playing the role of Peg.
Though such stock companies were common in America, in Australia, the Reynolds-De Tisne company’s approach was distinctly innovative, offering high-quality international productions at affordable prices, with the aim of fostering a superior theatrical culture. Their slogan was “Your Own Company” - named, according to Eddie, ‘for they desired to create a specially personal touch … 'Request plays,' would receive serious consideration, for it was the aim of the company to give to the public just what they wanted, and to provide the world's best plays at popular prices.”
Many of the roles Yvonne played during this period were the ones that would, in later years, appear on her curriculum vitae in a rather different form. Though she was most certainly not seventeen, at a youthful 22 she was still hyped as ‘the world’s youngest Madame X’ and, as the Brisbane Courier observed, the performance remained a triumph, especially given that she had ‘less than a week for study and rehearsal, and [was] handicapped by a youthfulness that precludes the possibility of much close observation of the tragedies of life.’
There was scarcely a theatrical personality which publicity did not claim Yvonne had worked - Ethel Barrymore, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Julia Marlowe, David Belasco, Oliver Morosco, Sacha Guitry; she had appeared ‘with all the best-class dramatic stock companies in America, including two or three of her own.’ Patently, this was nonsense; it may even be that the claims were never intended to be taken seriously. At a time when publicists proclaimed, with only partially concealed smirks, that Cincinnati-born movie star Theda Bara was an ethereal European whose birth had been foretold on the walls of the pyramids, a star’s public persona was just another role to be played to the hilt.
The Brisbane venture, which ended after a record 26 week season, was an outstanding financial and artistic success, netting Reynolds and De Tisne nearly £2000 apiece, a staggering sum for the day. A disagreement temporarily soured the partnership, and the newly rechristened De Tisne-Banvard Players attempted to form a similar company in Adelaide. This experiment met with more limited success, with Yvonne departing the company after only a few months due to what was reported as ‘a breakdown in health’.
Returning to Brisbane and reconciling with Harrington Reynolds, the De Tisnes attempted to resume where they had left off, beginning with a season of Shakespeare's 'As You Like It', featuring Yvonne as Viola and Eddie as Malvolio. Some reviewers suggested the company had at last overstretched themselves. Commercially, the season was a surprise disappointment. Nothing more was heard of plans to produce ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a follow up, and the threadbare offerings which followed failed to spark the public's imagination or to fill the company coffers.
Following a tour to Far North Queensland and a short-lived attempt to establish a stock company at the Manly Palais in Sydney, both the De Tisne company and the marriage foundered in late 1924. The following year, Eddie De Tisne was declared bankrupt. It was revealed that he had continued living a lavish lifestyle long after it was no longer financially sustainable. "To tell you the truth I did not know the value of money," he told a Sydney bankruptcy court, after it was revealed that company presents alone had consumed £170 of the budget at the Manly Palais. "It came so freely. All the members of the company had worked so hard, and most of them were friends. The success turned our heads."
Though it ended in commercial and personal disaster, the Reynolds-De Tisne venture was an undoubted artistic triumph. By the end of 1924, the company were being described without exaggeration as ‘the finest dramatic organisation in the Commonwealth.' The jewel in the company crown was Yvonne Banvard herself, reborn into her latest and final form. If the Reynolds-De Tisne company was ‘Our Own Company’, Yvonne had earned her title of ‘Our Own Star’.
Now firmly cemented in the public’s favour, the stories began - the truths, the half-truths, the quarter-truths and so on. The weaving of the Banvard myth had begun.
Yvonne Banvard Emerges
Source: The World's News (Sydney), 5 June 1926
If Yvonne was upset by the end of her marriage, she set her feelings aside, quickly accepting a major role in Rose Marie, under the auspices of top theatrical firm J.C. Williamson. This turned into a record-breaking engagement of several years’ duration - and, according to insiders, included a tempestuous affair with the play’s leading man, Lou Vernon. It was the first of a string of roles that made Yvonne Banvard one of Australian theatre's best known and best loved names of the 1920s.
Eddie took longer to recover from the divorce, remaining out of the limelight for a year before re-emerging in Harry Green’s 1925 production of Give and Take, the play that famously gave Yvonne’s future co-star, the legendary Australian comedian Roy Rene, his only straight theatrical role. De Tisne eventually departed Australia for Green’s London season of Give and Take and returned to New York in 1928, where he worked steadily until his sudden death in 1931, at the age of 42.
As his daughter had been establishing herself in Brisbane, Will Banvard and his wife Ruby were also back in Australia, touring with the revue ‘Patches’, before joining the rash of performers to capitalise on the popularity of Roy Rene and Nat Phillips’ ‘Stiffy and Mo’ by forming their own comical double act, ‘Dooley and Sweeney’. The couple disappear from the Australian records after 1923. Though Will’s further whereabouts are unclear, it is likely that he made India his permanent base. The arrival of sound film in 1929 finally brought an end to the Banvard brothers’ Indian theatre ventures, and following in his father’s footsteps, Wally became closely involved with the greyhound racing industry, also dabbling in boxing promotion.
Dancing Davey danced his way to Australia in 1927, where he reminisced about working with the famous Yvonne Banvard. The fact that he was aware of her change in name is a good indication that Yvonne remained in touch with her stepfather, as is her passing mention in 1949 of an American ‘brother’ who worked for Matson Line ships and was therefore in Australia often. This can only have been 29-year-old Jack Jamieson, the son of Maud and Davey, who had been born in Portland, Oregon in 1920. By the time of his death in California in 1959 at the age of 77, Dancing Davey had been retired for a scant four years, chalking up over half a century as the ‘Dance Your Head Off Kid’.
An advertisement appeared in the entertainment columns of the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1923: ‘Redskin, Cowboy, Wow-ee, Goodness Knows What Next!’ Miss Pony Moore would be making her debut at the Tivoli, Sydney’s top vaudeville house. It might have been the start of a new epoch for Pony, and yet apologies appeared in the following day’s edition: Miss Moore had appeared at the matinee, but had suddenly taken ill and was unable to continue the engagement. One baffled reporter described her initial performances as 'incomprehensible', and she disappeared from the bill as swiftly and mysteriously as she came.
Was Pony's act simply out of vogue, or had she lost the will or the knack to don the greasepaint once more, after all those years? Whatever the reason, Annie Moore remained retired for the rest of her life, aside from a few charity appearances. She had lived with her daughter virtually since her return to Australia, and the pair remained extremely close. Annie passed away in Sydney in 1957, at the age of 74.
'Australia's Only Woman Actress-Manager and Producer'
Fifi Banvard, now a seasoned radio producer, in the late 1950s. Source: ABC Weekly, 13 July 1957
Aside from a brief, unsuccessful overseas sojourn in the early 1930s, Yvonne Banvard spent the rest of her career in Australia. Movies tempted her only briefly; a starring role alongside Roy Rene in the 1934 comedy Strike Me Lucky remained her only screen appearance, and one which, by all accounts, she was not keen to repeat.
Like her mother and father, she developed an enduring interest in theatre production, eventually becoming chief producer at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre. As the legitimate theatre periodically waxed and waned, she transferred her interests to radio, where she would become one of the medium’s most sought after performer-producers. By 1950, she was being described as ‘Australia’s only woman actress-manager and producer.'
Her lifelong interests culminated in her grandest and most underrated achievement, her residency at the Theatre Royal in Hobart, Tasmania, itself a culmination of her earliest experiments in bringing touring repertory theatre to Australia in the early 1920s. Constructed in 1834, the Royal remains the oldest continually working theatre in Australia, and had only survived demolition following the public support of Sir Laurence Olivier, whose Old Vic company had used it as its Tasmanian venue during their fabled Australian tour of the late 1940s. Yvonne’s attempts to transform it into the headquarters of an Australian national theatre were ahead of their time - financially brave and artistically ambitious, yet with a small Tasmanian population with a preference for the lighter fare that she had always striven to rise above, it did not prove sustainable.
As the years passed, the stories Yvonne had woven about her early life evolved and intermingled. A more stable home life was constructed. Both parents had taken her to America, both members of the famous Flying Banvards. “In the old days a bit of mystery surrounded theatre people,” she lamented in 1957. “The public didn’t know how we lived … but now that’s all gone. We’ve just become ordinary people.” Though the scope for remoulding one’s life was diminishing, she remained her own sense of mystery to the end. By the time of Yvonne’s death of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 60, even Gwen Friend, her companion of many years, may not have known the truth, registering her death under the name ‘Fifi Banvard’ - the sixth and final name under which she would be known during her life.
The legacy of Yvonne ‘Fifi’ Banvard is ripe for rediscovery. With a clearer view of the truth of her early life, the task of interpreting the decisions and motivations of her later career becomes both simpler and more compelling, a vital first step to bringing the achievements of this pioneering figure in Australian theatre to greater attention - and to correct a record that Yvonne herself was all too eager to obfuscate.
She was never a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, but she found time to be much more.