The Lucas Countyan: Huntress 5: Harry and George Down Under
This is the fifth in a series of six posts about Chariton’s Harry Hemphill, a star of the vaudeville stage who performed from 1894 until 1916-17 as “Huntress,” musician, dancer and female impersonator extraordinaire. When the last post ended, Harry — whose full act now required a rail car to transport related paraphernalia — had remodeled the stage of Chariton’s National Guard armory so that it could accommodate his full act and had entertained the hometown crowd during a two-day benefit for the Eagles Lodge during late May, 1912. He then headed for Chicago to resume his performance schedule. The photo at left was taken during 1907, when Harry was near the midpoint of his career. Harry returned to Chariton for a brief visit during March of 1913 after concluding a Midwest tour, then headed for the West Coast. Early in the year, he signed a contract for a 20-week tour of Australia and New Zealand (with a 16-week extension option) that was to commence when his Pacific Coast tour ended in San Francisco during July.
As it turned out, the option was exercised and Harry spent nine months traveling and performing, accompanied by his costumes, a few props and a companion identified only as George. Extras and technicians were hired along the way.
We know quite a bit about this trip because Harry documented it in a series of letters sent home during those months to his friends at the Herald-Patriot in Chariton and they were duly published. There was quite a time lag, of course, between the dates the letters were written and arrival in Chariton. Mail traveled by ship from Australia to California in those days, then by train to the nation’s heartland — a matter of weeks rather than days.
The letters seem to have been hugely popular, and the land down under probably was discussed more in Lucas County during those months than ever before, or since. They became program topics for women’s clubs and other organizations and appear to have been anticipated anxiously. So in effect, Harry took his hometown along for the ride.
Harry and George sailed from San Francisco on Tuesday, July 29, 1913, aboard the legendary steamship Sonoma. In his first letter home, datelined Sydney, Harry reported that his sister, Maude, now living in Los Angeles with her barber husband, James Sullivan, had traveled up to San Francisco to see them off. She was accompanied dockside, according to Harry, by a “host” of his San Francisco friends and many tears were shed before the Sonoma passed through the golden gates near sunset.
“The sea was calm and beautful, and as the shades of evening came we lost sight of land and the dear old country we love, to see no more land until we reached the Hawaiian Islands,” Harry wrote. The Sonoma docked in Honolulu on Monday, Aug. 4, and a few hours were allowed for sight-seeing. Among the sights was Waikiki Beach, where Harry was quite impressed when he saw surfers for the first time — “Native boys swim away out with a flat board and get on a big wave and come in, standing up on the board.” On Aug. 11, the Sonoma sailed into Pago Pago, American Samoa, and native dancers and vendors descended upon the tourists. Harry was so impressed that he declared that he was going to add the “hula” to his dance repertoire upon return to the United States. He bought a dress made of native grasses, beads, armlets and anklets — everything he would need — from the dockside vendors. The Sonoma pulled into Sydney Harbor on Monday, Aug. 18, and Harry and George disembarked as evening settled in and headed for their hotel in one of the “funniest looking cabs, two-wheeled things with the driver up on top in the back, English style.” They had arrived! The next letters, written in mid-September, reached Chariton in time to be published during early November. On Sept. 11, Harry reported that he had opened at the Sydney’s National Amphitheater on August 23 and had been performing there ever since. He was to close his three-week stand the next evening, but the National would remain his permanent address during those months down under. Austrailians liked “the Charitonian,” Harry wrote. “I am doing fine, and I change my act every week. When I come back here for my next stand, I will put on the ‘Pantomime o Cleopatra.” The theaters, he reported, were not up to American standards, but the money was good. On the coming Saturday, he and George were scheduled to depart for Adelaide, South Australia, by ship. The second letter published in The Herald Patriot on Nov. 6 was written on Sept. 18 aboard the Steamship Indarra. The boys had spent two days and two nights in Melbourne, where an American friend, Martyune the fire dancer, was performing at the Tivoli, and had a “great visit.” They were due to arrive in Adelaide on Sept. 19 for a four-week engagement. In a letter datelined Adelaide and dated Sept. 23, Harry reported that he had opened at the King’s Theater the preceding Saturday to a “tremendous big house and the Charitonian scored big.” When not performing, Harry and George were being entertained royally by an Australian gentleman Harry had met in the United States a couple of years previously. During early October, Harry and George were on board a steamship again, sailing through the Great Australian Bight en route to Perth, on Australia’s western coast. There were no trains into Perth, so the sea was the only practical transportation route, and it was in the Australian Bight that Harry experienced his first bout of seasickness — sidelining him a couple of days. But he had pleasant memories of Adelaide to look back on, reporting that he had not only been a “big hit,” but that he and George had been royally entertained. “In all I like Adelaide far better than Sydney, although it is not so large a place,” he wrote. “Everybody is very hospitable and always ready to entertain a stranger. They are more hospitable than our people in America.” While aboard ship, a wireless message had arrived informing Harry that “our American boy,” lightweight boxer Pal Brown — who weighed in at all of 130 pounds — had won an exhibition prize fight against Australian favorite Hughey Meaghen.
“I’m so glad,” Harry wrote “They never gave it a thought over here but that Meaghen would whip “Pal.” You see, Pal came over with us on the Sonoma, and after we got to Sydney Pal and his sparring partner gave a sparring exhibition, and the papers came out and roasted the life out of him; called him the pretty boy from America, and because he wore silk tights, called him a “sissy,” and said he’d have to take a few lessons; and say, to think he comes out and wallops the tar out of the champion of Australia tickles me to death.”
Harry’s next letters, dated early November, reached Chariton for publication during early December. The first was written Nov. 4 aboard the steamship Katoomba, then sailing back through the Great Australian Bight en route to Adelaide from Perth. After closing his engagement in Adelaide, Harry reported that he had been “quite a favorite” during his three-week engagement in Perth, a lovely city he said he hated to leave. But duty called. After alighting in Adelaide, the boys planned to take a train to Melbourne for another engagement. The next letter was written Nov. 7 in Melbourne, where Harry was about ready to open, but the train trip from Adelaide had not been a pleasant one. “It was a most terrible ride on the poorest train I ever rode on,” Harry wrote. He declared that he and George had nearly frozen to death. Unable to secure a sleeper, they’d been forced to sleep in a carriage without heat — or blankets — and even though it was summer, nights were “overcoat weather,” Harry wrote. It was “for all the world like riding in a caboose on a freight train and the fire gone out, and it’s Christmas time,” Harry continued. “When we tell them they are not up to date here, they tell us the country is young yet.” None-the-less, they survived, and Harry was delighted to be in Melbourne and assigned a good dressing room. He described it as the most “American” to date of Australia’s cities. As should be obvious by now, Harry was something of a chauvinist when it came to his homeland. Harry’s next letter, published in The Herald-Patriot on Feb. 5, 1914, was datelined “at sea” and dated December 27th, 1913 — Harry and George were sailing from Sydney to New Zealand. He wrote that after performing in Melbourne, Victoria, he had traveled to Brisbane in Queensland for an engagement — and Brisbane had been very hot — 108 in the shade and humid. But Queensland was the home of those famous black opals, Harry wrote, and he had taken his mind off the heat by purchasing a few “beautiful specimens.” From Brisbane, the boys had traveled back to Sydney to await passage to New Zealand, setting sail on Christmas Eve for a journey of 1,300 miles to Aukland. It had been a “bum Christmas,” he reported, confined to his bunk most of the day, “too sick to even think of all the lovely snow and the Christmas spirit in dear old U.S.A. and I will say it was the most miserable Christmas I ever put in.” In a letter dated Dec. 31, datelined Aukland, Harry reported a safe landing and seemed to have recovered from his shipboard blues. “I do like this little city better than any of the Australian towns,” he wrote. “It is more like our cities, more up to date.”
Harry’s next letters, published a little later in February in the Herald-Patriot, all were datelined New Zealand. Harry loved everything about New Zealand — except the trains. But the scenery, the people and the crowds at his performances all were described in glowing terms.
After performing in Aukland, Harry and George traveled by rail through spectacular scenery to Wellington for another gig, then prepared to sail from Wellington to Christchurch. Harry had by now fulfilled his 20 week obligation and had been scheduled to sail for home January 30. But he was enjoying himself, the money was good — and he was now in his 16-week extension with no immediate plans to return home. One high point of the trip to New Zealand had been a deep-sea fishing expedition on a launch with 16 companions. George hand landed three big ones. “All I got was sunburn,” Harry reported.
Harry’s final series of letters commenced with one datelined “at sea” and dated “April 5” After returning to Australia from New Zealand, the boys had played Broken Hill, New South Wales, for a week. Broken Hill was a mining town “up near the opal fields, and it was a very monotonous week; very warm and positively nothing to do but sit around; no parks or anything as it is out in the desert. Caravans of camels come in every few days and bring provisions back and forth from the opal fields. Several of the boys went down in the mines, but I did not as it was too hot. We had a very bad train trip as the train service is very bad through here and the road is an independent one; it is on the order of our cattle trains, probably a little worse.”
After brushing off the Broken Hill dust, Harry and George returned to Sydney for a final egagement prior to sailing. He reported that that he had been offered a tour through India, but declined. It was time to head home.
Harry and George had sailed from Sydney on April 4, again on the Sonoma. They passed the Fiji Islands, but didn’t stop, and on Friday, April 10, arrived at Pago Pago. Unfortunately, the ship was under quarantine because of a smallpox case in Sydney, so passengers were not allowed to go ashore. Harry commissioned the purser to pick up a few things for him.
There was to be a big dance aboard ship on April 15 and since there were 12 vaudeville performers on board, Harry decided to make the ball “one grand success.”
“So the ‘Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon’ was put on in all its grandeur. With a bit of help from the non-professionals it was a grand success. The principal parts were all played by the performers, using the non-professionals as wives of King Solomon, twelve in number, and others for slaves, attendants, etc. All of my wardrobe that was the least bit oriental was used. Miss Cordona, a Spanish dancer, and Miss Brown, a chorus girl, were attendants to the queen (Harry, of course) and wore a couple of my dancing dresses, and they did well in their parts. One of the performers took the part of the king and was fine. I, in all my dazzling glitter and glare of the Orient was Queen of Sheba. Beads from Samoa, shells, coral, jewels, etc., were presented to the king as precious gifts from the queen. When the royal procession entered the hurricane deck, we were greeted with rounds and rounds of applause and the whole thing was a grand success.”
The Sonoma docked at Honolulu on April 14th and a full day was allowed for sight-seeing. This time, Harry and George took a swim at Waikiki beach — and Harry got sunburned again. The Sonoma finally docked at San Francisco near sunset on April 23, and Harry’s adventure abroad concluded. His final letter home to Chariton was written just before disembarking. “When you read this you will know I have landed, as it will not be mailed till we get ashore,” he wrote. “Goodbye to all until I see you this summer. Respectfully, Harry Hemphill.”