In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Manly promoted itself as a tourist resort – a Brighton of the South Pacific – and the type of entertainment on offer varied greatly.
There were annual attractions, such as wildflower shows, boat regattas, and the Venetian Carnival, as well as permanent attractions, such as mazes, camera obscuras, an aquarium, merry-go-rounds, miniature trains, and donkey rides on the beach, along with semi-permanent attractions such as cartoonist Arthur von Tossau, who announced himself as the London Poster King.
The most famous of the merry-go-round operators was William “Sovereign” Smith, a larger-than-life figure who got his nickname because he wore a coat and waistcoat decorated with monarchs and semi-sovereigns.
Arguably the biggest and most thrilling amusement was the giant waterslide at Steye Court, an amusement complex in South Steyne between Victoria Pde and Ashburner St that operated for three summers.
But across the street, at least for one season, was a very different kind of entertainment: Harry Primrose and his Pierrots.
Pierott was an archetypal character of pantomime and of commedia dell’arte, or Italian comedy, which has its origins in an Italian troupe of players who performed in Paris in the 17th century, but which evolved over the years.
Harry Primrose – real name Henry Lawrence – was an Englishman born about 1858 who called himself the greatest banjo player in the world and claimed to have won the first prize for banjo playing at the Chicago Exposition in 1893, when he would have been 35. years old.
Primrose arrives in Sydney from London in late 1904, accompanied by pianist Bert Roulston.
In November 1904 Primrose announced that he was looking for a sophisticated comedian, a draftsman, specialist performers, female sopranos and tenor, bass or baritone vocalists, who were invited to apply to him at his temporary address – Ellis’s Coffee Palace in King St Sydney.
Coffee Palaces were temperance hotels, telling potential applicants everything they needed to know about Harry Primrose – he tolerated neither alcohol nor vulgarity.
The following month, Harry Primrose took the stage in Manly accompanied by British-born pianist Bert Roulston, tenor singer Fred Henry and bass singer Horace Jardin, combining vaudevillian comedy and music.
Primrose and his Pierrots performed on a beachside stage, opposite Steyne Court, with performances at 3pm and 8pm.
Seats in the front cost a shilling and those in the back six pence.
By January 1905, Primrose had augmented his company’s vaudeville performance with a Mr. Persehouse, who could play two cornets at once, a Mr. Fowler and his performing dogs, and a magician named Mr. Rueben.
He later employed so-called society entertainer Leslie Holmes and a variety of comedy vocalists.
But comedian and banjoist Primrose was the main attraction and he always made sure that his company’s performances were of “a high standard and wholly free from offensive behaviour”.
On January 19, 1905, Primrose and his Pierrots performed at the Victoria Hall on The Corso to raise money for the victims of recent bushfires.
And Primrose was always on the lookout for new acts and advertised in the town papers that he wanted special acts to join him and company on stage.
During their time in Manly, Primrose and Roulston stayed at the Steyne Hotel.
In March 1905 it was declared that Primrose and his Pierrots’ season would soon end, as Primrose and Roulston would soon return to England “to fulfill obligations in the old country”.
Instead, Harry Primrose and his Pierrots performed in Parramatta and Mosman, before touring parts of NSW including Orange, Dubbo, Katoomba and Maitland. ventriloquist Harry Barton.
They then toured Queensland and northern NSW in 1905, 1906 and 1907, being joined on stage at various times along the way by handbell performer WJ Barker, comedienne Vesta Lenton, baritone WP Cottrell, club performer A. Pontin, singer and dancer Doris Laveno, tenor singer Charles Morgan, ventriloquist George Hatherley, baritone singer Wyn Leslie and society entertainer WP Turner.
In December 1907, Primrose and Roulston were in New Zealand, performing in various cities across the country.
But in May 1910 Harry Primrose died in Napier of throat cancer and exhaustion, leaving behind his soprano singer Alice Woodham and a 14-year-old daughter.
His obituaries in New Zealand newspapers referred to him as “the first entertainer to introduce open-air vaudeville entertainment to Australasia, having played long seasons in Brisbane, Manly (near Sydney) and other parts of Australia before came to New Zealand”.
John MacRitchie, former librarian of local studies at the Manly Library, believes Primrose’s longtime partner Bert Roulston may have been killed in a hotel fire in the South Island town of Murchison in 1927.
Unfortunately, only one photograph of Harry Primrose and his Pierrots is known to exist – a postcard commissioned by Primrose while he was in Manly showing a photograph of Harry Primrose, Bert Roulston, Fred Henry and Horace Jardine performing in Manly.