Harry Rickards ran away from home when he was 16, and started a career as a comic singer in music halls. In 1878 he divorced his first wife who was English and married Australian acrobat and trapeze artist Katie Angel.
At the turn of the century, Rickards had a virtual monopoly on variety theatre in Australia. He had driven out his smaller rivals and had a chain of theatres around the country. They included the Tivoli Theatres in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide Tivoli and the Palace Gardens in Perth.
He brought the cream of variety artists to Australia: acrobats, ventriloquists, instrumentalists, impersonators, singers and animal acts, including the legendary Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, Houdini, the quasi-Chinese conjuror Chung Ling Soo and Paul Cinquevalli, the unrivalled juggler.
He had a keen sense of humour, which must have helped him in both his career as an artist and as a manager. A story was told of how Harry and a friend got into a ‘rough up’ with two cabbies who took them to court over the incident.
Were you the worse for liquor?” asked the magistrate “Your worship ” answered Harry Rickards “throughout a long, and if I may say it, successful career, I have never let drink interfere with business. We had a drink after we had finished with these men.”
The Tivoli Theatres were still going strong in the 1950s.
The main attractions were an amazing array of old comics, jugglers and fire-eaters, plus the Tivoli Lovelies. The shows would open with a rather raucous overture from the orchestra. The curtain would go up and there would be the dancing girls, the Tivoli Lovelies, in a fantastic line-up.
Beryl, one of the Tivoli dancers
GEORGIA NELLIN: I joined the Tivoli Ballet in 1944 and ended up leaving in 1947 to get married.
WOMAN 1: I started in pantomime and then I went into the Ballet in 1948.
WOMAN 2: I started about ’44 and I left in ’47 to get married.
WOMAN 3: I joined the Tivoli in 1949 in the show, ‘Starry Nights’.
WOMAN 4: I stayed there until 1947 and, much to my sorrow, got married twice and had a dozen children.
One of the Tivoli dancers was Judith Lingard who married into the Kerby family, owners of the famous St Kilda Pier kiosk.
Colin Kerby was a strong swimmer in his day, a lucky thing for the more than 200 people he plucked from the waters surrounding St Kilda Pier over 53 years. As Kerby would dive into the sea to retrieve its almost-victims, his wife Judy would dash into the kiosk for a bottle of Pine-o-cleen; a quick gargle was Colin’s preferred method of disinfecting his mouth after performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Colin’s father Noble Kerby had acquired the lease for the kiosk from the Victorian government in 1939.
“There was a tough local cop called Geiger who came out onto the pier and had an issue to take up with Noble about some yachts that were tied up at an area of the pier, which Noble felt was his territory.
“Colin was listening to them this day and heard a voice shouting, ‘You’re under arrest!’ Only it was his father speaking to the cop. Noble continued with, ‘And I hope to Christ you resist arrest so I can take you to the police station and give you a hiding on the way!’
As his son recalled it, Noble then led the police officer down the pier to the officer’s own paddy wagon, and drove him to the police station. There, he marched the officer to the front desk and announced that he was charging him with disrupting the peace and resisting arrest.
“Two weeks later a formidable looking policeman came marching up the pier and apologised to Noble saying, ‘As you can imagine, it’s not very good for our image if a citizen arrests a policeman. We’re going to have him disciplined’. The officer was duly sent to the bush, never to return to St Kilda police station.
During World War II an outdoor dance floor on the northern side of the pavilion became a drawcard for American GIs staying in the area, as well as many locals. Dances were held on Sunday nights with a live band performing.
The ladies would sew button eyes on their panties so that when they spun around their frocks would come up and they’d have these eyes returning the gaze of the GIs,” Colin recalled. “They would dance the jitterbug until all hours.”
He caused a scandal in 1951 when he sold homemade beer containing more than the regulation 2 per cent alcohol – 7.4 per cent to be exact. “It was in the headlines for a week,” Mr Kerby said. “There were drunks on the pier on a Sunday and the Salvation Army was upset.”
Sadly, the 99 year old kiosk burned down in 2003. A faithful reproduction has since been built upon the site, but no beer is served on the premises.