Frank Stuart-Whyte: Impressario Extraordinaire

When Frank Stuart-Whyte wrote to the Vancouver Parks Board in 1911 asking for a meeting to discuss whether his “Versatile” players from England could have a license to perform at English Bay in the summer, he almost certainly had no clue that he was starting an enterprise that would continue — in one form or other — for a decade and become an institution in many cities and towns in Canada.

First Season: 1911

Stuart-Whyte arrived in Vancouver from England in early 1911 when he was 34. In England and Scotland, he had been involved with the production of “1643”, a historical drama that had played those nations to positive reviews.

The first page of Stuart-Whyte’s initial correspondence with the Parks Board, February, 1911. Note: His photo appears on this letterhead. It is apparently letterhead used with his earlier production in England and Scotland, a historical drama called “1643”. CVA RG. 7 Series B-2, Volume 3, #2.

When he got to Vancouver, Stuart-Whyte didn’t let grass grow under his feet; he soon got in touch with the Vancouver Parks Board with a proposal that he and his company of players perform at English Bay in the summer months of that year. He referred to the company as the “Versatiles”. In 1911, they consisted principally of Stuart-Whyte’s wife, whose stage name was “Miss Zara Clinton” and who was known for her impressions of English male impersonator, Vesta Tilley, and Clinton’s brother, comedian Harry Hoyland. “Harry Hoyland” was also a stage name, evidently; his marriage certificate shows his name as Harry Hoyland Young.[1]

The form of entertainment that would be offered by the troupe was English “Pierrot”. Pierrot seems to have been, in this context, a form of vaudeville: musical numbers, comedy sketches, and brief theatrical performances offered over the course of a couple of hours. A difference between Stuart-Whyte’s Versatiles and vaudeville elsewhere in Vancouver, is that it would be performed al fresco on the beach of English Bay in the summer.

The Versatiles at their English Bay al fresco location. n.d. Bullen & Lamb photo.
Courtesy: Neil Whaley Collection

The Parks Board granted Stuart-Whyte a license for the Versatiles to perform in the summer of 1911 for the sum of $150; he would assume the costs of erecting the stage on the beach. The Versatiles had consistently good turnouts at English Bay in 1911.

In June, Stuart-Whyte asked the Board if the Versatiles’ lease at English Bay could be extended for another three years. The Board initially denied this request, preferring to deal with the Versatiles’ lease on a year-by-year basis, but they ultimately agreed (Province 26 September 1912). This proved to be a good move, as the Versatiles through 1916 had strong turnouts at the beach.

Drawing appended to Stuart-Whyte’s initial correspondence with Parks Board, February 1911. Shows initial site of the Versatiles’ stage, SE of the bathing pavilion. (Note: the compass on this drawing is in error. W should be where E is). CVA RG. 7 Series B-2, Volume 3, #2.
A snapshot showing what I think was the Versatiles’ stage on English Bay beach. The orientation of the stage to the beach is different from that in Stuart-Whyte’s drawing, above. It is facing the promenade in this photo. This would put the date of this image between 1912 and 1916. In a letter from Stuart-Whyte to the Parks Board in April 1912, he requested that the stage be built “to face the promenade.” His company had apparently been plagued with colds in 1911 due to “the cold night wind which blew across the stage when it was at right angles to the prom.” (Letter from Stuart-Whyte to Parks Board, April 9, 1912 – CVA). Photo Courtesy: Neil Whaley Collection.

By Autumn, the Versatiles had finished their summer schedule of performances at English Bay. The troupe (Zara Clinton, her brother Harry Hoyland, and manager-husband, Stuart-Whyte) boarded the CPR steamer, Zealandia, bound for the Hawaiian Islands, where they would perform (World, 1 November 1911). They were also scheduled to perform that Winter in California, New Zealand, and Australia.

Second Season – Market Experiment: 1912

In late May 1912, the Versatiles were back at English Bay with an expanded cast that included Emylin Berryman, Will Conley, Lora Churchill, Frank Healey, Will Lochrane, George Bret, Walter Charles and, of course, Zara Clinton and Harry Hoyland (World, 23 May 1912). The English Bay enterprise had another great summer in 1912.

Stuart-Whyte’s Versatiles’ letterhead ca1912+. CVA RG. 7 Series B-2, Volume 3, #2. Stuart-Whyte is in the sharp sign (to the right of the treble clef). I suspect that the person shown within the treble clef is Harry Hoyland and that the woman’s face in the first note at the left is Zara Clinton.
Chilliwack Progress. 2 October 1912.

Beginning in the off-season of 1912, the Versatiles dipped a metaphorical “toe” into a new market; Stuart-Whyte booked the Versatiles into bricks-and-mortar theatres across Western Canada (including the Opera House in Chilliwack, the Sherman Grand Theatre in Calgary, the Empire Theatre in Edmonton, the Empire in Saskatoon, and the Orpheum in Regina). This experiment proved to be a great success and fueled later work by Stuart-Whyte and his company. The main vehicle for the Autumn/Winter tour was a playlet written by Stuart-Whyte called “In the Camp-Fire’s Glow”, a “cowboy musical comedy” set along the Fraser River in B.C.

Third Season – Stadacona Park (Victoria): 1913

By Summer 1913, the Versatiles had established themselves in Victoria in an al fresco setting not unlike Vancouver’s English Bay. They were granted a lease by the City of Victoria to the recently established Stadacona Park. The blue-bloods in the area weren’t impressed with the Versatiles performing in ‘their’ park, but plans went ahead and the general public of the city seemed to soak it up. They would remain at Stadacona Park in Victoria for the summer months of 1913 and 1914.

Regina Leader-Post 2 December 1913/

How did the Versatiles manage to perform in Vancouver and Victoria at the same time? I think the answer is found in a few classified ads that Stuart-Whyte put in Victoria and Vancouver newspapers. He announced that he was looking to “augment his well known companies of London Entertainers . . . .Comedians, tenors, baritones, sopranos, contraltos, pianist” (Victoria Daily Times 12 February 1912). It seems likely from this that a small contingent of Versatiles veterans would seed both the Vancouver and Victoria companies and be augmented by some of the locals hired as a result of ads like the one quoted.

In 1913, Stuart-Whyte added popular Scot, Billy Oswald, and sisters Edith and Harriet Fawn to the Versatiles gang. In the off-season tour, the Versatiles premiered “The Canadian Express”, a playlet depicting the woes of tenderfeet on their first train journey in the Canadian West (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix 22 November 1913). The 1913 tour saw a modest expansion on the tour of 1912. They hit all of the spots of the previous year, in addition to some smaller towns in B.C. (including Revelstoke) and at least as far east as Ottawa.

Fourth and Fifth Seasons: 1914-1915

The Pioneer (Bemedji Minnesota) 25 November 1914.

By 1914, the Versatiles had added to their headliners with Wilfrid Brandon, Fred Reynolds, KItty Clifford, Ida Hart, Thiel Jordan (Victoria Daily Times 1 May 1914). The Autumn/Winter tour featured a ‘re-run’ from 1913, “The Canadian Express” and the premiere of “Scottie in Japan”, a musical comedy “depicting a stranded vaudeville company in the flowery kingdom” (Saskatoon Daily Star 29 October 1914). There was a noteworthy difference to the touring locations in 1914, however: the troupe moved south of the 49th Parallel for at least one stop in Minnesota, in the city of Bemedji. There, “The Canadian Express” became “The Honeymoon Express”, presumably with a few other Americanizing edits to the script to make the train journey more recognizable to a U.S. audience.

In September 1915, Vancouver was the opening city for a new Stuart-Whyte musical comedy, set in a department store, called “The Girl from Nowhere”. “The Girl” was staged again at the Vancouver Avenue Theatre in January 1916 and then in late February, a new production, “Floradora,” was at the Avenue “with a brilliant cast of twenty-five”. Each of these productions opened in Vancouver and then later was taken on the road to the usual Canadian locations. There seem not to have been any American locations on the 1915 tour.

Sixth Season – End of English Bay Versatiles: 1916

Summer 1916 was the final season of English Bay performances in Vancouver.[2] It was an abbreviated season at English Bay, said Stuart-Whyte, due to conscription being imposed in England, causing several of those he would have included in his outdoor cast to be recruited for WWI service (Sun 10 August 1916).

Crop of CVA 99-1223. Shows the Versatiles’ English Bay stage and seats on the beach. ca1916. Stuart Thomson photo.

Autumn/Winter 1916 was notable for a couple of reasons. It marked the start of a string of hit pantomimes written/produced by Stuart-Whyte. And it marked his first production opening in a city other than Vancouver. In September 1916, “Alladin and His Wonderful Lamp” opened in Winnipeg at the Walker Theatre. This production was touted by Stuart-Whyte – accurately or not – as being “Canada’s first ‘old country’ pantomime” (Edmonton Journal 7 October 1916). Zara Clinton, in true English panto fashion, played the principal boy, Alladin; Harry Hoyland played the Widow Twankey.

Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Seasons: 1917-1919

A scene from Robinson Crusoe. Regina Leader-Post. 26 November 1917.

Autumn/Winter 1917 saw the premiere of Stuart-Whyte’s “Robinson Crusoe”. Zara Clinton played the title role, supported by a cast of 40. Stuart-Whyte “followed the original text in large measure and then added a series of incidents that Daniel Dafoe probably never dreamed of” (Edmonton Journal 3 October 1917). For composition of the music for “Crusoe”, Stuart-Whyte called upon no fewer than three composers: Pierre Bayard, Clive Hamilton, and Sydney Blythe, all of England.

1918 saw the most ambitious touring schedule of Stuart-Whyte’s troupe, to date. In addition to the usual Canadian locations, the 1918 tour included a great many U.S. sites, including: Buffalo, Rochester, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnatti, Streator (Illinois), Davenport (Iowa), Madison, Des Moines, and Sioux City (Iowa). Why did Stuart-Whyte choose this year for such an expanded U.S. tour? There are a couple of reasons, I think. First, the production that they were showing in U.S. cities – “Robinson Crusoe” – was one that was familiar to American audiences. Second, it appears that Stuart-Whyte had a deal with the American theatrical syndicate, Klaw and Erlanger, that year and so had access to a large number of theatres in many cities, probably at reduced cost (Streator Times 27 March 1918). The summer months of 1918 saw the Versatiles at their al fresco location in Winnipeg at Portage and Vaughn. But, although it was advertised as having “the famous Versatiles”, it was, in fact just a single Versatile performing: longtime member, Billy Oswald.

The Autumn/Winter of 1918 saw the Versatiles touring Canadian cities again, this time with the musical “Cinderella”. Zara Clinton played Prince Charming and Sue Parker was in the title role. Other principals included John Barrett-Lennard, Harry Hoyland, Herbert Sydney, T. Clifden Corless, Kitty Arthur, and Blanche Young. This played in 1918 and through to March 1919.

Tenth Season – Final Successful Panto: 1920

Starting in January 1920, Stuart-Whyte produced yet another panto: “Red Riding Hood.” Dorothy Mackay played the title role. Other principal parts were played by Zara Clinton (“Boy Blue”), Johnny Osborne (“Mother Hubbard”), Will Hallet (animal impersonator), and John Barrett-Lennard (“King Cole”) (Saskatoon Daily Star 13 January 1920).

In October 1920, Stuart-Whyte launched “Babes in the Wood”, with Dorothy Mackay again in the title role. Other cast included George H. Summers (“Capt. Kidd”), R. N. Hincks (“semi-wicked baron”), Victor Dyer (“very wicked baroness”), Tom Ellis (“Dick Turpin”), and Mona Warren (“Robin Hood”).

The Versatiles at their English Bay al fresco location. n.d. Bullen & Lamb photo.
Courtesy: Neil Whaley Collection

Running concurrently with “Babes” was a revival by Stuart-Whyte of “San Toy: A Chinese Musical” which also toured a number of urban centres. San Toy was a departure from Stuart-Whyte’s spate of panto hits. It was musical comedy, but not a pantomime.

In December 1920, he spun out another theatrical revival, this one Sydney Jones’ “The Geisha”, “a love story of old Japan with an adorable musical setting.” These two revivals seemed to be, in part, vehicles for a number of Stuart-Whyte’s adult actors who had been strong performers in his earlier successes but who didn’t really fit in his juvenile pantos such as “Red Riding Hood” and “Babes in the Woods”. In “The Geisha” there would be 50 actors, including Zara Clinton (“Molly”), Kitty Arthur (“the little Jap Geisha girl”), and Fred Walton.

Eleventh Season – Prince Charming (Not): 1922

September 1922 saw a new musical from the pen of Stuart-Whyte: “Prince Charming, Jr.” (sub-headed in the ads “Girls, Gowns, and Gorgeousness”). It was based loosely on a recent tour by the Prince of Wales. Some of the music in the play was by B. C. Hilliam (Ottawa Citizen 26 September 1922).

The Citizen reviewer was quite critical of this production: ” . . . the composition has no intelligible story which, of course, is not necessary for its success. It has color and girls, one or two good songs, and some novelties in the way of gags and scenic tableaux . . . It has at least five good wheezes [jokes] and a number of others not so good.” (Ottawa Citizen 26 September 1922). And the reviewer at the Montreal Gazette damned “Jr.” with faint praise: “[I]t has sufficient good points to make it, on the whole, good entertainment . . . . On the other hand, the production scarcely has the freshness and vigor of some of its predecessors, particularly insofar as the plot and the musical setting are concerned” (Montreal Gazette 21 November 1922).

Never with any of Stuart-Whyte’s previous productions did I see a “discouraging word” in any review. But it isn’t really surprising, is it, that after 10 seasons of successes, he might lay an egg?

Movie Producer

Nothing appeared about Stuart-Whyte in Canadian press reports for four years after the flop that was “Jr.”

What had become of him?

Evidently, he had transformed himself from a producer of theatrical productions into a producer of movies. In Australia, according to one press source, he produced four films, all of which were financial successes (Sakatoon Daily Star 19 November 1927). There seem today to be records of only two Stuart-Whyte films made in Australia: Painted Daughters (1925) and Sunrise (1926). Zara Clinton starred in “Painted Daughters”. Sunrise is considered a lost film.

Stuart-Whyte spun colourful tales to the writer of a Canadian newspaper piece that was syndicated in various Canadian papers about how he was involved in producing movies in Hollywood, South Africa, the West Indies and India (Saskatoon Daily Star 19 November 1927). But, oddly only one movie title was mentioned; it was claimed by the writer that his name appeared among the “directorial staff” of Douglas Fairbanks’ “Thief of Bagdad“. Today, no movie credits for Stuart-Whyte remain except for the two Australian films.

The Cat Came Back (Briefly)

Edmonton Journal 3 March 1928.

By 1928, Stuart-Whyte had returned to Canada to produce another panto; this one was “Dick Whittington and His Cat”. “Dick” had pretty positive reviews, but I’m guessing that in terms of success that matters – bums in seats – it was found wanting:

(TORONTO) Stranded, though in their home town, four or five members of the defunct F. Stuart-Whyte pantomime, “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” which closed unceremoniously in Brockville [Ontario] several weeks ago, watched disconsolately while the entire outfit, slightly shopworn, was purchased by P. G. Gadsby of Toronto for $400 at the sheriff’s sale.

All one corner of a huge garage was occupied with a miscellaneous collection of theatrical goods and equipment. Seven changes of costume for 17 girls, two changes for four comedians, and large and valuable backdrops, as yet untouched with the painter’s brush, formed part of the collection. The equipment was said by the auctioneer to be worth $5000.

Regina Leader 1 May 1928

Just what became of Stuart-Whyte following the demise of “Dick” isn’t clear to me. I could find no newspaper accounts of later ventures (or even reports as to whether he’d retired), nor could I find an obituary for either him or his wife, “Zara”(Sarah, off-stage).

He died in England in 1947.

I’m very appreciative of Vancouver collector, Neil Whaley, for his treasure trove of ‘real photograph post cards’ and snapshots he has collected
and permitted me to show here.

Notes

  1. Late-breaking news: “F. Stuart-Whyte” was also a stage name! He appears in a couple of ship manifests as Frank Hardwick White (1877-1947); and “Zara” as Sarah Nellie White (nee Young) (1882-1950). Frank and Sarah were married in England in 1903. They had a son born 1904 called Geoffrey Hoyland White and another born 1906 by the name of Dennis William White.
  2. In 1936 the Versatiles made a return to English Bay for Vancouver’s jubilee year. The 1936 group was entirely Canadian, as far as I can tell. The cast included Sidney Dean, Frank Dowie, Linda Dale, Frank Vyvyan, Gladys Symmonds, Ruby Chamberlain, Agnes Harrison, Allan Roughton, Hazel McDonald, Lorna McDonald, Gus Dawson, Charles Courtier, and Bertha Strang.

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