Showing posts with label Carl Bracken. Australian Jugglers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Carl Bracken. Australian Jugglers. Show all posts

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Frank, Lank and Alice- 'The only juggler in Australia juggling three clubs in one hand..."

 Frank, Lank and Alice was a prominent Australian juggling trio during the First World War. Frank, born David Francis Uren, was the straight man and most skilled juggler, Lank, W .Thompson, was a juggler and comedian, whilst Alice, Alice Johnson, was a contortionist and juggler.

David Francis Uren was born in Victoria in 1894. His father, Thomas, was a miner, who later bought a pub near Melbourne. The Uren family was large, and David, whose stage name was ‘Frank Uren,’ had many siblings and cousins in Victoria.

Frank began his juggling career as a teenager. His first recorded professional engagement was in 1911 with Jones Moving Theatre. He was billed as ‘the London Juggler’ and was 17 years old. Carl Bracken, a strong man and wire walker was also performing with Jones at that time.

Shortly after this, Carl and Frank teamed up and began touring Australia with small variety troupes. Carl walked the wire, juggled and re-enacted Cinquevalli’s cannon ball trick, catching a cannon ball on his shoulders, whilst Frank juggled clubs, plates and balls.

Carl Bracken- Frank's first partner

In March 1912, Frank juggled lighted torches, plates and clubs in Devonport Tasmania with Coronation Circus. In July that year, he and Carl were in South Australia en route to Western Australia. In August, they appeared at the Shaftesbury theatre in Perth. They used different names, Carl and Frank Brackens, or The Urens. As The Brackens they incorporated a loop the loop turn with a bicycle and as The Urens they were ‘the greatest juggling act ever seen.’

They were still in Western Australia in October 1912 and advertised as The Urens. They were ‘Australia’s Comedy Jugglers’, manipulating, ‘balls, plates, racquets, clubs, hats etc with perfect ease' and finishing with a grand finale of juggling 6 fiery torches. This later became one of Frank’s specialties.

Frank and Carl parted ways after a year, and by 1913 Frank was working as a solo act at Her Majesty’s in Geelong, Victoria. He was with another small variety company, Coles Vaudeville, and advertised as an ‘expert sensational juggler.’

However, the next year, Frank was again part of a duo. He had met his future wife, Alice Johnson, a contortionist. They appeared in October 1914 as Frank and Alice, in Townsville Queensland, between movie showings. Alice was born in 1899 in Balmain, Sydney, and was thus 15 when she and Frank teamed up.

Life on the vaudeville circuit in Australia was difficult. Performers commonly complained about the    quality of the food , they were often underpaid or refused wages, accommodation was basic, and the constant travelling was uncomfortable. It may have been an exciting adventure for two young performers such as Frank and Alice, but they were also inexperienced and open to exploitation. A duo was less vulnerable than a solo performer, and the comfort of a partner would have helped when dealing with unscrupulous employers.

When war was declared in 1914, many young male performers immediately enlisted to support ‘Mother England’. This created vacancies and opportunities in Australia’s larger vaudeville circuits, the Tivoli and Fullers, for acts that were languishing with smaller troupes.

In 1915, Frank and Alice added another member to their team, Lank. He was later identified as W (perhaps William) Thompson and was a comedian. Together they became Frank, Lank and Alice, a combined juggling, contortionist, comedy trio.

Thompson’s real name was rarely used in descriptions of their performances. Perhaps he relished the anonymity. A William Thompson occasionally appeared on the same bill as Frank, Lank and Alice, and it’s possible that this was Lank, supplementing his pay with another comedic turn.

In Queensland, in 1915, the threesome appeared between movies in a performance which included acrobatics. Lank was ‘droll and witty’, and they were described as ‘expert jugglers’

In March that year Lank was being praised for his Chaplin impression which was part of the act. The newspaper said that ‘In addition to his makeup- his walk, actions, and impressions are Chaplin to the life.’ In December, in Broken Hill, Alice also received plaudits, with the local paper noting that ‘Miss Alice contributed some graceful and clever contortionist work’

 They had perfected their 10-minute turn. Frank was the straight man and Lank the clown. Lank casually walked across the stage as Chaplin and stole Frank’s clubs to much applause and laughter. Then Alice joined the men for juggling and the trio juggled up to a ‘dozen’ clubs from one side of the stage to the other. Frank then juggled lighted torches as a finale.

On the cover of Variety

In February 1916, 17-year-old Alice Johnson married 22-year-old David Francis Uren in Balmain in Sydney. At that time they were sporadically employed by the second most important vaudeville company in the country, Fullers. A week after the wedding, Frank, Lank and Alice were on the cover of Australia’s Variety Magazine.

The accompanying article described the trio as youthful and attentive to their work. It said that they had improved greatly over the last twelve months and the ‘excellence’ of their act meant it was ‘fit to take a prominent place on any bill.’ It was high praise from an influential publication.

In August 1916, Frank did a brief solo run in Newcastle for Smith’s vaudeville. He was advertised as juggling five clubs and as the only juggler in Australia who could juggle three clubs in one hand.

War was raging overseas, and the population was suffering. It is likely that Frank was exempted from war service due to ill health and Lank may also have had an exemption. There was no conscription during World War 1, but social pressure to enlist was immense. The previous April had seen the disaster at Gallipoli, and society was tense and angry with those who did not serve.

Considering the times, it seemed appropriate for Fullers to present a pantomime to cheer the home crowd and stir up nationalist fervour. The result was The Bunyip, one of the biggest pantomimes ever staged and Frank, Lank and Alice were an integral part of the show.

Bunyip concerned the adventures of a Fairy Princess, Wattle Blossom, her paramour Arthur, the son of a squatter, and the evil gnome king who turned Wattle into a Bunyip. Included in the show were several sumptuous Australian themed scenes, including ‘The Corroboree.’ Frank, Lank, and Alice appeared in a transition scene which led to the corroboree extravaganza. In ‘black disguise,’ presumably black face, they threw boomerangs over the heads of the audience and caught them as they returned. They also juggled Nulla, Nullas, Aboriginal throwing sticks, fire sticks (torches) and spears. In preparation for the role, they were also, according to the press, watching news reels of authentic Corroborees.

When the pantomime opened in Sydney, Alice was heavily pregnant. In December 1916, during the run, she gave birth to Virginia Wattle Blossom Uren.

The panto toured the country and Frank, Lank and Alice and Virginia toured with it.  It was usually produced at Christmas and Easter in Sydney and Melbourne. Between performances, the trio appeared in Fuller’s theatres in Australia and New Zealand. In June 1917 they were at the Bijou in Melbourne and had added plate spinning to the act.

They stayed with Fullers until the end of the war, mixing pantomime performances with individual shows. By 1919 they were back on the suburban and country circuit performing between movies.

In 1920 they went to New Zealand for a brief tour. They were warmly received, and their club spinning was described as ‘highly spectacular’.  The ‘interlude,’ when Frank spun lighted torches,  was also popular.

Later that year they returned to Australia and performed in Rockhampton Queensland.

‘The vaudeville turn provided by Frank, Lank and Alice is fully entitled to be labelled delightful. The artists manipulate brightly ornamented clubs with the ease and grace of born entertainers. Lank walks unconcernedly across the stage, and off it, with a club or two collected from Frank’s performance, en passant, so to speak, which is most amusingly clever. Frank does most of the real work- that with torches being unique- and the lady appears to be as gracefully clever as the other two altogether. The turn won unstinted applause.’

This was one of their last performances. Frank was ill with tuberculosis. In 1921, he, Alice and daughter Virginia were living with his family at their hotel, the Great Western near Melbourne. In October, Frank’s cousin, Tommy, was in a prize fight, and Frank went to the event. The next day, he went out ‘motoring’ returned home, and then, unexpectedly, died in his sleep. He was 27 years old.

Frank was eulogised as ‘a clean-living husband who was a credit to the vaudeville profession’ and as ‘Australia’s greatest club juggler.’ He left Alice a widow with a young daughter.

The Uren family was large and supportive, and Fullers also provided support for the young woman. She was almost immediately employed as a ballet mistress with the vaudeville chain and from that experience she created a ballet school in Melbourne which had a long and distinguished history. Alice remarried in 1924 but maintained her professional name as Alice Uren. Her daughter Virginia appeared in a Fullers pantomime as a child and in later life worked in radio. She had a society marriage in 1939 and had at least one child.

Virginia's wedding in The Age newspaper society pages

W Thompson, Lank, is more difficult to trace. He was apparently in Queensland when news of Frank’s death broke. He praised Frank as a good man. Thompson may have continued his career with Fullers.

Alice died in 1979 after a long and distinguished career as a contortionist, juggler, ballet and dance teacher.

Frank. Lank and Alice did not become international superstars, but they were part of the backbone of Australian vaudeville during the First World War, when many performers were absent. As such, their short career played a significant role in ensuring the visibility of juggling during a difficult time for vaudeville in Australia.