Showing posts with label Harry Denman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Harry Denman. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

'You've got to have juggling in you' - The Kelso Brothers


The Kelsos were two jugglers from Melbourne who found Australia too small for their lofty ambitions.

The Kelso brothers, Joe Wheeler and Harry Denman were not siblings, but considered themselves brothers in vaudeville.  Both were born in Victoria around 1889 and the suburb of Hawthorn later claimed them. As youths they juggled at school, and as adults they settled into jobs in Melbourne, Joe at a bookstall and Harry as a typesetter for The Argus newspaper. But the juggling urge was too strong. They juggled at work, and after work they juggled for charity. Unfortunately, the juggling at work was unacceptable to their employers and they were fired. They decided to turn their obsession into a profession.

They started juggling on the streets of Melbourne around 1909. Then they graduated to Jones Moving Theatre Company, which travelled the regional areas of Australia giving vaudeville performances under a tent.  Amongst the cast at the company was Flossie Jeffries, a champion lady club swinger, and it may be from her that the Kelso brothers or boys (as they sometimes called themselves) learnt how to manipulate clubs.

Jones was not a good employer and he often forgot to pay his employees. There were fights amongst the performers, Flossie got into a physical confrontation with contortionist Lottie, and the rough nights under canvas were neither well paid nor well managed. The Kelso brothers honed their craft and left Jones. Later they sued him for 13 pounds in lost wages and won the case.

By 1910, the Kelsos were working at the National Amphitheatre and appeared as jugglers and hoop spinners. In 1911 they were in New Zealand and juggling clubs, spinning plates, and rolling hoops. A reviewer said that ‘the precision with which they threw plates, clubs and balls from one to another and went through other feats of balancing provides a more than usually excellent turn.’

The two men were close in age but quite different in personality. Joe was later described as the hard headed businessman, whilst Harry was saturnine, talkative, and restless. When they later added comedy to the act, Harry played the clown and Joe the straight man.

In 1912 they were widely acknowledged as Australia’s best club jugglers. In South Australia that year the ‘clever pair of comedy jugglers’ manipulated a billiard cue from foot to chin, threw plates from side to side with the comedian running around desperately trying to prevent them smashing on the floor, and performed Indian club work that was ‘brilliant.’

However, Australia was not big enough for the Kelso brothers. They believed that the small population of the country meant that ‘an act out here is hardly finished before it must be changed’. The two young men decided to travel to America for six months and try their luck.

They claimed that they worked their passage to San Francisco, but it seems they were regular passengers. In October 1912 they arrived on the west coast of the United States, with little money and few connections. They started small, with a charity performance, and then approached a local theatre. They were offered 75 cents a night and began a career that took them to the heights of vaudeville.

Soon they were playing the major cities and combining comedy, juggling, and dancing in a riotous turn. In 1915 they opened the bill at the American Roof, the roof of the American theatre in New York City. Variety Magazine said they did ‘very well’. The comedian was ‘not bad at all’ but the young man who danced took it ‘too seriously’. They rolled hoops, danced, and juggled in this act. According to ‘Clever’ Conkey, they had a novel turn ‘ and while doing a dancing specialty touch up Indian clubs and put them into action without breaking their routine.’

That year Joe married Jane Carroll in New York. Jane was from Chicago and was also a performer. By 1917 the couple had two children Elizabeth and Lorraine.

It was war time and Joe and Harry had to register for war service. By now, both men, although still slender and fit, had streaks of grey in their dark hair. The signs of age may have been due to the hectic pace of constant performance. Harry later said that on ‘bad days’ they had to produce as many as five performances a day and keep up an exhausting schedule.

This schedule did not exhaust Harry’s restless nature. In 1917 he was imprisoned for 10 days because of an altercation with the White Rats. The White Rats were an American labour organisation which imposed ‘strikes’ on various theatres. In this case they entered the Loew Fulton Brooklyn Theatre on a Wednesday night looking to cause trouble, a brawl ensued, and Harry was arrested. The rats campaigned for better wages for white men, women and people of colour were not allowed to join, and they opposed the corporate monopoly of the theatre chains. However, their cause was unpopular with many performers because of their exclusionary policies. The theatre managers usually chose to ignore their shenanigans and Harry apparently found that imprisonment did not impede his ability to perform.

By the end of the war, the increasing popularity of moving pictures was encroaching on the success of traditional vaudeville. Theatre owners began to show revues which mixed dancing, comedy and singing in short skits. Harry and Joe were versatile and talented performers who could change their routines to suit the changing times.

In December 1918, the Kelsos were performing on the Columbia Burlesque circuit in New York in a revue programme with Jean Bendini. They performed in comedy skits, did some juggling, and collaborated with a large cast. Variety said that ‘what they did with plates, Indian Clubs and hoops was the ace of jugglerism.’

Shortly afterwards the pair decided to return to Australia for a tour. However, they were disappointed in their expectations when they were quarantined upon arrival. The Spanish flu was rife amongst passengers and crew on long haul shipping, and many ships were quarantined due to illness and death from the disease. Harry and Joe were caught on one of these ships and their proposed weeks long stay in the home country was reduced to an hour-long meeting with relatives.

They quickly returned to revues in the United States. In 1921 they performed at the Columbia Theatre in a revue called ‘Peek a Boo’ which included Florence Kelso (Jane) and Florence Darley. They had broadened their skills and Joe performed magic tricks whilst Harry balanced on a large rolling ball. Both appeared in comedy skits and continued to display their superior juggling skills.

In 1925 they formed their own company which included a live lion act. They incorporated this into a show called the Crazy Quilt Revue. Unfortunately, at the end of one show, a lion attacked its handler, and his hand was severely mangled before the Kelsos could rescue him. The man died of blood poisoning and the lion was sent to a zoo. They persisted with the act however and employed another lion tamer to control the three remaining beasts.

In 1927, Harry married one of the cast members, Florence Darley, and she, Joe’s wife Jane, the lions, and a supporting cast joined the brothers in 1928 on a long tour of Australia.

The pair returned to their native land as superstars. They were paid a huge wage, and were welcomed home with interviews, and warm reviews. Their families greeted them with hugs and laughs at the pier, and they were honoured with a civic reception in their native town of Hawthorn. The Kelsos had acquired American accents by this time and Joe had silver hair which made him look ‘dignified enough to be a motion picture judge.’ Harry was ‘square chinned’ with ‘eyes like agate’.

The Crazy Quilt Revue was a huge success. It featured Harry and Joe, Flo Carroll (Jane Kelso), Howard Nicholls, a hoop juggler, Florence Darley, (the other Mrs Kelso) Merna Stewart, Maurice Kelly, an Irish/American comedian, and Captain Smithley’s lions. The act comprised four turns which incorporated dancing, juggling, magic, lion taming and comedy. It lasted about an hour and took up the whole second part of the programme.

The Kelsos presented a juggling burlesque as part of the show. Despite Joe’s silver hair, he was ‘agile enough to be one of the smartest jugglers still’. Harry still played the clown and ‘his philosophy of life delivered in unexpected asides nearly convulsed his listeners’.

The two men interfered humorously in Howard Nicholl’s juggling act and upstaged him with their antics. They were particularly nonsensical when Nicholls whirled almost a dozen hoops around his arms, neck, and legs. Florence Carroll also juggled whilst being harassed by the Kelsos whilst Maurice Kelly provided a further comedic element. Mr Smithley and the lions presented just the right degree of danger and excitement to leave the audience satisfied.

Joe Kelso

The revue was fast paced, funny and unlike anything that had been seen in Australia. The two stars were feted everywhere and gave opinions on everything from American culture to prohibition. Every show was greeted with rapturous applause and audience members were seen straining forward in their seats in expectation of the next wonder. Overall, the tour, which lasted 5 months, was an enormous success.

It was their last triumph as a partnership. Harry travelled to London and Joe back to the United States. The era of live performance was fading, the depression was severely restricting the availability of work, and Harry seemed eager to retire.

Harry returned to Australia in the 1930s and bought a hotel in the small town of Warrandyte in Victoria. He died in 1936 after a short illness.

Joe, meanwhile, continued to perform as a solo act. He became an American citizen and settled permanently with his wife and daughters in Illinois. In the 1940s Joe was still juggling and performing magic on stages, at fairs, and in burlesques.  In August 1944 he was killed in a car accident. He had just completed a 30-week contract in burlesque and had bookings for the rest of the year.

Although Harry and Joe diversified their act over the years, they were jugglers at heart. Harry said that as a young typesetter, ‘when I wasn’t doing it (juggling) with my own knucklebones, I was doing it with the type.’

While Joe put it more simply.

‘You’ve got to have juggling in you, the first time I went to a circus and saw juggling I said to myself ‘I think I’d like to try that’ I tried in the backyard and found it came quite easily to me.’

 Harry and Joe Kelso were two of the best jugglers ever produced in the backyard of Australia.