Showing posts with label The Lessos. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Lessos. Show all posts

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Tom and Nellie Lesso- Jugglers

 Tom and Nellie Lesso were successful performers in Australia, the US and England during the World War 1 era.

Tom Lesso was a skilled acrobat and juggler born in Victoria in 1885. His real name was Thomas Burkett Dixon and he had several siblings.

Tom appears as Tom Lesso in newspaper reports in the early 1900s. His first juggling act was as part of a duo with Rexo (Charles Griffith) . In 1909 he married the  fair haired 5 foot 5  tall, Nerida Ridout (born 1884 in Sydney)  in Melbourne. The pair formed a duo act that astonished Australasia and led to a successful run in the United States. 

Nerida took the stage name Nellie, and as The Lessos, the pair appeared on stages in Australia and New Zealand. Nellie was a sharpshooter. On stage, Tom would call for props and Nellie would shoot at a button which activated a spring which propelled the props towards him- he would then juggle them to the delight of the audience. 

Tom also incorporated balancing in the act. He balanced a cannon ball via a stick on his chin and transferred it to a stick perched on his forehead. Inspired by Cinquevalli, he also balanced a wooden table on his forehead, and with a twitch threw it in the air and caught it, on his forehead, on the reverse side. This was perhaps his most popular trick. 

In 1909 the pair travelled to the United States. They began on the Percy Williams circuit then transferred to Keith's circuit. Whilst playing there they were recruited for a tour of England.

Tom Lesso

In 1914 they returned to Australia. Tom, as a relatively young man, must have felt some pressure to enlist. They incorporated a patriotic finale into their act, perhaps to make up for this. Nellie fired her gun at various targets and the whole stage was enveloped with the flags of the allies. At this time Tom told the papers that he had suffered a period of blindness whilst in the US. He blamed a trick where he caught tennis balls thrown by the audience on his forehead. 

In 1916 Tom enlisted with the AIF for service in World War 1. Tom stated that his profession was ‘professional juggler’ and that he was separated from his wife, Nellie. He cited his father William as next of kin.

Whilst waiting to be shipped out, Tom was reprimanded for staying out late and for disobedience. Eventually he arrived in England and subsequently, in October 1916 he arrived at the British staging camp in Etaples, France. On October 29 that year, Australian Jack Braithwaite serving in a New Zealand regiment was executed for helping a fellow soldier defy a British commander. Tom may have witnessed the execution. 

His official mission in France was to reinforce the 23rd Battalion, which was on the front lines. Tom lasted a month in France, there is no record of him being at the front, although it is possible. In November he was shipped back to England via Calais. Finally after treatment in England he was invalided out with ‘disordered action of the heart’, the military euphemism for shell shock. In March 1918 he was sent back to Australia. 

By September he was back on stage performing at the Bijou in Melbourne, and giving colorful descriptions of his antics on the front lines. He claimed he had taken all his props to France and entertained troops whilst waiting to be deployed

He had a new assistant, Miss Duckworth, and they did the old act. They were scheduled to perform in New Zealand and sailed there. But in November Tom contracted Spanish Influenza. He died that month in New Zealand,

Nellie Lesso

Nellie Lesso, Tom’s estranged wife, attempted to revive the act in the 1920s, although it seemed she was quite wealthy. In 1921 she made a police complaint about a missing diamond pendant, with lovers' knots and a single diamond drop attached. In 1923 The Lessos, featuring Nellie, performed at the Shaftesbury Theatre in Western Australia. Later that year she went to the United States, and Theodore the juggler was on the same ship. Perhaps the two had formed a new Lesso partnership.

Attempts by the army to contact her in 1923 regarding Tom’s war medals received no response and in 1924 Nellie was in Paris with her mother.

There is some indication that Nellie travelled quite often over the following years and did not seek to further her stage career. 

Nellie’s primary address was in eastern Sydney and it was there that she passed away in 1954.

( I found Tom’s real name in The Age newspaper death notice. His war record is available through the National archives.)