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Juvenile Opera Companies

by Stephen E. Busch

Some writers called it the Gilbert and Sullivan mania or craze. "It" was the creation-- and world wide performances-- of fourteen operettas by William Gilbert (librettist) and Arthur Sullivan (composer) between 1871 and 1896. The unlikely collaboration of these two disparate Englishmen brought them fame, fortune and knighthood. Richard D’Oyly Carte brought them together, and his name really is synonymous with Gilbert and Sullivan.

For generations there have been Gilbert and Sullivan societies in cities and colleges and universities in many countries. Their principal purpose is the production of G & S operettas; many of the societies produce just one show a year. A few communities and schools produce G & S shows, especially Pinafore, with children as part of the cast or the entire cast. 

Richard Barker was the stage manager of the initial H.M.S. Pinafore production in London, and it was he who suggested that a company of children might prove attractive. Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte agreed, and Barker formed a full company of children that offered Pinafore in London while the original adult cast continued its performances. A critic supposedly remarked: "We have no hesitation in describing it as the most marvelous juvenile performance ever seen in the metropolis." This was in 1878, and Barker even took the troupe on tour.

Haverly JuvenileIn 1879 Pinafore was produced in New York by both adult and children casts. There was no international copyright then, and G & S shows were seen in America soon after their English premieres, “pirated” versions that sometimes were quite different from the original. The youthful productions were usually called juvenile companies. In the larger cities it was not unusual for a theatre to offer a juvenile production in the afternoon and an adult show in the evening. In 1895 Charles MacGeachy described the creation of a juvenile Pinafore company for J.H. Haverly’s Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York:

It was Pinafore that dragged me into this business. Haverly had made up his mind that he was going to put into the Fourteenth Street Theatre 'a mastodonic production' of the opera, with a juvenile and an adult company.  Charles E. Locke introduced me to Haverly, and after a little talk I was commissioned to ferret out whatever juvenile talent was obtainable in this city.

I was amazed to discover that there were clever professional children in abundance.  Within two weeks the Theatre was running full blast with two Pinafore companies, adults and children. Great were the receipts, and the children were the better winners. The receipts for the adult production began to drop. The children held the public favor evenly, and at the close of the run Haverly sent us [the juveniles] on the road.

MacGeachy then related the subsequent professional entertainment careers of some of "Haverly’s youngsters." Quickly there were juvenile Pinafore companies formed in many U.S. cities, and there soon were a number of traveling juvenile companies. Some had a few adults in key roles, though many were all children, including any number under 16 years of age. The juveniles were very popular with the public, but the young ones brought problems to the producers/owners. The New York Times ran an extensive article [1882] entitled "Children in Opera Companies."

Mayor Wm. R. Grace [New York] listened yesterday to arguments for and against the granting of the application of the managers of the Boston Miniature Ideal Opera Company for performances of Patience which are to begin at Wallack’s Theatre Monday night. The company was represented by Manager James W. Morrissey [once a business manager for Emma Abbott] and by counsel, and two of the members of the company were introduced to the Mayor. Both, however, were over 16 years old.

President Eldridge T. Gerry of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children made a long and earnest plea to Mayor Grace not to give the desired permission. It was a shame, he argued, to compel young children to perform night after night and rehearse day after day in such broiling weather [New York was having a heat wave] merely to put money into the pockets of the managers.

Mr. Gerry spoke at length of the bad moral influences surrounding such juvenile troupes, and instanced many cases where his society had been asked to try to reclaim young girls from lives of vice into which they had been led while employed on the stage. A list of names was submitted to the Mayor from which it appeared that of the 65 members of the company, about 20 were under 16, and hence required the Mayor's consent before they could perform. Mayor Grace glanced over the list and drew his pen through the names of three whose ages were 11 years or under. He then asked that all the children under 16 be brought before him on Monday when he would give his decision.

The Mayor apparently gave his permission. After all, there were three other juvenile Pinafore companies performing in New York theatres at that time! Two weeks later the Times reported that "the Boston Miniature Ideal Opera Company open their third week at Wallack's tomorrow evening in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience." But the SPCC had numerous hearings in American cities regarding "under 16 years of age" performers in G & S shows. This writer assumes that in most cases permission to perform was granted.

Colorado had a few juvenile Pinafore companies, and one in Denver probably was the best known and most traveled. The director of the Juvenile Pinafore Company was a Mrs. Forrester. Barely three months after the juvenile Pinafore company opened at Haverly's in New York, the Denver juveniles gave four performances of Pinafore, one of which was a matinee; these began August 13, 1879. Not surprisingly, the reviews were flattering and encouraging. Names of all the leads were given, and a local favorite, Bessie Clark, sang "Lo! the gentle lark" between acts on the Friday evening performance after which she received a "handsome guitar and several floral contributions" on stage.

On August 21 "the Pinafore ship with its juvenile crew set sail for Idaho Springs" with Mrs. Forrester in charge. Four days later they gave a performance in Cheyenne. None of the children's ages were given by the press, but "little folks" or "little" appeared frequently in the papers. The juveniles had orchestra accompaniment, but no mention was made of its size in the Rocky Mountain News reviews.

Juvenile opera companies from New Zealand came to Colorado, Pollard's Australian Juvenile Opera Company in 1902 and Pollard's Lilliputian Opera Company in 1905, performing in Peter McCourt's Silver Circuit houses. Named for the founding family that came from Tasmania, their adult and juvenile companies toured mostly in New Zealand and Australia during the 1880-1910 decades. Their history is Pollard Juvenile Opera Codescribed in The Pollards by Peter Downes.

Probably all juvenile G & S companies gave abbreviated performances, and all accompaniments, whether with orchestra or keyboard, had transposed scores to satisfy the singing ranges of the children. All orchestral scores were considerably reduced so that the youthful voices could be heard. Remember, no sound amplification in those days! This writer has seen some G & S arrangements for children's performance using piano accompaniment and edited for a half hour performance time; these were intended for school use. One wonders what was the performance time for the juvenile company at Haverly’s Fourteenth Street Theatre in 1879 or the Patience performance by the Boston Miniature Ideal Opera Company in 1882. These probably were at least an hour in length, and the children assuredly were ready to eat after the final curtain! And, what about the juveniles' parents?  No mention is made of them in the reviews that this writer has read.

Nonetheless, these juveniles have left a fascinating story in the few pages of their recorded history. Someone should write their book!

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