Is it hard to believe that this quote described one of the Coalfields most successful companies of entertainers in the Depression years? The journalist was commenting on the Weston Futurist Revue Company, a band of about twenty variety and burlesque entertainers who raised funds for various causes, and gained a degree of fame that extended beyond the coalfields, and beyond the Hunter Region.To illustrate the success of the Futurists, lets look at the careers of two of the entertainers, Jack Greenwood and Blodwen James, character duettists with the troupe.
John Greenwood (pictured left) was born in 1894 in the north of England, a "Geordie" from the coal mining districts. I cannot say when he arrived in New South Wales, but it could have been in the early twenties when the South Maitland Coalfield was booming and when so many immigrants from the British coalfields were arriving at South Maitland. Likewise, I have no details on his education or upbringing, except to say that he was Methodist. And, of course, music was an important part of the respectable response to the struggle between capital and labour at that time, and this fitted the Methodist ideals closely.
Blodwen James (pictured right) was born in 1904 at Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorganshire, South Wales. She was the daughter of William Arthur James (1871-1948), colliery contractor, and Agnes Davies (1878-1956), publicans daughter. About 1906 they moved to Aberbargoed, Monmouthshire, where Blodwen attended the local school. Around 1915, she contracted St Vitus Dance and her schooling was thus interrupted. According to Blod, a truancy officer took the matter to court. Her father won the case, and when she regained her health, she attended a private school at Bargoed, Glamorganshire. Blod, and her younger sister Madeline, had a natural talent for singing and competed in eisteddfodau in Wales. Adjudicators noted that as sisters, their voices harmonised very well. In November 1922, the James family arrived in Sydney aboard the Largs Bay and settled at Abermain with Williams relatives. The Abermain Eisteddfod had been established for five years at that point, and Blod and Madeline were competitors at Abermain and in other eisteddfodau in the coalfields. They became members of Robert Hanleys Abermain Juvenile Choir, which was associated with the Methodist Church. Madeline married in 1926 and ended her singing career. Blodwen continued hers.
Perhaps it was through the Methodist connection that she met Jack Greenwood. He may also have been an eisteddfod competitor. He was employed as a shot firer at Hebburn No 1 Colliery, and was a veteran of the Great War. Jack took Madelines place as Blods singing partner.
George Woodcock was another Weston miner involved in entertainment. He was born in 1895 at Hebburn, Durham, England, making him a "Geordie", like Jack Greenwood. In his youth, he was known as Jesmond, The Boy Magician and he made his first public appearance at the Empire Theatre in South Shields. He started work in the coal mines around 1909, but in 1924 sailed to the Pennsylvania mines where he further developed his magicianship. He arrived in Weston in 1926 and became known as The Tantalising Talking Trickster.
The mining lockout brought the coalfields to a halt in the late 1920s and miners and their families soon found themselves in distress. George Woodcock determined on a way of providing support for distressed families, by staging a concert at Aberdare. Blodwen James was one of the local talents that he gathered together as the Weston Minstrel Troupe. The press, about January 1929, made this comment:
The Weston troupe is undoubtedly one of the best groups of entertainers that has been heard on the Coalfields.
A second event, also in 1929, under the banner Weston Futurists Revue Company included Blod James and Jack Greenwood, at West End Picture Theatre, Cessnock, with funds raised being devoted to "relief of wives and children of locked-out miners". George Woodcock wrote that this revue "broke records everywhere, hundreds turned away at every performance". Jack teamed with George at this revue and they "had the house in screams with their clever humorous item, Pennsylvani-oh Paderooski"; Jack and Blod "scored heavily with their song scena, A Night in Venice; Blod sang Love Here is My Heart and with Jack Rosary and After You Get What You Want You Dont Want It.
Another relief engagement of the Company at the Strand Theatre was also successful. In February 1930, George and his entertainers staged a show entitled This and That at Weston School of Arts, again for the miners relief fund, administered by the Cessnock Relief Committee. Blod and Jack appeared with the Company at Weston School of Arts. That concert prompted the quote opening this article. At Abermain, This and That "delighted a record house", and hundreds of pounds were raised for the fund.
Early in March 1930, the Futurists left on a tour of the South Coast of New South Wales, but were recalled because of "trouble brought about by a conflict between the Cessnock Depot, under which the party have been functioning, and the Central Council of the Federation". This and That returned to Weston for a second performance in April 1930. This concert included a song, entitled A Sad Day on the Coalfields, composed by Mr Roger Grant. The lyrics described "that eventful day when men from this district marched to the Rothbury Colliery" and referred to the strife of the Rothbury Riot. During May 1930, This and That played at Kurri Kurri School of Arts to packed houses, at Cessnock and also Paxton. Proceeds were donated to Kurri Kurri Public School Soup Kitchen and towards a new soccer ground. Rehearsals for these concerts were held twice a week. In June 1930, This and That had had such success that a full three hour concert was broadcast on Radio 2HD from Civic Theatre, Newcastle. After a performance at Olympia Hall, Weston, the productions were described as "of a particularly high class amateur standard". In December 1930, George Woodcock devised a new show, Dots and Dashes, and this too was broadcast over 2HD. At Weston School of Arts, it was coupled with "an exhibition of wrestling".
Photo: Jack and Blod in costume.
Jack and Blod were married at Weston Methodist Church on New Years Eve 1930. They made their home on the corner of Scott and Kline Streets, Weston. Three years later, in October 1933, George assembled his crew again for Sharps and Flats, which comprised "three hours entertainment with no breaks in between items". Proceeds went to Weston Hospital Auxiliary. This show started at Weston, with Jack and Blods rendition of Singing Lesson captivating the audience. The house was packed at Weston, after weeks of rehearsal, with Mr J Bills and his orchestra and George and Mary Woodcocks burlesque featuring. Look What Youve Done taken from a recently released talkie, was featured by Jack and Blod, and the required motor car was brought on to the stage to enable the proper effect to be made. The critics raved: As a curtain-ringer, the company combined in the finale of 42nd Street, and for half an hour afterwards the audience warmly applauded the success of the revue. After a performance at Abermain, Sharps and Flats staged at Kurri Kurri School of Arts, in November 1933, where Jack and Blod added Cutie as an encore. The shows poster promised:
This is the show that everybodys talking about. Songs you will sing in your sleep. Tap dancing that will start your legs going. If you dont laugh at the comedy see a doctor.
Blod didnt restrict herself to George Woodcocks productions, for she appeared, about 1933 or 1934, in Del Browns concert at the Strand Theatre "in aid of the Cessnock Town Band". She sang a song, "sweetly rendered" and her performance of The Blue Danube Waltz as soloist "assisted by the junior and senior ballets, was a very pretty number". Around the same time, Jack and Blod performed in an "immensely popular" concert at Princes Theatre, scoring well with their duet Drifting Down the Shalimar. And in July 1934, they appeared in a concert at Aberdare "for a benefit in aid of Mr Griffiths, of Aberdare". Another of Del Browns benefit concerts at Weston in October 1935 "in aid of the Sisters of St Josephs Convent, Abermain" featured "an enjoyable duet by Mr and Mrs J Greenwood". After more duets with Blod, "the final chorus, featuring school days, with Mr Greenwood as the girl and S Lloyd as the boy proved very humorous, and sent the patrons home fully satisfied". Bottoms Up was another concert, held at Capitol Theatre, Weston, around this time. In this concert, Jack and Blod "were exceedingly pleasing to listen to in their duets, Misty Island and The Glory of Love."
George Woodcock gathered his party again in February 1935 for a new show, Snapshots. This concert, at Weston School of Arts, was "to raise funds to help the victims of the Neath motor smash". Jack and Blod presented "items that were much enjoyed". In October 1935, a company called The Optimists broadcast a show on 2HD. Joe Bills, pianist, with Jack and Blod, and "that popular entertainer", Pongo Grant, presented items. But this was probably one of Jack and Blods last company performances. Blods sister-in-law, Daisy James, had been found murdered after she had escaped from Kurri Kurri District Hospital in October 1935. Blods brother, John James, (Daisys husband) subsequently committed suicide. The family was in turmoil. Years later, Jack Greenwood was involved in a work accident which left him a paraplegic. Blod continued to sing at church weddings, especially for family members, but made no further public appearances. Jack died at Weston in 1974, and Blod died at Kurri in 1987. They had no children. Family members remembered best their duologue and vocal duet called Bridget OFlynn, Where Have You Been? Their successes in local performances for community benefit, especially with the Weston Futurist Revue Company, is their legacy. In the days before television, they knew how to provide entertainment for themselves and their community.
Left: A playbill from 1935.
Peter J Williams July 1995
References and Acknowledgements:
Copies of newspaper clippings collected by George Woodcock were kindly provided by Geoff Wood of Weston Heritage and Tidy Town Committee. Reference was made to Andrew Metcalfes For Freedom and Dignity (1988, Allen & Unwin, Sydney), pp.101-3. Photographs (in the authors possession) were from the collection of Madeline James. Family records and records of personal conversations are in the possession of the author.
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