The New Haymarket Music Hall, situated at the southern end of George Street, is to be opened this evening. The management announce they have spared no expense in engaging an array of talent, including the clever Faust Family.
Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October 1888.
‘To make money these days,’ Lillian said, ‘you have to take risks. Serving drinks to this crowd—’ she flicked her hand at the Mercantile Hotel’s motley congregation of shop-workers, clerks, tradesmen and larrikins ‘—is no way for a girl to earn a living. On the stage, Mr Faust, that’s where I want to be.’
Faust, caught in mid-swallow, choked on his drink. ‘And how long would it be since you did any handstands, cartwheels or swinging upside down, miss?’ he gasped, thumping his chest as his spluttering laughter subsided.
Lillian leaned in closer to murmur, ‘Say that you’ll give me a trial on the trapeze and I’ll cartwheel right now along the bar.’ She spun away to serve three rowdy patrons at the next table, but she saw him watching her, rolling his glass between his hands. Had she been too bold?
Ted Faust had taken the lease on the Haymarket Music Hall next door to the pub where Lillian worked. His family performed most of the acts: comical sketches, hand-bell ringing, juggling and acrobatics. Each night after the show he stopped in at the Mercantile, where he drank whisky to ease his humming sinews.
‘Two whiskies always do me good before bed. One is not enough. Three is too many. I see the difference the next morning — the eye is keen, the hand steady, the body eager,’ he’d often tell Lillian after taking the first slug. Now and then he’d buy her a drink, but she sipped cold, weak tea instead of brandy and pocketed the sixpence.
Lillian had arrived early for her shift that afternoon and slipped next door to watch the rehearsals. In the shadows at the back of the theatre she slid onto one of the plain wooden benches as the nine Fausts leapt onto the stage dressed in white, tumbling and balancing before posing as a tableau of marble statuary. The younger girls had their hair cut short like a boy’s and wore fitted, knee-length trousers.
How Lillian envied their freedom. She didn’t mind the heat, the dust motes shimmering in the shafts of light or the smell of stale sweat. Their poise and agility, their triumphant shouts as they flipped, twisted and spun across the stage entranced her. It looked more like fun than work. She wished she could remove her heavy boots, tear off her skirts, loosen the tight collar of her blouse, and join their rehearsal.
The finale, a Risley act in which Ted lay on his back and tossed and twirled his two younger brothers in the air using only his raised feet, thrilled Lillian the most. She sat with her fingers pressed to her mouth to muffle her gasps of amazement. The performance ended with the boys turning perfect somersaults before landing back on their elder brother’s feet. Lillian leapt up to applaud then realised she was late for work, but Ted had seen her. He bowed and waved as she dashed out.
‘Hurry up with polishing them glasses, girl. There’s customers want serving.’ The landlord’s reprimand snapped Lillian out of her daydream. More than anything she wanted to trade the stale-beer smell of the pub for the magic of the theatre, but she’d tried her luck and Ted Faust had just laughed at her. You fool, Lillian, she scolded herself. By the time she returned with his second whisky Lillian had convinced herself that she wasn’t going to amount to anything more than being a barmaid for the rest of her life.
But to her delighted surprise, Ted had mulled over her plea. ‘We came to the Antipodes in 1883 touring with Chiarini’s Circus,’ he told her. ‘Our Faust Family comes and goes, but I’ve got a wife and two young children to support. Managing and performing is exhausting, so I need to recruit some outside acts. I need to come up with something fresh, more daring. Otherwise …’ He shrugged, then leaned forward to grasp her hand and murmured, ‘Let’s see what you can do, Miss Freitas.’
Lillian swallowed down the excited squeal that threatened to escape from her throat. ‘Freitas? But that’s not—’
‘There’s luck in a new name, Miss Freitas.’
Lillian realised, with a sudden lurch of her heart, that the idea of an alias thrilled her even more than the prospect of the stage. The deceit of it, an acceptable lie — an escape. It felt almost like falling. ‘Freitas. It has an exotic sound,’ she said.
‘Portuguese, I think.’ Ted folded his arms and tilted his chair back, balancing it on two legs as if it were the most natural position in the world. ‘Why don’t you come and see me backstage? Tomorrow afternoon at two, Miss Freitas.’
‘Miss — um — Gladys — yes — Miss Gladys Freitas will be very glad to accept your invitation,’ she said with a wide smile.
On the train home to Marrickville, Lillian worried about the risk of meeting with Ted by herself. What if his approach is only the whisky talking? Does he have other designs on me? But then again, it could be a genuine offer. She had to take the chance. She hurried home down the shadowed streets until she reached their rented bungalow.
The ornamental nameplate, Langley, held by one last screw, tilted downwards on the veranda bracket below the guttering. Lillian sat down on the step to unlace her boots. She slipped a tin of Yankee Doodle cigarettes from her pocket that a customer with more style than sense had left on the bar. Her eyes narrowed against the flare of the match. She didn’t give a fig if her mother caught her smoking. She massaged her aching feet. Let her try working in a pub.
‘You’ll never guess what happened tonight,’ Lillian whispered to her younger sister, Ruby, as she slipped into bed. ‘Ruby, are you awake?’
‘Am now,’ Ruby mumbled. ‘What?’
‘I have an audition.’ Lillian sat hugging her knees. ‘At the Haymarket Music Hall. On the trapeze.’
‘Tomorrow afternoon. But don’t tell Ma.’
Ruby sighed, and turned over on her side, muttering something indecipherable. From the gentle rhythm of her breathing Lillian realised she’d gone back to sleep.
The next day Lillian invented an excuse for her mother about the hotel’s housemaid being dismissed, to account for her early start. A short walk from Redfern Station took her to the rough end of George Street. She detoured to admire the latest hats and bonnets from Paris in the showcase at Anthony Horden’s. One chic hat of white velvet with a moss-green lining and trimmed with a plume of ostrich feathers and green ribbons caught her eye. She sighed. The price was well beyond her means.
She found Ted Faust upstairs in the property room, sorting through a sheaf of bills and receipts. ‘Ah, right on time. Good. Let’s get started,’ he said.
Lillian, thankful he hadn’t forgotten their appointment, stood with her hands clasped together while he rummaged in the wardrobe. He held out a blue satin costume that would leave Lillian’s legs bare.
Lillian gulped. ‘I can’t wear that. What would my mother say?’
‘In my experience, mothers are best not informed of their daughters’ theatrical aspirations until after opening night. Come now, no false modesty,’ Ted said, with a pained expression. ‘It’s your legs they’ll want to see, more than your talent on the trapeze.’
‘Oh.’ Lillian fingered the cool, sleek satin. She wasn’t sure if she felt relief, embarrassment, or a splinter of disappointment at his businesslike manner. She took a deep breath and pictured the rapt faces of the audience gazing up at her. It can’t be any worse than serving tables at the pub. She hurriedly changed into the costume in the cramped dressing-room next door, then followed Ted downstairs.
Lillian began slowly, swinging back and forth with her hips responding to the movement as she discovered the rhythm of the trapeze. She thought of how her brother, Oswald, was forever daring her to match him in various escapades: climbing trees, sliding down banks, practising acrobatics on the rope swing above the creek. Once he’d challenged her to jump from the water tank, clutching the four corners of a tablecloth like a sail above her head. You can do this, you know you can.
Lillian swung herself up onto the bar. A cold sweat had gathered under her arms and trickled down her sides. She pushed every pose to its extreme, pointing her toes to make her legs appear longer, dangling from her knees, all the while trying to keep the momentum going.
Faust watched without expression, circling her several times before clapping his hands twice and calling, ‘Enough.’
Lillian dropped to the floor, a little more awkwardly than she would have liked. ‘I’m a bit out of practice, but I’m willing to work hard if you’ll just give me a try.’
Faust looked her up and down. ‘Unpin your hair, please,’ he said.
Lillian drew out the pins, letting her hair tumble down her back. She wished now that she’d brought Ruby with her, but how to explain that to Ma?
‘Best if you cut it short. As we agreed last night, Miss Freitas, you have to take risks. Fortune favours the brave. And you’ll need to purchase some flesh-coloured hose for ease of movement. Your training will begin next week. I charge one shilling per session.’
Lillian gasped. ‘But I thought—’
‘First lesson. I’m running a business, not a charity, my girl.’
‘Lillian, what are you doing?’ Ruby cried when Lillian sat down in front of the mirror and cut off the first hank of her unruly curls.
‘Keep your voice down.’ Lillian waggled the scissors at Ruby. ‘Help me cut my hair short. If you do it, then I won’t end up looking like a scarecrow.’
‘But what’ll Ma say?’
Lillian didn’t answer. Everyone complimented Ruby’s auburn hair, round face and sweet expression and overlooked Lillian’s more sharp-chinned, determined features. Cutting her hair would only reinforce her tomboy reputation. She lifted another handful of hair and held the scissors poised ready.
‘Stop. I’ll do it, but don’t you tell Ma it was me.’
‘Fair enough. But don’t you tell her about the trapeze.’
‘Oh, so they’ve taken you on then?’ Ruby said as the scissors went snip, snip.
Lillian began training each afternoon before the show opened. Ted Faust was a hard taskmaster, and by the evening as she endured the leers, remarks and wandering hands of the hotel customers her muscles throbbed, and her hands tingled from gripping the trapeze. She could hardly carry a tray of glasses.
‘Make every move look effortless. The most beautiful positions hurt the most,’ Ted drilled as he paced to and fro below her.
Lillian struggled to understand his instructions but when he demonstrated the moves it looked so easy. She felt clumsy and gauche yet refused to give up. He wasn’t going to make her cry.
After weeks of practice Lillian thought her ungainly attempts were less awkward, until Ted said, ‘Anyone can do the exercises — now you must learn to do them with grace and style,’ she couldn’t hold back her tears of frustration.
‘Look at my hands,’ she wept. ‘They’re all red and cracked.’ She stamped her foot and Faust raised a warning eyebrow.
‘Aerial dancers have the ugliest hands and feet. You need those calluses.’ He tilted her chin up with his finger, and she glared at him. ‘Come, Miss Freitas, this may do the trick.’ He took a coin from his waistcoat pocket and held it up. ‘Place this sovereign between your ankles and try to swing without dropping it. If you succeed, at the end of this session it’s yours to keep.’
Lillian hoisted her aching limbs once more onto the trapeze.
‘Listen to the wind in your ears, Miss Freitas. At the top of the swing it stops, and there’s stillness. Immerse yourself in the moment. Keep your body taut, legs straight. Yes, that’s better. Smile. Point your toes. Swing proud, head up. Arch your back. Good.’
Lillian relaxed. The hard-won word of praise made her forget the coin and it fell, spinning, into Faust’s outstretched hand. ‘Hey, that’s mine,’ she yelled.
‘Finders keepers.’ Ted grinned and slipped the sovereign back into his pocket.
She needed that sovereign. Her mother, suspicious that Lillian’s increased hours hadn’t amounted to more wages, had threatened to pay a visit to the Merc. ‘All that extra skivvying for nothing and cutting your hair — just so you can keep your job? It don’t seem right to me,’ her mother had grumbled. Lillian kept her hands hidden behind her back and said she would ask the publican again — a promise she’d no intention of keeping as her weariness had already provoked threats of dismissal.
Ted showed Lillian how to use Friar’s Balsam to toughen the skin, stop infections and improve her grip. He held her wrist and poured the brown, sticky mixture on her palm. Lillian winced as it bubbled and sealed itself with a powdery white bloom. The pain was fierce but part of his challenge. Sometimes she thought he enjoyed watching her suffer.
‘Remember, Miss Freitas,’ he called up to her on the trapeze, ‘the audience will react and pay more attention if you pretend to slip and recover. It provides that little frisson of danger that they so crave.’
Is he never satisfied? Gritting her teeth, Lillian reached the high point of the swing and twisted sideways on the bar with one leg pointing straight across, and bent the other leg around the rope, hooking it behind her knee. Releasing her hands, she leaned back so her body hung down below the bar — arms outstretched, like a gazelle suspended high in mid-leap. Then she flicked her knee free and dropped headfirst. Only at the very last second did her ankles catch on the ropes at either side of the bar.
Ted let out a yelp of delight. ‘You’ve got it, Gladys,’ he crowed. ‘Now, don’t just dangle — fly!’
‘I reckon that’s worth another sovereign,’ Lillian called as she swung past him upside down. She was a bird, an angel. She had the world at her feet.