1872 - 1927
Here at IBY we received an e-mail from Rich Taylor who had discovered a photograph on our site showing his Grandfather, the musical comedy & pantomime star Dan Rolyat.
Rich put us in touch with Dan Rolyat's son- also named Dan who now lives in America, and has very kindly given us information on his father's life and career, but also a fascinating story of his own life growing up in the Actor's Orphanage after the untimely death of his father. Here's the story of Dan Rolyat.
Dan Rolyat was born Alfred Herbert Taylor in Birmingham on 11th November 1872. His stage name was created by spelling his actual name “Taylor” backwards- his interest in wordplay resulted in his daughter Yettey, which is spelled both backwards and forwards. He may have taken the first name “Dan” for the stage from Dan Leno.
Rolyat was the acrobatic comedy star of several early 20th century musicals and pantomimes.
The son of Thomas Taylor, described as “Private Gentleman” in the 1916 “Who’s Who of Theatre”, he was educated at Queen’s College, Birmingham.
Dan Rolyat made his first stage appearance at Coutts’ Theatre Birmingham in 1896, aged twenty-four. He toured the country extensively in “From Scotland Yard” and “Sentenced for Life” before joining George Edwardes’s company.
George Edwardes, the Theatrical Manager had been sole manager of the “Gaiety” Theatre in London, producing countless musical comedies, and built “Daly’s” Theatre for Augustin Daly, later running the “Adelphi Theatre,” and managing at various times the “Duke of Yorks”, The “Garrick”, “Opera Comique”, “Criterion” and “Hicks” Theatres. He died in 1915.
Rolyat’s first job for Edwardes was in the lead comedy role of Sammy Gigg in Teddy Payne’s “The Toreador”. For some time he was employed with Fred Karno’s Company, playing Sergeant Lightning in “The Dandy Thieves”.
Fred Karno was a comedian, author and manager. Born in 1866 he first appeared as one of the Karno Trio of acrobats, but made his mark by creating a sketch production on a larger scale than had been seen before. His sketches achieved great acclaim in the Music Halls- “The Dandy Thieves” was one of a number of popular sketches that included “Hot and Cold”, “Jail Birds” and “The Hydro”. Among the many to become famous after working for his management was Charles Chaplin. It was with Karno that he first sketched out the “Little Tramp” character that was to achieve his Hollywood fame.
In 1903 Rolyat appeared in pantomime in Liverpool for the Robert Courtneidge company.
After leaving the Karno company, Dan Rolyat appeared in the variety theatres, gaining great success in “It was only a Friendly (?) Game”. His first appearance in London was at the Apollo Theatre for Robert Courtneidge on April 14th 1906 as Joe Mivins in “The Dairymaids” The cast also included Phyllis Dare and Dorothy Ward.. He often referred to this as his favourite part in all the numerous parts he had played in later life. He was thereafter to work for Courtneidge for most of his professional life.
Dan Rolyat’s son, also called Dan recently forwarded me a letter dated 1954 from W. Macqueen-Pope. McQueen-Pope wrote many books on theatre history and his memories of working in the West End at this time, and had been contacted for information on Rolyat’s life by his son. In this letter he included Robert Courtneidge’s memories, in his own words, of working with him.
“Dan Rolyat, a Birmingham lad, whom I have seen in a small drama company, and kept under engagement until I could give him a fitting opportunity to display his talents in London, made his first appearance in the West End and established himself at once as a comedian of the front rank.
Exceptionally powerful and able to perform the most startling acrobatic feats, he had also a great sense of humour, an ingratiating appearance and manner, and an extraordinary patience in rehearsing, so that at all times, except once, whatever he did upon the stage was so accurately timed, so polished by continuous practice, that the smallest point on a first night was scored with the ease that comes after a hundred performances.
I think of all the well-known actors I have rehearsed in musical plays, those who have taken the most pains to prepare their foundations, whilst improving freely at performances, are G.P Huntley, Jack Hulbert, W.H.Barry and Dan Rolyat. None of them ever left anything to chance and the time they claimed for rehearsal tried ever my patience”
During this play he was to suffer the first of two accidents on stage. During “The Dairymaids” Rolyat suffered a bad fall, from a chandelier hanging high above the set. Being an acrobatic comedy actor , his physicality on stage was of great importance to him. The Karno training had increased it’s importance to him, and the accidents were a set-back to his desire to give the perfect performance. His first pantomime, for Courtneidge, was as The Baron in Cinderella at the Kings Theatre, Edinburgh in 1906 with Phyllis Dare and Dorothy Ward.
He achieved almost overnight success in this role, and at the same theatre a year later he played the pattering Barber, Benjamin Partridge in “Tom Jones”. This production was also for Courtneidge.- opening on 17th April 1907.The cast included the Australian Carrie Moore, who enjoyed a long career as Principal boy in pantomime and Haydn Coffin as Tom Jones. Courtneidge said of his performance:
“Rolyat as “Partridge” was very funny but lacking in a sense of character of the period”. McQueen-Pope recalls that he had several of his “gags” cut,” but Rolyat atoned for it. And as he could sing well, shone in the rendering of the music of Edward German, especially in the concerted numbers. This is undoubtedly the “one occasion” to which Courtneidge referred” (see above)
In 1907, in his home town of Birmingham, Pantomime beckoned at the Theatre Royal as The Baron in “Cinderella” (For Courtneidge). Shortly after the end of the pantomime run he revived his role in “The Dairymaids” at the Adelphi Theatre. His next pantomime- as Archibald, Baron Lackland in “Cinderella” followed at the Adelphi Theatre in 1908.- as always the pantomime was produced by Courtneidge. It was in this pantomime that Mabel Russell had a big hit singing “I’m afraid to go home in the dark”.
Mabel Russell was eventually to become Member of Parliament for Berwick-on-Tweed!
Following the run he began work on “The Arcadians”, also at the Shaftesbury, opening on the 28th of April 1909 as John Smith, the comical hero alias Simplicitas. This show was to have a successful run. It featured Cicely Courtneidge (sister of the producer) and Phyllis Dare. The Producer Robert Courtneidge devised an ingenious racing scene, and a pastiche of popular fashions of the day- “The Hobble Skirt”, and “The Divided” skirt being two examples. Because of the long run of the play the fashions were constantly being updated.
Rolyat was to remain at the Shaftesbury for a further production, this time in the role of Suki in “The Mouseme”. This production also starred Nelson Keyes. The “Mouseme” was a Japanese play with an astonishing earthquake scene - the scenic effects took two years to perfect. Rolyat was joined by his fellow actors from “The Arcadians”, Lionel Monckton, Howard Talbot and Arthur Wimperis, and by Florence Smithson and Cicely Courtneidge. The production was not a success - it lost the producer, Courtneidge £20,000 in 1912, and destroyed his confidence in large scale productions. He did however recover his fortunes with other ventures, including pantomimes.
Click on image to enlarge.
After the production finished in 1912 he once again appeared in “The Arcadians” on tour, but suffered a severe accident. This resulted in him being off the stage until the following year. Rolyat rode “The Deuce” in the memorable scene recreating the race for the Ascot gold cup. During this tour in Newcastle, he fell from the racehorse on stage (and some say he was also kicked by it) injuring his back so severely that he could never dance or tumble again. Rolyat was off work for almost a year recovering, nursed by his wife Florence Smithson,. but, it has to be said that he never truly recovered, and that his career was never to be the same. Florence and Dan separated, and later both remarried.
In September 1913 he toured for Courtneidge as Prince Bogumil in “Princess Caprice” He returned to London to appear at the Prince Of Wales Theatre in October 1914 in the role of the professionally unemployed Simon Slinks in a revival of “Miss Hook of Holland”.
Returning to the variety theatres he toured throughout 1915 in “The Ghost And The Girl”, and returned to Pantomime in Birmingham, Glasgow (The Grand Theatre) and Manchester several times, frequently working for Robert Courtneidge in various productions.
Between 1916 and 1921 Dan Rolyat returned to the variety theatres, and his latter days were spent touring in sketches in theatres around the country. Dan Rolyat died on December 10th, 1927.
Dan Rolyat married three times. His first marriage was to the actress Florence Smithson, (mar. dis) and his second to Constance Worth. He then married Maira Morgan.
Florence Smithson-“The Nightingale of Wales”- was born in Leicester in 1884, the daughter of a Welsh provincial theatre manager. Her father put her in a provincial pantomime at the age of three.
As an actress and a very fine singer, she too had been engaged by Robert Courtneidge, who had discovered her, and made her first appearance in London at The Lyric Theatre in 1905 She had a great success as Chandra Nil in “The Blue Moon”.
Florence appeared alongside Dan Rolyat in “The Dairymaids” at the Apollo Theatre in 1906 as Helene, and again in “Tom Jones” at the Shaftesbury in 1909, and with Rolyat in “The Arcadians” and “The Mouseme”.
She appeared as Principal Girl at Drury Lane Theatre in the pantomime “Sleeping Beauty” as Princess Marcella in 1912.- a role she reprised two years later, again at Drury Lane in “Sleeping Beauty Re-Awakened”. Florence played “Cinderella”, the Princess in “Puss In Boots” and “Puss in New Boots” and Joy in “Babes In The Wood”. She was a renowned singer, her voice having “An exceptional top note of great purity”
In “Winkles & Champagne” the author M. Willson Disher describes her- “She took with her the glamour of “once upon a time” on her variety tours round the world. She had a doll-like face and figure, and her top notes and trills seemed to come from some pretty singing toy.”
In “Winkles & Champagne” (1938) Willson Disher recalls that after Dan Rolyat and Florence Smithson separated “She never forgot him. He returned to the stage (after his severe accident) and was successful for a time, before he became ill, and then she helped to raise subscriptions for him until his death in 1927”
Florence Smithson died in 1936, three years short of celebrating the Golden Jubilee of her career.
On the death of Dan Rolyat in 1927 aged fifty-five, he left three children- From his marriage to Florence Smithson he had a daughter, Joy, and Yettey aged five years old and her brother Dan who was only a few months old Yettey and Dan were sent to live with their Aunt for a few years and then, when Dan was aged five years old, they went to live in The Actors Orphanage.
The “Actors Orphanage” was located in Langley, Buckinghamshire, and then in 1938 they were relocated to the new site of the Orphanage “Silverlands” at Chertsey. The Actors Orphanage served both the theatrical and film professions. It’s president was Noel Coward, and it’s vice presidents included Sir Laurence Olivier and Ivor Novello.
The two children remained there until 1940, by which time Dan was 14. On the outbreak of World War Two, with the Blitz threatening London, Dan was evacuated to the United States, while Yettey, now aged nineteen remained in England.- she had graduated and joined the W.A.A.F.S and was engaged in the war effort.
Dan Rolyat was buried at Rowan Park Cemetery in Streatham, in an unmarked grave. In 1996 his Grandson, Rich Taylor had a black marble engraved stone erected. He discovered that Dan Rolyat’s third wife- Maira- his Grandmother was also buried there alongside her husband, and along with his brother Rich brought Dan Rolyat’s son Dan (their Father) to visit his parents’ grave in 1999.
from The Stage 15th Dec 1927
Dan Taylor lived in New York with his wife Marianne. He was eighty years of age and sadly died on the 27th December 2006.
His self-penned article “How Lucky Can You Get?” is included here - in which Dan recalls his years at the Actors Orphanage, and his life and career in America, working for CBS Television Network.
Co-incidence played a part several times in Dan’s quest to find out more about his father- he recalls the incidence in 1954 which led to the letter sent to him by W. Macqueen-Pope quoted earlier:
“My wife met Mr Wadsworth by chance on a visit to England with a friend in 1954. Marianne and I were “dating” at the time, and she mentioned that her friend (Dan) was searching for more information on his father, Dan Rolyat.
Mr Wadsworth said that he never missed (seeing) him in “The Arcadians” and the other productions in which he starred, and would put me in touch with his good friend McQueen Pope, a leading historian of the English theatre at that time..”
5-6 Coventry Street
14th May 1954
Dear Mr Taylor
Thanks for yours of the 11th inst just to hand. I will do what I can to find some other pictures of your father but they are very scarce. I will keep my eyes open for them and anything which turns up you shall have. There is no agency which deals in such things and my own collection of things of the theatre is about the best in the world.
The great trouble is that the period in which your father appeared, of which I had a unique collection of bills, programmes and pictures, is nowadays almost extinct. My main treasures of that period were destroyed in the Blitz- I had not removed them from London and was just about to do so when they were destroyed- and the very next night, the studios and store rooms of the Stage Photo Co, who took all the pictures of all the plays, was destroyed by bomb and fire also. So there is a bad gap which I can only fill partially.
I am sending you therewith programmes of “The Dairymaids” and “The Arcadians” which you might like to have. I have only one copy of the Cinderella Pantomime and Tom Jones, which I must retain. But I may find spares and may even discover an odd “Play Pictorial” or so which will help.
You have every reason to be proud of your father. He was no failure through his own fault or in his art. He never did any harm in this world and he did much good. His memory is cherished by those who knew-and saw-him.
With kind regards
Dan Taylor recalled in a letter to me how “Peter Pan” brought him face to face with an actor who knew his father’s work well-
“I spent my working days with the CBS Television Network in their program promotion department, writing and producing promotional on-air trailers for the network programs and supplying them to our affiliates across the country for local play.
One day we were shooting some spots for “Peter Pan”, starring the English actor Cyril Richard. During a break between takes, we were chatting and talking about England, and he mentioned he had seen my father in several productions, including the one (The Arcadians) in which my father had suffered his bad accident, being thrown from a horse. Mr Richard got quite graphic about it. I’ll always remember our little chat…”
The Recordings of Dan Rolyat
We are very grateful to Richard Duployen for correcting our information on the recordings available
There are very few recordings of Dan Rolyat. The only one on record being “The Mousme” from 1911 has Dan Rolyat singing “In Toki-oki-o” HMV 4-2159
There were no recordings of “The Dairymaids” and whilst there are recordings of Florence in The Arcadians, these do not feature Dan Rolyat.
From the shows that Dan Rolyat and Florence Smithson appeared in, Florence made several recordings:
1907 “Tom Jones”. Florence recorded “For Tonight”. HMV 3917
1909.”The Arcadians”. Florence Smithson:
“Pipes of Pan” and “Arcady is ever young” Columbia 542
“Come back to Arcady” and “Light is my Heart” Columbia 543
1911 “The Mousme”: “I knew nothing of Life” HMV 3893
“Little Flower of Japan” HMV (rej)
“My Samisen” HMV HMV 02353
This page was last updated 6th April 2014