Florence Bell’s father James Bell, also known as ‘James Wallace’ and ‘Professor Wallace’, was a professional entertainer in and around Sydney in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. In her interview Florence recalls her father’s working life – magician, juggler, occasional stuntman for cinema – family life with his larger-than-life character, the many other prominent showbusiness personalities with whom her father was acquainted and her own brief career entertaining children in their homes. In the excerpt below Florence remembers her father’s introduction to children’s entertainment in Sydney department stores in the 1930s.
Up to this stage there had been no children’s entertaining in the stores at Christmas. He had this bright idea so he went into Mark Foy’s [department store] – the population was smaller; people knew everybody – and he approached the Foys. He gave them this idea that “Why don’t you have entertainment in the stores during the Christmas holidays?” Now, you must appreciate that the Christmas holidays were a big thing because you had Christmas Day, and then [on] Boxing Day the pantomime opened at the Tivoli Theatre and it went on for six weeks, not like now. And they were pantomimes; they were beautifully staged – my brother was in them on the Tivoli – and they lasted for six weeks because there was no other entertaining, not like today where there’s so many facets of entertaining. However, he went to Mark Foy and he put the idea to him and they thought that was pretty good. But Mark Foy – one of them – there were many Mark Foys, it was a family of Foys – anyway, one of the Foys who ran the Mark Foy’s in town, he was a frustrated magician and he said to my father, well he said, “Yes”, he said, “but can you teach me a couple of tricks?” Well, father didn’t particularly want to teach him any tricks because you don’t teach people tricks outside the [magician’s] circle. However, they used to make an appointment, and my father would go along up to the secretary at Mark Foy and say to Mr Mark Foy’s secretary, “Mr Wallace, ten o’clock”, and Foy’d come out and they’d go in, close the door and my father taught him a few tricks. My mother had to go in and pick up the contract and she said she bought a special edge-to-edge coat [front pieces of coat meet without overlapping] to pick up the contract. And from there, entertaining started throughout, then I think Anthony Hordern’s [department store] picked it up; Farmers [department store] and I think they used to have fairy castles; there was a lot of entertainment during the school holidays in the stores.