Luscombe Searelle

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Luscombe Searelle (1860-1907)[1] was an actor, singer, dramatist, composer, conductor and manager, who had quite an impact on South African theatre during the late 19th century.


Born in Devon, England, he was brought up in New Zealand, where he attended Christ's College, Christchurch. He initially worked as a pianist in Christchurch and graduated to conductor, also singing writing an composing.

His first comic opera, The Wreck of the Pinafore was produced at the Gaiety Theatre in London when he was twenty-two years of age and was followed by the popular Estrella (1884) and Bobadil (1884). By 1886, in spite of favourable criticism, Searelle was bankrupt and then turned his sights to South Africa's newly discovered gold fields.

He first came to South Africa in 1887 with an Australian Opera Company and which put on several operas in Cape Town, including three of Searelle’s own compositions: Bobadil, Estrella and Isadora and returned to the country with his wife, Blanche Fenton, her sister Amy Fenton and his own operatic company in 1889, constructing a portable “Theatre Royal” in Johannesburg for his first season there.

Searelle ended up staying in South Africa for ten years and in that time built and managed a variety of theatres and theatrical companies and brought out various artistes and companies to perform in the country. In addition, he undertook a variety of other speculative projects. For example he bought a coal mine that yielded no coal, prospected for tin in Swaziland, with little success and fought with the Boers during the early years of the Anglo-Boer War.

Searelle was never financially successful, for despite his genius and sporadic successes, he was dogged throughout his life with litigation and debt, and was finally hounded out of Johannesburg in 1898.

His comic opera Bobadil was staged in the USA in 1905, but he lost all his money to his backers, and ended up destitute, selling dusters from door to door, sleeping on benches on occasion and writing occasional poems.

Eventually Ella Wheeler Wilcox read his poetry and together they wrote opera Mizpah, based on the biblical story of Esther (1904-5). It was put on in San Francisco but by then Searelle was too ill; dying of cancer, he could only view its success from a wheel-chair. After its premiere he was wheeled before the audience to receive his ovation. Inspired he rushed to England to stage it there but by now he was too ill and died on 18 December 1907 aged 54 before he could begin negotiations.

Searelle's contribution to theatre in South Africa

Searelle started out as performer and producer of plays, but soon became a prominent impressario, bringing out companies and individual artists to perform opera, plays, and individual acts under his auspices. Beginning with opera with the Searelle Opera Company , he began to concentrate more on stage plays and vaudeville from 1891 onwards, touring the country with what was generally referred to simply as the Searelle Company by journalists and the public. Besides the original name, the companies were later also billed under a variety of names, based on the focus of the particular repertoire. Among them are the Luscombe Searelle Theatre Company, the Searelle Theatre Company, the Luscombe Searelle Comedy Company, the Searelle Comedy Company or Luscombe Searelle's Star Variety Company, Searelle's Star Variety Company' or simply the Star Variety Company).

The Searelle Opera Company

Some sources say that Searelle first came to South Africa in 1887 with what was billed as an Australian Opera Company, under the management of the Wheeler Brothers. However, D.C. Boonzaier (1923) refers to it as the Searelle Opera Company and seems to suggest Searelle was the leader of the small company, though definitely at the time under the management of The Wheelers, and that he was accompanied by his wife, Blanche Fenton, her sister Amy Fenton, Vernon Reid and Paul D'Arcy. They apparently utilised operatic performers from the Wheeler Company to fill out the rest of the cast. The Wheelers' regular chorus master at the time was Henry Harper. They appeared in the Theatre Royal, Burg Street, Cape Town with a season of musical comedies and operas, opening with Maritana (Dumanoir and d'Ennery) in June, playing for eight months with a repertoire that further included The Bohemian Girl (Bunn and Balfe), La Mascotte (Audran), Il Trovatore (Verdi), Girofle-Girofla and La Fille de Madame Angot (both by Lecocq). The season also had three favourite pieces by Gilbert and Sullivan (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance), as well as three of Searelle's own compositions (Bobadil, Estrella and Isadora).

Searelle returned to the country in 1889 once more with his wife, Blanche Fenton and her sister Amy Fenton, but now with his own enlarged operatic company of seven members, for which he constructed a portable "Theatre Royal", made of corrugated iron, at the intersection of Eloff and Commissioner Streets in Johannesburg, to house his productions there - where they again opened with Maritana and followed this with basically the same repertoire as before, touring the major cities, including seasons in Pretoria and Cape Town.

The Luscombe Searelle Theatre Company

(Besides the original name, the companies were billed under a variety of names, over time, based on the focus of the particular repertoire, the names including the Luscombe Searelle Theatre Company, the Searelle Theatre Company, the Luscombe Searelle Comedy Company, the Searelle Comedy Company or Luscombe Searelle's Star Variety Company, Searelle's Star Variety Company' or simply the Star Variety Company).

In 1889 Searelle also began putting on straight theatre, bringing out the distinguished British comedian, Lionel Brough to South Africa, to tour with a company with a repertoire that included The Paper Chase (Thomas), She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith), Paul Pry (Jerrold), Modern Wives (Warren), Retiring (Williamson), Miriam's Crime (Craven), Yeoman's Service (Pemberton), Off Duty (Pemberton), No. 1 Round the Corner (Brough), Well Matched (Havard) and Our Flat (Musgrave). As the Theatre Royal, Cape Town, had burnt down in 1888, he was compelled to use the largely unsuitable Exhibition Theatre in Cape Town for this season, but the comedian and the company appeared to have been well received.

From 1891 he began to concentrate even more on stage plays and vaudeville rather than operas, touring the country with what was generally referred to as the Searelle Company by journalists and the public.

In 1891-2 he brought out two celebrities, the British stage actor W.H. Vernon and the world-renowned American-born opera singer and actress Genevieve Ward to tour South Africa for nine months, billed as the Geneviève Ward Company. They opened with Forget-me-Not (Merivale and Grove) in the Exhibition Hall, Cape Town, on 10 December, 1891, and went on to present an astounding series of 26 plays, sixteen in Johannesburg alone. The tour was to have encompassed all the major towns, but en route two of the company died and the tour was cut short. (For a list of the major plays done, see the entry the Geneviève Ward Company.)

According to D.C. Boonzaier (Bosman, 1980: p. 391), besides their many successes, Searelle and the The Wheelers were both apparently also associated with two "gigantic failures" in the 1891-1892 period, in Searelle's case an appearance in Cape Town by the Mammoth Minstrels at the Exhibition Theatre.

In the same period Searelle brought the partnership of Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter and the romantic lead Kyrle Bellew out from Australia. They toured South Africa under the billing of the Potter-Bellew Company, with a repertroire that included Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. (For more on the repertoire of the company, see the Potter-Bellew Company.) Sadly, their run in Cape Town was cut short when the Exhibition Theatre in Cape Town burned to the ground.

Bosman (1980: p. 403), citing Boonzaier (1923), mentions a production of The New Boy (Lumley) on the same year but has the name of the company as the Ernest Searelle Comedy Company. (This is almost assuredly a typing error by either one of the authors, for this company name does not appear at all in the index of Bosman's book.)

Luscombe Searelle's Star Variety Company

Searelle used the Vaudeville Theatre for productions put on under the auspices of the Luscombe Searelle's Star Variety Company after the loss of the Exhibition Theatre in 1892, and also put on pieces in the Good Hope Hall (e.g. pianist Milo Dayo in May of 1895). Boonzaier mentions at least twelve such productions by the Star Variety Company over the years, though not giving much details on most of them. Possibly also one of the company's "stars" was Miss Fortesque, whoappeared in The Passport (Stephenson and Yardley) at the new Opera House in Cape Town on 27 July, 1895, supported by a company that included Herbert Flemming.

Searelle's Theatre Royal

He constructed his own theatre (known as Searelle's Theatre Royal) in Johannesburg. The building, built using the best quality burnt bricks, had a frontage of 100 feet and was situated on plots 316, 317, 320 and 321, central Commissioner Street, Marshall's Town, Johannesburg. The building consisted of a theatre, shops, bar, tearooms, cafes and Searelle Chambers, as well as a barber, tobacconist and watchmaker's shops. There were also seven two-roomed offices with private toilets. Electric lights and water were supplied. Facing Fox Street were four semi-detached, double-storied houses, each containing five rooms, a kitchen, a pantry etc.

Due to the impresario's financial troubles, the theatre building was eventually put up for auction by Richard Currie's Sales on Tuesday, February 22, 1898, and Searelle left the country.


Eastern Province Herald, Friday, January 21, 1898.

D.C. Boonzaier, 1923. "My playgoing days – 30 years in the history of the Cape Town stage", in SA Review, 9 March and 24 August 1932. (Reprinted in Bosman 1980: pp. 374-439.)

F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: p. 403

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