Obsessed with Male Impersonator Nellie Kolle

Photo Obsession: A 1920s photograph of a Australian vaudeville performer who specialized in male impersonation roles, sparks a minor obsession to find out more about her.

Nellie Kolle as a Swaggie (Photo Credit: State Library of New South Wales/flickr commons)
Title: Nellie Kolle as a Swaggie
Photo Credit:  State Library of New South Wales/flickr commons

While browsing the State Library of New South Wales flickr commons galleries recently I came across a photograph that has become a bit of a minor obsession of mine. Part of the obsession is that I find it a striking photograph. Another part is that is that I find it fascinating that this woman made a career out of male impersonation. And thirdly, I find that yet again a possibly fascinating piece of history is either lost or obscured. Who was this woman? What was her career like? What was her life like? Did she have lovers? Did she have a husband? Family perhaps? Was cross-dressing merely an act or did she also carry that into life off stage? Was she a lesbian? Regardless of the answers, Nellie Kolle has captured my interest of late. After going through a number of advertisements, press mentions, and song books, it would appear that although Nellie wasn’t always playing the male part she was clearly identified as being best known as a male impersonator and a popular one at that.

Here’s what little I’ve been able to discover about Nellie Kolle:

The Information from the State Library file:

The notes from the State Library of New South Wales is scant however they did note that the photograph of Nellie Kolle as a Swaggie, was created before 1924 and that the photographer’s name is unknown. They also noted that Nellie Kolle made a career of ‘trouser roles’ in vaudeville and playing principal boys in pantomimes. There’s not much else in the way that was useful except that the photo was filed under the title, “composer”, (in addition to other tags/titles such as “cross dresser”, “singers” etc.).

A Search Through Other Archives:

According to AustLit: Nellie Kolle was born in England in 1892, her birth name being, Nellie Frances Colley; she arrived in Australia in 1912. They also note: “English-born variety performer. A specialist singer/male impersonator (including principal boy roles in pantomime), pianist, and descriptive vocalist, Nellie Kolle first toured Australia in 1912 for the Brennan-Fuller organisation and returned on several occasions over the next few years before settling in the country on a more permanent basis. Kolle was associated with a number of other managements during her early tours of Australia, including J. C. Bain (q.v.), Dix-Baker (q.v., Newcastle)." They also mention that she made a guest appearance with Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company during its 1917 Melbourne season.

AusStage gives Nellie Kolle’s date of birth as 1891 in England and her date of death as July, 5, 1971 in Adelaide, South Australia. They list her date of coming to Australia as 1914, however a search of newspaper archives clearly have her performing in Australia in 1912. According to AusStage, her last performance was on July 5, 1967 at Olde King's Music Hall Restaurant, Adelaide, SA; making her 76 or 77 years-old when she last trod the boards. (I can’t help but wonder if she played a male role for those performances too.)

A Few of the Newspaper Mentions:

The Ashburton Guardian for January 3, 1912, writing about an upcoming appearance of Brennan’s Entertainers at the Theatre Royal, noted that “Nellie Kolle, the male impersonator, described as ‘the girl who reaches your heart’ with the entrancing melody of her beautiful voice, will appear in character songs written specially for her.”

The Evening Post wrote on September 10, 1918, in an article titled “His Majesty's Theatre.” said: “A crowded audience witnessed the change of vaudeville at His Majesty's last Night. Several newcomers received warm welcomes, and Miss Nellie Kolle, the favourite male impersonator, had a flattering reception, being recalled again and again for her vivacious chorus and songs.”

The Sydney Morning Herald on December 7, 1931, writing about the performance of Frank Neil's Vaudeville entertainment at the Roxy Theatre noted that "Nellie Kolle, appearing in the garb of a naval officer, proved tremendously popular, and sang a number of catchy songs with pleasing spontaneity.”

Songs Associated With Nellie Kolle:

The National Library of Australia Digital Collection has a number of songbooks online featuring songs that Nellie sang, including a few that she wrote herself. The following is a selection of those songs. Oddly enough, the songs that one would associate with swagmen don’t use any photo of Nellie as a swaggie.

- One for the road (Words & music by Nellie Kolle and Maurice Guttridge) 1939 (4 pages) -- "Featured by Nellie Kolle in Popular Plays Pty. Ltd. pantomime Sinbad the sailor"

- I'm going right back home [music] / words and music by Jack Rollett (1922?) -- "Sung with great success by Nellie Kolle in Little Red Riding Hood pantomime". "A big hit in Fuller's Xmas pantomime".

- While the billy boils [music] : on the old camp fire / words by Tom Kelly ; music by Felix Le Roy (191-?)

- The old bush shack [music] : song / arr. by Charles Ryder ; words and music by Henry A. Forsyth [192-?] "Featured with phenomenal success by Miss Nellie Kolle"

- The boys of Australia's little navy [music] / lyrics by John E. Nugent ; composed by Joe Slater [between 1914 and 1918] - Sung with enormous success by Nellie Kolle and Ern Delavale.

- Shepherd of the hills [music] : fox-trot ballad / music by Horatio Nicholls ; words by Edgar Leslie (1927) Portrait of singer Nellie Kolle on cover.

- Omeo [music] : (my home sweet home-e-o) novelty fox trot song / words and music by Billy Lewis (c1923) "Sung with great success by Miss Nellie Kolle in Sir Ben. & John Fuller's gorgeous pantomime 'Dick Whittington' at the Majestic Theatre, Newtown, Sydney".

- Where are the lads of Australia to-night? [music] / written by R.P. Weston ; Australian version by P.C. Cole; composed by Hermann E. Darewski (c1914) -- Cover bears port. of Nellie Kolle.

- We are proud of our ANZAC heroes [music] : march & song / written and composed by Vickie Delso; arranged by Herbert K. West -- "Sung with immense success by Nellie Kolle in Fuller's Christmas Pantomime 'The Bunyip'. (1916)

Concluding Remarks:

Of what else is known about Nellie Kolle and her career I don’t know. It’s possible that there’s more information on her buried in Australian archives but at this point I’m unable to find/access that information. If anyone has any information about her that’s publicly available that they can point me to, I’d love to find out more.