Drama on stage and off

The posters only tell half the story, writes Peter Read.

Researching the stories behind the lithographs in Toitu Otago Settlers Museum’s Sketched in Stone  exhibition has been a lot of fun. The lives of some of the late 19th- and early 20th-century entertainers promoted in the posters have proven to be as colourful as the prints themselves.  One such colourful character was Edmund "Monty" Montgomery. Monty was one of the pioneers of travelling motion picture shows in New Zealand, adopting new cinematograph technology as part of his vaudeville act.  His troupe began screening film clips and performing comic sketches and songs for audiences throughout the country from the late 1890s.

One of the posters on show in the Sketched in Stone exhibition gives some insight into the repertoire of film clips at Monty’s disposal.  The clips included newly acquired footage of pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont operating his prize-winning dirigible; views of Coney Island’s world-famous Flip-Flap Railway (roller coaster); and performances by popular entertainers the likes of acrobatic troupe The Craggs and Cuban contortionist Rosie Aquinaldo.

Wellington soprano Miss Harriet Elizabeth "Ettie" Hargood joined Monty’s roving band of players for their 1903 nationwide tour.  In April, on the Dunedin leg of the tour, Ettie and Monty were married. Soon the happy couple had started a family, with the first of two sons being born about 1904.  Monty’s fortunes later took a turn for the worse, however. At the end of 1909 his cinematograph equipment was allegedly stolen in Pahiatua. Then Monty and Ettie were allegedly robbed of about £80 in cash while they slept in a Martinborough hotel room. 

When Monty began keeping all the takings, leaving Ettie with nothing, she went to live with her father (the two boys had already been sent away some months earlier). 

A poor opening night performance in June 1910 saw Monty’s rather small audience clamouring for a refund.  Subsequent shows were cancelled. 

The following month the courts delivered Monty yet another blow, granting Ettie a separation order, awarding her custody of the boys and ordering Monty to pay maintenance to the tune of 30 shillings per week.  Divorce was clearly on the horizon as Monty also admitted to having committed adultery. 

Before long he was in yet more hot water. He had been found intoxicated, dossing in a doorway in Wellington’s Willis St. The judge declared him to be a habitual drunk (it was his fourth conviction for drunkenness), slapped a prohibition order on him and gave him a month’s jail time. 

The final curtain fell on the tragic drama of Monty and Ettie when in 1913 the Supreme Court issued a decree for the dissolution of their unhappy marriage.

- Peter Read is a curator at  Toitu Otago Settlers Museum.

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