This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Gladys Lillian Moncrieff (1892-1976), soprano, was born on 13 April 1892 at Bundaberg, Queensland, youngest child of Melbourne-born parents Reginald Edward Moncrieff, piano-tuner, and his wife Amy Lambell, née Wall, a professional singer. Gladys attended school at Maryborough, Bundaberg, and Townsville. At her stage début when 6 in the Queen's Theatre, Bundaberg, where she sang 'The merriest girl that's out', her accompanist father rewarded her encore with one shilling. At West End State School, Townsville, she sang roles in Gilbert and Sullivan works, which 'toured' to Charters Towers. She was successful in the junior soprano section of the Charters Towers annual eisteddfod.
After leaving school Gladys toured remote North Queensland with her family, using Cobb & Co. coaches, coastal boats and trains to entertain isolated audiences with moving pictures, music and lantern slides. She was billed as 'Little Gladys—The Australian Wonder Child'. In 1908 at Townsville she sang the soprano lead in The Messiah. A testimonial concert there in April 1909 raised funds for her to pursue a singing career in Brisbane, where she worked in picture theatres and on vaudeville stages (including Toowoomba) before accompanying her mother to Sydney for further experience.
In late 1911 she was auditioned in the presence of (Dame) Nellie Melba by Hugh Ward, managing director of J. C. Williamson Theatres, who gave her a three-year contract with an initial salary of £3 per week, increasing to £6. It was a kind of apprenticeship and included eighteen months of singing lessons from Madame Grace Miller, Ward's wife, a noted concert singer and teacher. After extensive chorus and understudy work Moncrieff sang in 1914 for Williamson's Australasian Gilbert and Sullivan season in a local chorus with English principals, graduating to Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore and other leading roles. The company performed in Sydney, New Zealand and Melbourne. Roles followed in The Geisha, The Quaker Girl, Forty Thieves and Florodora.
During 1915-16 Moncrieff was well received during a seven-month, Williamson-sponsored engagement in South Africa with an English company. She sang in The Merry Widow, The Pink Lady, Katinka and Maytime in Australia and New Zealand in 1918-19. Her first great theatrical success was as Teresa in The Maid of the Mountains at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on 2 January 1921. The Herald critic wrote: 'It was good to hear a crowded Australian audience acclaim the success of a slim, straight young Australian girl … It was a personal triumph in which hard work, talent and youth bore fine fruit'. The Argus commented on the 'richness and purity' of her voice, and said her acting 'had a quiet force in defiance, passion and tragedy'. Theatre magazine spoke of the 'snowy purity and velvet lusciousness of her voice'. Many critics noted her dark, attractive, gypsy-like beauty. Management doubled her salary to £50 a week. The show ran for twenty-seven weeks and Gladys attracted up to eighteen curtain-calls a time. The Australian season extended to more than two years. The Maid was to become the most frequently revived musical of the Australian stage and Moncrieff appeared in it some 2800 times.
On 20 May 1924 at St James' Church, Sydney, Gladys married Thomas Henry Moore, a member of the chorus in a revival of The Merry Widow, and subsequently her manager. Honeymooning in France and England, she made her first ten gramophone recordings for the Vocalion Company. By the mid-1920s Gladys had established herself as the leading performer of the musical comedy stage and, at £150 a week, as one of the highest-paid performers in the history of Australian theatre. At the peak of her success she sailed for London in January 1926 and took lessons from Anne Williams, a well-known Australian teacher who had coached protégées of Melba. Her English career was launched at the Gaiety Theatre in a new musical, Riki-Tiki. The show, however, was disliked for its poor libretto and closed within two weeks.
Failing to obtain a worthwhile role in another major musical comedy, Gladys eventually accepted the role of Blanka in Franz Lehar's The Blue Mazurka, which opened on 19 February 1927. 'Before the night concluded', wrote a reviewer, 'even the dullest critic must have realized that a new star of amazing brilliance had climbed above London's theatrical horizon'. The show ran for twenty-six weeks. In 1926-27 Moncrieff recorded thirty-seven titles with the Vocalion Co. Twelve performances used the acoustic (open horn) method, the others the new electrical process with a microphone. Exported to her homeland, these recordings sold extremely well.
Her marriage a failure, she began to live apart from her husband. Gladys was very homesick and returned to Australia to play the name-role in Rio Rita, a new musical staged by John Fuller. The show was an artistic triumph and commercial success for 'Australia's Queen of Song'. She continued to sing in revivals of musicals and undertook appearances in cinemas. Her first broadcast had been a test transmission in 1918. During the 1930s she extended her radio activities and undertook tours for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service.
In 1933-35 Moncrieff starred in two moderately successful Australian stage musicals, Collits' Inn and The Cedar Tree. An ill-fated 1934 film version of Collits' Inn with Gladys as the heroine was not completed by Efftee Productions; only stills and some soundtrack recording survive. In 1936 comedian Arthur Stigant dubbed her 'Our Glad', a term of endearment which identified her to the Australian community for the rest of her life. Involved in a road accident in March 1938 she was absent from the stage until 10 June 1940 when she sang for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Sydney.
Williamson's signed Moncrieff to a four-year contract in 1942 to revive noted musical comedies. She also entertained the armed forces at home, and in December 1943 took a concert party to Papua New Guinea. The final concert at Port Moresby showground was attended mainly by 17,000 troops and nurses. On her return home she worked constantly to raise funds for charities.
In 1948-49 in Perth Moncrieff sang in her final season of operetta revivals for Williamson's. In August 1951 she toured for the Department of the Army to entertain British Commonwealth occupation forces in Japan and troops in Korea. On the eve of her appointment as O.B.E. in June 1952, she commenced an Australasian season in a Harry Wren production, Gay Fiesta. A series of radio programmes for the Macquarie broadcasting network were produced in the mid-1950s, including 'The Gladys Moncrieff Show'. Then followed a farewell stage tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1958-59 for Wren under the title 'Many Happy Returns'. Her final stage appearance was at Hamilton, New Zealand. Her last public performance as a singer was in 1962 on television in Brisbane.
Moncrieff made highly successful gramophone recordings in Australia for the Columbia Graphophone Co. between 12 October 1928 and 4 June 1935. She was a regular visitor to the company studios at Homebush, Sydney, making eighty-four titles which were released on either Regal, Regal-Zonophone or Columbia labels as ten-inch discs. These well-known musical comedy favourites sold far better than similar material by many famous overseas artists. Most of these recordings were reissued by EMI Records Australia and enjoyed healthy sales.
Gladys Moncrieff had a powerful, wide-ranging, rich soprano voice, and excellent diction. Undemonstrative in behaviour, she approached her singing like a craft, meticulously and unostentatiously. She dressed simply and did not shun menial tasks. Her large, informal parties were memorable for her superb cooking, especially for her pie with seventy dozen oysters. Perhaps it was also her sense of fun and tender-heartedness that attracted her large following of 'gallery girls', women who queued for standing room and followed her movements with flowers and mail. She became a legend in Australia in her lifetime, respected by her professional colleagues and loved by her devoted public. Her autobiography, My Life of Song (Adelaide, 1971), was ghosted by Lillian Palmer.
Moncrieff retired to the Gold Coast, Queensland, in January 1968, where she died, childless, in Pindara Private Hospital, Benowa, on 8 February 1976.
Peter Burgis, 'Moncrieff, Gladys Lillian (1892–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moncrieff-gladys-lillian-7621/text13319, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 12 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986