Kate Rickards in costume as Toots c1888 by Kerry & Co Courtesy Tyrrell Collection, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (85/1286-498)

Kate Rickards in costume as Toots c1888 by Kerry & Co Courtesy Tyrrell Collection, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (85/1286-498)

There are some fascinating women in the Dictionary of Sydney. Among those is one who went by many stage names during her stellar career as a gymnast, trapeze artist, vaudeville performer and costume designer.

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Kate Rickards was born Kate Roscow in Melbourne in about 1862. She began her stage career at the tender age of 11 with the touring Royal Magnet Troupe and was promoted as ‘the youngest and most beautiful trapeze performer in the world’. Kate met English comic and theatrical entrepreneur Harry Rickards while the troupe was touring the United States in 1874. The troupe, which by then included Rickards, then toured England. It was around this time that Kate also used the stage name Mademoiselle Katrini and was billed as ‘the flying fairy and empress of the air’.

Kate and Harry eventually formed a relationship and their first child, a daughter named Noni, was born in 1879. The couple married the following year and had two more children, Sydney and Madge. Kate took her husband’s family name of Leete as her stage name and toured
Australasia as a singer and dancer.

The family decided to return to Australia in 1888 after the death of their baby daughter Edith in 1887, and made Sydney their headquarters in 1892, where they lived in Randwick and then later in the mansion Canonbury at Darling Point. The family was again touched by tragedy when their son Sydney, aged eight, died of scarlet fever in 1892 while his parents were on tour. Noni, who had at one point joined her mother on the stage as an actress, also predeceased her.

For their next business venture Kate suggested her husband lease the Garrick Theatre on Castlereagh Street for their performances, which they renamed the The Tivoli. ‘The Tiv’ opened in 1893 and became the most popular vaudeville venue in Sydney featuring famous local and international vaudeville stars, topical songs, blackface segments and a chorus line of scantily clad women. Kate retired from the stage in 1894 and concentrated her efforts on costume design for the Tivoli productions.

Miss Kate Leete as Sappho 1888, The Bulletin 23 June, 1888, p6

Miss Kate Leete as Sappho 1888, The Bulletin 23 June, 1888, p6

After Harry’s death in 1911, Kate was involved in various charitable pursuits including the Crown Street Women’s Hospital and animal welfare groups. She also continued the family’s tradition of hosting Christmas dinners for the poor in the basement of the Sydney Town Hall.

In 1922, Kate died of heat stroke while aboard RMS Ormonde after a visit to England. She had, however, been suffering poor health for over a year prior to her death. She left an estate valued at over £29,000, approximately over $2.4 million today. She was remembered for her illustrious career and generous spirit.

For further information, read Kathleen Hackett’s entry on Kate Rickard on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/rickards_kate

Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!

Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15 to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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