Annette Kellerman 1886-1975

Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman

In 1906 Kellerman made her American debut playing 55 shows a week at the White City amusement park in Chicago.

In 1912 Kellerman married her American-born manager, James Sullivan. He encouraged her to pursue a career in films.

Kellerman realised that theatrical work was potentially more lucrative than occasional public aquatic appearances. She developed an imaginative stage act with which she topped the bill at the London Hippodrome, swimming and diving in a huge glass-fronted tank. Next she determined to conquer the United States, where her exploits and her costume had already attracted attention.

In 1906 Kellerman made her American debut playing 55 shows a week at the White City amusement park in Chicago. Her sensational appearance on Revere Beach in Boston resulted in her arrest for indecency, an avalanche of publicity, and a lucrative contract with vaudeville entrepreneur Edward F. Albee. He revamped her stage act, adding large mirrors in strategic positions around the tank. ‘What we are selling here is backsides,’ he explained to the bewildered young Australian, ‘and a hundred backsides are better than one!’ Miss Kellerman’s multiple backsides earned her $1250 a week. In 1907 she made her first film, a short for the Vitagraph studio. Several more followed.

Kellerman progressively added new attractions to her stage act: diabolo demonstrations, wire-walking, acrobatics, violin playing, singing, a comedy physical culture routine, and even humorous male impersonations. In November 1911 she appeared in the title role of Undine, ‘an idyll of forest and stream’, at the Winter Garden in New York with a score by the prolific composer Manuel Klein. Its success was repeated in London in May 1912.

In 1912 Kellerman married her American-born manager, James Sullivan. He encouraged her to pursue a career in films. Late in 1913 Kellerman and a company of 75 sailed to Bermuda to shoot Neptune’s Daughter. An enormous success, it led to A Daughter of the Gods in 1916. This was filmed at Montego Bay in Jamaica with a cast of 20,000 and a budget of more than one million dollars, making it the most expensive film to that date. The principal set was an 8.1-hectare Moorish city, which was burnt to the ground in the final scenes; as well there was an intricate underwater ‘mermaid village’, shot by a camera encased in a specially designed diving bell. The waterfall scene was the first in movie history to be done completely in the nude.

Impresario Charles Dillingham chose Kellerman to replace Anna Pavlova in The Big Show of 1916 at the 5200-seat Hippodrome, New York’s largest theatre, and paid her $2000 a week. For six months she stopped the show with a sensational high dive over an enchanted waterfall cascading around 200 mermaids. She also topped the bill at the famous Palace Theatre on Broadway.

Media Gallery

Photograph courtesy State Library of Victoria. PCVPCA112

Biographical references

De Witt Bodeen and Larry L. Holland: ‘Neptune’s Daughters’, in Films in Review, February 1979
Victoria Chance: ‘Annette Kellermann’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Anthony Slide: The Vaudevillians, Arlington House, 1981
G.P. Walsh: ‘Annette Kellermann’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 9
Esther Williams: The Million Dollar Mermaid, Simon and Schuster, 1999