February 3, 2013

Thelma Raye (née Thelma Victoria Maud Bell-Morton, 1890-1966)
English musical comedy actress,
in costume as O Kiku San
in the revival of The Geisha, Daly’s Theatre, London, 18 June 1906.
The front-of-house frame encloses
photographs of Miss Raye by the Dover Street Studios
as she appeared in The Little Michus.
(photo: unknown, probably London, 1906)

Auburn haired Thelma Raye was born on 6 September 1890 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nothing is known at present of her early life and training as an actress and singer in musical comedy, and the first we hear of her is in The Little Michus (Daly’s, London, 29 April 1905), playing Marie Blanche in succession to Mabel Green and Denise Orme, and Ernestine in succession to Nina Sevening, Bertha Callan, Iris Hoey, Mabel Russell and Marie Löhr. Remaining with the same management for the next two years she was next seen in the revival of The Geisha (Daly’s, 18 June 1906) as O Kiku San, before playing in Les Merveilleuses (Daly’s, 27 October 1906) as Illyrine in succession to Denise Orme, and in The Girls of Gottenberg (Gaiety, 15 May 1907) as Elsa in succession to May de Sousa and Enid Leonhardt.

Thelma Raye’s next engagement was to play Helene in the American production of the popular English musical, The Dairymaids (Criterion, New York, 26 August 1907, 86 performances). Returning to England she was re-engaged by George Edwardes for the part of Elsa in a touring company of The Girls of Gottenberg, beginning with a short stay at the Adelphi Theatre, London (10 August 1908, 12 performances). She was next seen in a tour of The Pigeon House, first produced at the New Theatre, Cardiff, on 27 June 1910; during the run her part of Léontine de Merval was later played by Iris Hoey and Dorothy Moulton. Miss Raye was afterwards engaged to play Mariana in Bonita (Queen’s, London, 23 September 1911, 42 performances), Honorka in The Grass Widows (Apollo, London, 7 September 1912, 50 performances), and Fifi du Barry (in which part she was succeeded by Marie Blanche) in The Joy-Ride Lady (New, London, 21 February 1914, 105 performances).

Thelma Raye
Thelma Raye as Fifi du Barry in
The Joy-Ride Lady, New Theatre, London, 21 February 1914.
(photo: Foulsham & Banfield, London, 1914)

On 21 Marcy 1917, now aged 26, Thelma Raye was married to Percy Stewart Dawson (1888-1947), an Australian and member of the Steward Dawson family of jewellers and silversmiths of Sydney & London. The couple had already had a daughter, Dawn, who was born at Bournemouth in England on 1 April 1913. The marriage foundered, however, and in March 1918 Miss Raye returned to London. During 1919 she was on a UK tour as the lead in Cosmo Hamilton’s play, Scandal. It was at about this time that she met the actor Ronald Colman (1891-1958); they were married at on 18 September 1920. Frustrated by his inability to make headway with his career, Colman left England for New York less than a month later followed by his wife in February 1921.

Later recalling that this was the most difficult period in his career, Colman was lucky enough to be chosen to appear in Henri Bataille’s drama, La Tendresse, starring Ruth Chatterton (Empire, New York, 25 September 1922). This led to his being cast as leading man to Lillian Gish in the 1923 Hollywood film, The White Sister, in which Thelma was allocated a tiny part. Such was the success of this venture, at least as far as Colman was concerned, that he was awarded a contract by Samuel Goldwyn and during the next eighteen months he appeared in several other films, two of which respectively starred May McAvoy and Constance Talmadge. In 1924 Colman was seen again with Lillian Gish, in a film version of George Eliot’s novel, Romola, in which Thelma Raye was given an uncredited bit part.

There is little doubt that Colman’s steeply rising success as a Hollywood star soon put an intolerable strain on his marriage. The couple publicly acknowledged a breakdown in their relationship by early 1926 and although separated they did not formally split for another eight years. As one writer has put it, ‘Raye loomed in the background and would periodically appear – often demanding more money in proportion to her husband’s increasing financial success. A divorce was finally arranged after Raye was offered a hefty financial settlement and the parasitic relationship finally came to an end.’ This view was endorsed in the biography, Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person (William Morrow & Co Inc, 1975) by Juliet Benita Colman (b.1944), Colman’s daughter by his second marriage to the English actress Benita Hume. Miss Colman’s opinion of her father’s first wife was that she had ‘a jealous and vindictive nature.’

Of Thelma Raye very little else is heard. In the summer of 1938 it was rumoured that she was to return to the stage in a play, A Garden of Weeds by Ronald Gerard, which was to tour in the United States before a New York opening, but nothing seems to have come of this or any other theatrical project. Then in early in 1939, describing herself as ‘the Original Mrs. Ronald Colman,’ Thelma Raye was reported to have opened a small sports/novelty shop at Laguna Beach, California. She settled in New South Wales, Australia, about 1943 and died at Port Macquarie on 29 June 1966.

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