Harry Wren

Harry Wren was one of a handful of entrepreneurs producing variety entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia. Born in 1916, he first worked in cinemas and built up a chain of movie theatres in South Australia before venturing into live entertainment. His first live shows were variety revues at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane from 1940. By 1947 he claimed to be operating variety theatres in Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, Geelong, Ballarat, Broken Hill and Brisbane. By the 1950s he was also presenting shows at the Empire and Palladium Theatres in Sydney and the Princess and King’s Theatres in Melbourne.

Wren travelled within Australia and New Zealand, and abroad to the United States and Japan. He operated his various enterprises – Harry Wren Theatres Pty Ltd, Celebrity Theatres Pty Ltd, and Celebrity Circuit Pty Ltd – outside the auspices of J.C. Williamsons and the Tivoli Circuit, though often in tenuous alliance with them. He had an early success with an Australian production of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1949-50). He imported other American acts to Australia, including stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (1954) and the Harlem Blackbirds (1955), and toured three shows from the Toho company of Japan, the Cherry Blossom Show (1958), Tokyo Nights (1965) and Japan by Night (1968). He was dogged in his later years by bankruptcy proceedings which he successfully appealed. He died in 1973 in Sydney at age 57.

Wren is most often remembered for his nostalgic variety shows. Thanks for the Memory, the first of three, opened at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 3 October 1953. It featured old-time vaudeville stars well-known to Australian audiences since the 1930s – George Wallace, Jim Gerald, Morrie Barling, Queenie Paul – along with Keith Peterson, Beryl Meekin, Nanette Allen and Jandy the Clown. The bill was made up of comedy sketches, sentimental songs, nostalgic ballets, and sight acts of juggling, acrobatics and clowning. The emphasis was on home-grown talent and home-spun humour.  The only exotic element to speak of was ‘A Breath of Paris’ featuring the Sunkist Beauty Ballet performing a can-can. The show’s innovation was a fashion parade presented in association with Messrs Maples of Bourke Street.

Thanks for the Memory toured Australia and (possibly) New Zealand until (at least) August 1956.  In 1957 Wren presented his follow-up show, The Good Old Days, in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide (and possibly elsewhere). This second show was billed ‘the crowning glory of vaudeville’ and featured acrobat Maurice Colleano and Company amongst a similar line up of stars including George Wallace, Jim Gerald, Queenie Paul and Morry Barling. In 1959 George Wallace Junior took his father’s spot in Wren’s third nostalgic vaudeville show, Many Happy Returns. This show was a vehicle of farewell for singer Gladys Moncrieff, but otherwise the line up of performers was again much the same.

Capitalising on the notion of variety’s decline just when television was arriving on the scene,  Harry Wren promoted the nostalgic appeal of his old-time vaudeville stars. ‘The GREATEST VAUDEVILLE in HISTORY lives gloriously on’, announces Wren in the program for Many Happy Returns: THE HAPPIEST SHOW IN OUR LIVES, 50 YEARS OF BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES – MANY HAPPY RETURNS – HERE THEY ARE AGAIN … ALL YOUR LOVED STARS OF VARIETYTHE GREATEST STARS OF THE THEATRE’S GOLDEN YEARS … THE ROYAL FAMILY OF VARIETY – GLADYS MONCRIEFF – JIM GERALD – JENNY HOWARD – QUEENIE PAUL

At the same time, Wren ‘enlivened’ his nostalgic shows, as C.G. Kerr of the Advertiser put it, with ‘a vivacious and beautiful chorus  […] and a few discreetly-placed nudes’ (Kerr 1959). The chorus in Many Happy Returns comprised two groups of chorus girls, the Glamour Birds and the Glamourettes, a group of six chorus boys, known as the Gay Dogs, and three topless women called the Nudie Cuties. In contrary motion to the nostalgic memories of the show’s vaudeville past, Wren’s use of nude show girls extended the appeal of his shows along a progressive path into an arena of erotic spectacle – potentially beyond television’s reach.

Newspaper advertisements for Many Happy Returns sported a more modern rhetoric to match: “FABULOUS – BRILLIANT – MAGNIFICENT – MODERN – STAR STUDDED” were the key words, and in smaller text below ‘Harry Wren’s GLAMOUR BIRDS, Australia’s Most Beautiful Blondes! Brunettes! Redheads! FABULOUS – GLORIOUS – NUDES!” At the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, Wren’s foyer advertising attracted attention when the police took ‘action against the unrestricted public display in Adelaide of photographs of near-nude showgirls advertising the variety show’ (‘Photos to be modified’ 1959).

George Wallace Junior made a movie of the Many Happy Returns show on tour. It is a silent film of 22 minutes shot on 16mm colour stock. The film opens with shots of the company on tour, visiting scenic spots like Mount Lofty in Adelaide, having a barbeque picnic in the Barossa Valley, travelling by train across Central Australia. It also includes scenic shots of streetscapes and theatre facades in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne where they played. It concludes with the performance itself — shots of some ten segments from the show, mostly the more visual dance numbers and acrobatic sight acts. Wallace presumably decided that the more aural components, the songs and comedy routines, did not translate well to silent film. For the program at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal indicates that verbal wit, sketch comedy and social satire—not evident in the movie—were very much part of the show. All-rounder Beryl Meekin, ‘the moonfaced mountain of mirth’ delivers ‘a ton of mirth quake’ in one segment, while ‘the bright boys of vaudeville’ — Jim Gerald, Keith Peterson and (‘A Chip off the Old Block’) George Wallace, Jnr.— ‘live it up’ in ‘Room 999 at the Royal Reserve Hotel’, as well as appearing in skits called ‘The Evangelist’ and ‘The 3 Teddy Bears’.

References

  • ‘Harry Wren dead at 57’ (1973) Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August, p. 3.
  • John West, ‘Harry Wren’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia, eds. P. Parson & V. Chance, Sydney: Currency Press, 1995, p. 652.
  • Many Happy Returns, the presentation album of Gladys Moncrieff’s farewell tour, 1959-1961, pictures, National Library of Australia, http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview?pi=nla.pic-vn3807532
  • [Wallace, George Jnr.: Harry Wren’s Many Happy Returns Tour: Home Movie], National Film and Sound Archive, Title No. 478968, c. 1959.
  • Many Happy Returns, Theatre Royal, Adelaide, 9 June 1959, theatre program, Special Collections, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.
  • C.G. Kerr, ‘Happy Returns is warm, gay’, The Advertiser, 10 June 1959, p. 7.
  • ‘Photos to be modified’, The Advertiser, 24 June 1959, p. 10.
  • Brisbane, Katharine, ed. 1991. Entertaining Australia, Sydney: Currency Press
  • Harry Wren, AusStage, http://www.ausstage.edu.au/indexdrilldown.jsp?xcid=59&f_contrib_id=235147
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12 Responses to Harry Wren

  1. Ronald Stephens says:

    I want to learn more about Wren and the Harlem Blackbirds tour of Australia

  2. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Ronald, thank you for your interest in Harry Wren. Some of the performances of the Harlem Blackbirds 1955 tour in Australia are recorded in AusStage (http://www.ausstage.edu.au/pages/work/11760). You could also try searching digitised Australian newspapers at Trove (http://www.trove.nla.au), although many newspapers have not been digitised for 1955. The State Library of NSW has a copy of the program from the performance in Sydney (described at http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/36884953); you may be able to order a copy (http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/using/copies/ordering_copies.html). I hope that helps with your research. Let me know how you get on. best wishes, Jonathan

  3. Andra says:

    My sister was a dancer in Thanks for the Memory and I used to spend my school holidays touring with the show, and many others my sister worked in.
    I knew every lyric, every gag and every line in all these shows and could probably still do some of the routines.
    My sister was a Tivoli dancer in Melbourne and Sydney and toured all over Australia and New Zealand for about 20 years. I always joined her wherever she was for school holidays.
    I remember all the acts, all the stars, every minute of it. I loved it all.

  4. Andra says:

    Oh, sorry. You’re talking about Many Happy Returns.
    The above comment applies to that show as well.
    Harry Wren was known as Harry Horrible.

  5. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Andra – thanks for sharing your memory of Harry Wren’s shows. Have you seen the photos from Many Happy Returns in the National Library? http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3807532 – it’s a wonderful collection! best wishes, Jonathan

  6. Ronald Stephens says:

    I am very interested in speaking with you. I am writing a scholarly book about the Harlem Blackbirds, aka as Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs in the U.S. I will be in Sdyney, Australia March 14th to 18th to complete my research about the Australia and New Zealand tours, which will cover one of the chapters in my about about Larry Steele. Please let me know how we can make contact.

  7. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Ronald – great to know that you’re visiting Sydney. I’ll be in touch by email. Hope we can meet up!

  8. Ronald Stephens says:

    That’s excellent news. I sincerely hope we’ll be able to meet while I’m in Sydney. Ronald

  9. tom sparkes says:

    I worked for Harry Wren as Lead Alto Saxophone in the orchestra touring NZ and Australia in the late 50s and early 60s. Many fond memories of the shows and people. Would love to get hold of some photos.

  10. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Tom – thanks for sharing your memories. The best photos from Harry Wren’s shows are from Many Happy Returns in the presentation album of Gladys Moncrieff’s farewell tour, 1959-1961, at the National Library of Australia, http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview?pi=nla.pic-vn3807532 – enjoy! Jonathan

  11. Julie Woolfrey says:

    Do you know by any chance who Beryl Meekin’s daughter is?
    I would like to contact her, my mother was part of the act with the Great Levante .

  12. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Hi Julie – I’m sorry I don’t know about Beryl Meekin’s daughter. Maybe a reader can help? There are some interesting stories about her father at the ADB, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meekin-david-terence-dave-13092 – and in Jim Sharman’s autobiography, Blood and Tinsel. best wishes, Jonathan

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