In an unpublished autobiography, female impersonator Tracey Lee recalls his first encounter with the art form. Around the age of seventeen, Lee was taken by his mother to Sydney’s Empire Theatre to see the Kiwis, an army revue from New Zealand, which featured three female impersonators – Wally Prictor, John Hunter and Ralph Dyer (who replaced Phil Jay from 1949) – among an all-male cast.
The Kiwis had formed during the second world war and subsequently toured Australia and New Zealand as a civilian production for J.C. Williamsons for eight years from 1946, giving thousands of performances in that time. Their phenomenal success was also sought by other ex-Army concert parties, such as the Kangaroos, with whom comedian George Wallace Junior toured regional towns in Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland, before settling at the Brisbane Theatre Royal in 1948.
Lee was so taken by the Kiwis’ female impersonators with their ‘brilliant falsetto voices and amazing disguises’ that he ‘began haunting the stage door, asking for autographed photos’ and was once ‘invited into the dressing room by one of the cast to watch him make up’:
I was in heaven. Just to be inside a real theatre, in the presence of a great star was thrilling. Ralph Dyer was kind, helpful and encouraging. He must have sensed in me a desire to be more than just a fan, which indeed I was. This was my first glimpse of female impersonation and I was fascinated.
On learning that the company were holding auditions, Lee ‘prepared an act and rehearsed a song and finally got up enough courage to dare ask for an audition’ – but it wasn’t to be: ‘when Papa heard of it, he wouldn’t hear of such an idea, and dismissed the whole thing as rubbish’.
Some years later, after leaving home, Lee was spotted at a party impersonating the celebrated Australian singer Gladys Moncrieff and invited by bandleader Les Welch to join an all-male revue. With the Kiwis’ Ralph Dyer as its star and Lee as one of three chorus girls, the revue played for some six months at the Stork Club, a roadhouse on Tom Ugly’s Point, Sylvania, at that time, on the suburban outskirts of Sydney.
The troupe then took the show on the road, touring country towns in northern New South Wales under a different management. The title of their show, Leave it to the Boys, signalled the ongoing popularity of ex-Army-style all-male revue, although they also took female singer Jennie Howard as ‘special guest star’ on tour. Lee recalls performing impressions of African-American jazz singer Rose Murphy (‘the Chi Chi girl’) and Hollywood star Bette Davis (‘a dramatic excerpt from The Letter’, Davis’ melodramatic film noir of 1940).
Lee also performed as a ballerina in ‘a send-up of Swan Lake’ and, with Dyer, in ‘an amusing parody on chorus girls, called ‘The Can Can Girls from the Follies Bergere’. Lee’s account of the accidental comedy in an ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ sketch also recalls the comic send-ups and zany mishaps that would entertain the audiences of television variety shows like In Melbourne Tonight and The Bobby Limb Show.
Another night, a sketch, wherein Marc Antony was about to die in Cleopatra’s arms, was in progress. Two settees had been hastily improvised to make one imposing couch for the scene. But unfortunately as Marc Antony sank gracefully backwards, his sword became caught up beneath his toga, and at that very moment the two settees slowly separated with Antony slipping lower, then lower to the floor. As he descended, the sword, indecently resembling an immense penis, rose higher and higher from under the toga. Audience reaction was hilarious. How we would have loved to have kept that bit of business in the show, but alas, in those distant days, society, then so un-permissive, would not have condoned such goings on.
It is probable that the role of Cleopatra in this sketch was performed cross-dressed, perhaps even by Dyer, although Lee is not explicit on this point. The Kiwis’ female impersonator Phil Jay – whom Dyer had replaced – played the role cross-dressed in an ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ sketch at the Kiwis’ ‘Alamein’ show in Sydney in 1949. What is certain – and on this point, Lee is explicit – is that ‘comedy’ was ‘the keynote’ of Leave it to the Boys.
Like so many Australian artists of the time, Tracey Lee spent the early 1960s overseas. The French entertainer, Coccinelle, saw Lee performing in Sydney at Andre’s night club and invited him to join her in Paris. Lee performed for two years at Le Carousel in Paris, then toured widely throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In London he replaced Danny La Rue for a successful stint at Winston’s Club in 1964.
A brief return to Sydney in 1963 had been disappointing. But on returning once again to Sydney in 1966, Lee found Chequers night club ‘packed to the rafters’ and the audience enthralled by his performance of ‘songs, some sexy, some gay, some slightly sad’ and ‘impressions of Eartha Kitt, Margaret Rutherford and Marlene Dietrich’. ‘Andrea’, ‘the high priestess of Sydney showbusiness at this time’, bestowed her blessing on Lee’s performance on her morning show on radio 2GB. Television producers were less enthused. On opening night, writes Lee, ‘a TV ‘Tonight’ show was being broadcast live from ‘Chequers’’. The headline act, Miss [Frances] Faye was seen, but I was only used to set up camera angles. I was politely told they couldn’t have a female impersonator on the television screen.’
Lee was booked by David McIlwraith of Melbourne for the Lido’s new revue, Hello Australia. The revue opened in 1967 with segments titled ‘Corroboree’, ‘Gold Fever’, ‘Over the Waves’ and ‘King’s Cross ‘67’. During the revue’s run, Lee was invited to perform on television for Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight. (Lee also records that Kennedy visited the Lido and invited Lee home for supper.)
Lee’s television appearance on In Melbourne Tonight paved the way for more. On his return to Sydney he appeared on ‘The Barry Crocker Show, Dita Cobb’s daytime talk show, Concentration, ABC Lineup and The Jimmy Hannan Show’. He guest-starred at Les Girls in King’s Cross, where ‘many of the impersonators were living as women’ (306), and Lee took care to distinguish the ‘live’ vocality which distinguished his impersonations from the ‘boys with enlarged busts and long hair’ who mimed the lyrics of recorded songs (306). A resume from the mid-1980s also lists Lee’s appearances on The Bert Newton Show, Paul Sharratt Tonight, Family Circle, The Mike Walsh Show, The Tommy Leonetti Show, Penthouse, The Maggi Eckhardt Show, Ernie Sigley Tonight and Here’s Parry.
In 1975 James Fishburn produced a television special for Tracey Lee. It was scripted by John-Michael Howson and televised – by then in glorious colour – on Network Seven. In Hello Hollywood, Lee impersonates the stars – Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and so on – and is joined in performance by 1960s pop star Normie Rowe, veteran variety performer Gloria Dawn, and a chorus of dancing boys.
Hello Hollywood looks back to the theatricality of variety entertainment. The costumes are redolent with old-time glamour and the settings are studio abstractions of exotic locales. In retrospect, it also makes an appeal to the future of ‘gay’ style. In one segment, which recalls a scene from Hello Australia, the Lido’s 1968 revue, Rowe appears dressed as a life-saver and dances with the chorus boys as Lee performs Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Heatwave’ dressed as Carmen Miranda. Of course, Carmen Miranda, had been a frequent subject of female impersonation during the war. A photograph from 1942 records Private Maurice Earley of Sydney performing as Miranda for Australian troops in Papua, New Guinea and one of the Kiwis’s female impersonators performs as Miranda in a newsreel from 1948. In both records, however, the man impersonating Miranda performs alone.
In contrast, the life-savers on Hello Hollywood homoeroticise the ‘Heatwave’ scene – as, indeed, such scenes with drag queens flanked by life-savers became standard fare at drag shows in gay bars and on floats in Sydney’s gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the end, however, the show’s subject psychology is darkened and distanced from the audience. De-wigged and de-frocked, Lee delivers an epilogue from the dressing room on the demi-monde of drag.
The production went over budget and the station executives were not impressed. Maybe the performances were too lavish, the impersonations too glamorous: ‘They wanted a show which was more burlesqued, like Danny La Rue, they said’, writes Lee. And perhaps, Lee’s epilogue was too dark with its tragi-camp lyrics from ‘What Makes A Man A Man’ (‘Commes ils disent’), that archetypal song of the female impersonator made famous by the French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour in the early 1970s, and since performed by Marc Almond and Liza Minelli.
The show was ‘relegated to a shelf for almost ten months’. It was first broadcast in Sydney on Boxing day, 1975, outside the ratings season when stations are less concerned about losing audience. In the face of the station’s apparent inaction, Lee mounted his own publicity campaign to promote the show. He records that it also ‘played Brisbane (twice), Adelaide, Perth and various country stations, but was never, for some mysterious reason, screened in Melbourne’.
‘Deflated and disillusioned’ yet determined to leverage his efforts, Lee returned to the stage ‘direct from his fabulous TV special’ for a grueling three month stint – two shows a night, six nights a week – with the ‘Beautiful Boys of the Carousel Follies’ at, what had been, the venue for Les Girls on Roslyn Street in Sydney’s King’s Cross.
- Terry Vaughan, Whistle as You Go: The Story of the Kiwi Concert Party, Auckland, Random House NZ, 1995.
- Tracey Lee. ‘I Dared to be Different’, unpublished typescript, SLNSW ML 618/97 D1584/1.
- Hello Australia, Lido Revue, Melbourne, c. 1968, theatre program, Performing Arts Collection, The Arts Centre, Melbourne.
- Hello Hollywood, produced by James Fishburn, ATN7 Sydney, 1975, NFSA Title No. 427392.
- A version of this account appears in Bollen, Jonathan (2010) ‘Cross-dressed and crossing-over from stage to television’, Media International Australia, 134: 141-150.