Buster Fiddess

Appearing on television in the Bobby Limb Show (from 1958), comedian Buster Fiddess played female roles in theatrical spoofs such as Miss Anna from The King and I and Maid Marion in The Adventures of Rob’em Good. He also appeared regularly as an ageing Aunt Gladys in domestic sketches which would invariably devolve into hilarious food fights. Similar sketch comedies and theatrical spoofs also featured regularly on Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight (from 1957) where Joff Ellen and Bert Newton would also, on occasions, perform in drag.

Unlike Kennedy and Newton, who were radio personalities before moving to television, Fiddess and Ellen brought to television their experience of performing live on stage. Ellen had performed comedy at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in the 1940s and Fiddess was a Tivoli veteran who had first performed at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre in 1936.  According to Frank van Straten, Fiddess ‘remained a [Tivoli] Circuit favourite in revue and pantomime for twenty-two years’ (120). He entertained troops in Australia and Europe during the second world war, and continued to tour with the Tivoli in the post-war years. He also played seasons at Brisbane’s independent variety house, the Theatre Royal, in 1949 and 1951, and again in 1953 before joining the Aussie Show in London later that year. Photographs from 1960 at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre show Fiddess in drag giving away household appliances – a Motorola television, a Pope refrigerator – as prizes to women from the audience.

As a performer, Fiddess was primarily a physical comedian. Van Sraten recalls that, ‘like Mo, he could provoke gales of laughter merely by ‘mugging’ alone on the stage’ (120). Fiddess was also a successful pantomime dame in that longstanding tradition of cross-dressed comedy which maintained its popularity as holiday entertainment for children. (The genre itself crossed over to television with the cast of NWS-9’s Adelaide Tonight show staging an annual Christmas pantomime in the 1960s with male television personalities appearing as dames.)

Fellow Tivoli performer Val Jellay recalls Fiddess as ‘an unpredictably funny man’ whose comedy combined travesty, disruption and visual gags. He also performed routines with a dog. Jellay recounts one particular stunt ‘during an elaborate pirate production’ which anticipates the kind of comedy Fiddess would later perform on television:

A big gold trunk was centre stage, supposedly filled with priceless gems. Each showgirl emerged from the trunk via a basement trap (lift) on cue, one bedecked as a ruby, another as an emerald, a sapphire, a diamond, etc. The last was to be pure gold but instead of the gorgeous gold, Buster slowly came up wearing a daggy dress and a tatty black wig. With him was Jake the Dog. He played it dead straight, doing the correct showgirl moves with Jake following. (Jellay 1994: 57)

Fiddess contributed similar comic disruptions to song-and-dance routines on episodes of the Bobby Limb Show, appearing ludicrously cross-dressed as a coloratura soprano in a ballgown for an opera scene, as a flamenco dancer – rose-in-mouth, lace fan in hand  – for a Latin-American scene, and as a Martian ‘girlfriend’ for a space travel scene set on the planet Mars.

The burlesque exoticisms of Fiddess’ cross-dressing demonstrate the heritage of variety performance in his performance for television. Variety entertainment thrived on presenting unusual acts from exotic times and places. There is also something antiquarian about his performance as Aunt Gladys. The character’s costuming, make-up and wig, designed to be visually effective at a distance in the theatre, appear quaintly archaic in close-up on television. The theatricality of Fiddess’ cross-dressing differed from a more home-made style of suburban drag designed for television viewing.

Another male performer on the Bobby Limb Show – a studio technician, apparently, in particularly bad drag – played Dawn Lake’s country cousin ‘Luv’ (as in ‘You tell ‘em, luv!’) in weekly sketches on suburban life. These sketches were set, variously, over the back fence, at the breakfast table, on the bus, at a train station, in a waiting room, at a wedding, or on the dance floor at the Roseland Palais. Their conversations about romance, marriage and the business of child-bearing were invariably one-sided. Dawn, speaking with a broad Australian accent, was ever optimistic about her daughter’s prospects. But the man playing ‘Luv’ would remain mute and often immobile, his failure to respond to Dawn’s provocations redoubling the comedy of his failure to adequately disguise his masculinity in feminine attire.

A similar weekly segment on Melbourne’s Sunnyside Up in the early 1960s saw the show’s host, Bill Collins, and another regular, dressed roughly as housewives, exchanging gossip and jokes over a back fence. Their talk about women’s roles, medical procedures and the Moonee Valley races generate crude comedy from the incongruities of costume and conversation.  Aside from his role hosting Sunnyside Up, Bill Collins was well-known in Melbourne as a radio announcer and the city’s leading caller of horse races.

In such sketches on variety television of the late 1950s and early 1960s, cross-dressing worked by first animating then containing the gendered aspirations of suburban life. The performers’ disinterest in succeeding at gender illusion coaxed comedy from what must have been, for the audience, recognisably droll depictions of daily conversation and domestic routine. But these were also the years of Barry Humphries’ early television appearances cross-dressed as Edna Everage on the 7 Network’s Startime, a weekly variety show hosted by John Laws.  And, by this time, the aspirations of the housewife from Moonee Ponds were already exceeding their suburban ambit.

References

  • Photographs of Buster Fiddess at the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney, in 1960 and Dawn Lake and ‘Luv’ of the Bobby Limb Show from State Library of New South Wales via Picture Australia.
  • Photograph of Buster Fiddes, photographer unidentified, Accession number: 4036 Collection reference: OM75-102 Peggy Schluter Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/2120
  • Recordings of the Bobby Limb Show, the Mobile Limb Show, In Melbourne Tonight, Sunnyside Up and Startime at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra.
  • Heading, Rex and Trevor Jones, 1996, Miracle on Tynte Street: The Channel Nine Story, Wakefield Press, Kent Town.
  • Jellay, Val, 1994, Stagestruck: An Autobiography, Spectrum Publications, Richmond.
  • van Straten, Frank, 2003, Tivoli, Lothian Books, South Melbourne.
  • 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.
This entry was posted in Comedians, Cross-dressing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Buster Fiddess

  1. Ann O'Dyne says:

    Was it ‘Honest John’ Gilbert who played ‘Over The Fence’ with Bill Collins in Sunnyside Up?

  2. Ann O'Dyne says:

    re ‘The performers’ disinterest in succeeding at gender illusion ‘ – their frock bodices were stuffed with what could have been loosely scrunched newspaper, and they both shifted these lumps overtly, and held them up with folded-arm stances. My 10-year-old self thought this was hilarious.

    If those shows were re-run now they would become cults very quickly.

  3. Thanks, Ann – the scrunched newspaper sounds hilarious! I think you’re right about Honest John Gilbert. The other regular was Syd Heylen. I need to watch the episodes again to check. There were three ‘Over the Fence’ sketches from Sunnyside Up that I watched at the Film and Sound Archive in Canberra – all very funny. They were on Sunnyside Up, Episode 18, 1962, NFSA Title No. 62672; Sunnyside Up, Episode 19, c. 1963, NFSA Title No. 62686; and Sunnyside Up, Episode 40, 1962, NFSA Title No. 9835.

  4. Dawn Anderson says:

    Hi there I think its really great your interested in an amazing man,was wondering if you have anymore information on him regards dawn his daughter.

  5. Dear Dawn – It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for your comment. Most of what I’ve learnt about Buster Fiddess is from watching episodes of the Bobby Limb Show at the National Film and Sound Archive, and a bit more that I’ve pieced together from the references on this post. He was such an entertaining performer – his sketches on Bobby Limb were hilarious! And so interesting to see how his worked spanned stage, television and film. I’d be really interested to learn more about his career too! best wishes, Jonathan

  6. hi i’m his grate granddaughter i would love it if u could send me information on my grandfather thanx

  7. not grate just grand daughter lol

  8. Dear Hayley, it’s great to hear from you too. I wish I had more information to send you. What I know about Buster Fiddess is in this article. Like you I’d like to learn more! From what I’ve seen, he was a great entertainer. If I find out any more, I’ll let you and Dawn know. Best wishes, Jonathan

  9. Terry Smith says:

    buster was on plankety planks as well with Graheme Kennedy chn. 10

  10. Thanks, Terry – yes, I remember watching Blankety Blanks in the 1970s!

  11. Hi Jonathan,
    Unlikely Buster was on Blankety Blanks (late 1970s on CH 10) as he died in 1972.
    As for Sunnyside Up, the “Over the Fence” routine (based on Norman Evans act in Britain) was performed by Syd Hollister and Bill Collins. The show main comics were Syd Heylon, (straight man) “Honest John” Gilbert and Maurie Fields.
    As for Dawn Lake’s “You tell ’em, luv”, it was obviously inspired (and probably paid for) by Hylda Baker’s similar routine.
    Good luck,
    Peter Tatchell (www.laughterlog.com)

  12. Dear Peter, thanks for correcting the comment about Buster, and for the other pieces of information you provide. Interesting to learn about the connections to Norman Evans and Hylda Baker in England. Bobby Limb and Dawn Lake worked in England, before coming back to Austrlia to work on television. best wishes, j

  13. Darren Allen says:

    Hi Hayley I’m his grandson and my daughter is also Hayley

  14. Darren Allen says:

    Did you also know he was a very successful swimmer

  15. michael anderson says:

    Hi Dawn. My name is Michael Anderson, I’m no relation to you, but I’m sure that your dad Buster (Leslie Anderson) stayed at my grandparents house in North Carlton in Melbourne for a while a long long time ago. My mum, Mavis Menck remembered that Buster (Les) was a very good swimmer. Apparently your dad left my grandparents house after a while, because I’m told that he found my grandpa’s house rules too strict. Unfortunately, my dear mum passed away a few years ago so she can’t tell me any more. Did your dad ever talk of his time with the Menck family?

  16. vonda carson says:

    No, I recall them as Syd Hollister and Bill Collins

  17. Jenni says:

    “Honest JOhn Gilbert” was my husbands Grandfather.
    Can you tell me more about him.

  18. David Rayner says:

    I well remember Buster Fiddess, he used used to play a classical music conductor called Lochinvar Yak in TV sketches . I loved Buster and thought he was one of the best comedians ever in Australia . A great pity so little of the TV programs of the day were not kept for posterity

  19. John McLean says:

    Hi Jonathon. I remember the Mobil Limb show well as a kid. The weekly skit that you refer to with Dawn Lake’s mute daughter (“You tell em Luv”) was supposedly a cousin, and was called “The Country Cousin”.

  20. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Many thanks for your comment, John. Good to know what that segment is called. Cousin makes much more sense. I’ve edited the post. best wishes, Jonathan

  21. Linda says:

    Hi, I remember watching Buster Fiddess on TV as a child. Mum & Dad were shopping at Mentone Park shops (where everyone went in a mad frenzy on Saturday mornings to tap on the window of the butcher shop using a coin to win the tray of meat at the meat auction!) when Dad noticed that Buster Fiddess was sitting in the car parked next to us. Everyone was really excited to see him. Mum searched around the car to find some paper so that she could get his autograph. All she had was her state savings bank book cover. So she quickly went over and asked Buster to sign it for her. Which he very kindly did. It has been sort of a family heirloom. Sadly, Mum passed in 1990 and Dad passed 2 years ago. I have been going through his papers and found “The signed passbook cover”. It bought back all the memories of that era, Buster Fiddess, Graham Kennedy and many other wonderful Australian entertainers that influenced our lives. Needless to say, I can’t bring myself to part with this treasure, so it is now in my collection of goodies!

  22. Johanna Parsons Nicholls says:

    Hello Jonathan. My father Freddie Parsons wrote comedy for Melbourne’s Tivoli for many comedians including ”Mo’ and Buster Fiddess. Later Dad wrote TV comedy for Buster at Melbourne’s HSV-7 before Dad moved to GTV-9 to write for Graham Kennedy. I have vivid early childhood memories of ‘Uncle Buzzie’ (honorary title) in a singing act with dog Jake who howled in accompaniment; of him in a sketch wearing a neck-to-ankle multi-coloured striped dress, his long blond hair vaselined to stand upright like a ‘fright wig’. I remember his soft voice, his patience with little kids. He came to our house one afternoon and while he and Dad sat swapping gags Uncle Buzzie allowed me to plait his long hair into little braids tied with pink ribbons. I wanted his great grandchildren to know what a gentle man he was. I think Dad said that Buster had worked in a circus in his youth, but not sure whether as circus hand or performer. Is that true? I am always pleased to see his son Les Fiddess’s name on film credits. Best wishes, Johanna

  23. Jonathan Bollen says:

    What a great memory, Johanna – thanks for sharing. I’d like to know more about his early career too. The earliest reference I’ve found is in the South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus, 17 Dec 1937 (http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/142675910), where he’s performing as a knockabout comedian with Les Shipp’s Variety Stars, best wishes, Jonathan

  24. Bruce McKechnie says:

    Get memories. As kids we always watched the Bobby Limb show and loved Buster Fiddess. Our parents took us to a Show at the tivoli theatre which buster was in, walking to the theatre Buster was walking towards us. as we approached him he and my father exchanged greetings and stopped to talk. Dad had worked with him and knew him. Dad was a Magician Entertainer, stage name Weirdo. Dad had never mentioned to us he knew buster. My brother and I remember meeting him to this day as we loved watching him on tv.

  25. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Hi Bruce, thanks for recalling your encounter with Buster Fiddess. It must have been great seeing him ‘in the flesh’, having watched him on TV. best wishes, Jonathan

  26. Kristel Anderson says:

    Hi everyone, I am buster fiddess daughter , my name is kristel, my sisters name is Gail … We were the children before Les, dawn, and I don’t remember the others name, think there are about 5 children. Our mother Joan Wilson, as she was then known, performed with Dad ( Buster) at cremorne and theatre Royal. She was a dancer and did skits with him.

  27. Martin Dunne says:

    Bruce McKenchie,
    May I ask you about your dad and Weirdo’s?

    Kristel Anderson,
    Buster Fiddess worked on Here’s Parry in Adelaide, do you know anything about this?

    secretary@sfsa.org.au

  28. Kristel Anderson says:

    Hi, sorry it took me so long to answer this email. I don’t know much about Dads theatre life, only what mum has told us , performing with him, we were only toddlers when they parted, we saw him through the years when he came to Brisbane to perform, we appeared on a television show ” I’ve got a secret” , with him, and saw him gig at a few shows up here, but I’m sorry, that’s all I can tel you. Regards Kristel

  29. Martin Dunne says:

    Here’s Parry was a Monday and Thursday night variety show on ADS-7, 1966. Roger Cardwell was Ron Parry’s offsider, but got his own country music show and was replaced by Buster.

  30. Carina Parry says:

    Hey Martin,

    You are correct, the show was on a Monday and Thusday. I’m Ron Parry’s daughter, lovely to see his video getting around. i wish i could find more of his work on video online. Glad to see you say Roger Cardwell was Ron Parry’s offsider and not the other way around. That made me smile. My dad passed away in 2010 and i am in the midst of putting a website together for him and my mother who were both entertainers. As for Buster Fiddess, I remember my father talk of him a lot. i think they were quite close in the shows.

  31. Carina Parry says:

    Hi Kristel,

    I remember hearing of the show “I’ve got a secret” I think my father [Ron Parry] was in that too.

    If I find any info on Buster in our parents scrap books I could let you know. They have an enormous collection of newspaper clippings and I do remember something on Buster.

    I think my father even did a character sketch of him if I am not mistaken.

  32. Jennifer Gilbert says:

    Hi Carina
    If you find anything while you’re looking about “Honest John Gilbert” who also appeared on the Sunnyside Up show ,l would be grateful if you could forward it.
    He was my husbands Grandfather.
    Thanks
    Jenni

  33. Martin Dunne says:

    Carina,
    I cheated; I met Dresdel late last year. She tipped me off about the YouTube clip of Here’s Parry and in turn I looked up the listings in TV Times/Guide/Week and The Advertiser. My main project was a book on Deadly Earnest, I noticed Ian Bannerman appeared on TEN-10’s Personality Squares with Buster Fiddess in January 1969.

  34. Carina Parry says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’ll keep a look out for you. Not sure I have heard of honest john Gilbert [sorry] but you never know what i could find.

    Hi Martin,
    Cheat! 😉 There i thought you were very astute with TV personalities, etc. Gee, Deadly Earnest rings a little bell….

  35. Martin Dunne says:

    Bruce McKenchie’s dad Steve ran Weirdo’s magic shop, a friendly rival to Cec Cook’s, who in turn was in with Bannerman, shop and Deadly Earnest tv show promoting each other. Bannerman even included a song ‘Cec Cook’s Magic Shop’ on his 1969 LP.
    Bruce may have more information.
    On Steve:
    https://ausmagicon.wordpress.com/1952-1st-australian-magic-convention-oct-18-1952/

  36. Kristel Anderson says:

    Thank you Carina , that’s very thoughtful of you. We haven’t got much of dad except a few photos and vague memories. Regards Kristel

  37. Carina Parry says:

    Hi Kristel,

    I promise I’ll have a look, hopefully i can find something. Not sure when though, as I’m in the midst of doing my parent’s website in honour of them. Buster Fiddess – gee my ears are ringing, my father talked about him a lot when i was a kid. Maybe they met whilst entertaining the troops in Europe?

    Regards,
    Carina

  38. Carina Parry says:

    Hey Kristel,

    Are you on Facebook under the Brisbane one? I found some newspaper clippings you might like to have. Your father and mine certainly spent some times and laughs together as I thought. They worked on “Don’t say a word together” for starters.
    If you can confirm i can send you a link to the newspaper clippings through Facebook if you like.

    🙂

  39. Kristel Anderson says:

    That would be terrific thank you Carina. Yes I am the Brisbane kristel Anderson……That was certainly quick of you to instigate all this. I’ve never heard of that show . mum and dad were not together from when we were infants, he had another family in Sydney when your dad and mine performed together , but he visited Brisbane occasionally as we got older. I have a few photos of he and mum together, as mum did skits with him on stage in the early years , and a couple of photos with me in his arms, with my hair sticking up like he used to do his hair- with Vaseline.

  40. Carina Parry says:

    You’re welcome, it was only by chance really. i was looking at one folder and just by chance checked to see if any clippings had your dad and low and behold i kept finding some. I will get them now and see you in Facebook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *