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.
- 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.