Sorlie’s Revue

Sorlie’s Revue was a joint enterprise for entrepreneur Grace Sorlie (d. 1962) and comedian Bobby Le Brun (b.1910). Together with a troupe of dancers, singers, comedians and sight acts they toured regional towns in eastern Australia from 1949 to 1961. The show was a revival and perpetuation of the travelling tent show that Grace’s late husband, George Sorlie (1885-1948), had toured on a similar circuit from 1917 to 1945, including appearances for Harry Wren at Brisbane’s Cremorne Theatre in 1940.

Jeff Carter’s photographs of Sorlie’s were taken between 1957 and 1962, in the years when television was available in the capital cities but had not yet arrived in Broken Hill. They include setting up the tent, the audience arriving and watching the performance, some of the acts that were performed during the show, and the performers preparing in their dressing rooms, and relaxing during the day back at their caravans.

In one photograph, a man, two women and a young boy are entering the tent. They are dressed well in coats, the young boy in long pants. At the entrance is an usher, on one side, and on the other, Mrs Bobby Brun. Between them, Grace Sorlie stands her ground—arms crossed, head tilted, she stares down the camera, as if issuing a threat or warding off critique, aware it seems that the young boy has just walked past photos of near-naked women which are also in shot. The relation of foyer photography to variety performance is conventional—as invitation is to arrival, as promise is to delivery. The challenge in anticipation of television is clear: along an axis that oscillated between nostalgic regression and permissive progression, variety could offer audiences of the 1950s what television could not.

Sorlie’s reputation as the pre-eminent travelling variety show was established during George Sorlie’s time. Speaking of Brisbane in the 1940s, entertainer Peggy Ryan recalls Bartons, Coles Variety and ‘a couple of others’, but regards Sorlie’s as ‘the big time one’.  By all accounts, Sorlie’s was a class-act, a stylish and well-regarded show. Indeed, it was so respectable that, at age 14, singer Lola Nixon was able to obtain a special dispensation from the education department to join Sorlie’s on tour in 1949. Nixon recalls that Grace Sorlie, as we see her in this picture, was always ‘very smartly dressed’ with ‘the best diamonds you ever saw in your life’, ‘a very statuesque looking woman’ who projected a well-groomed sense of style throughout the show: ‘She’d check you out when you’d go on stage’, says Nixon. ‘She was very, very particular’, ‘the standard was there, even though it was tent theatre’, ‘costumes were immaculate’, ‘everything was kept fabulously’, ‘pristine under difficult conditions’.

In the mid 1950s, on her return from three successful years performing stage variety England, Ireland and Europe Val Jellay ‘jumped at the invitation’ to join Sorlie’s, which she regarded as ‘the most established and prestigious touring company’. Likewise, comedian Lucky Grills, who worked for Sorlie’s in the 1950s and later ran Carols Varieties as a second-tier touring show into the early 1960s, recalls some seven other tent shows from the time (Coles Variety, Stanley McKay’s Gaieties, Worldwide Varieties, Barton’s Follies, Billie Woods Varieties, Rex St Louis’s show, Ashton’s Varieties, Cisco’s Varieties), but regards Sorlie’s as ‘the epitome of the successful ones’ with its tent that could hold ‘over 2,000 people’. Sorlie’s co-producer Bobby Le Brun was also, according to Grills, ‘a little bit more sophisticated than the others’ and, as a comedian, ‘never ever worked other than 110% squeaky clean,  nothing suggestive’. Indeed, Lucky Grills ‘got wrapped over the knuckles for a joke [he] did at Sorlies’ and ‘was ordered to take it out of the show or be sacked’.

Sorlie’s stylish respectability did not altogether exclude genres of erotic entertainment from the bill. In a photograph, captioned ‘Whip Strip’, a woman stands on stage, wearing nothing but pasties and a g-string. Her arms are extended above her head, her hands and fingers intricately symmetrical, her head turned back, her eyes closed and her legs crossed one behind the other. The attitude is arching back and exposing the torso. She is turned side on to the audience, slightly twisting back the shoulder closest to the audience, exposing her breasts and armpit to them. Alongside behind her, a man in a black jacket, with a scarf tied at this neck in cowboy style, lashes at her with a whip. The camera has caught the whip as it curls round her torso, below her breasts. He is older than her; his hairline is receding and he wears glasses. But he makes up for that because he wields the whip with such skill.

The caption refers to a strip, but no clothes are apparent. He may be holding a second whip in his left hand. Beside the woman is a chopping block. The image is marked by contrast. She is white, naked, young and exposed in passivity. He is dark, old, fully clothed and instrumental in action. The action is lit from the front and the side. The photo captures the erotic charge of the performance. Its close-up focus frames the action, but makes its hard to read from the photograph just how such acts as ‘Whip Strip’ played to Sorlie’s audience. It seems more like the kind of sideshow acts described by Richard Broome as standard fare at agricultural shows. Sorlie’s and other touring variety shows travelled along the same circuits as the shows. But whereas sideshow attractions directed their erotic address at a predominantly male audience, another photograph from Jeff Carter indicates that the Sorlie’s audience was decidedly mixed.

In another photograph, a female performer in bras, sleeves and panties, with a feather headdress and feather tail-piece fanning from her hips, stands in the aisle, amongst the audience, and turns to address a spectator. It is not clear exactly which spectator she is addressing. It could be a man or a woman, although whoever it is, there is a partner of the opposite sex alongside. Which is to say that the eroticism of the performer’s act is not addressing an audience of men. Rather, she triangulates the relation between male and female spectators.

In comparison with the performer, the spectators at Sorlie’s in Broken Hill are respectably well-dressed, almost overly so, it seems. But they are broadly smiling, having a laugh, enjoying the interaction – perhaps, more so, the further back they are from the performer. The man closest to her and the woman seated next to him are cowering somewhat. A man on the other side of her looks to the camera, perhaps awkwardly. A woman to the side looks over the crowd to see what’s happening. The house is not entirely full. A gap in the seating in the background, with some spectators seated at the periphery. These may be cheaper seats and there are children in the audience. A large follow-spot hung from the centre pole is focused on the stage.

References

  • Carter, Jeff, 1928-2010. Sorlie’s Travelling Vaudeville Show, Broken Hill, 1957-1962. National Library of Australia, http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview?pi=nla.pic-an23252491
  • Peggy Ryan interviewed by Beryl Davis and Laurel Garlick, sound recording, 3 March 1995, Queensland Performing Arts Centre collection.
  • Lola Nixon interviewed by Bill Stephens, sound recording, Sydney, 29 April 2005, National Library of Australia, ORAL TRC 5447.
  • Lucky Grills interviewed by Bill Stephens, sound recording, Sydney, 3-5 July 1995, National Library of Australia, ORAL TRC 3293.
  • Val Jellay. 1994. Stagestruck: An Autobiography. Melbourne: Spectrum Publications.
  • Richard Broome with Alick Jackomos. 1998. Sideshow Alley, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.
  • ‘Sorlie’s Revue Popular’, Canberra Times, 14 Oct 1954, p.2.
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9 Responses to Sorlie’s Revue

  1. Gloria VELLELEY (nee COMELLI) says:

    I remember Mrs Sorlie and her troupe of entertainers coming to GRIFFITH N.S.W. every year ( co-inciding with the GRIFFITH Agricultural Show). As a young child I went to the afternoon matinees, seeing Bobbie Le Brun and juggling acts, vaudeville acts.
    I now live in BELROSE N.S.W. (the adjoing suburb to FRENCH’S FOREST where Grace and George lived when they were not on ‘the wallaby’ touring.
    Grace Avenue FRENCHS FOREST is named after her and there is a Sorlie Road also in FRENCH’S FOREST named after George.

  2. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Gloria, thanks for sharing your memories of Sorlie’s at Griffith. It’s good to know that Griffith was on Sorlie’s touring route. Also good to know about the streets named after Grace and Sorlie in French’s Forest. Jonathan

  3. Denis Melksham says:

    I remember Sorlies when they toured up the coast of Queensland. They played here in Maryborough and it was a wonderful show. I saw my first panto at Sorlies when I was 8 years old and never missed a panto right up until they folded their tent. This was my introduction to live theatre and have loved it ever since.

  4. J. Shanahan says:

    I am presently writing a book about my family from when I was young.
    Everyone should write their early history as there is always a story to be told. I have been writing about all the tent shows that I had to take my younger sister too -Sorlie’s came to mind I have fond memories when they came to Albury between 1949-1961 most of their tent shows were held on railway land at the eastern end of our main street known as Dean Street. It is now the entrance to the Harold Mair bridge which was built over the new freeway. For a tent show on the road with live theatre it was first class.

  5. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear June – thanks for sharing your memories of Sorlie’s in Albury. It’s good to know where they performed. By all accounts, Sorlie’s performances were the class act! I look forward to reading your book when it’s ready. Do stay in touch! best wishes, Jonathan

  6. stewart says:

    My mum and dad worked worked as a stage hand and selling merandising while I was born on the road during this time when growing up requirly meet bobby due brun and other performers at coolangatta hotel when on the gold coast doing their revues, also got some good photos of sorlies handed down to me by my mum if any one interested

  7. Bill Stephens says:

    Dear Jonathan, I’ve just come across your interesting account of “Sorlie’s Revue”. Sorlies annual visits to Griffith were a much anticipated event during my childhood, and we attended as many performances as we could afford. My father was the bandmaster of the Griffith Brass Band which used to play nightly outside the entrance to the Sorlies tent throughout its annual one week season. In 1985 I recorded long interviews with both Bobby and Gracie Le Brun for the National Library’s Oral History Program. We made plans to record more the following year, but unfortunately Bobby died before those cold be achieved. I would be very interested in making contact with Stewart, who mentions that he has some good photos of Sorlies. The National Library may be interested in these photos.
    Best wishes,
    Bill Stephens

  8. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Bill. Many thanks for your comment. It’s great to read about your memories of Sorlies. Since writing that post I’ve listened to the oral histories you recorded with Bobby and Gracie Le Brun (and many others that you made for the National Library). They’re a wonderful record, full of lively details about people, places and performance, and of great value to research. I’ll see if I can put you in touch with Stewart. best wishes, Jonathan

  9. Bill Stephens says:

    Dear Jonathan..thanks for your prompt response and kind words. Hopefully Stewart is contactable and I’ll look forward to hearing from him n due course.
    Very best wishes,
    Bill

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