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.
- 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.