Theatre Royal, Brisbane

From 1949 to 1959 at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, comedian George Wallace Junior hosted a weekly variety show with a weekly change of title, such as Grin and Bare It (1951), Nudes and Blushes (1952), New Year Nudes (1953), Eves without Leaves (1953), Couldn’t Wear Less (1953), Teasy on the Eyes (1954), Peep Show (1956), Watch the Curves (1957), Don’t Give Up the Strip (1957), Hips Hooray (1958), Bareway to the Stars (1958) and Don’t Point, It’s Nude (1959).

As a collaboration between comedian George Wallace Junior and producer Laurie Smith, the change-weekly variety show at the Theatre Royal had its origins in the immediate post-war years, and a touring, all-male, ex-army A.I.F. revue company called the Kangaroos. A second-tier, Australian answer to the hugely successful Kiwis Revue Company, the Kangaroos toured the regional theatres.  In early 1948 they had just returned from a tour of north Queensland where they played ‘all the big centre[s] as far North as Cairns’. Smith recalls, on the tenth anniversary of opening at the Royal, that ‘[h]aving commenced operations as far South as Tasmania (where we met with moderate success) and then playing an extended season as far west as Perth (where we did a little better), we were flushed with the success of the Northern tour and looking for new cities to conquer when we decided to try Brisbane’.

Smith and Wallace first opened in Brisbane at the tiny Guild Theatre in Adelaide Street (with a capacity of 300), before transferring to the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street, in competition with Will Mahoney’s vaudeville at the old Cremorne Theatre across the river. Smith explains how the show’s ongoing success was secured with the incorporation of female performers into the all-male revue:

Reasonably good business resulted from the first few weeks with the Kangaroos, and this prompted us to seek the lease of this Theatre and see if Brisbane wanted an ambitious young Company of ex A.I.F. entertainers on a permanent basis. After a few weeks business fell off alarmingly, so a ballet was added, and later showgirls and a stock Company was formed, and this has more or less been the recipe ever since.

Smith introduces the ‘new Royal Showgirls’ to audiences in a program from March 1951: Yvonne Devereaux who ‘recently hit the headlines down South when she was hypnotized by American Film Star John Calvert and lowered into Sydney Harbour in a sealed drum for an hour’, ‘Raven-haired Toni Davron also hails from Sydney, where she appeared with Yvonne on the Tivoli Circuit and later at a Sydney night-club’, ‘Blonde Fay Hunt was previously a photographer’s model, and does quite a lot of mannequin work in her spare time’ and ‘Daphne Simon [who] graduated from our own ballet, and is a local girl who has really made good’. It is hard to know, precisely, how the Royal Showgirls performed, and how their role was differentiated from the ballet. A few photographs of performers on stage at the Theatre Royal show females wearing bikinis, mini-skirts and shorts, baring mid-riffs, arms and legs.

The Theatre Royal’s emphasis on displaying female bodies may have cast a romantic hue across proceedings, but it did not, it seems, overtly skew the gender mix of genders in the audience. In 1952 Smith published lists of ‘permanent weekly patrons’ in programs. In one list of 108 patrons, 26 are single men booking single seats, but one single seat is booked by a single woman and , while the remainder are mostly men, and some women, booking two or more seats.  In another list of 57 names, 13 are men booking single seats, and four married women are among the remainder booking double seats.  These lists suggests that, although the Theatre Royal did provide entertainment for single men, the predominant pattern of attendance was of heterosexual couples, either married or dating. Encouraging this perspective on the romance of attendance, Laurie Smith recalled in 1957 having ‘observed many patrons coming in singly, striking up an acquaintance and ultimately marrying (different sexes, of course), so the old Royal has served as a matrimonial bureau for some’.

With nudity promised so frequently and with such wit in the weekly change of title, did the Theatre Royal deliver on its promise? Or was it just so much ‘tongue-in-cheek’? To what extent was the Theatre Royal a venue for the active eroticism of strip? D.W. Brogan, a Professor of Political Science at Cambridge University, was visiting Brisbane in 1957. He passed up an opportunity to attend the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s production of Hamlet at His Majesty’s Theatre. He went instead to Bikini Striptease at the Theatre Royal. In an article for the Manchester Guardian, Brogan reported that ‘the poor man’s Follies’ in such frontier cities as Seattle and San Francisco were ‘now represented by drab, third rate night clubs’ but ‘Brisbane stands where these proud cities did’: ‘For here, beneath the Southern Cross, survived in its perfect form that dead American art, burlesque, “the burleycue”’:

There were the old jokes, ‘rude’ and raucous, erotic and coprophilic. There were the old routines, the comic and his stooge, the necessary ‘Patsy’, the ‘fall guy’. There were the chorus girls in their bikinis (legs, from the gallery, looked clean). There was the ramp round which coyly marched Carmelita, the great strippeuse of the company. And finally, she and her four attendants coyly remove their bras. Carmelita, true, was no Gypsy Rose Lee, no Tempest Storm, not even a grave ritualistic performer like Miss Anne Corio after whom an Australian whisky seems to have been called. She seemed to think the whole thing was rather silly, if agreeably so. And the audience?

Well, this was not the sex-starved, neurosis-ridden, wholly male audience whom Mr Geoffrey Gorer, with his sociological X-ray had found in Minsky’s. For all Brisbane was there. The youngest member of the audience was about 5 and protested boredom by bellowing. But grandma and grandpa laughed as much as the teen-agers or the young couples. For although it is a complaint of Australian women that their menfolk never take them anywhere, there is one exception – they take them to the ‘Brisbane Folies Bergere’.

Brogan’s nostalgic delight at discovering burlesque, ‘that dead American art’, alive and kicking in Brisbane’s Theatre Royal affords a curious glimpse at an alignment between family audience and erotic entertainment, the peculiarity of which is enhanced by Brogan’s implicit narrative of historical progress. Burlesque survives in Brisbane’s backwater like some curious creature cut-off from the main currents of cultural evolution—though with television loitering in the wings, Brisbane’s burlesque faced an uncertain future. For if this was the family audience who would later tune in to Brisbane’s channel BTQ-7 to watch George Wallace Junior host Theatre Royal when it transferred to television in February 1961, then striptease from the likes of Carmelita and her ‘coy’ attendants were not among the variety acts that would be appearing on television screens.

As if foreshadowing the historical transition to a televisual future, a program for the Theatre Royal features a rare photograph of Carmelita as Miss Striptease 1957, depicted alongside Carol Pearce, Miss TV 1957. The layout of their images suggests the historical progression of before and after—from left to right, from top to bottom, from Miss Striptease (‘now you see it’) to Miss TV (‘now you don’t!’). Laurie Smith introduced Carol Pearce to Theatre Royal patrons as Australia’s Jayne Mansfield, explaining how she had ‘won a £1200 TV contest in Sydney in May’, including ‘a television contract which will make her one of the top stars of the year’. The Royal had been ‘fortunate in securing Carol’s services before her TV contract commences, and while she stays at Surfers’ Paradise as part of her big prize’.

Carol Pearce hasn’t featured prominently in histories of Australian television, neither has Carmelita. It is possible that Carmelita, or some of her company, did go on to appear as dancers on variety television, although establishing this from documentary evidence is not easy. Nude performers on stage were usually only credited by first name if at all, and dancers on television variety were typically credited as an ensemble, not individually. Laurie Smith reports in the Theatre Royal program for 25 October 1958, that Carmelita returns to the Royal from ‘a highly successful tour of the East’, and she continues to appear at the Royal through 1959.  On 4 April she is joined in Don’t Point, It’s Nude with ‘six new Nudie Cuties’, and she appears again on 9 May with the Nudie Cuties in Nudes au Natural. But, by its eleventh year, the Theatre Royal’s heyday is over.

Brisbane’s first television station, QTQ9, commenced broadcasting on 16 August 1959, followed by BTQ7 on 1 November and ABQ2 on 2 November. By mid-November, Laurie Smith had ‘cut the show back to two nights a week in an effort to counteract the effects of TV’.  At the same time, he increased the prominence of promised nudity in entertainment advertisements in the Courier Mail and commenced mid-week touring to the regional towns of Toowoomba, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Ipswich, Warwick and Gympie. But to no avail: Saturday 12 December 1959 was the last night at the Theatre Royal. Two weeks later, Laurie Smith appeared on BTQ7’s ‘Meet the Press’ where, arguing against the odds, he confidently defended the fate of live variety:

Mr Smith said he made no excuses for the type of entertainment provided at the Theatre Royal for the last 11 years. His greatest critics had been people who had never been to see the show. ‘Nudie-cuties had a lot do with keeping the Royal going,’ he added.

A year later, BTQ7 had reconstructed the Theatre Royal inside a television studio. The set featured ‘a three-foot six inch high stage, a proscenium arch framing the stage, stage curtain’, ‘wings, boxes, footlights, a “foyer”’ and ‘a “backstage” area’ with ‘dressing rooms’, all ‘copied from original photographs of the theatre’.  On opening night, five Sunday Mail Sun Girl finalists made ‘a “surprise” stage decoration’ as ‘part of a “bevy of beauty” in a finale scripted around them’, but the show was carried by comedians—and former Royal Theatre regulars—George Wallace Junior, Eddie Edwards and Brian Tait.

References

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31 Responses to Theatre Royal, Brisbane

  1. Robert G knopp, Jr. says:

    My uncle,Ralph Knopp was a part of the u.s army base three special services who entertained at the theater royal in 1944. He was a part of: Kaki and Lace, The Male Animal, Here comes the band, Yanks and Diggerettes in Here we go again, Yanks a poppin, and Srars and gripes, Over 21.
    I have his detailed scrap book with amazingly detailed photographs and play bills of all these productions. I wondered if perhaps you may be interested in this part of australian theater history.I would love to share it, as it is all original and in wonderful condition.
    Regards,
    Rob Knopp

  2. i really like shows, especially comedy hypnotist shows! just suprised that their are not very many famous comedy hynotists out their. I guess this is down to the seriousness of what they can cause for ones person!

  3. June Bergin says:

    Is there any information on Pantomines staged at the Theatre Royal, round about 1952 or later? Particularly Babes in Wood. I performed in this one, cannot remember the exact year. My dancing teacher was Thelma Simpson.

  4. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear June. Thanks for getting in touch.

    There are collections of programmes from the Theatre Royal at the State Library of Queensland and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre Museum, although they aren’t complete.

    I have two references for Babes in the Wood for 1951:

    *Theatre Royal, number 137, You’ve Got to Laff, 4 Aug 1951 – also Babes in the Wood panto from 4 Aug – George Hurd, juggler, opening August 18 – The Romanos, Australia’s leading dance duo, direct from a world tour, from August 25

    *Theatre Royal, number 138, Fun’s A Buzzin’, 11 Aug 1951 – also Babes in the Wood panto, 17 Aug

    Both these programs are at QPAC; number 137 is also at the State Library. You could also try searching the newspapers in Trove, http://trove.nla.gov.au – let me know what you find!

    Jonathan

  5. cliff stocks says:

    I loved the theatre royal and loved the people who made it great’george’brian’and Patti Allen ‘Marg’Mavis I had good friends there that I still think about,

  6. cliff stocks says:

    I was a regular Friday night patron and always had the box, I was well known by all performers and was great friends of Patti Allen, and often took performers to the playroom on the coast and Laurie would pay me per car, loads of fun I will never forget the theatre royal, cliff stocks

  7. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Cliff – thanks for sharing your memories of the Theatre Royal. Good to know about the connection with the Playroom. Did they go there to perform as well, or just for a night out to relax? best wishes, Jonathan

  8. cliff says:

    i was paid by laurie smith per car as the artists were performing down there, and i got a free breakfast, rgds

  9. June Bergin says:

    Cliff or Jonathon, Are there any records of Pantomines at the Theatre Royal with George Wallace and Jenny Howard about 1950 to 1955. The one I was in was Babes in the Woods. Cannot remember the year. I was a pupil with Thelma Simmonds School of Dancing.

  10. cliff stocks says:

    i dont know of any information regarding the pantomines on saturday, but i do remember them, patti and i were good friends and i used to drive her to her gigs, and mavis and i went out for a while, so i only have great memories rgds cliff

  11. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Hi June – yes, I have some references to Babes in the Wood. Scroll back up the page. You’ll find my reply.

  12. Michelle Jackson says:

    Hi Jonathan – I was googling my ballet teacher from the 1960’s – Patricia McDonald, trying to find some pics and history. I found some information and a photograph of her as a young woman in a QUT post honouring significant contributions by dancers in Brisbane. I remember a group of dancers from our ballet school, the Patricia McDonald School of Dance, performed on Channel 7, I thought it was Theatre Royal, but I’m not certain. Just wondering if you know and if so, do you have any info or pics? It would have been approximately 1963 – 1965 or thereabouts and I think Patricia was also involved in the pantomimes.

  13. Debbie Rutherford says:

    I have an old Theatre Royal Program for ” Baby Doll Strip” that has written on it with George Wallace and Company. Saturday 22March 1958
    I have carried this around for years but don’t know if anyone has ant INTERST in this or should I just discard it in a bin? Please if it is of interest could someone tell me
    Thanks

  14. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Gloria – many thanks for getting in touch. I am very interested in the programme. I’ll be in touch by email. best wishes, Jonathan

  15. Bob McLachlan says:

    Hello again, Jonathan,
    Ah, The Theatre Royal, what memories that brings back. I was first taken there by my parents in 1948, I remember, and fairly regularly thereafter until the end of 1951. I loved George Wallace Jnr with his little stumbling walk when he first used to come on stage, to great applause. He was part of a wonderful comedy trio, the other two being Eddie Edwards and Edna Tutty. I remember Edna offering to present a gold watch to one of her two fellow comedians who could thrill her most with a kiss, but for safe keeping she popped the watch in her bosom. At that George turned to the audience and stated “There’s gold in them thar hills”. That was about the level of comedy but the delivery had the crowd laughing their heads off.
    Laurie Smith I recall used to play the harmonica to begin with but I don’t recall him playing after a couple of years. He had a pretty blonde who was called “Josette” walk down Queen Street in just a bikini and that created quite a sensation, but it was good publicity.
    Many a story could be told of the enjoyable shows that they put on. I believe they set a record for the longest-running theatrical company in the one theatre. I moved from Brisbane with my family in 1952 and I never saw the show again, but I never forgot them. During that time in Brisbane I used to go to the Cremorne Theatre across the river and I saw Roy Rene (Mo) there, then a few months later the Cremorne burnt to the ground. They were great days of entertainment. I was only twelve in 1948 but was fortunate to have a Mum and Dad who loved a good laugh. What passes as comedy these days I call ‘social commentary’ but I do not find it at all funny, not rib-tickling funny. But, there are great memories from those days. Cheers to all.
    Bob McLachlan.

  16. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Dear Bob – thanks for sharing your memories of the Theatre Royal. That’s a great story about the kind of comedy Laurie Smith’s approach to publicity!
    best wishes
    Jonathan

  17. June Bergin says:

    Hi Bob, Loved reading your Theatre Royal memories. Makes me feel like I am back there. I did perform in a couple of Pantomines at the Theatre Royal early in my life. Agree with you about the comedy these days.
    Kind Regards
    June

  18. Bob McLachlan says:

    Hello there, June,
    Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, they were great days. I remember Jenny Howard with her very funny routine using her double-jointed arms as she sang. I must pay a tribute to the very hard-working chorus girls who danced their hearts out. There was a smaller girl who always seemed to be on the lefthand end of the line and I liked her very much (as a 12-year old) but one Saturday matinee she she seemed to falter slightly and disappeared off the stage for a few minutes. I asked my Mum what happened to her and she told me the girl had almost lost her bra. A good trouper, she was back with a big smile.
    I remember George Hill, the blind Aboriginal guitarist who sang “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”. George had won Amateur Hour with a record number of votes. He sang “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” in that also. I knew George when we lived on Woorabinda Settlement. My Dad worked there establishing Foleyvale. With George, I never knew him to sing any other song than “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”, but he was so talented. He used to visit us at our house and told us his story. As a 13-year-old he and some mates were playing with some detonators they had found when George’s blew-up blinding him completely, blowing his right hand off at the wrist, and blowing-off all but his thumb and forefinger on his left hand. He used a plectrum attached to his right wrist to strum with and fingered the chords with his thumb and forefinger. He ran a children’s choir at the Settlement, and played the cornet and the piano. He was able to walk anywhere on Woorabinda unaided.
    Sadly, after appearing at the Theatre Royal he seemed to go downhill and a few years later he died. It was said that he died of a brokenheart. He was out of his familiar territory. He was still relatively young . A sad ending for a great talent.
    Best Wishes,
    Bob.

  19. Bob McLachlan says:

    Dear Jonathan,
    Thank you for your reply and kind remarks. I am 79 now but the fun I had in my early days, the memories of the wonderful shows at the Theatre Royal, and the Cremorne, as well as the innocence of the movies in those day, have all helped keep me young.
    Cheerio, and best regards,
    Bob Mclachlan.

  20. Ted Smith says:

    In the early 1960s I worked as a technician on many of the BTQ live “Theatre Royals”. Like working backstage in a live theatre except hundred’s of thousands of people saw it if you made any mistakes! We often laughed so much we could hardly keep the camera adjustments in check (nothing automatic in those days.) I built my first kitchen out of salvaged bit of the used sets that were made for the ever changing skits – first grade plywood and pine – no Ikea then!

  21. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Ted. Great to hear that the televised Theatre Royal shows felt as live as the theatre. And glad to hear the sets had a second life in your kitchen. best wishes, Jonathan

  22. Hello Cliff, It’s Patti Allen here, so good to hear of you, do you live in Australia, in relation to Panto, I did many with George, I played Cinders in Cinderella to George’s Buttons, and to Smiley, who also played Buttons, also Snow White, and several others.
    My Love
    Patti

  23. Michele Thompson says:

    My Mum danced in the ballet at the Theatre Royal for quite a while. She then had her own studio, which is still running, and the 2 of us, my sister and I were later in shows put on by Patti Allen and Laurie Smith called “Memories of Theatre Royal”…I wish I knew of someone with programmes or other such things that I could contact for copies to see if my Mum is in any of them.

  24. Michele Thompson says:

    Ps Hi Patti!

  25. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Hi Michele, thanks for sharing your memories. There are good collections of programmes from the Theatre Royal in the State Library of Queensland and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre Museum. Well worth a look, next time you’re in Brisbane. Jonathan

  26. Patti Allen says:

    The Patricia Macdonald Dancers were never in Theatre Royal TV Series,there was some dancers that did come from the ballet in Theatre Royal Brisbane such as Jacki Ellison,Jenny,and a few others,the rest simply auditioned,soubrettes that had worked at Theatre Royal,and went on to TVSeries were Delores Rose,Jacki Ellison,[who replaced me as Soubrette when I left Theatre Royal to work the Tivoli Circuit,and myself Patti Allen,there were several Panto’s I played in for the Royal Cinders in Cinderella Snow White [ played Snow White] Aladdin[Princess]Hope this helps

  27. Mervyn Neil Alexander says:

    i was wondering if you have records of all the singers and entertainers that performed at theatre royal from the start.

  28. Jonathan Bollen says:

    Hi Mervyn. I have notes on the programs from the Theatre Royal that are held at the State Library of Queensland and the QPAC Museum, and there are quite a few names in my notes, but it’s not a complete list. Are you looking for someone in particular? best wishes, Jonathan

  29. Debbie Rutherford and Robert Knopp. I’m interested in the archival material you each have mentioned. Regards, Ira

  30. jack potter says:

    I am a school days friend of Patti Allen….I live in WA….I performed with her and Dennis during 1991 or so and would like to find her if she’s still around. I have combed through all the obvious sites….my website and address/phone number is on http://www.jackthewildcard.com….any help would be appreciated
    Jack Potter

    p.s. I first met through her mother at the Southport School where her mother was matron and Patti was performing in Theatre Royal 1956 as soubrette

  31. I lived at Ekibin and in the early 60’s i would go up to georges home at wellers hill to get the friday night btq7 scripts so my friends and myself would recreate on stage in a shed at the back of a small shopping centre at wellers hill…….we recreated the theatre royal and we we all starred in the weekly shows…..a sort of our gang show…..george was always grumpy with me when i got the scripts….i remember throwing small rocks at his window early on saturday mornings to wake him up….he would throw the scripts at me to get rid of me….you see he drank a little……marg his wife was understanding to our cause….i was about 11 years of age at the time…i thought this may have some interest to this column……..

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