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.