Moving variety between stage and screen

Research at the National Film and Sound Archive, July 2008

Jonathan Bollen, Flinders University

Historians of popular theatre usually record the decline of vaudeville and variety shows by citing the widespread closure of theatre buildings as venues for live entertainment. A particularly notable occasion was the closure in April 1966 of the Tivoli theatre in Melbourne; Sydney’s Tivoli had closed a few weeks earlier. The last night at the Tivoli was televised in Sydney and Melbourne by Channel 9 – which, as historians have noted, had a certain irony about it, given the widespread belief that ‘it was television that killed off stage variety’.[i] Yet when theatres closed their doors, burnt down, were demolished or converted into cinemas – as was the fate of many theatres in Australia during the twentieth century – the performers and their acts did not just disappear. Nor does this story of stage variety’s demise with the arrival of television adequately explain the ongoing popularity of variety performance in Australia – circus, comedy, cabaret, drag, burlesque and revue continue to be performed live and enjoyed to this day. After exploring the NFSA collection to find out what happened to Australian variety performance when television arrived, a different story begins to emerge.

In Australia, as elsewhere, historians have recorded two waves of closure and demise. The first is associated with the arrival of cinema; the second with the arrival of television. Australian historian Richard Waterhouse records how, by the mid-1920s, ‘moving pictures had replaced vaudeville as the key theatrical strand in the web of Australian urban popular culture’.[ii] In 1927 the leading entrepreneur of Fullers’ national circuit of vaudeville theatres pronounced ‘Vaudeville Gone – Never to Return’ and during the depression years from 1929 many vaudeville theatres closed or became cinemas. Business on the Tivoli circuit, the other great vaudeville enterprise in Australia, also contracted to just one theatre in Melbourne during the depression, although the circuit was revived in 1932. From that point, the new Tivoli circuit presented mixed bills of comedy, song and dance, novelty acts, revue, musical comedy and spectacles studded with international stars to audiences in Melbourne and Sydney. It continued to do this until 1966. Charles Norman, a performer on the Fuller and Tivoli circuits from the 1920s to the 1960s, records in his memoir that ‘when the Tivoli Theatres closed their doors [in 1966] the middle of the road entertainment had vanished’.[iii] For theatre historian John West, ‘variety was doomed as year-round theatrical entertainment when television came to Australia in 1956’.[iv]

Theatre historians have a particular fondness for stories of death, decline and demise. As an ephemeral art form, the very nature of performance is to disappear and vanish without trace – here today, alive and kicking, but tomorrow gone for ever more.[v] There is a certain nostalgia in telling the story of variety’s decline in this way, especially when the story is told, as it often has been, through the medium of television. Indeed, television promoted itself as the new medium of entertainment, in part, by indulging its audience’s nostalgia for the past genres of variety performance. Minstrel shows, music hall songs, old-fashioned dances, period costumes and veteran stage performers were standard fare in the first decade of Australian variety television. But nostalgia for old-time variety was also a key ingredient for success on the variety stage at the time. Capitalising on the notion of variety’s decline just as television was arriving on the scene, for instance, stage producer Harry Wren promoted the nostalgic appeal of his old-time variety and vaudeville stars in a series of three stage shows – Thanks for the Memory, The Good Old Days, and Many Happy Returns – which toured Australian cities from 1953 to 1959.

These nostalgic accounts of variety’s demise in the face of newer, technologically mediated-forms of entertainment warrant reconsideration. Research on the cultural industries of Australian modernity in the early decades of the twentieth century reveals a more complex historical transition. In Dance Hall and Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity, Jill Julius Matthews demonstrates how new media technologies such as cinema were integrated into the circuits of show business and how the practices of live performance provided content for movie makers to film. ‘There was a close interdependence of content across all media’, Matthews concludes.[vi] Like Waterhouse, Matthews focuses on the period from the 1890s to the 1920s, which saw the introduction of cinema in Australia. I am interested in the later phase of technological transition which saw the integration of live performance into the production of Australian television across three transitional decades: (1) from 1946 to 1955 when variety and revue was performed live in theatres and on radio prior to the introduction of television from 1956; (2) from 1956 to 1965 when variety moved onto television with regular live telecasts from theatres like Tivoli Party Time in Melbourne and television studios like Theatre Royal in Brisbane,[vii] and the launch of studio-produced variety shows like The Bobby Limb Show (1959), Graham Kennedy’s The Channel Nine Show / In Melbourne Tonight (1960); and (3) from 1966 to 1975 when variety consolidated as a television genre and live performers sought new audiences elsewhere.

Whatever the impact of television, the vitality of stage variety during the 1950s and 1960s in  Australia is not adequately encompassed by the decline of the Tivoli circuit and the closure of  two theatres in Sydney and Melbourne. The Tivoli’s heyday had past, but there were many other venues, organisations and people producing variety on stage in this period. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, producers such as Garnet H. Carroll, Tibor Rudas and Harry Wren were booking local variety acts and touring so-called ‘exotic revues’ from China, Japan, the Philippines, the African Americas and the Pacific to theatres in Australian cities. A slew of state-sponsored shows from the communist countries of eastern Europe – from Yugoslavia, Russia, Georgia, Siberia and Poland – toured Australian cities in the 1960s. This was the period of ‘intimate revue’ at the Philip Street Theatre in Sydney, the Union Theatre in Melbourne, and the so-called ‘little theatres’ in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth – venues at which many of the performers who would become well-known on television first made an appearance – including Gordon Chater, Ruth Cracknell, Barry Humphries, Reg Livermore and June Salter. It was also the period in which new venues for popular entertainment emerged – night clubs presented singers, show girls and drag shows, theatre restaurants offered melodramas, sketch comedy and revue, and licensed clubs (particularly in New South Wales) formed a de facto circuit for variety entertainers of all persuasions, including the acrobats, jugglers, magicians, animal trainers and other performers of sight acts who were wary of exposing their acts to too large an audience on television. Television studios, large enough to accommodate audiences, were built in all capital cities. In attracting audiences weekly to watch the production of television variety, these studios should also be regarded as new venues for live entertainment.

So the first point to be made is that variety performance, live on stage, did not die when television arrived on the scene. Rather, as historian Jennifer Cornwall argues, ‘the two decades spanning 1955 to 1975 were boom periods in variety entertainment in Australia’, with television – alongside night clubs, theatre restaurants, and licensed clubs – offering expanded opportunities for variety entertainers to perform.[viii] Bobby Limb, for example, is reported to have presented Tivoli-style revues at the Kogarah RSL Club in the 1960s, presumably between jobs hosting television variety shows with comedians Dawn Lake and Buster Fiddess on Sydney’s Channel 7.[ix] A second point is that recordings of early variety television – such as those held at the NFSA – attest to the vitality of stage variety by documenting many of the acts and performers who, at the time, were also performing live on stage. Indeed, the producers of television variety in Australia drew extensively on the talents of live theatre performers to create content for broadcast, especially in television’s first decade. Consequently, the recordings of television variety at the NFSA are valuable not only for the history of television; they are also valuable for the history of live performance, especially so since it is rare to find moving image recordings of live performance in theatres at this time. A third point is that, from the performers’ perspective, there was no simple transition, no single move from stage to television as if progressing along a one-way street. Rather, performers moved between the two, from stage to television and back again, adapting their acts with each opportunity to perform, some spending periods of time working in each, others appearing simultaneously in both.

In this article, I draw on research at the NFSA collection in Canberra and at performing arts collections in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney to illustrate aspects of this movement between television and stage.[x] My interest in variety performance in the NFSA collection has resolved around several articulations between stage and screen, three of which I sketch here: (1) variety’s articulation of time – the historicisation of theatrical genres of performance on television and a curious mix of old-time nostalgia and sexual progress which, with the advent of television, came to characterise variety on stage; (2) variety’s articulation of place – excursions, exoticisms and extraordinary acts that render variety performance akin to everyday tourism, amidst the social effects of post-war migration and a discourse of international relations; and (3) variety’s articulation of desire – the fictionalisation of burlesque and the suburbanisation of drag as television transformed class-based audience alignments with entertainment genres.

Harry Wren and George Wallace Junior

Harry Wren was one of a handful of entrepreneurs producing variety entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia. Born in 1916, he first worked in cinemas and built up a chain of movie theatres in South Australia before venturing into live entertainment. His first live shows were variety revues at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane from 1940. By 1947 he claimed to be operating variety theatres in Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, Geelong, Ballarat, Broken Hill and Brisbane. By the 1950s he was also presenting shows at the Empire and Palladium Theatres in Sydney and the Princess and King’s Theatres in Melbourne. He travelled widely, in particular to the United States and Japan, and he operated his various businesses – Harry Wren Theatres Pty Ltd, Celebrity Theatres Pty Ltd, and Celebrity Circuit Pty Ltd – outside the auspices of J.C. Williamsons and the Tivoli Circuit, though often in tenuous alliance with them. He was dogged in his later years by bankruptcy proceedings which he successfully appealed. He died in 1973 in Sydney at age 57.[xi]

Wren is most often remembered for his nostalgic variety shows and, for the most part, these were comfortably familiar, home-grown affairs. Thanks for the Memory, the first of three, opened at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 3 October 1953. It featured old-time vaudeville stars well-known to Australian audiences since the 1930s – George Wallace (senior), Jim Gerald, Morrie Barling, Queenie Paul – along with Keith Peterson, Beryl Meekin, Nanette Allen and Jandy the Clown. The bill was made up of comedy sketches, sentimental songs, nostalgic ballets, and sight acts of juggling, acrobatics and clowning. The emphasis was on home-grown talent and home-spun humour.  The only exotic element to speak of was ‘A Breath of Paris’ featuring the Sunkist Beauty Ballet performing a can-can. The show’s innovation was a fashion parade presented in association with Messrs Maples of Bourke Street. Thanks for the Memory toured Australia and (possibly) New Zealand until (at least) August 1956.  In 1957 Wren presented his follow-up show, The Good Old Days, in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide (and possibly elsewhere). This second show was billed ‘the crowning glory of vaudeville’ and featured acrobat Maurice Colleano and Company amongst a similar line up of stars including George Wallace, Jim Gerald, Queenie Paul and Morry Barling. In 1959 George Wallace Junior took his father’s spot in Wren’s third nostalgic vaudeville show, Many Happy Returns. This show was a vehicle of farewell for singer Gladys Moncrieff, but otherwise the line up of performers was again much the same.

George Wallace Junior’s home movie of the Many Happy Returns show on tour is a remarkable piece of evidence, a silent film of 22 minutes shot on 16mm colour stock.[xii] The film opens with shots of the company on tour, visiting scenic spots like Mount Lofty in Adelaide, having a barbeque picnic in the Barossa Valley, travelling by train across Central Australia. It also includes scenic shots of streetscapes and theatre facades in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne where they played. It concludes with the performance itself — shots of some ten segments from the show, mostly the more visual dance numbers and acrobatic sight acts. Wallace presumably decided that the more aural components, the songs and comedy routines, did not translate well to silent film. For the program at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal indicates that verbal wit, sketch comedy and social satire—not evident in the movie—were very much part of the show. All-rounder Beryl Meekin, ‘the moonfaced mountain of mirth’ delivers ‘a ton of mirth quake’ in one segment, while ‘the bright boys of vaudeville’ — Jim Gerald, Keith Peterson and (‘A Chip off the Old Block’) George Wallace, Jnr.— ‘live it up’ in ‘Room 999 at the Royal Reserve Hotel’, as well as appearing in skits called ‘The Evangelist’ and ‘The 3 Teddy Bears’.[xiii]

Harry Wren promoted the nostalgic appeal of his old-time vaudeville stars. ‘The GREATEST VAUDEVILLE in HISTORY lives gloriously on’, announces Wren in the program: ‘THE HAPPIEST SHOW IN OUR LIVES – 50 YEARS OF BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES – HERE THEY ARE AGAIN … ALL YOUR LOVED STARS OF VARIETY THE GREATEST STARS OF THE THEATRE’S GOLDEN YEARS … THE ROYAL FAMILY OF VARIETY”. At the same time, Wren ‘enlivened’ his nostalgic shows, as Adelaide’s The Advertiser put it, with ‘a vivacious and beautiful chorus  […] and a few discreetly-placed nudes’.[xiv] The chorus in Many Happy Returns comprised two groups of chorus girls, the Glamour Birds and the Glamourettes, a group of six chorus boys, known as the Gay Dogs, and three topless women called the Nudie Cuties [pic]. In contrary motion to the nostalgic memories of the show’s vaudeville past, Wren’s use of nude show girls extended the appeal of his shows along a progressive path into an arena of erotic spectacle – potentially beyond television’s reach. Newspaper advertisements for Many Happy Returns sported a more modern rhetoric to match: ‘FABULOUS – BRILLIANT – MAGNIFICENT – MODERN – STAR STUDDED’ were the key words, and in smaller text below ‘Harry Wren’s GLAMOUR BIRDS, Australia’s Most Beautiful Blondes! Brunettes! Redheads! FABULOUS – GLORIOUS – NUDES!’ At the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, Wren’s foyer advertising attracted attention when the police took ‘action against the unrestricted public display in Adelaide of photographs of near-nude showgirls advertising the variety show’.[xv]

Exotic acts at home

To this enticing mix of nostalgic memories and erotic spectacle, Harry Wren had added a third crucial ingredient: exotic acts from far away. Amongst the home-grown entertainment on the bill, Many Happy Returns included three exotic acts: ‘The Rivieras, the world famous Apache team from Paris, last seen at the Copacabana Club in Japan’ where they ‘broke all records for a European act ever to play in Japan’; The Clark Brothers, ‘the fabulous American coloured dancers who took Sydney by storm during a brief appearance here with Johnny Ray in 1955’; and Cherry Minato, a Japanese ‘muscle control dancer’, who recently ‘concluded her 561st performance at the fabulous Monte Carlo Club in Tokyo’ and ‘has also toured the Philippines, Saigon and Bangkok’. Indeed, such was the significance of presenting exotic acts from elsewhere that, during a break in touring Many Happy Returns, in the month before its final season at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in September 1959, Wren corralled many of the performers including the African-American Clark Brothers and Japanese Cherry Minato, alongside magician John Calvert and Pilita, ‘Spain’s nightingale of song’, into a stop-gap revue for Sydney’s Empire Theatre titled From Outer Space – which is about as exotic as it gets![xvi]

Australian audiences of the 1950s and 1960s were afforded many such opportunities for encountering exotic acts in variety performance. In 1958 Harry Wren had brought the Cherry Blossom Show from Tokyo to Australia for a national tour.[xvii] Two years earlier, Garnet H. Carroll had toured the Chinese Classical Theatre Company with a mixed bill of opera scenes, dances and acrobatics.[xviii] And through 1959 and 1960, Tibor Rudas was touring Oriental Cavalcade, an extraordinary show which, according to a program, promised ‘the mystery of Siam, the fascination of China, the excitement of Malaya, the enchantment of India, revealed in the most provocative, the most hilarious way’.[xix] There were many other such exotic revues touring Australia in the 1950s and 1960s: The Folies Bergere Revue (1953) and The Pleasures of Paris (1959) from France; Harlem Blackbirds (1955), Coloured Rhapsody (1954), and Katherine Dunham and Dancers (1956) from the African Americas; Tropical Holiday (1959) from Brazil; Tahiti, Enchanted Island (1961) from the Pacific, Alegrias de Espana (1960) and Lusillo and his Spanish Dance Theatre (1958-1967) from Spain; Bayanihan (1964) from the Philippines; Tokyo Nights (1965) and Japan by Night (1968) from Japan, and a slew of state-sponsored shows from the communist countries of eastern Europe including Kolo – The Yugoslav State Company (1959), The Moscow State Variety Theatre (1962), The Georgian State Dance Company (1963), The Omsk Siberian Company (1964) and Mazowsze Dance Company of Poland (1967; NFSA Titles 287709, 466485).[xx]

Over the period when television viewing was becoming a regular domestic routine, these exotic revues offered audiences extraordinary nights out at the theatre – experiences of being away from home, akin to tourism and travel beyond the domestic scene. In a segment from The Bobby Limb Show (c. 1959), juggler Che Chung Chong from Hong Kong and balance artist Mana Koon from Shanghai perform sight acts which were seen on stage in Oriental Cavalcade.[xxi] As a stage producer, Tibor Rudas appears to have early realised the cross-promotional prospects of television. These and other acts from Oriental Cavalcade, such as the Rickman Duo from the Philippines, the Kawashima Dancers from Japan, and the Fabulous Rudas Dancers, appeared on television in Café Continental, The Mobil Limb Show and other episodes of The Bobby Limb Show.[xxii] The segment then segues into a performance by Australian comedienne, Beryl Meekin, who was billed on stage as Australia’s ‘moonface of mirth’ in Harry Wren’s Thanks for the Memory and Many Happy Returns. Meekin appears as a Chinatown madame, singing the jazz standard, ‘Limehouse Blues’. The juxtaposition of Chinese performers with western performers made up in Chinese costume records a deployment of the exotic in variety performance that is hard to fathom today – much like the appearance of singer and activist Paul Robeson alongside blacked-up performers on Hal Lashwood’s black and white minstrel show.[xxiii]

Café Continental, a variety programme produced by Harry Pringle at ABC Television, Sydney, from 1959 to 1961, specialised in the presentation of exotic acts from elsewhere. The show was broadcast each fortnight in alternation with Hal Lashwood’s black and white minstrel show.  Café Continental is styled as a cabaret; the studio audience are invited to dance at the show’s opening and close, between which they sit at tables, sipping drinks, while a changing bill of performers, often representing the exotic performance cultures of Europe, Asia or the Pacific, present their acts in a floor show. But the show also presented acts which had elsewhere appeared on the variety stage.

An episode of Café Continental from November 1960 features the Rivieras, the dance duo whom producer Harry Wren had billed in his Many Happy Returns show of 1959.[xxiv] On Café Continental, the Riviera’s perform two dances – a jitterbug, which is also recorded as performed on stage in George Wallace Junior’s home movie of the Many Happy Returns tour, and an apache routine in which the exaggerated physicality of the performers, their lively audience interaction, and their aggressive gender relations, threaten to exceed the close-up containment of the television studio. A toned-down, cleaned-up version of this apache routine would later be performed by dancers Bill McGrath and Carlu Carter on Revue ’61, Digby Wolfe’s stylish variety show on Channel 7.[xxv] Another episode of Café Continental features foot juggling duo, Leo Bassi and June.[xxvi] I was particularly pleased to find this record of their performance – and to learn who they are – as Bassi and June also appear, unidentified, in the same act, in a photograph of Sorlie’s Travelling Vaudeville Show, taken by Jeff Carter (circa 1957-1962) at Broken Hill.[xxvii] Sorlie’s was a joint venture 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 Sorley (1885-1948), had toured on a similar circuit from 1917 to 1945. On the episode of Café Continental, Leo Bassi and June open their act by foot juggling, of all things, a couple of televisions.

From nude revues…

Travelling shows like Many Happy Returns provided occasional encounters with the exotic for a mixed audience of working men and women. That such a show was here today and gone tomorrow would no doubt underscore the transience of the encounter: a special night out, a bit of a lark, a little of what you fancy and all that. Attending its presentation could also entail, in comparison with television, a reasonably high tolerance for exposure to the erotic. Nor was such tolerance only extended to travelling shows. From 1949 to 1959 at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, comedian George Wallace Junior hosted a weekly variety show with a weekly change of name, such as Grin and Bare It (c.1951), Nudes and Blushes (c.1952), New Year Nudes (1953), Peep Show (1956), Don’t Give Up the Strip (1957), Hips Hooray (1958), Bareway to the Stars (1958) and Don’t Point, It’s Nude (1959).[xxviii] Cambridge University professor D.W. Brogan, attending Bikini Striptease at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal in 1957, confirmed that ‘Carmelita, the great striptease of the company […] and her four attendants coyly removed their bras’. Moreover, Brogan claims that ‘all Brisbane was there’ to see it: ‘The youngest member of the audience was about five and protested boredom by bellowing. But Grandad and Grandma laughed as much as the teenagers or young couples’.[xxix] Brogan delights at discovering burlesque, ‘that dead American art’, alive and kicking in Brisbane. Yet if these were the family audiences 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 four coy attendants were probably not among the variety acts that appeared on television screens.

Burlesque-style dance routines – with showgirls in bustiers and fishnet stockings, feathers, furs and long-tailed bustles – were occasionally seen on television variety shows in its first decade in Australia. On TCN9’s The Bobby Limb Show, for instance, in 1959 and 1960, singer Tikky Taylor performed songs as a soubrette, with the six Ron Hay Dancers dressed as showgirls dancing out from behind narrow screens arranged upstage behind Taylor.[xxx] In these segments, however, the dancers are little more than silhouettes, stripped of their power to deliver flesh, while their choreographies, reduced to minor variations on ‘reveal–and–conceal’, lack the narrative propulsion to satisfy desire.

Burlesque styles of performance were more readily televised when framed as fiction. In an episode of The Mobil Limb Show, probably from 1961, a blonde woman, dressed in a showgirl’s bustier, appears on the set of a down-and-out dive called the Hasty Tasty and sings a version of Bobby Troup’s  ‘Daddy’, walking coyly amongst the men at the tables, some of whom may have been invited onto the set from the studio audience.[xxxi] As the dancers disappear and reappear from behind a curtain, their erotic charge operates as displaced recollection. Rather than the direct stimulus of erotic presentation, the so-called Hasty Tasty Lovelies invoked erotic memories of burlesque from another, fictional, time and place.

Only later in the glamorous abstraction of ABC Television’s The Lorrae Desmond Show, shot without a studio audience and edited together from multiple takes, are the intimacies of burlesque performance coquettishly signalled through feathers, fur and bedroom-scene close-ups on Desmond’s naughty-but-ever-so-nice presentational address. An undated episode opens with Desmond in black leotard and tights, lounging on a single bed. ‘Talk about relaxing,’ she coos to camera, ‘do you mind if I lie down?’ – from which position she sings Rogers and Hart’s ‘You Took Advantage of Me’.[xxxii] In another undated episode, Desmond and guest artist Hazel Phillips, lounge amongst ostrich feathers in bare legs and bare feet, sipping champagne through long straws and singing the Shirley Horn standard ‘Peel Me a Grape’.[xxxiii] In the final episode from 27 April 1964, Desmond appears in the opening medley as a stripper on the stage of a night club set. She strips off her skirt, hugs the curtain, disappears then re-appears, covering her apparent nakedness with ostrich feather fans. Her male dancers, seated as an audience, whistle at her feather dance performance, before an edit magically transports Desmond to another scene, where she sings in operatic style dressed as a southern belle.[xxxiv]

On those occasions when erotic burlesque broached the television screen, the producers of television variety were cautious to frame its eroticism within abstract, historical or theatrical settings. Such frames obliquely diverted the performers’ erotic address, rendering it innocuously nostalgic and insulating middle class sensibilities from affront.

…to suburban drag

No such caution accompanied television’s incorporation of variety theatre’s other great erotic specialty – the spectacle of male performers appearing in female drag. Female impersonation was a popular aspect of variety entertainment on stage in the post-war period in Australia. The Kiwis Revue Company, a New Zealand Army entertainment unit which had formed during the war and subsequently toured with J.C. Williamsons, featured female impersonators amongst their all-male cast. The Kiwis performed in all major cities in Australia and New Zealand for eight years from 1946, giving thousands of performances in that time.[xxxv] The Kiwis’ female impersonators sang, danced and acted in a variety of routines; they were the highlight of the show and attracted praise in newspaper reviews and the camera’s attention in newsreels.[xxxvi] In programmes from the Kiwis revues at Sydney’s Empire Theatre in 1949, three female impersonators – Wally Prictor, John Hunter and Phil Jay – appear in three distinct guises: (1) as purveyors of romantic glamour in items like ‘Fifi La Baba’, ‘Back to the Twenties’, ‘Neapolitan Serenade’ and ‘A Memory of Schubert’, with Hunter, for instance, performed ballet dances en pointe; (2) as leading ladies in theatrical spoofs on opera, ballet and drama such as ‘Lehariana’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Primrose, or a Simple Village Made’ and ‘The Truth about Grand Opera’, and (3) as suburban girls, maiden aunts and mothers in domestic sketch comedy such as ‘Fixing the Light’, ‘Soldier for Tea’, ‘Girl Guides’ and ‘Cathode Interference’.[xxxvii]

The incorporation of drag performance into variety television is particularly evident. Buster Fiddess on The Bobby Limb Show played the female roles in theatrical spoofs (for example, Miss Anne in The King and I, Maid Marion in Robin Hood) and regularly appeared as an ageing Aunt Gladys in domestic comedy sketches. Sketch comedies and theatrical spoofs were also regularly featured on Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight where Joff Ellen and Bert Newton would perform in drag.[xxxviii] Another male performer on The Bobby Limb Show – apparently, a studio technician in particularly bad drag – played Dawn’s grown-up daughter ‘Luv’ (as in ‘You tell ‘em, luv!’) in a weekly sketch on suburban life 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. Likewise, a weekly segment on Melbourne’s Sunnyside Up in the early 1960s saw the show’s host, Bill Collins, and another regular, dressed as housewives, exchanging gossip and jokes about suburban life and marriage over a back fence.[xxxix] These were also the years of Barry Humphries’ early television appearances as Edna Everage, the housewife from Moonee Ponds, on the 7 Network’s Startime hosted by John Laws.[xl]

In such sketch comedies and spoofs lie television’s strongest claims to inheriting the traditions of variety performance from the stage. Comedic drag, in particular, came directly from the stage, for its visual incongruities of costume, wigs and make-up would have had less currency on radio. However, as with burlesque, artists and producers drew selectively on stage traditions in adapting drag performance for television: comedic drag, for instance, was readily embraced; glamour drag was not. Indeed, I have yet to find any evidence on television of the kind of glamour drag featured in the Kiwis Revues – with male performers in lavish evening gowns impersonating female stars of stage and screen – at least, not during television’s decade or two when, in the wake of television’s claim on the mass production of variety for a suburban audience, new metropolitan niches were opening for stage presentations of glamour drag and nude revue.

From the mid-1960s, at the Lido Theatre Restaurant in Melbourne, producer David McIlwraith presented revues ‘in the continental style’ with a chorus of showgirls, some nude, and with talent drawn from both television and stage – including comedian Johnny Lockwood, singer Denise Drysdale and drag artiste Tracey Lee.[xli] Harry Wren booked McIlwraith’s Lido Revue for the 1967 gala opening of a theatre restaurant in Adelaide, with the Honourable Don Dunstan, Premier of South Australia suitably delivering the opening address, since Dunstan’s reform of liquor licensing had, according to Wren, made the venture possible.[xlii] In Sydney, music promoter Lee Gordon, who did much to bring American rock-and-roll performers to audiences in Australia, presented drag and strip at the Jewel Box De Luxe in Kings Cross from 1961. From 1962, theatre producer James Fishburn, who worked on intimate revues at Sydney’s Phillip Street and Independent theatres, was also producing drag shows at the Purple Onion in Kensington. Fishburn was later associate producer and then producer of The Mavis Bramstson Show for Sydney’s ATN7.[xliii] His familiarity with Sydney’s emerging drag scene is apparent in an episode from 1964. Introducing June Salter as a tawdry stripper, down on her luck and out-of-work, Barry Creyton spins yet another story of variety’s demise: ‘in Sydney, the majority of the spangles and sequins type of night club entertainment has been taken over by the female impersonator. It would appear that the drag show, as she is known, is here to stay. What then has happened to the real girl?”[xliv]

Not perhaps until a decade later did glamour drag come to grace the television screen. In 1975 James Fishburn produced a television special scripted by John-Michael Howson and televised, by then in glorious colour, on Network Seven. In Hello Hollywood, Tracey Lee impersonates the stars – Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and so on. She is joined by 1960s pop star Normie Rowe and veteran variety performer Gloria Dawn. In one segment, which recalls a scene from one of David McIlwraith’s Lido revues from 1968, Rowe appears dressed as a life-saver and dances with the chorus boys as Lee performs ‘Heatwave’ as Carmen Miranda.[xlv] Such homoerotic scenes with drag queens flanked by life-savers would become standard fare at drag shows in Australian gay bars and Sydney’s gay and lesbian Mardi Gras. In another segment, Dawn and Lee perform a comedy sketch as cranky air hostesses, cracking crass jokes with the broad Australian accents we might now associate with Kath and Kim. Hello Hollywood illustrates well, in conclusion, how variety performance embraced both television and stage. While I am still researching the trajectory of Tracey Lee’s drag career, Rowe would transition from pop star in the 1960s via appearances on variety television in the 1970s to roles on stage in 1980s musicals Chess, Evita and Les Miserables.[xlvi] While Dawn’s career encompasses the entire scope of variety performance – from the Tivoli circuit to Brisbane’s Cremorne Theatre with Harry Wren, from Sorlie’s travelling show with her husband, juggler Frank Cleary in the 1940s and the Phillip Street Revues in the mid 1960s, to her final television appearances, a year before her death in 1978, on Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks.[xlvii]

[i] ‘Final Curtain’, episode of Time Frame, prod. and dir. by Aviva Ziegler, Social History Unit, ABC Television, 1996.

[ii] Richard Waterhouse, From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville: The Australian Popular Stage, 1788-1914, Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1990, p. 133.

[iii] Charles Norman, When Vaudeville was King: A Soft Shoe Stroll Down Forget-Me-Not Lane, Melbourne: Spectrum Publications, 1984, p. 310.

[iv] John West, ‘Tivoli circuit’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, eds. P. Parson & V. Chance, Sydney: Currency Press, 1995, p. 604.

[v] The ephemerality of performance is a well explored issue in theatre history and performance theory; see Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London & New York: Routledge, 1993; Phillip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, London & New York: Routledge, 1999; Rebecca Schneider, ‘Performance remains’, Performance Research, 6/2, 2001.

[vi] Jill Julius Matthews, Dance Hall and Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity, Sydney: Currency Press, p. 108.

[vii] BTQ7’s Theatre Royal began broadcasting on 7 February 1961 from a television studio set up as a theatre, ‘complete with wings, boxes, footlights, a “foyer”, and dressing rooms’ (‘The set’s all set at Channel 7…’ Courier Mail, 18 January 1961, p.6; ‘Royal’s footlights go on again’, Courier Mail, 7 Feb 1961, p.6; ‘Right Royal premiere…’, Courier Mail, 8 Feb 1961, p.6). The stage set, with its proscenium arch and curtains, and the studio audience, seated in front, are apparent in two fragments dated c. 1967 (NFSA Titles 690109, 690343). The television program was modelled on the stage variety show at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, which had closed on 12 December 1959 after an eleven-year run (‘Curtain time is close for Royal’, Courier Mail, 5 Dec 1959, p.3; ‘Gala Farewell Performance’, advertisement, Courier Mail, 12 December 1959, p.17; ‘Vaudeville “kick”: He’s confident it will live again’, Courier Mail, 24 December 1959, p.6.).

[viii] Jennifer Cornwall, ‘Clubland: the battler’s Vegas?’, Public History Review, 8, 2000, p. 137-156.

[ix] Lampe, N., ‘Club entertainment’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, eds. P. Parson & V. Chance, Sydney: Currency Press, 1995, pp. 151-2.

[x] I also cross-checked findings at the NFSA with records the AusStage database of Australian performing arts,,

[xi] ‘Harry Wren dead at 57’ (1973) Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August, p.3; John West, ‘Harry Wren’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia, eds. P. Parson & V. Chance, Sydney: Currency Press, 1995, p. 652.

[xii] [Wallace, George Jnr.: Harry Wren’s Many Happy Returns Tour: Home Movie], NFSA Title 478968, c. 1959.

[xiii] Many Happy Returns, Theatre Royal, Adelaide, 9 June 1959, theatre program, Special Collections, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.

[xiv] C.G. Kerr, ‘Happy Returns is warm, gay’, The Advertiser, 10 June 1959, p. 7.

[xv] ‘Photos to be modified’, The Advertiser, 24 June 1959, p. 10.

[xvi] From Outer Space, Empire Theatre, Sydney, 7 August 1959, theatre program, State Library of New South Wales.

[xvii] Wet Welcome For Cherry Blossoms, 1958, NFSA Title 127528.

[xviii] Chinese Opera Company: Melbourne Olympic Season Banned, 1956, NFSA Title 78035.

[xix] Oriental Cavalcade, Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne, 18 October 1959, theatre program, Performing Arts Collection, The Arts Centre, Melbourne.

[xx] Harlem Blackbirds (NFSA Title 84567); Interview [with] Katherine Dunham (NFSA Title 192379); On Stage with Luisillo and his Spanish Dance Theatre (NFSA Title 27818); World’s Greatest: Spectacular Show by Georgian Dancers (NFSA Title 231887); [Georgian State Dance Company] (NFSA Title 281166); The Omsk Siberian Company of 80: Singers, Dancers, Musicians (NFSA Title 231839); Spectacular: Poland’s Mazowsze Dance Company (NFSA Title 287709); Polish Ensemble of Song and Dance, Mazowsze (NFSA Title 466485).

[xxi] The Bobby Limb Show, NFSA Title 12000.

[xxii] The Rickman Duo appear on Cafe Continental, unidentified episode, NFSA Title 746820; Che Chung Chong also appears with Mei Lei in Mobil Limb Show, Episode 22, c. 1960, NFSA Title 440290; the Kawashima Dancers are credited, without appearing in The Bobby Limb Show, Episode 11, c. 1960, NFSA Title 13348; likewise the Fabulous Rudas Dancers in The Bobby Limb Show, Episode 13, c. 1960, NFSA Title 11983.

[xxiii] Hal Lashwood’s Minstrels, Christmas 1960, NFSA Title 331469.

[xxiv] Café Continental, 24 November 1960, NFSA Title 331557.

[xxv] Revue’61, NFSA Title 19247.

[xxvi] Café Continental, undated, NFSA Title 746820

[xxvii] Jeff Carter, ‘Juggling together, Sorlie’s Travelling Vaudeville Show, 1957-1962, photograph, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366097-v.

[xxviii] Theatre Royal, Brisbane, theatre program collection, State Library of Queensland.

[xxix] Brogan is quoted in a theatre program for Slightly French, the 456th weekly variety show at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, which opened on 21 September 1957 (State Library of Queensland). Brogan’s original text appeared in the Manchester Guardian, 22 August 1957.

[xxx] NFSA Titles 11990 and 13468; see also Gaynor Bunning in The Bobby Limb Show, episode 13, c. 1960, NFSA Title 11983.

[xxxi] Mobil Limb Show, episode 22, c.1961, NFSA Title 440490. Note that NFSA catalogue suggests c.1960 but the Mobile Limb Show did not begin until 1961. The Hasty Tasty may have been a drag venue in Sydney – see the Sydney Pride History group list.

[xxxii] Lorrae Desmond Show, Undated Episode 02, NFSA Title 449410

[xxxiii] Lorrae Desmond Show, Undated Episode 02, NFSA Title 330225

[xxxiv] Lorrae Desmond Show, 27 April 1964, NFSA Title 331949

[xxxv] Capern 1995; J.R. McEwen, Papers, 1845-1970. MS 9016. MS SEQ Box 14.7 1950-1953

[xxxvi] N.Z. Digger Show: Kiwis in Second Year in Melbourne, Cinesound Review, 5 March 1948, NFSA Title 84112 (mute), includes performances of ‘Carmen Miranda’, ‘Russian dance’, ‘Girl Guides’, a torch song and ‘Royal Procession’. See also Miss New Zealand Meets the Kiwis Back-Stage, Sydney, 29 July 1949, NFSA Title 91898 (mute). The Kiwis Revue Company is particularly well-documented in the NFSA collection, see also: John Hunter in Dual Performances from Noel Coward Plays (NFSA Title 585540); A Christmas Card from the Kiwis, Parts 1-4 (NFSA Titles 148735, 148737, 148736, 148738), and interviews with Cec Morris (NFSA Title 148525) and Glen Millins (NFSA Title 148524).

[xxxvii] J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd present New Zealand Revue Company The Kiwis in their first programme ‘Alamein’, Empire Theatre, Sydney, 2 February 1949; J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd present New Zealand Revue Company The Kiwis in their second programme Tripoli, Empire Theatre, Sydney, 11 July 1949. Also Vaughan, Terry (1995) Whistle as You Go: the Story of the Kiwi Concert Party, Auckland, Random House, New Zealand.

[xxxviii] The Graham Kennedy Channel Nine Show, 1961, NFSA Title 466415.

[xxxix] Sunnyside Up, episode 18, 1962, NFSA Title 62672; Sunnyside Up, episode 19, c. 1963, NFSA Title 62686; Sunnyside Up, episode 40, 1962, NFSA Title 9835.

[xl] Startime, episode 10, 1962, NFSA Title 7675; Startime 63, episode 27, 1963, NFSA Title 10822; Startime 63, episode 18, 1963, NFSA Title 32977.

[xli] Lido Revue, theatre programs, Performing Arts Collection, The Arts Centre, Melbourne.

[xlii] Tropicana – The Lido Revue, Majestic Theatre, Adelaide, 24 November 1967, flyer, Special Collections, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide; also theatre program, Performing Arts Collection, The Arts Centre, Melbourne.

[xliii] Drag Show: featuring Peter Kenna’s Mates and Steve J. Spears The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, Woollahra, NSW: Currency Press, 1977.

[xliv] The Mavis Bramston Show, Episode 64/06, 1964, NFSA Title No. 39805.

[xlv] Hello Australia, Lido Revue, Melbourne, c. 1968, theatre program, Performing Arts Collection, The Arts Centre, Melbourne.

[xlvi] ‘Interview: Normie Rowe’, Australian Playboy, May 1988, pp. 29-33, 113; Julie Kusko, ‘Normie Rowe fought his way back’, Woman’s Day, 19 Oct 1987: 8-9.

[xlvii] Tony Sheldon, ‘Gloria Dawn’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, eds. P. Parson & V. Chance, Sydney: Currency Press, 1995, pp. 186-7.