Stripping in the 1960s: theatre, television and clubs

Jonathan Bollen, Flinders University. Presentation at Beyond Burlesque, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 12 Feb 2010. Listen on iTunesU.


Opportunities for spectators to see female flesh in erotic styles of performance were widespread and well-dispersed across genres of popular entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia.

Historian Richard Broome records that performances of ‘sexual enticement and allure’ were among the side-attractions at agricultural shows during the 1940s and 1950s. There were exotic shows featuring female dancers –‘Lotus, the Dancer of the Seven Veils’, ‘Candy Castles, Can Can Dancer’, ‘Elaine, the Bombshell from Brazil’, ‘Cherry Hoy, Maid of Mystery’ – and there were striptease, fan-dance and bathing shows by ‘Desiree’, ‘Cherrie’, ‘Vanessa the Undresser’, and ‘Bubbles’, an eighteen year old whose bubble bath act at the 1956 Melbourne Show attracted some attention from authorities.

Travelling vaudeville shows offered burlesque styles of performance for a family audience. A handful of such shows – Sorlies, Bartons, Coles and Carols – toured annually in the 1940s and 1950s along much the same circuit as the agricultural shows. Of these, Sorlie’s was, by all accounts, the class-act, yet even its reputation for stylish sophistication did not exclude the genres of erotic entertainment from the bill. It is reasonable to assume that those other travelling shows also featured similar acts.

Nor was erotic entertainment confined 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 title promising in roughly equal measure – and delivering – eroticism and laughs: Grin and Bare It (c.1951), Nudes and Blushes (c.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), Don’t Point, It’s Nude (1959) and so on.[i]

Frank van Straten records that, by the mid 1940s, ‘artistic’ nudity was regularly presented to audiences at variety theatres in the nation’s capital cities. He attributes the advent of nudes at the Tivoli to The Marcus Show, ‘a somewhat seedy Chicago-based revue’, which introduced ‘bare-breasted showgirls’ on a tour of Australia in 1937. ‘The innovation raised few eyebrows’, he writes, and ‘by 1938 bare breasts were a feature of virtually every [Tivoli] revue’.[ii]

Entertainer Nancye Bridges recalls female performers at the Tivoli theatres ‘who weren’t actually nude, but had the top halves of their bodies covered with gossamer-like fabric that left little to the imagination’ and who, ‘true to the morality of the forties … had to remain stock-still during their time on stage’. The nudes, according to Bridges, were an innovation of producer David N. Martin, part of the ‘class’ that he brought to the Tivoli theatres from 1944.[iii] In photographs, the nude performers, of course, appear static; close inspection indicates that the ‘gossamer-like fabric’ reportedly worn was, indeed, particularly fine, or that the female performers were, in fact, nude.[iv]

When entrepreneur Harry Wren brought out America’s most articulate stripper to Australia in October 1954, local press coverage was low-key. Her strip act was slotted into the penultimate spot on a variety bill, titled Burlesque –The Gypsy Rose Lee Show.[v] Gypsy Rose was joined in performance by several showgirls from Sydney and at least one from America.[vi] One of the local girls explained to the Sun’s readers that their act conformed, for the most part, to the stage convention of static nudity: ‘We Sydney girl[s] don’t actually strip in front of the audience. We just come on stripped, and stay that way’. The one exception was a segment in which ‘I wriggle on in a fur coat, shaking my hips seductively all the time’ and ‘three-quarters of the way through … we waggle down near the footlights—and down comes the fur coat’.

Wren ‘enlivened’ his nostalgic vaudeville shows – Thanks for the Memory, The Good Old Days and Many Happy Returns –with ‘a vivacious and beautiful chorus  […] and a few discreetly-placed nudes’.[vii] Advertisements in the press promised ‘Australia’s Most Beautiful Blondes! Brunettes! Redheads! FABULOUS – GLORIOUS – NUDES!” In 1959, at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal, 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’ (‘Photos to be modified’ 1959). The objection was not that there were nudes in the show, but that photographs of near-nudity were visible from the street.


These then were the alignments between audiences and erotic entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia, but their means of production would be re-engineered with the advent of television. In November 1959, just three months after television arrived in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal’s producer Laurie Smith had ‘cut the show back to two nights a week in an effort to counteract the effects of TV’.[viii] But to no avail: Saturday 12 December 1959 was the last night at the Theatre Royal.

A year later, BTQ7 had reconstructed the Theatre Royal inside a television studio and hired George Wallace Junior to host a weekly variety show on television. 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 the comedians—and former Royal Theatre regulars—George Wallace Junior, Eddie Edwards and Brian Tait.

The transfer to television was a success, and the show ran for some seven years – although, evidently, striptease from the likes of Carmelita was not among the variety acts that transitioned to Brisbane’s television screens. As if foreshadowing the show’s 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!’) (Figure 7).[ix]

Burlesque-style dance routines—with showgirls in bustier and fishnet stockings, with 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.[x] 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 sustain desire.

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

Meanwhile, in the wake of television’s claim on the mass production of variety for a suburban audience, new metropolitan venues were opening for stage presentations of showgirl glamour and nude revue. Relieved of their moral responsibility to deliver family entertainment to the masses, the producers of live performance entered a smaller-scale, more tactical mode of production, characterised by temporary alliances with venues, and niche-market alignments with audience desires.


The genres of erotic performance found audiences elsewhere, in theatre restaurants like Melbourne’s lavish Lido and in the night clubs of Sydney’s Kings Cross. Reviewing the Lido’s Hello Australia in 1967, Geoffrey Hutton observed that these new venues were considerably smaller than the variety theatres and the audience was, somehow, ‘not quite the same’. ‘Food and conversation’, he continued, ‘take the place of the gagman and his assistant’. But continuities in design and choreography were strong.

Angus Winneke’s sets and costumes from the Tivoli were ‘fitted into the smaller stage without any loss in effect’ and ‘the whole performance is as fast as it is spectacular’.[xi] The Lido choreographer was Felicia Hallmark, also known as Tuppy Downs. Described as ‘an old hand behind the glamour’ by the Age, Hallmark had been a Tivoli ballet mistress and dancer on the Fullers circuit. Her ‘biggest success’ had been the 1958 Tivoli show she choreographed for Sabrina; mention of the British starlet in pre-opening publicity endowed the Lido’s erotic appeal.[xii]

Choreographers carried the Tivoli traditions of showgirl revues into night clubs in Sydney as well. Sheila Cruze – who had worked on Harry Wren’s variety shows in the 1950s – was ballet mistress at Sydney’s Chequers nightclub in the 1960s and also choreographed the Les Girls drag kings at Kings Cross. Such glamorous, revue-style choreography and designs were standard fare at Sydney nightspots of the 1960s, such as Sammy Lee’s Latin Quarter, the Pigalle and other clubs.

Choreographer Judd Laine – who, in the 1950s, had worked at the Tivoli (Chez Paree 1951) and with Harry Wren (Thanks for the Memory 1953) –  also applied his practice to the new venues of the 1960s. Alongside his choreography for the Graham Kennedy Show, Bandstand and other television shows, Laine choreographed revues for the Pink Pussycat and Pink Panther clubs in Kings Cross.

As the entertainment industry adjusted to the advent of television, audiences adjusted their relations to the erotic. Once happily presented among the varieties of ‘family’ entertainment, erotic performance would only come to confirm the gendered conventions of erotic spectatorship – whereby women perform for male spectators — as it transitioned in the 1960s into the ‘adult’ world of night club entertainment. Only after television had re-constituted variety entertainment for public broadcast into  private homes did the media discourse on erotic entertainment assume the spectacle of moral debate.

When a newsreel in the 1940s offered to take viewers behind the curtain for a glimpse backstage at a Tivoli showgirl’s life, erotic fantasies are doused and moral outrage quelled as Joyce Smith turns out to be a girl-next-door leading a regular, respectable, work-a-day life.[xiii] Yet by 1967 the prospect of topless girls at Melbourne’s Lido – reported in Melbourne’s Truth as if it were something new – saw advance bookings cancelled in their hundreds, drew the attention of the Acting Chief Secretary of the Victorian Parliament, and required the attendance of two vice squad detectives at a dress rehearsal before the show was pronounced ‘not offensive’ and given license to proceed.[xiv]

The exchange in moral responsibility between televised entertainment and live performance is well-indicated by a placard advertising Sydney’s Pink Pussycat in the late 1960s. The placard invited the attendance of passers-by on the basis that they will recognise the appeal of the Pink Pussycat’s ‘international […] revue’ from its appearance on all four television stations in Sydney.[xv]

On Channel 7’s 7 Days, viewers taken on a tour of the Pink Pussycat, the Strip Palace, the Paradise Club and Les Girls, were asked to judge whether goings on inside are ‘Sophisticated – or Sick?’.[xvi] Thus what television producers declined as too hot to deliver as family entertainment on variety shows was served up cold as investigative exposés of seedy nightlife on prime-time current affairs – which, as it turned out, were just the thing to draw a crowd to St Kilda and Kings Cross.[xvii]



[i] The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) collection and the State Library of Queensland hold, between them, programs from 219 weekly variety shows at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, beginning with New Year Party from 8 January 1949. The coverage is strongest for the years 1951-53 and 1957-59. The programs are consecutively numbered from the 90th weekly show, Long Legs and Laughter from 28 October 1950. The latest programme, for the 567th week, is the Jimmy Wheeler Show from 14 November 1959.

[ii] Van Straten, Tivoli, p. 123.

[iii] Nancye Bridges and Frank Cook, Curtain Call, Cassell, North Ryde and North Melbourne, 1980, p. 115.

[iv] Van Straten, Tivoli, pp. 192, 194, 225.

[v] Burlesque—The Gypsy Rose Lee Show, theatre program, Palladium Theatre, Sydney, 1-12 October 1954, State Library of New South Wales.

[vi] The Sun records that three Australian show girls appeared at the Palladium with Gypsy Rose Lee, picturing Irene Bowtell in association with the review (Sun, 2 October 1954, p. 3) and Joy Jarvis two days later (‘Taking the joy out of stripping’, Sun, 4 October 1954, p. 5). A theatre program at the State Library of New South Wales mentions neither Bowtell nor Jarvis, carrying instead pictures of local show girls Margaret Merry, Helen Brown, Fay Glanville and Marcia Kinnard.

[vii] Kerr 1959

[viii] ‘Curtain time is close for Royal’, Courier Mail, 5 December 1959, p. 3.

[ix] William Tell Strip, no. 444, Theatre Royal, Brisbane, 29 June 1957, QPAC collection.

[x] The Bobby Limb Show, episode 8, c. 1959, NFSA Title No. 11990; The Bobby Limb Show, episode 17, c. 1960 , NFSA Title No. 13468; see also Gaynor Bunning in The Bobby Limb Show, episode 13, c. 1960, NFSA Title No. 11983.

[xi] Geoffrey Hutton, ‘Lavish Lido revue’, The Age, 2 February 1967, p.6.

[xii] ‘Old hand behind the glamour’, The Age, 16 October 1965, p.6 – mention of the British starlet no doubt endowed the Lido’s opening with a certain erotic appeal.

[xiii] ‘Day in the Life of a Ballet Girl’, Cinesound Review no. 0749, 8 March 1946, NFSA title no. 236836

[xiv] ‘Champagne Flowed like water at party bare-tops too daring? Show regulars cancel bookings’, Melbourne Truth, 21 January 1967, p.23, in Tracey Lee papers, SLNSW; ‘Minister to see ‘topless’’, The Age, 24 January 1967, p.1; ‘Police stage critics’, The Age, 1 Feb 1967, p.3.

[xv]Four Corners – Channel 2, Glittering Mile – Channel 9, 7 Days – Channel 7 [and] Telescope – Channel 10’. The Four Corners episode, ‘Michael Charlton looks at Sydney night life’, was broadcast on 17 November 1962. Channel Nine’s The Glittering Mile dates from 1964 and the episode of 7 Days from 1966.

[xvi] Michael Charlton looks at Sydney’s night life’, Four Corners, ABC Television, Sydney, transmitted 17 Nov 1962.7 Days: Sophisticated or Sick? (NFSA Title 221923).

[xvii] A journalist records that business had been lacklustre at Les Girls for quite some time, ‘until out of the blue came television with their ‘Glittering Mile […]’ and hey presto, you had to book a week in advance to get a table’, ‘Is it Tom, Dick or Harriet’ [no publication details], c.1967, Tracey Lee papers, SLNSW, Box 5 scrapbook. See also Carlotta 1994 He Did It Her Way Sydney, Ironback.