Australian variety performance from theatre to television and licensed clubs, 1946-1975
Jonathan Bollen, ongoing research since 2004
Flinders Research Grant, 2007
Research Fellow, National Film and Sound Archive, 2008
Research in Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo, 2010
Theatre historians usually record the decline of vaudeville and variety shows by citing the widespread closure of theatre buildings as venues for live entertainment. This indeed was the fate of many theatre buildings in Australian towns and cities during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Yet when theatres closed their doors, burnt down, were demolished or converted into cinemas, the performers and their acts did not just disappear. In this project, I want to find out what happened to variety performance in the transition of popular entertainment from travelling tents and theatre circuits to television screens and licensed clubs over three decades from 1946 to 1975.
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’ (1990: 133). 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’ (1984: 310). For theatre historian John West, ‘variety was doomed as year-round theatrical entertainment when television came to Australia in 1956’ (1995: 604).
These accounts of variety’s demise in the face of newer, technologically mediated-forms of entertainment warrant reconsideration. Jill Julius Matthews’s 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 & Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity, 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 (2005: 108). Like Waterhouse, Matthews focuses on the period from the 1890s to the 1920s, which saw the introduction of cinema in Australia. Similarly Margaret Williams’s (1983) pioneering study of the Australian popular stage, Richard Fotheringham’s study of Australian stage comedians both focus on the early decades of the twentieth century. My interest is in the later phase of technological transition which saw the integration of live performance into the production of Australian television. I see this phase as spanning three transitional decades. (1) from 1946 to 1955 when variety 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 and persisted in the theatres until the closure of the Tivoli theatres in 1966; and (3) from 1966 to 1975 when variety consolidated as a television genre and live performers sought new audiences elsewhere.
For television was not the only means by which performers found new audiences for their acts. The closing of theatres coincided with the expansion of licensed clubs across the country, notably in New South Wales, and other venues of popular entertainment such as discotheques and night clubs. According to historian Jennifer Cornwall, ‘the two decades spanning 1955 to 1975 were boom periods in variety entertainment in Australia’ and ‘the availability of work for performers in clubs was an important reason for this’ (2000: 151). An enterprising stage doorman from Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre made bookings for Tivoli performers to appear at the Leichhardt RSL Club and the Illawarra Leagues Club during the 1950s, and entertainer Bobby Limb presented Tivoli-style revues at the Kogarah RSL Club in the 1960s when he was also host of a television variety show with comedians Dawn Lake and Buster Fiddess on Sydney’s Channel 7 (Lampe 1995). By the 1970s, licensed clubs had become, alongside television, a de facto circuit for variety performance.
There are two main impulses driving this research. One is to develop a history of popular performance that is attentive to changes in genre formation, technological mediation and audience relations. This means crafting a practice of performance historiography that can arc across contemporary distinctions of genre, media and class which come to determine our disciplinary formation and field of research. For instance, Pamela Logan’s study of the Jack Hylton collection at the British National Film and Television Archive reveals how ‘commercial television fed off the variety theatre’ by drawing on its performers and their acts as content for television broadcasts (1995: 1). Hylton ran a successful business presenting variety acts on the London stage in the 1950s and was appointed ‘Advisor on Light Entertainment’ for a commercial television consortium and began making television programs by filming the variety acts he was presenting live on stage. The collection of some one hundred telerecordings of Hylton’s programs records ‘some of the most famous names in the variety theatre, performing routines which would otherwise exist only as memory’ (Logan 1995: 2). Logan’s study attests to the value of such recordings to the history of popular theatre, but emphasises the difficulties Hylton encountered in forging a new genre of variety television from live performance.
Adrian Kiernander’s ‘Stage on Screen’ project studied film and video recordings of live theatre in Australian television archives. The study’s initial survey of ABC television broadcasts identified a significant number of variety programs – music hall, minstrel shows, revues and the like – from the 1950s and 1960s as well as ABC telerecordings of the 1958 Phillip Street Revue Cross Section with June Salter, Ruth Cracknell and Reg Livermore, and the 1966 Windmill Revue from the Melbourne Tivoli Theatre and news footage on the closure of the Tivoli theatres in 1966. The collection holds ABC footage of assorted variety performers, magicians, hypnotists, contortionists, drag artistes and so on performing at live venues in the 1950s and 1960s, and some similar recordings from Channel 9 in Sydney. Yet with the project’s primary focus on spoken-word theatre, these variety programs were not selected for in-depth study. Likewise, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) holds many recordings of television variety programs featuring performers from the stage. These include recordings of early television variety shows that were actually staged in theatres – such as Tivoli Party Time from Channel 7 in Melbourne or Theatre Royal on Channel 9 in Brisbane and episodes of The Bobby Limb Show (1959), Graham Kennedy’s The Channel Nine Show / In Melbourne Tonight (1960; 1965), The Mavis Brampton Show (1964) and The Go Show (1964), as well as comedian George Wallace Junior’s Many Happy Returns show on tour (c.1959).
Theatre historians have long been charmed by the ephemeral nature of theatrical events, by their inevitable absence and disappearance from the historical record. While the warmth of this charm continues to suffuse popular narratives of variety’s decline, some historians have been questioning the emphasis on disappearance. They look to performance itself as a practice of history, to the ongoing presence of the past in performance and to the way performance brings past practices into the present (Enders 2004; Roach 1996, 2004; Schneider 2001; Taylor 2003). This emphasis on the persistence of performance invites the analysis of material – such recordings of television variety shows – which have previously been disregarded by theatre historians. When we ‘look at’, for instance, film of a variety act in a television studio, are we also ‘looking through’ that act to the past performance of similar acts in live theatre for which there may be no extant recordings? Understanding the relation between live performance and mediated recordings of performance has become an important issue for scholars of theatre, although research has mostly focused on contemporary developments: on innovations in incorporating media technologies in contemporary performance, on the use of media technologies in current research, and on the value of live performance in an increasingly mediatised culture (Auslander 1999; McAuley 1994; Melzer 1995a, 1995b; Varney & Fensham 2000). By investigating the transition between performance in live theatre and as mediated by television, I hope to shed some historical light on contemporary debate.
A second impulse arises from a disparity between histories of theatre and television with regard to the heritage of variety performance, and from the potential for disagreement between historical research and popular discourse regarding claims to the vaudeville tradition. Creative artists working in many areas of the performing arts – in theatre, circus, dance and contemporary performance – continue to draw inspiration, ideas and material from Australian traditions of variety performance. A recent prominent example is Graeme Murphy’s Tivoli, a collaboration between Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet for the Centenary of Federation, which toured from Melbourne to Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide in 2001 and returned to Sydney in 2003. Other recent examples include The Burlesque Hour with performers Moira Finucaine, Azaria Universe and Yumi Umiumare, which played Melbourne and Sydney (with guest artist Toni Lamond) in 2004 and toured to the United Kingdom in 2005, and Sue Broadway’s shows Go Go Burlesco at The Big Laugh Comedy Festival in 2005 and Eccentric Acts at the Brisbane Festival in 2000 and at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2002. The ongoing popularity of live comedy in Australia, both as presented on stage and via television, and the emergence of successful new circus companies, like Circus Oz and Flying Fruit Fly, also demonstrate significant continuities with earlier practices of vaudeville and variety performance.
Such persistent popularity is not well-served by histories of theatre which perpetuate the story of variety’s demise. Histories of Australian television, on the other hand, have barely considered how extensively the medium harnessed the talents of stage performers to create content for live broadcast in its formative years (Hall 1976; Beilby 1981; Inglis 1983; O’Regan 1993). Still others writing on Australian television claim that the hosts of variety television shows from Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton to Daryl Somers and Rove McManus have sustained a tradition of vaudeville comedy which crossed over to television in the late 1950s but extends right back to Roy Rene, George Wallace and other stage comedians of the early twentieth century and before (Blundell 2003, 2005; Docker 1988, 1997; McKee 2001). Claims of belonging to this great vaudeville tradition, such as those which lent gravity and respect in obituaries for Graham Kennedy in 2005 (Oliver 2005; Newton 2005), merit further investigation. I suspect, in the end, that neither a nostalgic narrative of demise and displacement nor a laudatory narrative of the tradition’s survival is adequate. Rather I am interested in the transition and transformation of performers’ acts across contexts and over time. How did variety performers adapt the practice of their live acts in response to shifting modes of entertainment production, mediation and consumption?
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