Cafe Continental

Among the variety shows of television’s first decade in Australia, Cafe Continental was distinctive in adopting the premise that variety in entertainment could reflect a diversity of world cultures. The show was modelled on a BBC show of the same name and produced by Harry Pringle (later, Peter Page) at the ABC Gore Hill Studios in Sydney from 1959 to 1961.

Cafe Continental was hosted by the suave cosmopolite Hal Wayne (‘Bonsoir mesdames et messieurs’), with music led by Italian-Australian Enzo Toppano. Each episode, Wayne presented a mixed bill of touring entertainers from around the world, alongside local folkloric groups from communities of post-war migrants to Australia. The show was styled as a cabaret. It was broadcast live and well-attended. The studio audience were invited to dance at the show’s opening and close, between which they sit at tables, sipping drinks, while the entertainers presented their acts in a floor show.

As a measure of each episode’s success, Wayne would often end by reciting the list of nations represented on the show. With ‘artists from Trinidad, Ceylon, Holland, England, Australia and Russia’ on an early episode – and from China, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Malaya and the Philippines on later episodes – Wayne proclaimed it ‘truly a show from the United Nations!’

One source of international entertainers was Chequers night club, which had been established at the Chinatown end of Sydney in 1959 by Chinese-Australian brothers, Keith and Dennis Wong. Teresa Leung Ping, who sang in Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s and in Hong Kong in the 1960s, appears courtesy of Chequers on an episode of Cafe Continental from November 1960, singing songs in English and Mandarin.

The same episode features the Rivieras, an apache dance duo whom producer Harry Wren had included in his Many Happy Returns show of 1959. On Cafe Continental, the Rivieras 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 month later, the Rivieras were performing in Hong Kong.

Another episode of Cafe Continental features foot juggling duo, Leo Bassi and June. They appear performing the same act, in a photograph of Sorlie’s Travelling Vaudeville Show, taken by Jeff Carter (circa 1957-1962) at Broken Hill. They opened their act by foot juggling – of all things – a couple of televisions.