Wednesday, 01 December 2021

Keith Petersen: Australian trouper

Written by Peter Stephenson Jones
PETER STEPHENSON JONES offers a personal tribute to funny man Keith Petersen, whose stage antics in pantomimes and musical comedies convulsed audiences at the Tivoli and Princess theatres, but whose name is not as well remembered today.

nla.obj 154618915 1Keith Petersen as Oscar in The Odd Couple, 1966. National Library of Australia, Canberra.In Michael Powell’s 1966 film of They’re A Weird Mob there is a scene of an abusive drunk on the Manly Ferry who ends up in the harbour. It is quite a funny scene.

The actor was Keith Petersen and I hope he can be remembered for much more than this cameo in the iconic Australian film.

Born in 1919 in Port Macquarie the young Keith was clearly one of those people born to perform. He was only ten when he made his first appearance at the Princess Theatre while studying tap dancing with the legendary May Downs. He appeared in several juvenile roles and pantos. Keith had outstanding physical skills so it is not surprising that in his early years he joined a comic acrobatic group. This group played all over Australia.

Like many performers of his generation Keith loved vaudeville with a passion. I have spoken to many performers over the years and noticed how their eyes would always light up when I asked about the Tivoli or a variety show. Keith loved performing in the 1953/54 Harry Wren production of Thanks For the Memory with legends such as George Wallace Sr, Jim Gerald and Queenie Paul.

Keith appeared in several pantomimes. Strange that very few younger Australian audiences would know what a pantomime or ‘Panto’ is, yet years ago mums would take their young kids off to the Tivoli during holiday time to yell ‘he’s behind you!’ Pantos were a very quirky form of entertainment. The Principal Boy or lead was mostly played by a woman! The most famous in Australia was Jenny Howard.

There was quite a lot of audience participation in Panto with many popular phrases such ON NO I DIDN’T to which the audience would yell OH YES YOU DID! Lollies would be thrown out to the audience by the cast, to be eagerly caught by the kids. Panto was full of slapstick, campy humour and variety acts thrown in. Lots of jokes for the kids but the adults were not left out. There were many risqué jokes for the mums and dads. The kids were often laughing at very different things to their parents.

The most important role was a man dressed as a woman: the Pantomime Dame. These Dames were played by famous comedians of the day. Jim Gerald, George Wallace and numerous great stars of vaudeville played the Dame! The young Keith would watch the Dame, wishing he could talk to him and meet him. Keith vowed that one day he would play the Dame and go and meet the kids. The dream came true when he formed his own company and in full drag would greet the kids after the show. For over three years he played the Dame throughout Victoria and South Australia, touring with his wife and fifteen-month-old baby.

He played Dame Trot in a production of Jack and the  Beanstalk. His wife Joy played Second Boy. At that time fashion was changing because as frocks were becoming short and skimpy there was nothing to burlesque. Keith studied the makeup of the day very carefully. He often said that he would look at the very good and then do the opposite! ‘You then,’ he said ‘HAD A DAME!’

He experimented especially with hats and wore a different one in each performance. He LOVED feathers!

It could be argued that in some ways Panto was ‘gender bending’ way before it became a social and equality issue. In Pantos they often used a children’s dance school to build up the size of the cast. Keith did this a child as we know. Pantos were musical with lovely sets and costumes.

It is hard to understand why pantomimes disappeared from theatre. I loved my days going off to see pantos. I still remember seeing Robinson Crusoe On Ice starring the popular comedian, Jackie Clancy.

Yet even though we do not see much Panto today in Australia it is alive and well in the UK. At Christmas holiday time people flock to theatres all over the UK to celebrate this great theatrical tradition.

Often the cast members of an evening vaudeville show would also perform two matinee performances of a Panto and then the nightly show. Three performances a day! This happened in the case of Ice Parade which Keith played in Sydney Adelaide and Melbourne. These kinds of shows were popular. They were performed on ice and on stage. In Ice Parade Keith played alongside the Kermond Brothers, Enzo Toppano and Peggy Mortimer. It was a colourful expensive show! Keith even learned ice skating!

Then during the day Keith performed in Cinderella On Ice. This was a lavish spectacular Panto performed at the Princess Theatre with the Carroll Management. Cinderella was played beautifully by Peggy Mortimer. Keith often formed friendships with fellow cast members and kids loved him. Peta Toppano recalls ‘Uncle Keith’ taking her skating.

Keith played the role of Buttons in Cinderella. It is a tricky part because although it’s comedy there is an element of pathos needed to play a good Buttons. He is Cinderella’s best friend but he also loves her. Cinderella however does not love Buttons and Cinders always lives happily ever after with the handsome Prince. Keith was a perfect Buttons.

Some may be surprised about an artist doing more than one show a night but this was not unusual in vaudeville. Keith performed in all areas of entertainment. His career in musical comedy was extraordinary.

Musicals in Australia were often cast with an overseas import. There are several theories why JCW and Carrolls did this. Often the stars were not stars at all but understudies or even minor cast members of a few shows. Still what many of the critics of this policy forget is that these performers often stayed in Australia and contributed much to Australia theatre. Australia would be the poorer without Hayes Gordon, Sheila Bradley, Johnny Ladd, Jeff Warren and so many others.

Still many wondered why we could not have an all Australian cast. We certainly had the talent. It was the great choreographer, Betty Pounder, who often ‘pushed’ for this. There was a strike once which made it impossible for imported artists to come here. The Aussies seized the day!

In 1957 it finally happened. JCW took a gamble and they presented The Pajama Game with an ALL AUSTRALIAN CAST. It starred Toni Lamond, Bill Newman (then called William) and Keith Petersen in the role of Mr Hines.

Hines is a great part. It is the third lead and for Keith it was a triumph. It gave him the chance to sing dance and really strut his stuff.

There is a lovely number in the show when Mr Hines, who suffers from pangs of jealousy, gets advice from Mabel in a song which became a show stopper ‘I’ll never be jealous again’. Keith sang this with a relatively unknown actress who was playing a much older character than she really was. Her name? Jill Perryman!

Pajama Game toured Australia and New Zealand for two and a half years. Keith, like other JCW performers, not only did the show, he became involved in the show’s promotion. He appeared at Hordens Department store promoting blankets. He was on radio, TV and many public appearances promoting the show. It was a tough schedule.

In 1962 Carrolls presented Once Upon A Mattress and Keith had great fun playing the King. This role was mimed because the King cannot speak and Keith was both poignant and funny. The show starred Gloria Dawn. Keith and Gloria were great friends and later worked on a show called Peaches and Screams. Mattress later starred Sheila Bradley. Keith’s performance in Once Upon A Mattress eared him much acclaim including the Sydney Press annual awards for which he won ‘comedy performance of the year’.

For a few years Keith returned to vaudeville and toured with the Tivoli in Many Happy Returns and Yellzapoppin. He performed with great stars like Gladys Moncrieff, Jenny Howard and others.

In 1963 came Wildcat. This was a vehicle on Broadway for Lucille Ball, giving the ‘Queen of Television’ her first show on Broadway. Wildcat on Broadway had nothing but problems. It is a lovely show and terribly underrated. On Broadway there was more emphasis on Ball than on the show itself. When Ball became ill the show floundered.

Carrolls took a huge risk on Wildcat. They did see that it was actually a good show and also it would be relevant to Australia because of our growth of oil refineries and mining. This is the setting for Wildcat and it is about Wildy and when she struck oil.

The starring role went to one of Australia’s great stars, Toni Lamond, and her co-star was by Gordon Boyd. The comedy role of Sookie went to Keith. The showstopper was Keith and Toni singing ‘What takes my fancy’. Some sources claim that the Australian production reinstated the duet for Sookie (Keith) and Wildy (Toni) ‘Ain’t it sad, ain’t it mean’ which was cut  from the Broadway production yet I cannot find it listed on my programme.

Wildcat has a wonderful score and a pleasant enough book. When one listens to the score you wonder why it was not a more successful show. Toni Lamond was at her peak and from all accounts was excellent. Wildcat is one of those shows that deserved more success than it got.

When the American director Fred Hebert directed Keith in The Pajama Game he was so impressed with him that he invited him to play Oscar in Neil Simon’s smash hit comedy The Odd Couple. The cigar smoking Keith relished the role and delivered one of his best performances. He was teamed with Fred Parslow as the whimpering and obsessive Felix. There was a superb chemistry between Keith and Fred and it is a pity they did not get to work together more often. I have seen many productions of The Odd Couple and no one has been as good as Keith and Fred.

Other productions in which he appeared included Simple Spymen, The Roaring Twenties, a stint in Can-Can and even the light opera Die Fledermaus.

Throughout the sixties he was resident comedian at the Bankstown Sundowner Hotel where he frequently worked with his good friends Gloria Dawn and Frank Cleary. Keith was a regular act at the clubs around NSW donning his trademark baggy suit and cracking gags. His famous cigar and hat routines were pure vaudeville.

He often finished his routines with a tap dance and even thrilling his audiences by doing the splits!

He worked with many headline acts on the Club circuit. One of Keith’s most unusual ventures was an attempt in his later years to bring vaudeville back to the suburbs. Keith argued that audiences had not changed all that much and many longed for a return to vaudeville.

West Side Theatre RestaurantBusiness card for Keith Petersen’s West Side Theatre Restaurant. Courtesy of Vanessa Berry, Mirror Sydney, https://mirrorsydney.wordpress.com/tag/keith-petersen/

The business card (above) is for the West Side Theatre Restaurant in Marrickville. Keith argued that the working class people wanted a return to variety as much as anyone else. In 1967 he opened what he regarded the most lavish theatre restaurant in Australia. From all accounts it was beautiful.

Keith was the manager and of course a performer and Edwin Duff, various guest artists and thirteen dancers were in the cast. There was also a dance floor.

As a kind of hobby, Keith had a pig farm near Campbelltown. He often joked that he was so busy he had no time for his pigs any more and pigs were his ‘relaxation’.

In 1970 Keith mounted the pantomime Dick Whittington. It starred his wife Lynette and a newcomer called John Farnham. It was a brave noble venture, but it was not  a complete success.

Keith died in 1971 near Campbelltown.

While writing this it has struck me as sad we do not have many video records of Keith at his best. It would be great to see some of his live performances. As a teacher I often ask my students why they want to be actors. Most often (but thankfully not always) they respond saying that they want to be famous or get into Neighbours! Artists like Keith Petersen simply had to perform. He loved a connection with a live audience. He was hardly ever out of work, living by the old show biz slogan ... no job too big or too small.

As I spoke to performers they smile when they talk of Keith … they say, ‘He was a trouper’ I can think of no greater epitaph!

nla.obj 144644395 1The ‘On the Rue de la Paris’ scene in Many Happy Returns, c.1960, with Keith Petersen (costumed as a gentleman’s pissoir!), George Wallace Jr (checked shirt) and Jim Gerald (as the blind man). National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Very special thanks to Frank Van Straten for his assistance with the preparation of this article.

 

Keith Petersen and Jill Perryman sing ‘I'll Never Be Jealous Again’ from The Pajama Game. This is from Keith’s only recording: Selections from The Pajama Game recorded in His Majesty’s Theatre, Auckland. Issued on the Prestige label, it was released only in New Zealand and is extremely rare.

 

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