Frank Van Straten
Over the years Frank has amassed a vast collection of Australian theatre memorabilia. He was director of the Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum from 1984 until 1993. For 15 years Frank researched and presented ABC Radio's popular Nostalgia feature over Melbourne's 774. He contributes historical articles to many theatre programs and journals. His books include National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre (1994), The Regent Theatre: Melbourne's Palace of Dreams(1996), Tivoli (2003), Huge Deal: The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh (2004), Florence Young and the Golden Years of Australian Musical Theatre(2009), Her Majesty's Pleasure (Her Majesty's, Adelaide. 2013), Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: : The Shows, The Stars, The Stories (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2018), and an upcoming biography of colourful theatre entrepreneur Ernest C. Rolls.
With special thanks to Bill Egan.
When I reviewed Bill Egan’s wonderful book African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A History, 1788-1941 for On Stage, I fell into the deadly Two Thomas trap: I mentioned that Bill had omitted Edna Thomas, ‘The Lady from Louisiana’, who made very successful concert tours of Australia in 1924 and 1925. It transpires that Bill was aware of this Edna’s Australian visit, but he omitted her from his book because he thought she was white. And he was right.
Like many other writers and historians, I assumed that this was the same Edna Thomas who enjoyed a long, notable career on the New York stage. Now, after relentless delving into dependable archives, Bill has determined that there were, remarkably, two virtually contemporaneous Edna Thomases, and that their careers have been confused and conflated by many eminent authorities.
The first was Edna Lewis Thomas. Born Edna Lewis in Lawrenceville, Virginia, on 1 November 1885, she was of mixed race, light skinned, and identified as African American. Around 1914 she married black talent manager Lloyd Carter Thomas and she became a noted actor in what was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Following her stage debut with the black theatre company the Lafayette Players in Turn to the Right (1920), her subsequent prestigious Broadway stage credits include Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ controversial ‘voodoo’ production of Macbeth (1936), Livinia in Androcles and the Lion (1938), Sukey in Elia Kazan’s production of Harriet with Helen Hayes (1943), Mamie McIntosh in José Ferrer’s production of Strange Fruit (1945) and the Mexican Woman in Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a role she repeated in the 1951 film, her only screen appearance.
Edna supported her husband during the difficult Depression years, but from about 1930 she developed a lesbian relationship with Olivia Wyndham, an aristocratic British society photographer distantly related to Oscar Wilde. In 1930 Wyndham married a gay much-married British-American, Howland Spencer, though the marriage lasted barely a year. From then on, Edna, Lloyd and Olivia lived together in an apparently happy ménage à trois. Edna Carter Thomas died in New York City on 22 July 1974. She was 88.
Our second Edna Thomas was white. She was born Edna Alice Gery on 13 March 1888, in New Orleans, Louisiana—hence her billing as ‘The Lady from Louisiana’. She married Albert George Thomas in New Orleans on 30 October 1907. A mezzo-soprano, this Edna developed a large repertoire of ‘creole negro songs’ and ‘spirituals’. As she explained: ‘It was from my black mammy, Ninna, who reared me, that I first learned the negro spirituals. “Sperrituals” she calls them. She has been in our family so long that she insists that her name is Dare, same as my grandmother's, “Forginny Davis Dare is my name,” she says. From London last year I sent her a letter addressed “Miss Virginia Davis Dare, alias Ninna”, and she was mighty offended. “Oh, Mis’ Ella,” she said to my mother, “that alias is no good. Only criminals have dem aliases.”’
Successful forays to Great Britain in 1923 and 1924 culminated in a reported 12-week season at the London Coliseum. This was followed by her first Australian visit. She was brought to this country by J.C. Williamson’s, and although it was originally announced that she would appear on the Tivoli Circuit, which was then controlled by Williamson’s, she made her debut on a JCW variety bill at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal. On 15 September 1924 the Age reported: ‘The large audience at the Theatre Royal on Saturday night was treated to a delightful new turn. Edna Thomas, a pleasingly old-fashioned ‘lady from Louisiana’ received a remarkable reception. Her selections of plantation songs and negro spirituals, rendered in a rich contralto with the warm inflection of the Southern American States, were a great relief from the harsh jazz exhibitions, the usual offering, of her countrymen. Her quaint crinoline costume, reminiscent of the old colonial days, added the necessary atmosphere. The most pleasing item was a lullaby in the negro Creole patois.’
For reasons not yet established, Williamson’s presented Edna Thomas only in Melbourne. In Sydney she appeared not as part of a variety bill, but in concerts under the management of J.E. ‘Jack’ Brownlow. She made her Sydney debut at the Town Hall on 28 October 1924 in a concert broadcast by Radio 2FC. Most of Edna’s later Sydney concerts were presented in the Theosophical Society’s new Adyar Hall in Bligh Street, which had opened on 5 October (on 11 May 1929 the remodelled hall reopened as the Savoy Theatre). A farewell Adyar Hall recital on 13 December was so well attended that a ‘positively final’ second farewell followed two days later.
After this Edna returned to the United States, but only briefly. She was brought back by entrepreneur E.J. Carroll for a tour that started in Wellington, New Zealand, on 14 April 1925. She gave 45 concerts in New Zealand before her second visit to Australia, which opened with a recital at the Sydney Town Hall on 1 August 1925. Concerts in Melbourne (at the Athenaeum), Adelaide and several country centres followed. Even Melba was entranced. ‘I want everybody to go and hear her,’ she told the press. ‘She has a beautiful voice; rich and well-trained. Hers is the art that conceals art.’ The tour finished with a farewell concert in Sydney on 5 December 1925.
In 1933, in New York, singing Edna married for the second time. Her new husband was 58-year-old Warner Dare Huntington. After this, she appears to have retired from the concert platform. Details of her death are unknown. Her many records for the Columbia label attest to her artistry and several of her tracks—recorded almost a century ago—are now available on YouTube.
And to close the case, it’s recorded that in March 1925 the acting Edna was appearing with Paul Robeson at New York’s 52nd Street Theatre in revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and The Dreamy Kid, while the singing Edna was in San Francisco, from whence, on 20 March, she sailed for Wellington in the Maunganui.
As Bill notes: ‘Basically this new research clearly establishes that the Edna Thomas who performed in Australia was white and therefore not eligible for coverage in my book. Once this is established some other things fall into place, such as why the extensive biographical material on Edna Lewis Thomas in sources such as the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press’s Harlem Renaissance Lives, and Bruce Kellner’s Dictionary of the Harlem Renaissance make no reference to her as a singer of spirituals (of course, she wasn’t!).
‘While I am pleased that is now cleared up, I am a little bit disappointed it obviates the need for an article explaining why a prominent African American performer was passing for white in Australia and New Zealand in 1924-1925.’
When I was seven my parents took me to my first ‘live’ show. It was a matinee of a 1943 revival of the old musical White Horse Inn at His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. That afternoon I fell under the spell of ‘live’ theatre. Afterwards, at home, I pored over the programme. I read every word. I was intrigued by its format: a tall two-colour leaflet, 29 x 4 cm, that unfolded to become a single sheet, 29 x 44 cm, containing details of the show, its various scenes, the cast list, and advertisements for sophisticated hair products and expensive liquor. It was unpretentious, flimsy, easily torn and, I decided, well worth saving.
Some months later I went to another show. This time it was a pantomime at the Tivoli—and I took home a second program for preservation. It was subtly different from the one for White Horse Inn. I noticed a coarser paper, less sophisticated typography, more garish colours. And the advertisements were for tonic pills, introduction agencies and a strange unguent called Mercolized Wax.
Then a friend of my parents gave me a totally different type of programme—a handsome booklet, in magazine format, for a show at the Maj in the pre-war years. It was much more elaborate, its full-colour cover and glossy paper reflecting less austere times. The advertisements were for holidays, radiograms and smart cars. As the years went on I collected more and more. I treasured the programmes from every show I saw and I searched for others in second-hand shops. Soon I had hundreds. Now I have thousands!
I started to research the history of the theatre programme. I found that in 1737 some London managements started to print small playbills for display outside their theatres and inside nearby coffee houses. In 1850 playbills were distributed free to members of the audience at London’s Olympic Theatre. Thirteen years later the St James’s theatre published the first magazine format program. It included a cast list, notes on the play, transport information, and advertisements.
Australia’s oldest surviving theatre programme: the playbill for Jane Shore, 1796.
National Library of Australia, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1419486/view?partId=nla.obj-1419569
The earliest surviving Australian playbill dates from 1796. An unpretentious but precious little document only 20 x 12 cm, it promotes a performance of Jane Shore, ‘a popular drama of sin and redemption’, at ‘The Theatre, Sydney’ on 30 July 1796. Its survival is remarkable. For many years it lay forgotten, lodged between the pages of a scrapbook of unrelated material held in a library in Canada. After it was accidentally discovered in 2007 the Canadian government presented it to the people of Australia. It is not only our oldest playbill, it is the oldest example of Australian printing, the work our first printer, convict George Hughes. In 2011 it was recognised by UNESCO as a document of world significance.
The playbill has been digitised and can be viewed through the National Library’s catalogue. It is also the subject of an engaging and beautifully designed little book, The Playbill and its People. Written by the National Library’s Gillian Russell, it was published by the NLA in 2011. Sadly, it appears to be out of print.
In nineteenth-century Australia, theatre managements usually relied on independently produced programmes in the style of a small four-page newspaper. The principal Melbourne ones were The Programme, The Call, The Lorgnette and L’Entr’Acte. Sydney had Our Amusements and Adelaide The Electric Spark. They included cast lists, theatrical gossip, reviews, and plenty of advertising. They were printed cheaply on poor quality paper that more than a century later is yellowed and brittle, and they are now extremely rare.
L’Entre’Acte was published in Melbourne from 1861 to 1874 and in Sydney from 1868 to 1892 by printers Azzoppardi, Hildreth and Co. Its main opposition was The Lorgnette, published in Melbourne by theatrical agent James J. Liddy. Its background has been researched by Clay Djubal for his Australian Variety Theatre Archive website. He explains, ‘The Lorgnette was circulated around Melbourne theatres between 1876 and 1898. Each theatre would have its own special edition, with the front page featuring a cast list for its current production.’ Later Liddy ran the Gaiety Theatre in Brisbane. He died there in 1891.
Also rare are the delicate silk programmes produced for gala performances.
The ubiquitous New York Playbill debuted in 1884. Originally called The Playbill, it is basically a pocket-sized monthly magazine in various editions, each devoted to a particular show, with a cover and centre pages devoted to that show. Now operating nation-wide and reportedly an extremely profitable enterprise, Playbill distributes its programmes free to theatre patrons and relies on their advertising content for its revenue. Its vast archives have been developed to become an extremely comprehensive, freely available database of New York theatre.
From 1900 the leading theatrical printer in Australia was Syd Day. One of the most charismatic figures on the fringe of the Australian entertainment industry, Syd Day was born in East End poverty in London in 1867. Seeking a better life, he arrived in Australia in 1890. In Melbourne he established himself as a printer, using the sobriquet ‘Syd Day, The Printer’, and cleverly publicizing himself through appearances at ‘smoke nights’ singing the jaunty coster songs he had learned in London, and by competing, albeit with little success, in the cycle races that were then extremely popular. He also became an enthusiastic pioneer motorist, establishing several inter-city records. Among his close friends were retailer Sir Samuel Hordern and theatrical entrepreneur James Cassius Williamson.
In 1900 Williamson commissioned Day to produce an elaborate souvenir for the re-opening of his newly-acquired Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. From then on, Day printed programmes and posters for many theatres in both Melbourne and Sydney. He also printed the magazines The Lone Hand and The Theatre, and had a substantial financial interest in the latter. In 1908 he built an impressive three-storey printery at 103 Lonsdale Street, just around the corner from Her Majesty’s. Day was only 48 when he succumbed to meningitis in 1915, but the firm he established continued his tradition of innovative techniques and work of the highest quality. His Melbourne printery now houses Bomba, a popular Spanish-themed eaterie and nightspot.
In the early twentieth century, Australian theatre programmes were distributed free and were often cheaply printed on poor paper. In 1920 managements decided to publish programmes in an upgraded format that they would sell to patrons for threepence. Not only were the new programmes better produced, they were sealed with a little sticker ‘to ensure freshness and hygiene’ and were ‘less likely to end their career of usefulness on the littered floor of the theatre’. The seal ensured that staff did not try to sell discarded programmes; it also reflected the emphasis on hygiene that followed the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919.
As the years rolled on, other printers moved into the field. There were firms specialising in theatrical printing in every state. One of the most prominent was Melbourne’s The Specialty Press Pty Ltd, founded in 1909 and steered by its dynamic managing director, Thomas Allan McKay. In March 1919 McKay moved Specialty into a large building at 174 Little Collins Street. Designed in 1891 by a partnership including noted theatre architect William Pitt, it had been built to house a cyclorama and concert hall.
In 1921 McKay sidelined the remnants of the Syd Day firm by gaining the contract to print the programs for Fullers’ Melbourne Theatres and to sell advertising space in them. Soon after, he won the prized contract to provide the same service to J.C. Williamson’s. Specialty became an integral cog in the JCW machine and McKay and his wife were regular guests at the Firm’s first nights. By 1934 Specialty supported a workforce of more than one hundred, and its plant covered approximately 50,000 square feet. In 1953 its busy printery attracted a young apprentice, John Payne. More than half a century later he reminisced about his career at Specialty for an article in the Spring 2005 issue of On Stage. It’s accessible online, but here are a few extracts:
‘The JCW partnership was a long one. Phil Finkelstein and Charles Dearden, who looked after JCW publicity, were often seen in our factory. Phil spent a fair amount of his time on the premises. He was a very courteous man, always nodding or saying hello as he passed. The company was printing programmes for South Pacific when I started, and I was put on a large press that printed the text pages for the programs in black and white. Many of the full-page adverts were for the same clients from programme to programme.
‘I moved to the small machine pressroom that printed the covers for the programmes. The cover for Paint Your Wagon was about my first. I enjoyed the colour mixing and register printing.
‘The initial cover for Can-Can, the Cole Porter musical at Her Majesty’s, was quite colourful, with a hand drawn illustration of a lady in frilly knickers kicking her leg up in the air. The design only survived for that one performance. There was resentment to the cover design. The next day the programmes were returned to have a new cover attached.
‘One of my most satisfying cover prints was the three-colour process cover for the programme for the Margot Fonteyn season with the Borovansky Ballet. It comprised yellow, magenta, and cyan process screens. By the time My Fair Lady opened at Her Majesty’s I had moved on into the large pressroom and scored the prestigious task of printing the text pages for the souvenir programme.
‘Up to the mid-1950s Mr McKay would go for a walk through the factory, always saying hello to every person who looked his way.
‘In 1959, when Specialty Press packed up to make the move to their new factory at Blackburn Road, North Clayton, tea chests full of theatre programmes sent to the waste-paper recycling. At that time, of course, there was no Performing Arts Collection. I would have loved to have had the opportunity of looking through them. I now have made ‘a hobby of collecting them.’
T. Allan McKay died in 1961. Specialty, which held the Australian rights to the Hallmark greeting card range, eventually became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kansas-based parent company. Specialty’s Little Collins Street premises were recycled as Georges Hostess Store and, more reecently, The Georges, a complex of shops and forty smart apartments.
A revolution in Australian theatre programme production was heralded by a tiny notice in the programme for the revue Femmes and Furs at the Sydney Tivoli in October 1958. It announced that ‘This programme published by Neblich Publicity, PO Box 88, Redfern’.
Neblich was formed by Brian Nebenzahl, a top salesman for Chas E. Blanks, the theatre screen advertising contractors, and Lance Peters (his real name was Peter Lichtenstein), a singer, writer, comedian and disc jockey. Co-incidentally both men had gone to Sydney’s Scots College with Lloyd Martin. In March 1958, following the death of his father, David N. Martin, Lloyd had taken over the Tivoli’s Sydney operations.
In 1988 I chatted with Lloyd and asked him about the switch. He told me that Peters had worked for a while in the publicity department at the Sydney Tivoli. ‘He always managed to upset the artistes because he did the billing according to the way he liked the acts and not according to their contracts. My father couldn't cope with this, so when Peters auditioned as a singer he got the job! Producing the programme was always a headache so when Peters came to me and said that Brian wanted to publish our program I couldn't talk to him quickly enough! So we gave Brian the contract to publish the Sydney Tivoli programmes, and he soon adopted the name Playbill. Then we gave him Melbourne too. Peters dropped out of the scene and became a writer. Brian worked on Williamson’s for years and finally got them as well.’ Playbill’s first JCW programme was for Maurice Chevalier’s season at Sydney’s Empire Theatre in March 1960. The Sydney season of My Fair Lady was next.
In an interview with Frank Hatherley for Stage Whispers magazine, Brian confessed to appropriating the name Playbill from the US firm that had been printing theatre programmes since the 1880s.
‘I really knocked their name off,’ he told Hatherley. ‘We’ve got it registered throughout Asia, the United Kingdom, South Africa. Their words to me were, “as long as you don’t get into our cabbage patch we don’t care.” When we publish in America we call ourselves Platypus Productions, a good Aussie name.’
Australia’s Playbill went from strength to strength. It has been the leader in Australian programme publishing and theatrical merchandising for over sixty years and now works with most of this country's subsidised performing arts companies and commercial entrepreneurs. At its headquarters at Moore Park, Playbill has its own editorial office, art studio and printing presses. In a nice example of events turning full circle, after he retired as head of the Sydney Opera House, Lloyd Martin became a consultant for Playbill. He died in 2005.
Playbill is still a family business, with Brian Nebenzahl as executive chairman, his son Michael as managing director and Michael’s wife, Jocelyn, as editorial director. In 1998 Brian Nebenzahl was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the publishing industry and the community.
Theatre programmes are fun to collect. You can choose specific themes: a particular theatre or theatre company; a specific period; an individual playwright or performer. You’ll find an eleven-year-old Zoe Caldwell playing Slightly in a 1944 production of Peter Pan, long before she became a bright star on Broadway. And the dancing children in the 1957 production of Peter Pan included Kelvin Coe, destined to become one of this country’s greatest dancers.
Mainstream opera and ballet programmes are easy to find and are often packed with attractive illustrations and useful historical information. Some programs turn up with monotonous frequency. It seems everybody kept their programmes from the original My Fair Lady! Conversely, some are frustratingly hard to find. The Australian Performing Group, working at the Pram Factory in Melbourne in the 1970s, changed the face of local theatre. Their programmes are historic documents but are rarely seen. Particularly collectible are programmes from entertainment presented during the 1956 Olympic Games, and from the first seasons of landmark productions like Hair and The Rocky Horror Show. Programmes from Dame Nellie Melba’s opera and concert appearances are valuable, as are programmes from Anna Pavlova’s dance seasons in the 1920s. Programmes from the Laurence Olivier–Vivien Leigh Old Vic tour of 1948 are certainly collectable. Their covers are the work of Loudon Sainthill, an Australian who had a distinguished international career as a stage designer. You will find other notable artists represented on program covers: Kenneth Rowell, William Constable, Norman and Lionel Lindsay, for instance.
One of the annoyances facing collectors is the lack of dates on many programmes. It’s usually not difficult to track down a date, using online tools such as AusStage and Trove. If you find a ‘yearless’ date such as ‘Saturday 14 May’ a perpetual calendar will help you. There are several online. And remember to make a note of the date you saw a show, possibly keeping the ticket stub along with the programme.
Autographs give programmes extra value. It’s worth getting your programme autographed by the stars, or even the whole cast. You can usually leave your copy at the theatre’s stage door with an appropriate note, and collect it later.
You can find old programmes in some second-hand bookshops and at collectors’ fairs, and there are many offered online through sites such as eBay. You may even find other collectors with whom you can exchange your duplicates. Keep your programmes in acid-free plastic sleeves, filed in an appropriate way. You’ll find that they’ll bring you years of collecting pleasure—and they’ll settle lots of arguments about who was in what, where and when.
This is an adaptation of an article originally published in The World of Antiques and Art, July–December 1999.
- The Sun (Sydney), 31 October 1915
- Dennis Bryans, ‘Customers and others I am responsible for’: Thomas Allan McKay, printer, publisher and entrepreneur, La Trobe Journal, issue 99, March 2017
- Stage Whispers, November–December 2012
BOOK REVIEW: African American Entertainers in Australia and New Zealand: A history, 1788-1941 by Bill Egan, McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, North Carolina
Review by Frank Van Straten
This is an extraordinary book. In its 270 well-illustrated pages, Canberra-based researcher Bill Egan uncovers the long, colourful contribution that African Americans have made to our entertainment. He starts, surprisingly, in 1788, revealing that there were eleven African American convicts in the First Fleet—including one John Randall, whose prowess with flute and drum eventually earned him a place in the NSW Regimental Corps band.
Egan then details the successive visits of around 350 African American performers until 1941, when the United States’ entry to World War Two made transpacific travel impossible. Nevertheless, Egan mentions several important more recent visitors, such as Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson, who sang for workers on the Sydney Opera House site, and Marcia Hines, who came to star in Hair—though that, as he says, is a topic for another book. And It’s not only actors, singers, dancers and musicians. Egan covers the cycling, boxing and wrestling fraternity too, pointing out that in the early 20th Century these sports were closely allied to the stage, and many of their exponents appeared on local variety bills. Indeed, entrepreneur Hugh D. Mcintosh ‘graduated’ from promoting cycling and boxing to running the Tivoli Circuit.
The book includes a full chapter on the shameful Sonny Clay affair of 1928, which is rightly described as ‘White Australia’s darkest hour’. Happily, a wonderful Sam Hood shot of the Clay band’s arrival in Sydney adorns the book’s cover. There is also a most welcome rundown of the career of George Sorlie, a West Indian who settled here and toured his own tent show around the country for many years, though Egan does not mention that Sorlie was a prolific and popular recording artist; some of his discs were still available in early CD transfers.
The book is meticulously researched but, inevitably, in a work as comprehensive as this, there are the odd slips. On page 177, for instance, there is slight confusion about the dates of the closing of Sydney’s first Tivoli and Charlie Pope’s death; and on page 186 the figures for the original Australian seasons of Show Boat are incorrect: it ran 9 weeks in Melbourne and 7 in Sydney. It’s also worth pointing out that the Sydney Tivoli pictured on page 66 is not Rickards’ Tivoli, which closed in 1929, but the second Tivoli, the so-called ‘New Tivoli’, the former Adelphi/Grand Opera House. The original mistake was made by vaudevillian Val Napier, who commissioned the sketch from British artist Nicholas Charlesworth (making sure that her father, contortionist Hector Napier, was featured prominently on the pictured ‘bills’).
More seriously, there is one major omission: the great stage and screen actress and singer Edna Thomas (1886-1974), who toured Australia with great success in 1925/6. Billed as ‘The Lady from Louisiana’, her recitals combined art songs with creole songs and spirituals—the latter being by far the most popular. A magnificent oil portrait of her by Sir John Longstaff is in the collection of the Castlemaine Art Museum.
But these quibbles do nothing to lessen the importance of Bill Egan’s remarkable work with its potent insights into an important but largely forgotten and undocumented aspect of Australian show business history. The extensive Chapter notes contain much valuable extra detail and information, and the Index is exhaustive—unlike that provided in Richard Waterhouse’s 1990 publication From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville, which pales in comparison to Egan’s work.
This eminently readable saga reflects our changing attitudes to race and our acceptance of different and evolving forms of entertainment, and it perpetuates the memory of a legion of talented performers, some of whom, fortunately, decided to call this country home.
I heartily recommend it.
Cover of a 1939 Tivoli Theatre programme featuring the Mills Brothers.
Frank Van Straten Collection.
From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Frank Van Straten from the Summer 2012 issue of On Stage looking at the life of Australian actor, singer and dancer Max Oldaker.
When Barry Humphries was working with Max Oldaker in the Phillip Street revue Around the Loop, he asked him how he managed to smile so sincerely at the curtain call on a thin Wednesday matinee. Humphries recalls: ‘He said, “Dear Barry, it’s an old trick Noel taught me, and it never fails.” He demonstrated, standing in the middle of the dressing room in his Turkish towelling gown, eyes sparkling, teeth bared in a dazzling smile. “Sillycunts,” beamed Max through clenched teeth, bowing to the imaginary stalls. “Sillycunts,” again, to the circle, the gods and the royal box. “It looks far more genuine than ‘cheese’, dear boy,” said Max, “and you’ve just got to hope that no one in the stalls can lip read.” I couldn’t help thinking of all my mother’s friends at those Melbourne matinees, their palms moist, hearts palpitating as Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols, flashed them all his valedictory smile.’
Maxwell Charles Oldaker was an Australian rarity – a matinee idol in the traditional mould: tall, dark and handsome, with a good voice, acting ability and, above all, charm.
Born into a farming family in Devonport, Tasmania, on 17 December 1907, Oldaker studied piano but soon decided to concentrate on singing. In Sydney he joined Edward Branscombe’s Westminster Glee Singers, making his professional debut at the Palace Theatre in May 1930. With Branscombe he toured Australia and the Far East, then headed for Britain. There he resumed his voice studies and sang in the chorus of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and a touring production of The Chocolate Soldier. In London he was given small roles in the Kern–Hammerstein flop Three Sisters, The Beggar’s Opera and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He was even less conspicuous in the 1936 film Whom the Gods Love, but his big break came in 1938 when Noel Coward cast him in the featured role of Paul Trevor in Operette. Later that year he was in the musical Bobby Get Your Gun and in 1939 he appeared in two musicals on television.
Oldaker returned to Australia at the end of 1939. From 1940 until 1947 he worked for J.C. Williamson’s. He sang the principal tenor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan, and was Gladys Moncrieff’s leading man in revivals of The Merry Widow and The Maid of the Mountains. In 1944, while he was appearing in Lilac Time at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, he became involved in the performers’ revolt against Williamson’s antipathy to Actors’ Equity. Like Gladys Moncrieff, he supported the management. Two-thirds of the cast walked off and Oldaker was presented with an insulting bouquet of lilies.
In 1945 Oldaker achieved an enormous success when, as the Red Shadow, he rode a handsome white steed in a Williamson revival of The Desert Song, playing opposite Joy Beattie. They were later teamed in Rose-Marie. In 1947 Oldaker took the lead in Gay Rosalinda, a reworking of Die Fledermaus, and The Dancing Years, in which he played Rudi Kleber, the role that Novello had created for himself.
Of stage, Oldaker was a fine pianist and an accomplished composer. His ‘A Bird Market in Peking – A Chinese Episode for Piano’ was published by Allans in 1941 in its ‘Australian Composers’ series.
After his seven-year stint with J.C. Williamson’s, Oldaker tried something new: revue. At the end of 1947 he was in Whitehall Productions’ unsuccessful Sweetest and Lowest at the Minerva Theatre in Kings Cross. He returned to Britain where he starred in a touring revival of The Dancing Years. He came home hoping for a lead in Song of Norway, and he also considered the juvenile lead in Brigadoon. Instead he accepted his first ‘straight’ role: Doris Fitton cast him as the murderous Dr Jeffries in the thriller Bonaventure. This played not at the Independent, but at the far more prestigious Sydney Theatre Royal. After that, there was more Gilbert and Sullivan.
Next Oldaker tackled Shakespeare. In 1951-52 he toured Australia with the John Alden Company. His principal roles were Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, though he also played in King Lear, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Winter’s Tale. In 1953 he starred in a revival of White Horse Inn for J.C. Williamson’s in Sydney and a production of the light opera Merrie England for the National Theatre of Tasmania in Hobart. In 1954 he was at the Princess in Melbourne in two disastrous productions by Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Movement, La Belle Hélène and The Maid of the Mountains – in both of which he starred opposite a rising young soprano, Marie Collier.
In 1955 Oldaker accepted William Orr’s invitation to star in the second of his now-legendary Phillip Street revues, Hat Trick. Oldaker stopped the show with a sparkling gem of self-mockery: ‘I’m just an old Red Shadow of my former self… a gentleman of leisure, awaiting Williamson’s pleasure…’ After that Orr included him in Two to One, Around the Loop and a musical version of Alice in Wonderland, in which he cavorted as the Duchess.
By now Oldaker had set his heart on playing Higgins in the Australian production of My Fair Lady. To reinforce his cause he went to London where he was cast as Zoltan Karpathy and understudied Rex Harrison. Though he successfully replaced Harrison in several performances, he was bypassed for the Australian production, and the role went to Robin Bailey.
Oldaker left London in mid-1959 and returned to Launceston to care for his ailing parents. In April 1960 he starred in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in The Phillip Street Revue, an amalgam of the best numbers from earlier shows. Oldaker was in good form:
‘I’d hoped to play the lead in My Fair Lady,
Until Sir Frank said, “You’re not in the race.”
It seems that Shaw’s Pygmalion
Cannot be played Australian –
Besides, they’d grown accustomed to me face.’
After this, Oldaker busied himself teaching, writing, adjudicating for drama and music competitions, directing and playing in musicals and drama in Tasmania, acting on radio, and appearing on television in variety and in plays ranging from Blithe Spirit to The Tempest – he was Prospero in a memorable 1963 ABC production with Reg Livermore and Ron Haddrick, with music by John Antill. He also raised funds to assist the ailing and almost forgotten Australian soprano Florence Austral.
At Christmas 1966 Oldaker reprised his role as the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, this time at the Sydney Tivoli. A few months later he was back with J.C. Williamson’s, garnering great reviews for his performance as the aging actor-manager Chitterlow in the musical Half a Sixpence. It was his last major mainland assignment.
In March 1971 Oldaker appeared as Crabtree in The School for Scandal at the Theatre Royal in Hobart and the Princess in Launceston. The cast also included Beverley Dunn, Patricia Kennedy, Syd Conabere, Robert Essex, John Miller and Jon Finlayson. Roger Hodgman directed. It was Max Oldaker’s final bow. He died of a coronary in his sleep at his home in Launceston on 1 February 1972.
The Launceston Examiner said: ‘Few Tasmanians have been more widely known, more universally liked, and more generously disposed to give the benefit of experience and judgment to the State which gave them birth.’
His old leading lady, Gladys Moncrieff, 15 years his senior, added: ‘He was such a professional and such a friendly colleague … and he was the last of the matinee idols.’
- Some of Max Oldaker’s papers are preserved in the National Library in Canberra; others are in the Local Studies Library in Launceston, where the Princess Theatre has a room of memorabilia dedicated to his memory.
Richard Lane, ‘Max Oldaker’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995)
Charles Osborne, Max Oldaker – Last of the Matinee Idols (1988)
Gillian Winter, ‘Maxwell Oldaker’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 15.
This article is a slightly edited version of the Max Oldaker biography included in 2007 in Live Performance Australia’s Hall of Fame: https://www.liveperformance.com.au/halloffame/maxoldaker1.html
Jazz and Blues vocalist 26.9.1949-22.6.2013
Tributes: The Age