Saturday, 07 December 2019 18:05

The Modern Revue Days: the reminiscences of variety producer Gavin M. Drummond, Toowoomba, 1950-1957

Written by Gavin M. Drummond

ModernRevue 1200b(left) Gloria Dawn and Sorlie's Ballet, 1949. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
(right) Gavin M. Drummond with Jill Perryman. Courtesy of Les Tod.

Stage-struck as a young boy growing up in Toowoomba in Queensland in the 1930s, the late Gavin M. Drummond went on to become a producer and director of Ziegfeld-inspired revues, bringing live variety entertainment to a regional city in the 1950s. In 2005, at the prompting of his good friend Les Tod, Gavin recorded his memories of those days. Thanks to Les Tod, the manuscript is published here for the first time.

My interest in theatre started about 1932, when the travelling variety shows like Sorlies and the Bobby Le Brun shows visited Toowoomba in huge tents. They stayed a week or so, and my mother always took me. I can still see the word SORLIES, MACKS or BOBBY LE BRUN out in front the marquee, lit up in lights, and it was so attractive to me.

The shows consisted of a four or five piece band in the pit, four or six ballet girls, dancers, comedians, speciality acts and comedy sketches. Gloria Dawn started in Sorlies’ shows. They were wonderful, and very popular in their day.

In those times there was not a lot of entertainment for a boy of nine, turning on ten. My mother loved music and theatre, and the first big show she took me to was J.C. Williamson’s huge production of White Horse Inn in the fabulous Empire Theatre in Toowoomba. That set me off. I couldn’t believe there were real goats on the hillside, and when the lightning and thunder started, I was bedazzled. Then came the rain—it was unbelievable. I was hooked.

My mother owned a cake shop in Toowoomba’s main street and we lived for some years at the rear. She was well-known for her cakes, and won many medals at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney for these and her pickles, pickled onions and walnuts.

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    The Sorlie’s travelling musical revue company. On the road, 1935.

    Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

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    A scene from one of George Sorlie’s Revues, Toowoomba, January 1936

    Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

All the kids in the neighbourhood used to congregate in our backyard, and one time I put on a black petticoat of Mum’s and I had the kids kneeling in the dirt, while I stood on a wooden pineapple box preaching to them from the Bible. Mum came out and scolded me, telling everyone to get up out of the dirt. She then brought out a tray of iced patty cakes and what we called cider. It was enjoyed by all.

When I was around twelve, I converted our garage into a stage for my first theatrical performance. The lady next door made silk curtains for me, and the play was called The Moon and the Willow Tree. Along the front of the curtains, I had footlights with empty tobacco tins nailed to a long board, with little candles in the tins. It’s a wonder I didn’t burn down the garage. I used to go down to the creek behind our shop and get willow branches for the back of the stage, and I cut out a moon and painted it gold and pulled it up and down behind the willow trees. I also did Cinderella. Pauline Denny, whom I caught up with in Frankston a few years ago, scratched Jessie Matthews down the face because she didn’t get the lead. Pauline and Jess both disappeared and that was the end of my backyard shows. My hand-made posters advertising my coming shows were never again posted to the back of tin fences in the neighbourhood—the end of an era!

A few years later came the war, and I volunteered to join the RAAF before I was 18. Just after I turned 18, I got my call-up to go to Brisbane Exhibition Grounds to sign up, but on the way by train from Toowoomba to Brisbane, I met two other guys, one from Warwick and another from further west. We became good buddies and the next day when we had to sign up, I decided to join the Army with them. We stuck together for 18 months. We heard the infantry was the hardest, so we joined the artillery. At least we had a choice. That was March 1942, and after going for training on bofor guns at Lytton/Archerfield, we did jungle training at Tabragalba, near Canunga. From there we went to Brisbane and Townsville and on to Milne Bay, Salamanca and Lae for a couple of years. After that it was to Torokina in the Bougainvilles, where I was stationed for six months after the war had finished.

Poor Mum had only seen me once that three and a half years, when I was flown back for leave. Nowadays I think how hard it must have been for her, not knowing exactly where I was.

In 1949, Joyce Williams contacted me to join her Spotlight Revue Company in Toowoomba. I reluctantly accepted, and did 18 months in her musicals. A group of us sang “Night and Day” for Dick Fair’s Amateur Hour on radio. We didn’t win, but came second. Joyce was good to me, but all her dance numbers were too goody-goody and waltzy, so I decided to leave her company and start my own Revue Company, with a more modern touch, with Ziegfeld type show girls, chorus line dancers etc.

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    The Sorlie’s travelling musical revue company. On the road, 1935.

    Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

On 28 April 1950, I produced Painting the Clouds with Sunshine at St James Church Hall. Admission was two shillings, with one tiny ad in the Chronicle. We packed the hall and turned them away, causing us to repeat the next night with no advertising—and packed out again. We gave the proceeds to the St James Tennis Club. In that show, we had a cast of nineteen and three in the little band. I had ten or twelve of Toowoomba’s prettiest girls, including five trained tap and ballet dancers from the Hillock’s School of Dancing. Dawn Hillock taught the choreography for two nights and Sunday afternoons, for 8 weeks, at my home. We had to learn the words of songs around the piano. At weekends we made scenery and costumes and so on. I got brochures made for future shows to stick around town, until I was confronted by the City Council telling me it was illegal to do so.

I always did one song and dance number in my shows for seven years, with the same girl, Ailsa Allen. In my first we did “My One and Only Fling”. One of the cast gave me a piece of real Scottish heather for that, and I still have it, pasted in my Revue album.

We repeated this show in the Town Hall for charity, with proceeds going to the RSL Municipal Band. Marshall Palmer compered the show.

I was approached by the Cecil Plains Bush Nursing Scheme to repeat Painting the Clouds there, and we went in a van and half a dozen cars early on the Saturday to set things up. Country people were always generous, and had huge tubs of roast chickens for our dinner. It rained that night, and being black soil, we got bogged near Oakey coming home. We built a fire and sat around it until morning, when help arrived. No-one forgot that episode.

We did another show at Nobby, where Sister Kenny came from, before settling in Toowoomba. We were very lucky, the Minister of St James Church was interested in theatre and talked us into a second show. I called this Happy Go Lucky, and put it on for two nights, 15 and 16 June, with prices up sixpence. This time the proceeds were for the church funds. Most of the original cast were in it, plus a few newcomers. I did my one number with Ailsa—“We’re a Couple of Swells”, and for the first time I had four lovely tall showgirls in “Red Roses for a Blue Lady”, each carrying a bunch of red paper roses on long green stems. I had made these myself from crepe papers.

Three weeks later, we took the show to the Olympia Theatre in Oakey. But before that, after the two full houses in Toowoomba, we had a repeat one week later in St James Hall. Oakey was very good to us. We always played to a packed house and as it was for the local CWA, they helped advertise it as well. And as usual after the show, lots of sandwiches and fabulous country cooking.

In Happy Go Lucky, the press gave Ann McDonald a great write-up of her jitterbug dance. (She would later be Simon Gallaher’s mother—he had not been born yet). I thought it was time we had to make some money and decided to chance it and have a few dances. At Portland I hired Col Weimer’s Dance Band and did a little advertising in the Chronicle for a New Year’s Eve dance, with floor shows during the night by our Company. The price was three shillings plus tax, with dancing from 8pm to 1am. It was such a success, we had another eleven days later.

A reporter was talking to Joe Short one day and asked about the name of the revue. He said “Well, it was modern, a sort of modern revue”. That’s how the name stuck.

Joe also said to me that we were getting such crowds we should try the City Hall for our next production. I was very apprehensive at first, but then thought why not? I measured the proscenium of the stage, and Mum made a huge gold geisha silk curtain with detachable black bottom border. I think it was 24 or 30 feet wide and about 20 feet high. We sewed about 200 curtain rings on the top—what a job. I then announced in bigger ads in the Chronicle that on Friday and Saturday, 9 and 10 May 1952, we were to open the new Revue, Footlight Frolics in the City Hall, with prices at four shillings or three shillings. Bookings were now at Palings (I knew the boss and staff, and it was next to Exton’s, where I worked).

It was all very exciting. My motto was “Reserves are better than regrets”. We did another repeat in the City Hall on 21 May, and got bigger crowds. As usual, we went to Oakey a week later, and after that we had our first flop—at Gatton. In October, Rod Priest and I rode our pushbikes 28 miles down the Range road to Gatton. It was dreadfully hot and we delivered hundreds of pamphlets into cob-webbed letter boxes. Luckily the RACQ picked us up going back up the Range, and gave us a lift to the top. We put on the show and only about 30 people came—we were very disappointed.

Then we did a few appearances with floor shows at the Aero Club Dance Party and at the Military Ball in the showgrounds. In Footlight Frolics our star was Beverley Prowse, who won the Kirra Surf Girl Competition, the Miss Hickory Bra Competition, and then moved to Victoria for six months, where she won that title as well. She was then chosen to do a Women’s Weekly tour of England, and became well-known. She was in her early 20s when she married Jack Hylton, 73, the famous band leader. I can still see the Daily Sun—“Young Model Marries Aged Band Leader”. When he died several years later, she married Alex McKay, who was in partnership with Murdoch newspapers. I visited them both regularly in London, and Bev was a great friend until she had a massive stroke about three years ago, and passed away.

I did “The Hat’s on the Side of My Head”, with Ailsa in this show. I remember we did “Gay Paree” and Lindon Prowse and I decided we would paint a French scene, with the Eiffel Tower on canvas as the backdrop. Mum was away, and as we had an extremely long lounge, pinned the canvas all along the wall, then marked off one foot squares, and sized it with glue. He being an artist, he pencilled in the design and we then painted it. When we finished and pulled it down, all the paint came off the walls as well. I dreaded Mum coming home as it was a terrible mess.

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    Programme for Talk of the Town, June 1953 (left) and the Toowoomba City Hall (right).

    Photo by Les Tod.

For the next show, Talk of the Town, we had three nights in the City Hall, from 5 to 8 June 1953, the end of Coronation Week. Due to big crowds another repeat performance was given on 11 July. With this show, I started looking for guest acts. The first was a novelty weightlifting act by Queensland’s champion juniors, John Rose and Bill Coltsman. This handsome duo with their fabulous physiques drew oohs and aahs from the females in the audience. I also secured a sixteen year old young announcer from 4GR who had a little part on the breakfast show—he offered to compere Talk of the Town and he was fabulous. His name was Kevin Golsby and he later moved to Sydney and interviewed all of Lee Gordon’s big stars on 2UE. He later did several TV series, including The Naked Vicar Show.

Noel Harders, who did the choreography for this show, went on to appear in J.C. Williamson’s The Pyjama Game, followed by a season with the Ballet Rambert in Europe. Our shows were getting more extravagant and expensive, and we had little money. We had a great friend who owned Palmers Silk Store, and gave us full rolls of material to make costumes and curtains. Anything left over, we returned. He was a great supporter to us.

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    Poster for Nylons and Nonsense—The New Ophir Rees Show, 1947-1948, His Majesty's Theatre, Auckland, which starred Bobby Le Brun. This was perhaps the inspiration for Gavin’s fifth revue.

    Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

From 13 to 17 May 1954, we put on one of our most successful Revues, Nylons and Nonsense. Leah Wain (MRAD, London) joined us as choreographer. Rehearsals for this show at the City Hall took eight weeks. Then I had a wonderful idea. I read that the Governor of Queensland, Sir John Lavarack, and his party, including Lt. Col. Sewell, were to be in Warwick, 100 miles west of Toowoomba, for the races. I said to Mum that I was going to invite him to our show. We kept this to ourselves, in case he refused. The show was on from the Thursday night, and on Friday morning I got a phone call at Extons, saying it was the aide-de-comp to the governor, Lt. Col. Flewell, speaking. I said “Yeah, pull the other leg”, thinking Billy Hills, our comedian had found out our secret and was having a joke at my expense. I was embarrassed to find it was for real and apologised. He said the Governor had changed plans and was now staying in Toowoomba overnight and would like four seats for Saturday night’s performance.

I checked with Palings and found we had no seats left in the first 14 rows—what a panic. I always sat Mum and her sister in the best seats, along with the Mayor, Alderman Anderson. In desperation I rang the Mayor and explained the situation. He said he would be OK coming on the Monday night, and my aunt also was happy to change the dates. I was relieved, but then the police rang to say the street in front of the City Hall would be barricaded from 4pm. The official car would be sitting just around the corner, and arrived at five minutes to eight. I had to put an ad in the Chronicle, telling the audience they must be seated by that time for the vice regal party to arrive.

What excitement. I wore my pale blue tuxedo and crimson bow tie, and presented Lady Lavarack with a huge bunch of flowers, and Sir John with a huge box of Old Gold chocolates. Then I escorted them into the theatre. Mum said they ate every chocolate in the box. After the show, they congratulated me and said they couldn’t believe the cast of 27 were amateurs, and it was a great credit to all of us.

We also had a lovely letter printed in the Chronicle from a Sydney radio personality, who wrote that the fast moving revue was as good as anything she had seen at the Tivoli, and we all did it voluntarily. She was staying at Lennon’s Hotel, opposite the theatre at the time. Her name was Andrea.

We always started at 8pm sharp, as soon as the clock finished striking eight. A spotlight shone on a shapely girl’s leg protruding onto the stage. The light goes out, and on the right hand side of the stage it comes on again, to reveal a man’s hairy leg. Hence the title, Nylons and Nonsense.

Once again, Ailsa and I did one number. This time it was “Kiss the Boys Goodbye”.   For weeks before the show, I got little quips in the Chronicle and the Downs Star—“Who Were Freda, Gladys and Claire?” On the opening night, it was my three butch comedians, Billy, Ted and Joe in hilarious drag, doing a song and dance routine. Also a week before, I had a large set of shapely legs driving up and down Ruthven Street (against Council laws) on the back of a truck. That gave us a lot of free publicity. They were for the opening number and were about sixteen feet high. Other spectacular numbers were “Tom-toms and Totem Poles” —a stage with totem poles, tepees, and Wanda dancing on a big illuminated inside drum, complete with long feathered headgear and supported by sixteen dancing braves and squaws.

Another was “A Night in a Harem”, with 3D scenery—a first for Toowoomba. I advertised it as “No Special Glasses Needed”. Mum had a lovely red leather chaise lounge, and that gave me the idea of a sheik reclining on it, being cooled by a slave waving a huge bamboo fan. Lots of belly dancers, veiled of course, dancing around Bill, and spectacular cutouts of Arabian scenery. We also had the wonderful “Land of Windmills and Tulips”, spectacular with hundreds of handmade tulips and a big floral windmill from Eagers, which they had entered in the Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers. Billy Hills had to stand in the base of the windmill and turn it around, and complained of the heat.

We turned hundreds away that season. I had to put an apology in the paper to people that couldn’t get in, announcing that we would do two repeats in six weeks’ time. Again we played to capacity houses, even though it was in the middle of a cold Toowoomba winter. We even got a large write-up in the Brisbane Telegraph, saying that the Vice Regal visitors enjoyed a wonderful night in Toowoomba at the local revue.

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    Programme cover for The Sky’s the Limit, November 1954.

In November 1954 we had our longest season, six nights, with our sixth revue, The Sky’s the Limit, with a larger cast of 45, plus ten backstage workers and a bigger band. We were now close to the top and we could practically get anything we wanted—the RAAF were fabulous, and the ABC loaned its grand piano. Brian Muir from 4GR donated his services as compere. We opened the show with rockets on each side of the stage, with sparklers at the bottom, and with fourteen guys each side of the stage singing “Off We Go Into the Wild blue Yonder”, as the second curtain opened on to the entire cast hanging around a huge globe of the world singing “Sitting on Top of the World”.

Leith McClymont played his piano accordion with the band and another finalist from the ABC, Stan Myers, played a selection on the grand piano. The Lunquests had won a Sydney talent quest as electric steel guitarists. We built a Hawaiian number around them, complete with palm trees and huge paper flowers. We also featured “Gay Paree”, with a big chorus and “This is the Army”, a song-dance in which Bill Hills carved perfect rifles out of timber—so they were light enough for the chorus girls, doing precision drill. We also did a “Singin in the Rain” number, with six couples in plastic raincoats and our home-made plastic umbrellas, and rippling strips of plastic hanging down, made to look like rain.

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    Programme for Gavin’s seventh and final revue, Wake Up and Live, June 1957.

My last show was Wake Up and Live, running a week in June 1957. For this Palings couldn’t cope with the heavy bookings, and asked if I could advertise bookings for the first three days only, then a week later add the last three shows. I looked out of Exton’s door, where I worked, on the day the first bookings opened, and there was a queue out the front of Palings, one hundred yards down the street. At that time the bookings had also opened for the Ice Spectacular at the Empire Theatre—the first ice show ever in Toowoomba. I rang in and asked Joan at Palings whether all the people queuing were for the ice show, and she said No, they were booking for Wake Up and Live. I couldn’t believe it.

This was to be my final Revue. I had always loved Latin Music, and decided to do a big “Brazil” number. I saw lots of bamboo growing near Combooya and we had a truck which the members had bought for me to carry scenery in. Off we went and cut lots of twelve foot pieces of bamboo and brought them back, and split them length wise into four. I then painted the notches brown and yellow and we cut them into six-feet pieces, drilled holes and made a 24 feet wide bamboo curtain, about eighteen feet high. It was fantastic, but I never realised the weight of it and it’s a wonder we did not pull the roof of the City Hall down. I started the number in deep red lights, with the click click of “Brazil” getting louder as the lights got brighter. Then amongst strings of flowers, orange tiled haciendas and palm trees, the cast in samba outfits entered, followed by Bill as Carmen Verandah.

Another number was my showgirl one “Stairway to the Stars”, where Bev Prowse came down a staircase in a brief outfit, followed by five showgirls who paraded on the ramp that Linden Prowse, a carpenter, had built for me. One girl saw her priest in the front row one night and walked off the ramp, almost into his lap. It was hard for me to convince her to do it for the rest of the performances.

Our guest stars this time were Frances and Gordon Rylance, who had won ballroom championships that year, Carmen Stahlet, who had won the Amateur Hour in Sydney, and Brian Harvey, the concert pianist from the ABC. Also included was Patricia Taylor, a fabulous operatic soprano who was staying for six weeks holiday in Toowoomba with friends of mine. She sang “Summertime”. I was thrilling with the ABC grand piano supporting her.

Luckily it was the final night of Wake Up and Live, during the finale, when I had a guest Chinese illusionist, “Oriento”, that disaster almost struck. I had built the whole finale around him. Kwong Sang, the Chinese emporium had loaned me six real genuine bamboo umbrellas, and the girls made little gold short sleeve Chinese outfits and danced in front of my gold curtain to “Chinatown, My Chinatown”. Behind the curtain, “Oriento” had two flaming bowls on three feet wooden stands. When another curtain went up, a gust of wind blew one of the stands over, and the petrol spilt back in flames, causing the backdrop to catch fire. Everyone rushed to beat it out—what a panic. The cast were ready to do the big finale and I had to push Bill, our comedian, out to the front of the stage to tell jokes, giving us time to clean up. I was terrified, imagining City Hall going up in flames, and especially losing the ABC’s grand piano.

I never did a show after this, apart from a 1957 Miss Australia Benefit in the Empire Theatre. We did bits and pieces of all our shows. I still have the letter of thanks from Kenneth Mitchell, the chairman of the Queensland Spastic Appeal Committee. I also have a letter from Hector Crawford, who at the time was doing on national radio “The Amazing Oscar Hammerstein”, with the Westminster Singers and the Australian Symphony Orchestra. He wanted me to listen on 4BK and send my comments and they would be broadcast during the one hour show.

  • Empire Theatre, Toowoomba.

    Photo by Les Tod.

  • Empire Theatre, Toowoomba.

    Photo by Les Tod.

And so I finished my theatre revues in the Empire Theatre, the same place I had seen my first one all those years ago.

In all my years of doing what I loved doing, it was an experience. Creating my own ads for the Chronicle, arranging the church halls for rehearsals, making and painting scenery, trying to work out dance routines, three or four nights a week learning lyrics for songs, getting music and copies for the other instruments of the band, apart from the piano, canvassing shops for advertising in our programmes. At the same time I had to hold down my five and a half day job at Extons. I think we did pretty well and raised many hundreds of pounds for St James and St Lukes Churches, and for books to start a library at the Sub Normal Children’s School at Harristown.

My slogan on our ads always said “Lovely Girls, Bright Scenes, Gay Costumes and Laughs Galore.” That says it all.

Show Dates

Painting the Clouds with Sunshine
St James Hall – 28 April 1950
St James Hall – 5 May 1950
Town Hall – 17 June 1950
Cecil Plains – 24 June 1950 
Nobby Hall – 12 December 1950

Happy Go Lucky
St James Hall – 15-16 June 1951
Olympia Theatre Oakey – 24 July 1951
Dalby Hall – 17 November 1951

Footlight Frolics
City Hall – 9-10 May 1952
Oakey Theatre – 27 May 1952
Gatton Theatre – 2 October 1952

Talk of the Town
City Hall – 5-8 June 1953
Oakey Hall – 16 June 1953
City Hall – 11 July 1953

Nylons & Nonsense
City Hall – 13-17 May 1954
City Hall – 10-12 July 1954

The Sky’s the Limit
City Hall – 24-30 November 1954

Wake Up and Live
City Hall – 13-29 June 1959

 

 

Footnote

Gavin Drummond passed away in 2013. His memorabilia was donated to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane.

 

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