Love Thy Neighbour: The legacy of a Tivoli showgirl

Written by Chris Rowland
In 1988 Diana DeBring (née Hartt) and her third husband Don, relocated to the picturesque town of Camarillo in Los Angeles, California. A former Tivoli showgirl in Sydney, Diana left Australia in the 1940s following a tragic dressing-room fire at the Tivoli Theatre on 1 September 1945. CHRIS ROWLAND, a neighbour and close friend, pays tribute to Diana DeBring who took her final bow and exited the stage peacefully in her home on 1 June 2020, aged 93. Photographs and clippings from Diana's scrapbooks are published here with permission from her family and the DeBring Trust.

 

In July of 2013 my wife and I, along with our two young children, moved next door to an Australian woman named Diana DeBring. She was an octogenarian, about to turn 87 that August.

My first meeting with her was beneath a eucalyptus tree (she called them gum trees) under a yellow caution sign emblazoned with an image of a kangaroo. My children were with me and I introduced them. Usually when I tell women of a certain age that my son’s middle name is Elvis they smile and tell me how much they loved the late singer. Not Diana.

“Elvis!? Why did you bloody name him after Elvis!? He was an awful singer!” she exclaimed, with just enough lightness in the statement for me to catch her playfulness.

Never one to back down, I responded, “Well, you Colonials have your Queen and we Americans have our King.”

She chuckled and the seed of our friendship was planted.

Over the next seven years I got to know this woman and learned that she had led one of the most intriguing lives of anyone I had ever met. We would share a libation in the early evenings or I would escort her to lunch or dinner and she would regale me with tales of her youth, being on stage, travelling the world with her mother by steamship and the many romances and loves of her life. I listened raptly, never tiring of the same stories she’d begun to forget had already been told. The most amazing and defining experience of her long existence came on the night of 1 September 1945 when the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney, Australia, where she performed as a dancer and showgirl, caught fire.

Born Diana Cecillie Hartt on 15 August 1926, Diana came from artistic stock. Her great grandfather, John Russell, was a well-known 18th century portrait artist in England. Her father was Cecil Hartt who had started a career in cartoon art before enlisting in WWI where he was gravely injured in the Battle of Gallipoli. After returning to Australia from convalescing in England he was hired as the first artist for the Smith’s Weekly publication and created the character and archetype of the ‘Digger’. He used his work to satirize the government’s response to the needs of returning vets, in particular the neglect of treatment for shell-shock.

Unfortunately, tragedy first visited Diana at the early age of three. Cecil told her mother he needed a rest and was going on holiday. He drove into the outback and killed himself with a shotgun.

Diana’s mother Iris (known as Biddy to friends and family) also seems to have had the show biz bug. Early photos show her in various costumes and set ups, always with an endearing smile on her face. Soon after Cecil’s death she married a ship’s captain from New Zealand, Frank Smart.

Diana adored her Mother and stepfather and her childhood was filled with artistic training. She began studying ice-skating and operatic dance at a young age and received her certificate from the Royal Academy of Dance at 17. It was the year before, however, at the age of 16, that she began working at the Tivoli.

She would tell me about the extravagant costumes, the laughter and joy of being on stage with her friends and entertaining all of the “gorgeous American soldiers”. This was 1943, with World War II in full swing in the Pacific theatre. From what I can ascertain from photos and stories, she had quite a few ‘fiancés’ during those years. Here was a young woman, confident, well trained, gorgeous and doing what she loved, dancing and being in the spotlight.

That fateful night in September at the Tivoli changed everything. As the show progressed in the theatre her closest friend, June McKenzie, and 15-year-old Phyllis Haines were in the dressing room awaiting their next act. The night was cold and they had a radiator in the cramped space as their only source of heat. In an instant Phyllis’s highly flammable costume caught fire after brushing against an unprotected heater. As she screamed and ran around the room Diana and June also became engulfed in flames.

Several girls escaped the inferno by leaping out windows and hanging onto a water pipe. Tex Glanville, the Tivoli’s roping artist, used his lasso to rescue them from falling. That rope now resides in the Australian Performing Arts Collection at Arts Centre Melbourne. As the fire raged backstage the audience in the main auditorium laughed and applauded at a man being sawed in half as the show went on.

The next thing Diana recalled was waking up in the hospital, her mother at her bedside smiling and telling her she would be fine. She spent the next six months fighting for her life. These were the first headlines she would garner as the Australian press became enamoured with the story of the beautiful showgirl burned by the negligence of the theatre operators.

She explained that if it hadn’t been for the discovery of penicillin and its use with burn victims in 1942 (proven by Australian scientist Howard Florey, she was proud to say) she would have died. She was given over one million doses of the infection-fighting drug.

When, months into her stay at the hospital, it was finally revealed to her that her two friends had died within days of the fire and that their injuries had been as severe as hers, another reason for her survival became Diana’s truth. She always credited her mother’s love and encouragement. Iris rarely left Diana’s bedside, releasing sprays of perfume to mask the smell of the putrefying skin from both visitors and her daughter. In photos taken in the hospital she is always smiling even as she watched Diana suffer unimaginable pain.

“My mother kept me alive, Chris, she was the greatest woman I’ve ever known. She wouldn’t allow me to die so I didn’t.”

Her recovery and release from medical care was covered in the press, as was the lawsuit she subsequently filed against the Tivoli. In the deposition one of her doctors states “It is, I think, fair to assume that her value in the marriage market has fallen very considerably …” The fire had left her unable to carry children to term and this was how the medical field in 1946 (and society) viewed her (female) life’s prognosis. Diana had different plans.

She received £20,000 from the theatre for her trouble, the equivalent today of A$1.4 million. However, the court decided that since she wasn’t yet 21, the money would be held in a trust until she came of age.

Over the next year she did not stay idle. She worked as a spokesperson for Australia’s fight against Tuberculosis and remained a darling of the press, often making headlines with one of her closest friends from the Tivoli, Patti Morgan. Diana and Patti had a close relationship throughout their lives and both would support the other through their respective careers and the tragedies each faced.

Patti had left for London in 1946 and, soon after she turned twenty-one and received her settlement from the Tivoli, Diana and her mother booked a world tour on the steamship Orion and followed her friend. The press covered her departure.

The trip was from a different time when long voyages were still rare for most people other than refugees in steerage from a world torn by years of war. Hers was a journey of discovery and freedom after months of recovery. The photos from each stop show her standing tall and proud, smiling with her mother—and almost always with a different man.

They travelled by way of the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal, arriving in England to take part in the festivities of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding. They headed to Canada and the United States where she would meet her first husband.

After returning to Australia (minus the husband) she embarked on the next phase of her artistic career. Her worst injuries were to her mid-section and left leg, which left her with a pronounced limp (she called it her drop-foot). With dance no longer an option as a career she turned to modelling and singing. Her face was left untouched by the flames and she was strikingly beautiful. The photographers used trick lighting and well-placed clothing to hide her scars. And she had a voice. And always a headline or two.

She returned to the States with her mother and married for the second time, settling in Los Angeles. She began studying French and Italian at night as well as formal training as a singer. She made several trips back to her homeland to perform on radio and at venues across the country.

As her voice and artistic training developed, her marriage fell apart. She didn’t care for him too much (“he was a real asshole,” she would tell me) and divorced again. Back in the States she met the love of her life, Don DeBring. The year was 1963 and he had been sent to Vietnam. So she ‘married his mother’ in Las Vegas. Apparently you can get married by proxy, which she did for the third and final time. It would seem that her value on the marriage market was actually quite high regardless of what the doctors had said.

She reinvented herself again and studied operatic singing with Belgian oboist Henri de Brusscher and began performing as the lead soprano for the Santa Monica Opera Company in California. And still she made headlines.

She returned to Australia in the mid 1960s and toured local venues throughout the country as well as making several TV appearances on Don Lane’s ‘Tonight Show’, ‘Adelaide Tonight’ and ‘Tonight With Stuart Wagstaff’. She also performed with the Sydney Metropolitan Opera Company as Siebel in their 1967 production of Faust.

She and her husband returned to the States in the late 1960s where she continued to perform throughout the next 20 years. In the early 80s her husband became the fastest man in the world on land with cars he built himself. In his turbo-charged vehicle ‘Longshot’ he claimed world records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, reaching speeds in excess of 265 mph.

In 1988 they retired to a small farming community west of Los Angeles called Camarillo. Over the next 30 years that small town grew, with the amazing view from her front porch obscured by Mc-Mansions and a golf course, but still nestled off a private road lined with her precious gum trees.

She survived breast cancer, a hip replacement and a few ‘touch-ups’ along the way. Don passed away in 2002 but Diana was never alone. She had helped to form a club of Australian and Kiwi expats called ‘The Down Under Club’ and her circle of friends were her extended family. By the time I moved in to her best friend’s house (they’d been neighbours for almost 30 years!) many had died or moved away, but those that remained still gathered for cocktails and Vegemite. Even that got written up in the local paper. She’d occasionally have me come over to parade in front of her friends and tell them I was her boyfriend.

I had become something of her mascot but also a caretaker and, more than anything, her friend. I’d drive her to the doctor or the market, once in a while using her prized silver Jaguar, the personalized license plate reading ‘Diva Di’. Our friendship also had the consequence of pulling her back once more into show business.

In 2016 my old high school band-mate moved to our little city and my career as a singer in a rock band became revitalized after 25 years. I had thought my stage days were beyond me but this new artistic endeavor reignited my love for performing and my neighbor thought it was fantastic, even if she hated rock ‘n’ roll.

I began taking singing lessons from her and we connected even more deeply on a level that perhaps only performers can truly understand. She had become my confidant, grandparent to my children and always a teacher. I took her to her first rock concert where my band, Professional Americans, performed a song dedicated to her. It’s called ‘Ammo Cans’, a clever-yet-stupid punk song about the female anatomy that she had hilariously sung parts of during one of our lessons. I could see her laughing and smiling from the stage, through the spotlight, loving all of it as I sang this raunchy song to my elderly neighbour.

For her 90th birthday a group of her friends took her to see ‘The Thunder From Down Under’, a male stripper revue, and the infectious smile is there again in the photograph. This past Thanksgiving she had dinner with my family and friends (she was a fixture at our parties) where my band-mate recreated the strip club scene and she obliged him by shoving dollars down his pants. She was 93 and he was 44. His wife was not amused. Nor was he when I coined his performance ‘The Thunder With Nothing Down Under’. The video of the moment echoes with her incredible laughter.

She lived life to the fullest; facing adversity not many in this world could ever appreciate let alone survive. Yet she did it with aplomb and class, always defying and destroying the odds.

She’d been having trouble walking and the crushing weight of COVID-19 had had its effect on her. Like so many others in her situation, quarantine became a slow torture for her active but aging mind. My own fear of the possibility of infecting her had reduced our interactions to keeping six feet away with a mask on, though I’d begun to relax my distancing as I saw her suffering from the isolation. Though friends and distant family kept a vigil of calling daily and checking up, her will to live began to decline.

One night, about a week before she passed away she called me in the evening. It was a conversation out of a movie script where the caller knows the end is near and wants to tell the person on the other side how much they’ve meant to them. The words she spoke to me were precious and moving beyond my ability to paraphrase. Most of us will never have the grace to make those calls or say those words to the people in our lives who have touched us. But Diana was not an ordinary person.

One thing I’ll share was the request she asked of me. “Think of me fondly Chris, from time to time. Remember me.”

I replied, “I will think of you fondly every day Love. I won’t let you be forgotten.”

She said goodbye and I corrected her. “It’s not goodbye dear, let us say au revoir.”

“Yes, Chris, au revoir.”

She fell that night and never recovered. She passed away a few days later on 1 June 2020, in her home with close friends and beloved dogs by her side at the age of 93.

Diana could never be forgotten. Hers was a star that never lost its lustre and will burn forever in those who were touched by her. She lived life as if on stage and those of us who were cast as her ensemble were inspired by every aspect of her amazing life’s journey. La Diva Diana’s final curtain call has left the spotlight empty and the world a much dimmer place.

 

Listen to Diana singing Corengrato (Cardillo) Neopolitan Song:

 

Christopher Rowland is an award winning documentary filmmaker and film and video editor who has worked in the entertainment industry for over 25 years including stints with The Ed Sullivan Library and the Roy Orbison Archive.  He is also the lead singer for the band Professional Americans. Mainly he is a work-at-home dad who loves his family. He is currently in production on a film about Diana DeBring.

 

Read 386 times Last modified on Thursday, 10 September 2020 17:15