The online magazine of Theatre Heritage Australia
Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham

Monday, 11 November 2013


Circus elephant 1959-12.9.2013

Thursday 12 September was a sad day for Brenton Bullen as he reluctantly had to put down Bimbo, the smallest of the elephant herd at Australia Zoo at Beerwah in Queensland. She had been suffering from aggravated arthritis and poor circulation for several years. I remember seeing her go through her exercise regime at Australia Zoo some time ago. I last saw her in the middle of August, when she seemed happy enough to front up for the daily feed for the zoo patrons.

Bimbo was almost exactly the same age as the five baby elephants that Stafford Bullen brought to Australia in 1961. Bimbo was then two-and-a-half years old and her former name was Che Che. The other four were three to five years old. One died on arrival at Sydney and, after quarantine at Taronga Park Zoo, the remaining four – Burma, Siam, Saba and Bimbo – were sent off to Tasmania where they joined Bullens' circus. They had their own act, apart from the adult performing herd. They were introduced as the 'Baby elephants only 40 inches high' – though they were more like 48-55 inches high! They were trained by Val Yeomans.

Burma had been a bit troublesome so, after the New Zealand tour, she was assigned to Taronga Park Zoo; later she was transferred to Dubbo Open Plains Zoo. After Bullens' Circus folded in 1969, the remaining small herd of four performed for various circuses until Peggy, an older member, died. The act had to be revamped by Craig Bullen into a fast-moving exciting performance, with Bimbo excelling with her own tricks. Her balancing on one foot on a pedestal holding four large balls in foot and trunk was a real highlight. As Craig said, she had the tightest 'salute' of the three elephants, enabling her to hold two of the balls in her trunk.

Bimbo was the smallest of the herd and never seemed to be anxious to come running for the carrots I used to bring to feed the trio at the Zoo. She wasn't greedy and took her turn. She was a delightful creature with a beautiful smile. I'm not joking! As Brenton lamented, this is the end of an era, as it is impossible for him to replace his two lost 'girls'. (Siam died earlier this year). To the whole Bullen family, sincere condolences at the loss of a great member of their animal family, and a wonderful performer

Bob Cunningham,
Bribie Island, Queensland.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Kings Theatre Memories



by Bob Cunningham

For almost a century the old Kings Theatre graced the southern side of Russell Street just a half a block up from Bourke Street. Although not possessing a terribly exciting Edwardian façade, it did have an interesting wrought iron verandah with a central curved arch. This later was replaced by a 'modern' cantilever awning. The City Council's removal of all the old wrought iron verandahs and posts from Melbourne streets at the end of the war brought a public outcry. The Council deemed them dangerous. The only one to survive was Ogg and Co. Chemists of Collins Street; it was rescued by the Melbourne University and ended up as the entrance way to the Undergraduates' building.

KingsRussell Street view ca. 1940The Kings was not as elaborate a structure as the Victorian-period Princess up the road, but my fading memory fails to bring details of the interior into play, except that it was constructed with a spacious stalls, dress and upper circles. The dress circle was supported by obtrusive columns in the stalls. The colour scheme as I later researched was cream, gold and blue, with a finely decorated circular ceiling dome. There was a tapering square tower of some sort on the right side of the façade by the lane, for whatever purpose is unknown, but having been designed by William Pitt, it was more than likely to have had some practical use.

The building was erected in 1908 by William Anderson, an all-round entrepreneur who built an amazing amusement park, Wonderland City, outside Bondi, Sydney, possibly the first in Australia. Anderson was famous for purchasing the famous elephant 'Alice' from the auction sale of the effects of the financially distressed Bostock and Wombwell's Novelty Circus. When Anderson also experienced the disposal of his bankrupted park, the elephant was sold to Wirths' Circus, where she became a famous attraction.

KT04cBert Bailey in On Our Selection.

In 1912 the Kings Theatre passed into the hands of Duggan (a relative of Anderson) and Bailey leading theatrical producers. Bailey was the famous Bert Bailey who introduced to Melbourne audiences the Steele Rudd character 'Dad', from On Our Selection. Thirty years later, in 1940, I saw Bert Bailey on the stage of the State Theatre, Melbourne, in a personal appearance and school holiday attraction for Ken Hall's film Dad Rudd M.P., which had just been released. My first association with the Kings was during the anxious war years. With my father serving in the forces in the Middle East, my mother, needing some morale sustenance, enjoyed attending community singing at various theatres. A previous article about community singing relates in full the experiences my sister and I had accompanying our mother on these regular outings. For me, the Kings Theatre became the outstanding venue, with its quite decorative interior, the like of which I had never seen before. (Mind you I was only about 10 at the time!)


KT08cHal Lashwood, Laurence and Vivien Olivier, Roy Rene.In 1948 the Oliviers came to Melbourne and caused some excitement... they were real film stars! They were playing at the Princess, their company being sponsored by the British Council as was the Ballet Rambert Company who performed somewhat later, also at the Princess Theatre. The Boyd Neal Orchestra and an exhibition of Henry Moore drawings and other works came to Melbourne the previous year under the same auspices. There is a photo of 'Mo' meeting the notable British actors, they possibly not knowing who on earth this weird looking fellow was.


KT06cA scene from Rusty Bugles.It was the same year when, with my mate from high school, Keith Medley, who loved the theatre as much as I did, together we frequented the Tivoli Theatre revues, feasting on every lavish and entertaining show. We ventured to the Kings in 1949 to see Rusty Bugles. It was a controversial play by Sumner Locke Elliott, with swear words – warranted of course, as it was about army life. The wowsers tut-tutted loudly, but they only encouraged large attendances for the play.

As was typical, we could only afford upper circle seats as we were both just out of high school, so we arrived very early, grabbed our tickets and raced up the hundreds of stairs to get front row seats. (We followed the same procedure for the Tivoli shows.) Firmly ensconced in our eyrie while waiting the 'curtain up', we received a gentle tap on our shoulders from a matronly couple behind us who said, 'Do your mothers know you are here?' They had little to worry about, for we knew all the swear words!

The same year the Kings Theatre was the venue for the mad-cap American revue Hellzapoppin, an American show imported by the entrepreneur Harry Wren and featuring the famous Olsen and Johnson comedy duo, who used to franchise the production. There were lots of sight gags and zany comedy mixed with some exotic dancing from a lively ballet. It was somewhat different to the Tivoli revues, having a certain brashness about it. We loved it. The flowerpot routine sticks in my mind: 'Flowerpot for Mr Jones, Flowerpot for Mr Jones' calls the messenger boy walking across the stage with a small flowerpot. On each of his entries during the show, the flowerpot gets bigger and bigger.

KT07cMcCackie 'Mo'ments programWhere it fits into the chronology of Kings Theatre productions during 1948-49 still seems a bit of a jumble, but I know we went to the Kings to see the nostalgic revue McCackie 'Mo'ments with Roy Rene 'Mo'. I had seen 'Mo' several times at the Tivoli during the war when my father was home on leave from serving in the Middle East. This was reputed to be 'Mo's' last appearance on stage. I have little memory who was in it. An old 1950 advertisement for the show at the Sydney Empire announced a one-week-only season following Hellzapoppin, and claimed a cast of 40 stars and 8 international acts. From the front row of the upper circle we roared our heads off at the comedy sketches. The contents of the show are firmly locked away in that fading memory box of time. From the Tivoli days however, I do remember one 'Mo' routine and I may be bold enough to describe it.

It went like this: A bedroom scene with a married couple in bed. The husband caresses his wife's hair and says, 'Whose beautiful hair is this, sweetheart?' 'Mine of course, dear.' 'And whose beautiful eyes are these, sweetheart?' 'Mine of course, my dear.' And the routine continues with nose, ears, lips, shoulders, when suddenly the head of 'Mo' appears from under the bedclothes between the couple and splutters, 'And when you come to the feet... they're mine!'

KT03cProgram cover ca 1920sHarry Wren was supposed to have produced McCackie 'Mo'ments but three other memory lane type shows were produced by him at the Princess Theatre during the 1950s. The Thanks for the Memory revue was the first, with George Wallace, Jim Gerald, Morrie Barling, Queenie Paul and Jandy the musical clown. The Good Old Days followed a couple of years later, then Many Happy Returns, in which we finally said goodbye to Gladys Moncrieff. Keith and I had attended all three productions.

In pursuit of a worthwhile career in education, in 1950-1 I was a trainee art teacher at Melbourne Teachers' College. Those two years totally changed my life. As an extra curriculum activity, I joined Bill Nicol's puppetry group. This gave me further insights into theatrical production and, being the stage manager, I developed a love of practical theatre. The college was supportive of students acting, singing and mucking around in college productions, and I too made a fool of myself in several revues (I 'borrowed Sid Fields' famous 'Golfing' sketch with Ron Ginger) and I had the gall to play a couple of dreadful piano compositions as a solo, both in my favourite key, E flat.

My major art assignment in 1951 was on 'Theatre Arts', the history of costume, scenery, and so on, which concluded with a written folio-sized book and a large working model theatre. I was to have an interview with the director of the nearby Union Theatre at Melbourne University, Des Connor, to talk about theatre arts etc, on the very day he died, so I was obliged to find another source of information.

KT05cSonia Dresdel. Private collection.

I reckoned on the Kings Theatre as an alternative. Therefore, my model was based on the Kings Theatre, a place I felt comfortable with, and when I brazenly fronted up to the theatre management for a look-see back stage I was introduced to the lovely actress June Jago. She was currently stage managing the Sonia Dresdel production of A Message for Margaret at the Kings. She was absolutely wonderful, giving me all the details about the theatre, taking me over every inch of the huge stage, the scenery loft and lighting board. The backstage was the same size as the auditorium itself, huge, and where in theatrical history, horses and coaches had raced across the stage, ('Thunderbolt' the bush ranger, Frank Ward, Cobb and Co. coaches, etc.) and where the simulated crashing of a real scale aeroplane took place. To the dressing rooms, painting gantry, storage areas and below stage where areas for the holding of animals were seen, and the mechanism for stage trapdoors, literally everywhere. It was a wonderful place which I visited several times for my assignment. On one occasion I was introduced to the stage manager of the Princess Theatre, who offered me a similar look-round. The model was a triumph, scoring me an 'A' assessment.

I demonstrated to my fellow students, various coloured stage lighting combinations from a miniature switchboard, for I had footlights and two overhead batons of lights at my disposal, and with the many strings anchored to the scenery gallery I changed painted backdrops and act curtains ad nauseam. I had constructed flats in the form of an elegant living room with model furniture based on Under the Counter, the Cicely Courtneidge musical play at His Majesty's Theatre. At the conclusion of the demonstration, a few sotto voce comments like 'Bloody conchie!' deflated me somewhat.

KT09cThe Highwayman program

During those student days I had written a panto based on Alice in Wonderland (Disney killed the idea with the release of his cartoon version a year later); I still have the music somewhere. The Highwayman, an Australian musical written by the Sydney pharmacist Edward Samuels, was playing at the Kings, and I went along to see it, again sitting in the upper circle. After the performance I enquired if Mr Samuels was around, as indeed he was. Being stage-struck I asked all the right questions after saying how much I enjoyed the show. I explained about my panto and the possibility of having it produced professionally (the absolute affrontery of me... looking back, it was a terrible mish-mash of songs, all in E flat.) Little did I then realize the difficulty Mr Samuels had had in getting his own musical onto a stage. He merely said, 'Forget it sonny!' Forget it I did, and went back to College to write the score for a ballet for which the SRC gave me the ridiculous sum of five pounds for its production. A dark and moody composition followed... background music for Macbeth... thus expressing my creative frustrations. It was in E flat minor, not entirely my favourite key.

In April 1951 the remarkably popular English comedy See How They Run came to the Kings. It was produced by Kenn Brodziak. I saw it with my college girlfriend Joan Lynch who was as stage-struck as I was.

KT10cThe Highwayman: bar-room can-can

From the upper circle we enjoyed June Clyne and a popular cast romping around the stage. It transferred to the Princess later in the year and ran for years touring the country. (It has proved to be a good play for amateur companies and is revived frequently.)

Digressing briefly, Joan and I saw the remarkable Diana Barrymore in Fallen Angels at a Princess Theatre matinee the same year. It was a dreadful performance to a stalls only 'house' before a matronly audience generously perfumed with 4711. We felt so sorry for Miss Barrymore, as she seemed to need no incentive to act in a tipsy fashion as the role required. We decided to go and see her backstage and lift her spirits (excuse the pun). Sensing the actress may have enjoyed playing only comedy roles, I enquired did she ever do any dramas. In a slightly slurred American drawl she replied, 'Hell no, life is one big drama as it is!' (Therein lies a cautionary example of belonging to a theatrical dynasty. She had a dreadfully tragic life.)

See How They Run was I think the last production I ever saw at the old Kings, for it was to become a cinema a bit later and I never set foot in the place again.

KT11cThe Highwayman: ballroom sceneIn 1952 my first year as a teacher was spent in the Otway Rangers where I continued to attempt some minor amusements for the local dances, singing duets and playing piano for the local dance band, 'The Misty Heights Serenaders'. Some time was spent designing the stage setting for the district's first ever Debutante Ball and organizing the first local Carols by Candlelight with half the children at the school.

Twenty years later at the opening celebrations of a new school on the site, I was accused of having written the school anthem. When it was sung by the school choir at the beginning of proceedings it sounded dreadful. I didn't want to own it. I questioned the President of the School Council about my involvement in the anthem and he simply whipped out the original copy from inside his coat pocket and thrust it in my face as proof. I felt so embarrassed. It was certainly mine. There was no mistaking, for it was written in my favourite key, E flat.





top. Kings Theatre banner logo. Private collection.

KT03. A Kings Theatre program cover from the 1920s. Private collection.

KT04. Bert Bailey as 'Dad' in On Our Selection. National Library of Australia

KT05. Sonia Dresdel. Private collection.

KT06. A scene from Sumner Locke Elliott's play Rusty Bugles. From left: Michael Barnes, Lloyd Berrell, Ralph Peterson, Frank Curtain. Independent Theatre Archive.

KT07. Program for McCackie 'Mo'ments. Private collection.

KT08. Seated at table, from left: Hal Lashwood, Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier, Roy Rene 'Mo'. Private collection.

KT.09 Program for the Australian musical The Highwayman. Private collection.

KT.10 The bar-room can-can from The Highwayman: From left: Dawn Spry, Shirley Sunners, Msargaret Nunn, Leonie Scarlett. Courtesy Peter Pinne.

KT11. Ballroom scene from The Highwayman: Earl Covert as Jim Steel, Beryl Seton as Mary Brown. Courtesy Peter Pinne.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Community Singing

Let us not forget the days of Community Singing
By Bob Cunningham
Somewhere in the mists of time the concept of community singing began. To my reasoning its birth was in local pubs in the United Kingdom in Victorian days, when singing around the piano in those places and also at home was a regular occurrence. The Victorian music hall quite possibly was more intentional in purpose, as the eager audience was encouraged by tightly corseted, coarse throated ladies to join in the choruses of her medley of songs.... 'Come, come, come and drink wine with me...'
Even in mid-fifties London, Collins' Music Hall, Islington Green and the Metropolitan Music Hall in Edgware Road still had entertainers belting out the old favourites from the previous century to be joined by the audience with the well-known choruses... 'Champagne Charlie is my name, Champagne drinking is my game...' etc. At the cavernous Metropole Music Hall in Glasgow, the rowdy post-Saturday football audience was only interested in singing Scottish songs with Andy Stewart-like clones. But these were merely nostalgic separate sing-a-long events left over from a previous age; the full blown organized community singing was something entirely different.

BC4The Regent Theatre, Thornbury, CATHS

Historically, the First World War must have brought with it the advent of morale-sustaining community singing in live theatres, early cinemas and local halls. The songs were highly sentimental and patriotic, such as 'Keep the Home Fires Burning', 'Roses of Picardy' and 'Soldiers of the King' – an almost limitless number to be sung by a seemingly female audience. They were even allowed to knit socks and jumpers for the war effort during these organized sing-a-longs. The fashion for communal vocalizing didn't really die out after the war, as the world was soon to be plunged into the Great Depression, when further suitable morale-lifting songs of the twenties and thirties were hopefully sung – 'I want to be Happy', 'Pennies from Heaven' and 'Underneath the Arches'. Many of the songs came from movies, revues or stage musicals of the time.

My earliest memories of community singing came from the late thirties, towards the end of the Depression, when at the Regent Theatre, Thornbury, my mother took my sister and me to that weekly big social occasion for many housewives. Admission was cheap compared to the price of an evening at the pictures; it may have been sixpence, I do not know, but our attendances were during the school holidays. I doubt if my mother went more frequently, however I do know that a hat, gloves and handbag were de rigueur for every lady attending.

GrosvenorEntrance to Grosvenor Theatre ca.1956, photo by Mark Strizic, SLVOn the cinema screen were projected the words and occasional advertisements for local businesses. There was a jovial compere, sometimes a radio personality or a professional singer, a piano – and that was all. Sometimes there would be a guest vocalist, and of course there would be prizes donated by local stores for lucky seat numbers or quick quiz questions. These I remember during the war days of community singing as they were very welcome prizes. They were no more than shopping vouchers from local traders, perhaps five shillings in value. I remember that Paynes' Biz-Buz vouchers were highly prized, as it was the leading kitchen and hardware store in Thornbury, and on one occasion my excited mother was one of their prize winners.
BC5The auditorium of the Grosvenor Theatre, CATHSThe Second World War brought another upheaval to the world and many patriotic songs were revived from the WW1 song lists, plus the new ones that began emanating from England, 'White Cliffs of Dover', 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', 'Kiss me Goodnight, Sergeant Major'. We had heard recordings of Vera Lynn, 'the Forces' sweetheart' on radio and learnt that her contribution to the war effort was singing to servicemen, encouraging them to forget for a moment their imminent engagements in battle, and join in singing with her. All pretty emotional really, especially the 'We'll Meet Again' song that became her signature tune. A great number of sentimental songs were sung during those tentative years, but patriotic ones abounded like the 1939 sure-fire hit 'There'll Always be an England'. I might add Gracie Fields did her very best to lift the spirits of the fighting forces too.
By that time I was singing in the church choir and loved the added opportunity to go to community singing during the school holiday breaks and sing enthusiastically with the large audiences. For no reason whatever, my favourite song was 'Red Sails in the Sunset', a very sentimental 1935 song inspired by red-sailed yachts off the Irish Coast. The boy 'singing wonder' on screen during the early days of the war was Bobby Breen, and his most famous song, 'When there's a Rainbow on the River', was a great community singing favourite. My school-mate John Pilgrim had a voice of equal quality, and sang his angelic little heart out on stage at the State Theatre on one occasion, but also did the community singing circuit for a few years. He later did vaudeville at the Armadale Theatre when it was briefly a variety house. Professional entertainers frequently sang, giving added variety to the programme.
Charlie VaudeRadio personality Charlie VaudeBig time was a trip to the city for community singing at the Central Hall in Little Collins Street; in those days it was part of the Victoria Coffee Palace complex. The hotel is now called the Victoria. Central Hall, seating not many more than my high school assembly hall, became the New Central Theatre in 1942 and then the Grosvenor cinema in 1945. It is now the car park of the hotel. I remember distinctly the strange round arched windows which lined the walls of the auditorium, with imitation daylight blue lighting shining through. Sponsored by radio 3DB, the compere was the popular Charlie Vaude, a one-time vaudeville comedian who had published a book of jokes. We had a copy of that book for years. I do not think Charlie Vaude's sidekick Renn Miller was there (they were a popular broadcasting duo) but I seem to remember a youthful Dick Cranbourne helping out. The ever-popular pianist Mabel Nelson accompanied every song without music. I still have visions of her, as she spent most of the time smiling to the audience as she played away. From memory, I think 3DB had some form of community singing at other times from their totally inadequate and cramped studios in Flinders Street. I saw a couple of quiz shows there years later, Hook, Line and Sinker was one, and observed Mabel Nelson's grand piano taking up half the audience seating.
Still war time and morale needed further boosting as the Japanese were approaching frightfully close to our shores. I can only imagine there were dozens of community singing attractions in a great number of Melbourne's suburban picture theatres. Radio and live theatre personalities must have worked overtime. Perhaps the most exciting venue for me was the old King's Theatre in Russell Street. It was a delightful Edwardian theatre built as I now know in 1908 by a Mr William Anderson a Sydney entrepreneur who in fact bought the famous elephant Alice (1906) from the Wombwell and Bostock Circus when they auctioned off their stock and effects, and he took her to Sydney to his huge amusement park, Wonderland City at Bondi. That venture eventually closed and Alice was sold to Wirths' Circus in 1911. They owned her until her death at a great age in 1956.
I had never before seen such a beautiful theatre, with its elaborate plaster work, a superb richly gilded proscenium arch, and two balconies above the stalls, the dress circle being supported by slender posts in the stalls. Soon after that I was to be introduced to pantomimes at the Comedy and His Majesty's theatres, and experienced that warm and personal feeling of real people on stage, awakening my lifetime interest and love of the theatre. When my father returned home on leave in 1943 we were taken to the Tivoli on two occasions before he returned for duty in New Guinea.
Margot SheridanPianist Margot Sheridan

As for the King's Theatre Sunday afternoon community singing, this was in association with radio station 3KZ which also broadcast proceedings with Norman Banks as compere. He was to become the almost single voice of that radio station as he presented so many of their popular shows. We can thank him for the popular Carols by Candlelight that he pioneered in 1938, and still enjoy long after his death. Margot Sheridan, a most accomplished pianist, provided the music as competently as rival station's Mabel Nelson.
As expected there were guest artists to relieve hoarse throats of the enthusiastic singers, and the appearance of Nellie Kolle brought thunderous applause. I didn't seem to appreciate the moment, nor did I think this very formidable lady in a rather showy dress was up to much, for I thought she looked pretty old. (Indeed she was only in her early 50s, to a child that was OLD. She died in 1971.) However, when she sang without a microphone, I realized she was a great singer of old vaudeville songs. She really belted them out and, of course, encouraged the audience to join in with the choruses. My mother whispered, 'She is very famous!' It is funny what one remembers, but there is a distinct memory of her walking close to the footlights across the stage, whipping up the audience participation in her songs. Little did I realize that this was 'showmanship'.

Nellie KolleMale impersonator Nellie KolleOf course you find things out in later life. Nellie Kolle was born in England in the last decade on the nineteenth century and came to Australia in 1912 where she performed in musical comedy and vaudeville. Her roles as a male impersonator balladeer and principal boy in pantomime firmly established her reputation. The 'top hat and tails' English singer Ella Shields comes readily to mind and, like a young Robyn Archer ('Sentimental Bloke'), and female opera singers taking male roles (as in Fidelio), they were unflatteringly called 'trouser' singers.

So what happened to community singing after the war? The togetherness, urgency and mutual desire to forget for an hour or two the bigger picture of a world in disaster mode, were suddenly gone. It lingers on I suppose in those dreadful bus trips with the oldies as someone invariably wants to 'Show me the Way to go Home' on the return journey. Most join in, but begrudgingly. On a gentler note (excuse the pun) there is great value to be gained in retirement villages, where I have on a number of occasions been asked to play the organ for some community singing. As the enfeebled are wheeled in to the recreation room and handed their large print community song books, and as I play those golden old melodies to accompany their frail, tremolo voices, my memories keep flooding back to the old Regent Theatre, Thornbury, to the somewhat heartier war-time singing, I wonder why 'Red Sails in the Sunset' is not included in this community song book.