As the granddaughter of Jack O’Hagan and someone who knew him intimately, JO GILBERT is well-placed to write about Australia’s most famous songwriter. To coincide with the publication of her biography, Along the Road to Gundagai, Biography of Jack O’Hagan and Birth of Australian Pop Culture, we are thrilled to be able to bring you an excerpt. See the bottom of page for details of how to order your copy of the book.

Jack o’hagan was the most famous Australian popular songwriter of the early-to mid-twentieth century, responsible for many of our nation’s most beloved and enduring songs—‘Along the Road to Gundagai’, ‘Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox’ and ‘Our Don Bradman’ among them.

Jack was also a pop singer, music publisher, actor, playwright, radio celebrity and advertising ‘mad man’—a chief influencer at the leading edge during a time of great technological change. His work was recorded by the greats of his era—Peter Dawson, Richard Tauber, Stéphane Grappelli, Liza Minnelli, Vienna Boys Choir, Slim Dusty, and many more—and recognised as a major cultural, historical and aesthetic contribution with an MBE in 1973, the National Film and Sound Archive’s online Jack O’Hagan gallery, and a hefty representation in the NFSA Sounds of Australia Collection.

Jack published around 183 popular and dance songs and film themes in Australia and internationally more than 204 times, alongside around 260 theatrical songs, advertising jingles and a national anthem contender—a soundtrack for a nation between two World Wars, through the Jazz Age and Great Depression, from horses to Holdens.

But it has been largely forgotten that the theatre was his ‘incubator’ and grand passion.


Jack was born in 1898 and brought up in a hotel in Fitzroy. His father died when Jack was only four and his mother, Alice, took over as publican. As a single mother, where Alice went, Jack went. She was an avid theatregoer and took him to every musical comedy possible, following J.C. Williamson’s (JCW), the largest theatrical company in the world at the time, which owned and leased many theatres, toured well-known actors, singers and dancers, and Harry Rickards’ Tivoli, one of the largest individually owned music hall businesses in the world.

As a young man Jack was immersed in Bourke Street entertainments, pantomime, musicals and vaudeville. He saw Melbourne’s finest shows, some many times over, collecting multiple copies of souvenir programs from pantomimes and musicals from the time he was five years old.

Jack ‘used to shrivel up in the seat’ with fear when English actor Loring Fernie played Captain Hook appeared in Peter Pan. He was less terrified by JCW’s pantomime, Sinbad, and The Spring Chicken at Her Majesty’s, which he saw twice. At nine, he was enthralled as two Americans rescued a Dutch girl locked up by her father in The Red Mill at the Princess Theatre. That’s the tip of the iceberg—he saw The Merry Widow at least eight times. As Jack said, ‘There was a certain quality about the theatre then. No one could produce a show better than J.C. Williamson. I was a theatre man—we all were in those days’.1 John Hetherington wrote:

‘He did not know it, but he was studying then for his future career, laying the foundations of the craftsmanship which was to put him in the front line of Australian popular song-writers’.2

Jack went home and played the songs he heard in these shows by ear, with extraordinary recall, and performed the hits of the day at the pub. At around 18, he dabbled as an actor in the light entertainment of St Kilda Beach shows in The Quaints and the English Pierrot’s and aspired to be on the stage, but songwriting was in his blood and songwriters were the rock stars of their day.

Without the benefit of radio or recording, the only way to have new songs heard was to place them in theatrical productions or live performances. Most imported shows were localised by inserting songs and sketches that would appeal to the audience, who, with luck, would go home with an ‘ear worm’ and rush down to Allan’s Music in the morning to pick up the very latest sheet music to play at home.

At twenty, Jack formed a songwriting partnership with musician Henri Penn (nom de plume Henry Carson) from the Belgian Concert Party. Like other songwriters, they imitated the Tin Pan Alley composers’ passion for exotica and published their first song ‘Oh! Those Honolulu Girls’ in 1918, which Jack performed at a St Kilda Beach show.

Jack had a decided advantage in a competitive marketplace. In 1919 he was offered his dream job as a professional manager or song-plugger for Allan’s Music. His job was to promote Allan’s catalogue. Over the years he built a phenomenal network of local and touring actors, singers, performers and producers, including musical comedy star Gladys Moncrieff, comedian Roy Rene, visiting US Jazz Bands and famous American lyricist, librettist and theatrical producer Oscar Hammerstein II. Author and arts historian Frank Van Straten recalled, ‘He seemed to have known everybody that I ever mentioned in the local entertainment industry. He knew them all personally and he had the most extraordinary memory—people like Ernest Rolls, the Taits, Tallis, all the radio personalities.’3

The value of this network cannot be underestimated. The Tait Brothers and George Tallis formed the management team at JCW, Ernest C. Rolls provided Jack’s theatrical opportunities from the Great Depression to the late 1930s’ and, as Jack’s publisher, Allan’s Music were more than delighted if he placed his own songs in local productions.

Jack was reputedly the first to write songs, as opposed to orchestral themes, for silent movies, which were presented as an overture or as a short sketch staged before the film commenced. He wrote several for Paramount’s big silent films, all overseas productions.

‘Anatol (Luckless Anatol)’ (1921), with words and music by O’Hagan and arrangements by Allan’s’ musical director, experienced pianist and composer Frederick Hall, was played as an overture for Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie The Affairs of Anatol at Melbourne Town Hall and then around Australia. It was sensational and was his first big hit.

The evocative lyrics, quickstep rhythm and gorgeous, enchanting melody of ‘In Dreamy Araby’ (1921) became an international hit. It was written for The Sheik, an epic Paramount Super film directed by George Melford. The story, based on Edith Maude Hull’s best-selling romance novel, told of the handsome sheik and abductor of the beautiful British Lady Diana, who, despite his passion, kept her virtue and fled from the desert tent-palace, only to be captured by bandits. As the sheik rescued her, true love was assured, and so was Rudolph Valentino’s superstar status.

The Sheik was presented at Melbourne Town Hall on 25 February 1922. An elaborate prologue, a hair-raising dramatic sketch with painted scenery replicating the interior of the Arabian chief’s desert home, launched Jack’s song, which was recorded in London by F.W. Ramsay around 1923 and reputedly by Jack Hylton’s Band. Jack sang it beautifully himself in the short film Jack O’Hagan Vocalist Composer in 1931.

Jack wrote 11 songs for cinema from 1921-22 and performed his own popular songs on stage in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. At the same time, Jack’s songs were being placed in theatrical productions.

Jack and Henry Carson appropriated the ‘going back home’ theme, popular after the destruction and terrible loss of life during the Great War. ‘I’m Gonna Hit the Trail to Maryland’ was their first song hitched to theatrical shows. Male impersonator and vaudeville star, Nellie Kolle, sang it at the Bijou and Jack, in his element, sang it himself in William Anderson’s Babes in the Wood, a panto staged at Her Majesty’s on Christmas Eve 1921.

‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was released at the end of the year, so the obvious choice was to place it in Christmas and New Year holiday season shows. ‘Gundagai’ was first performed for a live audience on 23 December 1922 in J. & N. Tait’s comedy pantomime The Forty Thieves at King’s Theatre, Melbourne and in Sydney, in a score dominated by American tunes. It was sung by big star and ‘Principal Boy’, Mona Magnet. Jack knew that if a song took off in a pantomime it was halfway to being a hit. He explained how they managed the segue, ‘You could get away with anything in a panto. One moment Mona was in the heart of Arabia, then she simply stepped forward and said, “Perhaps I would rather be along the road to Gundagai”. She gave a marvellous rendition and kicked the song off.’4

Jack found fame pre-radio and pre-recording in Australia by placing songs in theatrical performances such as J. & N. Tait and Bailey & Grant pantomime Sinbad the Sailor in 1922; Rockets revue and Pretty Peggy musical comedy in 1923; On Our Selection and Primrose comedies in 1925; pantomime Aladdin and comedies Tell Me More and The Sentimental Bloke in 1926; and comedy Six Cylinder Love and the Patchwork Revue in 1927. Jack’s big break came when Frank Neil’s Comedians produced Tell Me More at the Palace Theatre in 1928, placing 10–11 of his songs, followed by 17–19 placed in the Fred Blackman/JCW comedy Turned Up in 1929.

During the Depression years JCW focused on revivals of old shows using sets and costumes in storage in Little Bourke Street, which saved an enormous amount of money. They did, however, stage the new local pantomime The House That Jack Built at Theatre Royal in 1931, with matinees every day at 2 pm and evening performances at 8 pm. Jack and his mates, English actor and ‘dame’ Arthur Stigant, principal ‘boy’ Sadie Gale and comic genius Roy Rene harked back to earlier days of pantomime, with loose plot and dialogue held together by songs. The Argus reported:

The songs are excellent; ‘Strolling Through the Tulips’ will probably cause more corns than any other fox-trot song introduced by way of the Melbourne stage … This was not by any means the only song to linger in the memory. When Melbourne people waltz O’Hagan’s ‘swinging’ will serve instead of the traditional one-two-three in dancing lessons until some other catch tickles the public ear.5

Jack’s published contributions—‘Strolling Through the Tulips’, ‘The Swing Song’, ‘Rambling Down the Roadway’ and ‘Carry On’—were featured in the program. The big finale, foxtrot ‘Carry On’, was an international hit and a great morale-booster released at the height of the Depression. It was placed in almost every Christmas pantomime in London and became one of Jack’s most recorded compositions. It was Number One for six months in England, where 14 to 17 recordings6 were made by big bands. Sadly, Australian big bands passed it by.

Jack’s greatest theatrical success was played out in Melbourne’s Princess and Apollo theatres, with colourful producer Ernest C. Rolls, who captured the imagination of the public with spectacular shows and extravagant stagecraft. Jack believed Rolls, born Josef Adolf Darewski in Austria in 1890, had a ‘touch of genius’.

Jack composed songs for Rolls from 1932 to 1935 and appeared in his dazzling shows as a singer at the microphone and sometimes as an actor in bit roles. Despite difficulties—and there were many—the Rolls/O’Hagan collaboration was a highly successful musical partnership. However, it was common for producers to take ownership of most songs used in their shows, which meant very few were recorded.

Their first venture, the extravagant pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat, premiered at Princess Theatre on Christmas Eve in 1932 and enjoyed an enormously successful season through to 30 January.

Honi Soit, a co-production with JCW, premiered at the Princess Theatre on 11 February 1933 and was the first of four revues that Jack collaborated on with Rolls.

Revues were typically built around a theme and included comedy, specialty acts, musical scenes with chorus and ballet, elaborate sets and extravagant costumes. Honi Soit was breathtaking, with beautiful showgirls and a glorious ballet, along the lines of the famous Folies Bergère. The title, short for French ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, meaning ‘Shame upon him who thinks evil of it’. It is also motto of the British Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry founded in 1348, which added pizzazz.

Honi Soit was one of the early semi-nude revues in Melbourne. Rolls followed the French music hall tradition of parading gorgeous girls in opulent scenes wearing fabulous headdresses and little else and, naturally, they were very successful. Beautiful blonde ‘Adagio Dancers’, L’Etoile and Laurence, performed in hip-hugging ballet shorts with bare chests, breasts titillatingly obscured by graceful poses. Don Nicol created the program cover illustration, a nude female artist’s model and neatly moustachioed artist, all terribly French. Book and lyrics were credited to Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan, with numbers by Berlin and Foucher/Helmer/Krier, a special ballet by Maurice Guttridge and additional lyrics and music by Jack. In fact, Jack wrote 12 to 14 songs for the show.

Their next big ‘French’ revue was Tout Paris. Rehearsals ran for 16 hours a day over three weeks. It played at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne from 10 June to 19 August, Adelaide in September, Brisbane in October and Sydney’s Criterion in February 1934, to rave reviews.

The book was by Rolls and Clarkson Rose, an English West End star comedian, composer, writer and female impersonator supplied by JCW, with music by Jack O’Hagan. Stars included Rose and his wife, singer Olive Fox; London comedians and revue artists Ambrose Barker, Jocelyn Yeo and Peggy Wynne; and Australian stars Jan Kowsky (the stage name for dancer Leon Kellaway), Jack Kellaway and his wife Sylvia,7 both fresh from roles in Cassanova at the London Coliseum. The Sunday Mail reported:

The production is a remarkable tribute to the fecund brain of Mr. Ernest C. Rolls and his thorough mastery of stagecraft and to the dramatic ability of Mr. Clarkson Rose ... Between them, it truthfully may be said they have assembled a collection of scenes of spectacular beauty strongly reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. The music and lyrics, which are the joint work of Mr. Rolls and Jack O’Hagan, are as delightfully exhilarating as the general presentation is colourful.8

Jack insisted the music and lyrics were all his, but Rolls took possession and Jack was credited only for ‘additional music and lyrics’. Rolls claimed he was part composer of the song that closed Act 1, the magnificent and extraordinary ‘Birth of a Melody’, published by Allan’s. Rolls never wrote a bar but Jack reluctantly agreed to 25 per cent each for Rolls and O’Hagan and the usual 50 per cent to Allan’s. He desperately needed the money.

Rolls’ next spectacular revue, Rhapsodies of 1935, a title provided by Jack, premiered on 2 February at the Apollo and enjoyed a tremendous four-month run, followed by a month at West’s Theatre, Adelaide, in August. Rolls took credit for the book but this time attributed all lyrics and music to Jack, with arrangements by Maurice Guttridge. Jack had a hand in writing some of the sketches. Nudes were shown with great subtlety—back lit, silhouetted, quick tantalizing flashes of girls, barely clad or in transparent costumes, before lights went dark—provocative without being offensive.

The show was brimming with stars. Top billing went to Roy Rene, by then star of Cinesound’s Strike Me Lucky (1934).9 The enormously popular Austrlian soprano Austral Groves Wilson (stage name Strella Wilson), was a very well-known Australian lead actress in grand opera, light opera and musical comedy, and star of Whitehorse Inn and The Vagabond King.

Hot on its heels, Vogues of 1935 premiered on 1 June at the Apollo to a full house with leads Jennie Benson (Rolls’ wife), Thea Phillips and Gus Bluett. It was a very ambitious production, with 24 stars leading a cast of 180 and employing hundreds of artists, musicians, stagehands, electricians and scene painters. Rolls commended himself in the program for giving so much work to Australian performers but, according to Jack O’Hagan and vaudeville star Charles Norman, often didn’t pay or seriously underpaid them.

Rolls took credit for the book, O’Hagan full credit for music and lyrics and Guttridge for arrangements. Ballets were choreographed by Buddy Roberts, Sydney Montigue and Jan Kowsky, and scenery designed by Joan Scardon. Program notes written by Rolls were generous:

There is a big demand in America and England for Jack O’Hagan’s song hits. It is a fact that a genius generally fails to receive the credit due to him in his own country. Overseas the name of O’Hagan ranks with Irving Berlin and other song writers of the popular variety … Ernest C. Rolls is considered in theatrical management throughout the world to be one of the keenest judges of a song hit. It is a tribute, therefore, to Jack O’Hagan, that he has been selected to write the lyrics and music of most of the numbers in the past three Rolls’ shows, and now in this production … His sales have, so far, reached the two million mark. Eighty songs have been published. Jack has written five hundred, all told!10

Jack also wrote the entire score for a visually gorgeous musical comedy, the Ruritanian romance Flame of Desire, an extravagant operetta with five American stars—Ethelind Terry, Nellie Breen, William O’Neal, Lester Allen and Bert Matthews.

Rolls’ opening speech planted the seed that Flame of Desire was as good as any overseas production. He swept the audience up in his enthusiasm.

The story unfolds as two Americans, Adam Sweet and Oscar Low, played by comedians Bert Matthews and Lester Allen, descend by parachute, are mistaken for financial advisors and immediately begin to promote a lottery. Handsome Captain Carl scorns beautiful Princess Marietta of Serovia’s acceptance of foreign Prince Frederick’s hand to save her struggling country. He casts off his uniform to become rebel leader and President of the Republic, a political coup d’état in partnership with the princess, perhaps financed by the lottery. The first act held most of the musical comedy gags and high drama. The chorus, ballet and soldiers were brisk and breezy, Princess Marietta light and bright, the story full of glamour of romance with a conventional happy ending. The Herald wrote:

Brilliant production of an Australian musical romance worthy of world presentation. An anti-depression tonic rich in colour, story, music, humour and dancing.

When Mr. Ernest C. Rolls, replacing Maurice Guttridge for the one item, lifted the conductor’s baton at the Apollo on Saturday night, and led the orchestra into the swirling, haunting overture, an audience of first night, not easily impressed, settled more comfortably into their seats anticipating original entertainment. The curtain raised and ‘Flame of Desire’ unwound, as a stage production of great charm; rich in harmony and spectacle, it won an enthusiastic reception.

This musical comedy, with its book, lyrics, music, orchestration, settings, costumes and ballets, all written or designed by Australians, makes stage history in Melbourne. It should win both a record season at the Apollo and success in London and New York.11

Some critics felt it lacked a cohesive script and slid into a revue format in Act 2 but conceded the upsides were lack of vulgarity and brilliant staging, with 12 magnificent scenes from the opening in the courtyard of the royal palace to the elaborate ballroom finale, exaggerated by mirrors placed at the back of the stage. The Age reported:

Once having recovered from colour-blindness, induced by the opening courtyard scene … the senses are quickened by the artistic beauty of the garden scene as the ballet dances in a gorgeous scheme of lighting which reveals ivory flesh tones, blue feet dancing in an atmosphere of diaphanous green. The effect is truly magnificent. Then, finally, the producer unfolds his surprise in the second act, the ethereal purple and green interior of a cathedral, changing swiftly to the lightness, colour and gaiety of wedding celebrations, beautiful in blending tones of apricot.12

The show closed at midnight and flowers handed up were ‘so numerous and brilliant that they made a veritable garden of the stage’.13 Jack and librettist John Gray shared the final curtain, profoundly relieved as they bowed before the wildly appreciative audience. The Argus reported that there was ‘enough entertainment of high calorific value to roast the coldest critic to a cinder’ and wrote:

If you have an appetite for red-hot romance, served up in a Ruritanian kingdom, where brave uniforms and royal intrigues count more than statesmanship, and if digestion is helped by copious draughts of music, by turn turbulent and honey sweet, this is the show that will gratify the heart’s desire. Mr. Ernest C. Rolls … pleaded with members of his audience to judge the piece, which was written and composed by Australians, by the same standards that they would apply to a musical comedy from London or New York. There was no call for apologies for its authorship. The Harry Grahams of the play world have not produced a more attractive ‘book’ than that contrived by Mr. J.L. Gray and Mr. Rolls, nor have the Irving Berlins of this amusing age composed music any sweeter than that invented by Mr. Jack O’Hagan.14

On stage, Ethelind Terry struggled with vocal demands and by mid-November the role of Princess Marietta was handed over to Strella Wilson, who reinvigorated the show and inspired the cast to do better. Jack’s tuneful songs revealed the fine qualities of her rich voice and in turn she brought humour and glamour to the production, new warmth to ‘Song of Serovia’ and charm to melodious duets ‘Song of Love’ and ‘Some Day Sweetheart’ with William O’Neal. 3AW broadcast Act 1 of the show live from the Apollo’s stage on 25 November.

After seven weeks of good houses, Rolls decided to end Flame of Desire on 7 December and take it to Sydney for Christmas, but the venue arrangement fell through and there was no chance to return to the Apollo. Frank Van Straten wrote, ‘It’s more likely that Flame of Desire was running at such a substantial loss that Rolls had no alternative but to summarily dump the show, its cast and its crew’.15

The O’Hagan’s held a ‘wrap’ party at home. Strella sang the big songs from Flame of Desire as Jack played piano. The crowd of musicians and entertainers was raucous. Neighbours resigned themselves to another sleepless night.

Jack wrote and placed songs for a few more revues with Rolls’ involvement—Around the World (1935), A Waltz Dream (1939) for Australia and New Zealand Theatres for JCW, supervised by Rolls; and London Casino Revue Folies D’Amour (1939) for JCW Jack also wrote Romany Road, his own potted musical comedy for the Tivoli in 1944.

Records to date show Jack composed 58 published and 158 unpublished songs for theatrical productions throughout his career. Twenty-three were recorded on disc and 12 on piano rolls.

Around 100 of those songs were written for Rolls between 1932 to 1935—at least seven for pantomime, around 70 across spectacular revues, and a huge score of 24 for a musical comedy Flame of Desire.16

It must be remembered that Jack did all of this while working full time at Allan’s Music in the 1920s; while running his own publishing business in the early 1930s; and while working full time as a broadcast writer, announcer and performer at 3AW from 1934 onwards. He burnt the midnight oil.

Jack’s phenomenal theatrical contribution is rarely remembered because most of these songs were never recorded or published, and some appeared under pseudonyms, but, regardless, it’s a significant legacy to Australian theatrical heritage.



The limited 504-page hardback edition of Along the Road to Gundagai, Biography of Jack O’Hagan and Birth of Australian Pop Culture will be officially launched at Readings St Kilda 9 April, Gundagai Library 17 April and National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra 18 April 2024. Available now for $69.99 AUD, postage additional. Online sales at Buy direct from the author contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Also available at Readings, Avenue Bookstores and Mary Martin Bookshops in Melbourne.



1. J. Hansen, ‘Few Regrets for Jack O’Hagan’, Southern Cross, 12 September 1984, cover & p.16

2. J. Hetherington, ‘He’d never heard of The Road to Gundagai’, The Herald, 28 October 1950, p.13

3. Author’s interview with Frank Van Straten, 2013

4. ‘Out and About with Batman, Turn that old pianola’, The Bulletin, 8 January 1972, p.6; ‘Jack O’Hagan, The Australian Troubador’, Readers Digest, May 1974

5. ‘Music and Drama’, The Argus, 27 December 1930, page unknown

6. Jack at times mentioned 14 recordings and at other times 17 recordings. Not all have been traced to date.

7. Sylvia Kellaway was incorrectly noted in the Tout Paris program as Jack Kellaway’s sister

8. ‘Tout Paris’, Sunday Mail, 1 October 1933, p.13

9. Roy Rene’s first and only film

10. Vogues of 1935 program, author’s collection

11. ‘Enthusiasm at Apollo First Night’, The Herald, 21 October 1935, p.18

12. ‘Music Stage & Film, Premiere of Australian Musical Play. Mr. Rolls Conducts Overture’, The Age, 21 October 1935, p.10

13. ‘The Woman’s World, “Flame of Desire”’, The Herald, 21 October 1935, p.13

14. ‘The Apollo, New Musical Romance, “Flame of Desire”‘, The Argus, 21 October 1935, p.4

15. Frank Van Straten, Hanky-Panky, the Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020, p.115

16. It’s difficult to be absolutely accurate as attributions to composers are not always clear—producers often took ownership of copyright, and some songs were placed in more than one show.