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AUSTRALIAN CULTURE 1789-2000

By Paul Bentley

October 1999 

Strike Me Lucky! 1901-1950

When the Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901, the continent was still a collection of divided and distant states. There were divisions between city and country, antipathies between east and west, and rivalries between cities. There was no national anthem and no national flag. Australians still felt a strong allegiance to Britain.

The national surge of the 1890s faltered under the strain of new economic and social tensions: management of the new nation, conflicts between capital and labour, between government and unions, and the tribulations of another devastating economic depression. Two world wars cemented ties with the mother country. At a time when the weekly musical evening round the piano formed the basis of cheap entertainment, the gramophone and crystal set created new diversions for the home. In theatres, new entrepreneurs of the silver screen offered competition to the old-style live theatre managements.

Theatre

By the second decade of the twentieth century, most of the theatrical movers of the past two decades had retired or were dead. After the death of J.C. Williamson in 1913, the company merged with the Tait brothers in 1920 and remained the dominant force in Australian show business.

The Musgrove family continued to play a role in entertainment after the death of George Musgrove in 1916. Three of his brothers, Harry, Arthur and Frank, were involved in theatre management and his nephews, Harry G. Musgrove and Jack Musgrove, were involved in vaudeville, film distribution and exhibition and dance hall management in the first half of the century, a period in which Nancye Stewart, daughter of George Musgrove and Nellie Stewart, performed with distinction in theatre, film, radio and television in Australia and abroad.

Australian-born William Anderson (1868-1940) continued the tradition of the English-born actor managers, with polished and spectacular productions of melodramas such as The Worst Woman of London and The Greed of Gold and "Australian plays for Australian audiences," written by members of his company, Edmund Duggan and Bert Bailey. In The Squatter's Daughter, two real kookaburras greeted the Australian down of a typical Australian landscape and, later, a wallaby and kangaroo rat bounded across the stage. On Our Selection brought Bert Bailey fame and fortune as Dad Rudd in many stage and film versions and sequels, both silent and talking.

Repertory or little theatres - amateur or semi-professional enterprises emerged to champion the plays of Chekhov, Shaw, Synge, O'Neill and Australian playwrights. Leading the movement was Gregan McMahon, whose Melbourne and Sydney Repertory Theatres and Gregan McMahon Players were active, with the support of J.C.Williamson and the Tait brothers, from 1909 until McMahon's death in 1941. In 1930, Doris Fitton, one of McMahon's pupils, established the Independent Theatre in Sydney and continued the repertory theatre tradition until the demise of the Independent in 1977. New Theatre in Sydney, part of a network of left-wing theatre groups, was formed in 1932 and has survived into the 1990s.

Vaudeville and revues were the most popular forms of entertainment in the first decades of the new century. The most successful enterprise was the Tivoli Circuit, established by Harry Rickards in 1893. In 1909, Rickards had 532 people on his payroll. The Circuit was carried on after Rickards' death in 1911 by a succession of managements including Hugh D. Mclntosh (in 1912), Harry G. Musgrove (in 1921), J.C. Williamson's Tivoli Vaudeville Pty Ltd in 1924, Mike Connors and Queenie Paul (in the Depressions years), Musgrove Theatres again in 1934 under Frank Neil and Wallace Parnell and, from 1944, David N. Martin, Managing Director of Tivoli Circuit of Australia. The Fuller brothers were the biggest competitors to the Tivoli after taking over the Brennan vaudeville circuit. Billed as the home of clean vaudeville, they based their operations on local performers, rather than the overseas celebrities of the Tivoli, and introduced Australian audiences to George Wallace, Jim Gerald and Roy Rene and other comedy stars of the era. "Strike me lucky", "cheeky possum" and other comic lines of Roy Rene became embedded in the Australian vernacular. The Fuller circuit transferred their interests to moving pictures in the 1930s, but became involved briefly again in the theatre during the 1950s.

Travelling vaudeville, dramatic companies and circuses showed resilience during the first three decades of the century. In 1905, there were 31 touring companies including Cole's Wild West Dramatic Company, Coleman's Pantomime Company, Pat Hanna's Diggers, the Lynch Family Bellringers, Kate Howarde and George Sorlie. The dramatic companies died with the advent of the talkies and the depression played havoc with the vaudeville shows, although some of them survived into the 1950s.

Circus

In the circus world, Wirths gained supremacy when both Fitzgerald brothers died in 1906. The bush circuses flourished and proved to be more popular in the country areas than the rival itinerant theatre and vaudeville shows. The family circuses of Sole Brothers, Perry Brothers, St. Leon, Bullens, Ivan Brothers and Ashtons continued to combat the physical hardships of climate and terrain and the increasing costs of travel with new, motorised transport. In the difficult times, it was the strong family thread and the interchange of performers and intermarriage which stitched up their survival.  

Film

Theatre had survived competition from silent films, but the arrival of the talkies at the beginning of the Depression was almost fatal, with a crippling entertainment tax, imposed until 1933 by both the federal and most state governments adding to the financial pressure on theatre companies. In 1929, Sydney boasted 10 theatres; in 1935 there were two.

The movies had been introduced to Australia in 1896, when Carl Hertz presented his cinematograph at Melbourne's Tivoli Theatre. J and N Tait produced Australia's first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. The infant Australian film industry was ahead of most other countries and it continued to flourish until the talkies arrived in the 1930s, when competition from Hollywood and its control of distribution in Australia strangled the efforts of Australian filmmakers, despite notable efforts by Cinesound, which produced 17 features between 1931 and 1940, including the popular series of film adaptations of the Steele Rudd novels.  

Radio
Radio broadcasting officially started in Australia on 13 November 1923 and, by by 1939, more than 1 million people held radio licences and were tuning in to Dad and Dave and other popular radio serials. In 1932, a national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, was established under Charles Moses and became an important force, not only in the development of radio broadcasting, but live concert music as well. In 1936, Moses, with the help of Bernard Heinze established ABC orchestras in each state, with a small core of professional musicians - as many as forty-five in Sydney and as few as eleven in Hobart - augmented by amateur musicians. In 1946, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was increased to full orchestral proportions on a full-time basis and a conductor of international reputation, Eugene Goossens was appointed as first resident conductor. With Goossens on the podium, subscribers to the ABC's orchestral series rose from 3663 in 1946 to 9629 in 1955. Season tickets, according to Charles Buttrose, "had become items for mention in last wills and testaments".

The ABC, during this period, was also a catalyst for the presentation of Australian drama on radio through the efforts of Leslie Rees, who joined the Commission as federal drama editor in 1936. Rees organised Australian play festivals in 1937 and 1938 and lifted the ABC's Australian play quota to 70 percent of all plays presented. Between 1935-1953, almost 200 Australian plays were produced, including David Stewart's verse drama, Fire in the Snow

Opera

Opera was presented with mixed success at frequent intervals during the first half of the 20th century, largely through the J.C. Williamson organisation, which organised the enormously successful Melba-Williamson opera seasons of 1911 and 1924, the 1928 Melba-Williamson season and offerings in 1900, 1910 and 1948-49. George Musgrove had organised seasons in 1901 and 1907 and, among seasons by other entrepreneurs, the 1912 tour by the Thomas Quinlan Company from London stands out. The process of establishing a permanent opera company in Australia is said to begin in 1939, when Gertrude Johnson, a pupil of Melba, presented performances of The Flying Dutchman and The Marriage of Figaro by the National Theatre Movement in Melbourne.  

Publishing

The potency of The Bulletin declined after the turn of the century, as it shed its republican and radical ideals for a more conservative outlook. The critical voice of The Bulletin was adopted by a new magazine, Smith's Weekly, established in 1919 by the Lord Mayor of Sydney, James (later Sir Joynton) Smith and two journalists, Claude McKay and Robert Clyde Packer (grandfather of Kerry Packer). It became "the mouthpiece of the digger" and was an immediate success, selling 35,000 copies of its first issue and 300,000 at its peak in the mid 1940s, before it ceased publication in 1950.

George Robertson's entrepreneurial flair at Angus and Robertson was matched by Arthur Rowlandson at the New South Wales Bookstall Company. It was Rowlandson who conceived the idea of producing paperback editions of Australian novels in the company's bookstalls, beginning with a Steel Rudd story, Sandy's Selection, for which Steel Rudd was paid 500 pounds plus 10 per cent of sales. This was published in 1904 and, over the next 18 years until Rowlandson's death in 1922, 200 Australian novels were published and nearly 5 million copies sold.

The final section of this paper, The Coming of the White Elephants 1950-2000, will be published on our Website in 2011.

       

 

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