The Australians of Vaudeville

Tivoli Theatre, Sydney

Happy Australia Day, Australia! The American people love you! (In fact, I love you even more now that I know I have some cousins there. In the 1860s two of my great-great-great-great aunts, Louisa Ellis and Alice Swift emigrated from Yorkshire to Castlemaine, Victoria. Louisa never married but Alice moved there with her husband Tom Swift and raised a family. Any Swifts from Castlemaine — this one goes out to you.)

While you could fill an entire book listing just the contemporary Australian stars whom Americans love, we’re a little more old school here on Travalanche.  (The only relatively modern Australian star we’ve done a post on here on Travalanche is Helen Reddy, who passed away a couple of years ago). Here is a little recap of the many Australian show business figures who made some impact on America back in the day. Just click on the link for more info.

Above all, we note the large contingent of Australians in classic comedy films, both silent and talking. These include Leon Errol, Billy Bevan, Snub Pollard, Daphne Pollard, Clyde Cook, Mae Busch, Mae (Dahlberg) Laurel, and Alf Goulding. Many of them were from Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Silent actor/director Rupert Julian was from New Zealand, but he acted for several years in Oz before proceeding to the U.S. Hollywood must have had quite the expatriate colony even in those years. All of course had got their start in vaudeville and music hall. Australian swimming champ Annette Kellerman also became a big star in U.S. vaudeville and films, as did former cricketer Sydney Deane and Down-Under damsel Louise Lovely. Some Australian screen actors of the early sound era include Robert Greig, and Dame Judith Anderson. Second generation Australian golfer Joe Kirkwood Jr played boxer Joe Palooka.

Better known on the music hall stage than onscreen were Saharet, Billy WilliamsRobert Whelan and Albert Whelan “The Australian Entertainer”, who introduced the song “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, which we all know from Jaws.  Magicians included The Great Levante, Jean Hugard, Percy Abbott, and Arthur Wheatley, billed as “Chop Chop”. Clifford Guest was an Australian ventriloquist. Elsie St. Leon was a renowned equestrienne, from an equally renowned family. Herbert Dyce Murphy was both a female impersonator and polar explorer who didn’t play vaudeville, but he did tour the lecture circuit. And comedian George Wallace was very popular. For more along these lines, see the Australian Variety Theatre Archive. 

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And we can’t neglect the most famous Australian animal act, kangaroo boxing. If you recall the boxing kangaroo from Warner Brothers cartoons, you may have been curious as to how real a phenomenon that was. It was quite real. Male kangaroos have very muscular, almost human looking forearms, which though short are very strong. Kangaroo boxing became a spectacle in Australia in the 1890s, and soon migrated to the music hall of Europe, as well as American circuses and side shows well into the 20th century. Though not as cruel as cockfights, dog fight, or bull fights (where animals usually die) kangaroo boxing does involve human landing punches on a beast, so it gradually fell out of favor. (For that reason, and also, the small fact that kangaroos don’t really know how to box or necessarily want to. They can be provoked into sparring, but not as reliably as showmen would like, I’m sure).

Speaking of showmen, an important man behind the scenes in Australian vaudeville was Harry Rickards, founder of the Tivoli Circuit (see signs in the photo above). Many of the great American vaudevillians made the long voyage to Australia in the early 20th century, including artists like Houdini, W.C. Fields, and Will Rogers. And perhaps most importantly, the Australia vaudeville circuits were still going strong a good quarter century after vaudeville had died in the U.S., providing work to Americans when jobs dried up back in the states.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous