Medlow Majestic in the Wilderness: From a White Elephant to a White Palace?

Built Environment, Bushwalking, Social History, Travel

The Hydro Majestic Hotel stands on the upper slopes of the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains, 115.8 kilometres west of the Sydney CBD. Last December it re-opened for business six years after it’s resale and interim closure in 2008. The new owners, the Escarpment Group (a consortium of Sydney developers headed by Huong Nguyen and George Saad), have an ambitious vision for the Medlow Bath hotel, including an extension to its facilities and services, and a major renovation of the once great Blue Mountains landmark to recover some of its past glory. About four years passed before construction work commenced on the site. There was a big clean-up job apparently as when vacated seven years ago, a very large amount of assorted clutter was left behind by the previous occupants [‘Saving a grand old beauty’s soul’, Peter Munro, Traveller, 7 January 2013, www.traveller.com.au].

The Hydro Majestic through the agency of a renovation that cost $30 million has been transformed, from its erstwhile state of dishevelment and disrepaire, to again rise seemingly phoenix-like in 2015. The new exterior makeover resulted in the complex’s buildings being painted uniformly white, clearly the developers are hoping that the anticipated returns will repay the investment (all up a reported $40.5 million including the purchase price) so that the venture doesn’t end up a ‘white elephant in all senses!’

Mark Foy’s Liverpool St store
The Majestic’s current incarnation however is only the latest of many manifestations and reinventions that the hotel has gone through over its long, colourful history. The Hydro Majestic’s genesis lies in the overseas travel experiences of retail baron Mark Foy around the turn of the twentieth century. Foy was co-owner of the large Sydney department store, Mark Foys (named after his father Mark Foy Sr) in Oxford Street, Sydney, later relocated to Liverpool Street in a famous piazza building. The young entrepreneur’s experience of health spas on the Continent gave him the idea for starting a hydropathic therapy operation in Australia. In 1902 Foy purchased several large blocks of land in the Blue Mountains to re-create a similar spa resort to the highly-popular sanatoriums he had visited in Europe. The site chosen at Medlow Bath was supposedly located on natural mineral springs that incorporated the earlier Belgravia Hotel [John Low, ‘Palace in a Wilderness: Hydro Majestic Medlow Bath’, www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au].

Upon completion in 1904 Foy opened his Medlow Bath hydropathic sanatorium (the first health resort in NSW) which he named the Hydro-Majestic. By this time whatever springs were present (if they ever existed) had dried up. Consequently Foy imported large quantities mineral water from Germany for use in his establishment [www.hydromajestic.com.au (Wikipedia entry)]. He also introduced a German-manufactured generator to supply the Hotel and the surrounding township with electricity (purportedly four days before the city of Sydney achieved electricity!) [www.hydromajestic.com.au, ibid.].

A series of spa pools connected by springs to the hotel generator were constructed in the nearby bush for the use of guests. Foy advertised that the Hydro would provide cures for nervous, alimentary, respiratory and circulatory ailments. Foy from the establishment’s start was also intent on trying to broaden the Hydro’s appeal, advertising it as “the most enjoyable place to spend one’s holidays” [Elaine Kaldy, ‘Medlow 1883 and Now’ (1983), cited in ‘Mb002 : Hydro Majestic’, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, www.environment.nsw.gov.au]. To coordinate the therapeutic programs Foy brought out a Dr Bauer from Switzerland to introduce guests to his “diets of weird and wonderful treatments” [www.hydromajestic.com.au].

Mark Foy, to all accounts, was not particularly hands-on in his business pursuits, leaving it to a host of managers and agents. The Hydro for instance was apparently leased to influential hotelier and parliamentarian James Joynton Smith in 1913 [‘K032 : Carrington Hotel’, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, www.environment.nsw.gov.au]. Foy’s conspicuous affluence and delegation of tasks to others allowed him the leisure to pursue outdoor activities. The business baron also had a reputation of being something of a playboy-about-town in the ‘Great Gatsby’ mould, legendary for throwing lavish parties for his friends at the Hydro and at his other homes at Bellevue Hill and Bayview.

Mark Foy Jr
The Hydro Majestic owner was a keen sportsman, yachtsman and motor-car enthusiast. He was such a car enthusiast that he would periodically have sales of bulk numbers of his vehicles on site at his Bellevue Hill property [“MARK FOY’S MOTORS” (Advertisement), Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 1910 – an adroit coupling of business with pleasure on his part; cited in Pittwater Online News, Issue 102 (17-23 March 2013), http://www.pittwateronlinenews.com/mark-foy-history.php]. Foy used his fleet of cars to ferry guests on trips from Medlow Bath to nearby Jenolan Caves. He also kept horses on the grounds for guests to explore Megalong Valley by horseback [Office of Heritage and Environment (Hydro Majestic), www.environment.nsw.gov.au].

Majestic skyline
Majestic skyline

Foy had a series of bush walk tracks built on the cliffs below the Hydro Majestic. The walking tracks provided spa guests with a physical outlet that would complement Dr Bauer’s therapeutic programs. Guests were encouraged to exercise in the fresh mountain air as part of their recovery. These tracks with local physical features with names like Tucker’s Lookout, Sentinel Pass and the Colosseum offer breath-taking cliff views of the Megalong Valley, and are still explored by bush walkers today.

As well as the hotel site itself Mark Foy purchased a considerable amount of land in the Megalong Valley to grow food for the Majestic hotel dinner tables. Foy built a large rural holding at Megalong which he called the Valley Farm, on it was a racecourse, stables, diary farm and a piggery. The farm grew corn, turnips and oats [‘Mark Foy – Retail Tycoon and Megalong Valley Farm’, www.megalongcc.com.au]. The produce grown in the valley was transported up to the resort by a flying fox Foy had rigged up.

The business tycoon also maintained personal properties on the Medlow Bath complex, including a cottage in the Valley known as the Sheleagh Cottage. This property with its great views of the valley, now called “Mark Foy House”, is today listed as a mountains getaway available for rental. It is unclear how much time the constantly on-the-go Foy spent at Sheleagh, or for that matter at any of his Sydney properties, as the newspapers of that day regularly reported him as embarking with his family on yet another world or European tour [cited in Pittwater Online News, op.cit.]. I can easily imagine Foy’s name cropping up constantly in the Vice-Regal column that used to appear in the Sydney Morning Herald.

‘The Lost World’
At the height of its popularity, in the twenties, the Hydro-Majesty was the fashionable venue to visit, “the place to be seen”. Over the years it has had more than its fair share of VIP guests, such as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose novel The Lost World was inspired by the vast wilderness environment that the Hydro was set in. Other guests include Indian rajahs, Australia’s first Olympic swimming gold medal winner Freddie Lane, and the Commonwealth’s inaugural Prime Minister Edmund Barton, who died whilst staying at the resort in 1920. Boxer Tommy Burns set up a training camp at the hotel where he prepared to fight Jack Johnson for the World Heavyweight Championship in a very famous boxing bout at Sydney Stadium in 1908.

The entertainment and amusements provided by Mr Foy at the Hydro Majestic took various forms. In its heyday when it was a luxury tourist resort, balls and concerts were regular events. Singers such as the soprano queens Dames Nellie Melba and Clara Butt were hired to perform at these concerts. A curious feature was the cross-dressing costume parties of well-to-do guests in which the husband and wife swapped clothing with each other for the event [‘Saving a grand old beauty’s soul’, op.cit.].

Taken at its broad scope the Hydro-Majestic is an impressive if a bit discordant sight, a long line of arranged buildings, albeit positioned in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion stretching for some 1.1 kilometres across the Megalong escarpment. The Hotel’s architecture is hybrid in character, with buildings being added in an ad hoc fashion over time and in a novel mixture of styles: Victorian, Edwardian, Belle Époque and a blend of Art Deco and Art Nouveau interior design.

The Hydro – in its down-market days
The Majestic’s most distinctive external feature is the Casino building with its imposing Chicago-manufactured dome (this ‘casino’ has been used as an entertainment hall or pavilion rather than as a gaming house). The changing fortunes of the Hydro Majestic as a whole over the decades was symbolised in the fate of the Casino itself: going from the scene for grand balls and concerts in the 1920s and 1930s to a repository for (how the mighty have fallen!) pinball machine entertainment in the 1980s!

A Zimmerman
A Zimmerman

One of the most intriguing interior features of the Hydro Majestic is the so-called Cat’s Alley, a long corridor whose windows back in the day were draped with peacock feathers. Scone-and-cream afternoon tea visitors to the hotel would stroll down the corridor strewn with puff-pillowed lounge chairs and a set of bizarre panelled scenes, hunting scenes from different historical periods, the work of a Swiss artist called Arnold Zimmerman. Panel after panel comprised Prehistoric cavemen hunting wooly mammoths, Assyrian warriors slaughtering lions, British Raj mounted horsemen hunting tigers in India, Roman soldiers killing elephants, and so on and so on. The first time I ever visited the Hydro I marvelled somewhat bemused at Zimmerman’s paintings, finding them slightly disturbing in their obsession with the monumental struggle between man and beast, terrible but also engaging in a visceral way. Visitor access was blocked to the Alley for some years but it is pleasing to note that it is opened again after the refurbishment with additional seating.

The immediacy of a vast wilderness of National Park bushland has regularly posed a danger to the Hydro Majestic. In 1905 fire destroyed the Gallery building and in 1922 did the same to the original Belgravia wing. There have been several other close calls, the latest in 2002 when Medlow Bath’s “Gothic tourist pile”, as one article described it, narrowly avoided a spot fire blaze [Margaret Simons, ‘Majestic tourist icon survives ordeal by fire’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2002].

The Hydro-Majestic over the course of its century plus existence has undergone a number of transformations. What started off as a hydropathic spa pretty soon morphed into a luxury tourist retreat after 1909 (“Mr Foy’s Private Lodge”), only to revert more modestly to a family hotel for ordinary guests and day-trippers. In WWII the Hydro was converted into the 118th US General Hospital to care for convalescing American soldiers, some of which showed their “gratitude” by inflicting damage on the hotel’s decor during their stay. After the War the Hydro reverted to a hotel and guesthouse. By the 1980s the buildings had declined alarmingly despite receiving a heritage preservation order in 1984, business had dropped off and the very visible signs of wear and age eventually necessitated a revamping in the 1990s and again in the last few years.

In keeping with the hybrid nature of the hotel, parts of the new Hydro Majestic exude a distinctly oriental flavour. The Salon Du Thé features a Shanghai chic tea room and bar and both it and the Cat’s Alley reprise many of the oriental traits of the original 1900s Medlow hotel which featured a Chinoiserie style favoured by Mark Foy. The original Salon Du Thé displayed ornaments and furnishings such as large Chinese vases and porcelain vessels, bamboo-look furniture and silk umbrellas [www.hydromajestic.com.au].

imageWill the refurbished Hydro Majestic rise again to the exalted heights it attained in the inter-war period? Will patrons flock to it again as they once did? Will it be able to attract the higher socio-economic clientele associated with a luxury resort? It is far too early to tell, but it should be noted that there is a lot more choice now in Sydney with high-class hotels and resorts. Nonetheless, the Hydro’s traditional high tea is back, the complex has more restaurant options than ever before, and the magnificent panoramic views of the Valley remain the Hotel’s strongest magnet.

Not only the Lonely Children … Argonauts of the World Unite!

Media & Communications

In the 1950s and ’60s just about every self-respecting teenager and pre-teen in New South Wales (no one had yet thought up the word “teenybopper”) joined the Argonauts Club. Or so it seems. I say “just about everyone” because although the Argonauts had mass appeal to children, when I was a kid its existence barely registered on my consciousness, let alone actually joining up! There was probably a couple of reasons for this: in that Neanderthal era of communications my parents never rested the wireless dial on the ABC. The only time the dial ever got within cooee of the 2BL frequency was when I switched over ritualistically to the ABC during a cricket test match.

Another factor in the Argonauts Show passing pretty much right under the radar for me was that it was a late afternoon children’s radio program (we spelt it ‘programme’ in those more formal, longhand days) and post-school afternoon and nights during my youth were incontestably reserved for television, then still a relatively novel phenomena. When it came to the wireless I was an avid morning listener to commercial networks like 2UE and 2UW. Gary O’Callaghan and “Sammy Sparrow” was more my style in the sixties. I can’t be sure if there had been a Sammy Sparrow radio club but as I’ve still got a Sammy Sparrow badge kicking round the house somewhere which probably confirms it.

The 'Laughing Kookaburra'
The ‘Laughing Kookaburra’

So, no Argonauts Club for me, in its place was the Charlie Chuckles Club. I was a very juvenile member in the 1960s, eagerly looking forward every week to the Sunday Telegraph where “Charlie” brought us contests and drawings to colour in. If you were privileged enough to own one, you coloured them in with that Rolls Royce of coloured pencils, a set of Derwents. In addition I was fully signed up for Nestlés, being in both their Car Club and their Sky Club. Membership of the Sky Club entitled you to a ‘flying wings’ badge and an Air Picture Logbook. The wings and logbook were free but you had to contribute to Nestlés sales figures by buying their small chocolate bars, each one of which contained a picture of different aircrafts you could then paste in the book.

The Argonauts Club in Australia had a long history, it’s first manifestation in the early 1930s run from Victoria was short-lived. The club was revived in 1941 as a Sydney-based entity and continued until it was disbanded in 1972. Today it lives on in the vast repertoire of fond and nostalgic memories of middle-aged and older Australians.

The Argonauts’ format on radio was a six day-a-week segment, part of a radio program called The Children’s Session, later rebranded as the ‘Children’s Hour’ (the Session’s catchy song which introduced the program each week was very familiar to me). The program’s presenters were assigned Argonaut-themed pseudonyms, foremost among these was former English actor Atholl Fleming who was ‘Jason’. Others were given on-air personas such as ‘Phidas’ (artist Jeffery Smart who had a kids’ art appreciation spot), ‘Argus’ and ‘Icarus’. Founding compere Ida Elizabeth Lea was ‘Argo 1’. Co-compere, Actor John Ewart, was ‘Argo 29’. Guest presenters on the show included Australian poets AD Hope, Mary Gilmore and actor Peter Finch.

imageYoung Australians between seven and 17 (club membership was restricted to this age range) were invited to join the Argonauts Club, and join they did! The fifties were the pinnacle of Argonautdom, national membership reached 43,000 in 1953 [Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 1953]. Upon joining the club youngsters would be allocated an imaginary place on one of the boats commanded by Jason and his Argonauts in their mythical quest for the Golden Fleece. The new member would become one of the “Merry Band of Rowers”, receive an enamel badge, take a pledge and be assigned to a ship with a Greek mythic name and an oar number on the vessel. On the radio segment members were referred to only by their Argonaut name and integer. Interestingly this anticipated the practice of anonymous usernames and avatars, a dominant symbol in this age of the internet [‘The Argonauts Club’, Cat Politics, www.catpolitics.blogspot.com].

Some of the youthful members went on to be prominent names and celebrities (especially in the arts) in their adult lives in and beyond Australia – including:

Tony Morphett (screenwriter) Antiphon 39
John Barron (Premier of South Australia) Charops 37 with Golden Fleece
Margaret Throsby (ABC broadcaster & icon) Androcles 26
Nick Enright (dramatist & playwright) Alastor 35
Michael Dransfield (poet) Eumolphus 24
Mike Walsh (TV presenter & theatre owner) Pontos 7
Anne Summers (writer & columnist) Pytheus 41 with Dragon’s Tooth
Christopher Koch (writer) Gaza 16
Margot Oliver (filmmaker) Herodotus 31
Allan Humphries (ABC weatherman) Ampelus 38
Peter Sculthorpe (composer) Jason 50
Joanna Mendelssohn (academic, art & design) Roxana 38
Rolf Harris (disgraced painter & entertainer) Echo 32, Perth Club
Barry Humphries (entertainer, writer, cross-dresser) Ithome 32
[Rob Johnson, ‘The Golden Age Of The Argonauts’, The Age, Friday September 13, 1996, reproduced in www.urania.com.au]

Argonauts' route
Argonauts’ route

The Argonauts wireless segment always began with the stirring club song extolling the youthful audience to “Row! Row! Merry oarsmen, Row!” … followed by the greeting from “ship captain Jason”: “Hello Argonauts, good rowing!” – which became a sort of pass or codeword for the Argonaut brethren to greet each other by, much in the way that secret brotherhoods do.

In the Argosy part of the show Argonauts were encouraged to submit drawings, stories and poems to the program, the best of which, presenters would read out aloud on air. ‘Rowers’ could earn marks or points which if accumulated sufficiently, would afford the member certain honours and status such as a Dragon’s Tooth Certificate, a Golden Fleece and the even more meritorious Golden Fleece & Bar. Holders of certificates often were rewarded with prizes, usually books. Children’s stories like Ruth Park’s The Muddle-headed Wombat were read on the radio, many former argonauts have recalled that their life-long listening habits were formed whilst their ears were ‘glued’ to the Children’s Hour [Urania, ibid.]. Stories were serialised on the Argonauts Show, serials such as The Country of the Skull were compulsory listening for teenage devotees of the Children’s Hour. Similarly the ‘Melody Man’s’ segment helped foster the musical interests of school-age listeners.

One thing that strikes me is just how many of the ‘Rowers’ remember their Argonaut alias, given how long, and in some cases very long, ago it was! Obviously it was a huge thing in the lives of so many school-age children around the middle third of the 20th century. The number of former members (Panthea 32, Sisyphus 16, Erechtheum 33, Polybus 21, Hecuba 12, Sestus 50, Theseus 44, Equestor 3, etc. etc.) who lovingly comment on ABC Message Boards and similar online platforms is a testimony to this [ABC Message Board HYS – Messages, www.abc2b.net.au].

imageFootnote: A bit pendantic to mention but there was a curious anachronism about the mathematics to do with the ships – triremes in the Heroic era of Greece (when the Argonauts legend is set) had a rowing galley of 170 oarsmen, however none of the ships fabricated by the ABC radio program ever had more than 50 places allocated to them.

The Argonauts radio show was a blessing and even maybe a salvation for many children especially for those living in remote parts of Australia. Many in fact were listening from outside Australia in places as far afield as Port Moresby and Aotearoa! It helped all of them in their isolation, compensating for the loneliness they were experiencing in the country. As one emeritus Argonaut put it, it gave isolated listeners “a sense of belonging to a community”. This was even more the case during World War II for children in rural northern Australia who gained a tremendous solace from the program at a time of anxieties about the possibility of Japanese invasion [Urania, ibid.]. A lot of children who migrated to Australia in the immediate years after the War (in that era more or less exclusively from the UK and Ireland) joined up with the Argonauts and it is clear from their recollections that the program softened the impact somewhat in trying to settle in to a new and unfamiliar land.

Inevitably, the popularity of the Argonauts program waned. In the late sixties the segment was cut to just one hour a week at 5pm on Sunday. In 1972 ABC Radio pulled the plug entirely on the show, apparently because a survey found that most of those still listening were over the age of 40! The increasing encroachment of television into the lives of children also would have been a massively-significant factor in its demise [Urania, ibid.].

A few years ago FNFSA (Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive Inc) set up an online form to allow former Argonauts to record their membership details and recollections of the program [www.archfriends.org.au]. The response was impressive. The Argonauts Registration Form lists a vast range of ship names, an armada far greater than Jason’s meagre sum of triremes. The overwhelming response further illustrates what a phenomenal impact the Argonauts had on the formative lives of young Australians from the forties to the early seventies.

The deprivations imposed on Australian families by the Depression followed closely upon by WWII were great on children (as on the community at large). The Argonauts radio program gave youngsters an outlet to escape these harsh realities. It afforded them a chance to imagine themselves as members of a magical, mythical world, it entertained them and it inspired them to delve more into the worthy pursuits of reading and writing. For many of them it became a lifelong habit.

Mo and Onkus: Vaudevillian Kings of Comedy

Biographical, Media & Communications, Society & Culture

Before there was motion pictures, radio or television in Australia, variety theatre and vaudeville flourished as the form of public entertainment. In the first half of the 20th century two performers in the absolute vanguard of Australian vaudeville comedy were George Wallace and Roy Rene. Both these standout comedy stars of the Australasian theatre, at their career high-point, were extremely well paid. Each had his own distinctive style and persona, as well as particular strengths and weaknesses in the differing modes of comic performance attempted.

imageGeorge Wallace had an early taste of the stage appearing in children’s pantomime at age three, but it wasn’t until after WWI that his career really took off when he teamed up with fellow vaudevillian Jack Paterson to form a knockabout comedy act called “Dinks and Onkus”. The duo performed their “couple of drunks” routine to packed audiences at the Newtown Bridge Theatre for five years before Wallace outgrew the partnership and joined up with bigger enterprises, first that of Fuller’s Circuit and then the Tivoli Theatre Circuit.

George was smallish in stature and quite chubby in build but despite this, on stage he was exceptionally acrobatic and agile on his feet. As part of his very physical act he became acutely adept at landing on his left ear during a deliberate fall. Wallace wrote witty songs and review sketches to perform in theatre, sometimes he told absurd stories about characters such as Stanley the Bull, the Drongo from the Congo and Sophie the Sort [Stuart Sayers, ‘Wallace, George Stevenson (1895–1960)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wallace-george-stevenson-8961/text15765, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 4 April 2015]. The Wallace persona on stage and screen was that of a childlike man, portraying goggle-eyed, innocent characters well down on the social ladder, often farm boys, hicks and yokels ill at ease with women [Paul Byrnes, ‘George Wallace’, www.aso.gov.au]. The country bumpkin-cum-innocent in the big city association was further emphasised by George’s garb, comprising ill-fitting clothes and rumpled hat.

imageWallace’s popularity attracted the attention of local film-makers and in the thirties he appeared in a number of films such as Gone to the Dogs, A Ticket for Tatts, mostly for Ken G Hall, Australia’s foremost Cinesound director in the interwar period. In his movies (some of which he co-wrote) Wallace reprised his theatre role as a bumbling, disaster-prone innocent. In his performances on the big screen Wallace demonstrated that he was able to make the transition from stage to cinema. After WWII however, finances dried up and the Australian film industry went into steep decline. Wallace returned to theatre including a return to pantomime and to the new medium of radio performance. In 1949 he began a weekly radio show with the Macquarie Network in Sydney. The one setback to Wallace’s career was his unsuccessful attempt in the early fifties to make it in the English theatre as a comedian, but this could be attributed partially to the English audiences’ unfamiliarity with his Australian accent [ibid.].

Roy Rene (born Harry Van Der Sluice) was a rival of sorts for Wallace in the interwar musical comedy theatre. Rene’s stage persona of ‘Mo’ and his successful partnership with Nat Phillips as “Stiffy and Mo” was the inspiration for Wallace to form “Dinks and Onkus”. Like Wallace, Rene started in ‘panto’ at 14 as “Boy Roy” in a Sydney production of Sinbad the Sailor. Rene’s popularity grew in musical comedy reviews all around Australia and NZ in the 1920s and 1930s. His theatrical career however was marked by tempestuous relationships with colleagues and proprietors. He broke up and then reunited with Phillips, and moved (sometimes sacked) from one theatre company to another (Princess Theatre, the National Amphitheatre, Fuller’s, Tivoli, Theatre Royal, etc) from one side of the continent to the other and on to New Zealand throughout his career.

imageRene had a very distinctive on-stage appearance, striking black-and-white face paint which gave a nod to the influence of minstrelsy, baggy pants and a battered black top hat. In performance he exuded an extroverted and even exhibitionist style – he was the quintessential lair (the self-promoting “show-off”). Often he would robustly insult the audience with a spray of obscenities, both verbal and gestural. In today’s milieu of political correctness Rene’s act would in all likelihood be characterised as sexist and even racist (in its presentation of a Jewish caricature) and it did alienate some viewers in the day. This did not stop Fuller’s from billing him (pre-war) as “Australia’s foremost delineator of Hebrew eccentricities” [Frank Van Straten, ‘Roy Rene 1892-1954’, Live Performance Australia – Hall of Fame (2007), www.liveperformance.com.au ].

At the height of his career the wider public loved Mo’s humour and feted him as a great clown. The typically unrestrained expressions used by Rene in skits became the vogue, so much so that they entered the Australian lexicon. The numerous ‘Mo-isms’ that still colour the linguistic landscape of Australia include such perennial gems as “strike me lucky!”, ” you beaut!”, “strewth”, “cop that, young Harry”, “you little trimmer!”, “don’t come the raw prawn with me” and “fair suck of the sav” [‘Roy Rene’, www.skwirk.com].

Rene as a performer was a forerunner of what a later generation would euphemistically call “working blue”. His work, especially in the Stiffy and Mo skits was punctuated with risqué humour and vulgar double entendre. One of their most celebrated routines had Mo saying to the “straight guy” Stiffy: “Every time I say F you see K” (the audience never got it at the time). How far Roy could be characterised as a “blue comic” is a moot point. A show biz contemporary of his, Bill Moloney in his autobiography, Memoirs of an Abominable Showman, cautions that this was more the public’s perception than actually evident in Mo’s sketches. Moreover, in the light of the unfettered ‘blueness’ of later comics like Lenny Bruce and Rodney Rude, Mo’s ribald smuttiness comes across as very pale by comparison.

Roy as Mo struck a chord with the public partially perhaps because he was seen as being so far from being a hero, more of an everyman, and also because they saw him in the context of the Depression as a battler, an underdog barking back at his so-called ‘betters’ [ibid.]. At the peak of his fame a measure of his popularity was the unaddressed mail he somehow received from his fans. Letters would arrive with only the iconic facial image of Mo drawn on the front of the envelope!

imageInevitably the popularity of Mo led to attempts to establish Roy Rene as a film star. Strike Me Lucky! (1934) directed by Ken G Hall was not successful either critically or at the box office. The medium did not suit Rene who needed the spontaneity of performing before a live audience to feed off and sparkle at his best. The repetition of takes during scenes in movies was also to his distaste [Lesley Speed, ‘Strike Me Lucky: Social Difference and Consumer Culture in Roy Rene’s Only Film’ (Screening Australia), www.tlweb.latrobe.edu.au].

After WWII, with variety theatre in recession, Rene made a successful transition to radio. He was able to do this having learned from the lessons of his failed venture into films, because he made sure that his radio shows were presented before a live audience to ensure that his performances had that necessary edge. At Sydney radio station 2GB he found a niche as the bombastic “Professor Mo McCackie” of “McCackie Manor” finding a whole new audience for his unique sense of humour.

Because they possessed very different comedic styles it is hard to detect any influences Rene and Wallace may have had on each other. Rene, hitting the boards a good decade before the younger man, led to him becoming the bigger star in the late 1910s to mid 1920s. The differences in style and content were quite pronounced: Rene’s speech drew on the broad Australian vernacular, he had an urban type of comedy influenced by the traditions of American Jewish (Yiddish) comedy. Roy/Mo was both raunchy and in-your-face in a way the simpler, more laid-back George/Onkus never was. Wallace was more influenced by the traditions and stories of the Australian bush (his adolescent years were largely spent working in the Queensland bush as a cane-cutter, horseman, dairy farming and the like). One critic has identified the influence of Charlie Chaplin on Wallace’s comedy in aspects like the use of athletic slapstick and the choice of costumes [Byrnes, op.cit.].

Wallace and Rene were gigantic figures in the first half of 20th century Australian variety entertainment, both were quintessentially Australian, both had exemplary timing in their comic delivery. The two plied the same trade but stylistically and temperamentally they were very different vaudeville comics. The two comedians did have one curious, ultimate connection: both men died in the same small Sydney suburb of Kensington, six years apart.image

Postscript: I have not included Jim Gerald within the purview of this survey. ‘Diabolo’ Gerald, the rubbery-faced clown, a contemporary of Rene and Wallace, was a theatrical performer who rightly deserves a place in the trio of 20th century Australian vaudeville comic greats. Gerald however differs from the other two domestically focused comedians. He was more international in outlook, sourcing a large amount of his material during trips abroad, and working overseas extensively, eg, touring South Africa, Asia, North America; as part of the AIF Entertainment Unit in the Middle East and the Mediterranean during WWII; plus starring in a series of cinematic shorts in Hollywood during the silent era.

 

Desperately Seeking … a Nerdy Niche for a Needy Nerd

Creative Writing, Media & Communications, Tertiary Ed

Before the academic year begins around 1st of March each year, the modern university secures itself a little respite from the normal grind of being snowed under by an avalanche of undergrad applications for special consideration, extensions for assignments and what-have-you. At this juncture, with enhanced institutional prestige and a lucrative government funding payoff in the offering, universities are all about chasing the elite students and affixing them to the masthead of their little community flagships. Observe this piece if you will from a distinguished regional newspaper profiling one such high-in-demand student’s experience of the academic “horse-trading” that passes for the admissions phase of the tertiary ed year:

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The Girla Sentinel: The Voice of the Dusty Outback

Outback News
National News

Business
Environment
Health
Higher Education

The 99.95 country girl has the big smoke universities tripping over each other to gain her nod of assent

Date: January 2, 2015

Katerina Asbestocladding
Senior HE Writer

Whose $10,000 smells sweetest? Medicine-bound Ingressa is number 1 draft pick for the 2015 academic season!

imagePhoto: Stefan Severedhead

It’s decision-time for wannabe uni students who must lodge their main round course preferences with the Universities Admissions Centre by midnight on Friday.

For some applicants with modest academic credentials they will take any offer they can get … even if it arrives, proverbially-like, in the mail by mistake (they wish!). Other super swots like Ingressa Alyen-Body of Girlambone Swamp, NSW, are in the fortunate position of being able to pick-and-chose between attractive offers from competing top-tier tertiary institutions. All the universities are chasing Ingressa because she attained the maximum possible ATAR score in the state, a percentile of 99.95. With the lure of a Commonwealth Scholarship worth $10,000 a year, both Sydney and UNSW Medicine Schools have put feelers out for the 2014 HSC over-achiever.

Reflecting on this, Ingressa (better known as “Miss Clever Clogs” around Girlambone) cheerfully indicated that it might come down to which university has the best daggy parties for brainiacs. So far the only universities to make Ingressa a firm pre-offer of a place in medicine are the University of Central Australia, Birdsville, and the University of the Warrumbungles in the Backabyond. Ingressa has rejected both of these universities outright, principally on the grounds (or lack of grounds) that she couldn’t find them on Google Maps.

Ingressa confessed to me in an exclusive interview for the Sentinel that she had been socially ostracised as a nerdy dork by her fellow students at Belanglo State Forest High School. “If it hadn’t been for the kindly old recreational activities teacher Mr Milat I would have been very lonely all the way through my school years”. Even the school’s Ur-Geeks Society which everyone else boycotts wouldn’t let me join, even as a quarantined associate. She was looking ahead to moving forward to an opportunity to make new friends at university … “18 years of unrelenting peer rejection must surely end”, she added in a tone befitting her sense of social isolation.

Photo: Stefan Severedhead
Ingressa hasn’t made her big choice yet but concluded by saying that at this point she was slightly favouring either “Kenso Tech” AKA UNSW or Bendigo Uni. The clinching factor in the end may turn on personal connections and the happy prospect of joining a cohort of similarly awkward, dysfunctional nerdy misfits. Aside from the kudos, Ingressa said that UNSW has two pluses in its favour. She won’t be a total stranger there, a close neighbour of hers from the ‘Swamp’, Mr Alain Stalker, is already an undergraduate at the University studying ontological hermeneutics. Ingressa is also excited at having recently discovered that UNSW has a really active Desperate and Dateless Nerdy Geeks Society, “A chance”, she gushed, “to be accepted – finally, to be amongst my own kind of people … socially-outcast eggheads”.