• 15 Dec 2008 /  Articles

    Most people probably reckon they’ve got an autobiography in them – if you believe one of the characters in Tough time, nice time (see earlier post). Unfortunately, for any of us tempted to bonfire ourselves in such a vanity, the down-side is a lot of hard yakka. One way out is to get a ‘ghost’ to write it for you, which is kinda cheating; or downgrading to an ‘authorized’ or ‘unauthorized’ biography. I have stumbled across another option. If you cook lunch for enough people, you will simply pop up in their autobiographies. They will tell your story for you. It may not be all your story, or even your autobiography. But it’s still an ‘autobiography’, if that’s what you’re after.

    Two brief appearances now for me, thanx to my efforts in the kitchen.

    Eric Michaels in his Freddie Mercury phase

    Eric Michaels - his Freddy Mercury phase

    My first is in the idiosyncratic deathbed memoir by a gay American anthropologist called Eric Michaels, who lived in Australia from about 1982 until his death from AIDS, age 40, in 1988. Michaels spent the bulk of his early years out here looking at the impact of television, following the establishment of community-managed satellite stations, among remote Central Desert Aboriginal communities. A born-again stirrer, Michaels attracted attention with some very bold essay writing, including the highly regarded ‘For A Cultural Future’ and ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’. He was dying of AIDS in a Brisbane hospital when I heard he was planning a trip to Sydney for one last Mardi Gras fling. I was editing a little theatre magazine at the time, so I asked him if he would like to scribble a ‘grass-roots anthropological response’ to the ‘big gay night out. I might have been hoping for something called ‘Bad Mardi Gras Parade’, which back then would have been even more taboo than raising he prospect that some Aboriginal art might be bad. In fact, he had a wonderful time at the parade, and typed accordingly.

    Prior to the big night out, I created a trendy little luncheon for him. A couple of years after Michaels’ death, I got a call from Paul Foss, then editing a memoir, titled Unbecoming, Michaels had left as a legacy. There was a page in it about the lunch. A few pars about how nice it was to indulge in some reasonably smart chat, while not to be treated like a leper, despite the fact that he was very wasted by then and had Karposi’s Sarcoma sores all over his face. There were bits Foss was wrestling with. Firstly, would I object to being described as a ‘little bit mad’? Not at all! Who worth remembering from era past has not been reported as a little bit mad? Looking deep into the future I could see Neil Armfield directing the musical. Yep, casting would be interesting? Judy Davis as my mother?

    Secondly: what about Michaels’ speculation of an affair between myself and Patrick White? I saw in my mind’s eye the intimidating gargoyle of Manoly Lascaris rise up on the front landing of the house he shared with White in the Martin Road, Centennial Park. You ring the bell, make a sign of the cross and wait. I wondered how anyone even contemplating having an affair with White would get passed the Live-In Saint! But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? A rumoured affair with a Nobel prize-winner, however curmudgeonly, would look very good on anyone’s CV. Why not? I trilled to Mr Foss. As photographer, William Yang, puts it sagely – explaining his vast collection of photographs of Sydneysiders in various states of physical and moral disarray: ‘People prefer fame to respectability.’

    Years later, thanks mostly to my cooking again, I have recently made another appearance – in Blood &Tinsel - the memoir of theatre director Jim Sharman. When I first met Sharman in the late 1970s, he was just back from his years of globe-trotting hit musicals, and I was almost out of uni. I was startled to discover someone planning to direct a Patrick White play. At that point in the cycle, these were utterly disparaged works. In turn, Sharman was startled to discover a person who had actually read one! In fact all four written so far, and was quite a fan.

    Jim had many feathers in his cap: great stories from abroad, an extensive record collection, all the right books. But the cupboard was bare. I boiled an egg and Sharman was impressed. It was s kind of food-for-thought in exchange for real food kind of relationship! They was a lot of payola in it for me. I got to meet some very interesting people. Eventually even the only writer, to that point, to have ever influenced the way I saw the world. Perhaps ever? Mr P. White. It is Patrick’s cooking that I remember from those years, not mine. Here I was in my young twenties sitting down to table with the most amazing people, unable to contribute to the conversation, but loving every minute of it. I ‘acted’ not being out of my depth, and helped Manoly with the dishes.

    Jim Sharman was very kind to me through these formative years. As he has been to others whom he has sought to encourage. I looked after his fine big house and tentatively explored the possible writer in me, while he either talked on the phone to Patrick or travelled abroad. We saw European art movies and he flung me books. And yes, I cooked dinners. All sorts of guests, and this time I could contribute: at least by way of a range of dishes. Sadly, I’ve forgotten how to cook since then.

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    At one point in the Blood &Tinsel, Sharman says I reminded him of a ‘strelitzia’. Everyone has a bloom in them of some sort I guess. Why would mine not be spiky ‘subtropical perennial’ bursting into a garish flourish towards the top? After stumbling across this bit in the book, I wrote to Sharman saying: “I thought I was a faded rose from days gone by?” lol

    I recommend the book. I’ve waded through a lot of autobiographies by people from the Australian theatre profession, and I do wonder if their editors ever think to offer any constructive help? You get the feeling that the folks at Melbourne University Press put a lot of care into this one; although someone could have done a bit of fact checking. Straight forward stuff, like ‘Person X directed play Y opening on date Z.” There shouldn’t be mistakes like that in any book, much less one in this price band and so obviously written with an eye to posteriority.

    There are other kinds of facts which lie beyond the reach of any editor or publisher. For example, Sharman’s version of my time in his house is quite different from the way I might tell it. But that is how it will always be. That said, I do believe he got the ‘spirit’ right. That’s also what I like best about Blood &Tinsel overall. While everyone sees the world through the distortion of their own eyes, Sharman’s version is particularly distilled and compelling. He also has rather interesting material to work with. It has been, and continues to be, an interesting life. The ‘blood’ and the ‘tinsel’ hark back to Sharman’s upbringing on the carnival circuit where his father, and grandfather previously, ran a celebrated boxing troupe. The first third of the book is devoted to that early part of Sharman’s life. It’s a fascinating world of long train and car journeys, strange towns, strong men, exotic women, layers of tent canvas,  the smell of sawdust, intimidating clowns, even Princess Ubangi – a dwarf princess.

    Sharman's 1969 production of Hair

    Sharman's 'communal' production of Hair

    The second section of the book covers Sharman’s ‘global’ phase. From his counter-culture version of Hair in Sydney, premiering 1969; through Superstar and onto London where, with designer Brian Thomson, The Rocky Horror Show was born. This was an exceedingly prolific period that saw season records being broken on the West End, and versions of these hit shows going up all over the world. There was the more intimate world of the Royal Court, too; where Sharman premiered early Sam Shepard plays and, from out of the tiny Upstairs theatre, Rocky was born. Then there was the film.

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman had made a visit home in 1973 to create the debut production for recently opened the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: a startlingly imaginative Threepenny Opera. Kate Fitzpatrick a lusty Pirate Jenny. He was back again for the excellent Sydney version of The Rocky Horror Show, in 1974, starring Reg Livermore in his audacious prime as Fank’n’furter, with Jane Harders and John Paramor ideal as Brad and Janet. Then, at the height of his fame, Sharman turned his back on London and the rest of the world and came home. He looking for more meaning, I think. Sharman’s starting point was a production of White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla in 1976. It’s hard to explain to readers now the impact this production had on Sydney. Not only was White’s reputation as a playwright salvaged from the rubbish tip; but the ‘realistic’ stage aesthetic to have dominated mainstage Sydney since the war was swept away by the Thomson’s minimalist design and the cut-back characterizations Sharman secured form his cast. An even more innovative production of White’s A Cheery Soul a couple of years later, meant there was no going back.

    One thing I will reveal about being close to Sharman during this period, was watching him turn his back on ‘the musical’, the fading art-form he and Thomson had only just revived. I remember phone calls from all over the world: whoever could secure Sharman to direct Evita, for example, would secure the rights. That’s how I remember it anyway! These guys on the end of the phone were trying really hard. But Sharman would not be moved.  He was not going backwards – no matter how tempting the money. It should be appreciated that only after Sharman left the field did others find room to step into that breach.

    I could go on, but it would be easier for you to buy the book. Oh, and back to ‘the facts’. Getting facts exactly right might not be a feature of Sharman’s approach to autobiography. But a zeitgeist kinda guy from the beginning, Sharman is certainly right on target, in Blood & Tinsel, when it comes to capturing the ‘spirit of the age’. While the book is rich in fabulous detail, and most of the facts are right; more importantly Sharman does step back to offer a fascinating personalized ‘overview’ of his life and times – thus far. The book can also be seen as a generous gift: to those ‘who come after’. Just as P. White loved to encourage and reward, so to does Sharman. In great part, this book is an offering to the next generation coming through. Any doubt about this is put to rest in the way the book ends, with a tribute to Benedict Andrews’ 2007 production of The Season as Sarsaparilla. If there were still lingering doubts as to the merits of the text, Andrew’s put them permanently to rest. He also took Sharman’s anti-naturalism to new heights.

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    It is a Prospero moment, if you like – the past pages of Blood & Tinsel. Not that I believe Sharman is about to retire. With an excellent The Three Furies and Blood &Tinsel behind him, and an upcoming Cosi fan tutte for the Australian Opera, if anything, Sharman is on the comeback trail. To enter a latish, ‘mature’ stage, you get a sense that Sharman  the shaman/showman felt a need to let quite a whole lot go. A lot of it is in this book. He ‘breaks his staff’ not just for Andrews, but the promising generation this talented director represents. I suspect a good swathe of my readers belong to the same Sharman ‘gift’ group. Okay the price of a hardback is quite beyond your reach, most of you being out-of-work actors with nothing better to do than read blogs!

    But it’s Xmas; and surely your parents, or a well-funded maiden aunt, have been fishing for clues as to what to get you to put under the tree? So, just as have organized for others to publish my life story (well the kitchen bits), now is the perfect time to encourage others to buy you this book. I have only one regret about Blood & Tinsel. It does not contain everything nor everyone. I am included, to some extent, for colour and movement. There were others from those same years who, perhaps because they had less to do with ‘theatre’, unfortunately don’t make the cut. Wonderful people, impressive people. This book, at its heart, is about theatre for theatre folk. That’s also its strength.

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  • 14 Nov 2008 /  Reviews

    Celebrating Obama’s Win the Aussie Way: Photo by Jeff Busby

    Me and my mate Roger celebrated the Obama win by going to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert. What a party it was: all singing, all dancing, witty dialogue – and a radical story-line, like Obama’s, where old prejudices are tossed, at last, into the rubbish bin of history.

    Armpits to the World: the Gumbies are Happy: Photo Jeff Busby

    Armpits to the World: the Gumbies are Happy Chappies: Photo Jeff Busby

    Roger is a dab hand with a pair of scissors and the Gumby costumes you see in the photo above were made by him! I had seen the show before and Roger had worked on it, so it was not unfamiliar territory. What surprised us was the work that has gone into the show in advance of this return Sydney season. What was initially a well-meaning homage to an idiosyncratic and fun movie, is now a perfectly shaped musical – Australian born & bred – ready to take on the world. A London production is in prep.

    Village Person Moment:

    Village Person Moment: Tony Sheldon IS Bernadette

    Soaking up Priscilla amidst a hugely enthusiastic audience of all sizes and shapes of Australians was a great way to get high on the historic events of the day! And appropriate. I know many global citizens these days like to head into the streets and bang off a few rounds from their rusty Kalashnikovs. We all have our own way of celebrating – and celebrating the great tradition of Aussie drag just happens to be OURS! By the way, did you notice Obama slip ‘gay and straight’ into his long list of those who, from now on, are ‘to be included’!

    From Here to Paternity - Brian Thomson's Celestial Omnibus: Photo Jeff Busby

    From Here to Paternity – Brian Thomson’s Celestial Omnibus: Photo Jeff Busby

    Priscilla is more than just a slick musical at the top of its form. This is an entertainment, in my view, of deep cultural resonance: for ‘what is says’, as much as ‘the way it is said’. It may well be defiantly superficial in manner and mood: but, as any drag queen knows, looks can be deceptive. The show’s roots reach deep and wide into our popular culture traditions. As a consequence, the performers gorge on its onstage opportunities, as do its audiences from the stalls. If this is what we are good at then let us be proud. There’s nothing more foolish than recent attempts to recreate Kath & Kim in the USA or for SBS here to try and concoct its own crap version of Top Gear.

    Since the earliest days of the NSW colony (you only have to read the novel Ralph Rashleigh) we have been good at drag. Given the gender imbalance, numbers-wise, ‘men v women’, perhaps we ‘needed’ to be good at it! Anyway, we have been very good at it in Sydney in particular since the Bum Rebellion (oops typo).

    Gale Robbins played Adelaide Adams in the Calamity Jane movie (with Doris Day in the title role): You can see why my classmates picked me to fill her ‘shoes’!

    I can claim to have dressed in full drag only once in my life: when cast as Adelaide Adams – the Broadway star – in the school production of Calamity Jane. Clearly my footballer class-mates knew me better than I knew myself back then; but I thank them now for their hooligan-like enthusiasm in nominating me to the role with the best wig!

    The drag scene in Sydney before my time was considerable, if underground, coming to the surface once a year big-time for what was cheekily known as the Alternate Black& White Ball (a ‘camp’ take on the city’s charity fundraiser ‘night of nights’) where outfits could so voluminous and head-dresses so high-rise more than one ‘lassy’ was known to have arrived in the back of a removalist’s van. One year there were no less than three Marie Antoinettes, and other year there were said to be nine Carmen Mirandas. That’s a lot of fruit. Another year an enthusiastic aviariast is said to have arrived donning a bird cage crammed with live doves. Not that they were all still coo-ing by the end of the night: if I remember correctly there was ‘an unfortunate accident’ at some point, an unhinging of some sort, and the birds got lose.

    Carmen at the Funeral of Kings Cross 'Identity' Abe Saffron

    Carmen at the Funeral of Kings Cross ‘Identity’ Mr Abe Saffron

    More on this is in can be found in an article I wrote, Gay Crossover (Independent Monthly, December 1991/January 1992) – if you can find it; and for a more thorough account go to Garry Wotherspoon’s City of the Plain – History of a Gay Subculture (Hale & Iremonger). Look also to Clive Faro’s book (with Wotherspoon) Street Scene: A History of Oxford Street (MUP). Legally, you could get away with drag so long as you were wearing men’s underwear. But apparently coppers did not stick to the rules.

    One of the first venues to open to the public was The Purple Onion on Anzac Parade, Kensington. Hosted by David ‘Beatrice’ Williams, these shows entertained an ‘in crowd’ of gays and gay-friendly folk including local intellectuals and bohemians and visiting celebrities: Sammie Davis Jnr, Debbie Reynolds, Rudolf Nureyev, to name a few.

    My neighbour, the Old Testament hooker and drag diva, Carmen, whom legend records has fucked a New Zealand Prime Minister more then once – and is, these days, a one-scooter Surry Hills Mardi Gras Parade in flowing purple with a magnolia in her hair -  has spoken to media in the past of being bashed by cops outside The Purple Onion.  For wearing the wrong underwear, despite crates of grog being carefully placed in the back lane with a view to to keeping the law ‘onside’.

    The law could often be found ‘inside’ the Purple Onion too,  there being a tradition back then of cops officially ‘knocking off’ at midnight. Some say that cops and crims could be found at adjacent tables enjoying the same show: A Streetcar Named Beatrice among the best remembered. Now that’s a title. A costume designer/maker for the Old Tote Theatre Company, Barry Jackson, was one of the stars. She went on to even greater fame in my time (the 1970s), as Rose Jackson, headlining the show at Capriccio’s – the first gay bar to open in Oxford Street. If you are one with a taste for cultural history nothing beats Rose Jackson’s Purple Onion story of a crim committing a murder in Kings Cross, turning up at the Purple Onion, and hiding the murder weapon (a pistol) in one of the ‘on-stage artiste’s’ frocks. Then taking his place at a table casually among pals. Cops at the next table.

    In the Kings Cross precinct closer to town, which was thriving off the many financially flush American servicemen on R&R (Rest & Recreation), Les Girls pulled in more of a mainstream crowd. It’s here where Priscilla starts to quote directly from history. Bernadette, the not-so-young transexual – brilliantly played by Terence Stamp in the movie and more brilliantly by Tony Sheldon in the stage musical – is an ex-Les Girls star. These shows were hugely costumed, and the lip-synching (you get a training lesson in the show) was elevated to a ‘high art’.

    Designer Brin Thomson Getting It Historically Correct: Photo Jeff Busby

    Designer Brian Thomson Aims For Historical Correctness In His Les Girls Recreation: Photo Jeff Busby

    Bernadette’s unlikely romance with Bob, the bush mechanic, who turns up out of nowhere to fix the broken down bus, admits to having been a Les Girls stalwart in his younger days. He we have one of the two truly culturally provocative lines in the narrative: rough and tumble true-blue Aussie bloke falls in love with fem sex-change (not just the other way round). Its so marvelously credible, indeed authoritative, with an actor as such iconically ‘masculine’ stature as Bill Hunter in the role of Bob. I’m not convinced any other pairing of actors will ever capture the depth of feeling created between Sheldon and Hunter. And it’s one of the main reason why I have decided to bring so much attention to the version of Priscilla we have in Sydney right now. Everyone is talking about Sheldon’s Bernadette, and rightly so. But Hunter’s cool and genuine embrace of his character’s unorthodox eye for ‘the ladies’ is beautiful to watch. And absolutely radical.

    Dad (Todd McKenney) Meet Up At Last With His Son, Benjamin (Blake Thorn): Photo by Jeff Busby

    Dad (Todd McKenney) Meets Up At Last With Son, Benjamin (Blake Thorn): Photo by Jeff Busby


    At the heart of the Priscilla story is an unconventional reunion between a gay man who earns a living as a drag queen, and his wife and young child. This requires a rather hazardous bus trip from Sydney to Alice Springs, in the company of a couple other gels from Sydney Gay Entertainment Strip. This is the musical’s other great theme – of ‘family’ love, once again however unlikely the combination. One of the other highlights of the production right now is the presence of Todd McKenney in the ‘Hugo Weaving’ role  (from the movie) of Tick (Mitzi). McKenney is fantastic. Yes, with Tony Shelden glorious as Bernadette, and Daniel Scott as fresh as a slap in the face as Adam, the three representative drag ‘types’ are superbly presented. But McKenney is new to the show, and he brings enormous cred to the character of Mitzi, through the sheer quality of his performance. Not to forget, this is the guy who blew Sydney out of the water with his opening-night performance as Peter Allen in the premiere production of The Boy from Oz.

    Cindy with Attitude: painting byJohn Douglas

    Cindy with Attitude: painting by John Douglas

    Too few people know that the character of Tick is modelled on Richie Finger – aka Cindy Pastel – who had a child with his best friend Kerrin. Their son, Adam, is now 24 years old. Cindy/Ritchie was one of the great stars of Sydney drag in the early 1980s. She spurned frills and feathers for a bold punk attitude and led the Sydney gay community by the cockring into the Age of AIDS with some of the fiercest tragi-comedy in the history of drag. Do you get my meaning? Why Priscilla comes across so confident and strong: because it’s all true! It is Richie’s life story, more than anything else, that inspired the story for Stephan Elliot’s hit film. McKenney is also a real Dad these days as well.

    Richie has retired from the profession several times, as every great diva should. In the end, the life-style that went with the life he led did knock him around. Talking to Richie on the phone the day after I saw Priscilla, there are a lot of mixed feelings about how is life has been turned into a movie and show. And of course, not all bad.

    Cindy Pastel  with Bill Hunter: the 2008 Helpmann Awards: Photo by Noel Kessel

    Richie made rare public appearance as Cindy earlier this year when he was invited to partner Bill Hunter (Bob the bush mechanic), to the Helpmann Awards. In Richie’s own words, classic Richie: “There’s just not that much room these days for a dicky little old drag queen who’s been around since Xanadu.”

    How tragic Can it Get? "I've Never Been To Me": Photo by Jeff Busby

    Just another “Dicky Old Drag Queen Who’s Been Around Since Xanadu?” The “I’ve Never Been To Me!” sequence: Photo by Jeff Busby

    What else can I say? Anyone who has had anything to do with this show has a right to feel proud. In particular director Simon Phillips, who has nuanced this show to an inch of this life. I’ve mentioned Ross Coleman’s ‘to-die-for’ choreography. There is Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy’s superb musical direction and musical arrangements. Oh and that’s right – Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s costumes aren’t half bad either! Of the great volley of producers whose names are attached to the show, I understand the active partners have been Garry McQuinn and Liz Koops. An incredible labour of love and commitment from these money folks. Mention should also be made of those in supporting roles, excellent work from Colette Mann in this version as the scrag from outback hell. Danielle Barnes as Marion, Tick’s wife and Benjamin’s mother. And Lena Cruz, a total ‘Pop Music’ showstopper as Cynthia, Bob’s mail-order bride.

    I wish it were possible for London to see this cast. Sheldon is going  – without him there is no show. Can Jason Donovan deliver at Tick/Mitzi – we will just have to see. But at last one of our musicals is going ‘over there’. And deservingly so. I hope this post puts to rest the crazy idea that I hate musicals. What I’ve been waiting all those years for is a f…ing good one! Okay, we’ve had a few, but this one really kicks arse! All we need now is for President-Elect Obama to put up on Facebook those dusty photos of his own schoolday’s rendition of Adelaide Adams, in that legendary ‘all-black’ Chicago (Steppenwolf 4 Skoolkidz) youth production of Calamity Jane, circa 1978. From my reading of the paper, I think ‘Calamity Jane’ Bush is just about ready to exit the White House. Bring on Adelaide ‘Obama ‘ Adams, I say: the Broadway star with skinny legs and a funny name!

    ‘Singing and Dancing’ the Sets and Costumes – All The Way to London: Photo Jeff Busby

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