PERFORMERS: GEORGE WALLACE

Born: June 4 1894
Died: October 6 1960

GeorgeWallaceby PETER TATCHELL (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #2, 1991)

He was short, tubby and down to earth. He was the average everyday bloke who could act the “natural lair” one minute and the next break into an eccentric dance step that combined daintiness and artistry with uproarious humour. And he was the only Australian comedian to conquer the stage, movies and the radio. For over forty years the appearance of his battered hat, checked shirt and well-worn baggy trousers meant a night of fun and boisterous laughter with one of the true clowns of show business.

George Wallace was born in Aberdeen, New South Wales in the mid-1890s (either 1894 or 1895 depending on your source). He arrived that June 4th in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, like that other great knockabout comedian Buster Keaton. George’s father and uncle formed a double act soon after and set off for a career in minstrel shows and turn of the century vaudeville houses, leaving young George and his mother to fend for themselves. By the age of three he’d made his first stage appearance in a pantomime and in the years to follow he would sing and dance for pennies on the waterfront at Pyrmont.

Eventually Mrs. Wallace remarried and George looked set for a career in his stepfather’s ink factory. As a teenager he spent three or four years learning the trade before chucking it in and going “bush”.

George travelled round north Queensland working as a farm hand, a cane cutter and even did a little professional boxing, before giving it all away when he realised he was always ending up hurt, even when he won. At age sixteen he auditioned for a touring road show, offering a mixture of back-flips, cuts and breaks, and a running half twist. He got the job at a pound a week and spent the next five years playing the mouth organ, painting the scenery, doing the odd chores and taking part in the performance as it moved from town to town.

In January 1917 he headed for Brisbane where he married the former Margarita Nicholas. A couple of years later George Jr, arrived and by the early 1920s the Wallaces had settled in Sydney where George and Jack “Dinks” Paterson formed a double act “Dinks And Onkus” hoping to capture some of the success of “Stiffy And Mo” (Nat Phillips and Roy Rene).

Playing a couple of drunks, Wallace and Paterson toured with the Harry Clay circuit until 1924 by which time Dinks was finding himself overshadowed by his dumpy little partner who was singing, dancing and getting the laughs with some exuberant gymnastics. He was also writing songs for the shows as well. George not only split with his stage partner that year, but his marriage was on the rocks too. Switching to the Fuller company, he soon after crossed the Tasman to take part in a record-breaking 28 weeks with a revue sending up The Barber Of Seville.

By the end of the twenties, George Wallace was being viewed as one of Australia’s top comedians. His eccentric tap-dance routine was a guaranteed laugh-getter. The sight of this tubby little man with big bulbous eyes losing himself mid-step, a quick catch-up, and a finale of tripping himself up and landing on his left ear invariably brought the house down.

In 1931, while appearing in Melbourne, he was approached by Frank Thring Sr. of Efftee Pictures to make his movie debut and made a one-reel test film to see how he looked on the screen. Thring was so delighted with Wallace’s song and patter routine finishing with the famous dance step he released it to theatres as George Wallace, Australia’s Premier Comedian. A two-reeler was also made of one of George’s popular stage sketches under the title Oh, What A Night!, and by the time it hit the screens the following year he’d filmed his first full-length feature His Royal Highness. Thring spared no expense with the musical comedy in which his star dreams he is king of the mythical Betonia (though not forsaking his regular pursuits of roller skating and a friendly game of cards). The picture played to capacity houses in Australia and New Zealand and was released in Britain as His Loyal Highness (in a slightly shortened version) where it received favourable notices.

The success of the film led to two more productions for Efftee … Harmony Row in 1933 (in which George played a not-too-bright policeman) and A Ticket In Tatts in 1934 which climaxed in a horse race. Thring also used him for comic relief in the Gladys Moncrieff stage musical Collits’ Inn and he appeared some months later in The Beloved Vagabond, again on stage.

Following Thring’s death in the mid-1930s, George starred in two Cinesound movies Let George Do It (possibly his most successful effort both financially and artistically, in 1938) and Gone To The Dogs (in 1939).

With the outbreak of World War 2, the Tivoli Theatre circuit, unable to engage the major overseas names, staged a series of revues starring Wallace, Roy Rene, Jenny Howard, Jim Gerald and the other great Australian performers. Such productions as The Spice Of Life, Laughter Express, Beauty On Parade, Target For Delight, Black Vanities and Laughter Invasion toured the main capital cities and provided a popular mixture of sketches and colourful musical numbers. George could also be seen most Christmases playing ‘Buttons’ in the pantomime Cinderella which was staged at the matinee sessions in either Melbourne or Sydney. His songwriting talents were brought to the fore with his 1942 composition A Brown Slouch Hat which he dedicated to Australian servicemen stationed in all theatres of war. That same year also saw him broadcasting a series of radio programs for the first time.

During this period George was building up his gallery of classic characters with the constant change of production and venue. ‘Eric The Dill’, ‘Fanny Shovelbottom’s Friend’ and ‘The Drongo From The Congo’ were favourites all round the country, but perhaps his most endearing creation was the bus conductress ‘Sophie The Sort’, who epitomised his clever use of the Australian idiom. Wearing a beret atop long wavy tresses, she was perennially threatening to ‘dong you in the skull with the day’s takings’ if things got ‘a bit over the odds’. One time a couple of ‘dirty lairs’ breathed at her and ‘all the numbers fell off the tickets’. The routine was basically a monologue with Sophie recounting the problems she was having at ‘hooking a fella’ …

“I always try to act like a lady, to behave like a lady, to do the things a lady would do … I was having a stink with a girl in a fish shop, see, and she’s frying a piece of mullet. A ninepenny bit, with the fins on. And one word led to another, and all of a sudden she let go. I don’t know if you’ve ever been smacked in the face with a bit of fried mullet, with the fins on, but it’s very annoying because the fat runs down the fins and goes all over your hair, see. But I still retained my dignity … breeding will out, there’s no doubt about it. I just looked at her. In a sneering voice I said ‘piffle’ and I went to sweep out of the shop but some mug had left half a frankfurt on the floor and I skidded on the frankfurt and battered the base of my skull on the counter, see. The next thing I knew I’m lying in a stumour on the floor. When I came out of it, Bluey’s holding me up. He’s got his arm round me, looking me straight in the face with his one good eye, and they got a cab and took me home.”

At the end of the 1940s, George decided to concentrate on radio and appeared in a weekly series George Wallace’s Barn Dance which aired across the country on the Macquarie Network (and associated stations). After six months the title changed to The George Wallace Road Show and featured such regulars as George Foster and Clark McKay. He stayed with it for four years before taking up an offer to tour Britain in late 1952. Unfortunately a bitterly cold northern winter coupled with the nation’s austerity at the time prevented his being the success he’d have liked.

Returning home, he went back to stagework in Thanks For The Memory, Let George Do It and Au Revoir George. In July 1957 he was touring New Zealand when he suffered a heart attack and was forced into semi-retirement. He did make some television appearances for his old Cinesound director, Ken G. Hall (then at Channel 9 Sydney) but his ill-health had taken its toll and a lot of the old magic had gone.

George died on October 16th 1960 after a final bout with bronchitis and emphysema and the television era was cheated of presenting one of Australian comedy’s greatest sons to a new generation.

 

FILMS

George Wallace, Australia’s Premier Comedian (Efftee, 1931 – 8 min. short)

Oh, What A Night (Efftee, 1932 – 15 min. short)

His Royal Highness (Efftee, 1932 – 84 min.)
(* issued in England as His Loyal Highness and cut to 70 min.)

Harmony Row (Efftee, 1933 – 78 min.)

A Ticket In Tatts (Efftee, 1934 – 88 min.)

Let George Do It (Cinesound, 1938 – 79 min.)

Gone To The Dogs (Cinesound, 1939 – 83 min.)

The Rats Of Tobruk (Chanum, 1944 – 95 min.) Wallace in support role

Wherever She Goes (Faun Film, 1951 – 81 min.) Wallace in support role

Funny, By George (1999, 56 min.) television documentary

 

RADIO

The George Wallace Programme (3DB Mon & Tues, April 6 – September 28 1942) 51 x 15 min.

Trial by Music (2UW Fridays, 1-00pm 1948)

*** a 2UW disc c. 1948 exists of a 30 minute GEORGE WALLACE audition programme,
featuring sketches Sophie the Sort, Eric the Dill, etc.

George Wallace’s Barn Dance (3AW Tuesdays, March 15 – September 13 1949) 27 x 30 min.
with Alan Herbert, Fred McIntosh, Bettie Dickson, Keith Eadie, Joy Burns, June Hamilton

George Wallace’s Road Show (3AW Fridays, September 23 1949 – July 7 1950) 42 x 30 min.
with George Foster, Clark McKay, June Hamilton, Fred McIntosh, Bettie Dickson, Joe Barnes

The George Wallace Show
(3AW Tuesdays, July 11 1950 – February 27 1951, Fridays March 9 and 16 1951) 36 x 30 min.
(3AW Thursdays, May 17 – November 15 1951) 27 x 30 min.
(3AW Thursdays, February 14 1952 – January 29 1953) 51 x 30 min.
with George Foster, Clark McKay, Dawn Lake, Fred McIntosh

*** a Wallace interview recorded at 5DN Adelaide c. 1951 survives (8 minutes)

*** A.B.C. Radio aired a later performance of Sophie the Sort c. 1953 (4 minutes)

 

RECORDINGS

Wacko We’ve Got A Date (sketch/song) with Maurice Barling
Legionnaire Studios 78rpm (c. March 1940)

That Wonderful Wireless
Telmak 2LP TMAIK 046 (1982)
features 3 minute sketch extract from The George Wallace Road Show

Wish Me Luck! Australian War Songs: 1939 – 1945
Castle CD PCD 10194 (1995)
features 1940 78rpm recording of Wacko We’ve Got A Date (song side only)

Stars of Australian Stage & Radio – Volume 2
Larrikin CD LRH 430 (1996)
features 1940 78rpm recording of song Wacko We’ve Got A Date (both sides)

Laughter In The Air
National Film & Sound Archive 2CD CD/NFSA/RC 0010 (1998)
features extracts from episodes 80 and 81 of The George Wallace Show

Tune-In To …
National Film & Sound Archive 2CD CD/NFSA/RA 0012 (1998)
features an extract from The George Wallace Show

Funny Business Down Under
Laugh Radio CD LRS 001 (2000)
features radio performance of Eric the Dill (c.1948)

Tivoli Echoes
CD (included with the book TIVOLI by Frank Van Straten, Lothian Books, 2003)
features the 1950s radio performance of Sophie The Sort

 

VIDEOS

Efftee Entertainers
National Film & Sound Archive (1989)
features shorts Australia’s Premier Comedian and Oh! What A Night

His Royal Highness
National Film & Sound Archive (1989)

Funny By George

 

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