This section looks at the aspects of popular culture production which were influenced by or which in turn influenced the Australian variety stage. It is hoped that this section will provide much needed insight into social identity constructions such as larrikins and flappers, while also looking at the variety stage as a vehicle for promoting and disseminating the latest novelties and technologies – including dances, sporting and physical culture crazes, clothing trends, and inventions.
Along with singing and humour, dancing must be considered one of the foundations of variety entertainment. This section will look at some of the most influential, controversial and popular dance styles to be performed on the Australian variety stage during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These will include clogging, cakewalks and grotesque dancing, along with particular styles like the Apache, Charleston, Salome, Serpentine, Tango, and Vampire dances.
Image: Irene and Vernon Castle. Source: Wikipedia.
Although now synonymous with the “Roaring Twenties,” bringing to mind young women who rebelled against the strict social rules applied to women of earlier generations, the flapper’s origins actually lie in the mid-1910s/World War I era. As a sub-culture turned global phenomenon, the development of the flapper style and look can also be traced though the media of the day, notably newspapers, magazines and eventually film and songs. But it was in the theatre, and in particular the variety stage, where many people first encountered flappersim. In Australia this came about through both the revue, and more especially the revusical.
Image source: sopassevintage.com.
PHYSICAL CULTURE & SPORTS CRAZES
Physical culture is a term used to describe the health and strength training movement that originated in Germany in the early-1840s. Although different systems were later developed, some types of exercise, and equipment were in commonly use – notably Indian clubs, medicine balls, and dumbbells. Various forms of physical culture also found their way on the variety stage during this time, and continued entertaining audiences well into the twentieth century. Among the most popular were gymnastics, acrobatics, balancing, ball punching, military-style displays (including sword-play, club throwing, and baton twirling) and strong man acts, like The Great Sandow (right). Among the sports crazes to be presented on the variety stage were netball, pushball, trick cycling, roller skating and Ju Jitsu.
(1914) Possibly originating in Paris, the Tango Tea craze was conceived as an afternoon rendezvous for the social and theatrical elite. Primarily associated in Australia with the Tivoli circuit, it made its debut in this country at the Sydney Tivoli on 6 January 1914. The twice weekly shows comprised fashion parades, demonstrations of the latest dances (notably the tango), musical performances supported by the full Tivoli Orchestra, and afternoon tea. The events were quickly replicated in other capital cities by the Tivoli circuit’s general manager Hugh D. McIntosh. Although highly publicised and well attended the craze was typically short lived. Tango Teas nevertheless continued to be held sporadically around Australia by other managements up until at least the late-1930s.
Image source: National Library of Australia.
An outgrowth of the industrial revolution, vaudeville’s strength as an entertainment medium was its capacity to celebrate modern life – the emergence of physical culture, science, artistic endeavour, and the latest trends, fashions and technologies. The most visible and significant technological advance to impact on the vaudeville industry was film. Moving pictures were not the only technologies to feature on the stage, or be associated with vaudeville entertainments, however. Many of Australasia’s leading entrepreneurs saw the potential in investing in new inventions – both as forms of entertainment or as ancillary novelties. This was particularly the case with regional touring shows – often the only means through which country folk could view or access the seemingly never-ending array of new machines and devices.
Image: Edison’s Polyphone. Source: edisontinfoil