“Stiffy and Mo: Iconic Comedy Made their Debut 100 Years Ago”

Stiffy and Mo - closeup

On 8 July 1916 comedians Nat Phillips and Roy Rene stepped on to the stage of Sydney’s Princess Theatre, presenting their alter-egos Stiffy and Mo before an audience for the first time. By the end of their partnership 12 years later the pair had firmly cemented themselves as one of the country’s greatest ever comic duos. New research by Dr Clay Djubal (Australian Variety Theatre Archive) shows that Phillips and Rene were brought together while in Queensland at the end of June 1916, less than two weeks before their historic debut in a one act musical comedy (revusical) called What Oh Tonight.

Fuller Pantomime Scene [TT Jan1919, 7]

Roy Rene (Mo), Daisy Merritt (The Dame) and Nat Phillips (Stiffy) in Babes in the Wood, Grand Opera House, Sydney (1918-19). Source: Theatre Magazine Jan. (1919), 7.

The first truly urban Australian larrikin characters to be developed on the variety stage, Stiffy and Mo captured the Australian popular culture’s imagination at a time when the country was attempting to deal with the crisis of World War I, and particularly the Gallipoli campaign. Despite their Irish and Jewish heritage, Stiffy and Mo came to exemplify a developing Australian national identity. Whether they were policemen, shopwalkers, sailors, bell-boys, jockeys, soldiers, beauticians, orderlies, porters or even bullfighters, Stiffy and Mo were all about mateship, loyalty, egalitarianism, larrikin attitudes, practical joking, self-deprecation, and an outright refusal to bow to authority figures.

Stiffy - portrait

The story of Stiffy and Mo begins several years earlier when Nat Phillips, already a veteran of the Australian and international variety stages, began developing a stage character, Stiffy the rabbitoh, in sketches with his wife, Daisy Merritt. As he recalls in a 1919 interview: “Until I brought Stiffy on the scene the Australian low-life character – the larrikin – was always portrayed as a [London] coster…. I decided to try the experiment with the Sydney larrikin. Steele Rudd made Dave an Australian bush type. I determined to come nearer home and present a city type. I couldn’t have wished for greater success.”

Phillips and Rene toured their alter-egos relentlessly around Australia and New Zealand until late-1928, albeit with an 18 month break in the mid-1920s. During their time together the pair starred in more than 30 individual revusicals, featured in five pantomimes, and published a Book of Fun. When they reunited in 1927 Just It magazine said the event almost overshadowed the Duke and Duchess of York’s royal visit.

Roy and NatThe influence of Nat Phillips and Roy Rene on the Australian variety industry and the development of an Australia comedic tradition cannot be over-estimated. They not only played a significant role in developing and popularising the revusical genre in this country, but also established a precedent in comedy partnerships by doing away with the comic/straightman format. Their legacy can also be seen in a line of comedians to follow them, beginning with George Wallace and Jim Gerald, through to the television era (with partnerships like Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton, Hoges and Strop etc) and beyond.

If you’d like find out more about this iconic comedy duo click on the link below:

Stiffy and Mo

Scroll down to their entry in “Stage Characters” and click on ‘More details’ to access a PDF biography.
The Stiffy and Mo entry includes sound recordings, images, links, an engagements chronology, and a list known revusicals. You can also learn how new research has overturned a number of long-standing myths and historical errors relating to the partnership.

The University of Queensland’s Fryer Library holds the Nat Phillips Collection, 11 boxes of manuscripts (including four complete Stiffy and Mo scripts), photographs, sheet music and ephemera.

See also the Fryer’s blog celebrating the 100th anniversary of Stiffy and Mo’s debut.

Stiffy & Mo Poster [Fabian]

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Additional images. Top: Theatre Magazine July (1919), n. pag. • Middle: (1) Nat Phillips as a porter, (2) Roy Rene and Nat Phillips – Nat Phillips Collection, Fryer Library • Bottom: Courtesy of Jon Fabian
Published in: on July 6, 2016 at 6:06 am  Comments Off on “Stiffy and Mo: Iconic Comedy Made their Debut 100 Years Ago”  
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“2013 Marks 100 Years of Hub History”

Media Release - Hub [banner]

Iconic Newtown theatre The Hub is 100 years old this year according to an independent website devoted to this country’s early entertainment industry. Formerly known as the Bridge Theatre, the building is also thought to be the last purpose-built vaudeville theatre still standing in New South Wales. Until now very few factual details about the theatre’s glory days under the control of vaudeville entrepreneur, Harry Clay, have been available.

Dr Clay Djubal, founder of the Australian Variety Theatre Archive, and great-great-great nephew of the venue’s original owner, explains that much of the published history of the building has in fact been cobbled together and recycled from a number of pseudo-research sources. “Apart from the numerous errors,” he says, “none of these publications have come close to recognising the pivotal role Clay’s Newtown headquarters played in relation to either his  career or as part of the broader industry.”

Clay 2aAs one of the country’s leading training organisations for emerging performers, Clay’s operations were vital to industry expansion during the 1910s, a period which saw the local variety industry reach its peak popularity. Indeed, two of the biggest names of the era, Roy “Mo” Rene and George Wallace were both associated with the Bridge Theatre during that decade.

Much of the information contained in the Bridge/Hub Theatre biography is derived from a 1998 Master of Arts thesis Dr Djubal completed on his famous uncle. In 2012 he began further research which has resulted in significant new insights. Among the facts most commonly misrepresented are the theatre’s origins. “Most sources claim that Harry Clay took over the Newtown Hippodrome, with dates ranging from 1908 to 1911. Council records and the media of the day prove that he actually built the theatre in partnership with Newtown alderman/Mayor Harold T. Morgan. It opened for business on 19 July 1913,” says Dr Djubal.

The Bridge Theatre entry can be accessed at: https://ozvta.com/theatres-a-f/

While the Australian Variety Theatre Archive focuses on the pre-1930s industry, Dr Djubal also provides details relating to his uncle’s theatre beyond 1939 – the year its name was changed to The Hub. “I feel I owe it to Harry to try and establish the facts,” says Dr Djubal. “Without him I might never have taken the path of an historian. But more importantly, as the acknowledged ‘friend of the Australian performer,’ he should be accorded the level of recognition his peers no doubt believed he deserved.” The theatre’s 100th anniversary seems a fitting time to do this.”

The Australian Variety Theatre Archive extends on the research undertaken during the course of Dr Djubal’s 2005 Ph D thesis. The site went public on 10 May 2011, the 146th anniversary of Harry Clay’s birth. Dr Djubal is especially keen to hear from descendants of vaudeville performers involved in the early Australian variety industry.

Bridge Theatre - Clay

For further details contact Dr Clay Djubal

 Email: c.djubal@uq.edu.au

Published in: on February 5, 2013 at 10:40 pm  Comments Off on “2013 Marks 100 Years of Hub History”  
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