Show Girls and Choreographers in Australian Entertainment: The Transition to Nightclubs, 1946-1967

By Bollen, Jonathan | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Show Girls and Choreographers in Australian Entertainment: The Transition to Nightclubs, 1946-1967


Bollen, Jonathan, Australasian Drama Studies


When an Australian Cinesound newsreel from 1946 offers to take viewers behind the Tivoli curtains for a glimpse backstage at the life of a show girl, erotic fantasies are doused and moral qualms are soothed. As It turns out, Joyce Smith is just a girl-nextdoor, living an ordinary, respectable, work-a-day life.1 For £7 and 2 shillings a week, she arrives at the theatre for morning rehearsal, performs two shows a day, matinee and evening, six days a week. She is met by her steady boyfriend after the evening show, but, too tired to socialise after a day's work, she heads straight home to bed. The glamour of the film's chorus line montage Is grounded by the mundane narrative of a working girl's routine. A photo-essay on a 'Nightclub Dancer' in a 1950 issue of Pix magazine operates on similar terms. The visual eroticism of the nightclub, depicted in photographs of the floor show and dressing rooms, is stabilised in the story by a domestic frame: 'At night she frolics with other lovelies among crowded cabaret tables. By day she's a home girl, mad on pets. She doesn't drink or smoke.'2 The discourse on show girls' work Is sustained when Pix profiles a Tivoli 'ballet girl' three months later: 'She thinks people have wrong ideas about the glamour of it. "There's not much glamour in sheer hard work," she says. "We're on the stage because we love It."'3

By the 1960s media reporting on show girls was changing. In investigative exposés of night life, television reporters assumed the mantle of a moral debate. Reporting in 1962 on ABC Television's Four Corners, Michael Charlton adopts a tone of sophisticated ennui in observing that'the city of Sydney offers a range of pleasures and purges for the soul', for those 'in search of the entertainment, enlightenment, indulgence or forgetfulness that only a big and forgiving city can offer'.4 A montage of neon signs for restaurants and night clubs leads into the Latin Quarter for the floor show, and a discourse on the complexity of liquor licensing laws, before Charlton arrives outside the Staccato Club in Kings Cross, with photographs at the entrance advertising striptease acts inside. Interviewing the strippers in their dressing room, Charlton seeks to moralise on sexual exchange: 'What do you think yourself about being a stripteaser? Does it worry you at all? Do any of you feel, you know, reluctant about showing yourselves to an audience, night after night, as you do?' Averting moral judgment, one stripper seeks assurance from the discourse of work: 'No, you get so used to it. It's just like walking into an office in the mornings.' Another makes an appeal to economic common sense: 'It's the best money you can get'. Yet the moral discourse intensifies when reporter Richard Croll, from ATN-7's 7 Days, tours the strip clubs of Kings Cross in 1966: 'Do you think you're commercialising sex? Do you take part in any private club work? Do you think there are some other places in which more than stripping takes place?'5 Emerging from each club, Croll turns to the camera and asks viewers to judge whether goings-on inside are 'Sophisticated - or Sick?', the moral gravity of his dramatic pause displacing the prior discourse on entertainment as a business where show girls work.

The advent of a moral debate in media reports on Australian entertainment forms a line of demarcation between the dancers at the Tivoli and the strippers of Kings Cross. The contrast is stark: an economic discourse on show girls' labour is displaced as moral authorities confront liberalising attitudes to erotic entertainment. The implication is that 'ballet girls' in the 1940s and 'strippers' in the 1960s present distinct genres of performance, distinguished by the change in moral discourse of media reports. This article on the history of entertainment in nightclubs charts a different path. It reveals continuities in the transmission of performance across the line of demarcation. From the Tivoli's ballet girls to the Lido's nude revue, from the Sun-kissed Cuties of the Celebrity Club to the strippers and drag queens of Kings Cross, it traces a choreographic series that relayed dance moves between venues, across genres and over time. …

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