George Sorlie 1885-1948

George Sorlie

George Sorlie

Of West Indian ancestry, George Brown Sorlie was born in the dockland slums of Liverpool on 7 February 1885.

Sorlie found his way to Sydney, where he sang what were then called ‘coon’ songs in minstrel-style vaudeville for Clay’s.

In 1915 Sorlie married actor Grace Stewart; two years later they joined Phillip Lytton’s travelling tent show.

 

‘The J.C. Williamson of the road’

‘Pitched in Civic Park, opposite the Newcastle Town Hall, was Sorlie’s tent,’ reminisced theatre
icon John Bell, ‘and for a couple of magical weeks they’d run a panto in the afternoons and a variety show at night for the grown ups. I guess I was four or five when my mum and nan first took me to Sorlie’s panto, but it became the most anticipated event of the year till I was about 10.’

For years, George Sorlie’s show toured under canvas, bringing much anticipated entertainment to far flung communities in New South Wales and Queensland. Sorlie’s was the most popular and long-lived of the dozens of touring shows that diverted outback Australia in the pre-television era. Few are more than names now – E.I. Cole’s Bohemians, Kate Howarde’s Dramatic Players, Barton’s Follies, Mack’s Players, Pat Hanna’s Diggers, the Humphrey Bishop Company, Maurice Diamond’s Marquee Theatre, Stanley McKay’s Varieties, Coleman’s Pantomime Company, Lionel Walsh’s Musical Comedy Company, Phillip Lytton’s Dramatic Players, the Lynch Family Bellringers – but good old Sorlie’s outlasted them all.   

Of West Indian ancestry, George Brown Sorlie was born in the dockland slums of Liverpool on 7 February 1885, but he grew up in the kinder surrounds of Melbourne, Kalgoorlie and Perth – where he won many singing competitions and started his show business career at the age of14. According to entertainer Charlie Vaude, Sorlie ‘soon became one of the leading lights of comedy in Perth. He and I were in the first Pierrot show in Australia, at Cottesloe in Western Australia. It was put on by an English family called Jeffries. They had done Pierrot shows in England and had costumes, scenery – in fact everything but an audience.’

Sorlie found his way to Sydney, where he sang what were then called ‘coon’ songs in minstrel-style vaudeville for Clay’s. He made his Tivoli debut in 1909 with a neat little number called ‘Possum Pie’. For some time, he insured against the vagaries of vaudeville by selling fruit from a stall on the corner of King and Elizabeth Streets.

In 1915 Sorlie married actor Grace Stewart; two years later they joined Phillip Lytton’s travelling tent show. In 1923 Sorlie bought the show, lock, stock and big top. He renamed it Sorlie’s and continued to recycle Lytton’s melodrama repertoire, but occasionally added his own work. There was, for instance, his bush comedy My Pal Ginger in 1928, and his own 1931 musical version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with himself, of course, as Uncle Tom. In the early 1930s, competition from the ‘talkies’ forced Sorlie to switch to variety and pantomime. Though Grace concentrated more on managing the operation, George remained a popular comedian and a dapper ‘top hat and tails’ crooner. He recorded dozens of 78 rpm discs, which always sold well. He made several trips overseas to recruit performers for his shows.

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Biographical references

Ian Dodds: ‘George Sorlie’ – notes accompanying Just Like a Melody, a CD reissue of 25 of Sorlie’s recordings
Peter Spearitt: ‘George Sorlie’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12, Melbourne University Press
John Bell: The Time of My Life, Allen & Unwin, 2002
Victoria Chance: ‘George Sorlie’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995