George Sorlie 1885-1948

George Sorlie

George Sorlie

Traditionally, Sorlie’s tours started on Boxing Day in Newcastle, his home base. Then he’d follow
the agricultural show circuit through New England, rest in Sydney for Easter, then head for western NSW.

He farewelled the stage in the unlikely setting of a glamorous 1945 Tivoli revue called Paris Le Soir.

He died in Sydney on 19 June 1948.

 

Traditionally, Sorlie’s tours started on Boxing Day in Newcastle, his home base. Then he’d follow
the agricultural show circuit through New England, rest in Sydney for Easter, then head for western NSW. He’d spend the winter months in northern Queensland, and then play the Riverina region in spring. He played as far north as Cairns but rarely ventured further south than Albury. He usually travelled with a company of around 55, including tent hands and musicians. Over the years his artists included Shirley Thoms, Kitty Bluett, Hal Lashwood, Peter Finch, Ronnie Shand, Bobby Le Brun and the English male impersonator Ella Shields, still remembered for her ubiquitous ‘Burlington Bertie’ routine.

Lashwood was a dancer and compered the show; he was also the only member of Actors Equity in the company. When Sorlie insisted that his eight ballet girls should be fined if they laddered their ‘management owned’ stockings, Lashwood persuaded most of the company to join Equity – but they were reluctant to strike in case they were dumped during the tour and couldn’t get home. Instead, in Townsville, Lashwood conceived an ‘audience strike’ – the local Trades and Labor Council used its influence to keep people away from the show. Sorlie finally dropped the fines.

Wartime petrol restrictions took Sorlie off the road. In 1940 Harry Wren presented him in revue at the Cremorne in Brisbane. He farewelled the stage in the unlikely setting of a glamorous 1945 Tivoli revue called Paris Le Soir, but he didn’t retire. Instead he set up Sorlie’s Construction Company, building modern housing for ex-servicemen in Sorlie Village in Frenchs Forest, on Sydney’s North Shore. Sadly, it was a financial flop, and fewer than a dozen houses were built. He died in Sydney on 19 June 1948. His funeral was a show business who’s who – from Sir Benjamin Fuller and Bert Bailey to Ubangi the African pygmy and Chong, the pin-headed Chinaman.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In late 1948 director and choreographer Maurice Diamond hired the Sorlie tent and equipment and put them on the road as ‘Diamond’s Marquee Theatre’, but its life was short.  

The following year Sorlie’s widow, Grace, and comedian Bobby Le Brun and his wife, Gracie, put Sorlie’s back on track – and the recipe still worked. It still provided fun for country audiences and gave work and unequalled experience to a new generation of variety performers, Gloria Dawn, Frank Cleary, Val Jellay and Maurie Fields among them.

Sorlie’s finally called it quits in 1961 – apart from the few years’ rest, the show had been on the road for nearly four decades.

The splendid tradition that Sorlie’s represented inspired Nick Enright and Terence Clarke’s evocative musical Summer Rain, first produced in 1983. And Sorlie himself is commemorated at the Glen Street Theatre in, appropriately, Frenchs Forest. There you’ll find Sorlie’s cabaret-restaurant, and safeguarded in a glass case, George’s iconic top hat and white gloves

Frank Van Straten, 2007

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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