Jim Gerald 1891-1971

Jim Gerald

Jim Gerald

Gerald was born in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst on 2 January 1891.

In 1907 Gerald blacked up for the role of the tracker Warrigal in Charles MacMahon’s film Robbery Under Arms, with his brother Lance as the police inspector.

While appearing in Adelaide he met soubrette Essie Jennings.

They married in New Zealand in 1913 and worked up a double act, ‘The Actress and the Paper Hanger’.

 

Funny business

‘There was no more fastidious performer than the great Jim Gerald,’ reminisced variety veteran Nancye Bridges. ‘He’s still remembered as Australia’s greatest pantomime Dame and a droll baggy-pants comedian, but he was particular about the way his shows looked; he always demanded the best that money could buy in lighting technicians, soubrette, straight man and choreographer. Gerald did not write his own scripts like George Wallace and Mo, but he had an uncanny taste for a line, picking the laughs and knowing how and when to deliver them.’

James FitzGerald was born into show business. His father, Stephen Australia FitzGerald, was as at home in Shakespeare as he was in melodrama, and his uncles, Dan and Tom, ran the great FitzGerald Brothers Circus. Gerald’s three elder brothers also had careers in the theatre, as Lance Vane, Clifford Stevens and Max Clifton.

Gerald was born in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst on 2 January 1891. He spent much of his boyhood in the sand hills behind Centennial Park, watching and learning from the acrobats and jugglers who trained there. He gained an apprenticeship with Oscar Pagel, a strongman who had a team touring with FitzGeralds’ Circus. With Pagel he visited Africa, Asia and North America. Back in Australia he perfected his own stunt motor cycle act and, billed as Diabolo, he toured with Barton’s Circus.

In 1907 Gerald blacked up for the role of the tracker Warrigal in Charles MacMahon’s film Robbery Under Arms, with his brother Lance as the police inspector. In 1910 Gerald, Lance and Max had roles in The Life and Adventures of John Vane, the Notorious Australian Bushranger, a long-lost film produced by their father. The boys also took to the road in a company managed by and starring FitzGerald senior. Gerald developed an energetic speciality act embodying eccentric dancing, comedy acrobatics and startling pratfalls.

While appearing in Adelaide he met soubrette Essie Jennings. Born Esther Futcher in Ballarat in 1887, she’d been a featured Tivoli performer since 1903. They married in New Zealand in 1913 and worked up a double act, ‘The Actress and the Paper Hanger’, which proved immensely popular on the Fuller Circuit. Gerald saw war service as a driver and entertainer in Egypt and Mesopotamia; his brother, handsome young actor Max Clifton, lost his life at Pozières.

After the war Jim and Essie returned to Fullers’ where Jim used his battlefield experiences as ‘Private Jitters’ in a sketch called ‘The New Recruit’. Inevitably they were recruited for Fullers’ annual pantomimes. In 1921, for instance, Essie was the Fairy Queen in Frank Neil’s Bluebeard pantomime at the Princess in Melbourne, with Jim as the Dame. His silver-haired Dame character, which he based on his mother, became a Christmas staple for generations. In the late 1920s Jim tried his luck in the United States. He claimed to have made around 30 silent comedy shorts, but his accent was unacceptable for the new fangled ‘talkies’.

Biographical references

Nancye Bridges: Curtain Call, Cassell Australia, 1980
Jim Davidson: A Showman’s Story, Rigby, 1983
Victoria Chance: ‘Jim Gerald’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Martha Rutledge: ‘James Gerald’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 14, Melbourne University Press
Frank Van Straten: Recorded interview with Jim Gerald and Essie Jennings, 1968
Frank Van Straten: Tivoli, Lothian Books, 2003
F rank Van Straten: Tivoli Follies, unpublished manuscript, 1999