Max Oldaker 1907-1972

Max Oldaker

Max Oldaker

Born into a farming family in Devonport, Tasmania, on 17 December 1907, Oldaker studied piano but soon decided to concentrate on singing.

He toured Australia and the Far East with Branscombe, and then headed for Britain.

Oldaker returned to Australia at the end of 1939. From 1940 until 1947 he worked for J.C. Williamson’s.

 

The Last of the Matinee Idols

When he was working with Max Oldaker in the Phillip Street revue Around the Loop, Barry Humphries asked him how he managed to smile so sincerely at the curtain call on a thin Wednesday matinee. Humphries recorded: ‘He said, “Dear Barry, it’s an old trick Noel taught me, and it never fails.” He demonstrated, standing in the middle of the dressing room in his Turkish towelling gown, eyes sparkling, teeth bared in a dazzling smile. “Sillycunts,” beamed Max through clenched teeth, bowing to the imaginary stalls. “Sillycunts,” again, to the circle, the gods and the royal box. “It looks far more genuine than ‘cheese’, dear boy,” said Max, “and you’ve just got to hope that no one in the stalls can lip read.” I couldn’t help thinking of all my mother’s friends at those Melbourne matinees, their palms moist, hearts palpitating as Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols, flashed them all his valedictory smile.’

Maxwell Charles Oldaker was an Australian rarity – a matinee idol in the traditional mould: tall, dark and handsome, with a good voice, acting ability and, above all, charm.

Born into a farming family in Devonport, Tasmania, on 17 December 1907, Oldaker studied piano but soon decided to concentrate on singing. In Sydney he joined Edward Branscombe’s Westminster Glee Singers, making his professional debut at the Palace Theatre in May 1930. He toured Australia and the Far East with Branscombe, and then headed for Britain. There he resumed his voice studies and sang in the chorus of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and a touring production of The Chocolate Soldier. In London he was given small roles in the Kern–Hammerstein flop Three Sisters, The Beggar’s Opera and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He was even less conspicuous in the 1936 film Whom the Gods Love, but his big break came in 1938 when Noel Coward cast him in the featured role of Paul Trevor in Operette. Later that year he was in the musical Bobby Get Your Gun and in 1939 he appeared in two musicals on television.

Oldaker returned to Australia at the end of 1939. From 1940 until 1947 he worked for J.C. Williamson’s. He sang the principal tenor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan, and was Gladys Moncrieff’s leading man in revivals of The Merry Widow and The Maid of the Mountains. In 1944, while he was appearing in Lilac Time at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, he became involved in the performers’ revolt against Williamson’s antipathy to Actors’ Equity. Like Gladys Moncrieff, he supported the management. Two-thirds of the cast walked off and Oldaker was presented with an insulting bouquet of lilies.

Media Gallery

Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia c1946. Lady Viola Tait Collection pic-vn3601046

Biographical references

Richard Lane: ‘Max Oldaker’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Charles Osborne: Max Oldaker – Last of the Matinee Idols, Michael O’Mara, 1988
Gillian Winter: ‘Maxwell Oldaker’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 15, Melbourne University Press