George Sorlie 1885 – 1948
- George Sorlie 1885 – 1948
George Sorlie 1885 – 1948
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.
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
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