Gloria Dawn 1929 – 1978
- Gloria Dawn 1929 – 1978
Gloria Dawn 1929 – 1978
Gloria Dawn Evans was born in Port Melbourne on 26 February 1929.
In 1939 she toured with other talented youngsters in the Tivoli Gang. In 1941, when she was 12, her mother launched her at the Tivoli as an adult soubrette.
In 1949 Dawn made her musical comedy debut in Little Nellie Kelly and Sunny for Will Mahoney at the Cremorne.
In 1959 Garnet H. Carroll gave Gloria Dawn the coveted Carol Burnett role in his production of the musical Once Upon a Mattress at the Princess in Melbourne.
The ‘unactressy’ actress
‘Gloria Dawn was brought up in variety as part of the razzamatazz of the Tivoli era,’ wrote Katharine Brisbane, ‘and in her later years she brought that same vitality, roughness and single-minded professionalism to the legitimate theatre – sometimes to its consternation. She was in the business because she was born to it and knew nothing else.’
Gloria Dawn Evans was born in Port Melbourne on 26 February 1929. Her father was William Evans, a ventriloquist, magician and paper-tearer known as Billy Andross, and her mother was Zilla Weatherly, a contortionist and singer who toured for many years with her sisters Zaida and Queenie (‘Toots’ and ‘Gaga’). Gloria made her stage debut with them when she was only 14 days old. Three years later she was singing and dancing, billed as ‘Baby Dawn’.
In 1939 she toured with other talented youngsters in the Tivoli Gang. In 1941, when she was 12, her mother launched her at the Tivoli as an adult soubrette. She appeared there with George Wallace, Jim Gerald, Queenie Paul and Roy Rene (‘Mo’), though she had a golden rule: ‘I never work blue or nude.’
In 1946 Dawn appeared in revue for Harry Wren at the Cremorne in Brisbane. The following year she married a juggler, Frank Cleary, and together they toured with Sorlie’s tent show in pantomime and revue. In 1949 Dawn made her musical comedy debut in Little Nellie Kelly and Sunny for Will Mahoney at the Cremorne. In 1952 she had the title role in the starry production of Cinderella at the Melbourne Tivoli. Tommy Trinder, who played Buttons, was impressed: ‘She was a great artist. Had she gone to England or America she would have been a world star.’
In 1959 Garnet H. Carroll gave Gloria Dawn the coveted Carol Burnett role in his production of the musical Once Upon a Mattress at the Princess in Melbourne. In 1961-2 she toured for J.C. Williamson’s in the comedy The Amorous Prawn and as the ebullient Rose in the Australian musical The Sentimental Bloke, and she played her first dramatic role – in an episode of Crawford Productions’ television series Consider Your Verdict.
From 1965 until 1967 Gloria Dawn featured in a string of sparkling Phillip Theatre revues for William Orr: A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down, Hail, Gloria Fitzpatrick (a ‘revuesical’ designed to showcase her versatility), There Will be an Interval of 15 Minutes and But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There. Following this, she played the title role in Annie Get Your Gun, first, in 1967, ‘in the round’ in a large tent at Warringah Mall on Sydney’s North Shore, and, a couple of years later, at David H. McIlwraith’s resplendent Lido Theatre Restaurant in Russell Street, Melbourne.
n 1972 Dawn and comedian Johnny Lockwood conducted workshops in vaudeville tradition for the cast of the Old Tote’s How Could You Believe Me When I Said I’d be Your Valet When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?, and John Bell’s free-wheeling interpretation of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters.
It was Dawn’s great friend, playwright Peter Kenna, who persuaded her to take the greatest gambleof her life. At the Community Theatre in Sydney in 1972 she played her first major dramatic role, Oola Maguire, in a revival of The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day, which Kenna had written expressly for her. Her remarkable performance won her the Sydney Critics’ Circle Best Actress Award. This triumph led to three more challenges the following year: she was the tragic Mother in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Aggie in Kenna’s A Hard God for Nimrod in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, and Mrs Peachum in The Threepenny Opera for the Old Tote at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre. A Hard God was televised by the ABC in 1974.
At the Community Theatre in Sydney in 1972 she played her first major dramatic role, Oola Maguire, in a revival of The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day It opened to a wildly enthusiastic first night audience at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne on 3 May. It was Dawn’s greatest success; tragically, it was to be her last: she became gravely ill with cancer. Toni Lamond was called in to substitute when required. Lamond took over for the Adelaide run, but Dawn was well enough to appear on the opening night in Sydney. Lamond remembered: ‘Gloria was extraordinary that Saturday night. She reached down to her very depths and gave all she had. By the following Thursday, she was faltering. On the Friday night she collapsed.’ Eventually she had to leave the show.
In 1977, with her cancer in brief remission, Gloria Dawn took two curtain calls. She portrayed Queenie Paul in Steve J. Spears’ evocation of Australian vaudeville, Young Mo, at Nimrod; and she played a short but bitter-sweet season in revue for William Orr at his Music Loft at Manly. Also that year she appeared with Robert Helpmann and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the film The Mango Tree. Her only other film was They’re a Weird Mob in 1966. Her television credits include The Tony Hancock Special (1972), Boney(1973), Hello Hollywood with Normie Rowe and the drag artiste Tracey Lee (1975) and Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks (1977).
Gloria Dawn died 2 April 1978. She was revered by the public and by her fellow actors, who had raised $8000 for her when her illness became known. Richard Wherrett called her, ‘Earthy and wry, and completely “unactressy” – a very special talent.’ ‘She was never stagestruck,’ said Katharine Brisbane, ‘and never in her own mind a star. She was in the business because she was born into it and knew nothing else.’ Nevertheless, she was, in her own way, a stage mother as indomitable as Rose in Gypsy, according to her daughter, Donna Lee, who has continued the family tradition and is today a musical theatre star in her own right.
Gloria Dawn is enshrined in the character of the actress Doris in Peter Kenna’s play Furtive Love. She is also commemorated in the ‘Glorias’ Fellowships. These are funded through the Gloria Dawn Foundation, which was established in 1994 with a bequest from actor and casting agent Gloria Payten. Administered by NIDA, the $15,000 fellowship assists actors and directors to travel overseas for study and secondment. Recipients have included Benedict Andrews, Helmut Bakaitis, Margaret Cameron, Brendan Cowell, Jennifer Hagan, Ben Harkin, Sue Ingleton, Steve Vidler and Benjamin Winspear.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Katharine Brisbane: ‘Goodbye Gloria’, in The Australian, 6 April 1978
Susan Hogan: ‘Gloria Dawn’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 13, Melbourne University Press
Tony Sheldon: ‘Gloria Dawn’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia,Currency Press, 1995