Roy Rene 1891 – 1954
- Roy Rene 1891 – 1954
Roy Rene 1891 – 1954
Born Henry (‘Harry’) van der Sluys in Adelaide on 15 February 1891, the son of a Dutch cigar maker.
In 1910 he got a job as a backstage groomsman with J.C. Williamson’s racing melodrama The Whip
‘Stiffy and Mo’ exploded on Australian audiences at the Princess Theatre in Railway Square, Sydney, in July 1916.
‘You little trimmer!’
‘It was an outrageously vivid, vulgar performance,’ recalled diplomat and author Graham McInnes.‘Mo affected an exaggerated Jewish make-up: a white face and a parted black chin beard. His lisping mincemeat of the English language cascaded in a profusion of illuminated droplets over the footlights, across the orchestra, and into the laps of the audience. They loved it. Mo wore the traditional baggy pants of vaudeville, which he manipulated with a variety of obscene and unprintable gestures, to shrieks of merriment from stout matrons in the stalls. He twisted his body into incredible knots, sidled forward, palms outstretched, blew raspberries at the audience. It was Jewish comedy of the Yiddisher-boy type, the little man against the world; it was innocent in its very obviousness and in the depravity of its crude, crass double ententes. I used to emerge from Mo’s shows with belly muscles aching and eyes wet with tears of sheer joy.’
Mo. The name still has magic, and the image it evokes has become an Australian icon. Mo died in 1954, but he had already joined that pantheon of immortals: Ned Kelly, Nellie Melba, Les Darcy, Kingsford Smith, Phar Lap.
He spent almost all his 62 years in the spotlight – and for nearly 40 of those years he was indisputably Australia’s clown prince.
Mo was born Henry (‘Harry’) van der Sluys in Adelaide on 15 February 1891, the son of a Dutch cigar maker. He never wanted to be anything but a performer. He started his entertainment career as a precocious amateur in competitions at the Adelaide markets. Against his family’s wishes, he made his professional debut at the Theatre Royal in a 1905 production of Sinbad the Sailor. Soon after, as a black-face boy soprano, he strutted the stage of the old Adelaide Tivoli with Ivy Scott.
The family moved to Melbourne, and young Harry spent every spare minute perched in the gods of the Opera House in Bourke Street, learning all he could from the stars of Harry Rickards’ vaudeville bills. Still a boy, Harry met Melbourne audiences for the first time across the footlights of the nearby Gaiety Theatre, where his act as Little Roy earned him £3 a week.
When his voice changed, so did his name: as Boy Roy he did the rounds of the long forgotten suburban halls that were then a lively source of entertainment, and toured New South Wales with Lloyd’s Minstrels. In 1910 he got a job as a backstage groomsman with J.C. Williamson’s racing melodrama The Whip, and he travelled with that company to Sydney. His first appearance there was at Harry Clay’s Standard Theatre. He changed his name to Roy Rene – after, he said, a famous French clown – and played Sydney suburban vaudeville for Jimmy Bain.
As a black-face corner-man he appeared in the minstrel-style ‘first part’ of a bill at Brennan’s National. Among the featured acts was an American Hebrew comedy duo, Jordan and Harvey, whose big song was Irving Berlin’s ‘Yiddle On Your Fiddle’. When the pair fell out, Rene replaced Harvey, and soon developed his own style of Jewish characterisation. Another influence was Julian Rose, an American humourist whose speciality was a monologue called ‘Levinsky at the Wedding.’ By 1914 Rene was touring New Zealand for Fullers as ‘Australia’s foremost delineator of Hebrew eccentricities’.
Back in Australia he shared a bill with another young comic, Nat Phillips. They decided to form adouble act and, as ‘Stiffy and Mo’ they exploded on Australian audiences from the stage of the humble Princess Theatre in Railway Square, Sydney, in July 1916.
As Stiffy, Phillips was the fast talking feed, the archetypal city ‘lair’, straight from the pushes of ‘Little Lon’ (Melbourne’s rowdy Little Lonsdale Street). Mo was the ‘top banana’, the lisping, lurking, lewdly leering larrikin, in baggy clothes and grotesque make-up, guying authority and ignoring order – and always grabbing the last word and the loudest laugh. Of course they were crude, but it was a heady, healthy, light-hearted crudity, echoing the slang of the city streets and the wit of the working classes.
Their success was immediate. They played a record 21 weeks at the Princess, and then transferred to Fuller’s. That Christmas, they starred with Queenie Paul in Fuller’s all-Australian pantomime, The Bunyip, which Nat Phillips wrote and directed. It was a smash hit, and clocked up nearly 300 performances. Later they romped through other pantos, like Cinderella at the Princess in Melbourne in 1920.
Then came the weekly-change Stiffy and Mo Revue Company. It toured the Fuller Circuit with undiminished popularity until 1925, when money squabbles split the partnership.
Astonishingly, Rene turned to the legitimate stage. He appeared for E.J. Carroll at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne with the American comedian Harry Green in the play Give and Take. Its success was so great that it was taken over by Williamson’s and toured throughout Australia. Next Rene teamed with English comedian Fred Bluett for a knockabout sketch called ‘The Admiral and the Sailor’, which they featured on the Tivoli Circuit. They also led the fun in Aladdin at the Grand Opera House in Sydney at Christmas 1926.
Phillips and Rene got together again in 1927, but split, for the last time, at the end of 1928. Rene split, too, from his first wife, soubrette Dorothy Davis. In 1929 he married Sadie Gale, a pretty comedienne and soubrette; she came from a theatrical family and, like Roy, had been on the stage since childhood.
The Depression and the introduction of ‘talkies’ brought lean times. Vaudeville all but disappeared, and Rene and his wife found work in Williamson’s 1930-31 pantomime The House That Jack Built. Roy was with the panto in New Zealand when he got a cable from Mike Connors and Queenie Paul who were resurrecting vaudeville at cheap prices at Sydney’s Haymarket Theatre – and they wanted Mo as their star. Roy rushed to join them.
Their success is legendary. Before long, Connors and Paul had created a new Tivoli Circuit, taking over the Melbourne Tivoli and the Grand Opera House in Sydney, which they renamed the New Tivoli. In Mike Connors, Rene found a ‘feed’, a foil, easily the equal of Stiffy, and possibly better. When Connors and Paul lost control of the Tivoli Circuit, Rene starred for Ernest C. Rolls in Rhapsodies of 1935, a lavish revue at Melbourne’s Apollo (Palace) Theatre. He appeared in elegant top hat and tails, and minus his traditional make up. It worked. Less successful was his only feature film, Strike Me Lucky, which Ken G. Hall made for Cinesound. The indifferent script gave Rene little chance to extemporise, and he missed the reaction and warmth of a live audience. It was one of his very few failures.
In 1936 ‘The Connors and Paul–Roy Rene Amalgamation’ presented weekly change revue at thePrincess in Melbourne. Later that year Rene returned to the Tivoli Circuit, and for the next decade alternated between the Melbourne and Sydney Tivolis, with occasional side trips to Brisbane and Adelaide and flirtations with other managements – like a season at the Apollo in Melbourne for Stanley McKay in 1939. His popularity never waned, and those two letters – MO – outside the theatre would guarantee a full house. And this was the era of 12 performances a week: twice daily: 2 and 8 p.m.
Roy experimented with radio in the late 1930s, and in 1940 he had a lacklustre series on the ABC called The Misadventures of Mo. He bounced back a few years later in Calling the Stars over the Macquarie Network. Suddenly he had a vast, new audience. In one night he could reach more people than could see him on stage in a year. Fred Parsons’ scripts allowed him to expand the aural aspects of his comedy before a ‘live’ studio audience. Suddenly you didn’t need to see Mo: the words and their delivery were enough. McCackie Mansion ran for five years. It was compulsory listening in thousands of homes right across Australia.
Roy Rene made his last stage appearances for Harry Wren in McCackie ‘Mo’ments at the King’s in Melbourne in 1949 and in Hellzapoppin at Sydney’s Empire Theatre the following year – with his young son Sam in support. Rene’s health, frail since a serious illness in 1929, deteriorated, yet he continued to honour his radio commitments.
In 1953, on a brief holiday in Lismore, New South Wales, Rene suffered a coronary occlusion. He never fully recovered, and died at his Sydney home on 22 November 1954. There were 1,200 people at his funeral service, and the lights of theatres all over Australia were dimmed in his honour. He was survived by his wife, Sadie, and his son, Sam, who had joined him in some of his last stage shows.
Thousands of stories were told about Mo. Many still are. His success is a matter of history, and much of his art still sparkles in the recordings of his radio shows.
His unique stage persona has been recreated several times, most notably by Michael Scheid in a cabaret show, and by Garry McDonald in Steve J. Spears’ Young Mo, the 1977 Nimrod production for which Martin Sharp produced the ‘Mo’ poster that became the company’s logo. McDonald reprised his interpretation in the localised version of Sugar Babies in 1986.
In 1976, under the stewardship of Johnny O’Keefe, the annual NSW Star Awards expanded to cover the entire country; at Don Lane’s suggestion, and with the endorsement of Roy Rene’s family, they were relaunched as the Australian Entertainment ‘Mo’ Awards.
Roy Rene never ventured further than New Zealand: not for want of offers; he just didn’t want to leave the audiences he was comfortable with. He was an unassuming, unpretentious man, who valued family and friends rather than fame or wealth. He clowned because he loved it, and to make a comfortable home for his family. He had little or no comprehension of his uniqueness; he worked instinctively and he worked hard.
One of his obituaries was affectionately headed ‘He spluttered his way to stardom.’ Strike me lucky – not only stardom, immortality! You little trimmer!
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Celestine McDermott: ‘Roy Rene’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 11
Graham McInnes: Humping My Bluey. Hamish Hamilton, 1966
Fred Parsons: A Man Called Mo. Heinemann, 1973
Roy Rene: Mo’s Memoirs, Reed and Harris, 1945
Frank Van Straten: ‘Roy Rene – The magic of Mo’, in Stages, March 1988
Poster promoting Stiffy and Mo at the Fullers Bijou Theatre