Lyndon Megarrity reviews Sharon Connolly, My Giddy Aunt and her Sister Comedians, Upswell Publishing, Perth, 2022.
This is a family history revolving around three lively performers with a talent to amuse: the versatile professional whistler, saxophonist, singer, comic and all-round entertainer Gladys Connolly, her equally talented and driven brother Keith, as well as his wife and fellow actor Elsie, known for her sweet singing voice. My Giddy Aunt is a fascinating journey into a long-forgotten world of vaudeville, touring shows and radio during the first half of the twentieth century. Through thoughtful historical detective work, involving interviews, old newspapers, archival sources and family memories, the author brings her “Grandma Elsie”, Keith, Gladys and fellow vaudevillians like “Stiffy and Mo” to life. There is a tragic edge to the narrative: mental illness, family separation and dreams of stardom unfulfilled. But photos such as “Keith Connolly’s Syncopating Jesters” (1926), “Lynette and her Six Redheads” (1928) and Keith and Elsie making funny faces at an ABC radio station (ca 1949) tell us that they also had a lot of fun while it lasted.
The author convincingly shows us that female performers were more prominent between the 1890s and 1940s than we might otherwise assume. The book traces the private and public fortunes of Gladys, Elsie and their contemporaries as they toured Australia and New Zealand, adapted to changing entertainment trends, and forged professional and personal partnerships. As a result, we are given a greater appreciation of their resilience and spirit as they followed their dreams, sometimes at great cost to relationships and family life.
During the post-war years, performing work gradually dried up for Gladys, Keith and Elsie. As they entered middle age, they became more “invisible” as younger artists and new fashions emerged. As Connolly observes, Gladys and Elsie had partly relied on their performance of “girlishness” for their longstanding appeal; the roles for more mature female actors, such as the stereotypical “Old Maid”, did not allow them to shine. Roles for women in TV and film have now become more substantial and varied, but western society still often has an unhealthy obsession with youth as opposed to experience.
My Giddy Aunt benefits from great primary source material. Advertisements, song lyrics, the memoirs of the Jewish-Australian comedian Roy “Mo” Rene, contemporary descriptions of theatrical productions, sheet music and publicity shots all create a vivid portrait of two generations of performers. The author is also fortunate that newspaper journalists during the “Golden Age” of print media sought out interviews with visiting stars and covered a wider range of local events in more detail and colour than is encouraged within the current, 24/7 news culture. This allows Connolly to make poignant discoveries such as the fact that Elsie sweetly sang the first performance of cricketer Don Bradman’s composition, “Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me” at the height of the Depression, receiving a box of chocolates from the composer.
Access to a broader range of secondary historical sources on the opportunities and limitations of women in Australia and New Zealand might have been useful to avoid occasional over-generalisations. The author at one point overstates the societal freedom potentially available to a young single girl or “flapper” in the 1920s: they may have had more disposable income than in the past, but sexual double standards remained a constant. Similarly, the suggestion that Gladys was “playing to the feminist sensibilities” of her New Zealand audience in 1920 when singing a song about domestic life called “Everybody Works but Father” is open to question. The singer’s complaints about Father’s idleness could have provoked the “laughter of recognition” without seriously challenging the then popular assumption that the male breadwinner’s home was his castle.
These quibbles aside, My Giddy Aunt is a family history book which is fun to read, informative and well-researched. It will appeal to both a broad audience and academics interested in Australian cultural history. It is testament to the author’s skill that as the book progresses, we come to care very much about Keith, Gladys and Elsie, along with a world of stage and radio which is now no more.