The forgotten women of Australian vaudeville

My Giddy Aunt, a new book by documentary filmmaker Sharon Connolly, shines a light on the forgotten women of Australia’s vaudeville past.

The television producer and former chief executive of Film Australia, Sharon Connolly has been involved in making many landmark history series, films. Like her documentary Red Matildas she writes some remarkable yet uncelebrated women back into the stories of Australia. The Broad spoke with Sharon about these interesting women.

It starts with a suitcase of undiscovered memories

After delving into a case of old photographs, Sharon Connolly began her search for Gladys Shaw, the great aunt she never knew. A whistling comedian, singer and saxophonist, an eccentric dancer and a whip-cracker, she was one of the ‘girls’ who made Australia laugh.

Piecing together family material with clippings from the national archives, Connolly tells the stories of this sisterhood of jesters and the challenges they faced at a time when being different, and getting older, was harder than it looked. Yet with little formal documentation, it was a challenge.

“The plays themselves, little sketches, were often not written down. It was very ephemeral, so little of it was recorded on film and barely anything recorded in audio until much later.” Connolly tells the Broad.

“In lots of writing about the history of film and theatre in Australia, it’s been largely overlooked because there just wasn’t documentary evidence for researchers to work with,” she says.

An era of changing female roles and coming technological changes

Performing onstage in musicals and performances, these comedians parodied men, servant girls and maiden aunts, yet they were anything but stereotypes in their own lives.

They also faced a new era of cinema and radio changes. Connolly says she began to realise the stories of artists and performers two generations before her had a kind of resonance, in that they’d lived in times of great technological change.

“My great-aunt and grandmother were born into a world pre audio recording and as they grew up, they saw silent cinema, they heard radio and eventually talking pictures in their lifetime,” she says.

“And by the time I started doing this research, I was very well aware of the way in which the internet was changing the landscape for film and television production in Australia and everywhere.”

The shrinking local film and TV production industry, overwhelmed by American and to a lesser extent British cultural imports, is an issue she feels strong about.

While quotas for local Australian content have been watered down over the years, Connolly is still hopeful that the new Labor government and Arts Minister Tony Burke may bring in some requirements for streaming platforms.“

One of the motivations for writing the book, that anybody involved in the popular arts in Australia has experienced, is a view in which Australian cultural products weren’t particularly valued,” she says.

Author and filmmaker Sharon Connolly

Did a darkness hang over women who were different?

One of the darker, and sadder, elements in these women’s stories is how they suffered with mental illness and the harsh, even barbaric, ways this was treated. Their conditions may well have been triggered by a mix of untreated menopause, life events and the fragile nature of their careers corroded by ageism and technological advancements. “I found the whole the whole mental health story in the book to be profoundly shocking,” says Connolly.

“My great-great grandmother ends up being confined to a mental institution for 43 years. The medical notes I found for her illness did say it was possibly due to the climacteric, in other words menopause.”

“Yes, it’s about menopause in the first instance, but it’s also about the way in which women who stepped out of the norm were regarded. These women were more vulnerable to inappropriate treatments, and to quick, desperate decisions often about how they would be dealt with, with little regard for their independence or their wishes, or the impacts on their lives.”

A tribute to these pioneering female performers

My Giddy Aunt is a family story while also being an important record of this band of pioneering women performers and entertainers.

This sisterhood of jesters entertained a new nation in days of minstrel shows, vaudeville, war and hardship.

They … challenged conventional ideas about how they should behave.

Often ‘unladylike’, they danced without inhibition, played instruments thought unseemly for women and music deemed to be sinful. Comediennes acted the fool, the vamp and women of all kinds. They even played men.

Most had lives not at all like those I’d imagined for earlier generations of Australian women.

My Giddy Aunt, by Sharon Connolly

Image by Tibor Janosi Mozes from Pixabay

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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