Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mum and Max Oldaker, the last of the Matinee Idols

In her late teens and early 20s, my mother was an avid theatre-goer. She loved musical comedy, ballet, operetta, theatre and to a lesser extent opera, as the three very full scrap books full of theatre programmes she kept confirm.

These scrapbooks are gems, with the programmes carefully stuck in and occasionally kept companion by newspaper reviews of the performance.

Mum used to go with a group of girlfriends, and it wasn't uncommon for them to go to opening night, last night and sometimes a night in between. The programmes bear testament to that, as there are multiples of some of them. Those young girls stayed good friends all their lives, through husbands, divorces, children, whatever, and met once a year. Mum was the last of them; one by one over the last twenty years they have seen the final curtain.

She used to talk about those old days with love and affection; you could, after the performance ended, take a tram home by yourself close to midnight and feel safe. You might meet for coffee at Repens before the performance. And then there were the stars themselves.

Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh visited Sydney in 1948, and Mum, while she didn't see the play they were in (perhaps it was too expensive, or perhaps it booked out before she could get tickets), she did manage to get their autographs. And George Formby's.

When Mum spoke about her theatre-going days however, the name that cropped up the most was Max Oldaker.

Max who?

Max Oldaker. Tasmanian-born, he was the heart-throb of the theatre in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He epitomised Tall, Dark and Handsome. He could act, he could sing, and was highly sought after for operetta roles and had a successful career in the UK as well as Australia. He understudied Rex Harrison in London in My Fair Lady, and the night Rex fell sick brought the house down; Rex made a damned quick recovery as Max did the role much better than he. With his fine tenor voice he considered doing serious opera, but it was in roles such as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song that his audience loved him.

What a looker! Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song with co-star Joy Beattie. 1945
What a looker! Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song with co-star Joy Beattie. 1945

Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song, 1945
Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song, 1945

Max Oldaker and Joy Beattie, stars of The Desert Song, 1945.
Max Oldaker and Joy Beattie, stars of The Desert Song, 1945. I'd love to know the story behind this pic. Max is in theatrical makeup, Joy isn't, and they're in a bathroom.

Mum and her friends used to hang around the stage door for a sight of Max after the show was over. They made friends with Olga Deane, who ran the Sydney branch of the Max Oldaker Fan Club (sadly no remnants from that in Mum's amazing haul of theatre memorabilia). Olga was one of the Albert family of Albert Music fame, and very well-connected in the world of music and theatre.

She'd invite Mum and the girls to jam sessions at her house in (I think) Rose Bay. You'd go up a set of narrow stone stairs to a house perched up on the hill and see a sign: Here it is! Inside you'd sit wherever you could - on a chair if you were lucky, on a cushion on the floor if you weren't, and musicians would drop in, instruments in hand, after their shows and have an impromptu jam session. You wouldn't know who would turn up (Max never did) but you'd hear music and singing, get up and dance and have a great time. And catch the tram home at some ungodly hour early Sunday morning.
Jack Burgess at the piano with Max Oldaker.
Jack Burgess at the piano with Max Oldaker. Max played the piano beautifully and composed music as well as having a fine tenor voice; a very talented man.

While Max was Red Shadow-ing the Actors' Benevolent Fund of Australia had organised a Popular Man contest to raise funds for charity, and entertainment organisations such as J. C. Williamson put up candidates. Max was working for them at the time and was their chosen man. Olga got Mum and the girls busy, selling buttons and badges with Max's face on them at the Theatre at nights. I don't think it was every night, but Mum certainly did her shift. I can't find any of the badges in the house but I'd be surprised if she didn't keep one.

Max won the contest - not to Mum's surprise - by raising the most money for charity.

By then Mum, aged 20, and the girls were getting on pretty well with Max. With their button-selling status and their 'inner circle' membership of the Max Oldaker Fan Club as friends of Olga, they were allowed into his dressing room, and would wait there while Max was on stage.

"In he'd come at the end of the act or the show," Mum used to say, "In full costume, with his face mask still on, and his cape wrapped around him. He'd fling it open with one arm, very theatrically.  He must have thought us a bunch of giggling girls but he was very nice and friendly to us."

Max gave Mum two signed photos of him being 'crowned' the winner - more about that later on.

Max was gay (a 'confirmed bachelor', as they used to say), but whether the girls knew that at the time I don't know - Mum knew he was gay when she spoke about him to me as an adult, but when she found that out I'm not quite sure. I suspect these young women from very ordinary families thought he was just behaving in the flamboyant and over the top way some actors do.
Max Oldaker clowning around, 1945
Max Oldaker clowning around, 1945
Mum followed his career for years, but after she married Dad she'd found a real life 'matinee idol' and the theatre programmes dwindled a bit. Dad wasn't into theatre like Mum was but the more he went with her the more he liked it.

When I was four, Max was playing in Half A Sixpence in Sydney and Mum took me to see a matinee performance. I don't remember a thing about it. I don't remember Mum taking me to the stage door to meet Max, and Max recognising her and greeting her by name after nearly twenty years and being absolutely delightful to both of us.

Several years ago I discovered that writer Charles Osborne had written a biography of Max: Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols. I bought it for Mum for Christmas that year, read it after she did and something saddened me. I have just finished re-reading it, and I'm a little bit sad again and wonder if Mum was too. She never mentioned it. In a nutshell, here's what saddens me:

Max, you see, was embarrassed about the whole 'matinee idol' palaver. He had asked that the Max Oldaker Fan Club be wound up in 1944. I quote:

'To his dismay the Sydney Morning Herald in November published "a long and nauseating column which is disgusting - a degrading presentation of childishly adulatory material given to them by Olga Deane."'(Max's words)

In a letter (to his parents? It's not stated) Max writes, 'I've written to her and told her that there must be no compromise and that the whole of this nonsense must stop at once. I really think I should publish my views on the whole thing. I might have known that, for all Olga Deane's kindness, she is a person of no taste. I feel ashamed that I allowed her to start the club, but I suppose I couldn't have known what it would develop into. Now I hate it all. It's really not the sort of publicity I want.'

Ouch! I wonder what Mum thought when she read that, when Max had been so pleasant and welcoming to her and her friends - and Olga?

And as for what Max thought of being the winner of the Popular Man contest - here are Max's own words in a letter to Charles Osborne:

'At 12.30 am the trumpets blared and the ceremony began. Out of the gentleman's lavatory came little Max clad in a rather short regal robe which two attendants attempted to carry. Said robe was surmounted with an ermine collar which had provided a breeding ground and happy home for many generations of J.C. Williamson moths. My dear, the dais shook, the crown wouldn't fit and poor little Max felt most embarrassed. Kathleen Robinson, the actress-manageress of the Minerva Theatre, "kreowned" me, and we were both convulsed when the wretched thing would insist on coming to rest over my right eye as I made my epic speech. Many silly speeches were made about me…  The photographs of the ceremony were devastating, and I look positively repulsive in a crown.'
Max Oldaker, winner of the Popular Man contest, with his badly-fitting crown on 31 October 1945. Also in the photo, Jack Cazabon, Peter Finch and Jack Burgess
Max Oldaker, winner of the Popular Man contest, with his badly-fitting crown on 31 October 1945. Also in the photo, Jack Cazabon, Peter Finch and Jack Burgess

Looking rather embarrassed, Max Oldaker being 'kreowned' by Kathleen Robinson, 31 October 1945. Also in photo are Dick Bentley, Strella Wilson, John Cazabon, Wayne Froman, Jack Burgess, Hal Lashwood, Marshall Crosby, Leonard Bullen
Looking rather embarrassed, Max Oldaker being 'kreowned' by Kathleen Robinson, 31 October 1945. Also in photo are Dick Bentley, Strella Wilson, John Cazabon, Wayne Froman, Jack Burgess, Hal Lashwood, Marshall Crosby, Leonard Bullen

The back of the photo above, signed for Mum who had volunteered her time to help Max win the Popular Man contest.

Max must have gritted his teeth when he personally autographed two photographs of the ceremony for Mum.

Max's attitude to his longtime fans mellowed, you'll be happy to know. By the time Mum took me to see Half A Sixpence, Charles Osborne writes about the show, 'In Sydney, he had his old star dressing room back again at the Theatre Royal, and was touched to find so many fans from the forties crowding around the stage door every night.'

If you want to find out more about Max, read the book by Charles Osborne. Max had a real wit and style about him, and was a prolific letter writer who could tell a good story against himself. His letters are a delight. You'll find several copies for sale on the interweb.

Barry Humphries wrote the Foreword in Charles Osborne's book, and I'll share a bit of it here. It's 1956 and Barry is working with Max in a show called Around the Loop:

'"How do you manage, Max," I once asked him, "to smile with such sincerity at the curtain call on a thin Wednesday matinee?"

"Dear Barry, it’s an old trick Noel (Coward) taught me, and it never fails.” He demonstrated, standing in the middle of the dressing room in his Turkish towelling gown, eyes sparkling, teeth bared in a dazzling smile. “Sillycunts,” beamed Max through clenched teeth, bowing to the imaginary stalls. “Sillycunts,” again, to the circle, the gods and the Royal Box. 

“It looks far more genuine than ‘cheese’, dear boy,” said Max, “and you’ve just got to hope that no one in the stalls can lip read.” I couldn’t help thinking of all my mother’s friends at those Melbourne matinees, their palms moist, hearts palpitating as Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols, flashed them all his valedictory smile.’

I love it! I have real regrets that I don't remember meeting The Last of the Matinee Idols when I was four.

There's not much on the interweb about Max, sadly.
Max died of heart failure in his home town of Devonport in 1972 at the age of 64. In nearby Launceston the Princess Theatre has a tribute wall for Max, with memorabilia and photographs.

G and I visited Launceston last year, and while I was in the Princess Theatre looking at the Max wall, I phoned Mum and described it all to her, and took photos to show on my return (they are reasonably rubbish photos, taken through glass, so I'm not posting them here). I'm so glad I did as Mum was gone herself two months later.

Who else remembers Max Oldaker and Olga Deane? Is there anyone out there who went to Olga's place late at night for a jam session, or whose parents did? At the risk of sounding like Olga and upsetting Max's ghost, I think the chap could do with some publicity. He was very talented and a true theatre star of the era. And dammit, he was handsome. That's reason enough.

1 comment:

  1. My family is related to Max Oldaker on my mums family tree.

    My great grandmother was Eliza Mills nee Wade...she was Max's mothers sister.

    Regards chrissy

    ReplyDelete