American touring ensembles were responsible for bringing vaudeville-style theatre Down Under, and the popularity of Shakespearean plays and opera performances increased.
The gold rushes of the 1850s brought a growth in population to Australia, and there was a growing demand for entertainment. However due to the disruptions of World War 1, the first decade of the 20th century saw fewer actors and travelling troupes being imported to Australia, and shows relied on local performers to fill the void.
On a nationwide tour in 1937, a Chicago-based revue called The Marcus Show featured ‘bare-breasted showgirls’, and by 1938 bare breasts were a staple feature in virtually every revue at Tivoli Theatres. By the mid 1940s, artistic nudity was regularly presented to audiences of variety theatres in Australia’s capital cities. Female performers draped the top half of their bodies in sheer fabric that left little to the imagination. As part of the British Commonwealth, Australia’s isolation was not out of reach of beaurocratic morality, and just like the Minsky and Windmill girls, topless performers had to remain stock-still during their time on the stage.
Producers George Wallace Junior and Laurie Smith collaborated to open a change-weekly variety show in Brisbane, Queensland, at the tiny Guild Theatre in Adelaide Street, before transferring to the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street. The two men were faced with competition from Will Mahoney’s vaudeville on the south bank of the Brisbane River.
Wallace and Smith’s revue comprised of an all-male, ex-army performance company called the Kangaroos. After a few weeks of business, attendance began to decline at an alarming rate, and so a ballet was added to the line-up of acts, followed later by showgirls.
The new Royal Showgirls performed on stage wearing bikinis, mini-skirts and shorts, baring midriffs, arms and legs. These girls were the saving grace of the show.
On October 1954, entrepreneur Harry Wren brought Gypsy Rose-Lee to Australia. Several showgirls from Sydney joined the famous stripper on stage. Unlike the international star, the Sydney girls appeared on stage already nude. Harry Wren enlivened his vaudeville shows with vivacious and beautiful chorus girls, and a few discreetly placed nude models.
Advertisements in the press boasted “Australia’s Most Beautiful Blondes! Brunettes! Redheads! FABULOUS-GORGEOUS-NUDES!” Exotic displays featured striptease, fan dance and bathing shows, influenced by the cultures of the Middle East, Paris and Brazil.
One notable performer used the name ‘Vanessa the Undresser’. Another young woman’s bubble bath act at the 1956 Melbourne Show attracted some unwanted attention from authorities.
In 1959, police action was taken against Wren’s advertising, which contained near-nude showgirls in the unrestricted public view of the foyer of Adelaide’s Theatre Royal. The objection was not that there were nudes in the show, but that the photographs of near-nudity were visible from the street.
Erotic performances drew audiences in theatre restaurants in Melbourne and in the nightclubs of Kings Cross in Sydney, where choreographers carried on the Tivoli traditions of showgirl revues. Glamorous dance routines were standard in Sydney’s nightspots during the 1960s, such as Sammy Lee’s Latin Quarter, the Pigalle, Pink Pussycat and Pink Panther clubs.
The late 1960s was a boom time for nightlife in Sydney’s Kings Cross, when the Vietnam War brought many American servicemen to Sydney on R&R. Most of the work available for professional dancers was in go-go bars, and in Australia’s conservatism past, many performers wished to hide their alternative identity from their families and communities.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley was the equivalent of Sydney’s Kings Cross, harbouring illegal gambling, underground strip clubs and prostitution, all of which existed because of police corruption that was finally uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry, leading to the collapse of the Bjelke-Petersen government.
In the 1960s and 70s societies all around the world were undergoing a sexual revolution, and saw a steep rise in the number of strip clubs being established. Despite public protest, strict city regulations, frequent raids and shut downs, the institution survived. During the 1970s and 80s, almost all strip clubs featured poles on stage to accommodate dancing.
The late 1990s saw the birth of pole fitness as an exercise practice, as well as the first instructional DVDs along with the creation of competitive pole dancing.
From the Far East to the West, from ancient ritual to modern-day table dancing, striptease continues to enchant audiences around the world, providing a pathway to financial independence.