George Wallace 1895-1960
Australia’s most versatile funny man, George Stevenson Wallace, was born in a canvas hut at Aberdeen, New South Wales on 4 June 1895.
Early in 1919 Wallace demonstrated his mastery of acrobatic dancing for Harry Clay at his Bridge Theatre at Newtown.
A natural lair
Here’s how Australia’s favourite British female comic, Jenny Howard, recalled her first encounter with her future co-star, George Wallace, backstage at the Melbourne Tivoli during the Second World War: ‘This strange apparition walked through the door and held me spellbound. He looked very rugged and I don’t think he had shaved. His tie had stains on it and his clothes were covered in cigarette ash. But what really fascinated me was I’d never seen anyone keep his trousers up without braces before. He had this enormous stomach and his pants were somewhere beneath it. He croaked in a funny voice, “I’m Wallace. I’m a natural lair.” Never having heard the word I thought perhaps he meant he was an Aboriginal. In my best British accent I said, “How do you do?” He replied, “I’m alright. I’m a bit rough in the morning.”’
Australia’s most versatile funny man, George Stevenson Wallace, was born in a canvas hut at Aberdeen, New South Wales on 4 June 1895. His grandfather was an Irish comic called ‘Pipeclay’ Wallace, but his father – who was known as ‘Broncho’ – was employed in the local meat works. Shortly after his son’s birth, however, he too embarked on a vaudeville career, working for a while as a minstrel corner-man for Harry Rickards. Broncho and his brother-in-law, George Scott, later developed a successful double act, Scott and Wallace. Little George appeared on stage at the age of three as a pirate in a Sydney pantomime and was the infant member of a family song-and-dance act until his parents divorced.
Until he started work in his stepfather’s ink factory, Wallace spent his days clowning for pennies on the Pyrmont waterfront. At 16, after knocking about North Queensland as a farm-hand, horse trainer and cane-cutter, he joined a touring variety show. He also fitted in a brief spell as a professional fighter. Australia’s most versatile funny man, George Stevenson Wallace, was born in a canvas hut at Aberdeen, New South Wales on 4 June 1895. , keeping the customers entertained while Happy Harry Salmon frantically tried to fix his recalcitrant biograph. Next George Tysall recruited him for his Walkerston Nigger Minstrel Troupe, which at that time had, as one of its corner-men, a future Prime Minister of Australia, Arthur Fadden. Wallace travelled throughout Queensland, doing everything from soft shoe dancing to scenery painting. He loved it, and he decided that show business was to be his career.
In 1917 Wallace married Margarita (‘Rita’) Nicholas, a Mackay barmaid; their only child, George Leonard Wallace, was born the following year. Early in 1919 Wallace demonstrated his mastery of acrobatic dancing for Harry Clay at his Bridge Theatre at Newtown. Clay hired him at £4 a week. Wallace worked his wife and their little son into his routine, which included knockabout comedy, patter songs and eccentric dances. The family act was short lived, as indeed was the marriage, which ended with separation in 1924.
Watch this space
Nancye Bridges: Curtain Call, Cassell, 1980
Victoria Chance: ‘George Wallace’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Raymond Evans: ‘George Leonard Wallace’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 16, Melbourne University Press
Jim Murphy, Don Percy and Ian Woodward: Funny by George, TV documentary, 1999
Stuart Sayers: ‘George Stevenson Wallace’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12
Frank Van Straten: Tivoli, Lothian Books, 2003