Roy Rene 1892-1954

Roy Rene

Born Henry (‘Harry’) van der Sluys in Adelaide on 15 February 1891, the son of a Dutch cigar maker.

In 1910 he got a job as a backstage groomsman with J.C. Williamson’s racing melodrama The Whip

‘Stiffy and Mo’ exploded on Australian audiences at the Princess Theatre in Railway Square, Sydney, in July 1916.

 

‘You little trimmer!’

‘It was an outrageously vivid, vulgar performance,’ recalled diplomat and author Graham McInnes. ‘Mo affected an exaggerated Jewish make-up: a white face and a parted black chin beard. His lisping mincemeat of the English language cascaded in a profusion of illuminated droplets over the footlights, across the orchestra, and into the laps of the audience. They loved it. Mo wore the traditional baggy pants of vaudeville, which he manipulated with a variety of obscene and unprintable gestures, to shrieks of merriment from stout matrons in the stalls. He twisted his body into incredible knots, sidled forward, palms outstretched, blew raspberries at the audience. It was Jewish comedy of the Yiddisher-boy type, the little man against the world; it was innocent in its very obviousness and in the depravity of its crude, crass double ententes. I used to emerge from Mo’s shows with belly muscles aching and eyes wet with tears of sheer joy.’

Mo. The name still has magic, and the image it evokes has become an Australian icon. Mo died in 1954, but he had already joined that pantheon of immortals: Ned Kelly, Nellie Melba, Les Darcy, Kingsford Smith, Phar Lap.

He spent almost all his 62 years in the spotlight – and for nearly 40 of those years he was indisputably Australia’s clown prince.

Mo was born Henry (‘Harry’) van der Sluys in Adelaide on 15 February 1891, the son of a Dutch cigar maker. He never wanted to be anything but a performer. He started his entertainment career as a precocious amateur in competitions at the Adelaide markets. Against his family’s wishes, he made his professional debut at the Theatre Royal in a 1905 production of Sinbad the Sailor. Soon after, as a black-face boy soprano, he strutted the stage of the old Adelaide Tivoli with Ivy Scott.

The family moved to Melbourne, and young Harry spent every spare minute perched in the gods of the Opera House in Bourke Street, learning all he could from the stars of Harry Rickards’ vaudeville bills. Still a boy, Harry met Melbourne audiences for the first time across the footlights of the nearby Gaiety Theatre, where his act as Little Roy earned him £3 a week.

When his voice changed, so did his name: as Boy Roy he did the rounds of the long forgotten suburban halls that were then a lively source of entertainment, and toured New South Wales with Lloyd’s Minstrels. In 1910 he got a job as a backstage groomsman with J.C. Williamson’s racing melodrama The Whip, and he travelled with that company to Sydney. His first appearance there was at Harry Clay’s Standard Theatre. He changed his name to Roy Rene – after, he said, a famous French clown – and played Sydney suburban vaudeville for Jimmy Bain.

As a black-face corner-man he appeared in the minstrel-style ‘first part’ of a bill at Brennan’s National. Among the featured acts was an American Hebrew comedy duo, Jordan and Harvey, whose big song was Irving Berlin’s ‘Yiddle On Your Fiddle’. When the pair fell out, Rene replaced Harvey, and soon developed his own style of Jewish characterisation. Another influence was Julian Rose, an American humourist whose speciality was a monologue called ‘Levinsky at the Wedding.’ By 1914 Rene was touring New Zealand for Fullers as ‘Australia’s foremost delineator of Hebrew eccentricities’.

Biographical references

Celestine McDermott: ‘Roy Rene’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 11
Graham McInnes: Humping My Bluey. Hamish Hamilton, 1966
Fred Parsons: A Man Called Mo. Heinemann, 1973
Roy Rene: Mo’s Memoirs, Reed and Harris, 1945
Frank Van Straten: ‘Roy Rene – The magic of Mo’, in Stages, March 1988