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The face of comedy
By RONALD McKlE
. After nearly 50 years on the Australian stage and in radio, rubber-faced comic George Wallace is now receiving a new type of fanmail - from television fans who saw him recently in "The
George Wallace Show" on Channel 9, TCN.
was a mess when I called on him in Sydney recently at 7 Doncaster Ave., Kensington.
He was concreting his back- yard, and could just be distin- guished from the concrete - when he moved.
He gladly dropped his trowel, kicked a wheelbarrow, barked back at the next-door
dog, and proudly showed me his barbecue, an 1897 gas stove with a little frilly can- opy, under which you light the fire where the griller used
Then he took me into the kitchen, where we sat between a simmering stew, which he makes from remnants only when the refrigerator over- flows, and a box containing Lady Poo and her carbon-copy kittens, Nock and Kirby.
When you first meet George Wallace you notice only two things: A face like one of those soft rubber balls which pop out in one place when you dent them in another; and the con- stant battle between his trou-
sers and the force of gravity.
Even if he had hips, bis belt line would be a foot below them - and still moving to- wards the basement. A 5ft. 4in., 14 stone, conservative 50-50-50, he is built exclu- sively for the Sack.
Called "Onkus" George Stevenson ("On- kus") Wallace is 64.
The George comes from his comedian father, George ("Broncho") Wallace. Steven- son has something to do with "that bloke who invented the steam engine." Onkus has been his nickname for years and comes from a stage act in which he was Onks and his partner was Dinks. And Wal- lace is Irish from Kilkenny.
"Great - grandfather Wal- lace was a marine on an early convict transport to Australia," George says in his voice like tearing sandpaper. "He was a mad Irishman, and they had to tie the old cow down to get
his boots on.
"Grandfather was an editor -at Bathurst, I think. Father could hardly write his name, and I was born in a tent at Aberdeen, N.S.W., where my
Dad worked in the meatworks.
"A gale was blowing when
I was born and I started turn- ing blue.
"But a crazy Irishwoman grabbed me and stuffed my hour-old mug with hot por- ridge. It worked, and I haven't touched porridge since."
George's childhood seems to have been full of drama, for when the family moved into another tent, this time at Bourke, he was found stroking two red-bellied black snakes under the misapprehension that they were "Pity Warns," and a wayward camel, mistak- ing wee Georgie for a tussock,
trod "right on top of me
Three things happened when George was three. The family came to Sydney, father began his career as a comedian, and George appeared on stage for
the first time.
He appeared in a pirate act and had to say, "Well, Cap- tain, if you fail, I'll do the deed." But the public de- cided he was a bit young at three to be on stage. He was
"Around this time," George confides, "Dad came home one night, mad drunk, grabbed one of Mum's brassieres from the
clothesline, tore it to bits, and
"That was too much for Mum. She left him. Then Dad would come and pinch me, and Mum would pinch me back. For years I felt like a
"Then Mum married a man named Fuller, and for the next dozen years I wasn't George Wallace but George Fuller. It was very confusing.
"But Mum was a wonderful
trouper. Many years later, when I was in Perth playing the Tivoli Circuit, I got a mes- sage she was dying. I flew
across, and thc nnlv and last
words she said to me were I "How have the houses been' f
George went to East St, I
Leonards School, where one of his cobbers was Henry Law. son's son, but before his mother married Mr. Fuller he tap-danced and sang around the Pyrmont docks to collect pennies from wharfies and
Then along came stepfather Fuller, who made printing ink, and who took George as an apprentice.
That was asking for trouble, Although George became an efficient mixer of inks, he could never understand the explosive relationship between carelessly tossed matches and kerosene-saturated rags,
Fuller's ink factory was alight and burning happily when George beat it for the
George worked on farms around Kurrajong, N.S.W., and at 12 fell in love-with Ethel from the local rectory.
He met her one morning while riding back to the fara where he worked. He had i basket of groceries slung on
" 'Ullo, Ethel," he said.
"Hello, George," she said
George was so emotionally overcome that he put his pony at a gate. The pony never made it. George went one way, and the groceries the
And he hasn't seen Ethel
Before World War I, when George was working ¡J a Queensland sugar mill neat . Mackay, he tried to stop a
man beating up a drunk, and
the man turned on him.
Others separated them, but a fight, with the local con- stable as referee, a time
keeper, and rounds, was fixed for next morning at the
"I was 16. and had doce j.
Gearge fixes up his backyard
ta try same Gracious Living . . .
i . "Don't call it a stove, ' .} goat, this is my barbe-
cue," says George.
. "A »hovel? Arr E . . . Pm doing out-M door planting." Wm
And he's funnier off-stage than an
bit of boxing. Bu I didn t want to fight although I knew I had to. It was one ot those decisions a youngster has to make.
"I was lucky. I managed to wedge him in between the wheel and shafts of an old dray and give him a ham-
Years later, when playing at the Tivoli, a man came into his dressing-room.
"You don't remember me," the man said. "I was the timekeeper up in Mackay."
"Of course," George said, "you were the bloke who belted the tin with a lump of sugarcane . . . What are you doing for a crust?"
"I'm Prime Minister." It was Artie Fadden.
At Mackay, too, he met Happy Harry Salmon, a sour Brisbane showman with a small touring unit, and offered himself to the stage.
"Your Dad's a droll!" Happy Harry said, "but what can you do?"
George, remembering his Pyrmont days, said: "Dance,"
and he was taken on at £1 a week and keep to dance, put up the scenery, look after the baggage, post bills, write pub- licity, and play the piano while the pianist danced.
That was the beginning of four years of wandering all over Australia playing in broken-down halls, and even shearing-sheds.
George also married a girl from Walkerston, near Mac- kay, during that period. Their only son is George, and a comedian, too.
Playing the back country was also the beginning of a career on stage, films, radio, and now television, that has lasted nearly half a century and made George's name, face, check shirt, low-slung
pants, and little felt hat known to all Australians.
He showed me that hat - Jimmy, he calls it-and his old trick of spinning it up his arm
and on to his head.
His first metropolitan ap-
pearance as a funny man was in
Sydney in Harry Clay's subur- ban circuit at the Bridge Theatre, Newtown, at £4 a
I? four years he was making *;¿0, and when Ben Fuller [later Sir Ben) offered £25,
°e joined him.
George was playing at Mel
ru"!es Bijou Theatre when f- W. Thring, of Efftee Pic
tures, offered him the lead in films he planned.
Working in burned-out Her Majesty's Theatre, which had been converted into a studio, George made "Harmony Row," "Ticket in Tatts," and "His Royal Highness."
While making the latter, most of which he wrote,
Thring asked George to col-
laborate with another writer.
"He was pretty good, too," George says, grinning. "He'd turned out a couple of books of his own. One was called 'The Sentimental Bloke.' His name was C. J. Dennis."
Then for Cinesound George made "Let George Do It," "Gone to the Dogs," and "Girl in a Million," story of pianist Eileen Joyce.
During those days George ran around in a Rolls-Royce acquired in a barter deal with a Sydney bookie who couldn't pay a racing debt of £800.
From this time, too, George began hobbies which still ab-
He collects small china ani- mals. He makes dolls from felt
-swaggies to senoritas - and has given away hundreds to children and hospitals.
He also paints, and the walls of his home stagger under the weight of paintings that range from Victorian - type land- scapes to paintings that seem to have been inspired by the Aranda School of aboriginal
artists in Central Australia.
"Bill Dobell has given me some advice," George says, "and Arthur Murch, who painted me for the Archibald Prize, has helped me a lot."
From his beginnings as a comedian George wrote many of his own songs - "Big Brother," "A Brown Slouch Hat" (which netted him £1000 in royalties), "16 Johnson Street." But the song-sketch which led them all in popu- larity was "Sophie the Sort."
Sophie was a blond con- ductress on a King's Cross bus when George got to know her. And she was tough.
"If anyone gets fresh with me I flatten 'em," she told him one day. And another day she said, "See that joker down there? He was rude. Watch me."
She walked down the aisle and swung her bag against the man's head. Then she apolo- gised - sweetly.
I "LO V ELY MOIS A I I LISA," alias George I I Wallace, a dinkum I
Yes, Sophie was tough, and one day George went home
and wrote the introduction to a new sketch, "Sophie the Sort
on the Bus":
Oh, I'm Sophie the Sort, An extra good sport,
Sophie the Sort on the bus. Punching the tickets, Young and carefree,
Knocking those jokers
Who keep pitching for me . . .
. "Slop calling it a backyard; this is gonna be a patio."
. "You'll get culture" (to helper Old Joe) "if I have to beat il into your tkull."
" 'Sophie' has been pinched wholesale and ruined," George says. "Only I can do it prop- erly, because I knew Sophie
and I wrote it."
All his stage life George has preferred to work alone, to talk confidentially to his audi- ence, to watch his timing like a cat stalking a sparrow.
His greatest assets are his wet, fruity, rude voice, his elastic face, and his eyes, which look like large boiled
lollies that have been left too long in the sun.
"In the early days people in the street used to take one look at me, clap their hands over their mugs, and start laughing. I didn't like it. I hated it. I got mad.
"Then one night I went on anil i he audience started to laugh.
"After six minutes, and that's a long time on the stage, they were still screaming. I hadn't said a word. I was scared.
"I walked off and the boys said, 'What's it all about?'
" 'I don't know,' I said.
"After the show some
people came behind and wc
" 'No particular reason,'
they said. 'You just looked funny.'
"Those minutes were the most tremendous moment of my career. After that night I never minded being laughed at in the street, though I've never completely got used to it.
"Which reminds me," George says, his tongue wav- ing like a giraffe's, "that I
haven't had a drink for five years and haven't smoked for
"The quack says I've got emph - something - a hole in my lung as big as an orange. When he told me I said, 'Not a big orange, Doctor, please'."
George says he doesn't know what comedy is.
"Being a comic is my job, and I like it, but I often don't know why I get laughs."
Comedy may be a mystery to George, but not to those who watch him. An afternoon
with him is almost a painful experience, for everything he does, and most of the things he says, are funny.
And, worse, to listen to his stage stories . . .
The one about the much publicised professor at the
Princess Theatre, Melbourne, with his thirty-two white per- forming cockatoos:
"The only weakness in the act," George says, "was that the cockies had never performed
before with a band in front of them. As the band crashed into action the 32 cockies took off and the audience fell off their seats laughing.
"It took us two flaming
hours after the show to catch the cockies, and then we only got 27."
But one of the stories George loves best - he bubbles and burbles when he starts to tell it - concerns a dresser called Ned Eagan at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney.
"We heard one night the Governor was in the theatre and was coming round to meet me. The manager was away, so we drilled Ned to introduce
"We told him he had to call him 'Your Excellency' and that he should say, 'Your Ex- cellency . . . Mr. Wallace.'
"We thought Ned had it right, but when the Governor appeared Ned bounded up to him, waved his arms like Ham- let gone mad, and shouted,
'Mr. Wallace - Excelsior!'
"I laughed for a week."