Born: Established: 21 Jul 1883 Bourke - Brewarrina area ; Died: 21 Jun 1932 Sydney
Comedian, producer, director, manager, writer, revue company leader, singer, songwriter, musician, sketch artist, acrobat.
A forty-year variety entertainment veteran, Nat 'Stiffy' Phillips's greatest career achievement was his partnership with Roy 'Mo' Rene in the iconic Australian comedy duo Stiffy and Mo (1916-25, 1927-28). Recognised throughout Australia and New Zealand during the Stiffy and Mo years as the troupe's director, writer, and leader, Phillips's career has long been overshadowed, by Rene's legendary status as one of the country's great comic geniuses. While Rene had the advantage of some three decades exposure to audiences through his hugely successful post-Stiffy and Mo stage and radio career (notably as Mo McCackie of McCackie Mansions), Phillips's death in 1932 saw his considerable achievements, which included twelve years touring the US, British, and European variety circuits, gradually slip out of public recognition. His once high-profile position in the Australian entertainment industry has been further diminished over the past thirty or more years by historians and academics who have relied too heavily on second-hand reportage and erroneous or biased memoir. This has resulted in Phillips's role in the partnership being reduced to the lesser comedic role of straightman, even though primary sources such as newspapers and industry magazines from the period clearly contradict such assumptions. Research undertaken at The University of Queensland now concludes that Phillips was not only recognised as one of the country's most popular comedians in his own right, but also one of the most influential Australian variety practitioners of the immediate post-WWI era.
1883-1911: Nat Phillips first appeared on the professional stage at around eight years of age. Two years later, he joined forces with another child performer, Tommy Armstrong, and for the next ten years they toured Australia and New Zealand performing routines that included comedy acrobatics and song-and-dance numbers. Armstrong and Phillips left Australia in 1901 to tour the lucrative American variety circuits. They remained in the USA for two years before amicably deciding to go their separate ways. Needing a new partner, Phillips called on Daisy Merritt, later his wife), who was then running a dance school in Sydney. As Phillips and Merritt, they debuted their new act the night after Phillips and Armstrong ended their partnership, and went on to tour America up until around 1905. In 1906, the couple moved to the United Kingdom, taking up a long-term contract with the high-profile Stoll Moss variety organisation. Their act around this time had developed into a comedy sketch turn that featured Phillips's piano playing and acrobatic capabilities and their combined expertise in eccentric dancing and vocal work. When not engaged on the Stoll Moss circuit, Phillips and Merritt toured a number of European countries, including Holland, Germany, and Russia. For these largely non-English-speaking audiences, they simply cut out their sketch work and relied instead on physical comedy and singing.
1912-1916: In 1912, Phillips and Merritt returned to Australia on what was supposed to be a holiday to visit family. While in Sydney, they were offered a two-week season by the Fullers. The reception they received the night Ben Fuller saw their act convinced him to sign them immediately to a twelve-month contract. The conditions and prospects offered were such that they decided against taking up the four-year option they still had with Stoll Moss, and they remained in Australia on a more or less permanent basis thereafter. In late 1914, some eighteen months after beginning his association with the Fullers, Phillips was elevated to the position of theatre manager/director, taking charge first of the Princess Theatre, Sydney, and later the company's two theatres in Melbourne.
It was during this same period that he also began developing his skills as a writer and director of vaudeville farces. Staged as the conclusion to each night's entertainment, these productions laid the groundwork for his later career producing one-act musical comedies and pantomimes. His managerial responsibilities did not prevent him from continuing to perform nightly on stage, however; as the most experienced performer, he invariably starred in the farces as well. Three of his works from this period were The German Spy, The German Invasion, and The Gasman. A Theatre magazine article provides an insight into Phillips's duties at the Princess and his reputation at that time, reporting that since he took over control of the theatre, Phillips had contrived to give audiences a fresh finale each week. 'Mr Phillips is a strong believer in farces', the magazine's critic writes. 'In all of them [he] played the principal comedy part. For acting of this kind he has a distinct gift, and in the farces he was responsible for some excellent - indeed memorable - character studies (April 1915, p.43).
In September 1915, Phillips and Merritt took a leave of absence from the Fullers in order to undertake a seven-month tour of the East (which included an initial season at the Empire Theatre, Colombo, Ceylon). Not long after leaving Australia, however, Phillips published a warning in Australian Variety, giving notice to other practitioners that he held the Australian rights 'to the "Stiffy" series of sketches recently worked by him over the Fuller circuit... [and that it was his] intention to proceed against any performers infringing on them' (13 Oct. 1915, p.12). Stiffy had begun appearing in sketches presented by Phillips and Merritt from late 1914. The Nat Phillips Collection (Fryer Library) includes completed scripts for three of these works: 'Stiffy the Lunatic', 'Stiffy the Steward', and 'Sowing the Patch'. Speaking to the Theatre in 1919, Phillips recalled the origins of his alter ego: 'Until I brought [him] on the scene the Australian low-life character - the larrikin - was always portrayed as a [London] coster. This always appeared incongruous to me. It came about as the result of imported comic songs and comedy routines. I decided to try the experiment with the Sydney larrikin. Steele Rudd made Dave and Australian bush type. I determined to come nearer home and present a city type. I couldn't have wished for greater success along the line I followed' (January 1919, p.4). The character's popularity with local audiences convinced Phillips to develop a series of one-act musical comedies built around the character. It is believed that he began writing these in early 1916, either as he made his way back to Australia or shortly after his return in March of that year.
Phillips and Merritt's first engagement for the Fullers following their tour of the East was in Perth. While playing a season in Adelaide in June, Phillips was recalled to Sydney by the Fullers with a commission to take control of the revusical troupe previously run by Albert Bletsoe and his sister Maud. Phillips immediately put together a new company comprising members of the Bletsoe ensemble (one of whom was a promising young comedian by the name of Roy Rene). The new company, initially known as Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company, debuted at Sydney's Princess Theatre in July 1916 and over the course of the season garnered an unprecedented level of positive critical attention.
1917-1925: Between 1917 and 1925, Nat Phillips's Stiffy and Mo Company toured the country, alternating seasons in Melbourne and Sydney over Christmas and summer with engagements in other capital cities, playing, in some instances, seasons of more than six months at a time. Phillips continued to write most of the material during this period (including many of the original musical numbers), with some of the more popular being What Oh Tonight (also known as The Beauty Parlour), A Sporting Chance, Bullfighters, Jockeys, In the Army, Police, In the Sanatorium, Wharfies, and Bankers. For most of this time, Phillips was also given the responsibility for writing and/or producing one of the Fullers's annual pantomimes. The first of these, and also his most successful, was The Bunyip, staged in Sydney by the Fullers over December 1916 and January 1917. Based on an original story by a young Victorian variety performer, Ella Airlie, the production was toured by the Stiffy and Mo company for several years and revived frequently around Australia by the Fullers up until at least 1924. Phillips's later original pantomimes included Babes in the Woods (1918), Cinderella (1919), Dick Whittington (1921), and Mother Goose (1922).
[For further details regarding this period, see AustLit's entry on Stiffy and Mo]
1925-1926: During Phillips's and Rene's eighteen-month separation, Phillips formed the Whirligigs Company and teamed up with comedian Jack Kellaway as Stiffy and 'Erb. The partnership saw them reprise many of the old Stiffy and Mo shows.
[For further details regarding the Stiffy and 'Erb years, see the Nat Phillips' Whirligigs Company entry]
1927-1928: In February 1927, Phillips and Rene reunited in Brisbane, initially as a trio: Stiffy, Mo, and 'Erb. By the time the company travelled to Sydney a few weeks later, however, it had reverted back to simply Stiffy and Mo. The company played extended and sold-out seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by a brief tour of New Zealand in 1929. Upon their return to Australia late that year, the pair decided once again to go their separate ways. Although a second reunion is said to have been organised in 1932 (Mo's Memoirs, p.132), Nat Phillips's untimely death meant that this never eventuated.
[See Stiffy and Mo Revue Company for further details regarding the 1927-1928 period]
1929-1932: Following the final dissolution of the partnership, Phillips re-formed the Whirligig Revue Company, initially with Jack Kellaway reprising his 'Erb character. He later engaged comedian Joe Lawman to co-star opposite him in the Nat Phillips Revue Company (as Stiffy and Joe). This was to be the troupe's final line-up before its leader's death in 1932. Although Phillips had by this stage of his career moved more towards the revue format (particularly as a songwriter), his repertoire still continued to include some classic Stiffy and Mo revusicals, notably All Aboard and At the Grand. In March 1932, following a brief season of revue at the Grand Opera House, Phillips and Lawman (along with fellow troupe member Dan Weldon) appeared in The Follies of 1932, a 'vaudeville stars of the past' show staged at Sydney's Theatre Royal (28 March - 4 April). Among their fellow veterans were Minnie Love, Stan Foley, Maurice Barling (ex-Barling and Dale), and Winnie Edgerton (Sydney Morning Herald 28 March 1932, p.2).
[For further details regarding this period, see Nat Phillips's Whirligigs / Revue Company entry]
1. NAT PHILLIPS'S CAREER AS PERFORMER, MANAGER, DIRECTOR, WRITER:
As a manager and director, Nat Phillips was highly regarded for his professionalism. His demand for regular rehearsals, an issue that irritated the enigmatic Rene (and may well have contributed to the pair ending their partnership), was perhaps one reason for his company's success. In this respect, it is clear from contemporary accounts that one of the strengths of the Stiffy and Mo troupe was the ease with which the ensemble worked off each other. Indeed, research into the media coverage of Stiffy and Mo between 1916-1924 indicates that the troupe's success was regarded as stemming from the strong ensemble work and the humorous situations invented by Phillips, with the main feature of each show, of course, being the interplay between Stiffy and Mo. An analysis of the scripts held in the Nat Phillips Collection confirms that while the stories were based around the exploits of Stiffy and Mo, the other cast members (including the six chorus girls) were given ample time within each show to both develop their characters and highlight their particular performance strengths, be it singing, acting, or dancing. Australian Variety records in 1917, too, that Phillips's managerial style had come in for much favourable appreciation, with all the performers under his control appreciating his nonchalant manner. In reference to The Bunyip, for example, the critic wrote, 'Phillips is entirely devoid of affectation. He is, however, a very hard worker, and whilst he endeavours to instil the same feeling in those under his charge, he handles them in such a manner that he has gained the wholesome regard of the firm and all those connected with the pantomime' (17 Jan. 1917, n. pag.).
The extent of Phillips's workload was also made apparent on a number of occasions. Writing for Just It, vaudeville critic M. A. Keup notes that 'The medium of revue for the display of Stiffy and Mo is wise, as this class of entertainment is all sorts of shows and nothing long. The writing of the 'book' and compiling of the music numbers is the work of Mr Phillips (Stiffy), who must work all round the clock. The amount of work involved in weekly changes of revue, must make hard labour in the 'cooler' a mere trifle. Not only do the company supply two shows a day, but they have to rehearse the revue for the following week. The quantity of interludes, songs, dances and jokes incorporated in one of the [Stiffy and Mo] revues reflects credit on the Napoleonic genius of the producer, Nat Phillips, whose ingenuity seems to know no frontiers. He has already proved his capacity in this class of work and also in pantomimes. He is the Augustus Harris of Australia' (12 May 1927, p.28).
2. NAT PHILLIPS'S IMPACT AND INFLUENCE ON THE AUSTRALIAN VARIETY INDUSTRY:
The debut Stiffy and Mo season at the Princess Theatre had a significant impact on the Australian variety industry. Although revusicals had been staged in Australia over the previous twelve to eighteen months, Nat Phillips's shows provided the impetus for others in the industry to try and emulate his success by replicating his formula. Dozens of revusical companies sprang up over the forthcoming months as variety organisations and theatre managers became aware of the public's demand for similar-styled shows. While Phillips's template was the most copied, and indeed over the next ten years there was little change to the formula, it was his introduction of readily identifiable Australian characters that proved most influential. By the end of the war, the revusical was the feature entertainment of most variety shows around the country. Assisted by a cessation of imported artists between 1916 and late 1918, and the increasing need for light-hearted entertainment as the Australian public attempted to cope with both the horrors of the war and the economic hardships being inflicted on the country, demand for the local product saw the industry expand to levels never before experienced. However, while countless revusical companies plied their trade from one end of the country to another, only Bert Le Blanc came close to rivalling the popularity of Nat Phillips's Stiffy and Mo revusicals prior to the emergence of Jim Gerald and George Wallace as revusical stars in 1922 and 1924 respectively.
3. HISTORICAL NOTES AND CORRECTIONS:
1. Although the myth surrounding Phillips's and Rene's onstage roles can be traced to several erroneous and biased accounts published in later years, notably Frank Parson's A Man Called Mo, some basis for this account may stem from factors that emerged during the duo's final year together. Despite drawing huge audiences and mostly favourable reviews, the reunion was creatively dissatisfying for Phillips. According to Rene's second wife, Sadie Gale, he became tired of the old Stiffy and Mo format, and saw little future in the revusical. In a series of oral history recordings, Gale indicates that Phillips not only believed that the revue genre held more promise as variety entertainment, but also that its greater reliance on musical numbers would allow him ample scope to pursue his increasing interest in songwriting. Gale also puts forward an opinion that Phillips's interest in the company fell to an all-time low when he found out during the Stiffy and Mo tour of New Zealand that the Fullers had increased Rene's contract several times over the previous few years while his remained the same (National Archives of Australia, ABC Tape CA6879 / C528741-1, 1975). Gale suggests that this was a significant factor in Phillips's decision to disband the troupe not long after returning to Australia. Interestingly, his resentment over the terms of his contract with the Fullers does not appear to have impacted upon his friendship with Rene. Indeed, as Rene notes in his autobiography, he and Phillips were in the process of organising a second Stiffy and Mo reunion (possibly on the Tivoli circuit) shortly before Phillips' untimely death (p.132). There is certainly no evidence available to support any suggestion that Phillips was Rene's foil between 1916 and up until at least mid-1927 (see Djubal, 'What Oh Tonight,' chapter 6).
2. One unsubstantiated, though possible, reason for Phillips's being positioned as Rene's foil is the possibility that other authors, notably Englishman Vic Roberts, were contributing Stiffy and Mo material during the reunion period. While it is unclear how many works, if any, were written by other writers (including Roberts), is is feasible that this would have further distanced Phillips from a personal engagement with the material, which would, in combination with the other industrial and personal issues, contribute to his lessening role in the partnership at that time. Evidence from reviews published in industry magazines and newspapers (even between 1927 and 1928) indicates, however, that the historical record and memoirs published in later years have grossly underestimated Nat Phillips's role in the success of Stiffy and Mo during the duo's eleven-year partnership.
For further details regarding Nat Phillips's career and the reasons for his exclusion from the Australian theatre histrory record, see Clay Djubal, 'What Oh Tonight': The Methodology Factor and Pre-1930s Australian Variety Theatre', Ph.D. thesis, 2005, chapter 6.
4. MANUSCRIPTS AND ARCHIVAL COLLECTIONS:
4.1. Nat Phillips Collection: Fryer Library, The University of Queensland. A Finding Aid to the collection is available online.
4.2. The Fryer Library also provides an online display devoted to Nat Phillips: '"What Oh Tonight": Stiffy and Mo and the Nat Phillips Collection'.
4.3. The National Archives of Australia holds five copyright applications for songs written by Nat Phillips between 1920 and 1927. The applications are for 'Titbits' / 'Sailor's Song' [A1336/16878], 'Baby's Rainbow Trail' [A1336/10025], 'The Pickaninny's Land of Dreams' [A1336/8902], 'Rachel Cohen' [A1336/8730], and 'Good-bye Everyone' [A1336/8741].
The 'Titbits' / 'Sailor's Song' application also mentions three other songs, although no manuscripts are available. These songs are 'He's in the Jail House Now,' 'Dawn Brings the Sunshine', and 'I Kissed My Sleeping Mammy.'