Born: Established: 21 Jul 1883 Bourke - Brewarrina area, Far West NSW, New South Wales, ; Died: Ceased: 21 Jun 1932 Sydney, New South Wales,
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, Phillips became tired of the old Stiffy and Mo format, and saw little future in the revusical. His diminishing enthusiasm may explain, to some extent, why his onstage performances lacked the vitality of previous years. There is certainly no evidence available to support any suggestion that Phillips was consistently Rene's foil between 1916 and up until at least mid-1927 (see Djubal, 'What Oh Tonight,' chapter 6).
2. In a series of oral history recordings, Gale indicates that Phillips believed that the revue genre held more promise as variety entertainment. It's greater reliance on musical numbers was seen, too, as an opportunity for him to pursue his increasing interest in songwriting. Gale also puts forward an opinion that Phillips' interest in the Stiffy and Mo company fell to an all-time low when he found out during the New Zealand that the Fullers had increased Rene's contract income 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 while this may have played a part in his decision to disband the troupe his resentment did not impact on 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).
3. It appears that changes to the traditional Stiffy and Mo programme (first-part vaudeville/second-part revusical) were put in place by Nat Phillips around mid-to-late 1927. While advertising and reviews from the troupe's final years provide much less information than was the case prior to 1925, several brief reports published in the Age during late 1927 indicate that shows comprised four to five revue-style sketches interspersed with vaudeville acts, and a feature revusical. The opening programme at the Bijou Theatre (Melbourne) in 1927, for example, included the sketches "A Dream," "Nobody," "Becky," "Cairo," and "Make Him Grow," along with the 'short comedy revuette, The Lords, while the week of 5-11 November comprised The Bell Boys (aka At the Grand) and the sketches "A Kiss," "Stage Door," and "The Peace Makers."
It is possible that a number of these sketches were created by writers other than Nat Phillips. Vic Roberts has often been identified in secondary sources as a writer of Stiffy and Mo material but no primary source evidence has yet been located confirming these claims.
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.'