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Photo courtesy of Fryer Library from the Nat Phillips Collection

Nat Phillips Nat Phillips i(A69469 works by) (birth name: Phillip Nathan Phillips) (a.k.a. Stiffy; Stiffy the Rabbitoh)
Born: Established: 21 Jul 1883 Bourke - Brewarrina area, Far West NSW, New South Wales, ; Died: Ceased: 21 Jun 1932 Sydney, New South Wales,
Gender: Male
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Comedian, producer, director, manager, writer, revue company leader, singer, songwriter, musician, sketch artist, acrobat.

A forty-year variety entertainment veteran, Nat 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 demonstrates 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: At age five Nat Phillips joined the Lilian Tree Grand Opera Company during its season at Sydney's Lyceum. Three years later he made his variety debut as an acrobat in an amateur line-up show (the venue was on the site where the Sydney Hippodrome and later the Capital Theatre would stand). Sometime around the mid-to-late 1890s he teamed up with another teenager, New Zealander Tommy Armstrong. In a 1915 interview published in Adelaide's Mail newspaper, Armstrong remembers finishing a stint with the Valdares acrobats and that he and Phillips, who had been presenting a straight singing and talking turn with their show, decided to form a partnership. Billed as Armstrong and Phillips, they toured Australia for some seven years (cited "Nat Phillips. Australian variety Theatre Archive).

Armstrong and Phillips left Australia in September 1903 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. After playing the US variety circuits the couple moved to the United Kingdom (ca. 1906) where they took 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.

Upon returning to Australia in late-February 1916, Phillips and Merritt immediately opened for the Fullers in Perth. Buoyed by the audience responses to the Stiffy sketches he began developing a series of one act musical comedies based around the character (these later became the first Stiffy and Mo revusicals). The Western Australian capital was followed by seasons in Fremantle, Adelaide and then Brisbane beginning 17 June. Their stay in Brisbane was cut short on 30 June, however, when the Fullers requested that Phillips return to Sydney so he could take over Bletsoes' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company which had just completed its Brisbane season and was due to open at the Princess Theatre a little over a week later. However, the troupe's leaders, Albert and Maud Bletsoe had advised the Fullers that they intended to retire from the business and Phillips was considered the best person to take control of the company at such short notice.

Phillips first priority after arriving in Sydney was to re-organise the company. He retained several original members - notably rising star Roy Rene and dancer Rosie Bowie - and also engaged a number of other high profile performers contracted to the Fullers. The new company, billed as Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company, debuted at the Princess on 8 July with What Oh Tonight and over the course of the extended season garnered an unprecedented level of positive critical attention and audience approval. Most of the troupe also appeared in the Fuller's hugely successful 1916 Christmas pantomime, The Bunyip. Based on an original story by a young Victorian variety performer, Ella Airlie, the production continued past the New Year. It was revived frequently around Australia by the Fullers up until at least 1924 and for several years was also presented as a feature entertainment during the Stiffy and Mo seasons.

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.

During most of this period 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). The company also spent some 16 months touring New Zealand, beginning 28 March 1923 (Auckland) and ending in early August 1924 (Wellington).

  • [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, Melbourne, and Adelaide followed by a brief tour of New Zealand in 1928 (playing seasons in Wellington and Auckland). 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).

Nat Phillips's final pantomime appearance was Beauty and the Beast,which he also wrote and directed for George Marlowe at the Grand Opera House in December 1930.

  • [For further details regarding this period, see Nat Phillips's Whirligigs / Revue Company entry]

Nat Phillips died of a heart attack on 21 June shortly after having concluded a meeting with MIke Connors and Queenie at their Tivoli office in Sydney. He was parked in a car with his wife in Castlereagh Street and collapsed after complaining of chest pains. His passing was widely reported around Australia and New Zealand

Most Referenced Works



    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).


    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.


    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.


    4.1. 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.'

  • Entries connected with this record have been sourced from historical research into Australian-written music theatre and film conducted by Dr Clay Djubal.

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