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Photo courtesy of Fryer Library from the Theatre Magazine (September 1918)

Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company i(A97955 works by) (Organisation) assertion (a.k.a. Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company; Stiffy and Mo)
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One of the most popular and influential revusical companies in Australian entertainment history, Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company was led by Nat Phillips, who also starred alongside Roy Rene in the iconic larrikin partnership of Stiffy and Mo. Indeed, the troupe dominated the revusical era in Australia (ca. 1915-1930), a period which boasted such high-profile companies as Bert Le Blanc's Travesty Stars, the Jim Gerald Revue Company, and the George Wallace Revue Company.

Although Phillips and Rene have been elevated to iconic status over time the troupe's members were never viewed as merely a support ensemble by industry critics or the public, but rather were considered to have made significant contributions to the company's success. Indeed, most of the performers were accorded a great deal of media coverage during their time with the company. Several of the members also contributed material to the revusicals, notably Walter Whyte and Vince Courtney as songwriters and Rosie Bowie as the troupe's choreographer. Later members included high-profile variety industry performers such as Mike Connors and Queenie Paul, Amy Rochelle, Alec and Jack Kellaway, and Harry Ross, as well as Dan Weldon and Charles Zoli.


1916-1919: Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company came together in late-June 1916 as a result of Albert and Maud Bletsoe's decision to retire from performing, and the subsequent disbanding of their Tabloid Musical Comedy Company. The Bletsoe troupe was then in Rockhampton, having recently completed a season in Brisbane. By coincidence, Phillips, another act appearing on the Fullers circuit, was also in Queensland. He and his wife Daisy Merritt had opened at the Empire Theatre on 17 June, two nights after the Bletsoes ended their engagement at the venue. Because their company had already been booked by the Fullers for a season at Sydney's Princess Theatre, Sir Benjamin and John Fuller called on Phillips, their former producer at the theatre, to return to Sydney and take up the engagement. After playing their final show at the Empire on 30 June, Phillips and Merritt took the train south with several members of the Bletsoe'c company – notably dancer/choreograoher Rosie Bowie, several members of the ballet, and a twenty-five year old emerging comedian known as Roy Rene.

On his arrival in Sydney Phillips immediately engaged a number of highly experienced variety performers from the Fullers' available stable of artists to supplement the line-up. Utilising a number of farcical sketches he had been developing around his character Stiffy, In order to stage the shows over the second half of each evening's entertainment he fleshed out the storylines with songs, dances and 'improvised' business. Phillips put the performers through an intense rehearsal period and on 8 July, billed as Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company, they opened at the Princess Theatre in a show called What O Tonight.

The initial response to the company's debut season was above all expectations, with critical attention shared largely around the ensemble, although Nat Phillips as writer, director, and co-star was generally given the greatest space. What Oh Tonight was followed by five more original revusicals, the extent of their repertoire at the time. Such was the success garnered by the troupe that the theatre's lessees, Harry Sadler and Jack Kearns, extended the season until late October.

Between 1917 and 1925, Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Company mostly alternated seasons in Melbourne and Sydney over Christmas and the summer months, then played engagements in other capital or regional cities throughout the remainder of the year. Its stay in each of the major metropolitan centres typically lasted up to and sometimes beyond six months. The company also spent some eighteen months touring New Zealand between 1923 and 1924. Phillips continued to write most of the material during this period (including many of the original musical numbers), with some of the more popular productions being What Oh Tonight (also known as The Beauty Parlour), A Sporting Chance, Bullfighters, Jockeys, In the Army, Police, Plumbers, In the Sanatorium, Wharfies, Waiters, and Bankers.

For most of this time, Phillips was also given the responsibility for writing and/or producing one of the Fullers' 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. Of Phillips's later pantomimes, those that involved the troupe were Babes in the Woods (1918), Cinderella (1919), Dick Whittington (1921), and Mother Goose (1922).

1920-1925: Although the Stiffy and Mo company's line-up had remained remarkably stable during its first four to five years, with only minor and infrequent changes to the principal ensemble, by the early 1920s a few new faces began to appear. Notable examples were Mike Connors and Queenie Paul, Keith Connolly, Ida Merton, and Gladys Shaw, who all joined the troupe in 1922.

When the company disbanded in Adelaide in mid-1925, several of the troupe members joined Phillips's new company The Whirligigs. Among them were Mike Connors, Queenie Paul, and Dan M. Dunbar.

1927-1928: The Stiffy and Mo Revue Company renion began in Brisbane in late February 1927, during the last few weeks of Phillips's Whirligig season at the Empire Theatre. With Jack Kellaway still a principal member of the troupe, the initial shows were advertised as Stiffy, Mo and 'Erb. When the company opened in Sydney on 19 March, however, the billing was not unsurprisingly just Stiffy and Mo. In reviewing the second week of the Sydney season, Just It records that the return of Stiffy and Mo 'almost overshadowed the Royal visit,' such was the public's interest (31 March 1927, p.28). By August, the same magazine reported that in the twenty-one weeks Stiffy and Mo had been playing in Sydney, 'there has never been the slightest let-up in the attendance- afternoon [or] evening' (11 August 1927, p.28). In mid-September, the company played its 300th consecutive performance, a house record (Just It 15 September 1927, p.28).

With the duo's popularity clearly undiminished the company went on to play an extended and sold-out season in the New South Wales capital. It secured a similar reaction in Melbourne and Adelaide and later in Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand (Aug-Nov. 1928). Shortly after returning to Australia Phillips and Rene called it quits.

The final Stiffy and Mo season was a one week engagement at Fullers' Theatre in Sydney beginning 1 December. The night after the final show Rene opened at the same theatre for the Fullers with his own company, Mo's Merrymakers in a revue called A La Carte. As with Rene, Nat Phillips was still contracted to the Fullers and hence was required to continue working their circuit until it expired (most likely in July 1929). Among his final engagements for the company were seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Most Referenced Works



    1. 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' (Age 31 October 1927, p.12), 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' (7 November 1927, p.14).

    • It is possible that a number of these sketches were created by writers other than Nat Phillips, notably Vic Roberts.

    2. Historians have long claimed that Phillips and Rene ended their partnership in New Zealand. While it is correct that the decision was made in that country, there are several pieces of evidence which make it unclear as to what actually happened during the later weeks of the tour. In his memoirs, Rene recalls that he initially resisted the decision to breakup, saying that the idea had been proposed by Phillips. He then states that it was only after they had spent some talking it over that he eventually agreed (p.103). Advertisements placed in the N.Z. Truth advertisements certainly indicate that the company had become known as Nat Phillips' Whirligigs from the second week of the company's Auckland season (8 October -), although still continuing to "feature the Stiffy and Mo series of revues."

    No evidence has yet been found which proves that the final weeks of that season were played without Rene, and indeed it would seem unlikely that they actually split up in Auckland because after returning to Australia the pair featured in a season of pantomime at Newcastle in November (Robinson Crusoe). This was followed by a final week of Stiffy and Mo shows in Sydney. The supposed break-up in New Zealand is also improbable given that, as Sadie Gale records, there was no friction between the two men. Furthermore, it would have been extremely unprofessional of Rene, and deemed unacceptable by the Fullers, if he had pulled out of the Auckland engagement for no good reason. The decision to rename the company is, however, a matter for some conjecture and further research.


    1. Nat Phillips Collection: Fryer Library, The University of Queensland. A Finding Aid to the collection is available online.

    2. The Fryer Library also provides an online display devoted to Nat Phillips: '"What Oh Tonight'": Stiffy and Mo and the Nat Phillips Collection'.


    All dates shown below are established years only. In some instances, people may have been associated with the troupe prior to or after the dates shown but these years have not yet been identified.

    1. The significant role the ensemble cast played in helping make the Stiffy and Mo revusicals so successful has long been overlooked by historians, as has Nat Phillips's contribution, in deference to the promotion of Roy Rene as the dominant factor. A closer examination of the company and its critical and public reception indicates, however, that while both Rene and Phillips were certainly the feature attractions, the troupe's success was down to a combination of other factors, not the least being the ability of the supporting actors, including the chorus/ballet, to respond to the requirements placed on them. Indeed, newspaper and magazine reviews rarely failed to mention the ensemble, and often highlighted several members of the troupe, giving them as much space as Phillips and Rene. A 1927 review published in the Age exemplifies this type of coverage: 'Much of the credit for the success of the present revue must be given to dainty Sadie Gale and that popular artist, Amy Rochelle, whose singing is so largely appreciated' (12 December 1927, p.14).

    2. It is clear that in forming his Tabloid Musical Comedy Company, Nat Phillips drew on his experience as a writer and director of farces, and, in this respect, he constructed his early shows as ensemble pieces. Many of the revusicals written between 1916 and 1918 were also revived frequently over the troupe's eleven or so years together, with the fundamental format retained. That these were seen as ensemble productions is also reflected in the responses of the critics. The Theatre Magazine's August 1916 review of A Sporting Chance, for example, sees Roy Rene receive only five lines (which, although positive in terms of his 'posturing', nevertheless suggests that singing wasn't his forte). Several other members of the troupe receive considerably more attention from the critic, however, with much of it favourable: Peter Brooks (ten lines), Daisy Merritt (five lines), Ivy Davis (nine very flattering lines), the chorus girls (nine lines), Mann and Franks (eleven lines), and Nat Phillips (twenty lines of glowing tribute to his efforts as both producer and performer) (pp.52-3). Thus, while contemporary logic proposes that Stiffy and Mo must have captivated the public and critical attention right from the start, this does not appear to have entirely be the case.

    3. Reviews from this era indicate, too, that Daisy Merritt's role in the proceedings was vital to their overall success, particularly in the repartee between herself and Phillips. The intuitive timing between the pair (the result of more than a decade working together overseas and in Australia) provided Merritt with an ideal vehicle through which she could establish her credentials as one of the most accomplished, and certainly one of the funniest, variety artists of the era. Typically, as the Theatre records of one particular scene in A Sporting Chance, Merritt's characters scored just as much laughter as her husband's (August 1916, p.53). Another key member of the initial company was Maisie Pollard, whose career stretched back to early childhood. Her experience provided the troupe with a high level of professionalism, while her 'principal girl' looks and demeanour provided an appealing female love interest for Peter Brooks's juvenile characters.

    4. Sometimes, the company brought guest performers to fill out roles, and in these situations Phillips could draw on any performers available from the first part vaudeville programme. This occurred, for example, with A Sporting Chance, when popular sketch artists Courtney Ford and Ivy Davis were brought in to play additional roles. Nellie Kolle made a guest appearance with the company during its 1917 Melbourne season, while seasoned character comedian Charles Zoli briefly joined the troupe in 1928.

    5. The core membership of the first Stiffy and Mo line-up was particularly strong, comprising well-established and experienced variety performers. In this respect, Phillips was aware of the same need to surround himself with quality performers that Bert Le Blanc admits made his career so successful ('A Chat with Bert Le Blanc'). With the nucleus of the original troupe remaining remarkably stable during the first two years, the company quickly built a reputation for adapting quickly to improvisation, an aspect of performance that both Rene and Phillips excelled in. Young actor/singer Peter Brooks, described by the Theatre Magazine as having a 'particularly good stage appearance' (August 1916, pp.52-53), provided the cast with a suitably heroic character, while ex-J. C. Williamson's singer/actor Walter Whyte and Horace Mann were cast as fathers/older husbands, and invariably the targets of Rene and Phillips's larrikinism.

    6. Key troupe members were Peter Brooks (1916-24, 1928 ), Keith Connelly (1922-1925), Mike Connors (1922-1925), Eva Courtney (1917), Vince Courtney (1917-1918), Alec Davidson (1927), Doris (Dot) Davis [aka Mrs Roy Rene 1] (1917-1925), Dan M. Dunbar (1917-1925, 1927-1928), Caddie Franks (1916-1920), Sadie Gale (1927-1928), Chester Harris (1919-1920), Walter Jackson [aka Walter Whyte] (1916-1918, 1921 ), Alec Kellaway (1927), Jack Kellaway (1927-1928), Al Mack (1928), Horace Mann (1916-1920), Daisy Merritt (1916-1925, 1927-28), Ida Merton (1922), Marie Nyman (1927), Doc O'Brien (1922), Cliff O'Keefe (1917-1918), Queenie Paul (1922-1925), Belle Pollard (1917-18, 1921), Maisie Pollard (1916-1917), Amy Rochelle (1919-20, 1927-1928), Harry Ross (1927), Gladys Shaw (1922-1925), Dan Weldon (1927-1928).

    7. Short term performers and/or guest artists included Gerald Cashman (1921), Tom Collins (1928), Hal Cooper (1927), Ivy Davis (1916), Jack Dennis (1919), Courtney Ford (1916), Lou Harris (1920), Lola Hunt (1921), Nellie Kolle (1917), Will Liddle (1920), David Lyle (1925), Dorothy Manning (1927), Polly Power (1927), Harry Sadler (1916), Cec. Scott (1928), Hilda Statler (1928), Statler Sisters (1927), Catherine (Kitty) Stewart (1928), Charles Zoli (1928).

    8. Chorus members associated with the troupe included Rene Albert (1925), Bess Blackwell (1916), Rosie Bowie (choreographer - 1916-22), Gwen Brandon (1917, 1919-22), Linea Burns (1916), Thelma Duff (1922), Beatty Glow (1916), Freda Helston (1922), Iris Foye (1916), Sylvia Gardiner (1928), Linda Klume (1917), Marie McLaughlin (1922), Little June Mills (1928), Dot O'Dea (1916-17, 1921), Olga Pietriche (1917), Rene Redfern (1917), Terry Sisters (1928), Olive Thompson (1917), Phyllis Whisken (1917), Flo Wilson (1922).

    9. The musicians and ensembles known to have supported the Stiffy and Mo ensemble were:

    • W. Hamilton Webber (1919), music director.
    • Charles Ryder (1922), music director.
    • The Charleston Symphonists [aka Charleston Super Six Symphonists] (1927-28), incl. Frank Wilson, 'Tiny' Douglas, Art Dewar, Frank Morton, Les Clements (music director).
    • Meredith's Jazz Band (1928).

    10. Additional notes and/or historical clarification:

    • Bess Blackwell's Christian name has also been billed as 'Belle.'
    • Dot Davis is believed to have started with the troupe in 1917 as a chorus member.
    • Freda Helston's surname is sometimes spelled 'Hellston.'
    • Horace Mann and Caddie Franks were already regarded as two of Australia's premiere comedy sketch artists when they joined the troupe in 1916.
    • David Lyle's surname is sometimes spelled 'Lylle.'
    • Doc O'Brien: It is unclear whether he is Lorne O'Brien (also associated with the Mademoiselle Mimi Diggers) , W. O'Brien, or someone else entirely.
    • Radio Six: The ballet/chorus was originally known as The Panama Six (ca. 1916) but soon afterwards became The Radio Six (aka The Six Radio Girls, The Radio Girls, and The Radio Ballet). A reference to The Dandy Six in 1925 is believed to have been a newspaper error.
    • Walter Whyte appeared on the vaudeville stage under the name Walter Jackson, and under this name was associated for a number of years with Maisie Pollard (as Pollard and Jackson).
  • Entries connected with this record have been sourced from on-going historical research into Australian-written music theatre and film being conducted by Dr Clay Djubal.
Last amended 1 Jul 2016 11:40:26
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