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Alexander, Hal (1902–1990)

by Drew Cottle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Hal Alexander (1902-1990), dancer and trade-union official, was born on 21 June 1902 at Newcastle, New South Wales, and named Robert Alexander, son of Laura Williams, who was also born in that city. His father, whose name is unknown, left soon after his birth. When Robert was 4 years old a `stepfather’, Bartholomew Bainbridge, `arrived on the scene’; Bainbridge and Laura married in 1911. Robert Williams attended Cooks Hill School and Newcastle South School until he was 13 years old. He had discovered dancing at age 12. In 1919 his mother died and Bainbridge sent him and his half-sister, Laurel, to live with their maternal grandmother in Newcastle. As a teenager, Robert worked at many jobs, including `sparrow starver’ (required to walk behind horses and scoop their manure into bins), navvy at the steelworks and cook for gangers of the Main Roads Department. He met Madonna Irene Siostrom on a Newcastle dance floor early in 1924. They became dancing partners and married on 20 December 1924 in the district registrar’s office, Merewether, but later divorced.

In Sydney Robert enrolled at Professor Alcorn’s Pitt Street dance studio, where he was taught to `buck’n’wing’ (tap dance). His first professional engagement was in the chorus line of an Ernest C. Rolls production. During the Depression the Williams family was on the track—Robert danced where and when he could. In Adelaide, when he was hired as a dancer in a theatrical show which toured Port Augusta and Port Pirie, he adopted the name `Hal Alexander’ and teamed up with a `cracker’ tap-dancer, Jimmy Hart. They entered and won non-stop dancing contests, then hitchhiked east and were hired at Alexander the Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne, as the dancing team `Alexander and Hart’.

By 1934 Alexander and his son, Bob, were a double act, specialising in soft-shoe song-and-dance routines, and comical patter. They appeared in identical black and white checked suits and bowler hats. Father and son danced across Australia for little money. During this period, stage performers were varied, itinerant and industrially unorganised. Alexander gained a reputation among employers as a `stirrer and a firebrand’ who demanded higher pay and better working conditions, but he won respect from other performers. In 1935 he joined the union, the Actors’ Federation of Australasia.

When Alexander was in Sydney in a J. C. Williamson show, he was sacked by the stage manager who, arguing that there were too many dancers, drew his name from a hat. After his dismissal, he and his supporters began to organise within their union, from 1936 called Actors’ Equity of Australia. In the late 1930s, influenced by his experience of life rather than his reading of Marx and Lenin, he joined the Communist Party of Australia. In 1939 he stood for the position of general secretary of Actors’ Equity. He was not elected, but claimed that the incumbent secretary, Bertie Wright, had rorted the election. Wright resigned and Alexander was appointed general secretary, a position, initially unpaid, that he held until his retirement in 1971.

Alexander’s term as secretary of Actors’ Equity of Australia (from 1945, Actors and Announcers’ Equity Association of Australia) was a period in which performers gained standard contracts, rehearsal pay, sick leave, annual leave and minimum rates. Dedicated to his work and having a deep sense of class injustice, Alexander was a capable tactician. This quality was shown in the 1944 Equity strike on the issue of non-union theatre employees. After Actors’ Equity members refused to perform in Williamson’s productions and the striking performers launched their own well-attended show in Melbourne, the company agreed to 100 per cent union membership. As a union leader, Alexander imposed policy from above, rarely seeking a consensus. This approach led to conflict with others including his son. He was a strong advocate of Australian culture on the stage, screen and wireless. Actors’ Equity awarded him honorary life membership.

On 29 October 1976 Alexander married June Margaret Humphrey at the registry of births, deaths and marriages, Sydney. In 1983 he was awarded the OAM. Brown-haired, light-footed and lean, Alexander throughout his long life retained the look of a dancer. Although baptised a Catholic, he was a lifelong atheist. He died on 20 June 1990 at Botany, and was cremated. His son, Bob, who had succeeded him as secretary of Actors’ Equity, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 Nov 1946, p 27
  • Equity (Darlinghurst), Dec 1979/Jan 1980, p 27, Nov 1989, p 31, Nov 1990, p 1
  • Hal Alexander (film, 1980)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Drew Cottle, 'Alexander, Hal (1902–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/alexander-hal-12127/text21403, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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