Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arlen, Albert (1905–1993)

by James Koehne

This article was published online in 2017

This is a shared entry with Nancy Brown

Albert Arlen (1905–1993), composer, actor, playwright, theatrical producer, and pianist, and Nancy Brown Arlen (1909–2003), singer, actress, and lyricist, were husband and wife. He was born Albert Aaron on 10 January 1905 in Sydney, second and only surviving of four sons of Ezra Abraham Aaron, draper, and his wife Matilda, née Abraham. Albert’s father reported that he and Matilda had been born in Turkey and that they had married in Sydney. Although Albert confessed not to know much about his background, he would later state that his father had been born in Baghdad, that his mother’s family came from India, and that theirs was an arranged marriage. The family moved regularly between rented properties in the inner suburbs of Sydney. Albert was educated at Cleveland Street Intermediate High School and Crown Street Public School. He considered his father a ‘stick-in-the-mud’ (Arlen 1989), and drew greater sustenance from his mother’s interest in theatre and music.

Arlen’s piano studies began at the age of seven, passing along a succession of teachers. Hearing a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was the epiphany that drove him to pursue serious studies at the piano. He eventually found his way to Frank Hutchens at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, whom he found ‘sympatico’ (Arlen 1989) and engaging, and under whose guidance the young pianist flourished. At the age of eleven he had his first taste of the theatrical life when he appeared as one of the Lost Boys in a production of Peter Pan at the Criterion Theatre. Concurrently, he served as an accompanist in the musical evenings that featured in Sydney’s social life.

After leaving school at fifteen, Arlen contributed to the family income by taking odd jobs. In 1923 Ezra departed overseas in search of his fortune, and shortly after, Matilda returned to her family in Calcutta, taking Albert with her. He was able to establish an income there as a pianist with a theatre orchestra and dance band at the Saturday Club. In less than a year Matilda returned to Australia to reunite with her husband, while Albert chose to try his hand in London. He soon found employment playing the piano in theatre and dance orchestras, including a stint on board a cruise liner that stopped in New York, which gave him the opportunity to experience Broadway shows at first hand.

Beckoned home to Sydney by his parents, Arlen resumed piano studies with Hutchens, who introduced him to the violinist Ernest Long, with whom he established a popular and long-running engagement playing for diners at a city restaurant. They were later joined by the bass-baritone Wilfrid Thomas, forming the Trio de Paris. He also gained further experience as an actor, in plays presented by the Playbox Theatre at the Hotel Australia in Sydney’s bohemian centre, Rowe Street. In 1929 he decided to return to Europe to continue his progress towards a career as a concert pianist. Although he attended classes at the École Normale de Musique de Paris for a few months, he could not afford the costs of tuition, and instead went on to London to resume his former way of life, freelancing as an accompanist and a pianist in theatre and dance orchestras.

Inspired by Jerome Kern’s The Cat and the Fiddle, which he saw in London in 1932, Arlen started writing songs, musicals, and plays, with modest but immediate success. Throughout the 1930s, he contributed songs for a musical version of the play High Temperature; a revue called Ladies’ Night; an unproduced musical, Stardust; and a play co-written with Cyril Butcher, Counterfeit!, performed at the Richmond and Duke of York’s theatres in 1939. He had by this time begun to use the surname ‘Arlen.’ Inspired by his discovery of a Chinese story by Charles Pettit called The Son of the Grand Eunuch, his version of the tale as a play was produced at the Arts Theatre in Soho in January 1937. None of these shows enjoyed substantial seasons, though individual songs, as well as songs or ballads written specifically for his publishers, Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew, did gain popularity: My Life is a Love Song (1936) and Amore (1939) were two he recalled as hits.

With the outbreak of World War II, Arlen enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1940. He served with No. 905 Balloon Squadron. Commissioned in 1941, he was posted to the Middle East, where he served mostly as an adjutant and public relations officer, being promoted to flying officer (1942) and flight lieutenant (1945). While he was recuperating in a Cairo hospital from a beating sustained in Tripoli, he conceived the idea of composing a piano concerto to celebrate the Allied victory at El Alamein. Presented by the Entertainments National Service Association at a concert in Cairo in 1944, The Alamein Concerto was widely broadcast and recorded by Peggy Cochrane with Jack Payne, and by Monia Liter with Mantovani. To follow it, he composed The Song of England (1946), which made a feature of Churchill’s wartime speeches. He was posted to Singapore, where he was transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment Unit (the successor to ENSA).

Returning to Sydney in 1947, Arlen noted a new interest in Australian identity, and turned his attention to Australian subject matter, with a ballad setting of Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow (1948). His publishers would take little interest until the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired it in an orchestration by Charles Mackerras, who recorded it with Peter Dawson in 1955. In 1948 he changed his surname to Arlen by deed poll. While he was working as program manager at Sydney radio station 2UW, he met—through mutual friends at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC)—Nancy Brown, who had recently returned to Australia after a significant career in London as a singer of light opera and an actor.

Born on 26 August 1909 in Brisbane, Brown was the eldest of three children of Victorian-born George Earle Brown, manager, and his New South Wales-born wife Rita Lillian, née Collins. After her family moved to Sydney, Nancy had attended Brighton College, Randwick. Her parents separated, and Rita was encouraged by her cousin, the composer Arthur Benjamin, to come to London. Nancy and her siblings moved with their mother in 1923. Following a year at Dorking High School, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1925, and soon secured small roles in the commercial theatre. Among the stage productions and tours in which she participated were Love’s a Terrible Thing (1926), Showboat (1928), My Sister and I (1931), The Land of Smiles (1931), Viktoria and her Hussar (1931), Maritza (1938), Let’s All Go Down the Strand (1939), Old Chelsea (1943), and The Night and the Laughter (1946). Old Chelsea was composed by the famed tenor Richard Tauber, and Brown was a leading lady in the show. In 1932 she starred in the film version of Harold Fraser-Simson’s Maid of the Mountains (1915), and in 1933 took three further roles in early British films: A Southern Maid, Facing the Music, and Red Wagon. She had married Oscar Donald Thompson, a singer whose professional name was Donald Kingston, on 3 October 1929 at the register office, Chelsea, London; they later divorced.

Nancy and Albert married on 31 January 1949 at Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, Sydney. Making their home in Canberra, Albert found employment in the public service, while Nancy worked initially in a shoe shop owned by her mother, and later in a bookshop. They worked as a partnership in a constant struggle to develop musicals for the stage. Their crowning achievement was a musical version of C. J. Dennis’s The Sentimental Bloke, initially in their own production at the Albert Hall in Canberra in 1961 but, after its success there, in a professional production by J. C. Williamson’s Ltd, which triumphed in a tour of several Australian cities and New Zealand. The musical has enjoyed a consistent performance life ever since, chiefly among amateur musical and theatrical societies. In 1976 the ABC broadcast a television production with a new cast, and John Lanchbery adapted a dance version for the Australian Ballet, choreographed by Robert Ray in 1985.

During the 1950s, the Arlens had made two trips to London seeking to realise The Bloke. After their intended librettist, George Johnston, pulled out of the project, the public servant and actor Lloyd Thomson joined the team as his replacement. The couple were able to present some of their work through the Canberra Repertory Society, including a musical inspired by the sight of the snow-capped Brindabellas, The Girl from the Snowy (1960).

After the success of The Bloke, the Arlens moved to Watsons Bay in Sydney. They continued to develop musical ventures, while Albert worked at Nicholson’s music store and Nancy set up an amateur company, Shopwindow Theatre, which presented The Girl from the Snowy in 1969. An amateur production of a new musical by Arlen, Brown, and Thomson, Marriages Are Made in Heaven, was staged in Canberra in 1968. Unrealised projects included Oh! Gosh, based on Dennis’s The Glugs of Gosh, and Omar, based on the life and writings of Omar Khayyam, intended for the Australian Opera.

In addition to musicals, plays, and songs, Arlen composed piano music throughout his career, mostly mood music, such as Night Club (An Atmospheric Impression) (1946), Requiem for a Siamese Cat (1965), and Spinnakers: A Sketch of Sydney Harbour (1970). Some pieces were presented as light music on radio in orchestrated versions, as was The King’s Cross Suite (c. 1948) and The Pagoda of Jade Suite, the latter being broadcast by the BBC on 10 August 1939.

The couple, who had no children, retired to Maroochydore, Queensland, and in 1990 Albert was appointed AM. He died on 24 March 1993 at Buderim and was cremated. Nancy published her memoirs, The Black Sheep of the Brown Family: A Magic Life!, in 2001. She died on 27 October 2003 at Maroochydore and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Arlen, Albert. Interview by Beryl Davis and Laurel Garlick, 12 January and 23 February 1989. Transcript. Esso Performing Arts collection. National Library of Australia

  • Brisbane, Katharine, ed. Entertaining Australia: An Illustrated History. Sydney: Currency Press, 1991

  • Brown, Nancy. Interview by Beryl Davis, 15 March 1989. Transcript. Esso Performing Arts collection. National Library of Australia

  • National Library of Australia. MS6311, Papers of Albert Arlen (1905–1993) and Nancy Brown (1909–)

  • Thomson, John. ‘An Australian Bloke: Albert Arlen and His Musicals.’ National Library of Australia News 15, no. 2 (November 2004): 19–21.

Additional Resources

Citation details

James Koehne, 'Arlen, Albert (1905–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/arlen-albert-22073/text32021, published online 2017, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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