Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fisher, Bettie (1939–1976)

by Anna Cole and Wendy Lewis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Bettie Fisher (1939?-1976), singer and Aboriginal theatre administrator, was born possibly in 1939 at Berry, New South Wales, daughter of Leslie Amburlah and his wife Christine, née Connolly. Bettie belonged to the Jirrinja people on the Greenwell Point Mission; her totem was Mirrigan (dog). In the mid-1940s she moved with her family to Newcastle and attended Cardiff Public School until she was expelled at the age of 12. Her marriage to a man named Fisher ended in divorce. Bettie Fisher had seventeen years (c.1954-71) experience as a jazz and blues singer on the New South Wales and Queensland club circuits. On 2 December 1962 she sang Up a Lazy River and Basin Street Blues on 'Bandstand' on television station TCN-9. In the 1960s she appeared with Jimmy and Freddy Little in the first all-Black show to do the club rounds. She joined (1971) the executive-committee of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, a non-government funded Aboriginal rights organization.

In 1974 Bettie Fisher became administrator of the newly established Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre in a Redfern warehouse leased from the Methodist Church for $15,000 a year. The centre was an Aboriginal initiative that received—after sixteen months of lobbying—minimal government funding ($9200) from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1975 and in the following year a grant from the Federal government of $86,000. With the help of friends such as Tom Hogan and Kevin Cook from the Australian Builders' Labourers Federation, she renovated the old warehouse and developed a theatre and studio area. The centre ran drama classes under Bryan Syron, held workshops for inner-city Blacks in modern dancing, tribal dancing, writing for theatre, karate and photography, and provided a venue for new Aboriginal drama. Under Fisher's direction a dance company of five girls and two boys was formed.

The first play staged at the theatre, The Chocolate Frog, was written by Jim McNeil; due to Fisher's initiatives, it was the subject of workshops conducted for inmates of Sydney prisons. Another of the earliest plays to be performed at the centre was The Cake Man, written by Robert Merritt from Erambie Aborigines' Reserve, Cowra, and directed by Bob Maza, with Black leads taken by Justine Saunders and Zac Martin. The centre also functioned as an informal meeting-place for Redfern Blacks who previously had few places in which to gather, save for the local pubs where they encountered prejudice from the Whites and aggression from the police.

Fisher contacted touring international Black artists to invite them to perform at the Black Theatre. Despite resistance by a number of non-Aboriginal entertainment managers, visitors included Russand Roland Kirk, Roberta Flack, the band, 'Osibisa', and the Ghanaian drummers. Following the death of her lover Alan King, she and Tom Hogan held a marriage ceremony in 1972 at the Black Theatre hall. A physically striking woman, tall and robust, with dark skin and green eyes, she had presence, as well as a passionate commitment to Black rights. Fisher was involved in negotiations with the Department of Education to introduce 'Aboriginality' to schools. She hoped that representatives from each major Black organization, together with Black performers and painters, would visit schools to address students and demonstrate the richness of their culture. In April 1976 she took part in the opening of an 'Aboriginal Embassy' in Mugga Way, Canberra.

Earlier that year Maza had claimed, 'It's easy to attack her because she's a loudmouthed woman, rough, arrogant, independent of men and has this animosity for whites. But she needs support rather than attack. She's got a raw sort of courage . . . You've got to give her her due: she's a real boots-and-all campaigner'. Bettie Fisher died of coronary arteriosclerosis on 12 May 1976 at Royal South Sydney Hospital and was cremated; her ashes were interred in the Methodist section of Botany cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Aboriginal Affairs Monthly, 1, Oct 1974
  • Mereki, 1, 15 Nov 1974, p 25
  • Identity, July 1975, p 28, July 1976, p 13, Oct 1976, p 10
  • Theatre Quarterly, Summer 1977, p 98
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jan 1975, 13 May 1976
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 22 June 1975
  • National Times, 12-17 Jan 1976, p 26
  • private information.

Citation details

Anna Cole and Wendy Lewis, 'Fisher, Bettie (1939–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fisher-bettie-10187/text18001, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Amburlah, Bettie
  • Hogan, Bettie
Birth

1939
Berry, New South Wales, Australia

Death

12 May 1976
South Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation