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Gerald, James (Jim) (1891–1971)

by Martha Rutledge

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

James Gerald (1891-1971), by unknown photographer, c1926

James Gerald (1891-1971), by unknown photographer, c1926

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22934834

James (Jim) Gerald (1891-1971), comedian, was born on 2 January 1891 at Darlington, Sydney, seventh son of native-born parents Stephen Australia Fitzgerald, a cutter who became an actor, and his wife Mary Ann, née Ingram. A nephew of J. D. Fitzgerald, Jim played truant from school to watch acrobats practising on the sandhills behind Centennial Park, learned to tumble and haunted his uncles' circus. Three of his brothers went on the stage as 'Max Clifton', 'Lance Vane' and 'Cliff Stevens'. About 1898 he joined Oscar Pagel, a strongman in Fitzgerald Bros' Circus, travelled with his troupe to South Africa, and then toured Africa, Asia and North America.

Back in Australia by 1908, Fitzgerald tented with several circuses; as 'Diabolo' he was billed as the first man to loop the loop on a motorcycle. Five ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, with blue eyes and black hair, he joined the Fullers' vaudeville circuit in 1912 as 'Jim Gerald', an acrobat and wire-walker. On 21 July 1913 at St Peter's Anglican Church, Wellington, New Zealand, he married Esther Patience Futcher, a 27-year-old actress known as 'Essie Jennings'. A knockabout act with his wife, 'The Actress and the Paperhanger', made his name as a comedian.

Fitzgerald enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 May 1916 and served in Mesopotamia as a driver with the 1st Australian and New Zealand Wireless Signal Squadron. Discharged on 12 October 1918, he returned to the Fullers' circuit and was soon asked by (Sir) Benjamin Fuller to write and produce his own revue sketches. He had seen the funny side of soldiering in Mesopotamia and his act, 'The New Recruit', remained popular for years. Unlike his contemporaries Roy Rene and George Wallace, Gerald was 'unashamedly international' in his work. Almost every Christmas he played the dame in pantomimes. He made some thirty silent films in the United States of America in 1928, and was influenced by Charlie Chaplin whom he greatly admired.

When the Fullers folded in 1933, Gerald continued to play six-month seasons in Sydney and Melbourne under various managements. In 1935-36 he appeared in several revues at the Garrick Theatre, London, including Don't Spare the Horses. Returning to Sydney, in May 1936 he featured in Shout for Joy. One critic wrote that he 'cannot particularly sing nor does he know much about dancing, but he is undoubtedly a master of patter, of quick, well-timed delivery and retort'. Gerald signed a contract with the Australian Broadcasting Commission in February 1939; he starred in 'Jim and Jitters' with Jim Davidson's A.B.C. Dance Band and conducted the Saturday 'After-Dinner Show'. Next year he formed his own radio-production company.

On 10 April 1941 Gerald was appointed honorary lieutenant colonel in the A.I.F. Placed in charge of the Entertainment Unit, he embarked for the Middle East on 1 September in the Queen Elizabeth. A shrewd organizer and an experienced producer, he gathered Davidson and his band, comedians, singers, jugglers, acrobats and trick cyclists, as well as backstage technicians, 'among them costume designers, seamstresses and electricians'. At his headquarters at Tel Aviv, Palestine, he recruited a female chorus line. The first performance at Gaza of All in Fun was 'received with rapturous applause'.

Home again in October 1942, Gerald transferred to the retired list on 31 December. He joined the Tivoli circuit and appeared in the revue, Stripped for Action (1943). In 1951 he played the happy roué in Ladies' Night in a Turkish Bath. He shared top billing with Wallace in Thanks for the Memory, at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, in 1953 and toured for three years in that revue. He was 'as uproariously funny as ever though not as spry' in The Good Old Days (Sydney, 1957). Next year he retired to St Kilda, Melbourne. Gerald enjoyed watching any kind of sport, but his passion was for motoring: he owned a succession of cars which he drove across America, through Europe, the Middle East and Britain, and all over Australia. After Essie's death in 1969, he moved into a home at Rosebud. He died there on 2 March 1971 and was cremated. 'Jim Gerald was probably best remembered for his versatility—as a big-eared oaf in baggy pants and shapeless hat, as a seemingly rubber-boned and pathetically droll clown and as Australia's greatest pantomime dame.'

Select Bibliography

  • K. Burke (ed), With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia (Syd, 1927)
  • N. Bridges and F. Crook, Curtain Call (Syd, 1980)
  • M. Pate, An Entertaining War (Syd, 1986)
  • P. Parsons (ed), A Companion to Theatre in Australia (Syd, 1995)
  • Wireless Weekly, 17 Feb 1939
  • ABC Weekly, 16 Dec 1939, p 60
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 26 Nov 1949
  • People (Sydney), 1 Aug 1951
  • Bulletin, 5 Aug, 9 Sept 1926, 28 May 1930, 3 May 1933
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Nov 1928, 31 Oct 1935, 29-30 May 1936, 27 May 1939, 11 Apr, 10 June, 24 Oct, 25 Dec 1941, 13 Oct 1942, 17, 20 Apr 1943, 3 Mar 1971
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 28 Nov 1973.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Gerald, James (Jim) (1891–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gerald-james-jim-10293/text18211, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 December 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 14

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