Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Oldaker, Maxwell Charles (Max) (1907–1972)

by Gillian Winter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Maxwell Charles (Max) Oldaker (1907-1972), singer and actor, was born on 17 December 1907 at Devonport, Tasmania, only child of Tasmanian-born parents Charles Edmund Wells Oldaker, farmer, and his wife Alice Mabel, née Wade. He was sent to Devonport High School, but showed no interest in his studies and left early to work in a record shop. Success in music examinations and eisteddfods confirmed his ability as a pianist and singer. The Westminster Glee Singers visited Devonport in 1930 and engaged him as a tenor for their tour of Australia and the Far East; when the company experienced financial difficulties, his contract was broken.

Undeterred, Oldaker travelled to England in search of experience in the theatre. He had good looks, elegance and a natural charm. His fine lyric voice was soon enhanced by professional training and by work that ranged from opera to vaudeville, including broadcasting and recording. On 3 August 1931 at Eastbourne, Sussex, he made his theatrical début in The Chocolate Soldier. Joining the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in the following year, he understudied leading tenors and played small parts in the company's extensive repertoire.

In October 1934 Oldaker entered the Royal Academy of Music, London, on a Walter Stokes free-tuition scholarship. He took jobs in films and on radio to make a living until he graduated in 1936 with the Arnold Bax prize for the best pianist-singer. The academy's conductor (Sir) John Barbirolli predicted that he would have a distinguished operatic career. Declining an invitation from J. C. Williamson Ltd to join 'the Firm' in Australia, Oldaker was selected in 1937 by (Sir) Noël Coward for the leading juvenile singing role in Operette.

The outbreak of World War II and a renewed offer from J. C. Williamson's led Oldaker to return to Melbourne in October 1939. He was received as a celebrity. Over the next decade he became a star performer and a matinée idol. In spite of his triumphs, a combination of diffidence and reserve tended to hamper his otherwise brilliant career.

Although Oldaker registered for military service, he was not called up. He made his contribution to the war effort by involving himself in fund-raising activities. At this time he began to compose works for the piano and was elected a member (1941) of the Australian Composers' Guild; he also appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and—with Gladys Moncrieff—in The Maid of the Mountains and The Merry Widow. While critical of J. C. Williamson's treatment of its employees, he did not support strikes organized by the Actors' and Announcers' Equity Association of Australia because he felt a duty to the theatre-going public.

After the war Oldaker enjoyed success in The Desert Song, The Dancing Years, and Gay Rosalinda. He visited England in 1948-50, but found postwar theatre very different from that of the 1930s. In 1951-52 he made a national tour with the John Alden Company; in 1953 he appeared in White Horse Inn in major Australian cities. Late in 1957 Oldaker travelled to England and secured the role of understudy to (Sir) Rex Harrison, the leading man in My Fair Lady. He was acclaimed for his appearances as Professor Higgins, but was bitterly disappointed when he was not offered the part in the Australian production. Returning to Tasmania in 1959 to care for his invalid parents, he undertook radio and television broadcasting, vocal teaching, acting, producing, and music and theatre reviewing for the Launceston Examiner. In addition, he performed in musicals and revues on the mainland, notably at the Phillip Street Theatre, Sydney. Even though he was fully occupied, he continued to feel isolated from professional theatre in England.

Max Oldaker, who was homosexual, died of a coronary occlusion on 1 February 1972 at Launceston and was cremated. Charles Osborne, his biographer, concluded that he was more than a star: 'he was a generous, sensitive and life-enhancing man, with a rare gift for friendship'. A room in the Princess Theatre, Launceston, is named in Oldaker's memory; it contains memorabilia associated with his career, including Grant Macdonald's sketch (1938) of him. A portrait in oils is held by the Launceston Local Studies Library.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Osborne, Max Oldaker (Lond, 1988)
  • Tatler (London), 6 Apr 1939
  • Examiner (Launceston), 31 Aug 1940, 16 July 1958, 11 Aug 1970, 3 Feb 1972, 21 Sept 1973
  • Oldaker papers (Launceston Local Studies Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gillian Winter, 'Oldaker, Maxwell Charles (Max) (1907–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oldaker-maxwell-charles-max-11296/text20159, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 28 July 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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