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Rene, Roy (Mo) (1891–1954)

by Celestine McDermott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Roy Rene (1891-1954), by unknown photographer, 1933

Roy Rene (1891-1954), by unknown photographer, 1933

National Archives of Australia, A1861:6443

Roy (Mo) Rene (1891-1954), comedian, was born on 15 February 1891, at Hindley Street, Adelaide, fourth of seven children of a Dutch Jew, Hyam (Henry) Sluice or Sluys, cigarmaker, and his Anglo-Jewish wife Amelia, née Barnett. Named Henry Vande (later spelt variously), he received a sketchy education at the Dominican Convent, a Christian Brothers school and Grote Street Public School. Aged 10 Harry won a singing competition at an Adelaide market, and in 1905 appeared professionally in the pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, at the Theatre Royal and later at the Tivoli in a black-face, singing and dancing act.

About 1905 the Sluice family moved to Melbourne, Harry was briefly an apprentice jockey and thereafter maintained a keen interest in racing (his brothers Albert and Lou became leading bookmakers). Despite his father's opposition, in July 1908 he secured an engagement with James Brennan's vaudeville at the Gaiety Theatre. Of medium height with a distinctly Jewish profile, dark hair, a pale smooth complexion and large soulful brown eyes, 'Boy Roy' had an appealing pathos. Most of his spare time was spent studying the famous English music-hall comedians at Harry Rickards' Opera House.

Unsuccessful in Melbourne, he appeared at Brennan's National Amphitheatre, Sydney, in 1910 and had adopted the name 'Roy Rene' (Rene after a famous French clown). Later he joined J. C. Bain's suburban vaudeville in Sydney and toured New South Wales with bush companies. While playing at Bain's Princess Theatre, Railway Square, Sydney, in 1914 he was noticed by (Sir) Benjamin Fuller, who engaged him to tour New Zealand. He developed his unique style and perfected the black and white make-up which became his trademark. Returning to Sydney in November 1915, he joined Albert Bletsoe's revue company at the Fullers' National Theatre in Sydney.

In July 1916 Rene ('Mo') teamed up with comedian Nat Phillips ('Stiffy'), and the duo became the famous—or infamous—'Stiffy' and 'Mo', renowned for their bawdy, 'blue' comedy. They opened at the Sydney Princess, were an instant success, and in December moved to the Grand Opera House, playing in the spectacular pantomime, The Bunyip, followed by a season in Melbourne. On 29 March 1917 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Harry Vander Sluice married an actress Dorothy (Dot) Claire Davis; childless, they were divorced in May 1929.

'Stiffy' and 'Mo' played on the Fullers' circuit with enormous success until 1925 when, after a confrontation in Adelaide, they split up. Rene continued his tour at the Luxor, Perth, with a member of his company, Mike Connors, as his straight man. In 1925-26 Rene appeared with outstanding success in a straight play, Give and Take, starring American comedian Harry Green, in Melbourne and Sydney.

Back on the Tivoli circuit in May 1926, he was partnered by Fred Bluett in an act entitled 'The Admiral and the Sailor'. Fuller persuaded him to rejoin Phillips in 1927; once again 'Stiffy' and 'Mo' broke box-office records, but the partnership finally broke up in New Zealand in 1928. Rene returned to Fuller's Theatre in Sydney with his own company, Mo and his Merrymakers.

In Sydney on 3 July 1929 Rene married with Presbyterian forms Sadie Gale, a member of his company. Six months later he collapsed with peritonitis while appearing in Frank Neil's revue, Clowns in Clover, in Melbourne and nearly died. He returned to the theatre in mid-1930 for Hugh McIntosh in a revue, Pot Luck, at the Tivoli, Melbourne, but business was bad. Rene and Sadie resorted to a tour of Hoyts' suburban theatres in Sydney, followed by a brief vaudeville season in New Zealand, but the Fullers were disbanding their revue companies.

In April 1931 Rene joined Connors and his wife Queenie Paul, who had successfully opened low-priced, weekly-change variety at the New Haymarket Theatre, Sydney. By 1932 the Connors had taken over the Melbourne Tivoli and converted the old Sydney Opera House to the new Tivoli, where Rene and Jim Gerald continued to appear after the Connors sold out in mid-1933. In 1934 he made his only film, Strike Me Lucky, for Ken Hall at Cinesound; however film was not his medium, as rapport with a live audience was essential to his comedy. Early next year Rene played in Ernest C. Rolls's lavish revue, Rhapsodies of 1935, at the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne. In 1935-36, in partnership with Connors and Paul, he appeared in variety in Sydney and Melbourne, then returned to the Tivoli at the instigation of English producer Wallace Parnell. By early 1939 Rene was in conflict with Frank Neil, general manager of the Tivoli, who terminated his contract: on Neil's death in January 1941 Parnell immediately reinstated him. Throughout World War II Rene played to packed houses, but his contract was not renewed in 1945.

Turning to radio in 1946, Rene signed a contract with Colgate-Palmolive Pty Ltd to appear in 'Calling the Stars' with a live audience at the 2GB theatrette in Sydney; his much-acclaimed 'McCackie Mansion' was a highlight. He later appeared in 'Cavalcade' with Jack Davey, and as Professor McCackie in 'It Pays to be Ignorant'. Rene briefly returned to the stage in 1949 in the revue, McCackie Moments, at the Kings in Melbourne. By the time his radio contract expired in 1950 he was plagued by ill health; he appeared once in 'McCackie Manor' for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1951 and in 1952 starred in 'The New Atlantic Show', again capturing a nationwide audience.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Rene died of atherosclerotic heart disease at his home at Kensington, Sydney, on 22 November 1954 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery.

Although unknown overseas, 'Mo' was hailed by visiting celebrities such as Dame Sybil Thorndike and Jack Benny as a comic genius in the company of Chaplin. Lecherous, leering and ribald, he epitomized the Australian 'lair', always trying to 'make a quid' or to 'knock off a sheila'; yet some of his funniest moments were when he was being 'posh', as in his outrageous parody of Noël Coward's Private Lives with Sadie.

Off-stage he was serious, but often quite unconsciously funny and an inveterate practical-joker. He delighted in the recognition and adulation of his 'mob', yet sought constant reassurance from friends and colleagues, and other comedians were inevitably viewed as antagonists, regardless of their personal relationship.

'Mo's' greatest asset was his superb timing, which enabled him to 'get away with' the suggestive double entendre—he never did say anything technically obscene. Able to make his audience laugh or cry, he was a master of the physical nuance; his facial expression, gesture, stance and movement were welded within the black and white caricature of a Jewish comedian, with Australian mannerisms, delivering local vernacular with a Semitic lisp. His departure from the Tivoli in 1945 marked the end of an era in Australian theatre.

His portrait (1948) by Hal Thornton is held by his family.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Rene, Mo's Memoirs, E. Lambert compiler and M. Harris editor (Melb, 1945)
  • F. Parsons, A Man Called Mo (Melb, 1973)
  • J. West, Theatre in Australia (Syd, 1978)
  • C. McDermott, Australian Music Hall Theatre (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1980)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 1910.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Celestine McDermott, 'Rene, Roy (Mo) (1891–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rene-roy-mo-8181/text14305, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Roy Rene (1891-1954), by unknown photographer, 1933

Roy Rene (1891-1954), by unknown photographer, 1933

National Archives of Australia, A1861:6443

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rene, Mo
  • Sluice (Sluys), Henry Vande
  • Boy Roy
Birth

15 February 1891
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Death

22 November 1954
Kensington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation