This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
George Brown Sorlie (1885-1948), theatrical entrepreneur, was born on 7 February 1885 at Liverpool, England, son of Frederick Sorlie, ship's cook, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Rodick. Migrating with his family to Melbourne, he attended primary school at Williamstown. Following Frederick's death in 1894, George went with Sarah to join relations in Perth. They lived close to poverty until George's rich soprano voice gained him jobs in cheap vaudeville shows. In 1896 mother and son moved to Kalgoorlie, then in the grip of gold-fever. Sorlie sang in bars, halls and in the streets, and was able to support his mother.
Moving to Sydney in 1903, Sorlie obtained work in Harry Clay's Newtown theatre: after a nervous debut, he became an accomplished between-acts singer and soft-shoe dancer. He joined Harry Rickards's vaudeville circuit in 1905, working in his Tivoli and National theatres as a corner man who led the audience in applause when an act had finished. Having played with James Brennan (1907) and J. C. Bain's Vaudeville Entertainers (1912-14), Sorlie tried his hand at almost anything that fitted a vaudeville programme—acrobatics, dancing, juggling and blackface impersonation. His big break came in September 1914 as the song and dance partner of ad-lib comedian Billy Brown. With Brown in a broad checked suit and Sorlie in top hat and tails, their act proved a resounding success under (Sir) Benjamin Fuller's management.
In Sydney at St Peter's Anglican Church on 30 December 1915 Sorlie married Grace Florence Stewart. Expert in every aspect of theatre—drama, melodrama, musical accompaniment, even trick cycling—in 1917 he bought out Philip Lytton's travelling tent-theatre and headed for the country circuit. Well-built and dark skinned (his grandfather was Jamaican), Sorlie opened at Wagga Wagga with Uncle Tom's Cabin and continued with East Lynne, The Forbidden Marriage and My Pal, Ginger (his own Australian play). By 1922 he had become a theatrical institution, known throughout New South Wales and Queensland. When talking pictures appeared in the 1930s, he survived by embracing vaudeville: a top-line band, the Cleveres acrobatic troupe and a trick cycle act helped to make him one of the nation's wealthiest producers. He claimed to be the only country manager to have gone abroad twice (1927-28, 1936) in search of talent.
At the height of his career (1920-40) Sorlie was known as the 'King of the Road', both as an actor and a producer of drama, pantomime, musical comedy and vaudeville. His cheery smile and devotion to 'clean' entertainment earned him the respect of the theatrical world. Zebra-striped cars heralded a Sorlie show in many a country town. His most famous part was the lead in Uncle Tom's Cabin: on one occasion a Townsville publican protested at the whipping Tom received from Simon Legree. Helpless on the floor with laughter, Sorlie was unable to reassure his audience that the whipping was theatrical.
Forced to close his show at the outbreak of World War II because of lack of transport, Sorlie put his theatre into storage and lived in Sydney. He belonged to the New South Wales Masonic Club and enjoyed playing golf and bowls. Embarking on a long-cherished project to provide cheap homes for ex-servicemen, in 1945 he established the Sorlie Construction Co. to build a model village at Frenchs Forest. Situated on the site of the present Arndale shopping mall, the area was once known as Sorlie. Although deposits had been paid to his partners, Twentieth Century Home Service Pty Ltd, a shortage of materials ended the project after less than a dozen homes had been built; considerable litigation ensued and worry is said to have broken Sorlie's health. He died in Sydney on 19 June 1948 following a cerebral thrombosis and was cremated. Theatrical notables such as Fuller and Bert Bailey attended the funeral. Inheriting her husband's estate, sworn for probate at £12,911, Grace Sorlie revived the tent theatre with Bobby le Brun; it was forced out of business by competition from the clubs in the early 1960s. Grace died on 21 December 1962, leaving her estate valued at £212,281 to the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales and the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children.
Peter Spearritt, 'Sorlie, George Brown (1885–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sorlie-george-brown-8585/text14989, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 12 February 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990