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Wallace, George Leonard (1918–1968)

by Raymond Evans

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

George Leonard Wallace (1918-1968), by unknown photographer, 1946

George Leonard Wallace (1918-1968), by unknown photographer, 1946

Australian War Memorial, 126337

George Leonard Wallace (1918-1968), comedian, was born on 16 May 1918 at Walkerston, near Mackay, Queensland, only child of native-born George Stevenson Wallace, actor, and his wife Margarita Edith Emma, née Nicholas, who came from New Zealand. George Stevenson Wallace was then working as a canecutter. Young George was born into a family of comedians; his grandfather George 'Broncho' Wallace was a black-faced corner-man in minstrel shows, and his great-grandfather was the Irish comic 'Pipeclay' Wallace. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Brisbane where his father worked as a stage hand before winning an amateur theatrical contest which launched his professional career as a comedian.

As an infant George was transported around the Queensland and New South Wales vaudeville circuits in a theatre basket. In Sydney, at the age of 3, he made his first on-stage appearance when his father carried him from the audience and introduced him as 'Wee Georgie Wallace—a chip off the old bloke'. Wallace later recounted that, balanced upon his father's hand, he sang a verse of the only song he knew: 'Go Wash an Elephant (if you want to do something big)'. Between the ages of 5 and 14, he performed pantomime in Brisbane and Sydney during school holidays as one of the 'Sunshine Kiddies'. He clowned, danced, and sang the music-hall 'tear-jerker' Mother, Speak to Ethel. As a child, however, he never warmed to the theatre.

In 1932 Wallace began to study commercial art at the Darlinghurst branch of the Sydney Technical College. Joining the Bohemian set, he grew his hair long and made a thirty-five minute film—a 'horror/sci-fi spoof', The Corpse Goes West. 'We were the Beatniks of our day', he later wrote, 'people said we were idiotic'. At 19 he opened his own commercial art studio. On 1 October 1941 Wallace began full-time service in the Militia with the 1st Survey Regiment. In July 1942 he was posted to the 2nd Division Concert Party. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in September and toured Australia, New Guinea and New Britain with the concert party, as producer and comedian. Commissioned lieutenant in January 1946, he prided himself on being the only officer in the army whom no one saluted and everyone called George. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 3 April 1946.

Following three broken engagements to Marjorie Bruce-Clarke, a stenographer, Wallace married her on 10 January 1945 at St Philip's Church of England, Sydney. After the war, twenty-five members of the concert party re-formed as the 'Kangaroosters' (later 'Kangaroos') which worked the Tivoli circuit in Australia and New Zealand. On 27 December 1948 the 'Kangaroos' opened in Meet the Girls at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane; for Wallace a ten-week engagement extended to a decade. His four thousand or so performances at the Royal in revue and pantomime in one straight run were considered at the time to be 'easily a world record for a comedian'. Surrounded by a bevy of scantily-clad showgirls, known by various names including the 'Nudie Cuties', he perfected his rubber-faced caricatures of judges and drunks, as well as stock characters such as 'Georgie the Sissy' and 'Lieutenant Wallace, the harshest disciplinarian in the army'. His favourite props were a lighted cigarette and a battered old hat.

Driven by the example of his more famous father, and living to a degree in his professional shadow, George Wallace junior struggled constantly to excel. He was considered 'a villain for work'; he arranged scores, painted scenery, wrote scripts and regularly performed. At an emotional Theatre Royal farewell performance on Christmas Eve 1958, he introduced his ailing father as replacement resident comedian and then left to work for the entrepreneur Harry Wren at the Empire Theatre, Sydney.

As television increasingly supplanted vaudeville, Wallace began making guest appearances on the Sydney programmes ATN-7's 'Curtain Call' and TCN-9's Joe Martin's 'Late Show'. He felt uncomfortable with the new medium and initially expressed himself as 'shockingly disappointed' with his performances. Groomed for television by Alec Kellaway, and using the actor Guy Doleman as straight man, he was by 1959 hosting a late show on TCN-9 which ran for fifty-four weeks. On 15 September 1960 he appeared on BTQ-7's 'Late Show' and immediately felt at home with the Brisbane audience.

In February next year Wallace headed the cast of 'Theatre Royal' on BTQ-7, which reproduced the old stage of the defunct vaudeville house, complete with curtains, footlights, stage props, dancing girls, and camera shots over the heads of a darkened audience in order to replicate the ambience of a bygone era. With another concert-hall stalwart Eddie Edwards, and television stars Dick McCann and Jackie Ellison, Wallace devoted the rest of his life to making 'Theatre Royal' a success. In 1962-63 it won him Logie awards as the State's most outstanding actor; the show was voted by viewers the most popular for six consecutive years (1962-67). By 1967 he had written around 2500 comedy sketches for television. He also performed on Melbourne HSV-7's 'Variety 7' and continued to appear in BTQ-7's 'Revue 7' and 'Late Show'. 'You're never off the chain', he complained, 'A man must be mad . . . You're more whacked than a three-legged kangaroo dog walking home from Bourke'. In 1962 the Wallace family settled at the Gold Coast.

George Wallace junior observed in 1965 that 'most people in show business have short-contracted lives'. His own hard-working one was ample testament to this. A shy, gentle and generous perfectionist, he was a natural and instinctively funny comedian. With a forte for timing, for playing situation comedy and for taking spectacular 'pratfalls', as well as revelling in the power of the ad lib, he carved out his own unique niche as the last of the real Australian music-hall entertainers.

Overwork led increasingly to health problems. In 1961 Wallace collapsed from nervous exhaustion and in 1965 spent time in hospital with a haemorrhaging ulcer. During 1967 he suffered a mild stroke, followed in August 1968 by a severe stroke which paralysed him. He died of cerebrovascular disease on 30 September that year at Southport, Queensland, and was cremated. His wife, and their daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. West, Theatre in Australia (Syd, 1978)
  • M. Pate, An Entertaining War (Syd, 1986)
  • TV Week, 12 Oct 1968
  • Outdoor Showman, Nov 1968, p 8
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 Oct 1968.

Citation details

Raymond Evans, 'Wallace, George Leonard (1918–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wallace-george-leonard-11942/text21401, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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