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Irene Elizabeth (Renee) Esler (1908–1999)

by Lynn M. Fisher

This article was published online in 2023

Irene Esler, by Langham, 1938

Irene Esler, by Langham, 1938

State Library of Western Australia, BA287/171

Irene Elizabeth Esler (1908–1999), entertainer, dancer, and theatre producer, was born on 15 June 1908 in Perth, second youngest of six children of Victorian-born parents William Stammers Esler, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret Dora, née Prichard. Irene, or Renee (Rene) as she was otherwise known, grew up in a working-class family in inner-city Perth, not far from His Majesty’s Theatre where her mother worked as a wardrobe mistress. Steeped in the world of theatre from an early age, she started performing in dramatic shows and J. C. Williamson’s musicals as a child, billed as ‘Baby Esler.’

Through her mother’s position, Esler had the opportunity to receive free dancing lessons from visiting international performers. Like her sisters Kathleen (Kath) and Margaret (Peggy), she seemed destined for the stage, and in the 1910s and early 1920s she worked as a professional performer while attending St Joseph’s School at Victoria Square in Perth. The Sisters of Mercy were renowned as teachers of music and she was taught elocution, singing, and piano, eventually attaining Trinity College of Music, London, qualifications from visiting examiners. The school understood she was supplementing her family income and allowed the ‘famous little dancer’ (W.A. Record 1920, 4) to go on frequent lucrative tours to the eastern States on the Tivoli vaudeville circuit with her mother as chaperone. With her younger sister Kath, she also performed in Peggy’s early dance productions, including extensive country tours mounted as charity fund-raisers. When at home in Perth, she reciprocated her school’s generosity by teaching singing, elocution, and dance to other students. By the time she was eighteen, she was organising concerts at several convent schools and had won an impressive number of prizes and awards. In 1930, after dazzling crowds at The Ambassadors Café, an extravagant club in the basement of Sydney’s Strand Arcade, she was engaged to produce a record and a talkie newsreel, singing a vocal number for an early Fox Movietone News musical revue shown at Hoyts’ Regent Theatre in April.

In January 1933, Esler, by then almost exclusively known as Renee, opened her first dance school, the Esler Studio of Dancing, at the Luxor Theatre in Perth. Alongside teaching she continued to perform and choreograph in dramatic and variety shows, tour interstate, and produce stage shows. She also took up competition ballroom dancing with the Perth-born clerk and dancer Gerald McMorrow and opened Rene Esler Modes, a specialty dress shop in Ahern’s Arcade, in 1935. The following year, on 11 May, she married McMorrow at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Perth.

Together Esler and McMorrow gained a reputation as ‘a renowned dancing duo’ (Daily News 1938, 4), repeatedly winning the State professional ballroom dancing championship (1936–40). Soon after their wedding they travelled to London where they were awarded diplomas by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing and performed in England and Scotland. Following their return to Perth in 1937, the couple established the Esler-McMorrow School of Dancing and were often employed as speciality performers at Perth social events and served as judges for dancing competitions. They had two daughters, Geraldene and Gail, who both became Melbourne-based actors.

During World War II, with plenty of American sailors in town, Esler staged lucrative ballroom events at her dance schools and larger venues. In 1947, after separating from her husband, she took over management of Club Cabarita at the Hay Street Mall in Perth, offering morning teas, lunch, and catering for weddings as well as holding cabarets, dinners, and dances. Her afternoon teas were popular among Perth socialites who enjoyed dancing with the handsome young men she recruited for the occasion.

Nevertheless, Esler was soon struggling. Exhausted, depressed, and blaming her husband for keeping ‘the school and my money’ (Esler 1990), she sold the club in August 1948 and moved to Sydney with her daughters, where she opened a bed and breakfast. A year later, with her daughters in poor health, she returned to Perth, establishing Rene Esler Productions and mounting a successful series of musicals at His Majesty’s Theatre in the 1950s. One of her leads at the time was her nephew Kevan Johnston who became an Australian star of stage and screen. She also worked as the pianist for the leading dance teacher Evelyn Hodgkinson, taught ballroom dancing at schools, judged dance competitions, and opened a bed and breakfast in West Perth. In 1963, after another breakdown, she impulsively moved to Melbourne to live with her daughters. There she was in demand teaching ballroom dancing at private colleges into the 1970s. She died on 24 October 1999 in Melbourne and was survived by her daughters.

Tiny, pert, and full of fun, Esler was ‘Mrs Dancing in Perth’ (Hungerford 1988). Initially acclaimed as one of Western Australia’s most talented child performers and comedians, she was a strikingly beautiful, versatile, and clever performer with an entrepreneurial spirit and an aptitude for hard work. In a career spanning over sixty years, she was a popular ‘jobbing performer’ (King 2022) who helped enliven an emerging local entertainment industry in Perth.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Daily News (Perth). ‘The Big Broadcast of 1938.’ 22 September 1938, 4
  • Esler McMorrow, Irene. Interview by Lynn Fisher, 11 August 1990. State Library of Western Australia
  • Fisher, Lynn. ‘Chorus Dancers in Western Australia, 1900–1940.’ Papers in Labour History 18 (1997): 26–39
  • Fisher, Lynn. ‘Dance Class. A History of Professional Dance and Dance Training in Western Australia from 1895 to 1940.’ MA thesis, University of Western Australia, 1992
  • Hungerford, Tom. Interview by Lynn Fisher, 17 November 1988. State Library of Western Australia
  • King, Ivan. Personal communication, October 2022. Copy held on ADB file
  • Museum of Performing Arts. Collection of Rene Esler
  • W.A. Record (Perth). ‘St Joseph’s Bazaar.' 13 November 1920, 4

Citation details

Lynn M. Fisher, 'Esler, Irene Elizabeth (Renee) (1908–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/esler-irene-elizabeth-renee-32677/text40578, published online 2023, accessed online 13 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Irene Esler, by Langham, 1938

Irene Esler, by Langham, 1938

State Library of Western Australia, BA287/171

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McMorrow, Irene Elizabeth
  • Esler, Rene
  • Stammers, Irene Elizabeth
Birth

15 June, 1908
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Death

24 October, 1999 (aged 91)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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