Vicki Charleston – A Pro from Way Back

AussieTheatre’s Ben Neutze spoke to original Tivoli chorus girl Vicki Charleston, currently appearing with the Tivoli Lovelies in Sundowner at Glen Street Theatre. They spoke about the show, her career and a very fascinating time in Australian theatre history.

The Tivoli Lovelies with Helen Morse in Sundowner
The Tivoli Lovelies with Helen Morse in Sundowner. Photo – Jeff Busby

Vicki Charleston used to lie about her age. She doesn’t anymore.

In 1948, she auditioned for the chorus of the legendary Tivoli circuit. She told the panel that she was above the cut-off age of 16, when she was in fact 15 years and 9 months.

Now, she is the leader of the Tivoli Lovelies, a chorus of dancers who appeared at the Tivoli throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s and reformed in the 1990s. In 2004, they were named by the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s oldest chorus line, beating out a group of dancers from Miami by ten years. Vicki now proudly says that she’s 79-and-a-half years old.

“A lot of the girls did lie about their age back then,” she says. “I had a friend who was 14 when she joined, and I think the youngest we had was 13. They were always terrified they’d be found out. You couldn’t get away with it today.”

Back in the days of the Tivoli, breaking into the chorus was a lucrative business. Everyone wanted a part of the glitz and glamour and the opportunity to tour Australia with the country’s most-loved performers.

“Really, it was the working man’s theatre,” Vicki recalls. “It wasn’t cheap entertainment by any means, but it was very important for the morale of the country, particularly during the war.”

The role of the chorus was to bring every element of the grand scale variety shows together. They would introduce each act, whether they were a comedian, singer or even magician. “If there was a Spanish group on, for example, we’d do something related to that.”

To be a Tivoli dancer, Vicki says personality was always important, but that the producers were very picky. “Most of us were actually classically trained, but picked up the other dancing,” she says. “Height-wise, they liked girls about 5 ft 6 to 5 ft 8. Appearance came into it, yes, but we were all quite different.”

Apart from a rather lax attitude to age restrictions, Vicki says the Tivoli was a strict organisation and all the dancers were kept on a very tight leash.

“You couldn’t arrive at the theatre unless you were properly dressed, and in those days that meant a hat and gloves. You could never arrive in trousers – you were fined for that. You were fined if you were late, you were fined if you missed a cue onstage, you were fined if you talked onstage and there were always people watching. It just came straight out of your wages.”

With the rise of television, the Tivoli crashed and eventually closed in 1966. The chorus members mostly took up different careers, but occasionally got together for performances, with television shows like The Don Lane Show inviting them to dance from time to time.

It wasn’t until 1994, when comic and fellow Tivoli star Johnny Ladd was staging a fundraising concert for Actors Equity and AIDS charities, that the girls stepped back into the spotlight.

“Johnny rang me and said ‘how many of the old girls do you think you could get together?’ In the end we got 17 ladies and we rehearsed for about two weeks.”

The Lovelies got glittery trousers tailored especially for the concert. They were unlike anything the girls wore during their time at the Tivoli because, according to Vicki, “varicose veins don’t look very good onstage.”

“We were meant to just introduce him, but the audience went absolutely crazy and it took him forever to get onstage. In the end he said ‘I’ve made a bad mistake. You’ve all upstaged me!’”

From there, demand for the Lovelies snowballed. “We’ve now worked in pretty much every state but Western Australia,” she says.

The cast of Sundowner
The cast of Sundowner. Photo – Jeff Busby

Their latest gig is Sundowner, a play by physical theatre group Kage that first premiered in 2011. The production is a mixture of dance, drama and music, with a score by Kelly Ryall, Paul Kelly and Megan Washington, but it’s the subject matter that is closest to Vicki’s heart.

“I had a mother who went through dementia, who was a theatre dress maker and designer, and a very, very strong minded woman. I couldn’t believe what was happening in her life, and she had no idea what was happening in her life, and at the end she didn’t know who she was.”

She says the play explores the issues affecting people with Alzheimer’s in a sensitive way, but has been quite confronting for some audience members.

“In Victoria, an audience member had to be taken out of the theatre because she was crying so much. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s just the sort of thing, at that particular time in her life it struck a chord that she couldn’t cope with.”

The Lovelies appear throughout the play as visions from Peggy’s (Helen Morse) past. “When we first met to talk about it, I couldn’t see where we would fit in. I kept thinking the visions should really be of young people, but when it started to come together, I could see how powerful it really was.”

Beyond Sundowner, there aren’t any other performances scheduled for the Lovelies, but Vicki is sure they’ve got a fair few more gigs in them.

“At 79-and-a-half, it’s getting harder, yes,” she says. “But I think it’s like everything in life, whether it’s football or journalism or medicine, if it’s your path, as long as you love it, you’ll stay involved.”

Sundowner plays Glen Street Theatre until 16 March. For more information and bookings visit www.glenstreet.com.au 

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