Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Final Curtain Call

Judy Lewis remembers the moment she fell in love with show business as if it were yesterday.

She was just seven years old, in the audience of the musical Kangaroos on Parade in her hometown of Mount Gambier.

She looked up at the dancing girls on stage in shiny pink and blue satin costumes and knew, with mesmerising clarity, that she wanted to be on that stage, dancing, in those amazing costumes.

Fast forward 73 years, Judy’s passion for show business remains as strong as it was that day as a 7- year-old.

She can still tap dance the first routine she ever learned at the Ross Riddle School of Dancing in Mount Gambier.

She can still swing her dancing legs high in the air and do the splits, even after breaking her pelvis in a car accident on Mother’s Day in 2023.

She has two rooms filled with costumes, shoes and props she has gathered from all around the world, lounge room walls proudly filled with photos from throughout her show biz career.

Also taking pride of place is the OAM she was awarded in 2015 for her contribution to performing arts and the community.

She loves to entertain and make people laugh and plans to keep doing so for the rest of her life.

Judy’s show business career has been vast and varied, from comedy in England, dancing in Italy, choreographing at the Old Kings Music Hall in Adelaide, directing hundreds of school productions throughout the northern part of South Australia, and being performer in the Vaudeville Troupe, rehearsing in the town hall stage of her tiny hometown of Whyte Yarcowie.

Judy grew up loving rhythm.

“My Dad would sit at the kitchen table and beat rhythm if music came on the radio, using cutlery as drumsticks,” she says,

Her Mum because the chief costumer designer and sewer for the Ross Riddle School of Dance, finding her own flair behind the scenes and as a comedian.

Judy spent 12 years at the dance school, in the latter years becoming dance partner of the talented and handsome head dance teacher.

“Ï looked up to Ross, I wanted to be like Ross, and because Ross had gone to London, I wanted to do that too,” Judy says.

So Judy, as a 17-year-old, set off to discover business in England, farewelled by Ross with a show in Mount Gambier called All Aboard.

Taking her dad’s advice, she picked up a job as a shorthand typist, but all her spare moments were spend pouring over Stage Magazine, where local auditions were advertised.

She won an audition for a dancing role, walked into the wrong audition room, and landed a job as a comedian for the summer season at Devon, alongside widely-know English comedians Charlie Drake and Arthur Aske.

Each day she would play different shows in a theatre on the pier where the show would go on, regardless of the noise from the carousels alongside.

It was a role she cherished, and to his day loves to make people laugh.

“I love laughter, I like to make people laugh, I think there is too little laughter in the world,” Judy says.

Her first dancing role overseas was head girl dancer, for a tour of Italy.    

“I adored Italy, working at night, days to sight see the Italian Rivera, Rome, and Florence was my favourite,” Judy says.

In her day job ushering at movies, a total treat was to show Humphrey Bogart to his seat.

She auditioned for the Blue Bell girls famous for kick routines, secure a role, but honored a promise to her Dad that she would come home for her 21st birthday.

Returning to Australia, she met and fell in love with Noel Lewis, head detective in Mount Gambier, called off an engagement to an English dancer and moved to Adelaide.

Over the following years she became head choreographer of Old Kings Musical and Castle Hotel and dancing for Bunyip Children’s theatre on Saturday mornings.

In 1975 Judy and Noel moved to Port Augusta to manage a hotel and were married.

“Noel was quite definite that said there would be no more of this dancing business after we are married, Judy says.

A year later they travelled to Whyte Yarcowie where the hotel was for sale.

“I took one look at the town and the pub and said there is no way we are staying here.,” Judy says.

Almost 48 years later, Judy still lives in Whyte Yarcowie and has danced, sang, and laughed every day.

From this tiny town, Judy has spread the joy of show business throughout the northern regional areas of South Australia.

She taught ballet and tap dancing in Jamestown and Port Pirie and was employed as director of Port Pirie Youth Theatre for 11 years.

She directed and choreographed hundreds of school production from Jamestown to Carrieton, Mount Bryan to Gladstone.

“Some years we had 13 school productions on the go at once,” she says.

This year she is heading into her 22nd school production at St James Catholic School in Jamestown.

“Principals and teachers will tell me the thing that the students remember most is the productions they performed in,” she says.

The Whyte Yarcowie Vaudeville Troupe was born in 1984.

Judy, Noel and their sons Matt and Ben joined with Whyte Yarcowie farmers Pam and John Staker and their three children Sam Nigel and Naomi for a one-off performance of Old Time Music Hall for a History Week celebration.

They were then asked to perform at Port Broughton, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s now 40 years later, Whyte Yarcowie Vaudeville Troupe have produced 21 separate shows, at times performing that show 11 times throughout South Australia.

They have featured on national television and been the only amateur performers to secure a regular place in the Keith Michell Theatre’s Morning Melodies program.

The comment we get the most is you don’t hear those old songs anymore, and people really embrace the corny old sketches that we do,” Judy says.

“We adlib everything, it is never scripted, as long as you have the cues and the tags it works out.

“We get skits from everywhere. Jokes can be turned into sketches, some are weak, some are funny, some we can’t do anymore because it’s just not politically correct.”

Over time the Vaudeville cast and crew evolved, with mainstays including Glen and Shirley Cornish, Ian and Julie Sutcliffe, Ian and Val Seaman, Ron and Daph Wenham, Lesley Kulow, Inez Hancock, John Moore, Jack Napper, and Margie Symonds.

Judy says the Troupe has only ever cancelled one show, at Yacka, when Judy fell off the roof and broke her leg in two places.

“Yes, everyone who said break a leg before that show thought they were very funny!”

Over the years, the Troupe performances have enabled local communities to raise thousands of dollars for charities of their choice.

Equally, the Troupe became like family, a constant.

In sickness and in health have been there for each other, the Troupe got us through a lot of hard times personally.

“I really need to pay tribute to Pam and John Staker, they have been with me from woe to go, without them there would not have been a Troupe,” Judy says.

Pam has also been the main costume maker for the Troupe.

Judy says the lead up to the Vaudeville finale on April 13 and 14 in Jamestown has been an emotional time of excitement and sadness.

“The Vaudeville Troupe has been such a big part of my life,” she says.

“When one show goes on, I start thinking about the songs and skits and costumes for the next show.

“I don’t know what I am going to do now, but they say when one door closes another one opens.”

This may be the end of the Vaudeville Troupe, but Judy is desperately hoping the show will go on.

Maybe I’ll take on some solo acts or smaller performances in aged care homes and prisons.

Who knows? Judy says. “There is no business like show business.”

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