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Hawaii arrives in Camden

Hawaiian music and hula dance craze

Hawaiian music and dance arrived in Camden after sweeping the rest of the country on the stage, at the movies and broadcast across the radio waves. The craze of the 1920s and 1930s was centred on hula dancing and the steel guitar. 

The first mention of Hawaiian culture in Camden occurred in 1925 when a young Daphne Butt dressed as a Hawaiian hula dancer at the 1925 Fancy Dress Costume Ball for the Camden District Hospital. She was the only example of Hawaiian culture in a sea of fairies, princesses, dolls, butterflies, American sailors, jazz musicians, and princes. (Camden News, 20 August 1925)

Postcard of Hula Dancers in Honolulu, Hawaii in the 1930s (Ebay)

The dark history of Hawaiian music and dance

Daphne Butt’s naïve interest in hula dancing hides a dark past with links to transnational capitalism and colonialism. In pre-contact Hawaii, the hula was a strict religious practice of telling epic stories, past glories, and great chiefs within a framework of fertility rights expressed through poetry and body movements. Newly arrived Christian missionaries in the 1820s condemned the hula for its sexual and spiritual overtones. Restrictions on Hawaiian culture in 1859 effectively banned public performances, and the hula was driven underground. (Imada, 2004, Hawaiians on tour)

Grossly indecent

Moralistic attitudes towards Hawaiian culture were also evident in the Australian press.   Sydney’s Evening News reported on ‘hula hula’ dancing at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair in 1894. The reporter wrote:

‘the Hawaiian hula-hula dance. I think it would paralyse the average Australian playgoer, not merely to see this grossly indecent, immoral, and suggestive performance, but the class of people standing around looking at it.’ 

(Evening News, 4 April 1894)

Even in 1924, Lester Way wrote in The Bulletin that Hawaiian hula  ‘dances were like the frolics of happy children who had learned with candor naïve and unshamed the lesson of sex’. (The Bulletin, 31 January 1924)

Racial stereotypes at the movies

By the 1920s and 1930s, American business interests recognised the tourism potential of Hawaiian culture, and Hollywood produced films depicting Hawaiian music and hula dancing that screened at Camden, Campbelltown and Picton.

Commodified Hawaiian women became the new ‘hula girls’, used to promote Hawaiian plantation sugar and pineapples. They were also marketed in print, on stage, and in film, appearing in bikini tops, grass skirts, flowers in their hair sensuously hips swaying to the tones of the steel guitar. (Imada, 2004, Hawaiians on tour)

The first appearance of Hawaii on local movie screens occurred in 1926 when ‘The Hawaiian Melody Makers’ promised ‘a twilight in Hawaii’ at the Royal Pictures in the Picton Town Hall. (Picton Post, 1 September 1926) The Lopez Hawaiian Melody Makers, a nine-piece ensemble with steel guitars, had toured Australia in 1925 and played at Broken Hill Crystal Theatre. (Barrier Miner, 1 May 1925)

Film promotions from American film studios published in the Camden News relied on racial stereotypes and the language of primitivism. The film promoters for Cosmopolitan Productions ‘White Shadows in the South Seas’  promised ‘native instruments and customs, alluring dancing girls and feasting give intimate and colourful scenes of native life’. ‘White Shadows’ was an adventure romance loosely based on a book by Frederick O’Brien and screened at Sydney’s State Movie Theatre in 1929. The silent film ‘White Shadows’ was innovative and had synchronised ‘dialogue, sound, song and music’ where the soundtrack matched the film.   The first synchronised musical soundtrack was the film Don Juan in 1926.   (Camden News, 14 March 1929, 28 March 1929)

At Campbelltown’s Macquarie Cinema in 1933, the RKO-Radio Pictures ‘Bird of Paradise’, filmed in the ‘authentic background’ of the Hawaiian Islands, showed the ‘breathtaking’ beauty of the islands. The film, a romantic adventure drama, depicted the love of the hero and ‘white man’, Johnny Baker, with the ‘primitive, trusting Luana’ who ‘hopelessly sacrifices’ her love in a ‘sublime’ setting. The Hawaiian hula was described as ‘the barbaric beauties of the primitive Hawaiian mating dance were caught in all their splendour’. (Campbelltown News, 27 October 1933) Wikipedia states that the director King Vidor presented ‘this “tragic” romance as a clash between modern “civilisation” and a sexual idyll enjoyed by Rousseauian-like Noble savages’. In the early 1930s, Hollywood produced several films that connected former Pacific colonies with widespread interest in “exotic” tropical locations. (Wikipedia)

Poster for King Vidor’s ‘Birds of Paradise’ film (RKO/The Film Daily)

Dolores del Río in a dance scene from King Vidor’s ‘Bird of Paradise’ in 1932 screened at Campbelltown’s Macquarie Cinema (Wikimedia)

In the late 1930s, film promoters used less paternalistic language in advertising. The 1938 Camden’s Paramount Movie Theatre screened RKO Radio Pictures ‘Hawaii Calls’, and the advertising stated that the story of an ‘island paradise [that] rings with song’ and full of ‘adventure, beauty, novelty, song and entertainment’. (Camden News, 16 June 1938) The following year, Paramount  screened MGM’s ‘Honolulu’, a movie that promised to ‘call you’ to Hawaii with ‘the sweat heart of musical hits!’ ‘It’s star-packed, song-filled, laugh-jammed . . . .the romantic colossus of spectacle . .with hundreds of hip-swinging hula honeys!’  (Camden News, 6 July 1939)

Promotional material for the film ‘Hawaii Calls’ screened at Camden’s Paramount Movie Theatre in 1938 (RKO Radio Pictures 1938)


Camden News, 6 June 1938

Hula dancing direct from the Tivoli circuit

Camden was part of the country circuit for Hawaiian musicians. In 1935 local promoter Charles New announced in the Camden News that The Royal Hawaiians, ‘direct from the Tivoli circuit’, would appear at the Camden Agricultural Hall on a Tuesday night. Patrons were promised the ‘greatest instrumentalists in Australia’ who were ably supported by comedians the Richie Brothers and ‘All Star Vaudeville’ of acrobats and dancers. Front seat prices cost 1/6, with others 1/-. (Camden News, 31 October 1935)

Camden News, 31 October 1935

The Royal Hawaiians toured Australia appearing at Geelong’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1922 and 1929 at  Hobart’s Theatre Royal. The company had an ‘extensive repertoire’ of Hawaiian music on steel guitar, ukuleles, and banjos. The show included ‘native songs and dances’ provided by Honolulu’s ‘premier hula hula dancer’, the ‘graceful Lilloukalani’. (The Mercury, 19 February 1929)

Author Jackie Coyle has stated that Hawaiian musicians toured on the Tivoli circuit in Australia from the 1920s. (ABC News, 23 January 2023). Hula hula dancing first appeared on Australian stages in the 1890s in Melbourne  (The Argus, 6 August 1892), and Hawaiian sheet music,  wax cylinders and 78rpm records were sold across the country. (ABC News, 23 January 2023)

Hawaiian music filled the Camden airwaves

Camden radio listeners who owned a Fisk Radiola wireless set from James Pinkerton’s store in Argyle Street could tune into the tones of Hawaiian music from the Sydney Hawaiian Club Band. The band had a spot-on Sydney radio 2GB every Sunday at 10.00 am and on 2GZ at 5.45 pm. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 February 1938)   The popular radio show ‘Hawaii Calls’ was broadcast from the Moana Hotel on Waikiki Beach to a global audience from 1925. (Imada, 2004, Hawaiians on tour)

Fisk Radiola Wireless Set advertised by James Pinkerton, Argyle Street, Camden (
, 22 December 1938)

 In 1938 Camden residents could purchase a Radiola wireless set from James Pinkerton at 59-61 Argyle Street, where he ran a tailor shop. Prices for the latest Fisk Radiola started at 13 guineas, a princely sum in 1938 when the average weekly wage for a factory worker was just under £5. Built by ‘master craftsmen’ and allowed Camden listeners to tune into global short-wave broadcasts with ‘better tone and performance’. (Camden News, 22 December 1938)

In country NSW, the Hawaiian Club band broadcasts on Goulburn radio 2GN on Friday nights at 8.00 pm. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 February 1938)  For those who wanted to immerse themselves in Hawaiian completely, the Sydney Hawaiian Club toured country NSW, offering tuition on the steel guitar with weekly lessons costing 2/6 in Goulburn. The Hawaiian club Goulburn representative in 1938 was E Scarpas in Clifford Street. Steel guitars could be purchased for 30/1, with a 5/- deposit, or with weekly repayments of 2/-. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 February 1938)

References

Adria L. Imada (2004). Hawaiians on Tour: Hula Circuits through the American Empire. American Quarterly, 56(1), 111–149. doi:10.2307/40068217 

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An amazing woman, Sheila Murdoch

Community worker, musician and mother.

Sheila Murdoch was a rural woman who served her community and church and raised a family of five children. Her story, like a lot of other rural women, has remained in the shadows of history. She did not seek kudos and received little public acknowledgement of her role in the community.

Sheila with her granddaughter Nicole (N Comerford, 2021)

Her story came to my attention through a picture of a medicine bottle from her granddaughter Nicole Comerford. Sheila had obtained a bottle of liquid paraffin from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark.

Liquid Paraffin medicine that Sheila Murdoch purchased from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark in Argyle Street. The bottle dates from the mid-20th century. This is the bottle that led to this story about Sheila. (N Comerford, 2021)

What is liquid paraffin?

According to The British Medical Journal, liquid paraffin was recommended as a treatment for constipation as a laxative, particularly with children. A Google search of the bottle’s image indicates it is probably around the middle of the 20th century.

The real story is not the bottle but an amazing woman who owned it.

Sheila

Nicole tells us that Sheila lived on a dairy farm on Fallons Road Orangeville.  

‘Grandma was born Sheila Rose Walsh and was one of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers in Upper Kangaroo River (Kangaroo Valley).’

Musical family

The Walshes were ‘a musical family’, according to Nicole.

Sheila had an interview with Kayla Osborne from the Camden Advertiser in 2018 (6 July 2018). She  said, ‘I learnt to play the piano when I was about eight or nine years old, firstly from my mother, and then an old school teacher started teaching me during the 1930s when teachers were quite scarce.’   

‘I am also self-taught, but my family has always been a musical one when I was growing up.

Sheila told Kayla Osborne that she was fond of music from an early age and recalled, ‘my father and mother always used to sing together, with my father playing the fiddle by ear.’

‘Most of my brothers and sisters also played an instrument or sang.’ Sheila was part of a well-known local band in the Shoalhaven area called ‘Walsh’s Orchestra’.

Sheila Murdoch played the piano from an early age. She regularly played at Carrington Aged-Care Complex with the Melody Makers. I was told by one member of the group that she could play any tune in any key. Now that is quite an achievement. (Camden Advertiser, 2018)

Nicole writes, ‘Grandma played the piano, and they played all over the Shoalhaven District over many years, including during WW2. She met my grandfather, Leslie Murdoch, after joining their orchestra  when he was stationed at Nowra during the war. Grandad was a mechanic for the RAAF at Nowra.’ 

Les was from the Newcastle area, born at Adamstown in 1922, and in 1941 enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. On discharge in 1946 he had the rank of corporal.

Les played the saxophone [Weir, p. 33]

The South Coast country press reported the regular ‘gigs’ played by the Walsh Orchestra in the Shoalhaven area between the mid-1930s and the Second World War.   In 1936 they performed at the St Michael’s Convent School Hall in Nowra (Nowra Leader, Friday 26 June 1936) and the Roman Catholic Ball at the Kangaroo Valley School of Arts in 1938. The ball drew loyal church supporters from Burrawang, Gerringong, Nowra and Berry for the jubilee celebrations for the Kangaroo Valley Roman Catholic Church.

Reports of the dance said that the stage was ‘tastefully decorated with streamers and clusters of balloons’ surrounded by a vase of chrysanthemums and maidenhair ferns’. The orchestra was under the baton of Jack Butler. (Shoalhaven News, 1 June 1938). The band played at the annual ball and euchre party of the Kangaroo Valley RSS&AILA in 1939 (Shoalhaven News, 13 September 1939) and the Gerringong Football Club’s dance and euchre party at Gerringong in 1944. (Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser, 17 June 1944).

Sheila and Leslie married in March 1945 at Berry [Nicole] and moved to Orangeville in 1946 (Camden Advertiser, 6 July 2018) after  he was discharged from the RAAF.

Sheila with her great-grandchildren at the farm (N Comerford, 2020)

Thornhill, Orangeville

Nicole writes, ‘They had little money when they moved there, really the only money they had saved from playing for dances and what Grandma had in war bonds. They grew peas until they had enough money to start dairying, and over the years, they purchased all of the farm from other family members; it was named “Thornhill”. The farm has been in the family since the 1850s and was a dairy farm.

‘The farm was an active dairy farm until the 1970s. They sold half of the farm, and it’s now about 92 acres. The half they sold is now Murdoch Road, Orangeville. Grandad (Les) lived on the farm until he died in 2001, and Grandma (Sheila) lived there on her own (with lots of support from her family) until at age 101. My parents, Jim and Judith Murdoch, still live on the farm, and my Dad runs about 15 beef cattle.

In her history of Orangeville, Nell Weir writes that the Thornhill grant was allocated to Thomas Fallon in 1856, with the farm having frontage to Clay Waterholes Creek. Thomas married Eliza Waller of Mulgoa in 1840, and they had ten children. Thomas died in 1879 and is buried in The Oaks Catholic Cemetery. According to Weir, Les Murdoch is a descendant of Thomas and Eliza’s son Thomas. [Weir, pp.32-33]

Sheila in the centre of the image with the rest of her family. All generations. (N Comerford, 2021)

Family

Nicole writes, ‘Sheila and Les had six children with the first being a stillborn daughter who we think are buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Camden. There are no records for this birth; I am pretty sure Grandma had this baby at what is now Neidra Hill’s house at Narellan.’

The house in question is the Edwardian architectural gem called Ben Linden. The house was built in 1919 by George Blackmore. Neidra Hill writes in her history of the house that EJ (Elizabeth) Stuckey, a trained midwife, purchased the house in 1944 conducted a maternity hospital until 1948. The hospital was then run by her daughter, JT (Jean) Stuckey, until 1959. The building was converted to a private hospital run by ME (Mavis) Halkett until it closed in 1971. (Hill, 2008, pp.27-37)

Community

Nicole recalls that ‘my grandparents were very active in the community’.  

‘Sheila and Leslie played at dances and weddings all over the community for many years and were very well known. Grandma and Grandad played in The Oaks, Orangeville, Camden and down to Bargo. I think they played at Bargo on New Year’s Eve several times. They also played at Camden High School socials.’

‘When I shared news of Grandma’s death on the “You know you’re from Camden if…” Facebook page, lots of people commented that they remember them playing at their weddings.’

‘Grandma also played the organ, firstly at St Pauls Catholic Church in Camden and then at St Aloysius Catholic Church at The Oaks when the parish boundaries changed. Grandma was still playing on her 101st birthday at The Oaks.

Sheila played the piano for The Oaks Debutante Balls until she retired in 1998. The ball committee have written that Sheila played piano for practice and presentation sessions for 23 years and they remember her ‘sitting at the piano for so many hours in freezing cold conditions’. (The Committee, p14)

She said, ‘It was lovely to see the young “hopefuls’ turn up – the boys mostly in “Nikes” or “Ugg” Boots – to learn dancing. We always found the young people very polite and happy when they got into the swing of the dances.’ (The Committee, p.14)

Myra Cowell recalls on Facebook that she ‘remembers them well playing at the Cobbitty dances’

Nicole said, ‘Grandma was a member of The Oaks Catholic Woman’s League and held various roles over the years, including president.

The Catholic Women’s League in NSW can trace its origins back to 1913, when the Catholic Women’s Association was founded in Sydney. The league aims to promote ‘the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and social development of women and promotes the role of laywomen in the mission of the Catholic Church’.

Camden Bowling Club

Nicole recalls, ‘Both my grandparents were involved in the Camden Bowling Club, and Grandma was a foundation member of the Camden Women’s Bowling Club. She also played the piano at many events there over the years.’ 

Frank Farrugia writes in the history of the Camden Bowling Club that Les was president from 1967 to 1969 after joining the club in 1961. He served on the committee for over 15 years and worked for the club for over 25 years. To acknowledge his service, he was made a life member. The new No 3 Green at the club was dedicated to Les, and at its opening in 1986, John Fahey said that Les gave ‘himself to his church, his family, to sporting bodies and local government’. (Farrugia, p. 146) Les was a councillor for A Riding on Wollondilly Shire Council for four terms from 1974 to 1987. (History of WSC) Frank McKay praised ‘Les’s loyalty, objectivity and dedication’. (Farrugia, p.146)

Les Murdoch (N Comerford)

Melody Makers

‘For over 50, maybe even 60 years, Grandma volunteered at Carrington Aged-Care complex every Friday morning and in later years was part of a group called the “Melody Makers” who played there. She continued to play the piano there while she was resident and even did so in the week before she died. We always used to laugh the way she would talk about playing for “the oldies” when most of them would have been younger than her!’ writes Nicole. 

The Melody Makers at Carrington Aged-Care in 2018 on Sheila’s 100th Birthday with Laurie on Sax, George on violin, and Kevin on guitar (Camden Advertiser, 2018)

On Sheila’s 100th birthday in 2018, Kayla Osborne wrote in the Camden Advertiser (6 July 2018) that Sheila and the Melody Makers played weekly at Carrington Aged-Care. Sheila said she started volunteering at Carrington Aged-Care and the aged care facility to give back to her community. She said, ‘I started with the Pink Ladies, who were some of Carrington’s very first volunteers.’

‘I love playing the piano at Carrington Aged-Care Complex now, and I consider playing for the residents there just pure enjoyment. I particularly enjoy the company – nobody objects no matter how bad we play.’

Carrington Volunteer Coordinator Belinda said, ‘I was privileged enough to see them play a few times. Sheila was absolutely phenomenal with her piano skills, Laurie accompanied on sax, Richard (also now passed) played the keyboard and the singer and guitarist, Kevin. (Email, 30 August 2021)

The Melody Makers here with Laurie on sax, Kevin on guitar and George on violin. Laurie had a fine career as military bandsman. (c.2017, Carrington Care)

A Carrington source tells me that the Melody Makers was made up of Laurie Martin on saxophone and clarinet, George Sayers on violin, Kevin Harris on guitar, Dick Eldred on clarinet, pianist Sheila and in the early days in late 1990s John Foster on trombone. Most of these talented folk sadly are no longer with us.

Melody Maker guitarist and vocalist Kevin Harris said, ‘I joined the group in the late 1990s. Sheila was “God’s gift to music”. She played at Carrington for 60 years.’

‘The group played at Carrington Aged-Care every Friday around each of the different facilities – Grasmere Terrace, Nursing home, Paling Court and so on. We had over 2000 regular songs. We would never practice. [The group] played for two hours from 10-12, then everyone would go to lunch ,’ he said.

Kevin recalled, ‘My favourite memory was just playing for over 20 years. I have wonderful memories. Playing each week made friendships. Just a love of music and we shared that love with other people. [The members of Melody Makers] were great troopers and there was so much love between all of us and our families.’

‘[Melody Makers] did jobs outside [of Carrington]. Macarthur War Widows and Legacy War Widows at Legacy House in Campbelltown. We played for the Over 50s at the Catholic Club, and Christmas Parties and Mothers’ Day in and around Campbelltown and Appin,’ he said.

Kevin said, ‘ Most of the group had a musical background. Laurie military bands, George came from a family of entertainers, Jack played in World War Two and I played around the Campbelltown area from the 1960s including a 19-piece swing band based at Wayne’s Music Shop.’

Carrington Aged-Care

Nicole writes that ‘Leslie died in 2001 and is buried in the Catholic Cemetery at The Oaks. In September 2019, Sheila moved to Mary McKillop Hostel at Carrington Aged-Care Complex off the farm because of the increased level of care needed for her health.

Sheila became part of the Carrington family after she moved into aged-care.

Sheila Murdoch loved children and joined in activities at Carrington, Her she is participating with the ‘littlies’ in Carrington’s Intergenerational Playgroup March 2020 (Carrington Care, 2020)

Nicole said, ‘Grandma [Sheila] passed away at Mary McKillop on 29th May 2020.’

The surviving five children are Patricia, James (my Dad), Frances, Mary and Peter.’

References

Farrugia, F 2014, History of Camden Bowling Club, 75 Years, Camden Bowling Club, Camden.

Hill, N 2008, Ben Linden 1919-2008, A house with a story to tell, Typescript Camden Museum Archives, n.p.

The Oaks Debutante Ball Book Committee 2001, We Had a Ball, Twenty-five Debutante Balls in The Oaks 1973-1999, The Committee, The Oaks.

Weir, NR 1998, From Timberland to Smiling Fields, A History of Orangeville and Werombi, The Oaks Historical Society, The Oaks.

Wollondilly Shire Council 1988, A History of Local Government in the Wollondilly Shire 1895 to1988, Wollondilly Shire Council, Picton.