Early Australian theatre was often a family business. Children and grandchildren followed in their ancestors footsteps and trod the boards. One of the most famous father-son combinations were Fred and Gus Bluett, a pair that kept Australian audiences laughing for almost 50 years.
Frederick George Bluett was born in Holburn near London in 1874. His parents, William and Eliza were both music hall artists. Young Fred therefore, grew up surrounded by theatrical friends and anecdotes. His father was reportedly a friend of Harry Rickards, who later became the owner of the Australian Tivoli Circuit.
According to later accounts, Fred came to Australia when he was around 16 years old. Surprisingly he did not pursue a theatrical career immediately. Instead he worked as a boot maker with a relative in Melbourne.
As a young man in that city, he was interested in boxing and was known for his keen sense of humour. He was also interested in amateur theatricals. By 1892, he had gained a good reputation in that area.
A few years later he was employed by Fuller’s vaudeville and began touring on their New Zealand and Australian circuit. He stayed with Fullers for four years.
Whilst on tour in New Zealand in 1901 Fred married Catherine McKechnie. Fred was 25 years old and his wife was known as Kitty. The next few years were eventful ones for Fred. After four years with Fullers he joined Harry Rickards on the Tivoli Circuit. He stayed with Rickards consistently for 9 years. During that time he became a household name.
In 1902, Fred and Kitty were in Melbourne. Fred was performing for Harry Rickards at the New Opera House. During that stint Kitty gave birth to their first child, a son, Augustus Frederick, known to all as Gus.
By 1906 Fred was a regular at the Tivoli theatres. He was one of the circuit’s most popular comic singers. He was also a talented lyricist and often altered the words of English Music Hall songs to make them topical for an Australian audience. One of Fred’s earliest successes was "Mooch About". However one of his most famous skits was as the "The Boy Scout". The latter skit included an English song that Fred had altered to suit his Australian audiences.
In 1911, Theatre Magazine described Fred as the ‘handsomest man in vaudeville’. His faced graced the cover of music sheets and he had a daughter Isobel to keep young Gus company. Fred willingly used his children to enhance his image. His ‘two beautiful children’ were pictured in Theatre magazine in October 1911. Earlier that year his son had accompanied Fred on stage as one of his loyal boy scouts.
Fred also performed a skit called ‘The Hobble Skirt" at the Tiv that year. He dressed as a woman with tight skirt and tall beribboned hat and sang a comic song. Fred Bluett wrote both the words of the song and the patter accompanying it.
The death of Rickards in 1911 probably affected Fred’s career. Soon afterwards the Bluett family travelled to England via South Africa and remained there for some time.
In London, Fred reportedly performed with Fred Kitchen’s revue. Kitchen was a famous English comedian who had once worked for Fred Karno. The latter brought Charlie Chaplin to America. Fred’s young son, Gus, also performed in one of Kitchen’s revues as a page.
During this time, Gus was developing his talents in drawing. He was a gifted black and white artist and pondered taking up the profession full time. However he inevitably decided to follow the family profession and moved into a theatrical career.
According to later publicity, the Bluetts shared a boarding house in England with Sydney and Charlie Chaplin. Brother Syd reportedly offered Gus a pair of Charlie’s ice skates. Gus declined the offer. He also declined an offer from an English theatrical manager who thought that Gus had potential as a music hall artist. Gus chose to remain with his family and in 1917 the Bluetts moved back to Australia.
Upon their return, Fred started his own vaudeville company. With his two talented children he toured the regional areas of NSW. It was a tremendous opportunity for Gus to develop his skills with less critical audiences.
By 1922, Fred had given up the vaudeville troupe and he and Gus were making appearances on the legitimate stage. That Christmas the pair appeared in J C Williamson’s annual pantomime, Cinderella to great applause.
The Referee said that;
Some good comedy came from Fred and Gus Bluett. The latter seemed the more
popular of the two with the kiddies, but Fred Bluett was worth a mine of
gold in his evening gown at the ball.
From this time onwards, Gus began to eclipse his father in fame. He was being recognised as a home grown talent and was seldom without work.
In 1924, Gus appeared in a straight role, as ‘Kempy" the plumber in the eponymously titled play. The production starred American actor, John O Hara and the Australian favourite and former Mrs J C Williamson, Maggie Moore. Gus’s portrayal of the plumber was a hit and The Referee called him, ‘remarkably clever’ in the role.
That same year, Gus appeared in ‘Wildflower’ with Marie Le Varre. Wildflower was a musical comedy. Although it was not a critical success, Gus was highly praised by the critics. The Referee stated that
‘Gus Bluett is a consummate artist and keeps the audience on the simmer with his quiet humorous manner
Gus had the facial features of a clown. His long face, big eyes and cheeky smile enthralled audiences. He was well known for his ability to improvise on stage. This ability lead him to create comedic legends from small, often badly written parts.
Gus and father Fred were close. They shared a similar, self-deprecating, sense of humour. One of Gus’ favourite stories was about attending a small show in a country town with his father. A local comedian took the stage and soon had the audience rolling in the aisles. The sophisticated Bluetts thought the man was awful and were horrified at the performance. At the conclusion of the act, a member of the audience turned to a friend and said, "This chaps got that fellow Gus Bluett skinned to death".
The depression of the late 20s hit the theatre hard. Attendances dwindled and productions became limited to revivals. Gus Bluett was one of the few performers who could guarantee a crowd. He had a large personal following during the depression years so much so that
‘His appearance in a show had made a great difference in the attendances at J C Williamson productions.
Gus’ popularity was a major asset to the Williamson organisation. So much so that E J Tait ensured that a chauffeur was always on hand to ferry Gus around and keep him away from the local hoteliers. Gus had a well-known fondness for their company and product.
By the early 1930s Gus was Australia’s most popular comedian. In 1932 and 1933 he appeared with Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard in several musical productions. These included ‘Blue Roses’ in 1932 where he played Egbert Parkinson and ‘Our Miss Gibbs’ where he played Timothy Gibbs. The Elliott Ritchard tour was a return of two internationally renowned performers. Gus’ inclusion on the tour confirmed his place as Australia’s premier comedian.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the secret of Gus’ success was his ability to be spontaneous. When playing a comedic role he would improvise bits of ‘business’ to add depth and meaning to his character. By the early 1930s he was the most popular comedian on the Australian stage.
In 1934, Gus appeared in Gay Divorce and did an admirable character study of the Italian Tonetti. He followed this the next year by playing the downtrodden civil servant Olaf Henscuttle in ‘Nice Goings On’.
In early 1936, Gus was playing in ‘Yes Madam’ at His Majesty’s in Melbourne. That year he had told friends that he would die young. After finishing work in ‘Yes Madam’ Gus returned to his home in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. On Friday March 13th 1936 Gus took ill. He was rushed to Sydney Hospital where he died the next afternoon. He was 33 years old.
The cause of death was a gastric ulcer. On Monday March 16th a small Church of England ceremony was held and Gus was cremated at the Rookwood Crematorium.
Fred Bluett survived his famous son. During the 1930s Fred worked in Suburban vaudeville, including a stint at Warringah Hall in North Sydney. During the 1940s he turned to radio. In 1942 he appeared in an ABC broadcast of ‘Searchlights over London’ as a Cockney air raid warden.
On December 3rd of that year he died suddenly of a heart attack at his Double Bay home.
Fred was 66 years old. Till his dying day he identified as a comedian. In fact on his death certificate his profession is listed as such.
Fred’s wife Catherine and his two daughters, Belle and Kitty, survived him. Kitty has a long and fruitful career in radio and theatre whilst Belle married an English comedian.
The Bluetts, father and son, devoted their lives to the theatre. They brought their comedic talents to Australian audiences and left an indelible mark on the Australian theatrical landscape.