John Brunton, English scenery designer, came to Australia with his wife Cissy, and new son John in 1886. Cissy had given birth on the long sea voyage. Soon afterwards, John and Christina, (Cissy's real name) settled in Carlton in the suburbs of Melbourne. John had been well known in the English theatrical world and easily gained employment in Australia . His work was highly regarded and he was employed regularly by the major theatre chains.
Another child was born to the couple in 1888, a son, James. In 1890 Cissy gave birth yet again. This time the child was a daughter. She was named Christina Dorothy, but became known as Dorothy.
For almost three decades Dorothy Brunton was the queen of the Australian musical comedy stage. Her career spanned the First World War, the roaring twenties and continued into the depression years.
Dorothy made her debut on stage as a five year old with JC Williamson. She was to perform for the company throughout her career and maintained a strong loyalty towards them.
In 1913 Dorothy appeared in her first major stage production, ‘Autumn Manoeuvres’. By 1914 she had moved to bigger fields. That year she performed in an operetta called ‘Gypsy Love’. It was a piece based on a flimsy plot line but contained enough bright music and stage effects to captivate an audience. Dorothy appeared in a supporting role as Jolan, ‘a bright, happy girl, filled with the joy of life.’
She wore a long white gown. The dress had puffed sleeves that covered her upper arms and a skirt tied at the waist. She had to lift the skirt to perform the dance routines required for the role. Pictures of her in the part show her at 24, with a round face, big smile and large eyes. Her dark hair, parted in the middle, fell in ringletted waves below her shoulders.
Dorothy’s starring moment came when she and Phil Smith sang "The Best Game" and danced with a pair of dolls. This vignette was well received by a sell out audience at Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney. Critics described Dorothy as ‘delightful’.
By 1917 Dorothy was considered a major actress. In fact she became so famous that her off stage movements were being reported in the trade magazines. That year she appeared in several major productions. In Melbourne, her performance as Kate Armytage in ‘Three Twins ' brought loud applause, much laughter and immense audiences. It also brought critical praise. Her singing was described as ‘effective’ whilst her version of ‘Cuddle up a little bit closer’ was ‘splendidly rendered.’
During the run of ‘Three Twins’, Dorothy saw Ada Reeve at the Old Opera House. The theatrical magazines noted her presence and the warm reaction to it.
Almost immediately following ‘Three Twins’, Dorothy appeared in ‘Canary Cottage’ at Her Majestys in Sydney.
The Referee described ‘Canary Cottage’ as ‘a riot of colour, blaring music, flashing limbs, whirling skirts, and extravagant humour.’ The main character was a dipsomaniac who had hallucinations involving purple tarantulas, green and yellow lizards, and alligators. Alfred Frith played this poor soul. The plot revolved around his attempts to shield another character, a gay and gallant adventurer, from the consequences of being engaged to two women and having an affair with another .
Dorothy played one of the fiancées. Her entrance to the stage caused the ‘flappers’ in the gallery to become ‘almost hysterical’. She received a tremendous reception.
Star power, musical mastery, and the combined talents of Dorothy, Madge Elliott and Andrew McCunn, made this farce a popular show in Sydney.
After ‘Canary Cottage’ finished, Dorothy decided to travel to London . She had a brother fighting in France and hoped to see him whilst there. Whether this was John or James was not noted. Dorothy was close to her brothers and a brother was mentioned at least twice in newspaper accounts of her career. The death of their father in 1909 probably brought the siblings together.
She made her London debut in "Shanghai" in 1918. It was produced at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. She must have made a success of her London career because she stayed overseas for two years.
In 1920 Dorothy returned to Australia and appeared in several musicals for JC Williamson. One of these musicals was ‘Oh Lady! Lady!" staged in 1921 where she took the starring role of Fainting Fanny.
As Fanny, the pickpocket who plied her trade by pretending to faint in men’s arms, Dorothy had a major hit. She captivated the audience in a dead leaf green sports coat, short check skirt and a German students black velvet cap. The skirt daringly showed her calves covered by black stockings. In contrast to her long flowing hair of 1914, Dorothy sported a short bob. Covered by the cap, her perky face was topped by a fringe of circular curls.
The critics acclaimed the performance as the best of her career. The audience agreed with this assessment. Her arrival on stage was greeted with loud and long applause.
The production was notable for having a nefarious character as the heroine. A departure of form for the legitimate theatre, but a theme that had long been embraced by Australians.
During the run of the play Dorothy announced her intention of travelling to the United States to visit her brother, who was a movie producer. This announcement caused the theatre goers of Sydney to rush to the box office. On the eve of the final night, their eagerness caused scenes of disruption outside Her Majesty’s Theatre. At 6.30am queues began to form outside the theatre. Police were called to break them up and management suspended all ticket selling.
At the close of the final night’s performance Dorothy was almost overwhelmed by floral tributes. She made a farewell speech thanking the audience and expressing her hope that her friends in Sydney would not forget her.
Dorothy travelled to the United States. She did not appear on the American stage . In 1925 she returned to Australia and acted in several plays. Amongst these were ‘Rose O Reilly’ and ‘The Climax’. In the latter, she starred with Guy Bates Post. After the conclusion of the Sydney season they took the play to South Africa. In 1927 it was produced in London at the Little Theatre. Dorothy reportedly scored a personal success with her performance there. However, this did not ensure success for the production. It closed after 30 performances. Dorothy later stated that the Little Theatre had housed a series of failures before ‘The Climax’. She added that this run of bad luck had almost certainly doomed the production. This indicated that Dorothy had her fair share of theatrical superstition.
1931 was a significant year for Dorothy. She returned to Australia and performed for the first time in six years. She also got married
Dorothy had been suffering from ill health in London. She had been stricken by a series of colds and coughs, which had severely limited her.
‘I had continually to be dropping out of the cast for a few nights on account of my cough. At last I realised that only a visit to my native land where I could bask in glorious sunshine would pull me through. So here I am’
Dorothy was quickly recruited by JC Williamsons to perform on the Australian stage. She made her return at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney on March 7th 1931 in ‘Dearest Enemy’.
‘Dearest Enemy’ was set during the American War of Independence, Dorothy played Betsy Burke, the Irish heroine. She sang and danced her way through a production populated by British soldiers, ladies in elegant evening gowns and George Washington. Dorothy was dressed in period costume and sang several songs. The most notable of these were, ‘Here in my Arms’ a duet with Sydney Burchell, and ‘The Fairy Tales of Ireland’.
Dorothy made one of her trademark unconventional entrances by first appearing on stage wrapped in a barrel. She was praised for her ‘excellent interpretation’ of the willful heroine and for her ability to maintain a brogue throughout the play. ‘Dearest Enemy’ was a popular and critical hit. Dorothy had indeed been remembered by her friends in Sydney.
Later that year Dorothy got married. She married Ben Dawson, a businessman, and the marriage took place in Melbourne. She appeared on stage sporadically after her marriage. Her most notable role being in ‘Roadhouse’ in 1933. Her last appearance was around 1935. After that, Dorothy Brunton, the darling of the Australian stage retired.
The reason for her retirement is unknown. It seems reasonable to assume that marriage and family became her career. The marriage lasted until Ben died in 1945.
Dorothy returned to England and stayed there until 1949. Then she returned to her native land. She was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Her return to Australia was virtually unnoticed by the press, which had once documented her every move. She lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity and died in Sydney on June 5 1977.
The Sydney Morning Herald noted her passing six days later, but the paper did not bother to include a photograph. The column was titled, ‘Former comedy actress dies’. It was a short, blunt statement, which did not convey the stardom and charisma of Dorothy Brunton.