Australia's Cooee Girl

Australia's Cooee Girl
Michael Cordell
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After wowing Australia, England and Europe with her marathon swimming prowess, Annette Kellerman became famous for her vaudeville performances.

This excerpt from the documentary The Original Mermaid (Michael Cordell, Australia, 2002) uses a mixture of expert interviews, stylised re-creations, film and photographs from the time, and narration (by Tara Morice, playing Kellerman) to tell her life story. Much of Kellerman's narration is taken from papers and books that she wrote. 

In voice-over, historian Murray Phillips gives context to Kellerman's vaudeville act. Film historian Anthony Slide speaks over footage of her performing her unique underwater ballet.

Kellerman's most active vaudeville years were from 1905 to the 1930s. Her show evolved over time to include a mix of diving, swimming, ballet, tap-dancing, underwater ballet, physical culture, diabolo, wire walking, comedy, physical fitness and health lectures, and playing the violin and piano accordion.

She even incorporated a drag act into her show from 1918. Wearing a tailored suit, top hat and monocle she called her character 'the English Johnny'.

Performing for the Queen of England at the London Hippodrome was an early highlight of her career. In 1907 she moved to the USA and acted in silent films such as Neptune's Daughter (1914) and A Daughter of the Gods (1916).

Rather than diminishing her vaudeville career, Kellerman's silent film appearances boosted her theatre audiences. Her 'Big Show' season at New York's Hippodrome in 1917 was the peak of her career, running for 426 performances. Two hundred mermaids appeared in the show and the finale was a high dive over a waterfall.

Kellerman was known as the Queen of Modern Vaudeville and was one of the most highly-paid stars on the circuit, earning thousands of dollars per week.

Notes by Beth Taylor