The Sailors by Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene)

The Sailors by Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene)

The Sailors is a recorded version of a theatrical comedy routine by vaudeville performers Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene). Parts one and two appear on a two sided disc.

Summary by Graham McDonald


Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene)

The routine is a mix of comedy dialogue and fragments of songs, including the first line of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (1879). Part one (the first side of the record) sets the scene, with two sailors recently returned from sea.

In these days before albums, songs or other performances were recorded and released as two sides of a single 78 rpm disc, the size of the record only allowed for around three minutes per side. Recording four ‘sides’ (the term used in the industry) allowed the release of two double-sided records.

The recording process was relatively simple. The artists gathered around a single microphone and their performance was cut directly onto a wax master disc. A series of processes was used to copy the master disc and make ‘stampers’, a metal disc with ridges rather than grooves, from which could be pressed many hundreds of copies.

Part two of Stiffy and Mo’s comedy routine is mostly a long joke about a cow and a calf. Recorded in 1927, The Sailors is one of the earliest pressings recorded and made in Australia. The Columbia pressing factory at Homebush in western Sydney had only opened the year before. Parlophone was a subsidiary of Columbia, but operated independently, mostly releasing overseas recordings. The Stiffy and Mo discs were two of only a few local recordings that were issued on Parlophone at that time.

As variety performance such as vaudeville or music hall shows were a major part of live public entertainment of the early years of last century, the early record industry in both Europe and the US drew on many of those performers to make recordings. Short comedy routines were common in early catalogues of record companies but there is little else of this style recorded locally in the early years of the Australian industry.

We know little about how well the records sold. There were no record charts at that time, and the surviving financial information about the record companies doesn’t include information about individual sales.


The Sailors synopsis

The Sailors is a vaudeville comedy routine, recorded by Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene) in 1927.


Curator’s notes

The first three decades of the 20th Century were a golden age of variety theatre in Australia. A unique style of entertainment had evolved, combining aspects of American minstrel shows and British music hall. It was often called vaudeville, after the American style of variety entertainment, and a typical show would include singers, dancers, comedy routines, magicians, acrobats, animal acts and just about any other kind of performer who could hold the audience’s attention for a few minutes. A pit orchestra of half a dozen or so musicians provided the accompaniment.

Vaudeville was a constantly evolving style of stage entertainment. By the mid-1910s, the first half of the show was often individual acts of one kind or another, with the second half devoted to a ‘revue’ which would be a comedy and musical take on a topical theme. The revue would include the core troupe of performers: singers, comedians and dancers.

While the Tivoli group of theatres in the major cities was the best known of the variety circuit, there were other production companies such as JC Williamson and Fuller, who owned theatres or leased them to present shows. One of the stars of Fuller’s presentations was Nat Phillips, who had created a character called ‘Stiffy the Rabbitoh’.

Stiffy was the first urban larrikin character to appear on the Australian stage, a city equivalent of Steele Rudd’s ‘Dave’ and a spiritual precursor of Paul Hogan’s ‘Hoges’ in the 1970s. The rabbitoh was a common figure in Australian cities of the time, going door to door selling freshly-killed rabbits for the evening meal.

In 1916 Phillips teamed up with Roy Rene, a young Melbourne comedian. He was born Harry van der Sluys, and his character ‘Mo’ turned out to be an ideal foil for Stiffy. Rene used a distinctive white face make-up with a painted-on black beard which has become an iconic symbol of the Australian theatre. The Phillips and Rene comedy routines, while tightly scripted, left plenty of room for ad-libbing, and they became well known for risqué or ‘blue’ humour with suggestive inferences in the dialogue, even when none existed.

Within a few years Stiffy and Mo had become the most popular comedians in the country and the Stiffy and Mo Revue Company was a guaranteed theatre filler for extended seasons in all the major Australian cites. After ten years the duo split up in 1925, but formed again in 1927 for another 18 months.

It was in this period that they recorded four ‘sides’ for Parlophone Records in Sydney. Two of the tracks were a comedy routine called The Sailors, which was released as both sides of Parlophone A-2330. The routine consisted of bits of songs interspersed with comic dialogue, and was possibly part of one of their current stage shows.

Nat Phillips died in 1932, while Roy Rene went on to become one of Australia’s best known comedians in both film and radio until his death in 1954 (see Strike Me Lucky, 1934). This recording is a rare insight into a style of entertainment long since disappeared from the Australian stage.

Notes by Graham McDonald