My grandmother, the Personality Girl

BY EMILY GEORGE

There were several things I thought completing an internship at the NFSA would entail. As a lover of things from the past, art, film and music, I knew being an intern for several weeks at the NFSA would be something I would really enjoy. The one thing I did not expect was to learn that a recording my grandmother, Maurene Edson, made in 1945 was part of the NFSA collection. Discovering this was not only a joy for her, but also a chance for me to re-connect with her through learning about her past adventures.

It was just by chance that I stumbled across a 1945 recording called Deep in the Heart of Texas after I searched her name in the collection (which is available to search by any member of the public through the NFSA website). It was purely out of curiosity and I did not expect there would be anything, as most of her recordings would have been on 16-inch lacquer discs which are old and easily damaged.

The “Personality Girl”, Kangaroos on Parade and adventures on tour

A mother to five and grandmother to 18, as a child Maurene was a featured vocalist on 5AD as part of Kangaroos on Parade, which was a small group of child entertainers who featured on the radio station on Saturday nights. She was hand-picked from dance classes by the J. C. Williamsons Theatre Company and was then chosen to join the troupe by Jack Burgess. A tap dancer, singer, and piano accordionist, she is often referred to in various articles as the Personality Girl:, and described as a juvenile comedienne.

Maurene Edson as a child dressed in a Carmen Miranda costume

There were two shows on 5AD which featured child performers, Kangaroo Hour and Kangaroos on Parade, the latter which my grandmother was part of was for a small group of selected performers who regularly toured and performed at various functions.

All her performances on 5AD were recorded live. Maurene did several tours around South Australia, one of which involved her traveling on a plane for the first time – a rare treat for a child in the 1940s! Her mother accompanied her on all tours, as well as making all her costumes. One in particular, a white velvet dress with small embroidered red cherries, became her calling card. At a time when material was rationed because of the war, the costumes were incredibly detailed with materials such as silk, velvet, and intricate embroidery.

Before finishing primary school Maurene had sung for Lord and Lady Mountbatten, great uncle of Prince Charles. She was awarded the Red Cross Certificate of Service when she was nine, after performing numerous times at Cheer Up Huts for the War effort as well as on radio, and sung for the Governor of South Australia after he requested her to sing at a concert calling her “the little girl with the piano accordion”.

Radio DJ, meeting Louis Armstrong and Fun Fair

As a woman in the 1940s, completing a high school education was not an option for all. After leaving school, 5AD offered Maurene a job at the station, where she selected the music played on the weekend luncheon shows from the 5AD record library. After I discussed her career with her over one weekend, this piece of information, as well as a few others, was completely new to me. I had no idea she worked in radio as a young woman, and the archival material she kept from this time was fascinating. Program lists, newspaper articles, business cards, photographs and letters, her scrapbooks are a treasure trove of historical insights! I found out she met Louis Armstrong at a welcoming party hosted by 5AD. He was the special guest, and she sat beside him as he talked all night. She also competed in Miss South Australia and Miss Australia.

Apart from her time on 5AD and certain photographs a lot of this information was new to me, and it was my engagement with searching the online collection that led me to discover this. It was then that I found out about Fun Fair, a show produced on channel Seven which she featured in along with other performers, after both channel Nine and Seven asked her to screen test for on-air roles in upcoming television productions.

As a young wife and loving mother, at that stage to one son, Michael, she managed to juggle an entertainment career as well as rehearsing four nights a week. Of course the time, being what it was, led her to have unfair criticism from individuals who were a product of their time. However, News Limited ran a feature story in support of her work, arguing that a woman could and should be able to do both.

Fun Fair, Channel Seven, cast publicity still.

After having more children, she retired as a professional entertainer and became a full-time wife and mother.

She continues to sing, and throughout my childhood I asked her to sing and play the piano for hours. She never refused, and was happy to indulge all her grandchildren in private performances, my favourites being Somewhere over the Rainbow and Music of the Night.

Deep in the Heart of Texas by Maureen Edson, aged 7

Presenter Darcy Cochade introduces the show: ‘We have in the studio about 50 members of the younger generation who, as part of their process of growing up, have wisely selected to take music into their curriculum. So the music you will hear is the work of our young Australians on their way up.’

Maurene is the second performer in the program, singing Deep in the Heart of Texas. The track is a cover of the 1941 song written by June Hershey (lyrics) and Don Swander (music). It became a hit in the voice of Perry Como, and it has also been recorded by Bing Crosby, Pee-Wee Herman, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and many more.

From the Personality Girl’s personal collection