Toni Lamond - Lady in Lights
Neil Litchfield interviewed Toni Lamond for Stage Whispers about her astonishing career shortly after the announcement of her Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
“A large part of my early career was based in Melbourne, in vaudeville, and the Tivoli, with the Tivoli being the top of the tree. I wanted to be on the Tivoli, and I wanted to be on Broadway. That, to me, was Nirvana. I got to the top of the Tivoli, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ve done it, here I am at age 20, and I’m top of the tree.’
“In the theatre around the corner, Her Majesty’s, was musical theatre, which I really knew nothing about because I’d been totally in a vaudeville world. There really wasn’t much chance of making it there, because they were importing overseas ‘stars.’ J.C. Williamsons, the big theatre management of the day, brought out leads from America and the U.K. because no new Australia stars had been developed since the greats like Gladys Moncrieff before World War 2. They didn’t have to be star names, in fact a lot of them were the understudies for the national tour or something; as long as it appealed to the ‘Oh well it comes from overseas, it must be good,’ Australian sensibility of the time.
“But it just so happened that they bought Pajama Game, a little show as compared to Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady, and they had the three Her Majesty’s Theatres, Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide, dark for a month, because Margot Fonteyn, the famous ballerina, had to postpone her tour. Rather than having the theatres dark, because that was like standing over a drain and tearing up £100 notes, they had this little show, and Sir Frank Tait said, ‘Why don’t we cast it with Australian talent; it’s only for three months, we can’t lose that much money.’ So that’s what they did. I auditioned and got the leading role of Babe, and my husband Frank got the Steam Heat number, which made him one of the first dancers in Australia to do Bob Fosse choreography.
“The week before we opened Pajama Game, they opened the GTV 9 studio. Television started the year before, 1956, with the Olympic Games in Melbourne, but that was all outside broadcasting. They converted a piano factory into a studio, and the official opening night was to be a full-scale variety show. Frank and I were chosen to be the first act. That was on a Saturday night, and the following Saturday night we opened in Pajama Game. I couldn’t have written a screenplay to say that; that happened in real life. Then of course, we became this massive hit, but do you think Williamsons decided to use Australians the very next show? No! They brought out people from England for My Fair Lady, didn’t they. It wasn’t until Nancye Hayes and Jill Perryman in the mid 1960s that they did it again. But it did pave the way.”
And television certainly discovered you.
“After I came back from Pajama Game, which we toured for two and a half years, Graham Kennedy was becoming very established. Interviews weren’t Graham’s genre at all – he wanted to perform – so he had to learn songs and sketches, and they had no writers then. He got a young comic from vaudeville, Joff Ellen, and he and Graham worked together very well. Joff brought the old vaudeville sketches with him. All the comics did their own versions of the same sketches, and Joss Ellen said to Graham, ‘Get Toni Lamond, she knows all the comedy sketches.’ That’s how I got my contract at GTV, and how Rosie Sturgess came in later on, when I left and started doing other shows, and Val Jellay who worked with the comics on Channel 7 came from the Tivoli too.
“That’s how I got into television. Then I began to do my own shows. My husband came in as my producer, we were writing scene shows, and I was rating. That was the important thing. I was allowed to ask for the Allen Brothers and Lana Cantrell to come from Sydney and be on the show. Years later, when I met Liza Minnelli, she was married to Peter Allen and they were appearing at Chequers Nightclub. It was 1967, after Frank died. Tony and I went to see Liza Minnelli, and the Allen Brothers were opening for her. He introduced me to Liza with these words. ‘Darling, this is the woman who got us into adult television.’ I didn’t know that they were trapped in teenage television – they couldn’t get out of it. But because I was rating, and I’d asked particularly for them … I wish I’d known I had that power! We were friends right from that time until he died, God bless him.
“I didn’t know until years later that I was the first woman in the world to do a Tonight Show.”