Lenny Bruce's visit to Sydney 1962

2012
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Lenny Bruce's visit to Sydney 1962

Born Leonard Alfred Schneider on 13 October 1925 in Mineola, New York, Lenny Bruce would lead a group described by TIME magazine as 'Sicnics', [1] who became known as the 'sick' comedians. His style of social satire, stringing riffs into a topical and seemingly ad-lib performance, changed the established perception of comedy in the United States. With his cutting-edge material, Bruce would become a well-known and tragic proponent of the fight for freedom of speech. He battled for his right to express himself, rallied against what he saw as persecution and his inability to work freely, which eventually saw him financially ruined and dead at the age of 40.

In his relatively short performance career, Lenny Bruce performed in the United States, Canada, England and Australia.

13 days in Sydney

In September 1962 Bruce arrived in Sydney to commence what was to be a two-week stint of one-man shows. There had been a mix-up with dates, so after arriving in the morning, Bruce's first two shows were in the evening of the same day.

The venue for two performances (one at 9 pm and the other later at 11 pm) per night was Aaron's Exchange Hotel, in Sydney's central business district. Aaron's was part of the Royal Exchange established in 1820 to facilitate business and commerce, and although relatively run-down by 1962, was still a conservative establishment. Indeed, Australia in the early 1960s was conservative, not unlike mainstream England and the United States during the late 1950s.

The first session passed relatively unnoticed and is considered the only 'true' show Bruce performed in Australia. [2] The later show was attended by a selection of celebrities and 'show people', many there at the invitation of the promoter, Lee Gordon. As this performance progressed, Bruce was randomly heckled, which led to an exchange between Bruce, the actress Barbara Wyndon and a walkout.

Patricia Rolfe in her Bulletin article records the most accurate transcript of the exchange:

'Projection!' cried a lank haired interjector.

'Projection. Project your voice!' 'Give us something new,' cried an actress currently in 'Once Upon a Mattress.'

She stood up to be seen and heard.

'What do you want to hear about America?' Mr. Bruce asked. 'Nothing,' she said, loud and clear. 'F*** you, madam,' Mr. Bruce said, loud and clear. [3]

The following morning Sydney newspapers started what became the general theme of Bruce's stay in Sydney.

SICK JOKE MADE AUDIENCE ILL [4]

(This included a crude front-page image of Bruce apparently performing a Nazi salute)

SICK COMIC'S SEX JOKES, WOMEN DISGUSTED

DISGUSTED BY 'SICK' JOKES, 4 WOMEN WALK OUT [5]

The shows at Aaron's were immediately cancelled. However, Bruce was not 'banned' and he was never forced to leave Australia, which is commonly reported. [6] The arrangement between Lee Gordon and Lenny Bruce was the source of some confusion, Bruce expecting an upfront bond for the tour (which would cover cancellations), Gordon offering a profit-share arrangement (which meant there was no money). With the remaining shows at Aaron's gone, students from the universities of New South Wales and Sydney tried to organise shows at campus venues. These were also cancelled by authorities as well as a planned interview with ABC Television.

Eight days after his opening night, a hastily organised performance was staged at The Wintergarden, a run-down cinema at Rose Bay in Sydney's eastern suburbs. It was Bruce's only other Sydney show. With 200 in attendance, including a large police presence, Bruce performed what was generally described a 'subdued' show. [7] An audio recording of this performance was said to have been made, either by police or – a more likely source – local jazz fans. In 2011 a copy was uncovered and is now with Bruce's estate.

For most of his stay in Sydney, Bruce attempted to keep a low profile, mainly venturing out at night from his hotel in Sydney's well-known night-spot, Kings Cross. He did however attract attention from the Vice Squad, as it became apparent Bruce was supporting his well-documented drug habit. Befriending folk singer Tina Date, he was introduced to 'Sydney Push' doctor, Rocky Meyers, who obtained prescription drugs and negotiated on Bruce's behalf.

While a combination of factors led to the controversy surrounding Bruce's visit, the key element was with the man who brought Bruce to Australia, Lee Gordon. Lee Lazar Gordon is best remembered as the man who was going to bring Elvis Presley to Australia. Gordon, with his 'Big Shows', changed the way Australian audiences experienced live music. Born in the United States and arriving in Sydney in 1953, Gordon applied his 'think big' style to many business start-ups, but had most luck with touring well-known overseas stars backed up with Australian talent. One local singer, Johnny O'Keefe, owed his career to Gordon and was so grateful he named his son after him.

When shows were hits, Gordon did very well financially. With flops he often reached rock bottom. At these times Gordon would become more heavily involved with notorious Kings Cross identity, Abe Saffron, which only added to his woes.

In 1962, low on funds, Gordon convinced Bruce to come to Australia, hoping it would be a huge success reversing his money troubles. Desperate, Gordon chose the venue, built up Bruce's arrival and fuelled the controversy surrounding his reputation as a 'sick' comedian. This he hoped would generate publicity and ultimately ticket sales. For Gordon, bringing Lenny Bruce to Australia was a disaster from which he never recovered. In 1963, financially destitute and after fleeing Sydney, he died in London.

Heading home

After 13 days, Lenny Bruce left Australia, saying little about his experience. No mention is made in his autobiography. What little he did say was to friends: he was grateful for the students' attempts to put on new shows, he was particularly offended by the Daily Mirror front page 'Nazi salute', and generally put the whole trip down as just another bad experience.

Arriving back in the USA, Bruce's career and financial troubles went from bad to worse. Fighting drug and obscenity charges exhausted him financially, but equally damaging was his inability to work. In an attempt to silence Bruce, licensing police had finally targeted venue owners directly, threatening to suspend liquor licenses if they hired Bruce. Financially destitute, he died on 3 August 1966.

Lenny Bruce's legacy

In the USA, the life and work of Lenny Bruce is well documented, most notably in his autobiography, How to talk dirty and influence people, published in 1967, and in the 1974 film, Lenny, staring Dustin Hoffman. Bruce's daughter, Kitty has established the Lenny Bruce Foundation which runs Lenny's House, accommodation for recovering single mothers.

In Australia, the effect on Australian performance comedy was minimal. Socially however, many felt the effects of a cultural cringe that was building before and would stay for many years to come.

The main impact was to alert young people to the fact that a lot of dickheads running the country wanted to keep the 50s going forever. Unorthodox views were not welcomed in Oz at the time. Bruce relished raw truth. Speech is freer today, but whistleblowers and truth tellers are still not highly regarded. [8]

References

Lenny Bruce, How to talk dirty and influence people, Playboy Publishing, 1967

Albert Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!!! Random House, New York, 1974

Damian Kringas, Lenny Bruce 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones, Sydney, 2010; [adapted by playwright Benito Di Fonzo as 13 Daze Un-Dug in Sydney 1962]

Notes

[1] 'Summary of New Comedians', TIME, July 1959

[2] Damian Kringas, Lenny Bruce 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones, Sydney, 2010, p 52

[3] Patricia Rolfe, 'A Night at Aaron's – Lennie [sic] Bruce's Brave New Era in Show Business', Bulletin, 15 September 1962

[4] Daily Mirror, 7 September 1962

[5] Sun, 7 September 1962

[6] Damian Kringas, Lenny Bruce 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones, Sydney, 2010, p 115

[7] Damian Kringas, Lenny Bruce 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones, Sydney, 2010, p 144

[8] Richard Neville, quoted in Damian Kringas, Lenny Bruce 13 Days in Sydney, Independence Jones, Sydney, 2010, p 153

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