THEM in Carnival Knowledge

After working from home on Friday, I wasn’t about to put my glad-rags on and venture out into the night. I had another look at some of the video tapes I’d uncovered recently, particularly those that had the 80s drag shows on them that I was such a huge fan of back then.

While I’ve been surprised at what I discovered, I’m also surprised at the stuff I don’t have on video. Somewhere out there a video tape exists of me on stage as a ‘male nurse’ pushing a wheelchair around in a Skye Brooks & Co show at the Imperial Hotel. I was actually working behind the scenes as the dresser but, as this part of the show required six people and there were only five in the show, I was made to do it.

During my time behind the scenes with Skye Brooks & Co., I also appeared in a cameo as the ‘Elephant Man’ every Friday and Saturday night for many months. And also as a ‘penis puppet’ that sang or mimed to ‘You Keep Me hanging On’ by Kim Wilde. Luckily the puppet got axed after two weeks because it was very uncomfortable to put this thing on my arm and crouch under a wooden bench to do it.

Anyway, none of that is directly about the clips I worked on until 3am on Friday night. I decided to be a tad more experimental with Windows Movie Maker and see if I could get an entire show ready for Youtube. I came across a tape that had a show on it I didn’t realise I had on tape. It was a second generation version but the vision still looked okay.

After doing all the importing and converting, I had to break it up into three parts because Youtube ideally only likes clips to be a maximum of 10 minutes. The show was called ‘Carnival Knowledge’ and it is the most popular that THEM (JayJay, Robyn & Tallulah) ever did during their time together. It is from 1986.

The success of the show surprised everyone but especially ‘THEM’. The budget for the show’s costumes was $800 (their next show it would rise to $1300) and they didn’t think it was anything super-special when they were creating it. But it took off with the audience at the Newtown Hotel and really led to them doing more shows in other venues around town.

The show has been divided into 3 separate clips to meet Youtube requirements. This is the first part…

I’m in the audience, right down at the very front of the stage – you can see the back of a skinny guy in a white tshirt bopping around and shaking his body to the music of the show – I really used to get into the shows back then.

I was with my current squeeze at the time. He was a terrific guy and this was one relationship that I ended stupidly. Still obsessed with the previous one, the evil ‘Mildred’ (nicknamed after Bette Davis’ character in ‘Of Human Bondage’), I didn’t focus on what I had right in front of my eyes. But I suppose there’s a zillion people around the world with stories like that, aren’t there…

Here’s the second clip with the middle part of ‘Carnival Knowledge’…I love the camp little singalong bit to ‘A Sunny Disposish’. There’s heaps of props in this show which are a real pain when you’ve got this tiny, tiny stage to work on. You can also see the shadows of buses going past the Newtown during the show at certain times. The stage was more like a tiny runway than an actual stage. Placing and quickly grabbing props was a pain. (As I found out later when I became ‘dresser’ for the show).

You might have noticed the crazinessamongst the cast with all their touching each other and so on…it was because they had (as they put it) ‘a visit from a friend from Nimbin’. Which translates to ‘they’d been smoking pot before the show.’ So they were all in a rather ‘elevated’ and silly mood, as it were. 😉

In the third and final clip, they do this fabulous thing which I haven’t seen done in Sydney drag since. At the end of the finale – ‘Carnival’ – JayJay put in a couple of minutes of instrumental music during which time they could introduce each other, do the adverts for the pub for the next week and so on. And after the two minutes, the music for ‘Carnival’ began again and they reprised part of the finale and left the stage. It was a fabulous idea. There’s even a slight ‘cue’ to each of them that their time is up – the volume of the music rises slightly. But they never heard it and would have ignored it anyway. Drag queens love a microphone!

On the night this was filmed, they had plenty of time to say what they wanted and even spare time at the end. But it wasn’t always like that. During most performances they actually ran out of time – JayJay would be nattering away on the microphone and suddenly ‘Carnival’ would start again and she’d have to drop the microphone and get back into the choreography for the song. On a really bad night, they wouldn’t even get to pass the mic around to each of the girls before the time ran out. For an audience, this was hilarious. The ‘regulars’ like myself use to watch every week to see if they were going to make it or not.

Remember, this was all on an old fashioned audio cassette – no digital state of the art equipment or CD…just a plain old c60 cassette. I fthere was a problem all you could do was hit ‘stop’ and rewind!

The humble audio cassette...mainstay of drag shows in Sydney for many years

The humble audio cassette...mainstay of drag shows in Sydney for many years

So there you go, JayJay Bailey, Robyn Lee and Tallulah Bright…THEM…at their peak in ‘Carnival Knowledge’. The show was orginally going to be called ‘Burlesque, Not Theatre’ but JayJay thought it might be a little too obscure for the punters!

It’s amazing how much little trivia has come back in to my mind tonight as I’ve written this: it was 23 years ago. Half a lifetime away for me. But there’s so many stored memories and incidents in my head that it only takes something like this to bring them spilling out. I was out seeing shows like this – or helping behind the scenes in them – for 4 -5 nights a week for years in the 80s. And holding down a full time job as well. Where the hell did I get all that energy from? It sure ain’t here anymore….I need a lie down just thinking about it!

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