An ad in the Melbourne Herald of April 3, 1952, announced an upcoming appearance at the Melbourne Town Hall by Nellie Small. There was no need to mention that Nellie was a male impersonator, jazz singer and comic. She was one of Australia’s best-known and most popular nightclub acts. Everyone knew who Nellie Small was.
Known as Miss Show Business, Sydney-born Nellie attended a convent school and began treading the boards in the late 1920s. When the Depression killed off entertainment jobs, she worked as a cleaner. But she soon found herself back on stage, performing and tending bar in unlicensed Sydney clubs.
Nellie wore men’s clothing on and off stage from the early thirties, originally, she said, as a publicity stunt. When cops busted the clubs she worked at, they inevitably referred to her attire to hint at sinful goings-on.
‘Not exactly straight’
“A male impersonator, by the name of Nellie Small, who was entertaining people on the night of the recent raid, has also been convicted at this Court for selling liquor without a licence.
“Ladies who were ‘not exactly straight’ went to the club and drifted into the company of various men.”
(By ‘not exactly straight’, the cop presumably meant not ‘on the straight and narrow’. He was hinting they were sex workers, not lesbians.)
Despite the Sydney cops, by the 1950s, Nellie Small was one of Australia’s most respected entertainers. Sammy Lee, the nightclub impresario who later opened Les Girls, employed her at his Kings Cross clubs. Nellie toured Australia and New Zealand, made records, and appeared on the radio and early television shows. She had a lead role in at least one movie.
An outstanding singer and comedian, newspaper articles described ‘thundering ovations’ at the end of her performances. She was also famed for her generosity, appearing regularly at charity events. Plus, Nellie and Mrs Edith Meggitt, her manager, understood a thing or two about publicity. They fed the media a constant diet of tasty and amusing tidbits to keep Nellie’s name out there.
Election day 1953 was typical.
“Perhaps the most disputed vote of the day was that cast by Ellen E. Small at St. Peter’s Hall in Blue’s Point Road. On her way to work, she had to do some fast-talking to overcome the objections of an official who told her: ‘You can’t vote for your wife — she must come herself’.”
Ellen E. Small was, of course, better known as Nellie.
But there was nothing funny about a different 1953 incident.
When Nellie arrived back in Australia following a tour of New Zealand, immigration officials refused to believe she was an Australian citizen. Australians did not need a passport to visit New Zealand so she never bothered acquiring one. Immigration threatened to deport her back to New Zealand unless she signed a visitor’s permit.
Despite her famously cheerful disposition, one thing did make Nellie Small angry – racism.
“In handling people whose skins are dark, Australian officials are becoming ruder and more suspicious every year.
“I’m proud of my Australian birth. But I’d be much happier if more of my fellow countrymen would forget my skin colour is different from theirs, and sit down to hear my views on life and people.”
When performing as a headliner in Brisbane, Nellie nevertheless stayed with friends. Too many hotels had told her, “We don’t allow blacks in here.”
A leading Sydney hotel refused her entrance to the lounge bar, a Melbourne headwaiter refused to serve Nellie and friends afternoon tea and department store assistants often ignored her.
“I suppose it’s funny living here in a country that’s predominantly white, but I love Australia.”
Although her early publicity described her as West Indian, Nellie told some reporters in the fifties that her dad was Jamaican and her mom Aboriginal.
Nellie and Edith
Nellie said in interviews that she met Mrs Edith Meggitt, wife of a well-to-do furrier, during a hospital stay in the early thirties. Nellie moved in with Mr and Mrs Meggitt and lived with them ever after. Edith worked as her manager. Between them, they devised the male impersonator act and Nellie made her first appearance in one of Mr Meggitt’s suits.
Although the descriptions on photos of Nellie at the Mitchell Library don’t name the older woman with her, it seems likely she is Edith Meggitt. And that’s a timely reminder not to judge a book by its cover. Edith looks like a lady whose idea of an exciting night is Bingo (even without drag queens!). But in the thirties, as Nellie worked on her act, Edith attended every performance.
No liquor licence? Police raids? Loose women? ‘Degenerate males garbed in female attire who acted most indecorously towards other men’?
Edith couldn’t care less. She sat among those folk in the audience and noted every aspect of Nellie’s act. What worked and what didn’t. Bits that needed improvement. They also worked on Nellie’s wardrobe until she became known as one of Sydney’s best-dressed women, though in male attire. She was booked as a woman to appear in fashion parades modelling men’s clothes.
The Daily Telegraph once awarded her ‘dress of the week’ for her white gaberdine tails.
“The coat, boasting the longest tails I’ve ever seen, was lined with rich white satin. The ‘trous’ were braided with satin, too. With this turnout, our inimitable Nell topped the lot with a white corded silk crush hat.”
Nellie Small, the male impersonator, brushed off questions about marriage.
“Never had time. Besides, who was there to marry?”
She claimed she once became engaged to an African but broke it off rather than upset her mother by moving overseas.
“When she told us about it, her eyes were sad for a moment. Then she broke into her flashing smile and said: ‘But the stage has given me a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s compensation’.”
On this day —> April 4, Pope Paul VI
For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.