Robert Stigwood: the greatest showman


Robert Stigwood By Allan warren - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34937974

Young gay South Australian Robert Stigwood hitchhiked to England in 1955 and went on to become one of the greatest entertainment impresarios in history; responsible for movies like Saturday Night Fever and Grease.

In Adelaide, young Robert had worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency. In England, he initially found work in an ‘institution for backwards teenage boys’. His main job was ‘preventing any flow of traffic’ between dorms after lights out. Unimpressed by his duties, he quit.

After setting up a theatrical agency with a friend, Robert Stigwood quickly became a revolutionary power in British pop music. By the end of the sixties, he managed supergroup Cream and the Bee Gees, a trio of young English brothers who grew up in Brisbane.

Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell wrote that Robert Stigwood loved the music business and became the first British music tycoon.

“He became fascinated by it. He loved its trickery and tease, and the apparent ease with which money could be made … And what made Robert Stigwood different from his predecessors is that he expanded laterally. He didn’t remain simply a manager or an agent. He moved into music publishing as well, and into pop concert promotion. But his real contribution to the British music scene was independent record production.

“He was in every way the first British music business tycoon, involved in every aspect of the music scene, and setting a precedent that was to become the blueprint of success for all future pop entrepreneurs.”

Soon, he added stage musicals to his repertoire, producing shows like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. In 1975, he produced the film of the Who’s rock opera Tommy.

And then he bought the rights to a magazine article about the disco scene emerging from gay and black clubs in the US.

Saturday Night Fever

Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night was mostly made up, but something in the article resonated with Robert Stigwood. He’d already signed television actor John Travolta to a million-dollar contract and commissioned the Bee Gees to write the soundtrack.

With its gay and black origins whitewashed, disco suddenly enjoyed commercial appeal.

The double-LP soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever became the biggest-selling soundtrack album ever released.

The movie and soundtrack popularised disco around the world and had a massive impact on popular culture.

As did Robert Stigwood’s follow-up, Grease, again starring John Travolta, this time teamed up with Australian singer Olivia Newton-John.

Although well-known to be gay, Robert Stigwood never came out. He died in 2016, aged 81.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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