The Red Shadow – in Melbourne

When young I didn’t have to contribute much to the household chores except for doing the dusting on a Saturday morning. On my mother’s dressing table was an old-fashioned cream celluloid photo frame displaying a photo of my father,     I discovered that there was a postcard photo of someone else slipped in behind my father.

Lance Fairfax as The Red Shadow in The Desert song, Melbourne, 1928

Lance Fairfax as The Red Shadow in The Desert song, Melbourne, 1928

I would put this photo of Lance Fairfax to the front and at some later stage someone would restore my  father to the front position without anything being said., week after week, after week.

In the photo Lance Fairfax (1899-1974) is pictured in his role as the Red Shadow in The Desert Song which had  opened in Melbourne in September 1928 for a 28 week run. Lance, who was born in New Zealand, had been a distinguished soldier in World War 1 and a sportsman, then pursued a career as a baritone both in Australia and overseas.

The Desert Song is an operetta by Sigmund  Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein.  At the time. the Arabs in North Africa were romanticized as they rebelled against French Colonial rule. Think of Beau Geste or Lawrence of Arabia.  In 1925 there was an uprising by a group of Moroccan fighters called the Riffs and this inspired the storyline for The Desert Song. Then in best Scarlet Pimpernel fashion we have the  quiet, uninteresting character who though known to us but not by the cast keeps transforming into the handsome and dashing hero who wins the beautiful maiden.

Of interest on the back of the postcard is Broadcasting Co of Australia Pty Ltd.  This the independent national public broadcaster founded in 1929 and which took over several other funded radio stations to form a single  whole.  There were many live broadcasts and Lance was a part of that.  The front of the postcard mentions 3LO and 3AR the two Melbourne stations.

Lance rode his horse on stage in the production of The Desert Song so it was interesting to see this newspaper report in 1931.

Lance Fairfax’s Steed. MELBOURNE, March 29. 1931

A horse used by Lance Fairfax in the operetta, The Desert Song, last night figured In an amazing accident In Carlton. The horse, which was attached to a cab. bolted half a mile. and then slipped in a gutter. The cab overturned on top of an Italian woman. Sablna Benporath. aged 30 and her three children, one of whom 13 months old was critically Injured. The others suffered minor injuries

The Desert Song was staged at his Majesty’s in Melbourne again in 1945 with Max Oldaker in the lead role.  This was my introduction to the Desert Song.

The outside and inside of the four-fold paper theatre programme in Melbourne in 1945

The show had  premiered on Broadway in 1926 and was made into an early sound film in 1929 which was very faithful to the original stage show,  Here is John Boles singing The Riff Song in the movie.


Isn’t that just gorgeous  !

Lance Fairfax played  the role of the Red Shadow in Melbourne in 1928 but I can’t find video of him in that role,  but here is  a very brief view of him singing Toreador in a movie of Carmen.

The 1929 movie of The Desert Song  has an interesting history. By the 1940s, the original 1929 film had become illegal to view or exhibit in the United States due to its Pre-Code content which included sexual innuendo, lewd suggestive humor and open discussion of themes such as homosexuality.   Well,Well !  I would dearly love to see a copy of that first movie just to see what I’ve been missing out on.

Dennis Morgan starred in the 1943  movie version which had the Red Shadow fighting the Nazis and now being call El Khobar instead of the Red Shadow.  And in 1953 there was a  “cleaned-up” version starring Gordon McRae and Kathryn Grayson , here singing The Desert Song.


In 1955 there was a live performance on TV  with Nelson Eddy of movies fame, in the lead role, the only time he performed a live role, here singing One Alone.


Barry Humphries once asked the second Melbourne Red Shadow, Max Oldaker,   how he managed to smile so sincerely at the curtain call on a thin Wednesday matinee. Humphries recorded: ‘He said, “Dear Barry, it’s an old trick Noel taught me, and it never fails.” He demonstrated, standing in the middle of the dressing room in his Turkish towelling gown, eyes sparkling, teeth bared in a dazzling smile. “Sillycunts,” beamed Max through clenched teeth, bowing to the imaginary stalls. “Sillycunts,” again, to the circle, the gods and the royal box. “It looks far more genuine than ‘cheese’, dear boy,” said Max, “and you’ve just got to hope that no one in the stalls can lip read.” I couldn’t help thinking of all my mother’s friends at those Melbourne matinees, their palms moist, hearts palpitating as Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols, flashed them all his valedictory smile.’

What would we do without a little bit of nostalgia in our lives.

Sepia Saturday

12 thoughts on “The Red Shadow – in Melbourne

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  2. Mike Brubaker

    A terrific story. I like the idea that the Red Shadow’s photo was a memento of a secret crush. We have a popular comic strip here called Doonesbury that has a recurring character called the “Red Rascal”. He pretends to be a masked man battling terrorists in Afghanistan.


    1. Graeme Bisseker

      I’d like to connect with Jenny Fairfax. Lance Fairfax or Lance Jones is my wife’s great Uncle. His sister had four children – Wallace, Walter, Elaine and Dorothea. Only Dot remains alive in her mid 80’s and lives just around just around the corner from us in Nth Canterbury – NZ. The family were very talented singers and performed as a quartet extensively. Nan Cate – as I know his sister was a beautiful singer and Dorethea has done some Soprano Recordings. Walter was a very accomplished organist and had offers from His Masters Voice, EMI etc to do recordings, hwoever he was a very quiet Head of Music a private Boys College in Dunedin for years and chose not to. He was head organist and choir master as 1st Church in Dundein for many years. We have some of his recorded organ music.


      1. Jenny Fairfax

        Hi Graeme sincere apologies for the glacially slow response 😬 I would love to contact you guys too I would love to contact you guys too.

        I hope you and your love ones are all safe and well. Xx


    2. Kenneth Jordan

      When I was at The Lyceum Theatre in the Strand London, in 1970, Lance was the box office manager. I have very fond memories of him and his kindness to me. He would get me complimentary tickets to all the shows in the West End. He was a friend of Ginger Rogers and asked me to dinner with her. I was young and gauche, and I declined because I didn’t want to appear overwhelmed and “gush”. He informed me how he had met Leila Rogers (Gingers mother) in a Christian Science reading room, who invited him to dinner. He also told me that his granddaughter was to audition for Alice in Alice in Wonderland. He was also a London agent for Walt Disney Corporation. A truly interesting man with many anecdotes to tell. Kind regards, Kenneth Jordan


      1. Jenny Fairfax

        Hi Kenneth
        How lovely to hear your story about my dad Lance Fairfax.

        Hope you and your family are safe and well during these tough times.

        Jenny xx


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