World-famous people have often done world-famous things during their visits to Australia. Michael Adams recounts some of the most memorable of those incidents.
Lenny Bruce leaves Sydney cold, 1962
By the time Lenny Bruce landed in Australia in 1962, the 37-year old American comedian knew a bit about controversy, having already beaten an obscenity charge back home. Brought to Sydney by promoter Lee Gordon to play a two-week engagement at Aarons Hotel, Bruce’s first 9pm show on September 6 went off without major incident but all hell broke loose during his 11pm performance. Though accounts vary, what emerges most consistently in Damian Kringas’s fascinating 2010 self-published book Lenny Bruce: 13 Days In Sydney, is that he began with his rumination on dirty words that starts “I’m going to piss on you” and further alienated his audience with an American-centric set lost amid bad sound. Sydney actress Barbara Wyndon stood up and said, “Come on, Lenny, give us something we can laugh at.” Bruce’s reply – “Fuck you, lady!” – was an unthinkable affront to a woman in conservative Menzies-era Australia.
A walkout ensued, led by Bob Rogers, Australia’s most influential radio personality, and Aarons’ management cancelled the remainder of the engagement. The next day The Daily Mirror ran a front-page photo cropped to make it look like Bruce was giving the Nazi salute under the headline “Sick Jokes Made Audience Ill”. Sydney University refused him permission to perform there and even the ABC cancelled a TV interview.
Bruce holed up in his hotel room, consoled himself with ice cream and heroin, argued with Gordon and gave at least one rambling interview. The comedian did get to do another show at the Wintergarden Theatre in Rose Bay, where a small crowd saw him give a “subdued performance”. In what’d become increasingly characteristic of his later routines, Bruce began the Wintergarden set by discussing the Aarons brouhaha.
On September 18, and reportedly under vice-squad pressure, Bruce flew back to the United States. Bigger troubles awaited him. Before the year’s end, he’d be twice arrested for obscenity and once for drugs, beginning the inexorably bitter persecution that ended with his death from a morphine overdose on August 3, 1966.