Funny People Of Fitzroy St

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A whimsical, nostalgic look at the characters, identities and “funny people” of  1950’s Fitzroy Street.

by Robert Chuter

Saturday, 12 February 1955 – In Fitzroy Street, dilapidated terraces of houses, like shabby denial Victorian Dowagers have long rubbed shoulders with modern hotels and flats.  But cabarets, clubs and restaurants with menus as varied as the nations of Europe, are now giving century-old Fitzroy Street as cosmopolitan air, which is steadily turning it into the King’s Cross of Melbourne. Four months ago, St. Kilda Council enforced the removal of old shop verandahs, and now there is a move among shop owners for highly coloured awnings to take their place.  Fitzroy Street’s proposed “new look” should blend in well with its eager, restless, arty (and risqué) population.   

Tonight, as on every other night, when the trees of Fitzroy Street throw their shadows and the neon signs at the junction light up, the half-mile stretch from St. Kilda Road to the beach will awaken. The crooning of Rita Lesley will be heard from the Robert Maas cabaret, rendezvous of sportsmen, showbiz people and the lonely.  Maas, a likeable little Viennese, operates in High Street, just off the junction. The pint-sized actress Dorothy (‘Just call me Dot, love!”) Rankin, who starred in Sally and Peter Pan at the Tivoli, will be at her own Blue Derby cabaret. Of course, the Derby is renowned for its gipsy music.

There is a human story of courage behind actress Dorothy (sorry, Dot) Rankin’s Blue Derby cabaret.  In America, where she went with her husband after the war, Dot was stricken with polio and one of her children died.  After that run of bad luck, Dot and her hubby John Fraser (who played roles in The Student Prince, Maid of the Mountains and other J.C. Williamson shows in Australia), decided they would return home and open up a cabaret.  To get an insight into the business John worked as a dishwasher in Hollywood’s famous Brown Derby.  He died, of a massive heart attack, on the day the Blue Derby was to have opened.  So Dot cheerfully carries on the business alone and is to be re-wed to the tall, dark Herbert Mortimer – a construction worker. 

Quiet, gentlemanly, Czechoslovakian Nafall Bleich, who barely missed a Nazi gas chamber, will be sponsoring continental food at his Il Cappuccino.

Pretty artist Erica McGilchrist will be sipping Irish coffee with a group of friends in the back room of her contemporary art shop. At the Junction, at Lionel’s Place, more earthy customers will be tackling hamburgers and chico rolls until 6 a.m.  The “ladies of the night” will be plying their trade in Fitzroy Street, disturbed only by passing police cars and a few shouted invites or insults.  And 12,000 room and flat dwellers will be adding new chapters to real-life stories, each with its share of drama, pathos, comedy, tragedy and even sometimes comedy.

Thomas, (“Called me Tommo, mate”), the Silver Top taxi driver, who worked around the Junction rank for 17 years told about a “fare” he picked up the other night, just a few yards from where Robert Walker shot Tom Fogarty dead. “She came out of the house clad only in her skimpy underwear and asked to be taken to an address in Fitzroy Street, near the Prince (of Wales),” he said. “I drove her.  She hopped out and paid me off.  She made no apology for the underwear.  Didn’t even comment.  I got a bloody eye full, I did.   Funny people live around here.  Of course, it was a bloody hot night…”.

Another night  Thomas’ (sorry, Tommo’s) mate, Scar (short for Oscar) Stanton, picked up a well-dressed lady with flaming red hair and took her to an address on Belford Street.  After Scar drove away he discovered she had left her fur coat in the back seat.

The next day he went to the address and the same lady opened the front door.   “You left your coat in the cab last night,” he said.  “I wasn’t in your cab last night,’ she replied. “The coat isn’t mine,”  then slammed the door shut.  Scar  (shaking his head) walked away bewildered.  “I must be going bloody mad,” he thought.  He still has the fur. 

If Fitzroy Street’s story is to be looked fully in the face, then no story of the street would be complete without mention of Red Rita, scar-faced Flo and foul-mouthed Mabel – all ladies of easy virtue and frequent visitors to the St. Kilda court.  Of 1,037 pounds collected by the court in fine in one year, 500 pounds came from undesirables.  As most were prosecuted under council by-laws, the council got its fair share of the fines.

Lovely foul-mouthed Mabel, no stranger to Fitzroy Street, used to say: “When I bloody died a  fucking monument ought to be erected outside St. Kilda Town Hall, and inscribed: ‘To The Memory of Mabel’”.  Mabel first gained notoriety during the war when she relieved some Yank of a 100-pound note, and then swallowed it when the police arrived.  Later, in a Tennyson Street flat,  she was shot in the stomach, and eventually departed this world after happily putting her head in a gas oven. Unfortunately, her quest for a ‘fucking’ monument failed.   

A few months ago there died a man,  known to police as “The Thing”, an ex-pug, ex-bookmaker and ex-school principal who had been a habitue of Fitzroy Street for many years. Drink and narcotics hastened his unfortunate end. He was discovered dead sitting up on a cafe toilet, trousers around his ankles, scrunched up dunny paper in his hand.  As Tommo the taxi-driver said: “Some funny people live around here.”

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Sources: Ron Testro & National Library of Australia.

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