Born in 1909, Sir Robert Helpmann was an Australian dancer who became an international ballet star and choreographer as well as a noted actor and director. Openly gay (he lived with his partner for 36 years) and with a flamboyant sense of theatricality, Robert had been on stage since the age of eight. ‘When he was a little chap’, his mother, Mattie Helpman, once revealed, ‘he used to take away my stockings and use them for tights. He would tie feathers round his head, too, and go roaming round the streets until I’m sure people thought I had a lunatic in the family.’
Knighted in 1968, during the 30s and 40s Sir Robert was one of British ballet's premier male dancers. Noted as ‘a dancer who could act and an actor who could dance’, his personality and talent played a vital part in building the fledgling British ballet.
After studying briefly with Anna Pavlova in Melbourne (which had been arranged by his rather dour father), Robert went to London in 1933 to study and perform with the Sadler's Wells Ballet, now known as the Royal Ballet. He was the leading male star with that company from 1934 until his resignation in 1950, frequently appearing with his longtime partner Dame Margot. In the 1937-38 season, he beat Laurence Olivier for the part of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic, playing opposite Vivien Leigh. He later repeated that role opposite Moira Shearer at the Metropolitan Opera House and on a US tour in 1954.
During his years with Sadler's Wells, Sir Robert took occasional leaves of absence to act, most notably in the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes, a stylish, highly influential movie about backstage life in the ballet. Years later, when an interviewer asked him whether the high-pitched portrayal of the events and lives of the dancers were exaggerated, he replied, ‘Oh, no, dear boy, it was quite understated’. Other film credits included multiple roles in the Tales of Hoffmann, the Bishop of Ely in Olivier’s Henry V and the terrifying Child Catcher in the classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In 1995 Marylin Manson paid tribute, of sorts, via the album Smells Like Children, with Manson dressed as the Child Catcher on the sleeve.
During his career he Puccini's La Boheme and Rimsky-Korsakov's Coq d'Or for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral for the Old Vic and directed the musical Camelot on stage. In 1955 he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn, touing in three Shakespearean plays in Australia, and from 1965 to 1975 he was co-director of the Australian Ballet.
But here’s one thing you’ll struggle to find a mention of in his official biography. In 1963 Helpmann recorded four surf-themed tracks for HMV in Australia. Seriously. Someone at HMV thought the gay, 54 year-old Helpmann could pass as a teen idol and ride on the coat tails of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and the like in to the charts. Two cuts from the session were issued as a 45 the following year (the same year he was appointed CBE) - Surfer Doll and I Still Could Care (HMV EA-4620) - with the second pair - Surf Dance and Let-A-Go Your Heart - issued the following year (EA-4665). All four tracks were collected on the Raven EP Sir Robert Helpmann Goes Surfing in 1982, dubbed from vinyl copies as the master tapes could not be located. There’s a hysterical film clip of Helpmann performing Surfer Doll on YouTube if you care to look for it and, apparently, sheet music featuring Robert on the cover in a peroxide blond wig. The first 45 was also issued in the US, on Blue Pacific Records.
Helpmann died in Sydney – appropriately for this anniversary post on September 28 – in 1986 after a long battle with emphysema, caused it seems by a lifetime of heavy smoking. He was 77 years old.
With enormous thanks to Graham Graham for bringing these tracks to my attention, here are all four sides cut by Sir Robert for HMV Australia.