Remembering the amazing Jeanne Little

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Jeanne Little in her creation, the Gladbag Dress. Colin Salter at piano. Photo: Robert Roach

In addition to her singing, Jeanne Little was also a talented costumier, and throughout her career, designed and made her own extraordinary wearable-art costumes, writes BILL STEPHENS.

WHEN Jeanne Little’s daughter released the news last week that her mother had died at the age of 82 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, there was a flood of tributes in the media and on social media at the realisation that the country had lost one of its most unique and beloved entertainers.

There were some who couldn’t stand the sound of Jeanne’s distinctive raucous voice, which had on occasion been unkindly compared to a claxon horn. But her voice was the same onstage and off, and to those with the temerity to enquire if it were her real voice, the answer was always the same: “Why would I talk like this if I didn’t have to?”

The sound was doubtless hereditary, but the drawl was the result of years of training to overcome a serious childhood stutter, and over the years, Jeanne learned how to use that voice to charm audiences as well as convulse them with laughter.

Jeanne in 1995 as Marlene

Despite her oft-repeated claim that she couldn’t sing, “I can’t even speak properly, Dahling”, respected music critic, W.L. Hoffmann, when writing of her first performance at Queanbeyan’s School of Arts Café, in her cabaret “Hello Dahling”, declared: “She certainly can sing, and knows how to pump out a song with the best of them, and the clarity of her diction, which makes every word in a song count, could well be the envy of many an opera singer”.

In addition to her singing, Jeanne was also a talented costumier, and throughout her career, designed and made her own extraordinary wearable-art costumes. Indeed it was through her dress-making skills that she first came to fame, when, heavily pregnant with her adored daughter, Katie, she was invited to model some of her bespoke maternity clothes, as a fill-in for another guest who had suddenly dropped out of Mike Walsh’s popular mid-day television show.

Her unusual speaking voice, her effervescent personality, and quick-fire motor-mouth, made an immediate impact, and she soon became a regular on the show. For each appearance she would make and wear a garment, lampooning high fashion, constructed from whatever was handy, including toast, sausages and most famously, plastic glad-bags.

Her costumes, together with her jaw-dropping faux pas (she once described Sydney Tower as “the biggest erection in Sydney”) soon made her a media “personality”.

Bill Stephens with Jeanne Little wearing her own cat dress at a CAT Awards night. Photo: Robert Roach

But there was more to Jeanne than just personality and gimmicks. She was a quick learner and worked hard on extending and developing her unique talents. After touring Australia in John Frost’s production of the Jerry Herman musical revue “Jerry’s Girls”, in a cast that included Debbie Byrnes, Marcia Hines, Judi Connelli, Angela Ayers and Lola Nixon, Jeanne developed her own autobiographical cabaret, “Hello Dahling”, which after a 12 week season in Katoomba, and four weeks at Sydney’s Tilbury Hotel, toured Australia for 18 months before finding its way to The School of Arts Café in Queanbeyan where it played three seasons before being immortalised in the café’s “Legends of Australian Show-biz” CD series.

Jeanne’s association with the School of Arts Café continued right up until the café closed at the end of 2000. Under the guidance of her husband, Barry, she would create shows especially for her seasons at the café. Among them, perhaps her most acclaimed cabaret, “Marlene – A Tribute to Dietrich” for which she recreated many of Marlene Dietrich’s most iconic costumes, including the famous white fox fur coat Dietrich wore in her Las Vegas cabaret act. The success of “Marlene – A tribute to Dietrich”, which she toured for several years, cemented her reputation as a serious cabaret artist.

Besides her skills as an entertainer, Jeanne’s self-deprecating humour onstage, and her genuine concern for pleasing every member of her audience won her a legion of fans. Following every performance at The School of Arts Café, she would take great care to try and speak to every member of her audience, especially anyone with a disability for whom she had a particular empathy.

After The School of Arts Café closed, Jeanne continued to visit Canberra at every opportunity, performing at Teatro Vivaldi, presenting at the annual CAT Awards, as an Australia Day ambassador and to support as many charities as she could by making guest appearances at functions.

Jeanne leaves a treasure trove of memories of a unique and unmatchable entertainer. Deprived of the usual gifts necessary for success in the competitive world of showbiz, she worked with the gifts she had, an Olive Oyl figure, (“I’m the only person I know with two backs”, she’d declare), thin hair, a raucous voice, and a stutter.

But undeterred, she turned these into advantages by becoming an incredible costumier, designing and making her own fantasy outfits, which she wore with all the flair of a high-fashion model. She was a clever make-up artist and wig expert, and out of the limelight, adored mum and loving wife.

Jeanne also had a big, generous heart, and charisma to burn. She could make us laugh, and make us cry. There’s no other entertainer quite like Jeanne, nor is there likely to be. They’ve broken the mould.

 

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