A theatrical resident

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A theatrical resident

April 26, 2019

Mr Johnny Riley was one of five ‘needy actors’ living at Rushall Park when the Australasian Dramatic and Musical Association transferred its land to the Old Colonists’ Association.

A colourful character, by all accounts, Johnny Riley was born in 1819, left London for Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania)  in 1840, and by 1845 had settled in Melbourne.

During Melbourne’s Gold Rush, Riley worked the Sydney music halls, toured the Australian colonies as an actor in the Charles Young company and performed in Melbourne’s Queen St theatre and Rowe’s Circus as a clown, acrobat and tightrope walker. In those days, he stayed in ‘free and easies’, where you paid for a night at a time, with bed, board, and beer.

It was his acting and circus background which made him eligible for a place in the ‘Dramatic Homes.’

Always a source of entertainment to the Old Colonist residents, Riley was a popular performer in the village. He celebrated his 91st birthday at “The Homes” with a concert and party, where he was said to ‘sing a good song and favour with a recitation.”[1]

He died aged 92 in the summer of 1910-11 at The Old Colonists’ Homes. On the same day, there was a party in Sumner Hall, and Mr Riley performed a song on the banjo and a ‘comedy sketch’ using the target of an elderly African American slave woman wanting ‘women’s rights’. Such sentiments now would raise eyebrows and tempers instead of a laugh, but back then, racist ‘blackface’ skits were common music hall fare.

. Photo: Weekly Times 23 December 1911, source: Trove
– Kaz Cooke
[1]Argus, 5 June 1910; Sporting and Dramatic5 June 1911.

Pete Zawacki drove to Leith Park twice a week to visit his mother, Helen, until her death a year ago. After she died he wanted to honour her memory and ‘repay’ the kindness staff showed her by volunteering.

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