Lorrae Desmond: Soap opera star and matriarch of Australian showbusiness

·4-min read
<p>The performer at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in 2009 </p> (Getty)

The performer at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in 2009

(Getty)

Throughout the second half of the last century, Lorrae Desmond, who has died aged 91, proved herself time and again as one of the most versatile stars of both British and Australian showbusiness. Whether headlining with Jack Benny, entertaining troops in Vietnam, rubbing shoulders with Morecambe and Wise or hosting her own one-woman show, this beautiful ash-blonde singer always looked totally in her element. Following her recording of “Where Will the Dimple Be?” babies were suddenly being named in her honour. From 1981 until 1992, she found a whole new audience playing Shirley Gilroy in the worldwide hit soap A Country Practice.

Born Beryl Hunt, the daughter of a local painter and decorator in the New South Wales town of Mittagong, she enjoyed a somewhat spartan and strongly religious upbringing. Educated locally, she left school aged 13 to serve an apprenticeship as a hairdresser. However, following a visit to a concert at Sydney Town Hall given by the legendary Gracie Fields, she decided on a career change. Realising that she would get nowhere as Beryl Hunt, she then became Lorrae Desmond, Lorrae being a friend on her hairdressing course, while Desmond was her father’s name. Beginning her singing career at Burwood Police Boys Club, she found wider fame appearing on the Dick Fair Amateur Hour.

Arriving in Great Britain as an unknown in the early 1950s, her first residency was at the Blue Bell Hotel in Scunthorpe. From there she graduated to Hancock’s Half Hour, supported the likes of the comic actor Terry-Thomas and Morecambe and Wise in variety, built up her cabaret act, and guided by George Martin, made a number of successful recordings on the Parlophone label. In the company of Reg Varney, she also travelled extensively to Suez, Malaysia, Singapore and east Africa entertaining troops. Partnering with its creator, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Desmond also appeared in an early television sitcom about two girls sharing a flat, Trouble for Two.

At the same time, the fledgling Australian Broadcasting Corporation regularly flew her home to record the Lorrae Desmond Show. After 10 years in England and following the break-up of her relationship with Terry-Thomas, she married the Russian-born ear surgeon Alex Gorshenin in 1963. Settling briefly in America, while there she made a guest appearance on the popular Jack Benny Programme. Returning to Australia after the collapse of the marriage, in 1965 she was a member of the first concert party to entertain the Australian troops serving in the Vietnam War. She subsequently revisited the country on a further four occasions.

 (Getty)
(Getty)

Constantly reinventing herself both personally and professionally, she soon began taking acting roles in a number of television serials. In Homicide, she played a drunken derelict murderess, was a brothel keeper in Shannon’s Mob, and starred in the ill-fated 1980 series Arcade. Twelve months later she became a founder member of the A Country Practice cast, playing Shirley Gilroy. An immediate success, by the time she was killed off in 1992, she had appeared in more than 800 episodes. With some of her fellow cast members, she then took the lead in the successful 1994 stage tour of High Society. Two years later she briefly guested on another popular soap, Home and Away.

Desmond retained an enduring passion for the “forgotten diggers”, those many Australian servicemen who fought for 10 years in Vietnam and whose endeavours, she felt, had increasingly been forgotten by the general public. In 1987, she helped organise a Welcome Home Parade which saw 20,000 veterans, together with 3,500 former American soldiers, march through Sydney. It was followed by a spectacular concert staged by many of the entertainers who, like her, had played the war zone. In 2007, Desmond not only co-authored a musical play about the survivors of the Battle of Long Tan, but also recorded an oral history for the Australian War Memorial’s Vietnam Gallery.

No stranger to accolades throughout her extensive and non-stop global career, almost 50 years ago, in 1962, she became the first woman to win a Gold Logie Award, fitting recognition for being the popular host of her long-running and highly successful eponymous musical variety show. Twenty-two years later, for her longstanding contribution to A Country Practice, she picked up a Silver Logie Award in the best supporting actress category. In the interim had come an MBE for “services to entertainment and the welfare of the Australian Forces in Vietnam”. Retiring only 12 months ago, she had fought a long and courageous battle with skin cancer.

Lorrae Desmond, entertainer, born 2 October 1929, died 23 May 2021

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