Roy Rene (‘Mo’ McCackie)
(15 Feb 1891–22 Nov 1954), born Harry van der Sluys, was an Australian comedian/vaudevillian. As the bawdy character ‘Mo’ McCackie, he was one of the most well-known and successful Australian comedians of the 20th century. There was not one person in Australia during the years surrounding the Depression who at times, had not seen or heard of ‘Mo’s controversial comedic acts.
Roy changed the lives of so many Australians. Most of all, he made them laugh; inventing a character all were able to identify with. ‘Mo’ was another Aussie battler, always taking the side of the underdog in his battle against authority and pretentiousness. As a result, people took a natural liking to his style of entertainment, lifting spirits in an era when Australians needed him. ‘Mo’ was the first nationally well-known Australian celebrity.
Birth of Roy
Roy was born in Adelaide, South Australia and was the fourth of seven children of a Dutch Jew and an Anglo-Jewish wife. About 1905 the family moved to Melbourne and despite his father’s opposition, in July 1908, Roy secured an engagement with James Brennan’s vaudeville shows at the Gaiety Theatre. Of medium height with a distinctly Jewish profile, dark hair, a pale smooth complexion and large soulful brown eyes; ‘Boy Roy’ (his stage name) was very appealing.
He appeared at Brennan’s National Amphitheatre, Sydney in 1910 and had adopted the new stage name Roy Rene (Rene after a famous French clown). Later he joined J. C. Bain’s suburban vaudeville shows in Sydney and toured New South Wales with bush companies. While playing at Bain’s Princess Theatre, Railway Square, Sydney, in 1914 Roy was noticed by Sir Benjamin Fuller, who engaged him to tour New Zealand.
Enter ‘Mo’ McCackie
Roy developed his unique style and perfected the black & white make-up which became his trademark. Returning to Sydney in 1915, he joined Albert Bletsoe’s revue company at the Fullers’ National Theatre. In July 1916 Roy (‘Mo’) teamed up with comedian Nat Phillips (‘Stiffy’), and the duo became infamous! Stiffy and ‘Mo’ – renowned for their blue comedy, risqué humour and innuendo made them one of the most successful comedy acts in Australia. Their recipe for success relied on the combination of ‘Stiffy’ as a ‘straight’ character and ‘Mo’ with his slapstick humour. Their partnership was a long in terms of showbiz years.
On 29 March 1917 at a Presbyterian Church in Sydney, Henry van der Sluice (Roy) married an actress Dorothy (Dot) Claire Davis; childless, they were divorced in May 1929. ‘Stiffy and ‘Mo’ played on the Fullers’ circuit with enormous success until 1925 when, after a confrontation in Adelaide, they split up. Roy continued his tour at the Luxor, Perth, with a member of his company, Mike Connors, as his straight man.
In 1925-26 Roy appeared with outstanding success in the plays, Give and Take, and The Admiral and the Sailor. Sir Benjamin Fuller persuaded Roy to rejoin Nat Phillips in 1927; and once again ‘Stiffy & ‘Mo’ broke box-office records, but the partnership finally broke up in New Zealand in 1928. Roy then returned to Fuller’s Theatre in Sydney with his own company, ‘Mo’ and his Merrymakers’ In Sydney on 3 July 1929, Roy married again, to Sadie Gale, a member of his company.
‘Mo’ McCackie makes a Movie!
‘Mo’ returned to the theatre in 1930 for H. D. McIntosh in a revue, Pot Luck, at the Tivoli, Melbourne. In the years which followed, he had varying degrees of success in theatre, before making his first & only film, Cinesound’s Strike me Lucky (1934) for Ken G. Hall; wearing his unique black and white face-paint, as well as his baggy trousers (which were common among the vaudeville performers) and his battered top hat. However film was not his medium, as rapport with a live audience was essential to his comedy.
Early next year Roy played in Ernest C. Rolls’s lavish revue, Rhapsodies of 1935, at the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne. In 1935-36, he appeared in variety in Sydney and Melbourne, then returned to the Tivoli at the instigation of English producer Wallace Parnell. Throughout World War II, Roy Rene continually played to certified packed houses.
After publishing his memoirs; ‘Mo’ turned to radio in 1946, signing a contract with Colgate-Palmolive to appear in Calling the Stars with a live audience at the Sydney 2GB theatre. The following year, once again his fame sky-rocketed as the devious battler in his much-acclaimed McCackie Mansion show. Living at 13 Coffin Street, ‘Mo’ was the suburban householder whose life was made miserable by relatives, neighbours and friends. He later appeared in Cavalcade with Jack Davey, and as Professor McCackie in It Pays to be Ignorant.
‘Mo’ briefly returned to the stage in 1949 in the revue, McCackie Moments, at the Kings in Melbourne. By the time his radio contract expired in 1950, he was plagued by ill health; he appeared once in McCackie Manor for the ABC in 1951 and in 1952 starred in The New Atlantic Show, again capturing a nationwide audience.
Death of ‘Mo’
Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Roy Rene died of atherosclerotic heart disease at his home at Kensington, Sydney, on November 22nd 1954 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood Cemetery.
Unknown overseas, ‘Mo’ was hailed by visiting celebrities such as Jack Benny as a comic genius in the company of Charlie Chaplin. He epitomized an Australian male; always trying to ‘make a quid’ or to ‘knock off a Sheila'; yet some of his funniest moments were when he was being ‘posh’. Off-stage; Roy was serious, but often quite unconsciously funny and an inveterate practical joker. He delighted in the recognition and adulation, yet sought constant reassurance from friends and colleagues.
‘Mo’s’ greatest asset was his superb timing, which enabled him to ‘get away with’ the suggestive double entendre – he never said anything technically obscene. Able to make his audience laugh or cry, he was a master of the physical nuance; his facial expression, gesture, stance and movement were welded within the black and white caricature of a Jewish comedian, with Australian mannerisms, delivering local vernacular with a Semitic lisp. His departure from the Tivoli in 1945 marked the end of an era in Australian theatre.
Mo’s Legacy and influence
Many of ‘Mo’s phrases ‘Strike me lucky!‘, ‘You beauty’, ‘Don’t Come the Raw Prawn with Me’ ‘Strewth‘ became popular slang in Australian society and are still being used today. On 4th March 2010, South Australian Lord Mayor Michael Harbison; unveiled a bronze statue (pictured) of ‘Mo’ McCackie sculptured by artist Robert ‘Alfie’ Hannaford. Standing on Hindley Street, Adelaide (where Roy was born) the magnificent statue was commission by the S.A. government to recognise Mo’s significant contribution to Australian Art and Entertainment.
Additionally, for almost 40 years, ‘Mo’ lives on in the prestigious Australian ‘Mo’ Awards, presented annually for excellence in live performance. The statue presented to recipients is in the form of Roy Rene in his ‘Mo’ McCackie persona. In a great twist of irony, Roy was well known for giving away vast amounts of money to charity and the needy. In 1975, The ‘Mo’ Awards were created by Australian legends such as Johnny O’Keefe and Don Lane to be a Benevolent Fund Charity, specifically to help entertainers who fall ill or on hard times.