After the passing of Sylvia and the Synthetics member Danny Abood, John Moyle looks at the legacy of the pioneering group of drag provocateurs, who are soon to be the subject of an academic treatise.
Starting a show with the announcement: “Unfortunately, Sylvia wont be performing – she was decapitated on her way to the theatre,” is a good way to get the audience’s attention.
Sydney’s revolutionary gay provocateurs Sylvia and the Synthetics only lasted a few years but their impact lives on loudly almost five decades after their last show in 1974.
With the passing of Danny Abood, AKA Miss Lebanon, in May, a key link to the group was severed – but the appraisals of his life have brought about a renewed assessment of the wider effects Sylvia and the Synthetics had on the sexual liberation movement of 1970s Sydney.
The collective began life in 1971 under Denis Norton, Paul Hock and Morris Spinetti, a collaborator with blues singer Wendy Saddington.
“Myself and Paul Hock would go to Chez Ivy in Bondi Junction with Morris and we thought that we could do something more interesting,“ Norton said.
“We’d seen Cabaret and we’d heard of the Cockettes and we thought that there was more to comment on and more fun to be had than what we were seeing with traditional drag.”
The problem was where to perform, as there were few gay venues in Sydney at the time and advertising opportunities were limited.
“The gay scene in Sydney at that stage was pretty much underground and while places like Capriccios on Oxford Street had been going for a while, it was private and didn’t advertise itself … you had to be in the know, and it was like a private club,” Johnny Allen, gay archivist, said.
Gathering other likeminded performers, many sourced from the final days of the Yellow House, Sylvia and the Synthetics was born and ready to perform their early shows at the Roxy in Taylor Square.
The old Communist Club at 168 Day Street, Sydney, would be another adapted performance space, along with a disused butcher’s shop.
Shows were often thematic, with the mainly untrained performers starting with a visual idea and then the soundtrack.
“It would turn into a group thing and a bit of a melee on stage that often involved the audience and we would sent them up as much as we sent each other up,” Norton said.
“We loved the idea of Les Girls but we felt that there was a need for something more electric and that an update was needed.”
Within a year the formative group transitioned into the Spice Girls version of the Synthetics that would include Danny Abood, Doris Fish, Claire, Jasper Havoc and Jacqueline Hyde, and their rise to infamy began in earnest.
At the time pioneering psychedelic light show artist Roger Foley-Fogg was in a relationship with Gretel Pinniger, AKA Madame Lash, and saw an opportunity for a tour of the three Sydney university campuses.
“The Synthetics and Lash were quite competitive and that made it interesting because each group was trying to outdo each other and they were all on their finest misbehaviour,” Roger Foley-Fogg said.
Foley-Fogg remembers most vividly the University of New South Wales (UNSW) show that was held in the Science Theatre, a bastion of commerce and engineering students and few women.
“When the Synthetics would come out and do their thing the audience would be yelling ‘Bring on the cunt’ and when Madame Lash and her ladies came out they yelled ‘Bring on the poofters’,” Foley-Fogg said.
“Doris got sick of this and ran off the stage and plunged her face into the crotch of a guy in the front row and either gave him a real blow job or at least a pretend one.”
This was loud, hairy and unabashedly confrontational theatre, breaking the fourth wall with audience interactions and plenty of wardrobe malfunctions.
Most of all there was a sense of danger and expectation about what they would do.
Fish and offal were often thrown at the audience and Danny Abood was known to drench the crowds with soapy water while performing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ from South Pacific.
“There was a whiff of revolution and excitement about these shows,” Allen said.
“It also reinvented drag and now drag was something where men had hairy arms and they didn’t pretend to be women.”
At the time, Doris Fish defined the Synthetics approach to drag when she said: “We weren’t imitating women, we were imitating drag queens.”
There were also threats from at least one gay icon of the scene, who was just starting her considerable investment into gay and lesbian clubs along the Oxford Street strip..
Frank Elgar at the time ran clothing outlets in Bondi Junction employing a number of the early Synthetics and would became Wendy Saddington’s unpaid manager.
“Dawn O’Donnell, who owned gay clubs, got really nasty and started to threaten us by putting out pamphlets saying that it was dangerous to go to a Synthetics’ show because of the likelihood of violence,” Elgar said.
“But they held shows by word of mouth and an event would be on before anyone could stop them.”
From a series of shows at the Sydney Filmmakers’ Co-op in St Peters Lane, Darlinghurst to one of their last at the Paddington Town Hall with Simon and the Diamonds (Simon Reptile), in a few short years this group of talented amateurs irrevocably changed the Sydney gay scene and left it with a legacy continued by Simon Reptile and the many artists of Cabaret Conspiracy, among other performance groups of the time.
Today that legacy is being re-examined by Rona von Stein, a double major in creative writing at UNSW, where so many years ago the Synthetics were greeted with hostility.
“I am amazed that I am being so encouraged by the academic staff, and usually if you want to do a PhD you really have to argue the worth of your project, and it seems to me that they are telling me that I must do it,” she told the Sentinel.
Out of all the mayhem and early deaths for many, both performers and audience, the legacy is now assured and waiting for its first proper re-examination in fifty years, one that is welcomed by the survivors who remember the times vividly.
“It was pivotal time for all of us,” Norton said.