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Great Australian Square Dance Callers by Graham Rigby

Graham Rigby summed up Jim’s square dance calling career in Chapter 1 of his historical book titled “Great Australian Square Dance Callers – Over Half a Century” (ISBN 0-646-44628-2). This extract from his book is reprinted with Graham's kind permission (we've created links - underlined - to audio files so you can listen to the work of some callers mentioned by Graham, plus one here too of Graham Rigby himself):

 

..….the ""Kings" of this era, drawing large crowds over the test of time, were just six, they being Eddie Carol, Jim Vickers-Willis, Bill McGrath, Wally Cook, Jack Murphy and Les Schroeder…….Jim Vickers-Willis, the unbelievably popular young journalist who, literally "took Melbourne by storm!" In early 1952, Jim and his wife, Beth, became involved in a charity square dance for their new Brighton "kindy" with Bill McGrath calling, and Bill being unavailable for their next dance (guess what?) the mike fell to Jim, who, with admirable humility, rose to the occasion. Enjoying it all, and learning to dance at Bill's "Brighton" club, Jim practiced hard at his calling and attracted five hundred dancers to their next church fund-raiser, and, soon after, the "Melbourne Sun,' the newspaper for whom he [Jim] worked, produced a centre-page feature, resulting in his first group, the "Melbourne Square Dance Club'. Interest was spreading by leaps and bounds, and, by mid 1952, new clubs were opening most weeks, and, with major ballrooms becoming involved, Jim was engaged, in September, to call at "Earls Court' St Kilda, and, for a short time at "Leggetts". The one hour live radio broadcasts on 3DB from "Earl's Court" on Saturday nights made numbers soar, and, with massive media build-up, Jim was, all at once, calling almost nightly to thousands.

By now, Adelaide beckoned and he responded on Monday nights, and in pelting rain at the "Palais Royale" opening, the huge crowd, nevertheless, jammed the entrances, overflowed the hall and overloaded the trams. Two weeks later, the dance was transferred to the huge Centennial Hall at Wayville, and, in this great "barn” four thousand dancers were taught each week. Coca-Cola trucks drove to the four corners of the hall, and, after a few short breaks, stocks vanished. Jim's first (and only) "Roundup" took nearly an hour, so, from there on, it was "Square-ups" - such was the enormity of our activity at this time! Back in Melbourne, he was training callers (like Geoff Webb) who collectively operated about one hundred and fifty clubs all over the metropolitan area and Jim also had a "Bureau'; providing callers for charity shows without charge.

By early 1953, square dancing had become a multi-million pound industry, with sales of clothing in particular "going through the roof". Numbers continued to soar, until there were hundreds of thousands square dancing each week, and, on one occasion, Jim called for eight thousand dancers outside Melbourne's Parliament House. Recording studios, hesitant at first, suddenly got on the "bandwagon”, discovering that about half of their sales across Australia were square dance records, and, when Jim called for the "Sun Cup Final" at Melbourne Town Hall, three and a half thousand tickets were pre-sold in about forty minutes. Working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, Jim had eleven weekly radio programmes nationally, and this boyish, friendly-voiced, thirty-five year old ex-spitfire pilot was at the centre of the world's biggest "square dance boom" ever.

All at once, Jim's "bubble burst; when, returning from Adelaide in 1954, he contracted polio and was rushed to Fairfield Hospital, with his legions of dancers rallying to provide an iron lung in his own home. During his convalescence, some even repainted the home and kept the garden immaculate, and Jim's recovery was such, that, a year later, he returned to "Leggetts" for a hero's welcome, with Eddie Carol and Graham Kennedy among the three thousand who attended. In July, he and his wife, Beth, "the mighty atom” were off to Caloundra, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, where five hundred dancers and callers packed the Glideway Hall to celebrate Jim's birthday, and, after four months of rest and resuscitation, they returned to Melbourne to resume their lives. Is this story not worthy of a movie "Blockbuster"? We believe so!

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For further information on Australia's rich square dance heritage, we recommend you visit our section titled Australian 1950's Square Dance Archive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Square Dance - Earls Court
A Packed Earls Court (1953)

Jim Vickers-Willis and family

Recovering from polio,
Jim returns from Queensland
with his young family (1955)

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Listen to CALLERS of the BOOM!
Jack Murphy, Eddie Carol, Joe Lewis, Bill McGrath, Leonard Hurst, Irene Hewitt, Wally Cook, Graham Rigby, Lloyd Shaw & Gary Cohen


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