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Joy Eileen Nichols (1925–1992)

by Richard Fotheringham and Roberta Hamond

Joy Nichols, by John Lee, 1948

Joy Nichols, by John Lee, 1948

National Library of Australia, 3084722

Joy Eileen Nichols (1925–1992), stage, radio and film singer, actor, and comedian, was born on 17 February 1925 at Sydney, daughter of Cecil William (‘Bill’) Arkinstall Nichols (1891-1967), butcher, and his amateur-actor wife, Freda Rosser Anne, née Cooke (1887-1959).[1] Their first home was a shack Bill built at Ryde. Desperately poor after swine fever and the Great Depression bankrupted the family piggery,[2] he worked as a bacon salesman. The family moved to 259 Balmain Rd, Leichhardt,[3] where Joy attended Orange Grove Public School and won a bursary to attend Fort Street Girls’ High.[4]

Freda taught elocution. Identifying talent in two of her own children, George (b. 1922) and Joy, she trained and then promoted them by writing to radio and stage producers.[5] By the mid-1930s, both were supplementing the family income imitating adult entertainers including the Scots singer/comedian Harry Lauder.[6] In 1938, Wireless Weekly called Joy ‘the wonderful Gracie Fields impersonator’.[7] The same year she became a ‘little News Editress’ on the 2UW Children’s Session interviewing celebrities including Madge Elliott, the ‘famous Australian actress’.[8]

On 28 May 1940, Joy Nichols appeared in front of a packed Sydney Town Hall at the first Commonwealth ‘Win-the-War’ rally. Prime Minister Robert Menzies and federal Treasurer Percy Spender were present, and the famous Australian tenor Peter Dawson was also on the bill.[9] The fifteen-year-old Nichols sang patriotic songs with the National Military Band, including Harley Cohen’s ‘Swinging Along the Road to Victory’, after which the applause held up the show for five minutes.[10] Soon after, Joy was contracted to sing between films at the Sydney State Theatre for £20 p.w.[11] Freda immediately withdrew her from Fort Street, telling the headmistress, but not Joy herself until later, ‘she was determined for the stage’.[12]

In 1941, Nichols became the leading singer/comedian on the weekly 2GB Sydney Youth Show and later its compere as well.[13] She starred in many live concerts raising funds and entertaining Australian servicemen during World War Two.[14] In 1942, she recorded Jack O’Hagan’s ‘When a Boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai’ as American troops poured into Australia.[15] In 1944, after she joined the Australian Tivoli Circuit, she was acclaimed as ‘our best young variety performer’,[16] appearing with major artists including George Wallace Snr, Dick Bentley, Jim Gerald, Jenny Howard and Roy Rene (‘Mo’).[17]

Nichols also appeared in ‘straight’ drama at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre,[18] and on screen. In Ken G. Hall’s film Smithy (1946), Nichols played the second female lead, ‘Kay Sutton’, ‘an American girl ... responsible for introducing [Charles Kingsford-Smith] to millionaire Captain Hancock, who later helps finance the Pacific flight’.[19] The film was a ‘major box-office success’, screening in both the UK and USA.[20]

Joy and George Nichols were two of many stars of Australian entertainment who went to the UK after the end of the Second World War. Wallace Parnell, the former producer for the Tivoli and brother of the London Palladium’s Val Parnell,[21] organised a six-week contract on the Moss Empire Circuit which was only moderately successful.[22] Gradually both found niche opportunities on BBC variety radio and television,[23] while Joy recorded comedy songs for the American juke box market,[24] and in 1947 accompanied the American film star Bob Hope on the first of several short tours of American army camps in occupied Europe.[25]

In 1948 George Nichols returned to Australia.[26] Joy stayed and, for the next five years, her meteoric rise and glittering career generated countless enthusiastic news stories in British and Australian newspapers. Before she left Sydney, 2GB had engaged Nichols to record 52 fifteen-minute episodes of Presenting Joy Nichols.[27] These were still being replayed on Australian radio stations ten years later, reminding listeners of the warm, clear contralto voice and cheerful personality of the Aussie girl who had gone to London and made good. She inspired other young female stars to try their luck in the UK to see if they could become ‘another Joy Nichols’, including Lorrae Desmond and Maggie Fitzgibbon.[28]

What wasn’t known was that although Joy had a precocious and prodigious talent, she always found performing hugely stressful. As a child, her levels of anxiety were so high that what began as chloroform drops on a hankie to get her to sleep, by her teenage years became a cocktail of tranquilizers, sedatives and amphetamines. Like Judy Garland, to whom she was often compared, she became addicted.[29]

In 1949 Joy Nichols became a major star. Her success on BBC radio with Dick Bentley and Jimmy Edwards in the weekly comedy, singing, and satire broadcast Take It From Here made all three household names throughout Britain, where it had 10 million listeners, and in Australia.[30] On 6 June, at the London Palladium, Nichols opened in the first of many seasons at West End theatres.[31] She remembered this as the greatest moment in her career: ‘I did my act, took a bow, then went back to my dressing room. The next I know the stage manager was dragging me back to the stage … the audience wouldn’t stop clapping. I’d stopped the show’.[32] Soon after, according to a London correspondent for Sydney Truth, ‘Joy’s face beams at you from posters in all the underground stations’.[33]

Nichols maintained this hectic pace for over four years, interrupted only briefly by marriage in September 1949 at London’s Caxton Hall (a favoured venue for non-church ‘society’ weddings[34]) to Wally Peterson, an American singer/actor/songwriter,[35] and the birth of their daughter Roberta in 1952.[36] She appeared at two Royal Command Variety Concerts,[37] and in the first-ever Royal Command Radio show for which Queen Elizabeth II visited the BBC studios and met the cast.[38] Nichols reportedly was earning £200 per week on the live stage and £160 on radio – what she herself later described as ‘a preposterous amount of money’.[39]

In mid-1953 Nichols returned to Australia to see her family, show them her one-year-old daughter, and star for the Tivoli in a show built around her: Take It From Me. There were Lord Mayors’ Dinners,[40] media interviews, publicity and charity appearances. On 10 September, a week into the Sydney season, the attention and commitments and her reliance on drugs to manage panic attacks, stress and sleep problems, led to a major breakdown which incapacitated her for nearly a year.[41] She was hospitalised, given electroconvulsive therapy and was under psychiatric care for the rest of her life.[42] Interest in her in Australia faded away; some assumed her career as a star ended then.[43]

It didn’t. Nichols successfully returned to the London stage, notably as the female lead in the long-running (1955-57) London premiere season of the musical The Pajama Game.[44] Charles Chaplin saw the show and cast her as a nightclub singer seen briefly in his 1956 film A King in New York.[45] She became a legend – young English comediennes also aspired to be ‘another Joy Nichols’ – and sometimes claimed as a London ‘local’, standing almost alone amidst the American invasion of the popular stage.[46]

However, in these later decades, Joy Nichols faced new challenges. The 1953 trip to Australia and convalescence meant she lost her place in Take It From Here which ran till 1960, making stars of her successors. In 1957, she and her husband lost all their money when defrauded by their financial adviser. They sought a new start in New York where at first both struggled; Wally eventually broke through as a performer and later as a stage/production manager. Joy performed less frequently but in major shows and broadcasts on both sides of the Atlantic, taking time out after twins, Victoria and Richard, were born in New York in 1962.

In 1965, the Tivoli asked Nichols to return to star in a British musical farce, Instant Marriage. Before leaving New York, she was approached by Bob Fosse, who had choreographed The Pajama Game. Fosse was organising, for potential investors, a concert performance of a new musical, Sweet Charity, and asked her to assist. Consequently, Joy was the first to sing in public ‘Hey Big Spender’ but couldn’t perform in the show as she had contracted to come back to Australia, for the last time, for a musical that didn’t succeed.[47]

Joy Nichols gradually left show business and, although she never conquered her addiction problems, found a semblance of peace. She divorced Peterson in 1977,[48] though they remained friends. He was with her shortly before her death from breast cancer in a care home in Brooklyn on 23 June 1992.[49]

Footnotes
[1] Ancestry.com.

[2] Roberta Hamond, email, 21 June 2023, 5.46 pm. ‘Swine fever and a dreadful depression decimated the very successful piggery and butchers run by Cecil Nichols’ father and meant that there was no money to enable his sons to train for more academic professions. Cecil reluctantly went into his father’s trade and tried to make it work.’

[3] Joy Nichols, ms, autobiographical memoir, March 1990, 17 pp., transcribed Roberta Hamond, pp. 1-2.

[4] Labor Daily (Sydney), 22 January 1937, n.p.; Register of Admission, Progress and Withdrawal 1937, Fort Street Girls’ High School. Reg No. 5928, ‘Nichols, Joy Eileen’, b. 17.1.25. Father Cecil Nichols, salesman, 259 Balmain Rd Leichhardt. Admitted 2/37, withdrawn 2/40. We are grateful to Iain Wallace and Christine Egan, Fort Street High School Archivists, for providing copies of Nichols’ enrolment and academic record and relevant articles from the School Magazine.

[5] Nichols, Autobiographical memoir, p. 2.

[6] Wireless Weekly, 26 July 1935, p. 58.

[7] Wireless Weekly, 25 April 1938, p. 53; see also Patti Crocker, Radio Days (Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 23. 

[8] Wireless Weekly, 25 April 1932, p. 53; 12 May 1938, p. 15; 20 May 1938, p.22.

[9] ‘A Woman’s Letter’, Bulletin (Sydney), 5 June 1940, p. 32.

[10] Inverell Times, 27 November 1942, p. 3.

[11] Nichols, Autobiographical memoir, p. 2.

[12] Georgina O’Sullivan, ‘Former pupils of famous high school are now leaders in every walk of life’, Australian Woman’s Weekly, 9 April 1949, p. 28.

[13] Richard Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960. A History through Biography (Canberra: NFSA; Melbourne University Press, 1994), pp. 82, 94.

[14] Crocker, p. 38.

[15] The All Original Australian Wartime Collection: The Anzacs (Castle Communications Rajon/Amicus, CDR06-46), 3 CDs, CD 3 ‘Wish Me Luck: Australian recordings 1939-1945’, track 18.

[16] Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 13 August 1944, p. 18.

[17] Frank Van Straten, Tivoli (Melbourne: Lothian, 2003), pp. 147, 165.

[18] Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 April 1946, p. 19; 9 April 1946, p. 12.

[19] Sun (Sydney), 20 August 1945, p. 8.

[20] Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 265-66.

[21] Van Straten, Tivoli, p. 116.

[22] Nichols, Autobiographical memoir, p. 3.

[23] Queanbeyan Age, 4 March 1947, p. 4.

[24] Sun (Sydney), 24 November 1947, p. 18.         

[25] Sun (Sydney), 26 November 1947, p. 1.

[26] See Van Straten, Tivoli, pp. 148, 156, 166, 210, 212. In 1950 he was compering the ABC radio ‘Breakfast Session’: News (Adelaide), 22 April 1950, p. 5.

[27] Nichols, Autobiographical Memoir, p. 3; see also Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 9 August 1953, p. 12; Mirror (Perth), 4 July 1953, p. 12.

[28] See for Lorrae Desmond, ‘Another Joy Nichols’? Mercury (Hobart), 29 September 1954, p. 21; ‘Another Joy Nichols’, Sun (Newcastle), 7 October 1954, p. 14’; ‘N.S.W. Singer tipped for BBC Stardom’, Daily Mail (Perth), 28 September 1954, p. 6; for Maggie Fitzgibbon, ‘Maggie has “struck oil”’, Argus (Melbourne), 9 January 1954, p. 16.

[29] Roberta Hamond, email, 21 June 2023, 5.46 pm.

[30] Sun Herald (NSW), 20 February 1949, p. 10; Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 4 March 1949, p. 9; Take It From Here’, British Classic Comedy, ‘In Tribute to Dennis Norden, 1922-2018’, 20 September 2018, britishclassiccomedy.co.uk, accessed 14 May 2023; Frank Muir, A Kentish Lad ((London: Bantam Press, 1997), pp. 145-54 f.f.

[31] Sun (Sydney), 18 May 1949, p. 9; The Stage (London), 25 August 1949, p. 2.

[32] B.S. Breed, ‘Women’s Club – 2’, Manchester Evening News, 13 April 1956, p. 5.

[33] Truth (Sydney), 16 October 1949, p. 43.

[34] Sun (Sydney), 25 September 1949, p. 7; Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 September 1949, p. 2; ‘Caxton Hall’s busy Registrar’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 December 1952, p. 12.

[35] Obituary: ‘Wally Peterson’, Variety (US), 3 April 2011, 2.34 pm (Variety.com, accessed 27 March 2023).

[36] Roberta Louise Peterson b. Monday 10 March 1952 (family records).

[37] Age (Melbourne), 6 October 1949, p. 5; The Stage (London), 6 November 1952, p. 9.

[38] Courier Mail (Brisbane), 25 February 1953, p. 4; Argus (Melbourne), 25 February 1953, p. 4.

[39] Daily News (Perth), 12 October 1955, p. 5;

[40] Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1953, p. 6; Sun (Sydney), 10 August 1953, p. 18.

[41] See also Sun (Sydney), 11 September 1953, p. 5; Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 11 September 1953, p. 1; Sun (Sydney), 14 September 1953, p. 16; Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 September 1953, p. 3; Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 21 September 1953, p. 3; Argus (Melbourne), 21 September 1953, p. 2; Daily News (Perth), 12 October 1955, p. 5.

[42] Family records.

[43] E.g., Muir, A Kentish Lad ((London: Bantam Press, 1997), p. 150; Van Straten, Tivoli, p. 230.

[44] Daily Mirror (London), 12 October 1955, p. 12; Thomas Wiseman ‘, ‘I blushed for my blue suit – when Miss Nichols wore pyjamas’, Daily News (Perth), 12 October 1955, p. 5. The show was recorded for long-playing disc release and can be heard via Spotify; it was re-released on a Sepia CD in 2006, supplemented by 10 additional songs sung by Nichols.

[45] Argus (Melbourne), 15 March 1956, p. 3. The entry on charliechaplin.com for the song ‘Now That It’s Ended’, which Nichols sings in the film, provides a link to her rendition of the song.

[46] The Stage (London), 29 September 1955, p. 1, p. 10.

[47] Van Straten, Tivoli, p. 230.

[48] Liverpool Daily Post, 2 June 1977, p. 9.

[49] Roberta Hamond, email, 21 June 2023, 17.46.

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Citation details

Richard Fotheringham and Roberta Hamond, 'Nichols, Joy Eileen (1925–1992)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/nichols-joy-eileen-33799/text42310, accessed 22 July 2024.

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