Denise Drysdale: “I’m a ratbag!… I don’t toe the line.”

In a two part interview Denise Drysdale reflects on a six decade career, including working with Ernie Sigley and declining a dinner invitation from Kerry Packer.

In the first of a special two-part interview, Denise Drysdale looks back on her fabulous showbiz career spanning more than 60 years.

She’s worked across at least 4 networks in her career, with over half of it at Channel Nine.

A Gold Logie winner, a household name, immortalised with an Australia Post Legends of Television stamp, Denise Drysdale is a showbiz survivor.

Recently turning 75, she continues to entertain, whether on the small screen or on stage, cheerfully grabbing most of the opportunities that come her way.

Denise loves to work, loves to entertain. And loves being loved, just for being herself.

“I’m a ratbag!” she tells TV Tonight. “I’m a good ratbag but I don’t toe the line, you know? What you see is what you get. I think that’s why I’m here, because I tell the audience everything. They know me, they’ve grown up with me, but it’s a good life.”

Drysdale’s path to performing stems back to the early 1950s.

“I didn’t have a choice. I started dancing at three and a half because Mum and Dad had the pub in Port Melbourne and they didn’t want their little girl at the Six O’Clock swill. So they sent me off to May Downs Dancing School and she took a liking to me. She saw the ratbag in me and she put me up for bits and pieces,” she recalls.

“I sat on Winifred Atwell’s piano, she was a honkytonk player. I had to sit on about eight telephone books and that was the photo in the paper. Then she gave me another bit with Frank Sinatra and Stan Freberg. They did a show at Festival Hall. I would have been about seven, I suppose. I had to go up to Stan Freberg who was the comedian, and say ‘Sing All of Me Mr. Sinatra?’

“She was what I wanted to be when I grew up -an ‘all rounder'”

But it was an audition for the Channel Nine junior ballet that led to her television career.

“That was when Graham Kennedy, Geoff Cooke, Rosie Sturgess -all of those people were around and I’d watched them. Toni Lamond sang and danced and did funny things. She was what I wanted to be when I grew up -an ‘all rounder’ I used to say. I got to tell her that and she was thrilled.”

Attending Kilbride Ladies Convent in South Melbourne, she would have to leave class to go to Nine in Richmond, but it was not popular with the Convent nuns.

“The nuns hated me. I used to have to get out at a school early to go to Channel Nine to do the ballet on The Tarax Show. And mother nun used to keep me in, so my girlfriend had to go and ring dad. He’d have to drive from Port Melbourne to South Melbourne, to Richmond to get me there in time. She was an absolute….” she says before hesitating.

“I don’t think she’s sitting on God’s right side as we speak. I think she’d be right down the back.”

Dancing led to other success including Everybody’s Magazine Girl of the Year, touring with Ray Brown and the Whispers, ABC music show Dig We Must hosted by Bobby Bright and Laurie Allen, The Go!! Show and touring Vietnam in 1967 with Patti Newton, the Strangers, and Doug Owen.

“Can I come and work at your venue? I’ll do it for nothing”

1n 1966 she was famously a go-go dancer on ATV0’s Kommotion, yet despite being voted third most popular female vocalist by Go-Set readers, Drysdale didn’t ever consider herself a vocalist.

“I used to lie about being a singer. The lying started when I was 15….I lied through my teeth and then when Kommotion started and all the promoters would bring the bands in, I used to say ‘Can I come and work at your venue? I’ll do it for nothing.'”

Dancing at the Ress Oriental Hotel in Collins Street, she was even challenged to lure the Victorian Premier up for a dance.

“They said ‘If you can get Henry Bolte up you’ll get an extra 10 quid.’ There’s a photo of that somewhere.”

During a sabbatical to the UK she first encountered Ernie Sigley. It would become a lifelong relationship, despite the first meeting not being particularly memorable.

“Ernie was on the other side the street”

“While I was in London, I was with Patti and two of the other ballet girls walking down Oxford Street and Ernie was on the other side the street. He knew Patti through Bert so we went and had a drink. I think he took Patti out that night, I think he fancied her,” he recalls.

There were various acting guest roles on shows such as Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police.

By the mid 1970s she was asked to do sketches for Sigley’s nighttime show on Nine, and quickly thereafter to do the wheel segment. Sigley nicknamed her ‘Ding Dong’ “and the rest is history.”

When she wasn’t donning wild costumes for Live television Drysdale joined Sigley for the Number 1 hit Hey Paula. There were also pop singles and appearances on Countdown, including shooting early film clips on location.

“Molly Meldrum saw the ABC van and he comes over and it’s me wafting along in a dress singing Being Green.” She adds, “I can’t be sure, but I think I was the first woman to host Countdown.”

In her private life Drysdale was also raising two children, building a house in Neerim, east of Melbourne, and weekly appearances (including during pregnancy) on regional TV In Ballarat Tonight with Fred Fargher.

“Then I started to do a morning show out of GLV in Traralgon. I was doing interviews with people so when I got to the morning with Ernie, I was ready for it.”

In Melbourne Today, as it was originally called, ran for 5 years retitled as Ernie & Denise, with interviews, advertorials and music acts. Sigley and Drysdale would famously create studio mayhem.

“We didn’t have a script! There were questions for advertorials but we always carried on like two pork chops,” she laughs.

“Denis Walter went through hell on that show. Ernie would be dropping his pants behind him while he was singing. Denis just kept singing, it didn’t matter what you did with him. You could throw water on him. He just kept singing!”

Indeed, Drysdale recalls ongoing pranks behind the scenes and on tour.

“We played tricks on him every day that I was working with him. Itching powder in his socks, glad wrap on the toilet seat because he used to sit down to wee. There’s an image. We unscrewed a light bulb once and put some alfoil in. When he turned the light switch on in his dressing room, I nearly blew up Channel Nine. Balloons behind his door. I’ve sewn his towels together and his slippers, I put blue loo in his shower,” she admits.

“I don’t know what it was, but we had it and we had it right till the end”

“He was a silly bugger. Like, a really stupid sense of humour. That appeals to me. He was a ratbag too, one of the biggest.  I don’t know what it was, but we had it and we had it right till the end.

“If Ernie hadn’t been as generous as he was…. he’d let me do what I wanted. If he’d open his mouth and start on something, I knew where he was going with it. And he was the same with me. You can’t manufacture that.”

Now 75, Drysdale was also there through the years of inequality where men had all the power in television. But her grounded years armed her well to face situations where others might crumble.

“I feel sorry for the girls now that haven’t got that attitude”

“I never had any trouble. But you’ve got to remember I grew up in the pub and I used to have the customers that were businessmen. They used to say, ‘Here’s a packet of razor blades” or “Go and play in the traffic.’ So I had that ‘Don’t mess with me’, I think. And I feel sorry for the girls now that haven’t got that attitude. There’s a whole generation of those women that were put through terrible things because they didn’t have enough…. is the word guts?” she asks.

“If somebody had grabbed me like that Harvey Weinstein bastard, or the news bloke who used to say ‘Lift your skirts, and do a twirl’, I would have said ‘You lift your pants and you give me a twirl.’

“Kerry Packer asked me out for dinner one night and I said ‘No thanks I’ve eaten!'” she laughs.

“He said, ‘I want to put you under contract for three years.’ I can’t remember what the the amount was but it wasn’t much. I said ‘I want to make a million dollars out of this business. The least you could do is help me.’ And he went, ‘You’re a very disconcerting young lady.'”

“Get her, she’ll do it!”

But Drysdale never takes work for granted. Every new gig, whether on television or in the clubs where she still performs, is a thrill.

“In the early days of Channel Nine, people like Ernie Carroll, Peter Faiman, knew what you did. If something came up, they’d go, ‘Get her, she’ll do it!’ Whether it was being tied to a bloody railroad track, or anything. They knew that I was up for it,” she insists.

“Every time I get a job -and I still do it- I go, ‘Yes!’ Still, when I get off the phone. I don’t think that ever goes away.”

Tomorrow: Hey Hey it’s Saturday, Denise, The Circle, Studio 10 and more.

8 Responses

  1. What an enduring, talented lovely star. Being on TV for so long with no scandals she’s one of a kind. As a long time supporter and promoter of the Logies, it’s unbelievable that she is not in the hall of fame. Hopefully this year ding dong gets the gong!

  2. I love Denise Drysdale, Great interview, can’t wait for part two. On a side note, i think she’s going into the Jungle. She’s the national treasure, Gold Logie Winner.

  3. What a lovely interview David. It’s nice to read about Denise’s early career especially since I wasn’t born! What a national treasure she is. Looking forward to tomorrow’s edition.

  4. fantastic interview looking forward to seeing part 2 loved the ernie sigley show and ding dong as the barrel girl loved when they sang hey hey paula
    Denise is spot on about standing up for yourself which is missing from todays women

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