Send for Nellie

The Send for Nellie tribute honours Nellie Small, Sydney born as Ellen E. Small in 1900.  In the early 1930’s, vaudevillian Nellie put on a top hat and tails and the legend of this queer icon and cross-dressing talent Nellie Small was born. 

Nellie Small

Nellie, a third generation Australian on her mother’s side and West Indian on her father’s side had conventional upbringing, attending Roman Catholic Schools. At times, Nellie was reported as having a Jamaican father and an Aboriginal mother, although Nellie herself has been reported as saying her father and grandfather hailed from Barbados while her great-grandfather was from Antigua. Audio transcript. In any case, she is West Indian!

She began her career in theatre in 1923 after being cast in a play. The Great Depression had her turn to working as a house cleaner but she returned to the stage in the 1930’s. Now dressing as a man both on-stage and off, her career blossomed.  During WWII, she entertained the troops at shows attended by African-American soldiers and First Nations people. 

Nellie Wooing Audience

It was reported that when a show was lacklustre, or not quite strong enough to draw the crowds, the catchcry in showbusiness circles was, ‘Send for Nellie. She’s a surefire cure!’ 

Racism and discrimination were part of her everyday life in Australia.  Nellie’s audiences, however, loved her performances and personality and accepted her avant-garde mode of dress, background and lifestyle with open arms. 

Nellie continued performing and contributing to the arts until 1964.  She died in 1968 after a long illness.

Nellie Being Interviewed

In a fitting tribute to the memory of this proud and talented West Indian-Australian woman of colour, a cabaret show “Send for Nellie”, written by award-winning Australian playwright Alana Valentine, is being presented as part of the Sydney Festival 2024. 

I saw the show on opening night in Sydney and highly recommend seeing it for yourself in Sydney, Wyong or Wollongong.    

Visit these links to book tickets for any of the on-stage cabaret performances: 

Enjoy the ‘Send for Nellie’ cabaret performance.

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