On This Gay Day: Remembering Noel Coward and disco star Sylvester

Noel Coward was born on this day in 1899 

British playwright and songwriter Noel Coward was born on this day in 1899.

A multi-faceted entertainer whose wit and whimsy have influenced theatre, music and film for over a century, the man who would one day become Sir Noël Peirce Coward was born in the London suburb of Middlesex in 1899 to parents Violet and Arthur.

Coward wrote, directed and starred in dozens of plays, musicals and films throughout the 1900s, working with a young Laurence Olivier on stage in Private Lives and performing cabaret with Elaine Stritch in Las Vegas.

Many of Coward’s plays including Blythe Spirit, Private Lives, Hay Fever, Present Laughter and Design for Living have become theatrical staples and have been turned into films – some of them several times.

Coward was never open about his homosexuality, though his works often explored themes of sexuality both obviously and allegorically. During World War II, Coward was to receive a knighthood for his efforts in the name of British intelligence, though was denied by Winston Churchill, tentatively due to his flamboyant nature.

In the 1950’s he scored many hit songs with his cabaret act. Mad Dogs and Englishman, London Pride, I Went to a Marvelous Party and Don’t Put YOur Daughter o nthe Stage Mrs Worthington are some of his well known compositions.

Coward was eventually knighted in 1969, as well as becoming a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and receiving a lifetime achievement Tony.

Noël Coward was one of very few entertainers to visit Western Australia during wartime. In 1940, Coward arrived at Maylands Aerodrome to a barrage of questions from starving journalists who hadn’t seen an international celebrity for months. Coward was questioned about his opinion of Australian theatre and its role in the war, as well as more probing inquiries regarding his long-standing bachelorhood.

The playwright was treated to the crème-de-la-crème of Perth high society, featuring as guest of honour for Lord Mayor T. W. Meagher at Perth Council Chambers, a garden party at Government House and dinner with Lieutenant-Governor Sir James Mitchell and Lady Mitchell. He also performed his cabaret show at Capitol Theatre on William St, and later at Hoyts Theatre in Fremantle, though to how many people remains unknown to this day.

Of his whirlwind tour of the West, Coward wrote to his dear friend “…here where everything is so tremendously English. You have no idea what they feel about the home country and I am most deeply impressed by it”.

Soon after his departure and arrival back on the east coast, Sir Noël Coward spoke on radio of his time in Perth;

“I was told publicly by an eminent gentleman in Perth that it was a great privilege for me to visit Western Australia. This was absolutely true, but it seemed strange to hear it said with such sublime complacency – rather like arriving at somebody’s house and being told by the host how fortunate you are to be eating such delicious food in such distinguished company.”

Coward was in a relationship with South African actor Graham Payn from the 1940’s until Coward’s death in 1973 at the age of 74. In 1988, Firefly, Coward’s Jamaican Estate, was given to the Jamaican National Heritage Trust.

Payn retained the couple’s estate in Switzerland where he lived until his death in 2005, aged 87. Goldenhurst Farm, Coward’s English home, is now owned by entertainer Julian Clary.

Image: Noel Coward rehearsing in Perth 1940, Photo courtesy of Harry Bluck Estate / Museum of Performing Arts His Majesty’s Theatre.

Remembering the fabulous disco star Sylvester

On December 16th 1988, disco music star Sylvester passed away. At the time the musician was seen a star of a music genre that had faded away but today he is remembered for both his amazing music and breaking down the barriers of gender.

Sylvester James was born in Los Angeles in 1947 and he grew up loving the gospel choir of his Pentecostal church. At 22 years of age he moved to San Francisco and joined a cross-dressing cabaret show.

After several failed attempts at a music career he signed to Fantasy Records and released his first disco album in 1977. The record featured backing singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes – who went on to perform as Two Tons of Fun and The Weather Girls – and Jeanie Tracey.

His second album brought his first big hit, the anthemic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) the video clip featured Sylvester appearing in clothes that highlighted his gender ambiguity.

He later worked with acclaimed disco producer Patrick Cowley and scored another hit in 1982 with Do You Wanna Funk?

While he didn’t score any other hits many of his songs have become popular with DJs as the disco sound has returned to popularity. Songs like Stars, and his rendition of I, Who Have Nothing have found new audiences in recent years. New versions of his songs have also been created by some of the world’s DJs.

I Need Somebody Tonight was given a stellar remix treatment by disco merchants Psychemagik, and earlier this year an epic 10 minutes version of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) was released by Soulwax.

Sylvester performed at Connections Nightclub for two nights in the mid-eighties. One night his show was seriously delayed and he took to the stage launching a verbal spray at the club’s management. The show however has been remembered as a sensational performance.  

During his career Sylvester said he was proud to be a representative of the LGBT community, but also didn’t hold back from criticising the queer community for being conformist and turning into an army of clones.

During the AIDS epidemic Sylvester was  at the forefront of creating awareness, when he passed away of an AIDS related illness in 1988 he left all his future royalties to AIDS charities.

Leigh Andrew Hill, Graeme Watson. These posts were previously published in 2015 and 2018 respectively, and have been updated. 

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