Even after half a century in showbiz, the light of Roseville Retirement Living resident Dot Parker still shines brightly.
Walking in someone else’s shoes is a hobby Dot Parker has quite literally turned into a career of acting, singing and dancing acts spanning five decades.
Residing at Aveo Roseville, a retirement village in Melbourne east, Dot has appeared in more than 54 amateur and semi-professional shows across a range of mediums including cabaret, theatre, restaurant and television.
During this time the vivacious cabaret performer has played an eclectic mix of characters, pushing herself to vocal and physical extremes in roles ranging from Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! and Yente in Fiddler on the Roof to Mama Morton in Chicago and Mrs Strakosh in Funny Girl.
And she is good. So good in fact that in 2011 she was recognised by the Music Theatre Guild (MTG) of Victoria for her outstanding contribution to musical theatre and later spent ten years touring the state as a judge for the same organisation.
Even today at 79 years of age, notwithstanding two knee replacements, Dot still craves the comfort that the stage brings and the adulation that an audience offers.
But as those who work in the arts industry will attest, a career in the theatre is almost always an exercise in patience.
The early years
From the time she drew her first breath, Dot knew she was destined to be a performer.
“It’s like a life force within me. I just loved the vibe and the reaction from audiences.”
Born in Flemington to a dressmaker mother and a school teacher father, Dot was barely out of nappies when the war struck and she was forced to leave Melbourne to live with her grandparents in Portland in Southern Victoria.
It was here Dot was first exposed to the joy of singing and dancing when her grandmother, who in earlier times had worked in music halls in England, began teaching her young protégé some basic song and dance routines.
“I guess she ignited the spark but it wasn’t until I was back living with my parents in Melbourne that I received any kind of dancing training. As a young child I had a chiffon scarf that I used to swan around in. If my mum went out I would go into her wardrobe and put on her cocktail dresses and dance around.
“I was merciless as a young girl. I also used to bring all the kids home from school and I would make them sit on the wash house roof and watch me. When I felt they hadn’t shown sufficient appreciation for my performance, I would stand there and demand they clap. I just knew from an early age that was what I was born to do – to entertain.”
Dot says her father had a beautiful tenor voice but was never formally trained in how to use it. Despite their busy lives, they would always find the time to take the eldest of their five children to musicals at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre and the Princess Theatre, where their favourite seats were always “up with the gods”.
“We always had the radio on at home and we used to listen to the P&A Parade where I would sing along with all the songs. I used to make up all the words. Very often I’d be up on the kitchen table singing Ukulele Lady,” Dot says.
As time marched on, the engaging youngster with the comedic bent continued to hone her dancing and performance skills at home, confident in the belief this was where her future lay.
It wasn’t until she started at secondary school under the watchful eye of nuns that she received any formal vocal assistance. It was the ladies of the cloth who helped her fine tune her range before encouraging her to join the school choir.
But all good things must come to an end. Towards the end of her schooling career, Dot had had just about enough of the uncompromising approach taken by her instructors.
She suspected the feeling may have been mutual.
“I was too flamboyant and had way too much personality for them,” she recalls.
When it came time for her to leave school, Dot began entertaining the idea of finding a fulltime position that drew on her performance skills.
It was against the wishes of her father however, who begged her to consider pursuing a teaching career on the basis that singing and dancing was a hobby “but not a job”.
Eventually they reached an agreement that if 15-year-old Dot was able to secure a paid position then she would be allowed to leave at the conclusion of Year 11.
Responding to her calling
Fortunately it was around this time a bank came to Dot's school as part of a recruitment drive and she was able to secure work in the financial services sector. In fact, it was while she was working with numbers that Dot’s big chance to showcase her more creative flair first presented itself.
“I heard about a singing contest run by a local radio station. Of course I didn’t say anything to my parents but I went along and sang a song called Buttons and Bows. I didn’t win but I placed second and my prize was to do a three month trial with the Bon Gibbons Big Band in the Footscray and Moonee Ponds Town Halls.”
Paid the princely sum of £2 to perform, from which her taxi fare would then be deducted, life was great.
“If you’re just in the chorus it pays about the same as if you were in retail. You have to have the passion and the drive and the desire because you don’t do it for the money. You do it because you love it,” she says.
Dot was thrilled to be living out her dreams, which gave her the opportunity to sing with a line up of guest performers including lauded variety show performer Toni Lamond.
Having enjoyed a five-year stint as a professional singer, however, her career was almost stymied as swiftly as it began when she met and married her husband Mick, a systems analyst.
“I was only 20 and had hoped I would get invited to perform on Melbourne variety shows of the day such as Sunnyside Up or Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight. But within 12 months I found myself pregnant and living in South Australia after Mick got a great job and we had to relocate to Adelaide.”
Finding herself both bored and lonely, Dot – who by this stage had still never auditioned for a speaking role – signed up with the local community musical society. Her first professional role, as Miss Moina in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, followed soon after.
By the time she and her family returned to Melbourne, Dot was well and truly bitten by the theatre bug. She couldn’t wait to get back on stage to sing again.
“I had still never done any acting. I’d been in the chorus of shows for 10 years before I even got the courage to audition for a speaking part.
“Because I was always a comic and had the natural ability to make people laugh I was persuaded that I should audition for a comic character role so I decided that I would. I auditioned for a funny lady in a musical called The Music Man and I got the role. Her name was Ethel Topple Mayer and she was very silly and very giddy and she sang this lovely little song about chickens,” Dot says.
When duty called
As with most performance roles, the good times did not last long and Dot soon found herself working in retail again, mostly in the cosmetics and fragrance area.
“One of the main reasons why I wasn’t auditioning frantically at that time was because I had another child and Mick wasn’t all that enamoured with the idea that I would have to go on tour. Mick came from a theatrical family so he was always supportive but he didn’t want my role as a mother jeopardised,” Dot says.
Instead Dot spent her days toiling firstly as a senior make-up artist for Revlon and later as the training manager for Australian skincare brand Jurlique.
“In between I did some TV appearances on a network channel in Melbourne. One of the hosts used to have me on the show talking about new beauty products that were coming into the market. Then she found out I was a performer so every now and again I’d come on and do a number.”
While happy to wait for her time in the spotlight, it soon became apparent to Dot that her short-lived professional career may soon endure a premature ending.
Dot could only watch on helplessly as her husband Mick, a chronic diabetic, underwent a triple heart bypass aged just 38.
She bravely battled raising her children and working all the hours she could as Mick fought to regain his health.
And she was there by his side as he later succumbed to his illness and left her a widow at just 56.
“Mick was so sick,” she recalls, “he ended up having a complete breakdown.
“That was one of the main reasons I could not throw in my job and pursue it fulltime, because for a good part of those days, I had to be the bread winner.”
Her final act
But as the theatre had been her escape as she progressed into adulthood, so too was it there to support her as she began navigating her new life without Mick.
It was, she says, her saving grace.
“I had to be resilient and I had to stay strong. I had to be the parent in the family that the kids could rely on. Theatre was an escape. As soon as I stepped into that rehearsal room Dot Parker ceased to exist. I could create a whole new character, mannerisms, even accents.”
Amateur theatre was to prove her mainstay as Dot sought new and varied ways to put her talents to use. For a period she ran a business where she taught theatre craft and prepared actors for auditions. She also tried to give back to the industry by linking together a group of retired thespians to perform at aged care facilities and probus groups in her surrounding community.
Yet while Dot may have ducked into the wings for a brief period, her light still shone brightly. In 2016 she was inducted into the hall of fame and made a life member of the Victorian MTG.
In the past six years Dot has featured in six stage performances back to back, only hanging up her tap shoes in 2015 when her leg pain became too much and the surgeon insisted she go under the knife.
Yet while her body may not perform as it used to, Dot says there are still plenty of interesting roles that could see her return to the stage.
“My friends keep saying me: ‘Don’t you think you’re getting a bit old?’ I always reply that while directors are still ringing me up, and my ego is still healthy there’s no way I’m not going to do it.
“You have to be an extrovert, you have to be a show off and I suppose I still am. To stand on stage and feel that wave of adulation and applause, there is nothing like it.”
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