A Parramatta boy in short pants Reg Livermore once dreamed of being Lord

Olivier. Instead, in pantyhose, he won a more outrageous fame as

Betty Blokk-buster,Wonder Woman and The Rocky Horror Show's  

Frank-N-Furter. Nothing turns out like you expect.



He once dreamed of stardom in the West End, but when he finally made it there in 1960 London's critics crucified him. We all have ups and downs, but startling individualists like Reg Livermore are fated to have more than their fair share.
This month the former enfant terrible of Australian theatre, the compassionate shocker in fishnets, turns 50. Secluded in his Blue Mountains retreat, outside Sydney. Livermore is now licking his wounds after a futile three year search for a new producer. No one wants to touch his new show Big Sister, in which Livermore was to star as a restaurant hostess on the Hume Highway. Time, it seems, is leaving Livermore on the mountain top. The extraordinary success of his solo shows in the late 1970s has been forgotten, relegated to more indulgent times when Livermore's shocking voyages into low camp were so popular. His costumes - that rough-hewn drag with which Livermore trod a poignant tightrope of androgyny - are now locked up in a studio at the end of his garden, but he hasn't thrown away the key.
"I suppose I can do Big Sister when I'm 60 - I'll still have enough energy and passion", he says. "It's basically about somebody's life which doesn't turn out the way she wanted, which may be the key to a lot of the things you're asking me"
"I keep trying to work myself through it, telling myself that performing isn't necessary, but I think it's a great waste because, although we are all unique, I have achieved a certain notoriety and success with what I have to offer. At the moment I feel I have lost heart, but I definitely don't want to go off to the Sydney Theatre Company just to act in plays. I want to offer what I offer."
Livermore's latest public role is as a gardening reporter on Channel Nine's Burke's Backyard. When I visited Livermore's home he had just finished filming an interview with another Blue Mountains gardening enthusiast. It had gone well.
"He's a member of the Hells Angels, but in sort of a moderate branch, and his garden is a fantasy of caves and grottos.”
"My friends who were anxious about me over this period think this new job is very good for me. They think it's high time I did something rather than just rot away up here. But I don't think I'm rotting: I'm blossoming."
Only Livermore knows the answer to that, but his own enormous garden is certainly blossoming. Thwarted by diffident producers in Melbourne and Sydney.

Livermore has gone back to tending it and back to his painting. Sweeping down from his comfortable house and up to an opposite hilltop of conifers, Livermore's garden is a serene panorama of colours, detailed with ponds, walkways and bridges. It took root ten years ago when he was idolized and reaping applause and considerable wealth. Now it's his obsession and every weekend up to 1,000 people happily pay $3.00 to admire it - and him. Most of the money goes straight back into caring for the garden. But all of the attention goes as fertilizer for Livermore's sometimes faltering confidence.
"Listening to the people who come through here, it's hard to understand why I can't get a hearing. I'm part of their family, their consciousness. As outrageous as those shows were, the biggest response came from where you'd expect it least, from the average Australian. They don't remember me as outrageous, but just as Beryl at the sink, because they related to that."
It's tempting to see Livermore's new role, collecting money and flattery at the gate, as just another faded Hollywood queen opening the doors to keep the spectre of obscurity at bay. But Livermore is more complex than that easy cliché, more generous and modest, and certainly more resourceful. A victim of moody days, he speaks with a candour which is disarming. The answers tomorrow may be completely different, but equally sincere.
Considering his explosive stage personae, Livermore is a strangely conservative, even proper, Peter Pan of a man. His garden may be stuffed with every conceivable shrub but its layout is immaculate and its beauty organized. There are no dark caves and grottos in this garden. In his studio, next to his costume cupboards, Livermore paints the scenes he has created. His canvases ripple with a light and colour just like those of Monet, the Impressionist, who also painted the garden he created which still exists at Giverney outside Paris. Livermore even believes he'll finally be remembered for his Blue Mountains garden before anything else - although certainly his paintings and his theatrical career will be jostling for second and third place. A relatively recent, self-taught artist, this multi-talented man has enjoyed sell-out exhibitions. But none of his paintings are figurative or even hint at the pathos or ribald humanity celebrated in his solo shows-Thai's the reason why he itches for the stage.
"My characters were survivors, wonderfully tough and witty, flying in the face of adversity, it was only later that I got into those characters who were coping less easily. The women in Wonder Woman were at that point of crisis, of hysteria, indeed they broke down when the audience met them."
"I don't know why their despair got bigger. Probably it was in myself. But my task was to make a palatable theatre out of that feeling. Maybe it's a sense of disappointment in oneself on another level altogether. Certainly in the last ten years I've wanted to separate the performance from the performer - so much so that the performance rarely exists unless it's dynamited out nowadays."
Livermore slips into his wry self-mockery and jumps up with a nervous energy, proof that the fuse to his dynamite is just waiting to be lit.

I suggest Bloody Marys and he makes perfect ones, adding all those jokes about "top-ups" and "sundowners" in the style of alcoholic hostesses. Yet he claims he usually never starts before mid-afternoon, doesn't drink too much and certainly never falls down at parties. Over lunch we talk about love and relationships. Livermore looks a little vulnerable, and I go on too much about gay identity and sexual politics He's not too interested in all of that, a reminder again that although outrageous on stage this man is conservative, almost apolitical, in his personal life. He is, one remembers now, 50 years old
The evolution of Livermore's own distinct theatrical expression began relatively late. As a stage-struck 15 year old he took classes at the Old Independent Theatre School dreaming of being a classical actor, another Olivier Through the 1960s he acted with the emerging State companies around Australia, although his success in Sydney's risqué Phillip Street revues was a sign of things to come He was at this time a moderately established actor with constant employment, no mean feat when theatrical opportunities were so much fewer in Australia than they are today He even had ha own satirical show on ABC TV. I'm Alright Now with Ruth Cracknell and Tony Lamond. His first major disappointment came in 1989 when he was too busy to accept the leading comic role in a new season of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Dennis Olsen took the job instead, with the then Elizabethan Opera, and it's success did much to launch Olsen's own career but then came Hair.
Livermore saw a preview of the Sydney production and. to the amazement of his colleagues, was determined to get into it. It was no easy task. The cast, The Tribe, were mostly non- actors nearly half Livermore's age, not interested, he says, "in having a faded television star like me".
"I'd been feeling really structured in plays until then and had this impish desire to play up and muck around I was wondering whether I'd reached the time as an actor when you start doing it all over again: that round of work with the MTC, the Old Tote, the Ensemble and all those old roles.
"Then suddenly there was this great canvas of Hair to throw myself onto, with big gestures. It really became my modus operandi from then on It was this seeming abandonment, although, of course. I was much too disciplined by then to be completely abandoned."
At one point during Hair's national tour Livermore even left to do a part at the Old Tote, hated it. and came running back to rejoin The Tribe. "Hair", he says, "was a Godsend."
Then, as Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. Livermore took one more step towards outrageousness. leaving the established theatrical profession irrevocably behind him The cull success of the Rocky Horror Show - and especially Livermore as the androgynous Frank-N-Furter - then set the pattern for his own solo shows.
"By the time I left Rocky I had added about half an hour of my own dialogue - which was really naughty. I was obviously craving that imaginative outlet and taking risks.

But people were coming back to Rocky again and again to see what I would say or do that night. Eric Dare Livermore's first solo producer could see there was a following.
And the following certainly followed. Through a streak of one-man successes - Betty Blokk-buster follies, Wonder Woman. Son of Betty, Sacred Cow and Firing Squad - Livermore strutted out a parade of strange and fallible humanity. Most of his characters were women.
"I guess I'm not terribly interested in blokes: perhaps they don't have the dignity that women have; perhaps they'd come over as being too brutish or loutish. Somehow I'd feel uncomfortable being a bloke.
"I think my physical appearance has a lot to do with it. I don't think I make a very credible man. don't have the stature that I have as a woman. And I suppose I can hide behind a dress..."
Not that Livermore chose to hide all that well. He denies the label of "drag artist", since he had no vanity about beauty, about having wonderful dresses or deliberately disguising his gender. With tatty drag and unshaven legs, his was always a manly interpretation of female predicaments, unpredictable and full of pathos.
"I don't care a stuff about how I look: the more hideous, the greater the comic response. But I didn't find any of those characters pathetic. I was just interested in twisting preconceived opinions about people. The great success of those early shows was that people didn't know where they would go - just as they were comfortably thinking one thing, the tables were turned and they were ashamed of thinking it"

Audiences, for instance, had a tough time stereotyping a character like Vaseline Amylnitrate, a prima ballerina with the Australian Rules Ballet Company who spoke like a taxi driver, walked like a footballer but could get on his toes and dance beautifully. British audiences hated him and some even rushed to the foot of the stage, abusing Livermore for his irreverence and language.
"I'd already offended them because I dared to mention Peter Sellers in that irreverent way Australians can speak about people who are dead.
'The papers said things like 'Too much, too late, too soon' and 'This boy should be transported back to Botany Bay'. But they hate Australians. We've got the land of milk and honey and yet it's meant to be a penal settlement, for God's sake."
Livermore lets out a long sigh. The British failure obviously knocked him badly, especially following the critical disaster back home of his own musical Ned Kelly. He retired to his mountain retreat until his next role as the circus master in Barnum a part, he says which "Barnumbed me with boredom".
"It was a nice, bright, cheerful. American show - and I hoped I wouldn't lose too many of my fans. It was squeaky clean and I was very irritated since it was so thin on content."
But in 1983 Livermore was back on stage on his terms, in a parade of characters even more despairing than his last. Firing Squad, inspired by the Australian recession of the early 80s.turned out to be his last solo show.
"Times then were generally miserable and we were all looking around to blame somebody; I was just giving voice to the anger. It was a collection of people suffering at the hands of others."

"Take Via Satellite, for example, toughened by life, she was a sex change who'd recently been mauled in a lion park. She was still making the best of it - even though parts of her had been mixed with others when they sewed her back together again."
Critics applauded Firing Squad as more succinct and less rambling than Livermore's earlier indulgences, but audiences were hard to find. In 1983 theatres were hit by the recession and many stayed dark. Livermore had the distinction of mounting the last show in Sydney's Her Majesty's Theatre before it closed for a full year.
"But perhaps the show was too depressing for those times. Or maybe I'd just done my dash and people were sick of me by then. And I was exhausted after eight years of those solo shows - I had no desire to do another one ever again. So I guess that's the reason why I beat a retreat."
Other than a revival of The Rocky Horror Show, Livermore has stayed in theatrical retreat since facing up to the Firing Squad. And there the painter, the gardener and star tour guide, is staying - finding other imaginative outlets but still chafing for the chance to strut his fantasies in a spotlight. Other roles have been offered but all arc second best to what Livermore wants to do himself.
"I'm happy... well, I'm not happy, / just want to do my show. Big Sister will be wonderful, I'll be wonderful, everyone will be wonderful. I'm not going to be stamped out by those fucking mongrels."