Dancing Australian couple enriched Augusta and Aiken’s theatrical life
Who would have guessed that when Australian dancers Bert and Rubee Bertram came to Augusta in a tent show in the mid-1930s that they would become such a major part of theatrical life in Augusta and Aiken?
And who could have known that in his life after Augusta that Bert would be seen in plays starring Charlton Heston, Tallulah Bankhead, Dame Judith Anderson and Shirley Booth and even in a movie starring Audrey Hepburn?
Bertram was born on Christmas Day of 1893 in Peterborough, Australia.
He and his wife, who went by the performing name of Rubee Raymond, married in 1916 and became regional stars dancing, as one source said, their way across both Australia and New Zealand.
They immigrated to the United States in 1923 with their young son, Arthur, who was about six years old, and began touring with their vaudeville-style song and dance act.
That lasted for about 10 years before they made their base in Charlotte, N.C., for two years while developing their touring comedy shows.
May of 1935 found them in Augusta performing under a large tent erected near the corner of Greene and East Boundary streets. Their production with a cast of 25 artists was advertised as “comedians in tent theater.”
The main offering was a comedy drama show called “Cheating Wives,” but audiences in between the acts were entertained with tap dancing, black-faced minstrel comedy and hillbilly music.
The Augusta Chronicle reported the show was such a huge hit that the comedy troupe was extending its offerings another week with a show called “Where’s My Teddy?”
Apparently because of that warm reception, the Bertrams decided to stay in Augusta.
Before the year was out, the Bertram family had become involved in Augusta’s artistic community; most notably the Little Theatre League which was the forerunner of The Augusta Players.
Bert, by age 42, especially had specialized in portraying the legendary character Rip Van Winkle created by American author Washington Irving.
The story goes that Winkle in the Catskill Mountains of New York came across a group of dwarfs who drugged him into a sleep that lasted 20 years.
Bertram not only took on directing the show in the league’s playhouse at 548 Walker St. (now the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta near the civic center) but also designed and painted the sets.
In spite of extensive prior publicity, the show had a dismal first night turnout with the Chronicle reviewer raking local theater fans over the coals.
The play had a cast of 30 people including Bert and his wife and son, but only 40 patrons showed up opening night leaving more than 200 empty seats.
“Bert Bertram last night gave a ridiculously small audience a finished characterization in the title role of ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ the Little Theatre League’s first ambitious attempt in its current movement to invigorate the amateur drama in Augusta,” the reviewer only signed as “D.E.B.” wrote.
The reviewer added, “Mr. Bertram lent a sympathy of interpretation to the character of Rip Van Winkle that was satisfying in almost every respect. He has played the role more than 1,000 times, and his mastery of it was fully evident.”
No doubt the long glowing review of the show prompted larger audiences the remaining two nights, but it didn’t save the Little Theatre League from folding; leaving a theatrical drought until The Augusta Players was founded in 1945 at the end of World War II.
The Bertrams didn’t give up on Augusta and in November of 1940 opened a dancing school in their two story Victorian house at 838 Greene St. which still exists next to where the new public library is today.
His fame and talents were such that in 1938 Bert became president of the Georgia state wide Dancing Masters Association based in Atlanta.
About that same time, theatrical lovers in Aiken were anxious to create their own acting troupe as a direct result of the Aiken Municipal Building being constructed. It had opened in October of 1939 with a new auditorium.
Laurie Croft and other local supporters saw the opportunity of using the new auditorium and in November of 1939 organized the Aiken Little Theatre.
Two months later, the group in January of 1940 selected as its debut production “You Can’t Take It With You,” a Broadway comedy made into a hit movie, and also selected Bert Bertram as its first director.
The combination of Bertram and the new theater organization was a perfect match with Bertram continuing to direct successful shows over the next few years.
It especially was meaningful for Bertram to direct a play called “Fresh Fields’ in Aiken in February of 1942 since it was about a family from Australia, his own native country, who were visiting the city of London, England.
The publicity for that show said Bert had four brothers still living in Australia.
Bertram’s reputation in the area was so prominent that in February of 1941 he represented both Augusta and Aiken theater groups in Macon, Ga., for the southeastern gathering of the National Theater Conference.
During the years of World War II, the Bertram family in Augusta did what they could to support the British Commonwealth that included England and Australia.
Rubee in 1941 was the Augusta director of the “Bundles for Britain” relief campaign.
In December of 1940 and February of 1941, Bert created a radio program called “Theater of the Air” on Augusta’s WRDW-AM station and produced several radio plays every Sunday at 9:30 p.m.
They included “Christmas Carol,” “Taming of the Shrew” and “Julius Caesar.”
In April of 1942, he produced, directed and played a leading role in a radio play over WRDW called “Civilians in Action” designed to boost morale, and he even got officers from Britain’s Royal Air Force to take part.
Near the close of the war, Bert and his wife in 1945 spent six months in Italy and southern Germany entertaining soldiers on behalf of the U.S.O. with their play “Ten Little Indians.”
It is based on the story by British author Agatha Christie also known as “And Then There Were None.”
The Chronicle article telling of their efforts said that their only child, Arthur, who had acted with them in plays in Augusta, had died in his 30s from Hodgkin’s Disease.
So what happened to Bert Bertram whom radio listening audiences in Aiken and Augusta had come to love?
In 1950 he was in France as a correspondent for radio stations in New England. That led in 1966 to Bertram playing a minor role in the movie “How To Steal A Million” starring Audrey Hepburn.
Bertram also became part of several major national touring plays including being with movies superstar Charlton Heston in the play “Mr. Roberts.”
He also acted opposite Dame Judith Anderson in “Black Chiffon” and opposite Shirley Booth — you may know her as TV’s maid Hazel — in a play called “The Vinegar Tree.”
Possibly what may have been his coolest role happened in 1947 with the pre-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ drama “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Williams wrote the role of Blanche Dubois with Alabama-born actress Tallulah Bankhead in mind, and Bertram appeared with Bankhead herself in the pre-Broadway revival staged at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida.
There in the cast list of the program listed as playing “A Stranger” was none other than Bert Bertram.
From 1954 until 1959, Bertram was an active part of the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, Florida.
He followed that living in Hampton Bays, New York, and working as a reporter for the Long Island News-Review for which he authored the column “East End Wanderings”.
Bertram retired in 1981 and died 10 years later in 1991 at the age of 97. Rubee, by that time, had died in 1974 and Bert had remarried.
His widow, Marion, in 1994 gave his scrapbooks to the Billy Rose Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
That’s where they are today on the third floor of the library at Lincoln Center Plaza; most likely with clippings telling about Australian native Bert Bertram directing plays in Augusta and Aiken.
And of portraying Rip Van Winkle before a “ridiculously small audience.”
Article appears in the May 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.