Madam Pat and all that jazz

From the Tivoli Theatre to Europe and beyond, the Four Winds Festival remembers the life and musical times of Madam Pat Thompson, Ron Banks writes

The Four Winds Festival in Bermagui at Easter will be a chance for music fans to say farewell to one of the east coast's most-loved singers - Madam Pat Thompson, who died in Canberra last year.

The festival, a blend of classical and contemporary music, will screen an ABC documentary about the life Madam Pat as part of its program.

It will be a chance to remember the life and musical times of a pioneering woman of jazz whose career began on stage at Melbourne's Tivoli Theatre in an era when variety programs were a major attraction.

A large part of Madam Pat's remarkable life was lived in the south coast town of Bermagui, although about 18 months before her death she moved to Canberra to be closer to her daughter Cate and her grandchildren.

Madam Pat had originally moved to Bermagui to recover from the death of her husband in a car accident. After her early career in vaudeville, she had given up the stage to follow her husband around NSW in a variety of jobs, from shearing to maintenance work.

''My father did all kinds of jobs on farms, and mum would follow him,'' recalls her daughter Cate Thompson, who has lived and worked in Canberra since 1986.


''Mum was a tough and amazing person,'' Thompson says. ''She had an incredible spirit and love of life, and even towards the end when she was in pain there were no complaints.''

Cate recalls that her mother was an inveterate letter writer, often writing to politicians or people of influence in support of some cause or political activism.

''Even when she moved to Canberra she wrote to the Governor-General and received an invitation to a garden party where she got on well with Her Excellency.''

Madam Pat's introduction to Canberra really began in the early 1980s when she was invited by Joe Woodward from the Pie in the Sky (PITS) Theatre and Bar to audition for the role of a madam in his production called George's Peep Show.

With her vast range of experience since her Tivoli Theatre days, Madam Pat got the role, and contributed to the success of the show. She also met the show's musical director David Bates, who encouraged her to do more singing, and built a band around her.

The Pie in the Sky, which was in the Rex Hotel, was a legendary entertainment venue for a brief period in the '80s and fertile ground for local artists to perform. The resident band was the Dead Ringers, featuring the guitar talents of a young George Washingmachine. The Gadflys also played their punk music there on Friday nights.

Returning to live in Bermagui, Madam Pat went on the road again with David Bates' band. One of her regular gigs was at the new Tilley's Devine Bar on Wattle Street, Lyneham, which has now become a legendary venue for performers, although in recent years it has served up more cappuccinos than songs.

Over the next decade Madam Pat and the Rent Party band would tour to Europe, playing at the Edinburgh Festival, Germany and France. She was closely associated in her latter years with The Famous Spiegeltent, a gilt-encrusted round wooden portable cabaret theatre that originated in Europe in the late 19th century. David Bates had bought one of the Spiegeltents after the band played in one on a European tour.

In 1995 the band played the Edinburgh Festival for the third time - with Madam Pat now aged 72. On the final night in Edinburgh there were seven encores.

Her last performance was to be in the Spiegeltent in Melbourne in 2008 when she was 84.

The documentary screening at the Bermagui Four Winds Festival was made by Bill Brown from ABC South East NSW in 2010. It begins with Madam Pat's final performance in Melbourne, the city she grew up in an era of high unemployment and poverty.

As the camera rolls Madam Pat recalls her early years as a Tivoli showgirl and the family tragedy that ended her career when her 11-year-old sister was killed crossing the road. After the accident she had to stay home and care for her grief-stricken mother.

But Madam Pat went on to live a life that was filled with music and family. Her close friend Barbara Blackman once described her as a ''blues mamma whose spirit comes smoking out her chimney of a voice''.

The Bermagui Four Winds Festival runs from April 6-8. The Pat Thompson tribute will be shown on Easter Friday.