40 years of letting his hair down

Charles Oliver is a stalwart of Canberra amateur theatre and panto, but has never given up his day job, writes RON CERABONA.

The hairstylist still known to many as ''Mr Charles'' has been plying his trade for more than four decades in Canberra. But he's also familiar to many for his theatrical pursuits, both on stage and off.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but Charles Oliver learned hairdressing by correspondence.

Oliver was born ''after the war'' in Brisbane to an American ex-Marine father and an Australian mother. The family moved to North Carolina in the US for three years - ''I had a very southern accent when I came back'' - then came back to Queensland, living first in Goondiwindi, then Millmerran.

He went to Brisbane High School but ''hated it'' - though he did enjoy performing in a production of HMS Pinafore, a sign of things to come. On leaving school at 17, Oliver found it hard to find a job. Help came from within his family.

''Dad bought me a barber shop,'' he says. ''It was there and I thought I could do hairdressing.''

He did a six-week crash course with its former owner then applied to TAFE to do a five-year apprenticeship by correspondence.


But, with nobody more experienced around to show him anything, ''I taught myself'', he says, practising on the locals and paying himself £6 a week.

Oliver is gay and says simply: ''I've always been me.''

He neither hid it nor flaunted it - Mardi Gras parades were not his thing - but there wasn't a gay scene in his small town. After a few years, when all his friends started getting married, he realised it was ''time to go'' and came to Canberra in 1969, where an uncle lived. He applied for a job with Qantas and while waiting to hear from them went to work with Kingston hairdresser Malcolm Nugent.

''He took me in and had faith in me: I picked it up very quickly.''

And he loved it. He forgot about Qantas and decided to stay in Canberra and work as a hairdresser. He worked for Nugent for three years then in 1972 opened up his own business, Mr Charles in Green Square, running it until 1988.

''It was very successful but by then it was time to get out. My two head girls were going to open up their own place, so I sold it to them.''

He moved to Hall for three years ''just for a change'' and when his shop burned down (''I think it was an electrical fault'') he worked out of the restaurant there. In 1992 he moved into premises at the Hyatt but by 2003 had ''had enough'' there and sold up again. Since then, he's worked from home for a select clientele.

''I do special people: with some clients, I've been cutting their hair for 40 years.''

Over the years he's worked on a few celebrities, too, including Dame Edna Everage (her wig), Diana Rigg, Debbie Byrne and Maxine McKew as well as Jon English. ''I had to dye his hair grey for Dad's Army in Brisbane.''

Oliver did a two-week course at Vidal Sassoon in San Francisco and a one-week course in 1980 at La Coupe in New York, where he was offered a position. ''I couldn't take it because I had my business but I was a better cutter than they were: that's why they offered me the job.''

Oliver says he would never do dreadlocks, punk hairstyles or crazy colours. His bread and butter clientele in the old days were the wealthy women who would come in once a week to have their hair washed and set. But times change: ''Now, it's only Coralie.''

''Coralie'' is Canberra publicist and theatre identity Coralie Wood, with whom he has had a long friendship.

They met about 1974 when both were performing in an Alpha Theatre pantomime.

Oliver had become involved in Canberra's amateur theatre shortly after arriving here. He was invited by a friend of his uncle, Grant McIntyre, to take part in Canberra Philharmonic's Brigadoon in 1970 and from there regularly trod the boards.

When Tempo Theatre was formed in 1973 he became heavily involved in such shows as Bells Are Ringing and Once Upon a Mattress (''the first show Barbara Denham did in Canberra''). A highlight came in 1980 with Oliver!, in which he played Fagin: Canberra Times reviewer Hope Hewitt wrote he was ''the most semitic Fagin ever to tread the boards: also the most lovable and the most gay''.

By then, Oliver was president of Tempo and, while most of its shows were at Theatre 3, in the 1980s its musicals included pro-am productions of Hello, Dolly! with Simon Gallaher and Lola Nixon, Chicago with Val Lehman, Angela Ayers and Nixon, and, with Canberra Opera, Sweeney Todd, all in the Canberra Theatre. Having the professionals in was a great opportunity for performers as well as audiences, he says. ''You learn so much.''

And there have been many other shows.

''I love to be around younger people; it makes me feel younger. There's no ageism in theatre, not at all,'' he says.

And he says theatre is a healthy thing to be in. ''I would encourage kids to encourage their kids to do it as a hobby. There's no sex, drugs and rock'n' roll, it's not grubby. They're safe as houses.''

While he handed over the reins of Tempo to others in the 1990s, he made a lot of friends there and still keeps up with many.

''I'm a very social person. To this day we have a lunch, ''the Tempo lunch'', all the people from all those years ago. On the first Tuesday of each month we get together. Fourteen years it's been going.''

He was in Canberra Rep's Old Time Music Hall several times and is going to be in its successor, Jazz Garters, this year.

Oliver has also been a judge for many years in the Canberra Area Theatre Awards, organised by Wood, and says he loves doing it: travelling around, seeing shows, making new friends, appreciating the talent in the region.

But that and his own long theatrical experience have given him a critical eye about aspects of the state of theatre.

''I think there are too many companies, for a start,'' he says.

''We started the trend - there was Tempo, Rep and Philo - Philo hated us with a passion.''

The breakaway company did not reciprocate, he says. ''They hated it when Philo people came to do Tempo shows … We used to encourage Tempo people to audition for Philo shows.''

Now, he says, ''people have no loyalty to anybody: they just want to do shows''.

But he thinks the quality of amateur theatre is much better now overall than it used to be, especially on the musical side of things.

He believes local companies should share more resources and, while he'd like to see more of his favourite shows done, accepts that some, like those of Stephen Sondheim, don't always appeal to the general public (Tempo's Sweeney Todd ''broke even'', he says).

He and Wood have done a TV show, Stage Queens, where they discuss theatre. He enjoys living in Canberra - ''the cafes, the restaurants, the theatres'' - apart from the harsh winters and often goes on cruises: in March he's travelling from Sydney to Cape Town.

He may be in semi-retirement, but there's plenty of life in Charles Oliver yet.

The 18th CAT Awards Gala Night is on Saturday, February 16, at Llewellyn Hall at 7pm. Bookings through Ticketek: phone 13 28 49 or visit ticketek.com.au