The author of a biography can immortalise the subject or kill him or her all over again. Often, biographies are written by rabid fans or hacks whose only qualifications are either obsessive interest or exhaustive (exhausting) research. Neither results in a good book. For instance, Margaret Whitlam and Judith Wright have both been ill-served by awful biographies and the worst of that is how it ruins the ground for another writer for at least half a generation.

How fortunate then, that the hitherto forgotten theatrical pioneer Ernest C Rolls has been gifted the fluent writing and expertise of Melbourne arts archivist and host of the ABC radio’s long-running Nostalgia Show, Frank van Straten. His previous books have squeezed the juice from Australian theatre history and now Rolls widens the possibilities even further.

The ponderously named impresario was actually born Joseph Adolphe Darewski in – take your pick – Austria, Minsk, Warsaw or the USA. As van Straten writes: “Rolls loved telling a good story, even, or especially, if it was not strictly true.” With that in mind, then and also noting the title of the book – the title of one of Rolls’ successful revues – this a roller-coaster ride through...

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