A star on our doorstep - the life of June Bronhill
Wednesday, 7th July, 2021
By Nardia Keenan
June Bronhill’s thrilling and moving life story is revealed in a new biography, A Star on Her Door, by Richard Davis.
Last week would have been the 92nd birthday of June Bronhill, the musicals, operetta and opera singer, who was born June Mary Gough in Broken Hill on June 26, 1929.
In the two months before June was born, an epidemic of infectious diseases swept over Broken Hill, with 61 cases of diptheria and other deadly fevers. Consequently, the Broken Hill and District Hospital was full so June was born in the front bedroom of the family’s home in Wolfram Street.
The wooden-framed bungalow, clad in corrugated iron, still stands but the hanging hessian bags, filled with water to catch the breeze, have long gone.
Also gone are the Sunday afternoon sing-songs, when family, friends and neighbours would gather at the Gough house around the piano.
In the early 1930s, before the advent of television, June’s father paid 45 pounds for an Australian-made Beale, upright piano. In 1935, 110 pounds was the cost of a stone house with four rooms in Piper Street, so music must have been highly regarded in June’s home.
When June was five years old, she heard her father playing an Irish song called The Dear Little Shamrock. As she was being put to bed by her mother, June sang the song word-perfect all the way through and her mother called out “George! The kid can sing.”
June considered that night as the start of her singing career and followed it with her public debut in 1935 at the age of six. At the Crystal Theatre in Broken Hill, which doubled as a movie theatre and concert hall, she sang Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day in a white tie and tails, with a top hat and cane, and she was very cheeky.
In 1940, when June was 11, June won a singing competition at Broken Hill radio station, 2BH, and was invited to join the Smilers’ Club. This involved approximately a dozen children singing in a concert in Johnson’s Picture Theatre every Wednesday, which was broadcast by 2BH.
The happy years abruptly ended when June was a teenager. Her father George had a health problem and wanted to spend time fishing so the family moved to the seaside town of Robe, in South Australia. However, June missed her life and friends in Broken Hill, including chop parties in dry creek beds, table tennis tournaments, trips to the movies and footy parties, camel rides and dancing.
She left Robe to return to Broken Hill and worked at Cox Brothers department store in Argent Street. June also spent her time in Broken Hill performing with visiting singers and soon realised that to be successful she would have to move to a big city.
June moved to her sister’s house in Bankstown in Sydney and prepared for the 1949 City of Sydney Eisteddfod, specifically for the two categories of Light or Coloratura Soprano Championship and The Sun Aria, which had a valuable cash prize from The Sun newspaper.
She comfortably won the championship but was devastated to be placed second last in The Sun Aria competition out of 180 singers, including 23-year-old Joan Sutherland. This was because June had broken the rules by singing in a different key so, after a hasty search in the conservatorium library for a copy of the aria in the correct key, June performed again and placed in the semi-finals.
To improve her singing technique, June began lessons with Marianne ‘Madame’ Mathy, an authoritarian and a disciplinarian whose lessons often ended in blazing arguments and tears. One day, after a hard day’s work as a typist at the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA), June screamed back at Madame “You’re not going to make me cry, you bloody old b**ch!” The teacher replied “My darling, this is vonderful. You have ze temperament to become a great singer. You are a very good girl and I love you dearly because you stand up to me.”
Two days before The Sun Aria competition in 1950, Madame gave her favourite student two Valium tablets for stress but June fell asleep on a train and woke up in the darkened train in Liverpool.
Despite the mishap, June managed to win The Sun Aria and became a local celebrity. Broken Hill bookmaker Bill Welsh proposed a fund to help June travel overseas to further her singing studies and the Zinc Mine promised to match all funds raised.
June was so grateful that she wrote a letter to the editor of the Barrier Daily Truth, thanking the people of her home town for their support.
The author, Richard Davis, said that June had genuine caring for the people who supported her.
“June believed that, without the public, she wouldn’t have had a career. She felt honour-bound to be nice to the public.
“She always had time if someone stopped her on the street, for a chat or to sign an autograph.”
In 1951, June took that appreciation even further by changing her surname to Bronhill, a contraction of Broken Hill, eight months before she married Brian Martin.
After her wedding, June was dismayed to learn that the Zinc Mine had reneged on its promise to match funds for her overseas travels, citing the reason that her new husband was now responsible for her.
Fortunately, enough money was raised by the people of Broken Hill so that in 1952 June and her husband set sail on The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) liner, ‘Himalaya,’ to England.
Doors opened there for June and she worked with Eric Sykes, Harry Secombe and Benny Hill and she was the support act for Tommy Steele. However, it was an operetta at Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, The Merry Widow, which made June a star.
Returning to Australia, June starred in her first television role, an Australian version of Are You Being Served? It ran from 1980 to 1981 and John Inman reprised his role as Mr Humphries. June played Mrs Crawford, the Australian version of Mrs Slocombe.
The success of ‘Broken Hill’s daughter’ has been honoured in Broken Hill in several ways, including naming June Bronhill Auditorium in the Civic Centre and Bronhill Street after her.
Many locals may not be familiar with the small street. It is parallel to a road named after another acclaimed local, Brookfield Avenue, which becomes the Silverton Road.
June is not the only member of the Gouff family to be honoured in Broken Hill. Local, Don Mudie, was a long-time friend of the Gouff family and said that June’s brother, John, is featured on the mural on the side of the library.
“You’ll see a dapper man with a bow tie. That’s John.”
Richard said that Don Mudie’s local knowledge greatly helped him with writing the biography.
“I am indebted to Don Mudie for providing research.”
Alot of research was required because of the variety of June’s work, which June had said she loved.
“My career has been so varied and I have loved the variety. It’s been wonderful to be able to do musical comedy, operetta, opera, straight plays, television, cabaret and clubs.
“You name it and I’ve done it.”
To read more about June’s adventures, ‘A Star on Her Door’ is available for purchase for $38 from ‘Under The Silver Tree’ bookshop at 29 Sulphide Street.
For future reading about another legendary, Australian opera singer, the author’s next book will be a biography of Dame Nellie Melba.